Is Mark Noll Right? Is There No Evangelical Mind?

Paul Miller just wrote a fun post at Schaeffer’s Ghost, a blog I commend to you, reviewing Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Paul largely agreed with Noll’s polemic:

But I have to say that I think Noll is basically right—or, at least, he was right when he wrote this twenty years ago. I say that with some trepidation for fear of offending our vast readership. I fear that in agreeing with Noll it will sound like an accusation that every evangelical friend and family member in my life is stupid. So, dear reader, I want to be clear: no, I don’t think you’re stupid.  (Besides, if you take time to read blogs like Schaeffer’s Ghost, you are certainly among the smartest and most intellectually sophisticated people out there).

But I confess that I have sometimes wondered if there is something in the culture of evangelicalism that undervalues the life of the mind. Noll’s criticism of dispensationalism was especially resonant for me.

Read Paul’s post here. I don’t disagree entirely with Noll. His basic point lands. Evangelicals in the last two hundred years have not put the majority of their energy into the life of the mind. There is a tremendous need for further investment here. So let that be said.

But with that stated, I think there’s room for a counter-narrative here. The “neo-evangelicals”–led by Billy Graham, the underappreciated Harold Ockenga, and the brilliant Carl Henry–actually did launch a theologically-oriented evangelical project in the mid-twentieth century. It didn’t succeed in spectacular fashion, but it did have many positive effects. Noll notes the neo-evangelicals in Scandal; he’s aware of them, of course, and he has some good things to say about them.

But I think he does not go far enough, and indeed I think there is more to be said. It’s true that we have no “evangelical Harvard,” no super-elite liberal arts college (I’m thinking top-10 US News, for whatever that’s worth) or high tier one research university (Baylor comes closest). But I think Noll might miss something in positing such an exacting standard of scholarly achievement. Evangelicals, over the last 50-60 years, have succeeded in improving many of their schools.

If you look at the literature about evangelical/fundamentalist institutions in the 1920s and 30s, you can see that they are deeply distrustful of the broader academy and its high standards. Many contemporary evangelical scholars fall in line with the academic guild in slamming fundamentalists, but there were pretty good reasons for at least some of this posture in that era (many Protestant schools jumped the tracks and abandoned core evangelical doctrine). In other words, some of the fundamentalists really did hold the line and defend the gospel.

Everything has changed since then. Schools like Union, Wheaton, Taylor, King’s College, Gordon, Messiah, Grove City, and my own institution, Boyce College, have ramped up their academic programs. I of course have concerns about an over-correction in this area among some institutions; some Christian colleges and universities are simply desperate for academic credibility, which poses a serious threat to ongoing scriptural fidelity. Ours is a serious intellectualism (the most serious, should be, given Matt 22:37), but it is a bounded one. We should advocate a confessional intellectualism (which, admittedly, many academics will distrust, and which may hamper the already difficult process of academic recognition).

But the simple fact is that Christian schools have seriously, dramatically improved in the last 75 years. Oddly enough, Noll himself is proof of a revitalized evangelical scholarship, as are figures ranging across the disciplines like George Marsden, Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Rodney Stark, N. T. Wright, Francis Collins, Kevin Vanhoozer, Timothy George, John Piper, Gordon Hugenberger, D. Michael Lindsay, Thomas Kidd, David Dockery, Niels Nielsen, Derek Halvorson, Marvin Olasky, John Fea, Alister McGrath, Alan Jacobs, D. A. Carson, Keith Yandell, Simon Gathercole, Peter Williams, David Hempton, Michael McConnell, Duane Litfin, James Skeel, Michael Rea, Paul Lim, John Frame, Michael Horton, D. G. Hart, Nathan Hatch, Ben Witherington, Craig Blomberg, Soong-Chan Rah, Timothy Larsen, James Davison Hunter, William Lane Craig, James K. A. Smith, Matt Dickerson, Oliver Crisp, Douglas Sweeney, Vincent Bacote, Robert Priest, Robert Sloan, Tom McCall, John Woodbridge, Joel Carpenter, the late Will Stuntz, Gregory Wills, Al Mohler, Hunter Baker, Micah Watson, Richard Bailey, Bruce Ware, Dan Treier, Molly Worthen, Peter Leithart, Anthony Bradley, Richard Muller, Jennifer Gruenke, Fred Sanders, Timothy Dalrymple, Joel Willitts, Karen Swallow Prior, Mike Bird, and Paul Gutjahr.

This group shows, I think, that an evangelical mind definitely does exist. Is it coherent at every point? No. But there is a body of evangelical scholarship published by elite presses that cannot be ignored in our day. If the “evangelical mind” means something like excellent Christian thought leadership and scholarship that helps us work toward definitive understanding of intellectual fields, then I think there is one.

In his edifying sequel to ScandalJesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, Noll modifies his original thesis, pointing out essentially what I have just stated (see his postscript). But there is no monograph that actually substantiates Noll’s postscript. And I don’t know that as many people have read the more recent book as the original. In other words, I think a culture of discouragement persists among evangelicals despite our good progress. The narrative does not match the reality.

One book, by the way, that does not tackle this subject as directly but nonetheless shows that evangelicals are making a major difference in the culture is D. Michael Lindsay’s Faith in the Halls of Power (Oxford). It is a marvelous and catalyzing read.

My 2011 dissertation from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School lays groundwork for the kind of counter-narrative I’ve introduced here. I’m currently revising this work, and it is my hope that while continuing to profit from Noll’s needed polemic, we can build off of his encouraging postscript in his follow-up and chart a new course for the evangelical mind. It does exist.

  • Will Riddle

    Thank you for working on this counter-narrative. Evangelicalism sometimes seems to be addicted to pessimism, a phenomenon I liken at the corporate level to the “condemnation” problem that Christians experience on an individual level.

    You are quite correct that no only has their been a resurgence, but that the overall tone of scholarship has generally shifted in favor of evangelical presuppositions. Perhaps this is death of modernism, but I think it’s also the salt and light effect. Secularists have had to refashion their arguments to better account for what is being sadi by both evangelical and catholic believers, even if they pretend to ignore it.

    Perhaps Noll understates the necessity of the fundamentalism project or the enormity of the evangelical project. It wasn’t just the evangelical mind per se that got lost, the Western Mind went into near complete apostasy around the time of the first World War, and has had to be built back up by those who believed in its original premises — over against the secular fantasies which proved to be both so powerful and so deadly.

    • ostrachan

      Thank you, Will. I appreciate your encouragement and agree that we do tend towards pessimism as a movement. Few things seem to attract more attention and sell more books in our circles than a work of criticism. We need such works, but we also need to see the encouraging stuff.

  • rvs

    Thanks for this provocative post. I read it after reading a great post by Peter Enns on whether or not evangelical universities are serious vis-a-vis academics. My experience is this: there remains a deeply ingrained anti-intellectualism among evangelicals and evangelical institutions that must be addressed, and I appreciate your work in that direction. Solutions? Well, for starters, maybe evangelical students should learn more about contemporary art. I’ve discovered that many evangelicals absolutely love Kinkade and dislike anything abstract/experimental/open to interpretation. I see Kinkade-mongering as a small emblem of a bigger issue (not that I have anything against Kinkade per se).

    • ostrachan

      I’m not a huge Kinkade-basher; that seems to have become something of a spectator sport. I don’t own any Kinkade pieces myself, and my taste doesn’t incline that way. But I don’t hate his work, and I like some of what he depicts: shelter, warmth, light.

      I do like what you say about deeper engagement with art. Schaeffer opened my eyes to the way that art depicts worldview. I think we can enjoy a range of styles.

  • Mike Gantt

    The root of Evangelicalism is personal awareness of resurrected Christ. Tending to that root in this generation will do far more good than trying to polish the decaying fruit of prior generations of evangelicals.

    • ostrachan

      That is the heart of things: belief in a crucified and resurrected Savior.

      But what does Jesus include in the greatest commandment? Loving God with your mind (Matt 22:37 as cited above). As I noted in the post, Christians have more reason–not less–to study and learn and grow and think than anyone else. If our churches and schools aren’t teaching that, then they are not only spiritually deficient, they are in disobedience to the central command of Christ’s entire body of teaching.

      So I read the “decayed fruit” of past generations as an encouragement, because figures like Ockenga were trying to do just that.

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  • AHH

    I don’t disagree with your counter-narrative, but in the other direction is a troubling trend (in addition to the anti-intellectual culture mentioned by rvs) of pseudo-intellectualism, where some self-appointed expert with shoddy (at best) scholarship is set up as the voice that all Evangelicals listen to, often instead of the fine intellectual voices you mention.

    So yes we have real scientific scholars like Francis Collins and Alister McGrath and Simon Conway Morris, but most of the church instead listens to Answers in Genesis or (not quite as bad) the Discovery Institute.
    And we have great historians like Marsden and Noll, but the church mainly listens to the distortions of David Barton.

    While I have not yet read it, I am told that there is good discussion of this phenomenon in the recent book The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age by Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson.

  • Carson Clark

    A Cordial Rebuttal to Owen Strachan’s “Is Mark Noll Right? Is There No Evangelical Mind?”

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  • Steve D

    First, I’m sure that the Brothers and Priest of the Congregation of the Holy Cross would be pleasantly surprised to find that their college, King’s College, was listed positively in a list of evangelical colleges. They also run Notre Dame University, so, I guess they do have high standards. The correct name of the college that you are referring to is The King’s College. TKC is in New York City, King’s College is in Wilkes Barre,Pa
    I attended The King’s College from 1975-76. It was a different college back then. Unlike today, the college was dedicated to both Biblical and Liberal education. It has unfortunately turned into a conservative think tank under the President Dinesh D’Souza who just left. When I was there, politics was not emphasized as much as a good education.

  • Steve D

    I meant Liberal Arts…not Liberal

  • Rebecca Trotter

    You can’t fill a cup that’s already full. That right there is what I believe is the crux of the problem re “The Evangelical Mind”. Because Evangelicalism has often been focused on self-defense, there has been very little willingness to engage in an ongoing exploration of Truth. The presupposition has been that truth is adequately known and the only reason to try to sort through the contents of the cup is to discredit the faith. However, this attitude is the result of extreme hubris and conflating one’s own understanding with ultimate Truth. The result is often a faith which is brittle and unable to engage productively with anything new. Given that the life of the mind presumes that there is always more to be explored, discovered and expounded on, this brittle, self-defensive stance is inherently inimicable to a robust life of the mind.

    I don’t think that for most Christians this defect is going to be the last word. Scholars like McKnight, Enns, Olsen and others are doing an exemplary job of gently and persistently pushing evangelicals to consider the idea that while the truths of Christian orthodoxy can be trusted as true, our understanding of those truths are not nearly so trustworthy and in fact maybe entirely wrong. At the end of the day, I think that the defensive stance of evangelical Christianity is not only a threat to the life of the mind, it displays a profound lack of faith. If Christianity is true, then no criticism, question or new bit of information can be a threat to it. If we allow for the idea that our current understanding may be incomplete, immature or even misguided, criticisms, questions and information can only help us understand this faith more completely, with more maturity and more accuracy.

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  • Daniel M.

    I believe that the reason the “evangelical mind” even exists in the first place is due in large part to “Sola Scriptura” being an operative principle in Protestantism where one presupposes that Scripture is so precipitous that one does not need any one else to tell them what to believe about it so long as they have the “fundamentals” right. In other words, “as long as I know the fundamentals, like Jesus saved me as long as I have faith, I don’t need anything else!”

    On the other hand, I have found within my own tradition (Catholicism) that while there are many people who don’t know anything about the faith at all, the grand majority of active Catholics “think” by necessity because we have a history of having a mind, as is evident by our 2,000 years of study.

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