evangelicalism and the uneasy relationship with academic freedom–more thoughts from Molly Worthen
by Peter Enns
November 8, 2013
In chapter 5 (“The Marks of Campus Conversion”) of her recently released book Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press), Molly Worthen looks at the founding of faith-based colleges in the early decades of evangeli-calism, and the resulting uneasy relationship between the evangelical quest for academic respectability and the academic freedom that is normally considered part and parcel of that quest. (All italics below are mine.)
“The one thing most crucial to professional higher education was the one thing that most stymied conservative Protestant educators: academic freedom. Behind their hand-wringing over the liberal arts [vs. a Bible-based education] and their resentment of meddling accreditors was the fear that these reforms would encourage teachers and students to prize intellectual exploration over evangelism and prefer the scientific method to proof texts. They would ask questions–and venture answers–that might place their salvation at risk” (p. 109).
“The inductive method [in general and particularly of Bible study] appeared to repair the fracture between faith and reason. It restored the Bible to its rightful authority while assimilating–yet restraining–human rationalism. Over the years, conservative Protestants would use it to hold at bay a range of ideas, condemning everything from Darwin’s evolution to inborn homosexual orientation as mere ‘theories,’ speculative hypotheses without basis in inductive study of facts. By this standard, academic freedom as understood in the modern secular university–the liberty to follow scientific observation to its conclusions even if those conclusions flout received wisdom, and the liberty to answer to no other authority than one’s colleagues–was not freedom at all, but slavery to human pride that would lead young Christians from the narrow path” (p. 110)
“Yet Christian colleges could not win the approval of secular accrediting bodies without raising faculty salaries…, standardizing tenure, and codifying operating procedures in a way that checked executive power and gave the faculty some voice and opportunity for professional development. Capricious tenure policies and unfair dismissal sometimes continued, but now that their schools were part of interstate associations that included public, Roman Catholic, and mainline Protestant colleges and universities, faculty began to think of themselves as professional scholars responsible not only to their college and church, but to a community of intellectual peers …[which led to the formation of various evangelical academic societies for those seeking] to balance standards of professional scholarship with the demands of faith….Through the 1950s and 1960s, however, many of the most talented evangelical scholars spent their careers at Christian colleges that did not encourage them to think of themselves as citizens of a broader intellectual community” (p. 111).
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Worthen on inerrancy and the evangelical crisis of authority
by Peter Enns
November 5, 2013
The first part of Molly Worthen’s assessment of American evangelicalism (Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism) is a nearly 100-page section on inerrancy entitled “Knights Inerrant.”
As with any work of this type that tries to lay out an issue with some patience and detail, it is difficult to lift out some representa-tive quotes.
But I did it anyway.
Hopefully these will give you some taste for this portion of the book–though to assess the book itself, you have to read it (duh).
“[Second generation fundamentalists] aspired to the intellectual sophistication of old [19th century] Princeton, but it was not clear whether nuance was compatible with their sense of mission. Inerrantist intellectuals considered themselves something like Protestant Marines, a warrior corps whose confidence in the authority of scripture–and commitment to taking the principle of God’s sovereignty to its logical extreme–anointed them as the Bible’s first shock troops, favorite sons, and truest defenders” (24).
“From the neo-evangelical point of view, if Christian civilization was to survive the twentieth century, then biblical inerrancy and a reenergized Christian Weltanschauung [worldview] must form its bedrock…. [Despite Pietistic influence] a more rationalist, Reformed school of thought dominated their training. In this tradition, there was a single proof that one’s presuppositions were the right ones, and [the] one acceptable defense for any intellectual position: It was a true reading of the inerrant gospel” (35).
“In their call for engagement with the wider culture, for intellectual curiosity and rigor, the cadre of ex-fundamentalists at the center of the neo-evangelical movement tapped into a real sentiment simmering among Protestants. Yet for all the broadminded engagement that they encouraged in theory, their institutions waved the banner of biblical inerrancy without coming to terms with the controversy surrounding the doctrine” (53).
“[The neo-evangelical] ahistorical view of scripture, their overriding desire to defend the doctrine of inerrancy as ancient, immutable, and God-given, made sensitive scholarship impossible” (71).
“[P]resuppositionalists’ basic proposition, which they readily admitted–God is perfect and incapable of error in his revelation, and therefore no human may contradict that revelation–committed them [ironically] to a highly rationalistic view of the Bible. Since God could never err, any apparent discre-pancy between scripture and scientific knowledge revealed not a mistake in revelation or a rupture between faith and reason, but merely the error of human interpretation” (87).
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evangelicalism and anti-intellectualism: blame the leaders
by Peter Enns
November 3, 2013
I received in the mail yesterday a copy of Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. Despite a very heavy football and coach-potato schedule this weekend, I am am nevertheless more than half done with it and I want to throw out a few quotes now and then–beginning today.
In her closing comments of the introduction, Worthen talks about “The Problem of Anti-Intellectualism” in evangelicalism (pp. 8-11). For her the matter is more complicated that a sweeping and simplistic accusation. Evangelical anti-intellectualism is part of the “larger narrative of Western intellectual history” (p. 7), which contains an uneasy marriage between Pietism (religion is a matter of the heart) and the Enlightenment (rebirth of reason and its many challenges to traditional thinking). She calls these two ideals evangelicalism’s “estranged parents” (p. 7; which implies, among other things, that evangelicalism’s existence is tied to the Enlightenment, even as it tries to keep its distance from it, a point some future quotes will draw out further).
The evolution of the evangelical community–and whether, and why, it might be called anti-intellectual–is best traced through the lives of the elites: the preachers, teachers, writers, and institution-builders in the business of creating and dissminating ideas. When critics describe evangelicalism as anti-intellectual, usually they are not blaming ordinary laypeople. A casual glance at the latest Amazon.com best-seller list, chock full of celebrity memoirs and pulpy novels, or the amateur talent shows and dating competitions that top the television rating, demonstrates that when it comes to intellectual shallowness evangelicals have no advantage on the rest of America.
When critics condemn the “evangelical mind,” they are talking about the people who ought to know better, who bear some responsibility for the Darwin-bashing and history-hashing that pollsters hear when they survey evangelical America. They are comparing evangelical elites with the nonevangelical intelligentsia. They are asking how it can be that college professors believe in creationism, or that educated activists deny evidence of global warming. They are wondering how evangelicals define the purpose of higher education (for which they have long shown great zeal) when they so regularly demean the fruits of critical inquiry, and how they can reconcile their fervor for evangelism with American pluralism. (pp. 9-10)