The Ministry of Christian Scholarship

By Thomas Scott Caulley

Nearly 20 years ago, Mark Noll, then a professor at Wheaton College, began his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, with a simple and provocative assertion: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”1 He described his work as a “cry of the heart” on behalf of the intellectual life by one “who embraces the Christian faith in an evangelical form.”2

10_Caulley_JNCompared to other religious groups, Evangelicals fare poorly on the intellectual scene. One symptom of this problem, according to Noll, is they support no specifically Evangelical research universities, nor sponsor any publications devoted to in-depth interaction with modern culture.3 In contrast to the past, Evangelicals are no longer found at the center of academic thought, intellectual public debate, or scientific advancement. The situation Noll outlines has changed little in 20 years.

Closer to home, our independent Christian church fellowship has suffered “wounds” recently, in which promising young scholars—and in a couple of cases, established scholars—have been terminated when scholarship was deemed at odds with other priorities. While only those involved can speak to each case, the effect upon the academic community is chilling. These events, along with Noll’s words, offer a strong challenge, especially to those of us who count ourselves members of the academic community.

Christian scholarship is not a “luxury option” that can be jettisoned when finances are tight or when conclusions make us uncomfortable. The spiritual health of the body of Christ requires ongoing conversation in which the church supports its scholars and scholars serve the church, in which the sides work out their differences when there is conflict. Our corporate health requires the influx of the “best and brightest” for every new generation, and we need to keep them at home rather than drive them away.

The church cannot thrive without an intellectual future. This essay is a plea for that future.

Jewish scholar Elie Wiesel reminds us,

There is divine beauty in learning. . . . To learn means to accept the postulate that life did not begin at my birth. Others have been here before me, and I walk in their footsteps. The books I have read were composed by generations of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, teachers and disciples. I am the sum total of their experiences, their quests. And so are you.4

These words are true, but for the believer there is more. Whatever we make of Noll’s treatise 20 years on, we must agree with his premise: “For the Christian, the mind is important because God is important.”5

In the Old Testament, the Torah commanded the Israelite, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5). But the New Testament broadens this understanding: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27; cf. Mark 12:30). The Christian understanding of Deuteronomy 6:5 includes loving God with one’s mind. In Hebrew terminology, mind and heart are different ways of speaking about the same human spiritual capacities, but the Greek version of the Deuteronomy passage expressed three Hebrew ideas with four Greek words, specifically including mind. And if, as some think, Matthew has shortened this received Greek tradition back to three elements in order to recapture Deuteronomy’s cadence of three tones, he still keeps the word mind: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).6

Deuteronomy 6:5, as adapted in the Gospels, says to the reader, “Love God with your whole being—with everything you have and everything you are!” But the Christian mandate that includes the admonition to “love God with your mind” should give us special cause to wonder: How does one do that? In our culture, we love God with our hearts through our emotional responses in worship, in devotion, and in the gratitude of prayer. We love God with our soul, or life, by living out his principles and devoting our ways to his ways. With Paul, we give our very lives—we “pour out ourselves” as a drink offering upon the altar and service of the faith of others (cf. Philippians 2:17). We love God with our strength, our physical might, by doing deeds of kindness for others—“Love Does.”7 But how do we love God with our minds?

 

Worship

Ideally Christian students “love God with their minds” by engaging in their homework as an act of worship: focused, fervent, and committed to giving their best to God. Of course we know this does not always happen. But the attitude is important. God deserves our best in every area of our lives. More than that, however, some of our young people need to consider this higher calling: one important way to “love God with your mind” is to engage in the ministry of Christian scholarship. There is in the life of scholarship a Christian stewardship, the care and tending of God’s gift of the intellect. It takes the road less traveled, traversing the long, arduous journey toward the mastery of a discipline, toward the lasting contributions in teaching and writing which can eventually be made, not just to the academy, but to the kingdom.

The Christian scholar engages in that endeavor as part of his or her faith. After the first century, Christians knew a slightly different version of Deuteronomy 6:5 that reads simply, “Love the God who made you.”8 It is cited as the first of the “Two Great Commandments,” coupled with Leviticus 19:18 (“Love your neighbor”), so we know it is intended to represent Deuteronomy 6:5. “Love the God who made you” embodies the Christian response to the one who created us in his own image, and it highlights the relationship between image and creator. Our redemption by Christ, the unique image of the invisible God, has resulted in our reconciliation to God and the restoration of our true humanity, Christian scholars are uniquely suited to explore God’s creation from a redeemed worldview, not in order to undercut other scholarship, but to reveal the truths of the universe, to the glory of the creator. “The Heavens are telling the glory of God!” We “love the God who made us” by being true to him and to his creation, true to our redeemed selves and to our “renewed minds” (Romans 12:1, 2). To God be the glory!

Christian scholarship is a ministry. Ministry means service. To engage in a ministry of scholarship is to engage in service to God and his kingdom, by engaging in service to God’s people through kingdom work. This ministry takes place in teaching, of course, and also in the research and writing which make us better teachers. It takes place in churches and conferences, and wherever we are called to serve. It takes place in hospitals and university libraries, in scientific research institutes and on Bible translator teams; wherever God calls his people to present their whole persons—including their intellects—as living sacrifices. This is our spiritual service of worship.

We find the seeds of “scholarship as worship” in the Greek Old Testament, the Bible of the early church. When Joshua blessed the trans-Jordan tribes, he reminded them to keep all the commandments, including to love God, and to “serve him [in worship; latreuein] with all your mind and with all your soul” (Joshua 22:5, New English Translation of the Septuagint). Again, the concept of mind here is roughly synonymous with the idea of heart. The point is, the Israelites were called upon to love God with their whole being, including their intellect.

There has always been a place for higher learning and teaching in the church. In the earliest congregations, when many members were illiterate, the lectors and teachers were those with education. In the medieval world, once referred to as the Dark Ages because of widespread illiteracy and ignorance, the light of higher learning was kept alive by the church, which started the first universities. In the Renaissance and the Reformation periods, the best and brightest minds of the church were the leaders of change and progress. The King James Bible translation, the first ever by a committee of scholars, was carried out by a remarkable group of young and brilliant minds, whose enduring work is still very important today, not least because such study spawned the discipline that continues to produce the best New Testament text the church has possessed in her entire history. In today’s world, where learning is often suspect and teaching is considered a second-class vocation, we still serve. Scholarship is our spiritual service of worship.

 

A Calling

Christian scholarship is not only worship, but a calling. As such, the ministry of scholarship is prophetic. It is prophetic because it speaks the Word of the Lord. While prophetic ministry speaks the Word of the Lord to the non-Christian society around us, and defends the faith against attacks, the prophetic role we most often play is within the church itself.

We who are Christian scholars are called, I believe, by our faithfulness to God and to higher learning, to hold in tension the sometimes competing needs of God’s people to be reassured of the presence and comfort of God on the one side, while indicting the modern detours and intellectual dead ends uncritically embraced by so many in the church today. To that end, at least some Christian scholars are to be skilled in the use of inspired Scripture, which is profitable for “teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16, 17).

As worship has private beginnings but is a corporate act, so too scholarship is a personal commitment to a community enterprise. It takes teamwork—scholars and church leaders working together. Everything we do is in some way a result of what and who has come before; it is built upon the work of others. Teamwork is both vertical and horizontal. We depend upon those around us, as well as those who came before. And together we build in such a way as to prepare a bright future for those who follow after us in the church, including in the ministry of Christian scholarship. “To him be glory in the church”! (Ephesians 3:21).

________

 

1Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 3.

2Ibid., ix.

3Ibid., 3, 4; one thinks now of Baylor University.

4Elie Wiesel, “Have You Learned the Most Important Lesson of All?” Parade, May 24, 1992.

5Noll, Scandal, 51.

6Victor Paul Furnish, The Love Command in the New Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972), 31. Cf. Krister Stendahl, The School of St. Matthew and Its Use of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968), 75.

7Bob Goff, Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012).

8Didache 1:2; cf. Barnabas 19:2; Sirach 7:30.

 

Thomas Scott Caulley is associate professor of New Testament at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.

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1 Comment

  1. David L Dickey
    October 21, 2013 at 11:00 am

    I think it is necessary to embrace the riskiness to such an endeavor, and be honest about and open to adjusting even what we perceive as our most fundamental doctrines when the facts indicate something else may be the truth about reality, before we can be respected as “scholars.” We can’t go into a scholarly (or scientific) inquiry with “the answer” already set in our minds, only searching for evidence to back up what we have already determined the answer to be. Likewise, when our scholarly inquiry uncovers facts that force us to rethink some doctrinal stances, we need to actually rethink them instead of trying to argue that the evidence is “wrong” just because it doesn’t fit into a preconceived worldview. I think you’ve indicated this necessity, but I feel it needs to be stressed. Our scholarship can’t be taken seriously if we hold certain positions that no amount of facts will ever get in the way of us holding, that looks intellectually dishonest and prevents our scholarship from being taken seriously. I think that this is where the rubber hits the road when it comes to being an authentic and respected evangelical scholar. Good, thought provoking article!

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