Friday, November 30, 2012

Mark Noll's Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind

Those who enjoyed Mark Noll's insightful book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, will probably be interested in his new book, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. It is a very different kind of book for some obvious reasons.The former book is a discussion of what Noll saw as the sorry state of Evangelical intellectual life in America. It was a critique. In the latter book Noll lays out a program for reinvigorating Evangelical intellectual life. It is much easier to write a critique than lay out a program for improvement. Noll is to be congratulated for taking on the harder challenge. I think, however, that Noll's program is doomed to failure because he focuses on the wrong things.

Noll takes as his starting point the creeds. This assumes that the fourth and fifth centuries are the high-water mark for Christian scholarship and thinking, and that the creeds are the high point of Christian thought. This is hardly the case, as anyone who has read Ramsay MacMullen's Voting About God In Early Church Councils knows only too well.

I think that Noll should have started with the words of Jesus himself.
Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. (Matthew 22:35-38).
Clearly serving God with our minds is a commandment and failure to use the minds that God gave us is a sin. That seems the proper starting point.

There is much in Noll's focus on centering our learning on Jesus Christ that has merit. But I would rather focus on the Jesus of the scriptures rather than the Jesus depicted in man-made uninspired creeds. In his book Noll makes his strongest case from the Bible rather than the creeds.

Readers of Noll's book should be warned that much of the case that Noll is making rests upon philosophical categories that he does not explain very well (and which do not appear in the subject index). Nevertheless, he has some important insights and it might be worth wading through the philosophical mire to find them.