Defining Evangelical – A Conversation with Mark A. Noll

NollMark A. Noll is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame. The author or editor of over thirty books, Noll is legendary in the field. Alongside George M. Marsden and David W. Bebbington, he is co-editor of Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be, published last year by Eerdmanns. With a prestigious cast of contributors, it may be the most important work on evangelicalism in this historical moment. 

ECM: This volume is structured as an intervention into the history of evangelical history. What inspired this approach, and how did it all come together?

MAN: Authors are sometimes not the most reliable sources for explanation of how their books have been written. But the current political debates over white evangelical support for Donald Trump have obviously elicited a lot of commentary, and, a couple of years ago, David Bebbington, George Marsden, and I were attending some meetings together, where we were engaged in a conversation about the history of evangelical history writing. So it just seemed natural to try to pull together some coherent report on that project with this other debate over white evangelical Protestants in American politics. It might be a book that we fell into, and it might violate the rule that says that books should be about one particular thing, but we concluded that the two topics had an interesting connection that might be fruitful to explore.

ECM: Douglas A. Sweeney’s essay focuses in part on the “observer-participant dilemma” in evangelical history, and the risks confronting historians of evangelicalism who are practicing evangelicals themselves. Given that so many observers of evangelicalism are also participants, has our understanding of the tradition been compromised?

MAN: I think that danger is clearly present. Of course, all history is written from an angle, and there is nothing unusual about people who enjoy or take part in a movement to be active in studying the history of that movement, but it’s a danger in any case. In my mind, what has kept the danger under control in this book is that most of our authors have one foot in the academic world and one foot in the evangelical world. In their churches, these folks often have to defend the intentions of a more neutral, academic approach, and in the academic world, they are often asked to defend the motives of the people they study. I think the same situation prevails if you are a Catholic scholar writing on the history of Catholicism, if you are a gay man writing on the history of homosexuality in America, or something similar. You can be too close, and observer-participants sometimes fail to see things that outsiders see clearly. But they may also catch the feel of a movement in a way that outsiders cannot. So in recognizing this concern, we felt that it was appropriate nonetheless to go ahead.

ECM: Your co-editor David Bebbington famously defined evangelicalism according to four theological tenets—conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism—that most of the subsequent historical work has responded to in some way, including several chapters in this book. Why has it been so influential?

MAN: The “Bebbington Quadrilateral” identifies four characteristics—and I want to emphasize that he is very serious about calling these characteristics rather than pitching them as an a priori definition—that gave structure to his 1989 book, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. I think the reason why the fourfold characteristics became so important is that there is a considerable body of historical literature and—particularly since the rise of the Christian Right in the United States—a considerable body of media attention that together have called out for a definition that is relatively simple and transportable for different purposes. As someone who appreciates with some dissent the characteristics, that is in part a good thing, but the negative effect may be to over-simplify evangelicalism and to ease out some of the real complexities that come with its study, either historically or in the contemporary world. So, in short, I think Bebbington provided a straightforward, direct, exportable language that could be used in many different discussions—more, I think, than he originally intended in his book.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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