The October 2000 issue of The Atlantic featured a lengthy article by the Boston College sociologist Alan Wolfe on “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind.” Wolfe’s portrayal of evangelicalism’s intellectual contributions came as a word of encouragement to many of us who had heeded the warnings that Mark Noll had issued six years earlier in his now-classic The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Wolfe had done his homework, reading extensively in evangelical writings and conducting many interviews with evangelical scholars. Additionally, he cannot he be accused of personal apologetic interests. Wolfe is a well-known scholar of American religion who has identified himself as an atheist, so his positive assessment of the evangelical academy—he observed, for example, that much evangelical scholarship was as good as anything he had seen in the Ivy League—carried considerable weight.
Alan Wolfe is a good friend, and in one of our private conversations he described what he saw as a difficult challenge that I faced as Fuller Seminary’s president. He was impressed, he said, with how we at Fuller engaged in high-level scholarship while also managing somehow to relate well to the “cutting edges” of evangelicalism as a popular religious movement. However, he went on, he was not hopeful that we could hold both things together for very long. Either we would have to “dumb down” our scholarship in order to stay in touch with the grass roots, or we would keep at the scholarly task in a way that would lose our connection to the cutting edge.
My response to this was—and still is—that keeping the vital connection between strong scholarship and the grass roots is crucial to the evangelical intellectual calling. That calling does not apply only to seminaries: maintaining that connection is vital for the evangelical academy in general.
At the heart of the “core” for a theological school in particular is certainly the study of the Bible. Needless to say, this core must be closely coordinated with the history of the Christian movement and systematic theology. But this biblically-based teaching and learning also has to look to the edges—the worshiping and discipling life of the churches. But seminaries must also see themselves as working alongside colleges and universities in equipping evangelicals for their outreach into that larger world in which we are all called to serve in a rich diversity of callings.
I once heard a wonderful illustration of the way in which “core” and “edge” need to be held together in a seminary from my late colleague Robert Guelich, a gifted New Testament scholar. He told me that when he first started teaching the Pauline Epistles, he thought that one of the most interesting questions a scholar could deal with was “the dating of Galatians.” But now that he had been teaching classes with students present from our School of Psychology programs, Guelich said, he found that it was more helpful, in the light of Paul’s teachings about “spirit” and “flesh,” to talk about “dating among the Galatians.” Guelich had found a way for “the opening of the evangelical mind” to address in a creative manner a significant topic for evangelical discipleship.
We need scholars who pay attention to the very practical challenges faced by believers on the “edges.” None of this requires a “dumbing down” of our serious efforts to maintain the solid “core” of our scholarship. We have many important new “edges” these days to address from a biblical perspective: leadership in our complex world of corporations, organizations, and ministries; a generation for whom social media provides the norm for sustaining relationships and accessing information; blended families; individuals who struggle privately—and often in fear—with questions of sexuality and gender; 24/7; terrorism; biotech. human trafficking; “children at risk” around the world.
It is especially important for us to keep making the case for addressing real life issues from a strong intellectual core. And we evangelical scholars are fortunate in having many opportunities for doing so. We are active in local congregations where we have opportunities to teach and lead discussions. Parents attending our campus “parents’ day” events are eager to hear from us about what we want to teach their offspring. We can write for evangelical periodicals. (And it would be great to see many of the daily postings here be made available as reprints for wider circulations!) A special concern of mine, expressed before on this site, is for our administrations to make the effort to connect our scholars to ministries such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, health care fellowships, “prayer breakfast” groups, local Bible studies, and Christian radio programs.
A PhD student once told me about recently being invited to preach in his home Pentecostal congregation. He began his sermon by briefly explaining the original Greek meaning of a particular phrase in his chosen text. One of the older members of the congregation, known for regularly shouting out his “Amens” during a sermon, sat with a scowl on his face for the whole time that my student friend was preaching. Afterward, when the guest preacher was greeting the worshipers as they filed out of the sanctuary, this person grabbed the preacher’s arm and chided him: “Don’t try to educate us, brother, just try to bless us!” We should refuse to choose between those options. Showing the crucial connections between the scholarship that informs our educational efforts and what goes on at the frontlines of the believing community can promote an intellectual life that can truly bless the evangelical movement.