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Phil Foundations


[8] Advice to Those Who Would Be Christian Scholars

  by Nicholas Wolterstorff, Ph.D., Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology Emeritus, Yale University

1. What advice can I give to you whose sights are set on becoming Christian scholars?

My first piece of advice is that you get clear on what you understand by the project of being a Christian scholar. When I travel around and talk to Christians in colleges and universities, and when I read what Christians say about the contemporary university, I over and over come up against one or another of the following three attitudes.

Some assume that what goes on in the contemporary university is pretty much OK as it is, and they look for ways of supplementing that with some distinctly Christian thought and activity. Sometimes this supplementation takes the form of Christian organizations, housed in the region of the university, inviting students to weekly Bible study, to Sunday worship services, to twice-a-year camp-outs, etc. Sometimes it takes the form of Christian scholars adding theology to what goes on in the university, adding biblical scholarship, adding philosophical reflections on the epistemology of religious belief, etc. This additive or supplemental approach was in fact the basic strategy of most Christian colleges in the U.S. until around thirty years ago.

Second, some of those who believe that what goes on in the contemporary university is pretty much OK as it is reject the additive approach because they find tension between Christianity as they understand it, and what goes on in the university; so they propose revising Christianity until the tension disappears. Often this takes the form of what I call a “band wagon approach.” Some development takes place in one or another of the disciplines, and shortly articles appear arguing that one can be a Christian and accept this new development. Post-modernism appeared, and soon a spate of articles turned up arguing in favor of the compatibility of Christianity and post-modernism. In my own field, John Rawls became popular in political philosophy, and shortly a spate of articles appeared arguing in favor of the compatibility of Christianity and Rawlsianism. Evolutionary psychology turns up, and shortly a spate of articles appears arguing for the compatibility of Christianity and evolutionary psychology. Of course, developments come and go in the disciplines; so the person who adopts a bandwagon approach must be ready to leap off his currently favored bandwagon and onto some new one that comes along. You may assume that it is especially liberal Christians who are ever willing to revise their understanding of Christianity in order to make it compatible with the latest fad in academia; but I find evangelicals often doing the same thing. Let me not conceal the fact that I find this approach disgusting and demeaning; I want to say: Think for yourself!

And third, there are those Christians, usually outside the university, who are content to lob grenades at the contemporary university: preachers, free-lance writers, and the like. The university, they say, is godless, aggressively secular, reductionist, relativist, liberal, post-modern, captive to political correctness – you name it.

2. It’s my view that there is some element of truth in each of these views; the problem is that each view takes that element of truth and runs with it.

The first position is correct in holding that not everything that goes on in the contemporary university is unacceptable to the Christian; it is quite another thing to assume, however, that basically everything that goes on is acceptable. The second position is correct in holding that sometimes one should revise one’s understanding of Christianity in the light of what turns up in some discipline; it is quite another thing to assume, however, that that is always the direction one’s revision should take, that one’s Christian faith should never lead one to critique some development in the discipline. And the third position is correct in holding that there is a lot of reductionism in the contemporary university, a lot of relativism, and the like. But that is by no means the whole of it; and let me assure you that lobbing grenades from the sidelines will have no effect whatsoever.

3. So how do I think of the overall project of being a Christian scholar?

To put it in a nutshell, I think the project of being a Christian scholar is the project of thinking with a Christian mind and speaking with a Christian voice within your chosen discipline and within the academy more generally.

Let me unpack this a bit. Recently I heard a talk in which the speaker argued that teaching intelligent design is incompatible with the nature of natural science; if intelligent design is to be taught anywhere in the curriculum, it must be taught in philosophy classes. In thus arguing, the speaker was making the common assumption that natural science and philosophy both have an essence, a nature; his claim was that discussion of intelligent design is compatible with the nature of philosophy but incompatible with the nature of natural science.

I think of the various academic disciplines very differently. I think of them as social practices, some, like philosophy, with a long ancestry, some, like molecular biology, of recent origin. And I think of these practices as constantly changing due to all sorts of developments both inside and outside the discipline. I hold, thus, that natural science does not have an essence, nor does philosophy. What they have instead is traditions that are constantly changing, sometimes slowly, sometimes abruptly.

The application relevant to our topic is this: the Christian scholar participates as Christian in those social practices that are the disciplines. Those practices are not a project of the Christian community, nor are they the project of some anti-Christian community. They are human; they belong to all of us together – just as the state is not for Christians nor for non-Christians but for all of us together.

And now to make my opening point again: the mode of the Christian’s participation in these on-going, ever-changing, social practices is to think with a Christian mind and to speak with a Christian voice. When engaging in, say, sociology with a Christian mind, one will sometimes find oneself critical of what is going on in some part of sociology: one will find the assumptions being made about human nature mistaken, one will find the emphasis skewed, one will find the issues discussed unimportant, and so forth. One will then find oneself launching a critique of this part of sociology, and beyond that, trying to do it differently and better. At other times, when thinking with a Christian mind one will find what is going on in some part of one’s discipline quite OK. Being a Christian scholar requires this sort of discernment.

I mentioned that many different things contribute to those social practices which are the academic disciplines taking the form they do take – new technological developments, for example. Among the most important things shaping the academic disciplines are worldviews. I think the Christian scholar will be especially attentive to those worldviews, and will be especially alert to those points where the discipline-shaping worldview conflicts with the worldview embedded in Christianity.

4. Those were some comments about thinking with a Christian mind. What about speaking with a Christian voice?

Well, for one thing, the Christian voice will be a voice of charity; it will honor all human beings, as Peter puts it in his letter in the New Testament. It will never be abusive. But there is also a more subtle matter to be raised here. The voice with which one speaks must be a voice such that one can be heard – a voice such that one genuinely participates in the dialogue of the discipline. Every now and then, when teaching at Yale, I would have a student who did not know how to speak in the voice appropriate to philosophy; invariably this was an evangelical. Evangelicals often interpret the response they get as hostility to evangelicalism, or hostility to Christianity. Sometimes it is that; but not always. Sometimes it is just that the person has not learned to speak in the appropriate voice.

5. So how do you arrive at the point where you can think with a Christian mind and speak with a Christian voice?

Let me throw out some suggestions, and then open it up for questions.

First, be patient. The Christian scholar may feel in his bones that some part of his discipline rubs against the grain of his Christian conviction, but for years, and even decades, he may not be able to identify precisely the point of conflict; or, if he has identified it, he may not know for years or decades how to work out an alternative. Once he does spy the outlines of an alternative, the Christian scholar has to look for the points on which, as it were, he can pry, those points where he can get his partners in the discipline to say, “Hmm, you have a point there; I’m going to have to go home and think about that.” He doesn’t just preach. He engages in a dialogue – or tries to do so. And that presupposes, once again, that he has found a voice.

Second, to arrive at this point, the Christian scholar will have to be immersed in the discipline and be really good at it. Grenades lobbed by those who don’t know what they are talking about will have no effect. Only those who are learned in the discipline can see the fundamental issues.

Third, to be able to think with a Christian mind about the issues in your discipline, you have to have a Christian mind. As I see it, three things are necessary for the acquisition of such a mind. First, you have to be well acquainted with Scripture – not little tidbits, not golden nuggets, but the pattern of biblical thought. Let me add here: beware of the currently popular fad of reducing acquaintance with scripture to worldview summaries. Second, you need some knowledge of the Christian theological tradition. And third, you have to become acquainted with the riches of the Christian intellectual tradition generally, especially those parts of it that pertain to your own field. Too often American Christians operate on the assumption that we in our day are beginning anew, or on the assumption that nothing important has preceded us. You and I are the inheritors of an enormously rich tradition of Christian reflection on politics, on economics, on psychology, an enormously rich tradition of art, of music, of poetry, of architecture – on and on it goes. We impoverish ourselves if we ignore this. Part of our responsibility as Christian scholars is to keep those traditions alive.

Fourth, Christian learning needs the nourishment of communal worship. Otherwise it becomes dry and brittle, easily susceptible to skepticism.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology Emeritus, Yale University, presented this at Veritas, October 9, 2009 at the University of Tennessee. He received his BA from Calvin College in 1953 and his PhD in philosophy from Harvard University in 1956. Before taking the position of Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology, he taught for thirty years at his alma mater, Calvin College. In recent years he has been concentrating on epistemology (e.g., Thomas Reid and the Story of EpistomologyCambridge U. Press, 2004), philosophy of religion (e.g., Inquiring about God, Cambridge U. Press, 2010; Practices of Belief, Cambridge U. Press, 2010), and political philosophy (e.g., The Mighty and the Almighty: An Essay in Political Theology, Cambridge U. Press, 2012).

We thank the Emerging Scholars Network (esn.intervarsity.org) where this appeared on August, 7, 2012, for the rights to republish this.

[7] The Case for Christian Scholarship in the Academic Mainstream

by David Claerbaut, Ph.D., Founder of FaithandLearningFourm.com

In majority/minority relations, the majority is defined in terms of power rather than number. Power and number are usually synonymous, but the issue is always who is in charge. 1


Whenever a majority and minority group encounter one another, their interaction may take one of several forms. The form usually favored by the more powerful majority is assimilation. Assimilation is a process by which all members of a population are socially shaped to fit into the culture of the dominant group. In the case of ethnic minorities in American history, assimilation was the method by which the various nonwhite minority groups conformed to the white northern European-oriented culture of the United States. Assimilation extinguishes the “objectionable” traits of minorities. Whether forced or permitted, this “be like us” assimilation strategy is usually the one the majority advocates.

 The academic mainstream, having adopted the paradigm of naturalism, wants to assimilate all members of the intellectual community into this paradigm. In many cases, the assimilation is forced to the extent that one resists it at one’s own peril. Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton College, noted that the true danger of naturalism is not that it is presented as an intellectual option, but that “it declares its way of knowing to be the only legitimate one and then seeks to disenfranchise other voices.”2

If one does not truly buy in to the prevailing paradigm, there is pressure to appear as if one does; hence, the flying under the radar behavior of so many Christians in the academic mainstream. The vocal Christian, unless she is a luminary in her field, may find herself denied tenure, promotion, key committee assignments, or simply endure social and professional ostracism. Academics are very good at imposing rejection.


The form of majority/minority interaction commonly favored by minorities is cultural pluralism. For our purposes pluralism is a condition in which minorities are permitted to expresslive outtheir own distinctive subcultural identities while conforming in areas affecting the larger society. Ethnic/racial minorities favored this in the 1960s, because it involved the minimum amount of cultural repression. It is this pluralist notion to which Christian thinkers appeal when making the case for Christian scholarship in the secular university. In brief, Christians desire to be free to offer distinctly Christian perspectives in the classroom provided they meet the larger academic standards of the university.

George Marsden, in his book, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, bases his case for the presence of Christian perspectives in the research university community on pluralism. Marsden ran afoul of the more strident elements of the “Christian right” for his advocacy of pluralism over “conquest,” ideologically taking over the university community. Not only does he point out that Christians may very well not very well succeed in Christianizing the university with their ideas, but that by the standards of pluralism, no power play in that direction should be under consideration. Rather, he suggests that Christian scholars take a “golden rule” position when advancing their cause for inclusion within the university community.3 “Christians should be models of what it means to love and respect those with whom one differs, even as they may debate their differences.”4

It is the fear of just such an imperialistic attempt by Christians that has generated a great deal of resistance to believers in the secular university. Because conservative Christians were key in founding and directing the early American university, believers are regarded as the historic oppressors. Referring to this resistance, Marsden writes, “This is what may be called the multiculturalist reaction to the appeal for more openly Christian scholarship. Not only gays and lesbians, but also many feminists and Marxist scholars may react in this way. So do some ex-fundamentalists. Many Jewish scholars likewise are understandably wary of any suggestion of resurgent Christian influence.”5 It is more a matter of power and politics than it is ideology. Jewish scholars may advocate Jewish studies, and support the separation of church and state, while continuing to oppose the admission of Christian perspectives. “The difference in their minds is that Christians have been the oppressors and, as the majority in this country, are not to be trusted.” There is a double standard operative in the mainline university. Secularists regularly affirm tolerance for the various publics in their community but become ideologically genocidal toward Christians. Nevertheless, it is the fear of oppression that operates as a justification for that political hypocrisy.6

The majority concern merits attention. Every other (non-Christian) special-interest group vying for a place at the academic table is regarded as a minority, at least in terms of power. Moreover, these groups rightfully trade on that label, as a basis for their inclusion. Taking the case of African-Americans, for example, the argument is that they are a valid minority group, with a perspectivean ideology, if you will. As it is, that perspective is muted under the homogenizing force of the white majority culture. They request—even demand–that the university remove the oppressive yoke of white, Northern European majoritarianism and empower them to express our own identity within the democratic structure of the academic community with the inclusion of African-American studies. 

This does not work for Christianity, because there persists the belief of many in the mainstream that the United States is a Christian country, making it a majoritarian and hence a potentially oppressive force. The attitude is that Christianity may hold sway in the larger society, but the university will fight to keep its dominating tentacles out of the academic mainstream. Indeed, a strong case can be made that the U.S. is far from a Christian country, but perception is everything here.

Some vocal believers do most definitely advocate a conquest strategy. They do want to Christianize or perhaps re-Christianize the mainstream university by seizing the trump cards of power, rather than by communicating the gospel of God’s love. This issue of conquest vs. pluralism is a much-debated one. As noted earlier, Marsden took some rather mean-spirited blows from parts of the evangelical community for not siding with those who wanted to reannex the mainstream university as a bastion of faith-based education. My vote is with Marsden here. The separation of church and state, although employed as a permission-giver by many agnostic groups to drive all vestiges of religion out of public institutions, is a precious protective doctrine.

Flowing from that logic, there needs to be a place within the university for classes in Christian thinking, if not a department of Christian studies. If the university is to be true to its commitment to pluralism, then Christians, regardless of historically-based concerns, should have a place with the other interest groups in the mainstream university. To do otherwise, says Marsden, “would be to endorse the concerted imperialism of groups who wish to exclude traditional Christianity from public expression.”11 The issue is not whether Christian scholarship should be excluded, but “how to balance fairly the interests of the various sides in an era when basic cultural values are often sharply debated.”12

There is little accommodation made for religionmuch less Christianityin mainstream academe. Sociology departments commonly toss religion in with magic in their textbooks. Psychology departments view religion in purely nontranscendent terms, employing “psychologism,” or isolating unrepresentative instances of deviant behavior preformed in the name of religion as examples of the pernicious nature of faith. Even the most prestigious history departments do not offer courses in religious history. “It is not that leading historians who control such things think that religion is historically unimportant,” says Marsden.13 Although they would acknowledge its import, “they have been so shaped by a culture which accounts for ‘the good’ without reference to religion that they do not notice religion’s absence.”14

Postmodernism, particularly its emphasis on cultural relativism and subjective interpretations of truth, gives added impetus to the Christian case for inclusion. The pluralist argument is coherent and convincing. It challenges the university to live up to its own publicly trumpeted values of diversity and inclusiveness.

{A}Making the Case{/A}

This argument needs to be made in an unabashed fashion. Feminists make no apology in asserting their right to advance their worldviews in the classroom. One of the most striking examples of this occurred in the case of Lynn Weber, director of the women’s studies program at the University of South Carolina, Columbia.15 Weber instituted a set of guidelines “to create open and civil dialogue in her classroom.” Weber’s guidelines asked students to “acknowledge that racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and other institutional forms of oppression exist, and to agree to combat actively the myths and stereotypes about our own groups and other groups.” In other words, Weber all but asks for a collective confession of politically incorrect sin from the students and follows it with a thinly disguised academic altar call to address these wrongs.

As amazing as these “guidelines” are, Weber had used them for almost two decades. Perhaps even more astonishing, they were all but officially endorsed by her professional colleagues in the women’s studies field, what with her guidelines being published in Women’s Studies Quarterly.16 They were also published in the resource collection of the American Sociological Association (ASA) on Teaching Sociological Concepts and the Sociology of Gender. Finally, in 2002, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Inc. (FIRE) raised its voice in protest, claiming Weber’s guidelines constituted “a threat to freedom of both speech and conscience,” and that students should not be required to “hold certain arguments as unquestionable truth in order to participate in a class without penalty.”

FIRE nailed the issue accurately. The guidelines clearly infringe on the students’ rights to freedom and speech and conscience, requiring them to hold certain arguments as unquestionable truth. Yet, Weber had used them for almost twenty years without engendering undue protest. Amazingly, in the face of the FIRE protest, Weber’s status seems secure. Rather than censure her violation of students’ rights, the ASA Council spun the issue so as to make Weber, not her students, the victim. The Council approved a resolution supporting Weber’s academic freedom. In fact, Council member Barbara Risman stated, “Weber’s guidelines are used quite widely,” and advocated “a public stand for faculty rights to created guidelines for classroom discussion.” Imagine if Weber were a professor of Christian studies and required her students to affirm a statement of basic Christian faith.

The Weber fiasco aside, due in part to the growing number of self-proclaimed feminists and their assertiveness, the academic community now accords feminist perspectives substantial respect. And the ascendancy of feminism in the mainstream has been rapid. Whereas in the early 1970s feminism was regarded as representing rather radical and political formulations by a fringe group of dissidents, today courses in gender identity can be found among sociology offerings. When one compares the two millennia tradition of Christian philosophy and literature to the relatively recent tradition of feminism, that Christian thinking is all but banished in the mainstream while feminism continues to gain momentum bends the contours of logic.

Christians need to follow the feminists’ lead of advocating their position without reservation. Indeed, Christian perspectives merit the same multicultural regard as African-American, Marxist, and feminist views. Such regard will not be gained by humble, self-effacing, ashamed-of-Jesus requests. No different from the case of feminism, African-American issues were first given a serious hearing when in the 1960s blacks abandoned their traditional hat-in-hand approaches for more direct, even confrontational stances. Christians need not apologize for asserting that Christian subcultures belong within as well as outside the secular university world.

The Christian scholar’s case is further strengthened by the very history of the American university.17  The university system that now all but overtly excludes Christian values and perspectives owes its very existence to the commitment of Christians to higher education.  The university was founded on the belief that education is good and that God has ordained that humanity develop its intellectual capacities to master creation.

When given a forum for presentation, other special interest groups rarely soften or compromise their ideologies depending on the audience. Christians, however, too often try to curry the approval of nonbelievers. “We have accepted secularism’s challenge to fight on secularist ground, with secularist weapons and secularist umpire, before a secularist audience and according to the secularist book of rules,” contends Blamires.18

Appealing to reason and applying the rules of sound scholarship in presenting Christian views in the academic mainstream need not include seeking the secularist’s approval by fitting Christianity neatly into a secular framework. Gaining the secularist’s intellectual approval is not possible, because Christianity and secularism are incompatible. Christianity, due to its transcendent perspective, is much larger than secularism.

Given this contrast, Blamires calls Christians to shift their ground and move to the offense. Beginning by accepting the authoritative nature of the Christian faith and the objective nature of Christian truth, such a crawling out from under the secular camouflage would, he feels, not only energize the Christian, it would be refreshing to her intellectual opponents.19

We need to abandon these approval attempts of reducing Christian notions to temporal phenomena that serve secular ends. Blamires contends that Christian thinking goes secular by making eternal life simply the life that follows this one, rather than the context in which all of life is conducted20 Believers and nonbelievers may get along, but once they move past the general common denominators of scholarship, their worldviews do not coincide.

The issue of temporality is central, because the chief aim of humanity is not merely to create a more pleasing temporal environment, as compatible with Christianity as that goal may be. It is larger. It is to serve God in a fallen world.21

{A}The Christian CommunityCompartmentalization{/A}

The problem, however, also lies within the community of Christian scholars. As discussed earlier, many have been functionally assimilated into the naturalism of the university, averting potential science vs. religion clashes by employing a compartmentalized mind-set. Such scholars rationalize this behavior by claiming that science generates empirical facts, while Christian commitment, writes Wolterstorff, “pertains towell, something else. Accordingly, science cannot possibly put commitment on the defensive.” 22

The notion that faith and learning will generate no ideological skirmishes is folly. Their often-jarring interaction is a constant for the Christian scholar. It is rooted in the supernatural vs. natural orientation. Blamires points out that the Christian views the natural order as grounded within the supernatural order, and time is contained within eternity.23 This perspective is foundational to Christian thinking. Nevertheless, while one’s faith is the basis for a critique of secular notions, so also the nature of scientific discoveries will necessitate revisions in Christian thinking. Such was the case when the Copernican theory that the sun rather than the earth was the center of the universe was confirmed and various forms of evolution were confirmed.

When the Christian suspends the faith/learning dialogue, she becomes an ideological gymnast who jumps in and out of a Christian mind-set as the subject changes from theology to sociology, from faith to physics.24


In many instances, however, secessionism– the voluntary withdrawal of the minority from contact with the dominant group–is the primary problem among believers. That many Christians, not unlike black separatist groups of the 1960’s, have employed a secessionist strategy is evident when one observes their rather distinct academic subcultures.  This can lead to a rejection of learning.

David Lyle Jeffrey, notes the anti-intellectual edge of the evangelical tradition. His parents disapproved of his decision to attend even a Christian collegeWheaton. “My dad said, ‘David, you show me an educated Baptist, and I’ll show you a backslider,’” relates Jeffrey.25 Learning, believed to threaten faith, was to be eradicated.

Philosopher Mark Noll describes this fundamentalist tradition as one of “treating the verses of the Bible as pieces in a jigsaw puzzle that needed only to be sorted and then fit together to possess a finished picture of divine truth.”26 The “God says it. I believe it. That settles it …” mind-set dismisses the dynamic nature of historical and cultural forces that shape the thinking and issues of any given era.

Moreover, Alan Wolfe views evangelical scholars as moving toward mediocrity.  They “spawn a multiplicity of journals and publishing houses so that anyone can publish anything.”27 Media-savvy Bob Briner agrees: “Christian literature, both fiction and non-fiction, is one of the most ghettoized of all the activities of the church.”28 Christian writers can segregate themselves, “appear on Christian radio stations, be reviewed in Christian magazines, and win prestigious awards without ever getting off the island, without ever leaving the ghetto, but also without taking and applying any of the penetrating salt where it is most needed.”29

Searing the brand of academic inferiority on evangelical institutions is manifestly unfair. Though perhaps light on the research front, there are some first-rate minds doing some genuinely excellent teaching in these institutions. Wolfe himself was impressed with the academic quality of the teaching to which he was exposed when visiting several Christian colleges30

Nevertheless, there is clear evidence of a strain of secessionism among many Christian scholars. Too many Christian academics either do not publish or restrict their contributions to publishing concerns that perpetuate the separatist subcultures of which they are a part. They preach to the converted and do not advance their views in the mainstream academic world.

Christian scholars need to interact with the academic mainstream. Intellectual secessionism results in a closed circuit of communication—an ideological sterility—with members of such communities endlessly quoting one another. Moreover, academic quality suffers when scholars marginalize themselves, retreating from the modern academy, rather than demanding a hearing within it by making quality contributions in their respective disciplines. Further, the Christian college needs a venue in which faith/learning approaches are developed, tested for academic respectability among Christian scholars, and prepared for introduction into the intellectual mainstream. In short, faith/learning notions may well begin in the Christian community, but ought not to reside there permanently.



1 Taken from David Claerbaut, Social Problems, part 2 (Scottsdale,AZ: Christian Academic Publications, 1977), 1823. Based on George Eaton Simpson and J. Milton Yinger, Racial and Cultural Minorities (New York: Harper, 1958), 2536.

2 Alan Wolfe, “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind,” part 4 of The Loyalty-Oath Problem, http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2000/10/wolfe4.htm (accessed July 17, 2002).

3  George M. Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997),  53.

4 Ibid., 54.

5 Ibid., 32.

6 Ibid.; John Eaves, Director of Hephzibah House, private conversation, February 23, 2003.

7 Ibid., 33.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid., 74.

10  Ibid.

11  Ibid,, 33.

12  Ibid.

13  Ibid., 74.

14. Ibid.

15  The Weber controversy, “ASA Council Supports Sociologist Weber,” is reported in the March 2003 edition of Footnotes, the official newsletter of the American Sociological Association, 3, 11. Also reported in Chronicle of Higher Education (September 27, 2002).

16 Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 18 (SpringSummer 1990).{CHAP 7}

17  George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

18 Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1997),117.

19 Ibid., 11718.

20 Ibid., 69.

21 Ibid, 7980.

22 Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 23.

23 Blamires, The Christian Mind, 67.

24 Ibid., 70.

25 Randall Balmer, “2012: A School Odyssey,” Christianity Today (November 18, 2002): 65.

26 Ibid., part 1, p. 7.

27 Wolfe, “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind,” part 2, p. 5.

28 Bob Briner, Roaring Lambs (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 120

29 Ibid. 

30 Ibid., part 1, pp. 13.

This is adapted from Dr. Claerbaut’s book, Faith and Learning on the Edge: A Bold New Look at Religion in Higher Education.

[6] What Are Some Christian Worldview Essentials

by Matt Slick, President, Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry

A worldview is a set of beliefs used to understand the world. Everyone has a worldview.  Everyone has a set of principles by which to judge right and wrong, and which guides them in everyday living.  You stop at a red light, go at a green. You leave a tip with a waiter or a waitress.  You try and color coordinate your clothes.  You voice your order for food to a speaker box while sitting in your car.  You cast a vote for a political leader.  Why do these things?  Because you are accustomed to doing them in a manner that is consistent with what you believe.  In other words, you behave according to your worldview.

Your worldview forms the basis of how you interpret reality.  Your world view is a lens through which you look at the world.  Your worldview shapes your moral opinions.  It affects what you believe about God, marriage, politics, social structures, environmental concerns, educational requirements, economics, the raising of children, what kind of foods to eat, etc.  It affects everything, because all of that which is around you and all of that with which you interact must be interpreted and must be understood in light of your worldview.

According to Barna Research,1 “About half of all adults (54%) claim that they make their moral choices on the basis of specific principles or standards in which they believe. Other common means of making moral choices include doing what feels right or comfortable (24%), doing whatever makes the most people happy or causes the least conflict (9%), and pursuing whatever produces the most positive outcomes for the person (7%).”

Why the difference in results?  People have different worldviews, different opinions about God, man, purpose, life, right and wrong.

Philosophical and Social Questions

There are some basic philosophical questions that most everyone in the world wonders about.  Generally speaking, it is the answers to the following set of questions that guide how the next set of questions are answered.  First, let’s look at the philosophical worldview questions.

Where do we come from?

Did we evolve or were we created?

Why are we here?

Is there a God, and if so, what does he want?

Is morality absolute or subjective?

Answering these questions forms the most basic elements of our worldview.  Once these are answered, you are better able to form answers to the next set of questions, those related to society.

Is abortion wrong or is it a woman’s right?

Should capital punishment be allowed or abolished?

Where should more energy be directed, protecting the seals and whales or cutting down trees to build homes?

Should people be drafted for the military?

Would you vote Republican, Democrat, non-partisan, something else nor not at all?

Do you think democracy is better than communism or socialism?

Should prostitution be a legitimate business practice?

Should we legalize marijuana and other such drugs?

A world view affects behavior and beliefs

You behave according to what you believe, not what you don’t believe.  I can recall having conversations with atheists who said they “lack belief in God”.  They don’t believe or disbelieve in God.  Yet, when I defend the Bible as being true or the Christian God as the only God, they are quick to attack my arguments in order to disprove God’s existence.  So, I tell them that they are behaving according to what they believe, not what they don’t believe.  It is inconsistent to say that you lack belief in something and then behave as though you deny the existence of that something.  Without admitting it, their worldview didn’t “lack belief about God”; it denied God.  There’s no getting around it.  Different worldviews affect behavior — whether or not someone is aware of it.

Since I’ve already mentioned atheism, let’s take a look at that perspective for a moment.  How would an atheist answer the philosophical questions such as “How did we get here?”  An atheist would probably say we evolved from lower primates.  Of course he would deny that God exists and he would probably say that after we die, we cease to exist.  Since there is no absolute God, morals would not be absolute.  Instead, they would be based upon personal preference and whatever works in society.

A Christian, on the other hand, would answer the questions differently.  A Christian would say that God created us and put us in the world with a purpose.  The purpose is to bring glory to God and to exercise proper and responsible dominion over creation.  A Christian would say that when we die, we either end up in heaven or hell.  Of course, a Christian would deny we arrived via evolution and would also deny that morals are subjective.

What are the elements of a Christian worldview?

Christianity teaches a set of beliefs that form the basics of our worldview.  Following is a list of some of the elements that make up the Christian worldview.

An absolute God exists

If an absolute God exists, then it means that God is self-sufficient and lacks nothing.  If God is self-sufficient, then he needs no external cause for his existence.  This would mean he is eternal.  If he is eternal then he does not change.

God created the universe

If God created the universe, then he is all powerful — since it obviously takes a great deal of power to create the universe.  This would also mean that God is separate from creation and not a part of the created order.  From the previous point where we see that God is absolute and unchanging, we could see that God’s nature would be reflected in the created order.  As a painter leaves a part of himself on the canvas, so God reveals himself in creation.  Creation is, therefore, ordered, predictable, and dependable.  This would mean that when Christians look into creation, they would expect to find a predictable, regular, and testable world.

Man is created in God’s image

This means that God, who is rational and intelligent, has impressed his image upon the hearts and soul of human beings.  Therefore, people can be rational and turn their attention towards the world and since they believe that the universe reflects God’s creative nature, they can have confidence to look into creation and expect order.  They can also expect that since they are made in the image of God, they have the ability to unlock the secrets of the universe.

Also, if man is created in God’s image, then all people are worthy of respect and honor.

This would also mean that when a new life formed in the womb, it is human from the time of conception.  Therefore, abortion would be wrong.

Furthermore, if we are created in God’s image, then we did not evolve from lower primates.  This would mean that we have purpose and are not merely the result of random development through evolution that is, supposedly, guided by natural selection.  Natural selection works on the theory of survival of the fittest and this could have a very harmful effect on society if “survival of the fittest” is transferred into a moral principle.  It would justify oppressing the weak and helpless.

Man was given dominion over creation by God.

This means that all aspects of the created order on earth are to be governed by man according to how God has revealed himself and his will for us in the Bible.  Therefore, politics, medicine, art, ecology, society, economics, exploration, philosophy, mathematics, education, etc. all fall under the domain of human responsibility and should be considered realms for man to control — under the wisdom and direction of God’s revelation, the Bible (more on that below).

Mankind is fallen

The Fall of mankind through our ancient father Adam, tells us that at the heart of every one of us is a predisposition toward sin.  Sin is rebellion against God and, therefore, it is a rebellion against what is good.  Sin has not only affected man’s soul and body, but it has also affected his mind.  Therefore, the Christian worldview would say that even man’s best reasoning is touched by sin and cannot be perfect. Furthermore, since man is sinful and his heart’s intentions are predisposed towards wickedness, we conclude that those in power are highly susceptible to corruption.  Therefore, governmental systems should be developed with Christian principles in mind to help guard against that.

In fact, Christianity influenced the development of the Constitution and American government.  Our founding fathers developed the judicial, executive, and legislative branches of government which are there to exercise a system of checks and balances over each other.  Why?  Because of The Fall, man has a tendency to gravitate towards corruption.

Jesus is mankind’s only hope for redemption

Because man is fallen, he is in need of rescue from God’s righteous condemnation — which is eternal damnation.  Also, since he is fallen, there is no way he can redeem himself.  Therefore, Jesus, who is God in flesh, died for us and rose from the dead.  We receive his righteousness and forgivness by faith.  This basic theological truth means that Christians should then preach that good news of redemption in Christ to all the world.  Therefore, one of the most basic Christian principles is promoting Jesus as the means by which we are made right with God.

The Bible is the Word of God

Of course I have already mentioned the Bible, but the Bible is the inspired and inerrant word of God. From the Bible we derive the truths by which we govern our lives.  It is from the Bible that we learn about God himself, his created order, the Trinity, redemption, about sin, salvation, hope, and what is morally correct.  The Bible reveals the will of God for mankind, for the family, for raising children, for proper behavior in society, etc.  It is from the Bible that we can learn the direct will of God.

God Provides for his creation

It is from the Bible that we learn of God’s loving provision for us.  We know that God lets the sun and rain fall down upon both the good and the bad.  We know that God causes the crops to grow and cattle to multiply.  We know that though we live in a fallen world, God has promised that he will never leave us or forsake us.  Therefore, we can rely on God’s provision for us and should have confidence that he will continue to provide for our needs.

So, you can see that there are basic principles which form the Christian worldview.  There are more, but the above eight items are representative of Christianity’s perspective and truth and how it influences belief and action.

  • 1. barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=194

Matt Slick founded the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM) in 1995.  He holds a M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary.  This was initially published online at CARM and was retrieved from https://carm.org/what-are-some-christian-worldview-essentials

[5] The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship

by George Marsden, Ph.D., Professor of History, University of Notre Dame

People who think Christian scholarship is outrageous may be divided, broadly speaking, into two camps. First there are those non-Christians who find the idea outrageous or offensive. For modern scholars to connect faith and learning is, as one prominent historian put it, a “loony” idea. Many regard such scholarship as necessarily unscientific. Or they may regard it as offensive for Christians to set themselves apart as though they have a view of things that is distinct and superior to that of other secular or religious groups. My book, with the same title as this lecture, is first of all a response to such critics and secondly provides some guidelines to Christian scholars as to how to think about their relationship to an often hostile or suspicious mainstream academy.

I want to talk about another group that tends to be deeply suspicious of the idea of Christian scholarship. This group includes most American evangelical Christians. This group is suspicious not of the Christian part of the idea, but rather of the scholarship part. American evangelical Christians are notoriously anti-intellectual. That is something that is not just said about us by outsiders. Insiders have also pointed out this distrust of serious intellectual pursuits. The best-known expression of this point is from my friend and fellow speaker in this series, Mark Noll, who wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, a book that I recommend. The scandal of the evangelical mind, Noll argues, in essence is that there is no evangelical mind. Evangelical Americans are extremely pragmatic. They do what works. They want to save souls or sometimes they want to organize for quick action to change the world. But they seldom take the time to build good theory or good theology for what they are doing.

Among evangelicals, Reformed and Presbyterian Christians have probably been the least given to such anti-intellectualism. We have, after all, a long tradition of formidable intellectual achievement going back to the Puritans and the Reformers. Nevertheless, I think it is safe to say that American evangelical activism and suspicions of scholarship have infected even the strongest Reformed and Presbyterian communities of today. In fact, I think that we can find some of the best evidence of such suspicions in the structures of most Christian colleges, including Reformed ones, today. Even if scholarship is respected in America’s Christian academic institutions, it is not – if we are to look at where the money is – something that has a high priority. And remember, we are talking about the academic institutions – the places we might think were set aside especially to cultivate scholarship.

I want to address the question of how the strengths of the American evangelical activist heritage and a healthy cultivation of Christian intellectual life might be combined. Notice I am not suggesting that a stronger emphasis on scholarship ought to be an alternative to the strengths of evangelical activism. Rather, I want you to think about how scholarship might be seen as an integral part of the evangelical mission to the world. In other words, how should the evangelistic strengths of the Protestant tradition be linked to its intellectual strengths?

An Evangelical Scholar
In thinking about this topic over the years, I have been immensely helped by the insights of one of my spiritual forefathers, J. Gresham Machen. As many of you know, Machen was a leading Presbyterian scholar at Princeton Theological Seminary in the early decades of the 20th century. Later he was the principal founder of Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Early in my career, when I was teaching atCalvin College, I ran into some of Machen’s early reflections on this topic of which I had been previously unaware. It happened that during the later 1960s I visited L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland conducted by Francis Schaeffer.  Schaeffer, as you probably know, was a widely influential evangelist who spoke much of the relationship of Christian faith to contemporary culture and intellect. When I visited L’Abri I found that he had reprinted as a little pamphlet an address, titled “Christianity and Culture,” that had been especially influential on him in shaping his own sense of mission.

The early 20th century was a time of church growth and enthusiasm for evangelism and missions in American Protestant churches, and young men who had chosen such a conservative seminary asPrinceton were likely to have done so not so much for intellectual reasons as because of enthusiasm for evangelism that they saw as lacking at the more liberal seminaries. Their tendency, Machen knew well, was to question why they had to take so much time for rigorous learning when there was so much practical Gospel work to be done, when untold numbers were perishing in their sins every day.

Machen responds to such criticisms by challenging the assumption of evangelical Americans that scholarship is impractical and irrelevant to the urgent task of evangelism. On the contrary, the intellectual task is an essential component of evangelism. That is because God works through means to bring people to himself and these means include cultural conditions that may dispose people to give the Gospel a hearing. In the 20th century, Machen observes, the intellectual obstacles to the faith seem insurmountable for many people. This is true not only for the intellectuals, but also for masses of people who are shaped by prevailing cultural fashion. So Christian scholarship is not only making good use of God’s creation – another good rationale – it also can provide a vital component of evangelism.

We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer [Machen proclaims] and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.

Machen’s statement is a powerful one regarding what in the title to this series is called “Faith, Freedom and the Future.” The future of Christianity, both as a message for evangelism and as a factor in civilization, is dependent, in part, on the credibility of the Christian faith. If the elites who control the media, government, business, the law and so forth come to regard Christianity as nothing more than “a harmless delusion,” then the task of the Christian evangelist or the Christian citizen will become immensely more difficult.

The Force of Ideas
This brings us to the key statement of what I would like you to consider. Machen’s view of the potential importance of Christian scholarship is built on a more general view about the relation of ideas to history.

What is today a matter of academic speculation [he declares] begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires. In that second stage, it has gone too far to be combated; the time to stop it was when it was still a matter of impassione debate.

I would like you to reflect on that statement in thinking what might be the intellectual task of Christian schools. If it is true that “what is a matter of academic speculation in one era begins to move armies and pull down empires in the next,” what does that mean for us?

I think there is no doubt that this basic thesis is true. The Reformation was, among other things, the outgrowth of scholars’ insights. Or the American Revolution was in part the result of ideas that could be found on scholars’ drawing boards a century earlier. The French Revolution even more dramatically was driven in part by ideologies of the preceding era of Enlightenment. Some of the best examples of the influence of ideas occurred after Machen spoke; Karl Marx’s theories of the mid-19th century moved countless armies and pulled down empires in our century.

Of course, many other factors – economic, political and ethnic factors – account for the rise and fall of empires or for why people adopt particular ideas. As an historian, one becomes well aware of the complexities of the relationships between human beliefs and human actions. Yet there’s no denying that among those factors that steer world history is the force of ideas themselves.

So I think there is a good case for Machen’s primary assertion that God works through the influential ideas in a culture and not just through individuals, or families, nations, or even just through churches. Cultural conditions help dispose people to belief or disbelief. Intellectual beliefs and underlying cultural assumptions are crucial parts of those cultural conditions. So Christian scholarship can have an integral role to play in evangelism and any wider Christian mission by witnessing to the intellectual viability of Christianity in an era of intellectual skepticism and by challenging widely-held assumptions that are antagonistic to the faith. If it were the case in the United States, as it has become the case in Great Britain and Western Europe, that the overwhelming majority of the educated classes felt that they could simply dismiss traditional Christian claims as hopelessly out-of-date fairy tales, the impact on the rest of our culture would be incalculable.

It is interesting to reflect, though, on how the situation has developed quite differently in theUnited States. Here the dominant voices in the educated classes have also turned against traditional Christianity, and that has had a tremendous impact in the media and the arts as well as in mainstream academia itself. So something of what Machen predicted has happened. Yet the situation here is not nearly as bad as it might be. The turn against traditional Christianity at the center of the culture has not dragged everything with it – at least not yet. The situation is more like that described in Peter Berger’s memorable image that theUnited Statesis like a nation where the population is as religious as that ofIndiabut is ruled by an elite who are as secular as Swedes.

Other Cultural Factors
It is worth reflecting on why theUnited States is different fromGreat Britain andWestern Europe on this score and how that difference should relate to our agenda as Christian educators. There are a number of cultural factors that help account for this difference and I will not attempt to go into all of them here. An important factor that does relate to our topic, however, is the role of ethnicity and regionalism in preserving traditional religious identities. Southern whites, African Americans and many ethnic groups, such as the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians of westernPennsylvania, have maintained ethno-religious identities that were out of sync with the mainstream culture. InAmerica the spokes of the culture do not necessarily turn with the hub.

This cultural situation has had an educational counterpart. In theUnited Statesthe system of higher education has been far more decentralized than that ofWestern Europe. Most of this decentralized college system has been church related and much of it still is. So there always have been pockets where Christianity has survived even within higher education.

Another major factor that academics sometimes need to appreciate more is the impact of popular evangelism in sustaining the faith at all levels, including the intellectual. The flourishing of populist, free-enterprise, “democratic” evangelism has long been a characteristic of North American life that has distinguished it from most of its European counterparts. It is important for scholars to remember that this popular evangelism helps build a culture that makes Christian scholarship viable as well as the reverse. Countless people have been originally brought to Christianity through strongly anti-intellectual evangelists. Billy Sunday, for instance, is supposed to have said, “I don’t know any more about theology than a jackrabbit knows about ping-pong, but I’m on my way to glory!” Many converts of such evangelists have later become well educated and have made powerful contributions to evangelical intellectual life.

Not all of 20th-century evangelism has been anti-intellectual. The “evangelical mind” has been far from what it might be, but it has not been entirely missing in action either. Evangelicals have maintained many colleges and seminaries. Today many of these have fine faculty and students and are beginning to gain recognition as competitive with some of the better secular schools. Evangelical scholars can also be found at many leading universities. Perhaps the field of philosophy provides the best example. An impressive cadre ofAmerica’s leading philosophers are members of the Society for Christian Philosophers. Defective as evangelical intellectual life may be, evangelicals in theUnited Stateshave been able to point to scholars whose belief and academic witness helps validate their own belief.

The Need for Christian Scholarship
So the situation today for evangelical scholarship is not nearly as bleak as Machen might have predicted. Even though the secular debacle in the intellectual mainstream has gone on pretty much unchecked, the whole culture has not followed. Not even the whole intellectual culture has followed. For that we need to thank – among other people – the evangelists.

That does not lessen the point that evangelists need scholars. If anything that is more true today than at the beginning of the 20th century, for we live in a culture where we constantly have to depend on the authority of experts. Most Christians, even well-educated ones, are not in a position to evaluate the plausibility of belief in the historicity of the Gospels in the light of higher criticism. Nor can they demonstrate that the intellectual warrant for traditional Christian belief is as solid as is the warrant for many of the most important things that rational people believe. Nor would they have the time to marshal historical evidence against the claim that Christianity has been, on the whole, a source of oppression in history. Nor are they in a position to sort out popular claims such as thatAmericahas, until recently, always been a Christian nation. Nor do they have the resources to build constructive Christian views of how best to deal with problems of poverty, racial justice, justice in business and economic life, or with principles for politics, education, media, the arts and families. For most such questions we need people in our communities who are expert on the subject and on whom we can rely.

Furthermore, ifAmericais a culture where the people are as pious as inIndiabut the cultural leaders are as secular as Swedes, one wonders how long such a balance can be maintained without the Swedes winning out. If – to take just one area of modern culture – the media are overwhelmingly controlled by the secular Swedes, one wonders how long we can continue to win the hearts and minds of upcoming generations.

Populist and fundamentalist Protestantism tends to respond to such problems with demagogues and intellectual patent medicines. So it is particularly important for the thoughtful parts of the Protestant communities to build strong centers of learning that can provide counter-balances without losing enthusiasm for the essentials of the faith. Our basic model should be the image of the Body of Christ as in I Corinthians chapters 12 and 13, where we recognize our dependence on each others’ gifts and that the highest gift is charity. We must see the mutuality of the need of Christian communities for expert scholars and the need of expert scholars for their spiritual communities.

According to this model, scholarship is not the highest calling in the Christian church nor its greatest need. Yet it is one of the essential components of the Body of Christ that needs to be cultivated. It is also important to some other essential callings. One higher calling where acquaintance with the best scholarship is especially important is in the pastoral ministry. Well-informed clergy can play especially important roles in bridging the gap between the work of professional scholars and the needs of parishioners to be able to distinguish sound teaching from unsound.

New Opportunities
Finally, I think that at the beginning of the 21st century the Christian community has a wonderful opportunity to present to the secular community an alternative to the hollowness of its mainstream education.

One of the major differences between the academic situation at the beginning of the 21st century and that at the beginning of the 20th is fragmentation of the dominant culture and hence of the communities and institutions that control scholarship. American culture in 1912 was as diverse as it is today, but that diversity was not reflected in its leading educational institutions. In that setting it made sense to talk about “the whole collective thought of the nation,” which seemed to Machen to be controlled by the ideas that prevailed in northeastern universities such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia,  Princetonand Johns Hopkins and a few satellites in the west. If these centers became hostile to Christianity, or simply ignored it, there seemed little hope for the nation.

Today, while there are still the same dominant institutions, there is little intellectual coherence at those cultural centers. Part of the problem is that the system of academic specialization, combined with faddish post-modernism, has ensured that 95 percent of academic activity, even in the humanities, is unintelligible to anyone but other academic specialists in one’s own field or subfield. Furthermore, since the 1960s, the idea of the dominance of any one school of thought has been under severe attack.

As deplorable as this state of affairs may be, the positive side of it is that it appears we face a cultural and intellectual situation that is going to be pluralistic for the foreseeable future. This pluralistic situation provides a new moment for Christian colleges and universities of which we should be taking advantage. The door has been opened for Christian and other religious perspectives to be recognized as legitimate players in the mainstream dialogue.

The crucial point is that Christians today – just as at the beginning of the 20th century – cannot allow the dominant thought of the nation to be controlled by ideas that are alien to Christianity. In the pluralistic setting that we find ourselves in today, we are on the verge of effectively making this point. We are on the verge of gaining wide recognition that it is inconsistent for mainstream cultural leaders to claim that the best intellectual life must be uniform in its commitment to exclusively naturalistic views of things. On similar grounds we should also challenge the other widespread assumption of both modern and post-modern thought-the assumption that humans are the creators of their own reality. For such challenges to be effectively made, however, Christian communities will have to build first-rate intellectual centers where Christian scholars can work on such issues.

So Christian colleges have an important role to play as centers that provide the opportunity for at least some faculty and students to engage in rigorous intellectual inquiring in order to provide alternative models for shaping American cultural ideals.

This is no simple task. For such alternatives to develop, schools will have to include true intellectual centers. Many pressures work against intellectual pursuits. Even at schools like Notre Dame and Duke, people complain about the anti-intellectualism among the students. So this is not simply an evangelical Christian problem. Colleges do a lot of other important things as well as cultivating the life of the mind. Yet at least one of the things that they do should be to cultivate the life of the mind at the highest level. To recognize that the highest intellectual goals should be included among the things a Christian college supports is an implication of recognizing the principle of diversity of gifts. Yet a vigorous intellectual life does not develop at a college just automatically. It needs to be cultivated. Cultivating it requires leadership with great vision and willingness to commit resources to that vision. For one thing, it seems to me, faculty are greatly overworked at most schools and need more time and opportunity to develop vital Christian visions on their disciplines. To change that will take real vision and commitment of resources.

I realize that there are pressures in a hundred other directions to take a college’s resources. Most of those other directions are legitimate and many, like excellence in teaching or cultivating a healthy spiritual community, are essential. The importance of a wide variety of programs and emphases needs to be recognized as consistent with the principle of the diversity of gifts. Yet that same principle demands that a strong commitment to scholarship be among the essential priorities. If Christian colleges are not providing for this dimension of the church’s life, who else is going to? We are in a cultural situation today in which there is a great need for alternative education from Christian perspectives that is academically competitive with the best schools in the nation. For that to happen, some visionary Christians will have to take advantage of the opportunity.

Dr. Marsden is the McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He began his teaching career at Yale University, then served as professor of history at Calvin College, where he also directed the master’s program in Christian studies. Later he served as a professor of Christianity in America at Duke University Divinity School. Among his numerous books are The Soul of theAmericanUniversity, Fundamentalism and American Culture.  This article is from an address at Grove City College, in Pennsylvania in 2001.  It is published with the permission of www.visionandvalues.org, a fine source for faith and learning insights.

[4] Christian Scholarship: Need (Lecture Notes)

 by Alvin Plantinga, John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the  University of Notre Dame

In thinking of Christ and Culture one can look at Augustine’s two cities: Civitas Dei and the Civitas Mundi: The former is dedicated to God, his will and his glory; the latter is dedicated to something wholly different the glory of humankind.

The two cities have been formed by two loves: the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. In the one, the princes and the nations are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love

The one delights in its own strength, the other says to its God, “I will love Thee, O Lord, my strength: (Ps. 18:1). And therefore the wise people of the one city, living according to humankind, have sought for profit to their own bodies or souls, or both, and those who have known God “glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened; professing themselves to be wise”–that is, glorying in their own wisdom and being possessed by pride–“they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.” For they were either leaders or followers of the people in adoring images, “and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever” (Romans 1:21-25)

In the other city there is no human wisdom, but only godliness, which offers due worship to the true God, and looks for its reward in the society of the saints, of holy angels, as well as holy men, “that God may be all in all (I Cor. 15:28).

[According to the] City of God, Book 14, 28 reasonably complete and full orbed scholarship and science–not just philosophy—is inevitably in the service of one city or the other. Abraham Kuyper (Stone Lectures, Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology) [and] Augustine (and Kuyper) are right: the contemporary western intellectual world [is] a three way contest [including Perennial Naturalism and Creative Anti-Realism, along with a Christian Theism]

Perennial Naturalism

This view goes back to the ancient world (Epicurus, Democritus, Lucretius). Among our   contemporaries and near contemporaries there are Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Willard  van Orman Quine, Wilfrid Sellars, Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, the late Carl Sagan, many who look to science for salvation, a surprising number of liberal theologians, and a  host of others in and out of academia.

From this perspective, there is no God and human beings are properly seen as parts of nature. The way to understand what is most distinctive about us, our ability to love, to act, to think, to think about things, to hold beliefs, to use language, our humor and playacting, our art, philosophy, literature, history, our morality, our religion, our tendency to enlist in sometimes unlikely causes and devote our lives to them is to see them in terms of our community with (nonhuman) nature. We are best seen as parts of nature and are to be understood in terms of our place in the natural world

In our own day, we understand the above phenomena by way of their origin in random genetic mutation or some other source of variability, and their perpetuation by natural selection.

A sociobiological explanations of love [suggests that] love arose, ultimately and originally, by way of some source of variability such as random genetic mutation. It persisted via natural selection because it has or had survival value. Male and female human beings, like male and female hippopotami, get together to have children (colts) and stay together to raise them. This has survival value. With that in mind, the same goes for these other varieties and manifestations of love. And that, fundamentally, is what there is to say about love

Gordon Kaufman (Harvard theologian): God is “the historical evolutionary force that has brought us all into being.” Perennial naturalism constantly influences and clearly corrupts Christian thinking. It can lead us, for example, to think of love in that way rather than in terms of our relationship to God.

Creative Anti-Realism

In sharp contrast to Naturalism, this view sees humans as responsible for the structure and nature of the world, in some deep and important way. It is we, fundamentally, who are the architects of the universe. In the ancient world (Protagoras): Humankind is the measure of all things….Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and the categories of space and time, object and property, truth and falsehood, possibility and necessity, existence and nonexistence. [We are the architects of all.]

According to this view the world of trees and planets and dinosaurs and stars receives its basic structure from the constituting activity of mind. So if not for our [mental] activity there wouldn’t be any of the things of our human experience. The fundamental thrust of Kant’s self-styled Copernican Revolution is that the things in the world owe their basic structure and perhaps their very existence to the noetic activity of our minds.

Or perhaps I should say not minds but mind. For whether, on Kant’s view, there is just one transcendental ego or several is, of course, a vexed question. Indeed, this question is more than vexed, given Kant´s view that quantity [or], number is a human category imposed on the world, there is presumably no number n. finite or infinite, such that the answer to the question “How many of those transcendental egos are there?” is n

[According to the] successors in contemporary world we create the world by our activity. [Hence in the world of the] linguistic, [the] various forms of Wittgensteinianism, existentialism, the anti-realism of Putnam and Goodman, some of European hermeneutics, Foucault, Derrida, Rorty, [and] much contemporary literary theory (the text is all there is: there is no world for it to conform to).

[Out of Creative Anti-Realism comes] Relativism. We construct the world. The thought [is] that there simply isn’t any such thing as the way the world is, no such thing as objective truth, or a way the world is that is the same for all of us. Rather, there is my version of reality, the way I’ve somehow structured things, and your version, and many other versions: and what is true in one version need not be true in another

As Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus says, “Man is the measure of all things; I am a man; therefore I am the measure of all things.” No such thing as truth: only true for me, and true for you (used to think that a sophomoric confusion: but in fact….). Richard Rorty: “what my peers will let me get away with saying” relativism. So anti-realism spawns relativism. Relativism [is the] most popular contemporary form—[among] students entering college

From this arises Anti-Commitment: Commitment goes with the idea that there really is such a thing as truth. To be committed to something is to hold that it is true, not just in some version, but simpliciter or absolutely. The only path of wisdom is that of the roaming, free floating intellectual who has seen through the pretensions or naïveté of those who do make serious intellectual and moral commitments.

(Indeed, you may go still further. According to Rorty, those who think there is such a thing, in the words of the Westminster Confession, as a “chief end of man” must be considered not just naive but insane–in which case, presumably, they ought not be allowed to vote or take full part in the new liberal society, and perhaps should be confined to its Gulags pending ‘recovery’ from the seizure.

So three major perspectives exist; three wholly different and deeply opposed perspectives: Christian theism, perennial naturalism, and creative anti-realism with its progeny of relativism and anti-commitment. Both perennial naturalism and creative anti-realism (with its progeny of relativism and anti-commitment) find contemporary expression in allegedly Christian theology.

[According to] theologian Don Cupitt, “The consequence of all this is that divine and human creativity come to be seen as coinciding in the present moment. The creation of the world happens all of the time, in and through us, as language surges up within us and pours out of us to form and reform the world of experience. Reality…is effected by language…” This is said to be a “a philosophy of religion for the future” and “a genuine alternative to pietism and fundamentalism.”

This is new and “with-it,” all right, but it [is] also preposterous. It is about as sensible as trying to palm off, say, the Westminster Confession or Apostle’s Creed and the newest and most with-it way of being an atheist. These ways of thinking are not just alternatives to Christianity; the run profoundly counter to it.

 Are Science and Scholarship Neutral?

The world of scholarship is intimately involved in the battle between these opposing views.  Some examples [of scholarship’s positions follow. They hardly smack of neurality].

 (1) Creative anti-realism and relativism with respect to truth in philosophy, literary studies, law, elsewhere: Richard Rorty’s notion that truth is what my peers will let me get away with saying.

 (2) Structuralism, post-structuralism and deconstructionism in literary studies: [According to] Roland Barthes [in his essay, “The Death of the Author”]: “Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a test becomes quite futile. To give a test an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the close the writing…In precisely this way literature (it would be better from now on to say writing) by refusing to assign a secret, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text) liberates what may be called an antitheological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases–reason, science, law.”

 (3) Evolution: Many (Simpson, Gould, Speith, Ayala) declare it to be absolutely certain, as certain as that the earth goes around the sun. Richard Dawkins (book review NY Times): “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet someone who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).” Dan Dennett (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea): “if you have doubts about evolution, you are culpably ignorant.”

From a naturalistic perspective evolution is the only game in town. It is the only available answer to the questions, “How did it all happen? How did all of these forms of life get here? Where did this vast profusion of life come from? And what accounts for the apparent design (Hume’s “nice adjustment of means to ends”) to be found throughout all of living nature?” Its probability with respect to naturalism and the evidence is much higher than its probability with respect to theism and the evidence.

Richard Dawkins [in The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence Reveals a Universe Without Design, New York, Norton, 1987, states,] “All appearances to the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics, albeit deployed in a very special way. A true watchmaker has foresight: he designs his cogs and springs, and plans their interconnections, with a future purpose in his mind’s eye. Natural selection, the blind, unconscious automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.”

The point about evolution: it is a plausible effort to remove one of the major embarrassments for the atheist.

(4) Another example from the same area with a different twist: [According to] Futuyma, Gould, Simpson, Dawkins, Provine and others: evolution shows that human beings are the result of chance processes, and hence have not been designed by God or anyone else.

Douglas Futuyma Evolutionary Biology, p. 3 (2nd edition 1986): “By coupling undirected, purposeless variation to the blind, uncaring process of natural selection Darwin made theological or spiritual explanations of the life processes superfluous. Together with Marx’s materialistic theory of history and society and Freud’s attribution of human behavior to processes over which we have little control, Darwin’s theory of evolution was a crucial plank in the platform of mechanism and materialism of much of science, in short–that has since been the stage of most Western thought.”

George Gaylord Simpson [in] The Meaning of Evolution, pp. 344-45 (rev. ed. 1967): “Although many details remain to be worked out, it is already evident that all the objective phenomena of the history of life can be explained by purely naturalistic or, in a proper sense of the sometimes abused word, materialistic factors. They are readily explicable in the basis of differential reproduction in populations (the main factor in the modern conception of natural selection) and of the mainly random interplay of the known processes of heredity…Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”

(5) Sociobiological explanations of various human traits: (Sunday supplements) Herbert Simon’s recent article, “A Mechanism for Social Selection and Successful Altruism.” Science vol. 250 (December, 1990) pp. 1665 ff. (Simon won a Nobel Prize in economics, but is currently professor of computer studies and psychology at Carnegie Mellon). Why, asks Simon, do people like Mother Teresa, or the Scottish missionary Eric Liddel, or the Little Sisters of the Poor, or the Jesuit missionaries of the 17th century, or the Methodist missionaries of the 19th–why do these people do the things that they do? Why do they devote their time and energy and indeed their entire lives to the welfare of other people? Of course it isn’t only the great saints of the world that display this impulse; most of us do so to one degree or another. Most of us give money to help feed and clothe people we have never met; we support missionaries in foreign countries; we try, perhaps in feckless and fumbling ways, to do what we can to help the widow and orphan.

Now how, says Simon, can we account for this kind of behavior: The rational way to behave, he says, is to act or try to act in such a way as to increase one’s personal fitness, i.e., to act so as to increase the probability that one’s genes will be widely disseminated in the next and subsequent generation, thus doing well in the evolutionary derby. (“Fitness simply means expected number of progeny,” [states Simon.] (p. 1665)).

(A paradigm of rational behavior, so conceived, was reported in the South Bend Tribune of December 21, 1991 (dateline Alexandria (Va)): “Cecil B. Jacobson, an infertility specialist, was accused of using his own sperm to impregnate his patients; he may have fathered as many as 75 children, a prosecutor said Friday.”)

Unlike Jacobson, however, such people as Mother Teresa and Thomas Aquinas cheerfully ignore the short or long term fate of their genes; what is the explanation of this bizarre behavior?

The answer, says Simon, is two mechanisms: “docility” and “bounded rationality”: Docile persons tend to learn and believe what they perceive others in the society want them to learn and believe. Thus the content of what is learned will not be fully screened for its contribution to personal fitness (p.1666).

Because of bounded rationality, the docile individual will often be unable to distinguish socially prescribed behavior that contributes to fitness from altruistic behavior [i.e. socially prescribed behavior that does not contribute to fitness–AP]. In fact, docility will reduce the inclination to evaluate independently the contributions of behavior to fitness…By virtue of bounded rationality, the docile person cannot acquire the personally advantageous learning that provides the increment, d, of fitness without acquiring also the altruistic behaviors that cost the decrement, c (p.1667).

The idea is that a Mother Teresa or a Billy Graham or a Thomas Aquinas displays “bounded rationality”; they are unable to distinguish socially prescribed behavior that contributes to fitness from altruistic behavior (socially prescribed behavior which does not). As a result, they fail to acquire the personally advantageous learning that provides that increment d of fitness without, sadly enough, suffering that decrement c exacted by altruistic behavior. They acquiesce unthinkingly in what society tells them is the right way to behave; and they aren’t quite up to making their own independent evaluation of the likely bearing of such behavior on the fate of their genes. If they did make such an independent evaluation (and were rational enough to avoid silly mistakes) they would presumably see that this sort of behavior does not contribute to personal fitness, drop it like a hot potato, and get right to work on their expected number of progeny.

[This is} not even a beginning of a viable explanation; she [Mother Teresa] reflected in her limited human way the magnificent splendor of Christ’s sacrificial action in the Atonement. Indeed, is there anything a human being can do that is more rational–more in accord with reason and with our ultimate destiny and ultimate good–than what she does?

(6) ‘Fine-tuning’ in cosmology: Starting in the late sixties and early seventies, astrophysicists and others noted that several of the basic physical constants must fall within very narrow limits if there is to be the development of intelligent life.

Car and Rees: “The basic features of galaxies, stars, planets and the everyday world are essentially determined by a few microphysical constants and by the effects of gravitation…several aspects of our Universe–some which seem to be prerequisites for the evolution of any form of life–depend rather delicately on apparent ‘coincidences’ among the physical constants.” “The Anthropic Principle and the Structure of the Physical World” (Nature, 1979 p. 605). [There is the] force of gravity, weak and strong nuclear forces.

[There are] various inflationary scenarios: “principle of indifference,” A good physical theory will not permit these cosmic coincidences (or the consequent appearance of design).

(7) Science of mind–psychology. artificial intelligence, philosophy of mind: [this is] one vast research project dedicated to giving a naturalistic account of such mental phenomena as consciousness, desire, belief, intentionality, qualia, and the like. From a theistic point of view, much of what goes on can be seen as misguided.

(8) Scripture scholarship: can’t properly make any theological assumptions in working at it (Ernst Troeltsch. Van Harvey: The Historian and the Believer 1966; John Collins, Barnabas Lindars, [and] many others. But this is a very different enterprise from trying to see what it is that God is teaching us in S. (3rd lecture).

(9) Psychology and sociology of religion. The question: “How can people possibly believe in supernatural beings and forces, and whatever drives them to make such irrational sacrifices in the name of faith?” Social scientific thinking has been dominated by this question. When it is posed in this way, social scientists have been virtually forced to frame answers that postulate personal flaws in those who believe and sacrifice. Many have offered elaborate psychopathological explanations of religious commitment. For others, the explanation of preference has been ignorance, usually defined in terms of cultural backwardness or false consciousness.” p. 251, Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, The Churching of America 1776-1980.

 (10) The assumption, in most sociology: That human beings are not really free and responsible.

So one kind of need: Christian community has to be aware of these matters, in order to maintain spiritual and intellectual integrity (integrality).

[Second Reason for Christian Scholarship]

A second kind of reason for need for Christian scholarship: Jesus: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength, and with all your mind.

What is it to love the Lord with all my mind?


For further details about Alvin Plantinga’s views on the need and nature of Christian Scholarship, and for his views on what he describes as “two or more kinds of Scripture scholarship,” see his books: The Twin Pillars of Christian Scholarship (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Calvin College and Seminary, 1990) and Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

NOTE: This is an adaptation of an internet version of Alvin Plantinga’s emphasis on the need for Christian scholarship. Because it comes from “lecture notes,” it has been edited for clarity. Variations of Plantinga’s view of Christian scholarship are readily available on the internet from a variety of sources. The origin of this edited version is “Telling the Truth” from Leadership U from more than 20 years ago. We repeatedly tried to reach Leadership U for permission to reprint its version, but we have been unable to reach them. Another good source on Plantinga can be found at http://www.veritas-ucsb.org/library/plantinga/ocs.html. 

[3] The Discrete Category of Truth: Establishing Truth in the Worldview Classroom

 by Timothy M. Larkin, Ph.D., Associate Professor, College of Arts and Sciences, Grand Canyon University

Worldview courses are beginning to appear as an important part of the university curriculum, especially at small liberal arts colleges and universities.  Capstone courses and senior seminars used to be the carrier of worldview perspectives and analysis.  Today as a set alone subject of study, worldview has become part of the student’s major.

Student Perspectives of Truth

Two perspectives come together in the worldview classroom—that of the university’s curriculum and the students’ orientation to the subject matter.  The university sees the subject as a relevant “hands-on” tool of analysis, enabling the students to develop the skills of discerning and testing truth as they embrace life after college.   Many students engage the topic from a theoretical perspective, one in which they can sample worldviews as a marketplace of ideas.  Students use an in-the-now litmus test in which they test worldviews as to being “real” in some way.  Out of these perspectives come important life questions: What can I believe?  Does it matter?  What can I really know? How should I now live?  The perspectives of the student and university generally work together in educating the student about the worldview framework and encouraging the pursuit of a truthful worldview through analysis.

In a worldview studies class a certain construct often emerges.  It concerns the shape of truth that students engage.  Even in classes with a mixture of self-proclaimed religious and non-religious students, the group reaches a point at which there is generally an acceptance of the diversity of worldviews “out there”.  This acceptance is rooted in the notion that all worldviews must all have merit–be working for someone–otherwise they would not exist.  As the students engage naturalism, deism, eastern and western pantheism, theism and particularly Christian theism, deeper issues of truth arise.  The exposure to the diverse set of worldviews “out there” causes the student to agree with some and not with others.  Thus a conflict arises within students that some worldviews are not as true as others. This, however, is not consistent with the students’ orientation to accept all worldviews as “true” for someone.  For each class the truth question will appear at different times.  It often arises from employing the philosophic ”tools of analysis” (existential repugnance, or logical consistency), and the students realize that they are concluding that a certain worldview may be “wrong”.

Hence, an almost visceral reaction occurs as they ask: How can this be if all worldviews have value and are right unto themselves?  The intellectual crisis can become more profound after viewing Strobel’s video (1) in which J.P. Moreland states: “all religions can be wrong, but they all cannot be right.”  The students’ outlook is confronted with the logical reality that something (religion) or (God forbid!) someone can be considered wrong because the worldview in question does not meet the standard of truth.  In short, the matter of worldview studies now moves beyond a “just playing nice” academic exercise in theory to one of profound thought.

Resolving Dissonance

At this point a very interesting phenomenon and interaction commonly occurs.  Students fight to resolve the dissonance by defining truth to match their presuppositions that (a) acceptance is love, (b) humility and justice call for every worldview being regarded as truthful, and most assuredly (c) every person’s truth is of ultimate value.  Now, if one tries to point out the relative nature of their definition of truth, it is either disregarded or students will restate their belief and redefine key words and concepts so that the only real truth is what is real to the person or culture.

A number of non-hostile classroom discussions often follow that focus on taking truth out of the relative context of personal expression and moving toward categorizing truth as either ultimate/absolute or relative, but these interactions usually prove fruitless.  For some students the eyes glaze over and a polite but internal shutdown follows.  Even among those students who state a Christian theistic worldview and who see themselves as proclaiming the reality of God, the view that ethics are culture-bound and not coming from God’s unchanging character persists.  The personal shaping of truth is foundational even for these students.  Thus truth as a standard–a measure of ultimate reality, and something that starts outside of the student’s subjective perceptions–is absent.

What is troubling is not the logically inconsistent students.  It is the absence of perceiving truth as a discrete category.  The substantive nature of truth and its definitional framework is nowhere in sight.  One could spend inordinate time putting forward theories as to why this is the current state of things.  From the postmodern mind to the secularization of the church, many reasons have been posited.  Nonetheless, even when students accept the notion of there being ultimate truth or absolute truth, their understanding is that it is ultimate and absolute only to them or someone else.  It is not truth for everyone–everywhere.  This view is consistently evident in the many reflections and personal statements in student worldview papers.

Objective Truth as Personal

To address this phenomenon, I engage the class in the next steps of understanding—examining the categorizations of truth as being subjective or objective, as well as the categories of relative or absolute truth. Some students will quickly turn objective truth into a personal tool, one that resides within the person, with absolute truth reaching the levels of being absolute for a single person or even a culture but not in the universal sense.  When the question of truth needing to be true everywhere and for everyone—universal–arises, there is knowing agreement, but only in the sense that culture is everywhere and everyone wants and experiences truth.  So the student’s conclusion is that the “everywhere and everyone” truth is objective and absolute within cultural and personal boundaries rather than in a universal sense.  The class then comes full circle in taking and agreeing with a definitional framework and making it theirs; however, without perceiving the larger problem of their truth construct being relative—locked within personal and cultural boundaries—in effect having cut and pasted new definitions into a presented framework.

After talking with a number of worldview instructors, I realized my experience was not an isolated phenomenon.  There seems to be a particular set of presuppositions with which students come in engaging worldview studies.  Wikipedia’s take on truth–one which many students use as an academic framework–is that truth is theoretically driven, having a “variety of meanings”, as well as “being in accord with the body of real things.” (2) Without delving any deeper, students quickly gain a sense of truth as being relegated to “realness” with truth being what is “real” to the student.  The thought of an absolute truth not having the starting point within the person–and the person not being the arbiter of what is real and therefore true–is foreign.

The Discrete Category of Truth

What is needed?  Establishing the discrete category of truth.  The challenge in the worldview class, then, is to assist the students in examining the nature of truth.  Rather than beginning the course by sifting through worldviews and then making one’s way toward the definition of truth, it may be wiser to begin by introducing students to the practice of engaging truth as a discrete category—one that is not malleable or continuous.  Not unlike the elemental chart or the rules of mathematics, truth then becomes similar to an empirical, objective substance, one that is tangibly real; it is incarnational.  It is separate, distinct, and independent in form and concept to anything, including the diversity of non-truth.  The nature of truth thusly defined can neither be added to nor subtracted from.  What is true will be true today, yesterday and tomorrow, and is true wherever one goes–India, Egypt, Poland, Japan, the U.S., or Brazil.  With truth residing outside the individual generating it, that truth becomes an orientation point.  One then can strive to acquire truth, realize truth, understand truth and most productively argue the truthful merits of a worldview.

The dialogue that can come from a substantive, discrete categorical view of truth allows the participants to have a level of integrity beyond the self by embracing a position and proclaiming the strength of it.  Gone is the “let’s play nice” interaction aimed at protecting feelings in what has become a conflict-adverse academic culture.  If a student believes or holds to a closed system of truth (non-transcendent—all derived through social construction—godless) and another advocates an open system (transcendent—a deity intervening in time and space) both believe in truth as a discrete category.  Hence, the ensuing debate is on the merits of each student’s claim as to what is universally true.  The closed-system student may call for evidence from the individual with the open system by asking for the evidence as to the existence of God.  That student can also indicate the evidence of the closed worldview system through the reality of the power of causation and the “survival of the fittest” in the natural world.  This allows the discussion to move beyond the personal and subjective and frees the students to disagree with one another, one of the strongest reasons to use the discrete category of truth in an educational setting.  Moreover, elevating this construct of truth allows for a definitional framework as a common “point of orientation.”  Analytical thinking can then proceed from a common starting point with the aim of gaining clear understanding and knowledge within the worldview framework.

In an atmosphere in which everything is relative and personal–and for many students it is everything–a great service for worldview students is to establish–early on–the dialogue within the context of the discrete nature of truth.  Amid the present thinking, one in which the individual can establish anything to mean anything providing it is “real” to the person, the teaching of worldviews needs a way to capture the meaning of absolute truth.  Establishing the existence of the discrete nature of truth may be one such way.


(1)     Strobel, Lee. DVD— The Case for Faith, Lionsgate Films. 2006.

(2)     Wikipedia—http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truth.

Dr. Larkin is an accomplished scholar and practitioner.  He holds a doctorate in sociology, in addition to an M.Div. and an MSW.  In addition to his current academic appointment, Dr. Larkin has served as an urban pastor in Chicago and done groundbreaking research on the professional development of pastors in the African-American Church.


 by William C. Ringenberg, Professor of History, Taylor University

The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us.                                         –C. S. Lewis

 We can…pursue knowledge as such, and beauty as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so.                                                                                               –C. S. Lewis

 As a human being, one has been endowed with just enough intelligence to be able to see clearly how utterly inadequate that intelligence is when confronted with what exists.

         –Albert Einstein

 Intelligence is quickness to apprehend as distinct from ability, which is capacity to act wisely on the thing apprehended.                                             –Alfred North Whitehead

 I suspect…that men and women of outstanding intellect and gifts are particularly liable to the temptations which make human hell-fodder.                         –Paul Johnson

 …it is possible that a majority of the people who consider themselves well educated–that is, who have attended university, read books regularly and regard themselves as people who think seriously about the public issues of the day, and the meaning of life–would range themselves in the Promethean camp [i.e., those who believe that they can do without God], with varying degrees of consciousness and enthusiasm.                             –Paul Johnson

 Academic fundamentalism is…the stubborn refusal of the academy to acknowledge any truth that does not conform to professorial dogmas.  In the famous A marketplace of  ideas,  where [supposedly] all ideas are equal…, certain ideas are simply excluded…(for example, God is not a proper topic for discussion, but A lesbian politics  is).   –Page Smith

 Secularism…is at best naive, and at worst a refusal to confront life’s dimension of depth.                                                                                                          –George Buttrick

 If academic history cannot provide a man with the ultimate valuations and interpretations of life under the sun, neither is it generally competent to take them away from the person who actually possesses them….                                                   –Herbert Butterfield

 On the decisive question of the posture one should adopt towards life or the interpretation one would give to the whole human story, it would be unwise to surrender one’s judgment to a scholar, any more than one would expect a scholar by reason of his technical accomplishments to be more skilled than other people in making love or choosing a wife.                                                                                                       –Herbert Butterfield

The best forms of education help students develop their minds to be sure, but they also assist them in understanding the nature and purpose of the intellect, and other human abilities, in relationship to character development and service.  The mind is a wonderful gift.  One can use it to understand, enjoy, and serve God and His world or as an idol in which to trust.  Especially when a person receives a goodly share of mental ability, the temptation is to trust in the gift given rather than the One who gave the gift.  This temptation becomes even greater as one receives growing human acclaim in the display of this gift.  While a quality education should assist especially the most able students to resist the temptation of intellectualism, it should also aid all students in personal development and vocational preparation.  The purpose of education should be to help us understand our Creator and His creation, and to help us to function well in the world.  Thus we need to learn of God through the Bible, prayer, and other means; we need to learn of His world through the human and natural sciences; and we need to prepare for a vocation.  For the Christian, vocation is not merely a job to earn money; it is that but much more, also.  The Christian views vocation as a calling, a sacred mission from God to contribute to the world.  Also, the best formal education creates the desire for informal, life-long learning and growing.

Some classes, books, and friends will do nothing directly to help you get a job, but they will do much to help you become a better person.  This, of course, is the best form of learning. Wisdom is of greater value than knowledge, character than craft, love and kindness than skillful manipulation.  What you become as a person, then, is more important than what you pursue as a career.

The formal system of thought which emphasizes the importance of the mind and reason in the search for truth is Rationalism.  Some accept reason as the ultimate–even the only–source of authority in matters of opinion, belief, and conduct, and thus tend to make it their religion.  Others, such as Christian rationalists, emphasize that although reason is one very important avenue to truth and that one should take it as far as it will go, one must nevertheless, at some point employ other vehicles (e.g. experience, intuition, revelation, and faith) in a concerted effort toward understanding.

There exists a basic dichotomy between the heart, the emotions, and faith on one hand, and the mind, the intellect, and reason on the other hand.  Jerusalem, the Middle Ages, and the Reformation symbolize the former while Athens, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment symbolize the latter.  The modern Christian college says that we should take the best of both worlds; in the ongoing search for understanding, scholars must embrace truth where they find it.  “All truth is God’s truth,” is the motto; “the integration of faith and learning” is the buzz phrase.  Reason, although indispensable, is incomplete in itself, for a vital part of the truth available to us all is knowable only by God’s revelation to us through the Biblical record, the person of Christ, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

If trusting in one’s mind and pursuing knowledge only through rational processes are two forms of intellectual temptation, a third one is the compulsion to conform to the general ideological milieu of one’s academic environment.  As one increasingly enjoys the intellectual process and the intellectual community, it becomes tempting to indiscriminately embrace the dogmas, follow the system, and pursue the rewards of the intelligentsia.  Peer pressure and the tendency toward group conformity exist for highly cerebral adults no less than for inexperienced, sometimes largely irrational teenagers.  The primary focus of the last section of this essay is on how this third type of intellectual temptation can impact the Christian student in a secular institution, especially when studying on the graduate level.

In most of higher education today, the dominant thought with regard to religion is that of functional agnosticism:  either one does not believe in the supernatural or one believes that such a concern should not be a subject of open, engaged discussion in academe.  This was not the case before the secular revolution in higher education beginning in the late nineteenth century.  Although many able Christian undergraduate colleges continue to exist, many Christian youth believe that they cannot afford to attend such private institutions with their higher tuition.  Also, for the Christian student who wishes to pursue graduate study in a field other than the primarily religious disciplines of the theological seminaries, unfortunately there exist few choices other than the primarily secular institutions.

My personal reaction to graduate study in two state institutions in the 1960s was that of surprise.  I had been warned that such places were intellectually beguiling and represented a severe threat to the faith of young Christian students.  Therefore, I expected to find some intellectually compelling options to the Christian faith, but I found none.  What I did find was rationalism, skepticism, pride, professional competition and posturing, and even sincere toleration for private belief, but nothing even close to a satisfactory alternative world view to explain the human condition and provide a basis for ultimate hope.  Later I became impressed with the intellectual honesty of existentialism with its bleak portrayal of the situation of humans when limited to their own resources; but the very strength of the existentialist analysis lies in the fact that it is pre-Christian or part-Christian or even very Christian in some respects.

Secular higher education is better at critiquing Christianity–and, all the more so, Christendom, with its many foibles–than in providing a viable alternative explanation of reality.  Its methods of analysis and criticism can even be helpful in aiding one’s psycho-religious development as one moves beyond a largely inherited adolescent faith to a mature personally-acquired adult belief system.  The critical question, of course, is whether one goes beyond critique to find a satisfactory new synthesis to affirm.  Ironically, many who experienced a viable, even if simplistic, religious upbringing and then reject it during an early stage of analysis, find during a more mature stage of thoughtfulness that much of what they previously had rejected actually contains much vital truth.  The poet T. S. Eliot recognized this:

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Finally, it is of primary importance that Christian students not be unduly threatened by the views of non-Christian or even anti-Christian professors.  Respect them for their technical scholarship, but do not ascribe excessive authority to their interpretations.  Scholars as scholars are well-trained to ascertain the concrete facts of the past and the present, but when it comes to providing an overarching meaning to the specific data of the universe, the scholar is no more qualified than is the ordinary lay person.  For example, history as pure history can neither prove nor disprove the divinity of Christ.  In other words, academicians are more to be trusted when dealing with physics (i.e., the measurable) than with metaphysics (the immeasurable).  And we know that it is only what lies beyond or behind the physical realm that can provide ultimate understanding and fulfillment.


1.         Do the risks of formal higher learning outweigh the likely benefits of the same?

2.         Are scholars more independent in their thinking than is the populace at large?

3.         How much more intelligent/knowledgeable are you than the average person your age?  What do you think about that?  How much is it “tempting” to trust in your level of ability?  How much do you search for wisdom as well as intelligence and knowledge?  How much are humility and thankfulness a part of wisdom?

4.         For a Christian, what are the most relevant factors to consider in determining when it is best to study in a Christian institution and when it is best to study in a secular one?


1.         George Buttrick, Biblical Thought and the Secular University

2.         Paul Johnson, The Intellectuals

3.         C. S. Lewis, “The Inner Ring,” in The Weight of Glory

4.         Charles Malik, A Christian Critique of the University

5.         George Marsden, The Soul of the American University

6.         William C. Ringenberg, “The Movement Toward Secularization,” chapter four in The Christian College

7.         Page Smith, Killing the Spirit

Dr. Ringenberg is an accomplished historian and prolific author.  This post is Chapter 43 from his book, Letters to Young Scholars: An Introduction to Christian Thought , Taylor University, 2003.  It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.


[1] Mature Faith and Christian Scholarship

By Dr. Scott Sealy

Contemporary American society assumes a hostility between faith and scholarship.  The relationship between science and theology was described in one famous book as one of warfare.  It wasn’t always that way.  Much of this perception is due to the disengagement of the our institutions of higher learning from their founding Churches, documented so well by James Tunstead Burtchaell in his Dying of the Light, and by George Marsden in his Soul of the American University as well as others.

The regression is stark.  In 1881 80% of American colleges were religious or private institution.  In 2001 the numbers were reversed, only 20% were connected to a religious tradition.  This separation has been to the detriment of both the Church and the academy.  In that spirit I would like to reflect on the necessity of intellectual development and reason to the Christian faith and how, in light of this, we might see education as a Christian vocation.

 A Rational Faith

Christianity is a rational faith. It is no accident that so many of our universities had their origins in our churches. Christianity is a revealed religion, and it is revealed through writing.  To believe that God has shown us what we are to believe and how we are to live through literature demands that our cognitive faculties are used to receive the revelation.  There is a vocabulary to learn, syntax to understand, and idiomatic nuances to discern.

Not only does the means of revelation demand the use of our reason, nearly every essential doctrine that is revealed supports an understanding of a God that is approached through rational means: the method of Creation is said to be by speech; the Incarnation is described by John as the taking on of flesh by the Logos (a rich word translated as word, but also conveying reason and purpose–the root of our word “logic”); and our understanding of Mission is that it is by rational persuasion, never by coercion or force, and for the purpose of making disciples or students.

This is not to say that we somehow obtain God through the mere use of our unaided reason, but it is to say that faith comprises a rational assent to a specific, definable content.  For the most part this understanding has been evident in the life of the Church. Upon his conversion, the second century church father Justin Martyr continued to the wear his philosopher’s robe as a sign that he had discovered the “true philosophy”. During the so-called ‘Dark Ages’, classical Greek and Roman literature were preserved in the libraries of Christian monasteries, indicating that learning itself, not exclusively religious learning was valued within these communities.

The Middle Ages saw the development of universities, which grew out of educational institutions of the Church.         The rise of classical humanism and the Renaissance were  in step with the Protestant Reformation.  “Ad fontes” was the call of both movements–the font being the writings of Aristotle or Seneca for one, and the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Scriptures for other.

With the Reformation came new academies, plans for public education, and a rise in literacy.  The near universal literacy in the West today owes much to a belief in the doctrine of the authority of the Bible. If the scriptures are authoritative, then everyone should have access to them by being taught to read and having the Bible translated into the languages of the people. While popular portrayals often give a simplistic view of the Church repressing scientific discovery, the belief in an ordered universe created by a rational God, and the attempt to “think God’s thoughts after him” gave a foundation for modern science.

Isaac Newton for example was as much of scriptural scholar as scientist, the man who formulated the theory of gravity wrote, “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”  Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan has said that the Church, while always more than a school, is never less than one.

The Current State

But now we find ourselves in a time that assumes a necessary division between faith and reason, science and religion, sacred and secular.  This assumption has been evidenced in sermons I have heard, warning high-school graduates of the dangers of university professors. On the other hand I have seen the genuine surprise shown by one of my friend’s colleagues upon being introduced to him.  My friend is a botanist, and the surprise was that a scientist could be such close a friend of a member of the clergy.

We have gotten to this place of sequestering faith apart from the rest of our life by intellectual laziness. In the face of challenges raised by the Enlightenment and modernity, the Church has too often retreated from the difficult task of offering a well thought-out answer. In the postmodern era, many have responded by casting faith as a private experience.  It is evident in phrases as “I know Christianity is true because I can just feel it;” “I believe the Bible because I tried it and worked for me;” “I don’t try to argue with someone about faith I just say look at the difference in my life;” or in the words of one of our Easter hymns, “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart.”

Even worse, faith for some is no longer an intellectual assent to rational propositions but a blind leap despite evidence to the contrary: “Don’t think, just believe.”  Compare these common statements with the defense of the faith offered by Paul who regularly debated others, appealing to eyewitness testimony and the public account of Christ’s life.  Privatizing faith is a working defense because personal experience is out of the range of attack–no one is a greater authority on one’s experience than oneself.

Precisely because one’s inner experience is beyond contact with others necessarily demands that faith becomes segregated from the rest of one’s life. It becomes what we do on Sundays with little connection with the other activities or other people. Only in living this way can we come to expect politicians to make the ridiculous claim that they are deeply religious, but their religion is private and will not affect their decisions.  I fear that many in our educational institutions will learn how to think one way in their profession, completely separate from how they think in church.  Faith, then, will remain within the realm of private, inner experience.

Education as Christian Vocation

Clifford Stoll, an astronomer, formerly at Berkeley, tells the story of trying to escape the mayhem of student riots in the ‘60s as an undergraduate at the University of Buffalo.  He ducked into Hayes Hall and climbed the bell tower, as the police.  As students clashed on the campus below he read these words inscribed on the bell: “All truth is one in this light: may science and religion endeavor here for the steady evolution of mankind from darkness to light, from narrowness to broadmindedness, from prejudice to tolerance. It is the voice of life which calls us to come and learn.”

It is important to heed that invitation from the voice of life, seeking to “Love the Lord your God with all of your mind.”  If we understand that pursuing education is a way to glorify God it will transform what we are doing.      We have made the mistake of making the purpose of higher education to get a degree to get a better job and amass more toys. How incredibly selfish!  If one’s time investment is merely to get a piece of paper that will help get a better job, then most of that time will be wasted.  But if education is seen as answering a call “to move from darkness to light,” students will ask more than, “Is this going to be on the final exam?”

If students understand how their lecture attendance, hours of research, and struggles with precisely how to state a concept can help them progress “from narrowness to broadmindedness,” then there is certainly more motivation to persevere in the hard work than if they are driven merely by what might look good on a resume.  It is the difference between students returning home for winter break and telling their family and former teachers that they are trying to get a piece of paper to increase their earning potential, or that they are developing every aspect of their being in pursuit of a divine calling to lead people ”from prejudice to tolerance.”

Moreover, seeing education as a spiritual calling is for every scholar.  Some might ask how can the study of computer systems or sociology or music glorify God or be Christian?  One of the symptoms of the way in which the Church has been disengaged from the secular is that we think that for something to be Christian means it has to be stamped with a fish symbol like HIS CPA, a Christian CPA firm in Duluth, Georgia which promises to bring “Christian Values to Accounting and Tax Preparation in Metro Atlanta.”  I should think one’s deduction would be pretty much the same regardless of the preparer’s faith.

We think a ‘Christian’ writer is one whose books talk about God and are sold in Lifeway instead of Barnes and Noble. Christian music becomes separated with distinct labels, stations, and bands that sound sort of like top 40 bands but singing ‘Oh Jesus’ instead of ‘Oh Baby’. The result is often that–to quote Hank Hill–it “doesn’t make Christianity better, it only makes Rock and Roll worse.”  But all truth is one; therefore, every field of learning finds its place within a scriptural worldview.  We are given the revelation within various genres of literature, narrating a redemption that takes place in history: among particular people, in specific nations, within a defined location.

The scriptural revelation points us to creation itself as “declaring the glory of God” and claims that humanity was created and placed in the garden with the charge of cultivating it.  Therefore no branch of learning is alien to God.  We serve him by pursuing the study of language, history, geography, political science, botany, or astrophysics.  To write well and honestly is to glorify God who gave us language, whether the work is published in Time or Christianity Today. To pursue genetic research with the best tools available points us to the same source of truth sought by the Biblical scholar working with textual criticism.  Whatever develops culture–whatever is good, true, or beautiful–is of God.  It enhances life and exalts the Creator.

Continued Spiritual Development

I grew up in a small church.  We had no paid youth minister. An older member, Lenford Nabors, served as the youth teacher.  In his seventies, Nabors was a retired combustion engineer.  We learned complicated math concepts as much as Bible stories from him.  I remember conformal mapping to be a particularly favorite topic of his.  Nabors modeled as well as anyone a well-integrated mind.  He advised us to continue to develop our spiritual understanding.  He explained that as we continued in our education, the difficulty would come not in encountering new ideas, but in encountering new ideas without sufficient growth in our spiritual understanding and maturity.

Clearly, an understanding of the faith that hasn’t developed since 8th Grade Sunday School will appear childish compared to the complexity of the material covered in a college philosophy course.  Questions raised by graduate level chemistry studies will probably not find adequate answers in Bible studies that have not gone deeper than Veggie Tales. But if we continue to study and mature spiritually our faith will be strong enough to engage a deeper understanding of the world.

The challenge is to take advantage of the Christian resources and opportunities available at a university in a commitment to growth as a whole person, one of robust faith and keen scholarship.  Continuing to grow in understanding of God is the best antidote to the temptation of separating how one thinks in church from one thinks in the office, or lab, or studio.  Both the Church and our society desperately need Christians whose intellectual life is so integrated that they can enter into business, art and science completely engaged and completely faithful.

Dr. Scott Sealy is Senior Pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Covington, Tennessee.  He is the 2008 winner of the Cleland and Rae Wilson Prize from the University of Glagow.  This article was adapted from an address by Dr. Sealy at Bethel University in Tennessee.  Visit Dr. Sealy’s blog at  blog.scottsealy.com. 

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