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.