The Renewal of the Evangelical Mind

Thirty years ago, renowned church historian Mark Noll wrote a searing indictment of “the scandal of the evangelical mind.” In the three decades since, the scandal has both eased and deepened. 

Eased, because a steady stream of passionate and gifted evangelicals have pursued the highest standards of intellectual excellence in many fields in the decades since. Evangelicals are now represented not merely on the forefront of biblical scholarship, but have made major contributions in church history, systematics, philosophy, and even ethics. Even more encouragingly, not only have evangelicals ventured forth to make contributions within broader scholarship, but they have also chipped away at the walls that balkanized evangelicals in an intellectual backwater. Conservative American Protestants are now reading Augustine and Aquinas, not just John Calvin and John Owen. 

The scandal has deepened, however, inasmuch as the fruits of this intellectual renewal have failed to have the hoped-for impact. The lack of evangelical vision and the mediocrity of evangelical institutions have meant that individual scholarly achievements have remained just that—individual achievements—and failed to stimulate a broad renewal of the evangelical mind. Too many of our best and brightest have remained trapped in backwater institutions that sometimes value tradition, and sometimes trendiness, but rarely excellence. Some, tiring of their Sisyphean task, swim the Tiber in search of an intellectually serious and politically relevant church. 

And yet, the need for intellectual renewal is more urgent than it has ever been. As proliferating digital media place every single Christian believer on the front lines of the battle with unbelief, falsehood, and folly, every single believer needs more than ever serious training in truth. And as secular educational institutions double down on their project of intellectual suicide, a vacuum of cultural leadership has opened up that increasingly only Christians are equipped to fill. 

Till now, too much of this need has been met by ideologues and posers, promising to arm embattled Christians with answers, while bypassing wisdom. Some are purveyors of “worldview” as the panacea for every intellectual ailment. Others preach the need for “retrieval,” but are actually just looking for shinier weapons to fight the battles they were already hell-bent on fighting; they have zero interest in sources that might re-frame those battles.

Neither such worldview thinking nor such sophomoric retrieval are a substitute for authentic Christian wisdom, which has the confidence to stake its claim on reality and yet the humility to grapple with the ambiguity of experience.

Indeed, as Covid-19 and “wokeism” have accelerated the breakup and breakdown of established educational institutions—from the local public elementary schools to venerable old seminaries desperate to retain their relevance, it is clear that these ideological band-aids will not be enough. What American Protestantism needs—what America needs—is an intellectual renewal serious enough to produce the twenty-first century’s Cranmers and Cromwells, its John Jays and William Wilberforces, its Gladstones and Kuypers. Without such renewal, American Protestants will remain in the status of water carriers for agendas—both revolutionary and reactionary—that they have no role in setting.

Since its founding eight years ago, the Davenant Institute has been quietly at work laying the groundwork for a renewal of the American Protestant mind that can be deep, broad, and long-lasting. We’ve been remembering, resourcing, and reforming: calling our churches back to the heart of the reforming catholic movement of the sixteenth century that transformed the western world; distilling the essential insights of classical Protestantism for pastors, teachers, and Christian leaders; and creatively rethinking how these Reformation principles can reinvigorate the church in our day. Through the nearly three dozen books that we’ve published, through our growing network of scholars at leading evangelical and Reformed institutions, we’ve made an impact on the conversation far out of proportion to our tiny size. Beginning with a band of dedicated volunteers, we’ve been building a network of committed donors so we can begin to turn those volunteers into long-term staff.

Blessed by these successes, we’re now thinking bigger: we’re engaged in reimagining theological education. Through our rapidly-growing Davenant Hall program, we are self-consciously seeking to create a new republic of letters for the digital age—harnessing the new powers of the internet to offer effective and flexible online instruction, and the old practices of community and mentorship to seek wisdom together through discipleship retreats and residential intensives at our Davenant House property. We will soon be more than doubling the footprint of Davenant House, and are looking to roll out new tracks for Davenant Hall study that can help equip and enrich church leaders and Christian educators for a fraction of the cost of most programs. We will also be producing high-quality video lectures that distill the key elements of our vision of Protestant renewal for a wider audience.

In the year ahead, we aim to redouble our work of forming the consciences of Christian citizens in the best of the Reformational moral and political tradition through our forthcoming volume on Protestant Social Teaching. Bringing together some of the best voices in Protestant moral theology on questions ranging from marriage and sexuality to just wars and just prices, this volume (together with accompanying video materials and interviews) will constitute our most important publishing contribution to date.

To carry this bold vision forward, we need your help. We would like to be able to turn some of our adjunct faculty at Davenant Hall into long-term teachers who can anchor our program through the years ahead. We would like to be able to make the most of the beautiful Davenant House property that has been entrusted to us, carrying out needed renovations and expansions so we can host larger groups. We would like to be able to attract and retain the best writers and editors for Ad Fontes magazine and our growing operations at the Davenant Press. Even as the Lord has blessed us richly over the past three years, our annual budget remains tiny for a publisher, a Christian study center, or a graduate education institute—and yet we do all three. 

To consolidate, sustain, and expand the crucial work of renewal that we’ve been called to, we will continue to rely on your generosity. This year-end, we are looking to raise an additional $40,000 to give us confidence moving into 2022. If you’ve been blessed by the work we do and want us to broaden its impact, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end gift—or become a Davenant Partner sustaining us through regular monthly giving. 

Over the coming months, we will be rolling out new perks to thank our donors, including exclusive webinars, interviews, and access to the Davenant community of scholars. Thank you, all of you, who have supported us with your gifts, prayers, and word-of-mouth these past eight years. It’s been an extraordinary journey, and I can’t wait to see what marvels the Lord accomplishes through your support in the years ahead.

Blessings in Christ,

Brad Littlejohn