The Anvil of the Evangelical Mind

Schools and scholars can help the Christ-centered movement become all the more Jesusy.
The Anvil of the Evangelical Mind
Image: Illustration by Alex Nabaum

Historian Mark Noll’s prophetic call in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind launched a thousand more laments about the shallowness of evangelical scholarship and thinking.

The judgment remains accurate as far as it goes. American evangelical Christians are American Christians, and Americans have never valued the life of the mind as much as they might. But where Noll’s 1994 volume lamented the dearth of intellectual commitment among evangelicals, he now wonders if there is much evangelical thinking among the evangelicals committed to the life of the mind.

In a recent lecture, he said that institutions like Christianity Today and Wheaton College, among others, “sustain Christian seriousness about intellectual life.” He went on to say, however, that among the high level of evangelical learning on display among leading educational institutions and publications, “not much of it seems particularly ‘evangelical,’” but displays learning that draws on broadly Christian sources, like Reformed Protestantism or Roman Catholicism.

“That work is often obviously Christian, but with incredible variety, reflecting a huge mélange of influences,” he said. “For tracing broad trajectories of historical development, the word evangelical is probably still useful. But for contemporary evangelical effort, not so much.”

At the same conference at which Noll spoke, James K. A. Smith of Calvin College went on to argue that evangelical scholars should abandon the attempt to discover and explore the evangelical mind as such, but instead to draw on these broadly Christian resources to shore up their intellectual efforts.

I basically agree with Smith—that is, I believe Christian scholars and schools should draw on the wealth of Christian thinking no matter where it comes from. But I also want to argue that evangelical schools and scholars have much to learn from a distinctively evangelical way of thinking about the faith.

Let me make this case briefly, borrowing from some of the material I used in Still Evangelical? (InterVarsity Press, 2018), as well as my online series on evangelical distinctives.

A Fifth Leg in the Quadrilateral

I begin by doing something foolhardy, risking yet another way of describing evangelicalism. It is certainly hard to beat historian David Bebbington’s quadrilateral of emphases: crucicentrism, conversionism, biblicism, and activism. But to crucicentrism I might add Christocentrism, and I might shape that by way of the historian Perry Miller and what he calls the Augustinian frame of mind. I believe that evangelicalism is a current expression of a venerable and unique way of being a Christian. What Miller said about the Puritans applies in large part to evangelicals as well:

As long as [American Puritanism] remained alive, its real being was not in its doctrines but behind them; the impetus came from an urgent sense of man’s predicament, from a mood so deep that it could never be completely articulated. Inside the shell of its theology and beneath the surface coloring of its political theory Puritanism was yet another manifestation of a piety to which some men are probably always inclined and which in certain conjunctions appeals irresistibly to large numbers of exceptionally vigorous spirits.

I venture to call this piety Augustinian because Augustine is the arch-exemplar of a religious frame of mind of which Puritanism is only one instance of many in 1,500 years of religious history.

We evangelicals share the urgent sense of humanity’s predicament that naturally pushes us to emphasize not only conversion and the centrality of the Cross but also to practice an exceptionally vigorous piety.

Another quote from Miller that starts to fill out this characteristic way of being a Christian:

Puritan theology was an effort to externalize and systematize this subjective mood. Piety was the inspiration for Puritan heroism and the impetus in the charge of Puritan ironsides. It made sharp the edge of Puritan cruelty and justified the Puritan in his persecution of disagreement. It inspired Puritan idealism and encouraged Puritan snobbery. It was something that men either had or had not. It could not be taught or acquired. It was foolishness and fanaticism to their opponents, but to themselves it was life eternal. It blazed most clearly and most fiercely in the person of Jonathan Edwards. It cannot be presented by description.

I believe many of my fellow evangelicals will recognize themselves in this summary, as I do—the heroism and idealism as well as the foolishness and fanaticism. Because evangelicalism is an expression of this enduring Augustinian piety, I do not believe it will ever go away, at least this side of the coming kingdom. We can abandon or change the name evangelical, as many of us wish to do, but that will not change the reality of the lived faith that Miller so perceptively described.

If we see evangelicalism as a contemporary expression of this distinctive way of being Christian, it is not hard to see this stream and its tributaries throughout church history—in German pietism, in elements of the Franciscan movement, in some medieval mystics, in the Waldensians, even in Montanism, not to mention Augustine himself. This is not an expression simply equated with orthodoxy (in fact at times it can wander into heterodoxy—part of that “foolishness and fanaticism”). And one of the qualities that often characterizes it, certainly in the American variety, is its Christocentrism.

A Jesusy Tradition

Many years ago, the then Roman Catholic bishop of Sacramento, California, Francis Quinn, and I were talking about evangelicals who were converting to Catholicism. I was a Presbyterian minister at the time, serving a small church in Sacramento. During the conversation, he said, “When evangelicals move into Catholicism, I hope they bring Jesus with them. We Catholics need more Jesus.” Catholics certainly do not ignore Jesus. He hangs crucified at most of their churches and his very body and blood are received in every Mass. But as the good bishop noted, Jesus is not necessarily at the center of most Catholic day-to-day piety. For many Catholics, that place would be occupied by the Virgin Mary or one of the saints or the magisterium or tradition.

It would be hard to argue that Catholics as a whole are “Jesusy.” That term was coined by writer Anne Lamott soon after her conversion. In a period of dark despondency one night she lay in bed when, as she recalls,

I became aware of someone with me hunkered down in the corner. … The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there—of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.

A week later she found herself in church crying uncontrollably at the singing of the hymns. She left before the benediction and raced home. She says, “I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said, ‘F*** it: I quit.’ I took a long deep breath said out loud, ‘All right. You can come in.’ ” Not your typical conversion story.

Jesus has been the center of Lamott’s faith since, so much so that in an interview in Christianity Today, she said her friends “roll their eyes at me because I am really Jesusy. There is just no way around it.” As she stood before a mostly evangelical audience at Calvin College in 2000, she exclaimed, “We’ll have the Jesusy-ist time ever!”

Lamott, by her own admission, is anything but an evangelical, but “Jesusy” is not a bad way to sum up what is distinctive about the lived faith of evangelical Christians in both our conversion and subsequent spirituality. It harkens back to the 1960s and the conversions of so many hippies who recounted their dramatic encounters with Jesus. They were, as they came to be known, Jesus People. Thus the classic phrases that sum up what one does to become a Christian in our movement. You accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. You invite Jesus into your heart so that you can have a personal relationship with him. And thus also the classic stories that describe the born-again experience of evangelical saints. As John Wesley said about an evening church service, upon hearing Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans: “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation. And an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

One cannot be a Christian without Jesus Christ playing a central role, so in this respect Jesus belongs to every Christian tradition. But one distinctive of evangelical Christianity is that it is, perhaps, the most Jesusy. Most Christian traditions, while surely trying to imbibe the full counsel of God, often understand and enjoy a particular encounter with the Triune God distinguishing them from other streams of the faith. If Pentecostals are known for having a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit, and mystics for enjoying sublime spiritual moments with the absolute, evangelicals are characterized by their Jesus-centered piety.

For our discussion here, the very term “Jesusy” might sound like reckless abandonment of the life of the mind. But please stay with me, and Lamott, Karl Barth, Augustine, and a host of others—it’s not an either/or proposition. It is the Christocentric manifestation of all sides of Bebbington’s quadrilateral.

The first question and answer in the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 neatly summarize the existential priorities underlying the Augustinian mood that drives much of evangelical spirituality: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” The answer:

That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul in life and death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Evangelicals are especially moved by the way Paul talks about all this. “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” “I consider everything a loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage that I may gain Christ.” Such sayings go hand-in-hand with Paul’s repeated affirmation that we are “in Christ,” a phrase he uses more than 200 times in his letters. Evangelical Christians do not merely believe truths about Christ. We do not merely believe that God forgives us because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The most distinctive thing, I think, is this: We are in Christ; Christ is in us. It is, yes, a personal relationship.

“Christ Alone,” a contemporary Christian song popular in evangelical churches (one of many I could have picked), gets at this: “No guilt in life. No fear in death. This is the power of Christ in me. . . . Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.”

As evangelical composers Bill and Gloria Gaither put it in one of their songs, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, there’s something about that name.” We might say, “Evangelicals, there’s something Jesusy about that movement.”

This does not mean that all of us are Jesusy in a more evocative, emotional sense. I am certainly not, but my theology is firmly Christocentric, having been shaped, for example, by the theology of Karl Barth. His Christocentrism is one reason I believe many evangelical scholars are so attracted to Barth. And it’s one reason I think evangelicals should study Barth—not to make them more generically and broadly Christian but to help evangelicals become more Jesusy than ever, albeit with a deeper level of sophistication.

Avoiding the Blender

I believe evangelicalism still has some vital things to bring to the larger Christian conversation. But we’re not going to be able to do that if we abandon evangelical distinctives. I was part of the Presbyterian Church for many years as a pastor, during the later stages of mainline ecumenism. We all—Presbyterians, Methodists, UCCs, etc.—were bending over backward to downplay our distinctives in order to be more unified. To my mind, this led to a blenderized Christianity that bored people right out of the church.

On the other hand, when I go today to something like the Mockingbird website—run by card-carrying Lutherans who frame everything in terms of law and gospel—I am gripped. I do not always agree with them, but I love hearing what they have to say because they bring something distinctive to the Christian conversation.

You go to a garbage dump in Cairo, Egypt, where you find people are living in despicable conditions. But then, lo and behold, you run into a Christian ministry there. Who are these people that would give themselves in service in such a desperate place? I think what you would find is that the ministry is supported and staffed either by Catholic nuns or evangelicals and Pentecostals. Those are the Christians who go to garbage dumps to love people in Jesus’ name. You are not going to find many of the mainline Presbyterians there. You are not going to find many Anglicans there. You are going to find an inordinate number of these crazy, fanatical Jesusy people, driven by a unique spiritual mood and a heroic piety.

Those are people worthy of understanding at deeper psychological, sociological, and theological levels. As are their leaders, who attempt to articulate the biblical theology that drives these Jesusy people. At least a few of our scholars and schools would do well to spend days trying to fathom and explain and champion this way of being a Christian in the world and what role churches, parachurch organizations, and colleges, universities, and seminaries play in the cultivation of the evangelical mind.

Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today. This article was condensed and adapted from The State of the Evangelical Mind: Reflections on the Past, Prospects for the Future (IVP Academic, 2018), which also includes the lectures of Mark Noll and James K. A. Smith.

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