Evangelicalism and the Case of the Missing Intellectuals

A common caricature of the evangelical Christian is that of a poorly-educated, narrow-minded buffoon who just isn’t clued in enough to understand the greater meaning of things in the world. After all, who with any intellect at all would believe in such outmoded things as absolute truth, creationism, and the inerrancy of Scripture?

Clifford Orwin, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, writes in the latest edition of The Public Interest that these same evangelical Christians offer the strongest voice against the secular, postmodern culture that has been ever encroaching upon American society. Orwin, who is Jewish, presents this notion in a superb essay entitled “The Unraveling of Christianity in America.” Although evangelicals offer a strong front of counterculture against the secular onslaught, Orwin does see at least one chink in the armor of evangelicals:

No counterculture fully realizes its aspiration to separate itself from the broader culture. I will note, however, one respect in which the evangelicals have failed not just themselves but the rest of us. This is the barrenness of their intellectual life. In many months spent over many years visiting in a pious household, I’ve not come upon a single evangelical book that rose above mediocrity. It would be unfair to demand of evangelicalism that it produce a St. Thomas Aquinas or Pascal any time soon. Still, it had better develop some avenue of intellectual response to its own most thoughtful young people.

While I agree that robust intellectualism has indeed been lacking in evangelicalism for some time, I think Orwin probably hasn’t looked hard enough within evangelicalism to find what he is looking for. Evangelicalism is definitely not bereft of intellectual life (a simple look at the academic bio of William Dembski will attest that evangelicals can learn), but this is part of the problem—one has to look to find them. There are a few reasons for this obscurity of the intellectual evangelical:

First of all, the publishing industries—both Christian and secular—do little to help get quality evangelical thought into the market. In Luther’s time, it was the publication of evangelical ideas that helped fuel the industry’s birth. Nowadays, it’s the publication of anything that will sell quickly with a high margin that paces the publishing industry.

Granted, the publishers and bookstores need to make money, and a book like The Design Inference isn’t necessarily something one would cozy up to the fire with or take to the beach. Light fare sells, and the decision between publishing a low-cost, low page-count book like The Prayer of Jabez that will sell millions, and a 400 page, academic book that will sell thousands is a no-brainer. Therefore, in Christian bookstores, the “no-brainer” books find their way to the front display case while maybe 1-2 copies of an intellectual book makes it to an obscure shelf in the back of the store. In the secular bookstores the marginalization is increased even more, due to competition with the already marginalized secular intellectual books. It’s no surprise why it’s hard to find intellectual evangelical works—although they’re out there.

Second, the very nature of evangelical Christianity aids in the marginalization of the Christian intellectual. In an academic world filled with compromise (with which it is necessary to be heard), evangelicals must be unbending when it comes to matters of absolute truth. Much of the academy assumes relativism and evolution, so the Christian intellectual comes to the table already at odds with the field.

Third, an evangelical must live in the real world, not an ivory tower. Evangelicals go to church with real people, and seek to make their ideas known to these same real people—not just to high-brow intellectuals. In evangelical Christianity, intellectuals are one of many important parts of the body of Christ. Their mission is (or should be) to advance the Gospel, not themselves.

Orwin is right in that there has been a dearth of intellectual brilliance within evangelicalism, but the scene is changing. Evangelical intellectuals will never look the same as the academics of postmodern secularism (One of the greatest American minds of all time, Jonathan Edwards, was a pastor, for crying out loud!). Those seeking to foster a rich intellectual life for evangelical Christianity must be wary not to capitulate to the spirit of the age. They must strive for truth in all things and always seek to serve Christ and his church over personal gain. It is in this manner, which is indeed counter-culture, that God will use his brilliant minds to transform the minds of others.

1 thought on “Evangelicalism and the Case of the Missing Intellectuals”

  1. I have to admit that I find Orwin’s criticism rather astounding. Not that there is not a serious problem of anti-intellectualism in much of the evangelical church. There most assuredly is. Nevertheless, it is also the case that some of the most important scholars setting the agenda in religion and philosophy are evangelicals. Alvin Plantinga and Tom Wright immediately come to mind as two scholars with whom no one in their respective fields can work without dealing with them. Then there are folks like Thomas Oden, William Lane Craig, Craig Blomberg, Doug Groothuis, Don Carson, and I could go on and on. That is not to mention evangelical heavy weights of the previous generation such as Cornelius Van Til, Gordon Clark, Carl Henry and Herman Dooyeweerd.

    I think all one has to do is attend any annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society to see that the notion that there is a “dearth” of evangelical intellectual brilliance is just nonsense. Yes, there is a lot of mediocrity out there. But lets face it. It is rare that any age sees the rise of an Aquinas, Kant or Newton. However, I’ve studied in liberal, secular and evanglical contexts and I can say that in terms of breadth and depth of scholarship evangelicals win hands down. Why this is not generally recognized I attribute to the systematic tendency of the liberal academy to ignore evangelical scholarship whenever possible. That is something else that I have seen time after time.

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