The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind
A few years ago I edited a volume of essays on the doctrine of Scripture with Paul Helm. Just before the deadline for submissions, the project was “named and shamed” by a speaker at an influential evangelical theological conference as being a modern attempt to reaffirm B. B. Warfield’s doctrine of Scripture. Within days, one of the contributors emailed me, concerned that his name was going to be associated with such a project. I was able to reassure him that the project was not intended as a defense of Warfield’s position but as an exploration of the notion of trustworthiness as it connects both to God and to his Word. The gentleman was reassured and remained on board, but the incident simply served to confirm in my mind what I had long suspected: too many evangelical academics want to have their cake and eat it too. They want the piety, and perhaps the platform, which evangelicalism provides them, but they also want to be accepted by those who hang around the senior common room in the university.
The problem, of course, is that one cannot serve two masters: as someone once said, one ends up hating one and loving the other, or being devoted to one and despising the other.
STRANGE TIMES AND SLIPPERY THEOLOGY
We live in strange times. Hardly a year goes by without some conference on the future of the evangelical church somewhere having at least one speaker, or sometimes even a slate of speakers, who arguably represent precisely the kind of theology that has emptied pews, castrated preaching, and disemboweled commitment to the gospel.
I saw a flyer for just such a conference recently, honoring a great evangelical thinker and critic, where one of the keynote speakers represented precisely the kind of slippery theology which the honoree had devoted his life to debunking. Strange times, indeed.
What is going on? Why this craven need for acceptability by the wider world?
WHY DO EVANGELICAL ACADEMICS CRAVE WORLDLY ACCEPTANCE?
I suspect there are a number of reasons for this problem. First, the context of evangelicalism lends itself to just such confusion. Evangelicalism really does not understand what it is. Is it a movement based on an experience (the new birth), or on theological commitments, or on parachurch institutions? Yet here’s the rub: The first (experience) will degenerate into mere subjective mysticism if not connected to the second (theological commitments). The second is now highly disputed among evangelicals, who cannot even agree on the answer to Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” And the third (parachurch institutions) too often either forms part of the problem of defining the second, or, in the USA in particular, becomes less a ministry and more a vehicle for a cult of personality, vulnerable to the kind of criticism made by Eric Hoffer, who said that every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and ends up as a racket. Evangelicalism is a sorry mess, neither pure nor simple.
Second, if a movement does not understand what it is, then it cannot make any really satisfactory determination on who belongs and who does not. The boundaries of a movement are ultimately revealed by the person who comes closest to belonging but who nonetheless does not. Arius is a good early church example. As high and exalted as was his view of Christ, he could still only regard Christ as a creature and not fully God. The boundary was drawn and he was outside of it. Combine the problems of defining evangelical identity with the current cultural penchant for not excluding anybody and you have a heady recipe for total disaster. Say nice things about Jesus, have a warm feeling in your heart when somebody lights a candle, and be kind to your grandmother and—hey presto!—you belong; you too can be an evangelical. Thus we have deniers of penal substitution, of any meaningful notion of biblical authority, of the uniqueness of Christ for salvation, of justification by grace through faith, of the particularity of salvation. No matter: just stress that Jesus was a jolly good bloke, mouth a few orthodox sounding phrases, speak with a bit of engaging passion, and you too can get a membership pass and a speaking gig. And, if the conferences I mentioned above are anything to go by, we fall for such ruses every time.
Third, there would seem to be a pervasive evangelical inferiority complex. This means that, while we do not wish to exclude anybody, we dread being excluded ourselves. Indeed, for the evangelical academic, in a world so ill-defined, it is always tempting to cut just a few more corners, or keep shtum on just a couple of rather embarrassing doctrinal commitments, in order to have just that little bit more influence, that slightly bigger platform, in the outside world. This is particularly the temptation of evangelical biblical scholars and systematicians whose wider guilds are so utterly unsympathetic to the kind of supernaturalism and old-fashioned truth claims upon which their church constituencies are largely built. In so doing, we kid ourselves that we are doing the Lord’s work, that, somehow, because we have articles published in this journal or by that press, we are really making real headway into the unbelieving culture of the theological academy. Not that these things are not good and worthy—I do such things myself—but we must be careful that we do not confuse professional academic achievement with building up the saints or scoring a point for the kingdom.
It remains true (as James Barr pointed out years ago) that evangelical academics are generally respected in the academy only at precisely those points where they are least evangelical. There is a difference between academic or scholarly respectability and intellectual integrity. For a Christian, the latter depends upon the approval of God and is rooted in fidelity to his revealed Word; it does not always mean the same thing as playing by the rules of scholarly guild.
WHAT OUR ACADEMICS NEED: AMBITION…BUT NOT THAT KIND
Finally, too few evangelical academics seem to have much ambition. Perhaps this sounds strange: the desire to hold a tenured university position, to publish with certain presses, to speak at certain scholarly conferences, to be in conversation with the movers and shakers of the guild—these seem like ambitions that are all too common. Yet true ambition, true Christian ambition, is surely based in and directed towards the upbuilding of the church, towards serving the people of God, and this is where evangelical academics often fail so signally. The impact evangelical scholars have had on the academy is, by and large, paltry, and often (as noted) confined to those areas where their contributions have been negligibly evangelical. Had the same time and energy been devoted to the building up of the saints, imagine how the church might have been transformed.
This is not to say that high-powered scholarship should be off-limits, nor that the immediate needs of the man or woman in the pew should provide the criteria by which relevance is judged; but it is to say that all theological scholarship should be done with the ultimate goal of building up the saints, confounding the opponents of the gospel, and encouraging the brethren. The highest achievement any evangelical theological scholar can attain is not membership of some elite guild but the knowledge that he or she has done work that strengthened the church and extended the kingdom of God through the local church.
The day is coming when the cultural intellectual elites of evangelicalism—the institutions and the individuals—will face a tough decision. I see the crisis coming on two separate but intimately connected fronts. The day is coming, and perhaps has already come, when, first, to believe that the Bible is the Word of God, inspired, authoritative, and utterly truthful, will be seen as a sign at best of intellectual suicide, at worst of mental illness; and, second, to articulate any form of opposition to homosexual practice will be seen as the moral equivalent of advocating white supremacy or child abuse. In such times, the choice will be clear, those who hold the Christian line will be obvious, and those who have spent their lives trying to serve both orthodoxy and the academy will find that no amount of intellectual contortionism will save them. Being associated with B. B. Warfield will be the least of their worries.
Years ago, Mark Noll wrote a book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, in which he argued that the scandal was that there was no such thing. When it comes to evangelical scholars and scholarship, I disagree: the scandal is not that there is no mind; it is that these days there is precious little evangel.