Chapter 11

 

Evangelicals’ Two-Story Truth

 
 Religious forces accepted a division of labour; they were boxed in. -Martin Marty
  • Historically, the evangelical movement has consisted of two wings. We need to be familiar with both in order to craft an effective strategy for reviving the evangelical mind in our own day.
    • Populist
      • Surveying them will reveal roots of long-standing patterns of anti-intellectualism.
      • As the decades past, it outgrew its adolescent stage of rebuffing all religious  authority and began giving rise to its own scholars. Alongside fiery preachers there appeared distinguished professors, teaching at seminaries and universities. They sought to relate the evangelical faith to the intellectual currents of the day, and to a large degree, they were successful.
    • Scholarly
      • Surveying them will reveal why even a rational approach was not fully successful in confronting the challenges from secular academia. 
      • In terms of sheer numbers they were quickly overtaken by the populist wing, in terms of influencing American public life they were far more effective.
      • “Conservative Presbyterians were zealous campaigners against the anti-intellectualism” pervasive during this period, says one historian. They “considered themselves missionaries to the American intellect.”
  • Common Sense realism
    • A philosophy crafted by Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid
    • Most evangelicals called on it to give philosophical expression to their faith.
    • Embraced by both supporters and critics of the Awakenings. 
    • Was held by Unitarians and other theological liberals and even adopted by deists.
    • Has even been called “the official philosophy of nineteenth century America”
    • Dictates that some knowledge is “self-evident”–that is, it is forced upon us simply by the way human nature is constituted. As a result, no one really doubts or denies it. It is part of immediate, undeniable experience.
      • No one really doubts that he or she exists
      • No one really doubts that the material world is real
      • No one really doubts our inner experiences like memories or pain
      • If anyone does deny these basic facts, we call him insane–or a philosopher.
    • Core claim:  these undeniable or self-evident truths of experience provide a firm foundation upon which to build the entire edifice of knowledge–like the foundation of a house.
    • Most nineteenth-century thinkers included among the self-evident truths many of the basic teachings of Christianity, such as God’s existence, His goodness, and His creation of the world. These were taken to be self-evident to reasonable people.
    • How did this philosophy build the house on top?
      • Reid recommended the work of Francis Bacon: “Genuine science must start not with philosophy but with facts, then reason strictly by induction”
  • The Baconian Method
    • Applied to biblical interpretation, it stipulated that the first step is to free our minds from all historical theological formulations (Calvinist, Lutheran, Anglican, or whatever).  With our minds washed clean from merely human speculations, we confront the biblical text as a collection of “facts” that speak for themselves–and then compile individual verses inductively into a theological system. Statements in scripture were treated as analogous to facts in nature, knowable in exactly the same way.
    • Science
      • At this point, the term science had not yet acquired the narrow, specialized meaning it has today. Instead, it meant any form of systematized knowledge, so that the term was applied to subjects like politics, morality, and theology.
      • After the American Revolution, all traditional and inherited authorities were discredited as “tyranny” and “oppression.” The only public authority to which one could credibly appeal was science because, ideally at least, science was democratic. By following the scientific method, one was not supposed to bow to any established authority; each individual could examine the evidence for himself.
    • Applied to theology, it claimed that the Bible was accessible to everyone who cared to look at its “facts”–an idea that appealed to a newly born democratic culture.
    • Few embraced Baconian hermeneutics more enthusiastically than the members of the Restoration movement (Disciples of Christ, Churches of Christ, and the “Christian” Church). Theologians within this tradition continue to debate the merits of the method even today.
  • Alexander Campbell
    • A founder of the Restoration movement
    • As evangelical as many of the revivalists.
    • He treated the American Revolution as a paradigm for inaugurating a new age within the church, insisting that America’s “political regeneration” gave her the responsibility to lead an “ecclesiastical renovation” as well.
    • Thoroughly anti-clerical and populist, he called for “the unalienable right of all laymen to examine the sacred writings for themselves.”
    • He even favored abolishing the traditional distinction between clergy and laity.
    • Was critical of the emotionalism of the revivalist movement, and he became known for a highly rationalist approach to theology–based on Baconian hermeneutics: “We are in science and philosophy Baconians. We build on Bible facts and documents and not on theories and speculations,” he said.
    • The attraction of the Baconian method for him was in the promise of creating Christian unity…the overriding goal of the restoration movement was to reverse the splintering of the denominations, reuniting them within a single church.
    • He was convinced that the main cause of disunity in the church was tat everyone read Scripture from the perspective of a particular theological system.
    • He suggested that if we would clean the glasses (clear our minds), then we would all observe the facts of the Bible correctly and arrive at the same interpretation.
  • Effects of evangelicals’ embrace of a Baconian hermeneutic:
    • The very notion that Christians needed a “scientific” exegesis of Scripture represented a degree of cultural accommodation to the age. Evangelicals came close to losing the critical distance that Christians are called to have in every age.
    • The empiricist insistence that theology was a collection of “facts” led easily to a one-dimensional, flat-footed interpretation of Scripture. Metaphorical, mystical, and symbolic meanings were downplayed in favor of the “plain” meaning of the text.
    • The hostility to history–its rejection of the creeds and confessions that had been hammered out by the church over the course of centuries.
    • Many American evangelicals lost the intellectual riches of two millennia of theological reflection.
    • Contributed to the generation being doomed to theological shallowness.
    • In our own age, with its keener sense of the historical context of knowledge, we recognize that it is unrealistic to think people are capable of approaching Scripture with minds swept clean, like blank slates. Those who attempt to jettison the past are likely to simply sanction their own current prejudices and preconceptions as unquestioned truth.
  • Sola Scriptura?
    • At first blush, it may seem that nineteenth-century evangelicals were simply following the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura.  Not so: their anti-historical individualism was a far cry from the Reformation meaning of the phrase.
    • Reformers retained an allegiance to the ecumenical creeds and councils of the church’s first five centuries.
      • Apostle’s Creed
      • Nicene Creed
      • Athanasian Creed
      • Councils of Chalcedon, Orange and Constantinople
    • Nor did the reformers deny the importance of theological study or the natural authority of scholarship and learning.
    • The most distinctive principle among evangelicals was “No creed but the Bible,” which clearly goes far beyond the Reformers’ position.
  • More Baconianism
    • Ironically, after nineteenth-century evangelicals had thoroughly embraced the Baconian method, to their great consternation scientists began to discard it.
    • Science does not proceed by sheer induction-by collecting and organizing facts. It proceeds by proposing hypotheses and then testing them (the hypothetico-deductive method), and theories are accepted based on a wide range of factors, from simplicity to how well they cohere with existing knowledge.
    • The very idea that our minds can be “washed clean from opinions” as Bacon put it, was eventually rejected as an illusory Enlightenment ideal.
    • By stressing the need to shed all presuppositions, the Baconian ideal of objectivity blinded people to the presuppositions they actually continued to hold. Thus, in the nineteenth century, religious groups would often charge that everyone else imposed a preexisting, humanly constructed framework of interpretation on the Bible, but they did not; they merely accepted the self-evident meaning of the text.
    • The paradox is the very notion that we are capable of freeing ourselves from human systems of thought was itself the product of…a human system–one inherited from Francis Bacon.
    • The beauty and wonder of God’s personal approach is that He often does speak to individuals as they come to Him in humility and openness, simply reading the Scripture as they understand it. The Holy Spirit graciously enlightens our hearts to apply biblical truth to our personal lives. As a formal method of determining what biblical truth is in the first place, however, Baconianism was unrealistic and self-deceptive–while also tending to reinforce the same primitivism and disdain for history we found so prominent in populist evangelicalism.
    • The defining theme in nineteenth-century American Christianity, says one historian, was a profound sense of “historylessness.”
    • In other fields, Baconianism’s primary effect was to reinforce the two-story division of truth, by promoting a kind of methodological naturalism in the lower story.
    • By promising that knowledge could be based on empirical facts unfiltered through any religious or philosophical grid, Baconianism persuaded Christians to set aside their own religious framework. At the same time, it allowed alien philosophical frameworks, like naturalism and empiricism, to be introduced under the banner of “objectivity” and “free inquiry”. By insisting that science operated without any philosophical framework, Baconianism disarmed evangelicals by blinding them to these new anti-Christian frameworks…until it was too late.
    • Baconianism drove Christian perspectives out of the lower story, where we deal with subjects like science and history, and into the upper story. The Baconian ideal of knowledge as religiously neutral made believers feel that it was illegitimate to bring their faith into the classroom or into the science lab–for that would mean they were biased. To be objective and unbiased, one must treat the world as though it were a naturalistic system known by strictly empirical methods. The upshot was that religion was limited to the upper story, while methodological naturalism was given free rein in the lower story.
  • Science
    • Labeling ethics a science was a good public relations move, because it gave Christian clergy a credibility boost in an age when traditional and historical authorities were being cast aside. Claiming to be scientific put them “in a position to prescribe a Christian moral order without looking too Christian,” as one historian comments wryly.
    • As a result, what evangelical scholars offered to the public was an ethic not explicitly grounded in a Christian worldview. They found the basis of ethics in the natural order and in the experience of rational creatures rather than in the revealed will of God.
    • In one sense, this approach is not new; it was just putting “scientific” window dressing on the age-old concept of natural law.
    • From ancient times, Christians have acknowledged that all humans, because they are created in the image of God, have a basic sense of right and wrong. C. S. Lewis referred to it as the Tao–the conviction found in virtually every culture that there is an objective moral order, and that wisdom consists in aligning our personal lives with that order.
    • Yet the moral sense itself is not enough to ground a full-blown moral philosophy. Our sense of right and wrong is merely a datum of experience–which must be explained and accounted for by an overarching worldview. And if the Christian worldview is ruled out as an explanatory framework, then anti-Christian worldviews will rush in to fill the vacuum. Historically, that is exactly what happened. Because of their Baconian view that was religiously autonomous–a lower-story science based on empirical and rational grounds alone. By doing so, however, they opened the door to full-fledged philosophical naturalism (nature is all that exists). And it was not long before scholars who embraced that philosophy walked right through the door that had been opened for them. They abolished courses on moral philosophy, replacing them with empirically oriented courses on experimental psychology and sociology that spelled out the full implications of a naturalistic view of human nature. The American university was being secularized.
    • At the end of his research, the typical scientist would round off with a flourish by praising God for His wise and malevolent design; but he denied that biblical assumptions were foundational in making science possible in the first place, or that they played any role as control beliefs in directing his scientific work.
    • By the end of the 18th century, American Protestants of almost all sorts had adopted this 2-tiered worldview, founded on an empiricist epistemology, with the laws of nature below, supporting supernatural belief above.
    • The Enlightenment claim that science can operate without any philosophical premises proved, in the end, to be a cover for discarding Christian premises while smuggling in naturalistic ones.
  • Schools
    • As the 19th century progressed, the Baconian 2-story schema filtered down from the realm of abstract ideas and began to be expressed in the institutional structure of the university itself. Universities that had been founded as Christian schools, like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, began pushing theology off into a separate department instead of allowing it to permeate the curriculum as a whole. Religion became an extracurricular activity that students pursued in their private time on the side–like going to chapel or participating in Christian student groups. The public/private split was being removed from the curriculum, where we teach public knowledge, and relegated to the private sphere of subjective experience.
    • In the curriculum, religion was replaced by the humanities, which were supposed to fill the vacuum by dealing with higher questions of meaning, morality, and the spiritual life. But the humanities remained strictly in the upper story, leaving the lower story to science.
    • To bring about a restoration of the Christian mind, we would do well to follow the Intelligent Design movement in challenging the Baconian model of autonomous or neutral knowledge in every field. We must reject the presumption that holding Christian beliefs disqualifies us as “biased,” while the other philosophical naturalists get a free pass by presenting their position as “unbiased” and “rational.”
  • Intelligent Design/Christian Worldview
    • It was God who outfitted humans with the ability to discover order in nature. Our instinctive tendency to draw predictions for the future on the past is part of the human “design plan.”
    • Only Christianity, with its teaching of a personal Creator, provides an adequate metaphysical explanation of our irreducible experience of personhood. It alone accounts for the raw material of experience within a comprehensive worldview. In the modern world, with its large impersonal institutions where people are treated as ciphers in the machine, the Christian message is good news indeed. Ultimate reality is not the machine; it is a personal Being who loves and relates to each individual in a personal manner.
    • The only worldview that supports the highest aspirations of the human heart is Christianity. It gives a basis for believing that love is real and genuine because we were created by a God whose very character is love. The Bible teaches that there has been love and communication between the members of the Trinity from all eternity. Love is not an illusion created by the genes to promote our evolutionary survival, but an aspect of human nature that reflects the fundamental fabric of ultimate reality. Moreover, by submitting to God’s plan of salvation and becoming his children, we have the astonishing possibility of participating in that eternal love.
    • Most people hold a philosophy of materialism or Darwinian naturalism, yet in practice they live in ways that contradict those worldviews. After all, who really treats their convictions as the products of natural selection, and not really true but only useful for survival? Who could survive emotionally if they really believed that self-sacrificing love is nothing but “pseudo-altruism”? Because nonbelievers are created in the image of God, the force of their own human nature compels them to live in ways that are inconsistent with their professed worldview. In evangelism, our goal is to highlight that cognitive dissonance–to identify the points at which the nonbeliever’s worldview is contradicted by reality. Then we can show that only Christianity is fully consistent with the things we all know by experience to be true.
    • The whole of Western liberalism is actually parasitic on Christianity. The high view of the human person in liberalism is derived directly from Christianity: “Liberal humanism inherits several key Christian beliefs–above all, the belief that humans are categorically different from all other animals.” No other religion has given rise to the conviction that humans have a unique dignity.
  • The overall pattern of evangelicalism’s history is brilliantly summarized by Richard Hofstadter: “The churches withdrew from intellectual encounters with the secular world, gave up the idea that religion is a part of the whole life of intellectual experience, and often abandoned the field of rational studies on the assumption that they were the natural province of science alone.”
This post contains quoted and paraphrased passages of Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey.

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