Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Is there still a scandal afflicting the evangelical mind?

In 1994 Mark Noll published The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. His book, which opened with the much quoted line: 'The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind' (p. 3), despite being the concerned reflections of a 'wounded lover' (p. ix), came as something of a shock to evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic. In a largely historical account of evangelical thinking, Noll castigated American evangelicals in the main for their tendency towards anti-intellectualism and the disparagement of academic learning, theological and otherwise.

Now almost twenty years later Noll has published a follow-up volume: Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011). In what is in some ways a deceptively simple book, Noll lays out the theological framework for the life of the mind. Where The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was critical and polemic, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind is wholeheartedly positive. Noll argues that the great orthodox Christian creeds should form the basis for Christian intellectual activity; much of his case is built upon their close exposition. At the heart of all Christian thinking and intellectual activity, he argues, should be the person and work of Christ himself.

'Thus the greatest hope for Christian learning in our age, or in any age, lies not in primarily in heightened activity, in better funding, or in strategizing for the task at hand - though all these matters play an important part. Rather, the great hope for Christian learning is to delve deeper into the Christian faith itself. And going deeper in Christian faith means, in the end, learning more about Jesus Christ'.

Or again, and still more sucinctly:

'In sum, to believe that we are attached to Christ inspires the confidence that God can be attached to anything we might study' (p. 33).

At the most foundational level, therefore, for Noll the life of the Christian mind is rooted in an orthodox Christology - the God made flesh who dwelt among us, full of grace of truth. The implications of this theological approach to the life of the mind is worked out in a number of areas by Noll: science, biblical study and, of course, history.

Building upon this Christological foundation, Noll addresses some of the problems that inevitably result from introducing a providential explanation in the writing of history. He argues that there are actually four different types of providential history. There are those histories conditioned by interpretations drawn from special revelation, that is explicitly theological explanations. And then there are histories informed by interpretative questions drawn from the realm of general revelation, not as explicitly or overtly Scriptural in their origin. These approaches, he argues, have resulted in four different kinds of Christian history writing:

i) Histories of Christianity which are orientated towards interpretative questions informed solely by special revealtion (the work of Iain Murray would be a good modern example of this approach).

ii) General histories, on subjects wider than the history of Christianity, which are informed by interpretative questions defined by special revelation (Andrew Walls and Kenneth Scott Latourette would be among the best practitioners of this kind of history writing).

iii) General history informed by interpretative questions informed by general revelation (these can often be quite hard to identify with absolute certainly, but Daniel Walker Howe's, What God hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (2007), might be a good example).

iv) Finally, there are histories of Christianity that draw upon interpretative questions defined by general revelation (of which there has been a marked resurgence in recent decades led by Noll himself in the US, and others like David Bebbington in the UK).

Some see these approaches as mutually incompatible; in an acrimonious exchange between Iain Murray of the Banner of Truth and Harry Stout, the author of a fairly controversial biography of George Whitefield (The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Birth of Evangelicalism (1992)) a few years ago these differences were played out. Stout largely using the interpretative strictures of general revelation, argued that Whitefield used his skills as an actor to good effect in his open air preaching. For Murray this was entirely out of order, and a betrayal of onces theological beliefs, if not one's entirely Christian profession, since it explained Whitefield's success without recourse to the work of the Holy Spirit.

Yet, surely the writing of history is never a simple straighforward exercise? Divine explanations and human ones dont need to be mutually exclusive: both are essential to the writing of faithful Christian history on the one hand, and good history as judged by the standards of the professional academy on the other. Its precisely here that the Christology comes in: Christ was both divine and human, his taking human flesh gave honour to the physical creation. Special and general revelation while different are therefore both relevant and important, and should be woven together to create the most integrated kinds of history. Or in Noll's words:

'The incarnation joins particularity and universality: the Christian concept of providence encompasses all of creation as well as the narrative of redemption' (p. 98).

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