In my last post I shared a bit about Nathan Hatch’s recent chapel talk at Wheaton on “the redemptive power of the past.” (See here.) Hatch, a Wheaton grad who is now president of Wake Forest University, began his case for the importance of history to Christians with a pair of vignettes about two of his classmates, pastor John Piper and historian Mark Noll. In the course of his remarks about the latter, he quoted extensively from Noll’s most recent book, which I immediately purchased and read. Now that Thankgiving has come and gone, I want to tell you why you need to read it.
The book that Hatch read from is Noll’s From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story. The book is part of a new series from the Christian publishing house Baker Books. The series is edited by Calvin College professor Joel Carpenter, and its goal is to educate U.S. Christians about the spectacular explosion of Christianity in other parts of the world, most notably Asia, Africa, and Latin America. To do that, Carpenter has invited several prominent scholars of American Christianity to write autobiographical essays about their own growing engagement with Christianity in the global South. Noll’s book is the third volume in the series.
If you’re not familiar with Mark Noll, here is a bit of background: Noll is an alumnus of Wheaton College, where he majored in English and graduated in the same class as Nathan Hatch and John Piper, among others. After briefly studying comparative literature in graduate school, he redirected his attention to the history of Christianity, a field which he has mined relentlessly and brilliantly ever since. He is the author or editor of over fifty books on the topic and shows no sign of slowing down. I have read eleven of those books.
The first work by Noll that I ever read was his 1994 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Reflecting on his career, Noll recently observed, “As someone called to function as a scholar, it has long seemed to me imperative that at least some Christian believers should be thinking hard about why and how Christian believers should be thinking hard.” Scandal was one of the first fruits of that sense of calling. It was the first book that I had ever read that spoke so directly to the intersection between Christian faith and the life of the mind. From its memorable first line–“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind”–I was hooked. That first sentence notwithstanding, Noll’s primary goal in Scandal wasn’t to condemn evangelical anti-intellectualism but to explain it, and in explaining it, to exhort his brothers and sisters to greater faithfulness. (“This book is an epistle from a wounded lover,” he explained in the preface.) The book remains one of the two or three most personally influential books I have ever read.
The books that I read after Scandal reflected the range of Noll’s scholarship. They included sweeping surveys such as The History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, The Rise of Evangelicalism, and America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. Some were more focused works, for example Christians in the American Revolution and The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. And some were expressions of that sense of calling to think hard about why Christians should think hard, including Noll’s 2013 sequel to Scandal titled Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind.
From Every Tribe and Nation differs from all of these in that it is is autobiographical. It’s essentially the story of his personal spiritual and intellectual journey, with an emphasis on the way that Noll’s engagement with Christianity in other parts of the world has deepened his faith. But as every historian knows, you can visit foreign countries by traveling through time as well as space. Noll illustrates that truth wonderfully in the book’s second chapter, “Rescued by the Reformation.”
In “Rescued by the Reformation” Noll seeks to explain a religious renewal that he experienced during his early twenties. During these years he ceased being an “interested Christian spectator” and became a “committed Christian participant.” Heart and mind were both transformed. “My disquiet about the religion with which I had grown up,” he summarizes, “gave way to a captivating new experience of Christian faith.”
Noll was raised in a devout evangelical family in the Midwest, and he is quick to praise his parents’ faithfulness and to give thanks for the many godly examples to be found in his church. And yet he describes a larger evangelical culture in post-WWII America that all too often obscured the grace at the heart of the gospel. “I was not alone as a young person,” Noll writes, “in hearing that godliness was not smoking, drinking, or going to movies, and waiting for sex until marriage. . . . The weightier matters of the law—doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God—were not entirely disregarded, but were all too easily obscured by the behavioral shibboleths of fundamentalism.”
“The most important spiritual problem,” Noll concludes, was that
Despite endless repetition about the fullness of God’s grace, it was all too easy to absorb an image of Christianity defined almost entirely by what you did nor did not do, entirely equated with a short list of propositions that had to be believed, or practically reduced to my conversion experience and the need to convert others.
Noll hastens to clarify what he is not saying: he is NOT suggesting that Christians aren’t called to purity, that right belief is unimportant, that conversion is not essential, or that evangelism is optional. He IS suggesting that these emphases, when they comprise the entirety of our faith, are incomplete and in the long run debilitating.
It was a mistake to leave the impression that moral behavior constituted Christian faith. It was also a mistake to think that my checklist of proper beliefs amounted to Christianity as such. And it was a mistake to let the reality of conversion crowd out other Christian realities.
So by what path did God lead him to a deeper, more vital faith? To quote a famous essay by C. S. Lewis, it was through “the reading of old books.” American evangelicals, like modern Americans generally, are “stranded in the present,” to quote a haunting phrase by Christian historian Margaret Bendroth. (For more on her reflections, see here.) We cut ourselves off from the vast majority of all the Christians who have ever lived, implicitly assuming that we have nothing to learn from those who have gone before us. You can see this “chronological snobbery” on display in almost any commercial Christian bookstore. The shelves will bulge with the latest hastily written book from the pulpit celebrity of the moment, but good luck finding anything dating to the first nineteen centuries of Christian history.
Danger comes with such tunnel vision. As Lewis understood, contemporary books mainly reinforce what we already believe—including what we wrongly believe. They cast light where we already see and deepen the darkness where we are unwittingly blind. The only antidote, Lewis maintained, “is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”
Noll experienced the truth of Lewis’s prescription in his twenties as he began to broaden the chronological boundaries of God’s church and enter into conversation with past giants of the faith. I’ll conclude with this lengthy, powerful quote:
A crude statement of how I would read my own life goes as follows. From internalizing such preaching about what I needed to do in order to be saved, I experienced existentially Martin Luther’s message about what God had endured in order to save me. From a view of the Bible preoccupied by its meaning for the future, I learned from John Calvin a way of reading Scripture that revealed its pervasive relevance for the present. From singing true, but thin, words about the wonderful grace of Jesus, I was transformed by singing Charles Wesley’s account of a long-imprisoned spirit unchained by the bright light of divine mercy. From being taught that I should be intensely concerned about how many authors contributed to the book of Isaiah, I followed Jonathan Edwards in seeing that the only really important question was the purpose for which God created the world (it was for his own glory). Just a little bit later, from seeking first one and then another foundation, it was reassuring beyond comprehension to hear in the Heidelberg Catechism that ‘my only comfort in life and in death is my faithful Savior Jesus Christ who has fully paid for all my sins with his blood.’
In other words, the riches of classical Protestantism opened a new and exceedingly compelling vision of existence. Intellectually, theologically, existentially, I was rescued by the Reformation.