MOLLY WORTHEN. Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. 352. $27.95 (US)
Molly Worthen has written a wide ranging intellectual history of American evangelicalism that covers the last 70 years. She suggests that her goal is to create a “. . . portrait of evangelical intellectual life that is broader and more diverse than we have seen before” (5). In order to do this, she has cast her net to include a multitude of traditions, institutions and individuals in her narrative.
According to Worthen, evangelicals have struggled to answer three basic questions: how can we have knowledge that is both rational and spiritual; how can one find salvation and a true relationship with God; and how can Christians maintain personal belief and still operate in a secular public square (4). The overarching thesis that seeks to pull all this together is the idea that evangelicals are searching for some sort of foundational authority that will enable them to truly understand the world. Worthen’s thesis has some affinities with Christian Smith (The Bible Made Impossible). Smith contends that the “Biblicism” of evangelicals is an attempt to find authority for Christian faith and practice. Both Worthen and Smith conclude that this search has not been successful and that evangelicals are still searching for such an authority.
The book is divided into three sections that might roughly correspond to the three questions that she has identified. The first section, “Knights Inerrant,” examines the struggle of evangelicals to defend the notion of biblical inerrancy as a way of finding a sure foundation of knowledge. In the process, she covers topics such as the formation of Fuller seminary, the work of Carl Henry, the establishment of the National Association of Evangelicals and the founding of the magazine Christianity Today. Her view is that by adopting inerrancy and a version of Scottish commonsense realism evangelicals thought it might be possible to solve the authority problem.
The second section, “To Evangelize the World” looks at a variety of movements and people that are focused on mission seeking to present the gospel in different ways and in different places. Along the way Worthen manages to write about Bible colleges, Jesus People, the Vineyard movement and various renewal movements. She even spends time on evangelicals’ discovery of the merits of anthropology as a discipline providing theoretical foundations for the church growth movement.
The final section, “Let Them Have Dominion,” picks up topics such as various types of evangelical social action movements including Jim Wallis and the evangelical “left,” feminism, and Restorationism. This part of the book also devotes space to so-called evangelical gurus including people like James Dobson, Bill Gothard, Hal Lindsay, and Francis Schaeffer.
Within this book there are a number of topics of interest to Brethren in Christ people. Worthen sees American evangelicalism as strongly impacted by people and institutions that are largely reformed in their character. However, she finds a number of interesting interactions between evangelicals and non-reformed groups such as Anabaptists, Wesleyans, and Pentecostals. She mentions C.N. Hostetter and notes that John Howard Yoder corresponded with him regarding issues related to the National Association of Evangelicals. The book has a number of items regarding John Howard Yoder and his interactions with a variety of evangelical leaders including Carl Henry and Kenneth Kantzer. Apparently Kantzer and Yoder developed a friendship while at the University of Basel studying under Karl Barth. Worthen also discusses some of the debates among Mennonites about the wisdom of establishing a seminary. Harold Bender argued in favor of a seminary but there was fear about an “overeducated ministry” (51).
Another Brethren in Christ person that is mentioned in this book is Ronald J. Sider. Worthen mentions Sider as part of her discussion of social action movements. She notes how his work with Messiah College students at the Philadelphia campus was helpful in inspiring him to write Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (183).
What is remarkable about Apostles of Reason is the sheer number of topics that Worthen addresses. In that sense, I would concur that the author was definitely successful in meeting her goal of providing a broad and diverse history of the last 70 years of evangelicalism. In addition, one can’t help but be impressed with the scholarship that went into gathering all of this information. The list of resources in the bibliography and the interviews that were conducted reflect the fact that a significant amount of time and effort went into creating this book.
On the other hand, it may also be the case that this attempt to cover such a vast range of topics is also one of weaknesses of the book. When one reads the book, it is hard not to feel almost overwhelmed with the number of topics the author tries to address. There is a feeling of having an immense amount of data dumped on the reader with a lack of clarity as to what this all means. While fascinating in the details, the reader is sometimes left wondering how this all fits together. Worthen’s attempt to provide an integrative thesis, in this reviewer’s estimation, fails. While I do believe that Worthen is correct in that evangelicals have sought for some sort of authoritative basis for knowledge, I do not believe she is correct in seeing this as unique or even central to the identity of being evangelical. While she notes that others also share this quest for authority (“These are problems of intellectual and spiritual authority. None, on its own, is unique to evangelicals”), she also sees this as creating a “distinctive spiritual community” (4). I would rather argue that evangelicals share with other moderns the yearning for some sort of basis of epistemological certainty. In that sense, they are hardly unique or different from many other communities that also search for intellectual authority.
Whatever the flaws of this book might be, I would highly recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand the history of American evangelicalism over the last 70 years.
A personal note: Because I am a “cradle evangelical” (i.e., one born and raised in the evangelical tradition) I greatly enjoyed reading this book. Many of the people and places mentioned in this book intersect with my life. I am the product of evangelical institutions (Wheaton College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). My college peers were the children of evangelical luminaries like Carl Henry, Billy Graham and Harold Lindsell. People like Kenneth Kantzer and others had a formative role in my intellectual growth and I owe them a debt of gratitude. At the same time, I am glad to be part of the Brethren in Christ which helps me see both the positive aspects and also some of the problems with American evangelicalism.
Author: Ronald Burwell
Ronald Burwell is professor of sociology emeritus at Messiah College. He and his wife are members of the Grantham (PA) Brethren in Christ Church.