Book Review:

The scandal of the evangelical mind

Bill Hamilton



The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, by Mark A. Noll, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans 1994. 255 pages, index, $19.99

 Evangelicals and fundamentalists have been accused of anti-intellectualism for years. Some have frankly acknowledged this accusation and worn it with pride. Others have taken vigorous exception. Many of us have worried that the accusations are on the mark, have wondered why evangelicalism has come to this state and what can be done about it. Mark Noll leaves no doubt of his own judgment on the state of the evangelical mind.

The first sentence of the book reads, "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind." Noll pulls no punches as he elaborates: "[T]he major indictment of the fundamentalist movement, and especially of the dispensationalism that provided the most systematic interpretation of the Bible for fundamentalists and later evangelicals, was its intellectual sterility. Under its midwifery. the evangelical community gave birth to virtually no insights into how, under God, the natural world proceeded, how human societies worked, why human nature acted the way it did, or what constituted the blessings and perils of culture.

To be sure, fundamentalists and their descendants had firm beliefs about some of these matters--beliefs, moreover, that were backed up by citations from Scripture. Some of these beliefs were entirely correct. What even the laudably scriptural beliefs lacked, however, was profound knowledge of the divinely created world in which those beliefs were applied. As a result of following a theology that did not provide Christian guidance for the wider intellectual life, there has been, properly speaking, no fundamentalist philosophy, no fundamentalist history of science, no fundamentalist aesthetics, no fundamentalist history, no fundamentalist novels or poetry, no fundamentalist jurisprudence, no fundamentalist literary criticism, and no fundamentalist sociology. Or at least there has been none that has compelled attention for insights into the way God made the world and situated human beings on this planet. And because evangelicals, though often dissenting from specific features of fundamentalism, have largely retained the mentality of fundamentalism when it comes to looking at the world, there has been a similarly meager harvest of evangelical intellectual life.

The first five chapters trace the historical influences which have led to anti-intellectualism among evangelicals. A primary factor, in Noll's view, is the embracement of the principles of the Scottish Enlightenment by 19th century American evangelical thinkers. The fundamental principle of the Scottish Enlightenment was that men are gifted with inborn moral discernment and epistemological capabilities. This held a powerful attraction for Americans bent on establishing traditional morality without appealing to traditional (human) authorities. The Scottish Enlightenment established common sense as the universal basis for morality and thought. He also blames Dispensationalism for focusing evangelicals' attention on eschatology to the exclusion of being concerned with dealing in a Christian way with today's politics, and the Holiness movement for the debilitating effect of its "let go and let God" mindset. Chapters 6 and 7 analyze how the development of the evangelical mindset in the 19th century translates into political reflection and evangelical views on science respectively. Noll discusses four eras in Chapter 6: The age of Bryan, 1896-1925, the age of fundamentalism, 1925-1941, the age of new beginnings, 1941-1973, and the age of the New Right, 1973 to the present.

He compares leadership style of American evangelicals with that of more traditional Christian groups using William Jennings Bryan and Pope Leo XIII as examples of their respective traditions. Bryan's style was activist, speech-oriented and not based on church tradition or authority. This was a sharp break with the Catholic tradition of pastoral letters from the popes addressing specific issues from the standpoint of general Christian teaching. Noll argues that the evangelical focus on individual action tended to contribute to erosion of the importance of the various institutions, "--family, church, community, social structures of any sort -- from which communities have traditionally drawn guidance." The age of fundamentalism was characterized by pessimism that political activism such as Bryan's would bring about a better society. Forces molding this period included Dispensationalism, the Holiness movement and modernism: "Bryan's optimistic prospects for reform and his support for active government gave way to cultural pessimism and a fear of government encroachment. Concern for political involvement was replaced by an almost exclusive focus on personal evangelism and personal piety. Current events evoked interpretations of prophecy instead of either reforming activism or political analysis... Political activism, as well as political reflection, reached its nadir among evangelicals in the 30's."

Noll describes the Era of new beginnings as an era in which "a number of subterranean stirrings began to redirect the political energies of evangelicals." He leaves the discussion of most of these stirrings to Chapter 8, but briefly notes the influence of the civil rights movement. Although the civil rights movement was peripheral to the concerns of older white evangelicals, it had deep roots in evangelical revivalism and provided a rallying point for younger evangelicals. The era of the new right began with Roe v. Wade in 1973 and extended at least until dissolution of the Moral Majority in 1989. The central story of this period is "the reassertion of moral activism in response to the perceived crises of the day." Noll likens the revived activism to the activism of William Jennings Bryan's day. He suggests that the era of the new right may be drawing to a close and sees the coming era as one pregnant with possibilities -- if evangelicals can overcome past habits like trying to fit current events into prophecy instead of applying Scriptural insights to understanding and dealing with them.

Chapter 7 discusses fundamentalist/evangelical reactions to developments in science. Much of the discussion revolves around the creation/evolution controversy and its development. Early reactions to evolution among Christians were quite varied. B. B. Warfield, James McCosh and others believed that biological evolution could be accommodated within the framework of orthodox Christianity. Until the 1930's, he notes, most conservative Protestants believed that the creation days were long periods of time. What apparently catalyzed the modern shift to young-earth creationism was the rapid secularization of the universities, which left fundamentalists and evangelicals feeling that they were losing their ability to influence the culture. Seventh Day Adventist George MacReady Price had limited influence in his day, but by the early 1960's when Morris and Whitcomb published "The Genesis Flood," they were providing an answer to considerable frustration stemming from the secularization of the surrounding culture. Noll attributes the popularity of creation science to the intuitive belief of many evangelicals that it embodied the simple teachings of Scripture, growing intrusion of Federal government in local affairs, especially education, resentment against America's self-appointed knowledge elites, and dynamics arising from fundamentalist theology, particularly fundamentalist eschatology and the fascination with dispensations. He blames creation science for making it much more difficult to think about human origins, the age of the earth and mechanisms of biological change; for undermining the ability to look at the world God has made and to understand what we see when we do look; and for creating "noisy alarums" which have made it difficult to listen to careful Christian thinkers like many in ASA or Phillip Johnson.

Chapter 8 outlines developments which offer hope that evangelicals are returning to efforts to bring Christian thinking to bear on the social, philosophical, political and scientific problems of the world around them. However, most of the examples are examples of evangelicals borrowing from or being enriched by other traditions within Christianity. The chapter ends with this sobering statement: "The question must remain whether evangelicalism as it has taken shape in North America contributes anything intrinsic to the life of the mind. Historically considered, especially over the course of the twentieth century, it is difficult to find such a contribution... And here this book might end. The scandal of the evangelical mind seems to be that no mind arises from evangelicalism. Evangelicals who believe that God desires to be worshipped with thought as well as activity may well remain evangelicals, but they will find intellectual depth -- a way of praising God through the mind -- in ideas developed by confessional or mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, or perhaps even the Eastern Orthodox. That conclusion may be the only responsible one to reach after considering the history sketched in this book. Even if it leaves evangelical intellectuals trapped in personal dissonance and the evangelical tradition doomed to intellectual superficiality (or worse), the recent past seems to point in no other direction. But because American evangelicalism is a form of Christianity, a religion notable for its paradoxes of faith, hope and love, perhaps there is more to say..."

Chapter 9 addresses the question of what is inherent in evangelicalism that can make a significant contribution to the intellectual life of Christians. He concludes that evangelicalism does have much to offer, and suggests how these qualities may contribute to a rebirth of evangelical intellectual life. In part, Noll's prescription is that evangelicals must not let evangelical distinctives crowd out Christian essentials. We must not allow activism to crowd out rigorous thinking about how our Christian faith relates to all areas of life, or to override an attitude of profound gratitude to God. Literal hermeneutics must be seen as a poor substitute for "profound trust in the Bible as pointing us to the Savior and orienting our entire existence to the service of God." We must not allow our emphasis on crisis conversion to crowd out lifelong spiritual development.

Finally, Noll outlines evangelical characteristics that will in his view contribute to a renaissance of evangelical intellectual life. While evangelicals have emphasized supernaturalism and Scripture in ways that have not been supportive of intellectual activity, we have kept Christianity itself alive. Our emphasis on supernaturalism has kept the understanding of God's transcendence alive. We may have used the Scriptures superficially, but we know the Scriptures. We know how desperately we need to be saved. Even our evangelical activism has unappreciated value in building a Christian intellectual life. As we have evangelized people of different cultures, they have taught us much about what it means to think in a Christian way. Assimilation of Christianity by a different culture always brings surprises which, if carefully studied by missiologists will yield much knowledge about what it means to be a Christian. The great doctrines of Christianity provide much stimulation for Christian thought. The Incarnation means that this material world is important to God. The Atonement tells us that God redeemed people for life in this world as well as in the world to come. The fact that the gospel goes out as a universal offer for all of humanity suggests something about the dignity in this world of all human beings and the potential value in this world of all that they do.

This book is not for those who are content with the Bible-only separatism evangelicals are frequently accused of. Much of the book will seem familiar and depressing to those who have worried about the decline of the evangelical mind. But Noll helps us understand how we came to be what we are, and shows that the crucial ingredients for recovery are already available to evangelicalism, and that they lie precisely in the Christian essentials evangelicalism has preserved. It is required reading for those of us who believe that we can and must serve the Lord we love with our minds.