I will never forget a talk I heard while at a summer camp when I was in junior high. The speaker’s name was Ron; I don’t remember his last name. He was teaching about who Jesus Christ was. “Jesus was God in a Bod.” Although I had heard that before in different terms, being raised in a Conservative Baptist church, yet, this statement by Ron really made me think. If Jesus was “God in a Bod,” what did that mean to me? And what did that mean for Him? I have never stopped thinking about this. I probably think about it every day.
In our double-duty readings for the week, Mark A. Noll speaks loudly to evangelicals to get their acts together in regards to how they think. In The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Noll punches hard at what he perceives to be a major problem with evangelical (particularly American) thinking. “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” He punches again, “… American evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking, and they have not been so for several generations.” Needless to say, these are strong claims. According to Noll, this “scandal” has at least three dimensions: a cultural dimension, an institutional dimension, and a theological dimension. For Noll, evangelicalism in America is far too utilitarian and far too shallow. I found this book to be both fascinating and frustrating. Part of me was fascinated with Noll’s courage, but part of me kept saying, “Aren’t there not bigger fish to fry than these?” However, most of me liked the work Noll did here, particularly in his comments to fundamentalists.
Noll calls Chapter 5 “The Intellectual Disaster of Fundamentalism.” He traces both the history and the theology of the fundamentalist movement, seeing it as a fearful overreaction to a massive immigration of Roman Catholics, Jews, and the “unchurched.” Fundamentalism was indeed a Protestant response to the many changes going on in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Noll sees this movement as being at its core anti-intellectual, especially for those who espoused a pugnacious Biblical literalism, particularly dispensational theology. Having come out of a very fundamentalist background myself, I was grateful that someone was taking on some of this thinking. The movement I was a part of for many of my early ministry years was staunchly anti-intellectual. It was also firmly and unapologetically literal in its interpretation of Scripture, particularly of those passages that dealt with eschatology. Above all, this movement had all the answers and was not only non-denominational but anti-denominational. It was also anti-Catholic and pro-Israel. And it was not at all welcoming of higher education. In fact, it prided itself on having uneducated clergy. I was one of the few pastors who even had a college degree. I clearly remember the day I decided to go to seminary for a master’s degree when my pastor handed me a book (that itself was an irony) called The Handbook of Pentecostal Theology and admonished me, “Keep this book handy. Don’t let those guys dry you up. Don’t let them mess with your mind.” Strangely, what seminary (and a stint of living in the Middle-East) actually did to me was to open my mind, not destroy it. I began to realize that it was OK to not have all the answers and that it was OK to have unanswered questions. This education revealed my ignorance and increased my stature both as a human being and a person of faith.
Noll is a thorough researcher. I learned a lot from his book and will read it more thoroughly another time. I am glad it was assigned. It is an important read. But I was even more pleased with Noll’s second book, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. I do not know about Noll’s life, but on the back of the first book it indicates that he was a professor at Wheaton College. I found it interesting that he is now at the University of Notre Dame. Some people might call this backsliding; I call it growth. I find it refreshing that a leading evangelical scholar would find himself at a Catholic university.
This second book has a single focus, the person and the work of Christ. I like that Noll says the Trinity is the “deeply mysterious starting point” for the study of Christianity. Noll’s central argument here is that those who know Christ should be among the best of thinkers, for it is in Christ that all that matters comes together. In the historical development of the Creeds, we see Jesus Christ more clearly, more honestly. In Chapter Two of the text, which Noll titles “Jesus Christ: Motives for Serious Learning,” the author spotlights several Scriptures that pour light onto the Person of Christ:
- The Origin of All Things is Christ
- The Comprehensiveness of Jesus as the Word of God
- The Christian Doctrine of Providence
- The Materiality of the Incarnation
- The This-Worldliness of the Incarnation
- The Personality of the Incarnation
- The Beauty of the Incarnate Son
It was in this chapter that I was reminded of why I am glad to be a follower of Jesus, even though I sometimes follow from a distance. God cares about humans enough that he became one of us, in Christ. Jesus was “God in a Bod.” In Matthew 16, after being asked by Jesus who Peter thought He was, Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Noll expounds on this statement:
Traditionally, Christian believers have pointed to what this passage signifies for the meaning of the incarnation, the fact of God becoming human. But in recent decades, a number of Christian thinkers have wanted to say more. If Jesus Christ shows us God in human flesh, does not God-in-human-flesh also show us something of great importance about humanity [italics mine]? This emphasis has been especially prominent among Roman Catholic Theologians.
Both John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have referred frequently to statements in the Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) as they describe the meaning of Christ for understanding human nature. As the incarnate Son, “He worked with human hands, He thought with a human mind, acted by a human choice, and loved with a human heart. Born of the Virgin Mary, He has truly been made one of us, like us in all things except sin.” The consequence of Christ’s full identification with humanity as a human himself is that “only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him who was to come, namely, Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the Father and of His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”
Thus, it is OK to be human; it is also OK to study humans. As Noll says, “The personality of the incarnation justifies the study of human personality. When people examine other people, they are examining individuals who exist in actual or potential solidarity with Jesus Christ. Further insight for Christian teaching is necessary to explain the full meaning of that solidarity. But the solidarity itself offers a powerful Christian resource for taking up serious study of the human person and the human personality.”
Christ’s incarnation not only made the human condition good, but it also made it OK to study the human condition. This, then, is not a secular endeavor, but a sanctified endeavor. Those of us who study human behavior/development and the social sciences are just as much in the will of God as those who study theology. Thus, God is not limited to religious study but to what used to be thought as secular study. God’s creation, including humankind, is at the heart of God’s desire. Any worthy vocation, then, can be sacred because of the incarnation. And all of humankind can come to know God’s love by looking at Jesus because to see Jesus is to see God. This is the Gospel and is certainly great news for all of us humans. I am grateful to Ron and to Noll for the refreshing reminder about the incarnation. It really gave me food for thought this week.
 Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1994) 3.
 Ibid., 114.
 Mark A. Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011) ix (from the introduction).
 Ibid., 37.
 Ibid., 38.
6 responses to “Incarnate”
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My second reading of “Scandal” and this first reading of “Life of the Mind” was for me very refreshing and encouraging, as it seems for you! My church background has always had detached view of intellectual involvement or interest in the things of world (my modular study this semester is giving my first real historical study of the context for the thinking of my church tradition…now I am understanding why it is so deeply suspicious of intellectual interests). I always felt like an outside, as you can image with my years of working in ministry to “universities” students (working with students who had chosen the most direct route to damnation!). So, Noll is very much an encouragement to me. And, I so appreciate his suggestion that evangelicals are moving back into world-involvement, so we aren’t alone! Great post as always, Bill!
Thanks for you kind comments, John.
It is funny how many Christians are afraid of anything that is outside of their own interpretation of Scripture. We must be thinkers, good thinkers, in all parts of life and must not be afraid of asking the hard questions, the unanswerable questions. God is not afraid of any subject. But so many evangelicals are fearful of anything new, anything controversial, or anything mysterious. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I am drawn to Native spirituality; it is filled with “The Great Mystery” rather than with all the right answers. God give us the grace both to think and to wonder.
Bill, Great insights as always! Thank you for sharing your amazing and rich faith journey. I love how Ron made you think about Jesus. Like you, I am too grateful for my seminary studies. It opened my mind and heart to engage with Scripture and Church history. Noll is so right, “those who know Christ should be among the best of thinkers, for it is in Christ that all that matters comes together.” Thanks again!
Thanks for your kind comments yet again.
It is amazing how sometimes God brings people into our lives at just the right time who say just the right things. Ron was definitely one of those people. And, yes, our program is also filled with readings and with people who speak into our lives, into our souls. I am so grateful for that. I will miss that when we are finished in June. Amazing, only five months of classes to go.
This is expertly and thoughtfully written, Bill. While some may be challenged by Noll’s allegation of poor Chritian thinking, I, too, found it refreshing. Not so long ago (sometime within the last decade) I remember reading about the friendship between C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. Part of what I read discussed their education, and the volumes that they read as adolescents and young men. I remember feeling a twinge of jealousy, and a sense of deprivation, that my own education did not include their level of exposure to broad thinking and ideas. I realize that I have carried forward rather low expectations for my students in turn. I don’t expect them to be well read, nor do I expect them to dig in deeply now. I say this with growing awareness of my own low level intellectual exposure (at least in comparison to scholars of long ago generations) and the even lower level exposure of many of my students. The historical impact of our poor American thinking is profound. I’m not sure where I’m going with this, other to say I, as an educator, am convicted, and your post helped deepen that revelation. So thank you. And I’m looking forward to seeing you Wednesday !
Bill, I too was fascinated and frustrated reading Noll’s first book. However, I have disagree with you on you statement, “Aren’t there not bigger fish to fry than these?” I recall a quote from AW Tozer – “the most important thought that a man will have his is thought about God.” And “The highest form of idolatry is thinking wrong thoughts about God.” So thinking is a very important issue if not the key issue that Evangelicals have so much neglected to our own hurt.
Hard to believe that your previous denomination was prideful of having uneducated clergy. Crazy!! I unfortunately feel you pain. I have heard pastors from the pulpit say negative stuff about “too much learning.” They site the passage that says not to be high minded and such. But rather be humble etc. etc. They referred to Seminary as Cemetery.
Bill I am glad that you have continued to press into the mystery that is Christ as God in a bod. I believe in you my friend. Great reflections on these two books.