Review: Between Faith and Criticism

Mark A. Noll. Between Faith and Criticism: Evangelicals, Scholarship, and the Bible in America, 2nd ed. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2004. xii + 271 pp.

Author Information

Mark Noll was born on July 18, 1946 in Iowa City. He received his B.A. in English from Wheaton College in 1969. From there, he went to the University of Iowa where he received his M.A. in English in 1970. He then moved to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he received another M.A. in Church History and Theology in 1972. He finished his formal education with a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in History of Christianity in 1975. During his career, he served at Trinity College for three years and then at Wheaton College for twenty-seven years. In 2006, he started his professorship at Notre Dame as its Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History.

Dr. Noll is a prolific writer, producing or editing over forty books as well as contributing to other books and journals. He is best known for his work The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. His works generally focus on American history, including such works as The Civil War as Theological Crisis, American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction, and Religion and American Politics: From the Colonial Period to the 1980s. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, American Society of Church History, and Conference on Faith and History. For his extensive scholarly work, Noll received the National Humanities Medal in 2006 in a ceremony at the White House.

Summary

Noll begins his work with varies introductory concerns. His purpose is to present “a historical essay on evangelical interaction with critical Bible scholarship in America over roughly the last century” (p. 1). On the one hand, Noll defines evangelicals as a trans-denominational community of faith from a fundamentalist background (p. 5), with the Word of God and inspiration being core beliefs (pp. 6-7). On the other hand, he notes that critical scholarship seeks people who “willingly adopt a mien of intellectual neutrality” and thereby reject their faith-based assumptions (p. 7). The faith- based Evangelical who seeks to be a critical scholar finds himself in a struggle between these worlds.

Noll begins his history of the struggle in chapter two (1880-1900). He discusses “the emergence of self-conscious evangelical positions on criticism, a process which drew earlier amorphous convictions into sharper focus” (p. 12). This period witnessed the rise of America’s interaction with German criticism and the resulting division between evangelicals who rejected the critical method and others who accepted it with qualifications (p. 15).

In chapter three (1900-1935), Noll notes how Evangelical scholarship declined rapidly, because of several factors. These factors included “the loss of institutional bases with the older denominations, a shrinking corps of active Bible scholars, the spread of dispensationalism, the ascendency of activism, the distrust of the university, [and] the disruption of the fundamentalist- modernist controversies” (pp. 60-61). However, during this time “developments had begun which would bring evangelicals back to the marketplace of ideas and win back a partial hearing in the academy” (p. 61).

In a chapter-long excursus, Noll explored the reaction of British evangelicals to the rise of German criticism. While many similarities existed between American and British scholars, there were some marked differences. The response of British scholars to Continental criticism was “less concern[ed] for rational precision than one group of Americans [the critical scholars], and somewhat more interest[ed] in learned study than the other [conservative evangelicals]” (p. 90)

In chapter five, Noll returns to the Americas to discuss the return of evangelicals to scholarship in the years 1935-1974. He traces the history scholarship and arrived at three “inescapable” conclusions. First, Americans followed in the wake of the British. Second, American scholarship excelled in New Testament studies, while it fell behind in Old Testament studies. Third, it progressed in its maturity steadily since the 1930’s (p. 120-121).

Chapter six is “a progress report” concerning the advance of evangelical scholarship which “deserves full documentation” (p. 122). This chapter contains charts and tables summarizing the advancement of Evangelicals in the scholarly arena. After presenting the data, he concludes with initial observations. American scholars were still dependent on British academia (p. 140). Also, there was a development of “networks which bind the evangelical scholars together” (p. 140).

He turns in chapter seven from history to analyzing the evangelical’s convictions regarding the Scriptures. He concludes that Evangelicals are divided into two camps: those who use scholarship to rebut critical views and those who accept wider critical views. The former seeks to defend the scriptures and traditional interpretations while the latter seeks incorporate as much critical scholarship as possible within the confines of evangelicalism (pp. 158-160). What keeps both views in the bounds of evangelicalism is “the assurance that evangelical beliefs about Scripture can coexist with the practices of academic research” (p. 160).

In chapter eight, Noll address the question of “whether believing criticism, especially of the more creative sort, can and should succeed” (p. 163). While there are many benefits to believing criticism, he also notes many problems as well, such as misunderstandings and the variety of opinions (p. 168). Also, the theological framework of evangelicals calls into question whether its scholarship can succeed (p. 174). Finally, the recent (1986) fights between fundamentalists and their critical-evangelical counterparts have left many doubting if evangelicals are able to perform scholarship (p. 181).

Finally, Noll assess in chapter nine the current situation of evangelical scholarship and projects where the future of evangelical scholarship is headed. First, he notes how the world of evangelical scholarship is in separately connected to its place in the broader evangelical community. Second, he observes that Old Testament scholars face vastly different challenges then the New Testament scholars. And third, the scholarship community faces threats from the academy and the church in its progress toward academic maturity.

In chapter ten, he covers three areas. First, he reinforced his stance in the first edition after analyzing the feedback he received. Second, he described developing trends in the intervening years between publications. And third, he continued to discuss the contexts which have formed the interpretational climate of the evangelical community (p. 199).

Evaluation

Noll wrote his book at a time when evangelicals were beginning to gain a foothold in the academic community. As a highly trained academic involved in the academic community at large, he saw many of the problems that faced. As he saw it, the Evangelical community “suffered from having paid scant attention to what might be called a theology of criticism, or a self-conscious perspective on academic method” (pp. 9-10). And so, using his training in church history and his special focus on American church history, he researched and wrote to address this problem. After his careful description and evaluation of evangelicals up to his day, he outlined several tasks for that evangelicals need to accomplish.

(1) speak out against the irresponsible biblical interpretations to which the evangelical tradition is heir; (2) resist the distinctly American pressure to equate a protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers with democratic individualism; (3) go beyond strife over biblical inerrancy to creative synthetic theology based on the best biblical resources available; and (4) prosecute scholarship in the wider world without falling prey to the secularism which is so much a part of that world today. (p. 193-194).

To address this need, Noll directs his book to the academic world at large and specifically at evangelicals in academia. This direction is evident from the scholarly tone from the onset, where he defines his purpose and his terms. He explicitly states that “one of the collateral arguments of the book is that the resources for such a [critical] theology are latent in the evangelical tradition and that if these resources were developed more self-consciously, it would be possible to engage in a biblical scholarship at once more open to the contributions of criticism and more faithful to the Bible’s divine character” (p. 10). With these words as his introduction, he develops his content accordingly.

Noll stands in favor with what he terms “believing criticism.” In contrast to “critical anti-critics,” “believing critics … take a more active part in the wider profession than critical anti-critics” (p. 159). These “believing critics,” however, are far from a homogenous group. They come in three stripes, according to Noll. The first is “a believing critic may affirm that reversals of traditional views are possible, but in fact find that evidence does not require them” (p. 159). The second believing critic “accepts the possibility of reversing traditional views and indeed argues that such reversals are justified by the evidence from research” (p. 159). The third type “concedes that reversals are possible, that they have indeed occurred, and that they may reveal minor mistakes in the biblical materials” (p. 160). In addition to defining these stripes, he spends a large section of chapter eight proclaiming the potential of these scholars. It could be summed up in his statement:

This believing criticism heralds a new maturity among evangelicals. It reveals first a willingness to consider God as the one who makes the practice of research possible, even if the results of that research jeopardize secondary preconceptions about the Bible. (p. 165).

His main purpose is to write “a historical essay on evangelical interaction with critical Bible scholarship in America over roughly the last century” (p. 1). To this end, he achieved his goal. Most of the history he covered in the first six chapters. In the final chapters, he switched from writing history to writing his analysis of the situation and the solutions to the perceived problems. Regarding this change, he swerved from his defined mission. It was no longer a recounting the history of the evangelical movement with critical scholars but a critique of those individuals. This part of his work was hinted at from the beginning (pp. 9-10). And so, in some sense, the book could be considered a critique of modern (1986) evangelical scholarship with an extended historical introduction (to borrow the words of Martin Kähler). In the end, however, he did accomplish his goal while adding some additional materials.

When Noll finished his first edition in 1986, he left it with the hope that the Evangelical scholars would take his work and find in it the motivation to pursue higher scholarship. In his afterwards in the 1991 edition, the problem of the lack of evangelical scholarship was still there, but progression seemed to have occurred. However, by 1994, he seemed discouraged with the concept of evangelical scholarship when he wrote in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: “the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”1 He continues, “Notwithstanding all their other virtues, however, American evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking, and they have not been so for several generations.”2 The tone of this work follows Between Faith and Criticism, but it sets a more depressing tone. However, ten years later in 2004, he commented that while he would not have changed the basic arguments of the book, he would have changed the tone from depressing to more hopeful.3

In his final work (to date) about Christian intellectualism, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (2011), Noll again advocates for Christian scholarship. This work focuses on the implications of the how theology, specifically, knowing Christ, should drive evangelicals into scholarly work. In his own words,

The message of this book for my fellow evangelicals can be put simply: if what we claim about Jesus Christ is true, then evangelicals should be among the most active, most serious, and most openminded advocates of general human learning. Evangelical hesitation about scholarship in general or about pursuing learning wholeheartedly is, in other words, antithetical to the Christ-centered basis of evangelical faith.4

And so, his fight for Christian scholarship continued throughout his life. He consistently called for evangelical Christians to engage in rigorous scholarship and pursue high academic goals wholeheartedly.

In the end, this work Between Faith and Criticism was worth reading. It is useful as a succinct guide for understanding the history of critic and evangelical controversies of the previous centuries. It also pointedly challenges the reader to pursue higher education in the Scriptures. It is especially helpful for young evangelical seminarians and academics alike who are interested in Biblical research. It will provide a healthy framework for them to work through many of the issues that they face.

1 Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1995), 3.

2 Ibid.

3 Ted Olsen, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 10 Years Later,” Christianity Today, 2004, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/octoberweb- only/10-18-50.0.html.

4 Mark A. Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2011), x.

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