Apostles of Reason: The Crises of Authority in American Evangelicalism

by Molly Worthen

Oxford University Press

Reviewed by Lee Beach, assistant professor, Christian ministry, McMaster Divinity College

If evangelicals were to subject themselves to the psychologist’s couch, then they might be unnerved by the diagnosis that they are schizophrenic. One aspect of their personality believes passionately in the authority of the Bible and their need to submit to it; however, the other side is fiercely independent and struggles with whom to trust in terms of how the Bible is to be understood. While this kind of personality disorder may be considered a debilitating sickness, Molly Worthen states that it is evangelicals’ “greatest affliction and their most potent source of vitality” (p.7).

Worthen is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, and in this volume she explores the historic struggle with authority that characterizes evangelicalism. The book offers a thoughtful, highly-readable overview of how American evangelicals have conceived of and practiced biblical authority throughout the twentieth century. It engages the intellectual trends, institutions, and individuals that shaped the debate throughout those years.  

Worthen’s tracing of history provides insight into the nature of Western evangelicalism as a movement that is characterized by the paradox of having developed from a solid intellectual tradition yet also contains a strong anti-intellectual bias. While longing to be taken seriously in the corridors of secular academic life, it also prides itself on being steadfastly pragmatic with a focus on action. The missionary movement demonstrates the latter as it employs the evangelical strength of being culturally adaptable. It also exacerbates the struggle with authority as it consistently raises the question of how the teachings of the Bible relate to a non-Christian culture. 

Worthen explores the “culture wars” of the twentieth century in America and how evangelicals sought to change what they perceived as a slide away from traditional values. Perhaps what is more interesting than the battle between the church and the culture at large is the reality of the culture wars that were ongoing among evangelicals themselves. Within the movement, there arose (and remains) an evangelical “left” and an evangelical “right.” Both parties brought a decidedly different vision to the cultural battle and the book considers the competing visions of the two and how each one
approached scripture and its “authority” differently.

These issues, along with others that the book considers, illustrate the ongoing struggle for identity that is at the core of evangelicalism. The struggle with how to properly employ the Bible in that pursuit is at the heart of the struggle. That is why this is a serious book that helps contemporary evangelicals situate themselves in the ongoing debate about scriptural authority, hermeneutics, and interpretation. 

If one is to engage in this discussion, then it is good to understand where we are in the conversation. Worthen’s book will help all serious evangelicals reflect on that. It is also a beautiful reminder that it may in fact be evangelicalism’s inner struggles that give it its energy to continually engage constructively with the world.     

Check these titles:

Balmer, Randall. 2014. Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. New York: Basic Books.

Wright, N.T. 2011. Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. New York: Harper One.

….

EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 2 pp. 226, 228. Copyright  © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.


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