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A higher view of church

Written by: on February 21, 2019

In a classic and essential text from 1994, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, evangelical historian Mark Noll writes with candor about the downward spiral of intellectual rigor at work in conservative North American Christianity. He traces the declining arc over centuries, beginning with the Reformation when there was still hope, through the influence of the Enlightenment, various Awakenings, Modernism and the reaction of Fundamentalism, to the present day. Parallel to this, he demonstrates how American political and cultural development intertwined with theological development to produce a unique identity for evangelicalism.

While Noll is discouraged with the trajectory of evangelical thought, he is a gentleman in articulating his point. In Theology Today, however, he gangs up on his tribe together with Cornelius Plantinga and David Wells, and they are clearly rankled:

“The sad fact is that much evangelicalism, in James Hunter’s characterization of it, has been cognitively bartering with modernity and has come away impoverished—in fact, has been taken to the cleaners. Voyages of self-discovery, the desire to get rich or get happy, the neglect of old arts like reading and thinking, the professionalization of the clergy so that they are no longer ardent students of Scripture and its interpretation but rather ersatz managers and therapists—all of these moves garnished with a D. Min. degree, so that, as a minister’s social prestige drops, the number and kind of his advanced degrees rises to compensate; the loss of appetite for great, stately hymns and their replacement by pop songs from the Christian Billboard’s Top Ten Singles; the democratizing of the church to such a degree that learned opinion is immediately suspect as an elitist putdown—these and similar unhappinesses make serious theology in the church uphill work.”[1]

Furthermore:

“At the sump level of the evangelical church, where wild eschatological speculation, wooden proof-texting, and anti-intellectual sermonizing reign; where worship has degenerated into a religious variety show hosted by some gleaming evangelist in a sequined dinner jacket and patent leather dancing slippers who introduces as special music a trio of middle-aged women in pastel evening gowns with matching muffs for their microphones–at this sump level, things are, of course, much worse. This is the level at which, Richard Lovelace once remarked, we need to tell some people who think they’ve gotten saved to get lost.”[2]

So how has evangelicalism lost its way? If I’m reading him correctly, I believe Noll would argue that evangelicalism began to be diminished when it lost a high view of church and began to emphasize individuality rather than the collective Body of Christ. Revivals on the American frontier called people to repent and believe, an individual and solitary act of conversion. My paternal grandfather, growing up a farm boy in the wheatfields of rural Saskatchewan, remembers throwing rotten tomatoes into the tent meetings until he was miraculously converted and eventually became a Nazarene preacher.

This is all well and good, but Noll reveals what is missing: “The problem with revivalism for the life of the mind, however, lay precisely in its antitraditionalism. Revivals called people to Christ as a way of escaping tradition, including traditional learning. They called upon individuals to take the step of faith for themselves. In so doing, they often left the impression that individual believers could accept nothing from others.”[3]

Evangelicalism’s abandonment of a high view of church means each person charts their own course and misses out on centuries of witness. Rather than submitting to a body where historical appreciation and intellectual depth grounds theology, individuals today are led to select their truth much like one would customize a burger at the local fast food joint. We claim to be thinking for ourselves but ignoring the cumulative thought and experience of thousands of church mothers and fathers results in a thin theological base which quickly cracks under pressure.

Researcher Martin Marty summarized Noll’s ideas in Commonweal with this: “Evangelicalism in [his] account has a generous heart and soul. Its hands do good works. But it has lost the kind of competence and interest in scholarship its forebears brought to their faith…. For all the attacks Noll makes, this is a positive book. In evangelical terms, it is a call for mindless sinners to repent, to recover the mind for God and their movement. They are to delight in the world which God will take action to end, and from which Christ saves sinners, but also the cosmos which God created good and in which God is incarnate in Christ.”[4] And may they do it not alone, but as integrated members of the larger Body of Christ.

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[1] Mark Noll, Cornelius Plantinga Jr, and David Wells, “Evangelical theology today” Theology Today, 51(4) (1995), 495. Accessed on February 20, 2019. https://georgefox.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/docview/208071123?accountid=11085.

[2] Mark Noll, Cornelius Plantinga Jr, and David Wells, “Evangelical theology today” Theology Today, 51(4) (1995), 495. Accessed on February 20, 2019. https://georgefox.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/docview/208071123?accountid=11085.

[3] Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 63.

[4] Martin Marty, “A Shot Across the Brow — The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark A. Noll.” Commonweal, 121, 22 (1994, Nov 04). Accessed on February 20, 2019. https://georgefox.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/docview/210399728?accountid=11085.

About the Author

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Mark Petersen

Mark Petersen is the CEO of Stronger Philanthropy, a Canadian firm specializing in maximizing family philanthropy. He leads a diverse group of visionary individuals, foundations and organizations to collaborate in leveraging wealth for charitable impact.

10 responses to “A higher view of church”

  1. mm M Webb says:

    Hi Mark!
    Nice opening and examples of declining evangelicalism for your post. I like the “sequined” jacket reference and thought back to a few TV preachers who use the sequined adornments to glimmer and reflect a holy “send money” type of subliminal brilliance to their viewing audiences. For the record, I like Charles and Andy Stanley and have not seen them wear those jackets, yet.
    What do you think about how we gain and retain knowledge these days?
    Like Noll suggests, can we use the old methods, or do we have to adapt and remain on the periphery like Bayard suggests. I think my answer is somewhere in-between. I believe scholarship is changing, and rightly so, because knowledge acquisition and the use of knowledge is more of a leadership commodity that we as global leaders need to prepare for and learn how to intellectually manage in our own unique ministry contexts.
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

  2. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Mark!

    Phenomenal title! And connecting it to the problem of us losing a high view of church through individualism–well done. But then you went even further, and connected to anti-traditionalism. Well done!

    I loved your closing, “And may they do it not alone, but as integrated members of the larger Body of Christ.” Golden!

    Keep writing well my Brother!

  3. mm Kyle Chalko says:

    hey Mark, good post. I excellent point about the down side and of both high and low church. One thing I would say though is that it looks like you might be throwing in the ideas of indivudualistics societys and community based societys together. for example I know in the asian pentecostal churches they are very “low church” but yet they also are very communal and honor bound. They would never use sayings like “if you were the only alive jesus still would have died for you.”

  4. Great post, Mark!

    You suggest, “…I believe Noll would argue that evangelicalism began to be diminished when it lost a high view of church and began to emphasize individuality rather than the collective Body of Christ.” I agree! When we understood evangelicalism from a collective stance, voices were heard, and viewpoints were discussed. However, due to the influx of individualism, varied ideas are seen as threats to one’s personal conviction.

    The problem with individuality is that it barricades intellectualism from the doors of the sanctuary. When diversity is something to tolerate instead of someone to listen to, our faith becomes lacking in depth because we’re afraid to dialogue. What would evangelicalism look like if we went back to a collective interaction of intellectual dialogue? How does the tide need to shift to make that possible?

  5. mm Jason Turbeville says:

    Mark,
    I agree with your assessment of the individualism that comes from the revival times, but let me just throw this in. I grew up in traditional churches (Episcopalian and Methodist) and went to a Catholic school for some of my education. In being steeped in traditional worship and church I never connected with God, I came to Christ in a Baptist church as a response to a message. I think there is room for both, because I love both styles but the problem of the mind goes deeper even than style. To me, many church goers are happy to be taught, but too many never learn to seek scriptures and the life and mind of Christ on their own. What I see is lazy religion without personal commitment to growth. Do you see the same in your tradition?

    Jason

  6. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    Mark,

    Yes!! The real danger in anti-intellectualism is that Christians ‘chart their own course’ as you say and forego generations of tradition. The ‘great cloud of witnesses’ are dismissed with little consideration. What a tragedy. I believe that this is why evangelical christianity in the US is dismissed by academia, there is no clear thinking or engagement with the wider world and no one leading the way to do that. Much energy instead is spent on trying to shore up the walls and defenses rather than being out in the market place as Jesus demonstrated. Hopefully there will be those of us in this program that will begin to enter into dialogues in the marketplace and re-engage with the culture in a way encouraged by Noll.

  7. Greg says:

    Mark.
    Ouch! Is my response to the theology today quotes. That hits a little too close to home. That is a great story of your grandfather. I think you are right that the struggle with organizing a “revived” people is the creation of a group that doesn’t want to be like the others….and thus become anti everything that other groups stood for. (The whole baby and bathwater problem). I do think the last 10 years or so there has been a movement toward the liturgy of the church in contrast to the emotion only that some places are selling. I see this as a hope to understand that “larger body of Christ” problem in those tradition (like mine) that were started because we didn’t want to be like….others.

  8. mm Jean Ollis says:

    Mark,
    What your thoughts about the Catholic churches commitment to intellectual development? It certainly cannot be compared to the new evangelical movements, yet I’m not aware of a strong commitment to lifelong learning?

  9. I was wondering if you thought that Noll’s assessments of the US church resonated with you assessment of the Canadian Evangelical church. Are there Canadian Christian universities that are thought leaders in disciplines other than theology?

  10. Shawn Hart says:

    Mark, I was one of those this week that actually appreciated the message Noll was attempting to present in this reading; however, I may have to disagree on your comment stating, “he is a gentleman” about relaying that message. I have found that when people come across has blunt and uncensored as Noll does (to me), most people will shut them off before they can finish making their point. Though I agree with many of his points; I believe his technique lacked that major ingredient, LOVE. If the desire is to merely criticize; well, he did a great job; however, if he really hopes to reach evangelicals with the desire to encourage change, then perhaps a lighter approach would be advisable.

    Great post

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