STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 12/22/2009

The Scandal of The Evangelical Mind--15 Years Later

On Friday, October 2, Gordon hosted a day-long conference on the theme “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: 15 Years Later.” The keynote speaker was Mark Noll, a leading historian of American Evangelicalism and longtime professor at Wheaton College; more recently he has taught at the University of Notre Dame. Speakers from the Boston area joined Noll in taking stock, 15 years on, of his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994), a carefully reasoned case for why intellectual endeavor is a necessary component of our service to God. The conference sessions amounted to a report card on how Evangelicals are doing in this area, with results both sobering and inspiring. The impression made on this observer was simple: Noll’s book is as important and relevant as ever. Highlights from the conference suggest why this is so.

The morning session examined American Evangelicals’ longstanding faith in popular authority figures as opposed to scholars trained in elite centers of learning. Speakers presented examples of self-proclaimed experts who command outsized influence in today’s evangelical churches on subjects ranging from American history to the earth and biological sciences. Unfortunately, through books, lectures, and Internet websites, these Christian pundits often point their audiences away from the best available scholarship. Although amusing at times, these presentations were ultimately disturbing.

A related point was made by David Hempton, an historian of British Methodism who teaches and maintains an evangelical presence at Harvard Divinity School. A native of Northern Ireland, Hempton noted the historic tendency on the part of American Christians to be activists, to turn compassion into practical ministry—a tendency that has earned respect even from extreme liberals. Yet Hempton also noted a discrepancy: Evangelicals have thus far had little influence on the theoretical analysis of major social problems.

Are there role models that illustrate what a Christian intellectual should look like? Several conference speakers pointed to the 18th-century American pastor Jonathan Edwards. Not only was Edwards the premier theologian of the Great Awakening—the revival that swept the American colonies in the 1740s—but he also grappled with the most advanced scientific and philosophical ideas of his day. Surely Edwards would be dismayed to see how his spiritual descendents have largely failed to engage with and contribute to learning in our own time. On a more hopeful note, the Canadian scholar James C. Wallace of Boston University’s Institute of Culture, Religion and World Affairs, spoke on the topic “American Evangelicals: Smarter than People Realize? The Growth of an Evangelical Intelligentsia.”

Mark Noll challenged the Gordon community as a whole at Friday convocation. Intellectual endeavor is necessary, he argued, if Christians as a body are to glorify God. Talented young people should be encouraged to consider dedicating themselves to this high calling. Surely Gordon College should continue its own dedication to helping prepare a new cohort of Christians to become cutting-edge scientists, scholars and social thinkers in addition to training activist “doers” in all walks of life and ministry. Thus we fulfill a key part of our vocation as a Christian liberal arts institution.

Watch an interview with Mark Noll, and his Nov. 6 Convocation address, "Faith Seeking Understanding: The Evangelical Imperative for Evangelical Intellectual Life," both on Gordon's Youtube channel.

Stephen Alter, Ph. D., is associate professor of history at Gordon, where he has taught for nine years. His courses focus on modern America and Britain, including the history of science and scholarship. His latest book is William Dwight Whitney and the Science of Language (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).


Mark Noll