The gospel and the mind: book review

In an age of anti-intellectualism, scientism, and mind-numbing electronic media, how are Christians to live, learn, and glorify God? In The Gospel and the mind: recovering and shaping the intellectual life (Crossway, 2010), Bradley G. Green explores the connections between the Christian gospel and the pursuit of knowledge. In his work, Green leans heavily on such Christian intellectual heavyweights as Calvin, Aquinas, Athanasius, and especially Augustine to respond to other philosophers like Derrida, Nietzsche, and Saussure. Spurred on by the perception that “wherever the gospel goes, it seems to generate intellectual deliberation and inquiry,” Green has written a fully-orbed and persuasive apologia of the Christian intellectual life as the primary and best context from which to study the world.

Since Christ died to redeem all of who we are, this includes our minds. Thus, “any sort of meaningful intellectual life will be rooted in Christ and the gospel” (p. 178). To flesh this out, Green examines five interrelated theological themes and their relevance to the intellectual life: the realities and necessities of creation and history; the concept of a telos or goal to all of history; the cross of Christ; the nature of language; and knowledge, morality, and action. He presents a twofold thesis: “the Christian vision of God, man, and the world provides the necessary precondition of the recovery of any meaningful intellectual life; and the Christian vision of God, man, and the world offers a particular, unique understanding of what the intellectual life might look like” (p. 13-14).

It is obvious from the start that Green is well-read and painstakingly researched this book.  He writes clearly and professionally, bordering on the scholarly. Green offers persuasive arguments for the Christian intellectual life, and I was very encouraged and challenged by this book. The sections on the five above themes dovetail with each other nicely, and Green effectively weaves together these themes to serve his thesis. While doing this, he interacts with beloved philosophers of the anti-Christian world, discusses the importance of history and creation, shows how modern and postmodern thinkers have taken away any type of hope for life by rejecting the telos of history, points out the destructive influence of sin on the mind, and more. He quotes extensively from myriad thinkers and philosophers to make his point, and the book is filled with excellent quotations. At times it reads like a string of quotations with Green’s voice just filling in the gaps and giving structure to the arguments.

Perhaps the most persuasive, challenging, and insightful section is the closing chapter on the moral nature of knowledge. Knowledge is not neutral, as many contemporary thinkers would have us swallow. Green expounds here on Calvin’s conviction that to know God is to honor God, and “the honoring is included within the knowledge itself” (p. 150). Thus, as Calvin writes, “our mind cannot apprehend God without rendering some honor to him.” From Calvin, Green launches into a biblically saturated discussion of the moral nature of knowledge, supported by the Psalms, Proverbs, prophets, and Paul. The conclusion, drawn also from Calvin, C.S. Lewis, and Cornelius Van Til, is that all knowledge is more than just knowing facts, but is actually personal and moral. Thus, “to live in this world is to face a moral responsibility and duty” (p. 161). This responsibility is to know things truly, as they are known and understood by God. Though we are finite beings and cannot know omnisciently as God knows, we can know in light of who God is and what he has spoken to us in his word. This is how, as Kepler wrote, we are able to think God’s thoughts after him. And if this is the case, then

“as we have seen, God has revealed himself to all persons in the created order, then all persons know God and are engaged in the moral, willful, ethical submission to or rejection of the God of Holy Scripture at virtually all moments of their existence…Thus, nothing can be truly understood unless it is understood in relation to the God who created and currently sustains the world.” (p. 161-162, emphasis his)

The gospel comes into this discussion of the moral nature of knowledge in that when our hearts have been changed by the Holy Spirit and our minds are renewed by Christ, our moral wills and our natural loves will also be different. Following the Apostle Paul’s and Augustine’s discussions of this, Green argues that we cannot really know what we do not love: “Augustine seems to be saying that the reason we can know only what we love is that only in love are we able to understand what something is really like in terms of what it is ultimately capable of becoming…God is to be loved, while all other things are to be viewed in relation to that ultimate love” (p. 166-167).

Thus, we serve a “personal, relational, triune, and rational” God, who is

“not primarily sensed or felt – although that is part of our experience – but known. This, the fundamental goodness of knowledge is at the heart of a Christian understanding of the intellectual life. This God has made a world, and this world reflects the one who made it. We humans as image bearers reflect God in a unique way, but the world as a whole ultimately reflects the God who made it. And hence, the Christian faith encourages attention to the world, its structures, and its mysteries.” (p. 178-179)

While one of its strengths, Green’s precise scholarship and philosophical interactions might also be one of the book’s downfalls. If one of the purposes of this book is so that Christians will be spurred on by the gospel to recover intellectual pursuits, I’m not sure this book is the starting point. It does not score very high on the accessibility meter. The chapters on the nature of language are especially technical and dense (as admitted by Green). I am afraid that Green’s valuable work will mostly be read by the “choir” – Christian intellectuals and Christian lovers of knowledge – and not by those who might need this book. Green’s scholarly, philosophical, and sometimes technical discussions is not the best introduction to those Christians seeking to recover intellectual pursuits. I wish it were, though. It is sadly ironic, but if “non-intellectuals” are the audience, this would not be the first book to give them. But I do hope this important book receives a wider audience than it probably will.

Note: Crossway provided me with a copy of this book for review purposes.

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