In my previous post I tried to set Noll’s work within the context of American religious historiography.
In this post I want to highlight some elephants in the room of Noll’s analysis.
Elephant #1: Populist forms of Christianity can be intellectual, just not populist forms of American evangelical Christianity
One of the questions raised by Noll’s analysis is whether populism can contribute to the life of the mind. As I said in my previous post, Noll locates part of the scandal in the culture of evangelicalism, which he describes as “activist, populist, pragmatic, and ultilitarian.”
Hofstadter disliked the populism that erupted under Andrew Jackson even though it led to the election of an Abraham Lincoln. Instead, Hofstadter contrasted cosmopolitanism, pluralism, and intellect to provincialism, sectarianism, and intuition. One colleague even wondered whether Hofstadter was objecting to democracy itself rather than anti-intellectualism.
Noll’s consigning the problem of the intellect to a populist culture and his hunger for evangelicals to trade wits with the cultural elite and produce Nobel laureates suggests his sympathies reside with Hofstadter.
There are some ironies in Noll’s account that amount to an elephant in the room.
First Irony: Benedictine monks are intellectuals, but holiness folks are not
He refers to Benedictine monks as examples of medieval groups that have encouraged serious thinking. This is an interesting move since many Benedictines are known for deep spirituality, but not always for promoting the kind of intellectual rigor Noll wants out of evangelicals.
Bernard of Clairvaux strongly encouraged students to leave the schools in Paris and convert by which he meant become a monk. He was opposed to the new learning of the schools at times and had Peter Abelard brought up on heresy charges as well as Gilbert de la Porree.
Why is he different from an A. W. Tozer who belonged to the Christian Missionary and Alliance (CMA) church, which came from the Higher Life Movement? Noll says the Higher Life Movement is part of the problem and yet Tozer was given an honorary doctorate by Wheaton and composed over forty books. Tozer was significantly impacted by F. F. Bosworth, an early pentecostal who eventually became a CMA member.
Second Irony: Franciscans are serious about learning and contemplation, but pentecostals are not
Noll makes the same claim about Franciscans that he did about Benedictines. This is also an interesting move given that many Franciscans were opposed to education and there was a debate over its importance within the order. In fact, a significant group of Franciscans (the spiritual Franciscans) engaged in end-time speculation because they adopted the thought of Joachim of Fiore.
Francis himself had charismatic visions, fasted to the point of having an emaciated body, reportedly preached sermons to birds, and left very few writings. Yet, he began a movement that is still with us.
William Seymour wrote only articles, was partially blind in one eye, spoke in tongues, and believed that the Spirit could unite all human beings. And, he was a leader of a movement that is still with us.
The elephant in the room is how similar these forms of Christianity are and yet Noll accepts one as intellectual and the other as not.
Elephant #2: Fundamentalist, Pentecostal, and Holiness Christians devalued creation and developed creation science while Reformed Christians did not
The most interesting part of Noll’s criticism is the fact that he chooses not to look closely at his own brand of evangelicalism: the Reformed churches.
Noll says he is a wounded lover, but he also knows that evangelicalism is not a church or a single group. Invariably everyone who is an evangelical picks a camp to belong to. If Noll were really a wounded lover, he would have gone after his own camp rather than simply point the finger at other camps.
Devaluing the creation
My first example is that Noll claims the theological innovations of dispensationalism, pentecostalism, and the holiness movement betray subtle forms of Gnosticism, Manicheanism, and Docetism. For Noll, a docetic outlook is an other-worldly one that devalues creation by privileging heaven or fixates on the eternal. Gnostic describes a method that attempts to understand history and the world through secret knowledge unlocked by de-coding the Bible.
But what about Abraham Kuyper’s positing a radical antithesis between the Christian and the non-Christian based on the Reformed distinction between common and special grace. For Kuyper this means that there must really be two kinds of science that are absolutely opposed to one another.
Cornelius Van Till would take Kuyper’s claim and turn it into an apologetical strategy. There can be no common ground between nature and grace, between the believer and the non-believer. This prompts Van Till to claim that everything must begin with the revelation of God, which is the revelation of the Bible. From the revelation of the Bible, the common ground is God as one who creates and decrees. You cannot get to this God by reasoning because there is no bridge from human reasoning to divine revelation.
A group of Reformed thinkers going under the banner of Christian Reconstruction would publish a set of essays in 1976 entitled Foundations of Christian Scholarship. Following Van Till, Rousas Rushdoony would claim that some Christians thought Greek philosophy was a common ground, but the autonomous reason of autonomous man can never begin in the natural order and end with God. Rushdoony concludes that Arminianism and Catholicism both suggest humans can approach God through reasoning, which makes them anti-theistic and non-biblical.
In the same collection of essays, Vern Poythress argues for a biblical view of mathematics insofar as a person cannot have a proper foundation for mathematics outside of hearing the Word of God. This means the unregenerate can possess no such foundation.
Greg Bahnsen claims that an antithesis exists between Socrates and Paul so that they are radically different in their philosophical method.
Is positing such a strong dichotomy between the Christian and the non-Christian not a form of gnosticism? Is it not docetic? If Catholicism and Arminianism are not only non-biblical, but anti-theistic, what common ground does a Reformed Christian have with them? Talk about a withdrawal from the world. And yet, Noll never mentions this stream of Reformed Christianity.
Valuing creation science
Another good example of this “Reformed elephant” resides in Noll’s discussion of creationism.
On his narrative the historical lineage of creationism runs from Seventh Day Adventists to the Brethren John Whitcomb and the Southern Baptist Henry Morris. What he leaves out of this narrative is that many of Whitcomb’s and Morris’ early works in the 1960s were published by the consersvative Presbyterian and Reformed publishing company. P&R publishing was founded in 1930 out of the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy as a voice of conservative Reformed theology.
Here are some of the works P&R was publishing in the early 1960s:
- Henry Morris and John C. Whitcomb, Jr., The Genesis Flood (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1961)
- John C. Whitcomb, Jr., The Origin of the Solar System (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1963)
- Henry Morris, Biblical Catastrophism and Geology (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1963)
- Henry Morris, Studies in the Bible and Science (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1963)
At the time, P&R was publishing many authors who set forth hard-line views of the Reformed faith.
The clearest example of this trend is Loraine Boettner, a man now almost forgotten unless you happen to inhabit conservative Reformed circles where he is still revered. Boettner held to postmillenialism and issued an virulently anti-Catholic tome during the Kennedy administration (Roman Catholicism, 1962). Noll elsewhere calls Boettner a conservative Presbyterian, yet to many Catholic writers he is a manifestation of fundamentalism.
Another irony is that this was around the same time that the pentecostal ecumenist David J. Du Plessis was pushing pentecostals into dialogue with Catholics. The first dialogue occurred in 1972.
The point here is that there is no direct connection between premillenialism and a literalist approach to Genesis 1 that interprets the days as twenty-four hour periods, and a devaluing of creation given that Reformed thinkers were doing similar things. Noll’s efforts notwithstanding the historical links are simply not there.
What about holiness and pentecostal writers?
In the meantime, most holiness and pentecostal writers supported some version of the day-age theory or the gap theory originally offered by Thomas Chalmers in which either the days of Genesis 1 were extended periods of time or there was an indefinite period of time between the first and second verses of Genesis 1.
These views were promoted by Scofield in his study bible, dispensationalists like Clarence Larkin, and by theologians such as the Nazarene theologian H. Orton Wiley. These were the basic options for most pentecostals and holiness folks until young-earth creationism began to filter in to these circles in the 1970s.
Both theories offered a way of reconciling the geological record of an ancient earth with Genesis. Indeed, Henry Morris rejected both day-age and the gap theory in part because he thought they gave too much away to evolution.
In Orton Wiley’s words, Genesis 1 was a majestic poem of the dawn, a hymn of creation. As the Wesleyan theologian Mildred Bangs Wynkoop wrote in A Theology of Love (1972), Genesis 2 offers statements about humanity “in a symbolic way” and thus accords with modern scientific theories.
Henry Clay Morrison echoed many holiness advocates when he said that the problem was not between geology and scripture, but between evolution and scripture. Many Holiness leaders accepted geological ideas about an old earth and some of them, such as S. James Bole, argued for a local flood.
You get none of this complex discussion in Noll’s book, which basically moves from Old Princeton theologians like Hodge and Warfield to Fundamentalists and the rise of creation science. The complexity of views among holiness and pentecostal writers led Ronald Numbers to call them “reluctant antievolutionists” and note that flood geology made less of a stir among Wesleyans than it did among Reformed mainly because they saw the debate as secondary to the promotion of holiness of life, Spirit baptism, and the mission of the church.
Mark Noll is an outstanding historian of that there is no doubt. Many of his works serve as models of historical scholarship. But when he set out to write about the scandal of the evangelical mind, he was no longer operating as simply a historian. Just like Hofstadter’s book on anti-intellectualism, Noll’s Scandal was a deeply personal work. He was so close to his argument that he missed the elephants in the room.