What do you Get When You Scratch a Neo-Evangelical?

What do you Get When You Scratch a Neo-Evangelical? December 1, 2016

Molly Worthen’s The Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, is a lively and fresh look into the strategic morphing of early 20th century fundamentalism into the conservative, white Protestant movement known today as evangelicalism, or by its more technical term, “neo-evangelicalism.”

By BPL [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons
By BPL [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons
“Neo-evangelicalism” was the term adopted by leaders of this movement who wanted to distance themselves from the perceived cultural backwardness of their fundamentalist forebears (ala the fire-breathing version of preachers like Billy Sunday – image above) while retaining most, if not all, of their theological fundamentals as central to Christian orthodoxy.

Worthen argues that at the heart of this movement (neo-evangelicalism) lies the “crisis of authority” (thus the subtitle of her book). Neo-evangelicals have consistently gathered themselves around an unflenching conviction in God’s special, authoritative, and written revelation. This conviction has usually gone by the name inerrancy, a presupposition that because God does not (even cannot) make mistakes, the Bible can’t contain errors either. (Though evangelicals don’t always agree on what constitutes an error).

What makes ne0-evangelicalism unique from, pre-modern views of revelation is that, well, it is thoroughly modern. It basically adheres to Enlightenment assumptions about the possibility for certainty. We can know things, objective facts, just by looking clearly at them. And the Bible, of course, is a veritable storehouse of divinely revealed, objective “facts.” The facts of all facts, because deposited there by God. So, apply the right method, and you’ve got Truth at your fingertips.

The problem, then, is how such a view of authority works its way out in the real world, when there is no single ecclesial council or authoritative church tradition to determine what the presumed error-less Bible actually says, or what it means. It’s one thing to claim inerrancy as a quality of the text (which is a highly dubious claim); it’s another thing to come to any sense of agreement about what the text is saying and how it guides theology and life in the present. An inerrant text doesn’t guarantee an inerrant interpretation.

This problem is especially acute in a diverse (in some ways), organic, loose coalition of theologians, churches, denominations, schools, and other institutions, having no single overarching structure to bind it together and to determine the implications of and boundaries of that authoritative, inerrant Bible.

The other problem, as Worthen explains it, is this: evangelicals wanted to distance themselves (culturally, though not necessarily theologically) from fundamentalism. So, of their thought leaders pursued academic respectability and cultural influence. They went to elite schools, studied with the most highly regarded professors. But this pursuit for academic respectability often brought them into conflict with their fundamentalist theological convictions.

The “authority” of reason, science, the academy, etc., would always have to give way to the authority of the Bible, or what God had supposedly straight-forwardly and propositionally revealed–there for any to see who have the eyes to see (or at least the correct method and motivations).

At the base of that collision lies the secret of understanding the anxiety still bubbling up within evangelical institutions.

Worthen writes,

Scratch a neo-evangelical and underneath you would likely find a fundamentalist who still preferred the comforts of purity to the risks of free inquiry and collaboration. Their efforts did not calm evangelical anxieties over the place of the Bible in modern life. Instead, they institutionalized them….

They designed their colleges and seminaries to protect the faithful, not as schools with the confidence to invite all comers and entertain any challenge.

Understanding this anxiety about authority is the right place to start when trying to understand American evangelicalism today, at least in its institutional and ecclesial forms. Worthen’s book may be the best single guide.



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