Jesus Christ and the life of the mind…
The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind is undoubtedly one of the most significant assessments of modern evangelicalism to date. Historian Mark Noll summed up his appraisal in the very first sentence: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”
In 2004, ten years after the publication of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Noll wrote that he remained “largely unrepentant about the book’s historical arguments.” After all the intervening debate and discussion, he stands by the books “assessment of evangelical strengths and weaknesses, and its indictment of evangelical intellectual efforts.”
Evangelicals of all stripes—those who are in pietistic, generically evangelical, Baptist, fundamentalist, Restorationist, holiness, “Bible church,” megachurch, or Pentecostal traditions—face “special difficulties when putting the mind to use,” Noll wrote in his ten-year reprise, “The Evangelical Mind Today.”
If evangelicals are the ones who insist most aggressively that they believe in sola scriptura, and if evangelicals are the ones who assert most vigorously the transforming work of Jesus Christ, then it is reasonable to hope that what the Scriptures teach about the origin of creation in Christ, the sustaining of all things in Christ, and the dignity of all creation in Christ—about, in other words, the subjects of learning—will be a spur for evangelicals to a deeper and richer intellectual life: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17).
For evangelicals (as for other Christians) the greatest hope for learning in any age lies not primarily in heightened activity, nor in better funding, nor in sounder strategizing—though all of these exertions have an important role to play. Rather, the great hope for Christian learning lies in the Christian faith itself, which in the end means in Jesus Christ. Thus, if evangelicals are the people of the gospel we claim to be, our intellectual rescue is close at hand.
But how will evangelicals pursue goals defined by phrases like “first-rate Christian scholarship” or “the Christian use of the mind,” when these phrases sound like a call to backsliding for some in the churches and like a simple oxymoron for many in the broader world? For a Christian in the evangelical tradition, the only enduring answer must come from considering Jesus Christ as sustaining the world and all that is in it. In the light of Christ, we can undertake a whole-hearted, unabashed, and unembarrassed effort to understand this world. In a mind fixed on him, there is intrinsic hope for the development of intellectual seriousness, intellectual integrity, and intellectual gravity.
In 2011, Dr. Noll expanded this theme into a book-length treatment of the life of the mind as grounded in the work of Christ, the creator and sustainer of all of creation.
My contention in [Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind] is that coming to know Christ provides the most basic possible motive for pursuing the tasks of human learning. …
Christianity is defined by the work and person of Jesus Christ. The doctrinal truths supporting this assertion–as set out in scripture and summarized in the major Christian creeds–provide a compelling reason for pursuing human learning. At the same time, they also offer strong protection against the abuses of human learning. Understanding more about Christ and his work not only opens a wide doorway to learning, but also checks tendencies toward the idolatry that is as potent among scholars as in the rest of humankind. …
[I]f what we claim about Jesus Christ is true, then evangelicals should be among the most active, most serious, and the most open-minded advocates of general human learning. Evangelical hesitation about scholarship in general or about pursuing learning wholeheartedly is, in other words, antithetical to the Christ-centered basis of the evangelical faith.
Noll quotes N. T. Wright’s commentary on Colossians in support of a “life of the mind” founded on and sustained by a Christ-centered view of creation—a quote that includes a line from C. S. Lewis’s “Christianity and Culture.”
There is no sphere of existence over which Jesus is not sovereign, in virtue of his role both in creation (1:16-17) and in reconciliation (1:18-20). There can be no dualistic division between some areas which he rules and others which he does not. “There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan.” The task of evangelism is therefore best understood as the proclamation that Jesus is already Lord, that in him God’s new creation has broken into history, and that all people are therefore summoned to submit to him in love, worship, and obedience. The logic of this message requires that those who announce it should be seeking to bring Christ’s Lordship to bear on every area of human and worldly existence.
Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind is not a book just for those working in the academy. Its message is critical for all of us who seek to become mature in Christ in all areas of our lives. Noll’s last chapter, “The Way Ahead,” provides a fitting caution against the danger of intellectualism as a remedy for the anti-intellectualism that he discussed in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.
Believing scholars like myself who think that we have identified cultural or historical circumstances that impede responsible intellectual work can easily fall prey to a besetting temptation. The temptation is to think that if we have upbraided Christian communities for their anti-intellectual Gnosticism, or if we have chastised the general academy for paying too little attention to Christian insights, we have somehow accomplished a great deal. In fact, even at their best, such criticisms or challenges are only like an official at a track meet calling the competitors to the starting line.
Running the race is different. The race itself requires what the author of Hebrews calls throwing off hindrances and running with perseverance. But most of all it requires keeping the prize in view: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” For Christian life, including Christian academic life, to press on without growing weary and not losing heart, the scriptural injunction is simply to “consider him” ().
And so for scholarship that is Christian the essential ingredients are the same as for family life, politics, community service, economic activity, medical care, or any other activity that would be Christian. Those ingredients are prayer that returns to the source of forgiveness and hope, service that goes into the world in Christ’s name, Bible reading or preaching or catechesis that rehearses the story of salvation, sacraments that instantiate the presence of Christ, fellowship that draws believers to each other and to their lord, singing that inspires love of God and neighbor, sympathy that turns hearts toward the suffering, and meditation that draws the mind to God.
Mark A. Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. In addition to The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Dr. Noll is the author of Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, and The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys (A History of Evangelicalism).