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August 22, 2014
"The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind" has become a landmark publication in Christian circles. In it, the distinguished historian Mark A. Noll offers a critique of evangelicalism's attitude towards the life of the mind.
The book deals primarily with the state of American evangelicalism, although Noll sometimes notes the contributions and goings-on of Canadian and British evangelicals. According to Noll, the decline of the evangelical mind in America had much to do with the Revivals and the rise of 20th century fundamentalism. Although the First Great Awakening featured a figure of the intellectual calibre as Jonathan Edwards, the movement did not produce any sophisticated successors to the Princeton theologian. The sermons of the revival preachers were aimed at Americans' hearts rather than their heads and, to their credit, generated a renewal of piety. Theology was filtered to remove confusion and the sermons reflected broader Christian beliefs rather than the distinctive doctrines of denominations. As well, although many clergymen served as presidents of America's prestigious universities, they were eventually replaced by a business elite who downplayed the importance of Christian thinking in favours of skills that would prepare students for the workforce.
The other factor that led to the decline of the evangelical mind was the rise of fundamentalism which promoted a literary reading of the Biblical text, a Baconian approach to science, an acquiescence to Enlightenment ideas and a fixation on the Apocalypse (indeed, Noll calls fundamentalists "Manicheans" because in their fervour for the supernatural, they have spurned study of the natural world). Noll suggests that the lingering conflict between science and fundamentalists/evangelicals is to be blamed on the government's public promotion of knowledge; the government mandates schools to use textbooks that contend for the evolutionary view which affronts fundamentalist creationists who see this as an assault upon God's sovereignty.
Noll reflects on certain areas of knowledge, particularly philosophy, politics and science. He applauds the philosophical contributions of Christians, noting the "philosophical renaissance" being experienced in the academy, thanks to the likes of Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga. He notes the mixed results of evangelical engagement with politics (noting evangelicals' activist tendencies). He laments the tension still being experienced in Christianity's relationship with science - a recent phenomenon he declares as he reveals that an evangelical as respected as B.B. Warfield (1851-1921) had no qualms about accepting evolution as God's means of creating.
What is particularly significant about this critique is that Noll himself identifies as an evangelical. This allows him to offer an insider's view of the current Christian intellectual climate. Despite his criticism of fundamentalist, charismatic and dispensationalist thought which he blames for the decline in the evangelical mind, he does end the book charitably, noting that evangelicals, though they may not be winning Nobel Prizes, do have sincere zeal and passion for bringing people to Christ.
This is a valuable read for any Christian. What stands out particularly for me is Noll's contention that American evangelicalism is populist and practical (values I strongly uphold myself). This can cripple evangelism because Christian thought is diluted to its barest essentials to avoid obscurantism and no attention is given to unnecessary things such as aesthetics (think of how many evangelical churches pay little heed to arts in worship). However, it is this populism and practically that has arguably been the fuel of evangelicalism in the first place, as Noll himself suggests when comparing thriving American churches with the older, elitist churches of Europe which have suffered dramatic decline. While this book was published in 1994, part of me wishes an updated edition would be published with Noll's assessment following the massive popularity of the "Left Behind" series (with the first book released a year after in 1995). Noll does end the book somewhat optimistically by looking at gains evangelicals have made in intellectual fields. Indeed, I do believe many evangelicals, particularly the "young, restless and Reformed" group, have demonstrated an enthusiastic passion for the life of the evangelical mind.
Dr. Knoll's book is a broad overvew of evangelical engagement with current theological, cultural and scholarly development. As a former evangelical, I found myself nodding my head in agreement several times, especially with the discussions of the loss of modern evangelicals' intellectual connection with its founders and the YEC.
One last thing: the previous reviewer is opposed to literalism but believes in inerrancy. Are they not the same wolves in slightly different sheep's clothing? Both ideas state that everything God intended for us to know is in our perfect Bible - the literalists simply do not allow for allegorical interpretation. Centuries of poor Biblical translations and the misconceptions they have caused will forever negate any comfort I have with inerrancy. And how do we know our canon is complete? The Nag Hammadi scriptures were clearly left out of the canon for various theological and political reasons; the church chose the apostolic writings it wanted to include in the New Testament. Anyone who thinks the Bible is complete and inerrant is, as Dr. Noll suggests, unwilling to use their modern intellectual capabilitlies to accept possibilities other than normative Christian thought.
This is specifically a response to David's review above. Dr. Knoll is quite right to compare (Young Earth) Creationism to flat earth and geocentric models of the universe. If YEC's claims were true, almost all principals in the disciplines of physics, astronomy, chemistry, and biology would completely fall apart. Adopting a non-literal position of Genesis is necessary not to appease agnostics, as David suggests, but to worship a God who does not unfairly ask us to ignore the plain evidence that He allows us to observe regarding the age of His creation, which have held up to every rigorous empirical test. Even allowing for some allegory, Genesis still gives us an account of God as the Creator (science has no competing explanation; 'big bang' fleshes out some details, but does not uncover the purpose, but rather supports faith in creation for the open minded inquirer) and the fact of human free will (which is often exercised sinfully). Regarding this second point, happily, most secular thinkers also accept this. Isn't understanding of these essential themes more important than how literally small details should be understood? Might the fact that, within the Pentateuch, the dimensions of the tabernacle are given in far greater detail than the creation of the entire universe be a clue as to the lack of intent for Genesis to be used as a science text? "Engaging" the secular crowd in intellectual pursuits is not the same thing as denying everything that is uncovered which contradicts a literal interpretation of scripture! (deny first, find a grasping-at-straws rationale later).Inerrancy is not the same thing as literalism (which is untenable and 'scandalous'; YEC IS a scandal). Inerrancy means there are no errors in the Bible; that we have the scriptures God, in His sovereignty, intended us to read. It IS a reasonable position to hold by faith. The same cannot be said for literalism, which holds that God wants us to shut down our minds while reading scripture.
I read this book because I got tired of evangelical pastors dismissing the hard work of good theology because it's wasn't good for church growth. Mark Noll addressed that issue head on and I greatly appreciate his insights and historical perspective showing how we have arrived at our current state of watered down, slick packaged Christianity.My difficulty with the book is that he attacked the Creationist position like it was the flat earth position or the sun revolves around the earth position. Creationsist are doing what his book advocates, which is engaging the secular, naturalistic, modernistic world of science with a well thought out, highly educated, scientifically based, Theocentric argument for the veracity of the Scriptures. Mr. Noll is ready to throw away way too much Scripture in order to be accepted by the agonostic crowd as appearing intelligent. You must throw out the Gensis account of Creation, Jesus' account of the Gensis account, the Gospels geneology of the Gensis account and the Pauline Epistles teaching on the Gensis account of creation. You must introduce death before sin and dismiss God's own account that everything He created was good. And why? So that you can be accepted by those who are looking for an explanation of all things that exist without any supernatural elements. You appear to deny the Flood, Jonah, Noah's Ark and all miracles that would make us look stupid in the eyes of the agnostic. Do you deny all miracles? Do you deny the virgin birth, inspiration, the bodily resurrection? In the one area where evangelicals are going toe to toe with the agnostics you want to slip away and not be heard for fear they won't believe you when you talk about Heaven. If they don't believe that they were created by God they won't believe they need to turn from their sin and accept Him based on a scientfically impossible event like the resurrection of the God-man Jesus the Christ. The Gospel is foolishness to them that perish.
Kudos to Dr. Noll's insightful and informative work. Peering into the vaccuum of modern evangelical scholarship, Mark Noll clearly explains the necessity of Christian intellectualism. He creates a mountain of evidence for his case, compiled by his vast knowledge of the American Church and his own critical scholarship. Noll without apology expresses a unspoken fact about modern evangelicalism: thinking and reasoning have become unpopular and foreign. The book pulls no punches and honestly examines the past century of shallow evangelical thought that is impossible to deny. It is a criticism but one full of hope and exhortation.