Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Making and Unmaking of an Evangelical Mind

This is the title of an engrossing biography of Edward Carnell, one of the brightest minds of the twentieth-century evangelical scene. Written about twenty years ago by a New York University professor named Rudolph Nelson, and published by the prestigious Cambridge University Press, the book chronicles the life and thought of Carnell, a brilliant apologist and former president of Fuller Theological Seminary, the alma mater of such men as John Piper, Tom Schreiner, and Bruce Ware.

Nelson is a former evangelical who writes with some sympathy for Carnell even as he subjects his thought to a thorough analysis. The resulting portrayal is masterful and, honestly, fun to read. If you enjoy intellectual biography, and you like both historical detail and philosophical discussion, you will enjoy The Making and Unmaking. I would recommend the book to Christian graduate students and intellectuals who regularly face scorn and hostility for holding to Christian commitments. I make this recommendation because Carnell--who obtained not one but two doctorates, one from Harvard and one from Boston University--himself faced such pressure. Sadly, Carnell drifted from his stout doctrinal moorings, and became by the end of his life an ecumenical Christian who lampooned fundamentalists. Surely the fundamentalists were eccentric on many points and theologically and intellectually underdeveloped, but most of their number were surely Christian. They loved the Lord Jesus Christ and His gospel, and they contended for the faith until the end. We ought never to adopt a snotty or condescending posture to our brothers in the faith. At any rate, Carnell had by the end of his career accomodated to cultural thought, having allowed in some measure the demands of the academy to determine his theological program, not the demands of the gospel.

His life ended tragically and horribly. Carnell died of an overdose of sleeping pills in 1967. He was perhaps the sharpest mind of his generation, and he had endless talents to use for the Lord, but he shipwrecked his life and compromised his faith by the end. His story is fascinating, easy to read, but ultimately, very sad, for when we read biography, we always remember that we are not reading the story of some fictional character, however realistic. No, we are reading the story of a human being just like us, whose weaknesses could claim us just as they claimed our subject.


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