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The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

Recent years have brought to the fore a drumbeat of complaints from evangelical intellectuals bemoaning the ineffectual work of evangelical intellectuals. This theme has been sounded recently by Os Guinness, David Wells, and John Seel, among others, and now Mark Noll weighs in. Noll believes that American evangelicals have made small contribution to the intellectual life of the nation and so have failed not only in their civic duty, but also their religious responsibilities. Christians who take seriously the sovereignty of God over the creation should recognize the theological implications this has for study and reflection about the physical and social world, and not leave that vital task to others. There are plenty of evangelicals who possess academic credentials, but Noll believes they come up with very little that is both responsible and can be related to the big questions of life in society; it’s as if Christian faith had nothing to say about such matters, being concerned wholly with spiritual matters.

A hard-working, prolific, and able historian, Noll not surprisingly locates the source of the problem in the historical circumstances that went into the making of American evangelicalism. Although he has hard things to say about the fundamentalist reaction to the radical drift of the mainline denominations early in the twentieth century, he believes the roots of the problem are far older. The promising start given to the movement by Jonathan Edwards could not survive the emotional revivalism of George Whitfield and various nineteenth and twentieth century successors. Moreover, the evangelicals, like so many of their countrymen, unconsciously adopted a form of the Enlightenment that was native to Scotland and went by the name “common-sense realism.” One characteristic of this kind of thinking was an empiricism that owed much to the scientific philosophy of Francis Bacon, and American evangelicals brought this approach uncritically into their thinking about theology, science, and the various social issues that attracted their attention in spite of a pervading attitude of other-worldliness, a spiritual-mindedness that too often could not be bothered with the “unimportant” social, political, and economic issues that preoccupied the worldly.

In broad outline I think Noll is right, although there is plenty of room for discussion about a number of points. Carl F. H. Henry, for example, is one of his models for what an evangelical intellectual should be, but holds to a view of scripture that Noll uses to illustrate the shabbiness of evangelical thinking. To cite another case, Noll views the Creationists as exemplars of obscurantism–Baconism and all that; he prefers the theistic evolutionism espoused by many in the American Scientific Affiliation, but he does not discuss the intellectual ferment now associated with critiques of that point of view. Beyond such opportunities for discussion and clarification, there is an enormous gap in Noll’s discussion to which I hope he will return. Since he argues that American evangelicals have failed to contribute the insights of their faith to the problems and opportunities of modern life, why does he have almost nothing to say about the academic institutions which they own and operate? Most of these colleges have long since completed the transition out of fundamentalism to something more like what he wants and have filled their faculty slots with Ph.D.s from good universities. How, then, is it possible that they are still unable to fulfill their intellectual responsibilities?

A few years ago I attended an academic conference at Wheaton College, where Mark Noll is a professor of history, and heard one of Wheaton’s academic leaders give a paper urging that the insights of the French deconstructionists be given a wider and more respectful hearing among evangelicals. The respondent pointed out in a withering and closely reasoned reply full of supporting quotations that those “insights” were intended precisely to destroy everything for which evangelicalism stood. Noll was in the auditorium during this exchange, and I would have hoped that the phenomenon which this event exemplified would be central to his analysis.

Last year the Ethics and Public Policy Center sponsored a round-table discussion among members of evangelical college faculties, some of them well-published scholars, who reported that they have been pushed to the margins on their campuses by proponents of the various fads that characterize secular universities. They may not be subject (yet?) to the same reign of terror, but there is little doubt that students and teachers on these campuses can publicly dissent from the feminism, social democracy, subjectivism, and relativism that are features of their environment only with difficulty and with the exercise of considerable courage. An exposé of the intellectual failings of evangelicalism that has so much to say about the Scottish Enlightenment but so little to say about the present institutions that exemplify and perpetuate those failings lacks balance. Perhaps this imbalance accounts for Noll writing of the evangelical colleges in a section which cautiously speaks of signs of hope.

There are in fact signs of hope, but they are located in a different quarter. Younger scholars are coming up now of a decidedly different mien than a great many of Noll’s colleagues. These people are far more critical of the reigning academic orthodoxies, but not of Christian orthodoxy. Many went or are going to foreign universities because they were too incorrect for American Ph.D. programs. I hope Mark Noll gets to know some of these people. They need the encouragement and example of an older hand who has taken the trouble to learn his craft, and he could stand the refreshment of a vision for the articulation of a Christian worldview that goes well beyond what he thinks are hopeful signs.