December 9, 2013

Here are the closing two paragraphs of Molly Worthen’s book Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (see here for the previous post, which will lead back to the first in this series).

I think these paragraphs are an apt conclusion to the book, expressing both criticism for the intellectual history of evangelicalism while also acknowledging strengths. Bolded portions are my emphais.


The term evanglecial mind conjures images of a creature of many faces sharing one brain, or at least a movement of people who think and act in concert. No metaphor could be further from the truth. This story of shifting and conflicting authorities, evolving alliances and feuds, and debate over the essence of Christian identity means that it we continue to speak of an evangelical mind–if we continue to use the word evangelical at all, and we will–we must allow room for diversity and internal contradiction, for those who love the label and those who hate it. We must recognize that American evangelicalism owes more to its fractures and clashes, its anxieties and doubts, than to any political pronouncement or point of doctrine.

It may be wiser to speak instead of an “evangelical imagination.” In every individual, the imagination is the faculty of mind that absorbs ideas and sensations as fuel to conjure something new. It is a tool for stepping outside oneself or plunging into egocentric delusion. But we might also speak of the imagination that a community shares, no matter how furious its internal quarrels: a sphere of discourse and dreaming framed by abiding questions about how humans know themselves, their world, and their God. The evangelical imagination has been both an aid to intellectual life and an agent of anti-intellectual sabotage. Above all, it is a source of energy: energy that propels evangelism, institution-building, activism, care for the suffering, and a sincere passion for intellectual inquiry. It offers no clear path past the impasse of biblical authority, no firm discipline for the undecided mind, and no reconciliation with the intelligentsia of secular America. But any crisis of authority is no longer a crisis if it has become the status quo. If the evangelical imagination harbors a potent anti-intellectualism strain, it has proven, over time, to be a kind of genius.

Several things strike me here, but I will mention only one: the call for diversity in the use of the term “evangelical.” The term is here to stay in American culture, and rather than fighting and hand writing over who has the divine right to use the label, perhaps there is a better way forward: to embrace significant internal diversity as as part of the evangelecial identity.

To do this, however, the American evangelical power brokers will have to lay down their guard and allow for an evolution (if I may use the word) in what the label means. I think this will be hard to so, given that evangelicalism was created to protect boundaries rather than entertain a redefinition of those boundaries.

I suppose we shall see.




November 8, 2013

In chapter 5 (“The Marks of Campus Conversion”) of her recently released book Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press), Molly Worthen looks at the founding of faith-based colleges in the early decades of evangelicalism, and the resulting uneasy relationship between the evangelical quest for academic respectability and the academic freedom that is normally considered part and parcel of that quest. (All italics below are mine.)

“The one thing most crucial to professional higher education was the one thing that most stymied conservative Protestant educators: academic freedom. Behind their hand-wringing over the liberal arts [vs. a Bible-based education] and their resentment of meddling accreditors was the fear that these reforms would encourage teachers and students to prize intellectual exploration over evangelism and prefer the scientific method to proof texts. They would ask questions–and venture answers–that might place their salvation at risk” (p. 109).

“The inductive method [in general and particularly of Bible study] appeared to repair the fracture between faith and reason. It restored the Bible to its rightful authority while assimilating–yet restraining–human rationalism. Over the years, conservative Protestants would use it to hold at bay a range of ideas, condemning everything from Darwin’s evolution to inborn homosexual orientation as mere ‘theories,’ speculative hypotheses without basis in inductive study of facts. By this standard, academic freedom as understood in the modern secular university–the liberty to follow scientific observation to its conclusions even if those conclusions flout received wisdom, and the liberty to answer to no other authority than one’s colleagues–was not freedom at all, but slavery to human pride that would lead young Christians from the narrow path” (p. 110)

“Yet Christian colleges could not win the approval of secular accrediting bodies without raising faculty salaries…, standardizing tenure, and codifying operating procedures in a way that checked executive power and gave the faculty some voice and opportunity for professional development. Capricious tenure policies and unfair dismissal sometimes continued, but now that their schools were part of interstate associations that included public, Roman Catholic, and mainline Protestant colleges and universities, faculty began to think of themselves as professional scholars responsible not only to their college and church, but to a community of intellectual peers …[which led to the formation of various evangelical academic societies for those seeking] to balance standards of professional scholarship with the demands of faith….Through the 1950s and 1960s, however, many of the most talented evangelical scholars spent their careers at Christian colleges that did not encourage them to think of themselves as citizens of a broader intellectual community” (p. 111).

November 5, 2013

The first part of Molly Worthen’s assessment of American evangelicalism (Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism) is a nearly 100-page section on inerrancy entitled “Knights Inerrant.”

As with any work of this type that tries to lay out an issue with some patience and detail, it is difficult to lift out some representative quotes.

But I did it anyway.

Hopefully these will give you some taste for this portion of the book–though to assess the book itself, you have to read it (duh).

“[Second generation fundamentalists] aspired to the intellectual sophistication of old [19th century] Princeton, but it was not clear whether nuance was compatible with their sense of mission. Inerrantist intellectuals considered themselves something like Protestant Marines, a warrior corps whose confidence in the authority of scripture–and commitment to taking the principle of God’s sovereignty to its logical extreme–anointed them as the Bible’s first shock troops, favorite sons, and truest defenders” (24).

“From the neo-evangelical point of view, if Christian civilization was to survive the twentieth century, then biblical inerrancy and a reenergized Christian Weltanschauung [worldview] must form its bedrock…. [Despite Pietistic influence] a more rationalist, Reformed school of thought dominated their training. In this tradition, there was a single proof that one’s presuppositions were the right ones, and one acceptable defense for any intellectual position: It was a true reading of the inerrant gospel” (35).

“In their call for engagement with the wider culture, for intellectual curiosity and rigor, the cadre of ex-fundamentalists at the center of the neo-evangelical movement tapped into a real sentiment simmering among Protestants. Yet for all the broadminded engagement that they encouraged in theory, their institutions waved the banner of biblical inerrancy without coming to terms with the controversy surrounding the doctrine” (53).

“[The neo-evangelical] ahistorical view of scripture, their overriding desire to defend the doctrine of inerrancy as ancient, immutable, and God-given, made sensitive scholarship impossible” (71).

“[P]resuppositionalists’ basic proposition, which they readily admitted–God is perfect and incapable of error in his revelation, and therefore no human may contradict that revelation–committed them [ironically] to a highly rationalistic view of the Bible. Since God could never err, any apparent discrepancy between scripture and scientific knowledge revealed not a mistake in revelation or a rupture between faith and reason, but merely the error of human interpretation” (87).


May 18, 2015

HeieiMy friend Harold Heie has a passionate commitment to fostering respectful conversations on the internet about difficult topics among evangelicals. Heie is Senior Fellow at the Center for Faith and Inquiry at Gordon College (full bio here). He is the author of Learning to Listen, Ready to Talk: A Pilgrimage Toward Peacemaking and Evangelicals on Public Policy Issues: Sustaining a Respectful Political Conversation.

His recent book tackles another difficult topic:  A Future for American Evangelicalism: Commitment, Openness, and Conversation, where Heie summarizes and reflects on an eCircle conversation he hosted on his blog in 2013, “American Evangelicalism: Present conditions, Future Possibilities.” (See also my earlier post.) That conversation took place among 26 evangelical thinkers, including me, John R. FrankeKarl GibersonJeannine Brown, Christopher M. HaysRichard MouwAmos Yong,  John Wilson, and Molly Worthen.

After two brief introductory chapters (“American Evangelicalism and the Broader Christian Tradition” and “Continuing the Conversation”), Heie covers over the next 7 chapters the issues that were addressed in the original eCircle conversation.

  • Evangelicalism and the Exclusivity of Christianity
  • Evangelicalism and the Modern Study of Scripture
  • Evangelicalism and Morality
  • Evangelicalism and Politics
  • Evangelicalism and Scientific Models of Humanity and Cosmic and Human Origins
  • Evangelicalism and Higher Education
  • The Future of Evangelicalism

Nothing controversial at all in these topics. Back to your homes, citizens. Nothing to see here.

In this volume, Heie does what he does best: he assembled a group of thinkers representing diverse points of view, who are (see subtitle) committed to what they believe, are open to hearing what others have to say, and demonstrate that openness by engaging in a respectful conversation with others.

I have to say, that’s hard to pull off for a person like me, seeing that I know I’m basically right most of the time (just ask my wife) and wish everyone else would see it so the world would be a happier place.

On the other hand, Heie opens the volume with a favorite quote of his from the late Ian Barbour:

It is by no means easy to hold beliefs for which you would be willing to die, and yet to remain open to new insights; but it is precisely such a combination of commitment and inquiry that constitutes religious maturity (Myths, Models and Paradigms, p. 138).

True, that is “by no means easy” but a worthy endeavor nonetheless. I promise to try harder. In the meantime, Heie is already pulling it off.

If you want a break from internet rancor and ideological battles, Heie walks the walk and talks the talk.


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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