The Noetic Effects of Sin and Discipleship of the Mind

Matt Capps is an ordained Baptist minister and a pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in North Carolina. Matt is a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.) and is currently a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (D.Min.). Matt blogs here.

 

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“In spite of a clouded memory, the mind seeks its own good; though like a drunkard it cannot find the path home.” – Boethius[1]

The scandal of the evangelical mind is that the evangelical mind is darkened by the noetic effects of sin.[2] Hoekema argued that “…sin has poisoned the very fountain of life [therefore] all of life is bound to be affected by it.”[3] Sin cuts through all aspects of our being, and even has consequences to our cognitive faculties. This is true of Christians and non-Christians alike. This is not to say that human depravity has darkened the mind to the extent that human intellect is incapable of knowing truth, beauty, and goodness. The fall did not destroy human reasoning faculties all together. John Calvin asserts, concerning earthly knowledge:

Shall we deny that the truth shone upon the ancient jurists who established civic order and discipline with such great equity? Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful description of nature? What shall we say of all the mathematical sciences? Shall we consider them the ravings of madmen? No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration.[4]

Van Til makes a similar point in arguing that we are well aware of the fact that all humans, by virtue of common grace, have a great deal of knowledge about this world which is true as far as it goes.[5] However, concerning spiritual knowledge Plantinga has argued that if it were not for our sin infested noetic structure, human beings would believe in God [thus the gospel] to the same degree and with the same natural spontaneity that we believe in “…the existence of other persons, an external world, or the past”, but because of our sinful condition faith seems to difficult and for some absurd.[6] Moreover, as Bavinck has labored to show us, relying on human reason alone to ground faith will always disappoint.[7]

Humanity sees through a glass dimly because of the effects of sin. One of the most baffling characteristics of sin is that it is usually masked and elusive, and is especially hard to recognize in ourselves. For this reason it is important to understand the noetic effects of sin and its implications for the discipleship of the mind. Moroney argues that sin disturbs human thinking in some areas more than others, more so when it comes to matters related to God.[8]

The Origin of the Noetic Effects of Sin

In one sense, the fall of mankind occurred because of noetic rebellion. What the serpent proposed in the Garden of Eden was nothing less than a line of thinking diametrically opposed to God’s good and designated order. Essentially, Adam and Eve questioned God’s truthfulness and reliability and decided that autonomous reasoning would reign supreme as the definitive mediator of truth. After the fall God declares that “…the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.”[9] In other words, man wanted to be like God in determining for himself what is true and good, and became, as it were, his own god. As a result of the fall, sin has become universal; except for Jesus Christ, no person who ever lived, or ever will live, on this earth has been free from sin.[10]  Therefore all have inherited sinfulness along with its noetic effects.[11]

The Noetic Effects of Sin and the Good News of Jesus Christ

Thankfully, the gospel is the power of God for salvation. According to Paul salvation includes the renewal of the mind.[12] As Goldsworthy puts it, “…it stands to reason [nice play on words there] that, if the fall involved an epistemological disaster, then salvation must include epistemological redemption.”[13] As mentioned earlier, Jesus Christ is the only one who has ever lived with a sinless and pure mind. A robust account of salvation includes redemption of the mind through the perfect mind of Christ our savior. According to Paul, all believers are given the mind of Christ.[14] At the same time, all believers still experience the effects of sin until the new heavens and new earth.[15] Until then, believers are conformed to the image of Christ in the process of sanctification. Our noetic sanctification is the fruit of our justification in Christ. Simply put, the Christian mind is renewed at conversion, but it continues to be transformed throughout the life of the believer. Goldsworthy describes this process of noetic sanctification as follows:

It is the gradual formation within us of what we have in Christ through faith. The renewal of the mind is an on-going process by which our thinking is conformed more and more to the truth as it is in Jesus.[16]

Towards a Discipleship of the Mind

Apart from regeneration, reason is in bondage to sin.[17] Even the Christian mind is not sequestered from the reality of sin. Our natural tendency, inherited from Adam, is to seek and love the wrong things, or seek and love the right things in an inordinate manner. This is why Paul commands that Christians need to be continually “transformed by the renewal of the mind.”[18] The renewing of the mind is a common theme in the writings of Paul.[19] While the transformation of the mind is an act of God, there is also responsibility upon the Christian concerning their intellectual life.

How then is one to take all thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ? At the heart of this discussion is revelation of, and faith in, the gospel of Jesus Christ, through which noetic salvation is granted by the grace of God. Anselm and Augustine’s “faith seeking understanding” approach to knowledge is helpful here since it implies that faith for the Christian is always striving to understand and apply what has already been believed. By his grace God has provided means through which noetic sanctification can be spurred on in the life of the Christian.

First, humanity has been given God’s word, the cannon of Scripture. When it comes to distorted minds because of the noetic effects of sin, God is not passive but intentional in clearly revealing and communicating divine truth to humanity. God’s self-revelation through works in the unfolding drama of revelation is made clear to darkened minds through his word. Moreover, all Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is himself the focus of divine revelation. As Paul argued, it is God who shines light into the darkness of our minds to give us the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. God’s word is the perfect treasure of divine instruction through which the Spirit shapes our mind to the mind of Christ.[20] Understanding and passing on the deep treasure of Scripture is the task of all intellectual theological endeavors and catechesis in the church.

Also, God has provided the Holy Spirit as the indwelling helper in the fight against the noetic effects of sin. Luther distinguished between the magisterial and ministerial uses of the mind. The magisterial use occurs when reason stands over and above the gospel and judges it based on argument and evidence. The ministerial use of the mind occurs when the mind submits and serves the gospel. While much of the gospel-centered movement today focuses on believing right propositions as the aim of fighting idolatry, one cannot forget the ministerial role of the Holy Spirit in enabling and shaping our minds to the truths of the gospel. Without the Spirit, one is powerless to believe in the gospel.[21] There must be a prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit to treasure God with all one’s mind.

Lastly, God has ordained the church as the context of spiritual formation. “The church is to be a learning a teaching fellowship in which the passing on of what we learn becomes a regular part of the service we render to each other.”[22] The church is God’s ordained context in which persons will grow in their godliness through instruction, teaching, nurture, and formation. Biblically grounded and Spirit empowered community life is vital in conforming the believer’s mind to the truths of the gospel. Often one cannot see their own need for transformation because of sin. However, others in the context of Christian community become instruments through which God’s grace is made known. Just as iron sharpens iron, one man sharpens another.[23]

Concluding Thoughts

Noll has recently argued that knowledge of Christ provides the most basic possible motive for pursuing the task of Christian learning.[24] Concerning discipleship of the mind McGrath has contended that “Christian theology is one of the most intellectually stimulating and exciting subjects it is possible to study, rich in resources for the life of faith and the ministry of the church.”[25] Considering the riches of knowledge in Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and the Christian community, one cannot help but be thankful for God’s gracious provision concerning the fight against the noetic effects of sin. Let us be diligent in the transformation of our minds until the coming of our Lord, when our minds will finally be free of the noetic effects of sin and we will finally see Him as He is! As the Apostle Peter reminds us, prepare your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.[26]

 


[1] Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, 49.

[2] The term ‘noetic’ includes all aspects of the mind, including the will, and is therefore a wider category than ‘knowledge’.

[3] Anthony Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 172.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, II.ii.15.

[5] See Cornelius Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 26ff.

[6] Alvin Plantinga, Reason and Belief in God, 66.

[7] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Abridged, 115.

[8] Stephen Moroney, The Noetic Effects of Sin: An Historical and Contemporary Exploration of How Sin Affects Our Thinking, 37ff.

[9] Genesis 3:22

[10] 1 Kings 8:46; Job 14:4; Psalm 130:3, 143:2; Proverbs 20:9; Ecclesiastes 7:20; John 3:3; Romans 3:23; Ephesians 2:3; James 3:2; 1 John 1:8, 10.

[11] Romans 1; 1 Corinthians 2:14.

[12] Romans 12:2,

[13] Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, 60.

[14] 1 Corinthians 2:16.

[15] Romans 7:13-25.

[16] Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, 61.

[17] Colossians 1:21; Romans 1:18-28; 8:5-7; Ephesians 2:3; 2 Corinthians 3-4.

[18] Romans 12:2.

[19] Ephesians 4:17-24.

[20] I Corinthians 2:16.

[21] Galatians 5-6.

[22] J.I. Packer and Gary Parrett, Grounded in the Gospel, 15.

[23] Proverbs 27:17.

[24] This seems to be the primary argument throughout his book Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind.

[25] Alister McGrath, The Passionate Intellect, 7.

[26] 1 Peter 1:13.

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