Richard J. Mouw, Called to the Life of the Mind

Mouw, Richard J. Called to the Life of the Mind: Some Advice for Evangelical Scholars. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2014. 80 pages, pb. $10.  Link to Eerdmans

This little book is a series of personal reflections from Mouw’s long career first as philosophy professor and later as president of Fuller Seminary. Since Mouw has been at the forefront of evangelicalism for more than fifty years he offers unique insights into being an evangelical who genuinely pursues a life of the mind.

The subtitle of this book is “some advice for evangelical scholars,” although it reads more like a series of short devotionals about academics the idea of a Christian College and University as well as how to be an educated person. Calvinists like Mouw have always been leaders in evangelical circles (Calvin Theological Seminary’s Clarence Bouma was the first president of the Evangelical Theological Society (1949-50) and the Seminary hosted the ETS in 1955 and 1963). While the center of evangelicalism has shifted south geographically and to the right politically, Reformed thinkers are still very much at the forefront of intellectually honest evangelicalism.

Mouw, Life of the MindMouw struggled early in his career with being an evangelical and an intellectual at the same time. In his formative years he was warned against straying from the simple Gospel by scholarship. He recalls hearing “we don’t need exegesis, we just need Jesus” on more than one occasion. Yet Mouw says he was called to life as a scholar and he does not regret his pursuit of an intellectual life, a calling more young evangelicals need to heed!

When evangelicals began founding colleges and seminaries, there was a tension between intellectual rigor and practical training for ministry. As someone who teaches Greek in a conservative Bible College, I have had to defend the value of learning to read the Greek New Testament on several occasions. Mouw says “there is a danger of allowing a concern for the practical value of learning to merge with lingering tendencies toward anti-intellectualism in the Evangelical movement” (16). This observation is as true today as it was a hundred years ago. Within Evangelicalism there are certain sacred cows which are rarely questioned because they imply liberalism.

The book is filled with numerous insights into what Evangelicalism looked like some 50 or 60 years ago. For example, he relates his first experience reading Bernard Ramm’s 1954 book The Christian View of Science in the Scriptures (p. 57), a book influential in his dismissal of young earth creationism while still in high school. For a Christian teenager in the 1950s, reading Ramm’s book was like sneaking off with a copy of Playboy! What is shocking is that sixty years later, this is still the case.

In another part of the book he describes the ideal Christian College environment as a safe space for “playing around” intellectually. Safe spaces are crucial, Mouw says, for intellectual exploration. This would be true both for a bright student who is questioning his faith as well as a college professor honestly seeking a deeper understanding of an academic field. There should be no safer place for these sorts of explorations in a Christian College, but I suspect that is not always the case.

Called to the Life of the Mind is a book everyone who works in academia should read. It is simple and concise, yet deeply challenging. I would encourage students to purchase copies of this book for their professors as a Christmas gift at the end of a busy semester!

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with an electronic review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.