“The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”?

It has now been over twenty years since Mark Noll wrote his very fine and justly praised volume, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Noll cogently argued that:

The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind. An extraordinary range of virtues is found among the sprawling throngs of evangelical Protestants in North America, including great sacrifice in spreading the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, open-hearted generosity to the needy, heroic personal exertion on behalf of troubled individuals, and the unheralded sustenance of countless church and parachurch communities. Notwithstanding all their other virtues, however, American evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking, and they have not been so for several generations.

Despite dynamic success at a popular level, modern American evangelicals have failed notably in sustaining serious intellectual life. They have nourished millions of believers in the simple verities of the gospel but have largely abandoned the universities, the arts, and other realms of “high” culture. Even in its more progressive and culturally upscale subgroups, evangelicalism has little intellectual muscle. Feeding the hungry, living simply, and banning the bomb are tasks at which different sorts of evangelicals willingly expend great energy, but these tasks do not by themselves assist intellectual vitality. Evangelicals sponsor dozens of theological seminaries, scores of colleges, hundreds of radio stations, and thousands of unbelievably diverse parachurch agencies — but not a single research university or a single periodical devoted to in-depth interaction with modern culture.

As an academic teaching in a graduate theological school, as one who is engaged in scholarship, in researching and writing, and as one who has countless times bemoaned evangelicalism’s tendency toward dismissal of the intellect, the adoption of mindless mantras and catchy clichés, its love affair with the sound bite, and its failure to demonstrate the ability to logically think through substantive issues, I resonate with practically everything Noll says in these first two paragraphs of his marvelous book.

But I also have a problem with Noll’s complaint, which, just to reiterate, as I’ve already noted, is my complaint as well. But this is my problem. As reluctant as I am to admit it, in my opinion, if we could rid ourselves once and for all of this scandal, this scandal of the evangelical mind, we would also, at the same time, be ridding ourselves of Christianity.

There are two passages in particular that would seem to have a bearing on this issue. The first one is found in Matthew 11:25-26.

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.”

The second one is in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. I have highlighted below some key words and phrases in the passage:

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

Now, Noll refers to both these passages in his book. And he rightly, in my opinion, notes that we should not hide behind these passages to run from the life of the mind or to embrace some kind of anti-intellectualism. He also correctly recognizes that these passages should deter us from denigrating the contributions to the body of Christ that are made by its members who are not so academically oriented. And he is by no means arguing that we should seek to either establish or tolerate some kind of elitist intelligentsia in the church.

All this notwithstanding, there is a point that I feel needs to be given greater consideration. If there is a scandal of the evangelical mind, or for that matter, of the Christian mind (though there are some who will demur at my apparent equation of evangelical and Christian)—if there is a scandal of the Christian mind, it is a scandal which God himself has designed, ordained, and put in place. Notice again some key points from the two passages above:

Jesus gives thanks to God that he has hidden these things from the wise and learned.

Jesus gives thanks that God revealed them instead to little children.

God did this because it was what it pleased him to do.

God will destroy the wisdom of the wise.

God will frustrate the intelligence of the intelligent.

God has made foolish the wisdom of the world.

God was pleased to work through the foolishness of the gospel.

God has not called many who were wise by human standards.

God has not called many who are influential.

God has not called many of noble birth.

Instead, God has chosen the foolish things of the world.

God has chosen the weak things of the world.

God has chosen the lowly things of the world.

God has chosen the despised things of the world.

God has even chosen things that are non-existent.

And God has done this so that no one can boast before him.

If there is any boasting to be done, it must be done in the Lord alone.

If there is a scandal of the Christian mind, it is a designed scandal. This is way God wanted it. This is what he was pleased to do. Theologians talk about various scandals connected with Christianity. There is the scandal of particularity, that God chose to reveal himself in particular places, at particular times, and to particular people. There is the scandal of the cross, that God chose that the only means of salvation would be by faith in one particular Jewish man who was executed by Jewish and Roman authorities. And I argue here that there is also a scandal of simplicity with regard to matters of the mind and of the intellect. God has chosen to reveal himself, and work through, primarily, those who are not wise according to the wisdom of the world and are not necessarily intellectually inclined. God has chosen children, the simple, the naïve, the foolish, the lowly, the non-influential, the weak, the non-noble, that they might be the bearers of his name. And why has he done this? For two reasons: He has done it so that no one may boast; and he has done it because that is what it pleased him to do.

Two caveats: First, it is important to note that there are exceptions. God has in fact chosen some who are wise, influential, and intellectually inclined, and, as well, those who are noble. Selma Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791) was fond of saying that her favorite letter was the letter “m,” for the text does not say that not “any” noble were called, but that not “many” noble were called. Second, those who are intellectually inclined should use their gifts and inclinations with all diligence and to the best of their ability. We should have what has been called an “educated ministry” (“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” [2 Tim 2:15]). We need people of great learning and intellect to advance the cause of Christ. And even as those who are intellectually gifted should not despise those who are not so gifted, those who are not so intellectually inclined should not despise those who are. There is no place in the church of Jesus Christ for intellectual snobbery. Nor is there any room for anti-intellectual snobbery.

With those two caveats in place, it, nevertheless, truly is a wonder that God chose to work in this way. I must confess, this is not the way I would have done it. If I were in charge of the church, I would issue several memorandums. Seminaries would rule the denominations. All pastors would have PhDs in either systematic or biblical theology (preferably, biblical theology!). All associate pastors would have advanced graduate theological degrees. And all elders would have MDivs. There would be no Sunday School teachers who have not at least been to Bible college.

Ah, but the God who actually is in charge of the church has not seen fit to follow up on any of my recommendations. He has not called on me to consult or enlighten him. The God who is in charge of the church is the very same strange God who, in the past, has made a series of infamous decisions. He is the God who has decided:

That armies of three hundred are better than armies of thirty thousand.

That the best way to make walls fall down is to march around them and blow trumpets.

That an upside-down kingdom is better than one which appears to be right side up.

That the fulness of life would come about by death.

That the death of one man on a cross would redound to the salvation of millions.

That to gain one’s life is to lose it, and to lose one’s life is to gain it.

That salvation would be given to those, and only to those, who could not earn it.

That the church would grow by leaps and bounds by means of suffering, persecution, imprisonment, confiscation of property, and execution.

And this same God has decided that his church would consist primarily, both at its inception, and throughout its history, of children, the naïve, the despised, the lowly, the commoner, the foolish, the unlearned. And this God has also decided that the sophisticated, the elite, the intelligentsia, the noble, the influential, the movers and shakers, would, for the most part, be on the outside.

“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” As foolish as it may sound, perhaps we should not see this as necessarily a huge problem, and certainly not one of our most pressing problems. If indeed, there is no evangelical mind, then perhaps this means that we should rely instead on God, the one who “uses things that are not to nullify things that are.” Perhaps it is precisely through this scandal, along with the scandal of particularity, and the scandal of the cross, through which God has chosen to work. No one gets to boast. God is glorified. And, perhaps most importantly, God does this because this is what gives him pleasure.

Soli Deo Gloria.

Jerry Shepherd
October 6, 2015

2 thoughts on ““The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”?

  1. Well written, Jerry. Thanks! Loving God with our minds is important to Jesus. Matthew 22:37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’

    God designed church leadership from the beginning to include a few learned scholars, and lots of ordinary folks like fishermen and business people – even despised zealots and tax collectors. The church needs scholars, but scholars don’t get to rule and don’t do all the important work. And it’s also important for ordinary folk to love God with their minds, as well as with their hearts and souls.

  2. Dr. Shepherd,

    I think that this scandal really rests on this, God doesn’t need us to think for him or defend him or his word. Always there will be those who confound the wisdom of this world by discovering that living according to God’s word happens to work better than living the way that the “learned” men of our time would have us live. Many things make great academic discussions, and great theories, put poor practice. At this time of the year as we struggle to harvest, store, and preserve the produce of our modest garden I remember the great minds of our age who promote grow your own, buy local, and eat organic. When I look at the tomatoes that were wasted because they rotted, the cucumbers that froze because they weren’t picked I have this idea that some of the people that have these ideas have no clue what it would be like to have to put away a whole winters worth of food. So it is that rigorous thought and academic work can have tremendous value, but sometimes it amounts to extremely rigorous circular arguments whose tangents have long left the plane of relevance.

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