The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

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by Mark A. Noll
"The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind." So begins this award-winning intellectual history and critique of the evangelical movement by one of evangelicalism's most respected historians.

Unsparing in his judgment, Mark Noll ask why the largest single group of religious Americans—who enjoy increasing wealth


"The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind." So begins this award-winning intellectual history and critique of the evangelical movement by one of evangelicalism's most respected historians.

Unsparing in his judgment, Mark Noll ask why the largest single group of religious Americans—who enjoy increasing wealth, status, and political influence—have contributed so little to rigorous intellectual scholarship in North America. In nourishing believers in the simple truths of the gospel, why have evangelicals failed at sustaining a serious intellectual life and abandoned the universities, the arts, and other realms of "high" culture?

Noll is probing and forthright in his analysis of how this situation came about, but he doesn't end there. Challenging the evangelical community, he sets out to find, within evangelicalism itself, resources for turning the situation around.

Editorial Reviews

"Mark Noll is the McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, and so has a vested interest in adding to the number of thinking evangelicals. That he had the capacity to do so is demonstrated by this learned, lucid book.... In any case, Noll's excellent book is likely to influence the development of the evangelical mind and deserves the widest discussion."
"Noll's book provides a bold analysis of the history of evangelical thought in America. Scandal may itself be a history-making book. Named "Book of the Year" by Christianity Today, this volume is a vigorous sign of the renewal of evangelical thinking for which its author calls. This book should be read by persons interested in enlightenment in America, the legacy of fundamentalism, and the relationship of evangelical Christianity to science and politics. This book should be required reading for anyone who still does not know the difference between a fundamentalist and an evangelical."
Equip for Ministry
This book must be rated as one of the top ten books of the year, at least for our readers.
Evangelical Studies Bulletin
This is a book that every American historian ought to read precisely because it makes one think hard about a subject and a discipline in a way that few books do. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind brilliantly reverses the balance in the principle that the best scholarship is necessarily morally informed, a principle widely, if quietly, shared by the left and right.
Publishers Weekly
Required reading for those seeking to understand the often peculiar relationship between Evangelical religion and secular culture, this is a brilliant study by—yes—a first-rate Evangelical mind.
Southwestern Journal of Theology
This is a must read book. Its being named the 1995 Christianity Today Book of the Year is not undeserved. It sets the agenda for a very interesting discussion.
Church of England Newspaper
"Agenda-setting work.... A "must-read" for any thinking evangelical."
Theology (U.K.)
A most impressive book, combining passionate engagement with careful and rational analysis.
School Library Journal
Noll (history, Wheaton Coll. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, LJ 11/1/92) castigates his fellow American conservative evangelicals for losing their intellectual credibility since Darwin. They have followed St. Paul's injunction to be ``fools for Christ'' to the point of being simply fools, instead of heeding Jesus' call to be ``wise as serpents.'' Their scholarly pursuits include such dead-end propositions as ``creation science,'' end-time apocalyptic prophecies, and biblical inerrancy instead of research and writings contributing positively to American intellectual life. What distresses Noll most is that evangelicals seem not to care. He provides extensive historical background showing how this was not always the case and indicates how Christian scholars might recapture lost ground. Passionately and brilliantly argued, this book is recommended for informed lay readers and specialists.-Richard S. Watts, San Bernardino Cty. Lib., Cal.
Ray Olson
American Christian evangelicalism has neglected and disdained the life of the mind, Noll says, and that is scandalous. That anti-intellectualism is not inherent in evangelicalism Noll demonstrates by presenting evangelical intellectual history, primarily in the U.S., with scholarly thoroughness and journalistic accessibility. He argues that anti-intellectualism was a by-product of the fundamentalist ideas American evangelicals seized upon because they were so useful in effecting conversions. He considers the influences the fundamentalist doctrines of holiness, pentecostalism, and especially dispensationalism had upon evangelical political and scientific thought in particular; in neither case does he find much to praise, although he sees dispensationalist-inspired creation science as more damaging to science than any fundamentalist idea has been to politics. He concludes by outlining recent signs of evangelical intellectual revival in philosophy as well as politics and science and by locating the potential for the renaissance of the evangelical intellect in the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Atonement. Noll well exemplifies what he prays evangelicals generally will learn to value again: thinking like a Christian.
From the Publisher

Christianity TodayBook of the Year (1995)

"That anti-intellectualism is not inherent in evangelicalism Noll demonstrates by presenting evangelical intellectual history, primarily in the U.S., with scholarly thoroughness and journalistic accessibility. . . Noll well exemplifies what he prays evangelicals generally will learn to value again: thinking like a Christian."

"Mark Noll is the McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, and so has a vested interest in adding to the number of thinking evangelicals. That he had the capacity to do so is demonstrated by this learned, lucid book. . . In any case, Noll's excellent book is likely to influence the development of the evangelical mind and deserves the widest discussion."

"Noll's book provides a bold analysis of the history of evangelical thought in America. Scandal may itself be a history-making book. Named 'Book of the Year' by Christianity Today, this volume is a vigorous sign of the renewal of evangelical thinking for which its author calls. This book should be read by persons interested in enlightenment in America, the legacy of fundamentalism, and the relationship of evangelical Christianity to science and politics. This book should be required reading for anyone who still does not know the difference between a fundamentalist and an evangelical."

Equip for Ministry
"This book must be rated as one of the top ten books of the year, at least for our readers."

Evangelical Studies Bulletin
"This is a book that every American historian ought to read precisely because it makes one think hard about a subject and a discipline in a way that few books do. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind brilliantly reverses the balance in the principle that the best scholarship is necessarily morally informed, a principle widely, if quietly, shared by the left and right."

Publishers Weekly
"Required reading for those seeking to understand the often peculiar relationship between Evangelical religion and secular culture, this is a brilliant study by—yes—a first-rate Evangelical mind."

Southwestern Journal of Theology
"This is a must read book. Its being named the 1995 Christianity Today Book of the Year is not undeserved. It sets the agenda for a very interesting discussion."

The Church of England Newspaper
"Agenda-setting work. . . A 'must-read' for any thinking evangelical."

Theology (U.K.)
"A most impressive book, combining passionate engagement with careful and rational analysis."

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Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
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CHAPTER 1 The Contemporary Scandal (pages 3-27)

The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind. An extraordinary range of virtues is found among the sprawling throngs of evangelical Protestants in North America, including great sacrifice in spreading the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, open-hearted generosity to the needy, heroic personal exertion on behalf of troubled individuals, and the unheralded sustenance of countless church and parachurch communities. Not-with-standing all their other virtues, however, American evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking, and they have not been so for several generations.

Despite dynamic success at a popular level, modern American evangelicals have failed notably in sustaining serious intellectual life. They have nourished millions of believers in the simple verities of the gospel but have largely abandoned the universities, the arts, and other realms of "high" culture. Even in its more progressive and culturally upscale subgroups, evangelicalism has little intellectual muscle. Feeding the hungry, living simply, and banning the bomb are tasks at which different sorts of evangelicals willingly expend great energy, but these tasks do not by themselves assist intellectual vitality. Evangelicals sponsor dozens of theological seminaries, scores of colleges, hundreds of radio stations, and thousands of unbelievably diverse parachurch agencies—but not a single research university or a single periodical devoted to in-depth interaction with modern culture.

Evangelical inattention to intellectual life is a curiosity for several reasons. One of the self-defining convictions of modern evangelicalism has been its adherence to the Bible as the revealed Word of God. Most evangelicals also acknowledge that in the Scriptures God stands revealed plainly as the author of nature, as the sustainer of human institutions (family, work, and government), and as the source of harmony, creativity, and beauty. Yet it has been precisely these Bible-believers par excellence who have neglected sober analysis of nature, human society, and the arts.

The historical situation is similarly curious. Modern evangelicals are the spiritual descendants of leaders and movements distinguished by probing, creative, fruitful attention to the mind. Most of the original Protestant traditions (Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican) either developed a vigorous intellectual life or worked out theological principles that could (and often did) sustain penetrating, and penetratingly Christian, intellectual endeavor. Closer to the American situation, the Puritans, the leaders of the eighteenth-century evangelical awakenings like John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, and a worthy line of North American stalwarts in the nineteenth century—like the Methodist Francis Asbury, the Presbyterian Charles Hodge, the Congregationalist Moses Stuart, and the Canadian Presbyterian George Monro Grant, to mention only a few—all held that diligent, rigorous mental activity was a way to glorify God. None of them believed that intellectual activity was the only way to glorify God, or even the highest way, but they all believed in the life of the mind, and they believed in it because they were evangelical Christians. Unlike their spiritual ancestors, modern evangelicals have not pursued comprehensive thinking under God or sought a mind shaped to its furthest reaches by Christian perspectives.

We evangelicals are, rather, in the position once described by Harry Blamires for theological conservatives in Great Britain:

In contradistinction to the secular mind, no vital Christian mind plays fruitfully, as a coherent and recognizable influence, upon our social, political, or cultural life. . . . Except over a very narrow field of thinking, chiefly touching questions of strictly personal conduct, we Christians in the modern world accept, for the purpose of mental activity, a frame of reference constructed by the secular mind and a set of criteria reflecting secular evaluations. There is no Christian mind; there is no shared field of discourse in which we can move at ease as thinking Christians by trodden ways and past established landmarks. . . . Without denying the impact of important isolated utterances, one must admit that there is no packed contemporary field of discourse in which writers are reflecting christianly on the modern world and modern man.

Blamire's picture describes American evangelicals even better than it does traditional Christians in Britain. To be sure, something of a revival of intellectual activity has been taking place among evangelical Protestants since World War II. Yet it would be a delusion to conclude that evangelical thinking has progressed very far. Recent gains have been modest. The general impact of Christian thinking on the evangelicals of North America, much less on learned culture as a whole, is slight. Evangelicals of several types may be taking the first steps in doing what needs to be done to develop a Christian mind, or at least we have begun to talk about what would need to be done for such a mind to develop. But there is a long, long way to go.


But now it is necessary to define more carefully the critical terms of the book, including "America," "the (life of the) mind," "evangelical," and "anti-intellectual."


Throughout the book, "America" will mostly mean the United States, even though the inclusion of Canada in the study of Christian developments in North America is an immensely rewarding effort. Occasional efforts will be made to include Canada in the pages that follow. But the structures and habits of evangelical thinking in Canada are just different enough from those in the United States to prohibit extensive treatment, even though that treatment would reveal helpful ways in which Canadian evangelicals have escaped some of the intellectual perils found in the United States and perhaps some ways in which Canadian evangelicals have had more difficulty than their counterparts in the United States at sustaining the life of the mind.

"The Life of the Mind"

By "the mind" or "the life of the mind," I am not thinking primarily of theology as such. As I will suggest below, I do feel that contemporary evangelical theologians labor under several unusual difficulties that greatly reduce the importance their work should have in the evangelical community. But the effort to articulate a theology that is faithful both to the evangelical tradition and to modern standards of academic discourse is not in itself the primary problem for the evangelical mind. In fact, with the contemporary work of evangelical theologians from several different subtraditions—including William Abraham, Donald Bloesch, Gabriel Fackre, Richard Mouw, Thomas Oden, J. I. Packer, Clark Pinnock, Ronald Sider, David Wells, and William Willimon—North American evangelicals enjoy a rich theological harvest. Much the same could be said about advanced work in biblical scholarship, although, as a general rule, evangelical Bible scholars do not extend their insights into wider areas of thought as regularly or as fruitfully as do the best evangelical theologians.

By an evangelical "life of the mind" I mean more the effort to think like a Christian—to think within a specifically Christian framework—across the whole spectrum of modern learning, including economics and political science, literary criticism and imaginative writing, historical inquiry and philosophical studies, linguistics and the history of science, social theory and the arts. Academic disciplines provide modern categories for the life of the mind, but the point is not simply whether evangelicals can learn how to succeed in the modern academy. The much more important matter is what it means to think like a Christian about the nature and workings of the physical world, the character of human social structures like government and the economy, the meaning of the past, the nature of artistic creation, and the circumstances attending our perception of the world outside ourselves. Failure to exercise the mind for Christ in these areas has become acute in the twentieth century. That failure is the scandal of the evangelical mind.


But what is an "evangelical," and how might recent efforts to ascertain the scope of the North American evangelical constituency add to the urgency of this book?

"Evangelicalism" is not, and never has been, an "-ism" like other Christian isms—for example, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Presbyterianism, Anglicanism, or even Pentecostalism (where, despite many internal differences, the practice of sign gifts like tongues speaking provides a well-defined boundary). Rather, "evangelicalism" has always been made up of shifting movements, temporary alliances, and the lengthened shadows of individuals. All discussions of evangelicalism, therefore, are always both descriptions of the way things really are as well as efforts within our own minds to provide some order for a multifaceted, complex set of impulses and organizations.

The basic evangelical impulses, however, have been quite clear from the mid-eighteenth century, when leaders like George Whitefield, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and Nicholas von Zinzendorf worked to revive churches in northern Europe and North America and so brought "evangelicalism" into existence. In one of the most useful general definitions of the phenomenon, the British historian David Bebbington has identified the key ingredients of evangelicalism as conversionism (an emphasis on the "new birth" as a life-changing religious experience), biblicism (a reliance on the Bible as ultimate religious authority), activism (a concern for sharing the faith), and crucicentrism (a focus on Christ's redeeming work on the cross). But these evangelical impulses have never by themselves yielded cohesive, institutionally compact, easily definable, well-coordinated, or clearly demarcated groups of Christians. Rather, the history of these evangelical impulses has always been marked by shifts in which groups, leaders, institutions, goals, concerns, opponents, and aspirations become more or less visible and more or less influential over time. Institutions that may emphasize evangelical distinctives at one point in time may not do so at another. Yet there have always been denominations, local congregations, and voluntary bodies that served as institutional manifestations of these impulses.

One thing seems clear from several surveys by social scientists that are now being carried out with a sophistication unknown as recently as five years ago. For both the United States and Canada, evangelicals now constitute the largest and most active component of religious life in North America. For the United States, a recent national survey showed that over 30 percent of 4,001 respondents were attached to evangelical denominations, that is, to denominations that stress the need for a supernatural new birth, profess faith in the Bible as a revelation from God, encourage spreading the gospel through missions and personal evangelism, and emphasize the saving character of Jesus' death and resurrection. Adherents to largely white, evangelical Protestant denominations by themselves make up a proportion of the population roughly the same size as the Roman Catholic constituency, but quite a bit larger than the total number of adherents to mainline Protestant denominations.

The same survey showed, moreover, that a much higher proportion of adherents to evangelical denominations practice their faith actively than do either Catholics or mainline Protestants. Based on queries concerning personal religious commitment, church attendance, prayer, belief in life after death, and other matters of faith and practice, the survey shows over 61 percent of the "white evangelicals" and over 63 percent of the "black Protestants" rank in the highest categories of religious activity, percentages far higher than for mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, Jews, or nontraditional religions. Thus, not only is a very large proportion of the American population definably evangelical, but that proportion of the population is the nation's most actively involved set of believers.

For Canada, a recent in-depth survey showed that individuals holding evangelical beliefs made up a larger proportion of the Canadian population than most pundits had thought. In an interesting variation on most surveys in the United States, this Canadian study enumerated Catholics and Protestants together. It found that 13 percent of the national population was active, committed, self-identified evangelicals (one-fourth of that number Catholics), while another 11 percent of the population (one-half of that number Catholics) held evangelical beliefs about the Bible, the person and work of Christ, the necessity for personal salvation, and the like but were only occasional participants in formal church life.

The most intriguing result of such surveys for this book is that, on any given Sunday in the United States and Canada, a majority of those who attend church hold evangelical beliefs and follow norms of evangelical practice, yet in neither country do these great numbers of practicing evangelicals appear to play significant roles in either nation's intellectual life. What a British Roman Catholic said at midcentury after looking back over more than one hundred years of rapid Catholic growth in Britain may be said equally about evangelicals in North America: "On the one hand there is the enormous growth of the Church, and on the other its almost complete lack of influence."


Is it simply that evangelicals are "anti-intellectual"? Maybe so, but the term itself is a problem. The temptation has been great in historical analyses of evangelical, pentecostal, fundamentalist, or pietistic movements simply to label adherents "anti-intellectual" and then move on to other considerations. Some classic books have come close to adopting this procedure. Ronald Knox's scintillating study Enthusiasm, for example, contrasted traditional Roman Catholic thinking (where grace perfects nature) with the approach of "enthusiasm" (where grace destroys nature and replaces it). Of the "Enthusiast" (a category that for him included most evangelicals), Knox concluded as follows: "That God speaks to us through the intellect is a notion which he may accept on paper, but fears, in practice, to apply."

Closer to the American situation, Richard Hofstadter's Pulitzer-prize-winning book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life identified "the evangelical spirit" as one of the prime sources of American anti-intellectualism. For Hofstadter, there was a common reasoning process by which evangelicals had chosen to evacuate the mind:

One begins with the hardly contestable proposition that religious faith is not, in the main, propagated by logic or learning. One moves on from this to the idea that it is best propagated (in the judgment of Christ and on historical evidence) by men who have been unlearned and ignorant. It seems to follow from this that the kind of wisdom and truth possessed by such men is superior to what learned and cultivated minds have. In fact, learning and cultivation appear to be handicaps in the propagation of faith. And since the propagation of faith is the most important task before man, those who are as "ignorant as babes" have, in the most fundamental virtue, greater strength than men who have addicted themselves to logic and learning. Accordingly, though one shrinks from a bald statement of the conclusion, humble ignorance is far better as a human quality than a cultivated mind. At bottom, this proposition, despite all the difficulties that attend it, has been eminently congenial both to American evangelicalism and to American democracy.

The anti-intellectual attitude described by Knox and Hofstadter has not been absent from the history of American evangelicals, but its description may be too simple. True, evangelicals have often contrasted the intuitions of the Spirit with the mechanics of worldly learning. There may exist, however, a genuinely Christian justification for this contrast that need not lead as directly to intellectually disastrous consequences as Hofstadter and Knox suggest. In any event, the question for American evangelicals is not just the presence of an anti-intellectual bias but the sometimes vigorous prosecution of the wrong sort of intellectual life. That is, various modes of intellectual activity may fit better or worse with the shape of Christianity itself. As I will try to show in the chapters that follow, the scandal of evangelical thinking in America has just as often resulted from a way of pursuing knowledge that does not accord with Christianity as it has been an "anti-intellectual" desire to play the fool for Christ.

Aspects of the Scandal

The scandal of the evangelical mind has at least three dimensions—cultural, institutional, and theological—each of which deserves brief mention here before receiving more extensive treatment in the chapters that follow.


To put it most simply, the evangelical ethos is activistic, populist, pragmatic, and utilitarian. It allows little space for broader or deeper intellectual effort because it is dominated by the urgencies of the moment. In addition, habits of mind that in previous generations may have stood evangelicals in good stead have in the twentieth century run amock. As the Canadian scholar N. K. Clifford once aptly summarized the matter: "The Evangelical Protestant mind has never relished complexity. Indeed its crusading genius, whether in religion or politics, has always tended toward an over-simplification of issues and the substitution of inspiration and zeal for critical analysis and serious reflection. The limitations of such a mind-set were less apparent in the relative simplicity of a rural frontier society."

Recently two very good, but also very disquieting, books have illustrated the weaknesses of evangelical intellectual life. Both are from historians who teach at the University of Wisconsin. Ronald Numbers's book The Creationists (Knopf, 1992) explains how a popular belief known as "creationism"—a theory that the earth is ten thousand or less years old—has spread like wildfire in our century from its humble beginnings in the writings of Ellen White, the founder of Seventh-day Adventism, to its current status as a gospel truth embraced by tens of millions of Bible-believing evangelicals and fundamentalists around the world. Paul Boyer's When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Harvard University Press, 1992) documents the remarkable popularity among American Bible-believing Christians—again mostly evangelicals and fundamentalists—of radical apocalyptic speculation. Boyer concludes that Christian fascination with the end of the world has existed for a very long time, but also that recent evangelical fixation on such matters—where contemporary events are labeled with great self-confidence as the fulfillment of biblical prophecies heralding the End of Time—has been particularly intense.

For those who doubt the continuing domination of this way of thinking among evangelicals, it is worth remembering the Gulf War of 1991. Within weeks of the outbreak of this conflict, evangelical publishers provided a spate of books featuring efforts to read this latest Middle East crisis as a direct fulfillment of biblical prophecy heralding the end of the world. The books came to various conclusions, but they all shared the disconcerting conviction that the best way of providing moral judgment about what was happening in the Middle East was not to study carefully what was going on in the Middle East. Rather, they featured a kind of Bible study that drew attention away from careful analysis of the complexities of Middle Eastern culture or the tangled twentieth-century history of the region toward speculation about some of the most esoteric and widely debated passages of the Bible. Moreover, that speculation was carried on with only slight attention to the central themes of the Bible (like the divine standard of justice applied in all human situations), which are crystal clear and about which there is wide agreement among evangelicals and other theologically conservative Christians. How did the evangelical public respond to these books? It responded by immediately vaulting several of these titles to the top of religious best-seller lists.

Both Numbers and Boyer are first-rate scholars who write with sympathy for their subjects. Neither is an antireligious zealot. But their books tell a sad tale: Numbers describes how a fatally flawed interpretive scheme of the sort that no responsible Christian teacher in the history of the church ever endorsed before this century came to dominate the minds of American evangelicals on scientific questions; Boyer discusses how an equally unsound hermeneutic has been used with wanton abandon to dominate twentieth-century evangelical thinking about world affairs.

These are exhaustively researched books by truly professional historians who have few bones to pick with basic Christian teachings. They share in common the picture of an evangelical world almost completely adrift in using the mind for careful thought about the world. As the authors describe them, evangelicals—bereft of self-criticism, intellectual subtlety, or an awareness of complexity—are blown about by every wind of apocalyptic speculation and enslaved to the cruder spirits of populist science. In reality, Numbers and Boyer show even more—they show millions of evangelicals thinking they are honoring the Scriptures, yet interpreting the Scriptures on questions of science and world affairs in ways that fundamentally contradict the deeper, broader, and historically well-established meanings of the Bible itself.

The culture Numbers and Boyer describe is one in which careful thinking about the world has never loomed large. To be sure, it is also a culture where intense, detailed, and precise efforts have been made to understand the Bible. But it is not a culture where the same effort has been expended to understand the world or, even more important, the processes by which wisdom from Scripture should be brought into relation with knowledge about the world. The problem is intellectual, but it grows out of the historical development of America's distinctly evangelical culture. Most of this book is an effort to describe the formation of that culture.


Institutional dimensions to the scandal of the evangelical mind are most obvious for colleges and seminaries, but they are also a feature of other intellectual efforts. Evangelicals, for example, have always been astute at using the periodical press for propagation, networking, edification, self-promotion, and debate. Throughout the nineteenth century and into the early years of the twentieth, noteworthy intellectual endeavor maintained a solid, if always minority, place in the evangelical press. Throughout this century, however, the intellectual component in the evangelical press has shriveled nearly to the vanishing point. A contrast with other religious traditions is in order. Over the last twenty years, a number of new journals have been formed, either out of specific religious communities or with specific religious intentions, in order to address selected features of modern culture with deadly (though sometimes also comic) seriousness. Examples of these journals include the Lutheran Forum, the Catholic-related New Oxford Review and The Crisis, the theological journal Pro Ecclesia, and the journal of political affairs First Things. By contrast, over the same period, evangelical periodicals that once gave at least some of their pages to intellectual considerations of nature, modern culture, and the arts—like the Reformed Journal, HIS, and Eternity—have gone out of business. Christianity Today, which, for a decade or so after its founding in 1956, aspired to intellectual leadership, has been transformed into a journal of news and middle-brow religious commentary in order simply to stay in business. The result is that, at the current time, there is not a single evangelical periodical in the United States or Canada that exists for the purpose of seriously considering the worlds of nature, society, politics, or the arts in the way that the Atlantic, the New York Review of Books, the New York Times Sunday Magazine, or the Washington Post's National Weekly Edition do for the general public.

Difficulties for Christian thinking in the world of evangelical higher education may be even more profound than those found in the evangelical press. These difficulties, however, are complex, for the myriad Bible schools, liberal arts colleges, and theological seminaries that make up evangelical higher education present a landscape of great diversity. These institutions were created for specifically religious purposes; many are successful, some remarkably so, in promoting those goals. Virtually without exception, however, they were not designed to promote thorough Christian reflection on the nature of the world, society, and the arts. It is little wonder they miss so badly that for which they do not aim.

Diffused educational energies. Part of the problem is the diffused structure of evangelical culture, which promotes a rich breadth, but also an appalling thinness, in educational institutions. Evangelicals spend enormous sums on higher education, but the diffusion of resources among hundreds of colleges and seminaries means that almost none can begin to afford a research faculty, theological or otherwise. The problem is compounded by the syndrome of the reinvented wheel. Popular authority figures like Bill Bright, Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson all assume that no previously existing educational enterprise is capable of meeting the demands of the hour. Despite the absence of formal educational credentials, each man presumes to establish a Christian university. Small wonder that evangelical thinking so often appears naïve, inept, or tendentious.

Colleges have a different goal from the research universities. Most important, they function under entirely different reward structures. At evangelical colleges, professors teach broadly to undergraduates and try to do so in ways that are generally Christian. The entire point of such institutions is to provide general guidance, general orientation, and general introduction. They are not designed to do the work that sets intellectual agendas, but to synthesize the work of intellectual leaders elsewhere. Associations such as the Christian College Coalition and the Christian College Consortium do some tasks very well, but they are not very helpful in bridging the gap between general learning and first-order scholarship because they represent the interests of only the collegiate side. Their goals are not scholarship per se but the support of their constituent institutions, strong and weak.

To be sure, a few evangelical colleges—among others, Calvin, Messiah, Redeemer, Samford, Steubenville, and Wheaton—have made some progress in the postwar years at promoting scholarship alongside the more general goals of broad learning and basic Christian orientation. But the distance remaining before such places become first-rate reservoirs of thought is still very great. A recent essay by the Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow, himself sympathetic to evangelical convictions, highlights some of the problems of the evangelical colleges. Wuthnow pointed out that the deep structures of modern intellectual life are shaped largely by the works of non- or anti-Christians. Nineteenth-century theorists like Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Freud established the intellectual conventions of the modern university. Their legacy, for good and for ill, provides the framework in which Christians do their advanced studies. The same is true for the principal theorists of the twentieth century—Milton Friedman, Ferdinand Saussure, Ferdinand Braudel, E. P. Thompson, Thomas Kuhn, Jacques Derrida—none of whom is concerned about the Christian implications of his work; yet they have set the agenda for what goes on throughout the academy.

Inadequate resources. More than just the framework of modern intellectual life keeps evangelical colleges from promoting first-order learning. The widely varying distribution of academic resources also is crucial. A handful of national research universities act as gatekeepers, intellectual and otherwise, for most of the learned professions. If evangelicals are to be academically certified, they must pass through those gates. But then, if they would mount convincing efforts to reassess the academic landscape from a specifically Christian perspective, they must do so with resources that cannot begin to compare with those enjoyed by the major research universities. As Wuthnow puts it, "Those who would wish to see a distinctively evangelical scholarly orientation advanced are at a tremendous competitive disadvantage. To pit even the strong intellectual aspirations of a Wheaton College or a Calvin College, or the massive fund-raising network of a Liberty University, against the multibillion dollar endowments of a Princeton or a Harvard reveals the vast extent of this deficit in resources."

Small institutions with modest budgets can still exert a life-changing influence on their students. But by their nature they are not designed for the kinds of patient, creative study that alters the way we think about the world and ourselves.

Seminaries versus colleges. Another part of the institutional problem in evangelical higher education concerns the division of labor between seminaries and colleges. Evangelical seminaries, of which there are at least a dozen with substantial resources and large student bodies and several score of more modest size, are the institutional descendents of the theological schools founded in the first third of the nineteenth century. Andover (1808), Princeton (1812), and Yale (1822) led the way in training ministers for the rapidly expanding national population. But by the Civil War almost all major denominational families in the United States had founded seminaries for the training of ministers. Before the Civil War these institutions provided the most advanced training of any schools in the United States. After the Civil War the rise of the modern university pushed the seminaries toward the intellectual backwater. By 1900, advanced study at universities had developed far beyond that done at seminaries.

The seminaries—then and now—have done their job well. They have served as effective training grounds for Christian workers and were one of the reasons why Canadian and American missionary efforts possessed the personnel to accomplish their great tasks. The autonomous seminary, separate from college or university and often under the direct control of a denomination, was a singularly American creation. It has exerted a profound influence on the shape of Christianity in North America.

Its existence, however, has also created problems for more general intellectual life. If seminaries specialized in theology and encouraged systematic reflection on Christian interaction with the world, what religious role remained for the colleges? Should colleges become miniature seminaries in focusing their curriculum on biblical and theological subjects? Was theological reflection, and consideration of how revelation affects other areas of thought, to be left to the seminaries? To this day, professors at evangelical seminaries enjoy the most thorough technical training of all professional academics identified with evangelical institutions, and their work is read far more widely in evangelical circles than work from professors in the evangelical colleges.

The problem for Christian thinking does not rise from the academic quality of seminary faculties, which has been steadily rising since the Second World War. The problem concerns rather the connections between theology and other forms of learning. The American pattern of seminary formation led to a situation where experts in Scripture and theology worked in different institutions from those trained in the wider range of academic subjects. Nothing exists for evangelicals in the United States like the universities of Britain and the Continent, where the most serious work in Bible and theology goes on next to serious work in the other academic disciplines. In the United States, the fourfold institutional division between Bible schools, Christian liberal arts colleges, evangelical seminaries, and secular research universities has preserved important values. Independent Bible schools, colleges, and seminaries, for example, are institutionally insulated from at least some of the secularizing pressures that prevail in the modern research university. But a price has been paid for such religious security.

The price is a loss of first-level cross-fertilization between theological reflection and reflection in the arts and sciences. Evangelical seminaries have often enjoyed brilliant biblical scholars, but these scholars are isolated from comparably brilliant Christians in the evangelical colleges (whose mandate is broad and general) and in the research universities (whose mandate is narrow and deep). All teachers in the evangelical institutions suffer under a further problem created by the absence of non-Christian scholars, or Christian scholars who are not evangelical Protestants. Despite good intentions, it is almost always easier to misconstrue the arguments of others if they are not present.

The existence of separate institutional structures preserves autonomy and may be safe socially. What is lost, however, is an ideal of Christian intellectual life in which theologians, biblical scholars, and scholars from other disciplines work in constant connection with each other. In such an ideal, scholars in Scripture would provide the others with fruits of their labor in biblical study and theology. The others would offer biblical scholars interpretations of modern learning and creative ventures in applying the results of their labors to Christian teaching. Both together would reflect on the foundational commitments and philosophical presuppositions that shape inquiry in every field of thought. And, at least in theory, such work could be done with the specific aim of promoting first-order reflection about the whole world under the lordship of the one true God.

Hints of this ideal have been realized in evangelical life, but only as scholars from various institutions have pooled their work and reached out across institutional barriers to others (evangelicals of their own sort, other sorts of evangelicals, other sorts of Christians, and non-Christians). More generally, however, the divided structures of evangelical learning have nurtured a divided evangelical mentality. Attempts to think—both profoundly and as Christians—about history, nature, the arts, and society have been frustrated by the very success of an institutional arrangement that maintains several mutually distinct forms of academic endeavor.

A shortage of scholars. Institutional dimensions of the intellectual scandal do not exhaust the difficulties for evangelical higher education. A further problem is created by the generations-long failure of the evangelical community to nurture the life of the mind. That failure has created what William Hull, provost of Samford University, has called "the tragic imbalance which now exists according to which the dominant religion in America is almost destitute of intellectual firepower." As Hull describes it, the desire to carry "the Christian dimension to the heart of the learning process" must advance realistically. College administrators and intellectuals in the churches must face the sober realities that Hull encountered when he sought to define such a goal at his own university:

Long experience in academic personnel recruitment convinces me that a sufficiently large pool of qualified candidates to staff [an] entire University faculty with Christian scholars . . . is just not out there. . . . Suffice it to say that the church has failed to define its intellectual responsibilities in compelling terms, to call out from among its own those gifted to discharge this neglected stewardship, and to provide such budding scholars with support for the kind of advanced training that will equip them to do credible work on so exacting a frontier. The very few who decide to make the integration of Christianity and scholarship a lifelong calling usually do so at their own initiative, with precious little encouragement either from the church or from the academy. Ironically, the handful who do express an early interest in the vocation of Christian scholar are usually shunted into seminary for graduate theological study, producing a surplus of those qualified to teach religion but a paucity of those trained to teach the other ninety-five percent of the academic disciplines as they relate to the Christian faith. . . . We must not deceive ourselves into supposing that there is a large guild of seasoned Christian scholars somewhere on which we can draw in staffing our University faculty.

Graduate school. The problem of recruiting faculty who are able to do their work both with rigor as scholars and with savvy as Christians relates directly to yet another difficulty for institutions of evangelical higher learning. The graduate programs that qualify individuals to teach in colleges and seminaries are almost uniformly uninterested in the questions of Christian perspective that are prerequisite for first-order evangelical thinking. With the exception of a few theologians who may have finished their most advanced work in evangelical seminaries, the professors at evangelical (or Catholic) institutions have done their most advanced study at places little concerned about what, at evangelical colleges and seminaries, should be the most important matters. Nowhere in the Western world is it possible to find an institution for graduate training—that is, for the training required to teach at evangelical institutions of higher learning—that exists for the primary purpose of promoting Christian scholarship defined in a Protestant, evangelical way. Thankfully, there are a few Roman Catholic and Jewish institutions where Catholic or Jewish understandings of God and the world receive careful attention, and evangelical scholars have sometimes made use of such institutions. But for most of the faculty members at most evangelical institutions of higher learning, to ask in the course of their most advanced training the deepest and highest questions about the relationship between God and the world would be irrelevant, or it would create prejudice against them. Yet, once called to evangelical institutions, part of the task of these same scholars is to guide students and publish research that asks precisely those questions.

In sum, the scandal of the evangelical mind arises from the specific institutional arrangements of evangelical higher learning in North America. Even if an evangelical were convinced that deep, probing study of the world should be undertaken as a specifically Christian task, it is by no means self-evident where that task could be pursued.


Finally, there is a theological dimension to the scandal of the evangelical mind. For an entire Christian community to neglect, generation after generation, serious attention to the mind, nature, society, the arts—all spheres created by God and sustained for his own glory—may be, in fact, sinful. Os Guinness has recently called attention to this dimension in a memorable passage worth quoting at length:

Evangelicals have been deeply sinful in being anti-intellectual ever since the 1820s and 1830s. For the longest time we didn't pay the cultural price for that because we had the numbers, the social zeal, and the spiritual passion for the gospel. But today we are beginning to pay the cultural price. And you can see that most evangelicals simply don't think. For example, there has been no serious evangelical public philosophy in this century. . . . It has always been a sin not to love the Lord our God with our minds as well as our hearts and souls. . . . We have excused this with a degree of pietism and pretend[ing] that this is something other than what it is—that is, sin. . . . Evangelicals need to repent of their refusal to think Christianly and to develop the mind of Christ.

The scandal of the evangelical mind is a scandal from whichever direction it is viewed. It is a scandal arising from the historical experience of an entire subculture. It is a scandal to which the shape of evangelical institutions have contributed. Most of all, it is a scandal because it scorns the good gifts of a loving God. The rest of this book is an effort to show why this scandal emerged as it did in North America and how it might be possible to minimize its pernicious effects.


The chapters that follow makes several arguments about why, in the late twentieth century, American evangelicals experience relative intellectual poverty. The most general of these arguments suggests that from at least the mid-eighteenth century, American evangelicalism has existed primarily as an affectional and organizational movement. The very character of the revival that made evangelical religion into a potent force in North America weakened its intellectual power. The career of Jonathan Edwards—the greatest evangelical mind in American history and one of the truly seminal thinkers in Christian history of the last few centuries—supports this argument, for despite his own remarkable efforts as an evangelical thinker, Edwards had no intellectual successors.

Yet because of its location in American history, evangelicalism in the last part of the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth did develop an elaborate intellectual system. That system added selected elements from the Revolutionary and democratic movements of the late eighteenth century to historic Protestant emphases. The result was a distinctly evangelical approach to the life of the mind that featured the philosophy of common sense, the moral instincts of republicanism, the science of Francis Bacon, and a disposition toward evidential reasoning in theology. This system had significant intellectual shortcomings, but these shortcomings were not noticed (and may not have been too important) so long as Americans were preoccupied with constructing a stable society. The flaws in the system became more apparent when evangelicals responded to the new social and intellectual conditions of the mid to late nineteenth century. Fundamentalism, dispensational premillennialism, the Higher Life movement, and Pentecostalism were all evangelical strategies of survival in response to the religious crises of the late nineteenth century. In different ways each preserved something essential of the Christian faith. But together they were a disaster for the life of the mind. This disaster could be explored from several different angles, but I have chosen to address it in separate chapters on evangelical political reflection and evangelical attitudes toward science, two intellectual areas that have suffered among evangelicals in the twentieth century, not so much for evangelical anti-intellectualism as for the wrong kind of intellectual attention. It has taken two full generations to begin to recover from the intellectual disaster of the late nineteenth century. In the meantime, new cultural and intellectual problems have arisen for which evangelical intellectual traditions offer only scant resources.

Summarized like this, the arguments of this book paint a bleak picture. Along the way, however, a brighter light will appear, for it is a minor paradox worthy of the larger paradoxes of Christianity itself that the historical circumstances resulting in the decline of evangelical thinking were the very conditions that sustained the possibility of its renewal. Those possibilities are the subject of the last two chapters, which examine, first, recent efforts by evangelicals to overcome the neglect of the mind and, second, the resources from within the evangelical tradition itself that may counteract the baleful influences of the scandal. Of those resources, the most potent is yet another scandal, though one with an entirely different consequence for those who willingly embrace it. It is, in short, the scandal of the Cross, which may yet overcome the scandal of the evangelical mind.

The most thoroughly Christian analysis of the intellectual situation for modern American evangelicals comes from an unexpected source. Charles Malik, a Lebanese diplomat, scholar, and Eastern Orthodox Christian, was invited in 1980 to open the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College with an address. Few of those assembled on that day were prepared for the acute wisdom of Malik's remarks. I was there but hardly realized at the time how much a decade or more of study would move me to reinforce, with halting historical argumentation, what he put so succinctly as the manifesto of a Christian intellectual to his friends in the faith. Malik's address was powerful because it focused on the question of ends more directly than the question of means. With great gentleness and magnanimity of soul, but also with great courage, Malik took us evangelicals straight to the woodshed. First he defined what was at stake in the modern university: "At the heart of all the problems facing Western civilization—the general nervousness and restlessness, the dearth of grace and beauty and quiet and peace of soul, the manifold blemishes and perversions of personal character; problems of the family and of social relations in general, problems of economics and politics, problems of the media, problems affecting the school itself and the church itself, problems in the international order—at the heart of the crisis in Western civilization lies the state of the mind and the spirit of the universities." Malik went on to suggest that since the dilemmas of modern life were intellectual dilemmas of the sort that universities exist to explore, it was important for Christians to realize the magnitude of their intellectual task—"The problem is not only to win souls but to save minds. If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover you have not won the world. Indeed it may turn out that you have actually lost the world."

But then Malik turned to look at the contribution of evangelicals. He was not unappreciative of the intellectual exertions some evangelicals had been making, but his words described the nature of the intellectual challenge with uncommon force:

The greatest danger besetting American Evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism. The mind as to its greatest and deepest reaches is not cared for enough. This cannot take place apart from profound immersion for a period of years in the history of thought and the spirit. People are in a hurry to get out of the university and start earning money or serving the church or preaching the Gospel. They have no idea of the infinite value of spending years of leisure in conversing with the greatest minds and souls of the past, and thereby ripening and sharpening and enlarging their powers of thinking. The result is that the arena of creative thinking is abdicated and vacated to the enemy. Who among the evangelicals can stand up to the great secular or naturalistic or atheistic scholars on their own terms of scholarship and research? Who among the evangelical scholars is quoted as a normative source by the greatest secular authorities on history or philosophy or psychology or sociology or politics? Does your mode of thinking have the slightest chance of becoming the dominant mode of thinking in the great universities of Europe and America which stamp your entire civilization with their own spirit and ideas?
It will take a different spirit altogether to overcome this great danger of anti-intellectualism. . . . Even if you start now on a crash program in this and other domains, it will be a century at least before you catch up with the Harvards and Tuebingens and the Sorbonnes, and think of where these universities will be then! For the sake of greater effectiveness in witnessing to Jesus Christ Himself, as well as for their own sakes, the Evangelicals cannot afford to keep on living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence.

This book is a historical footnote in support of Malik's sage words. It is undertaken with the conviction that Malik was exactly right—fidelity to Jesus Christ demands from evangelicals a more responsible intellectual existence than we have practiced throughout much of our history.

Meet the Author

Mark A. Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

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