The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind
By Mark A. Noll
Reviewed by Dr. Trevor Craigen
7.1 (Spring 1996) : 133-136
The preface describes this book as a "historical meditation in which sermonizing and the making of hypotheses vie with more ordinary exposition" (ix). Then, on the same page, Noll adds what is obvious from the opening salvoes in the first chapter that the book "is meant to incite more than it is meant to inform." An accurate evaluation indeed! The author's gripe (and that is the best term to use) is that no recognizable evangelical mind exists. This is the scandal about which he writes. It deeply disturbs him that modern American evangelicals have miserably failed in sustaining intellectual life. But when all is said and done and this failure has been charted in chapter after chapter, one has to ask, "What are you looking for, Dr. Noll? Do you want evangelical writers to gain recognition by the academia of the day as making a significant contribution to their fields of study? In fact, has the modern academic world shown an ungrudging willingness even to consider seriously research done by evangelicals?" Noll causes such questions, yet he himself acknowledges in the first chapter a rich theological harvest from the pen of "different subtraditions" within evangelicalism (7). Yes, he did explain that he wants an effort made to think like a Christian—i.e., to think within a Christian framework—in all areas of modern learning (7). But is it really true that evangelical writing has not done so?
The opening chapter provides definitions of "The Life of the Mind," "Evangelical," and "Anti-Intellectual," and sketches the cultural, institutional, and theological aspects of the Scandal. Unfortunately it also alerts the reader to Noll's bias against and summary dismissal (a) of those who hold to creation without allowing scientific theories to cloud their exegesis of special revelation and (b) of those who carefully study prophecy trying to bring it to bear upon current events. The areas of Bible and science and prophecy deserve earnest study, and good students and researchers in these areas are not less than intelli-gent or far less responsible than previous generations of writers. Do not tar all with the same brush, Dr. Noll, for many write well and thoughtfully on these issues.
Is it really right to view careful research done by "creationists" to be a sad tale of a fatally flawed interpretive scheme totally unendorsed by responsible Christian teachers of church history? One wonders if Noll ever considered objectively the outstanding contributions made by the highly qualified members of the Creation Research Society and the Institute for Creation Research. Are such writers deemed anti-intellectual fundamentalists who are irresponsible? Are these really those who are "bereft of self-criticism, intellectual subtlety, or an awareness of complexity" so that "they are blown about by every wind of apocalyptic speculation and enslaved to the cruder spirits of populist science"? (14). No objective appraiser of the evangelical scene could ever draw such a conclusion. The criticism is unfounded and indicates Noll's utter subjectivity. The opening chapter, therefore, causes the reader to begin immediately to wonder about the integrity of the analysis given in the succeeding chapters. But then, since the book is a historical meditation and sermonizing, perhaps the loss of objectivity is excusable. Yet when the book clearly implies that modern creationism arose from an attempt to present Ellen White's Seventh-Day Adventist literature as the framework for studying the history of the earth (189), the discerning reader must shake his head in disbelief, and wonder if the author has an axe to grind.
The book is easy to read and with its rapid survey of a broad span of church history forces the reader to recall names, books, and events of the past, and to reflect on whether Noll's assessment of their contribution or influence really is accurate. In all probability this book calls for a whole review article—if not another book—instead of a brief review such as this. Are those who practice normal historical-grammatical interpretation guilty of a "misplaced Baconianism" or of indulging in a Manichaean attitude toward knowledge about the natural world? Are creationists guilty of deductive dogmatism which in some non-scholarly way forcibly and simplistically reads the Bible onto the natural world and into the metaphysical issues posed by modern theories of evolution?
Speaking of "theories of evolution" should have caused Noll to realize that what is still theoretical, and thus unproven, could never redefine, amend, and otherwise tamper with the factual statements of the historical narrative in the Genesis account. The history of science shows that theories of origins come and go and thus cannot determine any age's interpretation of God's special revelation. Noll's evaluation of creation-science as having done much damage to the evangelical mind in preventing clear thinking about human origins, the age of the earth, and the mechanisms of geological and biological change (196) is, frankly, unacceptable. Of course, he is not obligated to accept creation-science if he chooses not to, but then neither must creation-scientists listen to him. An irenic spirit can prevail, but this does notmandate an endorsement of his views.
This reviewer has focused predominantly on creation-science issues, but similar reactions arose in reading of other chapters, particularly "The Intellectual Disaster of Fundamentalism" and "Political Reflection." The reader will ask himself, "Is that so?" "Are you not overstating the case or showing unnecessary bias?" "Are you not too quickly creating a caricature or stereotype?" and "Are you not exhibiting a distinct dislike for dispensational and premillennial writers?" Perhaps one could conclude that the author has expressed his irritation and frustration with an evangelical world that will not kowtow to an unregenerate world's views, theories, and conclusions, but reserves the right to challenge, research, and think without losing the authority of biblical revelation in its thinking. This does not constitute anti-intellectualism or something less than a Christian mind.
Thanks to Professor Noll for his "inciteful" book. It will motivate readers to analyze the history of ideas, biblical themes and their ethical impact, creation-science, and prophecy, but it is doubtful that significant and substantial mergers of the differing convictions and views will occur. Reactions to his book will linger for years to come. Hopefully, it will be the catalyst to cause a serious, non-caricaturing re-consideration of the value of creation-science, of premillennialism, of fundamentalism, and of presuppositional apologetics and to make evangelicals realize they need not be ashamed of the wealth of material they have from good thinkers in their ranks.