Mark Noll’s wrote a well-known book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, written seventeen years ago outlined the problem of anti-intellectualism in the evangelical church. Noll argued in his book that Christians were not ready to join the academic side of life and had become marginalized as a result. In his book The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Dr. Carl Trueman church history professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia seeks to argue the opposite case, that the problem in evangelicalism is that we don’t have an agreed upon evangel. To be even more technical here, what Trueman argues that there is no boundaries in evangelicalism.
The Four Views on Evangelicalism published as part of the popular counterpoint series tried to help answer this question by allowing people from all different corners of the evangelical world to speak to the question that Dr. Trueman addresses. At the end of the day the most persuasive case in that book was made by Dr. Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Mohler calls for a confessional evangelicalism, that is an evangelicalism rooted in confessional creeds rather than in the latest fad. Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians have long held to a confessional standard which defined their identity and mission. As Dr. Trueman seeks to expound in his book he is not sure there is such an identity today. He states, “For there to be a scandal of the evangelical mind, there must be not just a mind, but also a readily identifiable thing called an “Evangelical” and a movement called “evangelicalism”- and the existence of such is increasingly in doubt” (12).
Sometimes for fun, some of my friends and I talk about the topic, I’m addressing in this review. When we get to the point where we need to offer a definition of evangelicalism the conversation almost always stops. By evangelical, “Do you mean progressive evangelical, or conservative evangelical?” is almost always the question. It used to be that an evangelical as I noted earlier in this review was one who held to a confessional standard of shared belief. Such a shared confessional standard helped to propel the evangelical world to mission. Now though nearly everyone uses the term evangelical and the meaning is lost as to what that even means anymore. Dr. Trueman once again helpfully notes, “More importantly, evangelical’s lack of definition makes the drawing of boundary lines very difficult, if not impossible. Given that orthodox doctrine has provided a set of basic boundary lines for Christianity since biblical times, the lack of clear theological identity for evangelicalism means that, whatever boundaries are drawn ,they are probably not typical of historical Christianity” (22).
Unlike the seeming shifting stand of a definition of evangelicalism, Dr. Trueman explains that, “Since the time of Paul, the church has drawn boundaries” (25). He continues noting that “such has been considered necessary for her well-being and even her survival. A movement that cannot or will not draw boundaries, or that allows the modern cultural fear of exclusion to set its theological agenda, is doomed to lose its doctrinal identity. Once it does, it will drift from whatever moorings it may have had in historic Christianity” (25).
One of the main problems with a lack of a definition with evangelicalism comes when the evangelical Church begins to engage social and moral issues. People can then wonder, “Which branch of the evangelical movement should we listen to, the conservative or progressive wing?” This is a very real problem and as Dr. Trueman says, “Lacking a strong doctrinal center, evangelical’s coherence as a coalition of institutions and organizations is about to come under huge strain—a strain that I believe will render the coalition unsustainable in days ahead” (29). Consider now the issue of homosexuality which has already arguably become the civil rights issue of our day. Once, again we can ask, “Which branch of the evangelical movement is to be taken seriously, the conservative branch who holds to the biblical view that homosexuality is against God’s Word or the progressive branch that states that homosexuality isn’t against God’s Word?” Once again, Dr. Trueman insightfully states, “There will be no evangelical consensus on homosexuality because ethical consideration of it rests upon theological categories of biblical authority, creation, fall, Christology, redemption, and consummation—and there is no evangelical consensus in any of these areas. Within evangelical no longer defined by doctrinal commitments, there can and will be no evangelical consensus on homosexuality. Marry this theological vagary to a strong desire for a place at the cultural table, and greater appetence of homosexuality among evangelicals is all but assured (32).
At the heart of this issue and one of the reasons I so appreciate Dr. Trueman’s take on this issue is he takes the issue to that of biblical authority. He states, “The challenge to sexual morality leads directly to biblical authority” (32). Behind the debates going on a variety of fronts across the evangelical spectrum is the idea that one can speak whatever opinion one has without so much as citing the Bible. While some in the movement do deal exclusively with the Bible, the majority in my view focus more on their opinions. Such an emphasis on what “I think” about whatever issue it is, is part and parcel of the problem I’ve been trying to describe in this review. As Dr. Trueman states our problem in the evangelical world is one of biblical authority. Whether implicitly or explicitly we have become a people who treasure even value the views of our leaders but often times we go beyond mere respect to borderline idolatry of a man’s view above the Word of God. Dr. Trueman is absolutely right that the term “evangelicalism” is a “matter of pastoral concern, even before it is a matter of ecclesiastical or academic concern” (36).
Dr. Trueman concludes the book noting, “The real scandal of the evangelical mind currently is not that it lacks a mind, but that it lacks any agreed upon evangel. Until we acknowledge that this is the case until we can agree on what exactly it is that constitutes the evangel all the talk about evangelism as a real, coherent movement is likely to be little more than a chimera, or a trick with smoke and mirrors” (41). While this is strong language, I believe Dr. Trueman is right. The lack of doctrinal and theological backbone in the evangelical movement has risen to such an issue that seemingly anyone can be included. This is why I agree with Dr. Mohler has called “confessional evangelicalism” an evangelicalism rooted not just in the latest statement of faith but in statements like the Westminster Confession of Faith or the London Baptist Statement of Faith. Such statements of faith have stood the test of time and proven there meddle through the years. Evangelicalism that is truly evangelical will be rooted in the Bible and in confessional standards that align with the teaching of the Church, past, present and future. Our great need as evangelicals is yes as Dr. Trueman to define the evangel, but to do so in light of Scripture and the Church’s teaching. While there is much to be encouraged by the current gospel-centered movement, what is needed also is clarity on evangel so that as in ages past the evangelical Church may launch out with one voice rather than as a scattered few. in spreading the fame of God among the nations.
The Real Scandal of the evangelical mind is a very good short book that diagnoses the problems within evangelicalism. While the author never offers a definition of what he thinks evangelicalism, neither do I think that is his point. His point is to help the reader understand the problems with calling oneself an evangelical and to think through the issues for oneself. I highly recommend The Real Scandal of the evangelical mind because it will continue to help evangelicals see that what we need is not to be new or novel, but to have an evangelicalism rooted in the Word of God and in solid confessional standards of the past in the present.
Authors: Carl Trueman
Publisher: Moody (2012)
I received this book for free from Moody for this review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”