Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).
Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind is “lover’s quarrel” par excellence. It is written by a historian who is also an Evangelical. Noll’s niche has been Christianity in North America, so he is extremely qualified to outline the various trajectories that led to the formation of modern Evangelicalism. As an Evangelical he is not a critic sitting on the outside, but one of our own reminding us that while the life of the mind may not be the only way to approach the divine it is a healthy and legitimate way that has often been spurred by the children of Fundamentalism.
The book is divided into four parts: (1) The Scandal; (2) How the Scandal has Come to Pass; (3) What the Scandal has Meant; (4) Hope? Part 1 depicts the situation in 1994: Evangelicalism as a separatist movement within society which represents a large portion of the population but has been unable to contribute much to broader society’s thinking. There are Evangelical institutions, but very little Evangelical innovation or influence. He ends this section presenting his reason for writing this book and why the problem he is addressing should matter.
Part 2 is where Noll thrives as a historian. There is too much data to adequately summarize here, but the reader may find his or herself in the same place I found myself: it was like hearing stories about your family that you knew in gist, but not in detail. Why did Revivalism emerge? How come Evangelicals seem to have such an ambiguous relationship with the State ranging from Fundamentalist sectarianism to the Moral Majority? Why does our theologizing seem so dictated by Enlightenment ideals while decrying the very worldview that supports it? Why do Evangelicals need their own educational institutions and why do they seem so uncomfortable in the university?
Part 3 focuses primarily on Evangelical engagement with politics and science. Noll traces the ebb and flow of Evangelical engagement and disengagement with these two. In Part 4 he asks if there is hope for Evangelicalism and asks how Evangelicalism’s uniquely crucicentic approach to the Gospel may have anything to offer.
It was an interesting experience to read this book in 2013, almost twenty years since its first publication. A lot has changed for the better; much has remained the same. Evangelicals are trying to rethink the biblicism they received from their Fundamentalist parents. Organizations like BioLogos are evidence that there is a desire to reengage the sciences. Evangelicals are no longer completely co-opted by the political right anymore. That said, as Noll points out, many of the great advancements in Evangelical thinking have not emerged from Evangelicalism itself, but engagement with other traditions: Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Anabaptism, and the Reformed. While Pentecostalism takes a harsh beating from Noll alongside Dispensationalism, one could argue in retrospect that Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism have found a way to mutually inform and mature one another (Noll places Pentecostalism as a subset of Evangelicalism). Evangelicalism’s ability to adopt and adapt ideas from these groups has given the movement more intellectual credibility.
On the other hand, many Evangelicals are still pigeonholed politically. There remains schism causing, life altering debates over things like biblical inerrancy and other disagreements that seem to continually end with an impasse like Evangelical engagement with theories related to human evolution. As the rash of firings and dismissals at various Evangelical institutions of higher learning have proven, we’re not quite sure what to do with the idea of intellectual freedom as it relates to “orthodoxy”. In this sense, Noll’s diagnosis that Evangelicalism has squashed the life of the mind remains true. While there have been advances we have a long way to go still.