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Evangelicals Unreasonable?

Molly Worthen's Apostles of Reason
Evangelicals Unreasonable?

By Drew Trotter

There are at least three reasons why evangelicals should read Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason. First, Worthen has given us a meticulously researched history of a number of strands of the evangelical movement during the last half of the twentieth century and on into the first decade of the twenty-first. It is all here from the standard discussion of Harold Ockenga, et al. and the foundings of neo-evangelicalism, Fuller Seminary and Christianity Today in the 1950’s to the rise of the Post-American and the “left-wing” of evangelicalism under Jim Wallis in the 1970’s to the “Moral Majority” and the incursion into mainstream politics by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and, later, the public battles that split the Southern Baptist Convention and the rise of the Emergent church. Along the way, significant space is dedicated to Carl F.H. Henry, Francis Schaeffer, John Howard Yoder and many other significant personalities of the movement, as well as many of the institutions they served—denominations, magazines, colleges. Worthen has picked and chosen what she wanted to discuss because she has a point to prove: that evangelicalism is torn between wanting to be intellectually respectable within a secular society and wanting to hold to an inerrant Bible because of the belief that it is the Word of God. But she has given us plenty of information to ponder.

The second reason to read Apostles derives from the particular mechanism Worthen has chosen to use to describe what she sees to be evangelicalism’s insuperable difficulties: history. “History—rather than theology or politics—is the most useful tool for pinning down today’s evangelicals.” (Loc 94). Worthen sees herself as chronicling the struggle in evangelicalism to “repair the fracture between spiritual and rational knowledge” in a broad array of institutions and individuals where she feels this struggle is evident, examining “not only…the individuals and institutions that typically star in histories of American evangelicalism…but also the communities on the fringes of evangelicalism’s ‘mainstream’ that might contest the term altogether, such as Wesleyans, Anabaptists, and Pentecostals.” Christians of course provide a central place in their worlds to the discipline of historical inquiry since we believe in the radical importance of history as the purveyor of the truth that God has worked and continues to work in human space and time. And so a “history” needs to seek rigorously to provide a picture that as accurately as possible tells the story one is seeking to tell. Worthen has set a high standard for herself, and respecting that standard, we should examine her book to see if she really does accurately “pin” evangelicals down.

And a third reason we should read Apostles is to continue to sharpen our understanding of how the world of scholarship sees evangelicalism (assuming that the “we” to which I have been referring in this note is primarily made up of people who would use the term “evangelical” to define themselves in some sense). This book veers back and forth between reasonable, thoughtful, fair analysis and wildly pejorative, thoroughly subjective, demeaning accusation without basis in fact. Worse, she acknowledges the very response that most evangelicals would make to her thesis and then simply blithely goes on sticking to her guns without responding to the response.

There is so much unevenness in the details of this book that elaboration upon them is difficult in a review of this size. The ultimate caricatures of Henry and Schaeffer are perhaps the most notable, but her refusal to separate evangelicalism and fundamentalism, as if they were one seamless camp, in spite of objection after objection on the part of those dwelling in both camps, can only be done, I believe, by those who seek to make their point in spite of the evidence, rather than in service of it. Worthen proclaims her thesis of a “crisis” and then describes what really became two camps in the 1950’s as if it had continued as one from then until now.

There really is not a “crisis” in either camp. Both camps work with a tension, a tension she admits is present in all scholarship, that between subjective perspective and objective reality. But in fundamentalism, belief triumphs at every point, and the muddiness of human endeavor, particularly in scholarship or any public intellectual venue, is eschewed. In evangelicalism, however, the primacy of reason, as well as the belief that all humans are both finite and fallible, forces believers to question their own statements and to continue to work toward the unattainable (in this life) goal of objectivity.

Perhaps the worst fault in the book comes in the last chapter where Worthen moves from correctly describing an evangelicalism that has “much to celebrate” (Loc 4423), referring positively to the work of Michael Lindsay and James Hunter, to suggesting condescendingly that the Christian Right, made up of Charles Colson, James Dobson, et al. are really at the heart of evangelicalism, then veering back again to talk about holiness movements, the Church Growth movement and the Emergent church as examples of her thesis. At this point her description of what is “evangelical” gets so confused she quotes James K.A. Smith, making it appear as if he is part of the Emergent church movement. After this she extols the thesis that evangelicals actually hold in my experience, that “scholars in all fields are trained to look out for their own biases and prejudices. But once we complete the ritual of scourging our assumptions, most of us strive to approach the ideal of perfect disinterest. We can never achieve it, but intellectual progress demands that we try, that we venerate the goddess we can never know.” (Loc 4598).

She attributes this attitude to George Marsden and implies that a number of other evangelical scholars hold to it as well, naming in other places in the book Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff and others. Why are they not representative of evangelicalism instead of David Barton?

Apostles of Reason has correctly assumed a tension that is there for evangelical scholarship that is not there for secular scholars, but she has mistaken the point of the tension. Evangelicals believe in the authority of Scripture as primary, not human reason. No evangelical I know would place human reason as an authority above Scripture, so there is not really a crisis of authority present in evangelicalism. The Scripture holds the place of primacy. The tension, however, is that we are left with reason, tradition and experience as the means to interpret that Scripture, and there is the rub because all three of these are fallible and finite. Is this a crisis? No more than it is with secular scholars who face the same tension with their authority of fallible and finite human reason.


All references above are to the Kindle edition of Apostles of Reason.

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