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The Scandal of Certainty

Written by: on February 25, 2018

I was first assigned the seminal book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Nol

l as part of an undergrad religion course and I knew after reading the now ubiquitous opening sentence of

the book, ‘The Scandal of the Evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.’  I knew that I didn’t actually need to read any more, as I certainly had enough to get me through my book report and the associated  class discussion.

As an undergrad, I didn’t actually stop there, but I didn’t really read much further, either [Just kidding, mom – I read it cover to cover].   I feel like, in some ways, that first line still – even now – gives plenty of material to work from for a post and a discussion.

This time around, however, I did read well beyond the first page of the book.  In fact, I even went as far in completing this assignment read Noll’s follow-up book, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind.  Of course, doing that only made it more difficult to figure out what, exactly to talk about in this space.

For instance, I really enjoyed and was perhaps even buoyed by the ‘hopeful signs’ section of the postscript in Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind but I also found myself wondering if, in light of the events of the last few years and, developments like the one mention in this article here , would Noll be quite so hopeful if he were writing this book today?  Or would he think that, perhaps, Evangelicals have – in terms of the life of the mind – taken another step back?  We live in hope, but that hope is not always supported by empirical evidence.

As I read these books, the question of why or how did we get here (here being that there isn’t much of an Evangelical Mind) is the one that kept nagging at my heart, mind and Spirit….. And another question followed closely behind it, why did I – growing up in an Evangelical home and an Evangelical church, end up so interested in cultivating the ‘life of the mind’ not just for myself, but for others.

While, obviously, much of Noll’s work is in one sense an attempt at answering this very question, for me the answer, while certainly needing to be fleshed out to be understood fully, always came back to one central issue: the need and/or desire for certainty.  Much of the modern American Evangelical movement assumes – and in fact requires an astonishing level of certainty on a fairly wide variety of topics.

The starting place for this is for me, baptism.  For those of us that practice infant baptism – the sacrament is not a sign of acceptance of a certain set of beliefs, but rather a recognition of God’s claim on the life of a child, prior to any act or understanding on the part of the one being baptized.  It is also a recognition of the responsibility that the parents and the community have in cultivating the life of faith for that child and providing a place for them to grow in faith and in understanding.  Why is this important?  I think it makes clear who the ‘first actor’ in our relationship with God is – God, reaching out and claiming us as his own – not our seeking and finding God.  Beyond that, I think it creates a different expectation for what it means to belong.  In our church tradition [and this is why I eventually came around to infant baptism, after a long struggle with it], you are claimed as God’s own and marked as a part of the community as a child in large part because it is before you can claim to want it for yourself….  That is part of the point – you are God’s because God claimed you, not because of anything you have or haven’t done.  {please note this is not an attack on believer’s baptism, at all.  I get it.  I am rather stating the positive rationale for infant baptism, specifically in this context}

Closely related to baptism is the concept of conversion.  In the Evangelical tradition that is usually understood as a singular moment, a moment in which everything has changed.  Again, while I know these moments are powerful, I also think they can, especially with out intentional education around them, lead to a certain type of understanding of our relationship with God and of the life of the mind.  When we can point, with certainty to the moment we choose to be baptized and that we were converted and we mark these out as singular points on a map, is it so hard to understand why the Evangelical movement might tend to look for clarity and certainty in other areas as well?

Peter Enns has done a lot of work in this area and I would highly recommend any of his work, but perhaps especially, The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires our Trust More Than Our Correct Beliefs.  He covers all of this with more depth, deft and insight than I could, especially in a blog post.  But, it seems to me that the this desire for certainty in the American Evangelical movement is at the heart of the lack of an Evangelical life of the mind.  Thinking deeply and engaging seriously with anything of consequence, theological, academic or otherwise, seems to require a certain comfort or at least acceptance with uncertainty.

Beyond that, when there is a strong focus on the ‘right answer’ – and any serious examination of the modern American Evangelical movement would include a recognition of that there is often strong pressure to either positive agreement or negative reproach on a wide range of issues [For yet another blog post, but isn’t this exactly how the Evangelical movement and the Republican party became so closely aligned?]  it minimizes the opportunity for serious discussion and thought.  This is true on two fronts – one of depth and one of breadth:  First, if you already have the ‘right’ answer, what good is gained from continued study?  Then, second, if there just one ‘right’ or acceptable answer, again, what can be gained from study or discussion that might lead to a different conclusion?

Before this post transitions fully into a term paper, I will leave those thoughts there and dwell briefly on the second question – why or how did I grow up Evangelical but with a strong concern for the life of the mind?   The short answer is that while I definitively grew up in a household and a church that self-identified as Evangelical [although, of course that is a moving/changing term and one that may no longer apply] it was also a family and a church located in an mainline denomination, PC(USA), and not just any denomination, but one with an incredibly strong history and focus on education.

The structure of a denomination – especially one that is organized democratically, and thus by it’s nature is bound to contain a variety of views, practices and beliefs – combined with a local and national church focus on theological education and engagement provided an important balance for my development.  Or as Noll puts it:

The current dilemma for Christian learning in North America could be described, though too simplistically, in the following generalizations. On the one side, Pentecostals, Southern Baptists, members of Holiness movements, seeker-sensitive churches, dispensationalists, Adventists, African American congregations, radical Wesleyans, and lowest-common-denominator common-denominator evangelicals have great spiritual energy, but flounder in putting the mind to use for Christ. On the other hand, Lutherans, therans, Catholics, Anglo-Catholics, the Reformed, and even the Eastern ern Orthodox enjoy incredibly rich traditions that include sterling examples amples of Christian thought, but often display a comatose spirituality. . . . .Active Christian life of the sort that defines evangelicalism is a prerequisite for responsible Christian learning. But unless that activity is given shape, it will not be particularly effective. The shape that the older Christian traditions provide is deep, because they are rooted in classical Christian doctrine, and it is wide, because they have nurtured tured outstanding examples of faithful Christian thinking. There is, in other words, no Neo-Thomist personalism in philosophy without centuries of God-honoring moral casuistry, no J. S. Bach without Luther’s  theologies of the incarnation and the cross, no Dorothy L. Sayers without Anglo-Catholic sacramentalism, no Flannery O’Connor without a Catholic theology of redemption, and no contemporary porary revival of Christian philosophy among American evangelicals without the legacy of Kuyperian Calvinism. (Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, Kindle Location 1826)

About the Author

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Chip Stapleton

Follower of Jesus Christ. Husband to Traci. Dad to Charlie, Jack, Ian and Henry. Preacher of Sermons, eater of ice cream, supporter of Arsenal. I love to talk about what God is doing in the world & in and through us & create space and opportunity for others to use their gifts to serve God and God's people.

6 responses to “The Scandal of Certainty”

  1. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Chip I appreciate your post. I have not read Peter Enns but his book sounds very interesting. I like the premise you discussed in your post.

  2. Kristin Hamilton says:

    So, Peter Enns is perhaps one of my favorite thinkers, which made me immediately love your post. Beyond that, I deeply identify with your question of how I got here being raised as an evangelical in the holiness movement. What you said about the PC(USA) emphasis on education rings particularly true with my upbringing as well. This is why both sets of my grandparents gravitated to the UMC rather than staying in evangelicalism. A good friend mentioned the other day that the tradition he and I have shared (Nazarene) seems to be regressing rather than embracing the great thinkers and theologians we have in our universities. Much of this is due to the way our schools are governed. Remember the commercial “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”? I think that is where some of the mainline/evangelical divide happens. Without painting too broad a brush, I have noticed that evangelical thought is encouraged only within certain parameters. I don’t believe that is how we are created to think.

  3. mm Katy Drage Lines says:

    [Ignoring your foray into infant baptism…] 😉

    “Thinking deeply and engaging seriously with anything of consequence, theological, academic or otherwise, seems to require a certain comfort or at least acceptance with uncertainty.” That, I believe, is the *right* answer. 🙂
    Seriously, I appreciate the ponderings you took in how you (and we) “escaped” the anti-intellectual nature of evangelicalism. I wonder if it wasn’t my mother’s Episcopal upbringing that led her to insist I attend an accredited liberal arts school rather than a Bible college (which most of our youth group attended). I’ll bless the Episcopalians, if that’s the case.

  4. Stu Cocanougher says:

    Chip, I appreciate your discussion of God’s part in salvation. Baptists often tread that middle ground between Calvinists and Armenians. We hold strong to the security of the believer, but feel that infant baptism confuses people to think that they are “saved” because of something that was done to them as an infant (which is a real issue with many cultural Catholics). What Baptists do with “child dedication” is exactly what you explain when you said. “It is also a recognition of the responsibility that the parents and the community have in cultivating the life of faith for that child and providing a place for them to grow in faith and in understanding. ”

    One of the things that I really appreciate about this program is hearing about why other traditions do what they do. Thanks.

    • Stu, thanks for the comment. I really appreciate the diversity of this program as well.
      I am aware of the child dedication tradition and I like it a lot – I think if you aren’t going to do infant baptism, then something like that is really important.
      Both of the traditions (infant/believer baptism) ‘work’, I think, but the challenge is always in the application – if there isn’t sufficient education and explanation at the ‘other end’ that is where you run into trouble.

  5. Mary says:

    thank you, Chip.
    After so many recommendations I’m going to look up Peter Enns.
    Sorting out how some grew up “evangelical” without acting like the caricature of it is a good question.
    I have often thought that the fundamentalists don’t own the territory, so to speak.
    Very centering and thoughtful.

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