The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind - Book Review - W.L. Bredenhof


Mark A. Noll, Grand Rapids:William B. Eerdmans, 1994, paperback, 274 pp., $23.25.

We live in a time in which it is popular to ignore or deprecate our own traditions or backgrounds and seek for better grazing on the other side of the proverbial fence. A multicultural society disdains those who elevate their own cultural or religious background as if to say that others' backgrounds are worthless. A tolerant society will not tolerate the intolerant. This attitude often carries over into church life as well. In recent years there seems to be an increasing belief that our own traditions or heritages are insufficient, that others may have something that we don't. This is especially true of those voices who urge us to consider what the so-called evangelicals are doing and thinking. Mark Noll's book gives us solid reasons to think twice before so cavalierly turning to the evangelical tradition for guidance in academic and spiritual matters. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was written as a heart felt plea to evangelicals to rethink the connections between the intellectual and spiritual. Noll writes in the Preface: "This book is an epistle from a wounded lover...Although the thought has occurred to me regularly over the past two decades that, at least in the United States, it is simply impossible to be, with integrity, both evangelical and intellectual, this epistle is not a letter of resignation from the evangelical movement. It intends rather to be a cri du coeur on behalf of the intellectual life by one who, for very personal reasons, still embraces the Christian faith in an evangelical form" (p.ix).

The very first sentence of the book gives a curt summary of the contents: "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind" (p.3). Noll (Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College in Illinois) is preoccupied with the problem that, though so numerous, evangelicals have contributed little substance to Christian interaction in science, the arts, politics, or culture in general. Noll undertakes a valuable social-historical survey of evangelicalism in the United States to understand why things have fallen apart.From Jonathan Edwards to Charles Colson, Noll carefully analyzes the trends in American evangelicalism over the last three hundred or so years. This analysis gives a clear pictureof how evangelicals have become lifeless and puerile, unable to contribute to their society in any meaningful way. Much of the blame for this Noll lays at the feet of what he styles aneo-Manichaean worldview. This neo-Manichaean worldview is represented, for instance in Frank Peretti's novels (Noll'sexample) : "conflicts on earth are paralleled by conflicts between angels and demons in the heavens..." (p.140). There is an over emphasis on spiritual forces, says Noll, and an underestimation of the "complexity of mixed motives" in human actions. A very valuable analysis!

While his analysis of North American evangelicalism (he deals with Canada as well!) is extremely helpful, several important elements are missing. In chapter 5, "The Intellectual Disaster of Fundamentalism," Noll isolates several "theologica linnovations" which energized fundamentalism and its defense of traditional beliefs: Holiness (higher life, Keswick) spirituality, pentecostalism, and premillennial dispensationalism. While not dealing with these innovations as the theological errors that they are, Noll does point out their tangible consequences: an impotent, pietistic, individualistic Christianity. However, Noll misses two important elements: the controversy over Lordship and the influence of Arminianism.There are many evangelicals today who teach that Christ can be one's Saviour without being one's Lord. If Christ is not one's Lord, then one will not live with Christ as Lord. One will go on living as a worldling. This seems to be at the heart of much evangelical sterility. It explains those "evangelicals" who freely blaspheme, sing heavy-metal songs, and play professional sports on the Lord's Day. Closely related is the influence ofArminianism. Historically speaking, as N.S. McFetridge shows in his "Calvinism in History," Calvinism has been a motivating force in every area of cultural life throughout history. TheCalvinist recognizes the complete sovereignty of God in all spheres of life -- he strives to take every thought captive, be that thought political, social, economic, or cultural. TheArminian sometimes tries to do this as well, but because he does not confess or understand the complete sovereignty of God and its relationship to human responsibility, he is to some degree(depending on his consistency) left trusting in his own power and his own abilities if he involves himself with cultural interaction. While Noll spends considerable time on Calvinists such as Jonathan Edwards (and Abraham Kuyper), he never fully draws out this important conclusion: the doctrine of the sovereignty of God matters and its deprecation has performed a major role in the effeminization of North American evangelicalism.

Other elements of Noll's book could likewise be criticized (i.e. his ambiguous definition of evangelicalism, his fondness for evidential apologetics), but I would like to conclude by looking at the most significant problem. From the starting gun,Noll reveals a disinclination towards creation science. He explains that creation science (the theory that the earth is less than 10,000 years old and a literal 6-solar day creation) grew out of Seventh Day Adventism and reflects a popular attitude that the Bible must never be read in the light of scientific investigation, but vice-versa. This is the weakest and most profoundly disappointing part of this otherwise worthwhile book. Noll cites the likes of Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield (both whom allowed for the possibility that God used evolution in creation) to prove his position that science can (should) inform our understanding of the Bible. First of all, Noll is wrong that the "theory" grew out of Seventh DayAdventism. Long before Ellen White walked the earth, the great prophet Moses wrote by the Spirit that God created the earth in six days (Ex. 20:11). Are we to believe that Moses thought interms of a framework hypothesis or a gap theory? Moreover, Bishop Ussher's chronology predated Ellen White by about three hundred years. Bishop Ussher proposed that creation took place in 6004 B.C.. Second, Noll seems to think that scientific research is a neutral endeavour, and because it is a neutral endeavour, therefore it can inform our understanding of Biblical passages. Our Lord Jesus Christ taught that neutrality is impossible (Mt. 6:24). There is no such thing as neutral,objective science. Science must start with the proper presuppositions: that the fear of God is the beginning of knowledge and that in Christ are deposited all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3). While Noll castigates evangelicals for not thinking, he himself falls into the trap of refusing to say that scientific research must start with Christian-theistic presuppositions. Neither option is ethically acceptable. One must start in everything with the proper assumptions. Scripture must inform the work of the scientist, it must provide him with a framework, a set of guiding presuppositions. The scientist must, in the words of Calvin, look at nature through the glasses of Scripture. Noll cannot Scripturally maintain his position that science is a neutral endeavour which falls outside of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

While Noll is helpful in demonstrating the sordid history of evangelicalism, he is sadly not immune to its many aberrations.His solutions will in some cases only exponentially compound the problems. Nevertheless, if one reads with a critical and discerning eye, there is profit to be had from spending several hours with this study. One can be encouraged to pursue hungrily the development of a Reformed, Christian mind -- a mind which seeks to take every thought captive to the Lord Jesus Christ in every sphere of life, be it academic or cultural. One can also appreciate the great wealth and heritage that we ourselves possess. After reading this book, pick up Schilder's "Christ and Culture" or Kuyper's "Lectures on Calvinism." See what riches are there. They are not brain-candy to be sure -- it will take some work to read them. However, with the right attitude, you will never regret it. Our Reformed heritage is a deep ocean of commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. Take a life-long swim in that ocean. Dive into the crystal-blue depths. This water brings life into your lungs. Let its cool waves wash over you. See -- this ocean has its source in the revelation of our mighty and Sovereign God. Why would we want to trade this invigorating scene for a dip in a tepid coastal swamp?