Reviews

“Between Faith and Criticism: Evangelicals, Scholarship, and the Bible in America” by Mark A. Noll – A Book Review

Mark Allan Noll, formerly a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, is now a research professor of history at Regent College. He holds a Ph.D. in History of Christianity from Vanderbilt University (1975). His dissertation was “Church Membership and the American Revolution: An Aspect of Religion and Society from the Great Awakening to the War of Independence.” Mark Noll is a professing evangelical and cosigner of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. His major research interest relates to the history of Christianity in the United States. He has authored and edited over fifty books, including The Search for Christian America (1983, 1989), Charles Hodge: The Way of Life and Other Writings (1987), One Nation Under God? Christian Faith and Political Action in America (1988); American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction (2000); America’s God, from Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (2002); and The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefiled and the Wesleys (2004).

In Between Faith and Criticism, Mark Noll probes the history of evangelical biblical scholarship as it relates to the evangelical scholar’s navigation between adherence to biblical inerrancy as professed by the church and intellectual respectability as required by the academy. Noll accomplishes this task in two stages. In the first stage, he surveys the history of evangelical scholarship from 1880 to 1974 (chapters 2-5). Then, secondly, he analyzes the historical survey of evangelical scholarship, including its consequences, its varying standpoints, and its trajectory into the future (chapters 6-10).

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

Synopsis

Part 1: History of Evangelical Scholarship from 1880 to 1974

After the introduction in chapter 1, Noll introduces in ch. 2 the occasion that eventually led to the greatest challenge of evangelical scholarship: the need to respond to the critical approaches to Scripture (1880-1900). Noll observes that

from their first entrance upon questions of criticism, evangelicals carried a twin commitment to inductive research and to an infallible Bible.”

p. 15

A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield of Princeton, the conservatives, attacked the anti-supernaturalistic view of Scripture and maintained that the Bible contains no discrepancies. Charles Briggs, on the other hand, defended the critical approaches to Scripture while equally confessing the doctrine of inspiration. Hodge and Warfield exemplified academic scholarship and credibility and considered themselves critical scholars, but they opposed “what they perceived as prejudiced criticism…unbelieving criticism, that they attacked” (p. 23). At the onset, conservative evangelical scholarship maintained both a high view of Scripture and the scholarly respect from academia. Noll observes that

its theological grounding seemed secure, its scholarship sound. Within a generation, however, all would be different.”

p. 31

In chapter 3, Noll outlines the decline of evangelical scholarship during the height of the modernist-fundamentalist controversy from 1900-1935. One of the factors that led to this decline was the rise of academic professionalization. Between the Civil War and World War I, colleges, specialized study, and funds for education increased dramatically, affecting the professional study of Scripture. The divide between conservative evangelicals and critical Bible scholars heightened, leaving no room in between.

The effort which Briggs had made to function as both an evangelical and a critic of moderate views had failed.”

p. 37

Some evangelicals, alienated from the academy, turned to non-scholars with the same theological convictions. The influence of evangelical scholarship, championed by J. Gresham Machen, Robert Dick Wilson, and Geerhardus Vos, slowly died.

When J. Gresham Machen died on January 1, 1937, an era seemed to be over. An evangelical scholarship…which took an interest in the results of professional scholarship seemed to have come to an end.”

p. 61

The fourth chapter is a survey of evangelical scholarship in the same era (1860-1937) across the pond, which would later influence and strengthen conservative evangelical scholarship in America. In Great Britain, the propagation of critical conclusions has been the same as in the States. While British evangelicals rejected critical views of Scripture early on, criticism speedily dominated England. British conservatives, however, took a steady stand through conservative scholars occupying positions within academia and the establishment of the Inter-varsity fellowship (IVF). The IVF served as a “catalyst for intellectual as well as spiritual renewal among evangelicals involved in British higher education” (p. 83). British conservative evangelicals (Orr, Denny, McIntosh, Bruce, Marshall, etc.), though still holding traditional views, were conversant with critical methods that led to the conservative evangelical gaining a seat at the table of academia.

Chapter 5 resumes the story of the state of scholarship in American evangelicalism, viz. its rise back to prominence from 1935 to 1974. Several factors led to the fundamentalists’ reawakening to the value of scholarship. The rise of the New-Evangelical Movement led by Harold John Ockenga created doors for renewed interest in scholarship. Carl Henry’s Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism attacked the fundamentalists’ withdrawal from society. Another significant factor was the rise of seminaries preparing students for research, including Fuller, Westminster, Asbury, Gordon-Conwell, and Trinity. Alliances among conservative scholarship across denominations and assistance from Europe contributed to the advancement of evangelical scholarship. The establishment of the evangelical printing press led to the dissemination of scholarly works, monographs, and dictionaries, and commentaries. Lastly, new professional organizations were founded, like the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) that held its first meeting in 1949.

Part 2: Noll’s Analysis of Evangelical Scholarship

In chapters 6-10, Noll provides his analysis of evangelical scholarship based on the consequences from its history. Noll calls chapter 6 a “progress report” (p. 122). The result of the rise of evangelical scholarship led to the increase of seminary professors who held a Ph.D. or Th.D., professional participation in research communities like the Institute of Biblical Research (IBR) or the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), and the increase of scholarly publication within evangelicalism.

In chapter 7, Noll presents varying viewpoints in evangelical scholarship regarding these key questions: is the Bible true?; what is truth?; what is the Bible?; and who interprets the Bible? Chapter 8 raises the questions faced by scholars who seek to be both evangelical and academic. Is it possible for someone to be a believing critic? Do evangelicals possess a strong enough intellectual base to support genuine biblical scholarship? Can conservative evangelical scholarship maintain a secure seat at the table of academia?

Noll’s final assessment and projection is the focus of chapter 9. He makes three observations. First, the history of evangelical scholarship is part of a larger story: the evangelical’s view of Scripture. Second, Old Testament scholars face a different set of challenges than those studying the New Testament. Third, he offers several suggestions for evangelical scholarship to reach its potential into the future. In chapter 10, the afterword, Noll comments how the responses to the first edition reinforced what he wrote. He also briefly reviews continued trends in scholarship. Lastly, he reflects on the larger interpretive contexts that play a vital role in evangelical scholarship.

Analysis

Mark Noll’s Between Faith and Criticism (1986, 1991, 2004) is an excellent survey of conservative evangelical scholarship in the 20th century. Unlike Noll’s more comprehensive history of American evangelicalism, American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction (2001), Between Faith and Criticism focuses on the history of evangelical scholarship. Noll’s historical documentation, though treating the same era, provides a different perspective than David O. Beale’s In Pursuit of Purity and Rolland McCune’s Promise Unfulfilled.

Noll’s unique contribution is the demonstration of the advantages of the evangelical’s engagement with scholarship. The other two historical surveys, coming from a Fundamentalist perspective, outline the negative consequences of the New Evangelicalism’s non-separatistic stance with liberal scholarship. McCune, for example, argues that concession regarding inspiration and inerrancy among evangelicals led to doctrinal compromise (see Promise Unfulfilled, pp. 165, 191-194).

On the other hand, Noll argues that it is precisely the evangelical’s engagement with secular academia, especially in Great Britain, that led to the publication of scholarly works which eventually refuted secular critical claims. Noll observes that

The resurgent evangelical scholarship of the 1930s and 1940s was marked not so much by new positions, as by more learned, more reasonable defenses of the old. As the general theological world lost some of its confidence in previous certainties, evangelicals deployed a broader range of technical expertise and more penetrating arguments to defend positions which a liberal establishment thought it had permanently consigned to the dustbin of history.”

pp. 115-116

It is interesting to see how different scholarly credible historians would look at the same historical evidence and make contradicting conclusions. This analysis also demonstrates the role of presuppositions that scholars bring into their research.

While applauding the resurgence of evangelical scholarship, Noll is not unaware of its dangers. He lists several perils for someone who falls into the category of “believing critics.” One of the perils he listed is regarding theological content. He concedes that

“it is always possible for such work to become a piously veneered replica of naturalistic scholarship. The fears of the traditionalist evangelical community, in other words, are not entirely groundless…. to exploit that scholarship without discrimination, however positive this may be for professional participation, can also jeopardize the future of believing criticism.”

p. 171

One can appreciate Noll’s careful methodology of providing clear definitions from the onset. Noll gives a broader definition of an “evangelical” as used in his book:

the less separatistic and more educationally ambitious descendants of the fundamentalists of the early twentieth century along with their allies in the older churches of British origin…and the newer American denominations.”

p. 3

Noll’s use of “evangelical” is unfortunate, but it does provide clarity as to who he is referring to throughout the book. It also prevents some readers from further disagreements with Noll’s inclusion of Charles Briggs (p. 16) and Rudolf Bultmann as evangelicals (p. 159) or his assertion that “evangelical faith does change” (p. 153).

Disappointments

Noll’s historical analysis gives several subtle claims that need to be addressed. First, he seems to place greater value on scholarly achievement than doctrinal fidelity. Noll argues that biblical and theological research will flourish when done in conjunction with other fields, such as philosophy, history, culture, politics, and economics (p. 190). He observes that

Nothing exists in America like the universities of Britain and the Continent, where the most serious work in Bible and theology goes on right next to serious work in the other disciplines.”

p. 191

While there is merit to Noll’s argument, his value seems to be misplaced when he adds that

Independent seminaries, for one important thing, are less likely to be corrupted by the secularism of a university than a divinity school attached to such a university. But a price has been paid.

p. 191, emphasis mine

If Noll is seeking for a “little cross-fertilization in the United States between first-level evangelical Bible scholarship and first-level thinking in the arts and sciences,” a Christian liberal arts university would be a good alternative. Yet it is doubtful that he’ll find that solution as satisfactory or legitimate.

Secondly (and related to the first), he places belief in inerrancy as a hindrance to mature scholarship. He sides with James Dunn’s conclusion that “the commonly accepted evangelical concept of biblical inerrancy was deficient” (p. 174). Dunn’s approach “proposes an alternative which is more accommodating to the practice of biblical scholarship” (p. 176). One of Noll’s suggestions for the survival of evangelical scholarship in the future is to

go beyond strife over biblical inerrancy to creative synthetic theology based on the best biblical resources available.”

p. 194

Third, by using the label “traditionalism” for historic Christian views, he unduly implies a lack of scholarship related to those views. Noll observes that

because of the popular traditionalism of evangelicalism as a whole, however, it has been harder for evangelical scholars to win acceptance for untraditional interpretations of Scripture than for scholars in other communions…. To most evangelical scholars those traditional views deserve, as a matter of principle, considerable weight and serious consideration precisely because they are held by the community of faith as a whole.”

pp. 153-154

The subtlety of that comment gives no room for the fact that most “traditional views” are given weight, not only because of the opinion of the church, but also based on academic scholarship done by conservative scholars like J.B. Lightfoot, J. Gresham Machen, Robert Dick Wilson, and others. Granted, certain traditional views in the church have been considered as biblically inaccurate and historically unreliable (such as adherence to a particular Bible translation), but other “traditional” views regarding inerrancy, dates, authorship, historicity, have some academic basis. Assigning the label “traditionalism,” which implies mere traditionalism, is unfair.

Excellent Contributions

While Between Faith and Criticism is not without any criticisms, it provides an excellent contribution and benefit for the scholar’s knowledge and growth. First, as mentioned above, this work provides a different angle in viewing American evangelical history in the 1900s vis-à-vis fundamentalist history. Both perspectives are necessary for a comprehensive historical analysis. Readers of Noll’s work (including American Evangelical Christianity) will greatly benefit from reading McCune’s Promise Unfulfilled. Similarly, the fundamentalist would gain a wider understanding by reading Noll. An objective and historically sound assessment of the New Evangelical movement would not only outline the negative consequences of compromise, but it must appreciate its work towards advancement in evangelical scholarship.

Secondly, Noll provides a good model and methodology in analyzing church history. He demonstrates the progression of scholarship in evangelicalism from its early stages led by the Princetonians, to its decline after the death of Machen, the influence of British scholars, to its rise in the mid-1900s. Whether one agrees with his conclusion or not, he uses historical data to present his argument well—the necessity of evangelical scholarship to maintain academic respectability and credibility while maintaining evangelical faith. Noll makes a related argument in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind a few years later (Eerdmans, 1994). In this work, Noll laments the anti-intellectualism of evangelicalism. One wonders whether his subtle historical sketch in Between Faith and Criticism fortified clearer arguments and led to a more direct approach in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

Lastly, Noll’s work encourages evangelical scholarship. Christian scholars—regardless whether they agree with Noll’s suggestions on how conservative scholarship could maintain respectability in academia—must be stirred towards the pursuit of sound methodology, academic credibility, and careful research. A category for credible academic scholarship and adherence to evangelical faith could be possible. After all, by divine providence throughout history, it is through the Christian scholar that the church flourishes by the publication of biblical and theological tools, the training of pastors who lead churches, and the academic research to defend the faith against false teaching.

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