Apostles of Reason, by Molly Worthen

In the spring of 1980 when I learned the improbable news that I had been accepted into a doctoral program, two people I much admired weighed in with their reactions. My adviser, for whom I had written a master’s thesis on biblical inerrancy, warned me darkly that the people at Princeton would “come after me” on the inerrancy question. I hoped that my father, an evangelical minister, might betray even a hint of pride that his eldest son had been admitted to study at an elite university. Instead, he became very quiet before expressing his fear that my intellectual pursuits would jettison my piety.

I offer that anecdote (at the considerable risk of being overly self-referential) because it illustrates the tensions at play in Molly Worthen’s remarkable and textured study Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evan­gelicalism. And I compound my transgression by recalling the title of a tract in the narthex of my father’s church back in the 1960s: “Missing Heaven by Eighteen Inches,” the distance between one’s head and one’s heart.

Worthen, a historian at the University of North Carolina, constructs a kind of genealogy of ideas in American evangelicalism from the postwar period to the present. One strain, generally identified with neoevangelicalism and the early years of Fuller Theological Seminary, was really a form of presuppositionalism derived from the work of Cornelius Van Til, longtime professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, who argued that believers should not shy away from their conviction that all knowledge is derived from God and scripture. Another strain, more indebted to the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition (and often mistaken as anti-intellectual), eschewed arid rationalism in favor of a robust piety. At the heart of evangelicals’ conflicted identity, Worthen argues, is the “struggle to reconcile reason with revelation, heart with head, and private piety with the public square.”