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Life of the Mind and Life in the Spirit.

Written by: on February 21, 2018

“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an Evangelical mind.” [1] Ouch! With that statement, Noll argues that though the evangelical church has grown on many fronts, it lacks when it comes to the “life of the mind.” He states:

“By an evangelical “life of the mind” I mean the effort to think like a Christian—to think within a specifically Christian framework—across the whole spectrum of modern learning, including economics and political science, literary criticism and imaginative writing, historical inquiry and philosophical studies, linguistics and the history of social science theory and the arts.” [2]

According to Noll, the scandal has three faultlines: cultural, institutional and theological. Along the cultural faultline, Noll gives a geopolitical example. He notes that instead of approaching the problems in the Middle East from an analytical framework that considers the various multilayered and complex political and cultural components, evangelicals turn to a biblical interpretation that in many ways places America at the center of a prophetic stage. He states bluntly that in this case, evangelicals are “bereft of self-criticism, intellectual subtility, or awareness of complexity.” [3]

Along the institutional faultline, Noll argues that the educational institutions within the evangelical movements, though very successful in reaching their purposed goals of Bible training and world evangelism have not been able to move toward programs that foster, “thorough Christian reflection on the nature of the world, society, and the arts. It is little wonder they miss so badly that for which they do not aim.” [4]

Finally, along the theological faultline Noll posits that there is a disconnect in the evangelical mind between, “theology and other forms of learning.” [5] The deeper integration and application of the arts, and sciences, he says, is left for the seminary degree, toward which most do not aspire. He considers this a missed opportunity that impacts the whole evangelical world.  [20-21] He further notes that evangelicals have done well in simple discipleship, but have “largely abandoned the universities, the arts and other realms of ‘high’ culture.” [6]

Okay, so I agree, and I don’t agree. First, though Noll’s criticism along these fault lines has validity, he tends to paint his views of evangelicals with a rather wide and all-inclusive brush. His words can seem harsh and critical, especially if one were to compare his verbiage with that of, for instance, Luhrmann who in researching another Evangelical dilemma shied away from using Noll’s style of vitriol in her critique of evangelicalism. [7] Even Noll himself has pulled back from his harsh criticism of the evangelical church. [8] It’s true that the evangelical movement has come a long way since the 1995 publication of Noll’s book, but the truth is the evangelical life of the mind might not have been as dire as Noll may have argued in the first place.

One must consider that evangelicalism did not just sprout up out of nothing, its influences are far and wide. The “life of the mind” it is not an either/or proposition it is a both/and. Evangelicals have been working to engage with the larger world from its formation as a movement. Some or maybe many would disagree with that. However, it is the case the  “larger world” for some is same “larger world” that others see. The fact is, the evangelical church has from its beginning initiated engagement with the greater world for the cause of world evangelism. This has brought evangelical to the far corners of the earth. [9](Donald Lewis)  That does not sound like a movement that has buried its head in the sand intellectually or socially. Though it may not have been engagement as defined by some, it has always been, full engagement— full on!

I do find it interesting that Noll implies that Pentecostals are somehow within the evangelical world, yet a subgroup.  He argues that the expression of the gifts of the spirit and speaking in tounges are clear lines that define Pentecostalism within the broader Christian community. [10] Many of my Pentecostal and Charismatic colleagues feel that they are neither evangelical nor do they have evangelical leanings. For them, the term evangelicalism is firmly attached to a political agenda that does not necessarily represent the broad spectrum of people who call themselves Pentecostal. Also, within evangelicalism itself, there are those who are anti-Pentecostal/Charismatic, even to the point of exclusion. Pentecostals and Charismatics are not always recipients of that warm fuzzy feeling when they are in the larger evangelical setting. They have found themselves defending themselves from both within and without. I wonder if this has enabled them to push through certain barriers that have opened doors of engagement across sectors that include the arts, linguistics, the sciences as well powerful social engagement around the world. You don’t scare us!

An Assemblies of God missionary colleague of mine states it in this manner. “Let me state it bluntly: Possessing full hearts with vacant heads or burning spirits with sluggish minds makes for mediocrity at best and disaster at worst.” [11] This is true for Pentecostals and Charismatics and the entire evangelical world. We need both the life of the mind and life in the Spirit.

 

 

  1. Mark A. Noll. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1995, 1.
  2. Ibid., 7.
  3. Ibid., 14.
  4. Ibid., 16.
  5. Ibid., 19.
  6. Ibid., 3.
  7. T. M. Luhrmann. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God. Reprint ed. New York, NY: Vintage, 2012.
  8. Ted Olsen. “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 10 Years Later.” Christianity Today. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/octoberweb-only/10-18-50.0.html (accessed Feb 21, 2018).
  9. Donald M. Lewis, and Richard V. Pierard. Global Evangelicalism: Theology, History & Culture in Regional Perspective. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2014.
  10. Noll, 8.
  11. Rick M. Nañez. Full Gospel, Fractured Minds?: A Call to Use God’s Gift of the Intellect. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.

 

About the Author

Jim Sabella

15 responses to “Life of the Mind and Life in the Spirit.”

  1. mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Jim, I also found Noll’s writing to be critical, negative, and somewhat uninformed, especially with the Pentecostal passages. I couldn’t help feeling through his writings, that he sounded like someone who had been wounded by fundamentals and Pentecostals.

    That is sad to me that the Pentecostals and charismatics are not received with more enthusiasm and support. I see them to be a valuable part of the body of Christ, just as I would see the intellectuals to play an intricate role in the body. Also, an interesting fact you mentioned, your Pentecostal and charismatic colleagues don’t consider themselves evangelicals and use that term as a reference to political agendas. I had never heard that. Incidentally, how would you define Pentecostals from charismatics? Is there a difference for you?
    Agreed, it was quite a different tone than our last book.
    Thank you for enlightening me with your post.

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Thanks, Jenn. I would generally define Pentecostals as those who look to the Azuza Street Revival in LA in the early 1900’s as their beginning, while Charasmatics would generally look to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that started in Pittsburgh, PA circa 1970. There are some theological differences too, but I think the major defining points are the dates.

      • mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

        Fascinating Jim! I had no idea of the distinction. I guess I would relate more to the Pentecostal movement since I lived in Azusa, California, and went to Azusa Pacific University. I loved hearing how the university evolved from the Azusa street revival! What a rich university history. Thank you Jim for this new tidbit!!

  2. Mary says:

    “We need both the life of the mind and life in the Spirit.”
    Amen and Amen, Jim. Mark Noll is not my favorite historian for many reasons. After reading, “Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of the Church” where he says in his introduction that the reason he didn’t include any women was because women didn’t do enough for inclusion, I realized the man had a problem. I’m not saying he’s a misogynist. He throws sops to women occasionally.
    BUT HIS MAIN THEME SEEMS TO BE THEOLOGY.
    I know he wrote another book on the mind of Christ, but even in that book, theology is the main focus.
    I think you picked up on that. Look at your quotes:
    “He considers this a missed opportunity that impacts the whole evangelical world.”
    “Noll posits that there is a disconnect in the evangelical mind between, “theology and other forms of learning.””
    “The “life of the mind” it is not an either/or proposition it is a both/and.”
    Here I agree with you. But Mark Noll seems too narrow.
    “The fact is, the evangelical church has from its beginning initiated engagement with the greater world for the cause of world evangelism. This has brought evangelical to the far corners of the earth.”
    “I do find it interesting that Noll implies that Pentecostals are somehow within the evangelical world, yet a subgroup.
    I wonder if this has enabled them to push through certain barriers that have opened doors of engagement across sectors that include the arts, linguistics, the sciences as well powerful social engagement around the world. You don’t scare us!”
    Praise the Lord! He doesn’t scare me either.
    I am thankful for his effort to direct us to Christ. I wish I felt like he meant Christ of the Bible and not Christ of his theology.

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Mary, you make a good point about Nolls focus on the Christ of theology and not the Christ of the Bible. I appreciate your comments.

    • mm Katy Drage Lines says:

      Can you clarify what you mean, Mary, that “I wish I felt like he meant Christ of the Bible and not Christ of his theology”? Theology is simply the lens through which we understand scripture (and art, science, politics, death, history, etc.). When we look at the Christ of scripture, our understanding of who we see there is theology. We can’t not use theology when studying scripture.

  3. Lynda Gittens says:

    Your statement “Many of my Pentecostal and Charismatic colleagues feel that they are neither evangelical nor do they have evangelical leanings. For them, the term evangelicalism is firmly attached to a political agenda that does not necessarily represent the broad spectrum of people who call themselves Pentecostal.”
    Noll address the evangelicals identity in politics and how the attached themselves to the Republican view. Our current political atmosphere had truly identified the republicans party as evangelicals. Have they have lost their identity to the word has followers of Christ?

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Thanks for your comments Lynda. You highlight one of the problems I have with Noll–his identification of evangelicalism with a particular party. I do not believe that is a reality in the evangelical world. Those who call themselves evangelicals are just too diverse to make a generalization of that nature. You make a good point — I agree that evangelicals would be better known as followers of Christ than followers of any one political party. I appreciate your comments, Lynda.

  4. mm Katy Drage Lines says:

    In the sequel (Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind), Noll examines our first book, fifteen years after publication. He agrees that he painted Pentecostals and charismatics with “too broad a brushstroke,” lumping them together with fundamentalists as culprits in uncritical thinking (p152). Yet he stands firm that “American evangelicals display many virtues and do many things well, but built-in barriers to productive thinking remain substantial.” (153)
    For instance, you write, “the evangelical church has from its beginning initiated engagement with the greater world for the cause of world evangelism.” While something evangelicals have done well IS engaging for world evangelism, I sense that Noll would counter that we haven’t done well engaging with the world for the purpose of worshipping God with minds in pursuit of academic endeavors.

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Katy, I agree, but not every evangelical is either a minister or a church leader. There have been and continue to be evangelicals who are serving God and absolutely feel that they are worshiping God buy being scientists, physicians, engineers, the hard sciences, and humanities–not just theology. Many have found a way to integrate their faith in their pursuits and in putting their faith into action. They consider their minds a gift from God and every day and act of worship. They are no more anti-intellectual than they are atheists and they are neither. The evangelical world is not made up of its leaders, or even those people who purport to speak for the movement. It is the people in the pews! And even though it seems that the evangelical world is bereft of the “life of the mind” it is practiced daily by millions of people who call themselves evangelicals. In fact, it’s happening right now in our DMin cohort. Thanks, Katy. I enjoy the discussion.

  5. Kristin Hamilton says:

    I agree with you, Jim, that Noll did not approach Pentecostals or Charismatics well in Scandal (apparently Noll agrees with you too, based on the 2nd book we read). That entire section felt pretty ill-informed.
    You said, “That does not sound like a movement that has buried its head in the sand intellectually or socially.” Unfortunately, I disagree here. I do agree that evangelicals worked to engage societies and cultures, but at the time Noll’s book came out, I was hip deep in the intellectual ignorance of evangelicalism. Pastors and scholars who worked to expand academic understanding and who sought to study with academics outside of our traditions were shunned even within evangelical universities. Many left evangelical traditions and moved to mainline churches and universities where intellectualism was not fenced in by evangelical gatekeeping. I think evangelical intellectualism has progressed to a certain extent, but it feels as if we are once again sliding backwards as neo-fundamentalists take hold. Just the other day I had a pastor tell me that only people seeking ordination should be allowed to pursue theological degrees at any level because “too many intellectuals just muddies the waters.” Really?

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Kristin, thanks for disagreeing; it certainly helps me to see things more clearly and refine what I understand or attempt to express. I think part of my challenge is that I just don’t have the same experience as many others. I was not raised in what one would consider a “classic” evangelical church. I’m hoping that the incident with the pastor is not the norm. It certainly is not in my circles. Of course, there are factions within evangelicalism that are anti-intellectual–mostly rooted in the desire to be totally separate from the world and its influences, but there is also a huge faction that is not. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not painting a rosy picture of the life of the mind” in evangelicalism, but I do not wish to paint all with the same brush. The “life of the mind” has historically not been a part of the evangelical movement, but I don’t see that it is sliding backward–but maybe my view is not broad enough and my experience too limited. Thanks, Kristin. I really enjoy the discussion.

      • Kristin Hamilton says:

        I’m sorry I just saw this, Jim!
        What you say makes total sense, Jim. It is easy to paint the whole movement with the brush we know. I appreciate your perspective.

  6. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Jim I affirm with you that you need whole people to do the work. I just wonder what happens when it all doesn’t shake out the way you intended? My questioning is only that and not a ministerial challenge. ?

  7. Jim Sabella says:

    “I just wonder what happens when it all doesn’t shake out the way you intended?”

    Christal, if I understand your question correctly, you’re asking about people who do not live up to expectations of for life mind and spirit and/or the whole concept of living both.

    That is the great question. I think sometimes I state the goal and not the present reality. The present reality is that it often “doesn’t shake out the way [I] intended.” The ambiguity of life and the way things should be is the struggle–at least for me. Thanks for your comment, Christal.

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