The Long View of Evangelical Alliances: An Interview with Mark Noll

Editor’s note: From time to time we find it helpful to solicit critical feedback on The Gospel Coalition’s strengths, weaknesses, and potential pitfalls. So with this eye toward self-reflection, we welcome Mark Noll’s observations based on years of studying the history of evangelicalism.


“Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new?’ It has been already in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after” (Ecclesiastes 1:10-11). Many theologians and historians within the church today echo the Preacher’s cry in Ecclesiastes.

An inherent organizational creativity within evangelicalism combined with the rapid spread of technology makes it increasingly difficult for today’s pastor to acquire a long view of God at work. As a result, it is easy to misinterpret both the possibilities of cooperation within evangelicalism and the consequences of departure from the same. Neither the networking of various ministries through conferences, nor the willingness of publishers to encourage the work of experimental theologians, represents a new phenomenon within the movement.

The good and the bad, our strengths and our weaknesses, have “been already in the ages before us.” So what can we learn about the way forward by taking the time to look back?

I recently sat down with evangelical historian Mark Noll, Francis A. McAnaney professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, for a long view of confessional, evangelical alliances such as The Gospel Coalition.

What are some promises and pitfalls of confessional, evangelical alliances such as The Gospel Coalition?

Cooperative, ad-hoc movements such as The Gospel Coalition have many good features. Shared fellowship in networks and at conferences have a way of building confidence and giving forthrightness to many who carry out their work with a sense of isolation from others. In my own experience, at the retirement of Alvin Plantinga from Notre Dame last year, a community of scholars from around the world gathered together here and celebrated the stronger connections developed among Christian scholars over the last 30 years. Many who had begun their academic careers feeling alone or marginalized by others in their pursuit of Christian philosophy now testified to an increasing confidence through shared fellowship.

Such movements also provide an opportunity for positive articulation. Sometimes cooperative efforts have a way of combining weaknesses with weaknesses, rather than strengths with strengths. Yet the ideal Christian world is where everyone puts their best foot forward. Networking together, listening to one another, and sharing experiences provide the opportunity to sharpen one’s beliefs and practices so that the strengths of one another are maximized and the weaknesses minimized.

In as much as The Gospel Coalition represents the networking of various ministries and persons that grew independently of one another, there is a great opportunity to build confidence in its foundational principles, sharpen one another in the practice of ministry, and positively articulate the best of Augustinian/Reformed theology.

Some of these positives also represent dangers. The opportunity to put our best foot forward can create larger-than-life personalities and heroes, when in reality, such movements rarely survive the driving forces or persons that bring them into existence. These kinds of movements have strong short-term potential but minimal long-term influence. Without some transition from ad hoc cooperation to established, institutionalized relationships, the work of maturation and discipleship will happen elsewhere. A person can come and enjoy fellowship and teaching at a conference, but ought not to assume that such things can replace the learning and maturing that require years of pastoral practice and study with the accountability of a seasoned pastor or denominational board.

Then, there is also the danger of schisms. As a broad coalition with differing views on church government, the sacraments, the gifts of the Spirit, and practices of ministry, there is always the danger of schisms over any of these items or something that develops in the future. A recent historical example that comes to mind is that of John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

Another reality to acknowledge is that the assumptions of much of American culture are not Calvinistic. So you would do well to fight against three things: the tendency to turn leaders into heroes, minimize the importance of institutions, and divide over secondary issues—all the while recognizing the pervasive influence of the dominant culture on religious life.

To what extent do such alliances represent continuity with cooperative movements throughout church history, and to what extent do they reveal the influence of a distinctly American, entrepreneurialism in evangelical Christianity?

The answer is both. There has always been strong emphasis within evangelicalism of renewal either through the creation of new organizations or partnerships, or the transformation of existing ones. And this renewal emphasis has also been influenced by the broader acceptance of the separation of church and state and the streams of immigration throughout our nation’s history. So both the internal impulse to “return to the Bible” and the external environment of religious organizational freedom are at work.

From a global perspective, what could North American Christians learn from our brothers and sisters in the majority world about the opportunities and obstacles of cooperative missional engagement?

In many ways, the entrepreneurialism is spreading in the majority world. As conditions change in other countries—through improved economic opportunities and greater religious freedom—a similar kind of organizational creativity is taking root. The extent to which those organizations will cooperate with one another is yet to be determined.

One of the consistent critiques from the majority world can be demonstrated through a personal exchange I had recently. An African scholar remarked that Western historians need “to get the Holy Spirit back”—that we have so found a way to explain our past with reference to political systems, strong personalities, military conflicts, economic forces, etc—that there is no room for understanding God at work through his Spirit. And he is right; average Westerners have the profound capacity to control so many parts of their lives that they have lost a sense of directness with the supernatural. And Reformed theologians, who have consistently been Word-oriented and reason-oriented (which is not a criticism in itself), need to be cautious of this insight from our non-Western brothers and sisters.

In the post-B.B. Warfield days, there seems to be an increasing awareness of this issue and openness within the Reformed movement to a greater appreciation for the directness of the supernatural through the Holy Spirit. The inclusiveness of those from a charismatic and Pentecostal tradition within The Gospel Coalition is an encouraging example of such openness.

As a contributing author to The Search for Christian America, what concerns raised in that book remain to the present and what developments in the past 25 to 30 years reveal a healthier understanding of American history and public engagement within evangelicalism?

The good news is that many are doing serious work in theology and biblical studies without an unhealthy allegiance to a particular political agenda. All-out patriotism has an idolatrous potential to it, and many within and outside of evangelicalism have highlighted the disastrous consequences of Christianity driven by the pursuit of political power rather than motivated by the proclamation of the gospel. As a result, evangelicals are not only speaking against abortion, but also speaking about the needs of the fatherless. And, as The Gospel Coalition is seeking to do, there is a willingness to focus primarily on the gospel and find unity in it, not in getting someone elected to political office.

The bad news is that nonsense is also alive and well. There are many who still think Jefferson and Washington were evangelicals. And many still take their cues from talk radio, rather than the Bible or more serious works of history. So there are encouraging signs and developments within evangelicalism, but the popular distortions are still with us. As George Marsden commented on the book, “The Search for Christian America has sold its thousands, but others have sold their millions.”

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  • Ken Stewart

    An excellent interview pursued on the basis of a wise premise: TGC should solicit and take seriously the evaluations of wise Christians who stand outside TGC. Perhaps one of the ripple effects of this practice is that it will encourage a healthy self-criticism and evaluation within TGC — which needs this exercise no more and no less than any other Christian movement.

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  • Don Sartain

    “So you would do well to fight against three things: the tendency to turn leaders into heroes, minimize the importance of institutions, and divide over secondary issues—all the while recognizing the pervasive influence of the dominant culture on religious life.”

    I think that statement serves the local church well, as much or more as it does TGC.

  • Chris Donato

    It might be said that precisely because the nonsense still exists (such as The Patriot’s Bible), TGC must also exist. And may it never wade into the nonsense itself . . .

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  • Rachael Starke

    “…average Westerners have the profound capacity to control so many parts of their lives that they have lost a sense of directness with the supernatural.

    That’s a tremendous insight, and speaks directly to the biggest weakness with the current church-planting trend. Too many groups are applying a theology of “if we (small “w”) build it, they will come” to their church planting efforts, rather than waiting for the Holy Spirit to work where they are right now.

  • Mon


    Noll didn’t really interact with specifics about TGC, this interview was a real broad stroke on the climate of many ‘coalitions’ present and past. Hm. I was hoping for more!

  • MBW

    Despite Noll’s many insightful observations, I have to agree with Mon. I would like to see a sharper critique of TGC, perhaps even from a non-Evangelical scholar.

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  • lander

    I very much enjoyed Dr. Noll’s keen observations. ‘Please sir, may we have another’!

    There is a tendency, more pronounced in the past, among American Evangelicals to champion Christian versions of Churchill or Roosevelt. The big man theory of leadership prevailed: bold ideas; “attempting great things for God”; endless launches of empires rife with nepotism that fade into memorials… Or faux coalitions that split at the first non-essential tiff as Madchen’s warrior children rode out to do battle upon their cousins…

    But of late, there seems to be the opposite: watered-down coalitions that lack any impact but that make the participants feel cozy in their self-congratulatory pluarlistic broad-minded spirit.

    There is a second countervailing tendency of late, a lack of bold, energetic, risk-taking, such that when we do see a “mini-movement” with flawed leaders actually doing something, it is so unusual (and offensive to a pluralistic zeitgeist?) that we quickly point out its flaws and risks. An arm-chair enhanced technology then affords the man not in the arena the opportunity to comment on the weaknesses of others in the arena with anonymity on blogs: “It’s all well and good that books are being published and a partly-Reformed resurgence percolates, but it’s too narrow, too Calvinistic, too Complimentarian, not enough …”

    I’ve heard that our brother Aussies historically traveled this route: they “whack-a-mole” anyone whom God pops up because they’re too big for their britches.

    Questions for Dr. Noll (or Stewart):
    Do healthy institutions ever get birthed and passed on without energetic leadership willing to risk mistakes and push hard in direction of needed emphasis?

    And where do those of us go who were kicked out of the supposedly “big tent” of “mainstream” evangelicalism because we committed the sin of being a struggling Calvinist complimentarian?

  • Jonathan Brack

    Carl Trueman speaks to some of the pitfalls …

  • Jim Plueddemann

    Well done Mark. I fear that if the Gospel Coalition ignores your warnings that it will degenerate into a fragmentation of evangelicals rather than a coalition. For the sake of the Gospel, the Gospel Coalition needs to greatly fear “mission-creep.”

  • Andrew

    I love Mark Noll. Always bringing a tempered word to every topic. I think he brought just the right word in this case. Here’s what I mean. TGC has been around for, what, a few years, and already there are those decrying it as an insular, self-aggrandizing, elitist movement full of men who exercise too much mutual admiration for one another at the detriment of evangelicalism as a whole. Might I suggest we actually give TGC time to grow and mature a bit, see where those who actually are too big for their britches shake out, and in the meanwhile praise God for the great opportunity He has given at this moment in time. As controversy and liberalized teaching threaten to pull evangelicalism apart, I think TGC is a centering, anchoring presence in the storm. Think of it. Crawford Loritts, Tim Keller and Mark Dever sharing the stage to discuss what a local church should look like. The differences between these three may seem inconsequential to some, but they really are quite dramatic. This is a good thing! Praise God for it! PRAY for it!

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