The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind


The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark A. Noll seeks to explain how, “…modern American evangelicals have failed notably in sustaining serious intellectual life. They have nourished millions of believers in the simple verities of the gospel but have largely abandoned the universities, the arts, and other realms of ‘high culture.'”

Noll gives as evidence that evangelicals do not sponsor “…a single research university or a single periodical devoted to in-depth interaction with the modern culture.”

When I first read these lines, I believed them. I am wondering now, how a magazine like World would stack up in Noll’s estimation, but I really don’t care. Noll has written this book as a critic of the cultural ocean in which he swims as the McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, so it is bound to contain some personal biases.

Early in the book, Noll reveals that the greatest danger besetting American Evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism. In expanding on his position, Noll quotes from Richard Hofstradter’s Pulitzer prize winning book Anti Intellectualism in American Life:

“One begins with the hardly contestable proposition that religious faith is not, in the main, propagated by logic or learning. One moves on from this to the idea that it is best propagated (in the judgment of Christ and on historical evidence) by men who have been unlearned and ignorant. It seems to follow from this that the kind of wisdom and truth possessed by such men is superior to what learned and cultivated minds have. In fact, learning and cultivation appear to be handicaps in the propagation of faith. And since the propagation of faith is the most important task before man, those who are as “ignorant as babes” have, in the most fundamental virtue, greater strength than men who have addicted themselves to logic and learning. Accordingly, though one shrinks from a bald statement of the conclusion, humble ignorance is far better as a human quality than a cultivated mind. At bottom, this proposition, despite all the difficulties that attend it, has been eminently congenial both to American evangelicalism and to American democracy.”

A proverb in the hand of a fool is a dangerous thing, Mr. Hostradter.

I appreciated Noll’s inclusion of the following quote by John Calvin (1509-1564):

“By “being fools” we do not mean being stupid; nor do we direct those who are learned in the liberal sciences to jettison their knowledge, and those who are gifted with quickness of mind to become dull, as if a man cannot be a Christian unless he is more like a beast than a man. The profession of Christianity requires us to be immature, not in our thinking, but in malice (1Cor. 14:20). But do not let anyone bring trust in his own mental resources or his learning into the school of Christ; do not let anyone be swollen with pride or full of distaste, and so be quick to reject what he is told, indeed even before he has sampled it.”

A good section of the book explains how in the United States the church since the time of the Revolutionary War has been involved in the culture in quite different ways than the church in France during their Revolutionary War.  The way in which the American church develops keeps it relevant to the culture which means fruitfulness in ministry, but at a cost to the church itself. I advise you to read the book for yourself because while it is fascinating, it is beyond the scope of this simple blog post give this topic the attention it deserves.

Noll also covers is depth the way in which dispensationalism and proof texting has damaged the church intellectually.

Although Noll makes a good case for most of his points, he seems to throw the baby out with the bath water when he discusses creationism. I disagree with the points which he makes in that part of the book.

I include the following two long paragraphs from Noll because he brings forth a point that is near and dear to my heart about the middle ages. Bear with me. I am indulging in one of my favorite historical time periods.

Noll pointed out the in church history, the movements with the most significant and long lasting impact have in common that they “involved thinking at the most serious and comprehensive levels…They are vitally interested in the Christian mind.”

“We have seen this was the case in the Reformation. It was also true for the monastic movements of the Middle Ages, which were (it is only a slight exaggeration to say) responsible  for almost everything of lasting Christian value from roughly A.D. 350 to 1400.  The great pulses of monastic reform- whether Benedict in the sixth century, the monks of Cluny in the tenth century, or the Dominicans and Franciscans in the thirteenth century- all had certain things in common. .They all encouraged serious contemplation of God, acknowledged the desperateness of the human condition apart from God, and turned people inward to meditate on the Scripture and to ponder the mercies of Christ. They all encouraged heroic missionary efforts and practical aid for the downtrodden. And they all promoted serious learning as an offering to the Lord.”

“The intellectual activity of the monks during the so-called Dark Ages is justly famous. When the light of learning flickered low in Europe, monks preserved the precious texts of Scripture and other Christian writings. Monks kept alive an interest in the languages. Monks and friars founded schools that eventually became the great universities of Europe. Monks, ,in short, preserved the life of the mind when almost no  one else was giving it a thought. By so doing, by God’s grace, they preserved the church.”

That concludes my informal backyard blog review of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. It is worth reading, even if you disagree with every point that Noll makes, just to obtain a good overview of church history in the United States since Revolutionary days and to see how the church has become so seemingly entrenched in politics and out of sync with Christian intellectual thought. If we do not preserve ‘the life of the mind’ as Noll defines it, the work of the church in this generation will be like weeds in the wind, and much of what we have accomplished will decay before the next generation passes away, kind of like a graveyard of useless outdated VCRs at the dump.



3 Responses to “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”

  1. joelmartin Says:

    Nice review! I think he has published a paper updating the thesis of the book as it is a bit old now.

  2. thegreatfish Says:

    Thank you. I am very behind the times on most things.

  3. thegreatfish Says:

    Also, I edited the post today. It could use a lot more editing, but it is just a blog, not a paper. I changed 50 to 350. That error horrified me more than any of my errors of form or grammar.

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