I first wrote this essay in the autumn of 2002, shortly before I started my Ph.D. project. It describes part of my motivation to go through this, well, ordeal. In the new context of this website it serves a similar purpose: a partial answer to the why question. The text has been slightly edited for republication.
Over the past 40 years or so we as evangelicals have rediscovered the arts. It has dawned on us that creative forms like sculpture, painting, dance, and music can indeed be reconciled with Christian faith. As incredible as it sounds, we had to rediscover something this obvious. Incredible, because after all God is the artist par excellence. His creation is a work of art without comparison. It is our own creative activity that shows we have been created in his image. By and large, many of us had lost sight of this truth.
A further area we need to rediscover is the intellectual one. For too long too many of us have eyed intellectual activity with suspicion. Science, research, and education are part of humanity’s God-given mission: “Fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28). Without science and technology, even if basic and simple, it would be utterly impossible to pursue this task.
Already in Genesis 2 we find Adam involved in biology by giving names to all the animals. In chapter 4 and 5 we read about the beginnings of technology. Even though God himself is not a scientist the way he is an artist, he still is the architect of this world and its underlying principles. The aim of science is, to use the words of early scientists, to think God’s thoughts after him.
However, we have not cared much for this intellectual pursuit. The Reformation produced great scientists, literature, and music. But this is not something that can be said of the evangelical movement. Try to think of an evangelical who has been awarded a Nobel Prize. Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, atheists – in Stockholm and Oslo they are all represented, but not the evangelicals.
Mark Noll, an evangelical Christian and historian, has sharply criticised our movement on this point in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. The scandal is, of course, that this mind is all but non-existent.
It is not that we do not think or that we reject science as a matter of principle. The problem is that we engage in these activities in a way that is far too superficial and uncritical. Where did we get so off track? Here are a few explanations:
- The evangelical movement is activist and entrepreneurial. Just notice how many organisations have been established around a particular cause. This activist context does not provide a great environment for patient scientific work.
- Modern science has questioned much that is dear to us as evangelical Christians; think biblical criticism and evolutionary theory. This has led to an anti-intellectual bias among many Bible believing Christians. Modern science and the university, perceived as anti-Christian, are often treated with suspicion.
- Evangelicals in America failed to keep up with continuing developments in the scientific method. At the beginning of the 20th century (and even today) they were still stuck in the scientific approach of the 18th century, something that had disastrous consequences. All one had to do was to combine common sense with observation to arrive at indisputable facts – or so it was believed. Surely every sensible person would draw the same conclusions based on similar observations.1 There was no understanding that presuppositions and worldview shape both what we see and what we make of it. This left Christians unequipped to formulate a credible evangelical interpretation of new discoveries and theories.
- The Bible was approached in the same way. It was understood as a book filled with facts. All that was necessary was to correctly arrange these facts and draw the right deductions from them to arrive at the truth about an issue. The fundamentalist reaction with its slogan, “the Bible from cover to cover,” reinforced this tendency. From this, it is only a small step to the next point.
- Bible verses were deemed sufficient foundation to build scientific models and theories. A crass example: based on Genesis 1:7 it was concluded by some that there had been a layer of water surrounding the earth before the flood. This layer had collapsed and was one cause for this catastrophe. For this kind of pseudoscience the sky is quite literally the limit!
- The Bible is thus treated as a scientifically minded book, even if uses simple language. The Bible is not usually understood as literature. The understanding that different types of literature have to be read in different ways (think of newspapers, instruction manuals, and poetry) was not applied to the Bible. Since so much, also in terms of information and knowledge, was expected of the biblical text, it seemed less urgent to study the natural world itself. This was even truer when the primary aim became to defend the Bible and one’s understanding of it, rather than discover something new. This, too, contributed to a devaluation of the scientific enterprise and scholarship.
This way of thinking has particularly stood out to me in these three areas:
1. Prophecy and believes related to the end times
2. Young earth creationism and flood geology2
3. Christian Zionism and the Middle East conflict
Although these are three very different subjects, they illustrate characteristic weaknesses of evangelical thought and its often simplistic interpretation of Scripture:
- Research and serious study tend to be of secondary importance at best. Greater weight is given to what can be deduced from Bible verses.
- The strongest voice does not belong to specialists, but to lay people and outsiders. With their activist and entrepreneurial mind set, they have built strong, persuasive, and therefore effective communication platforms. As in any area, it is populist rhetoric, not wisdom or thoughtfulness that carries the day.
- The origin of the ideas that are being propagated is usually unknown to the audience and often also to the propagators. Where do our theories about the end times come from, how did dispensationalism start, or who invented flood geology3? In spite of this, such ideas are presented with strong conviction and taken for biblical truth.
- Hardly anyone is aware of the fact that originally and in other Christian circles a far broader spectrum of opinion existed and continues to exist. In other words, this is a case of parochialism: people are only aware of what is known and accepted in their own “parish”.
- In part, proposals that are made have little to do with the real world. The persuasive force of flood geology for instance is minimal outside of young earth creationism. Every geologist knows that it fails to explain the world as it is.
- Frequently there is no real, deep interaction with the issues at stake and with other viewpoints. Serious research and scholarship remain the exception rather than the rule. We prefer to stay among ourselves, so we can triumphantly celebrate that the Bible is right after all.
The end result is that we marginalise ourselves and lose our voice. We want the world to be simple and comprehensible. Above all we don’t want open questions. We prefer simple and clear answers when faced with complex issues. The only problem with this is that simple answers are bound to be false.
In order to have something to say to the world around us, we have to rediscover the lost values of science, research, and scholarship. And we have to relearn – how awful! – to live with open questions again.
1 This philosophy of science has been referred to as Common Sense Rationalism. For extensive treatments, see George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982); Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994).
2 Based on a literal interpretation of Genesis, young earth creationism believes that the earth and all of life are young (6000 years or a bit more) and were created in seven days through God’s direct creative actions. Flood geology seeks to explain the earth’s crust and its geological deposits as the result of Noah’s flood; they were largely deposited in a short time period.
3 George McCready Price, an Adventist Christian who did not understand much about geology. This history is documented in: Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993).