Evangelical appropriation

Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind by Mark Noll. Eerdmans, 2011, 196pp.

Nearly 20 years ago Mark Noll published The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, a clarion call for evangelical Christians to re-examine their attitude towards the intellect. Noll wanted to understand why contemporary evangelicalism seemed to ignore the life of the mind in preference for a more affective faith and how this fact could be explained historically. In so doing he also alerted readers to the sometimes sophisticated intellectual side of past evangelicals. Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind extends these aspects of the Scandal’s aims by outlining more concretely the resources upon which evangelicals might draw in order to cultivate the intellect as an integral part of their faith.

Put briefly, Noll thinks that the evangelical mind should be rooted in the historical creeds of Christian orthodoxy—the Apostles’ Creed, the Council of Nicaea, the Council of Chalcedon. These doctrinal statements provide a “place from which to stand” as well as the motivation and the means by which to approach the world. For instance, the Triune understanding of the Christian God can provide motivation for philosophical inquiry (the Being of God), for the study of language (the Son as the Word), and for the writing of history (God’s providential action as the Holy Spirit). Similarly, the doctrine of Creation can inspire evangelicals to seriously study the natural universe as God’s work, while the doctrine of Incarnation provides motivation for the study of the situated human personality (i.e. the humanities and human sciences). Furthermore, an evangelical interpretation of Scripture and the concomitant Scriptural-providential reading of history can be grounded in practices which can serve evangelicals well in today’s academy. For instance, the “doubleness” of Christ’s nature (man/God) as understood by Trinitarians can be extended to analogous situations in Scripture and in history in which an alteration in perspective yields a new and different understanding of a given event. Likewise, Noll suggests that the contingency and particularity so often evident in the narratives found in Scripture can be a model for similar approaches to the human sciences and humanities.

Each of these points is of course open to question. However, Noll does not attempt to present an apology for evangelical belief in Jesus Christ (pun intended), but rather to show how evangelical belief can integrate a cultivated intellectual life. As someone raised in evangelicalism and who has spent the past decade in the academy, I find this approach understandable but somewhat unsatisfying—for in cultivating the life of the mind isn’t it likely that questions will arise about the very basis of evangelical belief and practice in the first place? In other words, won’t a reflective evangelical examine the “place from which they stand?” In contrast to his Notre Dame colleague Alasdair MacIntyre, Noll does not answer the question of how the evangelical mind fits within the philosophical orientation of universities and colleges in North America and Europe today. Whereas MacIntyre has put forward a trenchant critique of what he sees as the rival philosophical approaches to the question of truth—most recently in God, Philosophy, Universities—Noll simply outlines a portrait of the evangelical mind which can find a place in today’s institutions of higher learning. In short, this book doesn’t really address the question of how to navigate the truth of belief—a somewhat glaring omission given the fact that many young evangelicals are likely to find their beliefs challenged at university.

A related problem arises with the historical side of the outline. As with the Scandal, in Jesus Christ Noll provides examples of past evangelicals who serve as exemplars of what an intellectually engaged faith might look like. These include W. B. Warfield, an evangelical who fruitfully engaged with and appropriated Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, as well as the Canadian historian George Rawlyk, a committed Baptist and socialist. Noll seems to be suggesting that present evangelicals can look to their past and reclaim an intellectual heritage which might free them from present-minded constraints—in this case, Creationism or capitalism. Yet, quite obviously, the past is as full of non-evangelical, non-orthodox, and non-Christian possibilities as well. Elsewhere, in books such as Turning Points: Decisive Moments in Christian History, Noll has attempted to sketch the historical nature of what he sees as Christian orthodoxy through its controversies. In spite of this scholarly care, however, it is still a much smoother, far less complicated account than can be found in other general histories written for a public audience, such as Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years or David Chidester’s A Global History of Christianity. It isn’t clear from Jesus Christ how Noll would advise his evangelical readers to navigate this apparent historical pluralism or what it might imply about the intellectual side of evangelical belief. These questions only get murkier when Noll insists on the legitimacy of providential history without ever specifying what this might look like—how exactly does a historian read the hand of God in the affairs of humankind today?

Another of Noll’s historical insights offers what seems to me to be a more fruitful way forward. In The New Shape of World Christianity he revises David Bebbington’s evangelical quadrilateral by adding appropriationism to bibliocentrism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. That is, he suggests that evangelicals have displayed a readiness to forsake tradition in the name of appropriating their faith in new circumstances. The intellectual and practical adaptability of evangelicals in many historical circumstances has enabled them to remain “true” to the other four characteristics in Bebbington’s formulation.

This strikes me as a potentially interesting revision. One of the things Noll calls for in his examination of the evangelical life of the mind is a reconsideration of Jesus Christ. Stated baldly, this seems like a rather well-worn trope. But if we turn Noll’s “reconsideration” of Christ into the “realization” of Christ, perhaps we get closer to his more provocative intention. We might rephrase it by saying that evangelicals already possess the intellectual resources which can help them remain faithful to their beliefs, so long as that faithfulness is understood as an appropriation and not as the literal imposition of a particular image of the past. To realize the past anew, as Paul Ricoeur argues superbly in La memoire, l’histoire, l’oubli, is much more than a restoring or a re-actualizing of the past, it is “a matter of recalling, replying to, retorting, even of revoking heritages. The creative power of repetition is unleashed in the of opening up the past again to the future.” Perhaps the evangelical appropriation of faith in today’s circumstances, in keeping with a continued emphasis on the centrality of the Bible, the crucifixion, the experience of conversion, and practical action, can open up a new future. Noll has certainly provided further impetus for a renewed evangelicalism, joining a growing chorus of popular scholars such as Christian Smith and Peter Enns arguing for much the same thing. The challenge, of course, will be whether or not this new future is seen as sufficiently “evangelical” enough for those who continue to identify as such. As Ricouer notes, one of the powers of history lies in its ability to recall past heritages, what Noll calls “a place from which to stand.” Yet critical history can also retort and revoke that same heritage in the name of truth and justice. If Noll is right, and evangelicals have displayed a willingness to forsake tradition in the name of appropriating the gospel anew, there is reason to hope that they can be enabled by their history to embrace a wider possible future.

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