This is Part Two of a two-part blog from a guest blogger, Dr. David Caddell.  Click here to begin with Part One.

Evangelical Culture and the Rise of Anti-Intellectualism

The willingness to allow novices in vital positions such as teaching has largely been the result of the anti-intellectual bias which set up household in the church beginning in the 1870’s. The slide toward anti-intellectualism has manifested itself in several ways. First, it has had a detrimental effect on the ability of evangelicals to look clearly and reflectively at the world around us. In fact, it has nearly destroyed the desire of evangelicals to engage in responsible intellectual discussion with the secular world—engaging it on its own terms. This desire appears to have been virtually eradicated among the varied fundamentalist movements within American evangelicalism. All this has evolved to the bewilderment of devout Christian scholars (including Jamie and I) whose commitment to Christian orthodoxy is strong, but find the anti-intellectual modus operandi among conservative evangelicals to be problematic for the health of the church.

This movement is in stark contrast to Paul’s willingness to engage the world on its own terms in the first century, Origen’s engagement with the secular polemics of Celsus in the third century (248 C.E.), and Augustine’s in the fifth century. In fact, Origen wrote eight such books, taking on the pagan philosopher on an intellectually respectable playing field, demonstrating the reasonable nature of faith. In the modern church, many of those who attempt to do this have been relegated to the margins of modern evangelicalism to the point where the most reflective among us keep their mouths closed while being expected to continue writing their tithe checks.

There is some irony in this process. The push toward anti-intellectualism in many churches has been legitimated largely because American universities (secular universities and even many within the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities) have been branded as “too secular” to be trusted with our young people. The irony lies in the fact that this has only served to perpetuate the secularization of the academy and to make Christian scholars more marginalized. If the academy is off limits to the devout believer, what will become of the academy? What would we expect? The world of academe will continue down the path of secularization if believers are encouraged to abandon the field. Is that what we do? Do we really desire to discourage believers from engaging certain groups of people with the gospel, only to complain later about how secular they are?

All in all, this trend has increased the acrimony between Christianity and the life of the mind and made the conservative evangelical environment less accepting of Christian intellectuals as well. Many academics, including me, have been shouted to the margins of a church culture that rules out reflection, dialogue, and questioning as if they were sure pathways to theological liberalism. Since higher education promotes these habits associated with the life of the mind, to be highly educated is often seen as synonymous with “liberal,” and liberal is viewed as unmitigated evil. The noisy reactions of an anti-intellectual crowd have made it much more difficult to hear the softer, more reasoned voices of Dietrich Bonhoeffer , C.S. Lewis, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Alvin Plantinga, John Polkinhorne, and Gerd Theissen.

I wonder if even the great evangelist Jonathan Edwards, who believed in a great partnership between the Christian faith and the life of the mind, would be welcome in most modern American evangelical congregations.

Would He Be Allowed to Preach in Your Church?
Would He Be Allowed to Preach in Your Church?

As a result, when modern evangelicals are in need of their own intellectual resources to meet the challenges posed by modernity, secularism, postmodernism, or other faith traditions, as Noll says, they find that “the cupboard is nearly bare.” Why is it so bare? This war on expertise has created a church culture in which everyone with common sense is an expert. Well, in a setting where everyone is a so-called “expert,” the worst thing one can be is a true expert.

Back to the Bible Study Class

The several group members who began our discussion suggested that we should rely on a so called common-sense tack (often deceptively referred to as “plain” or “normal”) sought by many anti-intellectual approaches, which suggest that meaning in the scriptures is always readily apparent without disciplined study. The assumption here is that the Bible is written in common sense language, and anyone with a modicum of common sense will be able to comprehend its meaning. However, this “anyone with common sense should know” approach neglects the reality that our current definition of what is common sensical is a twenty-first century (it really began in the nineteenth century), Western definition. Applying this definition to a first century, Mediterranean text will hardly yield meaning which is self-evident. The confusion caused by this has led, even among churches employing a literalist approach to the scriptures, to studies in which various members sit and discuss what a passage means to them. This often results in a meaning that is chimerical at best, having little relation to the author’s intent.

What Should We Do?

1) The church must reclaim its place in Biblical and theological education. There was a time when solid doctrinal education was available at the local church. Those days are now behind us. At one time, Sunday morning Bible study consisted of expository journeys in the scriptures, while Sunday evenings offered training in topically based doctrinal studies. Those have been abandoned in favor of a de-skilled curriculum. The church has all but abandoned Biblical/theological education to the seminaries.

2) The church must re-evaluate the theological nature of its worship. As a result of our decline in Biblical and theological literacy, our worship has devolved into a ritual where we express our affection for God rather than reasoned consideration of God’s character. Thus, worship has focused on emotional catharsis rather than the dependable work of the one true God. Can this be emotional at times? Absolutely. However, our emotional response to God’s work must not take the focus away from the character of God himself. This more theologically sophisticated worship will not occur again until the church reclaims its intention to think about God in a more disciplined way.

3) The church needs intellectually prepared leaders. In order to accomplish the two previous prescriptions, the church must move toward placing leaders in key positions of teaching and worship who possess the intellectual and spiritual preparation to think about these priorities in more nuanced and mature ways. We will never have a church who thinks clearly about the scriptures until we have teachers who have done the thinking beforehand as well. We will never have more theologically informed worship until we have worship leaders who are more intentional regarding the theology behind the worship they lead.

  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Touchstone, 1995.
  • C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man: How Education Develops Man’s Sense of Morality. New York: Macmillan, 1947.
  • Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976.
  • Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977.
  • John Polkinghorne, Faith, Science, and Understanding. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
  • Gerd Theissen, Biblical Faith: An Evolutionary Approach. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985, and Gerd Theissen, A Critical Faith: A Case for Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979.
  • Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
  • Charles Pierce. Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free. New York: Anchor Books, 2010.


Click here to return to the beginning of Dr. David Caddell’s guest blog in Part One.


I am featuring guest posts this week, and this one is by my friend Dr. David Caddell.  David is a university professor and sociological heavyweight.  One of the most viewed posts on the Pastor Greenbean blog was one he wrote back in 2012 called Political Insanity.  I’ve broken this blog by David into two posts because there is more information in here than one post can handle in here.  This is Part One.  Click here for Part Two.

I was excited when Jamie asked me to contribute to his blog once again. As one of my dearest friends, Jamie

Sociology Stud
Sociology Stud

has a way of sensing when my head is about ready to explode because I have not had the chance to write about a particular issue we have been discussing. As Jamie always had plenty of ideas to write about on his own, I can only assume he is allowing this for the sake of my own mental stability. Regardless of Jamie’s motives, I hope you benefit. If not benefited, I pray you are challenged.

That Awkward Moment…

Just prior to Thanksgiving last year, I was sitting in our Bible study group at our church, accompanied by my wife and my in-laws. The topic of the day was Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in John 3, where Jesus instructs the religious leader that he must be born of the Spirit in order to see the Kingdom. Of course, Nicodemus finds Jesus’ logic confusing—after all, who wouldn’t?

What surprised me was how quickly the group’s attention became fixed on the following passage from John 3:9-12:

Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?

My surprise was not at the quote itself, although the rest of the first twenty verses of John 3 carry so much freight for consideration in terms of Christian theology and lifestyle. Instead, my discomfort came from how several of the group members (while others remained silent) used this passage to demonstrate how intellect and education obscures one’s ability to see and understand spiritual realities. One brother expounded on this sentiment by stating that this is especially true of people who are educated in “those northern universities.” He was very intentional to point out, however, that the problem related to “thinking too much” is nearly universal.

It might sound odd, but I was neither surprise or offended by his comments. I hear these sentiments frequently within the church, as I have for the past twenty-five years. I would find it amusing if I was not so saddened by what this anti-intellectualism means for the future of the church. Much of the writing that Jamie and I have done over the past few years has grown out of our concern over this anti-intellectual bias, or perhaps a non-reflective approach toward studying the scriptures that has dominated much of evangelical Protestantism, leading to the “de-skilling” of Biblical and doctrinal teaching in the churches. Those who have little intellectual preparation to teach the scriptures are routinely placed in positions where such preparation is necessary.

Wait just a minute! If a faithful member of the Body feels God’s call to teach, should she or he not be allowed to do so, trusting that God will give them all the preparation they need? I think not. I would suggest that if someone truly senses the call of God, they will certainly not resist any opportunity to gain the requisite preparation for whatever calling they have envisioned. If someone who plays no musical instrument at all were to feel God’s call to play the guitar on Sunday morning during worship, it’s laughable to think that person would be handed a guitar for the worship service and expect God to reward a lack preparation and practice. Yet, we do this very thing when it comes to the vital function of teaching in the church.

Elitist?  Oh I Hope Not

Does this sound elitist? I would be surprised if it did not. It even offends my own egalitarian sensibilities. Yet, I am unrepentant. While we may prefer the democratic, egalitarian social notions that all individuals are equally valuable to God and His work, we need to examine these notions in a more Biblically nuanced way. First of all, we may like the idea that God considers us all equally worthy, but nothing could be more unbiblical. According to the scriptures, any value we have is not inherent or natural, but bestowed on us by God Himself. Nowhere in the Christian Bible is it even implied that God loves us because we are indeed worthy of love, or even have any inherent value. Quite the opposite. God loves us because God is love. Thus, whatever value each individual possesses resides in God, not in persons. This hardly gives any scriptural grounds to suggest that all individual gifts or talents are equal. In fact, C. S. Lewis proposes that the inequality we experience within the Body of Christ is as much redemptive as it is part of God’s plan. Besides suggesting that the authority of the learned over the simple is as part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast, Lewis gives a wonderful analogy when he suggests that

Equality is a quantitative term and therefore love often knows nothing of it. Authority exercised with humility and obedience accepted with delight are the very lines along which our spirits live. Even in the life of the affections, much more in the Body of Christ, we step outside that world which says “I am as good as you.” It is like turning from a march to a dance. It is like taking off our clothes. We become, as Chesterton said, taller when we bow; we become lowlier when we instruct. It delights me that there should be moments in the services of my own Church when the priest stands and I kneel. As democracy becomes more complete in the outer world and opportunities for reverence are successively removed, the refreshment, the cleansing, and invigorating returns to inequality, which the Church offers us, become more necessary. (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

So, while I would suggest that all in the Body should be extended the same love that God, in Christ, has shown us, I also propose that a more realistic (if less romantic) view of the relative giftedness of all of our individual members.

Click here for Part Two