Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind by Mark Noll

Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind by Mark NollSummary: An exercise in what it means to encourage the life of the mind, bounded by the creed, with the example of history, and with illustrations of how that can work out in practice.

I deeply respect Mark Noll, not just for his history and the quality of his teaching (I had an undergrad class with him at Wheaton and a graduate class with him at University of Chicago), but also for his broad encouragement of intellectual life outside of his field of history. His Scandal of the Evangelical Mind continues to have ramifications in the Evangelical world.

Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind is in many ways a follow up to The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. The extended postscript on the edition I read gave a direct update to where Noll has been encouraged since Scandal as well as areas of continued need. But the rest of the book was a guide to how Noll thinks we should encourage the life of the mind among the Evangelical world.

Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind was published in 2011 and I wonder how it would be different had Noll written it in 2018. Part of the weakness of Noll’s project has been that he has mostly encouraging the life of the mind of academics and theological leaders within the Evangelical church. It is not that he is unaware of average lay person or that he does not think that the development of the life of the mind of the laity is important. But that the pitch of Noll’s work catches the interest of those that are already intellectually active.

Someone else may have originally said it, but I remember Alan Noble commenting on twitter about the split in Evangelical leaders in their support of Trump. Noble suggested that broadly, the academic and theological leadership as well as much of the ministry focused leadership has been against Trump from the start. But much of the political leadership and culture war leadership has been supportive of Trump. Others have made a different point about the split in between the clergy that have been more likely to not support Trump than the laity of the Evangelical world.

Noll is encouraged that the life of the mind is trickling down, but he did agree in his postscript that his original charges in Scandal did not acknowledge enough the general anti-intellectualism of American culture more broadly. So as much as I appreciate Noll’s work on the intellectual life of the Evangelical world, his impact has been limited and while the Trump phenomena is not a result of that limitation, it likely is an illustration of the phenomena.

As a whole I alternate between being really appreciative of the concept of this book and the fact that Noll is attempting to work out on paper how we encourage the intellectual life within the bounds of Christianity and being frustrated with how he does it.

Alan Jacobs has blogged about the the role of boundaries has played in his academic freedom. He has suggested that while he is not free to develop any idea within the Christian college world, he is free in different ways to create ideas in the Christian college world than he would be if he were in a secular university setting. That was likely in response to this book, or at least some similar ideas.

Noll starts with illustrated both how the creeds came into existence and how they are good examples of working out of life of mind within boundaries. That lead to two chapters on Jesus Christ as motive for learning and a guidance for learning. The fourth chapter was on the Atonement. Part of this is rejecting of gnostic concepts of learning. But my frustration at the atonement chapter is after expounding on the freedom within the creeds, Noll settles to a fairly narrow theological stream asserting that the Penal Substitution theory of the atonement is essential to the development of the life of the mind for Evangelicals. It is a leap that I really did not understand.

He does not deny other atonement theories, but the movement to adoption Penal Substitution as the essential point of developing the mind does not particularly make sense in light of his earlier chapters on the creed, all of which were developed before the full fleshing out of the Penal Substitution model of the atonement. Every areas of academic area of thought will probably have some biases and resources to bring to bear on the problem of the role of the mind within faith and I think this is one where his Presbyterian background seems to have overtaken the ecumenical feel of much of the rest of the book.

The second part of the book was where Noll tried to flesh out the theoretical sections of the first part by giving examples of development of the intellectual life within history, biblical studies and science. The section of the history chapter that was most helpful for me was Noll’s framework talking about what type of history was being created.

“…it is possible to define four kinds of providential history that Christian believers have in fact been writing for quite some time. In a diagram the four cells would be labeled as follows: • History of Christianity oriented toward interpretive questions defined by special revelation (what is seen by the eye of faith) • General history oriented toward interpretive questions defined by special revelation (what is seen by the eye of faith) • General history oriented toward interpretive questions defined by general revelation (what can be seen by all) • History of Christianity oriented toward interpretive questions defined by general revelation (what can be seen by all).” (Kindle Location 1075)

As he works this out in example, he suggests that much of the controversy in history within the Christian world has been the use of different concepts of providence and different end points for who and why the history is being written.

The next two chapters are more controversial for many. Noll uses Peter Enns and his Inspiration and Incarnation as an example of where biblical studies can go. He does not affirm every part of the book, but does affirm that Enns was attempting to take seriously his biblical studies, his creedal boundaries, his academic training and his intellectual curiosity. This was written after Enns was fired from Westminster, so Noll knew he was highlighting a controversial figure and several of the reviews I glanced at seem to have missed Noll’s point in using Enns. Enns has written well about the problems of too closely bounding the academic freedom within the Christian university world, how he understands the role of the creeds and a more popular level book on how we misread scripture because of the problems Noll is citing here.

The last chapter in this section is on science, particularly talking about the problem of focusing too strongly on creation science as ‘the way’ to do science as an Evangelical, which of course is going to be controversial.

The controversy of these chapters I think is partially the point. An intellectual life that is unwilling to challenge will be unable to grow. Noll’s starting point of the creeds and the person of Jesus Christ matters because he is not rejecting either boundaries or faith in advocating a greater ability to challenge one another intellectually. There is no question about Noll’s own Evangelical beliefs, but Noll encourages a stance of openness to the Christian intellectual world outside of the boundaries of the Evangelical stream and that very openness may really be the heart of the problem of the intellectual life. Those that are unwilling to learn and interact with Christian streams outside of Evangelical Christianity will eventually stagnate while those that interact while continuing to be rooted within Evangelical beliefs will grow.

I do not like complaining about missing concepts, but part of the problem of the life of the mind for Evangelicals is the boundaries. Noll has at least two books that particularly focus on how race impacts differences of theology, history, and politics, but that is not really brought into bear here. That aspect of Evangelicalism as ‘White Evangelicalism’ is part of what has come to light post-Trump. Noll does not advocate for a culturally narrow Evangelicalism anywhere in his writing. But here he does not particularly note the weaknesses of an Evangelicalism that is culturally and racially White or geographically biased as American. He does that in other places of his writing, but not particularly well here.

I was quite frustrated at times with this book. But in the end I am encouraged that it was written, even when I disagree with aspects because Noll’s example of intellectual development and encouragement is the point, not the particulars.

Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind by Mark Noll Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook 

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