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)

Posted by 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.

  • I am new at this blog thing, guys; so you will have to give me some slack. However, I can not tell you how excited I am to find serious evangelicals dialoguing on orthodoxy.

    I particularly appreciated the insight evidenced in the statement posted by Matthew Lee Anderson @ 4:31 am in the Evangelicalism category, where he wrote:

    “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.”

    Personally, I think that hit the theological nail squarely on the head. As a life long Pentecostal—although, never really a Charismatic—I have struggled with the task of balancing orthodox theology against anecdotal theology on a practical scale.

    Sometimes, they balance. Sometimes they don’t.

    Speaking from a personal perspective, I feel that we Pentecostals are for the most part pretty sound in our theology; however, we are also very weak in our spiritual disciplines. And, this may come as a surprise, I really don’t think our doctrine on the Holy Spirit had all that much to do with it.

    The problem began much earlier, in my opinion—when, pietistic fideism was booted out (granted many left on their own) of mainstream orthodoxy and was able to find a comfortable home in Christian mysticism.

    History is resplendent with the likes of the shouting Baptists, the trembling Methodists, and, of course, the tongues speaking Pentecostals.

    So, there is enough blame—if we see it as blame worthy—to go around. I for one, however, do not wish to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water; so, right on Matthew Lee Anderson! I with you on that one.

  • Jim,

    Thanks for the comment. Slack is all we got around here, so you’re in great company! : )

    I think this aspect of your comment is particularly interesting: “The problem began much earlier, in my opinion—when, pietistic fideism was booted out (granted many left on their own) of mainstream orthodoxy and was able to find a comfortable home in Christian mysticism.”

    The bifurcation between the doctrinaires and the charismatics is one of the problematic false dichotomies of the modern era, I think. I’m quite sympathetic to charismatics, both in terms of theology and in terms of practice. I have learned a bunch from JP Moreland and Dallas Willard on the life of the Spirit, and think Gordon Fee is one of the best Pauline scholars around–and he’s definitely coming out of that school.

    Anyways, all this to say, I agree that there’s good stuff going on among the charismatics. One of my hopes is to see a rapprochement occur between the two sides.

    Thanks for the comment, and we hope you stick around and keep chatting with us. We’ll listen.

    matt

  • The intellectualist as defined by Reynolds is one concerned with the appearance of being a intellectual and, by that definition, an evangelical intellectualism is certainly possibly.

    But I think there are some things intrinsic to evangelical theology that denies the free exercise of the intellect, which characterizes the intellectual.

  • *possible.

  • Prufrock,

    I’d love to hear what those things are. If by those problems you mean the adherence to a creed, then it’s not necessarily a problem of evangelicalism, but of Christianity.

    Do you mean something more than that?

  • The scope of one’s ability to reason and learn is contrained by one’s acceptance of some incontrovertible creed, especially one that contains some baseless supernatural claims.

    Within those contraints, I think that one could exercise their intellect but knowledge that contradicts their beliefs could not be held without some significant cognitive dissonance, which people strenuously (and unconsciously) avoid.

    One can be an intellectual about anything, really, and all sorts of ideologies and philosophies impose constraints on individuals’ intellects. Evangelical Christianity is no exception, despite its exceptional (and unwarranted) claims.

    That said, I now realize that the exercise of intellect is inhibited at every turn. Religious belief is just another form of inhibition but the penalty for transgressing its limits may be eternal.

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