Book Review: Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism

By Kidd, Thomas S. | Church History, March 2015 | Go to article overview

Book Review: Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism


Kidd, Thomas S., Church History


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Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism . By Molly Worthen . New York : Oxford University Press , 2013. viii + 354 pp. $27.98 cloth.

Book Reviews and Notes

Molly Worthen's remarkable Apostles of Reason is an authoritative guide to the past six decades of American evangelical Christianity. It is one of the most important accounts we now have on post-World War II evangelicalism, alongside books such as Joel Carpenter's Revive Us Again , Darren Dochuk's From Bible Belt to Sunbelt , and Steven Miller's The Age of Evangelicalism . Yet Worthen's highly engaging book may not garner as much of an audience among American evangelicals as one might hope, because in the contest between evangelical conservatives and myriad evangelical dissenters, Worthen is not hesitant to take sides. Her preference is for the dissenters.

Worthen's wide-ranging survey centers on evangelicals' quest for certainty and biblical authority, and especially the effort to defend the doctrine of inerrancy. From Carl Henry, the founding editor of Christianity Today , to the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention's "Conservative Resurgence," traditionalist evangelicals have elevated inerrancy as an indispensable precept for Bible-believing Christians. Inerrancy posits that the Bible (in the original manuscripts) is "God-breathed," authored by the Holy Spirit working through inspired saints, and is therefore entirely free from factual or ethical error. The obvious problem with inerrancy is that it never solves debates over the scripture's meaning: even conservatives do not agree on all manner of biblical issues, from the proper method of baptism to the theology of the end times.

Worthen takes a skeptical--even hostile--view of the real agenda of the inerrantists. Whether they perceive it or not, the "doctrine of inerrancy was a comforting gauze that concealed a great deal of ugliness," she says. It was and is, "in essence, a means of managing the Bible's vulnerability to subjective judgment" (199). Evangelicalism, Worthen contends, has always been a multivalent, fractious conglomeration of perspectives rather than a unified set of principles. Anyone who suggests that there is a set of defining evangelical doctrines--as the authors of The Fundamentals argued a century ago, just as today's conservative seminarians do--are really acting on their anxiety about free inquiry and about their movement's impermanent qualities.

Twenty-five years ago, in his magisterial Evangelicalism in Modern Britain , historian David Bebbington, whose name does not appear in the index, offered his famous quadrilateral of conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism (the centrality of the cross), and activism as the defining traits of evangelical Christianity. Whether or not Worthen has Bebbington in mind, it is precisely the attempt to define evangelical faith that she finds objectionable, and usually politically motivated. Pop evangelical gurus from Francis Schaeffer to Christian America history writer David Barton have promoted their own versions of historical, theological, and scientific orthodoxy--usually more crass than those of scholars like Bebbington--in order to give "the appearance of sophistication and unassailable truth," but ultimately, "to shut down debate" (209). …

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