Book Review: Called to the Life of the Mind

Richard J. Mouw. Called to the Life of the Mind: Some Advice for Evangelical Scholars. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014.

In Matthew 22:37–40 Jesus said the two great commandments were to love God and neighbor. He also said that when it comes to loving God in particular we are to do so with our whole self: “With all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37, ESV). Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Seminary seeks to address the mind component of the greatest commandment within the context of the evangelical scholar’s world. Those who have their life and being in the world of evangelical academia are the intended audience of an extremely short book of 19 chapters that comprises a mere 74 pages including endnotes.

This is an easy read and one that can be completed in a couple of hours. The chapters do not set forth a logical and sustained argument, but then that is not their purpose. They are more along the line of short reflections or independent vignettes that are intended to provide encouragement and wisdom rooted in the various experiences and observations of this seasoned scholar and Christian academician. One endorser calls the book “sage virtues needed for the evangelical scholarly pursuit,” another “winsome guidance.” I am in agreement for the most part with these assessments, though I wish there had been more interaction with the inspired text of Scripture. There are only about a half-dozen biblical references in the entire book and none receive any significant attention. This is its most serious and noticeable weakness.

There is little doubt that the evangelical mind is in peril and the object of rightful concern on many levels. This was clearly brought to our attention some years ago when Mark Noll penned The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Noll’s concern then was the absence or at least the malformation to the evangelical mind as a whole. Given the absence of careful theological thinking in many of our churches, and with what is often passed off as worship and preaching in evangelical communities of faith, one could hardly disagree with his assessment. Of course he also had in his sights certain other segments of evangelicalism such as dispensationalists and young earthers. Mouw also has these concerns, though he mentions them with only a passing glance. While I have my own concerns with elements within these camps, I find the quick dismissiveness of these brothers and sisters—whose numbers are large and whose passion for the gospel is strong—rather uncharitable in too may instances. Still, while many in the evangelical word are exuberant in loving God with their heart (think primarily of the emotions), they fall way short in loving Him well with their mind. Failing to be transformed by the renewing of their mind, they get squeezed, molded and conformed to the fallen ways of this present evil age (Rom 12:2). The bottom line is this: too many people who claim the name of Christ do not think very Christianly.

As a teacher in a seminary and college, I am glad to say I have witnessed something of a revival in recent years when it comes to loving God with the mind. I see a new and fresh love for the biblical text and theology. The desire, yea the passion, to cultivate an authentic Christian worldview is catching fire. Given the increasing secularization of western culture and the growth of non-Christian religions, this many be taking place as a matter of necessity even as I hope and pray it is out of conviction and commitment to the Christ who told us to love Him with our mind. The birth and vitality of movements like TGC, 9Marks, T4G, CBMW, CO and others are a hopeful sign. The continued growth of evangelical seminaries and schools also give me reason to be cautiously optimistic.

Mouw, however, wants specifically to address the scholarly guild. He recognizes that good theology will emerge most naturally out of a community of scholars rather than from scholars in isolation. We will do better together thinking and talking and listening to one another than we will apart. Here I am in enthusiastic agreement. One reason is, I have seen it first hand. While I do not have the honor of serving a perfect seminary, I do lead a very good seminary. In addition to being known as a Great Commission Seminary, we are also often referred to as a happy seminary. In other words the men and women of my faculty not only love each other, they like each other. They delight in thinking together, studying together, writing together, going to church together, and heading to the unreached and underserved areas of the world and North America on mission together. They truly serve one another as iron sharpening iron. As a true community of scholars who value most their adopted status in the family of God through Christ, they see themselves as family and treat one another as family. I have to believe this is a worthy goal for any and every evangelical institution to aspire to achieve.

Mouw also believes we will do theology better and raise up faithful ministers better if we approach our calling (and he certainly believes it is a calling) with what he calls “epistemic humility” and “epistemic hope.” Arthur Holmes taught us that all truth is God’s truth wherever we find it. Therefore we do not hesitate to invade and investigate every realm of reality knowing that any truth we find will be God’s truth. This is a valuable component of epistemic hope. And yet we must never lose sight of the fact that we are finite and fallen creatures. We never see things exactly as they are. We always see through a glass dimly. We need to approach our calling with epistemic humility. However, epistemic humility need not and should not lead us to epistemic despair or skepticism. By means of special revelation and the indwelling Spirit of God, we may not know perfectly but we can know truly. Our knowledge of God may not be exhaustive, but it can still be genuine. It can be authentic, real and true.

On some matters we will have greater clarity and understanding. Orthodox Christianity is remarkably united on a number of theological convictions. The Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Creed are affirmed by all orthodox and evangelical Christians across almost 2000 years of Church history. This is nothing to sneeze at or consider of little value. At the same time there are other matters concerning which we still disagree and debate. Fine. Let’s continue the conversation. But, let us do so with a spirit of humility and a love for those with whom we disagree. After all, we may be right. And, we may also be wrong. Being genuinely open to that latter possibility can only make us a better evangelical scholar. It will make us a more welcomed member of a community of evangelical scholars who bear a heavy responsibility to the churches we have been called to serve. It will help us live out our calling to the life of the mind that will honor our God, build up His church, and extend His Kingdom to the ends of the earth that rightly and truly belong only to Him.