Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind
Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994
‘Tis mercy all! Let earth adore; Let angel minds inquire no more.
Charles Wesley, who must be counted among the fathers of evangelicalism, wrote this line to one of his more famous hymns. This sentiment would prove representative, influential, and prophetic about the community of faith he would help to form—evangelicals—especially in the United States. The verse communicates that sense in which what matters is obedience, worship, and trust; not thought. A pursuit of religious understanding may even represent a matter of pride or develop into a corruption of faith. There is some validity to that argument and to Charles Wesley’s hymn, but the overstatement of this argument has had dire consequences on the state of faith among modern “evangelicals” and Christendom in general.
“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of a mind,” Noll writes in his opening sentence. That is a controversial umbrella statement, of course, but the evidence is there. Written in 1994, Noll provides ample evidence at the outset of his book that the “life of the mind” is not a prized virtue among modern North American evangelicals (broadly defined). Those of us who have spent time with this particularly broad group of Christians probably already know this. Noll’s book asks why this is the state of things.
Noll’s answer involves tracing out the historical and theological development of North American evangelicalism from its roots in European movements such as pietism and Puritanism, to its developments in the ‘First’ and ‘Second Great Awakening’, through its development in Pentecostal and Charismatic dispensationalist revivals and finally the fundamentalist movement in the first half of the 20th century. This is a story of the degeneration of the intellectual aspect of evangelical Christianity. The culprit, Noll suggests, is the very theological (i.e., intellectual) foundations that the early evangelicals used to defend and spread their movements. Over time one theological development after the next continued to downplay and marginalize the role that the understanding plays in the religious life among evangelicals until we get to where we are today. Noll concludes the book, however, with a hopeful note, asking how evangelicalism might begin to correct the problem not from without, but from within.
The primary thing is that Noll nails it. His description of the way in which modern evangelicals tend to ‘think’ and value thinking confirms my experience. Granted I’m a part of a pseudo-evangelical tradition (Churches of Christ; see below), my education, to many, is a source of suspicion rather than authority. There is an extraordinary level of goodness and godliness among those I minister with at the churches I’ve served. One does not need an advanced degree to serve the poor. That is the genius of the theological foundations of evangelicalism. But that same anti-intellectual sentiment has produced a lot of bad fruit as well—mean-spirited, legalistic, self-righteous religious controversies, reformulations of various heresies that have stunted spiritual growth, and corrupted, hierarchical power-systems that have produced emotional, spiritual, psychological, and even physical and sexual abuses, to name a few. Bad beliefs have consequences, and a rejection of the intellectual heart of Christianity is the fertile ground in which these beliefs can take root.
The most general of these argument suggests that from at least the mid-eighteenth century, American evangelicalism has existed primarily as an affectional and organizational movement. The very character of the revival that made evangelical religion into a potent force in North America weakened its intellectual power. (24)
In these terms, the problem of fundamentalism was that the worst features of the nineteenth-century intellectual situation became the methodological keystones for mental activity in the twentieth century. (130)
Mark Noll is one of America’s greatest historians for good reason. He has his finger on the pulse of a vital problem. He analyzes it with precision and provides the vision of a historian for how such a problem might be addressed. This book was written over 20 years ago, however, and the problems seemed to have only worsened. I recommend this book without hesitation, but I want to conclude with just a couple of non-critical quibbles.
First, I wonder if the real issue behind the scandalous lack of an evangelical mind is not a more simple and insidious one. I wonder if the problem might simply come down to a broader cultural educational deficiency, a capitulation to materialism and power that might be challenged by good theology, a deep-seated Nietzschean Ressentiment against those who have invested the time and discipline into education (and a corollary power-hungry elitism among the intelligentsia), or simply a fear of calling into question many beliefs that one has sanctimoniously held to and defended over the course of a lifetime. I’m not saying that Noll’s historical-theological analysis is wrong by any stretch, but I wonder if it is the product, not the producer, of these particular vices. Or maybe it’s a chicken-or-the-egg issue—both sides playing into each other.
Second, I come from a group of non-mainline Protestants called “Churches of Christ,” which have a complicated relationship to the label “Evangelical.” Noll uses a broad umbrella, which is fine for his purposes, including Churches of Christ in the groups he evaluates. And in many cases his descriptions stick. But in many other cases they don’t. Although in some respects I think Church of Christ folks have fallen prey to the same scandal as our evangelical cousins, I think we got there by a different way; there are different dynamics that fuel our anti-intellectualism, and we have a different version of this lack of a mind than what might be found amongst our non-denominational, Baptist, and Methodist brothers and sisters. I await the book or article that would attempt to address this same problem from the particularities of the Churches of Christ. Any takers?