Apostles of Reason: The Molly Worthen Thesis

Molly Worthen says that there is a "crisis of authority" within the evangelical church today. What authority holds the evangelical movement together: a commitment to Biblical inerrancy, a common "born-again" experience, a shared vision for the transformation of culture, or something else?

Molly Worthen says that there is a “crisis of authority” within the evangelical church today. What authority holds the evangelical movement together: a commitment to Biblical inerrancy, a common “born-again” experience, a shared vision for the transformation of culture, or something else?

Historian Molly Worthen’s latest book, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, is starting to make the rounds among thoughtful people, both Christian and non-Christian. Let me tell you why.

Apostles of Reason is an intellectual history of the evangelical Christianity movement over the past 70 years or so, sprinkled with fascinating portraits of influential Christian thinkers, activists, and preachers. But it seeks to make some major corrections. First, many critics in our culture today dismiss evangelical faith as simply a form of anti-intellectualism. Consider the recent Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham debate. In the popular mind, this pitted a secular, science-affirming worldview against an entrenched dogmatism incapable of change and meaningful intellectual engagement.

Worthen finds this assessment to be entirely incorrect. Instead, Worthen finds evangelical Christianity to be highly rational and intellectual. The problem is that evangelical Christianity does not play by the rules of secular academia. The secular world evaluates truth in terms of an adherence to a scientific method and the embrace of vetted peer review among educated colleagues.

Popular evangelical thought, on the other hand, bypasses much of this encumbrance by taking the message of a fully sound and rationalistically reliable Christian message straight to the people. Far from being “anti-science”, as in the case of the “creationism” debate, evangelical Christians see themselves as simply building upon what the famous 19th century Princeton theologian, Charles Hodge, saw as the “storehouse of facts” that are found within the Bible, accessible to anyone who can read. There is no need to be a “Bible scholar” to discover God’s Truth as found in Scripture. Just read the Bible for yourself! To the frustrations of the Bill Nyes of this world, Christians are making an appeal to an infallible authority that transcends both the limitations of a modernistic, falsely optimistic belief in science to solve all problems on the one side and a postmodern cultural relativism that has no unified vision of ethics and meaning on the other.

But what is the nature of this infallible authority? This question really gets to the heart of Worthen’s thesis.

Shared Questions Define the Evangelical Church

Molly Worthen is a young historian in her early thirties, teaching at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She does not identify herself as being a Christian, which makes Apostles of Reason even more intriguing coming from a kind of outsider to the evangelical movement.

Worthen finds that other historians have struggled with how to properly define what an evangelical is. She observes that many try to define evangelical in terms of shared doctrinal beliefs. Worthen, alternatively, defines evangelicalism in terms of the types of shared questions evangelicals have. She boils these shared questions down to three basics:

  • How do you come to know Jesus? For an evangelical, having a personal relationship with Jesus of some sort is the key to being sure of one’s salvation. But what does that look like?
  • How do you reconcile faith and reason? What we read in the Bible must somehow match up with what we see in science and other ways of human knowing. But how does one maintain a coherent way of knowing?
  • How do you relate your faith in Jesus Christ at a personal level to an increasingly pluralistic society? Being a Christian requires being involved in God’s mission to transform the world. So how do you do that in a world that is becoming ever more antagonistic towards Christian faith in the public sphere?

Worthen argues that these three basic questions go all the way back to the fallout with Roman Catholicism after the Reformation in the sixteenth century. After the Reformation, Protestants no longer could fall back on a teaching magisterium symbolized by the traditional authority of the Pope to keep everybody together. Instead, Protestants had to look elsewhere for authority. The evangelical movement saw the primary source for that authority to be found within the Bible. But this is more complicated than it sounds. It also requires a grappling with human reason, human experience, and still even an appreciation for church tradition as supposedly complementary sources of authority that support the Bible. But the precise inter-relationship between the Bible, reason, experience and tradition has created a “crisis of authority” within the evangelical movement.

The stresses and strains within the evangelical church are a result of different expressions of Christian faith coming to grips with different ways of trying to answer those three questions identified by Worthen. Christians are torn in different directions as they wrestle with finding some authoritative way of understanding the Christian life and salvation, with working through what it means to have faith and still use one’s mind, and also with figuring out how to share their faith in an increasingly indifferent and sometimes hostile public context.

These are difficult questions, but I think Worthen is acutely observant. For example, some evangelical Christians see that one’s experience of the living God should form Christian identity, such as evidenced in the spirit-filled emphasis of the Charismatic movement (or not!), or the more sober Calvinistic reflections on the doctrines of grace in the face of human depravity, or a renewed active sense of piety embodied by the Holiness movement. Other evangelical Christians find that Christian identity should be held together by an adherence to biblical inerrancy. Still others find that Christian identity should be founded on some unified political vision for cultural transformation; such as, the Moral Majority and more recently the Manhattan Declaration, but alternatively also Anabaptist visions promoting non-violence and socially activist movements like Sojourners. The list of possibilities of how to answer Worthen’s questions can get rather involved. In many cases, you will find a mishmash of various approaches.

As one reviewer, Mark Edwards, put it, “For Worthen, though, the problem is not that the evangelical straw man doesn’t have a brain; it has too many. The evangelicals of the American Century want to have it all: faith AND reason, status AND separateness, the Great Commission AND Great Low Prices.

Worthen’s thesis has a prophetic element for future, one that I find both troubling and curious at the same time. Years ago, one could easily say that an “evangelical” was simply one who finds the thoughts and opinions of a Billy Graham to be reasonably acceptable. Worthen argues that she sees no singular successor to Billy Graham’s legacy. The “crisis of authority” within the evangelical movement will continue to tear at the fabric that unites a diverse church.

Mark Edwards (above) points to these quotes written by Worthen in her conclusion:

The problem with evangelical intellectual life is not that its participants obey authority.  All rational thought requires the rule of some kind of law based on irreducible assumptions.  The problem is that evangelicals attempt to obey multiple authorities at the same time.  They demand that presuppositions trump evidence while counting the right kind of evidence as universal fact.  They insist that modern reason must buttress faith, that scripture and spiritual feeling align with scientific reality (258). . . . The anti-intellectual inclinations in evangelical culture stem not from wholehearted and confident obedience to scripture, or the assurance that God will eventually corral all nonbelievers, but from deep disagreements over what the Bible means, a sincere desire to uphold the standards of modern reason alongside God’s word–and the defensive reflexes that outsiders’ skepticism provokes (261). 

That is tough stuff for a “Bible guy” like me. If I could have written that well at thirty-three years old, I would not have become an engineer.

What does the past tell us about where the evangelical church is at these days? Where is God leading the evangelical movement into the future? Molly Worthen gives us a lot to think about.

Additional Resources:

One other little aside I thought was interesting that I heard in an interview she gave on the Revangelical Podcast, where I gained a lot of the information to write this blog post: Worthen suggests that the next generation of evangelicals will probably still adhere to the rejection of same-sex unions as being somehow compatible with Christian marriage. However, the younger generation will no longer have the “ick” factor that has pretty much characterized the attitudes of older evangelicals towards homosexuality. I just thought that was an interesting observation.

Reactions to Molly Worthen’s thesis within the church are quite candid. Even those who strongly disagree with some of her ideas find that her observations of the current climate within the evangelical movement are largely on target. For example, Al Mohler, president of the the Southern Baptist Seminary, finds Worthen one “to be reckoned with” but “infuriating” at the same time. Arminian theologian, Roger Olson,  reviews Worthen extensively ( #1, #2, and #3) and reads her in a kind of therapeutic way, but also sees her as being at times unduly harsh, particularly in dealing with some public evangelical leaders like Francis Schaeffer. John Schmalzbauer at Missouri State University believes that Worthen’s notion of “crisis of authority” in the evangelical movement overplays what is actually an energizing factor in the life of the church today. The fact that Christians can “agree to disagree” on matters that are non-essential to saving faith is an indicator of the strength of evangelicalism’s integrity, and is therefore not a weakness.

A penetrating interview with Worthen can be found here. And finally, here is a sample of Worthen’s remarkable skill as a writer with a 2009 piece in the New York Times about Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll, the hip-Calvinistic preacher who some call “the cussing pastor”. Now, I must admit that I like Driscoll in many ways, as he is a great teacher and communicator, but his excesses of “macho” Christianity and taste for controversy as Worthen writes several years ago has gotten him into some trouble, just as Worthen predicted.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

4 responses to “Apostles of Reason: The Molly Worthen Thesis

  • John Paine

    I am also just a humble engineer, but…I find the lack of a Billy Graham successor quite refreshing. There are so many great thinkers and encouragers within short electronic reach, we can research and form our theology drawing from a treasure trove of experts. Where there was one clear American evangelical leader a generation ago, there are now William Lane Craig, Hugh Ross, Norman Geisler, Andy Stanley, Dick Woodward, Daniel Wallace, Bobby Conway, Ravi Zacharias, Lee Strobel, John Yates, Michael Card, John Lennox, Tim Keller, Craig Evans AND Clarke Morledge to name but a few of my favorites. Thanks for another far-reaching and well-written post. Chi Rho man, Chi Rho!


    • Clarke Morledge

      I don’t know where you got that last one… must have slipped past your spell checker 🙂

      John, I think you bring up a very interesting point. Access to teaching material is just a click away these days, something that simply did not exist some 20 to 30 years ago. The danger is that it might be tempting for someone just to follow a small list of teachers (or bloggers) that might be a little off (“I read it on the Internet, so it must be true!!”), but then on the other hand, it is easier to find information to “fact check” the ideas presented by other teachers.

      I guess what concerns me is that 30 years ago, every Christian I knew was somehow favorable towards Billy Graham, so in some sense his presence was like having a “Protestant pope”. We just do not have that kind of leadership anymore. “I am for Paul! I am for Apollos!” (I Cor. 3:4)…. that kind of thing seems prevalent today.

      But perhaps you are right. As long as one does not get locked into a little nitch and stays focused on the bigger picture of who Jesus is, then perhaps this is not such a bad thing.

      The big take away for me with Molly Worthen is those three questions that she says are what defines the evangelical Christian community. I just had not thought of it that way before.

      Nevertheless, it still leaves a mystery: if she is so sympathetic to evangelical faith, I really wonder why she personally does not embrace that faith herself?


  • What Makes Me Cringe | Veracity

    […] back on Molly Worthen’s thesis about the crisis of authority in evangelical thought, the struggle evangelical Christianity has with the challenges of the Old Testament regarding […]


  • Clarke Morledge

    It looks like Mark Driscoll’s celebrity ego has finally got the best of him:


    Warren Throckmorton at Grove City College has become a type of watchdog exposing some of the excesses of popular conservative Christians who lack proper accountability. His efforts to call out folks who extend themselves inappropriately serves as a type of wake-up call that needs to be heeded:


    Nevertheless, I still think that it would be wrong to completely dismiss Driscoll simply because he has had this “angry young prophet” mode that got out of control. When he is doing his primary calling as pastor of a church, I would say that he is doing a fine job of communicating biblical doctrine to his flock, even if one does not agree with everything he says. So the fact that he has now said that he will draw back from social media in order to focus on his local pastorate, this is a commendable step. Let us pray that we see more of this move towards modesty on his part.

    And let the recent incidents in the Driscoll controversy serve as a warning for those church leaders who might be tempted to let things get too much to their head.


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