Stars in the Margins: Mark Noll Quotes from ‘Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind’
On the whole, I found Mark Noll’s 2011 book Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind to be a disappointment. Admittedly, this is because I had enormously high expectations. Not only is he my favorite author writing about one of my favorite topics–the life of the mind–but the publisher billed it as the sequel to the book that saved and transformed my faith, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. This latest work, however, seemed to me to be more of a loose collection of reflections with more Reformed bias than its tight, inspired predecessor. I’d probably give it a B- and can’t say I’d highly recommend it, which is saying something coming from this Mark Noll fanboy. Yet it remains a Noll book, and therefore inevitably contains flashes of lucid brilliance and insight, especially in those occasional instances when he unleashes his inner curmudgeon. As the second post of my “Stars in the Margins” series, what I’m sharing below are the quotes that I found too excellent not to share. I hope they’ll encourage, challenge, refine, and/or help you as much as they did for me.
Quotes from Other Authors
I was brought up in a Christian movement where, because God had to be given pre-eminence, nothing else was allowed to be important. I have broken through to the position that because God exists, everything else has significance. – Evangeline Patterson
[T]he virtues of the Christian intellectual [include] a passion for being because the Father is the Creator and the Source of all being; a reverence for language because Jesus Christ is the Word and Mind of the Father; an enthusiasm for history because the Holy Spirit works through history to produce variety and to unite all men to himself. – Jaroslav Pelikan
Why should you turn from God when you turn to your books, or feel that you must turn from your books in order to turn to God? – B.B. Warfield
If the mysteries of the incarnation lie beyond full human comprehension, and if Jesus himself confessed during his earthly ministry that there were things he did not know, then scholars following Jesus should be doubly aware of how limited their own wisdom truly is. Knowing Christ, in other words, means learning humility.
If this passage [Genesis 1:16-20] was believed, it would never be appropriate to set matters of salvation and matters of wisdom or knowledge in opposition… Rather, both the salvation won by Christ and the study of ‘all things’ would be viewed as intimately related to each other because both are dependent upon Jesus Christ.
Put most simply, for believers to be studying created things is to be studying the works of Christ. For the argument that the second person of the Trinity was the active agent in the divine creation of the world, it does not follow that his work of redemption was less important. Loyalty to the reality of Christ the Redeemer does not require disloyalty to the reality of Christ as Creator.
Taking this strand of New Testament teaching seriously reveals the world in a new light. There simply is nothing humanly possible to study about the created realm that, in principle, leads us away from Jesus Christ. To be sure, humans may misunderstand knowledge gained by studying the world, put it to evil uses, transform it into an idol, or otherwise abuse it. But these shortcomings do not alter the fact that, in the biblical view, the world was brought into existence by Jesus Christ.
[I]f what we claim about Jesus Christ is true, then evangelicals should be among the most active, most serious, and most open-minded advocates of general human learning. Evangelical hesitation about scholarship in general or about pursuing learning wholeheartedly is, in other words, antithetical to the Christ-centered basis of the evangelical faith.
[I]t has become conventional to think that belief in the Christian story opposes serious commitment to intellectual exploration of the world. There are no good reasons for this opinion. It rests on misreadings of the Christian story and misapprehensions of the intellectual life. The Jesus Christ who saves sinners is the same Christ who beckons his followers to serious use of their minds for serious exploration of the world. It is part of the deepest foundation of Christian reality — it is an important part of understanding who Jesus is what he accomplishes — to study the world, the human structures found in the world, the human experiences of the world, and the humans who experience the world. Nothing intrinsic in that study should drive people away from Jesus Christ. Much that is intrinsic in Jesus Christ should drive people to that study.
The Value of the Classic Creed
Christian bodies that claim to follow ‘no creed but the Bible’ put themselves at an enormous disadvantage for many purposes, not least for promoting Christian learning, because they cut themselves off from the vitally important work that has been accomplished by numberless assemblies making up the communion of saints. That communion stretching back in time to the apostolic age and out in space to the ends of the earth is crucial for grasping the meaning of divine revelation in itself and for understanding how that revelation illuminates the world as a whole.
Modern vs. Postmodern Epistemology
[I]n Scripture God is pictured both as personal and as the source of all truth. Thus, the controversy in much contemporary debate over whether truth should be considered as either objective or subjective represents a false dichotomy.
[B]elievers can negotiate calmly through the perilous tides of modernity and postmodernity. One the one side, the once-for-all character of the incarnation of God in Christ establishes the universality of truth as vigorously as did the most ardent advocates of the Enlightenment. But on the other side, the incarnation represented a divinely constituted particularity and so affirms the perspectival character of truth as radically as postmodernists. Believers in the biblical religion defined by classical doctrines about Christ can, thus, hold together concrete absolutism and nearly infinite flexibility.
The implications for Christian scholarship from… a double-sided picture of redemption stretch the mind considerably. One the one hand, the particularity at the center of Christianity justifies a rooted, perspectival understanding of truth that embraces unabashedly the crucial significance of all other particularities of time, place, cultural value, and social location. On the other hand, since the birth of Christ was for all people in all times and places, the incarnation undergirds confidence in the possibility of universal truth. Christian support for theories of culture based on the particularity of social expression is, therefore, very strong. But that support does not verge over into nihilism or relativism denying the presence of universal value. The key is that God used the particular means of the incarnation to accomplish a universal redemption.
Dangers of Academia
The sins of scholars are mostly those common to humankind: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. But the predispositions of intellectuals and the circumstances of formal learning also makes a few temptations especially threatening. There is pride to be cultivated in degrees earned, books published, honors bestowed, or interviews granted; academic introversion can easily transform into callousness toward people of ordinary intelligence; cliquishness and partisanship can be exploited for promoting my faction, race, sex, political persuasion at the expense of others; and there is an eagerness to view the gifts that are not congenial to scholarship as somehow less important. These and other sins of intellectuals are familiar to everyone with any experience in the academy. They amount not to an argument against scholarship, but to occasions for redemption.
Update: The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind
[S]erious problems continue to bedevil evangelical thinking.
The current dilemma for Christian learning in North America could be described, though too simplistically, in the following generalizations. On the one side, Pentecostals, Southern Baptists, members of Holiness movements, seeker-sensitive churches, dispensationalists, Adventists, African American congregations, radical Wesleyans, and lowest-common-denominator evangelicals have great spiritual energy, but flounder in putting the mind to use for Christ. On the other hand, Lutherans, Catholics, Anglo-Catholics, the Reformed, and even the Eastern Orthodox enjoy incredibly rich traditions that include sterling examples of Christian thought, but often display a comatose spirituality.
[E]vangelicalism has been a movement whose great strengths also define significant weaknesses. Compassionate concern for the immediate needs of individuals and their families, addressed right now, has been the defining hallmark. Evangelicalism is a religion of conversion, and hence effective in proclaiming God’s ability to change people immediately; it is a religion of revival, and hence committed to bringing life back into merely formal observances; it is a religion of the people, and hence able to recruit great numbers for meaningful Christian tasks. Yet these commendable traits pose problems for the intellectual life, sincere serious thinking takes a lot of time, must honor the contributions of past generations, and often relies on the special insights of intellectual elites.