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Life of the Pentecostal Mind

Written by: on January 24, 2020

I understand where Noll is coming from in his, albeit harsh, critique of the “innovative theologies” of the Pentecostal and Holiness movements.[1] The eschatology formed from the revivalist movement, which taught believers to forego thinking and education for the sake of evangelism due to the imminent return of Christ, did cause many Pentecostals to diminish the need for the development of the “life of the mind.” This is a framework many of us are still pushing against today as we encourage Pentecostals to engage the intellectual landscape and take their place among thinking Christians. For those who are in the midst of this invisible fight, Noll’s words can be confirmation of a battle not yet won. For others, especially those Pentecostals who have given their lives to the development of the mind, Noll can be frustrating and is often viewed as an elitist. The irony is not lost on me that Noll finds his harshest critics among Pentecostal academics.

In the 90s, Noll caused quite a stir among Pentecostal scholars with this work, Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Thankfully, Daniel Castelo recounts the squabble succinctly in his book, “Pentecostalism as a Christian Mystical Tradition.”[2] To begin, Cheryl Bridges Johns, dealt with Noll in her response, Partners in Scandal.[3] Johns’s critique of Noll was that he “is utilizing one historically conditioned form of mind to criticize another historically conditioned mind.”[4] In other words, Noll has stated that there is only one particular form of Christian mind, one based on modernist rationalism, and all other forms are unacceptable. Johns sees this as a “tribal form of the Christian Evangelical mind” and refers to Noll’s work as “a text which victimized some and is victimized by others.”[5] Johns understands Noll’s framework to be modernist at the core and offers that Pentecostalism could more easily align in the postmodern space than the rigidity of modern thought.[6]

James K. A. Smith also had an issue with Noll’s critique of Pentecostalism. For Smith, the problems Noll has with the “innovative theologies” reveal more about his specific orientation than the lack of desire in these traditions to “think like a Christian”.[7] Smith proposes that Noll is not clear on what he believes theology should be, but he is clear that proper theology should not encourage a supernatural experience that would take away from attentiveness to a rational, this-worldly center.[8] Smith argues that Pentecostals are not anti-intellectual, but they do value the experiential understanding of faith as well. The Pentecostal “life of the mind” cannot be simply reduced to theory and rationality since it is also informed by the personal encounter with God.

Later, Amos Yong, Pentecostal systematic theologian, weighed in encouraging both Johns and Smith to consider their own critiques of the tradition. He invited them to consider how these arguments impact Pentecostals outside the academy: the efforts to uphold the metanarrative of Scripture, and the encouragement of formal theological education.[9]

Ultimately, I agree with Castelo when he says:

“Clearly, not simply outsiders to the movement but insiders as well are not in agreement with how to honor some of the most important features of Pentecostal life within a broader intellectual and theological framework.”[10]

All arguing aside, I admit I had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Noll as I read through his work. I appreciate the way he returns to many of the issues stated above with a more open mind in Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. However, I am still bothered by the idea that “to think like a Christian,” I must reduce my faith framework to theory and reason. Though I value the gift God has given us to think and I believe this gift should be cultivated and stretched, I am unwilling to accept that my relationship with God is only cerebral.

This week, I have been listening to a book about the life of Dallas Willard. It seems to me that Willard himself is a grounded answer to Noll amidst the volley of ideas and opinions. Though he was a great Christian philosopher whose contribution to the “life of the mind” could not be argued, he was also aware of the invasion of the invisible life into the visible world. He prayed over his students that their lives would be “abundant in supernatural results.”[11] Though he was not Pentecostal, he was a long-time member of a Vineyard church and emphasized the life in the Spirit. His life exemplified a dynamic intellectual pursuit as well as the welcomed supernatural experience in every-day life.

Like Willard, I desire to live in this space of both/and.

 

_____________________

[1] Mark A Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008).

[2] Daniel Castelo, Pentecostalism As a Christian Mystical Tradition (Eerdmans, 2017), accessed January 23, 2020, http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/ebookviewer/ebook/bmxlYmtfXzE1MjE1NTFfX0FO0?sid=e3fd5525-4d07-4fb3-bad2-8e261dcc9c77@pdc-v-sessmgr02&vid=0&format=EK&rid=1.

[3] Cheryl Bridges Johns, “Partners in Scandal: Wesleyan and Pentecostal Scholarship,” Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 21, no. 2 (Fall 1999): 183–197.

[4] Ibid, 189.

[5] Ibid, 190.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

[8] Castelo, Pentecostalism As a Christian Mystical Tradition, 9.

[9] Ibid, 11.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Gary W. Moon, ed., Eternal Living: Reflections on Dallas Willard’s Teaching on Faith & Formation (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2015).

About the Author

mm

Rhonda Davis

Rhonda is passionate about loving her Creator, her wonderful husband, and her three amazing sons. She serves as VP of Enrollment Management & Student Development at The King's University in Southlake, TX.

12 responses to “Life of the Pentecostal Mind”

  1. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Woah Rhonda. This is excellent and personally helpful to me in my own musings and research. I love that you ended with Willard – someone whose life and writings so embody the both/and I believe many of us are looking for. I tire quickly of the arguments that there is one best way to be a Christian and have a growing appreciation for those that “straddle” or hold tension. Did you read Noll’s stuff on “doubleness” or humility in Life? Those were the most helpful takeaways for me because it gave a possible middle way forward. Cheering you on!

    • mm Rhonda Davis says:

      Thanks, Andrea. Yes, those sections, especially “doubleness” were very helpful. Noll’s second work brought a welcomed balance to his first.

  2. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Excellent, Rhonda. I deeply respect those Pentecostal scholars you name that take Noll on and can appreciate the love/hate response. What I received from Noll was not a critique (I quickly eat the meat and throw the bones away) but a challenge that I must heed. I do think he does himself a favor by “Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind.” His own commentary says so and he proves most of us mellow with age. 🙂

    We know that truly balanced, broad minded, Pentecostal scholars are not plentiful and we need to change that. What characterizes a tribe by others is important to pay attention to. That’s how I read Noll. What can I learn from his critique of Pentecostals? What am I resonating with? What bothers me and why? Dallas Willard is a model for me too!

    • mm Rhonda Davis says:

      Thanks, Tammy. I agree, “Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind” was definitely a welcomed follow-up by Noll. I also appreciate your challenge to notice “what characterizes a tribe by others.” I have certainly been guilty of misunderstanding others as well as being misunderstood. This is a worthy warning.

      I am intrigued by your descriptor of “truly balanced,, broad-minded Pentecostal scholars.” From your seat, what are your observations on imbalanced Pentecostal scholarship? What does this look like?

  3. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Rhonda,
    Thanks so much for your experience and scholarship. Obviously, you have frames of reference that give you an understandable pause with Noll. Perhaps these nuances are most notable within academia. Or perhaps, maybe like our mutual Pentecostal friend Tammy, I quickly spit out any bones I am unable to digest (and perhaps some bits of meat) to focus on broader takeaways. Thanks so much for the illustration of Willard, like you I desire to live out of the space of both/and. Thanks again for your insights.

    • mm Rhonda Davis says:

      Thanks, Harry. Since Noll resides in the academy, I think you’re right that this is where much of the controversy lives. Do you see any advantage to letting this conversation spill out into the church leadership world? I am grateful for this space to wrestle with his thoughts and ideas among other Christian leaders. Blessings!

  4. mm Mary Mims says:

    Rhonda, I loved your honesty with Noll, and I struggled with some things about Noll but chickened out about writing my concerns. I guess for him to believe there isn’t another Christian scholar since Jonathan Edwards in America is a bit much for me. However, I appreciate your assessment since I was also a member of a Pentecostal church at one point. Thank you again for your perspective; it is very informative.

  5. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Amazing post this week Rhonda. Super well researched and love where you leave us readers. Thank you!

  6. Great stuff Rhonda. Learned new things in your post.

  7. Great post Rhonda, I like the way you take on Noll and find the place of balance of both/and. When I read the scandal, I must confess that my self defence instinct came on and I was ready to fight. Mark Noll drives home a very important message albeit being harsh in his first book which, he soberly addresses in his book, Jesus Christ and the life of the christian mind. I really identify with you closing reference to Willard’s work, “Though he was a great Christian philosopher whose contribution to the “life of the mind” could not be argued, he was also aware of the invasion of the invisible life into the visible world”.

  8. mm Karen Rouggly says:

    Great work here, Rhonda. I can tell how deeply this weeks work resonated with you. As a fellow person in higher ed, some of the things Noll said were a bit tough to swallow. I appreciated the way you engaged with his work and recognized that there are other ways forward. Kudos!

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