VISION & VALUES: The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship

Editor’s Note: The following lecture was presented at Grove City College on September 6, 2001 as part of the 125th Anniversary Speaker Series.

People who think Christian scholarship is outrageous may be divided, broadly speaking, into two camps. First there are those non-Christians who find the idea outrageous or offensive. For modern scholars to connect faith and learning is, as one prominent historian put it, a “loony” idea. Many regard such scholarship as necessarily unscientific. Or they may regard it as offensive for Christians to set themselves apart as though they have a view of things that is distinct and superior to that of other secular or religious groups. My book, with the same title as this lecture, is first of all a response to such critics and secondly provides some guidelines to Christian scholars as to how to think about their relationship to an often hostile or suspicious mainstream academy.

Tonight, however, I want to talk about another group that tends to be deeply suspicious of the idea of Christian scholarship. This group includes most American evangelical Christians. This group is suspicious not of the Christian part of the idea, but rather of the scholarship part. American evangelical Christians are notoriously anti-intellectual. That is something that is not just said about us by outsiders. Insiders have also pointed out this distrust of serious intellectual pursuits. The best-known expression of this point is from my friend and fellow speaker in this series, Mark Noll, who wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, a book that I recommend. The scandal of the evangelical mind, Noll argues, in essence is that there is no evangelical mind. Evangelical Americans are extremely pragmatic. They do what works. They want to save souls or sometimes they want to organize for quick action to change the world. But they seldom take the time to build good theory or good theology for what they are doing.

Among evangelicals, Reformed and Presbyterian Christians have probably been the least given to such anti-intellectualism. We have, after all, a long tradition of formidable intellectual achievement going back to the Puritans and the Reformers. Nevertheless, I think it is safe to say that American evangelical activism and suspicions of scholarship have infected even the strongest Reformed and Presbyterian communities of today. In fact, I think that we can find some of the best evidence of such suspicions in the structures of most Christian colleges, including Reformed ones, today. Even if scholarship is respected in America’s Christian academic institutions, it is not – if we are to look at where the money is – something that has a high priority. And remember, we are talking about the academic institutions – the places we might think were set aside especially to cultivate scholarship.

Tonight I want to address the question of how the strengths of the American evangelical activist heritage and a healthy cultivation of Christian intellectual life might be combined. Notice I am not suggesting that a stronger emphasis on scholarship ought to be an alternative to the strengths of evangelical activism. Rather, I want you to think about how scholarship might be seen as an integral part of the evangelical mission to the world. In other words, how should the evangelistic strengths of the Protestant tradition be linked to its intellectual strengths?

An Evangelical Scholar
In thinking about this topic over the years, I have been immensely helped by the insights of one of my spiritual forefathers, J. Gresham Machen. As many of you know, Machen was a leading Presbyterian scholar at Princeton Theological Seminary in the early decades of the 20th century. Later he was the principal founder of Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Machen was a friend of Grove City College. His book, What is Faith?, originated as lectures on this campus.

Early in my career, when I was teaching at Calvin College, I ran into some of Machen’s early reflections on this topic of which I had been previously unaware. It happened that during the later 1960s I visited L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland conducted by Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer, as you probably know, was a widely influential evangelist who spoke much of the relationship of Christian faith to contemporary culture and intellect. When I visited L’Abri I found that he had reprinted as a little pamphlet an address, titled “Christianity and Culture,” that had been especially influential on him in shaping his own sense of mission.1

The early 20th century was a time of church growth and enthusiasm for evangelism and missions in American Protestant churches, and young men who had chosen such a conservative seminary as Princeton were likely to have done so not so much for intellectual reasons as because of enthusiasm for evangelism that they saw as lacking at the more liberal seminaries. Their tendency, Machen knew well, was to question why they had to take so much time for rigorous learning when there was so much practical Gospel work to be done, when untold numbers were perishing in their sins every day.

Machen responds to such criticisms by challenging the assumption of evangelical Americans that scholarship is impractical and irrelevant to the urgent task of evangelism. On the contrary, the intellectual task is an essential component of evangelism. That is because God works through means to bring people to himself and these means include cultural conditions that may dispose people to give the Gospel a hearing. In the 20th century, Machen observes, the intellectual obstacles to the faith seem insurmountable for many people. This is true not only for the intellectuals, but also for masses of people who are shaped by prevailing cultural fashion. So Christian scholarship is not only making good use of God’s creation – another good rationale – it also can provide a vital component of evangelism.

We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer [Machen proclaims] and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.

Machen’s statement is a powerful one regarding what in the title to this series is called “Faith, Freedom and the Future.” The future of Christianity, both as a message for evangelism and as a factor in civilization, is dependent, in part, on the credibility of the Christian faith. If the elites who control the media, government, business, the law and so forth come to regard Christianity as nothing more than “a harmless delusion,” then the task of the Christian evangelist or the Christian citizen will become immensely more difficult.

The Force of Ideas
This brings us to the key statement of what I would like you to consider. Machen’s view of the potential importance of Christian scholarship is built on a more general view about the relation of ideas to history.

What is today a matter of academic speculation [he declares] begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires. In that second stage, it has gone too far to be combated; the time to stop it was when it was still a matter of impassionate debate.

I would like you to reflect on that statement in thinking what might be the intellectual task of Christian schools. If it is true that “what is a matter of academic speculation in one era begins to move armies and pull down empires in the next,” what does that mean for us?

I think there is no doubt that this basic thesis is true. The Reformation was, among other things, the outgrowth of scholars’ insights. Or the American Revolution was in part the result of ideas that could be found on scholars’ drawing boards a century earlier. The French Revolution even more dramatically was driven in part by ideologies of the preceding era of Enlightenment. Some of the best examples of the influence of ideas occurred after Machen spoke; Karl Marx’s theories of the mid-19th century moved countless armies and pulled down empires in our century.

Of course, many other factors – economic, political and ethnic factors – account for the rise and fall of empires or for why people adopt particular ideas. As an historian, one becomes well aware of the complexities of the relationships between human beliefs and human actions. Yet there’s no denying that among those factors that steer world history is the force of ideas themselves.

So I think there is a good case for Machen’s primary assertion that God works through the influential ideas in a culture and not just through individuals, or families, nations, or even just through churches. Cultural conditions help dispose people to belief or disbelief. Intellectual beliefs and underlying cultural assumptions are crucial parts of those cultural conditions. So Christian scholarship can have an integral role to play in evangelism and any wider Christian mission by witnessing to the intellectual viability of Christianity in an era of intellectual skepticism and by challenging widely-held assumptions that are antagonistic to the faith. If it were the case in the United States, as it has become the case in Great Britain and Western Europe, that the overwhelming majority of the educated classes felt that they could simply dismiss traditional Christian claims as hopelessly out-of-date fairy tales, the impact on the rest of our culture would be incalculable.

It is interesting to reflect, though, on how the situation has developed quite differently in the United States. Here the dominant voices in the educated classes have also turned against traditional Christianity, and that has had a tremendous impact in the media and the arts as well as in mainstream academia itself. So something of what Machen predicted has happened. Yet the situation here is not nearly as bad as it might be. The turn against traditional Christianity at the center of the culture has not dragged everything with it – at least not yet. The situation is more like that described in Peter Berger’s memorable image that the United States is like a nation where the population is as religious as that of India but is ruled by an elite who are as secular as Swedes.

Other Cultural Factors
It is worth reflecting on why the United States is different from Great Britain and Western Europe on this score and how that difference should relate to our agenda as Christian educators. There are a number of cultural factors that help account for this difference and I will not attempt to go into all of them here. An important factor that does relate to our topic, however, is the role of ethnicity and regionalism in preserving traditional religious identities. Southern whites, African Americans and many ethnic groups, such as the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians of western Pennsylvania, have maintained ethno-religious identities that were out of sync with the mainstream culture. In America the spokes of the culture do not necessarily turn with the hub.

This cultural situation has had an educational counterpart. In the United States the system of higher education has been far more decentralized than that of Western Europe. Most of this decentralized college system has been church related and much of it still is. So there always have been pockets where Christianity has survived even within higher education.

Another major factor that academics sometimes need to appreciate more is the impact of popular evangelism in sustaining the faith at all levels, including the intellectual. The flourishing of populist, free-enterprise, “democratic” evangelism has long been a characteristic of North American life that has distinguished it from most of its European counterparts. It is important for scholars to remember that this popular evangelism helps build a culture that makes Christian scholarship viable as well as the reverse. Countless people have been originally brought to Christianity through strongly anti-intellectual evangelists. Billy Sunday, for instance, is supposed to have said, “I don’t know any more about theology than a jackrabbit knows about ping-pong, but I’m on my way to glory!” Many converts of such evangelists have later become well educated and have made powerful contributions to evangelical intellectual life.

Not all of 20th-century evangelism has been anti-intellectual. The “evangelical mind” has been far from what it might be, but it has not been entirely missing in action either. Evangelicals have maintained many colleges and seminaries. Today many of these have fine faculty and students and are beginning to gain recognition as competitive with some of the better secular schools. Evangelical scholars can also be found at many leading universities. Perhaps the field of philosophy provides the best example. An impressive cadre of America’s leading philosophers are members of the Society for Christian Philosophers. Defective as evangelical intellectual life may be, evangelicals in the United States have been able to point to scholars whose belief and academic witness helps validate their own belief.

The Need for Christian Scholarship
So the situation today for evangelical scholarship is not nearly as bleak as Machen might have predicted. Even though the secular debacle in the intellectual mainstream has gone on pretty much unchecked, the whole culture has not followed. Not even the whole intellectual culture has followed. For that we need to thank – among other people – the evangelists.

That does not lessen the point that evangelists need scholars. If anything that is more true today than at the beginning of the 20th century, for we live in a culture where we constantly have to depend on the authority of experts. Most Christians, even well-educated ones, are not in a position to evaluate the plausibility of belief in the historicity of the Gospels in the light of higher criticism. Nor can they demonstrate that the intellectual warrant for traditional Christian belief is as solid as is the warrant for many of the most important things that rational people believe. Nor would they have the time to marshal historical evidence against the claim that Christianity has been, on the whole, a source of oppression in history. Nor are they in a position to sort out popular claims such as that America has, until recently, always been a Christian nation. Nor do they have the resources to build constructive Christian views of how best to deal with problems of poverty, racial justice, justice in business and economic life, or with principles for politics, education, media, the arts and families. For most such questions we need people in our communities who are expert on the subject and on whom we can rely.

Furthermore, if America is a culture where the people are as pious as in India but the cultural leaders are as secular as Swedes, one wonders how long such a balance can be maintained without the Swedes winning out. If – to take just one area of modern culture – the media are overwhelmingly controlled by the secular Swedes, one wonders how long we can continue to win the hearts and minds of upcoming generations.

Populist and fundamentalist Protestantism tends to respond to such problems with demagogues and intellectual patent medicines. So it is particularly important for the thoughtful parts of the Protestant communities to build strong centers of learning that can provide counter-balances without losing enthusiasm for the essentials of the faith. Our basic model should be the image of the Body of Christ as in I Corinthians chapters 12 and 13, where we recognize our dependence on each others’ gifts and that the highest gift is charity. We must see the mutuality of the need of Christian communities for expert scholars and the need of expert scholars for their spiritual communities.

According to this model, scholarship is not the highest calling in the Christian church nor its greatest need. Yet it is one of the essential components of the Body of Christ that needs to be cultivated. It is also important to some other essential callings. One higher calling where acquaintance with the best scholarship is especially important is in the pastoral ministry. Well-informed clergy can play especially important roles in bridging the gap between the work of professional scholars and the needs of parishioners to be able to distinguish sound teaching from unsound.

New Opportunities
Finally, I think that at the beginning of the 21st century the Christian community has a wonderful opportunity to present to the secular community an alternative to the hollowness of its mainstream education.

One of the major differences between the academic situation at the beginning of the 21st century and that at the beginning of the 20th is fragmentation of the dominant culture and hence of the communities and institutions that control scholarship. American culture in 1912 was as diverse as it is today, but that diversity was not reflected in its leading educational institutions. In that setting it made sense to talk about “the whole collective thought of the nation,” which seemed to Machen to be controlled by the ideas that prevailed in northeastern universities such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton and Johns Hopkins and a few satellites in the west. If these centers became hostile to Christianity, or simply ignored it, there seemed little hope for the nation.

Today, while there are still the same dominant institutions, there is little intellectual coherence at those cultural centers. Part of the problem is that the system of academic specialization, combined with faddish post-modernism, has ensured that 95 percent of academic activity, even in the humanities, is unintelligible to anyone but other academic specialists in one’s own field or subfield. Furthermore, since the 1960s, the idea of the dominance of any one school of thought has been under severe attack.

As deplorable as this state of affairs may be, the positive side of it is that it appears we face a cultural and intellectual situation that is going to be pluralistic for the foreseeable future. This pluralistic situation provides a new moment for Christian colleges and universities of which we should be taking advantage. The door has been opened for Christian and other religious perspectives to be recognized as legitimate players in the mainstream dialogue.

The crucial point is that Christians today – just as at the beginning of the 20th century – cannot allow the dominant thought of the nation to be controlled by ideas that are alien to Christianity. In the pluralistic setting that we find ourselves in today, we are on the verge of effectively making this point. We are on the verge of gaining wide recognition that it is inconsistent for mainstream cultural leaders to claim that the best intellectual life must be uniform in its commitment to exclusively naturalistic views of things. On similar grounds we should also challenge the other widespread assumption of both modern and post-modern thought-the assumption that humans are the creators of their own reality. For such challenges to be effectively made, however, Christian communities will have to build first-rate intellectual centers where Christian scholars can work on such issues.

So Christian colleges have an important role to play as centers that provide the opportunity for at least some faculty and students to engage in rigorous intellectual inquiring in order to provide alternative models for shaping American cultural ideals.

This is no simple task. For such alternatives to develop, schools will have to include true intellectual centers. Many pressures work against intellectual pursuits. Even at schools like Notre Dame and Duke, people complain about the anti-intellectualism among the students. So this is not simply an evangelical Christian problem. Colleges do a lot of other important things as well as cultivating the life of the mind. Yet at least one of the things that they do should be to cultivate the life of the mind at the highest level. To recognize that the highest intellectual goals should be included among the things a Christian college supports is an implication of recognizing the principle of diversity of gifts. Yet a vigorous intellectual life does not develop at a college just automatically. It needs to be cultivated. Cultivating it requires leadership with great vision and willingness to commit resources to that vision. For one thing, it seems to me, faculty are greatly overworked at most schools and need more time and opportunity to develop vital Christian visions on their disciplines. To change that will take real vision and commitment of resources.

I realize that there are pressures in a hundred other directions to take a college’s resources. Most of those other directions are legitimate and many, like excellence in teaching or cultivating a healthy spiritual community, are essential. The importance of a wide variety of programs and emphases needs to be recognized as consistent with the principle of the diversity of gifts. Yet that same principle demands that a strong commitment to scholarship be among the essential priorities. If Christian colleges are not providing for this dimension of the church’s life, who else is going to? We are in a cultural situation today in which there is a great need for alternative education from Christian perspectives that is academically competitive with the best schools in the nation. For that to happen, some visionary Christians will have to take advantage of the opportunity. I am hoping that Grove City College will be a place where that vision is found and cultivated.

About George Marsden

Dr. Marsden is the McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He began his teaching career at Yale University, then served as professor of history at Calvin College, where he also directed the master's program in Christian studies. Later he served as a professor of Christianity in America at Duke University Divinity School. Among his numerous books are The Soul of the American University, Fundamentalism and American Culture and his most recent, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship.

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About George Marsden

Dr. Marsden is the McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He began his teaching career at Yale University, then served as professor of history at Calvin College, where he also directed the master's program in Christian studies. Later he served as a professor of Christianity in America at Duke University Divinity School. Among his numerous books are The Soul of the American University, Fundamentalism and American Culture and his most recent, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship.