Journal of Christian Ministry | Apostles of Reason – Book Review

Apostles of Reason – Book Review

Apostles of Reason – Book Review


Apostles of Reason:
The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism

Molly Worthen
New York, NT: Oxford University Press, 2014
352 pages, $27.95

Reviewed by David Penno, PhD
Associate Professor of Christian Ministry
Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary,
Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI.

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Secular intellectuals have not been kind to the evangelical mind. They are inclined to see evangelicals as a menace to progress and free thought. Yet their scorn cannot erase a vexing fact: American evangelicals, so maligned as anti-intellectual, have a habit of taking certain ideas very seriously (1).
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So, Molly Worthen seeks to discern whether anti-intellectualism is a just charge against evangelicals, and if so, why. She attempts to describe the “American evangelical intellectual life” (9) over the past 70 years.

Molly Worthen is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. According to the university’s website, her research interests include “North American religious and intellectual history, particularly the ideas and culture of conservative Christianity.” She teaches classes on the History of Religion in America and Global Evangelicalism.

Worthen states that evangelicalism, as it is understood today, grew out of the pietistic reaction to the “overly formal and cerebral” (6) state churches the emerged from the Protestant Reformation. The Pietists taught that “heartfelt piety was more important than a head full of theological knowledge” (6). This challenge to ecclesiastic authority was contemporaneous with the Enlightenment’s rejection of theology as the “queen of sciences,” which created a shift in ultimate authority from the Bible to science and human rationality. This shift forced some Christians (evangelicals) to take a defensive position in intellectual dialog; they now had to defend orthodoxy, both from secularists and some other Christians.

In seeking to describe how evangelicals have wrestled with the issue of authority, Worthen intentionally has limited her review to the “elites: the preachers, teachers, writers, and institution builders in the business of creating and disseminating ideas” (9). She further restricts her work to leaders in the movement who are White evangelicals, because of the broad scope of the “evangelical universe” (5), and even then has restricted her study to selected persons and institutions as representative of that category. In doing this, she acknowledges that evangelicals from other ethnic or cultural groups differ in their thinking from those in her target group.

With the rise of fundamentalism among some evangelicals, a clear division has formed in the movement. The more conservative branch “embedded the Bible in the framework of nineteenth century Common Sense Realism, a philosophy that neglected the role of spiritual experience and left little room for Anabaptist ideas of communal discipleship. They treated scripture as a compilation of objective facts” (87). Another group within evangelicalism rejected this approach, seeking to harmonize scripture and reason, and allowing experience and tradition to have significant weight as one seeks to understand God’s will.

So why has this divide not completely ruptured the evangelical community? The author posits that three basic concerns form the bond that has held the evangelical movement together. She describes these three concerns as “how to repair the fracture between spiritual and rational knowledge; how to assure salvation and a true relationship with God; and how to resolve the tensions between the demands of personal belief and the constraints of a secularized public square” (4). In other words, evangelicals what to know (a) how to reconcile faith and reason, (b) how to know Jesus, and (c) how to act publicly on faith after the rupture of Christendom.