Tony Woodlief | Author

The scandal of the evangelical intellectual’s mind

A reasonable response to the accusation that the evangelical mind is insufficiently expansive is to ask to what dimensions its critics would like to see it expanded. That question springs to the lips when considering Biblical scholar Peter Enns’s contention that evangelical minds are not only confined, but are required to remain in confinement. “The real scandal of the Evangelical mind,” Enns writes, “is that we are not allowed to use it.” Evangelical scholars, he claims, must come to “predetermined conclusions.”

On its face this is wildly untrue. An evangelical poetry professor is free to conclude, contrary to popular opinion, that Emily Dickinson was not so original. An evangelical metallurgy professor is free to conclude that two metals bond at lower temperatures than previously believed. Most evangelical scholars have freedoms identical to those enjoyed by Catholic and Jewish and Buddhist and atheist scholars.

What Enns means is that evangelical scholars will be censured if their research impinges on evangelical dogma. This is not entirely accurate either; several members of the Jesus Seminar were members of evangelical congregations, and their careers were only aided by their collaboration in that heretical enterprise.

So what Enns really means is that evangelical scholars are expected to conform to evangelical dogma if they wish to teach in institutions that require dogmatic adherence as a condition of employment, or if they seek the approval of evangelicals who are not willing to subject dogma to scientific proof-testing. Which sounds a bit like the sailor complaining that his duties don’t include mountain-climbing.

Enns’s underlying complaint (alongside many others who conflate rebuttal with censure, and who collectively fill the internet and bookstores and who are not, as a movement, suffering from paucity of audience) is that most evangelicals refuse to adjust their dogma when confronted with putatively contradictory scientific proof.

In this Enns represents a narrow-minded view, however, borne of a strain of anti-intellectualism, ironically, birthed during the Enlightenment. The Western intellectual’s devotion to reason seduced him into reductionism, and ultimately, the crude materialism that is the thoughtless proving ground of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and other surprisingly unoriginal “new atheists.” Reductionism informs the verse-parsing that is the domain of modern evangelicals: Let’s take another look at the 97 verses that prove predestination/free will/adults-only communion.

Materialism, meanwhile, animates modern evangelical intellectuals embarrassed by their brethren who oppose teaching evolution in schools, or who aren’t adequately troubled by God’s wholesale slaughter of heathens in the Old Testament: We can’t ignore archeology and anthropology and a whole host of ologies that appear to contradict our theology.

It makes sense that Scripture would be relevant to one’s understanding of God, and that nature’s ordering can reveal things about its author. The problem is that Enns and his comrades teeter over a trap that ensnares the atheists who despise them, in that they elevate reason from God-given tool to arbiter of what is God, while sublimating mystery to a more socially acceptable, arms-length wonderment.

You have to understand that the Old Testament writing about the destruction of the Canaanites has a certain socio-political context, don’t you see, and really we must get beyond all this “God-breathed” business, but let’s not forget that God is big and wonderful in that you still have to be pretty awesome to set the forces of evolution into motion.

Enns summarizes his bind well: evangelicalism (used to, at least) connote an ambition to sustain dogma “by intellectual means.” Bible studies, sola scriptura, throwing off rituals for the steady reason of the Reformation fathers, and all that. But here’s the rub: “These intellectual means are circumscribed by Evangelical dogma.”

But this has always been at the heart of the Christian enterprise, and it’s surprising to find Christian scholars who are surprised by it. The knowing of God, a fundamental element of our faith tells us, extends beyond the senses. This is the rebuttal to atheist materialists, namely, that it is unimaginative and irrational to conclude that nothing exists beyond the senses simply because one’s senses cannot detect it. Once you accept this conclusion, the door has been opened to miracles, to dualities, to the heart of a father who says to Christ, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” It is open to a God-breathed book that sometimes seems to contradict the evidence man thinks he has scratched from the tombs of the ancients.

And so the Christian intellectual lives with mysteries. Further, he doesn’t find these onerous, because his intellect is expansive enough to contain seeming contradictions, to leave to God what is God’s domain, and to toil in the fields assigned to man.

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