Evangelical Scholars’ First World Problems


Peter Enns recently voiced a frustration shared by many Christian scholars with the anti-intellectualism that is widespread in the Evangelical movement. His complaint is that Evangelicals reject scholarship that fails to confirm their beliefs and validate their biases. Borrowing an idiom from Mark Noll, Enns writes, “The scandal of the Evangelical mind is that degrees, books, papers, and other marks of prestige are valued—provided you come to predetermined conclusions.” The effect of this scandal is that Christian scholars working in the academic mainstream and producing quality research are shunned whenever that research seems to undermine Evangelical dogma. Instead, Evangelicals patronize faux academics, like Ken Ham or David Barton, who provide the “right” answers by playing fast and loose with the facts. Therefore, even though Evangelicals are attaining higher levels of academic achievement, there is a perverse incentive for them to keep a low profile: “Calling for Evangelical involvement in public academic discourse is useless if trained Evangelicals are legitimately afraid of what will happen to them if they do.”

Warren Throckmorton and Fred Clark fleshed this issue out a bit in posts responding to Enns. Throckmorton describes how after he debunked David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies, one of Barton’s associates compared him to Hitler. He writes, “That kind of thing is shocking but I am mostly numb to it after years of this give and take. However, I think most academics are a little skittish about such vitriol over doing what academics do.” Meanwhile, Clark believes that Christian academics “have to keep quiet, because if they say in public what they know — what they know to be true — they’ll wind up in trouble with members of their congregation or with donors to their institution or with the evangelical customers of their publishing house.”

These are fine observations. They’re legitimate concerns, after a fashion. But let’s be real. These are #FirstWorldProblems if I ever saw any. Being critical of a group’s deeply held beliefs tends to make you unpopular with that group. When you’re unpopular with a group, they might not want to pay for you to keep saying and doing the things that made you unpopular with them. Is that an epistemically virtuous way to behave? Certainly not. But these Christian academics have some awfully delicate feelings. If the possibility of being compared to Hitler keeps you from doing your job, you must not spend much time on the internet. And while I think anyone who is doing valuable academic work deserves to be compensated for their efforts, I wouldn’t say they’re entitled to the financial support of any particular community. What about intellectual courage? A devotion to the pursuit of knowledge that transcends the pursuit of fame or wealth? Cheer up, Christian Intellectuals, Gramsci and St. Paul both did some of their best work from prison.

I’m not defending Evangelical anti-intellectualism. I believe it’s a real and destructive phenomenon that damages our witness and leaves many Evangelicals with a diminished capacity for human flourishing. But the path forward, toward reforming the intellectual attitudes of the Evangelical masses, does not lie through the disdainful diatribes of disgruntled academics. All attempts at browbeating will be met with ever stronger resistance. Defensive subcultures thrive on the disdain of those who think themselves superior. Subcultural authority is derived and sustained by the constituency’s distrust for the snobbish experts in their ivory tower. Every dismissive word only strengthens the anti-intellectual apparatus.

To make progress against anti-intellectualism, the Christian intelligentsia needs to engage in some active listening. The objective in every dialogue should be to understand and defuse the underlying concerns. To borrow one of Clark’s examples, the average Evangelical pew-sitter doesn’t care who wrote 2 Timothy. What they really care about is the authority of Scripture and the trustworthiness of the Christian faith. The reason the authorship of 2 Timothy is a third-rail topic is because it is serving as a proxy for their true concerns. The underlying issues have to be dealt with before a constructive conversation can be had. An approach to intellectual evangelism that takes into account that not everyone is built for the life of no-holds-barred free inquiry would be both more charitable and more effective.

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  • The problem here is with the unquestioned assumption about what “intellectualism” is. Simply holding axiomatic truths one is unwilling to discard and that form the basis of one’s thought is not “anti-intellectual.” I can guarantee that Enns holds many axiomatic assumptions of his own that he is unwilling to change. I can guarantee this because holding those kinds of basic assumptions is part of the human condition. It seems to me that Enns is simply privileging his own assumption while calling others who hold different starting assumption “anti-intellectual,” an ad hominem epithet that means little more than simply “thinkers who do not operate on the same Enlightenment model as I do.” What Enns is doing with this name-calling is to marginalize his opponents socially in order to exclude them from conversation.

    • John Bonnett

      I could not disagree more profoundly with Dean. Enns is not engaging in some sort of postmodern exercise in rhetoric designed to marginalize those who think differently from him. Yes, he has starting premises. We all do. The difference is that Enns and any academic of integrity insists that said premise — any premise — be subjected to empirical support. If it fails the test of individual and collective experience, then said premise should be abandoned. This is not simply a statement of common sense. It is an imperative we must follow if we are to be Christians. Paul says “Test all things, hold fast to that which is good,” with the implication being that that which is good is that which will withstand testing (I Thess. 5:21). Peter enjoins us to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (I Peter 3:15). Paul testifies that one constituent of that hope is experiential. When we become Christians, we and others see a change in us. We see that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). We play a dangerous game when we reduce the quest for hope and the quest for truth in any domain — be it science, be it religion — to axioms and word games. I marvel that so many Christians these days are playing it.

  • rvs

    I really enjoy that line about St. Paul and Gramsci. Thanks for this post. More evangelicals are chiding anti-intellectualism than ever before. This is good.

  • I agree with John #2. The sad reality is, to highlight the corollary to John’s comments about 1 Thessalonians, the mainstream Evangelical community generally does not allow its own scholars to “test everything”. Everything, by the way, includes, um, everything, including our doctrine of scripture, our theory of origins, our understanding of sexual orientation, our interpretation of eternal destiny, our political assumptions, and everything else. Everything. It all ought to be communally tested, subjected to public dialogical scrutiny and, as a result, only the good (not the traditional, or that which is branded “orthodox”) preserved.

    One reason that this is true, in my opinion, is that the Evangelical community is biased against scholarship of all stripes, probably as a matter of intrinsic nature. As with its forebears, including fundamentalism, which seems to me to have been birthed out of controversy with academia, Evangelicalism has a suspician of higher learning. “Seminary makes people go liberal,” I was told. Perhaps, seminary fostered more honest and open questioning, and gave people the space to do the testing that the scriptures mandate. Yes, it’s a little less black and white when you do, and that can be unsettling, but that seems to me to be more consistent with my lived experience in reality.

    While I agree that sarcastic academic rejoinders against criticism do not enhance the public debate, but neither does a stacked jury who has predetermined the verdict, a much larger problem within Evangelicalism than the opposite.