Modern American evangelicals are the spiritual descendants of leaders and movements distinguished by probing, creative, fruitful attention to the mind. What went wrong? The Protesttant Reformers, the English Puritans, leaders of the eighteenth-century evangelical Awakenings like John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, and a worthy line of stalwarts in the last century like Francis Asbury, Charles Hodge, and John Williamson Nevin—all believed that diligent, rigorous mental activity was a way to glorify God. None of them believed it was the only way, or even the highest way, but all believed in the life of the mind. And they believed in it because they were evangelical Christians. Yet we modern evangelicals have not pursued comprehensive thinking under God or sought a mind shaped to its furthest reaches by Christian perspectives.
We are, rather, in the position once described by Harry Blamires for theological conservatives in Britain: “In contradistinction to the secular mind, no vital Christian mind plays fruitfully, as a coherent and recognizable influence, upon our social, political, or cultural life.… There is no packed contemporary field of discourse in which writers are reflecting christianly on the modern world and modern man.”
Although Blamires’s assessment may not be as true today (in America or Britain) as was the case 50 years ago, yet we would be deluding ourselves if we thought that evangelical thinking in our day has progressed very far. Our recent gains are modest. The general impact of Christian thinking on the evangelicals of our country, much less on the nation’s academic culture, is slight.
The problem is not primarily formal theology as such. With the likes of Tom Oden, J. I. Packer, Gabriel Fackre, David Wells, John Stott, Ronald Sider, Donald Bloesch, Clark Pinnock, and others, evangelicals enjoy steady guidance in academic theology. The larger difficulty concerns Christian thinking across the whole spectrum of learning—economics, politics, literary criticism, imaginative writing, historical inquiry, philosophical studies, linguistics, history of science, social theory, and so forth. The harvest in these areas remains small.
Words of Lebanese diplomat and Christian intellectual Charles Malik from 1980 spotlight the most important issue. With great magnanimity of soul, but also with great courage, Malik took evangelicals straight to the woodshed. Malik suggested that since the dilemmas of modern life were at least in part intellectual dilemmas, it was important for Christians to realize the magnitude of their intellectual task:
“The problem is 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. Indeed it may turn out that you have actually lost the world.”
But then Malik turned to look at the contribution of evangelicals. He was not unappreciative of the work evangelicals have been doing since World War II, but his words described the nature of our intellectual change with uncommon force:
“The greatest danger besetting American Evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism.… People are in a hurry to get out of the university and start earning money or serving the church or preaching the Gospel. They have no idea of the infinite value of spending years of leisure in conversing with the greatest minds and souls of the past, and thereby ripening and sharpening and enlarging their powers of thinking. The result is that the arena of creative thinking is abdicated and vacated to the enemy.… For the sake of greater effectiveness in witnessing to Jesus Christ Himself, as well as for their own sakes, the Evangelicals cannot afford to keep on living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence.”
Recently two very good, but also very disquieting, books have been published about the twentieth-century intellectual life of American evangelicals. Both are by historians who teach at the University of Wisconsin. Ronald Numbers’s The Creationists explains how a popular belief deceptively known as “creationism”—a theory that the earth is 10,000 or less years old—has spread like wildfire in our century from its humble beginnings in the writings of Ellen White, the founder of Seventh-day Adventism, to its current status as a gospel truth embraced by tens of millions of Bible-believing evangelicals and fundamentalists around the world. Paul Boyer’s When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture documents the ongoing, and even growing, popularity among American Bible-believing Christians, again mostly evangelicals and fundamentalists, of radical apocalyptic speculation.
Both books tell a sad tale—Numbers on how a fatally flawed hermeneutic of the sort that no responsible Christian teacher in the history of the church has ever endorsed came to dominate the minds of American evangelicals on scientific questions; Boyer on how an equally unsound hermeneutic has been used with wanton abandon to dominate twentieth-century evangelical thinking on world affairs.
These books share in common the picture of an evangelical world almost completely adrift in using the mind for the sake of Christ and the Scriptures. They describe Christians who think they are honoring the Scriptures, yet who interpret the Bible on questions of science and world affairs in ways that fundamentally contradict the deeper, broader, and historically well-established meanings of the Bible itself.
So what? might be an evangelical response. So what if American evangelicals commit themselves much more thoroughly to creating TV networks than to creating universities? So what if evangelical activism allows scant room for the cultivation of the mind? So what if evangelical populism regularly verges over into anti-intellectualism? What is at stake in letting the mind go to waste?
To be sure, hard intellectual labor has not always led to a healthy church. Sometimes, in fact, the pursuit of learning has been a means to escape the claims of the gospel or the requirements of God’s law. Yet, generally, the picture over the long term is different. Where Christian faith is securely rooted, where it penetrates deeply into a culture to change individual lives and redirect institutions, where it continues for more than a generation as a living testimony to the grace of God—in these situations, we almost invariably find Christians ardently cultivating the intellect for the glory of God. The most important matter, however, is not pragmatic results but the truth. Learning matters because the world matters—the world both as a material object and as the accumulated networks of human institutions. The most important reason for exercising the life of the mind is the implicit acknowledgment that things do not exist on their own.
To a Christian, the mind is important because God is important. Who, after all, made the world of nature, and then made possible the development of sciences through which we find out more about nature? Who formed the universe of human interactions and so provided the raw material of politics, economics, sociology, and history? Who is the source of harmony, form, and narrative patterns and so lies behind all artistic and literary possibilities? Who created the human mind in such a way that it could grasp the realities of nature, of human interactions, of beauty, and so made possible the theories on such matters by philosophers and psychologists? Who, moment by moment, sustains the natural world, the world of human interactions, and the harmonies of existence? Who, moment by moment, maintains the connections between what is in our minds and what is in the world beyond our minds? The answer in every case is the same: God did it, and God does it.
It is of small consequence that evangelicals have no research university, or that they have no Nobel laureates. It is of immense significance that evangelicals are not doing the kind of work for which research universities exist and that is recognized by Nobel Prizes. Why? Because the great institutions of higher learning in Western culture function as the mind of Western culture. They define what is important; they specify procedures to be respected; they set agendas for analyzing the problems of the world; they produce the books that get read and that over decades continue to influence thinking around the world—and they do these tasks not only for the people who are aware of their existence, but for us all. Evangelicals who think that the basic intellectual operations performed by the modern research universities can be conceded to “the world” without doing fundamental damage to the cause of Christ commit a serious mistake.
To be sure, scholarship is not the most important thing in the Christian life. But the intellectual life is still important. It is one of the activities carried on in the body of Christ, all of whose members, as the apostle Paul teaches, deserve the equal concern of others (1 Cor. 12:14–26). As such—and no more—the life of the mind deserves the kind of cultivation that evangelicals regularly bestow upon their other business. If evangelicals acknowledge that it is appropriate, as a Christian, to be the best ballplayer or bank executive or operator of a janitorial service or owner of a retirement home or third-grade teacher that God has made it possible for a person to be, why do evangelicals find it difficult to believe that it might also be appropriate, as a Christian, to cultivate the life of the mind as thoroughly as possible?
The answer, in part, lies in our history. Evangelicals do not, characteristically, look to the intellectual life as an arena for glorifying God because, at least in America, our history has been pragmatic, populist, charismatic, and technological more than intellectual. In our tradition, we leap much more eagerly to defend the faith than to explore its implications. We have tended to define piety as an inward state opposed to careful thought rather than a human state that includes the mind. Although such tendencies are, by specifically Christian standards, indefensible, there are good historical reasons why American evangelicals have adopted them and so devalued the life of the mind.
During the Reformation, the major Protestants, especially Luther and Calvin, defended the absolute necessity for higher education against populist anti-intellectual movements. Invariably, where Protestant universities were strongest, the Protestant Reformation had its greatest impact.
Even more relevant to our situation are the English Puritans, whose concept of religion so profoundly influenced the whole course of later evangelicalism. The Puritans were convinced that all aspects of life—whether political, social, cultural, economic, or ecclesiastical—needed to be brought into subjection to God. The glory of the Puritans was to believe what they believed and do what they did as parts of a comprehensive intellectual effort that included political theory, social theory, views on work, business ethics, recreation, sexual love, and many other spheres of what we now often call “secular” life.
If our evangelical heritage began with the Reformation and then passed through the English Puritans, what happened? Why does the respect for the mind seen both in the sixteenth-century Reformers and in the seventeenth-century Puritans no longer prevail among modern evangelicals?
The answer, at least in part, is found in three aspects of our history. Modern American evangelicals are, first, the product of revivalism. We are, second, the heirs of a Christian-American cultural synthesis created in the wake of the War for Independence. We are, third, the product of the fundamentalist movement. Each of these influences is ambiguous—each preserved something essential in the Christian faith, but each also undercut the hereditary Protestant conviction that it was good to love the Lord with our minds.
The defining figure in the history of American evangelicalism is the eighteenth-century revivalist George Whitefield. As shown in the splendid recent biography by Harry Stout, Whitefield’s style—popular preaching aimed at emotional response—has continued to shape American evangelicalism long after Whitefield’s specific theology (he was a Calvinist), his denominational origins (he was an Anglican), and his rank (he was a clergyman) are long since forgotten.
The way in which evangelicalism in America came to be defined by populist revivalism insured that it would continue to be heard in a society increasingly defined by the norms of democratic individualism. But it also meant that the kind of intellectual effort pursued so naturally earlier in the history of the church lost its place among later evangelicals.
Ambiguity also prevailed when, after the American War for Independence, evangelicals established an intimate union with the main currents of the new nation’s culture. The cultural life of the early United States was defined by its republican theory of politics, democratic theory of society, individualist conception of economics, and Enlightenment view of learning. Here again we meet a paradox. Evangelicals were influential in the early United States because they successfully adapted their Christian convictions to American ideals. At the same time, evangelical thought became weak in the early United States for precisely the same reason: because they uncritically adapted their Christian convictions to American ideals.
After the Civil War, evangelicals experienced a cultural and intellectual crisis. Evangelism continued, with much good being done by leaders like D. L. Moody. But Christians also suffered many reverses. They were pressed beyond their intellectual resources.
Within a generation, the cities had mushroomed; older churches no longer seemed able to preserve a vital witness in these cities; immigration brought vast numbers of new Americans and great problems of social cohesion; mammoth factories sprang up, and their owners achieved unrivaled influence in public life; freed slaves were forced back into inhumane conditions in the South and allowed a mere subsistence in the North; the Bible came increasingly under attack as a largely irrelevant mythological book; and new views in biology challenged both divine creation and the uniqueness of the human species.
When Christians turned to their intellectual resources for dealing with these matters, however, they found that the cupboard was nearly bare. As a result, the Christian cause suffered because evangelical Protestants had not been exercising their minds. It would suffer even more when considerable numbers of Protestants, in an effort to regain their intellectual balance, became fundamentalists.
The end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth century was a critical period for American evangelicals since, in reaction to their loss of dominance in the United States and in an effort to maintain the truth of historic Christianity against vigorous opposition of several sorts, many evangelicals looked for new theological support. This was the era when evangelicals in large numbers turned to premillennial dispensationalism, to a new emphasis on holiness, and to Pentecostalism.
This historical era remains critical for evangelical thinking since it so thoroughly established our habits of the mind for regarding the world. For those who doubt the lingering power of evangelical instincts acquired in the fundamentalist era, it is enough to consider only a few matters of fact.
• On predispositions in the use of Scripture, we should remember that, after the Bible, the best-selling book of any sort in the United States during the 1970s was Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, and that in early 1992, several evangelical publishers sold more than half a million copies each of apocalyptic speculations concerning the Gulf War. The system of biblical interpretation promoted in such publications was unknown in the United States before 1870.
• On tendencies in viewing the world, the sensationally popular novels of Frank Peretti employ a heightened dialect of spiritual warfare that can be traced directly to teachings concerning Satan and the Holy Spirit that came to prominence in the first decade of the twentieth century.
• In general responses to crises, evangelicals in the late twentieth century still follow a pathway defined a century ago. When evangelicals think they are in a crisis situation, we usually do one of two things: We either mount a public crusade, or we retreat into a pious sanctum. That is, we are filled with righteous anger and attempt to recoup our public losses through political confrontation, or we eschew the world of mere material appearances and seek the timeless consolations of the Spirit. Not since the midnineteenth century have evangelicals characteristically tried to meet crises with a combination of voluntaristic activism, personal spirituality, and hard theological effort.
Under the influence of changes taking place at the turn of the century, evangelicals pushed analysis away from the visible present to the invisible future. Under these influences, evangelicals replaced respect for creation with a contemplation of redemption. In each case, fundamentalists tried to read experience from the divine angle of vision. In each case, we tried to understand the contemporary world as the divinely inspired authors of Scripture had understood their experience—thereby denying that ordinary historical processes—networks of cause and effect open to public analysis by all—had anything significant to contribute.
For example, in 1939 as Europe spiraled into what would become World War II, Donald Barnhouse, the popular pastor, editor, and radio speaker from Philadelphia, reassured readers of his periodical, Revelation, that they should not be surprised by the rush of current events since they “know the general lines of Bible prophecy.” Because they had studied the Book of Ezekiel, they knew more about what was going on around them than did the Saturday Evening Post. Barn-house’s comments were entirely characteristic of a mentality that continues to prevail widely among evangelicals.
In the enthusiasm for reading the world in light of Scripture, evangelicals often forgot the proposition that the Western world’s early modern scientists had so successfully taken to heart as a product of their own deep Christian convictions—if you want to understand something, you have to look at that something.
The net result has been described vividly by historian Nathan Hatch: “Let me suggest somewhat whimsically that the heritage of fundamentalism was to Christian learning for evangelicals like Chairman Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ [was] for the Chinese. Both divorced a generation from mainline academia, thus making reintegration [into the larger worlds of learning] a difficult, if not bewildering task.”
Fundamentalism was a response to real crises. Its effort to preserve Christianity as a supernatural religion and the Bible as genuine revelation from God was all to the good. But in defending the supernatural, fundamentalists and their evangelical heirs resemble some cancer patients. We faced a drastic disease, and we were willing to undertake a drastic remedy. The treatment may be said to have succeeded: the patient survived. But at least for the life of the mind, what survived was a patient greatly disfigured by the cure itself.
Is it possible that evangelicalism and fundamentalism could be intellectually scandalous in another sense of the term, in the distinctly Christian sense, as Paul put it in 1 Corinthians, that the Christian message of a crucified God is a scandal to those who cannot believe (1:23)?
Whatever damage an excessive supernaturalism exerted on evangelical thinking, that same supernaturalism did keep alive an awareness of transcendence and so passed on to succeeding generations the critical starting point for meaningful Christian thought. If fundamentalism eviscerated thinking, by the same token, the fundamentalist devotion to Scripture points us to a better way.
The questions with greatest intellectual moment for those of us who are fundamentalists and evangelicals are the questions with greatest moment, period:
Does the Cross mean what we evangelicals say it means?
Was the Son of God truly born of a virgin, truly incarnate in human nature?
Did Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, really live on this earth?
Did Jesus die a real death, did he really rise bodily from the grave?
And does the Holy Spirit really extend to repentant sinners the benefits of the incarnate Christ in this life?
If evangelicals believe such realities, the life of our minds may yet reawaken. The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation tells us that God himself chose this world—a world defined by materiality as well as spirituality, a world of human institutions as well as divine realities—as the arena in which to accomplish the salvation of the elect. The Christian doctrine of the Atonement tells us that God redeemed a people for life in this world, as well as for life in the world to come. The knowledge that the physical bodies of believers “are members of Christ” (1 Cor. 6:15) tells us something of how God values the material realm. And the fact that the gospel goes out as a universal offer to all humanity suggests something about the dignity in this world of all human beings and the potential value in this world of all that they do. The rudiments of an evangelical life of the mind may have been there all along. The scandal of the evangelical mind may be addressed by the scandal of the Cross.
Finally, and ultimately, the question of Christian thinking is a spiritual question. What sort of God will we worship? With this question we return again to the most important matter concerning the life of the mind. The Gospel of John tells us that the Word who was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of a glorious grace and truth, was also the Word through whom all things—all phenomena in nature, all capacities for fruitful human interaction, all kinds of beauty—were made. To honor that Word, evangelicals must know both Christ and the world he has made.
Loren Wilkinson is the writer/editor of Earthkeeping in the ’90s (Eerdmans) and the coauthor, with his wife, Mary Ruth Wilkinson, of Caring for Creation in Your Own Backyard (Servant). He teaches at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
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