A Framework for Christian Scholarship
In his first book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll lamented on the lack of cultivation of the mind that characterized much of evangelicalism. In his sequel, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, the author provides a theological framework that is meant to serve Christians in their intellectual pursuits.
Using the Creeds of the Early Church (The Apostle’s Creed, Nicene, and Chalcedon), Noll proposes a Christocentric philosophy of engaging the mind with the world. This perspective recognizes that Christ is the central theme of the Scriptures, that He is the Creator and Savior of the World, and that He is fully human and fully God. This framework results in relevant principles for scholarship.
First, the motivation and the outcome of Christian scholarship is not self-centered but Christ-centered. It seeks to bring glory to Christ. Secondly, because the world and everything in it was created by God, then the entire world and everything in it is worth studying. Thirdly, our approach to history, science, and hermeneutics must reflect the same attitude that we have towards the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ. We must recognize that there is a level of mystery and that some elements are beyond our human comprehension. Consequently, truth and paradox are compatible and not subject to the epistemological standards of modernism. This framework seeks to free the mind to engage with a diversity of fields with intellectual humility. Noll concludes, “Scholarship that is keyed expressly to the person and work of Christ will not be disoriented by confronting the paradoxical or the mysterious; it will always be more comfortable in what comes to the mind from outside than in what the mind concludes on its own; it will realize the value of particulars because of Christian universals; and it will be humble, charitable, self-giving, and modest.”
Overall, this book was insightful and eloquently written. It brings into perspective important aspects of scholarship that I find helpful. First, it challenges the tendency to separate the sacred from the secular. I love the quote from Evangeline Patterson, “”I was brought up in a Christian movement where, because God had to be given pre-eminence, nothing else was allowed to be important. I have broken through to the position that because God exists, everything else has significance.” I can identify with this quote in light of my upbringing. I grew up in a context where there was a clear distinction between what was considered ministry and what was considered secular. After years of theological reflection, I now understand that when we are redeemed, everything we do is ministry, because everything we do seeks to bring glory to God. Thus, the Christian lawyer, the Christian engineer, and the Christian theologian are all serving God, because when God is our Creator and Savior, everything has significance.
Secondly, Noll calls me to exercise theological humility. He reminds me that the nature of the Scriptures and my hermeneutical assumptions are distinct from each other and should not be confused. He reminds me that truth can be objective but also paradoxical, and that my understanding is finite and shaped by my historical context. This understanding does not lead to epistemological relativism but to epistemological humility. The author says, “If, then, the fact of substitution is a primordial human reality, the seriousness of sin is the essential human dilemma, the divine initiative in salvation is the basis for human hope, the narrative movement of grace is the primary shape for human knowledge, and the complex nature of reality is the inescapable challenge for human understanding—then the human study of the world should reflect these realities.”
Finally, Noll reminds me of the two-way relationship between theology and science. A biblical scholarship rooted in epistemological humility understands that not only our theological convictions shape our approach to science, but also science can shape our theological convictions. This relationship was most evident when both theologians and scientist moved from a geocentric to a heliocentric view of the universe. Noll shares a quote from Galileo Galilei that I find insightful, “However, by this I do not wish to imply that one should not have the highest regard for passages of Holy Scripture; indeed, after becoming coming certain of some physical conclusions, we should use these as very appropriate aids to the correct interpretation of Scripture and to the investigation of the truths they must contain, for they are most true and agree with demonstrated truths….”
I could easily end the blog here, but I feel compelled to reflect further.
Even though I find the book insightful, Noll fails to persuade me about his approach to the contemporary issues about Darwinian evolution and hermeneutics.
“Well-trained scientists with strong Christian convictions have followed the Christ-rooted procedure of “coming and seeing” in their study of physical evidence for the origin of the universe and have concluded that much of standard evolutionary theory seems well grounded. Similarly, well-trained biblical scholars with strong Christian convictions have followed the Christ-rooted procedure of “coming and seeing” in their study of ancient Near Eastern cultures and have concluded that the early chapters of Genesis seem to be directly concerned about attacking idol-worship that substituted the sun or the moon for God. Given the combination of these two streams of testimony, should it be thought that early Genesis is not concerned with modern scientific questions but is very much concerned about encouraging worship of the one true God who is the originator and sustainer of all things?”
Noll frames the issue of evolution and biblical interpretation with a system that I find faulty in three ways. First, he assumes that evolutionary science is based on observation and that it can indeed be used to determine the origin of the universe. He invites us to simply “come and see” the facts. Yet, he fails to acknowledge that much of the discussion about Darwinian evolution is based on the interpretation of the evidence, not in the evidence itself. Natural selection is observed and acknowledged by both Christian and atheist scientist alike, yet it is their presuppositions that lead them to different conclusions. The dominant presuppositions in the field of science today are that there is no God, that everything that exists developed through the same physical processes that we can observe today, these processes lead to the necessity of billions of years of history, and any appearance of design is not intelligently designed but the result of random processes. This set of presuppositions form the glasses by which a Darwinian scientist interprets the evidence. Consequently, even though there are some parallels between the Copernican revolution and its impact in theology, the Darwinian revolution differs in its intrinsic presuppositions.
Secondly, Noll presents the discussion about science and theology in a way that downplays the scholarship found in those who reject the Darwinian interpretation of history. I wonder, what happened to all the other “well-trained scientists with strong Christian convictions who have followed the Christ-rooted procedure of ‘coming and seeing’ in their study of physical evidence for the origin of the universe” and have concluded that much of standard evolutionary theory seems to be grounded in ideology rather than scientific evidence? I have sat down under the teaching of astronomers, biologists, and geologists who have invested serious scholarship in their endeavor. If I were only exposed to Noll’s book, I would have concluded that this type of scholarship did not exist or that it was not good scholarship.
Finally, Noll’s approach to hermeneutics seems to contradict his own critique of William Paley and Eusebius. On the one hand he argues that we cannot really know why things are the way they are unless the reason is revealed. Yet, when it comes to his endorsement of most of Peter Enns’s hermeneutical grid, he does not seem to be bothered by the level of confidence given to human perception. I find two quotes highly important in this regard. Enn argues, “It is a fundamental misunderstanding of Genesis to expect it to answer questions generated by a modern worldview, such as whether the days were literal or figurative, or whether the days of creation can be lined up with modern science, or whether the flood was local or universal. The question that Genesis is prepared to answer is whether Yahweh, the God of Israel, is worthy of worship”
Noll explains, “In other words, to understand the stories about Abraham in Genesis biblically, it is necessary to reconstruct how Abraham would have thought. But to understand how Abraham would have thought means taking seriously what is gained from study of older contemporary texts like Enuma Elish, Atrahasis, Gilgamesh, and the Code of Hammurabi. Once this incarnational step is taken – that is, to enter into the Pentateuch with the mindset that God put to use when he inspired the writing of the Pentateuch – several interpretative conclusions are obvious.”
I understand the issue of not turning the Bible into a science book and the need to make a serious effort to understand the cultural/historical context in which a book was written by investigating extra biblical sources. However, speculations must be treated with a mindset that distinguishes possibility from plausibility. My concern with Enns’s line of thought is that it presumes that we can know what Abraham was thinking (even though we can’t) and that we have discovered the real purpose of Genesis (even though the name of the book is BEGINNINGS and it does not state the purpose for which it was written). Based on both speculations, he implies that asking Genesis questions about historic and scientific inquiry are out of place, and that when using this grid, the interpretative conclusions become “obvious.” But obvious to whom?
I disagree with Noll here in three key levels. I believe that our ability to construct cultural values through archeological research is limited and does not give us the capacity to know what a person in the past was thinking, I believe that contextualization in Genesis does not necessarily sacrifice historicity as he implies, and that an account can reveal more information than the one purposed by the biblical author.
In summary, Noll misrepresents the scholarship of serious scientists who disagree with a Darwinian view of history, he ignores the relationship between scientific evidence and the assumptions of the scientists interpreting the evidence, he believes we know the real purpose of Genesis (even though the book does not state it), he believes that we can construct the ancient world through extra biblical sources to the point in which we can know what Abraham was thinking (even though we can only sketch cultural values from research, but we cannot know what Abraham was thinking unless the biblical text tells us), and consequently, he believes that Genesis is not meant to answer questions of historical or scientific inquiry. Thus, I disagree with his conclusion because I believe it is founded on faulty assumptions. I believe that serious scholarship must be built on a foundation that carefully distinguishes possibility from plausibility.
Yet, I agree with Noll’s own advice, “The general lesson is that when humans assume that their interpretations of history possess the same level of veracity about God and his purposes as the veracity found in Scripture, there are always real difficulties.”
 Mark A. Noll. Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Kindle Locations 770-772). Kindle Edition.
 Ibid, Kindle Locations 348-351.
 Ibid, Kindle Locations 839-841.
 Ibid, Kindle Locations 1181-1183.
 Ibid, Kindle Locations 1002-1005
 Ibid, Kindle Locations 1345-1350.
 Ibid, Kindle Locations 1529-1534.
 Ibid, Kindle Locations 1522-1526.
 Ibid, Kindle Locations 1002-1005
13 responses to “A Framework for Christian Scholarship”
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As usual you have written clearly and thoughtfully. I hear that you are not a big fan of Enns’ grid and Noll’s use of it. If not the Noll/Enns way, how do you “make serious effort” to understand the Bible?
Aaron, I agree with many of the concepts that Noll brings up, just not all of them. Serious effort demands to be exposed to different authors to see theological issues from different angles. Diversity of opinions matters in this regard. Yet, at the same time, I’ve created a special category in my own theological studies that I find helpful. As pointed out in my blog, I try to distinguish a possible interpretation from a plausible interpretation. In the theological field there are many views about many issues. Sometimes these views can be compatible with each other, while most of the time they are not. Therefore we have to chose where we stand in the midst of so many views. Here is where I separate possibility from plausibility. For me, the most plausible views are the ones that connect the most dots of known information in a cohesive way. I often find discussions about theological issues that focus only on selective information that makes the position seem right, yet the problem is found in the information that is excluded from the argument. Here, they connect only some dots of known information, but not all of them.
Pablo, incredible blog acedemically and theologically. I really liked your agreement with Noll and as well your disagreement. Do you know of a historian/theologian that holds the balance that aligns with your stated values on the intellectual ideology that Noll subcribes to?
Aaron, I am afraid that most of the theologians I am familiar with do not subscribe to the exact hermeneutical framework proposed by Noll (:
However, I have found some helpful studies about Creation that I have considered to be of serious scholarship. Historian Dr. Terry Mortenson has a PhD from England in the history of Geology. His research focuses on the ideological background of many of the people engaged in the geological discussions of the 19th century. Dr. John Lennox has a PhD in mathematics and has written a few good books engaging with the new atheist movement. He has also debated Richard Dawkins a few times. Dr. Jason Lisle has a PhD in astrophysics, and he has some powerful presentations about astronomy. Also, in the same topic, astrobiologist Guillermo Gonzalez in conjunction with the Discovery Institute have done some serious studies on the uniqueness of our planet in “The Privileged Planet.” The scientists from the Discovery Institute have also produced some good studies on issues related to microbiology and DNA. Last, but not least, there are a couple of authors who are unique in their research because they converted from Darwinian Atheism to Christianity. Dr. Gary Parker, who has a doctorate in biology has some studies sharing his own intellectual/spiritual journey. Lee Strobel, a graduate from Yale, has also written a few books as a journalist, interviewing different scholars in several fields. He is the author of the series “The Case for Faith,” “The Case for a Creator,” and “The Case for Christ.”
Great quote: I love the quote from Evangeline Patterson, “”I was brought up in a Christian movement where, because God had to be given pre-eminence, nothing else was allowed to be important. I have broken through to the position that because God exists, everything else has significance.”
This justified a lot of Noll’s pursuit of the “life of the mind”. But as you pointed out, uncontrolled pursuit of intellect can steer you off of reality.
Noll caught my attention in this book with his handling of a couple of areas: his thoughts on “glory”, Christology, and the creeds. When I read his thoughts on evolution, I was challenged as you were.
Do you perceive his intellect challenge as a possible crossing over the line theologically and with critical thinking (in regards to evolution)? Where and how do we balance/protect ourselves from the pursuit of the “life of the mind” at the expense of veering off the path?
Phil, I am glad you enjoyed the book and were both inspired and challenged. I do believe that there are some fallacies with Noll’s line of thought in regard to evolution. I do not know how much he has studied the topic or how exposed he has been to the diversity of scholarship in the topic. But when you asked, “Do you perceive his intellect challenge as a possible crossing over the line theologically and with critical thinking (in regards to evolution)?” I would say, yes. I find some theological issues and some critical thinking issues in his views.
It has been a little irritating that you, Jason K, and I have had our blogs hacked. I hope this is a short lived issue.
Great summary of the book – Christ as the center of and reason for all scholarship and intellectual endeavors. There is power in this philosophy of the mind.
For you, what is the most fulfilling and what is the most difficult, intellectually, when dealing with mystery? Can you describe your internal processes when you come to the end of your ability to understand, and must live with mystery?
(Personally I love this place, because in the process we learn so much and, in the end, must still be in awe and wonder as to Who God is.)
You wrote, “He reminds me that truth can be objective but also paradoxical, and that my understanding is finite and shaped by my historical context. This understanding does not lead to epistemological relativism but to epistemological humility.”
Finally – your second reflection on Darwin, etc is well reasoned. I would encourage you to write to Noll with these thoughts. The second book seems to indicate that he takes reader-feedback seriously.
One slight counter-thought: even though Genesis does not explicitly state its purpose, are we not trained to infer purpose from the content of the book? I remember hearing years ago that Genesis is more concerned with the “who” and “why” of creation than the “how.” I’ve always kind of liked that idea.
Marc, I did not realize that you and Jason were also hacked! In a sense, it makes me feel better, because it could mean that it is not an issue of somebody hacking into my computer. If they got to your blog and Jason’s blog, then it must be a computer that has access to all of that information. Which leads me to think that it is something related to GFU.
You asked me a deep question. “For you, what is the most fulfilling and what is the most difficult, intellectually, when dealing with mystery? Can you describe your internal processes when you come to the end of your ability to understand, and must live with mystery?” The first thing that came to mind as I read your question was having to experience my daughter’s death. In that type of situation we start wondering WHY. The need to understand and to have rational explanations is intensified. Yet, I got to the point in which I realized that God did not call me to understand Him but to trust Him. His ways are not my ways and his thoughts are not my thoughts. He does not act randomly but He is purposeful. The paradox of a God who loved me but did not prevent my daughter from dying was left wrapped in mystery, and I embraced that paradox and I embraced that mystery. I discovered that in the midst of pain, my theological convictions guided me through the process, so even in the midst of intense emotions the intellectual life has an important role to play. So, I would have to say that my experience with my daughter was the most difficult experience dealing with mystery.
Let me explain some things about my comments related to Genesis. I think that we are able to infer purpose from the content of a book, even if the purpose is not explicitly stated. We do that often in the study of the New Testament. However, I am not sure that we apply this process well to Genesis. Scholars like Noll, for instance, conclude that the main point of the book is the “Who,” therefore we should not bother with the “how.” Yet, I do not believe that separating the who, the why, and the how is really well grounded on biblical scholarship; rather, that distinction is driven by an effort to make Genesis fit with a Darwinian view of history. If we look internally, the Bible seems to give importance not only to the “who” factor but also to the “how.” For instance, the entire logic of the Apostle Paul’s argument to define the concept of headship is based on how God created Adam and Eve. Even Jesus based his definition of marriage on the account of creation. Also, Paul’s entire soteriological argument is rooted on the fact that sin and death entered the world when Adam sinned. In addition, the very reason for the sabbath regulations in the Mosaic Law was based on how God created the world. Even the rationale of capital punishment given to a man who worked on the sabbath was founded on how God created the world. When I see these internal biblical views about the events narrated in Genesis, I find that they all take the “how” of Genesis rather seriously. The nature of marriage, marriage roles, hermatology, legal regulations, and capital punishment were all rooted in an internal understanding of Genesis that did not seem to dissect the “how” from the “who” and the “why.” Even though I understand that we should not turn Genesis into a science book meant to satisfy all the questions of a 21st century audience, I have a hard time accepting the argument that Genesis is only concerned with the fact that God created, but not in how He created, and that the first emphasis is history, but the second one is metaphor. That does not sound like careful biblical scholarship to me.
I have to say that when I asked you the question about mystery I was not thinking about the death of your daughter. I think had I thought that the question would cause you to revisit that I would not have asked it. However, your answer satisfies the intellectual and non-intellectual marriage between mind and mystery. It is horrifically magnificent that what you knew to be true in your mind served as a rudder, guiding you through the most excruciating emotional pain imaginable.
In 1983 I had to counsel dear friends upon the drowning death of their 11 year old son. For them, and for his memorial service I found myself thinking and saying that “why” is an intellectual question, but intellectual answers do not provide healing for emotional pain.
Somehow, in the deepest places and times of the soul, when we come to the end of understanding, the Lord meets us if we will linger in the mystery. And, I am convinced that dwelling in the place of mystery is not anti-intellectual but a place of deeper intimacy with God. In fact I think we only get there when we are willing to work the intellect as hard and as far as possible, and then arrive at the place of faith, as you implied, trusting in the character of the Lord.
What you say about Genesis is consistent, and I think that exploring that further has to be an actual conversation.
And as to hackers (now there’s a mystery), Adam is on it, and I think will figure out if there’s some kind of systemic problem.
Marc, there’s no problem sharing about my experience. I am at a point in my life in which the wound is healed, and the scar does not hurt. So I can talk about these things freely.
I look forward to reflecting further on your input about Genesis when we get to talk in person.
By the way, did I get hacked a second time and did not see it?
Great blog as usual. I also struggled with your Noll’s approach on contextualization. You stated “I believe that contextualization does not necessarily sacrifice historicity.” While this is true, I often struggle with finding a balanced approach because we often talk about contextualizing the gospel. Since we don’t know what our forefathers we’re thinking, how do accurately decipher the information we receive? I think that’s the reason Noll highlighted archeological findings because scholars will always challenge why we subscribe to Christianity with the information we have. I find myself prepping for critics who are intellectuals because I know they will reveal themselves like a flood after this degree.
Garfield, it is always good to be exposed to different views even if we do no agree completely, because it gives us an idea of how some people are thinking about some issues and it expands our engaging capacity. Like you, I’m glad we can do these studies now so we can be equipped to engage with the world.
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