Archive for June, 2014

Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind

June 10, 2014

Review of
Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind by Mark A. Noll
Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011

How fares the evangelical mind? Mark Noll’s new book is a follow-up of his earlier The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994). In a postcript updating his earlier assessment, Noll informs us that if he were to attempt another full-scale historical assessment of evangelical scholarship “it would have a different tone – more hopeful than despairing, more attuned to possibilities than to problems, more concerned with theological resources than with theological deficiencies” (153).

Christian scholarship must be centered in Jesus Christ, according to Noll. Chapter 1 therefore offers an overview of the main assertions about the person and work of Jesus Christ as found in the bible and the early creeds. Noll’s christological focus breathes some new life into the long-standing Reformed creation/fall/redemption paradigm as a foundation for Christian scholarship. Christ is the creator of all things. In Him all things hold together. Therefore Christ is the foundation of all wisdom and knowledge. And it is Christ who will finally reconcile to himself all things (26-7; Col. 1:13-20; 2:1-3).

There can be no greater motivation to engage in Christian scholarship than such a christological focus (ch. 2). For believers “to be studying created things is to be studying the works of Christ,” and there is nothing in such studies that can in principle, lead us away from Jesus Christ (25). In Chapter 3, Noll tries to show how Jesus Christ provides some general guidance to Christian scholarship. For example, he maintains that christology “provides a sure antidote to the moral diseases of the intellectual life” (61). As followers of Jesus Christ, Christian scholars should be “humble, charitable, self-giving, and modest” (64). Indeed!

Some of the other suggestions Noll makes in chapter 3, however, seem to me to be more problematic. For example, Noll makes much of the dual nature of Christ. He argues that the “doubleness” of Christ should make Christian scholars more accepting of the paradoxical and the mysterious in their disciplines (45, 49, 64). While I agree with this advice, I am not sure it should be deduced from the fact that Christ was both human and divine. Surely this application follows more directly from the doctrine of human fallibility, which in fact Noll touches on elsewhere (61, 78). Similar problems arise in Noll’s defense of empiricism as the better way to come to know the world (51-2, 117-20). The repeated response to unbelief in the gospel accounts, “come and see,” surely does not in itself prove that we should use a “come and see” approach in doing science. While I agree with Noll’s later emphasis of the importance of empiricism in science (ch. 6), I think this conclusion is better grounded in the doctrines of creation and incarnation, which in fact Noll hints at in places (25, 35). At times it seems Noll makes his christological emphasis carry more weight than it is able to.

Noll is well aware of the “risks” involved in becoming more specific about a christological approach to study (65). When dealing with the doctrine of atonement as “A Theological Principle to Frame Scholarship” (ch. 4), he is therefore careful to describe his six suggestions as “possibilities” (71). In the final chapter he reminds the reader that his aim is “not to recruit scholars for particular programs or a specific set of conclusions about their disciplines” (147). The aim is instead to inspire evangelical Christians (and others) to think more deeply and seriously about how Christ might shape their particular disciplines.

Three chapters work out the implications of Christology for three different disciplines. Noll is more confident about the conclusions he draws about history in chapter 5 – this is after all his specialty (147). Chapter 6 provides an instructive historical and theological analysis of tensions that have been thought to exist between science and scripture, including the question of origins. Chapter 7 examines christology as a foundation for biblical studies. Here Noll draws on Peter Enns’s controversial book, Inspiration and Incarnation (Baker, 2005). Noll agrees with Enns that just as Christ was both human and divine, so we need to affirm both the human origins and the divine inspiration of the Scriptures.

I would certainly recommend this book for all educators and academics. While questions can be raised about some of Noll’s attempts to work out the implications of christology for the life of the mind, many of his suggestions are helpful, and his overall challenge to make Jesus Christ central to academic life is refreshing and inspiring.

[This review was first published in Journal of Education and Christian Belief, 2012, 16(1):118-20]