Molly WORTHEN. Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.pp. 352. $27.95 hb. ISBN: 978-0-19-989646-2. Reviewed by Philip E. THOMPSON, Sioux Falls Seminary, Sioux Falls, SD 57105

Molly Worthen, Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, addresses an immense and complex subject: the desires, commitments, and contradictions inherent in American Evangelical intellectual life of the last seventy years. Worthen’s achievement is impressive, providing a sound and helpful survey of a complex terrain in a thorough, wide-ranging, and lucid account. Evangelicals will gain self-understanding and new insight from her work. Persons who simply wish to understand this often perplexing movement better will receive an introduction both fair and expansive. Worthen strikes a good balance between being appreciative and critical, though there is an implicit emphasis on the latter.

Evangelical Protestantism in the United States is varied, defying simple summary. Worthen ably delves into the variety. The popular perception of Evangelicalism in the United States has actually arisen from a fairly small constituent part (p. 76), latter day heirs of various conservative Reformed movements over the course of American history. Their focus on “worldview” and employment of “presuppositionalist” polemics and apologetics constituted their great intellectual strength. Committed to engaging secular thought directly from an imposing intellectual orientation, these self-identified “neo-evangelicals” (pp. 25-26, et passim.) grew in influence because of their skill in creating institutions. Among their important achievements are the National Association of Evangelicals, the Evangelical Theological Society, Christianity Today, and Fuller Theological Seminary. Through these institutions and organizations, they have pursued their characteristic desires: seeking to offer an account of reality that is not only reasonable, but compelling when compared with other accounts; and bearing the truth of Christian faith into the world as a means of its transformation.

While “neo-evangelicals” have unquestionably bequeathed a legacy of success, their accomplishments have all along been vulnerable to various countervailing pressures. Worthen deftly narrates the dynamics that have led both to Evangelical success and Evangelical frustration. She examines three dynamics internal to Evangelicalism. First, the commitment of inerrancy, while providing a broadly accepted touchstone from which ideas may be engaged, immediately raises a problem. What, and how, is one to think about divergent interpretations of Scripture among persons who purportedly share common fundamental methodological commitments? Absent an official teaching office to arbitrate disagreements, the historic tendency of Evangelicals to separate for the sake of purity often undermines coalitions and alliances (p. 65). Many thoughtful persons among those committed to the Evangelical cause have conceded that inerrancy is inadequate to the weight often placed upon it.

A second internal dynamic, elaboration of which constitutes one of the book’s great strengths, is the articulation of the views of other, non-Reformed, Evangelical bodies and traditions. In particular, Worthen discusses the Wesleyan-Holiness and Anabaptist traditions as embodying alternate versions of Evangelical identity as disclosed in the ideas and writings of representative figures. She also presents Restorationism and Pentecostalism with less elaboration. Worthen demonstrates how Evangelicals in their variety reflect a MacIntyrean definition of “tradition,” extending an argument through time, defining and redefining fundamental agreements.

The third dynamic is less explicitly developed, perhaps because it is so well explicated by Hatch, Marsden, and Noll among others. It may, however, be the most important factor preventing Evangelicals from fully attaining their desired status and influence. This is the anti-elitist, populist legacy with its anti-intellectual impulse giving rise to pseudo-intellectualism of what Stephens and Giberson call “anointed” spokespersons on various subjects, whose rhetoric functions to overshadow the voices of well-respected Evangelical scholars. Further attention to this dynamic would have tightened the book’s argument.

In addition to these three factors, Evangelicals have faced, indeed they have courted, an external source of pressure. The desire for acceptance and respectability within the broader intellectual arena of ideas created a tension between commitments to church and to various scholarly guilds, leading to competing interests of confessional fidelity and academic freedom.   

Worthen introduces an astounding number of the persons and organizations, movements and ideas that have been significant in shaping Evangelicalism in its various forms. Readers become acquainted with important figures, both the scholarly, and the merely pseudo-scholarly. Worthen presents a broad range: “Church Growth” and Charismatic Movements; mega churches and the Emergent conversation; seeker sensitivity and the roads to “historic churches,” to give a small sampling of her subjects. While giving well-known aspects of the Evangelical story considerable attention, Worthen also introduces a number of less well known persons and movements. Some of these are the conservatives whose extremity moves them to more marginal positions. Others are “outliers” because of their contrast with the dominant “neo-evangelical” patterns of thought. Particularly helpful is her treatment of the Wesleyan scholars Henry Orton Wiley and Mildred Wynkoop, her demonstration of John Howard Yoder’s location within the Evangelical “argument through time,” and those within the dominant Evangelical stream who sought to acknowledge shortcomings even while articulating creative and faithful Evangelical visions. Attention to less well-known figures is one of the book’s finest features.

Worthen provides numerous insights, shedding light on crucial matters. I had not thought of seeker sensitive worship as an “indigenous . . . evangelical liturgical renewal” (p. 155), yet it may well be fruitful to think of it as such. Her treatment of the effects of consumerism, individualism, and patriotic nationalism invites further reflection. Finally, her insight into the function of Evangelicals’ broad tendency to instrumentalize history in ways Butterfield would call “whiggish” is compelling.

The book is not without defects, though they do not undermine the author’s argument. Terms and references at times could helpfully be given more definition or explanation for persons not familiar with Evangelical language or history. For Worthen’s near encyclopedic scope, I found it strange that in an otherwise helpful discussion of Evangelical feminism (pp. 183-187), she did not mention the two principal organizations that have born their respective standards, The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and Christians for Biblical Equality.

If there is a more significant weakness, it is that her focus on reason which becomes transposed into the opposition of participation in mainstream intellectual culture versus anti-intellectualism. In reality these are of a rationalistic piece, only sharing (perhaps ironically) different presuppositions about the life of the mind. The key is Evangelical populism, which establishes some Evangelical discourse about the world within insular canons of reason. Toward the end of the book, Worthen rightly turns to imagination as a vital category. Had that been in place clearly from the start, a truly excellent book deserving wide and attentive reading would have been that much stronger.