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The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

Posted Wednesday, June 20, 2007 by Charlie Trimm
Categories: Culture and Theology  
I have started doing reading for my PhD program this summer, so I thought I would pass along my reading reports. The reports are about 10 pages, so I have divided them up into two posts. The first report is on a fascinating and provacative book by Mark Noll about evangelicals and thinking. I would happy to hear any comments on the book or the report. 

Mark Noll has written a fascinating and engaging book about the current state of the evangelical mind. Since I was raised in a fundamentalist context which emphasized dispensationalism and creationism (the two main targets in the book), Noll’s often perceptive comments brought me both insight and frustration as I contemplated my theological heritage and my current theological context.  

Noll’s main point is clear from the very first sentence: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind” (3). He quickly defines his term to show that the evangelical mind of which he speaks is not simply thinking in the abstract or thinking about the Bible, but a Christian worldview. “By an evangelical ‘life of the mind’ I mean more the effort to think like a Christian – to think within a specifically Christian framework – across the whole spectrum of modern learning, including economics and political science, literary criticism and imaginative writing, historical inquiry and philosophical studies, linguistics and the history of science, social theory and the arts” (7).

 Noll’s agenda is not to inform, but to “incite” (ix) the evangelical community into thinking.  Since the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind, he desires that the evangelical community learn how to think. He does not necessarily want evangelicals to spend more money, but to think deeply.

For evangelicals as a whole, not new graduate schools, but an alteration of attitudes is the key to promoting a Christian life of the mind. It is the same for evangelical scholars. The key thing is to work at it. The superstructures – appropriate institutions, lively periodicals, adequate funding, academic respect, meaningful influence – are not insignificant. Some attention is justified to such matters. But if evangelicals are ever to have a mind, they must begin with the heart (249).

The methodology of Noll is what he calls “a historical meditation in which sermonizing and the making of hypotheses vie with more ordinary exposition” (ix). In line with his main point, he wryly notes that “this is not a thoroughly intellectual volume” (ix). The first chapter gives an introduction to the scandal and aspects to the scandal (cultural, institutional and theological). In the second chapter Noll shows three reasons why the scandal matters: utility (if evangelicals are not using their mind, who will lead them?), the message of the past (Protestants have traditionally used their mind and those who have not emphasized their mind have ended up in heresy), and truth and intellectual heresy (using our mind is loving God and avoids a modern dualism in which the material world is relegated to a realm outside the proper interest of Christians).

Parts two and three are the heart of Noll’s argument as he leads the reader through a history of the emergence of the scandal (part two) and through two areas in which the scandal has affected modern evangelicalism (part three). In chapter three, Noll argues that the beginning of the intellectual problems for evangelicals was produced by revivalism (opposed to tradition and distrustful of learning), the separation of church and state (churches required to compete for adherents, resulting in a focus upon pragmatics rather than intellectual development) and a Christian-cultural synthesis (a linking of evangelicalism with various American ideals, such as republicanism, democracy and a liberal view of the economy). The evangelical enlightenment occupies Noll’s attention in chapter four, as he examines how early evangelicals assumed a number of Enlightenment principles which were helpful in the short term but caused long term difficulties as evangelicals continued in those same assumptions without examining them. The fifth chapter finishes unit two with a discussion of fundamentalism and dispensationalism, both of which Noll shows encouraged strong anti-intellectual tendencies in American evangelicalism. This was due to various factors, such as the secularization of the universities, the belief by evangelicals that science could be done without influence from a worldview, the belief that to be spiritual meant to have nothing to do with the world, the emphasis of hard literalism, a rise of dogmatism and an overly scientific view of theology.

Unit three presents two areas in which Noll examines the past and current thinking (or lack thereof) of evangelicals: politics (chapter six) and science (chapter seven). Noll shows how the lack of evangelical mind has had serious implications in these two areas, with the implication that other areas have serious lacking as well. The final unit is about the question of the hope and whether evangelicals should despair. Chapter eight examines the high points of evangelical thinking in the recent past, while chapter nine concludes the book and gives advice about how to fix the problem.

Overall, Noll’s methodology is primarily historical analysis. While Scripture and philosophy are mentioned on occasion, the primary motivation Noll presents is the historical picture of what happened when evangelicals did not use their mind.

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