In 1994, Wheaton College historian Mark Noll published The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind—"an epistle from a wounded lover" that decried the anti-intellectualism of evangelical religious culture. Noll's newest book, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Eerdmans, released in August), devotes far less space to criticism and offers instead a foundational vision: The basic truths of Christian faith are the key to Christian scholarship. Christianity Today editor in chief David Neff recently spoke with Noll (now teaching at the University of Notre Dame) about the book.
Although it's not the main subject of Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, most people will want to know: Are you more optimistic today about the state of the evangelical mind than you were 17 years ago?
I am more optimistic, though not overwhelmingly so. The problems endemic to modern Western culture undercut Christian thinking the same way they undercut every other kind of serious intellectual life. The tendencies among evangelicals that undercut serious reflection are also still pretty strong—for example, the populism and the immediatism, the idea that if there is a problem, we have to solve it right away.
Those are strengths in other contexts.
Exactly. That's very important to say. Almost everything in the evangelical world that undercuts serious and sober thinking actually plays a productive role in some other aspect of evangelical life. I never wanted to make a categorical statement that thinking is the most important thing. But it is important.
There are a lot of factors that show commendable and very serious improvement. The trajectory is moving in a positive direction. Christian philosophers have done very significant work. The number of Christian colleges that make serious efforts continues to grow. The evangelical seminaries, which have broader purposes, nonetheless encourage a lot of good, solid thought. And there certainly are many more people willing to identify as Christians, either as evangelicals or as classical Christians, in the broader academic world. Christian publishers put out more and better books. Parachurch agencies like InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries are doing much good work.
My own sense—and maybe it's just a historian's genetic pessimism—is that we have a long, long way to go until there is a serious intellectual contribution from Christians across the broad stream. But things are moving in the right direction.
You write that "come and see" is Christ's invitation to us to do science.
The premise of the book is that people who trust Jesus Christ for personal salvation and for the hope of the church in the future should rely on Christ to provide the basic standpoint from which to look at intellectual problems. What does this mean?
It means, first of all, to recognize that everything exists because it was created by Jesus. John 1, Colossians 1, and Hebrews 1 all make the same statement: It's not just that the Lord God in some general sense created everything, but that Christ created everything. We also have the amazing statement in Colossians 1 that all things hold together in Jesus.
In the Gospels, we also have repeated injunctions that when there's an issue to be explored, it should actually be examined. In John's gospel, when Nathanael asks whether "anything good" could come from Nazareth, Philip replies, "Come and see."
Or take John the Baptist in prison. His disciples come and ask Jesus, "Are you the one that we are looking for?" And Jesus says, "Tell John what you have seen and heard." The great opening of 1 John says, This is a book about what we have seen with our eyes, heard with our ears, touched with our hands, about the Word of Life.
My appeal is not for a simple Baconian empiricism that treats observation and experience as the only pathways to valid knowledge. Instead, the appeal is that following Christ means having an open mind that can be fruitfully informed by what we experience in the world. Scientists do this through the experimental method. When responsible examination of nature takes place, the examiner discovers not just nature, but nature as created by the Son of God and sustained by Providence.
From a basic Christ-centered focus, the attitude toward the study of nature requires great openness and willingness to learn. The relevance of Christ for science is to realize that everything that exists in nature comes from Christ, but also that the life of Christ gives us a way of exploring nature that involves openness to what we experience. So, "Come and see."
Especially regarding scientific controversies among evangelicals, you seem to be suggesting that slowing down may be the best way to move ahead.
Many of the problems that have taken place in the so-called conflict between religion and science come from hasty conclusions. Right back to the Middle Ages, we have a long series of purportedly new discoveries in nature. The response by church leaders has often been, "This can't be possible." Only a little while later would Christian people say, "Here's how it is possible."
Neither Martin Luther nor John Calvin was at all willing to believe that the earth might move around the sun. But two generations later, all Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics agreed that in fact the earth did move around the sun. It would have been ideal for people to respond to the ideas of Copernicus and Galileo by saying, "Well, let's take our time and evaluate this apparent contradiction with Scripture as carefully and as patiently as possible." What took place instead was an unnecessarily dogmatic reaction.
I'm not qualified to speak in detail about current problems. As a historian, I am qualified to say that less denunciation and more effort at patient study is the best way forward.
You write that "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"—meaning ingredients like prayer, service, Bible reading, preaching, catechesis, and fellowship.
Christian scholarship has to begin with Christianity, just as Christian parenting, Christian publishing, and Christian politics all have to begin with Christianity.
Much of our difficulty in the academic realm has come from not taking problems back to the Christ-centered foundation. This is one of the reasons I spend a fair bit of time in the early chapters spelling out the Christological affirmations of the great Christian creeds. The creeds are important not because they have any special status themselves, but because they were hammered out with intense discussion and have been used productively for centuries.
The way forward for Christian people is to bring the challenges in family life, politics, and ethical spheres of all sorts back to the foundation. If that's the way forward in other dimensions of life, it's also the way forward in intellectual life.
You say that "doubleness"—the idea that not every problem can be reduced to a single solution—is one of the key ways to frame Christian scholarship. What do you mean?
The whole point of the book is that believers in Christ should take seriously who Christ is and what Christ has done. As a historian, I've been drawn to the great Christian creeds as the most succinct and powerful statements of who Christ is and what Christ has done. The great relevance of the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian definition is to affirm that Jesus Christ was fully human and fully divine in one integrated person. But we know from moral and ethical reasoning that God and humans are different. God is the Creator, and humans are the creatures. There's a huge gap between humanity and divinity. Yet Christianity says that in Christ, that gap doesn't exist. The lengthy debate leading up to Nicaea and Chalcedon was over how to state that what can't be together really was together.
While people can certainly see and know things clearly in this world, if we assume we can know things perfectly, the way God knows things, we delude ourselves. God is not just bigger than we are; God is qualitatively different. And yet we know from the work of Christ that we can have fellowship with the divine. We can know God in Christ.
From the basic Christian story, we can approach all of life with the awareness that within one thing, two things may actually be going on. The great Lutheran mantra was that a Christian believer is simultaneously justified and a sinner. The Calvinist tradition uses the word concursus, which means that two things are happening at once. The Christian religion begins with two things happening at once. The human Jesus and the divine God both offer the Word of Life. And it's not two people offering the Word of Life, it's one person. If that doubleness defines the most important thing in all existence, how God revealed himself most fully to humankind, then why not expect lesser things like scholarship, science, history, and psychology to reflect the same pattern?
How does this idea apply to history?
To take the Christological perspective on historical work does inspire confidence that historians can, at least potentially, discover some aspects of what really happened. Yet for all sorts of reasons—the Fall, certainly, but more importantly, the way in which the Incarnation brings together apparently contradictory things—historians should be very careful about presuming to know too much.
Christian historians should never presume to have godlike knowledge about the past. As 1 Corinthians states, we see reality "through a glass darkly." Our knowledge is true and yet beclouded—two things at once. Both the cloudiness and the confidence come from the same place, which is a reflection of what the Incarnation means.
How does this mesh with your views of Providence?
A Christian has to affirm Providence, but a Christian historian should not assume to know the mind of God about most particular events. In fact, there are all sorts of bad examples in history where people have falsely made that assumption. In the modern world, there aren't too many examples of Christian historians who have employed particular examples of Providence well.
For most historians, I think it's wiser to affirm a general sort of Providence and yet not presume that you as an individual can know what God intended for any particular situation in the past.
Or to use Providence as a shortcut to avoid looking at social context and economic forces.
Right. Providence, in my view, arises from the message of salvation that says God works all things together in Christ. That's the main providential message. But for history, science, and other domains, the "come and see" principle means that you really have to do research to find out the meaning of the past.
On the other hand, you suggest that social science, denying Providence altogether, can too easily become reductionist.
Some of the difficulties in social science have to do with the conditions in which that discipline arose. In the second half of the 19th century, there was a strong flight from Providence—from solid and misguided ideas of Providence alike.
The alternative was confidence that studying humanity could make the same strides as studying nature. That confidence was only partially justified. The difficulty with social scientists' overconfidence is that in a modern secular world, God is left out completely. And not just God but also the work of redemption. So I try to show that Christian social scientists who are conscious of the foundation in Jesus Christ will not want to be reductionist. It's possible that multiple explanations can work for a single phenomenon because of the multiple explanations required to speak of the Incarnation. I'm willing to let the sociologist and the psychologist and the economist work out what these things might mean for them. But what counts as a distinctly Christian approach to social sciences is something that again and again goes back to the foundation of Christian faith, not something vaguely theistic or vaguely modern.
You write about how non-Western historians include supernatural analysis in their work. How does that fit in with your views about how to talk about Providence as a Western historian?
Come back in about 40 years, and we'll have a good answer. But I've been really helped by perspectives from a few African historians. The late Ogbu Kalu was the leader in that group. Ogbu was a well-trained historian who studied and wrote about Henry VIII at the University of Toronto, but he was also a Presbyterian elder in Nigeria, where charismatic phenomena were routine. In his inaugural address at McCormick Theological Seminary, he challenged Christian historians to see Clio, the muse of history, in sacred garb. In other words, don't go too far toward treating Providence only as general background, but instead allow Christian confidence and Providence to come into the foreground. Unfortunately, Ogbu died before he could show too many examples of what he meant, but his appeal was a good one. Voices from the non-Western world have been a great stimulus for serious thinking about how Christian historians should go about their tasks.
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
A Bible study based on this article, "The Foundation for the Evangelical Mind," is available at ChristianBibleStudies.com.
Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Previous Christianity Today articles on Christian scholarship include:
Scholars and 'Snake Handlers' | Society of Biblical Literature accused of evangelical pandering—and secular bias. (August 31, 2010)
Abandon Studying the Historical Jesus? No, We Need History | A response to 'The Jesus We'll Never Know.' (April 9, 2010)
Patrons of the Evangelical Mind | "Why has evangelical scholarship soared in the last few decades? Native intellectual talent is one reason, to be sure. But an infusion of cash didn't hurt." (July 8, 2002)
Books & Culture Corner: Defending Faith and Learning | Baylor University's Polanyi Center comes under fire from the university's faculty. (April 1, 2000)
N.T. Wright: Making Scholarship a Tool for the Church | Reconciling Christian history with the Christian faith. (February 8, 1999)
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more