Re: The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

From: John Burgeson (
Date: Thu Jul 11 2002 - 12:52:40 EDT

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    >>Anybody knows much about this guy? I see that he is featured on PBS'
    Evolution website.>>

    Catching up today. Mark Noll's SCANDAL OF THE EVANGELICAL MIND is a classic.

    My good friend Bill Hamilton wrote a review on it -- and gave me permission
    to post it whereever I wished on talk groups, etc. Here it is:

    Subject: Book Review: The scandal of the evangelical mind

    From: (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

    "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

    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

    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

    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


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