Future of Evangelicalism
The Future of Evangelicals in Academia
However, what's required for many domains of learning, and I would include biblical studies, is the serious use of the mind while the spirit is fully cast in a Christian foundation. That can be a difficult challenge where much of the formal thinking about something has been dominated by non-Christian influences for some time, as would be the case in biblical study at research universities.
But the way forward is not to split the personality. The way forward would be following the path charted out by the really significant Christian philosophers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, who have urged more professional abilities, but also more courage in letting Christian foundations dictate how those professional abilities are put to use. I am filled with admiration for people like Robert Adams, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Alvin Plantinga, who have been thoroughly elite and thoroughly professional, but also foundationally Christian in how they put to use their professional wisdom. That, I think, is the model. They have not divided themselves into an academic part and a believer part.
To push the issue a little further, do you think it incumbent upon a historian to operate according to something like methodological naturalism -- to approach the study of history as though there is no supernatural divine engagement in the natural realm?
I've written three or four lengthy papers on this question, so I'll try my best to summarize them in a few sentences!
There is a proper vocation for historians that is analogous to the proper vocation for scientists. I do not regard scientists as practicing methodological atheism, however, when they restrict themselves to natural phenomena. What they are doing is studying nature according to what can be learned through attention to natural phenomenon. I would say the same about history. There is a proper way of doing history that restricts itself to natural phenomena, which is not necessarily methodologically atheistic.
This leaves some truly important questions, maybe the most important questions, for another procedure. But in the configuration of modern intellectual life, I think it's actually been helpful to have a domain that is methodologically neutral rather than methodologically atheistic or methodologically naturalistic.
What you mean by methodological naturalism is shaped by what you mean by nature. My view of nature is that, behind it all, creating it, sustaining it, is God. So in my view, a natural approach to historical writing is anything but agnostic or atheistic.
The next question is one you must hear frequently. Is there an evangelical mind today? Is the "scandal" ongoing, or have we witnessed the formation of an evangelical mind in the sixteen years since you published that book?
I don't think we've seen the emergence of an evangelical mind. I do think we have many more evangelicals who are involved in serious intellectual efforts with strong Christian foundations. Evangelicalism is a movement characterized more by activism, evangelism, and church growth. It's really not set up to have a single approach to thinking.
But yes, there has been progress on many fronts. There was probably, when I wrote the book, more progress than I gave credit for, amongst evangelical Christians working hard in different intellectual areas.
What are some of the most encouraging trends you see today in evangelical intellectual circles, be they projects or institutions or ministries?
There are many encouraging trends. Clearly the leadership of evangelical and confessional Protestant philosophers has done a lot for all the disciplines. Secondly, really significant work has been done recently by sociologists, people like Christian Smith and James Hunter and a whole crew now of younger people. There have also been very important developments in science, led by individuals like Francis Collins and the BioLogos Foundation. Fourth, there has been a better way of negotiating the major universities like Chicago and Michigan and the Ivy League schools, as more faculty and more students are willing to identify as evangelical Christians and confessional Christians.
The Veritas Forum, as it has developed in many parts of the United States and overseas, has been a positive sign. The intellectual labors of many student groups, like the InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministry, have been significant. There are many more. Institutionally, I think the efforts at Baylor have been significant in trying to mount a research university with evangelical principles; that's not an easy task, and there have been some setbacks, but it's an ongoing enterprise. Evangelical Christian colleges have shown a lot of maturity in many different ways.
So I honestly think there are a lot of positive signs, not necessarily changing the landscape dramatically, but certainly moving in the right direction.
More of our interview with Mark Noll will be published in the final week of Patheos' series on the Future of Religion. For more articles like this, see the Future of Evangelicalism series, or visit Patheos' Evangelical Portal.
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Director of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos' Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter.