The Record meets with acclaimed academic Mark Noll
For 27 years, Dr. Mark Noll served on the History Department faculty, ending his tenure as McManis Professor of Christian Thought in 2006. In 2016, he retired from The University of Notre Dame after teaching for 10 years. Mark Noll’s book “The Scandal of The Evangelical Mind” (1994) earned him a lasting place in evangelical scholarship. In 2005, Time Magazine named Noll one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America.
The Record met with Dr. Mark Noll for an interview regarding the current state of evangelicalism, his experience at Wheaton and what is next for him upon retirement.
CH: What’s next for you in retirement?
MN: I still have several Ph.D. students to finish. I hope to keep writing and thinking about historical topics. We have a son and daughter-in-law who live in Oak Park who have a young child and we’re trying to help one day a week or so with the child. This year, I actually have a number of assignments having to do with the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. I’m thinking about the Reformation this year.
C: That’s exciting. What’s one of the assignments you’re working on?
M: For many years — beginning quite early since the time I was at Wheaton — I’ve been trying to study the history of the public use of the Bible. We had a conference at Wheaton here in 1979 for the publication of a book called “The Bible and American Culture.” And I’ve been working hard since then and I’ve finally finished a book on the 18th century, the golden period. I would like to do one on the public use of the Bible in the 19th century. So that’s the major academic project. This summer at Regent College in Vancouver, I’m hoping to teach a short course on the reformation actually with my daughter, who’s a Wheaton graduate. She did her Ph.D. in German history and we’re going to do this course together.
C: What makes the Reformation still relevant today, especially for young evangelicals at places like Wheaton?
M: In some ways, things have shifted decisively on a theological front since the second Vatican council. The protest that led to Protestantism doesn’t really have as much historical traction as it once did. But significantly for Christian people, the effort to see the church is always in need of Reformation. What’s clear now is that Protestant reforms…began to create the churches that we have today and the world that we have today. And certainly the Reformation era, the break up of a unified western Christendom was very significant for the entrance of what we might call modernity…I myself, I don’t think it’s appropriate either to be completely celebratory about the Reformation or completely negative about the breakup of western Christianity. But there were critical issues having to do with religious authority, location of the nature of divine revelation, the means by which God reconciles people to himself, critical issues having to do with the nature of religion in society, the authority of temporal rulers over spiritual rulers. All of those really important matters were adjusted, shaken up, reformed and revised in about a forty year period. So whether people realize it or not, certainly the Christian churches in the West — and to some extent where the churches have spread in the world — were the heirs of what happened then.
C: Your banner book “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” has, of course, secured you a place in modern history of evangelicalism in America. Do you think that the definition of evangelicalism is changing or has changed, since you wrote your famous book in 1994?
M: I think people your age are going to have to answer that question. Because I think the real problem is trying to define evangelical in any simple way. The things that David Bebbington identified, that others have used and I’ve used — cross, Bible, conversion, activity in the world — these all characterize broadly speaking “evangelical” people. I don’t actually think “evangelicalism” exists. There are evangelical institutions, evangelical movements, evangelical people, evangelical emphases. But you say, what’s the institutional or organizational continuity? And there just isn’t any. So does the word mean anything? If when people hear “evangelical” they think of something political first, then the serious meaning of the word is gone.
C: The word “evangelical” took center stage in the presidential election and continues to do so. However, there does seem to be a disconnect between Trump’s policies such as the now-blocked travel ban, immigration and sole support for Israel which Christians are divided on — so how do you explain the evangelical support and winning the evangelical vote?
M: I think what’s called “evangelical support for Trump” had to do with the pro-life position of the Republican party, it had to do with a lot of antagonism against some of the cultural steps taken by the Obama administration. It certainly had to do with the memory of Bill Clinton’s immorality in the White House, and a lot of white evangelicals were concerned about economics…I do think we have increasing numbers of Christian academics who would have a much more sophisticated approach to political life than, “I’m angry at Hillary so I’m voting for Trump.” But I’m worried about the Christian populace at large listening all the time to their media go-to and never being concerned about folks who are trying to see things more broadly.
C: Are you more optimistic about the state of the evangelical mind than you were in ’94?
M: Yes, and for a number of reasons. A major one would be that I think I was not keeping in mind as much as I could have in writing the book that weaknesses and mistakes from a Christian perspective should never be taken too seriously. The Christian faith is a faith of hope. So that was a theological adjustment…In the areas that were discussed in the book, I think there are problems, but by the same token, there are lots of serious Christian people who are doing really serious thinking about politics, about history, about science. In that sense, I think it’s not a golden age, but you can find first-level, deep Christian analyses of whatever you’re interested in that domain. But, there’s also a pretty big disconnect — and I think a growing disconnect. That may be worse than it was in the past, even though the number of evangelical Christian people who are bringing their Christianity to the intellectual task has risen.
C: So how do we bridge that gap then, from the “elite” and the majority population?
M: I still hold a lot of hope for local churches. Ideally when you have one congregation with people of different minds, you do have the possibility of improving things, of having the populus as a whole less spasmodic in thinking about things. You have the occasion for people who have studied things to talk to others who haven’t. In other words, there’s a burden on Christian intellectuals to take part in local congregations.
C: Last year, Wheaton made headlines with Dr. Larycia Hawkins and her statement regarding Muslims and Christians worshipping the same God. This “referent view” is becoming more and more prominent among evangelicals. Is this a valid position for evangelicals to hold? And how does your work studying church history inform your view of the relationship between Christianity and Islam?
M: I think that the first question is the easy one. I read an article where the author said that you can’t answer the question unless you have a subordinate question. From one angle, yes, you have an Abrahamic faith. But from another, from the essential Trinitarian view of God, then no, of course you don’t. What he was trying to say is that some really important religious issues cannot be reduced to a simple single statement. I think all parties involved, the administration, Professor Hawkins and the faculty had difficult situations. But for me, the obvious thing was in our modern media: people were just jumping to judgment without parsing the question. I think it would be entirely appropriate from one angle for evangelicals to say that Muslims and Christians have the same God. I don’t think I would say “worship the same God” because Christians worship a triune God and Muslims don’t. But with the Qu’ran’s reference to the Old Testament and aspects of the New Testament, there is a form of identity there. So I would say it depends on if you’re saying worship or just observing some sort of historical genealogy.
As a historian, I think people should be studying the twentieth century for the history of Islamic-Christian relationship. Also I think studying sensitively the history of Christian missions to Islam since the early 19th century — sometimes the missionaries who went to places like Egypt and Lebanon ended up, not caving into Islam, but coming back with much more sophisticated views in what’s involved in Islamic conversion. Thinking through things in a sophisticated way in our media-obsessed world tends to be reduced to a “gotcha.”
C: Since your days as student and professor, and now returning after Notre Dame, how do you think Wheaton College as an institution has changed through your years of experience with it?
M: My family lived in Wheaton in the early 1950s, and looking back you realize that Wheaton always had a strong commitment to liberal arts education. But not many of the professors would themselves be actively involved scholars in their professions. And that’s certainly changed. It means, for faculty and sometimes students, during the pre-World War II years, the primary loyalty of faculty was to the institution. And now I think it’s a shared loyalty and it’s a more complicated relationship because the standards for an academic discipline, which can often be quite secular, neutral or antagonistic to the Christian faith, have to be negotiated by faculty at the same time as they’re trying to be faithful to the constituency that wants a certain kind of education for their students. My guess is that Wheaton has changed now in that there’s less representation in the student body from what would be considered traditional Protestant denominations, and now more general inter-denominational or nondenominational student body.
C: What is the most impactful book that you’ve ever read and that you’d recommend any Wheaton student read?
M: Early on, it certainly was the Book of Romans. I think now the Gospel of Luke would be the most impactful. Outside of the Scriptures, I turn to the work of Martin Luther. Dickens’ History of the English Reformation was also a great book. The history books that were written with good research and a strong sense of Christian priorities and written very well.
C: What is your fondest memory of Wheaton?
M: A fond memory would be of the undergraduates who, either instinctively or came to see, the study of the Christian past as really significant for themselves. I was just over a Buswell today working on a paper I’m supposed to write for a book edited by Douglas Sweeney, a faculty at Trinity Seminary. He was a student in my Reformation class who brought a tremendous amount of interest and ability. I think I might have been able to help him see a way of working with the past that wasn’t polemical but was trying to see more deeply into the character of Christian life over against the context of historical society. He’d be a super example, not of what I did, but of what I was able to witness.
This interview has been edited for concision and brevity.