Mark Noll Posts
September 2, 2011 by Gerald Hiestand
Matthew sent me this quote today, taken from the postscript of John Frame’s, Doctrine of the Word of God.
If I lost some of my conservative friends through my progressive ideas, I will now probably lose some progressive ones on the publication of this book. It may be called fundamentalist. If so, fine. I realize that fundamentalist is a term of derision, and for many reasons I would rather not be called by it. But I know through experience that name-calling is a staple of theological debate, and I have a thick skin. For all their frequent literalism, dispensationalism, and anti-intellectualism, the fundamentalists were stalwart in defending Scripture as God’s Word, in the face of attacks on all sides. Many of them will be closer to Jesus in heaven than many of us who seek to be more respectable.
I completely sympathize with Frame here. The quote reminds me of an important point Noll makes in his book, Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Noll takes fundamentalists to the woodshed, but for as much as he blames fundamentalists for the insular, backwater, anti-intellectual posture of North American evangelicals, he nonetheless rightly observes that it was fundamentalists, not liberals, who retained and passed on the core of the gospel. While the mainline churches were gradually denying the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, etc., fundamentalists still believed in a God who regenerated hearts, worked miracles, and who spoke through the Bible. And history has proven them right for doing so. The liberal churches are in decline, while fundamentalism was able to give birth to evangelicalism — the fastest growing Christian movement in North America.
In his book, Noll is not unsympathetic to the difficulty facing Christians at the turn of the twentieth-century. The world was shifting in remarkable ways–epistemology, authority, science, higher criticism — everything was up for grabs. We can’t be too hard on those Christians who, while not having the intellectual resources to deal with a brave new world of unbelief, at least knew enough to circle the wagons and hold on to what they did know to be true — the reality of the resurrection of God’s Son.
As Frame notes above, the term “fundamentalist” is now a term of derision. And fundamentalists have legitimated much of the baggage that weighs down that term. But all evangelicals are indebted to fundamentalism (in ways we are decidedly not indebted to liberalism) for preserving a belief in the supernatural and passing it on to us. Fundamentalism is a ditch that evangelicals can still fall into. Liberalism is another. But if you have to pick one or the other, history has shown over and over again that a firm belief in the supernatural always trumps intellectual sophistication. And this is why fundamentalism (for all its manifest shortcomings) is better than liberalism.
Which label scares you more — “anti-intellectual” or “anti-supernatural”? God help us always fear the latter more.11 Comments
August 12, 2010 by Gerald Hiestand
Timothy Dalrymple has a nice interview with Mark Noll over at Patheos, in which Dalrymple asks an important question about historical method:
“To push the issue a little further, do you think it incumbent upon a historian to operate according to something like methodological naturalism — to approach the study of history as though there is no supernatural divine engagement in the natural realm?”
Noll responds: “I’ve written three or four lengthy papers on this question, so I’ll try my best to summarize them in a few sentences!
There is a proper vocation for historians that is analogous to the proper vocation for scientists. I do not regard scientists as practicing methodological atheism, however, when they restrict themselves to natural phenomena. What they are doing is studying nature according to what can be learned through attention to natural phenomenon. I would say the same about history. There is a proper way of doing history that restricts itself to natural phenomena, which is not necessarily methodologically atheistic.”
Noll is certainly correct if his larger point is that a historian needs to get his facts straight, and that he must not allow his biases to inappropriately shape his conclusions. This is true for everyone, not just Christians. But I’m not certain the analogy between history and science works. The natural world is designed by God to operate independent of miraculous intervention (if everything is a miracle, then nothing is a miracle). Scientific investigation works precisely because nature is not typically supra-natural. But historical events such as the Great Awakening can’t be properly analyzed simply as bare historical events. Something supernatural was going on. Trying to do natural history on the Great Awakening is like trying to do natural science on the resurrection; from the outset, there’s a whole category of thought that must be explicitly factored in or out of the equation. The historian can’t be neutral at this point, and the position he/she takes will influence the conclusions reached.
But laying this aside, Noll gets to the crux of it when he states in the next sentence, “This leaves some truly important questions, maybe the most important questions, for another procedure.” Indeed. But who is performing this additional procedure? Because by and large, the academy — at least in biblical and historical studies — does not encourage its scholars to turn the corner and answer the more important questions of theological/pastoral meaning. Not that no academicians engage in this sort of work (Noll himself does), but it’s generally not institutionally encouraged or supported in the wider academic context. Enter the pastor-theologian… .
You can read the whole interview here. Noll provides some additional commentary on Protestant/Catholic relations, as well as the current state of the evangelical mind.0 Comments