Evangelical … With Intellectual Integrity (RJS)

In the opinion section of the Sunday NY Times Nicholas Kristof commented on John Stott and his legacy. Scot brought up the most significant aspect of this piece on Sunday – Mr. Kristof’s recognition of the genuine compassion and concern that arose out of John Stott’s commitment to follow Christ. I had already begun a post, however, building on another part of Mr. Kristof’s column, his appreciation for John Stott as an intellectually honest Christian. He quotes Richard Cizik as saying “Against the quackery and anti-intellectualism of our movement, Stott made it possible to say you are ‘evangelical’ and not be apologetic.” This quote refers to Stott’s genuine sincerity in living out the gospel and to his intellectual rigor.

In his column Mr. Kristof continues on to make an interesting observation.

Mr. Stott, who was a brilliant student at Cambridge, also underscored that faith and intellect needn’t be at odds.

Centuries ago, serious religious study was extraordinarily demanding and rigorous; in contrast, anyone could declare himself a scientist and go in the business of, say, alchemy. These days, it’s the reverse. A Ph.D. In chemistry is a rigorous degree, while a preacher can explain the Bible on television without mastering Hebrew or Greek – or even showing interest in the nuances of the original texts.

Mr. Kristoff goes on to bemoan the self-appointed “blowhards” – the so-called experts who give evangelicalism a bad name and in so doing undermine the integrity and image of a multitude of Christians who … ” go to the front lines, at home or abroad, in the battles against hunger, malaria, prison rape, obstetric fistula, human trafficking or genocide, … who truly live their faith.

What do you think of Mr. Kristof’s point here? Is this a fair critique?

John Stott was one who approached his religious study with professionalism and intellectual rigor. As an evangelical Anglican he blazed a path for many, or at least contributed to it in substantive ways. The bible was always central, but he wrestled with the nuances of the text and the way that the text interfaced with the culture and understanding of its day and the culture and understanding of our day. Yet Mr. Kristof points out that this is not the image of evangelicalism in our time. There is a perception of evangelicalism as an amateur show. Professional expertise, scholarly discourse, and reason are disregarded and distrusted in favor of a popular understanding.

John Stott was an exception to the anti-intellectualism that seems to describe evangelicalism. But he is far from the only exception – CS Lewis, NT Wright, John Polkinghorne, Bruce Waltke, C. John Collins, Pete Enns, Francis Collins, Tim Keller, and I could continue, listing a dozen more.

There is more I could say on this subject, but would rather stop here today and ask a simple question.

Who do you think exemplifies intellectual rigor in evangelicalism? Why?

What characterizes their thinking, impact, and approach?

I don’t want simply a list of people, but some discussion of how we should think as Christians – what it means to be intellectual as opposed to anti-intellectual. There are people on the list I gave with whom I have serious disagreement. On the subject of Adam, to take one issue, John Stott, C. John Collings and Bruce Waltke take a position that values the historicity of the Genesis account more than I do, or than some of the others on my list above.

John Stott, for example, has an section in his commentary on Romans (The Message of Romans) on The historicity and death of Adam (p. 162-166). Stott finds that “the narrative itself warrants no dogmatism about the six days of creation, since its form and style suggest that it is meant as literary art, not scientific description.” He also finds it likely that the snake and trees are meant to be understood symbolically in Gen 2-3.  He holds to the historicity of the original human pair 6000-10,000 years ago largely because of the genealogies (esp. Luke 3).  He does not deny any of our scientific findings – and admits the probability that creation from dust is a Biblical way of saying that God breathed his divine image into an already existing hominoid. John Collins likewise in his book, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care, holds to a higher degree of historicity than I feel warranted. But both of these men engage honestly with the data (the text of scripture, the nature and extent of scientific understanding, and the research into the ancient near east). There is an openness to engage and defend a position.

Intellectualism does not mean accepting the latest research and following the fads of academe. Rather it represents a manner of thinking and engaging with the issues. It is characterized by an openness to discussion, a desire to continually search for truth, and integrity in dealing with the issues and the data.

What do you think best characterizes Christian intellectualism?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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  • Jason Lee

    How does Tim Keller exemplify intellectual rigor? What characterizes his thinking, impact, and approach?

  • Excellent post. Kristof seems to be drawing attention to the power, and attractiveness to others, of an intellectually robust and socially engaged evangelicalism, and personally I think I could name, not just a dozen, but hundreds of examples (including quite a few who might not be so popular on this blog, but exemplify these two attributes nonetheless – John Piper springs to mind ;o)

    I’m loving the way these last few days’ posts have sought to learn from Stott’s example on several levels. Good stuff.

  • rjs


    The first thing I read by Tim Keller was his book The Reason for God. This book and his approach to dealing with the issues and with the people he is trying to reach in New York impressed me. It is an open and intellectually sound approach – something that one can engage with. This doesn’t mean I agree with him across the board.

    His shorter books are more pastoral discussions that academic treatise on the texts he engages. There is much that could be developed or defended much better. Some ideas that I think he would have a hard time defending. But his approach is not anti-intellectual.

  • I have to mention my professors at Gordon-Conwell Seminary as people who have modeled for me intellectual rigor in the evangelical tradition. Roy Ciampa, Sean McDonough, Rick Lints, Adonis Vidu, Carol Kaminski, Peter Anders, and Peter Kuzmic come to mind.

  • Jason Lee

    Thanks for your response RJS. I listened to a series of talks by him and it seemed like he was pretty fast and free with skimming other thinkers ideas without going below the surface of their ideas. But it may have been the nature of the audience he was speaking to more than his own style. I should withhold judgement until I hear/read more from him.

  • Jason Lee

    Michael Emerson does top notch social science (http://sociology.rice.edu/Content.aspx?id=110). See his book “Divide by Faith” on racial segregation in religious congregations. In his broader scholarship he not only presents positive findings about Christians but also is willing to expose blind spots and serious problems in his own religious tradition. In fact, the bulk of his work does the latter, but still does it in a constructive way. Much of his writing is accessible to a popular audience as well. His voice has been perhaps one of the main forces behind a movement toward racial integration in churches.

  • KD2

    My current pastor does take an intellectual approach– and in nearly 20 years as a Christian, he is the only pastor I have found at the local level who has *really* done so. I am in a mild panic because of his planned retirement!

    What I had found previously was (good-natured?) dogmatism. These folks (myself included) may have considered themselves intellectuals, but their studies were focused on, or at least filtered through, their denominational teachings. So they were, perhaps, learning more about the texts, but only from one vantage point.

    For me, it took a personal loss to open my eyes to the possibility of other ways of reading the Bible. I think a propensity towards this error is built into our culture — the American education system teaches us to memorize facts rather than to think critically, and I’m not sure how easy this is to overcome.

  • Bill

    Intellectual rigor involves confronting and engaging new findings in all academic fields and be willing to follow the evidence. One cannot simply say “The Bible says so” because the “secular” world does not find that a convincing place to start. No one starts from a neutral position, but we must try to view positions from every legitimate angle. We don’t need to capitulate, but we must be willing to use our intellect.

  • Joe Canner

    “…while a preacher can explain the Bible on television without mastering Hebrew or Greek – or even showing interest in the nuances of the original texts.”

    Since he doesn’t mention names, it’s hard to know how to answer this. No doubt there are plenty of anti-intellectual television evangelists, but I daresay that there are some who know plenty about Hebrew and Greek and who are interested in the nuances of the original texts. Their problem is not lack of study, it is preconceptions and paradigms. If anything, their studies give them the tools (weapons?) with which to convince their audiences that what they are saying is plausible.

  • Patrick


    I think the propensity is built into humanity. It’s a real chore not to cast our paradigm, whatever it is, on scripture.

    My own view is largely in agreement with that expressed by RJS here. I have very much enjoyed learning from a pastor whose approach takes advantage of all the scholastic specialties.

    Opens up a lot of scripture that would have been hidden and prevents error, IMO.

  • KD2

    Patrick #10, no doubt you are right about that!
    My current pastor is a Westminster grad and thoroughly steeped in the Reformed tradition. However, he reads voraciously from authors all over the spectrum, and will recommend an N.T. Wright text in one breath, and Piper in another. No doubt he hasn’t removed his Reformed goggles, but I can see his effort and willingness to consider the validity of other viewpoints. Conversely, in the fundamentalist tradition I was raised in, anything outside the denomination’s standard interpretations was considered suspect and something to be argued against. So while I agree that it’s very difficult to shake off our paradigms, there ARE folks who are willing to look outside of theirs, but also folks who won’t (can’t) even acknowledge that there is a paradigm at play!

  • rjs

    Jason (#5),

    Keller is a pastor, not a scholar. But his approach seems to involve engagement with a range if scholars, not “safe” scholars. It probably is relatively superficial – but it isn’t anti-intellectual. This is really the distinction I am making when including him in the list. The others I’ve given as examples are “professional” scholars.

  • DLS

    I sometimes wonder how Jesus would view our perennial hand-wringing over intellectualism/anti-intellectualism.

    I say that as someone who prefers liturgy and an intellectual approach. But, to remain honest we must frequently be self-critical. In that respect, I suspect that all too often our worry about whether others view us as ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’ when it comes to Christianity has little (actually nothing) to do with salvation and more to do with our own egos. We pine for the affirmation of the NY Times editorial page more than we pine for God’s simplistic message of salvation.

  • pds

    “Against the quackery and anti-intellectualism of our movement”

    I think this is over-stated constantly. Every movement has its share of intellectuals and anti-intellectuals, including the secular left. Everyone seems to agree that the New Atheists approach to philosophy is sophomoric, even non-believers. I see more anti-intellectualism there than in leading Evangelicals.

    Hollywood and TV loves to paint the stereotype discussed here. Is it reality or merely a stereotype? How do you determine this in a reliable way? How do you measure wisdom v. appearing smart in the world’s eyes?

    How many non-Evangelicals gather weekly to study ancient texts and to discuss their meaning?

    BTW, I love John Stott and I agree he set a good example for the world to see. But he is not alone.

    From David Brooks’ piece in the New York Times:

    “This is why so many people are so misinformed about evangelical Christians. There is a world of difference between real-life people of faith and the made-for-TV, Elmer Gantry-style blowhards who are selected to represent them. Falwell and Pat Robertson are held up as spokesmen for evangelicals, which is ridiculous. Meanwhile people like John Stott, who are actually important, get ignored.

    . . . A computer search suggests that Stott’s name hasn’t appeared in this newspaper since April 10, 1956, and it’s never appeared in many other important publications.”


    Whose fault is that?

  • Joe Canner

    DLS #13: I don’t think it has to be an either/or proposition. Sometimes the biggest contribution an intellectual can bring to the table is simplifying complicated Biblical texts for the average person (something John Stott was well-known for). You’re right, intellectualism in the service of ego is misguided, but by the same token anti-intellectualism (i.e., being proud of one’s lack of interest in academic subjects or even making fun of intellectuals) is no solution.

    Paul recognized that many Christians are not “wise by human standards” (I Cor 1:26), but he himself was very erudite in his teaching and writing, and I daresay he expected those who were educated to study the Scriptures and make good use of their education in the service of the Gospel.

  • Amos Paul

    I don’t know if I actually agree with the premise, however, that there ever *was* some supposed ‘golden age’ when religious education was better. It’s just that with basic education being the standard today, many people feel qualified to become Christian teachers with or without a relevant education.

    This does not say anything about Christian education, but mainly about society in general. Heck, do the Myth Busters guys have PhDs in science? Did your elementary school teacher? People feel qualified in society to talk about things all the time they haven’t gotten a rigorous education concerning per se–but it’s obvious that the ‘hard’ science of research and development is generally constrained to just such educated people since… well, how exactly are you going to develop anything if you don’t know what you’re doing? The fruit of practicing your knowledge will show up real quick there.

  • phil_style

    Amos “I don’t know if I actually agree with the premise, however, that there ever *was* some supposed ‘golden age’ when religious education was better”

    Indeed, one only has to read a little Mark Twain to see that.

    PDS: #14, interesting observation/link from the NTY. If your observation with respect to Stott getting no “press” is correct then you have made an interesting observation indeed.

    Many of the “blow-hards” get air time, simply because they do blow very hard.

  • Taylor

    How exactly does one define the terms?

    As a self-termed ‘social liberal, biblical conservative’ I have noticed that I read much more ‘dangerous’ literature than most of my biblically liberal friends do. I often understand their arguments better than they do themselves.

    On the other hand, I treat everything I take in as data rather than evidence. I definitely have a predilection for treating data that I support with more weight than new data if an acceptable answer can be reached either way.

    I like to think of that as being intellectual, but the more I read, the less I’m convinced that any of us are truly intellectual.

  • Fred

    Just out of curiosity, how many lay people in your church have ever heard of Rob Bell?

  • Robin

    Regarding Keller, it is worth noting that he was a professor first, who then felt called into the ministry. So his reading habits, which influence his speaking and writing, include reading broad academic work. If you get into any of his pastoral books you realize quickly that he is reading academics that are not widely known within academic circles.

  • Brent Hudson

    I appreciate pastors who read widely and are connected with the critical thinking of day. What I yearn for more who would add to that reading the biblical texts in the original languages every day as a life-discipline. I really do believe this alerts one to new ways of interpretation and brings a deeper appreciation for the style and rhythms of the texts. This is a very different than exegeting a passage each week for a sermon (which can become an autopsy of a text). Knowledge of current thinking mixed with a deep appreciation for the rhythms and meanings of the original texts is appealing to me. Pragmatism and the appeal of a “magic bullet” template for preaching seem to have won the day but I remain hopeful that a new generation of people will seek out the deeper and more substantial teaching that the John Stott’s of the church have to offer.

  • rjs


    As far as I can tell from bio’s online (from Westminster for example), Keller went from straight to seminary after college, straight from seminary to pastoral ministry, got his DMin while in pastoral ministry, then spent about 5 years at Westminster teaching practical theology – whether part time or full time I don’t know, before planting Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan.

    He is truly a pastor, not an academic or a scholar – nonetheless I think he models an approach which does include reading broadly, including academic works. I disagree rather significantly with some of his positions (women in ministry for example) – but really appreciated his book The Reason for God – it is an excellent resource for discussion of faith.

  • Robin


    Reason for God was a good fleshing out of presuppositional apologetics. His best work that I have read is generous justice. A nice clear, biblical, exegetical discussion of social justice that conservatives can get on board with.

  • rjs

    Well this has gotten a bit off track – not in a negative way, but still away from the question I am interested in.

    Who best characterizes intellectual integrity within evangelicalism and what impresses you about their approach?

  • Pat Pope

    For me, what best characterizes intellectual integrity is one’s openness to really studying the text and digging deep, exploring the languages, culture and history of the biblical narrative yet still being faithful to orthodoxy. The people who have impressed me most are those who I sense are deeply spiritual faithful to the work of Christ. All of their research tends to lead to a deepened faith rather than away from it. Some of these would include my seminary professors.

    I also sense that those who possess intellectual integrity are those who are not afraid to question. Some that are anti-intellecutal seem to almost feel as though questioning in and of itself is sinful. I’m sure that flows out of a desire to honor God, but I think it’s more a result of bad teaching to think that one cannot question the scripture or God. What is at the hear to of questioning is one’s motivation. Is the questioning from a desire to know God more and better or is simply to prove Him wrong?

    I think also that some people are simply more able to do this type of thinking. I’ve recently felt that it’s not necessarily possible for everyone to do it. Some are more capable of holding two distinct views in tension, while for others that is not possible. I don’t mean this as a criticism about their ability, or lack thereof, as much as it is their wiring. I think some are more prone to intellectual pursuits than others and there’s nothing wrong with that.

    What we’ve got to get to is an acceptance and respect for the varying gifts among us. I find it ironic that many congregations will almost demand that their pastors have seminary training but question to them to the nth degree over various teachings. Not that they should never be questioned, but why demand a certain level of academic training if you’re not going to be open to learning? I thought the whole point behind having an educated preacher is so that the people can learn. For some churches, like the one I grew up in, it’s more about bragging rights for the congregation to be able to say that their pastor has a certain degree and was educated at a certain school.

  • Phillip

    In light of your question, I think of OT scholars like Peter Enns and Tremper Longman. In what I have read by them, they both strive to be honest with the evidence (biblical, scientific, historical, etc.). They are both willing to take heat for the positions they hold and accepted the loss of jobs rather than losing their integrity. And they are both firmly committed to the church and scholarship that helps the church.

  • Fish

    What best characterizes intellectual inquiry in general, not just in evangelism, is a willingness to change one’s mind after study.

    You might spend your life in serious study, but if you have never changed your views it cannot be termed intellectual inquiry. It might be intellectual, but it cannot be an inquiry because the answer is already known.

    But how many Christians would say they are not only open to changing their mind about God, they are also studying hard with the intent of doing so if necessary?

  • rjs


    You are right – but the idea of openness and willingness to change one’s mind is often taken in a rather simplistic way. Open intellectual inquiry does not mean a constantly skeptical approach, as though nothing could be trusted. Rather it means a confident commitment to go where the evidence leads. In theory we are open – in practice much is so well determined or supported that there is little danger that a change will be required.

    Within evangelicalism though, this is a far more serious issue – especially with respect to certain kinds of questions. I become wary when I hear a statement such as “God created everything good, therefore evolution cannot be true.” This is an anti-intellectual approach, it reasons from a philosophical, theological commitment and judges an idea by its consequence – not its merit.

    This anti-intellectual approach happens a fair bit from the anti-religion side as well. An idea is judged by its consequence (does it allow religion a foothold?) rather than its merit.

  • SteveL

    How did this turn into a dress-down of Tim Keller? More than one of the readers has an axe to grind, or so it seems, in a column about “Intellectual Integrity.” Hmm?

  • rjs


    I think you are reading the comments with an overly pessimistic lens – asking me why I put someone on the list is not a dressing down, and in context of the others it is a perfectly appropriate question.

    Part of my point is that an approach with intellectual integrity is not limited to scholars … we need pastors who model it as well.

  • On Kristof and fair critique — “blowhards”?

    To those who disagree with this, have you tuned in to “Christian” radio (or television) lately? Bible “answerman” with no formal theological educational background or dubious institutional credentials.

    That’s what the popular conception is because that is what floods the public airwaves.

    Yeah, there’s this internet thing here, but much of the religious observing American public is still “fed” from those stocks…

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I would point first to NT Wright, due to his ability to work amongst believing and non-believing scholars as a believer.
    Thinking of excellent scholars who are Christians I would put Calvin De Witt at the University of Wisconsin on that list. — He praises God as Creator like almost no one else I know and puts him forward in class. He also sacrificed dearly early in his career to be true to his Christ-based ethical convictions.
    The one that may be a surprise to some is Dr. John M. Perkins of CCDA, he who entered ministry with a grade-school education. He exemplifies the way that scholarship must mesh with ministry and uncover new things for us to consider. In his 1976, book “A Quiet Revolution,” Dr. Perkins wrote:

    “This polarization [between evangelicals and liberal Christians] was increased by the fact that the churches in the South with the highest regard for the authority of Scripture were the white churches, the church which stood for segregation and discrimination. On the other hand, the black church, being the central institution in the black community, saw most of the leaders of the movement emerge from its membership. It was not unusual for the white fundamentalist or evangelical churches to look down on the black church and fault it for its lack of scriptural background. The issue therefore shifted from justice to theological correctness.” (p. 97)

    We can be theologically precise, but if we have not love…

    Randy Gabrielse

  • Randy

    As one of his former students, I’m biased, but truth exists apart from the bias that states it, so the answer is clear to me – George Marsden. Pick your favorite – Fundamentalism and American Culture, Soul of the American University or the Jonathan Edwards bio. Brilliant, yet caring and truly humble. Alvin Plantinga in philosopy is also exceptional and with a playful panache that worked so well in his discipline. NT Wright is hard to argue with, as is Miroslav Volf. One of the things I admire most about David Skeel (Penn law) is that he developed an excellent reputation writing about corporate and bankruptcy law before turning to religion. Likewise, the late Bill Stuntz (Harvard Law) – his criminal law work preceded his work on religion, all is mind-blowingly excellent.

  • Who do you think exemplifies intellectual rigor in evangelicalism? Why?
    What characterizes their thinking, impact, and approach?

    I recall my favorite professors at Fuller Theological Seminary who showed the same academic rigor, ethics and forthright approach to (sometimes inconvenient) data that they shared with the best professors I had at Oberlin College. Honestly, I was amazed. I’d evidently been hanging out w/ Christians who glossed over contradictions, highlighted (apparent) unique features, and swept other stuff away. It was mind-bending, at first, but exhilarating, too, and ultimately my faith was deepened exponentially. Marianne Meye Thompson, Michael Moore, AG Miller (Oberlin College, Fuller adjunct once upon a time), Russ Spittler (who filled in for David Scholer), Charlie Scalise, Dudley Woodberry, John/Juan Stam, Gerald Wilson (Azusa adjunct), Glen Stassen… I know I’m missing some. These professors & many w/ whom I’ve interacted or read since helped unite my intellectual/academic heritage, social justice work with my faith, and put faithful feet on the journey of following Christ.

    You said it, well, rjs: Intellectualism does not mean accepting the latest research and following the fads of academe. Rather it represents a manner of thinking and engaging with the issues. It is characterized by an openness to discussion, a desire to continually search for truth, and integrity in dealing with the issues and the data.

  • BrentH

    Clark Pinnock was a good example of someone who was willing to entertain new ideas. While I did not agree with some of Clark’s meanderings with process theology, he really did listen to others in order to understand them not to demolish their arguments. When I would question something he said in class, he would pause and actually think about it before responding. He could have destroyed me, but he actually thought I might have something to say. He was the first Baptist I ever knew who read papal encyclicals because he felt he would learn something from them that would draw him closer to God’s truth. He was as humble and kind as he was intelligent. Unfortunately his controversial ideas and willingness to explore new things brought out some hostility in some Evangelicals who opposed him. Very sad.

  • Paul W

    While Tim Keller’s ‘Generous Justice’ was mentioned above as fitting I would think perhaps even more so would be Nicholas Wolterstorff’s body of work particularly his “Justice: Rights and Wrongs.”

    His intellectual rigor shines through in particular by the sheer breadth of his knowledge of the fundamentally different ways in which justice has been conceived within Western intellectual history. Also his modest restraint in the making of a theological defense for human rights which is fraught with radical implications for moral and legal philosophy is IMHO simply unprecedented in contemporary Evangelicalism.

  • Jody

    The likes of Bruce Ware and Thomas Schreiner comes to mind. I suppose you can tell what camp I might fall into, but I’ve always been impressed with both theirnwork and devotion.