The Scandal of “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”

The Scandal of “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”

Written by Benjamin L. Mabry |
Wednesday, March 15, 2023

What must not be forgotten, however, is the use to which this book has been put toward for the last few decades.  Those who used this text to promote a syncretism of Christianity with secular ideological agendas have done untold damage to the cause of the Christian faith and are directly responsible for the divisions that rock the Christian world today.  The Evangelical community is in immediate, mortal danger of following in the footsteps of the Mainline Churches, and of sacrificing their Christian distinctiveness in order to be accepted as one of the tame, docile, neutered “comprehensive belief systems” within the approved list of those permitted by the secular regime.

Why bother to review a book that is nearly thirty years in print and has been subject to no end of commentary and discussion at every level of Evangelical scholarship?  Mark Noll’s most famous monograph, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, has become a household name in Evangelical intellectual circles and a byword for the problems facing that community.  The career of Francis Collins was considered by many in the Evangelical community to be an example of Noll’s arguments in action.  He was among the highest profile of a number of high-profile Evangelical scholars to be appointed to prestigious positions in the U.S. Federal Bureaucracy.  However, many of the recent criticisms of Collins’s decisions, which can be found summarized in The Federalist, created shockwaves across the Christian academic community.  It seemed that Collins, and many other prominent Evangelicals like him, had been co-opted by the secular regime and culture which increasingly appears to be the antithesis of Christianity.  In fact, however, Collins’s actions don’t represent a betrayal of the Evangelical community, but merely the all-too-common, predictable actions of Evangelical elites desperate for the approval of secular authorities.  These and other recent events should cause Christians to knock the cob-webs off of Evangelical thinking about Evangelical thinking and question whether the positions advocated in The Scandal actually led to Christ-centered scholarship.

A Flawed Narrative

At first glance, the most striking element of this text is the failure to adequately define what is Evangelical about this tradition, without which one cannot diagnose the Evangelical Mind.  Noll’s narrative encompasses parts of the Protestant Tradition but doesn’t seem to follow any clear standard of inclusion, which ultimately confounds any attempt to seek an authentically Evangelical way of thinking.  Luther and Calvin are considered intellectual precursors to Evangelical Protestants, and the Lutheran or Presbyterian intellectual giants of the 19th Century are included, but modern-day Lutherans and Presbyterians fall outside of the Evangelical category.  Some Unitarians and Anglicans are treated as Evangelicals during the 18th and 19th Centuries while their modern-day descendants hang rainbow flags and deny the divinity of Christ.  Fundamentalism results in “virtually no insights” into intellectual matters, and yet arch-fundamentalist J. G. Machen gets citation and praise.  Christianity Today is described as an Evangelical publication, albeit mixed with public affairs reporting, and yet in practice its reporting is heavily criticized by Evangelical leaders like John Grano and Richard Land as out of touch, elitist, and speaking to “fewer evangelicals with each passing year.”  The result is that his historical narrative feels overfit to the model he establishes in Chapter 1, and that the criteria of inclusion remains obscure.

Related to this theme, Noll tries to discuss the collapse of the Protestant intellectual tradition and yet says no word at all of the mass apostasy of the Mainline Protestant denominations in the mid-to-late 20th Century.  As Robert Putnum and David Campbell so aptly describe (American Grace, pp. 83, 134), the distance between Mainline Protestantism and Evangelical Protestantism is so slight prior to the mid-20th Century that Americans freely switched between these denominations and their intellectual traditions were largely interchangeable.  Beginning in the 1960’s, however, the Protestant world underwent a collapse that reverberates to this day, yet no mention of this appears in his intellectual history of Protestantism.

Ironically, this notion might even save his flimsy definition of Evangelical.  By a recognition of the fact that most Mainline Protestant denominations apostatized from Christ, one could make a plausible argument that Evangelicals are in fact a remnant of the full Protestant Tradition, and rightly link modern Evangelicals to the great intellectual leaders of Protestantism’s past.  Yet Noll rejects this notion, leaving his argument in a limbo of bad definitions, because the result of such an analysis would indicate that his entire religious history in Chapters 3 and 4 does not apply to modern Evangelicals but to apostate Mainline Protestants.  His causative narrative doesn’t lead to the Evangelical Mind, but to the Puritan Hypothesis of modern Progressivism.  The children of Christian Republicanism, Enlightenment Christianity, and the Protestant-American synthesis are not rural, blue-collar Bible-believing Evangelicals but secular, progressive, politically-radical, gender-queer Episcopalians.

What, then, is the most generous way to take this historical narrative seriously?  Given the context and the description of the author’s intentions in the prologue, one who reads The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind should take its historical narrative as an aspirational retro-conversion of Protestant intellectual history, in order to make a persuasive case for how modern-day Evangelicals should reinterpret their past.  The question then becomes, is the narrative that Noll creates persuasive or does it fail to represent the lived, real experience of what it means to be an Evangelical today?  Are his heroes of intellectualism really our people or do they represent an alien tradition? Are the villains of Noll’s story really wrong, or do they just get in the way of Noll’s ambitions for the direction he wishes Evangelism to take?

The Concept of Gnosticism in Noll’s Diagnosis

One of the key elements of Noll’s diagnosis of the current state of Evangelical thought is his use of classical-age heresies to illustrate what he perceives are theological errors by Evangelicals in the 20th Century.  This is not an unusual approach; “gnostic” has become a commonly misused pejorative ever since William F. Buckley fished it out of Eric Voegelin’s philosophical masterpiece, The New Science of Politics.  Noll, like many others, substitutes a superficial, ontic description for a deeper understanding of what those heresies mean, describing Gnosticism without a single mention of gnosis as an attempt to impose one’s own will upon reality.  In the original context, political gnosticism is not defined by contingent dogmas but by its experiential meaning as pneumopathology, or sickness of the soul.  Dogmas are contingent articulations of emotional and spiritual deformations caused by a negative reaction to ontological experiences.

As God makes his presence known more fully throughout history, higher truths are revealed about the nature of the universe in its more fully differentiated nature.  The Apostle Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and others articulate these finely-grained ontological distinctions into notions like the Two Cities, which differentiate the contingency of mundane history from the meaning and directionality of ecclesiastical history.  Ontological differentiation prevents human beings from hiding behind sacred monarchs, political institutions, ideologies, or movements and force them to confront their personal responsibility for their Being before the Lord God.  Faced with this responsibility, stripped of the false camouflage of primitive notions like collective sin, one must respond like Isaiah before the throne of God.  This critical awareness centers Man’s unfitness to stand before the Transcendent, forces into presence the spiritual death of fallen Man, and closes all possibilities of Being other than utter dependency on the Blood of Christ.

The anxiety induced by this awareness may also lead a person to mutilate their own spiritual capacities, much like Sophocles’s Oedipus.  Incapable of enduring the vision of the Divine in one’s ontological nakedness, the heretic hides behind false meanings imposed upon mundane institutions like governments, churches, and ideologies as the bearers of intramundane salvation.  By denying the contingency of history revealed to Augustine, and imbuing the power struggles of secular regimes with divine purpose, a person can escape the full responsibility for his eternal destiny by passing the blame onto the world.  Dispersing oneself into gnostic, world-historical causes serves to divert awareness away from the guilt of one’s inadequacy before the Divine.  Noll’s shallow treatment of these deep ontological issues ensures that the examples of heresy he gives are in fact merely misunderstandings of orthodox doctrines like the Two Cities.  Recognizing that mundane politics operates on the power principle or abstaining from participation in power struggles between political factions over worldly spoils does not make one a gnostic.

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