Evangelicals and the Academy: A Continuing Story

Some thoughts prompted by preparations for the summer reading project at Restless, Young, and Reforming and by a conversation with my roommate which has caused me to focus in on this issue a bit more.

Evangelicalism and the academy have often had a very tenuous relationship.

In my own experience of contemporary evangelicalism, there has seemed to be an inherent distrust of all things academic (at least related to theology, philosophy, or the Bible).  My experience is not unique, this kind of systemic suspicion of the academy was I think echoed in the warnings of one of my favorite professors at my (evangelical) undergraduate institution: “the more you study the Bible or theology academically, the more uncomfortable you will be listening to most sermons and sitting through most church services.”

The feeling of distrust between the academy and evangelicalism is mutual (even when we are discussing the evangelical academy).  Where does this deep-seated suspicion come from?

In a chapter I just read in (my old pastor) Andy Byers’ new book Faith Without Illusions, an answer having to do with sociology is given: evangelicalism was born out of the frontier movement, which also bequeathed to it a distrust of all things established, including institutional higher learning.

Two other blogs that I have read recently are worth mentioning, as they offer somewhat different perspectives than I will offer here.

The first is from David Fitch, author of The End of Evangelicalism? among other things.  He discusses in the difference between the context of the Reformation and the context of contemporary American evangelicalism.

The second is from Baptist theologian Roger Olson, who discusses what he sees as a shift back toward fundamentalism that has happened in evangelicalism in the last few decades.

Evangelicalism as Protestantism

The approach I am taking here is closer to that of Fitch, in that it is going to be an exercise in historical theology.  I am going to begin with the history of the term evangelical.

Interestingly, as I was finishing up this post I was also beginning to read The Younger Evangelicals by Robert E. Webber for our summer reading project at Restless, Young, and Reforming.

As far as I understand it, evangelical was originally a much more generic term for Protestantism as understood by the Reformers.  Following the path of their renaissance humanist teachers, the Reformers solution to the problems they saw in the Catholic Church was to go back to the text, in particular the text of the “evangelists”: the New Testament. Hence the term Evangelical, which if it had kept its original meaning might be (in my opinion) a better title than Protestant for the branch of Christianity it represents.

This renewed emphasis on the text led to the need for in depth study of the text, which led for the need for a strong system of hermeneutics. This got its running start with Friedrich Schleiermacher, who is also considered by many the founder of the historical-critical method from which came the “liberal” study of the Bible.

In other words, to a very large degree modern liberal/critical scholarship of the Bible is actually a product of the Evangelical movement.


Like everything else, this story is complicated.

What we are doing here is squinting, I’m quite willing to admit.  Whole books have been written about this and will continue to be written.  We are not going to cover all the details in one short blog post.

In very general terms, though, we can say that there was a discomfort among some in the Evangelical/Protestant community about the direction this critical study of scripture took.

These disagreements became more and more pronounced, eventually creating a theological division within American Evangelicalism/Protestantism especially.  This resulted in the rise during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century of a movement we refer to as fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism makes an interesting logical move by intentionally embracing circularity and declaring that certain presuppositions must be held from the start for a theological system to have validity, namely, the doctrines they identified as fundamental.  Then, in the course of doing theology, these fundamentals appear again as the conclusions of espoused by theological arguments.  In other words, for fundamentalism there exists a list of fundamental doctrines of the faith that are unquestionable.

Philosophically, such a system is sometimes referred to as Presuppositionalism and was defended by longtime professor of philosophy at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia Cornelius van Til.

Two problems plagued fundamentalism, however.

One was that there was little to no internal agreement about what the fundamentals were, so there was constant internal bickering and division.

The second was that when you embrace circularity and use it to declare your system infallible from the beginning, its extremely hard to get anyone to take you seriously, and so the community became more and more isolated.  This is extremely problematic for a group that maintains as one of their key purposes the continued spread of the gospel.  When no one takes you seriously, its hard to spread your message.  Eventually, the need to engage the outside world became more and more apparent to fundamentalists.

Contemporary Evangelicalism

The next step in the story involves two movements towards the center of this debate, one from each side of the aisle, which both went by the name of evangelicalism.  The first was the movement of Karl Barth, often known as Neo-Orthodoxy, but its interesting to me that his summary of his own theology goes by the title Evangelical Theology.  While Barth in many ways accepts the historical-critical study of scripture, he does so from the stance of someone who is also securely committed to Christian Orthodoxy.  In this sense, in my assessment, he challenges many of the philosophical presuppositions which had likely led to the discomfort of many more conservative Christians with the direction of academia prior to his time and this in turn led to a movement toward a middle-ground between fundamentalism and the “classical liberalism” it had reacted to.

From the other end of the theological spectrum, there was a movement among conservative Christians in the United States to become much more engaged with the broader culture.  This movement has become what is now known as contemporary evangelicalism.  It is not monolithic and its efforts to engage its culture have sometimes been less than successful- the parallel Christian music industry is in my mind one such example. However, the general aim of the movement seems to be in the direction of being an active part of the culture rather than a self-isolating community.

The suspicion of the academy that still runs deep in contemporary evangelicalism, then, is something that I view as a hold-over from its fundamentalist past, and I think at least anecdotally from the stories of evangelicals engaged in academics that I am not alone in such a view.

Emergent versus Neo-Reformed

To put the two recent trends in evangelicalism that we are focusing in on at Restless, Young, and Reforming this summer in perspective:

As a cultural shift towards post-modernism takes place in the West, many American evangelicals have embraced what is known as the Emergent Church movement.  From the perspective of our discussion of engagement with the academy, this movement, often taking its cues from mainline critical scholarship, is characterized by a willingness to ask questions about what were once considered key doctrines in the evangelical community- Brian McLaren and Rob Bell have both earned quite a reputation in evangelical circles for their questioning of doctrines about hell and the particularity of salvation, for instance.

In the minds of many more conservative evangelicals this is going too far, and the Neo-Reformed movement is sometimes seen as a reaction to the Emergent movement (though this is definitely a caricature, it is much more complex than a reactionary movement).  The fear of many less conservative evangelicals is that the Neo-Reformed movement is dragging evangelicalism back into a kind of self-isolating fundamentalism.

What we are doing this summer at Restless, Young, and Reforming is considering both of these movements in depth, considering their relationship to the wider culture, the academy, and evangelical orthodoxy.


What do you think? I would love to hear from you, please share your thoughts. Just remember to be respectful of others.

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