“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.