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