Tuesday, January 12, 2010

American Evangelicalism and Old Testament Studies: Three Conclusions

Back on November 24th, I began a series of posts on American Evangelicalism and Old Testament scholarship. No, not every post I've done since then has been on the subject; I have interrupted the series from time to time. But for the most part, that's what I've been talking about for the last seven weeks or so.

As I've mentioned before, I designed the posts so that each one could be read on its own. At the same time, I tried to make the series coherent for people who were reading all of it. Anyway, now it's time to wrap this up. But before I get to that, here's a list of the nine previous posts, with links:

American Evangelicalism and Old Testament Scholarship

The Beginning and Rise of the American Fundamentalist Movement

Old Testament Scholarship and Christianity Today Magazine: Getting Started

American Evangelicalism Losing Its Mind: Old Testament Scholarship and CT Magazine

A Certain Word for Successful Mission: Sub-plot in the Story

The Blight of Anti-Supernaturalism: Christianity Today's Common Complaint

The Boom and Bust of Biblical Archaeology

Onslaughts and Olive Branches, 1st of 2

Onslaughts and Olive Branches, 2nd of 2

This is the last post I'll do on the subject, for now anyway. So where do I begin the ending? I have to start by saying that the following conclusions must be provisional for two reasons.

First, up to this point I have surveyed only one of several possible indexes of the history and current status of American Evangelicalism: Christianity Today magazine. That has been my main (though certainly not my only) resource for this project.

Second, because the following ideas are new and untested, they are still for me uncertain. However, I feel compelled to take a stab at coherence, and that's what the rest of this post is about. As I've worked through the evidence, three possible conclusion have occurred to me.

First, it seems to me that whatever might have been of an “intellectual middle class” within American evangelicalism is now virtually non-existent. This is not to say that evangelicals have in the last 30 years given up their desire to represent a bona fide intellectual as well as religious tradition. If anything, that desire has grown and seems to have met with considerable satisfaction. However, it certainly is the case that among evangelicals almost all of the intellectual enterprise has been relegated to the uppermost echelon. This development appears to have been neither planned nor predicted. But it does appear, for whatever reason, to be the way things are. In 1983, the evangelical Old Testament scholar Peter Craigie (pictured here) expressed a concern about the almost unbridgeable gap between studying the text in the classroom and preaching it from the pulpit. The minutiae of history of which literary criticism consists—so crucial for the final exam in an Old Testament course—seems bereft of relevance when proclaimed from the pulpit.

Craigie observed that with regard to the “great debates of Old Testament scholarship during the last century” which were “so loaded with theological overtones,” conservatives usually took a merely defensive stance. But more recently, he said, that had been changing. And he pointed with pride to the recently-published Old Testament volumes in the New International Commentary series, as well as the Word Biblical Commentary. [1] From this vantage point in time, it seems that Craigie’s evaluation could not take into account what were then the beginnings of a widening gap between the relatively few evangelical professors and their more-scholarly students on the one hand, and the rest of the growing evangelical movement on the other hand.

How else could one explain the clear transition in Christianity Today? As I've illustrated many times in this series, the magazine's early years were characterized by a serious engagement with the larger world of religious and theological scholarship, including Old Testament studies. More recently, and especially since the 1970s, CT's attention to such matters has been reduced to almost nothing.

And what about the recent works of evangelical historian Mark A. Noll? In 1984, Noll proudly chronicled the rapid rise of biblical scholarship among evangelicals. [2] But in 1994 he published The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which basically says that there isn’t one and which represented for Noll a potential letter of resignation from the evangelical movement. It seems fair to conclude that if one were to ask, “Is evangelical scholarship growing or declining,” we could correctly answer, “Both.”

A second not-so-provisional conclusion: the evidence I have cited seems to confirm one of George Marsden’s most basic theories regarding contemporary evangelical identity. In his book Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925, Marsden observes within fundamentalism “a strikingly paradoxical tendency to identify sometimes with the “establishment” and sometimes with the “outsiders.” This tendency, he says, is rooted in the majority status of nineteenth century evangelicalism (that is, before the fundamentalist-modernist controversy), combined with fundamentalism’s role “of a beleaguered minority with strong sectarian and separatist tendencies.” [3] As Marsden’s subtitle suggests, this paradoxical tendency has shaped not only the evangelicalism of the past, but also the contemporary expressions of “neo-evangelicalism.” As I have pointed out, it is clear that evangelical biblical scholars have attacked but at other times commended what is essentially the same kind of scholarly work done by outsiders. I am convinced that Marsden’s theory goes a long way in helping us to understand why.

Third and finally, there seems to be a connection between the explosion of American evangelicalism’s popularity beginning in the mid-1970s and the demise of intellectual life among their “laity” that is more than coincidental. Again, this is still for me less of a thesis and more of a hunch. But the facts are undeniable. According to a Gallup Poll, in 1976 nearly 50 million Americans age eighteen and over--one-third of the nation’s adults--said they were “born again.” Garry Wills, in a piece for the New York Times Magazine, spoke of “the blossoming evangelical movement, now the major religious force in America, both in numbers and impact.” Michael Novak asserted that “the most understated demographic reality in the United States is the huge number of evangelical Protestants.” President Gerald Ford attended the 1976 convention of the National Association of Evangelicals. And Bicentennial celebrations provided a platform on which the nation’s religious roots could be recalled. [4] Of course, most significant of all was the election that same year of a decidedly-evangelical Southern Baptist named Jimmy Carter. For the first time, evangelicals were in the White House and no longer seemed like a “beleaguered minority.” It didn’t take long for conservatives to get the message. Political and cultural power was theirs. Even fundamentalist Jerry Falwell was soon changing his outsider’s tune and singing the praises of a so-called “Moral Majority.” From the facts, one might conclude that when given the choice between the development of an intellectual tradition versus the exercise of political power, American evangelicalism chose the path frequently taken.

[1] CT, XXVII (March 4, 1983), p. 105.

[2] Mark A. Noll, “Evangelicals and the Study of the Bible,” in Evangelicalism and Modern America, ed. George Marsden (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984), pp. 103-21. Anecdotal evidence of what Noll has carefully assessed appears in a 1991 essay by CT senior editor Dennis Kinlaw. “Behind Scholars’ Closed Doors” relates Kinlaw’s recent experience as an outside examiner of a doctoral candidate in the field of historical theology. After they “probed and bored and challenged,” the other two examiners turned to the significance of the candidate’s dissertation. What emerged, says Kinlaw, was a beautiful moment in which the “obvious, but humble commitment of the young man to historic orthodoxy” became apparent. Afterwards, Kinlaw remembered the times “when the segment of the kingdom to which I belong had no such bright and highly trained and credentialed young people to explicate the mysteries of God. In fact, the door to studies that would furnish that excellence was closed to ‘fundamentalists.’ Old-style ‘modernists’ reigned in those circles.” CT, XXXV (April 29, 1991), p. 11.

[3] Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, pp. 6-7.

[4] CT, XXI (October 8, 1976), p. 52.

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