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The Evangelical Mind Today

Mark Noll

Ten years after the publication of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind , I remain largely unrepentant about the book’s historical arguments, its assessment of evangelical strengths and weaknesses, and its indictment of evangelical intellectual efforts, though I have changed my mind on a few matters. Some readers have rightly pointed out that what I described as a singularly evangelical problem is certainly related to the general intellectual difficulties of an advertisement-driven, image-preoccupied, television-saturated, frenetically hustling consumer society, and that the reason evangelicals suffer from intellectual weakness is that American culture as a whole suffers from intellectual weakness. Another helpful criticism is that the book lumps together fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and holiness advocates as culprits in the stagnation of evangelical thinking and that it ignores certain mitigating circumstances and worthy exceptions that one could cite from each of these sub-traditions.

Yet on the whole, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind still seems to me correct in its descriptions and evaluations. What is true throughout the Christian world is true for American Christians: we who are in pietistic, generically evangelical, Baptist, fundamentalist, Restorationist, holiness, “Bible church,” megachurch, or Pentecostal traditions face special difficulties when putting the mind to use. Taken together, American evangelicals display many virtues and do many things well, but built-in barriers to careful and constructive thinking remain substantial.

These barriers include an immediatism that insists on action, decision, and even perfection right now, a populism that confuses winning supporters with mastering actually existing situations, an anti-traditionalism that privileges one’s own current judgments on biblical, theological, and ethical issues (however hastily formed) over insight from the past (however hard won and carefully stated), and a nearly gnostic dualism that rushes to spiritualize all manner of bodily, terrestrial, physical, and material realities (despite the origin and providential maintenance of these realities in God). In addition, we evangelicals as a rule still prefer to put our money into programs offering immediate results, whether evangelistic or humanitarian, instead of into institutions promoting intellectual development over the long term.

These evangelical habits continue to hamper evangelical thinking. We remain inordinately susceptible to enervating apocalyptic speculation, and we produce and consume oceans of bathetic End Times literature while sponsoring only a trickle of serious geopolitical analysis. We are consistently drawn to so-called “American Christianities”–occasionally of the left, more often of the right–that subordinate principled reasoning rooted in the gospel to partisanship in which opponents are demonized and deficiencies in our friends are excused. (Defense of the right to life remains the shining exception to that generalization about politics.) Capitulation to disembodied ideals of spirituality incapacitates our struggling band of novelists and poets. And far too many of us still make the intellectually suicidal mistake of thinking that promoting “creation science” is the best way to resist naturalistic philosophies of science. When it comes to the life of the mind, in other words, we evangelicals continue to have our problems.

That being said, it must also be noted that were I to attempt such a book as The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind today, it would have a different tone–more hopeful than despairing, more attuned to possibilities than to problems, more concerned with theological resources than theological deficiencies. The major reason for this alteration in perspective is itself theological; a secondary reason is that many developments on the ground now also seem auspicious. The theology, though vastly more important and deserving of extensive exposition, I will treat succinctly below. The signs of life on the ground I will explore at somewhat greater length. Foundational theology and proliferating portents, taken together, make me more hopeful now about Christian thinking by evangelicals than I was a decade ago. And, for reasons that should become apparent, I do mean to say “Christian thinking by evangelicals” rather than “evangelical thinking” as such.

Theological reasons to hope for better things from evangelical intellectual effort spring from the resources of classical trinitarian Christianity. Even if those resources are unused or abused, they continue to exist as a powerful latent force wherever individuals or groups look in faith to God as loving Father, redeeming Savior, and sustaining Spirit. Various forms of evangelical Christianity are, in fact, burgeoning around the world; the evangelical proportion of the practicing Christian population in North America continues to expand; where there is evangelical life there is hope for evangelical learning.

The intrinsic reason for that hope lies in the biblical message that evangelicals identify as the bedrock of our faith. Because evangelicals tend to disregard tradition, we are liable to miss the rich contributions that other strands of faithful believers have made to interpreting and applying the multitudinous biblical words that are so potent for the life of the mind. But this can change. If evangelicals are the ones who insist most aggressively that they believe in sola scriptura , and if evangelicals are the ones who assert most vigorously the transforming work of Jesus Christ, then it is reasonable to hope that what the Scriptures teach about the origin of creation in Christ, the sustaining of all things in Christ, and the dignity of all creation in Christ–about, in other words, the subjects of learning–will be a spur for evangelicals to a deeper and richer intellectual life: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17).

For evangelicals (as for other Christians) the greatest hope for learning in any age lies not primarily in heightened activity, nor in better funding, nor in sounder strategizing–though all of these exertions have an important role to play. Rather, the great hope for Christian learning lies in the Christian faith itself, which in the end means in Jesus Christ. Thus, if evangelicals are the people of the gospel we claim to be, our intellectual rescue is close at hand.

But how will evangelicals pursue goals defined by phrases like “first-rate Christian scholarship” or “the Christian use of the mind,” when these phrases sound like a call to backsliding for some in the churches and like a simple oxymoron for many in the broader world? For a Christian in the evangelical tradition, the only enduring answer must come from considering Jesus Christ as sustaining the world and all that is in it. In the light of Christ, we can undertake a whole-hearted, unabashed, and unembarrassed effort to understand this world. In a mind fixed on him, there is intrinsic hope for the development of intellectual seriousness, intellectual integrity, and intellectual gravity.

If there is hope for intellectual life in the theology that evangelicals profess to believe, so also can encouragement be found in several concrete developments of recent decades. Without denying that well-entrenched obstacles continue to frustrate an honorable use of the mind, it is still possible to identify substantial signs of progress. How those developments should be ranked in importance differs depending on place and circumstance, but together they make for an impressive list.

The first source of hope I would point to is the increasing engagement between evangelicals and Roman Catholics that has contributed dramatically to improved evangelical use of the mind. As more and more communication takes place between these once-warring camps, mutual enlightenment on many matters, including scholarship, is the result. So rapidly has the situation changed from the cold war that existed into the 1960s, that it is now barely conceivable that either Catholics or evangelicals could once have thought that either could get along without help from the other. The exchange between these traditions is probably more important to Catholics for reasons other than intellectual, but the life of the mind is where evangelicals benefit most. While evangelicals offer Catholics eagerness, commitment, and an ability to negotiate in a culture of intellectual consumerism, Catholics offer evangelicals a sense of tradition and centuries of reflection on the bearing of sacramentality on all existence.

Whenever evangelicals in recent years have been moved to admonish themselves and other evangelicals for weaknesses in ecclesiology, tradition, the intellectual life, sacraments, theology of culture, aesthetics, philosophical theology, or historical consciousness, the result has almost always been selective appreciation for elements of the Catholic tradition. Whatever Protestants may think of individual proposals, methods, or conclusions proceeding from any individual Catholic thinker, the growing evangelical willingness to pay respectful attention to the words and deeds of a whole host of Catholic intellectuals, beginning with Pope John Paul II, makes an important contribution to better intellectual effort.

The intellectual harvests that evangelicals now reap from better relations with Catholics are well illustrated by personnel and programs at the University of Notre Dame. Although it is not the only place in the country where first-rate intellectuals from both Protestant and Catholic traditions have been recruited to labor together to Christian learning, it is the place where that recruitment has been most successful. Naturally, the kind of Christian learning on offer–even the definition of what Christian learning means-differs considerably from scholar to scholar at Notre Dame. But for a Catholic university to offer graduate students and the wider reading public (whether Catholic, evangelical, or other) a lineup of Appleby, Cunningham, McGreevy, MacIntyre, McMullen, Marsden, Plantinga, Turner, and many more is really something–something for learning itself, but also something for illustrating how evangelicals have benefited from entering intellectual space founded, funded, and fueled by Roman Catholics.

Notre Dame has also been the home of the Pew Programs in evangelical (or Christian) Scholarship, a series of projects (now winding down) that represent a focused effort to spur evangelicals to better Christian thinking. These ventures have provided research fellowships for college and university professors, scholarships for graduate students, and seminars of various sorts for Christian academics at different stages of their careers. Scores of students from evangelical colleges have been guided toward graduate education, dozens of evangelical graduate students have been funded in leading doctoral programs, and many scholars have been assisted in finishing major writing projects. The Pew initiatives at Notre Dame have made evangelicals better scholars and also have leveraged evangelical connections to improve Christian learning in general.

Consideration of evangelical-Catholic cooperation at Notre Dame leads naturally to consideration of a second source of hope for improved evangelical thinking–the ongoing renascence of Christian philosophy. Beginning with a few intrepid Calvinists and independent evangelicals, and stimulated by a large dose of modern neo-Thomism, for several decades Christian philosophers in the United States have been engaged in full-scale, first-order investigation at the highest level. Evangelicals do not dominate this Christian philosophical resurgence, but they have been key participants at every stage. For evangelical graduate students and young professionals, philosophy has become the one academic discipline where strong networks devoted to both intellectual rigor and Christian integrity exist in all regions of the country and for almost every level of higher education.

Results of this resurgence are visible in the quality of work being produced. Philosophers and theologians attuned to modern philosophy provide an unusually high proportion of the serious orthodox theology on offer in the English-speaking world. Faith and Philosophy , the journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers, which is now in its twenty-first year, offers further testimony, with its regular publication of articles and reviews of great intellectual depth, with thirty-eight stellar practitioners on its editorial committee, and with sixteen institutions (including Catholic, evangelical, and mainline Protestant) offering support. For evangelicals, the continuing strength of the Christian philosophy project has provided stimulus, encouragement, models, graduate school mentors, practice in intra-Christian diversity, and much more. Other academic disciplines–including history, the visual arts, economics, political science, sociology, music, and the physical sciences–enjoy active Christian networks, but none has reached as high or mixed as many Christian traditions as has Christian philosophy. No other academic network has contributed so directly to the strengthening of evangelical minds.

Evangelical colleges and universities offer a third venue where hope can be glimpsed. Because of how evangelicalism developed in the United States, evangelical institutions of higher learning have often functioned as sectarian enclaves; they have regularly sought purity in isolation rather than public engagement; and they have often been too tightly bound to the rise and fall of their charismatic leaders. These features have not been harmful for all Christian purposes, but for intellectual life they have been restricting. Over the last half-century, however, more institutions of evangelical higher learning–colleges, universities, seminaries, and even Bible schools–have seasoned their sectarian certitudes with commitment to “mere Christianity”; more have expanded goals beyond the socialization of their own group’s rising generation; more have begun to promote the academic life as a legitimate Christian vocation; more are coming to understand that there can be no good teaching without good scholarship.

Evangelical higher education has been given a special boost in recent years by remarkable developments at Baylor University and by less comprehensive but still bold initiatives at Calvin College. As is well known, Baylor’s characteristically Texan announcement that by the year 2012 it would dramatically improve the academic quality of its university and demonstrably raise the Christian salience of its academic programs has met serious internal resistance. A predictable alliance of theological liberals and nervous naysayers has protested, but Baylor’s leaders have forged ahead. Whether Baylor will reach its ambitious goals remains uncertain, but no one should doubt that its efforts constitute the most far-reaching and most important institutional attempt in many decades to do the proper thing for the life of the evangelical mind.

Calvin College’s special contribution to that same end has been its stimulating summer seminars, organized for faculty and graduate students in a wide variety of fields. These seminars, in place for more than a decade now, provide instant networking for often-isolated Christian scholars and for colleagues who, though not Christian themselves, want to engage with those who are. They offer opportunities for scholars from different Christian traditions to address important intellectual questions at the level of a research university, for the duration of a summer term and then through follow-up activities. The Calvin seminars are perhaps most intriguing as an experiment testing whether a college committed to solid undergraduate instruction can also foster serious research without taking on the whole of what has usually characterized America’s comprehensive universities.

In addition, a host of evangelical colleges–and also quasi-evangelical and evangelical-friendly institutions–have started new programs, added faculty, set up institutes, sponsored conferences, raised money for research professorships, and otherwise taken steps to improve their intellectual quality. Many of these institutions are members of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, which from its office in Washington, D.C., has worked hard to strengthen its members’ intellectual efforts. Evangelical higher education in North America remains a fragmented enterprise, both nourished and impeded by the sectarian character of American religion. But increasingly these schools are becoming more responsible in sponsoring serious intellectual effort.

A fourth area in which hopeful signs are visible is the domain of science. In the past, warfare over evolutionary theory may have been necessary–especially to protect students from crude philosophical naturalism masquerading as empirical science–but it was regrettable insofar as it transformed questions requiring measured and learned investigation into public arguments favoring simplistic demagoguery by theists and secularists alike. Strife over “creation science” continues to simmer, exacting a high cost in both serious study of nature and serious learning from Scripture, yet several positive influences are evident. Without claiming mastery of the recondite issues involved, I can say I am heartened by the consistent quality of intra-evangelical debate in forums such as the American Scientific Affiliation’s Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. I am also encouraged by the boldness and clarity with which evangelicals such as Denis Lamoureux and Keith B. Miller spell out why they are evolutionists and why they hold evolutionary theory to be compatible with traditional Christian orthodoxy. It is also heartening that promoters of the intelligent-design theory, such as William Dembski and Jonathan Wells, are trying to raise questions about the Christian stake in science to the levels of metaphysical and teleological debate, where they should have been all along.

A fifth reason for thinking more hopefully about evangelical intellectual life is the multiplying Christian presence in the nation’s pluralistic universities, where far more students of evangelical persuasion receive their higher education than at the evangelical colleges and universities. One sign of that presence is a larger roster of identifiably Christian faculty in the lead ranks of their disciplines. Even though (or, perhaps, because) these visibly believing faculty take up their tasks in many different, not always compatible, ways, their very existence is a sign of hope. To compare the situation just three or four decades ago to the situation today is to see a change for the better. Then there was only a small handful of leading scholars willing to identify themselves as believers; now it is possible to name a long list in many fields. Evangelicals who read and study with such intellectuals are provided with models and mentors.

Other signs of hope at the pluralistic universities are modest but significant. Local churches and individual denominations maintain Christian study centers at many universities, and some of them are effective. Self-standing centers at the University of Virginia, Michigan State University, the University of Illinois, the University of Minnesota, and elsewhere offer encouragement by moving closer to the British and Canadian pattern, where identifiably Christian units are embedded in the broader university. The Veritas Forums that annually convene on many campuses bring further connections and encouragement to wide audiences that include many evangelicals.

At pluralistic colleges and universities, campus ministries of many sorts also encourage evangelical spiritual life. Especially with its major commitment to its graduate and faculty ministry, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship offers reason for hope. By providing Christian nurture and networks for evangelical students and teachers who might otherwise feel isolated as believing scholars, the grad-faculty IVCF may be doing as much in its low-key way to improve evangelical intellectual life as any other ongoing national program.

A sixth arena where favorable developments in recent years have helped evangelicals toward greater intellectual responsibility is the world of publishing. Serious periodicals such as First Things , Books & Culture , and Touchstone provide meaningful Christian engagement with significant issues of contemporary life. Whether such journals do so from explicitly evangelical angles or from the perspective of other believing traditions, their net effect is to demonstrate how essential it is for communities of faith to think their way through the modern world rather than just reacting to it.

The number of serious books that can be identified as Christian, near-Christian, or Christian-friendly also continues to increase. Presses such as Eerdmans, Baker, and InterVarsity Press were midwives at the birth of postwar evangelicalism, and they have continued to make Herculean efforts. They have now been joined by many other religious, commercial, and university presses willing to publish books written by evangelicals or treating seriously the subjects that most concern evangelicals.

Beyond question, evangelical intellectual life is being strengthened by developments in these six areas. Yet when assessing the current situation, realism is also required, as well as precision about what is actually taking place. We are indeed witnessing some advances by evangelicals in Christian intellectual life, but these improvements do not point toward the development of a distinctly evangelical mind. Common, generic evangelicalism and the activistic denominations that make up evangelicalism do not possess theologies full enough, traditions of intellectual practice strong enough, or conceptions of the world deep enough to sustain a full-scale intellectual revival.

Without strong theological traditions, most evangelicals lack a critical element required for making intellectual activity both self-confident and properly humble, both critical and committed. In order to advance responsible Christian learning, the vitality of commitment must be stabilized by the ballast of tradition. Tradition without life might be barely Christian, but life without tradition is barely coherent.

Part of what makes it possible for a particular stream of Christianity to support vigorous intellectual life is simply the passage of time: an older movement obviously has had more opportunities to broaden out into fruitful scholarship. But another part is a self-conscious commitment to learn from the teaching and experience of past believing generations. The current dilemma for Christian learning in North America could be broadly described as follows. On the one side, Pentecostals, Southern Baptists, members of Holiness movements, seeker-sensitive churches, dispensationalists, Adventists, African-American congregations, radical Wesleyans, and lowest-common-denominator evangelicals have great spiritual energy, but they flounder in putting the mind to use for Christ. On the other side, Lutherans, Catholics, Anglo-Catholics, the Reformed, and the Eastern Orthodox enjoy incredibly rich traditions that include sterling examples of Christian thought, but they often display a comatose spirituality.

This picture is, of course, a generalization. Yet think how natural it sounds to talk of Pentecostal Signs and Wonders, intense holiness spirituality, vigorous seeker-sensitive evangelism, a dispensationalist devotion to Scripture, and Baptist missionary zeal. It seems equally self-evident that we can speak of such things as an estimable tradition of Lutheran sacred music, art history pursued from a Kuyperian Reformed perspective, profound social theory from Catholics, and a solid trajectory of Anglo-Catholic belles lettres . But try to shift and mix the categories and hear how unexpected some of the combinations sound: Kuyperian Reformed Signs and Wonders? Vigorous Catholic evangelism? An Anglo-Catholic devotion to Scripture? Intense Lutheran spirituality? Or, to run it the other way: Art history pursued from a Baptist perspective? A solid trajectory of seeker-sensitive belles lettres ? Profound social theory from the holiness movement?

Active Christian life of the sort that defines evangelicalism is a prerequisite for responsible Christian learning. But unless that activity is given shape, it will remain ineffective. The older Christian traditions provide depth, because they are rooted in classical Christian doctrine, and they offer breadth, because they have nurtured outstanding examples of faithful Christian thinking. There is, in other words, no neo-Thomist personalism without centuries of God-honoring moral casuistry; no J. S. Bach without Luther’s theologies of the Incarnation and the Cross; no Dorothy L. Sayers without Anglo-Catholic sacramentalism; no Flannery O’Connor without a Catholic theology of redemption; and no contemporary revival of Christian philosophy among American evangelicals without the legacy of Kuyperian Calvinism.

Evangelicals of several types are beginning to learn the lessons taught by such exemplars. As they do so, many are becoming more serious Christian thinkers. To embrace the energy of American evangelicalism, but also to move beyond the eccentricities of American evangelicalism into the spacious domains of self-critical, patient, rooted, and productive Christian tradition, remains the great challenge for the evangelical mind.

Mark Noll, Professor of History at Wheaton College, is the author most recently of America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford University Press).

Ordinary Time in the Pews

Ordinary days again.
Advent, Pentecost are past;
who now will accept our sins,
raise the dust in which we’re cast?

Cold the God flesh on the tree,
banned the crèche to attic murk,
sheer the silence after prayer,
nothing seems at all to work.

Yet, we try and try again
serving Him we hardly know:
honk if you love Jesus, friend,
beeping blessings as we go.

Here we meet who, somehow, must
rescue meaning from the dust,
where betrayal’s kiss presents
our best hope of relevance.

Moore Moran