The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity

Mark A. Noll, The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002. 340 pages, including appendices, chronology, bibliography, and index. Paper. ISBN 0-8028-4948-2

The strengths of this excellent book receive deserved praise from reviewers quoted on the back cover: “The most wide-ranging portrayal of the history of Christianity in North America ever published as a medium-size book” “A clear, succinct, and accessible account of the European Christian churches’ experiences from their arrival in America to the present time…Noll provides us with a fresh interpretive angle for seeing how the American experience changed both these churches and this country. A wonderful effort!” Noll states at the outset that “the burden of The Old Religion in a New World is to highlight aspects of North American Christianity that set it apart from patterns of religious experience and organization more common in historic European Christendom.” Two such differences are the separation of church and state in the United States and what he calls “a striking harmony between the churches and forces of progress, democracy, and pragmatism.” Chronological chapters survey the major developments in American Christianity from its origins in Europe to the present proliferation of denominations, sects, and movements. Thematic chapters deal with the “American separation of church and state; the practice of theological and intellectual life …; the instructive contrasts provided by Canada and Mexico…; the fate of ethnic and confessional communities…; and the practices of [daily] Christian life by ordinary believers.” Although Christianity in America shares many features with its European background, two differences stand out: “The importance of conversion for individual religious life, and the centrality of the Bible in the religious practices of the civilization.” In his Afterward, Noll cites with agreement European observers who discern distinctively American features of Christianity in the United States, including the impulse towards separatism; division of church and state; and revivalism. Like them, he wonders whether the immense activity of believers does not hide a corresponding lack of spiritual depth and reflection upon the truths of the faith. To outsiders, the constitutional separation of church and state seems a stark contrast to the intimate involvement of Christians in politics and social life, which sometimes look like the very secularization that believers decry. Have American Christians succumbed more to the world than they think? Does the phrase “promiscuous intermingling of church and world” accurately describe the real situation? That question notwithstanding, Noll’s final full chapter, on “Day to day Christian spirituality and the Bible,” does prove that the Biblically-inspired ideas and themes have permeated American society from the beginning up to the present. Noll marshals compelling evidence showing that Christianity penetrates this nation far more deeply and widely than any other country in the world today. No book is perfect, and Noll’s characteristic weaknesses and biases appear in this volume, as they did in his Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, though in a more muted form. Clearly targeting a particular audience – the academy of elite universities both in America and Europe – he once again shows disdain for those who reject the theory of evolutionism. By putting “Creationism” into quotation marks, failing to address its legitimate concerns, and neglecting the views of others, including prominent scientists, who also question Darwinian dominance, he perpetuates the notion that only ignorance and prejudice would lead anyone to dissent from the ruling orthodoxy. Likewise, his dislike of the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture shows up in a virtual dismissal of Carl Henry’s massive achievement in God, Revelation, & Authority. To be fair, Noll does say that Henry “provided an able exposition of moderately rational Reformed perspectives in his wide-ranging work as editor and author,” and goes on to praise what he calls “mediating theologians” like Henry for the “sturdy quality” of their work. He acknowledges that these writers, though neglected by the mainstream academy, have made a significant contribution to American Christian life. Still, one sentence hardly does justice to a thinker whom various observers have considered the greatest Evangelical theologian of the 20th century, nor does it reflect his influence in other parts of the world, including Asia. It seems that Noll’s primary reference point is the degree of influence which American Christianity has had upon the rest of the world. To observe that the British and Germans have not taken American theology seriously is merely to state the obvious, and perhaps says more about the insularity and prejudice of Europeans than about the value of scholarship on this side of the Atlantic. To his great credit, Noll devotes several well-written pages to the enduring worth, and growing influence, of the thought of Jonathan Edwards, whom he rightly acclaims as America’s greatest theologian. What strikes this reviewer as odd is that Noll fails to see in Henry the qualities he lauds in Edwards: “The skill with which he engaged the great minds of his age was matched by devotion to divine revelation and his own profound articulation of the Augustinian tradition.” Noll is a great scholar with a solid grasp of a vast literature; that he has apparently not ready Carl Henry is not surprising, but his assessments would be more accurate if he were ever to fill this gap in his otherwise massive erudition. Finally, though Noll is an Evangelical Protestant, the manner in which he handles diverse viewpoints within Protestantism, and especially his values-free discussions of Roman Catholicism in America, could lead an unsuspecting reader to believe that all interpretations of the Christian faith are equally valid, and that there are really no important conflicts between Reformation Christianity and Rome. Though many other Evangelicals would agree with that judgment, including Billy Graham, who called Pope John Paul II a “brother,” others see a vast chasm between Evangelical faith and even post-Vatican II Catholicism. Imagine how Martin Luther would respond to Noll’s lavish praise of neo-Thomism as a system that “fits very well with a Christian perspective on the world, grounded as it is in creation, incarnation, and redemption – in the realities of sin and grace.” Although every word of that statement is true, the underlying epistemological divergence, not to mention the different interpretations of “redemption,” “sin,” and “grace,” would make the Reformers wonder at the Evangelical credentials of the author. Indeed, Noll’s enthusiasm for neo-Thomism leads him to say that “the only Protestant system currently at work in North America that even approached the intellectual depth, breadth, and sanctity of neo-Thomism is the Dutch-American interpretation of the Calvinist theology of … Kuyper.” But that effort “never came close to the scope, energy and achievements of neo-Thomism in its heyday.” Quite apart from its dismissive attitude towards Kuyper’s influence, and what Noll admits was an almost total collapse of neo-Thomism in the latter part of the 20th century, what appears to be another instance of startling ignorance of Carl Henry’s God, Revelation, & Authority seems to cloud Noll’s judgment. Despite these significant flaws, The Old Religion in a New World deserves careful and repeated reading. Its wealth of information, clear organization, bread of vision, and marvelously succinct style make it essential for any who would seek to understand the distinctive nature of Christianity in the New World.