045 The Scandal of Evangelism


In The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1994), Wheaton historian Mark Noll declares: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind” (p. 3). Despite numerical and financial growth, despite impressive evangelistic endeavors, “American evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking, and they have not been so for several generations” (p. 3).

Noll claims to write this polemic as “an epistle from a wounded lover” (p. ix). He thinks the intellectual poverty–the endemic anti-intellectualism–of Evangelicalism limits its influence in the broader culture and renders problematic its survival. Revivalistic churches, especially, remove the memory of tradition and the cognitive structure of the Faith, thriving on an appeal to the feelings and “needs” of their hearers.

He cites with approval the distinguished Lebanese scholar Charles Malik’s judgment: “‘At the heart of all the problems facing Western civilization,'” amply evident, “‘lies the state of mind and the spirit of the universities'” (p. 25). So, Malik asserted, we must resolve “not only to win souls but to save minds. If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover you have not won the world” (p. 26).

Evangelicals do well, saving souls, Noll thinks, but not minds, especially the mind of the world. We’ve failed to clarify ideas which correspond to God’s ideas, failed to do what G.K. Chesterton said St Thomas Aquinas accomplished: to intellectually engage in “‘the praise of Life, the praise of Being, the praise of God as the Creator of the World'” (p. 45).

Christian colleges such as Princeton, up to the Civil War, enabled American Evangelicals to establish learned centers capable of shaping the public mind. A century ago, however, that quickly changed. As tax-funded public universities prospered evangelicals were “utterly displaced as the intellectual arbiters of the nation” (p. 110).

Reacting to a world they no longer influenced, rejecting its liberal currents, Fundamentalists, Holiness churches, and Pentecostals turned inward, neglecting if not ignoring the intellectual issues of their day. An “ardent supernaturalism” encouraged indifference to “worldly” things.

Noll quotes, with apparent relish, Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ condemnation of the Keswick “higher-life” message, which focused on whole-hearted, experiential surrender to God’s will, uncomplicated by rigorous biblical and theological study. He said: “You asked me to diagnose the reasons for the present weakness [of scholarship in the holiness movement] and I am doing it. . . . If you teach that sanctification consists of “letting go” and letting the Holy Spirit do all the work, then don’t blame me if you have no scholars!'” (p. 124).

Like the holiness movement, Fundamentalism impoverished the Faith by reducing it to a few slogans such as “the Book, the Blood, and the Blessed Hope” (p. 133). Thus, Nathan O. Hatch says, its impact on “Christian learning” resembles Mao’s “Cultural Revolution,” for “‘Both divorced a generation from mainline academia, thus making reintegration [into the larger worlds of learning] a difficult if not bewildering task'” (p. 144).

For instance, the thoughtful way with which Charles Hodge and Benjamin Warfield (two of Princeton’s greatest theologians) handled Darwinianism would not be duplicated by later conservative evangelicals. That scientific data could augment and assist biblical interpretation, as Hodge and Warfield suggested, became increasingly suspect.

Consequently, today’s “young earth” theorists have shackled the word creationism (simply holding there’s a divine dimension to creation) with constraints and categories judged incredible by academic scientists. Consequently, it’s non-Fundamentalists such as Berkeley’s Phillip E. Johnson, who set forth the most telling objections to Darwinism (in Darwin on Trial) and gain a hearing in the cultural courtrooms of our land.

So too it’s been C.S. Lewis whose “writing has constituted the single most important body of Christian thinking for American evangelicals in the twentieth century. His defense of supernatural Christianity, his ability to exploit learned culture, his example as a writer of fiction, his demonstration that the truths of the faith could be expressed in lively prose–all contributed an unusual measure of intellectual stimulation to evangelicals on this side of the water” (p. 218).

That evangelicalism has not produced thinkers like C.S. Lewis and Phillip E. Johnson is “the scandal of the Evangelical mind.” To rectify such poverty, Noll calls us to seriously study creation in all its glory, following the example of our LORD, who shaped all that is and rejoices to behold it. If God is, above all, worthy of our worship, His handiwork must surely command our attention.

To regain a hearing, to find a fulcrum of influence in our nation, Noll insists we must celebrate the intellectual vocation, nurture a caste of scholars, and provide institutional resources necessary to publish and promote their work.

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When David F. Wells published No Place for Truth (which I reviewed in “Reedings” #31), he promised to follow up his critique with a more positive proclamation, which he adumbrates in God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1994). (He reneges a bit on the “positive” promise, however, opting to set forth a more modest “perspective” for such proclamation. As we all know, it’s easier to pick things apart than to weave them together! So this is more a continuation of the first volume than an blueprint for construction.)

The volume, as the title portends, resumes Wells’ cultural critique of “modernity;” he believes Western Christian culture has been swept aside by powerful secular torrents. Traditional values and “timeless truths” have simply faded from prominence, if not slipped from memory.

Renewing his distinction between “modernization” and “modernity,” Wells grants the material comforts of the former while condemning the spiritual poverty of the latter. Clinging like barnacles to better nutrition and transportation have come fractured families and suicidal adolescents. At the heart of the crisis lies “the central issue with which Our Time must now reckon: the loss of its center” (p. 14). “At its starkest,” Wells says, “it is the transition from Mozart to Guns n’ Roses, from Aquinas to infomercials, from Milton to gangsta rap. We may now have everything, but none of it means anything anymore” (p. 14).

In the midst of this cultural upheaval, the Christian Church has lost its footing. Particularly, Wells holds, evangelicalism has lost its theological foundation, seeking “cultural acceptability by emptying itself of serious thought, serious theology, serious worship, and serious practice in the larger culture” (p. 27). To get along, evangelicals have sanded off the edges and softened the texture of their faith, making it easier to recruit converts, easier to attract devotees of entertaining self-help talks and rhythmic concerts. In the midst of all their apparent “success,” evangelicals have lost touch with God.

Instead they have pursued alternatives to God, worldly idols of various sorts. Our hearts, Scripture declares, forever fabricate idols–things we construct and control, giving us the illusion of security. One of the idols “made in America” is the worldly church which substitutes self-esteem for divine worship and promotional programs for godly disciplines. Ultimately, “The choices now are sharp and clear. Which of these two competing and antagonistic loves will hold the evangelical heart: love for God or love for the world?” (p. 223).

American clerics, attuned to the emergent consumer culture, have reduced the Gospel to marketable potions targeted for “felt needs.” Thus, Wells says, evangelists such as George Whitefield and “populist” movements such as the Methodists took advantage of this nation’s propensity for popular sovereignty. The most successful revivalists, including Charles G. Finney and Dwight L. Moody, appealed to those anti-intellectual biases in their hearers which encouraged superficial preaching and faith.

Today those biases, Wells argues, sustain much of the “church-growth” movement. Find whats him is what he perceives as the sidelining of God from the entire evangelical enterprise. If God truly IS, His followers should focus on Him, not on themselves as recipients of His benefits. If God truly IS, what we know of Him comes from Him, not from our own minds. From Kant to Richard Rorty, those thinkers most responsible for shaping the “modern mind” have increasingly restricted knowledge to whatever we construct in our own minds. The ultimately autonomous self spawned by the Enlightenment facilely seeks to construct and indwell his or her own world.

Rejecting the worldliness intrinsic to modernity, Wells insists we must recover a commitment to objective truth, rightly apprehending what’s real. We must dive into deep waters to find truth. As P.T. Forsyth said, “The lazy cry of simplicity is a great danger” (p. 118). We must escape the mental drift of what Wells dubs our “cliche culture,” looking up to a God who’s there, a God who’s holy, not a soft shrink who seeks to ease our anxieties. Today’s evangelicals are slipping down the rut of 19th century liberalism, evading the clear biblical emphasis on the holiness of God. “Holiness,” Wells says, “is what defines God’s character most fundamentally, and a vision of this holiness should inspire his people and evoke their worship, sustain their character, fuel their passion for truth, and encourage persistence in efforts to do his will and call on his name in petitionary prayer” (p. 136).

Admittedly a holy God doesn’t fit easily into a therapeutic gospel. Nor does he meet the stipulations of those who insist God is a soft-hearted “daddy” who could never discipline or damn those who defy Him. But Wells insists we must recover a reverence for a Holy God. Only God’s holiness rightly reveals the enormity of sin. And only the enormity of sin rightly requires the atoning work of Christ, providing our salvation.

Wells’ concern for evangelicalism narrows, toward the end of this treatise, to a concern for “the coming generation” of its leaders. He carefully studies some sociological surveys of seminarians, attending the most solidly evangelical seminaries such as Asbury, Fuller, and Talbot. Though these future ministers cling to some traditional affirmations, such as original sin, most of them seem to have embraced “a vision of self as individually discovered or created” rather than one “fallen, perverse, and corrupt” (p. 199).

Their vision of ministry seems calculated to enable people to discover their self-identity, to enhance their self-esteem. (A recent treatise on youth ministry, incidentally, shows that parents most want youth pastors to help their kids feel good about themselves.) Many of them come from troubled families, and, having learned how to help the helpless, “They continue to serve as co-dependent rescuers in their professional capacity in the church, typically fashioning their ministry in terms of counseling” (p. 203). Thus the church is turned into a hospital for the “needy” rather than an army of recruits training for battle.

While Wells sympathizes with the seminarians he helps educate, he grows discouraged considering the prospects for churches under their ministry. The church, he thinks, needs theologically-astute leaders, ready to proclaim the traditional truths of the Christian Faith, seriously intent on doing God’s will rather than pandering to the multifaceted “needs” of the populace.

Like Wells’ first treatise, this book challenges one to think seriously about the issues Wells raises. He has a refreshing willingness to challenge the “success syndrome” which pervades much of evangelicalism. He does, however, suffer from what seems to me the tunnel-vision typical of Reformed theologians, rejecting all which fails to meet certain cerebral categories. It’s a book to read and ponder, not a recipe for fully engaging us in the task to which we’re called.

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Noll and Wells write the kinds of books we academicians applaud, for one of their tacit messages is this: though the world’s in a mess we professors have the answers. (Professors, properly, I suppose, think thinking is of ultimate import.) Thus Noll and Wells write with passion because they assume the Church needs an academic elite to guide it. Without intellectuals, without scholarly theologians, the deposit of faith will not endure! We who read and write books easily embrace this notion, for it sizably enhances our self-esteem! It stands to reason that academicians find academic training and work essential.

The main flaw in the Noll-Wells approach, I fear, is historical data such as detailed in The Churching of America 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, c. 1992) by Robert Finke and Rodney Stark. In America, at least, intellectuals have contributed little to church growth or to the preservation of orthodox doctrine. Instead, they have generally contributed to their demise. Rather than a Christian nation losing its complexion of faith, this nation has been successfully christianized during the past 200 years. This success story, “The churching of America was accomplished by aggressive churches committed to vivid otherworldliness” (p. 1). These churches have not generally enjoyed a friendly press. For example, historians have generally described folks “involved in the Holiness Movement” or backward Bible-belt Fundamentalists as “unsophisticated souls, sadly out of joint with modern times” (p. 5). They were, scholars declaim, “losers,” incapable of meaningful dialogue with their world.

Finke and Stark, however, insist they were winners, not losers. They may have lacked the intellectual acumen favored by scholars. But enthusiastic sects, not the more refined denominations from which they came, christianized the nation. As H. Richard Niebuhr understood, “‘In Protestant history the sect has ever been the child of an outcast minority, taking its rise in the religious revolts of the poor'” (p. 43).

So America’s poor joined sectarian movements and the nation now testifies to their success. When George Whitefield preached, the people flocked to hear him, while established clergy (sounding much like David Wells today) denounced him. The faculty of Harvard published a Testimony against the Reverend Mr. George Whitefield and His Conduct in 1744. Harvard’s professors disliked Whitefield’s enthusiasm, his itinerancy, his emotional appeals. Yet the people (including Ben Franklin) heard him gladly.

Somewhat later, between the War for Independence and the Civil War, Methodists and Baptists flourished. Few of their ministers were educated, and during their dynamic decades neither group established seminaries to train them. Older denominations (Congregationalists; Anglicans; Presbyterians) had an educated clergy, but they failed to match the evangelistic success of their more enthusiastic competitors.

Following the Civil War, however, the Methodist “miracle” turned mirage-like as the movement slipped into the pattern marked by more mainline churches. The “confident, even boisterous, church” of Asbury and Cartwright took on the more starched-shirt qualities of New England academicians. The first Methodist seminary was established in 1847; by 1880 there were 11. Prosperous Methodists wanted educated clergymen, rivaling those in Anglican and Presbyterian pulpits. Revivals and camp-meetings, which had fueled Methodist fires, faded away. German-trained professors quickly overturned “American Methodism’s traditional notions of sin, conversion, and perfectionism” (p. 158).

Methodism failed, wrote George V. Wilson in 1904, because “empty speculative babblings are uttered from pulpit, rostrum, and professor’s chair, where positive truth should be uttered with power of the Holy Spirit resting on the speaker, convicting and not creating doubt. . . . Revivals are scarce. . . . [and] sermons are preached without a single appeal to the sinner to accept Christ Jesus now'” (p. 168). Wilson’s verdict, Finke and Stark say, sums up why sectarian movements, becoming churches, lose their ethos and numbers.

Unlike the Methodists, Southern Baptists maintained their antebellum character, relying on farmer-preachers rather than seminary-trained pulpiteers, resisting the worldly accommodations which typified the more “liberal churches.” Southern Baptists sustained their movement from the Civil War to WWII. During the past three decades, however, a similar struggle has beset the Southern Baptist Convention. “Moderates” and “traditionalists” have battled for control of the seminaries. Whether a basically fundamentalist denomination can recover control of its “modernist” educational institutions remains to be seen. Finke and Stark, however, clearly suggest that if they fail their dynamic evangelistic endeavors will soon be noticed exclusively by historians.

In their dynamic days, along with a down-to-earth clergy, Methodists and Baptists imposed “significant costs in terms of sacrifice and even stigma upon their members” (p. 238). Other-worldly movements gain the most converts; accommodating churches, emphasizing respectability and reasonability, lose members.

So too, Pre-Vatican II Catholicism flourished in America, demanding its members pay the cost of discipleship. Post-Vatican II Catholicism, like Methodism, has relaxed its demands and lost its adherents. While liberal Protestants have rejoiced in the new “openness” and “tolerance” of today’s Catholic Church, those very traits seem to underlay the widespread losses it’s experienced.

Finke and Stark are sociologists, teaching in secular universities. They seem simply interested in highlighting the truth about America’s religious history. Their work forces us to reinterpret much that passes for “church history” as well as what we propose the church do vis-a-vis the world.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub