Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind

Mark Noll is no stranger to scholars of the humanities. His professional area of expertise is the history of Christianity in the United States, and his intellectual endeavors have been both wide ranging and well received. Noll was named one of America’s most influential evangelicals by Time in 2005, and received the National Humanities Medal in 2006. He succeeded George Marsden as the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame in 2008. Despite these honors, Noll is probably best known among evangelicals for his 1994 work The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, in which he famously lamented that the “scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind”(3).

In Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, Noll reflects on the current state of the evangelical mind and revisits his thesis that fidelity to Christ “demands from evangelicals a more responsible intellectual existence” (Scandal 27). He begins with what he describes as a “place to stand . . . from which to see” (1). Here he outlines various biblical claims about the person of Jesus as understood and clarified by the classical Christian creeds (Apostolic, Nicean, and Chalcedonian). Those who follow “no creed but the Bible” are chastised for ostracizing themselves from key understandings about the nature of divine revelation. Biblical truths—both the Old and New Testaments—are summarized by, and embedded in, the creeds, which offer believers “the stuff needed for engaging minds for Christ” (22). It is, after all, Jesus Christ who is the ultimate revelation of the Father. Noll’s overarching theme is that getting to know Christ is “the most basic possible motive for pursuing the tasks of human learning” (x).

Drawing from authors and scholars as diverse as N.T. Wright, Pope Benedict XVI, and Jonathan Edwards, Noll reminds his audience that the “Jesus Christ who saves sinners is the same Christ who beckons his followers to serious use of their minds” (41). The practical ramifications of a Christian life of the mind do not go unnoticed. Noll provides four general expectations drawn from orthodox Christology that are needful to guide learning expectations: doubleness, contingency, particularity, and self-denial.

By doubleness (or duality), Noll means that Christian scholars should embrace the dual nature of Christ (divine and human) as a model for seeking knowledge on matters from more than one angle. Contingency suggests that scholars wanting to understand nature, historical events, or human motives should not reason downward from philosophical or theological conviction, but rather find as much evidence as possible about the subject at hand. He correctly insists this practice provides a useful counter to the scholarly tendency to trust one’s own conclusions rather than letting closely held ideas come into contact with the world beyond. God’s choice to reveal himself through Christ, in a very particular event, signals for Noll the importance of particular sets of circumstances in particular times and places. He stresses that Christians who would seek an intellectual life must provide “mediation” between the specific and the general, the perspectival and the universal. Finally, Noll understands that the degrees, awards, interviews and publications associated with the modern academy can easily lead scholars into the sins of pride, callousness, cliquishness, and factionalism. While these threats are real, they are not to be seen as an argument against scholarship, but rather as an argument for knowing Christ and the self-denial such knowledge brings. Understanding the universal need for an atoning Savior demands that scholars resist making their intellect the locus of their self-worth.

History, science, and biblical study provide for Noll three discipline-specific areas in which he further delineates how Christological realities might offer a distinctly Christian vision of scholarship. For Noll, understanding how the past and present relate is of critical significance for Christianity. He insists that traditional Christianity offers a middle way between the shoals of relativistic postmodernism and naïve positivism in historical scholarship. Noll goes on to stress the importance of providence for history writing, and offers four paths for legitimate providential history. He then engages the relationship between science and religion and provides a useful tutorial on their historical intersections. He concludes that much of the contemporary conflict between faith and science is a result of “polemicist on all sides carrying . . . entrenched convictions, attitudes, and assumptions” (109) into the present conversation. He offers nineteenth-century scholar Benjamin B. Warfield as exemplary of how to harmonize evolutionary theory with a serious view of scripture. Noll realizes that the resolution of problems stemming from biblical interpretation and interpretations of nature will not come easy, but believes that with scientific knowledge, biblical training, and “humility of spirit” (124), it is possible. Interpretation of scripture is at once complex and controversial, and Noll draws heavily from Peter Enns in his effort to assert the centrality of Christ in understanding the whole of scripture.

Noll’s tone throughout the work is hopeful, and this optimism is reflected in the postscript, an updated assessment of the evangelical mind. While many of his descriptions and evaluations from 1994 still ring true, auspicious signs abound. The efforts of evangelical colleges and universities (even Bible schools) in adding new faculty, starting new programs, and raising money for research professorships are celebrated. Likewise, the maturity of many traditional theological seminaries, the budding cooperation between evangelical and Roman Catholic scholars, and the growing support from philanthropies for evangelical scholarship also garner Noll’s attention. The growth of professional scientific organizations that take both faith and empirical science seriously, a healthy Christian presence in serious publishing, global developments in Christianity and the growing awareness in North America of the positive effect of individual Christian scholars, are all proof to Noll of faithful scholars beginning to engage with the “unmatched treasures of Jesus Christ” (167).

Christian educators will find Noll’s text an embarrassment of riches and well worth its 2012 award of merit by Christianity Today. The bibliography alone is worth perusing, though it will be important for readers to understand Noll’s earlier work—not simply for philosophical continuity, but because The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind provides a clear understanding as to exactly what Noll means when he speaks of an evangelical mind. In an academic climate in which Christian scholars are increasingly grappling with issues of faith and learning, Noll provides a welcome addition to this genre, especially for those who are engaged in historical, biblical, or scientific pursuits. Despite the weighty nature of the content, his prose is crisp, and readers should find his explanations and propositions clear and forthright. Nonetheless, some may find troubling his treatment of postmodern theory as something to be “rejected without a qualm” (78). Scholars like James K.A. Smith and John D. Caputo (to name but a few) have certainly provided reasons to problematize these sorts of statements. Noll’s celebration of the power and pertinence of modern science should be heeded by contemporary evangelicals, but his claim that Richard Dawkins has matched what “Creation Science” offers “blow by blow” (109) may reveal limitations in his knowledge of current scientific literature. Nevertheless, these issues are small compared to the strength of Noll’s text and his challenging conviction that Christian scholars should be “wholeheartedly committed to the tasks of learning.”

Works Cited

  • Noll, Mark A. Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011.
  • Noll, Mark A. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994.