Mark Noll’s work is largely a response to a wide-spread perception of the 20thcentury, namely, that Evangelicalism and scholarship seem to go together like oil and water. Noll wondered why a movement within orthodox Christianity can be filled with such passion, vigor, and commitment, while at the same time being averse to the tools of scholarship that are readily available for the strengthening of the church and the building up of the body of Christ. Noll was concerned that while many Christian denominations and traditions enjoy rich traditions of scholarship (ahem-Presbyterians) but may be losing the battle in other regards, the evangelical movement has locked and loaded itself in a narrow tunnel of doctrines that are neither helpful for the church’s witness nor full in the potential they provide the church. Perhaps this oft quoted excerpt from CS Lewi’s Weight of Glory applies:
‘Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.‘
If I’m reading Noll correctly, it seems that ‘scholarship’ is the ‘holiday at the sea’ that ‘ignorant’ Evangelicalism has been missing in favor of ‘mud pies in a slum.’ My personal experience is such that I have only seen this to be the case in the furthest corners of Evangelicalism (more so in the Fundamentalist movement). I did my MDiv at Fuller and BA at Westmont, both Evangelical institutions with high level scholarship in place, along with firm Evangelical commitments and vibrancy. From a distance, I see Noll’s concern and it seems that perhaps we have come a long way since he began his research.
In an interview at Gordon College, Dr. Noll was asked: Is it possible to be scholarly in a distinctively Evangelical way? Noll affirmed that most of the intellectual challenges do not require much denominational specificity. If you’re a physicist, your denomination is somewhat irrelevant. If you’re a historian, basically the same thing. The effort to find a distinctively Evangelical life is a non-starter. Rather it’s about Evangelicals pursuing a distinctively ‘Christian’ intellectualism.
Noll mentioned a few spheres where Evangelicalism has been more overtly expressed, and philanthropy was one example. This is relevant somewhat to my work now running a Christian philanthropic foundation. The foundation began 15 years ago and did strictly granting to Christian mission organizations. All of them were Evangelical in one way or another. Some were recommendations from me at the time (Blood:Water Mission, ByGrace Children’s Home & School, African Evangelistic Enterprise), and some were chosen by my parents (The Jesus Film Project, Children of the Nations). The foundation has now shifted in a few ways. For one, it has a more focused (still broad though) mission that is not overtly Evangelical or even Christian: To create pathways for at-risk children and youth to flourish. However, we have a statement of faith that is broadly but overtly Christian, akin to the Apostle’s Creed. Our strategy to fulfill our mission is no longer strictly through granting, but is now threefold: 1. Local programming, 2. strategic partnerships, and 3. granting. We are doing all of these things, and as we do, one of the questions that keeps coming up for me is, “How do we fulfill our mission in a distinctively ‘Christian’ way?” I’m not concerned about it being ‘Evangelical’ per se, but like Noll says, it is important we conduct our work in a ‘Christian’ manner. Here are a couple examples of what I am talking about.
First, the founders of the foundation had a new particular interest in shifting funds from the developing world to the United States. They commented, “Why are we putting all our money over there when we have plenty of problems right here in the U.S.” There is nothing wrong with this statement, per se. But it also happens to be the case that the founders are loyal Trump supporters who have in the past two years taken on an “America First” mindset. Again, this would be acceptable if we were a secular organization, or if we had committed to the United States in our mission statement or somewhere else in our by-laws. Since that is not the case, I have seen this as an opportunity to teach the board how to think ‘theologically’ (and ‘biblically’) about our work. God is an ‘internationalist,’ meaning that God neither favors nor prefers one nation over another. God is not a ‘nationalist’ of any nation. What we see in Scripture, highlighted in Jesus, is a preferential treatment of the poor, the outcast, the ‘other’, and those who are, for any reason, unable to help themselves. In today’s context, some of the poorest of the poor are in the slums of Nairobi (among other places). So, it’s important that we remain serving some of the poorest children of the world. At the same time, in Jesus, we see that God is incarnational and has called his people to work for the good of the city (Jeremiah), so it’s also important that we not only send money overseas, but that we serve to build up the community where we live and work and play. And finally, God is Trinity, so it is important that we develop strategic partnerships where we can serve the community and other communities together in loving relationship as institutions.
One of the programs we are developing for the local community in which we live is a vocational development and education program for at-risk youth. It is not ‘Evangelical’ in any way that I can ascertain, and some may wonder if it is a ‘Christian’ program. My answer to that is ‘yes’ but probably not in the way you think. It is not required for participants to be ‘Christian’ and there is no mandatory worship or Bible study you have to go to (there will likely be optional Bible studies), and there is not any unsolicited proselytizing. But we are Christians doing our work in the Name of Jesus and with the help of the Holy Spirit, and we believe that the work we are doing in every way is meant to bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and his promise of making all things new. It’s likely that our faith will be verbally communicated from time to time in a gentle and sharing sort of way. We hope that it will always be expressed in how we behave. We expect the mentors to abide by a code of ethical conduct that is based on Scripture, and many of the mentors will be Christians.
Even more, I do believe this requires me to do two things. First, I need to gather our team and discuss whether our mission statement needs to express our Christian commitment. And second, I need to draft a theology of vocation for our program, which explains in good ‘Mark Noll’ scholarship, why vocational development and education for at-risk youth matters to God. That is a theological question that needs to guide our development of this program which we plan to launch in the Fall of this year.
I agree with Dr. Noll that we do not need to so much concern ourselves with being ‘Evangelical,’ but whether we are ‘Evangelicals,’ we must learn to think and act and work ‘Christianly,’ which involves loving God with our mind, and as Paul says, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2).