Some twenty years after he published The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll wrote a follow-up, of sorts: Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. In it he hopes to offer a way forward out of the pragmatism of 19th and 20th century evangelicalism, while still remaining rooted in the evangelical stream: “The message in this book for my fellow evangelicals can be put simply: if what we claim about Jesus Christ is true, then evangelicals should be among the most active, most serious, and most openminded advocates of general human learning” (Kindle location 22).
For this, Noll looks to early Christian creeds as a lens through which evangelicals might develop a distinctly Christian mind. He writes, “If evangelicals are to make a genuine Christian contribution to intellectual life, they must ground faith in the great traditions of classical Christian theology, for these are the traditions that reveal the heights and depths of Jesus Christ. Intellectually, there is no other way” (loc. 307).
Noll’s appeal to creedal affirmation is a stretch for some evangelicals, who sometimes display an allergy to creeds (“no creed but Christ!”). Noll spends the bulk of his book making a case for a deep creedal understanding of the nature and work of Christ, paying particular attention to The Council of Chalcedon’s work on Christology, as a framework for developing a way of Christian thinking. He draws out four ways in which the mystery of Christ’s dual divinity-humanity might help evangelicals engage scholarship in a uniquely Christian manner:
- Doubleness: Just as Christ was both fully divine and fully human–a dichotomy which is accepted, if not completely understood–so also is there room for contradiction and dichotomy in scholarship, without the pressure for absolute harmony. As an example, he references the dual state of light in quantum physics, which exists simultaneously as a wave and a particle. This shouldn’t cause the Christian angst, rather, “for a Christian who has experienced the saving power of Christ, it will be a small step, when confronting at least some dichotomous intellectual problems, to seek the harmonious acceptance of the dichotomy” (loc. 604).
- Contingency: Sometimes things don’t make sense unless and until they are experienced. This is certainly true of Christianity. The story of an omnipotent, eternal God-become-man who is killed then resurrected doesn’t make sense, until it is experienced. It doesn’t work if it is merely reasoned out. In this sense, the Christian reality is a contingent one. Noll applies this principle to Biblical interpretation, offering that “it allows for an escape from deductive dogmatism” (loc. 641). In academic practice, “[i]t provides an especially strong counter to the tendency of academics to trust their own conclusions instead of letting their ideas be challenged by contact with the world beyond their own minds” (loc. 670).
- Particularity: Evangelicals are often stymied by how to approach culture, either their own or that of times gone by. In the particularity of the incarnation, one can find that cultural issues are important then as now. “On the one hand, the particularity at the center of Christianity justifies a rooted, perspectival understanding of truth that embraces unabashedly the crucial significance of all other particularities of time, place, cultural value, and social location. On the other hand, since the birth of Christ was for all people in all times and places, the incarnation undergirds confidence in the possibility of universal truth. Christian support for theories of culture based on the particularity of social expression is, therefore, very strong. But that support does not verge over into nihilism or a relativism denying the presence of universal value” (loc. 700).
- Self-denial: Lest evangelicals become too haughty in their proclamations (as some are wont to do, no doubt), Noll reminds the reader that in the person and work of Christ there is a clear call for humility. “To the extent that scholars are themselves believers, the know that they are sinners who need this Savior. In turn, this knowledge should insulate intellectuals from thinking that any of their own efforts, including intellectual efforts, could do anything to secure their redemption. Put more strongly, a Christ-centered understanding of why all people require an atoning savior demands that scholars not trust their own wisdom as the source of their self-worth” (loc. 750).
To summarize, Noll writes, “Scholarship that is keyed expressly to the person and work of Christ will not be disoriented by confronting the paradoxical or mysterious [doubleness]; it will always be more comfortable in what comes to the mind from outside than in what the mind concludes on its own [contingency]; it will realize the value of particulars because of Christian universals [particularity]; and it will be humble, charitable, self-giving, and modest [self-denial]” (loc. 770).
Noll’s book has the potential for adding immense value to the ongoing intellectual struggle that plagues evangelicalism. Unfortunately, the changes it prescribes may be slow to come to pass. Many pastors won’t read this book since it doesn’t have “leadership” in the title nor does it promise to grow one’s congregation. Many Christian intellectuals who will read it lack any sort of direct ministry context within which to apply it.
That is why, dear reader, we must continue along the path of being reflective practitioners. You and I, friend, must live in the doubleness of active ministry and vibrant intellectual pursuit. We must continue to make our well-reasoned mental engagements contingent upon our experiences in and among our communities. We must remember that particularity matters–yours, mine, that of the Bible, and that of our respective cultures. Finally, we must daily inhale the cross of Christ and exhale humility and self-denial.