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Where is the Wildfire?

Written by: on February 8, 2017

Mark Noll –Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind

 Introduction

Mark Noll is a distinguished Reformed evangelical Christian acclaimed as one of the most influential evangelicals in America. He is a research professor at Regent College and a prolific author who has gained the respect of the academic community. Noll indicates he has only changed his mind on a few points in his indictment of evangelical ineptness in his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and he stands by its accuracy and validity.  In this work, Noll emphasizes that, “For rationale, means, methods, paradigms, and telos, the tasks of Christian scholarship depends pervasively on the work of God in Christ. For Christian scholarship to mean anything, it must mean intellectual labor rooted in Christ.”  [1]

Summary

The book outlines a God-centered framework for Christian scholarship.  Noll begins this exposition with the reality of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the unity of the Godhead. He believes central to understanding that reality is “the person of Jesus Christ and the meaning of His work for all humanity in all human history.” [2] Noll explains that based on the claims evangelicals make about Jesus Christ, they should be at the forefront of intellectual endeavors in overall human learning. He goes on to say that, “evangelical hesitation about scholarship in general or about pursuing learning wholeheartedly is, antithetical to the Christ-centered basis of evangelical faith,” [3] because he is of the opinion that human learning is actually a Christian enterprise.

For Noll, the theology of Orthodox Christology articulated in the classical Christian creeds is  foundational for understanding the meaning of divine revelation as it relates to the whole created order.  The saints in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., “summarized the faith in authoritative short statements that could specify what Christianity was, defined a curriculum for new converts, provided formulas for use in worship, and built barriers against false teaching.” [4] He believes these creeds became authoritative because they were “thoroughly, profoundly, comprehensively, and passionately rooted in Scripture.” [5] They are seen by the author to have significance for grounding Christian scholarship because “they have stood the test of time as faithful summaries of biblical revelation concerning the person and work of Christ.” [6] Therefore, he asserts that in order for evangelicals to make a substantial Christian contribution to intellectual life, their faith must be grounded in the great traditions of classical Christian theology.  Noll references Peter Enns’ scholarship which stresses the importance of a Christ-centered message of Scripture for understanding the Bible as a whole, and the necessity of a scriptural view of Christ for all intellectual endeavors.

Analysis/Reflection

Noll portrays the end result of Christian scholarship as: “service that goes into the world in Christ’s name; Bible reading or preaching or catechesis that rehearses the story of salvation; sacraments that instantiate the presence of Christ; fellowship that draws believers to each other and to their Lord; singing that inspires love of God and neighbor; sympathy that turns hearts toward the suffering; and meditation that draws the mind to God.” [7] From his perspective, Christian scholarship inspires occasions to glorify God through intellectual pursuits that lead to discipleship, humility that recognizes the capacity to learn is a gift from God, and an acknowledgement that all good gifts come from above. That being the case, one wonders where is the spiritual fruit that emanates from such committed Christian endeavors?  How has Christian scholarship shaped and transformed individuals, communities, and nations for the glory of God?  Where are these ideals being actualized on the human plane and who are the participants and recipients?

From the time of Noll’s writing of Scandal in 1994 to Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind in 2011, his assessment of evangelical engagement in the Life of the Mind in that time period is that there are substantial barriers that continue to hinder productive thinking. He acknowledges that many developments in the evangelical arena appear to be moving in the right direction. But, he maintains these advancements do not reflect a distinctly evangelical mind.  Rather, he declares, “The movement as a whole does not possess theologies full enough, traditions of intellectual practice strong enough, or conceptions of the world deep enough to sustain a full-scale intellectual revival.” [8]

By contrast to the evangelical intellectualism Noll is advocating, the nascent Christian church in antiquity pre-dated all of the formal academic disciplines we identify today. They preached what they knew, “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” and made a huge impact in spreading the gospel throughout the known world like wildfire, even under heavy persecution. As Noll noted, “Christianity moved from being an illegal and culturally despised sect to becoming a formally recognized religion of the Roman Empire.” [9] They transformed individuals, communities, nations, and world structures and systems through the propagation of the gospel of salvation through faith in Christ alone. Again we see this wildfire phenomenon in our own age. We are witnessing an unprecedented active and fast moving Protestant Christian growth in the Global South by individuals who are on the margins of society, and not particularly inclined to intellectual pursuits.

My take on evangelical intellectualism is the it doesn’t necessarily lead to glorification and humility before God.  Based on my own experiences exaltation and glorification of God is realized in prayer, meditation, praise, and fellowship. In other words, in intimate relationship and communication with Him. Those are the avenues of humility that I get inspiration and revelation of His person, work, and purposes. With that foundation I am in a position to appreciate the discoveries of the various disciplines that reveal some of God’s mysteries that can possibly enhance my Christian walk.

Notes

  1. Mark Noll. Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2011), 147-148.
  2. Ibid., ix.
  3. Ibid., x.
  4. Ibid., 1.
  5. Ibid., 2.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., 149.
  8. Ibid., 165.
  9. Ibid., 1.

 

 

 

About the Author

Claire Appiah

11 responses to “Where is the Wildfire?”

  1. mm Rose Anding says:

    Claire
    It’s a delightful blog and enjoyable to read and brought out many points.But how can we ever be taken seriously if we are led by leaders that are unwilling to be corrected? And in my experience there are far more Evangelical leaders in that category than is healthy. When critics condemn the “evangelical mind,” they are talking about the people who ought to know better, who bear some responsibility for the Darwin-bashing and history-hashing that pollsters hear when they survey evangelical America.
    In my opinion, there is a good and a sinful intellectualism, there is a right and a wrong intellectualism and it is the latter of each pair that the church needs to exclude. We do need Christian intellectuals but only if they spot the lies of their secular counterparts and warn the other members of the flock, which could lead to glorification and humility before God. We must let the mind of christ be in us.
    Thanks for an excellent blog Rose Maria

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Rose,
      Thanks for replying to my blog with your perspective on Christian scholarship. Please understand that I am not bashing Christian intellectuals. It is true, we need Christian intellectuals with the mind of Christ which leads to humility and glorification before God. That’s precisely my point. Christian intellectualism does not always produce these results. You even pointed out there is sinful intellectualism and wrong intellectualism that needs to be weeded out of the church. All intellectualism is not the same.

  2. mm Marc Andresen says:

    Claire,

    Three quotations from your blog:

    “He goes on to say that, ‘evangelical hesitation about scholarship in general or about pursuing learning wholeheartedly is, antithetical to the Christ-centered basis of evangelical faith,’because he is of the opinion that human learning is actually a Christian enterprise.”

    And

    “From his perspective, Christian scholarship inspires occasions to glorify God through intellectual pursuits that lead to discipleship, humility that recognizes the capacity to learn is a gift from God, and an acknowledgment that all good gifts come from above.”

    Finally

    “My take on evangelical intellectualism is the it doesn’t necessarily lead to glorification and humility before God.”

    The last quotation makes me wonder if you’re saying that Christian scholarship or intellectual pursuit of God doesn’t produce glory for God. Is that so, or am I misunderstanding? Have you had the experience of thinking as hard and far as possible about the Lord, and in the end basking in the wonder of mystery?

    By the way, thanks for pointing out that Noll has left Notre Dame and is now at Regent.

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Marc,
      Thanks for your questions. I certainly am NOT saying that Christian scholarship and intellectual pursuit of God doesn’t produce glory for God. Further on in that same paragraph I indicate as much.

      You have helped me to clarify my position on Christian scholarship and to seek a closer reading of Noll. I confused Noll’s delineation of characteristics of Christian scholarship with Noll’s characterization of the life of the mind. In Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, p. 148, Noll provides the “essential ingredients” of Christian scholarship.
      In The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, p. 7, Noll states, “By an evangelical ‘life of the mind’— I mean more the effort to think like a Christian—to think within a specifically Christian framework—across the whole spectrum of modern learning, including economics, political science, literary criticism, historical inquiry, philosophical studies, linguistics and the history of science, social theory, and the arts. Failure to exercise the mind for Christ in these areas has become acute in the twentieth century. That failure is the scandal of the evangelical mind.”

      This blog should have said, I agree with Nolls on all points that the essential ingredients of Christian scholarship produces humility before God and glory to God for the vast majority of evangelicals. But, I don’t believe that the evangelical life of the mind necessarily produces humility and glory before God in the absence of a pre-established, intimate relationship and consistent, active communication with Him.

      • mm Marc Andresen says:

        Thanks Claire,

        I really did not assume you thought there was no glory for God in our intellectual pursuits. You helped clarify my incomplete understanding.

        And I agree that the depth of our relationship with God does affect humility as we develop intellectual pursuit of truth.

  3. I love how you include humility with the pursuit of scholarship. It is so easy to forget about that attribute. I think Noll is helpful with this too by placing Jesus in the center. Is this book helpful for you and research?

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Aaron,
      To answer your question of the benefits of the book to me, I would say that Noll keeps me mindful that Christian scholarship ought to be a humble enterprise rooted and grounded in Christ. God is to be glorified and honored for the capacity to successfully undergo this intellectual pursuit which is a gift that comes from Him.

  4. Claire,
    Your dissection of this author and book are spot on. I really enjoyed reading your blog. You pulled some nuggets about Noll that I had not registered with completely. This quote “The movement as a whole does not possess theologies full enough, traditions of intellectual practice strong enough, or conceptions of the world deep enough to sustain a full-scale intellectual revival,” is really the rub of his whole thinking. He is correct. People are not hungry for an intellectual revival. Most people do think. All they do is think and think and think and there in is the problem. I can have great knowledge but that doesn’t necessarily bring about life change.

    What about Jesus thoughts on knowledge?
    Luke 11 in the Message spells it out really clearly.
    52 “You’re hopeless, you religion scholars! You took the key of knowledge, but instead of unlocking doors, you locked them. You won’t go in yourself, and won’t let anyone else in either.”

    53-54 As soon as Jesus left the table, the religion scholars and Pharisees went into a rage. They went over and over everything he said, plotting how they could trap him in something from his own mouth.

    In the King James it is pretty clear as well.

    52 Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered.

    53 And as he said these things unto them, the scribes and the Pharisees began to urge him vehemently, and to provoke him to speak of many things:

    54 Laying wait for him, and seeking to catch something out of his mouth, that they might accuse him.

    I am pretty sure that the intellectuals of the day are the ones who were constantly coming at Jesus and his message.

    What do you think? Am I on to something?

    Do you think this is part of the disconnect for us on this author? I believe it is for me.

    Jesus didn’t select scholars to take his message forward, until Saul/Paul was chosen by having a divine revelation. Maybe that is what gets intellectuals to find revival. Getting kicked off their ideals and having their blindness removed. Just my thoughts. What are yours on this subject?

    Kevin

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Kevin,
      Thanks for the scriptural references that put everything into proper perspective.
      Frankly, Noll has me confused. The only way I can make sense of his thesis is to look at Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind first, before his discussion in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. In Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, he presents a picture of what Christian scholarship ought to look like when it is lived out (p. 148), i.e. Christian practices of spiritual formation,the sacraments, fellowship, and evangelism. Things I agree with him that lead to humility in the believer and glory to God.

      But, I think one has to have these CHRISTIAN FOUNDATIONAL PRINCIPLES embedded in their very being before pursuing an “evangelical life of the mind” in thinking and learning about all of life and the world through the various academic disciplines within the context of the Christian faith. (The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, p. 7).

      Otherwise, a tension could arise between spirituality and intellectualism. I don’t understand why the Christian scholarship he is advocating is not a dynamic force for Christ around the world. Christians of all stripes should be in the forefront of all kinds of Christian activism that glorifies God. Christians definitely need to have their egocentric blindness removed and their eyes fixed on Jesus as the center of all life.

  5. Pablo Morales says:

    Claire, in light of my understanding of the book, I think that Noll would agree with you. He does recognize that intellectualism does not always produce humble, Christ-centered people. I do not believe that he implies that intellectual pursuit per se leads to glorification, unless it is rooted, as you pointed out, in a Christ-centered experience. There are a couple of quotes that I found helpful that I want to share with you. Noll says, “And so for scholarship that is Christian the essential ingredients are the same as for family life, politics, community service, economic activity, medical care, or any other activity that would be Christian. Those ingredients are prayer that returns to the source of forgiveness and hope, service that goes into the world in Christ’s name, Bible reading or preaching or catechesis that rehearses the story of salvation, sacraments that instantiate the presence of Christ, fellowship that draws believers to each other and to their Lord, singing that inspires love of God and neighbor, sympathy that turns hearts toward the suffering, and meditation that draws the mind to God.” (Kindle Locations 1650-1654). He also says, “Freed from the delusion that we as scholars can exalt ourselves by our own academic insights, we are therefore freed to serve God joyfully in the academic labors we do attempt. Using God-given mental abilities in gratitude for salvation in Christ is one of the surest ways to avoid thinking that mental abilities bestow special merit. The tendency to trust in the wrong things has been nicely described by Alice Fryling, who has written about habits all too common among scholars: ‘We want to impress ourselves and others with all we do and all we can produce. We take God-given gifts, push them beyond their limits and make them sources of pride.” When hypocrisy is added to self-delusion, “our lips say that we want to honor God, but the truth may be that we want to show off our gifts or look impressive to others.’ Such failings are by no means limited to academic arenas, but they do constitute standing temptations where intellectual competition is the order of the day. (Kindle Locations 756-759)”.
    Pablo

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Pablo,
      Thanks for taking the time to bring elucidation for Noll’s book. I read that passage you referred to but somehow it did not stay with me to the end. I now have a better appreciation for his work.

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