The State of the Evangelical Mind
Reflections on the Past, Prospects for the Future
- ISBN: 9780830852161
- Published By: IVP Academic Press
- Published: December 2018
Mark Noll published The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind in 1994, a volume from a senior professor at the flagship college in American evangelicalism, that served as a call to arms for younger students and academics in the religious movement. “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind” (Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994], 3). However, that manifesto had an impact and things began to change. In the year 2000, Alan Wolfe penned a status report for the Atlantic Monthly that was able to attest to a turn or shift titled “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind.” Noll and Wolfe are just two of the contributors to The State of the Evangelical Mind: Reflections on the Past, Prospects for the Future, edited by Todd C. Ream, Jerry A. Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers.
In September of 2017, Indiana Wesleyan University and the Sagamore Institute gathered a group of scholars to reflect on the state of the evangelical mind over the two decades following the release of Noll’s book. The meeting was provoked by the closure of Books & Culture, a magazine that had served as a staple among intellectually vibrant evangelicals for over twenty years. “[I]f the launching of Books & Culture was a triumph for the state of the evangelical mind, what was its closure?” (3). A summer 2017 issue of Christian Scholar’s Review and this co-edited volume make the reports and analyses from that gathering available.
Mark Noll offers a centering essay, entitled “Evangelical Intellectual Life: Reflections on the Past,” in which he describes four enterprises of consequence for catalyzing the growth of the evangelical mind: the Reformed Journal, the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (hosted at Wheaton College), the Per Evangelical Scholars Program (run out of the University of Notre Dame), and Books & Culture. He charts his own involvement in each of them and highlights the kind of leavening effect they had upon rising scholars in the evangelical milieu. However, Noll notes that all were eventually shuttered (26). Fortunately, Eerdmans (the publisher of Reformed Journal), Wheaton College, Notre Dame, and Christianity Today International (the parent company of Books & Company) have all expanded their intellectual horizons in recent years (27-30). Noll writes, “In short, I might like to think my favored vehicles for promoting evangelical intellectual life each in its own way became indispensable” (30).
Additional chapters address “The State of the Evangelical Church” (Jo Anne Lyon), “University Ministry and the Evangelical Mind” (David C. Mahan and C. Donald Smedley), “John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University and Christian Colleges in the Twenty-First Century” (Timothy Larsen), “Contemplative Posture and Christ-Adapted Eyes: Teaching and Thinking in Christian Seminaries” (Lauren F. Winner), “The Future is Catholic: The Next Scandal for the Evangelical Mind” (James K.A. Smith), and “The Ongoing Challenge of the Evangelical Mind” (Mark Galli). As expected, the essays vary in format, quality, and the specificity of their analysis.
Observing how Noll’s programmatic observations are fleshed out in later essays, two themes deserve special notice. First, Noll suggests that his treatise of 1994 identified struggles in a broadly anti-intellectual culture and not simply as the realities of ailing evangelicalism in particular (32). The editors allude to these broader challenges in a variety of ways in their introduction (9-13), yet the question is not examined further. The biggest lacuna in the volume is its failure to investigate the broader story of anti-intellectualism (“the death of expertise” that we regularly hear invoked) and to analyze ways in which there is a focused iteration of that trend among evangelicals. It is difficult to reflect upon evangelical intellectual life without a sociological control group or a comparison to other trends in higher education, the world of mainstream publishing, and in various think tanks and research organizations.
Second, Noll’s suggestion that the development of the evangelical mind is actually an expansion of Christian intellectual energy and not a narrow evangelical maturity (30-36) is reexamined in Winner’s essay (131-132), as well as in Smith’s chapter (154-160). Smith begins by commending the extension of evangelical scholarship to the populist (frequently anti-intellectual) masses before commending a Catholic (he capitalizes the “C”) future for evangelical thought (156). However, he suggests that the way for evangelicals to be “Catholic” is by “being Protestant,” presumably emphasizing a uniquely Protestant concern for lay education that was a hallmark of the early Reformation and has since been lost in a conversionistic, pietistic, and instrumentalized religious culture. It is one of the strengths of the volume that this trend—which I find to be historically accurate—is addressed in the three essays. It raises the question of long term ramifications for evangelicals, Protestant denominations, and various institutions related to them. Through the use of anecdotal illustrations and hard data, Noll’s work provides insight into The State of the Evangelical Mind.
Michael Allen is John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL.Michael AllenDate Of Review:February 11, 2019