by Rob Lundberg
I don’t know if you realize this or not, but the problem with America is not America. The problem with America is the church. These sound like harsh words, but I think we can see that there is an overwhelming cloud of anti-intellectualism in the church that is hurting the Church in fulfilling the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. And that problem is widespread in the church at large today.
How did we get to where we are today? How did we get to a point where we see the mind being dismissed from our walks and our worship? What would like to do in this post is give you a snippet of the history of the church in America, and show how each period has been a stepping stone to how we got to where we are today. In the conclusion of the post, I would like to share with you what I think can be a solution to getting the church back to a healthy state. What I am going to do is look at this from two angles: 1) the rise of anti-intellectualism and 2) the withdrawal of the evangelical mind.
The Rise of Anti-intellectualism.*
The Age of the Puritans and Pilgrims: To see this in its development, we have to go back to the Puritans and the Pilgrims, whose believers prized the intellectual life. They were highly educated, having a literacy rated well into the mid 90 percentiles. They taught their kids to read and write at a very early age, and study the major disciplines of arts, sciences, philosophy, and many other disciplines which pointed to loving God with all their heart, soul, and mind. At the same time many colleges rooted in, what we know today as Ivy League schools, began as seminaries pointing toward the cultivation of a Christian mind.
Many scholars of this period, like of Jonathan Edwards were known activists who sought to be scholarly and well informed in a variety of disciplines. In a community, it was not anything to consider the minister to be the spiritual authority, because they were not afraid for the intellectual disciplines.
As we can see from this period it was well known for the believer to be a pursuant of the intellectual disciplines. Cotton Mather, a pastor of this period, made his famous proclamation, “Ignorance is the Mother not of Devotion but of Heresy.”
Before we move into the next period, may I ask a question here? How much do we know about what and why we believe Christianity is true? Why is there apathy to learn why Christianity is true? And with the rising of heretical groups like The Prosperity Gospel and the New Apostolic Reformation, how much more of this ignorance will continue strangle the church in the America? More on this later.
The Middle 1800’s in America: Moving from the Puritan scholasticism, the middle 1800’s showed dramatic changes. The seeds of change had already been planted in the popularized, rhetorically powerful, and emotionally charged preaching of George Whitfield during the First Great Awakening (from the 1730’s to the 1750’s). During the mid 1800s, three awakenings broke out in this country. The Second Great Awakening (1800-1820), the revivals of Charles Finney (1824-1837) and the Laymans’ Prayer Revival during 1856-1859.
Before anyone thinks that I am bashing these great awakenings, I want to let you know that while the features of the movements lead us to where we are today, there were a lot of good things which came from them, as well founded in their immediate effects. Let me summarize some them.
First, there was the over emphasis for immediate conversion, instead of studying for a period of reflection and conviction. Secondly there was the emotional, simple, popular preaching instead of the intellectual, careful and precise reaching of doctrinally correct sermons. And lastly, there was an attention to personal feelings and relationship with Christ, instead of a deep grasp of the nature of Christian teaching and ideas which would cultivate into conviction.
Of course there were those who also spoke out about the anti-intellectualism, As I mentioned in the section on the Puritan era some questions, this period was no different. George Marsden adds to Cotton Mather’s thought with a thought of his own noting, “anti-intellectualism was a feature of American revivalism.”
Let me conclude this part, before moving into the next section by saying that there is nothing wrong with the emphasis of movements which pointed to personal conversion. In fact, I rejoice when someone genuinely comes to faith in Christ. But what see emerging in these periods was found in an intellectually shallow, theologically illiterate form of Christianity. And its product came to be a part of the populist Christian religion that emerged and is still with us today.
There are three tragic results of this period that occurred that proved to be reactions to the spiritual awakening movements. One was in happened to be coined and known as the “Burned Over District” in Upstate New York. We are willing to admit that there were great things that happened with thousands of people converting to Christ, these are the affects of the revivalist preaching that era. Despite all these great amounts of conversions, the problem was that there was no real intellectual grasp of Christian teaching. As a reaction to the awakening movements there came two of the three major American cults were born in the Burned Over District and among the unstable, untaught “converts.” Those two cults are known as the Mormons (1830 and the Jehovah’s Witnesses (1884).
The Withdrawal of the Evangelical Mind
What is heartbreaking in all of this was the emerging anti-intellectualism in the church which created a lack of readiness for what was to come. The church was not ready for the widespread intellectual assault on Christianity that reached its full force in the late 1800’s. This attack had its part in the war of ideas raging during that time and was launched from three major fronts.
Philosophical Ideas Coming from Europe: The first front were the philosophical ideas coming out of Europe. The two key players in this philosophical assault came form David Hume (1711-1776) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). The views of these two philosophers altered people’s understanding of religion.
David Hume claimed that the traditional arguments for God’s existence (i.e., the world is an effect that needs a personal cause) were quite weak. Hume also stated that since we cannot experience God with the five senses, the claim that God exists cannot be taken as an item of knowledge. In another way, Immanuel Kant asserted that human knowledge is limited to what can be experienced with the five senses; and since God cannot be experienced, we know know if God exists or not. The ideas of Hume and Kant had a major impact on culture as they spread across Europe and into the American States.
Hume’s and Kant’s arguments had a great influences toward shaking the arguments for the existence of God and the rationality of the Christian faith. In addition fewer and fewer people regarded the Bible as a body of divinely revealed Scripture, and true propositions about various topics that a devoted intellect could grasp and study systematically. Instead the Bible increasingly was sought solely as a practical guide for ethical teachings and spiritual growth.
The German Liberal School’s Higher Criticism of the Bible: The second front came out of German scholasticism. The influence of the German higher criticism coming from schools like Tubingen University and Baden Wurtemburg called into question the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and the search for the historical Jesus was launched. Believers grew suspicious of the importance of historical study in understanding the Bible and in defending its truthfulness. An increased emphasis was placed on the Holy Spirit in understanding the Bible as opposed to serious historical and grammatical study.
Can any good thing come our of Germany? Not when it came to the redaction of Scripture and challenging the veracity and authority of the biblical text. When you think of some of the original universities in the Northeast: schools like Harvard, Yale and Princeton (along with other Ivy League schools), all these schools started as seminaries seeking to educate their students to learn about the one true God. But since theological and philosophical ground has been given up, what are they now? They are now nothing but dens of skepticism and liberalism
The Ghost of Darwin Still Lives: A third a final front where the evangelical mind has withdrawn was in the scientific setting. Darwinian evolution emerged and “made the world safe for atheists.” Evolution challenged the early chapters of Genesis creating new theories for the interpretation of the first few verses of Genesis for some and the very existence of God for others.
Instead of responding to these attacks with a vigorous intellectual counter punch, many believers grew suspicious of the intellectual issues altogether. Now I will grant you, that as Christians we must rely on the Holy Spirit in our intellectual pursuit, but this does not mean we should expend no mental sweat for our defending the faith. That is unbiblical!
So How Does the Anti Intellectualism and Withdraw Show a Connection Today?
If you recall I made a blunt statement in the beginning of this post, that the problem with America being the Church. Up to this point we have looked at the history of how things started off well with the Puritans and Pilgrims. But then the downward slide began in the 1700-1800’s. Does the history of those decisions affect the future picture of the church?
I believe they do. At the same time, there are always opportunities to turn things around. But what do things look like today? Please note, I am an evangelist and apologist, who traces trends and historical markers. None of us are perfect in our analysis, but what I see today has a lot do with the past.
First off let me say that the church is not a building but it is comprised of people who have been redeemed by the Lord Jesus Christ. At the same time, the church needs a revival in understanding the need to re-invite the evangelical mind back into fellowship within their relationship with Christ. However the problems that we have today are the products of a lack of a rigorous defense of the faith to exorcise the philosophical ideological ghosts of the past.
When I say we, I am referring to pastors, seminaries, and believers. We have left our posts. Seminaries are dropping philosophy programs. Seminaries need to see that the Bible is an apologetic, and friendly to good philosophy. Christian colleges and seminaries need to see themselves as the factories for building their future ministers development of the Christian mind by returning to the idea of creating minors and major concentrations in their religion departments. WE NEED TO REGAIN LOST GROUND that we have handed over the secularists and humanists, allowing them to put on sheep’s clothing to dupe the church.
What do I mean by we have given up ground? Here is a composite of what I am seeing.
First I think it is clear that American Christianity has become very shallow. What we are seeing now is a lot of emotional and experiential interpretations of Christianity. It is clear that the church has become a master of engineering feelings without much thought in our church services.
Secondly I am hearing pastors in pulpits repeating things from and parroting their favorite speakers and preachers without immersing ourselves in learning more from them. When I ask them about implementing a plan to equip their people in a multi-week apologetics study, they decline. Instead of preaching the text for what it is, they are committing lazy-gesis, giving some applicational fluff with no backbone for the believer to live in a postmodern world.
In a more simplistic way of putting it, pastors and leaders are not really encouraging their people to think their faith through. With the culture ratcheting things up even more, with this pandemic, we need to challenge ourselves to see if we can answer this question: Do you really believe what you believe is really real? Put it another way, do you really believe that Christianity is really true? This ministry can come alongside your church, your group and help you work a plan to do just that.
In all actuality, the church is the new mission. Music that is feelings based and lacking no theological foundations needs to be exorcised by the churches for contemporary music and hymns loaded with biblical truth. Music leaders who think music is the only form of worship need to step away and find another platform. This is creating an engine for lack of thought in our churches today.
When it comes to reaching the lost, the problem is that we have not been encouraged to ask questions of those visiting our churches. We are seeing a growing interest in spiritual things because of the uncertainties of our culture. There are people out there who have been hurt by the church, and by others Christians. They are looking for answers given to them by the church are too churchy, and in many cases un-empathetic toward listening to the hurt and the pain of the person. What this is symptomatic of is a church that is seeker friendly but message unfriendly. My suggestion is that the church evaluate their methods of evangelism and discipleship to reach the hurting.
People need to be trained on how to listen to and engage the lost. We need to show that we care and want to know more about them. Instead of churches giving food or a cup of cold water why not share the words their hearts long to hear. But you might think you do not have confidence to do this. Welcome to the reality of this post. We are all victim’s of American Christianity losing the evangelical mind. You say you do not know how to engage the culture?
The first thing we need to do is regain back the evangelical mind. We need to regain the depth that we lost and equip the saints, the way that Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:12. Until the mind is engaged, we will not know how to begin to do what the Lord wants to fulfill the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.
 Allen Carden, Puritan Christianity in America (Grand Rapids: Baker 1990), 186.
 I served some time as a pastor in a Baptist church, but in my short tenure as a pastor, I never once invited a local evangelist to come and whip my congregation into shape with emotional rhetoric and mishandling the Bible. George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford Press, 1980), 212.
 My family and I moved to Virginia in 2001 from the Burned Over District which is what is near the Capital of Albany right along the Mohawk River (Schenectady, Troy, Ballston Spa, Burnt Hills and the Saratoga Region)
 The third cult that was not part of this area in New York was Christian Science. Christian Science actually began in Massachusetts in the Boston area.
 If you are interested in a further treatment on the Hume’s and Kant’s arguments along with a classical Christian response and a development of theistic arguments see Norman L. Geisler and Winfried Corudan, Philosophy of Religion 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988).
*Special thanks for the material that I read over 20 years ago from J. P. Moreland’s book, Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul. Colorado Springs: Nav Press, 1997.
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Rob is a blogger, writer and public speaker on a mission to equip the believer to think and articulate what they believe and to communicate the message of the gospel to a postmodern culture in a chaotic, “brave new world.”
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