Mark Noll’s Memoir: World Christianity, Historical Thinking, Humbling Paradox

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Historian Mark Noll has written more than a “personal memoir” narrating his pilgrimage from his non-pugilistic, “genuine all the way down,” Cedar Rapids, Baptist fundamentalism to his nuanced, Calvinistic, world-Christian, historically informed Protestantism. There is that. And it is riveting reading (at least for a fellow Wheaton classmate, and fellow lover of the supremacy of Christ in all things).

But, given the way this professor of history at Notre Dame is wired, and given the convictions that drive his life and work, his own story could never be the main point — witness his “grave suspicion about personal memoir as a genre.” There is a much bigger story to tell. His own story is a foil — fascinating foil — for the expression of the passions of his life (even historians have these): the nature of the Christian faith, the nature of Christian thinking about history, and the paradoxes and limitations of human life.

The book is titled From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story (Baker Academic, 2014). And once Noll was arm-wrestled into writing it (by Joel Carpenter and Robert Hosack), he was in his element — grave suspicions and all.

I hope the book is widely read by pastors, academics, and thoughtful lay people, who have — or wish they had — a compelling and reliable vision for God’s new global work in our time. So what I am trying to do here is give a glimpse into Noll’s three passions and the foil of his personal faith.

The Foil of Personal Faith

Noll’s way of doing historical writing over the last 30 years, by conviction, has not foregrounded his personal faith. This book is different. Here we meet a man of deep biblical conviction, for whom the realities of the Christian faith are “the most important things in [his] own life” (xii). By my reckoning the most significant theological statement in the book is this:

The cross, in sum, was God’s everlasting “no” to the most fundamental human idolatry of regarding the self as a God. It was God’s final word of condemnation for all efforts to enshrine humanity at the center of existence. (18)

That last sentence is laden with implications for historical methodology, which I will come back to at the end. But first and foremost, this statement is Noll’s declaration of his surrender to the totality of God’s grace.

This accounts, it seems, for why, in spite of Noll’s years of teaching at Notre Dame, and his deep appreciation for Roman Catholic Nicene orthodoxy, “Yet, over this same period, my own commitment to the classical Protestantism of the Reformation has also become stronger, especially accounts of sin, grace, and salvation” (183).

He had been gripped (like many of us), during the days of graduate studies, by the explosive witness of the sixteenth century to the gospel: “The riches of classical Protestantism opened a new and exceedingly compelling vision of existence” (12).

Noll became a kind of Luther-like, Hodge-like, Kuyper-like, nuanced (because historians nuance everything) Calvinist, who lives on the razor’s edge between making his own expression of faith universally normative, and “descending into cultural relativity” (166). In other words: “As basically a Calvinist myself, I nonetheless saw immediately that the best hymns came from many points on the Christian compass” (52).

Foundational to the riches of the Reformation was not only “the perspicuity of the scriptural message of redemption in Christ” (183), but also the reality of the Bible’s stunning divine-human perfection: “I was more and more convinced that the Bible told the story of salvation as perfectly as could be imagined, but less and less concerned to resolve the difficulties involved in stating how the living word was fully revealed in the written word” (56).

This foundation, and this compelling vision of existence, has found its most intense personal expression in Noll’s experience of the Lord’s Supper. Yes, there is the characteristic intellectual engagement: “The experience that prompted the deepest reflection on the nature of Christianity in my own life as a Christian was regular celebration of the Lord’s supper” (52).

But more deeply, Noll gives us a brief glimpse into the “cyclone of emotion” experienced in the old Scot’s Form at his Presbyterian church. Like many former Lit. majors, at the times of deepest emotion, Noll turns to poetry — his own poetry — to express the depths (53). And then this comment: “Over the years, the intellectual frisson became an existential epiphany” (54).

The Nature of the Christian Faith

Pondering and experiencing the presence of God in the Lord’s Supper was a bridge to the nature of the Christian faith that Noll’s exposure to world Christianity was making clearer. The Lord’s Supper is a kind of incarnation — a kind of translation — of divine reality into the particularities of the physical, cultural, personal, human present. And so is all of Christianity — first manifest in the incarnation of Christ, and then in the missionary expanse of the church into one culture after the other.

Foremost among Noll’s formative influences, in this regard, was the seminal thinking of missionary-historian Andrew Walls of the University of Aberdeen — “a lonestar had arisen for me” (90). Among the crucial insights obtained from Walls Noll says,

The most compelling is the awareness that “world Christianity” displays the essential character of Christianity itself. In a word, cross-cultural adaptation has been essential where Christianity flourishes because Christianity itself began and continues through the divine gift of cross-cultural communication. . . .

Following on the original act of translation in Jesus of Nazareth are countless re-translations into the thought forms and cultures of the different societies into which Christ is brought as conversion takes place. (96–97)

This meant “that the history of Christianity constantly unfolds new depths and new understanding of the Christian faith itself” (97). In other words, fresh incarnations of Christianity — fresh translations of it into more and more cultures — drew out of the faith aspects that were really there, but had not been seen as clearly as they now are in this new cultural translation.

The upshot of this insight went beyond Noll’s initial conviction that “If the people of God come from every tribe and nation, so then should a history of the people of God try to take in every tribe and nation” (xiii). Now, the reason for this was that a full understanding of Christianity itself lay in a proper attention to its fresh cultural “translations” among all the peoples of the world.

The Nature of Christian Thinking About History

This discovery — that the very nature of the Christian faith consists in, and is illuminated by, ever-fresh translations from one culture to another, that is, by the history of missions — has raised, for Noll, serious, instructive, and unanswered questions about how to think about the history of Christianity in global perspective.

Noll has spent most of his professional life thinking about historical thinking. One of the biggest questions is the relationship between the rigorous, modern, historical method and the workings of God in history. He is keenly aware that he is part of a band of Christian historians who have

made a strategic adjustment that opened the door to their participation in the Western University world. This adjustment was to abandon — at least while working with standard academic conventions — the tradition of providential historiography. The adjustment required Christian historians to consider history writing as part of the sphere of creation rather than the sphere of grace, as a manifestation of general rather than special revelation. Put differently, Christian historians have often taken their place in the modern Academy by treating history not as theology but as empirical science. This choice meant that they have constructed their historical accounts primarily from facts ascertained from documentary or material evidence and explained in terms of natural human relationships. For these purposes, believing historians have not presumed to show directly how overarching theological realities are played out in details of historical development. (100–101)

The alternative to this approach Noll describes as “the premodern or ideological stance.” This means “that historical writing exists in order to illustrate the truth of propositions known to be true before study of the past begins” (103). The problem, of course, is that Christian historians like Mark Noll do know certain massive, all-influencing propositions about God and history to be true as they take up every new historical investigation. Noll is not naïve about this.

His point in this book is that the engagement between traditional academic historians and missiological historians may shed new light on this tension. Or to put it another way, the necessity of dealing with living, cross-cultural incarnations of the Christian faith may put God in a less avoidable place.

Missiologists writing about such matters are usually keenly aware of spiritual realities, and so are in a position as Christians to check the tendency in modern historiography to write as if God did not matter. Yet missiologists are also usually alert to the profound cultural dynamics at work in any cross-cultural religious proclamation. (102)

This is the place to circle back to what I said at the beginning — that Noll’s insight into the meaning of the cross of Christ is laden with implications for historical methodology. He said, “[The cross] was God’s final word of condemnation for all efforts to enshrine humanity at the center of existence” (18). Thus one way to understand Noll’s view of the impact of missiological scholarship is that it may have the power to dismantle this humanity-exalting shrine at the center of modern historical methodology.

The point is not that an easy answer will be forthcoming to the age-old tension between faith and history. The point is that the emergence of serious missiological historiography may force the issue of integrity in writing about the movement of God in missions without dealing with the reality of God.

It can be difficult for missiologists, as well as for other Christian historians, to show how the worlds of faith and historical science can be brought together with integrity. Yet because of what they study — situations where unseen spiritual dynamics and visible cultural consequences exists so inextricably entwined — missiologists are in a favored position. (102)

Thus, even though “Western thinking about historical knowledge remains in a confused and troubled condition” (103), the explosion of the study of world Christianity and the emergence of rigorous missiological scholars, gives Noll “great hope that they may also show the way in historical method” (108).

Noll pays tribute to the late Ogbu Kalu for giving expression to the urgency of this need.

It is now necessary to observe rigorous historical methods as developed over centuries in the West . . . and at the same time acknowledge the manifest workings of God in time and space. While this challenge is daunting, trying to meet it has become more imperative than ever. (194)

The Paradoxes and Limitations of Human Life

Noll would probably say that the tension felt between knowing truth by historical observation, and knowing it by divine revelation, is built into the nature of Christianity. God is more than this world. Yet God entered into this world in Jesus Christ. He continues to enter this world as the reality of his presence in Christ spreads by the preaching of the gospel to all the peoples of the world.

Thus paradox and human limitation are built into the nature of things. Add to this the reality of human fallenness, and things become even more complex. Virtually every discovery, every advance, and every insight is partial and imperfect, because of the limits of our knowing and the limits of our goodness.

On the one hand, Noll is “tempted to simply stand back in amazement” (192) at the new global reality. “Where Christianity in 1900 was mostly limited to Europe, North America, and places colonized by the West, now it has spread nearly everywhere” (186). “The ever-expanding numbers who are turning to Christ in the global South constitute the great marvel of recent history” (187).

But on the other hand, these amazing developments “also pose real problems of continuity, discipline, endurance, impact, relationship, and maturity” (187). Paradoxically, but not surprisingly, “if our era has become the best of times, it remains also the worst of times. A religion anchored in the murder of God incarnate is a religion that takes the sinful proclivities of believers as seriously as the entire world’s need for redemption” (186–187).

Everywhere we look, any temptation to triumphalism is subdued. In all the amazing expansion “the same type of struggles seemed to prevail between self-fixated religiosity and self-giving altruism, between courageous fidelity and craven hypocrisy” (166).

Thus, if we ask Mark Noll what his hopes are for the future, we would hear a seasoned caution: “One of my strongest convictions has become that it is always too soon to pontificate” (188).

But then he adds “The greatest challenge at this early stage of awareness about the rapidly changing world is to keep our eyes open” (93). No doubt, this is, ultimately, because God is at work, and his purposes of salvation for the world cannot fail. This we know before it happens.