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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Might Be Hard To Be Noll’s Pastor

Written by: on February 21, 2019

I heard a pastor preach who mentioned on any given Sunday he had at least three dozen PhD’s in the audience. He was the lead pastor in a town with a significant Christian liberal arts college. This particular pastor was a DMin graduate and no slouch, but he lamented to me how difficult it was to teach his high IQ congregation.  I cannot imagine how hard it would be to be a pastor for Mark Knoll, author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, especially with such a provocative first sentence in his book, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” [1] Wow, what a start! No pressure at all on his pastor…

I was warned I might get defensive after reading this book. Thankfully, I read Noll’s preface and remembered him saying about his writing, “It is meant to incite more than it is meant to inform”. [2] He was successful in inciting much, and made me think deeply about the intellectual level of my thinking and preaching. I must admit, I am more of a practitioner than an intellectual (hence, the DMin degree I seek instead of a PhD). I am more application than I am a thinker. This fact has bit me in the hind end more than once…

I found myself wondering why Christians might shy away from intellectualism. Was it out of fear of becoming a gnostic? As we know, several books in the New Testament were written to combat gnosticism. Gnosis means “knowledge” [3] and this form of intellectual heresy crossed over into idolatry of the mind in my less than intellectual opinion.

Noll brought more heat by saying, “…and you can see that most evangelicals simply don’t think.” [4] Ouch.  Why would this be? I think Jake from our Elite 8 Cohort said it best when signaling perhaps it is because of the whole science and creation debate. I was going to write on that, until I saw Jake stole my thunder (grin). For me, that would certainly be a concern, being a former science teacher in public schools, I was looked down on OFTEN because of being a Christian creation scientist, apparently to them of being unable to speak wisely about the earth’s origins, especially when compared to carbon dating or evolutionism. Here is a picture from my visit to the “Ark Encounter” in Kentucky, with Noah’s Ark life-size replica in the background. Show this in some science circles, and you would be publicly humiliated!

 

Most of us don’t strive to be anti-intellectual, but knowledge puffs up and we try to stay humble. Does not mean we are against using our brains–I am reminded today that the original 12 disciples were regular un-learned men, mostly fisherman, so obviously we don’t have to pull a brain muscle to try to impress our congregations intellectually.

The author certainly has a point that many Christians check their brains at the church door. It frustrated me often that some folks simply liked to be spoon fed as far as Scripture goes. More than a few times, us Pastors tell people not to take our word for what is preached, but to check us against what the Bible says. Few people do! There is also what I call the eraser effect because folks listen to deep sermons but when they walk through the back doors of the sanctuary like an eraser, they quickly forget every important word of the sermon because their football team is playing on TV. It is legitimate to say the modern church at times can be a mile wide intellectually, but only an inch deep.

I was intrigued with the author’s bashing, maybe deserved, of so called fundamentalists, literalists, conservatives, etc. Particularly, his downgrading of the holiness movement [5] was penetrating. Half our Cohort and most of our Professors came in his line of fire for that one. Thankfully, he thanked Billy Graham for being a good role model of intellectualism, specifically citing his work in starting the magazine, Christianity Today. [6] I was also thankful he acknowledged the intellectual abilities of Augustine in writing, The Literal Meaning of Genesis. [7]

My final comment before taking into consideration several book reviews, I think Noll took it too far by saying, “Evangelicals have been deeply sinful in being anti-intellectual.” [8] Sinful? I would rather be humble than be like the arrogant folks who made the Tower of Babel with their superior but misguided intellectualism.

Drat, I was prepared and excited to go into a book review by Noll himself titled The Evangelical Mind Today [8], where Noll admitted (kind of) his shortcomings of his original writing. I was pumped to share his own 10 years later evaluation, then I noticed Dave from our Elite 8 Cohort ALSO stole my thunder by using the same resource. No fair!

Happily, in Noll’s follow-up book titled Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, credit was given to theologian and evangelist Jonathan Edwards for saying, “Jesus Christ sought the glory of God as his highest and last end.” [9] THERE IT IS. The goal of intellectualism is not knowledge, the goal is to glorify God through that knowledge.  Amen!

In fact, in Billy Graham’s Christianity Today, a striking quote by Jonathan Edwards summed up intellectualism for me, “[I wish] to lie low before God, as in the dust; that I might be nothing, and that God might be all, that I might become as a little child.” [10] Children aren’t known to be intellectual giants, they only need a child like faith to be commended.

Therefore, I will not shy away from deeper intellectual pursuits, nor will I apologize for not being the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree.

[1] Noll, Mark A. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010. 3.

[2] Ibid. Preface.

[3] Williams, Michael. “Gnosticism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. June 18, 2017. Accessed February 22, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/gnosticism.

[4] Noll. 23.

[5] Ibid. 146.

[6] Ibid. 214.

[7] Ibid. 202

[8] Noll, Mark. “The Evangelical Mind Today | Mark Noll.” First Things. October 01, 2004. Accessed February 22, 2019. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2004/10/the-evangelical-mind-today.

[9] Noll, Mark A. Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2013. Loc 515.

[10] Person, Richard. “Jonathan Edwards.” Christian History | Learn the History of Christianity & the Church. February 18, 2016. Accessed February 22, 2019. https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/theologians/jonathan-edwards.html.

About the Author

mm

Jay Forseth

Superintendent of the Western Conference of the Evangelical Church. Blessed with 28 years as the husband of my amazing wife who I can't make it without. Now three of four in our family are attending University, but both my children are way smarter than me.

17 responses to “Might Be Hard To Be Noll’s Pastor”

  1. Greg says:

    Jay,
    First I love that you challenged that we have to be and speak like an intellectual all the time. I am also glad you addressed the need to not check our brain at the door of the church. (Btw I have never heard the”eraser effect” term before, although I have lived it when people seem to not hear and live out the Word). Love that your writing makes me feel like I am having a conversation with you. I laughed several times as those pesky LGP8 thieves stole all your good ideas 🙂 Great ending!! I think that puts it in perspective.

  2. mm M Webb says:

    Jay,
    What does the cone-head in the bathing suit represent? Are you profiling me? Lol
    Yes Jay, you are definitely a gifted practitioner. I’m sure you approach for delivering a good sermon is much like making a good shot. It is all about preparation, knowing your equipment, making sure it is clean and clear of obstructions, having good sight alignment, controlling your breathing, and applying just enough pressure to the trigger that you are surprised when it does off, successfully hitting your target.
    Nope, you certainly do not need to pull the old “brain muscle” to impress your members. In most cases, God uses all types of people, to get His message out there. He loves variety and I see that nothing goes to waste in God’s economy. Your question for today: What will your vocation be in heaven?
    I recommend you switch to spiritual LED’s, it will help you burn brighter and longer.
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    • mm Jay Forseth says:

      Great Question Mike! I have thought and wondered many times what God will have me do in Heaven. My mom said we would be in the heavenly choir. I thought “uh, oh!” I can hardly even play the radio.

      I do believe we will have responsibilities in heaven, and we are to practice here on earth. I think God will not waste everything he has taught us up to our heaven going and he certainly won’t wipe our mind clean like a hard drive.

      I hope He lets me lead something…

  3. mm Kyle Chalko says:

    great balance Jay. I too was shocked about hearing we were not intellectual enough, because I think we are too intellectual at times! your right that the goal is glory to God, and he certainly missed that in his first book

  4. Great post, Jay!

    You’ve got this! Reading your articles is intellectual because it brings to light your views, your perspective and your convictions based upon your own research and conclusions. We’re all intellectual nerds at heart because we desire to seek the face of God and the guidance of God by being challenged by the people of God. 🙂

    You suggest, “Most of us don’t strive to be anti-intellectual, but knowledge puffs up and we try to stay humble.” Yes. Many verses warn us from trusting in our own intellect and not relying on God’s wisdom. However, does intellect, in general, make us puffed up? Reading Noll reminded me of the verses in scripture that talk about wealth. Some pastors dismiss wealth and label it sinful and some uplift wealth to be the evidence of one’s faith. Both misinterpret God’s intention of riches. When used for God’s glory, countless people can find hope, have clean drinking water and find shelter. It’s a question of motivation.

    Sadly, I’ve seen many churches take this same stance on all forms of intellectualism and diminish those within their flocks who hold a higher education degree. How do we create churches and ministries that are inclusive of all people; without excluding those who are educated? On the same hand, how do we create opportunities for all people to engage in intellectual dialogue regardless of educational background?

  5. Jay, I love your spirit. Thanks for your consistent, encouraging attitude.

    Here’s an interesting intellectual challenge that I’ve struggled with: How is it that evangelicals can say they trust the Bible absolutely as the only authority? Think through how the Bible was compiled over centuries: multiple authors, multiple forms (poetry and song, history, letters, stories). But who put it together and what was the process?

    https://www.thoughtco.com/when-was-the-bible-assembled-363293

    I find it fascinating that over the first 400 years of the early church, they did not have the “Bible” as we know it today. But they depended on Tradition and the oral proclamation of the apostles to be faithful. Churches that accept the Bible’s authority alone have needed to depend on the early church fathers to compile it.

    My journey eventually led me to recognize the authority of these apostles and their successors along with the Bible as both something I must submit to. More here: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__PK.HTM

    Grappling with these intellectual challenges keeps us sharp and using our minds!! Let’s prove Noll wrong! 🙂

    • mm Jay Forseth says:

      Mark my Brother:

      Phenomenal websites and thoughts!

      I was taught this while studying for the ministry: The New Testament Canon was decided based upon the following–1) Was the author an apostle or close eyewitness? 2) Was the book accepted by the body of Christ at large? 3) Did the book contain consistency of doctrine and orthodox teaching? 4) Did the book bear evidence of high moral and spiritual values that would reflect a work of the Holy Spirit?

      https://www.gotquestions.org/canon-Bible.html

  6. mm Jason Turbeville says:

    Jay,
    I read your post as almost a rebuttal to Noll and the idea of being humble in our intellect not anti. The idea I got from his writing was that there were too many Christians who don’t use a Christian mindset to learn what the world has to offer. By the way if you want to read a really intellectual Christians view of creation check out http://www.stephencmeyer.org/. You wont be disappointed.
    Jason

  7. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    Jay,

    I don’t believe that any of us who know you would ever suggest that you lack intellectual and strong academic ability. Though you are self-effacing in this regard it is clear that you mind is sharp and you continue to challenge each of us weekly with your approach to the texts we read. I think that was the purpose of Noll’s works this week. It wasn’t simply for the pastors and teachers, though they bear much of the burden, it was also a challenge to the average people in the pews that they work to mitigate the ‘eraser effect’ that you mention. If we fully engage the mind in our faith, as the saints of old did in developing the creeds etc., we are less likely to be still being fed on milk rather than solid food (1 Cor. 3:2). Hopefully those of us in this program will be able to challenge the church to engage the mind fully from the position of love that Noll demonstrated.

    • mm Jay Forseth says:

      Dan!

      I was thinking of that verse while writing, but forgot it. Thanks for the reminder that many Christians do not mature and survive on the milk instead of progressing to the meat! Love hearing of the Word…

  8. Great post Jay! I enjoyed the fact that you brought in his bashing of Creationists (even though I did beat you to the punch on that, grin). I also appreciated your balance of being challenged to increase our intellectual pursuits but at the same time reminded of the fact that the disciples made a huge impact and most were uneducated men. I think balance is always good, something the author seemed to not mention.

    • mm Jay Forseth says:

      Jake!

      My favorite “intellectual” author is Oswald Chambers. I am not smart enough to figure out what he is saying, until I read it a few more times. I would hope Noll would credit a guy like Chambers for digging deep…

  9. Chris Pritchett says:

    Hey Jay these are awesome quotes by Jonathan Edwards. Thanks for sharing! I remember Rich Mouw doing a three part series for Fuller chapel based on Micah 6:8, called educating for mercy, educating for justice, and educating for humility. It was beautiful. I remember being so intimidated by the PhD’s in my congregations (so many in Presbyterian churches) until I realized that my role in preaching a sermon is really not about knowing more about everyone in the congregation, but about being faithful to the text and offering a Word of grace that everyone needs, no matter how powerful or rich or educated they may be. It’s so amazing to see how powerful the Gospel is! It cuts through the heart of all humankind. The pride and idolatry of intellectual elitism are definitely akin to the Tower of Babel, as you say. Wo to those who do not humble themselves before the cross of Jesus Christ.

  10. “Most of us don’t strive to be anti-intellectual,”
    Ha ha!

    I, too, specifically chose the DMin track because I consider myself a practitioner. But in truth, as a woman, there have been real hurdles in being permitted to “practice” my ministry, and without some intellectual reflection, I’d probably still be stuck.

    I think this yet another instance where the answer is no found in the either/or debate, but the yes/and. Intellectual pursuits AND humility. Knowladge AND faith.

  11. Dave Watermulder says:

    Thank you, Jay! I’m glad that we are both “reading around” these texts in similar places. I think that as practitioners and leaders, when our faith and intellect are intertwined, they grow up together– and all of it for the glory of God. Sometimes those PhD’s in the congregation need complex things made simple (not easy, but clear and useful). And sometimes, those regular folks out there need to have their simple/easy faith complexified as a way to stretch and grow. That’s all for now…

  12. Shawn Hart says:

    Jay, great job. I have always loved the book of Proverbs, because in it, Solomon teaches us that there is a difference between wisdom and knowledge. Sadly, I have known so very intelligent and knowledgeable ministers and professors that were clueless when it came to actually understanding who God is and what He expects from His people. I have never understood the desire for ministers that preach over the heads of their congregation as though it somehow builds up the congregation by making them feel stupid. Paul wrote, “Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another” (Romans 14:19). He also wrote, “We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies” (1 Corinthians 8:1). I agreed a lot on your assessment of Noll; however, perhaps he should shut up more and listen to what his preacher is actually teaching. Knowledge without wisdom is useless when it comes to salvation.

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