This is my second post reviewing Molly Worthen's new, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. Today I want to review chapter 1: "Errand from the Wilderness."
I wasn't as enthusiastic about this chapter for a couple reasons. For one, its point didn't seem quite as clear to me. I suppose the "wilderness" in the title is the situation from which neo-evangelicals like C. F. H. Henry and Harold Ockenga wanted to emerge. By the way, I want to emphasize how irrelevant these figures were to my life as a holiness child. Even to this day I know precious little about them. Their story has intruded on my story from the outside.
My bias alerts went off a little in this chapter. For example, as someone who is not a student of this segment of history, I found myself wondering how accurate her semi-psychoanalysis of Henry's feelings were. I consider my reaction below somewhat provisional until I read more.
1. She begins the first chapter with the scene where Carl F. H. Henry and Karl Barth come face to face. It is the famous story of how Henry tried to pin Barth down on the historicity of the resurrection and Barth, in almost Jesus style fashion, completely side stepped his question.
So Henry asks whether the resurrection was the kind of event that a reporter would have written up in the news. Barth asked back if he was from Christianity Today or Christianity Yesterday. Now, mind you, I am quite confident that the answer was yes for Barth. It was the question that Barth rejected, the values embodied in the question, the standard of what was important to Henry.
I have always enjoyed this story about Barth. I'm not sure, however, that Henry would enjoy Worthen's depiction of him. She seems to portray him almost as someone with an inferiority complex, a wannabee. Could be. I found myself wishing I had read some Henry so I could verify the tone, but I have no desire to do so. To me he is "other" and tangential to my tradition.
That these neo-evangelicals hated Barth I think is overwhelmingly substantiated. I seem to remember someone once accusing me of being Barthian and neo-orthodox, and they were not complimenting me. (By the way, I think my Barth-loving friends would have a good chuckle to hear this. The whole semester our reading group read through Barth, I repeatedly said, "What does that mean?" For all their hatred of each other, Barth was also a presuppositionalist of his own kind.)
2. To my mind, Worthen's understanding of who fundamentalists were is still muddled with the Marsden/Noll confusion of them with holiness, Pentecostal, and dispensationalists. I continue to wait for someone to show me the error of my way, but every author I read simply strengthens my sense that the guild of historians of American Christianity are confused here.
The individuals who wrote The Fundamentals were scholars. They were not holiness, Pentecostals, or dispensational types as far as I can tell. The founders of Westminster Seminary, like J. Gresham Machen, did not withdraw from Princeton to start a Bible college in the wilderness. They started a seminary and they were the forebears of the neo-evangelicals.
In response to my previous post, Keith Drury pointed out to me that the people who started Bible colleges were not people withdrawing from broader education. They were people who did not go to college at all. The founding of Bible colleges was a movement toward education, not a withdrawal from the world. The fundamentalists were educated folk, not my generally uneducated holiness forebears.
These fundamentalists were losing status in the public sphere (as opposed to my forebears who never had it). Worthen writes, "In the years between the world wars, conservatives found themselves expelled from or silenced in denominational leadership, church seminaries, colleges, and periodicals" (19). OK, so what you're telling me is that the original fundamentalist separatists were formerly mainliners, not holiness-Pentecostal-dispensational types. Hmmm.
Would someone please fix this history for us please so major historians will stop perpetuating this skew???
3. The idea of inerrancy would play a central role in the rise of neo-evangelicalism because it was the central presuppositional tool the neo-evangelicals used to combat everything to which they were opposed in the currents of their day. Again, I think Worthen lacks some historical sophistication in her parsing of this history. In particular, I think she misses the role that slavery played in crystalizing Charles Hodge's version of inerrancy, which shifted the focus of the Bible's truthfulness from the greatest common denominator to the details.
4. In 1942, the National Association of Evangelicals was born. This was a group of disaffected fundamentalists (not holiness types) who were tired of being cast out of mainline churches and were regrouping to fight back to reclaim America for their kind of Christianity. They were not content simply to separate like Machen and friends. They wanted the center stage back. They wanted to reclaim America, their kind of America.
[Again, it is fascinating how, it seems to me, evangelicals have rewritten history to make themselves look better. Machen and Westminster were no dispensationalists. In fact, it is my understanding that WTS has always looked down the nose at those "unsophisticated" dispensationalists at Dallas Theological Seminary. How have they pulled off this switch-a-roo of who the true fundamentalists were? ... namely, themselves!]
Worthen tosses out some things I would like to hear more about. So she mentions the Reformed and Presbyterian background of many of these individuals. She mentions the importance of Calvinist presuppositionalism at Wheaton where Henry studied under Gordon Clark. She mentions how important "worldview" was considered at this time, how it was a word that Hitler himself had used and that was invoked in relation to communism.
Henry wanted to formulate the right Christian worldview: "The modern ideology needs to be remade" (35). Again, I found her presentation less than clear. That Henry was interested in presuppositions I don't doubt. But his exchange with Barth shows that he also accepted the standards of modernism to a large degree. No Cornelius van Til was he. I think we'll get more as we proceed.
5. One thing that this chapter did impress on me was the coinciding of neo-evangelicalism's birth with the post-WW2 era. I was trying to think of what that must have been like. A time of clashing ideologies. The terror of Hitler had almost won. The fear of Soviet communism was on the rise. Traditional Christianity had been displaced from power in the public sphere (or so they thought--I'm not sure it was ever really there in America's history).
You could see where a Henry would be driven to identify the right Christian ideology. You could see where the trajectory of fight against evil ideology could push in this direction. After all, the NAE was founded a year after Pearl Harbor when the US was in the thick of things, two years before D-Day. I'm also wondering what role anti-German sentiment might have played in the mix...