The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (with a new preface and afterword)
One of the first things I did as editor of this journal (CSR) was commission a review of church historian Mark Noll’s excellent and challenging book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind which was first published in 1994 by Eerdmans and now, again, with new material in 2022. That review was by Gordon College professor Thomas Askew. It is my privilege and honor now to review the still excellent and challenging book in its second, revised edition.
I think it fair to say that the first edition fell like a “bombshell on the playground” of American evangelicalism, although, in terms of its impact on the vast majority of American evangelicals, it fell like the proverbial lead balloon. That is to say, it stirred strong reactions, both positive and negative, among some evangelical scholars and intellectually-inclined people. Looking back from a perspective nearly thirty years later, however, it seems to have made little difference to the state of affairs Noll so ably called out for criticism—the near total lack of an evangelical “life of the mind” among the grassroots.
The “points of light” in the intellectual darkness among American evangelicals that Noll pointed out may have grown in number and quality, as he explains in the new “After-word” to the 2022 edition, but overall and in general the condition of American evangelical anti-intellectualism has not changed. This I can testify to as one who taught evangelicals in three Christian universities and in numerous evangelical (and non-evangelical) churches for forty years.
Many evangelicals, including the intellectually-inclined, have not read or even heard of the first edition; hopefully this second edition will bring the book to their attention. And, hopefully, it will have greater effect on American evangelical life than the first edition. My realist inclinations sadly doubt that.
This new edition includes two new pieces in addition to the entirety of the first edition, which seems unaltered. They are a new “Preface (2022)” and a new “Afterword (2022).” I will comment on those after briefly reviewing the contents of the original (included) book.
Noll explains that “By an evangelical ‘life of the mind’ I mean…the effort to think like a Christian—to think within a specifically Christian framework—across the whole spectrum of modern learning” (7). Clear throughout the book is Noll’s intention that this task be carried out in depth, with scholarly endeavor, by evangelical scholars, but that even pastors and lay people strive to think this way—about all of life through a Christian “lens” shaped by scripture and the Great Traditions of Christian thought using reason.
Predictably, for anyone knowledgeable about American evangelicalism, Noll was and is disappointed. The book constitutes a kind of scholarly jeremiad about the state of the evangelical life of the mind. Near its end the author states bluntly that “The scandal of the evangelical mind seems to be that no mind arises from evangelicalism” (241). Nevertheless, Noll found and finds hope amidst the rubble, but not in “new graduate schools, but an alteration of attitudes” among evangelicals. Some of the attitudes needing alteration are spelled out in a chapter entitled “Can the Scandal Be Scandalized?” (243-256) Noll calls for evangelicals to go “Beyond Intuition” (247-249) by not rapidly moving from “first impressions to final conclusions”—one of several habits of evangelical thought that Noll believed and still believes hinder the development of an evangelical life of the mind. What Noll called for then and now is a more reflective approach to the relationship between Christ and culture, between scripture and the world, that takes into account knowledge both old and new, believing that all truth is God’s truth.
Throughout the book Noll argues that the sorry state of the evangelical life of the mind, even its anti-intellectual posture, arises from several sources including especially fundamentalism, dispensationalism, the holiness movement (broadly considered), and Pentecostalism. While he acknowledges sterling contributions of the latter two movements to American Christianity, he has almost nothing positive to say about fundamentalism or dispensational- ism and he lays the sad state of twentieth-century evangelical thought at their feet. Along with these almost uniquely American evangelical movements and impulses, which spread from America around the world, Noll mentions other culprits such as American populism and pragmatism which soaked into evangelicalism from American culture generally.
Such a hideously cursory summary of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind is embarrassing to write, but I must get on to some points of evaluation and then to a brief summary of the new “Afterword (2022).” Noll is a historian and that is both a blessing and a curse for this book. Those of us interested in American intellectual history, such as the influence of Common-Sense Realism, love the author’s detailed accounts and the lines he draws between that and American evangelicalism. Noll’s underlying theme seems to be that American evangelicalism has allowed itself to be overly influenced, if not imprinted, too uncritically by American culture. Non-historians may find much of that material, which constitutes a large portion of the book, boring or confusing. However, Noll tells the stories well, almost winsomely, and draws the lines of connection as well as possible—for non-historians. (And clearly Noll did not intend the book to be read only by historians!)
I can only agree with Noll about the identified culprits of American evangelical anti- intellectualism and life of the mind failure. However, I would add two that Noll never mentioned here: the charismatic movement (broadly defined) and the Jesus People Movement (also broadly defined). These movements nearly coincided, one beginning in the 1960s and the other taking off in the early 1970s. (Both have older roots, of course.) I was privileged to participate directly and somewhat heavily in both. Both led to some adherents becoming evangelical scholars, but by-and-large both were at heart anti-intellectual—especially with regard to Christianity. Among charismatics I knew was, for example, a physicist with a Ph.D., but his and their charismatic Christianity was most often intellectually limp. Many Jesus People were college and university students who excelled in their studies except when it came to matters religious and theological. Both movements encouraged experientialism over reflective thought in matters of faith. And both movements greatly impacted American evangelicalism almost across the board—even where one or both were and are dismissed as brief flashes of spiritual excess.
Perhaps the clearest expression of Noll’s thesis, found in the original work as well as this one, pessimistically concludes that “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. Apart from…the evangelical commitments of some intellectuals, there seems little encouragement in the evangelical tradition itself for pursuing the life of the mind” (241).
And now to the new material in this second edition. I will pass by the new preface and focus on the “Afterword (2022).” There Noll raises and answers four questions in light of the years between the two editions (1994 and 2022). “What do we mean by ‘evangelical?” “How should the contemporary academy be viewed?” “What kind of scholarship are evangelical or evangelical-connected thinkers producing?” and “What is the theological vision grounding such scholarship?” (257) While nodding to historian David Bebbington’s description of an evangelical as one who is devoted to conversion, the Bible, the cross, and action, Noll rightly concludes that white American evangelicalism is so market-driven and divided that “it is impossible to speak of an American evangelical mind” (261). This reviewer would like to say here, as I have elsewhere, that the American evangelical movement is dead and gone, although some remnants and relics remain, but the evangelical ethos is alive and well and always will be. Bebbington describes the ethos, but, unfortunately, that ethos has not given rise to the kind of intellectual reflection and production either Noll or I look for.
In answer to the second question Noll rightly decries the intense specialization one encounters in academic institutions including evangelical ones such that “communication among specialists on universal considerations, like the bearing of Christian faith on intellectual effort, has become increasingly difficult” (262). This condition discouraged me during my tenure as editor of this journal because the majority of the manuscripts we received, all of which I read, selecting some to publish and some to reject, were either so highly specialized, filled with technical jargon specific to a discipline, or lacking any Christian perspective on the subject, or both, that they could not be included here.
During my forty years teaching Christian thought at three Christian universities, I found great resistance to, or neglect of, the whole endeavor of faith-learning integration, something Noll’s mentor, Wheaton College philosophy professor Arthur Holmes, explained and promoted. This journal has been dedicated to it for over half a century and has contributed to it more than any other single publication. Still, and nevertheless, the project has never really been whole-heartedly embraced by the majority of scholars teaching in evangelical institutions of higher learning.
Noll rightly extols the efforts of many evangelical theologians to produce high-quality theology, but he finds only points of light here and there among evangelicals when it comes to “Christian-inflected learning” (267). He lists several exceptions, individuals, publishers, institutions, but finally concludes that a renewal of Christian learning by evangelicals “has not created a flourishing ‘evangelical mind’” (268).
Noll’s answer to the fourth question is cursory, constituting less than two pages (269-270). Reading somewhat between the lines, I detect that Noll is displeased with what he regards as too much theological diversity among evangelicals and wants evangelical theologians to work together, across confessional boundaries, on the theological and other implications of something like C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Noll concludes the second edition by opining that “given the almost completely unorganized state of American evangelicalism, it is not surprising that many evangelicals could not care less about what the denizens of the discredited ivory tower were up to, even if they call themselves Christians” (270). That’s somewhat cryptic, but I suspect he may be talking about how deeply entrenched some evangelical theologians are in their own narrow confessional theological projects, many of which are defensive.
As a professional evangelical theologian, I wish Noll mentioned an example of a different kind of theology—the best evangelical systematic theology to be produced in many years: Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction by Dutch theologians Gijsbert Van den Brink and Cornelis van der Kooi.1 One could only wish that such integrative theology would be written by an American evangelical theologian. These theologians bring together in constructive conversation the best of biblical thought and the best of contemporary (Western) science, philosophy, and social theory. And they do not display the kind of separatist confessionalism Noll criticizes.
Noll’s books, old and new, trigger a comparison in my mind. I recently read the extremely popular and controversial memoir by J. D. Vance entitled Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.2 The similarity lies in the books’ “lover’s quarrel” atmosphere. Vance expresses great love for his family and culture (Appalachian) while criticizing some of its weaknesses; Noll writes out of love for his evangelical heritage while criticizing its biggest weakness—anti-intellectualism in the grassroots and failure among its elites to produce creative, integrative Christian scholarship that rivals scholarship produced by other Christian traditions and communities. If only Noll’s book would get as much attention, even only among evangelicals, as Vance’s has received among American culture commentators.
At my Christian college I have taken to asking the question “Why do they (the students) come?”
For those that assume they come to be able to get a job that makes a lot of money, I can disabuse you of that.
Ours come so that they can play organized sports.
Perhaps this is the scandal of the American mind.
What a wonderful praise for our dogmatics! Thanks.