The Long View of Evangelical Alliances: An Interview with Mark Noll
Editor's note: From time to time we find it helpful to solicit critical feedback on The Gospel Coalition's strengths, weaknesses, and potential pitfalls. So with this eye toward self-reflection, we welcome Mark Noll's observations based on years of studying the history of evangelicalism.
“Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new?’ It has been already in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after” (Ecclesiastes 1:10-11). Many theologians and historians within the church today echo the Preacher’s cry in Ecclesiastes.
An inherent organizational creativity within evangelicalism combined with the rapid spread of technology makes it increasingly difficult for today’s pastor to acquire a long view of God at work. As a result, it is easy to misinterpret both the possibilities of cooperation within evangelicalism and the consequences of departure from the same. Neither the networking of various ministries through conferences, nor the willingness of publishers to encourage the work of experimental theologians, represents a new phenomenon within the movement.
The good and the bad, our strengths and our weaknesses, have “been already in the ages before us.” So what can we learn about the way forward by taking the time to look back?
I recently sat down with evangelical historian Mark Noll, Francis A. McAnaney professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, for a long view of confessional, evangelical alliances such as The Gospel Coalition.
What are some promises and pitfalls of confessional, evangelical alliances such as The Gospel Coalition?
Cooperative, ad-hoc movements such as The Gospel Coalition have many good features. Shared fellowship in networks and at conferences have a way of building confidence and giving forthrightness to many who carry out their work with a sense of isolation from others. In my own experience, at the retirement of Alvin Plantinga from Notre Dame last year, a community of scholars from around the world gathered together here and celebrated the stronger connections developed among Christian scholars over the last 30 years. Many who had begun their academic careers feeling alone or marginalized by others in their pursuit of Christian philosophy now testified to an increasing confidence through shared fellowship.
Such movements also provide an opportunity for positive articulation. Sometimes cooperative efforts have a way of combining weaknesses with weaknesses, rather than strengths with strengths. Yet the ideal Christian world is where everyone puts their best foot forward. Networking together, listening to one another, and sharing experiences provide the opportunity to sharpen one’s beliefs and practices so that the strengths of one another are maximized and the weaknesses minimized.
In as much as The Gospel Coalition represents the networking of various ministries and persons that grew independently of one another, there is a great opportunity to build confidence in its foundational principles, sharpen one another in the practice of ministry, and positively articulate the best of Augustinian/Reformed theology.
Some of these positives also represent dangers. The opportunity to put our best foot forward can create larger-than-life personalities and heroes, when in reality, such movements rarely survive the driving forces or persons that bring them into existence. These kinds of movements have strong short-term potential but minimal long-term influence. Without some transition from ad hoc cooperation to established, institutionalized relationships, the work of maturation and discipleship will happen elsewhere. A person can come and enjoy fellowship and teaching at a conference, but ought not to assume that such things can replace the learning and maturing that require years of pastoral practice and study with the accountability of a seasoned pastor or denominational board.
Then, there is also the danger of schisms. As a broad coalition with differing views on church government, the sacraments, the gifts of the Spirit, and practices of ministry, there is always the danger of schisms over any of these items or something that develops in the future. A recent historical example that comes to mind is that of John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
Another reality to acknowledge is that the assumptions of much of American culture are not Calvinistic. So you would do well to fight against three things: the tendency to turn leaders into heroes, minimize the importance of institutions, and divide over secondary issues—all the while recognizing the pervasive influence of the dominant culture on religious life.
To what extent do such alliances represent continuity with cooperative movements throughout church history, and to what extent do they reveal the influence of a distinctly American, entrepreneurialism in evangelical Christianity?
The answer is both. There has always been strong emphasis within evangelicalism of renewal either through the creation of new organizations or partnerships, or the transformation of existing ones. And this renewal emphasis has also been influenced by the broader acceptance of the separation of church and state and the streams of immigration throughout our nation’s history. So both the internal impulse to “return to the Bible” and the external environment of religious organizational freedom are at work.
From a global perspective, what could North American Christians learn from our brothers and sisters in the majority world about the opportunities and obstacles of cooperative missional engagement?
In many ways, the entrepreneurialism is spreading in the majority world. As conditions change in other countries—through improved economic opportunities and greater religious freedom—a similar kind of organizational creativity is taking root. The extent to which those organizations will cooperate with one another is yet to be determined.
One of the consistent critiques from the majority world can be demonstrated through a personal exchange I had recently. An African scholar remarked that Western historians need “to get the Holy Spirit back”—that we have so found a way to explain our past with reference to political systems, strong personalities, military conflicts, economic forces, etc—that there is no room for understanding God at work through his Spirit. And he is right; average Westerners have the profound capacity to control so many parts of their lives that they have lost a sense of directness with the supernatural. And Reformed theologians, who have consistently been Word-oriented and reason-oriented (which is not a criticism in itself), need to be cautious of this insight from our non-Western brothers and sisters.
In the post-B.B. Warfield days, there seems to be an increasing awareness of this issue and openness within the Reformed movement to a greater appreciation for the directness of the supernatural through the Holy Spirit. The inclusiveness of those from a charismatic and Pentecostal tradition within The Gospel Coalition is an encouraging example of such openness.
As a contributing author to The Search for Christian America, what concerns raised in that book remain to the present and what developments in the past 25 to 30 years reveal a healthier understanding of American history and public engagement within evangelicalism?
The good news is that many are doing serious work in theology and biblical studies without an unhealthy allegiance to a particular political agenda. All-out patriotism has an idolatrous potential to it, and many within and outside of evangelicalism have highlighted the disastrous consequences of Christianity driven by the pursuit of political power rather than motivated by the proclamation of the gospel. As a result, evangelicals are not only speaking against abortion, but also speaking about the needs of the fatherless. And, as The Gospel Coalition is seeking to do, there is a willingness to focus primarily on the gospel and find unity in it, not in getting someone elected to political office.
The bad news is that nonsense is also alive and well. There are many who still think Jefferson and Washington were evangelicals. And many still take their cues from talk radio, rather than the Bible or more serious works of history. So there are encouraging signs and developments within evangelicalism, but the popular distortions are still with us. As George Marsden commented on the book, “The Search for Christian America has sold its thousands, but others have sold their millions.”