Recovering the Christian Mind

In the Christmas classic “A Miracle on 34th Street”, a department store Santa (Kris Kringle) stands trial to decide once and for all: “Does Santa Claus really exist?”

In his defence “Santa’s” lawyer Fred Gailey, passionately clarifies for the jury what is really at stake. He states:

“Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to. Don’t you see? It’s not just Kris that’s on trial, it’s everything he stands for. It’s kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.”

Persuaded, the jury returns a verdict declaring Santa Claus to indeed be real, and onlookers rejoice in their collective relief that “faith” is still alive and well.

FAITH WITHOUT REASON:

Such is our contemporary culture’s view that divorces faith from reason. Today, “faith” means feelings or opinions concerning personal and private beliefs, whereas reason deals with knolwedge of facts about the “real world”. As Mark Twains puts it: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

This view of faith has wreaked great havoc on our culture which now sees faith as purely irrational. Unfortunately the church, God’s people of “faith”, has not escaped this cultural re-conception and the impact has been more far-reaching than we may wish to know.

THE RISE OF ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM:

The study of history is a vital, albeit too often neglected subject for Christians to understand where we find ourselves. Therefore, at the risk of oversimplifying, a brief historical sketch is in order.

The pilgrims, and particularly Puritan, settlers who established the New England colonies in the early 17th century placed a high priority on education, founding colleges such as Harvard and Yale. Their members were studied in art, science, philosophy, Latin, and typically taught their children to read fluently by age six, all as a means of “loving God with their minds”.[1]

Beginning in the mid 18th century, a series of spiritual revivals that would sew seeds
of dramatic change began with the powerful preaching of George Whitefield. By the mid 19th century, further spiritual revivals which became the birthplace of evangelicalism, occurred. Ironically however, as evangelical historian Mark Noll points out, “The very character of the revival that made evangelical religion into a potent force in North America weakened its intellectual power.”[2] J. P. Moreland summarizes the impact of this unexpected result.

“Much good came from these movements. But their overall effect was to overemphasize immediate personal conversion to Christ instead of a studied period of reflection
and conviction; emotional, simple, popular preaching instead of intellectually careful and doctrinally precise sermons; and personal feelings and relationship to Christ instead of a deep grasp of the nature of Christian teaching and ideas. [3]

This growing anti-intellectualism would spill over into the 20th century as evangelical leaders, such as E. Y. Mullins, further “personalized” faith by isolating it into it’s own category of knowledge. Historian George M. Marsden observes:

“Religion [Mullins said], was not governed by the principles of science and philosophy, but rather by its own principle of ‘personal relations.’ Such a relation could be confirmed only [emphasis mine] by the ‘immediate experience of God.’”4

While experience of God was seen as essential for true religion, there were those like Princeton’s J. Gresham Machen who believed such an extreme move to be dangerous, since “science, philosophy, and religion all dealt with precisely the same thing—facts.”[5]

Unfortunately, Machen’s views represented a minority opinion among evangelicals. The result was a further retreat toward an overly “personalized” view of Biblical revelation. Moreland summarizes:

“People began to see Scripture reading as personal and so ‘devotionalized’ it, considering it an opportunity for personal experience rather than understanding it in its literary and historical contexts. It came to be believed that only the Holy Spirit was needed to experience the truth of Scripture while no intellectual exercise was needed for spiritual growth.”[6]

THE LOSS OF THE EVANGELICAL MIND:

This historical movement toward an overly internalized “heart” emphasis on faith produced what Mark Noll calls a tragic “loss of a Christian mind.” The result in the 20th century was the disappearance of Christian thinking from public life with secularism stepping in to fill the vacuum. Noll laments:

“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind…. 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…Unlike their spiritual ancestors, modern evangelicals have not pursued comprehensive thinking under God or sought a mind shaped to its furthest reaches by Christian perspectives.”7

Today, the 21st century generation receives its full education devoid of any Christian viewpoint. Unfortunately Christian young people by and large receive this same education and graduate wondering what, if any, relevance their faith in Jesus has to the “real” world. As Christian pollster George Barna reported just three years ago:

“…84% of Christian 18 to 29-year-olds admit that they have no idea how the Bible applies to their field or professional interests.”[8]

And why would they if they have never been exposed to a shared body of Christian thinking about whatever field of study or profession they pursue? As Henry Blamires observes, “in contradistinction to the secular mind, no vital Christian mind plays fruitfully, as a coherent and recognizable influence, upon our social, political, or cultural life… there is no contemporary field of discourse in which writers are reflecting Christianly on the modern world and modern man.”9

With such an intellectual void in broader Christian thinking then, is it any wonder that education in general has been downgraded as a priority within our churches, leading to a general decline in biblical literacy itself. Why commit myself to studying basic Christian doctrine, history, textual criticism, apologetics, or even bible memorization for that matter, if faith’s only role is the shaping of my heart? And yet we forget Paul’s instruction that the transformation necessary to become true worshippers of God does not require the devotion of our heart, but “the renewing of [our] mind.” (Romans 12:1-2)

RECOVERING THE CHRISTIAN MIND:

Many Christians believe that what Canada needs is a spiritual revival, where hearts are turned back toward God en masse. But could it be that what our country really needs is an evangelical church undergoing something more akin to a renaissance?

Over 100 years ago Gresham Machen gave this warning that speaks prophetically to our present situation:

“False ideas are the greatest obstacle to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervour of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there,if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion. Under such circumstances, what God desires us to do is to destroy the obstacle at its root.”

Has our evangelical “zeal” to reach people for Christ been hamstrung by accommodating our cultural perspective that defines faith as mere personal belief, thus consigning it to the category of “harmless delusion”? Have we “shrunk” the gospel by viewing it only as God’s means to meet the personal needs of the individual sinner, forgetting that the power of the gospel is not that it meets our needs but that it is TRUE; and because it is true it necessarily transforms our thinking and therefore our lives in relationship to every living experience? The aforementioned absence of a collective body of Christian knowledge on the broader areas of human experience would seem to bear this out. It would seem that we need to “destroy the obstacle” within the church first through a broad sweeping recovery of the Christian mind?

THE CHURCH AS A LEARNING COMMUNITY…AGAIN!

The Apostle Paul expressed the great danger of possessing spiritual fervour without understanding. Speaking of his fellow Jews he says:

“For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” (Romans 10:2)

Generating spiritual enthusiasm is no substitute for teaching truth since we can always be “enthusiastically” wrong. As Solomon warned: “It is not good to have zeal without knowledge.” (Prov. 19:2) That is because faith is not “belief in spite of knowledge”, but rather the willingness to act upon what we “know” to be true. This is what our fore-fathers of faith were com mended for. (Heb. 11:2) But how can we “willingly act” upon that which we do not know? How can we grow in faith if we are not also growing in knowledge? Hence Peter’s admonition to: “add to you faith… knowledge.” (2 Pet. 1:5)

The kind of corrective needed will not be achieved by anything resembling a “quick fix”. What has been lost over generations may take generations to recover, but recover it we must. God’s instrument to reach the “nations” has always been the local church, so recovering the Christian mind needs to begin there; with pastors, leaders and congregations recapturing a vision of the church as a learning community that fulfills Christ’s commission to make disciples by “teaching them to obey everything” that he commanded and taught. (Matt. 28:20) Teaching and education need to become central activities of disciple- making churches again.

We must guard our motives however, for as Paul warns, “knowledge puffs up while love builds up”. (1 Cor 8:1) Growing our minds out of pride will only destroy, but loving God with our minds is for his glory and our joy, intended for every Christian and not just those “academic types”. As Noll puts it, developing our minds should be viewed as: “an effort to take seriously the sovereignty of God over the world he created, the lordship of Christ over the world he died to redeem, and the power of the Holy Spirit over the world
he sustains each and every moment.”[10] Training up the Christian mind therefore, rightly seen, motivated and enacted is nothing less than our living pursuit to know God.


1. J. P. Moreland, Love Your God With All Your Mind., (Colorado Springs, CO, NavPress, 1997, 2012), 16.

2. Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans Publishing, 1994), 24.

3. Moreland, Love Your God, 16.

4. George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, (Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press, 2006),

216. 5. Ibid.

6. J. P. Moreland and Mark Matlock, Smart Faith, (Colorado Springs, CO, NavPress, 2005), 23.

7. Noll, Scandal, 3, 4.

8. www.barna.org, “Top Trends of 2011: Millenials Rethink Christianity”, [Last accessed online June 4, 2014)

9. Henry Blamires, The Christian Mind: How Should A Christian Think? (London, SPCK, 1963), 4, 7.

10. Noll, Scandal, 3, 4.

One thought on “Recovering the Christian Mind

  1. It was shocking to see the percentage of young adults who feel the bible does not play into their daily lives. We continue to pray for all of those souls who are in most need of Thy mercy, and that they realize the great things that believing in the Lord can do.

    Paul
    http://apostleshop.com

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