A Review of “The Gospel and The Mind” by Bradley Green

mind“What does the gospel have to do with the life of the mind” (11)? Bradley Green is concerned about the relationship between the two, and not simply because he is a co-founder of a Christian liberal arts school (The Augustine School). Rather, his concern stems primarily from a deep interest in recovering a premodern intellectual life, for, in his estimation, the present intellectual culture is rather anemic. It is the Christian worldview, he argues, which most cultivates a healthy view of the mind. So, he aims to articulate clearly the relationship between the two. Green has many good things to say in this book, indeed he makes a compelling case, but its presentation left me somewhat frustrated. While I liked The Gospel and the Mind it is not the best book on this subject.

The book highlights five themes each developing a two-fold thesis. He states his bifurcated thesis as follows:

1. The Christian vision of God, man, and the world provides the necessary precondition for the recovery of any meaningful intellectual life.

2. The Christian vision of God, man, and the world offers a particular, unique understanding of what the intellectual life might look like.

The two theses are interrelated. The five themes he focuses on to develop these theses are listed early in the book and unpacked across six chapters. He states them as:

1. The realities of creation and history

2. The notion of a telos or goal to all of history

3. The cross of Christ

4. The nature of language

5. Knowledge, morality, and action

Each theme highlights the significance, indeed necessity, of Christian theology for a deep, healthy, growing intellectual life. Green states it even more boldly when he writes:

One of the key burdens of this book is to suggest that without certain key theological realities and commitments, the cultivation of an enduring intellectual and cultural life becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible. (18-19)

It’s a strong case, but Green does a convincing job, if not the best job.

His first theme develops the point that apart from belief in divine creation there can be no consistent intellectual life. Premodern man, he states, accepted that there was an order and structure inherent in the world that he was able to uncover. He could look to the past to help guide him in the present and into the future. Modern man, however, has become very skeptical even of the possibility of real knowledge, precisely because he has rejected the notion of a created world. Green writes:

Confused or inadequate understanding of history and creation contribute to the kind of culture and ethos that does not value the intellectual life. (31-32)

Without the belief in creation it is “hard to account for the idea that there is something there to know” (39).

His second theme explores the importance for telos, the belief that life is going to an ultimate end. He focuses here on the value of eschatology for the intellectual life. Intellectual pursuits only make sense, he argues, within the context of an ultimate meaning to existence. “Experience in the here and now,” writes Green, “becomes fragmented and disordered once ripped out of a larger and more beautiful and more life-giving vision of things” (68).

His third theme focuses on the implications of redemption for the cultivation of the intellect. He argues here that because of the noetic effects of sin man’s mind needs redemption. He does some compelling work here demonstrating that God redeems all of us, including our minds. In fact he argues, apart from redemption we can never think rightly, we can never fully understand. There is truth to what he says, but I will argue later that it lacks the important nuance that makes it ultimately convincing. This lack of nuance became a bit of a frustration for me throughout the book.

Fourthly, Green turns his attention towards language. The two chapters that focused on language were, arguably, the best chapters in the book. Here Green gives readers an accessible introduction to linguistic theory and philosophy of language. He breaks down deconstructionism for us and walks us through a Christian view of language that counters this theory. While these chapters do tend to be more technical, by necessity, they are not beyond the layman’s grasp. Patient readers will benefit greatly from these chapters. While I might contend that Green is a bit reductionist in his evaluation of modernism, he still gets the larger picture correct and presents a compelling alternative for a Christian approach to language, arguing again for the necessity of key theological themes for intellectual life.

Finally, he beckons us to recognize that knowledge is always a moral act. To know truly requires us to honor God, and the lack thereof has implications for our so-called knowledge. He borrows heavily from Calvin here and makes a compelling case for the morality of knowledge. This section again lacked the kind of nuance that would have strengthened his case, but it was overall true and clarifying.

It’s not that I disagree with Green’s theses and main themes. He is right to connect the gospel and the overall Christian worldview to healthy intellectual life. My disappointment with the book lies more in its presentation. As a whole the book is littered with quotations. In fact reading the book can often feel like a string of extensive quotes from other scholars. Green’s view’s are largely developed from the extensive work of Augustine and Richard Weaver. These are commendable people to draw from, but with massive amount of quoting the author does one wonders why they shouldn’t just read Augustine and Weaver instead. There are points at which the book feels less like Green’s own contribution and more like a mere assimilation of other authors’ thoughts on the subject. In addition he sometimes proclaims more than he proves. So, for example he repeatedly makes assertions like this:

At the heart of God’s redemptive purposes is the renewing of the human mind. (90)

Central to a Christian vision of the intellectual life is the affirmation that God is constantly renewing the mind…(91)

These are pretty big claims, and though he quotes a few passages of Scripture, these verses more or less just prove Green’s not completely out on a limb. They are more proof texts than compelling theological cases. More diligent proof needed to be provided for some of these assertions.

Finally, as has been stated, Green lacks the nuance that would have strengthened the work. Repeatedly Green makes the claim that unbelievers cannot have actual knowledge, or intellectual life. He claims that apart from redemption we cannot know. So he states that “As God’s creatures in God’s world, we truly know only when we know in light of who God is and what he has spoken to us” (84). While this is true there are nuances to such a statement that we must wrestle with. After all, Paul clearly teaches that man does “know” God, that’s why man is without excuse before God (Rom. 1:21). Furthermore, atheists and unbelievers know all kinds of things, so what does Green mean by such statements. John Frame has well articulated the need for nuance in this conversation. Frame takes up ten pages in his Doctrine of the Knowledge of God to discuss the balance of the unbelievers knowledge and lack of knowledge. There he surveys nine different responses before coming to a rather lengthy personal explanation. Green does not offer any nuance on this equation and it left me as a reader frustrated. It almost seems to reductionist, simple, or clean to be true. It’s not that I disagree with the conclusion: man apart from Christ does have a deficient knowledge, and Green presents his case well enough. But what it lacks is the thorough explanation provided by others.

This is a good book, it offers more focused discussion than a book like John Piper’s Think, and yet in an effort to provide an accessible work on the subject I think Green has left too many things unexamined. Thankful he gives us a great bibliography. From all the works he quotes and discusses within his 181 pages we can continue to study this subject with greater depth and clarification. I might not recommend The Gospel and the Mind, but I commend Green for pointing us in the direction of other great works on the subject.

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