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Christ, Science, and the Evangelical Mind

Written by: on February 22, 2018

 

“The mind is important because God is important.” 1

– Mark Noll

 

 

In May of 1984, I sat in the pew of First Baptist Church, Mt. Juliet, Tennessee for the annual baccalaureate service.  I was an upcoming High School graduate, ready for the next chapter in my life.  The pastor, a man who loved God, people, and the Bible unquestionably, made a statement to the seniors that went something like this…

 

When you go off to college, don’t let those professors ruin your faith.  Just because someone has a lot of degrees does not make them right.

 

That was similar to what I had heard all of my life.  Raised in a conservative, Southern Baptist Church, serious academic scholarship was questioned as possibly being a threat to the Christian faith.

 

I found myself reflecting on this as I read the landmark book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark A. Noll.  In this book, Noll paints this picture of modern evangelicalism…

 

On any given Sunday in the United States and Canada, a majority of those who attend church hold evangelical beliefs and follow norms of evangelical practice, yet in neither country do these great numbers of practicing evangelicals play significant roles in either nation’s intellectual life. 2    

 

Noll does not write as an outsider to Christianity.  In fact, he is an evangelical Christian and his love for Christ is apparent in his writing.  As a Historian, Noll begins the book by delving into the roots of the rift between Evangelicalism and academic pursuits.  Noll lifts up the Puritans as an example of what it means to have a “Christian mind,”3 by thinking Christianly and critically about all areas of life.

 

Yet, Noll asserts that modern evangelicalism “…allows little space for broader or deeper intellectual effort because it is dominated by the urgencies of the moment.”4  He appeals to the heart of the believer as he passionately makes his case.  He challenges the Christian reader that “…for an entire Christian community to neglect, generation after generation, serious attention to the mind, nature, society, the arts-all spheres created by God and sustained for His own glory-may be, in fact, sinful”.5

 

Noll does not pull any punches when he accuses modern evangelicals of Gnosticism (seeking hidden, mystical secrets) by looking for hidden meanings in scripture while ignoring science and the study of God’s creation.6

 

In looking into the origins of the rift between Evangelicalism and Academia, Noll explores the history of American evangelicalism.  He cites revivalism as a prime factor.  This is because revivalism lifted up the charismatic communicator in place of the adept theologian or ecclesiastical hierarchy.7   The separation of church in America was also a significant factory in the movement from academic efforts to populism.  Without state financial support, churches had to focus on practical results (growing their own support base) rather than intellectual pursuits.8

 

Christian nationalism was also explored.   The idea of “manifest destiny” further solidified the bond between American evangelical theology and American nationalism9.  This new brand of American Evangelicalism spread rapidly in a country where being an American and being an Evangelical Christian was synonymous.

 

The title of the chapter “The Intellectual Disaster of Fundamentalism” is telling in itself.   In this chapter, we are told that the holiness movement and the rise of dispensational premillennialism led to an attitude of intellectual retreat among Christians.    A form of fundamentalism arose that “in order to be spiritual, one must no longer pay attention to the world.”10

 

Noll discusses in detail the rise of creation science, dismissing it as doing more damage than good.  His main argument is that creation science begins with a conclusion.  He contrasts this with traditional science which seeks to discover the unknown (of course, creation scientists accuse evolutionists do the same thing).

 

Noll ends on a positive note, claiming that Evangelicals might once again enter the forefront of science, philosophy, and culture.  His focus is on the heart of evangelicalism…the cross of Christ.  Noll writes:

 

 The great truth of the Incarnation is that the Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us…The condemning scandal for evangelicals is that they have neglected this second emphasis and all that it implies about the possibility of thinking about this realm of the flesh.11

 

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was a groundbreaking book, being awarded Book of the Year by Christianity Today.  Yet, the bulk of this book was spent identifying the problem, not talking about solutions.

 

Sixteen years later, Noll addressed possible solutions in a follow-up book, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind.12

 

He begins the book by examining the early creeds of the church, pointing out that these are some of our foundational ways that early Christianity applied biblical truth to the world around them.  Afterwards, Noll delves into the nature of Christ, building upon John Chapter One which states “through Him all things were made.”  (John 1:2).

In this newer work, the author is speaking the Christocentric language of evangelicalism.  For Noll, the incarnation gives us a mandate to study the material world.

 

Throughout the book, Noll asserts that a sound doctrine of Christ will allow the Evangelical to think critically in the areas of History, Science, and Biblical studies.  Noll asserts that “…the tasks of Christian scholarship depend pervasively on the work of God in Christ.13    What he seeks to accomplish in this work is a nothing short of a reunification between Evangelicalism and Academia.

 

 

1 Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994, 51.

3 Ibid. 43.

4 Ibid. 12.

5 Ibid. 23.

6 Ibid. 52.

7 Ibid. 61.

8 Ibid. 66.

9 Ibid. 99.

10 Ibid. 123.

11 Ibid. 252.

12 Mark Noll, The Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011, 33.

13 Ibid. 148.

2 Ibid. 10.

2 Ibid. 10.

2 Ibid. 10.

2 Ibid. 10.

 

 

About the Author

Stu Cocanougher

12 responses to “Christ, Science, and the Evangelical Mind”

  1. Mary says:

    “Noll ends on a positive note, claiming that Evangelicals might once again enter the forefront of science, philosophy, and culture. His focus is on the heart of evangelicalism…the cross of Christ.”
    Yes, he did Stu. And like you, I appreciated it that nearly twenty years later he wrote a book to bring a solution to the problem focusing on Christ.
    As a missionary, I wonder what your thoughts are about evangelicalism in other countries. Is there as much Christian nationalism in southeast Asia for example, as in the U.S.?

    • Stu Cocanougher says:

      “Is there as much Christian nationalism in southeast Asia for example, as in the U.S.?”

      Orthodox countries in Eastern Europe are the biggest example fo melding Christianity with nationalism. The only Christian (Catholic) country in Asia is The Philippines. Ironically, their current President has utilized nationalism (and outright violence) to fight crime and drugs, but he does not embrace Christianity.

  2. Lynda Gittens says:

    Stu, the comment made to you and the students, “When you go off to college, don’t let those professors ruin your faith. Just because someone has a lot of degrees does not make them right.”
    I wonder if this is the reason why evangelicals have their own seminaries so that they came continue to mold your mind to their traditional thinking.

    • Stu Cocanougher says:

      “I wonder if this is the reason why evangelicals have their own seminaries so that they came continue to mold your mind to their traditional thinking.”

      Of course. This is not all bad. Without roots, and a sense of history we might lose our way. The key is for seminaries run by denominations to disclose their theological bias. This is helpful for students to know what they are walking into.

  3. Jim Sabella says:

    Stu, thanks for the great post. The caricature of the emerging, evangelical and fundamentalist was funny and yet speaks clearly of the division even within evangelicalism. I agree that most of the book was spent on pointing out problems but with little or no discussion of a solution. As someone once said, it’s easy to see the problems. The challenge begins with the solution. Enjoyed your post, Stu.

  4. Stu Cocanougher says:

    The cartoon makes a good point that all groups have issues. With all of the problems that Fundamentalists and Evangelicals have, they do seem to have a consistent love and regard to the Holy Scriptures.

    • mm Katy Drage Lines says:

      As Brian McLaren suggests in A Generous Orthodoxy, each branch of the church has a unique way of understanding and responding to God, something that all the others can learn from and embrace. They all have significant shortcomings, as well. Noll points out the intellectual shortcoming of evangelicalism, while reminding the reader of the many strengths of evangelicals as well.

  5. mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    “Noll does not write as an outsider to Christianity. In fact, he is an evangelical Christian and his love for Christ is apparent in his writing.” A fresh perspective from our last book where the author seemed like a detached observer. Yet, his bias of a certain type of Chrisitan shined through as he sounded a bit uncomfortable with Pentecostals or charismatics, and fundamental Christians. The therapist in me made me want to know more about his personal religious story and his hurts.

    Yes, I remember this climate in my Baptist roots too: “Raised in a conservative, Southern Baptist Church, serious academic scholarship was questioned as possibly being a threat to the Christian faith.” Stepping outside of the Baptist beliefs were not in any way encouraged. I appreciate your open-mindedness and value for intellectual thought. Must be the social worker in you. 🙂

  6. Kristin Hamilton says:

    I think the pastor who preached at your baccalaureate service was my Bible teacher in high school. At least once a week he reminded us that he didn’t have a “Bible degree” and didn’t need one to teach us the Bible. In fact, he told us, Seminary usually just “messes up real theology.” (True statement). Of course, this is the same guy who told me I had misheard God because “girls can’t preach.”
    According to your graphic, I’m an “Emergent,” which suits me fine. I love to question and I love when my students question. Noll’s idea that Jesus taught us that learning is important is a crucial part of my faith. I appreciate the way you trace that in your post!

  7. mm Katy Drage Lines says:

    You write, “revivalism lifted up the charismatic communicator in place of the adept theologian or ecclesiastical hierarchy”– Our church movement (Stone-Campbell/Restoration) really got kick-started at the Cane Ridge Revival in Kentucky in 1801. Since then, I’ve observed that our churches are often primarily known as “so-and-so’s church” and “isn’t that where [insert man’s name] was the preacher?” As the first American-born church, the Christian Churches have done exactly what you observe Noll discussing– idolizing a charismatic leader instead of good, thoughtful theology.

  8. Stu,
    Believe it or not, even in my Presbyterian church when it became known that I was headed off to seminary (a Presbyterian seminary, no less!) there were people that responded to me with a similar statement to the one you describe at the beginning of your post. . . . . seemingly worried that my faith was at risk, just with a little exposure to some different opinions.
    To be honest, I just never understood this line of thinking. I have always thought that God – and therefore our faith in that God – is bigger than any new knowledge or opinion that we could discover.

  9. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Stu what I find funny is that when I chose to go to seminary I was told by pastors don’t let it be cemetery and kill your faith. The conversation around scholarship has shifted not always in an affirming way. While I respected my mentors in the Faith who said that I felt they were repeating ehat was told to them.

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