Monday, October 25, 2004

Is There Still a Scandal?

Ten years ago, Mark Noll - Professor of History at Wheaton College - wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind that began with the now famous quote, ""The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind."

The book had an enormous influence. Ted Olsen, Online Managing Editor for Christianity Today, writes that the book "has arguably shaped the evangelical world (or at least its institutions) more than any other book published in the last decade."

He also lets us know that in the most recent issue of First Things, Noll comments on the current state of intellectual evangelicalism:

Ten years after the publication of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, I remain largely unrepentant about the book’s historical arguments, its assessment of evangelical strengths and weaknesses, and its indictment of evangelical intellectual efforts, though I have changed my mind on a few matters.

Noll continues,

Taken together, American evangelicals display many virtues and do many things well, but built-in barriers to careful and constructive thinking remain substantial.

These barriers include an immediatism that insists on action, decision, and even perfection right now, a populism that confuses winning supporters with mastering actually existing situations, an anti-traditionalism that privileges one’s own current judgments on biblical, theological, and ethical issues (however hastily formed) over insight from the past (however hard won and carefully stated), and a nearly gnostic dualism that rushes to spiritualize all manner of bodily, terrestrial, physical, and material realities (despite the origin and providential maintenance of these realities in God). In addition, we evangelicals as a rule still prefer to put our money into programs offering immediate results, whether evangelistic or humanitarian, instead of into institutions promoting intellectual development over the long term.

Yet Noll notes,

That being said, it must also be noted that were I to attempt such a book as The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind today, it would have a different tone—more hopeful than despairing, more attuned to possibilities than to problems, more concerned with theological resources than theological deficiencies.

The basis for Noll's hope, he suggests, is our becoming more radically Christocentric.

But how will evangelicals pursue goals defined by phrases like "first-rate Christian scholarship" or "the Christian use of the mind," when these phrases sound like a call to backsliding for some in the churches and like a simple oxymoron for many in the broader world? For a Christian in the evangelical tradition, the only enduring answer must come from considering Jesus Christ as sustaining the world and all that is in it. In the light of Christ, we can undertake a whole-hearted, unabashed, and unembarrassed effort to understand this world. In a mind fixed on him, there is intrinsic hope for the development of intellectual seriousness, intellectual integrity, and intellectual gravity.

Without apology, Noll also states in the article that evangelicals tend to favor the nouveau and eschew - to their own detriment - the riches of tradition. When he speaks of "tradition", he does not mean empty formalities evacuated of their meaning, but rather that which thousands of minds have reflected on for hundreds of years. When he speaks of listening to tradition, he means listening to the Church in all her time.

Noll goes on to detail what specifically encourages him in an article well worth reading.

I continue to be concerned that such an enthusiasm for the mind might still yet lead to a stultified intellectualism when it's combined with a belief that spiritual transformation occurs primarily through information transfer. I've argued elsewhere, rather, that the transpropositional is a non-negotiable for spiritual change. I've tried in another place to give some idea of how a lack of the transpropositional can not only lead to non-holistic theologizing but also to incorrect theologizing through the inability to prioritize. (In the referenced article, see the section that speaks about neurologist Antonio Damasio).

But I'm certain that Noll has identified the corrective (while perhaps not teasing it out as much as we would like) that will achieve both propositional and transpropositional balance and true and holistic intellectual depth: a radical focus on Jesus Christ - a focus that's passionate, attentive, committed and awake. This focus only comes when we abide in Him in a way that reflects all the Johannine riches of that phrase.

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