DMINLGP

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

The problem is, well, America

Written by: on January 25, 2020

Good grief I am getting old. I have the 1994 edition of Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind sitting on my shelf which I read in 1995.[1] On first reading, I remember thinking it was a rather harsh experience, but once I realised it was mainly about Americans, I felt so much better. However, the feelings of ebullience were short-lived because Noll did prophetically expose the heart of partisan evangelical western thinking. Interestingly I note that he references his slightly harsh tones in the postscript of his latter book, Jesus Christ in the Life of the Mind, “more hopeful than despairing, more attuned to possibilities than to problems”.[2]

There is no doubt that Noll tends to ‘go for the jugular’ when he disagrees with certain evangelical perspectives, but there is an evenness in critiques. While analysing the unfortunate outcomes of evangelical alliance with mainstream American culture, he prefaces his observations by observing evangelical social reputation (at that time) as a “tremendous achievement”.[3] Likewise, a few pages later, despite his obvious distaste for the political vagaries of historic dispensationalism,[4]* he acknowledges just how difficult commenting on intellectual state of evangelicalism was because of his respect for “how faithfully … [they] passed on essential elements of the Christian faith”.[5]

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind is split four ways. The first two chapters examine the state of the evangelical mind in the early 1990s explaining the problematic nature of Evangelical anti-intellectualism. In the next three chapters, we discover Noll, the academic, charting his way through the creation story of American evangelicalism, its tenuous relationship with the enlightenment principals of reason and objectivity and its eventual flowering into 20th-century fundamentalism. The next two chapters examine how evangelical thinking has influenced its engagement with society, especially politics and science. The last chapters considered the hope ahead given the resources at evangelicalism’s disposal.

Throughout the book there is one basic theme: The mind of intellectualism matters (stop attacking it), intellectual strength is an essential part of spiritual energy. A secondary, but obvious theme is, well, America – and its undue influence on Christian thinking: immediatism and individualism [6] and populism and biblicism.[7] Essentially, Noll was suggesting that evangelicalism was “dominated by the urgencies of the moment which suited its activism and practicality but lacked any sense of intention.[8] Then there is a third underlying theme that Noll articulates, anti-traditionalism. As with Charles Taylor, Noll notes that 18th-century revivalism elevated the reformations autonomy of the individual over ecclesial authority.[9] There is a certain irony in 20th-century evangelicalism because while it eschewed enlightenment intellectualism, it welcomed with open arms enlightenment questioning of traditional social foundations.[10] The result was fundamentalisms “self-confidence … that casually discounted the possibility of wisdom from earlier generations”.[11]

Seventeen years later, Noll continues the theme of ‘tradition’ when writing, Jesus Christ in the Life of the Mind.[12] In this second work, Noll makes a clear connection between the communion of the saints and importance of the work accomplished in the creeds,[13] which he makes abundantly clear when he writes, “the distillation of concentrated reflection on Scripture and of hard-won wisdom time-tested by Christian experience”.[14] And, if the opening sentences don’t make the reader aware of Noll’s point, the final chapter is the barb from which there is no escape, “the vitality of [Christian] commitment needs the ballast of tradition”.[15] But why? Noll notes that since 1994, there has been a counter tendency among scholars to quantify, rationalise and harmonise everything and often to look down on the less educated. Thus, Noll calls intellectuals to humility in the face of historical thinking and of course, the life of Christ. In chapter 3 he unpacks what four aspects of Jesus life that ought guide scholars: Doubleness (Jesus was human and Divine); Contingency (we know what God can do because of what God has done; Particularity (the incarnation occurred at a specific point in time and geography); Self-denial (Jesus was humble in all areas).

There is a clear sense that Noll regards the late John Stott with great respect as he offers six recommendations formed in questions that have their beginnings in Stott’s book, The Cross of Christ.[16] And, of course, this means Noll places significant emphasis on penal substitutionary Atonement, disavowing explanations of humanity based on any themes of human innocence – we are totally compromised in all aspects of morality.[17] There is no room for reasoning downward from philosophy or theological convictions; it must be from the text of Scripture and tradition.[18]

The two books are very different in scope and content. The most notable distinction is the Christological emphasis in the latter book, which is lacking in the former. Noll’s earlier book emphasised Scandal and the people perpetrating it. Consequently, Noll seems to refocus the reader’s attention on the Life of Jesus and not the people and politics of a particular movement.

Scandal was written at the beginning of my own ministry, and it was influential in the sense that I agreed with the sentiments expressed as they articulated my own anecdotal evidence. However, I’m not sure that it had the effect hoped for. Evangelical immediatism and populism are as strong as ever and despite a growing number of evangelicals in the Pentecostal tradition taking up study, my observation is that Christian training in any academic sense has been greatly pragmatized in recent years – there is much spoon-feeding, but little rigorous engagement. However, Noll’s Life of Christ I think rightly observes a thawing of evangelicals toward tradition in worship and creed. As Charles Taylor expands in A Secular Age, the more complex the world becomes, the greater the urgency for a solid platform on which to stand.

I didn’t find the material as useful this time around. In 1994 Noll was prophetic in his observation of evangelicalism’s intellectual straight jacket. However, his latter book feels a bit late. Catholic spiritual academics have been happily accessed by evangelical scholars for some time, which makes me think Noll was making an observation that anti-traditionalism was on the decline but needed to keep the reformation Jesus at the centre – hence the emphasis on reformed Christology. There is also something formulaic about the two books which I think comes from his commitments to more reformed evangelical Christian tradition in the first book and his observations of B. B. Warfield and reliance on John Stott in the second. So, in New Zealand, I’m not sure whom I would recommend the books to, as I don’t think they would be easily decipherable – times, language and context have changed. I don’t think Noll has kept pace; at least on the international stage.

 

Notes:

[1] Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994).

[2] Mark A Noll, Jesus Christ in the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013). 153

[3] Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. 105

[4] Ibid. 173

[5] Ibid. 131

[6] Ibid. 64

[7] Ibid. 161

[8] Ibid. 243

[9] Ibid. 61-67

[10] Ibid. 87

[11] Ibid. 127

[12] Noll, Jesus Christ in the Life of the Mind.

[13] Ibid. 1

[14] Ibid. 2

[15] Ibid. 165

[16] John Stott, The Cross of Christ (London: InterVarsity Press, 2012).

[17] Noll, Jesus Christ in the Life of the Mind. 73

[18] Ibid. 50

 

Bibliography:

Noll, Mark A. Jesus Christ in the Life of the Mind. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013.

Noll, Mark A. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994.

Stott, John. The Cross of Christ. London: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

14 responses to “The problem is, well, America”

  1. Mario Hood says:

    Thanks, Dig! I agree that America is the problem (just not me) :). We are seeing a resurgence in the creeds in Pentecostal faith for some of these very reasons. Anti-intellectualism is still a huge issue but the walls are starting to come down slowly.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Yes, you are right, Mario, the walls are coming down, The good thing so far as I have observed is a growing humility in Morse secular contexts for the need of Spirit and mind in the same person – Pentecostal pneumatology has been a great way of integrating much more of the Christian life.

  2. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Digby, as usual, I appreciate your post and your perspective.

    This statement caught my attention and confirms some of my research: “Evangelical immediatism and populism are as strong as ever and despite a growing number of evangelicals in the Pentecostal tradition taking up study, my observation is that Christian training in any academic sense has been greatly pragmatized in recent years – there is much spoon-feeding, but little rigorous engagement.”

    Much of our faith stream aligns to what you describe here. Realizing we were birthed in revivalism, there are some of us who are swimming upstream to attempt to broaden the banks of that stream. We have studied human development enough to understand that there are disciplines that teach, sometimes better than the Church, how humans truly grow and mature in a healthy manner and it requires “rigorous engagement” otherwise they stay stuck in a socialized mind of group think. That is what I fear “spoon-feeding” perpetuates especially in regard to leader development.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Your experience is mine too. There are certain denominations making a much better attempt at broad integration of mind and Spirit, the Vineyard being one of them. However in many cases it is pragmatic theology leading to pragmatic leadership resulting in something that resembles popular religion with fringe appropriation of the ‘Life of Christ”, which I think Noll was partially getting at in book two.

  3. mm Rhonda Davis says:

    Thank you for your insight, Digby. In my limited context, I see a strange occurrence in which, on the one hand, many Pentecostals are “thawing,” as you said. On the other, I hear them asking for less thinking and more practice. This is especially true among church leaders I come in contact with. What is left when both of these movements happen at once? Maybe Noll needs to write again.

  4. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Great post Digby, you note how Catholic theologians have been more accessible to the Evangelical Church between Noll’s texts. Are there key Catholic theologians that have made a grate impact in your context the last thirty ish years?

  5. mm Mary Mims says:

    Great post, Digby. I like how you said intellectuals are called to humility. Do you think this is happening? At the same time, do you feel those with degrees are seen as less spiritual by those without? There is a lot to unpack here.

  6. Thank you Digby, I always love reading your posts for the depth of analysis. I see the same trend in our country where there is little emphasis on intellectualism among the evangelicals and the tendency to see the intellectuals as less spiritual. There is a lot of merit for intellectualism if the church is to wield more influence in society and create more impact. I really appreciate your highlight of Noll’s call for humility by the intellectuals and not to look down on the uneducated, it’s a weakness that we all need to be aware of and be humble.

  7. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    I tend to agree that the books are now a bit late to be recommended to others in my context, however were useful for me in understanding another context. In a recent denominational gathering that was making some effort to explore what unique Canadian context looks like, our speaker suggested we were 20 years ahead of America in the shift towards secularism. I wonder what you might suggest should be Noll’s third installment if there were to be a logical further publication that would be useful in our contexts of increased secularization (version 3)?

  8. mm John Muhanji says:

    Thank you, Digby, for your observation on Noll’s writing and am happy that you had read his earlier book immediately it had come out and compared it with how things are now, you clearly put it, it is been taken by events. I agree with you that Noll’s writing is actually an American problem, not the world. Evangelicals in Africa are the source of intellectual minds in the field of academia. On the other hand, his reasoning is that Evangelicals in America are the majority and are all connected in politics, economics, and social fibers. Their failure to impress intellectualism in America will equally affect other parts of the Christian world. America has had a very strong influence on the spread of Christianity in the whole world and they may do likewise if this is not checked. But like the way you bring out that more intellectual literature from Catholicism scholars are all out in the domain and being used by other Christian movements. Lets also not forget that Protestant evangelicals are equally pro intellectualism in the Christian family. Thanks, Digby for sharing these deep thoughts with us. we appreciate you brother.

  9. mm Sean Dean says:

    I’m not sure who I would recommend Noll to in America either. His insights, while good, have become obvious in the current vulgar state of much evangelicalism in the US. I suspect that the only reason he could write these books is because he was writing to an American context where it wasn’t already obvious what the problem was.

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