the contradictions of evangelicalism and the crisis of authority–a note on a new book

the contradictions of evangelicalism and the crisis of authority–a note on a new book October 25, 2013

I recently stumbled onto a review of Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism by Molly Worthen. The review is by Mark Edwards and posted on Religion in American History.

I haven’t read the book, but the review and the teaser quotes Edwards gives ring true to me, and it looks like I need to add another book to my list.

From the Amazon description:

Evangelical Christianity is a paradox. Evangelicals are radically individualist, but devoted to community and family. They believe in the transformative power of a personal relationship with God, but are wary of religious enthusiasm. They are deeply skeptical of secular reason, but eager to find scientific proof that the Bible is true.

In this groundbreaking history of modern American evangelicalism, Molly Worthen argues that these contradictions are the products of a crisis of authority that lies at the heart of the faith. Evangelicals have never had a single authority to guide them through these dilemmas or settle the troublesome question of what the Bible actually means.

Edwards comments:

From my quick read, it appears that Worthen offers a new paradigm for the study of post-World War II new evangelicals–a movement that has been well covered by Joel Carpenter, George Marsden, D. G. Hart, John Turner, and many others.  Yet given that her focus is the paradoxical nature of evangelical anti-intellectualism–that evangelicals “have a habit of taking certain ideas very seriously” (1)–perhaps Mark Noll is her best conversation partner.  In The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994), Noll argued that traits inherent to the evangelical movement had long held its promoters back from genuine intellectual and cultural pursuits.  Noll’s book helped me get over my fascination with one of the Worthen’s main characters, the apologist Francis Schaeffer. The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age (Belknap 2011), by Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson, similarly tackles Schaeffer and other experts ex nihilo (see Worthen’s review of Anointed here).

For Worthen, though, the problem is not that the evangelical straw man doesn’t have a brain; it has too many.  The evangelicals of the American Century want to have it all: faith AND reason, status AND separateness, the Great Commission AND Great Low Prices.

I find that last paragraph to be very insightful.

Edwards provides the following choice quotes (my emphasis added) from the book, which, I have to say, resonate strongly with my experience, and some of which have also been articulated by Christian Smith in his exposé of sorts, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.

The problem with evangelical intellectual life is not that its participants obey authority.  All rational thought requires the rule of some kind of law based on irreducible assumptions.  The problem is that evangelicals attempt to obey multiple authorities at the same time.  They demand that presuppositions trump evidence while counting the right kind of evidence as universal fact.  They insist that modern reason must buttress faith, that scripture and spiritual feeling align with scientific reality (258). . . .

The anti-intellectual inclinations in evangelical culture stem not from wholehearted and confident obedience to scripture, or the assurance that God will eventually corral all nonbelievers, but from deep disagreements over what the Bible means, a sincere desire to uphold the standards of modern reason alongside God’s word–and the defensive reflexes that outsiders’ skepticism provokes.  The cult of the Christian worldview is one symptom of the effort by many evangelical leaders to fold competing sources of authority into one, to merge inference with assumptions.  The evangelicals who adopt this soft presuppositionalism hope that it might prove to be a viable political currency, one that can buy cultural capital where proof texts and personal testimony fail.  These habits of mind have crippled evangelicals in their pursuit of what secular thinkers take to be the aims of intellectual life: the tasks of discovering new knowledge, creating original and provocative art, and puzzling out the path toward a more humane civilization (261).

Perhaps one way of summarizing these quotes is that evangelicalism is a phenomenon rooted in a defense of its own intellectual viability, and that intellectual defense is being challenged more and more by knowledgable insiders and outsiders. Ironically for evangelical apologists, it may be the case that the more they present their case in the marketplace of ideas, the more their ideas will be subject to these sorts of criticisms.

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  • mark

    From my point of view, Christian Smith appears to be talking about the inherent contradictions of the Protestant “Reform” project: recovering a simpler, “Bible based” Christianity while rejecting reason in favor of an utterly subjective version of “faith.” It can’t be done–you can’t combine the two.

    Just for the record–as far as blog comments can be considered a record of some sort–I’m not at all opposed to reform of one sort or another. I’m also a critic of the Church’s long embrace of (or certainly tolerance of) the Platonic based Augustinian tradition of thought. Like all forms of Platonism, this Western tradition inevitably leads to skepticism, loss of confidence in reason. Rejection of reason guarantees intellectual shipwreck, and therefore shipwreck for all but the most arbitrary and subjective of religious “faiths.” As G. K. Chesterton famously wrote in “The Blue Cross,” attacking reason is bad theology.

  • Brian P.

    Looks very interesting. One of the things that I’ve wondered about is that it may, for some exercises, be best to conceptualize Protestantism in its historical context of origins as a Protest. The early Reformers had some very real cultural and spiritual problems with which to contend. Consider these: simony, pluralism of office, absenteeism of office, sale of indulgences, nepotism, clerical ignorance, moral decline of the papacy, and more. There were real corruptions. The Reformers perhaps in ways conscious and subconscious backed into theological constructs to address. Take Sola Scriptura. I can make great ethical and almost broader theological sense of this Sola and the others as a noble counteroffensive to these historical corruptions and abuses. But… when I remove this Sola and the others from the historical, ecclesial, and sociological context and drop it into another, such as ours, I am left with logical consequences that can have their own unintended consequences. In many ways I too do see it as a crisis of authority. Today much of the commercial thrust of American Evangelicalism, the ecclesial center is the self. But people want more. They do want to defer to an authority. Here’s what it looks like in my own megachurch. If I were to try to engage a parishioner or lay leader in conversation of theological or spiritual depth of controversy, they would defer to a pastor or most significantly the (implicitly priestly authority) of the senior pastor. He will have limited times and a number of programs. He may or may not have much theological training. If one has time to get on his calendar to discuss matters, it will likely be distracting from what needs to be his primary shepherding tasks. He will have little oversight other that a statement of faith, typically one written a decade or more prior in a context of fundamentalist-modernist controversy, Bible wars, end-times speculations, etc. that name seem dated in our emerging postmodernistic post-Christian age. He may or may not believe all of it himself. And he, as nominal authority, will often have ecclesial oversight. The board will likely be more so influential business men who got saved in a different era under the Roman Road and other 20th Century American revivalism formulas. They will have limited theological exposure and be defensive to other than the language of the amazing grace of the hour they first believed. As such, “the Bible” is the authority, pushing authority’s head’s questioning under the rug. To me, Evangelical theology makes much more sense when contextualized in the times of Wickliffe, Luther, Cranmer, Knox, Calvin, and Wesley. The foundations are fragile and many in the inside and outside know it. Whether or not a cruciform life lived is the most robustly meaningful and greatest hope for our deepest internal and shared troubles is an all together different matter.

    • mark

      Points well taken, Brian. Here’s the thing from my Catholic perspective. I have no wish to deny or minimize the extent of abuses throughout the history of the Church–whether in the Renaissance or the present. To me, that’s a result of human nature. We all sin, sometimes more than once a day. 🙁 The Church has always relied upon periodic reform movements. However, what prevents me from sharing your view that “Evangelical theology makes much more sense when contextualized in the times of …” and causes me to view it as a great tragedy, is that in an intellectual sense the tragedy was so foreseeable–and contrary to what so many believers–Catholic and Protestant–believe, intellectual integrity is at the very heart of Christian faith. We can live with, while trying to reform, all sorts of human failings in the Church, as long as the faith life of the Church is undergirded by intellectual integrity.

      So here’s the historical point. By the time of Luther the intellectual life of the Christian faith had been well and truly corrupted by Platonic influences, as mediated to the West by Augustinian thought. I would very seriously maintain that this influence had very practical effects, not merely theological. The great tragedy of the Protestant project was that, in the name of “reform,” they embraced precisely those currents of intellectualism that were most harmful to true Christian faith. Just one example: Luther is well known, despite his famous book burning activities, to have been an enthusiast of Nominalist thought. ‘Nuff said.

      This is a very large and complex topic, but the book I always recommend for a sympathetic exposition is Louis Bouyer’s The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism. You can also find some interesting reflections on the subject in Benedict’s famous (and famously misunderstood) address at the University of Regensburg in which Benedict connects the intellectual corruption of late medieval “voluntarist” thought to the thought of the would be reformers. Caveat: at my own blog, I make it fairly clear that I find Benedict’s historical understanding to be seriously deficient and that I regard him, ultimately, as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

      • Brian P.

        Mark, I’m more non-theistic than not. At deepest levels, little of this makes sense to me whatsoever. While I said Protestant theology makes more sense in the context of the earliest day of the Reformation, I’m not saying it makes that much sense. I can’t defend it. In fact, I’m not interested in defending.

        • mark

          That’s fine. I’m not asking you to launch a defense, or an offense. Just shooting my mouth, er, keyboard off.

          • Brian P.

            No problem. And I don’t think most of Evangelicalism knows its Augustinian or Platonic influences.

          • mark

            “And I don’t think most of Evangelicalism knows its Augustinian or Platonic influences.”

            Of course not. Most Catholics don’t understand that, either. And yet if you look at a major document of faith like the Catechism of the Catholic Church, you will find that next to Scripture the most frequently cited authority is Augustine–not Thomas Aquinas, as many Catholics and Protestants alike might expect or even assume.

            Bev (above) recommends Kugel’s book on the “Hebrew” Bible. Kugel certainly understands that Platonic influences are behind the approach to Scripture of some schools of ancient Jewish thought (esp. Philo) as well as the Christian thought of the “Fathers,” such as Origen and Augustine, but many, many others. Of course the history of how this has worked out is complex–there have been periodic reactions against the excesses that Kugel and others document–but in the main interpretation of Scripture has been dominated by an odd mixture of over literalism and allegorical flights of fancy, so that what in the cold light of day can be seen to be overboard is nevertheless taken for granted by many “believers.”

            It’s also interesting to note, in this regard, that the “reforms” after Vatican II, including the inclusion of OT readings in the Sunday liturgy, were spearheaded by theologians like Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) who were inspired by the idea of a “return to the Fathers.” Indeed, throughout his public career Ratzinger/Benedict has been outspoken in his distrust of historical/critical approaches to Scripture and his preference for typological and allegorical approaches of the Fathers. That’s what lies behind the “reform” of the Sunday readings. To say that this “reform” movement has been, in some significant respects, anachronistic rather than progressive puts the matter mildly. Benedict, in his autobiographical writings, is quite open in expressing his preference for Platonic/Augustinian inspired thinkers like Bonaventure, and has undoubtedly been influenced by the Augustinian thought of Kant.

            In that light, it’s no surprise that the bishops couldn’t agree re DiNardo’s suggestion of a readers guide, since they’re mostly aware that there is no agreement on how much weight to give modern scholarship and how much to older more traditional approaches.

  • Julie Walsh

    “deep disagreements over what the Bible means”— Yes, I think this is the heart of this evangelical problem stated. I like Gordon Fee’s “How to Read the Bible for all its Worth” and its follow up “How to Read the Bible Book by Book” for lay people. Anyone able to suggest better?

    • mark

      At the Synod of Bishops in Rome, 2008, which was devoted to Scripture, everyone seemed to be in agreement that the laity should read Scripture more. Taking his cue from that consensus (I suppose), Cardinal DiNardo of Houston suggested that the Church come up with a Readers Guide to Scripture. While that would seem to be a reasonable suggestion–if you think the laity should read Scripture more, why not help make it more accessible?–he got no support. Or not enough support to move that proposal forward.

      Now, some might say that this just shows clerical gutlessness. I’m an optimist, so I like to think that it shows that these worthy clerics came to the very realistic assessment that offering a readers guide to Scripture is a lot easier said than done–at least at this juncture–and that there might not be a consensus on how to do that. So, it seems the bottom line is to encourage the laity to read the Good Book, and hope for the best. Not the most responsible course of action, IMO, but so far nobody has asked for my opinion. That’s how I end up commenting on blogs, I suppose.

      Here’s a little bonus for N. T. Wright fans: The Fourfold Amor Dei and the Word of God, intervention by the Rt Revd N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham (Church of England), Synod of Bishops, 14 October 2008. Yes, he attended and spoke. I’m not actually a fan of Wright’s GRUNT (Grand Unified Narratival Theology), but for what it’s worth …

    • Bev Mitchell

      Fee is great. He also put together a series of essays in the same vein entitled “Listening to the Spirit in the Text” Eerdman’s 2000. From another perspective, but still very sensitive to orthodox approaches to Scripture, check out “How to Read the Bible” by James L. Kugel, Free Press (Simon and Schuster) 2007. Taking the Bible, especially the OT, very seriously while accepting that much of biblical criticism needs to be addressed is a challenge. However, with books like these there is no need to hide from that challenge, despite what the gatekeepers say.

      • Daniel Merriman

        The Kugel book is excellent, but not an easy read. He is an Orthodox Jew, but I think he would appreciate Prof. Enns Inspiration and Incarnation.

    • Michael Anderson

      I cut my biblical scholarship teeth on Fee and Stuart. I thought they were great books (I still rather like “Book by Book”). But I have found a much better book for an introductory study of the Bible. Dr. Michael Cosby’s Interpreting Biblical Literature.
      It’s more relatable, it is more readable, it is better laid out, it covers more relevant material, and it is better scholarship.

  • dangjin

    “They are deeply skeptical of secular reason, but eager to find scientific proof that the Bible is true.”

    Uhm, science is not the sole tool of the unbeliever. Another bad book by someone who does not understand the Bible People who criticize believers in the Bible usually won’t convert anyways. They like their false teaching and the pursuit of darkness.
    Criticisms are generally unfair as the critic fails to take into account the different levels of Christian maturity of the believing congregation and simply take the easy way by lumping everyone into the same category.
    They also fail to consider the fact of true and false teaching and their influence. People on the outside looking in really do not have the complete picture and those who have rejected the truth and turned to false teaching do not grasp the teachings of the Bible so their criticisms are really unfair and misinformed.

  • I want to illustrate one of the greatest contradiction of Evangelicalism.

    Evangelical apologist William Lane Craig keep saying that abortion is an atrocity.
    Yet, he also believes that it was right for Israelite soldiers to have killed babies and pregnant women alike:

    And he does not seem to be bothered by the contradiction.
    Meanwhile, many people leave the faith and become resentful atheists due to this kind of apologetics.

  • James

    I wonder if “secular thinkers” are best able to “define the pursuits of intellectual life.” Are they more capable than say religious thinkers at “discovering new knowledge” or “puzzling out the path toward a more humane civilization?” They may appear more rational or artistic or humane than some evangelicals but are they really more true? Let the criticisms continue and let capable Christian thinkers also have their say in defining the pursuits of intellectual life.

  • Bev Mitchell

    I’m glad to see appreciation of James Kugel’s book here. Those new to that work should first read Chapter 36, entitled “After Such Knowledge”, in fact, Kugel himself suggests this. In that chapter, the section entitled “The Very Idea of the Bible” is one of the best orientations, for Jews or for Christians, that one could recommend. I just reread it and wanted to offer a quote or two, but it’s impossible to choose. The final sentence of the section will have to do (Scripture is) “a basic program for the service of God in daily life.”

    • Daniel Merriman

      Kugel has a web page that has not been updated in a while (he has been ill) and is not easy to navigate. One reader question found under the heading “On divine inspiration” (you have to scroll way down), though from an Orthodox Jew disturbed by Kugel’s acceptance of modern OT scholarship, receives a thoughtful answer that should be helpful to Jews and Christians alike. The story he tells at the end of that answer has become one of my favorites. Wish it wasn’t too long to quote here and that I could link directly to the place on the page, but here is the best I can do:

      • Bev Mitchell

        Thanks Daniel. I didn’t know he was ill and pray that he will recover. His web site is very slow. A good interview with him by Alan Brill on the topic of revelation is up at:

        There are two parts and lots of comments.

        Hope Pete doesn’t mind us cluttering up this thread with links. Also don’t want to get off the topic of the post, but if the intellectual descendants of some of the people that Worthen talks about would listen more to folks like Kugel, we would be further ahead.

        • Daniel Merriman

          Bev, he might be better as I note from his web page that he has resumed an active speaking schedule. Yes, we would be better off if more of the wannabe Popes out there listened to Kugel, but they are a resourceful lot and would probably go find something else to use for boundary markers. Please post a review somewhere when you finish the Worthen book

  • WhatChrisLikes

    I can’t comment on the book itself, but Molly Worthen was at l’Abri in Switzerland for a couple weeks while I was there several years ago. She’s a great person, very generous in her interactions with people who believe differently than her. If anyone could tackle this subject in an interesting and helpful way, I would think it would be her.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Just spent the last little while with the Intro and Chapter 1 of Worthen’s book. So far it’s a concise and well written review of evangelicalism (and particularly the perceived importance of inerrancy) up to the 1950s. Looking forward to reading the rest. As with lots of historical surveys, there are moments to wonder if we will ever learn. The hope is that it’s a spiral and not just a circle.

  • Tom Schuessler

    The RC Vatican II doc titled Dei Verbum helps me to makes sense of this with its main message on scripture being: Word of God, human authors. Kugel for me was mainly … human authors, not much word of God.