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The WSJ on the Emerging Evangelical Intellect

December 18th, 2009 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

This morning's Wall Street Journal has an article by Jonathan Fitzgerald of PatrolMag on the development of the evangelical intellect.  

I have had my differences with Patrol before, but I enjoy dialoging with them and have found them to be gracious in listening to my critiques.  I have dialoged with Jonathan extensively, and have found him to be warm, engaging, and very, very sharp.

Fitzgerald offers such an even-handed analysis that disagreements will inevitably come across as quibbling, which I have no desire to do.  He is justly critical of the mega church movement and its emotionally-laden appeals, and happily affirms the notion of Christendom that Dr. Reynolds put forward in The City.  He is at his best in highlighting the various ways and places that evangelicals are attempting to cultivate the life of the mind, and contends (rightly, I think) that the 'intellectualist' posturing of younger evangelicals is "merely be a way station on the path to rigorous thought." 

But Fitzgerald's framing of the developments obscures the fact that a generation of evangelical Christians paved the way for younger evangelicals like us to value of the life of the mind.  Noll's book was published in 1994, well after the renaissance in philosophy was underway (which was based on the work of Alvin Plantinga and others).  While this renaissance has yet to be replicated in every discipline, as someone close to the world of evangelical higher education, it is clear to me that we younger evangelicals are the heirs, and not the founders, of a renewed tradition of evangelical intellectualism.   

But unfortunately, it seems that Fitzgerald cuts off his ability to inherit--and possibly, see--this tradition when he implies that the the road to a healthy intellectualism necessarily leads one out of the movement.  He writes:

Christine Smallwood was less certain that [an evangelical intellectual] could exist. She asked: "Is there something anti-intellectual at the root of an experience-based movement?"

The answer is yes, and that must determine the course of evangelicals' progression from decidedly anti-intellectual to intellectualist to intellectual. And, as this movement evolves from self-examination and moves into the public square, it may be that to fully achieve a robust intellectual culture, the "experienced-based movement" that is contemporary evangelicalism must recede, thus making way for Christendom.

Anti-intellectualism only goes "all the way down" if we discard the witness of those evangelicals, both now and throughout history, who wholeheartedly engaged the life of the mind while keeping the experiential character of their faith.  Our man Wesley, we should remember, was an Oxford man. 

What I would propose is not that the experience-based aspect of evangelicalism recede, but rather that it mature--and that we properly locate it in the context of sound doctrine, a robust ecclesial life, and the practices of the spiritual disciplines.  

Let every heart be warmed, as they were for Wesley, and then let them go read as many books as Wesley read and pray like Wesley prayed.  There is nothing intrinsic to evangelical theology or culture that suggests a properly evangelical intellectualism is impossible.  

All this aside, Fitzgerald's piece is a helpful and fair snapshot of the emergence of the evangelical intellect, and for that I commend it highly.  

(Cross posted at Evangel)

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.