Sunday, September 26, 2004
In the current issue of First Things (article not available on-line), Mark Noll, perhaps the leading evangelical scholar today, revisits the thesis of his landmark book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Ten years after its publication, Noll writes that he is "more hopeful now about Christian thinking by evangelicals." "Because evangelicals tend to disregard tradition," Noll explains, "we are liable to miss the rich contributions that other strands of faithful believers have made to interpreting and applying the multitudinous biblical words that are so potent for the life of the mind. But this can change." The first "source of hope" Noll points to in this regard is "the increasing engagement between evangelicals and Roman Catholics," which has "contributed dramatically to improved evangelical use of the mind":
The exchange between these two traditions is probably more important to Catholics for reasons other than intellectual, but the life of the mind is where evangelicals benefit most. While evangelicals offer Catholics eagerness, commitment, and an ability to negotiate in a culture of intellectual consumerism, Catholics offer evangelicals a sense of tradition and centuries of reflection on the bearing of sacramentality on all existence.
Whenever evangelicals in recent years have been moved to admonish themselves and other evangelicals for weaknesses in ecclesiology, tradition, the intellectual life, sacraments, theology of culture, aesthetics, philosophical theology, or historical consciousness, the result has almost always been selective appreciation for elements of the Catholic tradition.
Noll's optimism is tempered, though, by his recognition that "common, generic evangelicalism and the activist denominations that make up evangelicalism do not possess theologies full enough, traditions of intellectual practice strong enough, or conceptions of the world deep enough to sustain a full-scale intellectual revival." Perhaps in acknowledgment of the substantive indictments that tend to be made across the evangelical/Catholic divide, he reminds us that "tradition without life might be barely Christian, but life without tradition is barely coherent."