Mr. Standfast

"Nothing taken for granted; everything received with gratitude; everything passed on with grace." G. K. Chesterton

November 15, 2004

Food for Thought (II)

Ten years ago Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was first published. Noll indicted the evangelical world generally for its intellectual flabbiness. Now Noll has written a retrospective on the ten years since Scandal, (in a recent issue of First Things) in an attempt to answer the question, how much has changed? What follows is an extended quotation that I found quite interesting and would subscribe to whole heartedly:

we who are in pietistic, generically evangelical, Baptist, fundamentalist, Restorationist, holiness, "Bible church," megachurch, or Pentecostal traditions face special difficulties when putting the mind to use. 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.

These evangelical habits continue to hamper evangelical thinking. We remain inordinately susceptible to enervating apocalyptic speculation, and we produce and consume oceans of bathetic End Times literature while sponsoring only a trickle of serious geopolitical analysis. We are consistently drawn to so-called "American Christianities"—occasionally of the left, more often of the right—that subordinate principled reasoning rooted in the gospel to partisanship in which opponents are demonized and deficiencies in our friends are excused.
But Noll is not completely pessimistic. Read on:
For evangelicals (as for other Christians) the greatest hope for learning in any age lies not primarily in heightened activity, nor in better funding, nor in sounder strategizing—though all of these exertions have an important role to play. Rather, the great hope for Christian learning lies in the Christian faith itself, which in the end means in Jesus Christ. Thus, if evangelicals are the people of the gospel we claim to be, our intellectual rescue is close at hand.

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.
The greater part of this article is then taken up with the many signs, throughout the Evangelical world, of increasing seriousness where learning, scholarship, rigorous thinking are concerned.


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