Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 109 (January 2001): 14-17.
Those of us who call ourselves “evangelical scholars” are accustomed to suspicion from the church and incredulity from the academy. Modern scholarship, many in the churches believe, has proven itself implacably hostile to faith. Evangelical Christianity, many in the academy believe, holds to propositions that have no legitimate place in learned discourse. Perhaps more commonly, we evangelical scholars find ourselves in the even more depressing situation where no one pays us any notice at all. As an antidote to the wounded amour propre brought on by this state of affairs, it is good to recall how Bishop John Wright once challenged Catholic scholars of a previous generation who were tempted by self–pity: “Where in the New Testament, the Church of the Fathers, or the history of the saints from Paul to Thomas More were the genuinely thoughtful promised any other lot, whether at the hands of the world or at the hands of their uncomprehending brethren, than contradiction and constant testing?”
For those of us who nonetheless continue to complain about opposition and neglect, Alan Wolfe’s report in the October 2000 Atlantic Monthly on “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind” comes as a pleasant surprise. In the fifteen–page cover story, Wolfe advances what he obviously thinks are startling theses for the magazine’s regular readers. His main point is that a number of religious colleges and universities (he mentions Baylor University, Calvin College, Pepperdine University, Valparaiso University, Wheaton College, Fuller Seminary, and also includes the high–profile evangelicals teaching at Notre Dame) are actually promoting a fairly vigorous intellectual life. Specifically, at these institutions, “evangelical scholars are writing the books, publishing the journals, teaching the students, and sustaining the networks necessary to establish a presence in American academic life.”
Wolfe’s article asks some important questions about the quality and durability of evangelical achievement. Before returning to these, it is perhaps allowable—if also characteristically un–evangelical—to bask for a moment in Wolfe’s positive observations.
For example, Wolfe shows that evangelicals enjoy a few public spokespersons, like Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary, who can be as innocent as doves in proclaiming an old–fashioned gospel message and wily as serpents in knowing when, where, and how to proclaim it. Wolfe also provides some overdue recognition for the evangelical political scientists (including John Green, James Guth, Lyman Kellstedt, and Corwin Smidt) who have provided necessary categories and much of the essential analysis for understanding evangelical political clout in the recent past. In addition, he is unusually perceptive in noting that one of the roots of the current boom in Christian philosophy, to which evangelicals make a substantial contribution, was the painstaking pedagogy of O. K. Bouwsma, William Frankena, and William Harry Jellema, three scholars from a previous generation all but unknown in broader evangelical circles. (Wolfe might also have paid similar attention to the better–known Carl F. H. Henry.) He also notes the solid gains made by evangelical historians in pushing the record of revivalist, fundamentalist, sectarian, holiness, and theo logically traditionalist groups into the consciousness of general American historians. (He mentions George Marsden as a key figure, as is appropriate, though an even longer article would have given Wolfe the chance to add the names of two deceased scholars, the Nazarene Timothy L. Smith and the Canadian Baptist George Rawlyk.)
Wolfe’s appreciative report carries, however, far more than mere commendation. His probing of the new evangelical intellectualism is, in fact, as challenging as it is complimentary. It invites several kinds of response.
On the most superficial level, it is possible to question some of Wolfe’s factual assertions. He confuses the chronology and the circumstances under which the distinguished then–Lutheran historian Jaroslav Pelikan left Lutheran Valparaiso University for employment elsewhere, and he depicts the style of Baylor’s energetic president, Robert Sloan, as much more authoritarian than is the case. Wolfe, in addition, claims that the departure of George Marsden, Richard Mouw, Alvin Plantinga, and Nicholas Wolterstorff from the faculty of Calvin College in the 1980s left the intellectual cupboard bare, when in fact there remained (and remain) at Calvin an awful lot of solid academic contributors.
But such matters are niggling quibbles. The critique of evangelical intellectual life contained within Wolfe’s substantial appreciation is worthy of serious attention from those who want to promote learning in league with faith. Two of the most sharply stated items in his bill of particulars are provocative questions about institutional statements of faith and a pensive query about the intellectual effects of evangelical democratic populism.
Regarding those statements of faith that several colleagues use to screen prospective faculty, Wolfe moves in two directions at once. On the one hand, he seems to suggest that schools that use statements of faith must inevitably lose credibility since they thereby choke off the free flow of debate, without which true intellectual life is not possible. In my view, this criticism is not compelling. Evangelical scholars who are active in their disciplines, publish in academic and popular forums, and use e–mail do in fact participate regularly in vigorous intellectual exchange. It is also the case that, as Wheaton’s President Duane Litfin suggested to Wolfe, “a healthy academic marketplace of ideas will view academic freedom as the right not only of individuals, but also of those institutions [made up] of voluntary groups or communities of individuals.” On this question, it would seem that Wolfe’s pluralism, which should deprecate institutional conformity as seriously as individual conformity, points in the same direction as the evangelical insistence that faith statements function as an essential guardian of their identity.
In some of his expressions, however, Wolfe seems to question not so much statements of faith as such, but only the overly restrictive ones. Wolfe notes, for example, that although the English Department at Wheaton “has a love affair with Catholic—and Anglo–Catholic—writers, including Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy,” and although Wheaton maintains an important collection of the papers of G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, and J. R. R. Tolkien, it will not hire Roman Catholics and could not, because of its statement of faith, employ the Anglicans Lewis and Sayers. In his words, “Without a literature that is in one way or another a product of Catholicism, Wheaton could not aspire to a life of the mind. A college that would not allow on its faculty authors whose letters are welcome in its archives has a problem it needs to resolve.” If the defense by Wheaton’s Litfin of faith statements is fair, so too is Wolfe’s challenge about the shape such statements should take.
Wolfe is even more worried about the populism that pervades evangelicalism than he is about statements of faith at individual evangelical institutions. And well he might be. An ability to connect with ordinary people—in print, through the airwaves, by means of active voluntary societies, and above all in face–to–face speech—has always been the driving engine of evangelical religion. That same engine has often run roughshod over intellectual work. Wolfe is particularly concerned that since evangelical populism now finds expression in “a therapeutic sensibility and a culture of nonjudgmentalism,” evangelicals will not have the wherewithal to do the tough reasoning, make the unpopular tenure decisions, and carry out the arduous research required for genuine intellectual life.
Wolfe was disconcerted, for example, to find at one of the institutions he visited an entire course devoted to the work of M. Scott Peck, whom Wolfe calls “one of America’s best–known New Age psychologists.” Wolfe is on solid ground in seeing the respect granted to Peck’s ideas as the type of category mistake often made by evangelicals. As a popular figure and a publishing phenomenon, Peck does deserve attention, especially for the opportunity to ascertain why his writings resonate with so many readers. But to treat the writings themselves as of intellectual import is to confuse the dignity bestowed by popularity with the status earned by insight.
Evangelicalism’s populist instincts affect the prospects for a genuine life of the mind in other ways. Wolfe is quite complimentary about the still new journal Books & Culture: A Christian Review, which has provided five years of stimulating engagement with a wide range of cultural and intellectual topics. Yet this magazine faces the same challenges to survival confronted by all evangelical periodicals that are not directed at the populist center. It is a successor to such publications as Eternity, His, and the Reformed Journal, all of which aimed just slightly higher than the democratic average that evangelicals know so well, but in the end could not survive.
Alan Wolfe has many kind things to say about the Christian liberal arts education that Wheaton College is trying to provide its students. Wheaton’s appearance for the first time this fall among the “Best National Colleges” in the U.S. News & World Report survey might seem a fitting complement to Wolfe’s Atlantic essay. Yet closer attention to the specific information supplied by the U.S. News tout sheets actually reinforces Wolfe’s concern about the effects on evangelical learning of the democratic impulse. By comparison with other colleges in “The Top 50,” Wheaton students rank in the top half or even top quarter. But in “faculty resources” it ranks dead last, and in general “financial resources” next to last. I note that this conjunction is pertinent, not as a cryptic plea by a Wheaton professor for a higher salary, but as confirmation of Wolfe’s suspicions. Evangelicals characteristically view institutions of higher learning like Wheaton as worthy of both high expectations and enduring suspicion.
If, as the author of a book entitled The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, I might be indulged a few words on what Wolfe has described as “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind,” I view signs of intellectual life among evangelical Protestants as the product of both energy and insight. The energy continues to come from traditional evangelical sources—urgency about the gospel, dedication to the Scriptures, and seriousness about God’s law, but also status anxiety about a fundamentalist past. The insight comes from new and serious appropriation of classical Christian traditions.
Today we do witness an evangelical artistic and aesthetic awakening, but it follows trails blazed by Roman Catholics, Anglo–Catholics, and a few Dutch painters from the age of Rembrandt and van Ruisdael. We are experiencing a genuine revival of philosophy among evangelicals, but it is a revival fueled by some Thomism, more Kuyperianism, and also a little eighteenth–century Scottish realism. Political and social thought is quickening among evangelicals, but the midwives are Oliver O’Donovan’s Anglican Augustinianism, Ronald Sider’s Anabaptism, the social pronouncements of Popes Leo XIII and John Paul II, the odd combination of ultra–postmodernism and traditional Anglo–Catholicism promoted by the Radical Orthodoxy circle, and (again) the principles of Abraham Kuyper. Most evangelical historians who publish for broader audiences downplay their traditional evangelical providentialism for in–house consideration and take their ideological cues instead from Augustine, Luther, Kuyper, or Reinhold Niebuhr.
Among all the fresh evangelical initiatives, the Intelligent Design movement comes closest to using indigenous evangelical resources to build its intellectual superstructure. But much of the impact of this movement comes precisely from abandoning the biblical literalism of historic fundamentalism and pushing the debate over origins back onto territory once occupied by Aquinas’ “Five Ways,” William Paley’s cosmology, and Thomas Chalmer’s Astronomical Discourses—a territory where evangelicals are settlers rather than natives. In sum, evangelical intellectual life could not exist without both a distinctly evangelical religious energy and a broadly ecumenical appropriation of classical Christian resources from many traditions forgotten or suspected by modern evangelicalism.
Evangelicals should thank Alan Wolfe for providing considerate treatment of some of the fruits of this complex dynamic. We should be even more grateful for his challenge to think with greater care about our own habits of mind, our own expectations for learning, and the impediments we ourselves construct against faithful use of our God–given intellects.
Mark A. Noll is Professor of History at Wheaton College.