Noll, the Evangelical Mind, and the Elephants in the Room

By: Dale M. Coulter
Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

Elephant in the roomWhen Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind hit the market in the early 1990s it created a “title” wave that continues to move out in multiple directions. This fact alone means that if evangelicalism is going to reboot its examination of its own intellectual resources–a process already begun in the cultural liturgies series of James K. A. Smith–then it must grapple with Noll’s critique.

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.



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Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Sunday, September 22nd, 2013 at 9:25 pm and is filed under Church History, Renewal Studies, scholarship, Worldview. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

8 Responses to “Noll, the Evangelical Mind, and the Elephants in the Room”

  1. Frank Macchia says:

    Dale, great posts. I like the way in which you frame the weakness of Noll’s analysis within a broader historiographical framework. Brilliant. The issues really do cut across the Evangelical spectrum and call for a deeper theological response. In other words, Evangelicals of all stripes seem to be ambivalent about what to do with the third article of the Creed. There seem to be both promise and shortsightedness in their responses.

  2. Excellent. Growing up in a conservative Presbyterian family, there never was for me a clear line drawn between John Calvin and Chic comics. The word “evangelical” itself has always seemed artificial — who ever invited us to “accept evangelicalism as your personal savior?” But Presbyterians do love books, if I started with comics and Duane Gish, I didn’t stop there. 40 years later, I’m still trying to figure out origins. People do seem to buy more books when I speak in Reformed churches, but the lines are not neatly drawn, and I suspect Mark tried to capture a Noll too far.

  3. Interesting article on Hofstadter’s legacy with specific comments on his locating anti-intellectualism among American evangelicals:


    • Yes, it is. Thanks for sharing it. We are still struggling as a country to understand and wrestle with populist movements be they Tea Party inspired or Occupy Wall Street. Pentecostalism is a form of populism and we must come to terms with the latter to understand more clearly the dynamics of the former.

  4. David A Booth says:

    Thank you for your article.

    One of the important things about creating a Christian mind is the realization of how easily we all make errors of judgment and how much we need each other as a body of Christ. With that in mind, I hope you will allow me to clarify a significant misunderstanding you have presented regarding Van Til’s epistemology. It is fine to disagree with Van Til, but it would be helpful to be disagreeing with what he actually taught. This seems particularly worthwhile in an article on the Christian mind.

    You write: “Cornelius Van Til would take Kuyper’s claim and turn it into an apologetic strategy. There can be no common ground between nature and grace, between the believer and non-believer.” Ironically, the last phrase is the exact opposite of what Van Til actually taught. Van Til taught that EVERYTHING was common ground between the believer and unbeliever. What Van Til was arguing for was not the lack of common ground (after all, both are created in the image of God and live in God’s universe) but for an antithesis between how believers and unbelievers interpreted this common ground.

    You can see this distinction in Van Til’s “Introduction to Systematic Theology” beginning on page 70 (I am lifting the quotation from John Frame’s book on Van Til pages 415-416) where he writes:

    “If we consider common ground to mean a common perception and perspective of reality, then obviously no such common ground for discussion exists between believer and unbeliever. From the believer’s vantage point every aspect of life, every bit of experience, every dimension of reality, is understood and interpreted from a theological perspective. …. It would appear that both [believer and unbeliever] enjoy a univocal understanding of the daffodil. … [But] the believer acknowledges the significance of the daffodil, not as a cosmic accident, but as something that in itself bears witness to the majesty and beauty of the Creator God. This the unbeliever does not acknowledge, positing instead, a completely opposite and antithetical understanding of the daffodil’s significance.

    From a different perspective, however, there is common ground, namely the whole of creation. Believer and unbeliever live in the same universe. Each sees the same phenomena. The unbeliever and believer can agree that two and two are four, and that certain principles of deduction are valid while others are invalid. Thus a kind of common ground is established.”

    I hope that helps.

    Best wishes,


    • Touché David. A little rhetorical flourish, I must admit. I should have been clearer and I concede the point.

      Of course, I might add that there are different ways of interpreting Van Till. Thus Rushdoony will say things like “if there is a common ground in man’s reason whereby he can, by rational discourse, begin with reason or the natural order and conclude with the God of Scripture, then philosophy offers us an easier plan of salvation than Scripture.”

      So, yes Van Till will say that God and creation are common ground and then come back and say, “As Christians we must not allow that even such a thing as enumeration or counting can be accounted for except upon the presupposition of the truth of what we are told in Scripture about the triune God as the Creator and Redeemer of the World.” This will cause Van Till to claim that any knowledge a non-believer possesses is borrowed capital and that there can be no scheme outside of biblical revelation that has truth. The only truth the non-believer possesses is the brute facts of creation. In my view, it’s still a chasm
      across which no bridge can be built.

      The common ground is the God “of scripture,” which is why you need a mathematics that begins with scripture. Don’t forget that Van Till went after Gordon Clark on this very point and wanted to have Clark’s ordination in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church nullified. And this on the basis of a difference in epistemology!

      • David A Booth says:

        Dear Dale,

        You are absolutely correct that Van Til was not interested in building bridges from autonomous thought to Christianity. His project was to get the unbeliever to abandon his autonomy. On the other hand, Van Til and his followers would be happy to go to a non-Christian dentist. Van Til wasn’t arguing that a non-Christian dentist didn’t have knowledge, and knowledge that was quite useful to Christians, simply that the non-Christians’ worldview was inconsistent with the knowledge that the dentist actually had.

        Many Reformed theologians and philosophers, of course, have disagreed with Van Til on various aspects of his project. R.C. Sproul would be a well known popular theologian who has done so.

        Allow me to add: I’m pretty sure that Van Til never suggested that you need a mathematics that begins with Scripture (It has been 20 years since I have read Van Til and I’m happy to be corrected). Instead, Van Til argued that a person needed to presuppose the God of Scripture in order to explain why math works. I have heard plenty of people who have never read Van Til make similar points. If the universe is simply random matter in motion then it is difficult to explain why, for example, induction works.

        BTW – While I’m sure you know this, in case someone else is reading this comment, the controversy with Clark wasn’t over whether or not believers and unbelievers shared the same knowledge but over whether human beings could know something in the same way as God did. Van Til, eager to defend the Creator/creature distinction, argued that God’s knowledge is always qualitatively different than our knowledge. Clark thought that this was irrational. I’m sure that you and I can agree that this was not one of the bright spots in the history of Reformed Christianity.

        Best wishes,


      • Thanks again for your comments David.

        I did not mean to suggest Van Till thought you had to go to scripture to engage in math. I meant to suggest that the simple equation of 2 + 2 = 4, as much as the complex theorems of Euclidean geometry, are no more than brute facts that cannot be interpreted correctly apart from the God of scripture. They certainly cannot lead one to God. This is the starting point of Vern Poythress’s essay on math in the volume I mentioned.

        I think that’s essentially the point you’re making in your first paragraph. Every Christian thinks there are differences between a Christian vision and another vision. Van Till just intensifies the dichotomy to the point that he could, given the way Mark Noll defines gnosticism and doceticism, be described using those categories. Part of the problem here is how useful it is to continue to use ancient heresies as typologies for current positions.

        Yes, when I wrote about Van Till I was in part recalling my days at RTS in Orlando in which I heard from R.C. and Ron Nash on these matters. Ron Nash, as you know, was a “disciple” of Gordon Clark. Of course, I also read John Frame back then.

        As to the comment about “not one of the bright spots,” exactly. And this underscores my point. Every side of evangelicalism has its “not-so-bright spots.”

        Your clarification about the Van Till-Clark affair illustrates my point. The fact that you and I are engaged in a conversation about a relatively obscure intramural debate within a narrow slice of American Reformed theology should say that I care enough about the Reformed tradition to see the complexities. I only hope that scholars in other slices of the evangelical world will do the same.