The Deeper Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: We Are Not Allowed to Use It

Twilight Zone’s “The Obsolete Man”

Mark Noll’s 1995 book  The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind hit a raw nerve when he declared “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” He argued that Evangelical scholarship had a minimal presence in doing serious academic research, and that they need to–and can–do better.

His followup book in 2011, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, is Noll’s theological vision for how to move forward–and I don’t mind adding that Noll devoted about 15 pages discussing my 2005 book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament as a (not “the”) constructive model for moving forward.

Noll’s books have been a wake up call for many and I think his comments are perceptive and penetrating.

Recently, Rachel Held Evans added an important dimension to this discussion. She posted that a deeper problem than the evangelical mind is the scandal of the evangelical heart.

What rocked Rachel’s faith wasn’t the failure of the evangelical intellectual project, but the “failure to maintain emotional integrity”–seen, for example, in the emotional detachment some show toward Canaanite genocide in the Bible. Why are so many Evangelicals “fine” with it? Because it’s in the Bible. End of discussion.

Rachel has a solid point. I would add the scandal of the evangelical heart includes the manner in which controversies are handled–by which I mean differences of opinion that quickly become “controversies” with a giddy sense of anticipation for the hunt.

Back to Noll. I have felt for years that, as right as he is, Noll may be too optimistic.

In my experience, the real problem isn’t simply a failure on the part of Evangelicals to engage the world of thought. Evangelicals earning higher degrees and publishing their findings in the wider intellectual community isn’t what’s needed.

The real scandal of the Evangelical mind is that we are not allowed to use it. 

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.

A more basic need is the creation of an Evangelical culture where the exercise of  the Evangelical mind is expected and encouraged. 

But, with few exceptions, that culture does not exist. The scandal of the Evangelical mind is that degrees, books, papers, and other marks of prestige are valued–provided you come to predetermined conclusions.

Biblical scholarship is the recurring focal point of this type of scandal.

*Sure, dig into evolution and the ancient context of Genesis, but by golly you’d better give me an Adam when you’re done.

*Knock yourself out with scholarship on the Pentateuch, but make sure at the end of it all you affirm that Moses basically wrote it.

*Be part of cutting edge archaeological studies, but when you’re done we want to see you affirm the historicity of the exodus and conquest of Canaan pretty much as the Bible describes them, regardless of what others say.

*Do whatever work you need to do, but when the dust settles, explain how your conclusions fit with inerrancy.

The scandal of the Evangelical mind is that doctrine determines academic conclusions.

Behind all this is a deeper problem. Evangelicalism is not fundamentally an intellectual organism but an apologetic one. It did not come to be in order to inspire academic exploration but to maintain certain theological distinctives by intellectual means. These intellectual means are circumscribed by Evangelical dogma, though avoiding Fundamentalist anti-intellectualism.

As an intellectual phenomenon, the Evangelical experiment is a defensive movement. This raises some obvious questions for me.

Is the Evangelical movement able to create the safe space necessary for the exercise of the Evangelical mind–or, does the adjective “Evangelical” already draw clear limits for any intellectual pursuit?

Is Evangelicalism self-corrective enough to not only allow but to encourage the exercise of mind, to risk the possibility of discovering that theological change is needed?

Can a movement defined by theological defense transform to a movement that willingly accommodates theological change?

If not, the deeper scandal of the Evangelical mind will continue.



  • Kait

    I think highlights the essential problem in one sentence:

    “Evangelicalism is not fundamentally an intellectual organism but an apologetic one.”

  • Kullervo

    This is also a huge problem in Mormonism.

    • Paul D.

      Not surprising, since the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon face similar historicity problems. :)

      • Kullervo

        No, they both fact historicity problems, but their historicity problems are not at all similar.

  • Jason G.

    Also frustrating are the comments from Evangelicals who acknowledge these points but do nothing to change thier positions. They simply apply new rhetoric–new apologetics–to try to make the same old ideas more palatable. When they admit that you’re right and that something needs to be done about it, they mean something like “we need to reinforce and repackage our old position–the right position.” If God is sovereign, then calling a spade a spade is not as risky as some evalgelicals think. Academic courage is what we need in the church.

    • Chris

      The apologetics push you highlight captures the problem with evangelical scholarship. The evangelical mind only creates; it does not destroy. Every other serious academic discipline is a combination of both.

      That is to say, they may be creative in defending what already exists through apologetics, but they cannot critique themselves past a certain point. The critique process applies strictly to the apologetics process and not to the pre-determined foundational beliefs.

      This stems, I believe, from turning assent to specific beliefs into a moral issue. This is a form of religious abuse, which I cover in my blog (you can click my name for a link). The problem is that in moralizing a propositional belief, you are saying, “You had better believe this, or I will think you are a bad person!” You are imposing judgment on a person and wishing that they would be a certain way simply because that is what you wish they should do. That is at least an attempt to strip them of the right to choose as they will, and when someone (like Enns) refuses to grant them that privilege, it turns into an outright attack on their character and/or livelihood. It is hatred of the individual.

  • Pieter

    Could we learn something from the way Hollenweger invested academic theology into the hearts and minds of the Pentecostal pastors he educated in the UK?

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  • Seeker

    Once again, it seems to me you have hit the nail on the head… My experience of growing up within the framework of Evangelicalism has also demonstrated that Evangelicalism is more apologetic than an honest intellectual endeavor. I agree that, “The real scandal of the Evangelical mind is that we are not allowed to use it.” I’m pretty happy at this point to distance myself from the label of “Evangelical.” The term Evangelical, in my experience, has turned out to be not all that different from the term “Fundamental.” I’m less optimistic than Noll as well. And even if Evangelicalism can reinvent itself in time, I’m not sure I’m patient enough to wait around the years (or decades??) that might be required for this evolution to take place. I’m thankful though for the voices of dissent and change that are arising from many places. Perhaps a New Reformation is indeed underway…

  • suzannah | the smitten word

    this is fantastic. i studied religion at a public university and left feeling cheated by my evangelical upbringing in the bible. why do we make such idols of paul writing the pastorals, moses writing the torah, etc? we’ve built a house of cards on faulty (modernist) assumptions. i suspect that with regard to academia and honest questioning, evangelical faith–and our concept of God–are exceedingly limited and small.

  • Tim Chambers

    I wonder if in some ways the emerging church movement IS the venue inside evangelicalism for his, even if they might not be considered “true evangelicals” by some due to this questioning and considering theological change:

    “Is Evangelicalism self-corrective enough to not only allow but to encourage the exercise of mind, to risk the possibility of discovering that theological change is needed?”

    • Dan

      Having once been an emerging church believer, I’m now a bit skeptical about it’s long term impact. What the movement does best is make some great critiques of Evangelicalism, but I don’t think it has the answers within itself t offer a viable alternative. Generally the emergent movement leads to once of 3 places.
      1. A new, hipper, cooler Evangelicalism 2.0. This is only a surface level change and remains at it’s theological core truly Evangelical
      2. True theological liberalism. The primary difference that makes Christianity “liberal” is the understanding of revelation. When revelation is reduced to simply how people understood and experienced God in the past, we are free to make up our beliefs in the present.
      3. A historical/liturgical Christianity, such as Eastern Orthodoxy or Catholicism. This has the benefit of avoiding the consumer mindset of Evangelicalism (by being liturgical) while being grounded to the history and traditional orthodox beliefs of Christianity.

      • hopaulius

        Re. #2: “When revelation is reduced to simply how people understood and experienced God in the past, we are free to make up our beliefs in the present.” The second clause does not follow from the first. What does follow is: “we are free to understand and experience God in the present.” Also, what makes liberal Christianity liberal is the replacement of a Christian world view by a neo-Marxist one.

        • M. Lynn

          I think you have a point re: Dan’s #2. Here’s the thing… if the Bible is viewed as a testimony of how people experienced God in the past, we can choose two courses — (1) learn from their wisdom and consider the historicity to which they testify, or (2) use a “breaking away from innerancy” as an excuse to choose any pathway that seems/feels good.

          I have been searching myself on how to view Scripture. I experience its power to teach, encourage and convict and know that God uses it in my life. I know men have come to faith in God/Christ through the Bible. But does this mean a strict inerrancy view? If not, will I use this as an excuse to pursue an agenda to my liking — or will I still sit in awe of the God it reveals and humbly submit myself to Him?

      • brad

        Dan, your point #3 may indeed be a stated motivation, but attraction toward liturgy is no less consumeristic than attraction to its alternative.

  • Ashleigh Bailey

    This reminds me of Noll’s book Between Faith and Criticism. Perhaps I misread, but I kept getting the impression that he is happy enough if more evangelicals attend prestigious universities or publish a lot or found their own academic societies. Personally, I think it’s all crap and counts for nothing if you’re clinging to certain presuppositions. It shouldn’t count as developing the evangelical mind if everyone in your field outside of evangelicalism thinks you’re out of your mind.

  • Zack Hunt

    “The scandal of the Evangelical mind is that doctrine determines academic conclusions.” – Aaannnddd…boom goes the dynamite. Seriously fantastic post. Spot on.

  • Bev Mitchell


    Excellent post and thanks for the tip on Noll’s latest book. I see I have it, but now must read it! It was hiding on my Kindle. Following are a few off the cuff comments that came to mind while reading your post.

    “The scandal of the Evangelical mind is that degrees, books, papers, and other marks of prestige are valued–provided you come to predetermined conclusions.”

    This is how political ideologues who win elections work as well. Studies are solicited, paid for and collected. The ones that come to the desired conclusions are acted upon. If none such are found, more studies are solicited, paid for……. So, the problem may be ideology run rampant.

    “Evangelicalism is not fundamentally an intellectual organism but an apologetic one.”

    But then, maybe it should be, fundamentally, something else altogether.

    “As an intellectual phenomenon, the Evangelical experiment is a defensive movement.”

    I prefer this way of phrasing the second observation.

    “Is Evangelicalism self-corrective…?”

    To the extent that it is ideology, no. Sadly, it is very ideological.

    “Can a movement defined by theological defense transform to a movement that willingly accommodates theological change?”

    The Holy Spirit specializes in this sort of transformation giving freedom, confidence, boldness and a sound mind, just for starters. So, the means is not the problem but the will may well continue to be.

    But, finally, we cannot forget the voices (like yours) that clearly show how we can proceed. These voices face serious opposition, to be sure, but they appear to be growing. The Spirit will use the truth and will accomplish his work. If what emerges is called evangelical or something else is an open question, but reform is afoot. Courage!

  • Doug

    Dr. Enns,

    Interesting piece. I’ve been thinking about this (as a pastor with only an MDiv) with regard to one particular topic: The Divine Council. Taking a kind of VanTillian approach, it seems to me that no one is neutral. That is, I don’t think anyone just approaches the brute facts and raw data of the text and that these lead them to “the truth.” But that doesn’t mean all presuppositions are equal. With regard to the council, I have found few Evangelical scholars that want to deal with it (Meredith Kline being an example of an exception, though he never really bothers to tell you what it actually is). By and large, they are just oblivious to it. But I think there are presuppositions as to why. Perhaps there is a fear attached to the idea, a fear of being labeled as a liberal or maybe even a Mormon or whatever. Evangelicals couldn’t POSSIBLY deal with a topic like that. So we just ignore it.

    On the other hand, it seems to me that Mormons and Liberals each have guiding presuppositions that allow them to be more honest in this particular area, because they have everything to gain (so they think) from talking about it. For the Mormon, it proves polytheism. For the Liberal, it might prove that the whole Bible is just ridiculous mythology. See those silly Jews who were polytheists and later evil monotheists tried to stamp it out, but failed? But each presupposition allows them be more honest with the data, because the data is being mined according to a higher purpose or calling. That purpose does not fight against the data, but is rather advanced by it.

    Curious as to your thoughts on that.

    • Ron Dupree

      Have you seen Mike Heiser’s work on the divine council? It seems really objective and well done to me.

      • Bev Mitchell

        Doug and Ron,

        I presume that Divine Council is a ‘short hand’ reference to the Holy Spirit. Some Pentecostal scholars, notably Amos Yong, have been making great progress encouraging charismatics and pentecostals to shed their anti-intellectual chains.

        A compendium edited by James K.A. Smith and Amos Yong entitled “Science and the Spirit: A Pentecostal Engagement with the Sciences” (2010) is a great place to start. Smith is a Dutch Reformed Pentecostal and Yong is an AOG scholar/pastor. A 2007 paper in the Journal of Pentecostal Theology 15(2): 233-250 by Yong has a great interchange between these two fine scholars that is very enlightening. I’m not so keen on the Radical Orthodoxy project that Smith is trying to encourage, but both Smith and Yong represent evangelical lines of enquiry into faith/science issues that don’t often come up among audiences with strong reform roots. Assuming we Wesleyan-Pentecostals are allowed to call ourselves evangelicals. :)

        If you just cannot wait to dig into pentecostal science-theology-Spirit matters, have a quick look at Renewal Dynamics. At this site, Wolfgang Vondey’s six-part series entitled “Letter to a Pentecostal Scholar” may have some useful ideas. I’m currently working through some of the other stuff on the site.

        • Ron Dupree

          Thanks Bev, by divine council I do not mean Holy Spirit, but the “Heavenly Host” of Israelite religion.

          • Bev Mitchell

            Whoops. Showing my lack of schooling in these areas. Thanks for the correction Ron.

            But the recommendation still stands. I think these guys are making a real contribution, especially in faith-science. On the biblical studies/interpretation front, they are not as far along as Pete, Kenton Sparks etc. (as far as my reading indicates).

  • Andrew

    As a non-evangelical looking in and from reading the history, I think that the “the adjective “Evangelical” already draw clear limits for any intellectual pursuit,” primarily because the rise of evangelical Christianity arose from the Fundamentalist side of the early 1900s debate modernist debates on Christianity. Like you said, its roots are defensive and apologetic. It’s not one that embraces questioning, uncertainty, or skepticism. Around that has arisen a culture that magnifies those values. Now, will things change? I think at the core of the ‘evangelical church’ (if I can use that umbrella) they won’t, as history shows that in the face of threats (re: increases in secularism and tolerance of diversity) such movements often go inward EVEN more and post-2012 election it seems several evangelical pastors are already speaking like they plan to ‘disengage’ from the world like their Fundamentalist brethren did post Scopes trial. At the same time, I think that core will become smaller and smaller as the young (and some older) either drift completely away from the faith, join other denominations, or start new denominations that neglect the adjective ‘evangelical’ due to the baggage it comes with.

  • Jim

    Don’t know if this applies to today’s topic but I just read a recent post by Jeff Siker regarding a saying he once heard; “There’s nothing wrong with having a third grade understanding of the Bible, … as long as you’re in the third grade!”

  • ScottnJxn

    Growing up gay in the Southern Baptist religion in Mississippi, I saw and continue to see first hand what happens when folks approach life and faith from a place of fear – it absolutely leads to psychopathology and maladaptation. Everything is a war against them, paranoia runs deep and wide, and victimhood is always conveniently close by after they feign outrage or deliberately persecute. Their ability to absolve themselves from any and all wrongdoing fascinates and infuriates me. What they have done and continue to do to my lgbt brothers and sisters is conduct unbecoming a true follower of Christ and it breaks my heart. There is no turning back for these folks – the evangelical mind has atrophied and in my opinion, it is incapable of evolution or recovery.

    • Joe

      Thanks for your post, Scott. I think you’ve identified the key: religious people can either be motivated by fear or faith. If they go with the former (typically unacknowledged), the fixation is directed at boundaries – a dualist paradigm for living. If they go with the latter, they model what it looks like to be more fully human: our lives are gifts from a Giver. This Giver is generous and inclusive (cf. Matthew 5:45 et al.), and we must be, too.

    • Abraxas

      I’m no Evangelical and I have been out and happily gay for decades. I have to say that your description of your erstwhile Southern Christian brethren sounds like an apt description of Organized Gayness, aka, the “LGBT” community: “Everything is a war against them, paranoia runs deep and wide, and victimhood is always conveniently close by after they feign outrage or deliberately persecute. Their ability to absolve themselves from any and all wrongdoing fascinates and infuriates me.”

  • mo leverett

    To state: “Evangelicalism is not fundamentally an intellectual organism but an apologetic one” is generally true of every world view and so it is inherently distracting to apply the principle to evangelicals alone – as if intellect is lost when deference to faith in revelation is employed – as if the scientific method is the only and more discerning mechanism for discovery – as if scientific inquiry is not subject to ontological bias and the noetic effect of sin. The secularist dogma is essentially presuppositional bias, making it logically at least an equally flawed premise. If the only option for explanation of human organization or origins, for example, is a naturalist one – that pursuit is apologetic – not inquiry. Among other things, to be evangelical means that we place more intellectual confidence in divine revelation than deeply flawed human intellectual discourse. Nor do we trust the presupposition that the scientific method is unadulterated “discovery”. The presuppositions of the naturalist is more intellectually dishonest and dangerous than a scientist open to the possibility of mystery and divine providence. I believe that aspiring for scholastic validation in the secular academies is a vain pursuit – they will never give it to those who embrace religious faith – and will never admit their own theological prism bending research to confirm and legitimize their world-view without God.

    • Craig Vick

      In my view this kind of presuppositional and worldview talk does us more harm than good. It promises a safe room, but that room ends up being a place where we are cut off from the world and can communicate only among ourselves. As far as placing more confidence in divine revelation, that’s all well and good until we have to read the divine revelation. If we read it via some historical grammatical method (itself a product of the same intellectual movements which give us the scientific method) then the choice is between our deeply flawed readings of divine revelation via “the historical grammatical method” or our deeply flawed readings of the world via “the scientific method”.

    • Joe

      I disagree, Mo. The intellectual ‘fruit’ of one side is subject to falsification. That of the other is not. Many evangelical scholars betray a strong proclivity toward irrationalism. When they are critiqued on this point by the outside world, they shouldn’t wear this opposition as a badge of honor. What is happening is that people are being offended for the wrong reasons. The Gospel will always elicit opposition, but the offense is found in its call to abandon the world’s drive to seek and use power to aggrandize the self.

    • Beau Quilter

      “The presuppositions of the naturalist is more intellectually dishonest and dangerous than a scientist open to the possibility of mystery and divine providence.”

      This is a completely unfounded statement. Scientific methodology is constructed to root out bias and error. Scientists are highly motivated to look for such bias and error, because that is how scientific careers are made: by new discovery and reworking older models. But scientists are also aware that their observations and experiments require publication, review, and independent repetition and scrutiny. This process of peer review (more rigorous in the sciences than in any other field) results in a level of consensus that could never be achieved in theological circles. Yes, some scientific errors last longer than others; but the reason that critics of evolution, for example, can even point to hoaxes such as the piltdown man, is that hard working scientists in the field (not creationist critics) eventually rooted out the hoax from the real science.

      Divine revelation on the other hand, as a method of discovery, has virtually no consensus or dependability whatsoever for obvious reasons: it is untestable, highly variable, and comes from countless conflicting sources.

  • C.J.W

    Thank you for this post, Dr. Enns. One only needs to see how the Evangelical Theological Society handled open theism to understand what you are saying in your post.

  • John Shakespeare

    I suspect that you and Noll are wrong about this(though I haven’t read Noll’s book). What I mean is this: Evangelicalism would cease to be Evangelicalism if it were to accept the premises and methods of mainstream scholarship. It is not that Evangelicals cannot and do not think — some of them do so very effectively within their boundaries; they have formidable intellects and considerable facility with words. What they perceive, however, is that mainstream scholarship pursues lines of enquiry and comes to conclusions which are fundamentally destructive of the Evangelical position. If Evangelicals took those approaches they would soon lose their distinctively Evangelical USP. It is certainly true that Evangelicalism promotes an apologetic stance, because it perceives itself (and rightly so) to be under threat from the very approaches and conclusions that they are chided for resisting. You will never get an Evangelical equivalent of your own approach to OT studies simply because Evangelicalism inherently rejects it. What this amounts to is this: stop claiming to be an Evangelical when you no longer share the opinions of Evangelicalism. I describe myself as ex-evangelical (rather than post-evangelical) because I now see the entire enterprise as a complex of mistakes, dishonesty, and fear. Evangelicalism is wrong about God, wrong about Jesus, wrong about the Bible. Let it go, my friends. Wave it a sorrowful good-bye.

    • toddh

      I guess the hope is that evangelicalism is more than just a commitment to a certain narrow way of viewing God, Jesus, and the Bible. Is it? I don’t know. But the hope is that it is more.

    • rvs

      All truths are God’s truths. I read this blog entry as a call for the mechanisms of evangelical culture (groups of people in positions of power) to stop being so frickin’ terrified of–and paranoid toward– evangelicals who pursue truth to God’s glory.

      • Kevin McKee

        Great response, if a little coarse. I do not understand what my fellow evangelicals fear (many would not consider me an evangelical any longer) All truth is God’s truth, just as all creation belongs to God, so why do we fear anything that we learn from thinking studying and proposing? Do we honestly believe that there are things out there that can destroy God, or disprove God’s authority. If so that is the problem, our belief in God is too small.

        • rvs

          Ah, thanks for this. Your note reminded me of “The Weight of Glory” sermon–where Lewis talks about the idea that we often and sadly envision too little, not too much, vis-a-vis God.

    • j. t. campbell

      John: I enjoyed reading your post. Curious…if you have the time…to know why you state that evangelicals are wrong about God, wrong about Jesus, and wrong about the Bible. This may well be the case, but in what manner do you understand them to be “wrong?”

    • Beau Quilter

      I completely agree with John.

      If evangelicals promote academic freedom, this includes the academic freedom to invalidate evangelicalism itself.

  • Sean

    I’m a soon to graduate seminary student, and I’ve been a T.A. for some OT courses for the past few semesters. In my case, it hasn’t been the professors, but the students themselves that are afraid to move beyond safe conclusions in their papers – even after a robust discussion in which they seem to undergoing a paradigm shift. This would be ok if not for the fact that many of their conclusions sound like this: “Despite the persuasive evidence and everything I have studied this semester, I *still* believe in …(Mosaic authorship, pure inerrancy, etc.).”

  • John W. Morehead

    Great piece. There is also a connection between the problems of the Evangelical mind as you note, and the heart as Evans notes. These come together to reveal we have a problem with orthopathy, and need a loving and intellectual one to compliment and adjust our zeal for orthodoxy. I touch on the former aspect in a recent Patheos piece of my own:

  • arty

    I agree with the previous commenters, that the key sentences are here: “Behind all this is a deeper problem. Evangelicalism is not fundamentally an intellectual organism but an apologetic one” and here: “doctrine determines academic conclusions.” There’s another way to think about that last problem though, which no one has pointed out: To what extent are academic conclusions capable, conversely, of informing sound doctrine? To my mind, the key insights here are those provided collectively by Alasdair MacIntyre, in “After Virtue” and by Philip Rieff, in pretty much anything he wrote. In their own ways, both of them point to the shift that has take place (for MacIntyre since the 17th century, for Rieff, since the late 19th) in Western culture, where statements about God (among other things) are now taken to be statements purely about feelings, beliefs, and emotions. This general attitude is so pervasive in the academic world that in my experience, its defenders would be shocked to hear an argument that it even needs defending. (Insert your own anecdotal evidence here). To the extent this is true, then, you can make the argument that sound academic conclusions aren’t going to help you get sound doctrine either, because so many of the fundamental assumptions about the world, upon which modern academic scholarship is based, are inherently antithetical to belief in any sort of sacred order. I’ll not presume to comment on the scholarly atmosphere at explicitly religious institutions, since I don’t teach and have never taught at one. I can testify from personal experience as an academic historian at a secular institution, though, that if you wanted to re-create the scholarly discipline of history in such a way as to make it capable of informing anything like sound religious doctrine, you’d have to hold a seance and exorcise the ghosts of (to provide a short list off the top of my head) Foucault, Freud, Nietzsche, Ranke, Collingwood, Hume, and pretty much everybody in the French Enlightenment.

    I’d argue the following, then:
    You’re not going to get anywhere useful by pointing out the the problematic extent to which evangelical doctrine dictates scholarly conclusions, until you recognize that 1. All investigations/conclusions, not just religious ones are theory-laden. 2. That the historical attempt to deny (1) is part of the intellectual history that got us into our current sorry state (read MacIntyre’s thoroughly persuasive argument for this, if you haven’t already), which seems to be an odd combination of mindless empiricism and therapeutic platitudes of pop psychology. 3. In light of (1) and (2), you have to first investigate which first principles underly modern assumptions about good scholarship before you can think about the right relationship between your abstract commitments and your scholarly pursuits.

    • Andrew

      MacIntyre’s approach though revolves around an assumption that Western society is in moral decline post Enlightenment. To the contrary, I think it’s incredibly hard to argue against the moral progress that has been achieved in the past 500 years. The total amount of violence from war has decreased SIGNIFICANTLY relative to the 16th century, woman are not treated as 2nd class citizens or worse, we no longer have public executions (or go back to medieval times, public torture) or sentence people to death based on superstitions, the abolition of state-sponsored slavery, general societal frowning on any forms of physical child abuse, recognition of animal cruelty . . and the lists goes on. I think his claim that Western society has declined OVERALL morally since pre-Enlightenment days reflects spending too much time in the Academy and consequently seeing ‘so much forest’ that the trees become blurred.
      And MacIntyre makes great points about the harmful effects of individualism, but you already see a trend among younger people in the West towards urban living and more community involvement, as humans are naturally social creatures and thrive on community living. The relatively new ‘nuclear family,’ for example, (whose demise many evangelicals love to shout to the rooftops as a sign of end times), was actually a very anti-communitarian development brought forth by industrial economics of the 19th century (not due to the influence of any philisophical musings). Prior to that, most people either lived in very close-knit communities where things such as child-raising were a shared responsibility.

      • arty

        I’ve wondered myself, about your point about MacIntyre spending too much time in the academy, and in a sense his is an exceedingly elitist argument. (I don’t mean the word “elitist” quite as negative as it sounds, but I can’t think of a different word). Where I think you are mistaken though, is in arguing that all of the advances you cite are somehow incompatible with the broad thesis about “moral decline.” To go out on a limb and put words in MacIntyre’s mouth, I think he’d answer that part of what we are doing when making specifically “moral” claims is providing reasons for those claims. What we’ve got now, channeling Nietzsche, is the form of moral claims without the substance of moral claims, and so to the extent that the advances you cite succeed they do so out of attachment, vestigial or otherwise, to Christian principles, and to the extent that those advances are un-moored from the Christian tradition or natural law that underpins it, then we should be careful about regarding those advances as some kind of “done deal.” Look at advances for women’s rights, on the one hand, versus worldwide instances of sex selective abortions. Or, for that matter, your child abuse example versus abortions. Maybe your “young people” example is right, but on the other hand, every single one of my students rejects the notion that God is something that one speak about using the faculty of reason-so un-moored from any transcendent principle the current community fad (whether by replacement with some other fad, or because hip urbanites procreate only infrequently) will fade to be replaced with some other individual-theatrical purpose.

        My argument is that part of what it means to be modern is to be form without substance, which is why MacIntyre argues that the best bureaucrats are the best actors, and why Rieff argues that “we are never so much ourselves as when we are acting.” So, its not that we can’t get it right, its that we can’t get it right for any solid reasons that aren’t parasitic on a sacred order that our culture generally rejects. All this was generally by way of making the case that the academic sphere is generally so bound up in the broad modern rejection of the reality of any sacred order, that it is unwise to expect it to produce much that will be useful in the formation of sound thinking about Christianity.

        • Matt Thornton

          One of the best summaries of the mechanisms of intellectual progress I ever heard was that great discoveries and great strides in understanding rarely start with a flash of insight. Far more often, they begin with a half-muttered observation of ‘huh, that’s odd …’. When Evangelicals look inward, where do they say, “huh … that’s odd. I wonder why …”?

          Broadly, I take this to mean that the focus of the intellectual should be on questions, rather than answers.

  • Norman


    I don’t think evangelical circles are the only ones limited to these dynamics that you bring up. We in the Preterist community have been attempting to get our foot in the door of discussion for over 40 years now and find the same resistance from all forms of so called orthodox Christianity. We have experienced the same resistance regarding eschatological investigations as you have meet in your exploration of Genesis/origins. People are comfortable with a 6000 year old earth and they are comfortable with a return to Genesis in Revelation in which physical Paradise is reestablished as it once was. It drives me up the wall that someone as brilliant as N. T. Wright gets Genesis right but won’t allow himself to apply the same hermeneutics to Revelation and ends up with what he disavows in Genesis. (Namely Paradise on earth) People simply pick and choose what is convenient disconnects in their Religious exploration. I think we all know why even if they tend to know better.

    Secular biblical scholars who graduate today beyond evangelical circles aren’t prone to seeing miraculous prophecies fulfilled in scripture so they often assume that all literature is written after the fact pseudographically if it projects the future. Some advanced scholars will give lip service to the resurrection of Christ but that’s about as far as it goes for anything touching on the miraculous. There needs to be an educated middle in which people can safely investigate without getting clobbered by both extremes. This dualistic tension between the two extremes is just a difficult path to walk for the lay person and the trained biblical scholar who is attempting to make a living studying and teaching Christianity.

    • David M

      Hey Norman, would you mind expounding a bit more on where you are coming from with N.T. Wright? I’m a partial-preterist myself who really appreciates Wright’s work, but at the same time, I cannot say I have a PhD in his thoughts. Feel free to respond here or or you have the liberty of ignoring. :) No worries either way.

      • Norman


        I tend to write in overly broad brush strokes to make a point. I’m a big fan of Wright myself but concerning my comment about Wright let me explain. Wright tends to explain the afterlife as eventually being returned to restored planet earth in a Paradisiacal Garden form. Here is a short video which explains his premise.

        N.T. Wright on Heaven & Rapture Theology Published on Oct 26, 2012 by David D. Flowers
        ABC Interview — N.T. Wright discusses pop-culture Christian views of heaven and the error of rapture theology

        U Tube Video Here

        I don’t have a problem with Wright exploring these issues because as he rightly says we have gotten it wrong, but I have a problem of his appropriating OT and NT apocalyptic language to present his own version of some kind of Post Millennial view here on earth.

        I tend to believe that when people get to sections in the bible that are apocalyptic in nature that they often tend to speculate from a literal perspective. It is one of the reasons we have so many variations of the Millennial view in Christendom. I think Wright has overstepped his theology to an extent to attempt to correct other errant views, however it would be interesting to see his exegetical exploration in detail and to see how he uses this kind of language to arrive at such. My hunch is that he simply does what everyone else does is drop the biblically consistent hermeneutic and allows himself to appropriate the literal approach to make his point. He won’t do that in Genesis likely because we have history that says earth was never a paradisiacal garden without pain and death but everyone thinks they have license to do so for future extrapolations because who is going to prove you wrong about the future. ;-)

        That is why it’s easier to work with rational logic regarding Genesis than it is to work rationally with Revelation.

      • Norman

        I tend to write in overly broad brush strokes to make a point. I’m a big fan of Wright myself but concerning my comment about Wright let me explain. Wright tends to explain the afterlife as eventually being returned to restored planet earth in a Paradisiacal Garden form. Here is a short video which explains his premise.

        N.T. Wright on Heaven & Rapture Theology Published on Oct 26, 2012 by David D. Flowers
        ABC Interview — N.T. Wright discusses pop-culture Christian views of heaven and the error of rapture theology

        U Tube Video Here

        I don’t have a problem with Wright exploring these issues because as he rightly says we have gotten it wrong, but I have a problem of his appropriating OT and NT apocalyptic language to present his own version of some kind of Post Millennial view here on earth.

        I tend to believe that when people get to sections in the bible that are apocalyptic in nature that they often tend to speculate from a literal perspective. It is one of the reasons we have so many variations of the Millennial view in Christendom. I think Wright has overstepped his theology to an extent to attempt to correct other errant views, however it would be interesting to see his exegetical exploration in detail and to see how he uses this kind of language to arrive at such. My hunch is that he simply does what everyone else does is drop the biblically consistent hermeneutic and allows himself to appropriate the literal approach to make his point. He won’t do that in Genesis likely because we have history that says earth was never a paradisiacal garden without pain and death but everyone thinks they have license to do so for future extrapolations because who is going to prove you wrong about the future. ;-)

        That is why it’s easier to work with rational logic regarding Genesis than it is to work rationally with Revelation.

        • David M

          To me, I’m not familiar enough with each kind of book to say what genres they are and such, but as I am familiar with which article you are referring to, I can see where you are coming from! Thanks for the response. :)

  • Kendall Beachey

    The necessary question here is what defines Evangelicalism. If it is defined by its conclusions about what the bible means then what room for academic pursuits is available to it. All the answers are already decided, and therefore education is merely to pass on those decisions, and our apologetics is to defend them. If, on the other hand, Evangelicalism is defined by a modality of living, that is, the commitment to taking the bible seriously, a radical allegiance to living out lives shaped by the gospel, then there must be academic and intellectual pursuits to again and again raise the questions of a) what the text is saying and b) how we as the church should act in light of that. The latter is the Church I hoped Evangelicalism to be, but more and more I am becoming convinced it is the former which we are facing.

    • John Shakespeare

      …which is more or less what I was trying to say in my earlier comment, above, but less elegantly expressed than yours. And I lack your optimism.

    • Laurie

      Great post here, Pete. Also, I agree with this comment by Kendall – I’m sick and tired of Christian education simply being about what is already alleged to be true. I would love for followers of Christ to be about the business of living as Christ…a radical allegiance to living lives shaped by the actual Gospel instead of Calvin or Luther or the Pope etc. One widely clung-to piece of the puzzle is that misused verse of 2 Tim.3:16 “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”. When will more people stand up and say the emperor has no clothes? What Paul was talking about in that verse was the Old Testament – the only Scripture available to them at the time. His letters weren’t considered Scripture to him. They weren’t compiled yet into the Bible or “Scriptures” we know today. Evangelicals are supposed to check their mind at the door and accept all the positions that people simply want to read into as being God-breathed. Especially Paul’s restrictions upon women. The John Piper’s of the world and countless others through the ages WANT to see that men are superior, women should be submissive, slavery is acceptable, and all that other BS. None of which, of course, Jesus himself said. No wonder Christians are looked at as non-thinking, non-reasoning individuals.

      • Andrew

        You could also add in the fact that practically all biblical scholars agree that the Pastoral Letters were not written by Paul . . .

    • Kevin McKee

      Kendall, you have made the ultimate analysis of the situation. I agree with your definition of evangelical. I come out ot the Anglican tradition, and believe and define myself as evangelical, because I see those defining terms of Evangelical as present within the majority of that tradition. I am grieved when I here the media defining evangelical and fundamentalist as the same thing. Perhaps we need new terminology to reflect the form of Christianity you defined. How about “Christian”

    • Beau Quilter

      Even if evangelicalism were characterized by your latter definition, the academic freedom of an evangelical would still be limited to academic pursuits that do not question it’s premises, as you say, “the commitment to taking the bible seriously, a radical allegiance to living out lives shaped by the gospel”.

  • Some Dude

    Dr. Enns,

    Thank you for posting your thoughts here. You’ve captured my gut sentiments exactly. When I started reading the “other side” about 5 years ago, I remember going to conferences and hearing lectures and thinking, “But this guy is conveniently leaving out a load of information that these people are clueless about. How is this not lying? Surely this guy knows about the equally strong counterarguments”, etc. I finally said, “This is nothing more than a damage control game and the fuel feeding it is eventually going to run thin as the internet/media grows bigger, faster, and stronger.”


    I appreciated your comment here:

    “This dualistic tension between the two extremes is just a difficult path to walk for the lay person and the trained biblical scholar who is attempting to make a living studying and teaching Christianity.”

    That’s exactly why I’m not paid to do that kind of thing anymore. I simply couldn’t continue lying to myself and others for the sake of maintaining my livelihood. I still believe in God and love Jesus, but I’ve moved on and am intellectually freed from the shackles of “groupthink mentality” and am able to study evidence, read broadly, consider alternatives, and challenge my own presuppositions and weigh them in light of various insights. I still read some non-conservative, non-innerantist material and think “Ah, that’s a bunch of horse patookey!” or “I’m not so sure the author’s conclusions follow from his initial premises”, and “Maybe this is legit, it sure sounds like a pretty strong argument”, etc. Hopefully thats because I’m able to actually use reason, evidence, and my God-given mind to evaluate said notions instead of still blindly dismissing others simply because it doesn’t match up with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

    Sustained by the Spirit (for now),


  • jason greene

    Great article. I love Jesus. Thank God for the good news. But the “evangelical movemet” has become a useless tool of modern day pharisees to “lay down the law” to those with whom they disagree. Glad I left it a few years ago and found my place in the United Methodist Church…..

  • Dan

    Dr. Enns,
    I agree with you on this and nearly all of your critiques of Evangelicalism. However, I have to ask the question, at some point don’t you have to question whether it’s worth continuing to self-identify as an Evangelical. You have rightly critiqued many poor (biblicist, though you don’t often use that word) ways of interacting with the Bible, but these ways are central to the Evangelical movement. At some point don’t you have to look at the ways in which the Evangelical paradigm fails to have adequate explanatory power and consider if the whole paradigm is ultimately untenable? Wouldn’t it be wise to at some point begin to search for another tradition/paradigm that makes more sense of the data, has greater explanatory power and gives a better telling of the Christian story?

    I can relate because after going to bible college and inadvertently diving headfirst into historical-critical studies, my Evangelical beliefs began to fall away, piece by piece. For a time I was in a “post-Evangelical”, Ennsian, Wrightian, emergenty, Anabaptist, liberal-but-not-really state; a sort of no man’s land where I knew I no longer fit as an Evangelical, but didn’t know quite where to go. About a year after graduating, I accidentally came across Christian Smith’s book How to go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic… and was pulled headfirst into the exploration of the Catholic tradition. I found that this tradition had better answers to some of my questions, had good answers to questions I wasn’t asking and made me rethink and change some of my views (like my previous aversion to any church authority or hierarchy). More than all that, what I found was a home; I have never felt completely at home in any Christian tradition before I became a Catholic. I am not saying, Dr. Enns, that this is what you should do (this is just my journey), but simply that if Evangelicalism in your view is failing on so many counts, that it may be time to look at some other Christian traditions (Catholic, Orthodox, liberal, Anglican, etc.).

  • Mac

    Modernism went far overboard in its arrogance throughout the 20th Century resulting the widespread reaction of postmodernism by the culture-at-large. In the midt the Churchs own response was trisected into capitulation, Fundamentalism and Evagelicalism…but all three were still always tethered to Modernity’s whip.

    What a sad state of affairs as Modernity’s theological “scholarship ground down to endless minutae and papers written to smaller and smaller audience of other professors who wrangled form grant money. Have to ever read that crap? Good God, talk about poor thought out and poorly written. I spent the better part of the 70s and 80s reading theoligical journals and keeping up looking for some thread of life in any department.

    And in response, the Fundamentalists became anti-mind and the Evangelicals became so afraid of making a mental error that they over-thought everything and began most of their books – YES – with three chapters of apologetics trying to answer questions nobody was even asking. It;s like throwing an extra 50 bucks ante on the poker table “in case”. It’s dumb.

    My suggestion? Get to exploring. Forget the Modernist naysayers and their skepticism. They have no alternatives and their best attacks have yielded nothing. We have serious theological study to do here people and instead of getting to it the last 100 years we have been utterly derailed.

    What seriosu theological study you ask? Okay…how about this for a start. In Colssians, Paul says that “ib Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (chapter 3). That is “lady Sophia” and “gnosis”. How about chewing on the meaning of that for a major theological exploration. Do you know what that means? Have you ever read a book on that? Doesn;t it seem kind of important?

    Okay then. Modernism is dead (still twitching to be sure, but dead.). Post-modernism is a reaction You wanna do some good theology? Figure out what is beyond both of them. Write me if you wanna help.

  • Craig Wright

    After reading Sparks and Enns, I was so disappointed in reading The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism by G.K.Beale. I wanted to see the other side, but instead of good counter arguments, all I got was a kind of “if you go there, you’re in trouble.”

  • rvs

    Thanks for this. That Twilight Zone episode contains a heartening bit of Psalm 59, if I recall correctly, a Psalm I prayed regularly in another life. The “safe space” you note above is obviously crucial for free inquiry, and by “free” I mean God-inspired and guided. I have found pockets of such safety in evangelical culture, but perhaps that very phrasing proves the point that there is a significant problem (i.e., groups roaming about with pitchforks, enabled by too many of the leaders).

    Semi-related: Swift’s Tale of a Tub is one of my favorite satires (almost as good as Tristram Shandy). Swift got in big trouble because of it. Indeed, his well-positioned enemies crushed him in one sense, but in another sense Swift crushed them. For example, I can’t remember their names, and Swift continues to minister to millions. Anyhow, my thought: maybe we need more evangelical satire? A certain kind of laughter will eventually sweep away the austerity, dignity, and realism of the grim culture to which you refer.

    And now, a joke: Jews do not recognize Jesus. Anglicans do not recognize the Pope. Baptists do not recognize each other in the liqueur store.

  • Derek

    I consider myself evangelical and I have no issues with academic exploration at all. I hold to the worldview that Jesus had and affirmed, and I filter information from the lens of that worldview. I have no problem wrestling with issues, hard questions and constructive dialogue is important, but at the end of the day I will submit myself to the authority of the Scriptures whilst continuing to explore the ever-changing views and evidences of science, archaeology, etc.

    I would also like to add that there has been wonderful work done on the Canaanite “genocide” from evangelical scholars; and it’s always important to examine what Godly, loving, brilliant brothers and sisters say on this topic, and it certainly isn’t “Because it’s in the Bible. End of discussion.” Those are the sort of caricatures we need to avoid.

    • Stephen


      I think explanations along the lines of, “(As X and Y biblical passage teach), the Canaanites were wicked and God had, in fact, been patient with them, but eventually used Israel as his instrument of judgment,” are essentially “because it’s in the Bible. End of discussion” explanations. As are the related, “But if we only understood the depth of our sin, we would see how God is in fact merciful not to pour his wrath out on everyone as he did the Canaanites. In fact, God’s pouring his wrath on the Canaanites is in fact merciful because in doing so he gives the rest of us a warning through a preview of his wrath,” etc. etc. etc.

      These are all “because it’s in the Bible” explanations, precisely because they explain away the issue by giving an explanation that’s in keeping with the claims of the very biblical texts that need to be explained in the first place. You think that the YHWH-supporting author(s) of the biblical passages commanding and describing the Canaanite genocide represented it as a unspeakably horrible morally repugnant action?No, they explained its legitimacy and even moral rectitude — which is exactly, btw, what most people who support and perpetrate massacres throughout history do. You willing to allow the same “brilliant” explanations of the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, etc. etc. etc.? Plenty of those involved and leading them offered justifications and explanations to explain the moral righteousness of what they were doing.

      Please don’t take what I’ve written as simply an “attack” on you. I’m trying to illustrate just part of the issue here for many other people — including people who love and serve God and precisely because of that (from their point of view) have a lot of trouble stomaching these parts of the Bible.

      Finally, if you don’t mind me asking, what “brilliant” evangelical scholars do you have in mind here? I am asking in all seriousness since I would like to compile some bibliography. I’m particularly interested in evangelical scholars who likewise consider themselves to hold to inerrancy. Thanks!

    • Keith

      Why is there a scandal of mind amongst evangelicals? From the inside, Christian history of thought and the Christian scriptures exemplify vigourous intellectual traditions that are widely ignored. Anti-intellectualism is rife in the pews. From the outside (as per most of the above discussion) evangelical, Bible believing Christianity is simply false, doesn’t accord with the findings of modern (secular and liberal) academia and thus should not be tolerated in the 21st Century. Thus, an evangelical apologetic has to be inherently morally and intellectually problematic.

      However, how then shall we account for the fact that evangelical and conservative philosophers and scientists are taking up positions in the faculties of secular and religious universities in increasing numbers and with high credentials? The atheists, materialists, and religious liberals defend their traditions and presuppositions with “evangelical” fervour, particularly at the expense of traditional Christianity. The scandal of the evangelical mind is that too many evangelicals do not adequately use their intellects to defend their faith amongst their intellectual enemies.

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  • Keneth B

    From Harry Emerson Fosdick’s sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”:

    As I plead thus for an intellectually hospitable, tolerant, liberty-loving church, I am of course thinking primarily about this new generation. We have boys and girls growing up in our homes and schools, and because we love them we may well wonder about the church that will be waiting to receive them. Now the worst kind of church that can possibly be offered to the allegiance of the new generation is an intolerant church. Ministers often bewail the fact that young people turn from religion to science for the regulative ideas of their lives. But this is easily explicable. Science treats a young man’s mind as though it were really important. A scientist says to a young man: ìHere is the universe challenging our investigation. Here are the truths we have seen, so far. Come, study with us! See what we already have seen and then look further to see more, for science is an intellectual adventure for the truth.î Can you imagine any man who is worth while, turning from that call to the church if the church seems to him to say, ìCome, and we will feed you opinions from a spoon. No thinking is allowed here except such as brings you to certain specified, predetermined conclusions. These prescribed opinions we will give you in advance of your thinking; now think, but only so as to reach these results.î My friends, nothing in all the world is so much worth thinking of as God, Christ, the Bible, sin and, salvation, the divine purposes for humankind, life everlasting. But you cannot challenge the dedicated thinking of this generation to these sublime themes upon any such terms as are laid down by an intolerant church.

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  • James

    Any group that genuinely calls itself Christian struggles un-endingly with communication between doctrinal conclusions arising out of the ancient text in relation to current life and experience (conclusions not cast in stone) and academic conclusions arising out of the same. I think Dr. Enns is trying to help pull the evangelical wing toward a center point of sound heart and mind. Bravo!

  • Mike J

    So, then are you saying that evangelicals are not allowed to use their minds for any intellectual pursuit? I am honestly curious.

    • James

      no, Mike J, they should be free to use all their mind–and heart too in both ‘spiritual’ and intellectual pursuits–if there is such a distinction.

  • Genie

    I understand our western upper class highly educated need for historical context and other extra-biblical information. But how does this apply to the mission field when sharing God’s Word to say, some woman in Appalachia or even when teaching young children? Do we tell them about evolution from the get-go or about Adam and Eve (or most of the OT) not being literal? Isn’t there something about our highly academic reading of the Bible that takes away from the power and simplicity of God’s Word?

    • Andrew

      Asking questions about the historicity of Scripture and historical context is not only done by ‘highly-educated Western upper class” people; the desire for knowledge and truth, and questions about inconsistencies and other issues with the Bible is done and has been done by people across all classes thoughout the centuries.

    • Jim

      I think the Adam/Eve story (and a lot of other OT stories) can be a bit creepy theologically. The Adam/Eve story as is, leaves one with the question of what kind of God would leave his children in a situation where they could be manipulated by a con artist and then kick them out for making the wrong choice? Couldn’t NT stories that are based on the theme of compassion work in missions?

    • Daniel Lafave

      You’re free to put apologetics ahead of scholarship and inquiry. After all, the Great Commission says to “go and make disciples of all nations” not “go and pursue free inquiry and scholarship.” But if that’s the case, isn’t the entire idea of Evangelical scholarship a false and hollow one? It’s delimited by apologetic concerns and required ab initio to derive apologetically useful conclusions.

  • Steve Ranney

    Yes, I read his ‘Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind’ a while back but I wouldn’t call it much of a followup to ‘Scandal.’ He does have a short section at the end talking about what has happened in the last 20 years or so, but I got the feeling he had picked up some rose colored glasses somewhere. He cited various nice things going on but he certainly did not say anything like ‘I assume a few evangelicals read my book but you would never know it to look at their antics.’

  • mark

    The real problem is that Evangelicals (and those who share their mindset) are imprisoned within an ideology of revelation rather than a true theory of revelation. For them, as well as for many other Christians, the crisis for their faith arises from the notion that revelation is contained in a book rather than in the person Jesus.

    Thought experiment: Imagine history without Jesus. Now explain why the Israelite scriptures (aka “Old Testament”) are revelational, and if you think they are, in what sense.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    “Why are so many Evangelicals “fine” with it? Because it’s in the Bible. End of discussion.”

    How does that differ from “Ees Party Line, Comrade”?

  • Dorfl

    As someone who has spent the last few months watching the evangelical subculture from the outside, trying to understand it, I pretty much agree with this description of the problem. I have no idea how you’d best go about fixing it though, so best of luck!

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    “As an intellectual phenomenon, the Evangelical experiment is a defensive movement. This raises some obvious questions for me.

    “Is the Evangelical movement able to create the safe space necessary for the exercise of the Evangelical mind–or, does the adjective “Evangelical” already draw clear limits for any intellectual pursuit?

    “Is Evangelicalism self-corrective enough to not only allow but to encourage the exercise of mind, to risk the possibility of discovering that theological change is needed?

    “Can a movement defined by theological defense transform to a movement that willingly accommodates theological change?

    “If not, the deeper scandal of the Evangelical mind will continue.”

    How does this differ from Extreme “Fundamentalist” Islam (Wahabi, Salafi, Talibani, etc) as a defensive reaction to the Colonial Era, when stagnant Islamic Civilization got rolled over by more dynamic European Civilization? Defending their God-favored superiority by doubling down, Purifying the Faith with Heretic/Apostate Hunt Jihads and Returning to the “Pure Original Islam” as it was in the Days of the Prophet?

  • Rob Bowman

    As an evangelical scholar, I respectfully would suggest that Dr. Enns’s comments here unfairly generalize about evangelicals. Many, many evangelicals use their minds admirably and honestly to advance our understanding of the Bible.
    I acknowledge that in some evangelical institutions not enough latitude is given to scholars to explore alternative interpretations of specific issues in the Bible. On the other hand, though, surely there is a legitimate place for *evangelical” academic institutions that expect its faculty to adhere to the theological convictions of those who established, attended, taught at, and yes, funded those institutions. I cannot help noticing that Dr. Enns did not imagine those who control these institutions saying things like the following:
    “Sure, dig into the ancient context of Genesis, but by golly you’d better give me a historical Abraham when you’re done.”
    “Knock yourself out with scholarship on the Gospels, but make sure at the end of it all you affirm that they are history and not mythology.”
    In our desire to see evangelical academic institutions tolerate a reasonable degree of diversity of views on non-essential issues, we should be careful not go so far as to impugn the legitimacy of all theological standards in academic institutions.

    • Norman

      I notice that you have extensive backgrounds and experience. I presume you are aware of Hank Hanegraaff’s venture into writing “The Apocalypse Code:..” which was an approach to push the envelope on understanding Revelation from a Preterist position. His desire was to help evangelical Christians living in the Left Behind mindset setup by Hal Lindsey and Tim Lahaye recognize their misapplication of scripture and the bad implications it has for today. If I understand right Hank got out ahead of his audience who were not quite ready for his instruction.

      It seems Pete also has gotten out in front on the other end of the spectrum in Genesis and has felt the heat from following up on what his scholarship is presenting. As one who has suffered at the hands of those whom weren’t ready for deeper revelation I think he has earned the right to editorialize on the dysfunctional environment that we find in religious institutions. There are going to be many ways of dealing with this problem and it’s going to have a multitude of approaches. One for each individual who feels the call. Some people work deeper within the system and some will need to work outside it.

      I think you make some valid points but in the long run it’s a shame that the dynamics of institutions in which the founders fund and control the process can’t accommodate a little more laxity in their scholars but I do understand the need to control also. However academic biblical research should be a level playing field that those who want to challenge what Pete is producing could do so in an even handed and amicable approach that would serve all well. Nevertheless that is indeed too utopian to be practical I realize.

      I think we are always going to be attempting to purge bad religious concepts out of Traditional Religion just as Christ and the Apostles were up against with ingrained dysfunctional Judaism of their day. Paul had to get in their faces (Peter and Barnabas in Galatians) a few times to help keep them on track as they tended toward Judaizing the Gentiles.

      The problem is that someone like Pete grows up or becomes part of a system as a young man that he doesn’t quite understand yet. Then when it dawns upon him that his “family” has some dysfunctions he has a choice to make. He can go along with the Judaizers like Paul said some of the Apostles were doing or he can hold his ground and make a stand. Making a stand will rarely turn out to be a pretty picture and generally one will have to leave but that doesn’t mean they have given up on their “family” that they have invested so much into during their trusting lives. Especially when there are good and strong ties to that “family”.

      I understand where you are coming from but I understand well where Pete is coming from also.

    • Andrew

      Regardless of the funding source, if all results obtained from objective study and effort can’t be included in the collective pot of an institution’s research, than that institution is not engaged in scholarship. If the owner of a major dairy conglomerate writes a big check to a university’s health/nutrition studies department, it can’t come with a caveat that any research indicating negative effects from consumption of dairy be omitted or not considered by that department. The point of scholarship is the pursuit of knowledge; not apologetics. If the aim is the latter, than let’s just call it what it is; advancing a theologically constrained agenda to the public; to the contrary, scholarship by the very nature of the process has to be open to is uncovered by sound methodology. Doesn’t mean it becomes any law of the land, but it simply has to be accepted as a legitimate opinion among others.

  • Carson Weitnauer

    Two further points:
    1. This same principle is operative in many other spheres. e.g., Consider the challenges that Intelligent Design has had in even being discussed within mainstream academic departments.
    2. When evangelical intellectuals come to conclusions that are outside of evangelical doctrine, they typically stop being evangelicals. Francis Beckwith, for instance, became Catholic. (And I welcome his continued and impressive contributions to scholarship and clear thinking). And of course other scholars who do their research and find themselves to be in accord with evangelical teaching, then often ally themselves with other evangelicals in some way. There is a bit more dynamism at the individual level than at the institutional level.

  • Lars Gunther

    Coming from Sweden, where there is no large evangelical movement (or indeed no large church attendance at all) and where academia has been the domain of liberal theology in various forms, I can tell that there is an exact counter flaw in this setting.

    Study the authorship of the pastoral letters if you like, but DO NOT reach the conclusion that they are written by Paul!

    Study the book of Daniel how much as you like, but DO NOT reach the conclusion that it was written before the events happened.

    And this applies to more important issues than authorship and isagogics. Academic theologians should not question the materialistic world view, but keep its findings as well as its methodology within its confines.

    If you do reach another conclusion, prepare to be academically persecuted. A leading New Testament scholar at the university of Lund (Chrys C. Caragounis) showed that constitutional homosexuality, although not known by that name, was very much a concept that made sense from at least Aristotle and onwards, and while not saying how that finding applied to the controversies of today, he did say that we can not read Paul as if he was unaware of the concept.

    This led to an uproar and although his academic credentials and teaching abilities were beyond dispute, he almost lost his job. And the people demanding that he’d be fired never even came close to questioning his methods or his facts – only his conclusions!

    Thus, the problem at hand is not an evangelical one, but a human one!

    • charles

      oddly, the conversation suddenly stopped.

  • Stuart

    “Being alone with God’s Word is a dangerous matter,” wrote Kierkegaard. “Yes, it seems as if all this research and pondering and scrutinizing would draw God’s Word very close to us. Yet this interpreting and re-interpreting and scholarly research and new scholarly research is but a defense against it.”

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  • Lynn Beisner

    I love the comments here that say, “Well, maybe you aren’t a real Evangelical.” They are proving your point: The true defining mark of an Evangelical is an utter lack of humility. To be an Evangelical is to believe that of all the “gin joints in all the world” God happened to walk into yours and lay down the unquestionable truth. It is to believe that despite the fact that most have never done a true and unbiased inquiry into other religions or into other ways of thinking, that you know THE truth. Being an Evangelical means creating blinders which allow you to be utterly unmoved by any experiences or evidence which might try to influence that certainty.

    • Stephen Enjaian

      You refer to “a true and unbiased inquiry into other religions or into other ways of thinking.” Do you actually believe that anyone can be truly unbiased about other religions? After all, anyone who is serious about what she or he believes is by definition “certain,” and thus very unlikely to be unbiased.

      Of course there are some interpretations of the Bible about which we should be tentative. But your logic would lead to the conclusion that to be truly humble, one cannot be certain about anything. I don’t think that you can live up to your own standard.

      • brad

        Stephen, I guess the follow-up question is “What can we be certain about?”

        I believe in what I believe so strongly that I’m investing my life into it. But as soon as I start claiming “certainty” on any of it, I feel the sand slipping under my feet.

      • Matt Thornton

        Maybe being uncertain is the objective?

        Certainty isn’t the result of strong faith, it’s the opposite of it.

  • Paul

    All 3 of Peter’s final questions are rhetorical, though I do not believe he intended them that way. He wrote the same words I have shared often as a Hermeneutics instructor before walking away from the pretense of an evangelical professorship: “Evangelicalism is not fundamentally an intellectual organism but an apologetic one.” Now I’ll wait for the follow-up post where he admits that all evangelical “scholars,” “professors,” “theologians,” and “pastors” are ideologues by requirement and cannot be trusted to direct us where the facts lead. It seems like a cold or mean conclusion, but it may just be the reality check needed to free us from an ideological prison wrapped around the Bible, the God it describes, and the authentic human pursuit of Someone greater than ourselves.

    • Craig Vick

      Perhaps it’s a question of how we model inquiry. If we treat inquiry as an adversarial endeavor, then we don’t have to disqualify anyone. This is how our court system works. We don’t expect an attorney to argue against his or her client, we expect spin of the evidence. I don’t like this model (I’m not even really comfortable with it for our courts), but it does give us a way to proceed.

  • Brian P.

    I suppose there are different milieu for this phenomenon.

    Academic Scholarship – Can an Evangelical pursue scholarly research? What does the evidence suggest vs. affirmed commitments.

    Pastoral Oversight – Can a pastor teach different perspectives? Can different perspectives even be spoken of from the pulpit or in other communications?

    Lay Engagement – What is the, say, small group attendee with different presuppositions or positions to do? Go silent? Be unwelcome? Be welcome but required to be silent?

    I see future for preacher and apologist.

    I see little future for scholar, ecclesiologist, pastor, or a content engaging, open dialoging seeker.

    Paradoxically, in this context, most Evangelical church goers who I personally know have very little understanding of anything doctrinal–I don’t think the donor base can “pass the test” frequently.

    I’d suggest that if anything is corrupted, it is foundational integrity and relevance.

    I wonder how much these items even map to what might have been the religion of Jesus of Nazareth.

    Alas. I usually get to pondering this question:

    What’s the proper response to watching dross burn?

    Is it to be sadness?

    Or joy?

  • Jim

    I suppose that one response to watching dross burn might be in calculating the delta H and assessing its potential as a bio-fuel. But hey, that’s just me.

  • Stephen Enjaian

    Dr. Enns,
    Your questions raise some questions in my mind, to wit:
    Do you think that there should be any limits to intellectual pursuit in Biblical studies?
    You speak of the need for being open to theological change. Do you think that there should be any limits to theological change that one should be open to, and still call oneself evangelical, or Christian?

  • Ralph Blair

    Dr. Enns is certainly right. But what he says is equally applicable to non-Evangelical scholarship and institutions. There are ideological and presuppositional “orthodoxies” that dare not be ignored in all organizations — ecclesiastical, academic, et al. — without serious risks to financial security.

  • rumitoid

    The problem of the envangelical mind is that it finds a womb in the Rebuplican Party, which cannot help itself in saying studpid, ugly, and ignorant things.

    • Mike D’Virgilio

      Oh of course, there are no stupid,ugly and ignorant things said in the Democrat Party. All sweetness and light, there.

  • Joseph Strodel

    I think this discussion reveals the deeper question of authority. Where does authority ultimately reside, is it with the pastor, or with the scholar. The answer is that the authority resides with God – theology is simply a means to understanding the will of God.

    People need to be closer to God, and receive the vision that God has. The church belongs to God, it does not belong to pastors or scholars or anyone else.

    Alvin Plantiga talks about how the modern world has changed the meaning of the term “justification” from its original sense – justification by faith, where faith is something that is divinely given and represents the mediation of the Holy Spirit to justification in an epistemic sense. The evangelical church will be much poorer if it accepts the modernistic, epistemic sense of the term. Justification is a communal, tradition based appropriation of the work of the Holy Ghost. It does not hinge on the opinions of one Bible scholar over another.

    The cost of academic freedom in the Christian world may be an acceptance of the reduction of justification in the grand, spiritual sense of the revelation of God to a mere modernistic epistemological understanding.

    There is more to Christian spirituality and necessarily, ecclesiastical authority than the assent of the scholar. History has shown that scholars have taken many different positions. Love demands that people receive answers from God, not the answers from the ego driven, politically influenced cognoscenti.

    • Ahumada

      “I think this discussion reveals the deeper question of authority. Where does authority ultimately reside, is it with the pastor, or with the scholar. The answer is that the authority resides with God – theology is simply a means to understanding the will of God.”

      No: Authority resides with the Apostolic Succession, which you don’t believe in, because you read the Bible figuratively where it is meant to be literal, and literally where it is meant to be figurative.

      Look, sorry to bring this up, but Jesus came and founded a Church which would administer sacraments as a channel of His grace. He didn’t come so that 300 years after his ascension you would have a Bible that would be your sole source of authority, and so that you would have a “personal relationship”, just you and he together. You are meant to be in, not just a church, but the Church founded by Christ. Go back to that Bible and see what Jesus said to Peter about being a rock. And no, Jesus did NOT stick his thumb into his own chest when he said “…and upon this rock I shall build my church.” That verse does not contain the conjunction “but”, but rather the conjunction “and.” Go back to your Greek Interlinear if you don’t believe me. Jesus did not suddenly stop talking about Peter and start talking about himself. That’s the plain meaning of the verse. And if you DO read the plain meaning of the Bible, what you will see is that Jesus established the apostolic succession at that moment– he did NOT say, “…but upon the Bible I shall build my church.” God is not going to come down and clear everything up for you. Look to Tradition as well as Scripture–the Church decided what the Bible will be, not vice-versa. It is the Protestant “Sola Scriptura” approach that is the problem here, leaving you all vulnerable to the interpretive whims of every snake-handling hick on the boards of trustees of your colleges. Read St. Augustine! Even he did not subscribe to a literalist reading of Genesis.

      • Johannine Logos

        You cannot deduce apostolic succession from Matt 16:17-19. Yes, Peter played a critical role in beginning the Christian church. Verse 19 proves that he had great authority in the church. This doesn’t mean that apostleship (and its benefits) is a torch that is passed on. It may be such a thing, but we wouldn’t know from this passage.

        I should also note that what Christ promised Peter concerning loosing and binding is also promised to the other apostles two chapters later. Peter may have been a leader, though he did not appear to have more authority than the other apostles. Nothing in Acts or the epistles indicates this.

        Concerning sola scriptura—I’ll say what has been said a thousand times before. Sola scriptura does not mean “I get to intepret the Bible however I want”. What it does mean is that scripture is sufficient for doctrine, which is really not very shocking considering that Jude said we should contend for the faith “once for all delivered to the saints”.

        Second, the epistemological critiques you apply to Protestants apply to Catholics as well. Catholics argue that Protestants can never know if they are interpreting scripture properly. Well, how can Catholics know they are interpreting the Magisterium properly? Ultimately Catholics have to appeal to the Holy Spirit. In that case, why can’t the Holy Spirit help Protestants interpret the Bible? The Bereans seemed to believe they could.

        There is one catholic (i.e., universal) church, and it is Christ’s church, regardless of whether doctrinal differences exist that manifest themselves in the form of separate denominations. Indeed, if doctrinal difference is intolerable then we know that the RCC is a false church because doctrinal differences exist in it as well. Pointing to the size of the differences is arbitrary. Regardless, the differences amongst professing Catholics are often times NOT small.

        The church is indeed the pillar and ground of the faith (1 Tim 3:15) in that the church is the keeper and proclaimer of God’s word, just as the Jews were the keepers of God’s word (Rom 3:2). This does not mean there is one monolithic human hierarchy that can proclaim novel revelation. Again, we have to throw the non-sequitur flag.

  • Abraxas

    As a bad but quite educated Catholic, part of the problem I see in evangelicalism lies in trying to base your religion solely and entirely on the Bible. On the other hand, having lots of experience in advanced theology schools, the herd-behavior of professors and their vulnerability to fads and heroes and party in-fighting makes “academic theology” a pretty un-appealing criterion for one’s faith.

    As for the Canaanite “genocide” –a very modern idea, shot through with the assumptions of post Enlightenment liberalism–, is it any more problematic than the Death of the Egyptian Firstborn or a score of other killings done under divine aegis or command? Trying to make sure that God follows the up to the minute moral fads against racism, sexism, ableism, et. is a waste of time. Maybe the Bible (and 2000 years of Christian tradition) has something more realistic to say about human reality on planet Earth that is far more valuable than, if not as pretty and self-soothing as, the pieties of our secular gurus.

  • Wally

    Down with the Canaanites and the lawless mindless Marcionite monkeys nowadays parading as “Evangelicals”.

  • Fr. Barnabas Powell

    Dr. Enns,

    Both you and Noll are on to something significant here. Dr. Noll is spot on as is your critique of Evangelicalism. But I would suggest a further problem. It isn’t so much an Evangelical problem as a Western Christianity problem. The basic epistemology of Western Christianity makes atheism and materialism and secularism inevitable. The basic parameters of how the West (both Roman Catholic and Protestant, both liberal and conservative) does theology are fundamentally flawed.

    Hence, my leaving Evangelicalism for Eastern Orthodoxy.

  • Mary

    Peter Enns (and Mark Noll) make some valid points and there is much to criticize in the evangelical realm, but the question is not one of intellectual pursuit versus apologetics. Rather, it has to do with what we shall consider as the ultimate source of Truth. If the Bible is true — even with its portrayals of a God who orders genocide — then we should uphold its authority. On the other hand, if man’s intellectual endeavor can arrive at truth, then the Bible is of little value and should not be considered reliable in any of its parts — even those we find agreeable. If this latter is the case, we are no better off than ancient pagans who created gods to their own specifications. We have no basis from which to describe who God is and isn’t other than our own impressions, will, wishes, and experiences. (Is this reliable?)
    If we believe the Old Testament is more than an historical account, i.e., it has something to say about who God is and who he isn’t, then there is plenty of room to delve into the implications of a God who endorses violence at time. If it no more than a religious point of view by an ancient sect, it should be shoved to the back of the bookcase and virtually ignored. We can’t have it both ways… not and maintain intellectual honesty.

    • Matt Thornton

      Maybe there’s another possibility, that we as humans are still so wet behind the ears that lusting about after ‘ultimate Truth” is in and of itself the problem. If one looks really deeply at any part of creation, it’s hard to come away with anything so strong as a sense of humility and profound ignorance.

      The question posed by so much of the Bible isn’t “what are you going to do with the fragments of certainty you have?”, but rather “how are you going to live with the vast oceans of uncertainty that remain?”

      • Mary

        Matt – I agree. There is so much uncertainty, in fact, that we must accept the unthinkable at times. We must have a source for knowing God beyond our own feeble intellects and fickle feelings. The Bible is an honest history that spares no one — even God himself. It reveals a god who sanctions violence. Such a revelation can be (as we have witnessed in some of the above posts) challenging to some people’s faith. Those who wrestle with these issues with either conclude that the Biblical account cannot be true (and, hence, will remake God in a more favorable light), or they will conclude that God is far greater than we could imagine who really meant it when he said, “My ways are not your ways and my thoughts are not your thoughts.” People who believe the latter must rest their faith in the reality that God is truly beyond our understanding, even though he invites us to draw near to him. Like Job, we are left speechless when he calls us to account. Our intellectual endeavors, our attempts to explain or apologize for the scriptures can never make any of us better Christian. But as we live — by faith in a God who is with us — in the midst of the “vast oceans of uncertainty that remain,” we can be sure that humbly trusting our Creator will bring a peace that passes understanding. It is good to ask the hard questions — but only if we are willing to accept hard answers.

        • Matt Thornton

          Mary –

          Agree. Personally, I find it helpful to keep a clear distinction between the question of ‘what is’ and the question of ‘what does that mean to me’. If we let the facts be the facts, then we can have more productive conversations (with ourselves especially) about the interpretations.

          As for the knowability of God’s mind, that’s certainly above my pay grade. I wouldn’t presume to know my wife’s mind, so knowing God’s is more than a small stretch.

          Finally, I think about accepting uncertainty the same way I think about accepting death – as a multi-step process. Grief, anger, denial etc leading to acceptance. One of the immutable facts of the world is that the number of things I might know is very large, perhaps infinite. The number of things I can know is finite and much smaller, limited by my abilities and time. The number of things I actually know is even smaller, limited by the effort I’ve made and my ability to retain what I’ve learned. A very small number divided by a very large number is something a lot like zero. Thus, statistically, all of us know nothing at all.

          • Mary

            Matt –
            That made me smile. Thanks. The only thing I’d add to what you say above is that what we can know is not only limited by abilities and time but also by the “what is” reality that some things cannot be known because they are utterly beyond us. The certainty of God’s lovingkindness removes the fears that often attend uncertainty. In the same way a toddler does not trouble himself about what he doesn’t know (and revels in what he does know and might know), so we, too, can leave the stuff to God we cannot begin to grasp. Peace…

  • David Marshall

    I am a Christian writer who grew up in what is now called the “evangelical” wing of the Presybyterian church. But I resent people defining me as an “evangelical,” and have to ask, who started this fad, and why should we take it seriously? I “prayed to receive Jesus and become a Christian” when I was a boy. I never prayed to become an “evangelical.”

    A few months ago, a book I edited on this theme came out — Faith Seeking Understanding: Essays in Memory of Paul Brand and Ralph Winter. (William Carey Press.) Contributors included some very eminent people — Rodney Stark, Philip Yancey, Miriam Adeney, the physicist Don Page, historian of science Allan Chapman, Alvin Plantinga. Most of them shared their own experience as Christians, generally of a theologically-conservative orientation, and all Protestants, as it happened, in trying to “think God’s thoughts after him” in various fields.

    It never entered my head to ask any of them if they were “evangelicals.” I invited them to contribute, because they are followers of Jesus who apply St. Anselm’s great motto, “Faith Seeking Understanding,” to high levels of study and life.

    I don’t find that any sort of scandal, even if I don’t agree with all of what each contributor had to say. We’re followers of Jesus, not Cephas: please stop pigeon-holing us.

  • Daniel Lafave

    The irony to me is that Evangelicals complain about how they are underrepresented in the academic world. Maybe it’s because the academic world requires an attitude of free inquiry, where the answers aren’t predetermined and the evidence leads wherever it leads. When someone has decided from the beginning that certain conclusions are out-of-bounds, he is doing apologetics not scholarship.

    • Johannine Logos

      “Where the answers aren’t predetermined and the evidence leads wherever it leads.”

      Objectivity is a myth. Christians interpret reality within a framework because we have to, and it is naive and irrational to believe otherwise. The question isn’t, “Is this scholar biased?” but rather, “Does this scholar have the right bias?” Indeed, I do not think it is hard to prove that apart from revelation there is no knowledge. Man can never collect enough evidence to arrive at what can rightfully be called “justified, true belief”. We need an omniscient mind to speak truth to us. Not just a hypothetical mind, but an actual one. Thankfully this mind did reveal himself, and we have his sure word. That’s why Paul did not hesitate to write, “In Christ are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

      If scholarship only encompasses evidential research, that is fine, but that is entirely separate issue from Noll’s thesis that evangelicals aren’t using their minds, period. Anyway, I disagree that theologians / apologists cannot do research. It is certainly possible to research how God’s word ought to be applied in a particular setting, or how a particular facet of God’s word works with respect to other facets. I suppose you think it is impossible to research any theological matter?

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  • John W. Morehead

    It is indeed unfortunate how the Evangelical gatekeepers function. Last year I received a call from an Evangelical researcher who had seen my MA thesis (now an academic book) on Burning Man Festival. This research combined sociological, historical, and theological analysis to arrive at a unique approach that filled a gap in many academic analyses of the festival. The caller was happy to listen to me until our conversation turned toward my critique of the church in modernity, and how we might learn from Burning Man. Suddenly I was asked whether I believed in inerrancy and the authority of Scripture, and whether I was a conservative Evangelical. Apparently my perspective on Burning Man, and my critique of the church, had triggered boundary maintenance concerns, and the assumption was that surely I could not be a bona fide Evangelical with such views. The same thing often happens when I articulate my perspectives on Evangelicalism and interreligious encounters. Somehow we have to insist that one can think outside the box while embracing rigorous academic standards (and the results that come with it) while remaining good (albeit different) Evangelicals.

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  • Jamie O’Hare

    Great article. I have lived this in my own life and through the experiences of those around me many times over. My husband has a PhD in theology from Notre Dame, and we went to church with Mark Noll for those years. If he is too optimistic, it may because he worships in the most vibrant and well educated evangelical congregation I have ever been a member of. Without the benefit of another congregation like it when my husband got a tenure track job in another state, I ended up converting to Roman Catholicism. It’s the only place I feel at home with worship, faith, and scripture after 30 years of trying to remain a Protestant Evangelical.

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