I never tire of the history of neo-evangelicalism. It’s a story of larger-than-life personalities with out-sized goals, excessive bravado, and considerable naiveté. One knows that there will be considerable heartache along the way and that the largest goals will never be met. And yet, these neo-evangelicals accomplished something that to observers of fundamentalists in the 1920s would have seemed utterly improbable. For me, this story is an area of both academic and personal interest. Having grown up with one foot in the world of parachurch evangelicalism (Young Life and InterVarsity) and encountered through books at least some of the figures in books such as Worthen’s, I always feel a keen interest in my spiritual ancestry.
Worthen’s diagnosis seems quite accurate, but I understand it as more of a Protestant problem than an evangelical or neo-evangelical one per se. As Worthen points out, Catholics and Mormons have found it much easier to found research universities. They have a tradition that provides some ballast. The shibboleth of sola scriptura has burdened Protestantism because it suggests that Christians really can proceed on the basis of the Bible alone. As Mark Noll expertly demonstrated in America’s God, it’s not quite so simple.
There’s no obvious or easy solution to the evangelical predicament (except a decision on the part of evangelicals to no longer be evangelicals, or perhaps to be Catholic or Orthodox evangelicals). However they define it, evangelical fealty to biblical authority prevents a wholehearted embrace of the presuppositions of either modernity or postmodernity. This is true whenever one accepts the authority of either revelation or tradition. But as long as one recognizes that dilemma, and faces it with both humility and hope, one can indeed wholeheartedly embrace the above-mentioned “aims of intellectual life.” None of those goals, after all, conflict with the evangelical goal of sharing the love of Jesus with a world starved for mercy and justice.