Mark Noll is renowned for his significant contributions to American religious history. He is also known as the author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, in which he made the stinging critique, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind” (3).
In Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, his follow-up volume to Scandal almost two decades later, Noll presents a more hopeful (though not completely rosy) picture and seeks to draw on Christian theology as a resource to guide scholars in developing a rich intellectualism.
While evangelicals celebrate evangelism and action that results in immediate conversions and transformations, those pursuits tend to devalue the slow, reflective life of the mind. Noll argues that a Christology bathed in the early Christian creeds—particularly the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon—offers a model for engaging the created world. The full humanity and full deity of Christ together provide a balance between recognizing both natural and supernatural realities in scholarly endeavors.
Rather than engage all the arguments in Noll’s book, I’d like to highlight a few salient points, particularly as they relate to historical work.
To begin, Noll doesn’t call evangelicals to jettison their activism, evangelism, and biblicism. However, he notes, “if evangelicals are to make a genuinely Christian contribution to intellectual life, they must ground faith in the great traditions of classical Christian theology, for these are the traditions that reveal the heights and depths of Jesus Christ. Intellectually, there is no other way” (22).
Here Noll underscores the resources from historical theology for loving the Lord with all one’s mind. In fact, while society often views Christians as anti-intellectual and opposed to serious engagement with the world, Christ himself as the God-Man serves as the basis for an active life of the mind:
“The Jesus Christ who saves sinners is the same Christ who beckons his followers to serious use of their minds for serious explorations of the world. It is part of the deepest foundation of Christian reality … 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 a person away from Jesus Christ. Much that is intrinsic in Jesus Christ should drive a person to that study” (41).
When thinking about historical knowledge, then, Noll suggests that the two-nature Christology of Chalcedon provides the foundation for Christian historians to adopt a “modest realism” (84). Such an approach navigates between the extremes of modern positivism and postmodern relativism. Noll explains:
“Unlike postmodernism—exemplified at its extreme by radical forms of multiculturalism—biblical religion holds forthrightly to an ideal of universal truth. Yet unlike modernism—exemplified at its extreme by the overweening objectivism of Enlightenment rationality—biblical religion describes truth as a function of subjective personal relationships. …What it does provide is some reassurance about the potential for grasping actual historical fact, however hedged around by self-limiting qualifications” (77, 84).
By recognizing the fall, historians avoid the cliff of hubris where people claim that they can know all the facts of history. Yet by recognizing God’s providential work in time and space, historians can affirm the real possibility of grasping truth about the past. Thus, Christian historians embrace a “chastened realism” when considering the accessibility of historical knowledge (84).
In Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, Noll does not offer all the answers one might want when thinking about how evangelical Christianity and intellectual engagement fit together. Nor does he aim to do so. While some will undoubtedly take issue with aspects of his arguments and how Christians ought to apply them to scholarly endeavors, this volume provides a thought-provoking appropriation of Christian theology that challenges evangelical historians—and scholars of other fields—to nurture a full-orbed life of the mind.