Sobering and yet encouraging words from Mark Noll in “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”

First, a caveat: I am not an intellectual per se.  I aspired in that direction earlier in life, but eventually came to realize that I am more of a hybrid of sorts, and have often been used in the past as a “bridge” between the minority who think, and the majority who don’t.

Mark Noll begins his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, with this paragraph:

The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.  An extraordinary range of virtues is found among the sprawling throngs of evangelical Protestants in North America, including great sacrifice in spreading the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, open-hearted generosity to the needy, heroic personal exertion on behalf of troubled individuals, and the unheralded sustenance of countless church and parachurch communities.  Notwithstanding all their other virtues, however, American evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking, and they have not been so for several generations.

I love that first sentence.  It’s sad and humorous at the same time.  As Noll works his way through this book he paints the historical picture of how modern, and especially American, evangelicals have moved away from using their minds and thinking biblically about God, the world around them, and themselves.  Especially about the world around them.  He traces the history of America, the growth of fundamentalism and the holiness movement (both of which tend to be anti-intellectual), and the connection between religion and politics in America.

He concludes the book with these paragraphs:

Personal faith in Christ is a necessary condition for Christian intellectual life, for only a living thing may develop.  So long as evangelicalism keeps Christian faith alive, it contributes in no small way, often despite itself, to the possibility of Christian thinking.

Similarly, evangelical attachment to Scripture may often be more totemic than intellectual, but attachment to Scripture is the place to begin.  For intellectual activities, evangelical use of the Bible has tended to be broad, in the attempt to let its pages answer directly the questions of learning posed by our day.  But a broad use of the Bible is like a flooding river pouring out of its banks — the result is to spread a nourishing silt but also to wreak much havoc and to bring ordinary activities to a halt.  But those who put to use the Bible broadly surely make up the best group of candidates for putting it to use deeply.  To realize that the Bible is narrow (“these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ”) is to make it deep — like a well dug down and down until it refreshes all those who draw from it for every task of life.  To pursue the Bible, as it reveals God-in-human-flesh, is to find not just Christ but the world that Christ created, the humanity that he joined, and the beauty that he embodied in himself.  To move from a broad to a deep reading of the Bible might be a hard thing, but picking up the book was even harder.

There were some great analogies in that paragraph.  If you missed them you should read it again.  You can also sense his optimism that evangelicals may once again return to a deeper, more meaningful study of Scripture as the way to know Jesus Christ, as there is no other way (see my previous post).

In the end, the question of Christian thinking is a deeply spiritual question.  What sort of God will we worship?  With this question we return to the most important matter concerning the life of the mind.  The Gospel of John tells us that the Word who was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of a glorious grace and truth, was also the Word through whom all things — all phenomena in nature, all capacities for fruitful human interaction, all the kinds of beauty — were made.  To honor that Word as he deserves to be honored, evangelicals must know both Christ and what he has made.

The search for a Christian perspective on life — on our families, our economies, our leisure activities, our sports, our attitudes to the body and to health care, our reactions to novels and paintings, as well as our churches and our specifically Christian activities — is not just an academic exercise.  The effort to think like a Christian is rather an effort to take seriously the sovereignty of God over the world he created, the lordship of Christ over the world he died to redeem, and the power of the Holy Spirit over the world he sustains each and every moment.  From this perspective the search for a mind that truly thinks like a Christian takes on ultimate significance, because the search for a Christian mind is not, in the end, a search for mind but a search for God.

So according to Noll, truly knowing Christ is something of “ultimate significance.”  Is he alone in this conclusion?  Hardly, though he is probably in the minority.  And who else is in that minority?  Jesus, for one, as recorded in John 17:3,

And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

Ultimate significance = eternal life = knowing God and Jesus Christ.

And Paul the apostle for another,

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish [dung], in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith –that I may know him and the power of his resurrection… (Philippians 3:8-10)

And finally going way back to the prophet Hosea, who encouraged his people then and still encourages us today to…

Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD.

It’s not easy, but it is worth it.  This I know.

2 comments on “Sobering and yet encouraging words from Mark Noll in “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Evangelical, John Sundberg. John Sundberg said: Sobering and yet encouraging words from Mark Noll in "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind": […]

  2. For another perspective, see “Evangelical Academics Need a New Kind of Ambition,” posted a few days ago on Justin Taylor’s blog “Between Two Worlds.”

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