n modern America, evangelicals rarely break new intellectual ground. While they can mount convincing defenses of the faith and have created an impressive network of higher educational institutions, conservative Protestants do not often lead the way in writing books, doing science, or creating art that forces the secular world to grapple with distinctly Christian ideas.
Molly Worthen’s excellent new book, “Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism” (Oxford, 2013), which traces the intellectual history of evangelicalism over the past 70 years, explains why. At the heart of the evangelical problem with the life of the mind, she contends, is a crisis of authority inherent in evangelicalism itself.
Worthen, an historian at the University of North Carolina, discards the old notion that conservative Protestants are inherently anti-intellectual. Rather, she argues, they take certain ideas—such as the nature of the Bible—very seriously. The evangelical problem, in her telling, emerges because evangelicals are caught between two sources of authority: a particular reading of the Bible on one hand, and a serious interest in secular ideas on the other.
A common thread running through Worthen’s study is the dominant evangelical approach to scriptural interpretation: the doctrine of inerrancy. Although this concept has been massaged in various ways since its 1881 crystallization in an influential article by two theologians at Princeton Seminary, advocates of inerrancy believe that the Bible contains no errors whatsoever, at least in the original manuscripts (now lost to history). This belief sets them apart from most biblical scholars, who, since the 19th century, have maintained that the Scriptures err at least when discussing scientific and historical matters. As Worthen shows, this commitment to inerrancy set up many difficulties for intellectually inclined evangelicals over the course of the 20th century.
Worthen’s study begins with conservative Protestants in disarray after their humiliation at the 1925 Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. Then called “fundamentalists,” this group built a productive subculture over the next two decades, but also displayed a troubling penchant for in-fighting and schism. Some conservative leaders, eager to distinguish themselves from their more militantly separatist brethren, began to advance a more amicable, cooperative, socially aware brand of faith, styling themselves the “neo-evangelicals.” This group found its quintessential leader in Carl F. H. Henry, who published “The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism” in 1947 and became the founding editor of Christianity Today in 1956.
However, the neo-evangelicals’ greatest, and most telling, experience proved to be the founding of Fuller Theological Seminary in 1947. Fuller’s early leaders hoped that the institution would uphold a conservative reading of the Bible (inerrancy) while maintaining first-rate academic standards. Unfortunately, it did not take long for those hopes to be dashed. Within a decade and a half, a rash of faculty resignations (from doubters of inerrancy, uncomfortable with Fuller’s culture; and from inerrantists, loathe to work alongside “liberals”) plagued the seminary’s stability and reputation. Because the two parties had no arbiter (such as a Roman Catholic magisterium), Worthen implies, evangelicalism’s attempt at quasi-ecumenism was bound to fail once real disagreements surfaced. Fundamentalism’s penchant for separatism and theological purity had reared its head again.
In the same way that the crisis of authority quashed the success of neo-evangelicals’ plans for cross-Protestant cooperation, another problem related to authority surfaced with respect to evangelicals’ engagement with the secular world. Throughout a good bit of American history, Protestants could take for granted a kind of cultural Christianity that at least paid lip service to arguments based on Scripture. As the disturbing social changes that characterized the 1960s swirled around them and Protestantism continued to lose its cultural cache, however, evangelicals found that they needed to change tactics in their struggle to defend Christian belief. In Worthen’s apt phrase, they moved “from proof texts to presuppositions”—thus inaugurating an emphasis on “the Christian worldview” as the answer to modernity’s problems.
The most prominent advocate of this type of thinking was the Presbyterian pastor and writer Francis Schaeffer. At first from his retreat in the Swiss mountains, and then from various platforms across the United States, Schaeffer attempted to meet secular culture on its own terms and prove the superiority of the Christian worldview. He succeeded remarkably in prompting evangelicals to take ideas seriously, but he himself often chose to promote problematic grand historical narratives rather than careful scholarship.
The result was that when evangelicals wanted to engage the life of the mind, they quoted self-appointed experts like Schaeffer, often unaware that his ideas were not taken seriously by mainstream scholars. Despite the fact that the academy routinely rebuts this kind of questionable scholarship, Schaeffer’s present-day counterparts—promoters of the “Christian America” thesis and the champions of Creation Science—continue to command quite a large following among conservative Protestants today. The problem of authority continues.
“Apostles of Reason” has many strengths, but I will focus on two. First, it illuminates important figures in evangelical life, whose influence far exceeds their notoriety. J. Howard Pew (the financier of Christianity Today) and Cornelius Van Til (the father of “presuppositionalism” at Westminster Seminary) immediately come to mind. Second, the book also pays attention to Christian traditions within evangelicalism that dissented from the main storyline outlined here. The Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder and the leaders of the “evangelical left” especially are shown to offer alternatives to the stress on rationalist propositions concerning the nature of the Bible, offered by neo-evangelicalism’s Reformed leaders.
Where many evangelicals will want to critique the book, and where I too have my doubts, is with its normative implications, which become increasingly clear toward the end of the story. It is pretty clear that for Worthen, the lack of mainstream adherence to inerrancy and the sometimes overly zealous desire to erect theological fences demonstrate that evangelicals should simply play by the rules of the secular academy with little regard for the doctrine of biblical infallibility or traditional theology. I cannot go there with her; as an evangelical Protestant myself, I believe Christians need to be at least within shouting distance of inerrancy if they are to preserve anything like traditional faith.
Similarly, I disagree with her assumption that the only worthwhile aim of the academy is the production of new knowledge—rather than, for example, the conservation of a theological tradition. Still, I think evangelicals can—indeed, must—learn from the book’s historical argument concerning the problem of authority; we must accept Worthen’s narrative or provide counter-evidence to show why she is wrong.
In the end, we cannot flee our past; instead, evangelicals must put even more thought into the proper relationship between our commitment to Scripture’s authority and the well-established scientific and historical research conducted by secular scholars. Such a task is not easy, but it is a necessary one if evangelicals are to avoid both the Scylla of pure secularism and the Charybdis of ignorance.
Image copyright Oxford University Press.
Benjamin J. Wetzel is a Ph.D. student in history at the University of Notre Dame. He can be reached for comment at email@example.com.