By Mark A. Noll. Pp. vii + 274. Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1994
In the past quarter century a number of exceptional studies of American evangelicalism have enriched our understanding of religion in America. Such outstanding scholars as Donald Mathews, George Marsden, Nathan Hatch, Harry Stout and Rhys Isaac have focused our attention on the profound impact evangelicalism has had and continues to have in the United States.
As the books under review here indicate, concern for the history of American evangelicalism shows no sign of waning. Scholars continue to plumb the depths of the evangelical experience in the United States to shed light on cultural, ecclesiastical and religious developments in the nation. Though not all the works considered here focus exclusively, or even primarily, on evangelicalism, all examine, in significant ways, the development of the evangelical tradition in America.
One perennial difficulty in discussing evangelicalism is determining a concise and useful means of defining a broad-ranging and evolving movement. Mark Noll, in his brilliant and engaging work, The scandal of the evangelical mind, helps here. Borrowing from David Bebbington, Noll defines evangelicalism as a complex and shifting network within Christianity which emphasises conversionism, biblicism, missionary activism and crucicentrism.
Noll, McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, argues passionately in this extended epistle to American evangelicals for a faithful recovery of solid evangelical thinking. A devout Christian and prolific scholar, Noll puts his cards on the table at the outset. `The scandal of the evangelical mind', he asserts, `is that there is not much of an evangelical mind' (p. 3). Though evangelical Christians in the late twentieth century are engaged in a plethora of virtuous activities, they have, Noll states bluntly, failed to cultivate serious and sustained intellectual reflection on the world. Despite a heritage that includes such formidable intellectual figures as John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards and Charles Hodge, evangelicals, Noll insists, have not lived up to their potential or calling in loving God with the mind.
In this work, therefore, Noll, demonstrating a masterful command of the recent rich scholarship on evangelicalism, describes the way in which the evangelical culture in America has come to the point where its members rarely seek to bring the Christian faith into relation with knowledge about society, the arts, humanity and nature.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries revivalism and religious disestablishment pulled evangelicals at once toward a functional theology that turned truth into matters of practicality, and simultaneously encouraged an uncritical marriage of Christianity with republicanism, democratic principles and liberal economic theory. In this same era evangelicals adopted the philosophy of Scottish Common-Sense realism and Baconian science which shaped evangelical social thought, political theory, apologetics and theology.
Though the easy evangelical adoption of the didactic Enlightenment resulted in strong evangelical influence in the antebellum years, it also left evangelicals ill-prepared to deal with new social and intellectual trends in the later nineteenth century. New views of science, religion and higher education as well as rapid urbanisation and immigration contributed to a splintering of evangelicals into liberals, populist evangelicals (later fundamentalists), and moderates. In this era holiness theology, pentecostalism and dispensational premillenialism took root among certain segments of conservative Protestantism, accentuating the most problematic aspects of the …