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Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism
Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism
Molly Worthen
Oxford University Press, 2013
376 pp., 29.99

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John Schmalzbauer

Who's in Charge Here?

American evangelicalism's "crisis of authority."

If the standard accounts are correct, the 20th-century neo-evangelical movement was born on April 7, 1942 in St. Louis, Missouri. Meeting at the Hotel Coronado, the National Conference on United Action Among Evangelicals was the first organized expression of the "new evangelicalism." Bringing together Baptists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, and Wesleyans, it represented a wide swath of conservative Protestantism. Lamenting the "disintegration of Christianity," its leaders called for a united evangelical front. The result was the National Association of Evangelicals.[1]

Despite the best efforts of the NAE, this dream has never been fully realized. Far from unified, evangelicalism remains divided by theology, politics, and culture. Internally pluralistic and religiously diverse, evangelicalism has been called a mosaic, a kaleidoscope, and a "twelve-ring circus."[2]

How do you study a twelve-ring circus? Focusing on the entire movement, some have explored the boundaries of the evangelical tent. Emphasizing common themes, they have stressed evangelicalism's commitment to biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. Utilizing the tools of survey research, they have mapped the doctrinal and organizational markers of evangelical identity.[3] Taking a different approach, others have emphasized the divisions within evangelicalism, identifying as many as 14 branches to the evangelical family tree. Faced with such diversity, some have concluded that "there is no such thing as evangelicalism."[4]

In Apostles of Reason, historian Molly Worthen combines these approaches, analyzing the "shifting and conflicting authorities" behind the "evangelical imagination." In place of shared doctrines, she highlights a "common set of questions," focusing on faith and reason, emotion and intellect, and religion and public life. While continuing to speak of evangelicalism, Worthen refuses to reify its contents.

More than an exercise in classification, Apostles of Reason turns intellectual history into page-turning drama, highlighting the flesh-and-blood personalities behind academic debates. Drawing on extensive archival research, it lets both the protagonists and antagonists speak. Focusing on the cracks in the evangelical kaleidoscope, Worthen describes the battles between center and periphery, mainstream and fringe. The result is the most exciting history of evangelical intellectual life to appear in decades.

To be sure, Worthen does not neglect the evangelical establishment. Beginning her account with Christianity Today's founding editor Carl F. H. Henry, she describes his awkward encounter with the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. "His hair grimly pomaded across his skull," Henry asked Barth about the historicity of the resurrection. Responding to Henry's question, Barth joked, "Did you say Christianity Today or Christianity Yesterday?" Raising his voice, the American replied with, "Yesterday, Today, and forever." An architect of postwar evangelical theology, Henry worked diligently to distinguish evangelicalism from fundamentalism and neo-orthodoxy. Channeling the Presbyterian theology of old Princeton, he argued that God revealed himself in rational propositions. Not everyone agreed.

Moving from the center to the periphery, Worthen shows how evangelical outsiders articulated their own views of biblical authority. Bringing to light a 1955 letter from John Howard Yoder to Carl Henry, she reveals the tensions between Mennonite and Reformed approaches to Scripture. Criticizing Henry for subordinating theology to philosophical rationalism, Yoder championed the Anabaptist hermeneutic of his mentor Harold S. Bender. An intellectual descendant of Karl Barth (Yoder's teacher at Basel) and J. Gresham Machen (Bender's teacher at Princeton), Yoder embodied the contradictions in Mennonite identity. Worried that American Mennonites might succumb to Francis Schaeffer's influence, he urged his co-religionists to produce a film illustrating the Anabaptist point of view. Such tensions have not gone away. In today's Mennonite bookstores, works of Anabaptist theology compete for shelf space with Rick Warren and Joel Osteen. Despite the popularity of Amish romance novels, evangelicalism is still awaiting its Mennonite Schaeffer.

More influenced by John Wesley than Menno Simons, Holiness and Pentecostal scholars have articulated their own version of evangelical theology. Like Donald Dayton and Timothy L. Smith before her, Worthen restores the Wesleyan-Pentecostal tradition to its rightful place in evangelical intellectual history. Recounting the liminal status of Pentecostalism, she notes an Assemblies of God minister's blunt response to a Presbyterian's critique of "extreme" evangelicals: "He means us." Profiling the globetrotting career of the Nazarene educator Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, Worthen recalls Wynkoop's anxiety about the influence of "Calvinistic evangelicalism." Inspiring the "back to Wesley" movement of the 1960s and '70s, Wynkoop is the one of the few female theologians to be honored with her own bobblehead. Worthen tells us why. Rejecting Reformed formulations of inerrancy, Wynkoop's colleagues warned against exalting "the intellect to the detriment of the affections and the will." While recognizing the authority of Scripture, they emphasized the "intersection of text, tradition, experience, and human reason." Dubbed the Wesleyan quadrilateral by Albert Outler, this four-legged stool can be found throughout Worthen's chronicle of 20th-century evangelicalism.[5]

Not simply an account of warring theological families, Apostles of Reason traces the interactions of evangelical scholars with their colleagues in the neighboring pew. If evangelicalism is a multi-generational argument, much of its energy comes from the conflict between generations. Writing from within the citadel of evangelical orthodoxy, Wheaton College professor Clyde S. Kilby introduced low-church Protestants to the sacramental imaginations of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Celebrated in Thomas Howard's memoir Christ the Tiger (1967), Kilby makes a cameo appearance in Apostles of Reason. Noting that he "had known Carl Henry since he was a freshman," Worthen highlights Kilby's dissent from the claim that "truth, including Biblical truth, is only reached through propositions." Countering Henry's rationalism with poetry, he asked, "How can the Psalms be propositional?" Seeking poetry over prose, Howard's generation rediscovered the liturgical traditions of the past, turning their eyes toward Canterbury, Rome, and Constantinople. Around the same time, the Evangelicals for McGovern became the first major evangelical group to endorse an American presidential candidate. Part of an emerging evangelical Left, such groups were soon overshadowed by the Religious Right.

One look at Worthen's bibliography suggests she has accumulated an impressive amount of frequent-flyer miles. In between trips to Wheaton College, the Chicago native explored the archives of the Assemblies of God, Biola University, the Church of the Nazarene, the Mennonite Church USA, and the Southern Baptist Convention. While this itinerary yielded a rich and sprawling narrative, one wishes she had visited Grand Rapids, Michigan. Home to several evangelical publishing houses, it was the epicenter of a lively Dutch Calvinist subculture that helped revitalize evangelical intellectual life in the postwar era. Through the Christian Reformed Church, Calvin College, the Reformed Journal, and the William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, the Grand Rapids intellectuals played an outsized role in strengthening conservative Protestant thought.[6]

Had Worthen spent some time in Western Michigan, she might have developed a deeper appreciation for Abraham Kuyper. Anticipating the postmodern critique by several decades, the Dutch Calvinist statesman argued that "all knowledge proceeds from faith of whatever kind," noting "The person who does not believe does not exist." Although she acknowledges the contributions of Reformed philosophers Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga, Worthen devotes more space to the trickle-down Kuyperianism of Francis Schaeffer and the Religious Right. But while flood geologists and amateur historians use the trope of the "Christian worldview" to commit intellectual misconduct, as Worthen charges, not all Kuyperians engage in the "presuppositionalists' artful dodge." Celebrating the neo-Calvinist doctrine of common grace, the Christian Reformed philosopher Richard Mouw argues that believers should appreciate the truth and beauty that come from outside the household of faith. According to Mouw, "We must be diligent in our efforts to discover, honor, and appreciate any of God's gifts that might be at work in the larger human community."[7]

According to Worthen, evangelicalism's epistemological pluralism constitutes a "crisis of authority." As she notes in the final chapter, the problem with evangelical intellectual life is that "evangelicals attempt to obey multiple authorities at the same time." Other scholars have come to similar conclusions. While sociologist Christian Smith highlights the "pervasive interpretive pluralism" of evangelical biblical interpretation, historian Nathan Hatch laments the "absence of a compelling theological vision."[8]

A careful reading of Worthen's book suggests that such epistemological conflicts are nothing new. Locating evangelicals "at the intersection of premodern dogma, personal religious experience, and modern anxieties," she calls them the orphaned children of Pietism and the Enlightenment.

Far from constituting a "crisis," as Worthen would have it, strongly contested appeals to Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience are consistent with evangelicalism's contentious past. Unable to agree on free will and predestination, John Wesley and George Whitefield recognized that some questions cannot be resolved in this lifetime. As Wesley noted in a sermon commemorating Whitefield's life, "There are many doctrines of a less essential nature, with regard to which, even the sincere children of God (such is the present weakness of human understanding!) are and have been divided for many ages. In these we may think and let think; we may 'agree to disagree.' "9 By agreeing to disagree, conservative Protestants have remained faithful to evangelicalism's deepest commitments.

John Schmalzbauer teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Missouri State University, where he holds the Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies. He is the author of People of Faith: Religious Conviction in American Journalism and Higher Education (Cornell Univ. Press).

1. See Joel Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (Oxford Univ. Press, 1997). The quotation from Harold John Ockenga appears on page 147.

2. On the lack of evangelical unity, see Donald Dayton and Robert Johnston, eds., The Variety of American Evangelicalism (Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1991). The mosaic and kaleidoscope metaphors are from Timothy L. Smith in "The Evangelical Kaleidoscope and the Call to Christian Unity," Christian Scholar's Review, Vol. 15, No. 2 (1986), p. 128. The "twelve-ring circus" metaphor is from Cullen Murphy, "Protestantism and the Evangelicals," Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 1981, pp. 105-116.

3. The so-called Bebbington quadrilateral appears in David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989), pp. 2-14. See also Lyman Kellstedt, John Green, James Guth, and Corwin Smidt, "Evangelicalism," in William H. Swatos, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Society (Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), pp. 175-178.

4. The 14 branches are enumerated in Robert Webber, Common Roots: A Call to Evangelical Maturity (Zondervan, 1978), p. 32. The second quotation is from Nathan Hatch, "Response to Carl F. H. Henry," in Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry, eds., Evangelical Affirmations (Academie, 1990), pp. 97-98.

5. Albert Outler, "The Wesleyan Quadrilateral in Wesley," Wesleyan Theological Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1 (1985), pp. 7-18.

6. See James D. Bratt and Ronald Wells, eds., The Best of the Reformed Journal (Eerdmans, 2011).

7. Kuyper is quoted in James Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013), p. 207. On the popularity of scientific creationist Ken Ham and amateur historian David Barton, see Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson, The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age (Harvard Univ. Press, 2011). The last quotation is from Richard Mouw, He Shines in All That's Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Eerdmans, 2002), p. 28.

8. Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Baker Books, 2012); Nathan Hatch, "Evangelical Colleges and the Challenge of Christian Thinking," in Joel A. Carpenter and Kenneth W. Shipps, eds., Making Higher Education Christian: The History and Mission of Evangelical Colleges in America (Eerdmans, 1987), p. 166. Hatch also warns of a "crisis of authority."

9. John Wesley, On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, sermon preached on November 18, 1770 (London: J. and W. Oliver, 1770), p. 23.

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