Review: The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship

Marsden, George M. The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

The Author

George Marsden (b. 1939) is a Christian historian, writing works on American and Evangelical history. He received his BA from Haverford College, his BD from Westminster Theological Seminary, and his MA and PhD from Yale. He taught at multiple universities throughout his carrier, such as Calvin College, Duke University Divinity School, and University of Notre Dame. He is also a visiting professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and Regent College. In 1981, he served as an expert witness against the “Creation-Science” law of Arkansas. Currently, he lives in Grand Rapids Michigan where he is a member of the Christian Reformed Church.

He wrote many works over his life time including Fundamentalism and American Culture, The Soul of American University, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, and C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity: A Biography. For his scholarly work on Jonathan Edwards, he won the Bancroft Prize from Columbia University, the Merle Curti Award from the Organization of American Historians, and the Grawemeyer Award from the University of Louisville.


Introduction. He introduces his book with the proposal that higher education should be open to discussion on the relationship of faith and learning (p. 3). He is not discussing the field of theology only but broadening it out to every academic discipline (p. 4). His point is to challenge the notion that academics and faith do not mix (p. 7). He addresses his work to both religious and non-religious people alike (p. 8).

Chapter One: Why Christian Perspectives Are Not Welcome. He begins this chapter tracing the removal of religion from higher education under the guise of tolerance (p. 13). Despite the effort for tolerance, the universities still pushed for homogeneity, but this time without religious sentiment (p. 19). The result was that all religious views were discriminated against, and non-religious views were promoted (p. 24).

Chapter Two: The Arguments for Silence. Academia has been inculcated the Enlightenment ideal of replacing religious authority with scientific authority. Any religious thought is viewed as intangible and therefore non-scientific (pp. 26-27). Therefore, a scholar must set his religious views aside to do scientific work (p. 28). Also, the ideal of multiculturalism restricts any religious views from the conversation (p. 36). Finally, academia silences Christians based on the ideal of the separation between church and state (p. 41).

Chapter Three: Christian Scholarship and the Rules of the Academic Game. He argues that non-religious scholars should view as legitimate the viewpoint of religious scholars, provided they submit to the same rules of academia (p. 45). A major rule is that religious scholars should not argue based on supernatural authorities (p. 48). Also, he points out that the academy operates on the basic presuppositions of Christianity anyway, so religious view points are not really changing much (p. 50-51). As for the Christian, he must remember that his interaction with academia is under their rules, not the rules of the church (p. 56).

Chapter Four: What Difference Could It Possibly Make. When dealing with details, Christians and non-Christians will be remarkably similar. But when dealing with the big-picture, they will differ considerably (p. 62). They will differ motivation for, application of , direction in, and implications of their scholarship (p. 63-64). Also, Christian Scholarship will challenge several biases of non-religious scholarship (p. 72). Finally, Christians will implement their moral judgments into their field (p. 82).

Chapter Five: The Positive Contributions of Theological Context. It is impossible to define every way Christianity will influence scholarship. But Marsden gives several examples on how Christian theology can affect scholarship (p. 84). The doctrine of creation affects human purpose, morals, and epistemology (p. 88). The incarnation affects the view on the relationship between the supernatural and the natural (p. 90). Pneumatology affects how the Christian views history as well as himself (p. 94).

Chapter Six. Building Academic Communities. He then encourages Christians to build academic communities for higher learning. He proposes that Christians should consider starting research universities (p. 102). Also, he encouraged the continual development of Christian Liberal Arts universities (p. 104). He noted that Christian universities often go secular. His solution is that universities should employ only believers and that they should continually develop in them Christian virtues.


As far as his intended goal, Marsden argued for his point very well. He remained focused on his theme and brought out many relevant details for his position. The one drawback, however, is his cluttered style. I found myself having to reread his sentences several times in order to make sense of them. They were grammatically correct, but cumbersome to read.

Marsden’s words are appropriate for 1997 and for today. While not what is was in the ’90s, Fundamentalism (my personal tradition) still needs to progress toward better academics. What would help Fundamentalism is not just the liberal arts schools, but also a research university or school. So much could be developed in the area of Old Testament studies from a conservative standpoint, but it is not done because there is just not an institution that can produce such findings. But if such an institution could be established, this work could be done by a team of scholars united under the authority of the Word of God.

Marsden’s work is similar in intent to Mark Noll’s Between Faith and Criticism. While the desire for Christian scholarship is the same, the tone between the books is very different. Noll is curt, cutting, and dismissive of any view that does not follow academic norms, especially Fundamentalism. Marsden, on the other hand, is gracious in his tone, attempting to value everyone, including Fundamentalism. Thus, between the two, Marsden is easier to digest.

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