Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind
Mark Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, is a prolific author on the history of North American Christianity. In 1994, he published The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, critiquing the sometimes shallow scholarship and intellectual life of Evangelicals. In Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, he turns to the christological foundations for evangelical thinking and scholarship as a way forward from the scandal he lamented earlier.
The book contends that “coming to know Christ provides the most basic possible motive for pursuing the tasks of human learning” (ix–x). The first chapter sketches the main biblical assertions about the person and work of Christ as they came to focus in the early creeds of the church, the Apostles’ and Nicene. Subsequent chapters begin by selecting key phrases from those creeds, as well as from the Chalcedonian Creed, as they provide starting and governing points for the life of the mind. The second and third chapters catalog christological encouragements to study and suggest “how the Christology of the classic creeds might guide scholarship” (xi). The fourth chapter shows how Christ’s substitutionary atonement offers pointers for scholarship-in-general, and the final three chapters are discipline-specific, on history, science, and biblical studies.
Noll’s use of the early creeds offers three advantages: they focus on the centrality of Christ and the Trinity; they are widely accepted by all branches of Christianity; and their liturgical use grounds the life of the mind in the gathered assembly of believers. “The person of Christ and the work of Christ must, however, be considered in the fullness of Christian faith. The Trinity—Father,
Son, and Spirit in the unity of the Godhead—provides the essential, if also deeply mysterious, starting point” (ix). This focus on Christ and the Trinity turns out to be a rich, nuanced foundation for thinking. The ecumenical reach of this project is enhanced by using classical creeds instead of more recent “statements of faith” that are characteristic of the evangelical movement. Although there are rumblings of discontent with the early creeds among progressive and revisionary Christians, for the most part they are accepted and widely used to define what is meant by Christian. And, their use in the standard liturgies of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant bodies places these formulations in settings where Christian character and thinking are being formed by the means of grace: the Word, sacraments, and prayer.
In chapter three, “Jesus Christ: Guidance for Serious Learning,” Noll develops guidelines, to flesh out the implications of the Christology of John 1, Colossians 1, Hebrews 1, and the major creeds for Christians who pursue an academic vocation. The lordship of Christ over all things leads to four expectations that inform intellectual life: duality or doubleness, contingency, particularity, and self-denial. All this shows that Christian intellectual life “can arise as a natural extension of Christian belief” (45).
Duality or doubleness: Noll writes that the Chalcedonian Definition—the two natures of Christ “undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation”—leads to the expectation that Christian scholars “should be predisposed to seek knowledge about particular matters from more than one angle.” He also sees this doubleness in Acts 2:23, Nehemiah 2:8, and Psalm 77:19, where biblical authors recognize “multiple legitimate skeins of cause and effect to explain single human actions” (46). In successive paragraphs, he discusses affirmations of doubleness in the writings of Anselm, B. B. Warfield, Gabriel Fackre, and Robert Palma.
Contingency: Things happen, not because they have to, but because it worked out that way. “Contingency means that if we want to find out about the workings of nature, the reasons why historical events took place... or the motives behind human actions in the present or in the past, we... must seek out as much evidence as possible” (50). In support of this, Noll writes that the message of the apostles was based on their experience of the resurrection, not on the necessary truths of reason. “To all forms of unbelief, however, the response is the same: come and see” (52). Empirical reasoning allows for an escape from pure constructionism or deductive dogmatism; not reasoning downward from what one knows the Bible must be, but reasoning upward as one actually reads it (53). Contingency counters “the tendency of academics to trust their own conclusions instead of letting their ideas be challenged by contact with the world” (55).
Particularity: In the tension between modernity and postmodernity, the incarnation establishes the universality of truth and affirms the perspectival character of truth, holding “together concrete absolutism and nearly infinite flexibility” (58). “Because God revealed himself most clearly in a particular set of circumstances and at a particular time and place, every other particular set of cultural circumstances takes on a fresh potential importance” (55). Noll cites several incidents in Acts—linguistic diversity at Pentecost, the acceptance of cultural diversity at Cornelius’s home, Paul’s comment about God’s making the nations from one man and setting their times and places (Acts 17)—to support this principle. He concludes, “The universal meaning of the incarnation both relativizes and dignifies all other cultural situations” (57). As a liturgical theologian, I particularly appreciate the implications for the contextualization of liturgy, with “nearly infinite flexibility” in practicing the classical, universal ordo.
Self-denial: A five-year-old daughter of two friends has been learning about worship and, as her father told me, “is just aware enough to be liturgically intolerant.” The life of the mind is similarly strewn with temptations to hubris. “Before the mysteries of the incarnation, intellectuals who realize how much their own work depends on Christ’s work simply accept that all intellectual endeavors are limited.... [T]o grasp that scholars are justified by faith and not by their scholarship can also have a tremendously liberating consequence for learning itself” (61–62). Similarly, membership in the body of Christ where all are called to equally important service helps the intellectual to maintain the proper humility. In my experience, coffee conversations with techies, musicians, secretaries, and social workers—or Bible studies with the same mix—help one to respect the varied gifts of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12–31).
In the final chapters, Noll explores how an evangelical understanding of Christ’s saving work provides a canopy for the study of history, science, and the Bible. For Noll’s own discipline, the creeds’ summary of the history of redemption gives him a place to stand as he considers the nature of historical knowledge (neither postivistic modernism nor relativistic postmodernism) and the doctrine of providence applied to historical writing. “The same creedal Christianity that banishes historical skepticism also administers a powerful check to blithe overconfidence about the reach of historical knowledge” (82). Historical research can discover truth, but the writing always reflects local circumstances; only God knows it all. Although God’s providence guides all events, our ability to understand the means by which God rules is limited both by our finiteness and our flaws.
For science, Noll provides a survey of the religion-science engagement since the sixteenth century, showing that on both sides there are deeply entrenched convictions, attitudes, and assumptions. To move beyond the impasse, he offers a case study from the writings of Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield (110–16). During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Warfield engaged the thinking of Darwin, distinguishing between Darwinism as a cosmological theory and evolution as a series of explanations about natural development, denying the former and accepting the probability of the latter.
For biblical studies, Noll notes two brief but crucial phrases in the creeds: “in accordance with the Scriptures” (Nicea) and “as the prophets taught” (Chalcedon). The Bible’s primary function is to tell the story of the “kingdom inaugurated in, by, with, and under Jesus Christ” (126). His case study here is Peter Enns’s christotelic hermeneutic and Enns’s use of Warfield’s analogy between the incarnation of Christ (Chalcedon again) and Scripture’s full humanity and divinity (132–145). Noll’s treatment of Enns’s proposals (Enns, Incarnation and Inspiration, 2005) is calm, thoughtful, and nuanced. Noll concludes, “Stressing the capacity of revelation to unite humanity and divinity in perfect integration puts believing scholars on the path to intellectual insight” (145).
In a postscript, Noll asks, “how fares the ‘Evangelical Mind’?” He is now “more hopeful than despairing, more attuned to possibilities than to problems” (153). He goes on to note ten hopeful signs: in evangelical colleges, in pluralistic universities, in seminaries, in cooperation between evangelical and Roman Catholic scholars, in philanthropic support, in the renaissance of Christian philosophy, in the sciences, in publishing, in contacts with the Two-Thirds world, and in the impact of Evangelicals on the broader academy. All in all, this is a most satisfying book, the fruit of years of careful scholarship and following Noll’s own principles. This is the kind of book where the reader can agree or disagree without feeling he or she is in an unpleasant argument.