Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Apologetics for Engaging the World

Written by: on January 30, 2015

The Church has always struggled with what question of how to be in the world but not of the world. The question might better be asked: How engaged should a Christian be in the things of this world? Throughout history, numerous responses have been given to this question, from one of extreme of total withdraw from society (as seen in the Amish-style sects and some monastic movements like the desert fathers) to extreme association that was witnessed in the social gospel and the moral majority. The often misguided attempts at world engagement by modern evangelicals that Mark Noll highlights in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind suggests that evangelicalism has not been tremendously successful influencing society nor in gaining a hearing in the world of ideas. “Notwithstanding all their other virtues, however, American evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking, and they have not been so for several generations.”(1) He goes on to suggest that evangelicals “have largely abandoned the universities, the arts, and other realms of ‘high’ culture.”(2) In this book, he documents how the Church has moved away from its long, rich history of leadership in areas of academia and arts, science and discovery to now stand on the sidelines of modern culture.

Noll argues that the American milieu that cultivated modern evangelicalism “is one in which careful thinking about the world has never loomed large. To be sure, it is also a culture where intense, detailed and precise efforts have been made to understand the Bible. But is not a culture where the same effort has been expended to understand the world, or even more important, the process by which wisdom from Scripture should be brought into relation with knowledge about the world.”(3) The result is that Christians are less engaged and are unable to bring Scriptural understanding to the very real issues, research and problems of today. Its strong Biblicism did not translate into cultural or intellectual influence.

In his sequel, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, Noll provides a brilliant apologetic for Christian engagement in the world based on the biblical understanding of the person of Jesus Christ as defined in the creeds of early church. In reviewing the Apostles’ Creed, Noll suggests that this provides “a particularly important foundation. It brings together in an entirely fruitful way confidence in God the creator of the material realm and God the Father of believers through the saving work of Christ.” He goes on to say that this “combination offers precisely the tension Christian scholarship requires between life focused on this world and life convinced of the world to come.”(4) In other words, historical Christianity, based on the incarnation of Jesus into the material world, “offers full cause for taking seriously the fact of the physical world” as well as “relativizes all terrestrial realities in eternal perspective. In short, an ideal place from which to approach the task of Christian learning.”(5) What Noll argues in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind is that modern American culture’s influence on the democratization and tradition-less approach to the Bible (“no creed but the Bible” thinking), created an evangelical mindset that detached the Bible and Christianity from the world. Lacking its historical and traditional moorings, which provided the foundation for centuries of Christians who led the way in scientific, philosophical, and social learning, the Church disengaged from active participation in worldly matters. Noll suggests in this second book: “if what we claim to 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.”(6) Recapturing the foundational understanding of Jesus as laid out in the early assemblies provides the basis for reconnecting the Bible and Christianity with all aspects of life.

Why is this important? This then take us back to James Davidson Hunter’s book, To Change the World(7), in which he argues that changes in culture comes through “elites,” people often on the periphery, though in positions of influence, such as artist, scientist and intellectuals who provide imaginary for a different way. These intellectuals whose new ideas or critique of existing culture are those who bring change because of their engagement and their voice in society. He argues that it will be Christians of influence (again, artist and intellectuals, or, as Noll suggests, Christians engaged in the world), that evangelicalism can influence and ultimately bring change to society. Because of the bleak situation that Noll describes, it is little wonder that Christian have little or no voice in these centers of influences. Both Noll and Hunter agree that it isn’t because there is no room for an evangelical voice in today’s culture–because the post-modern mindset seems more open to any voices than at any other time in history. It is because Christians have backed away from these very institutions and centers of influence, based on their failure to understanding God’s affirmation of and desire to redeem the world and their misguided use of the Bible. Both authors seem to be calling for Christians to bring their voices to be heard in places where they might again bring a Christian perspective to a world that has been detached from its creator and is ever more adrift in its search more what matters most. Thankfully, Mark Noll concludes his second book by suggesting that there is a positive movement in this direction in a number of fields (especially history, philosophy and science). There is an important need for the Christian life of the mind.
1Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 3.
2Ibid., 3.
3Ibid., 14-15.
4Mark A. Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011), 14.
6Ibid., x.
7James Davison Hunter, To Change the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

About the Author

John Woodward

Associate Director of For God's Children International. Member of George Fox Evangelical Seminary's LGP4.

9 responses to “Apologetics for Engaging the World”

  1. Ashley says:

    John, this is one instance where the sequel may have been better than the first installment! I enjoyed Noll’s follow-up text more than the original. I really liked your concluding remarks… Noll is calling us to embody the Christian life in every facet of our lives, and this includes using our brains to glorify Him. Being attached to Him in my body, mind, heart, and strength would be a complete connection to Him… And not only would it be life changing, it would be WORLD changing. Great thoughts, John! 🙂

  2. Deve Persad says:

    John, thanks for pulling all of this together. As someone who has ministered on college campuses for years, I’m sure you’ve seen a full range of the issues described here. I appreciated this statement: “Recapturing the foundational understanding of Jesus as laid out in the early assemblies provides the basis for reconnecting the Bible and Christianity with all aspects of life.” In your experience in campus ministry, how have you seen this done well? Or maybe this question: How have can we better use our campus ministries to reignite intellectual engagement with an evangelical perspective?

    • John Woodward says:

      Deve, sadly I can come up with more bad ways I’ve seen this done on the college campus. Honestly, I think the best ways that evangelicals have interacted positively on the university is when they have been willing to critic from within rather than standing outside and throwing criticism from a distance. When Christians have not been afraid to be a part of organizations that traditionally have not been generous to Christian thinking, to interact from within, as one of the group and not an outsider, has provided for real and important dialogue. But it requires confidence and commitment that (sadly) few Christians young people rarely exhibit. Thanks for your good question!

  3. John…
    Such a good reflection articulating and synthesizing Noll’s work. You artistically drew the work of Hunter in conjunction with Noll. It’s interesting how publications tend to draw upon similar themes to articulate or emphasize patterns or stretching places (who decides this is another manner! :). There have been different ones taking center stage in recent years – hospitality (this continues now around “eating”), missionally – moving toward parish, etc. We seem to be morphing all the time. But you have highlighted Noll’s call toward learned engagement and called attention that perhaps there is another aspect that should be receiving attention. A couple words resonated and challenged me from among your quotations: open-minded advocates. Is one of our challenges that we lack confidence in our ability to learn or that we might lack desire?

    • John Woodward says:

      Carol, great question! I am stuck in snow in Norfork Nebraska (about 3 hours from Omaha) on my way back from the Reservation. Your question about whether it is confidence or desire that keeps us from learning….well, after this trip, I think it is the lack of desire of most people who take short-term mission trips to the Reservation to understand their situation, their history or their culture, suggest that they just aren’t interested. They seem to want to check off the spiritual “to-do-list” without even beginning to connect or help others on a deeper level, which would require some study and research….some understanding. Either we are too busy or too other-worldly (its all gonna burn so why care) that we don’t take time to really learn, especially about such important things as the lives and culture of the people who we are seeking to help and bless. It is very sad, now that I think about it! Thanks for your thoughts on this…I think this a great point of entry to why we should take learning seriously as Christians!

  4. John,

    Thanks for your post. Great job summarizing both of Noll’s books and trying in Hunter’s as well.

    As you know, I live in the world of Christian higher education. One might think that this would be the ideal place to be since there is a balance between faith and reason. That might be true in some places, but it is not completely true in my situation. Although my school mission says that we are a “Christ-centered liberal arts college,” yet, we do not always live that way. Some of our professors are so intellectual that one needs a dictionary and thesaurus just to understand what they are trying to say. And if I don’t understand them, how are our students supposed to understand them? And sometimes students are afraid to ask questions because they might look dumb. I find this tragic.

    On the other hand, we have some professors who are more down to earth who are, in my view, more successful. Two of these profs are close friends who tell me stories about their classrooms that are amazing, conversations that are real, from-the-heart, and deep. All three of us teach a class called “Faith, Living, and Learning.” This is a course that is designed to get students to think deeply about how their lives and their faith work together. It is a course that begs students to think deeply and ask good questions. It is a course that, I think, tries to do what Noll is talking about: mindful studies that have God at the center. It is a privilege to teach this course and to watch students’ lives being touched and stirred.

    Thanks again for your post, my good friend. Looking forward to our road trip!

    • John Woodward says:

      Bill, I am on your side. I often feel a little lost around those people who are just soooo smart! I guess I view myself as a humble learner. I read a lot of books because I am pretty much stupid…I am trying to figure it out. I hope my humble approach might be a greater encouragement for young people to seek and learn…that you don’t have to have all the answers, but you should be curious. But, being curious is a never ending process…it just keeps going on and on. Why I keep reading and studying. Thanks for your thoughts and for being a humble, fellow learner!

  5. Julie Dodge says:

    This was brilliant, John. You gave a great overview, but also did well to link Noll’s thought to Hunter. Your writing made my post seem like a hack. I mean that in a good way. While I enjoyed Noll’s work, your post brought it together articulately and intelligently.

  6. Michael Badriaki says:

    John, I really enjoyed reading you post. Here, you reflect on Noll and Hunter’s work in a beautiful manner. You hit the issue right on the head when you point out that “Both Noll and Hunter agree that it isn’t because there is no room for an evangelical voice in today’s culture–because the post-modern mindset seems more open to any voices than at any other time in history. It is because Christians have backed away from these very institutions and centers of influence, based on their failure to understanding God’s affirmation of and desire to redeem the world and their misguided use of the Bible.”
    Evangelicalism seems to abandon the holistic christian application of the mind as Noll argues, to the things that matter most to human existence here on earth.

    Have a great week!


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