The Gospel and the Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life
In his modern classic The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1994), historian Mark Noll provocatively argues that twentieth-century American evangelicals for the most part ignored serious intellectual reflection in favor of pop theologies and atheological pragmatism. Since that time, scores of books and articles have addressed the relationship between Christian (and especially evangelical) faith and scholarship, sometimes dittoing Noll’s jeremiad and sometimes countering his pessimism.
In just the past year or so, evangelical authors such as James K. A. Smith, John Piper, Alister McGrath, and Bradley Green have weighed in on the intersection between faith and the life of the mind. Noll himself is also writing a volume devoted this topic. Green’s The Gospel and the Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life (Crossway, 2010) is the subject of this particular review.
Bradley Green is a Southern Baptist theologian who serves as the Associate Professor of Christian Thought and Tradition at Union University. He is also a founder of Augustine School, a classical school in Jackson, TN. Green’s other books include the excellent Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy: Engaging with Early and Medieval Theologians (IVP Academic, 2010) and the forthcoming Colin Gunton and the Failure of Augustine (Wipf and Stock). He has also written numerous journal articles and book chapters.
The Gospel and the Mind represents Green’s effort to answer the question, “What is the link between the Christian gospel and intellectual deliberation, between the Christian faith and learning” (p. 12)? As Green pondered this question, he claims,
I realized that the seeds of a radically evangelical approach to the intellectual life were present. If in his death Christ redeemed all of who we are, that must include our intellectual life. Christ did not die to redeem part of us, but he died to redeem all of who we are—including our minds (pp.12 –13, emphasis in original).
The fruit of Green’s reflection is articulated in his book’s two interconnected theses:
As I have read and written and rewritten, two main interlocking theses have emerged, and these two theses function as the heart and soul of this book: (1) the Christian vision of God, man, and the world provides the necessary precondition of the recovery of any meaningful intellectual life; (2) the Christian vision of God, man, and the world offers a particular, unique understanding of what the intellectual life might look like (pp.13–14).
The Gospel and the Mind is divided into six chapters, plus a lengthy introduction and brief epilogue. Chapter one focuses on the foundational significance of the Christian views of creation and history to a rightly ordered intellectual life. The second chapter builds upon these themes by highlighting the teleological or uniquely eschatological vision of the world proposed by Christianity. Chapter three focuses on the ramifications of Christ’s atonement for human intellectual pursuits, the effects of the gospel upon the mind. Chapters four and five swim in deeper waters, articulating a succinct Christian philosophy of language and words; these comprise the most constructive of Green’s chapters. The final chapter discusses the moral nature of knowledge, the relationship between right thinking and right action.
Green does a fine job of balancing biblical exegesis, theological reflection, philosophical engagement, and cultural critique. His emphasis on redemptive history, including the eschatological nature of our world as it marches forward from creation to new creation, is helpful; the grand biblical narrative surely must be at the center of all genuinely Christian thinking. His discussion of words and language, though not light reading, is a helpful contribution, especially for those with little expertise in philosophy of language. I especially resonate with Green’s emphasis on the interconnectedness of sound thinking and holy living. In my classes, I define theology as “thinking rightly about God so that we can live rightly before God.” I think this understanding of theology is in keeping with the best of the Christian intellectual tradition, epitomized by thinkers such as Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and Calvin. Green seems to be tracking in a similar direction.
In addition to the Scriptures, Green engages a number of conversation partners, including significant modern thinkers (Richard Weaver, Roger Scruton, Allan Bloom, David Lyle Jeffrey, and Wendell Berry) and central figures from the Christian intellectual tradition (Aquinas, Calvin, Kierkegaard, C. S. Lewis, and especially Augustine). In fact, it would be fair to say that much of Green’s musings are filtered through the lens of Augustine and Weaver. As a traditionalist conservative and Baptist historical theologian, I confess that if I were choosing a handful of key dialog partners for a book like this, Augustine and Weaver would make my short list as well (along with Athanasius, Calvin, Lewis, and perhaps Russell Kirk).
The Gospel and the Mind is probably not the best book on this topic to put in the hands of interested laypeople or college freshmen—Piper’s Think, which is less dense and more exegetical, is perhaps a bit better suited for introductory contexts. But thoughtful pastors, professors, and students in advanced electives would greatly benefit from Green’s stimulating foray into the relationship between faith and intellect. Green is a constructive, yet thoroughly orthodox theologian teaching in an influential Baptist-related university. Other Baptist and Christian scholars would do well to follow Green’s example in drawing upon resources from the wider Christian intellectual tradition as we attempt to articulate a thoughtful and faithful way forward for the life of the evangelical mind.