Regaining the Intellectual High Ground
Tony Beam Dr. Tony Beam's Weblog
- 2004 Nov 01
According to historian Mark Noll, Evangelicals now constitute the largest and most active component of relgious life in North America. The rates of religious adherence in America have risen steadily since 1776, debunking the common assumption held by socioligists that as societies modernize, they inevitably secularize. In 1776, only 17% of Americans were actively involved in regular worship services in a church. By 1980, that number had risen to 62%. While these numbers are impressive and should be celebrated, we must bear in mind there are many challenges facing the evangelical church today. One of the greatest challenges is the need to revive the role of intellectual study in Christian apologetics. America has been blessed with two periods of intense spiritual revival and renewal we call "the Great Awakenings." Modern evangelicialism was born in the revivilalist spirit which swept the country following the Second Great Awakening. Evangelicalism is often defined as a revivalist style of preaching with an empahsis on personal conversion. Before the Great Awakenings, preaching was often very bland with pastors and evangelists reading their sermons in a monotone voice. Church was considered to be "stuffy" and "too intellectual" for the common people.
The Great Awakenings benefited the church by energizing the congregation with fiery preaching which freed individuals to respond to the moving of the Holy Spirit. The call for a personal decision as opposed to a catechistic process where individuals spent weeks or even months in theological training before they were welcomed into the church; injected individuals with a much needed understanding of an intimate, personal relationship with God. By simplifying the Gospel and thereby freeing it from its deep theological and intellectual base, more people were reached and emotional responses (which did not carry on to excess) were seen as good. This turned out to be both good andn bad for the church. It was good in that more people were being reached with the Gospel and were set free to worship in a way that embraced rather than restricted their emotional response to God. It was bad in that people stopped seeing the need for an intellectual defense of what they knew to be true. In fact, the populist wing of the evangelical movement made fun of the "educated preachers" and they berated the idea that pastors and evangelists needed to be deeply rooted in theology.
Over time, this line of thinking has lead to a lessening of the importance of an intellectual foundation for what we believe. I have always relied on the Bible as my infallible and inerrant guide through the chaos of this world. The problem is, my view of God's Word places me in the minority. When Evangelical Christians witness today to their lost friends and co-workers, they are shocked to find may people have a complete lack of respect for God's Word. When the Bible is rejected as a source of truth (or when the very concept of absolute truth is rejected) what are Christians to do in order to reach a lost world? We must be prepared intellectually to challenge the humanistic, materialistic worldview which is so pervasive in our culture. We must turn off the T.V. and turn to the pages of classic books and articles by Christian writers, who can help sharpen our intellectual argument for our Christian values. We must spend more time in God's Word, allowing His truth to permeate our minds and hearts so we will, as the Apostle Peter said, "always be ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you."