I was asked to review a book entitled The Future of Christian Learning, which contains an essay by the well-regarded historian Mark Noll, an evangelical Christian now on the faculty at Notre Dame. Tying in to yesterday’s discussion on the post “Aliens in a Strange Land,” Noll says that Western Civilization once was termed “Christendom.” It was a culture in which the church had considerable intellectual influence, with the society deferring to its moral authority.
Christendom appeared to break up with the advent of the Reformation. But the major Protestant confessional groups–the Lutherans, the Reformed, and the Anglicans–did not completely reject the older concept of Christendom and, when established as state churches, soon presided over Christendoms of their own. But then the pietists came, reacting against these institutionalized churches in favor of individual personal experience. Noll says that the various kinds of pietists had a greater impact than the Reformation and were largely reponsible for the collapse of Christendom, as Christianity withdrew from the culture into the individual heart. Noll notes a special example of this phenomenon in America. Mainline liberal Protestantism assumed a proprietary leadership role in the United States, until it became so liberal and culture-bound that fundamentalists reacted against it and withdrew from the mainstream American culture to pursue spiritual purity. Evangelicals have emerged out of that fundamentalist tradition and are trying to re-engage the culture, with mixed success.
Recovering Christian learning and cultural influence, Noll says, will require reconstructing a new kind of Christendom, which will require evangelicals to learn from the church’s older traditions.
I find Dr. Noll to be persuasive. I don’t quite understand why evangelicals–the heirs of pietists and fundamentalists–are first blamed for withdrawing from the culture, but are currently blamed for trying to be too active. Nor do I understand why the heirs of the “Christendom” churches are now saying that Christians need to be less concerned with the culture and to be instead more spiritual. Shouldn’t the roles be reversed?
Is there any serious prospect for rebuilding a Christendom? If not, were the pietists and fundamentalists right, after all?