Review: Mark Noll’s Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind

Thank-you to InterVarsity colleague Tom Trevethan for giving the Emerging Scholars Network the permission to republish his review of Mark Noll’s Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, originally in the Faculty Ministry’s Lamp PostNote: Mark Noll was the featured speaker at the 2012 Midwest Faculty Conference. 

Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind

Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind by Mark Noll (Eerdmans, 2011).

Many thought of Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind as a sequel to The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1994), which began with the biting observation and lament, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” But aside from an appendix that updates his view of the current state of the evangelical mind, this work has little direct connection to Scandal. Rather, what we are given is a review of the Christian convictions that have shaped Professor Noll’s distinguished work and four decade long academic career. What we are given above all is an account of the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ as the foundation for the life of learning. In Him, Professor Noll insists with clarity and forcefulness and evident devotion and joy, “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

Jesus Christ as Our Foundation

Noll draws on both Scripture (the theme of “glory” in Old and New Testaments, pp. 3-8; the vision of “the Lamb that was slain” in Revelation, pp.8-11; and especially the three great Christological passages in John 1, Colossians 1, and Hebrews 1) and the ecumenical creeds as our profoundest exposition and meditation on Scripture. We are given a profound picture of the greatness of our Lord Jesus Christ. All things are from him, and through him, and for him. He holds all things together. All things are shaped by and resound to the glory of Jesus. This being the case, our desire to know is among the things grounded and shaped by the Master. Discipleship to him entails and enables the life of the mind to the praise of his glory.

Noll observes,

Because of a series of contingent events over the last two centuries, it has become conventional to think that belief in the Christian story opposes serious commitment to intellectual explorations 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. That 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 — it is an important part of understandings of who Jesus is and 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 a person away from Jesus Christ. Much that is intrinsic in Jesus Christ should drive a person to that study (p. 41).

Having laid this foundation, we are then given a richly thoughtful account of how this glorious truth about the Lord Jesus motivates and guides serious learning, followed by more specific application of to three sample academic disciplines, science, history, and Biblical studies. For just a taste of his thoughts consider this summary that concludes the third chapter: “Jesus Christ: Guidance for Serious Learning” (p.64),

Scholarship that is keyed expressly to the person and work of Christ will not be disoriented by confronting the paradoxical or the mysterious; it will always be more comfortable in what comes to the mind from outside than in what the mind concludes on its own; it will realize the value of particulars because of the Christian universals; and it will be humble, charitable, self-giving, and modest. The reason in each case is the same:

We believe in one God the Father all-powerful, Maker of heaven and of earth, and of all things both seen and unseen. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things came to be . . . .

Professor Noll’s concluding words ring as a manifesto for all believing Christian faculty:

If, as Christians believe, “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are hid in Christ (Col. 2:3), the time is always past for talking about treasure hunting. The time is always now to unearth treasure, offer it to others for critique or affirmation, and above all find in it new occasions to glorify the one who gives the treasure and is the treasure himself (p. 149).

Challenges to Evangelical Faculty

Three threads that run throughout Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind are foundational to the achievements of this fine work and cry out for additional praise. Each raises an important challenge for evangelical faculty working in the secularized academy.

First, this is a work of theological profundity and acuity. Frequently Noll reminds us that he is no theologian. I take that to mean he is not a “professional theologian.” His day job is American intellectual history. But you should not take his protestations with a grain of salt. This work contains brief, thoughtful summaries of the doctrines of Christology, Atonement, and Holy Scripture that are models of clarity and understanding. You might just learn more from reading these chapters than from many an utterance by members of the theological academy.

In addition the theology here is also profoundly and challengingly applied to the realities of the life of the mind. I know of nothing, for example, quite like “The Atonement: A Theological Principle to Frame Scholarship” (the fourth chapter), and commend it to you for its thoughtful summary of the theology of the cross and for its insightful application of that theology to a faithful discipleship of the mind. Noll’s grasp of the theology is something to which all evangelical academics ought to aspire. But resources for the development of theological understanding and acuity are slim in our churches, with rare exceptions, and otherwise quite inaccessible.

Second, Noll stresses the role of intellectual and theological tradition for the work of Christian scholarship. On the one hand, he continues to identify and lament the aspects of the evangelical tradition that make it inhospitable to serious learning: “immediatism” that insists on action, decision, and even perfection right now, populism, antitraditionism that ignores hard won wisdom from the past, over-spiritualizing Gnosticism. “As a result, serious problems continue to bedevil evangelical thinking” (p. 153).

On the other hand, evangelicals seeking to be intellectually serious find the resources of older, deeper churchly traditions indispensable. “Without strong theological traditions, many evangelicals lack a critical element required for making intellectual activity both confident and properly humble, both critical and committed. To advance responsible Christian learning, the vitality of commitment needs the ballast of tradition. If evangelicals are well aware that tradition without life is a serious problem, they are less conscious that life without tradition presents its own difficulties (p. 165).” Noll’s thoughtful use of the creedal traditions of the patristic and catholic church exemplify a significant part of the correction to which he calls us. His conclusion is sobering,

To embrace the energy of American evangelicalism, but also to move beyond the eccentricities of American evangelicalism into the spacious domains of self- critical, patient, rooted, and productive Christian reflection, remains the great challenge for evangelicals eager to serve Christ with the mind (p. 166).

Third, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind is suffused with a warm, personal devotion to the Lord Jesus. It is a work of devotion that aims to kindle our hearts toward the Jesus, the Lord of knowledge. Let me bookend two comments that illustrate a thread that runs gently and eloquently through the book. From the first chapter:

How is it possible to pursue goals defined by lofty phrases like “first-rate Christian scholarship” or “the Christian use of the mind” when those words sound to some in the church like backsliding and to many outside of church like simple oxymorons? For Christian believers, the only possible answer must come from considering Jesus Christ. . . The light of Christ illuminates the laboratory, his speech is the fount of communication, he makes possible the study of humans in all their interactions, he is the source of all like, he provides the wherewithal for every achievement of human civilization, he is the telos of all that is beautiful. He is, among his many other titles, the Christ of the Academic Road (p. 22).

And from the conclusion, I quote at length from Noll’s timely challenge:

Believing scholars like myself who think that we have identified cultural or historical circumstances that impede responsible intellectual work can easily fall prey to a besetting temptation. The temptation is to think that if we have upbraided Christian communities for their anti-intellectual Gnosticism, or if we have chastised the general academy for paying too little attention to Christian insights, we have somehow accomplished a great deal. In fact, even at their best, such criticisms are challenges are only like an official at a track meet calling the competitors to the starting line.

Running the race is different. The race itself requires what the author of Hebrews calls throwing off hindrances and running with perseverance. But most of all it requires keeping the prize in view: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” For Christian life, including Christian academic life, to press on without growing weary and not losing heart, the scriptural injunction is simply to “consider him” (Heb. 12:2-3).

And so for scholarship that is Christian the essential ingredients are the same as for family life, politics, community service, economic activity, medical care, or any other activity that would be Christian. Those ingredients are prayer…, service…, Bible reading or preaching or catechesis…, sacraments that instantiate the presence of Christ, fellowship …, singing…, sympathy that turns hearts toward the suffering, meditation that draws the mind to God (pp.147-148).

Amen, say I. Let me invite you, then, to feast on Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. Indeed the Feast of Christmas seems a fully appropriate time to begin.

For Additional Reflection

Having feasted, may I suggest three avenues for further reflection and devotion? These avenues are fully congruent with what Professor Noll has offered us, but perhaps expand on themes in his presentation that seem underdeveloped to this reviewer.

First, take one of the Biblical threads from the book and make it a matter of repeated reading and reflection. For example, the call to “fix our eyes on Jesus” in Hebrews 12:1-3 assumes the complex and wonderful portrait of our King and Priest developed in Hebrews 1-10. There is a rich vein of Biblical truth to be mined for many weeks in Hebrews, but perhaps a slow and thoughtful and prayerful reading of Hebrews might take us all deeper into the roots of our vision of the Lord of all, who is therefore the Lord of knowledge.

Second, the concluding words of Professor Noll above open to us a richer grasp of Jesus Lordship in the realm of knowledge. For if Jesus is the Lord of knowledge, giving us the touchstone and measure of truth and therefore every motive for the “integration of faith and knowledge”, he is also the Lord of knowing, the Lord and giver of the pre-conditions and processes conducive to acquiring knowledge. Professor Noll’s list of “essential ingredients” above is a wonderful starting point for further reflection.

Let me suggest two resources for further exploration here. Recent scholarship has opened a rich thread of reflection about virtue epistemology, that is, the place of moral virtues at the foundation of our quest for knowledge. Two works written by two Christian philosophers and a Catholic theologian can be a starting place to expand and deepen our understanding of what it means to follow “the Christ of the Academic Road:”

Third, Professor Noll makes strong and persuasive comments about the importance and even the necessity of inhabiting an intellectual tradition for fruitful scholarship and intellectual life. But he has much less to say about the comparable foundational importance of community and fellowship among Christian academic peers for a vibrant and faithful intellectual life. We have come to believe that every Christian faculty member should seek to be a part of a community of Christian faculty. This comes perhaps more easily to those like Professor Noll who serve in explicitly Christian colleges. For believing faculty in the secularized universities it is far more of a challenge. So an exploration in action of Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind is to explore this community dimension in your current academic setting. May I make bold the suggestion that perhaps you should accept an invitation to join other believing faculty in following “the Christ of the Academic Road?” Or, could the Lord be nudging you to invite others in forming a community of Christian discipleship in pursuit of knowledge?

Thomas Trevethan

Tom Trevethan

Thomas Trevethan is a veteran InterVarsity staff worker who has served at the University of Michigan for many years, now working with faculty on that campus. He is one of InterVarsity’s most gifted Bible expositors and has also authored the books The Beauty of God’s Holiness (InterVarsity Press) and Our Joyful Confidence: The Lordship of Jesus in Colossians (DILL Press). Tom holds an M.A. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He and his wife Barb live in Ann Arbor.

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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