Evangelicalism and the anti-intellectual cult of the “Christian worldview”

Evangelicalism and the anti-intellectual cult of the “Christian worldview” December 2, 2013

At least that’s how Molly Worthen sees it.

In the final few pages of her recent book Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, Worthen focuses on the strategic, persistent, and anti-intellectual use of “Christian worldview” language within evangelicalism.

From my perspective, in addition to being probing and insightful, these quotes summarize a main line of the book’s overall argument.

The quotes below are from pp. 261-62.

Evangelicals are idealists, yes. They are also pragmatists. They talk so much of the “Christian worldview” because they believe in it–but also because it is a powerful rhetorical strategy. It curtails debate, justifies hardline politics, and discourages sympathetic voters from entertaining thoughts of moderation or compromise….

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 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 human civilization. When the neo-evangelicals set out to resuscitate the evangelical mind seventy years ago they shared these goals, but they also harbored another set of ambitions. The purpose of Christianity Today or the Evangelical Theological Society was not to unite conservative Protestants and earn secular intellectuals’ respect for the sake of unity and respect alone. Cultural influence was a means to an end: the ultimate end of converting the world–in heart, mind, and action–to Christ.

I think these thoughts express well at least some of the systemic reasons why intellectual pursuits–outside of apologetic agendas–can be so difficult to negotiate within evangelicalism.

As I’ve been saying, Worthen’s largely critical but also fair assessment of evangelicalism is a great read for anyone interested in evangelicalism’s roots and current struggles. As Mark Noll blurbs, “Apostles of Reason brings a new level of sophistication, as well as sparkling prose, to the study of modern American evangelicals….”

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  • Chris

    Dr. Enns,

    Worthen seems concerned that worldview rhetoric has a merely political agenda, is that correct? And she sees a contradiction between the “inwardness” or “in-towardness” of ETS and CT as a contradiction in terms of building itself up without engaging with those “outside the camp.” Am I right?

    If so, I wonder what the effect of premillennialism is on this issue.



    • Why would premillennialism be causing more divisions than the two other alternatives?

      • Chris

        Lothar (of the hill people? I always wondered if Mike Meyers had a Canaanite tribe in mind with that skit),

        Mark Noll was mentioned at the end of Dr. Enns’ article, and Noll blames premillennialism for anti-intellectualism due to a “rapture ready” way of life. Hence, the contradiction between being intellectually sophisticated, seeking political power, but knowing that the culture is going to get worse and worse.

        • Okay, that’s makes sense.

          I come from Lorraine, a region in France having both a historical French-speaking and German-speaking part.
          The name Lorraine (Lothringen in German) stems from king Lothar who founded my homeland.

          As a consequence, I view myself as a son of Lothar, like Jewish people see themselves as sons of Abraham.

          So on the Internet I’ve both the name “Lothar Lorraine” and “Lotharson”.
          I hope that helps 🙂

          2013/12/2 Disqus

  • Better to kill an infant in the cradle that to reduce Christian faith to a “worldview” (apologies to William Blake). Let’s look, listen, and learn–beyond worldviews…


  • wolfeevolution

    “The purpose of Christianity Today or the Evangelical Theological Society was not to unite conservative Protestants and earn secular intellectuals’ respect for the sake of unity and respect alone. Cultural influence was a means to an end: the ultimate end of converting the world–in heart, mind, and action–to Christ.”

    I’m glad to see this in the past tense: “The purpose of CT … was (etc.).” I think Andy Crouch’s work on culture-making, written from his seat on the editorial staff of CT, offers a fairly strong counter-example in the present day.

    • peteenns

      I agree. Worthen’s book is largely retrospective. I would say, though, that whatever changes have happened at CT have been very slowly realized, in part at least due to the “system.”

  • Well this passage just concern conservative Evangelicals and not people like Peter Enns or Randal Rauser.

    As the later pointed out, there is no such thing as a Biblical worldview since the authors of the Bible contradict each other:

    “For starters, the very meaning of the term ”biblical worldview” is vague if not vacuous. What, in short, is it supposed to mean to have a biblical worldview? Abraham, Moses, David, and Paul all were from radically different cultural contexts, with different understandings of the workings of the natural world (what we can call ancient science) and of history and definitely of theology. Just consider, for example, Paul’s radically different understanding of “Messiah” from that of the first three individuals mentioned. So what does it even mean to adopt a “biblical worldview”? Does that mean Paul’s worldview? And what about the fact that there famously seems to be tension between Paul and James, a tension that can be seen in Galatians 1-2 or a reading of the letter of James contrasted with those of Paul (assuming, of course, no pseudopigraphic authorship)? There is ample evidence that there was not unanimity in the early church on various matters like Torah and temple, so with whom do we side in those matters?”

    I believe that the Chicago statement of inerrancy is largely responsible for the immoralities (and sometimes even atrocities) condoned by Conservative Evangelicals.

    You would probably answer that these words are way too strong.

    Well if you were a godless gay teenager being bullied, you would probably have a very different opinion on the problem.

    • I think you go a bit far in saying that “there is no such thing as a Biblical worldview”. What is certainly true is that the Bible is terribly complex, and many Christians tend to oversimplify it to the point that the simplification is worthless in real life. But I don’t think we should be surprised that the Bible is that complex; if it weren’t, I doubt it would actually be that useful as a ‘constitution’ for Christians. Life is complex.

      This being said, a world operating by grace is certainly different than one operating by someone’s idea of deserve. I could elaborate, but I think even this argues that there is a way to fill the meaning of ‘a biblical worldview’. Maybe we should say ‘Christian worldview’ instead, but I’m not yet convinced. 🙂

  • I am not anti-intellectual, quite the contrary, but anti-intellectuals should get some empathy after all the debacles that intellectual thought created in the 20th century. The biggest problem with the quote (I have not read the book) is that it implicitly upholds the intellectual approach as completely valid. History tells us that it is not. On another front, I know people who have lived exemplary lives, at whose funerals hundreds came to tell of how their lives were changed by that person, who were anti-intellectual. I know intellectuals with no such impact. Hmmm.

    • Christians, above others, are called to see the good, a la Phil 4:8 and 2 Cor 5:16. To only (or primarily) criticize—to only be anti-—does not build up or edify, unless there is nothing good in the thing being criticized.

      It does not matter if some intellectuals have been terrible; some Christians have been terrible. What matters is what can draw us into closer relationship with God and thereby bless the lives of others. Intellectuals can do this.

      Christians, above others, ought to know that we are alloys of good and evil. Largely we encourage the good, in a lesser sense we attack the evil. “Love covers a multitude of sins.” A Christian should probably call very little “completely valid”, because just about everything is tainted, other than Jesus himself. (“Good teacher… only God is good.”)

      • My point exactly, even if I expressed it badly. When a person does good for God’s kingdom, that is more important than whether he or she is pro or anti intellectual. Of course, I have seen an anti-intellectual bent hinder God’s work, in my opinion. But that is a story for another day.

        • How does anti-intellectualism fit in with loving God with your mind? I don’t understand how they can possibly go together. I believe that one could get pretty far while doing badly in one area—humans are really, really good at this—but I also think that God ultimately stunts our growth if we’re refusing to grow in a particular area.

          • Anti-intellectualism does not fit with loving God with all your mind. One American mission in Burkina Faso came with a strong anti-intellectual bent. But they did marvelous work at the grassroots like nobody else. A thriving church is the result. Were they limited? Yes. Did that cause some problems for the churches they planted? Yes. Did their anti-intellectualism lead them into some interesting kinds of work that others ignored? Yes. Isn’t this the kind of mixed picture you were painting? On a personal growth level, we must love God will all our minds, but is that they equivalent of being pro-intellectual? Paul warned about certain kinds of “wisdom”. I think that loving God will all my mind includes bringing discernment to what is called intellectual today.

          • When I drew my ‘mixed’ picture though, my point was that Christians, in particular, are called to do both:

                 (i) promote the good
                 (ii) undermine the bad

            One of the principles I follow, inspired by C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters bit about the researchers in Hell being unable to invent evil passions/desires, is that anything can be perverted. Intellectualism included.

            When Christians do (ii) and not (i), I think they do great damage to the Kingdom and to the name of God—Rom 2:24-style. If you merely remove an evil spirit and whitewash the house, it’ll find seven more wicked than itself and come back.

            In my experiences, people suck at (i). They are just utterly terrible at it. I think this is a large part of what “viewing according to the flesh” means in 2 Cor 5:16. Part of being a light to the world is doing (i). We clear out the bad and replace it with good.

          • Yes, when certain elements in the church focus almost exclusively on (ii), they undermine true faith. I believe that the reason is fear. Fear is a powerful motivator, but it only leads to undermining the bad, not to promoting the good. Going back to the article, you might like this other article which presents a much more nuanced (and accurate for me) look at the issue

          • Neat, thanks. I just want to reiterate that to the extent that Christians fail at (i), they fail to look at people and ideas as God does. I don’t know whether this threatens their salvation or any of that, but I know that one of the most terrible things that you can do to a person is to look at him or her, and see only what is wrong. To do this to an idea is only slightly less bad.

            I’m not sure what to say about your comment on fear. Rev 21:8 pops into mind: the fate for the cowardly is not pretty. I’m reminded that “perfect love drives out fear”. And I’m reminded that God wants us to fear him and nothing/nobody else. I don’t expect Christians to perfectly avoid fearing, but you seem to be describing a very controlling fear, not one that is being slowly refined out of existence (or being retargeted toward God).

          • Thank you for the conversation

  • James

    I don’t think “converting the world…to Christ is a bad end in view for cultural influence. It seems to be the thrust of the Gospels, for sure. But does a missional bent involve necessarily anti-intellectualism? Are evangelism and rationalism on a collision course in the author’s view? I don’t think we’d accuse the Apostle Paul of disparaging the mind despite his negative comments on “the wisdom of this world.” Let’s give free rein to both intellect and passions!

    • Troy

      I don’t think anyone is saying that they are *necessarily* in conflict, but instead that it is largely the case that they are in conflict.

  • ctrace

    So by “evangelicals” it looks like you and Molly mean the people seen on the religious tee vee channels? Let’s get Molly in a room with Herman Bavinck or John Owen. Let’s give her an education in Christian music from the various schools of Renaissance polyphony to Bach to Bruckner. Let’s see the look on her face when she hears one of Beethoven’s late string quartets for the first time (“As early as 1818, Beethoven showed genuine interest in “true church music”, which to him was defined by the
    musical styles of the earliest composers of religious music, like Palestrina.” for any who would suggest Beethoven didn’t compose in the Christian tradition). What would Molly think if it were explained to her that Dostoevsky – one of the most Christian of all novelists – is *still* pretty much the cutting edge in that form of literary art in depth of depicting the human condition? The solution to any current shallowness is not more shallowness. Or a different kind of shallowness.

    • AC

      Neither Bach nor Dostoevsky can be considered Evangelicals by any stretch of the imagination.

      • ctrace

        You missed the point.

      • Troy

        Agreed. The book and the discussion is about 20th-21st century American Evangelicalism.

    • So by “evangelicals” it looks like you and Molly mean the people seen on the religious tee vee channels?

      I can almost guarantee a “No.” to this question. I’ll bet AC’s response was an implicit “No.” as well. It is interesting that you mention a set of people, only one of which even lived into the twentieth century.

  • rvs

    I especially appreciate the exposing of iffy rhetorical strategies, blatant or not. She’s right that a certain type of worldview mongerer (my attempt to use neutral language) deeply desires to curtail debate, the asking of questions, the having of authentic dialogues (vs staged, controlled, performed, micromanaged dialogues). A common disguise: “doctrine”–which is sometimes a code word in evangelical circles (I’ve noticed) for the reductionistic musings of a few people in positions of power. Tribalism. Totem poles. Idols.

    The idea of worldview in an of itself need not be the problem. I’ve always liked saying the word “Weltanschauung.” She is talking most obviously about a particular concept and practice of worldviewing that is roughly the size of a small closet, or maybe a golf ball.

  • Daniel Merriman

    I have just started this book, but I see a contrast between her reasonably respectful treatment of the reasons behind the early 1940’s neo-evangelical adoption of worldview terminology in the chapters I have read, and her more critical treatment, at least rhetorically, at the end of the book. (Assuming Prof. Enns quotes are representative). That said, I have never been enamored of the terminology. The folks who spout off about worldviews have even less influence on the culture than they think they do.

  • J.M.

    This is pretty much bullshit. There’s nothing wrong with upholding your ‘worldview’ if it’s grounded in rational thought and study of the word. That other people’s worldviews are different doesn’t mean one should abandon the practice of speaking in such terms…ridiculous.

    • As I articulated, I agree that we should fight for a better concept to back ‘worldview’. But you don’t seem to understand the concept which tends to back the term, ‘Christian worldview’. Might I suggest that terminology really can be so polluted and distorted as to make it bad? Consider Nietzsche when he said “God is dead”. He merely meant that the people in the university who used God-talk were not referring to a living being. The meanings behind words can be twisted and destroyed and this must not be ignored.

  • I would argue that we should fight for the word ‘worldview’ to mean something else. It should mean something like the philosophy by which we live. One point, which is often emphasized with the not-so-nice use of the term, is that our presuppositions matter. That is true, regardless of whether the term ‘Christian worldview’ is meant to shut down discussions. Those people can be responded to within their worldview: “the wisdom from above… is open to reason”.

    While I despise AW Tozer’s Knowledge of the Holy, as it says nothing of the servant-nature of Jesus and therefore the servant-nature of God, I do like his statement along the lines of, “Our idea of God is the most important aspect of us.” This is very true. When, for example, the problem of evil is discussed, people’s conception of ‘the good’ come to the forefront in a hurry. One of the core things a Christian does is argue for a different version of ‘the good’ than just about everyone else. I hesitate to fully say this, but I think our most fundamental presuppositions and our idea of God are very closely related.

    One of the scariest things about education these days is that presuppositions are not examined. This is insidious, because by convincing someone of enough consequences of a presupposition, you can get them to accept the presupposition, without conscious knowledge thereof. This, I believe, is extremely dangerous. I think there is very good reason for what Paul says in 2 Cor 10:3-6 “our weapons are not of flesh and blood”. We fight spiritual forces, which include ideas.

  • Daniel Merriman

    I just finished the book. Yes, the quotes Professor Enns provides are there, but they are somewhat selective. A more complete picture of her argument would include her acknowledgement that the very crisis of authority she identifies is in fact a more or less permanent aspect of the Evangelical landscape that has, paradoxically, led to tremendous success in the ultimate objective of soul winning. The authority crisis she identifies has certainly led a few high profile Evangelicals to swim the Tiber, but in the 2/3’s world, Pentecostals are eating Romes lunch, and Worthen recounts the early days of the charismatic renewal when monks attended things like meetings of The Full Gospel Businessmen’s Association to find out what Baptism in the Spirit was all about.

    The book is balanced and Worthen has done a lot of research in unexpected places. Her Apostles of Reason are not as monolithic a lot as I was expecting her to portray. I do think her use of the word cult is over the top and is contradicted by her own evidence. I am a member of a church that left the Souther Baptist Convention and I can say that her treatment of that fight is more charitable to the winners than I would have been.