In February 1993, Mark Noll spoke these words at his induction as Wheaton College’s McManis Professor of Christian Thought. In a talk entitled “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” he decried the anti-intellectualism he saw in modern evangelical life. As his ideas gained greater exposure with Christianity Today’s publishing of his address (Oct. 25, 1993, p. 28) and the 1994 release of his book with the same title, a debate spread through the Christian community: Was the evangelical mind really in such bad shape?
Other evangelical scholars added to the discussion. Alister McGrath, theology professor at Oxford University, presented a more optimistic outlook in Evangelicalism & the Future of Christianity (InterVarsity; excerpted, ct, June 19, 1995). Fuller Theological Seminary president Richard Mouw urged Christian intellectuals to learn from popular religion in Consulting the Faithful (Eerdmans; excerpted, ct, July 18, 1994). Dallas Theological Seminary's Darrell Bock, a New Testament professor, promoted a fresh outlook on a theological tradition in his book Progressive Dispensationalism (Victor/Bridgepoint, coauthored with Craig Blaising; summarized in ct, Sept. 12, 1994).
This spring Christianity Today brought these four together for a three-hour discussion on the state of the evangelical mind. Moderated by managing editor Michael Maudlin, the conversation was supplemented by questions and comments from executive editor David Neff, editorial resident Helen Lee, and associate editor Wendy Zoba. What follows is their lively and wide-ranging discussion.
I. The state of the evangelical mind
How would each of you characterize the current state of the evangelical mind?
Noll: I am most concerned about the widening gap between the evangelical populace and the evangelical academy. Every popular forum I have attended that has discussed The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind has been dominated by the most rigid kind of six-day creationism. I’m not sure where this is coming from, and I do not know exactly what it means. But I think its elevation to the status of dogma is crippling to the Scriptures and demeaning to the Christian tradition.
I feel the same way about Christian politics, which in the United States is in a degenerately low state. Any positive insights the academics have drawn from the Scriptures to think about the body politic have simply been lost in the great engines of media that are prostituting Christian values.
On the other hand, in the Anglo-American world, evangelical Bible work is very good. Although an undertow of fundamentalist overreaction remains, the situation has never been better. The kind of work that Darrell Bock and his colleagues at Dallas are doing is an indication of a new sophistication that combines fidelity to orthodox tradition with real savvy in using modern scholarship.
Theologically, the situation is worse but therefore better. It is worse because there is more confusion, but better because people are re-examining some important basic matters. Personally, I do not like the direction of Clark Pinnock’s The Openness of God (InterVarsity), for example, since it seems too much like process theology. But I'm glad that it was published, because it puts some important matters on the table and is getting solid rather than knee-jerk responses.
In other parts of the academic world, evangelicals are doing solid Christian thinking, especially in philosophy. There is also good work beginning in psychology, sociology, and economics.
So while good things have been happening, the effort needed to develop the evangelical mind is huge. And we’ve just begun to realize the dimensions of the task.
Mouw: I agree that there is an evangelical mind that is misfunctioning. But I also think that there’s an evangelical mind that is functioning well, albeit not always in a uniquely evangelical way. Then again, who says that a good Christian mind has to be a uniquely evangelical mind at every point?
And if the evangelical mind is in bad shape, so is the mainline Protestant mind, the Roman Catholic mind, and the Eastern Orthodox mind. But frankly, I believe we have the best intellectual networking going on anywhere. Evangelical political scientists get together. Evangelical sociologists get together. Evangelical literati get together; evangelical philosophers, evangelical economists. We have official organizations, workshops, conferences, symposia, publications, and e-mail networks. There’s nothing like it in any other part of the Christian world. I can’t imagine a better place to be an intellectual right now than in evangelicalism.
McGrath: I would characterize evangelicalism as an “emerging” movement: from a period where its primary concern was numerical strength to this current period focused on intellectual and spiritual maturing. I would not have expected an evangelical mind to exist at this point, in light of the movement’s recent history. In the past, we were worried about surviving and maintaining our distinctive identity. But that period of our history is behind us.
Evangelicals now feel sufficiently confident to confront the issues Mark has raised in his book. They are aware that there is a culture waiting to be addressed, and that evangelicalism has the resources to do it. We have yet to achieve anything like what our forebears did back in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. But I see very hopeful signs for the future, particularly amongst younger evangelicals.
Bock: I wouldn’t say the evangelical mind is emerging as much as it’s re-emerging. The church was bleeding at the beginning of this century in the face of modernism, and it had to withdraw, retreat, and rebuild itself, almost from scratch. As a result, the church had little energy to do reflective, calm, deep thinking. When a body is in trauma, its first priority is to save itself.
If I can change metaphors, the evangelical movement is like a teenager coming of age in which she is now facing major decisions about adulthood. So the question is this: Now that we have the potential for recovery, how do we move on from here? Mark stepped in at this point and said, “Let’s take a courageous road to full recovery.” He gave us a good warning about the kinds of decisions we should be making. On the other hand, we should never forget that the evangelical church emerged out of a bloody battle with modernism. We should be grateful to our forebears.
Mouw: And it was a battle in which we lost academic institutions. How many times have different evangelical groups said, “They’ve taken away my college, my seminary”? So if we have become protective of our academic institutions in a way that has restricted the academic enterprise, we need to remember the real and painful historical experiences that catalyzed the defense-building.
Noll: What took place at the end of the nineteenth century through the beginning of the twentieth century was indeed a drastic time that required drastic remedies. Although I think the remedies were extreme and ended up in unwise excesses, they were basically good reactions. I have one qualification to add, however: our institutions were not only taken away. I think, in part, they were given away.
Also, I do not see anti-intellectualism only as a problem. Some parts of the Christian faith have to be anti-intellectual. All orthodox Christian movements possess a foundational place for faith that is not grounded on rationality (though neither is it antirational). The problem is much more the misfunctioning of minds: bad thinking rather than no thinking.
How and when did the “bad thinking” begin?
Noll: The time between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was one of crisis for the church. Supernaturalism was under attack. The Bible was under attack. The role of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life was under attack. And groups within the broad evangelical stream did the right thing in defending the Bible as the written Word of God, the reality of the supernatural, and the real work of the Holy Spirit.
So the Holiness, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal movements were all foundationally good, but they went astray. And they did so in terms of the life of the mind by seeing their efforts as a replacement rather than a balancing act. Supernaturalism replaced nature. The work of the Holy Spirit replaced the work of the mind. Trust in the Bible replaced an openness to instruction from the world as a whole. These extremes have left behind the anti-intellectual legacy, which may be in process of being overcome.
What I would appeal for now is the development of an ability to let ancient Christian traditions provide norms for the more recent traditions-fundamentalist, Pentecostal, Holiness movements. We need to have a dialogue across the centuries so that the foundationally solid and instinctively sound aspects of those reactionary movements can be magnified and the excesses trimmed away.
What is at stake in this debate?
Noll: There are some important pragmatic matters at stake: being able to hold your head up high as a self-identified Christian in certain venues-in the academic world, in the arts, in modern media. But those matters are not nearly so important as honoring God, the Creator and Redeemer.
God made the world. God entered the world in the person of Jesus Christ. And God through the Holy Spirit redeems the world. These fundamental Christian realities should push the church to take very seriously the study of what God has made possible: the natural world, the world of human institutions, aesthetics, et cetera. I think fundamentally this is a theological problem. But I realize that other people are not as Puddleglumish or Eeyorish about these matters as I am.
Mouw: We all agree that there is an element of scandal here. But I think it's important to understand the legitimate reasons why evangelicals have been suspicious of the mind. Evangelicals are the heirs to a tradition that has had great, necessary moments expressing bold suspicion toward the mind. One, for example, was in the seventeenth century, when the pietists reacted against rationalistic orthodoxy. They wanted more than a religion of the head; they wanted a religion of the heart. Another occurred when evangelical Christians took a stand against the Enlightenment mindset that viewed human consciousness as the highest standard of truth. These were two glorious moments.
But anti-intellectualism developed when people moved from a legitimate suspicion of a rationalism-whether it was an orthodox or heterodox rationalism-to an illegitimate rejection of the intellectual life as such.
And to clarify-and I think Mark glosses over this a little bit-fundamentalism is actually a highly intellectual approach with its very strong emphasis on assenting to truth. It is not so much against the mind as it is against the academic mind or the mindset of the academy, which is an important distinction to make.
McGrath: I know it’s historically nave to put your finger on a single episode, but I think the Scopes trial signaled a change in the fundamentalists’ outlook on learning institutions. Universities and colleges no longer were seen as inherently Christian, no longer signified sound learning, and actually displayed an anti-Christian bent.
This is the central issue of the state of the evangelical mind. The word academy no longer means “scholarly, informed, having access to wisdom.” Some modern universities instead seem to posit agendas that are often anti-Christian. Fundamentalists saw this process happen but did not know what to do about it. They knew academic excellence must have a place in evangelicalism. So the founding of evangelical institutions and seminaries became part of the long process of reconstructing an evangelical mind.
Mark does a good job of depicting how fundamentalists realized they had a big problem on their hands, and what they did in response. But looking back, what else could they have done? It’s very easy for us to be wise in hindsight.
How has this distrust of the academy influenced the way evangelicals deal with and formulate our doctrines of Scripture?
Noll: First of all, I do not think there is any future for Christian thinking from people who do not have an implicit, thorough trust in the truthfulness of the Bible. What was glorious about the fundamentalist, Pentecostal, and Holiness movements was their seriousness about the Bible. But as evangelicals were attacked in their view of Scripture, they began to pull away from classic holistic understandings of the Bible toward sectarian, particularistic understandings of the Bible.
The new cruxes often became matters such as the interpretation of Genesis, Isaiah, Daniel, and Revelation or the authorship of Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and other Pauline epistles. Although these are reasonably important questions, they are not the fundamental issues of the Bible. The fundamental issue of the Bible seems to me to be what John addresses in chapter 20, verse 31: “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.”
Without the defensive work of the previous generation on the Scriptures, we would be lost. In this way, critics like myself show themselves to be smaller people than some of the supposedly narrow-minded people we criticize. But by the same token, what we need now is a more vigorous, better rounded, more organic, more classically Christian use of the Scriptures. We do not need to solve details of problems that are mostly extrinsic to the biblical authors themselves. Instead, we need to concentrate on what the Bible focuses on, namely, the history of redemption culminating in Jesus Christ.
Bock: The church needs to develop a prioritized theology that concentrates on and emphasizes the things that Scripture does. And the questions that Scripture covers in less detail, we should give less attention to as well.
Even though we are redeemed, we still have fallen minds. We still make judgments that are sometimes wrong, so we need to do our theology with humility. And if we emphasize what Scripture emphasizes, we are going to have a better chance of getting it right than if we pick areas of interest to us just because they’re fascinating.
McGrath: The British scholar David Bebbington makes a point that the Cross seems to have no central place for most American evangelical theologians this century and asks, “Why not?” The answer is that American evangelicalism has become reactive. It has had to defend its own understanding of theological authorities and methods, emphasizing the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. But as a result, American evangelicals rarely hear what Scripture actually says. They have defended the authority of Scripture using words that have been coined for this particular strategy, which are not themselves biblical.
I hope that as American evangelicalism regains its confidence, it constructs theologies that deal with what Scripture says rather than concentrating on why Scripture has its authority.
Bock: I’m torn because, on the one hand, I identify with the concerns that the text be taken for what the text is doing and what it presents. But in the back of my head there’s a little whisper reminding me that the bleeding church we were talking about went through a nightmare because other people made certain kinds of wrong and destructive decisions about what Scripture was doing that created the problem.
So we walk a tightrope of asserting the authority of Scripture without making interpretations that deny what we're asserting. But this is part of having a good mind, being able to sense when you have to tread carefully, gently, and circumspectly.
We’re all aware of detailed passages with two or three interpretive alternatives, where the decisions between them are tough, and no options are totally clean in terms of what they offer us. And yet, to give some description of the Bible’s trustworthiness without asserting Scripture’s fundamental truthfulness leaves us in a no-man’s land in the midst of that circumspection.
Mouw: The emphasis on inerrancy has been helpful in that, however we spell out what we mean by the word, we have guarded the message character of Scripture as precious-in a way we do not find in other communities and traditions. But I think, for all of the problems of the past in terms of evangelical biblical scholarship, we’re really in pretty good shape right now.
When Darrell writes about progressive dispensationalism, he says there’s an emerging commonality to an evangelical hermeneutic. Nobody is talking about the chaos of evangelical studies at this point. Part of the reason why we’re not in chaos is that we never entirely accepted the critical approach in the first place. It was no big surprise for us that biblical scholarship is guided by presuppositions.
So we can be a little more relaxed and more constructive today because we do not have to deconstruct our own past projects. Maybe God, in his providence, used our defensive, isolated, biblical scholarship to preserve an integrity that allows us calmly to pursue issues that are being loudly dissected in other places of biblical scholarship.
To push the point a little further, inerrancy has played a critical role in evangelicalism’s recent history. The claim that someone is “soft on inerrancy” is a significant and potentially threatening criticism. What does this say about the problem we’re discussing?
McGrath: I believe in the trustworthiness and sufficiency of Scripture, and that’s where all evangelicals are, really. But the problem is that we move in situations where these beliefs come under threat, and then we have to erect additional fences to safeguard these tenets. And these fences are, in effect, temporary structures to safeguard us against the threat that is here today and gone tomorrow. For understandable reasons, the fences have come to be seen as being at least as important as the truth they’re meant to safeguard.
We cannot ignore history. We cannot ignore situations that have resulted in this need to safeguard beliefs that once would have been taken as indisputable by all Christians. We’ve got to respect the past. But the situation has changed, and now we’ve got to make sure that we defend what once did not need to be defended. I’d still like to maintain the emphasis that what we are defending [the content of Scripture] is actually far more important than the means of defense we bring.
III. Evangelical populism
Noll: In complex situations such as inerrancy questions, we can discern an academic evangelical response and a populist evangelical response. In the academic area, there is not much of a problem. But on the popular side, we see something different: the translation of academic issues into litmus tests and, therefore, the promotion of nonthinking in order to cut out a cancer or to handle a desperate situation. It’s at this level that we do the most damage to Christian thinking: an issue that requires some discrimination, some complexity of thought, is handled like a political football. The measure of success becomes not clarity of thought and the ability to discriminate between levels of discourse, but whipping up a crowd using political maneuvering. So the person with the best political skills will appear to win the theological battle when, in fact, the real issues are simply being obscured.
Aren’t you using the words academic and popular to mean “mature” and “immature,” because the debates you are referring to took place at scholarly gatherings?
Noll: It’s more complicated than that. What you’ve just called immaturity, which I would call populism, is precisely the force that sustains the U.S. evangelical movement in a way it is not sustained in Europe, Britain, and is barely sustained in Canada.
So there are Christians who are immature intellectually but who are dedicated evangelistically, and very savvy in media and politicking. They may cause problems in intellectual arenas, but in other areas of life, they are necessary and a delight.
Mouw: In America, there is a populist, anti-intellectual Christian remnant that feeds on overstatement, rhetorical overkill, prooftexting, and sloganeering, which grows out of distorted, grassroots pietism. I’m a pietist, so I do not mean to be trashing pietism. But this is a distinctly spiritual issue, the lack of humility, of self-criticism, of a “Search me, O Lord, and try my thoughts” attitude among the populace.
Bock: There is another, insidious element to this issue. The character of our populist theological debates mirrors the lack of civility our culture-at-large has at carrying on substantive debate. If you ask, “Where can I find reasoned discourse today?” you might not get an answer. Frankly, this is what scares me more than anything else. We need to create in the church a sense of value and integrity so that we can conduct our debates in ways different from the world.
What can we value in evangelical populism?
Noll: There’s much, much to be valued. If American evangelicalism has something to offer to the world, it is the virtues of Christian fellowship. The theme of “the people of God” is a critical biblical theme. The people of God are terrific at knowing when the gospel is being violated. But for the purposes of what we’re talking about today, the Bible does not say the people of God are to be the ones that decide most intellectual questions.
American evangelicalism is wonderful in that it has no boundaries. The terrific fellowship, helpfulness, and lack of concern for authority and place have all positively affected Christianity in this country. But American evangelicals often function like an engine run amuck when it comes to intellectual questions. And this explains why, generally speaking, there are fewer active believers in Britain than in America but much better Christian thinking. We have the virtues of our vices and the vices of our virtues.
(continued in next article)
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.