Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism

By Balmer, Randall | The Christian Century, April 30, 2014 | Go to article overview

Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism


Balmer, Randall, The Christian Century


Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism

By Molly Worthen

Oxford University Press, 376 pp., $27-95

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In the spring of 1980 when I learned the improbable news that I had been accepted into a doctoral program, two people I much admired weighed in with their reactions. My adviser, for whom I had written a master's thesis on biblical inerrancy, warned me darkly that the people at Princeton would "come after me" on the inerrancy question. I hoped that my father, an evangelical minister, might betray even a hint of pride that his eldest son had been admitted to study at an elite university. Instead, he became very quiet before expressing his fear that my intellectual pursuits would jettison my piety.

I offer that anecdote (at the considerable risk of being overly self-referential) because it illustrates the tensions at play in Molly Worthen's remarkable and textured study Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. And I compound my transgression by recalling the title of a tract in the narthex of my father's church back in the 1960s: "Missing Heaven by Eighteen Inches," the distance between one's head and one's heart.

Worthen, a historian at the University of North Carolina, constructs a kind of genealogy of ideas in American evangelicalism from the postwar period to the present. One strain, generally identified with neoevangelicalism and the early years of Fuller Theological Seminary, was really a form of presuppositionalism derived from the work of Cornelius Van Til, longtime professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, who argued that believers should not shy away from their conviction that all knowledge is derived from God and scripture. Another strain, more indebted to the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition (and often mistaken as anti-intellectual), eschewed arid rationalism in favor of a robust piety. At the heart of evangelicals' conflicted identity, Worthen argues, is the "struggle to reconcile reason with revelation, heart with head, and private piety with the public square."

The saga of evangelical conflict, in Worthen's telling, begins with biblical inerrancy. In identifying inerrancy as the touchstone of evangelical identity, evangelical scholars in the Reformed tradition sought to refight the intellectual battles they had lost in the previous century, but they also allied themselves with a rationalistic approach to faith that they combined with a "Christian world-and-life view." Not all evangelicals signed on, but the inerrantists, especially through the agency of Christianity Today and various other institutions, used the doctrine as a foundation for their reemergence on the national scene. "The credo of the Christianity Today crowd," Worthen writes, "was becoming evangelicalism's predominant public theology."

Some Wesleyans, Mennonites, Pentecostals, and fellow travelers sought to resist being sucked into the Reformed-inerrantist vortex. Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, a member of the Nazarenes, protested the "ground swell of ultra-rightism," which she attributed to "Calvinistic evangelicalism." The charismatic renewal and the move of some evangelicals toward more liturgical traditions further splintered a movement already known for its fissiparous tendencies.

But the neoevangelicals possessed institutional advantages. Most evangelicals by the 1970s were becoming enamored of education: the neoevangelicals tended to brandish better educational pedigrees, and most evangelicals had abandoned their reflexive disdain for the social sciences, especially when those methods could be harnessed in service to missions and church growth.

Worthen blames the eclipse of left-leaning evangelicals on their failure "to offer a grand narrative that could compete with the plotline emerging on the Right: an account of American history that began with pious Puritans and Bible-believing Founding Fathers, culminating on the Manichaean battlefield of the Cold War. …

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