Metaphysical commitments have consequences, obviously. Imagine you were once taken to an evangelistic service, and to your agnostic surprise it seemed God was speaking directly through the speaker to you. Your heart, like Wesley’s, was strangely warmed and you become a Christian. Time went by. Like most Christians, you perceived a few remarkable answers to prayers. You had some numinous experiences of God’s presence, or a new conviction of sin, or a new sense of the truth of Scripture – the kind of thing most believers will report from time to time. Finally, you become firmly convinced that God wants you to enter the ministry, and you end up at a seminary. There, you begin your academically highly respectable training, based of course on Langton Gilkey’s previously cited methodological/metaphysical dictum: “Contemporary theology does not expect, nor does it speak of, wondrous divine events on the surface of natural and historical life.” Where does that leave your faith, your experience and your call?
Maybe it was an Evangelical university (or let’s broaden it – a Catholic or Orthodox one), but one where they take due account of the fruits of 150 years of critical scholarship. After all, you could not be left in a fundamentalist backwater because, in Gilkey’s words, “since they participate in the modern world of science both intellectually and existentially, they can scarcely do anything else.”
But here’s a paradox: the very thing that distinguishes critical scholarship in all its forms is its commitment to naturalism. After all, critical study as such – taking into account textual sources, historical background and so on – was part of theology centuries ago. Naturalism (branded as “reason”) was the big change. But your college is institutionally committed to theological supernaturalism. In theory, then, it will take what’s good from the critical studies and reject that which depends on a false metaphysical stance. But how is the student, or even the college, to sort which is which when naturalism has been assumed since the nineteenth century, especially if members of the faculty have become quite enamoured of, or conditioned by, the whole critical academic ethos?
As a small example, there are some foundational teachings that inform both Old Testament and New Testament studies. In the Old, for instance, one could take the basic integrity of the JEDP hypothesis, and in the New, the usual dating of the Gospels. For most Evangelical scholars they are working assumptions. But would either have become established without naturalistic foundations? And would either survive the cutting of those roots? The documentary hypothesis, and its modern descendants, nearly all assume the forgery of the Book of the Law, identified with Deuteronomy, during the reign of King Josiah. The principal evidence for the dating of the gospels, as J A T Robinson was surprised to discover, is the supposed retrospective knowledge (and hence fraudulent prediction) of the fall of Jerusalem in 69AD, linked to the need for a sufficient passage of time for form criticism’s alleged traditions and accretions to develop, diverge and be variously redacted across the Synoptics.
Such things can be accommodated to a belief system, of course, but only by complicating the simplicity of faith: for the God of truth to speak truly is a pure concept. For the God of truth to speak through lies takes some subtle theological footwork. One example of this might be Peter Enns’ incarnational model of Scripture. He starts, it appears, from the problems caused by scholarship’s uncovering of error in the Bible, though without any real acknowledgment that at least some of that error might be down to scholarship’s starting assumptions. He then seeks to maintain a concept of divine inspiration by comparing the Bible to the Incarnation of Christ. YThis is not unique, nor necessarily invalid, in theological history. The Bible is God’s word mediated through human authors.
But his concept of Incarnation itself is contaminated by naturalistic presuppositions. Whereas in the past, the sinless perfection of the human Jesus was used to point to the equally pure truth of Scripture, despite its human authorship, in Enns’ case the “indisputable” errors in Scripture if anything demonstrate that Jesus himself must have committed error. Indeed, as much is “proven” by Jesus’ apparent belief in a historical Adam and Eve when he quotes the nature of marriage “in the beginning.”
But Enns is not unique. His own unfortunate experience appears to have been recently repeated at another Evangelical US college, where a scholar’s job is apparently on the line for dismissing the validity of the Bible’s teaching on women (a value judgement, rather than a scholarly one, of course). The prevalent mood of his peers seems to be that the college is wrong to limit his academic freedom to attack the Bible where it is in error. Once, Evangelical scholars would have been striving to defend the Bible’s truth as God’s revelation. In current Christianity, it seems, the spirit of Prometheus’ challenging of the gods’ folly is more attractive than the spirit of Adam’s submission to Yahweh’s judgement.
What is less clear, once reason has identified the errors, is what actual truth these Scriptures can teach, and how one can distinguish truth from error on other than purely subjective grounds. That appears to matter less as modernism morphs into postmodernism, but only because that movement has spread existential doubt even into the material realm. Postmodernists ought to be happy with any subjective view of God, yet the evidence is that this is fundamentally unsatisfying.
There is a steady trickle of western Evangelicals towards the Orthodox Church, the Catholics report (in the UK at least) that young people are gravitating towards its more traditional expressions, and I know from personal experience that numbers among young and old are growing where Evangelical churches have a strong Bible ministry. The church I helped lead before my retirement has grown from 80 adults and a dozen youngsters when I joined to 300 adults and 200 regularly attending young people.
As I showed in the previous post, even the Bible’s fundamental view of God’s nature cannot be supported by a truly critical approach, other than possible confirmation from philosophy (provided one chooses a non-materialistic philosopher … and how to choose?). Alaster McGrath suggests that scientific evidence alone tends to favour agnosticism about his existence, let alone hisattributes.
The fact is that the confusion of trying to hold together methodological naturalism and Evangelical faith is every bit as doomed as Gilkey suggested back in 1961. And the final result on individual and corporate faith is just as inevitable – where is the rationally-founded liberal church of yesterday now? Liberal evangelicalism is no more than the attempt to hold naturalism and supernaturalism in creative tension, when both simply cannot be true at once.
Turning at last to natural science, Christian biologists (at least, the vocal American Evangelical sort) are used to working with methodological naturalism, so liberal evangelicalism would be expected to appeal to them as familiar ground. Biblical errancy is a popular topic for them – Scriptural authority is not. This explains Peter Enns’ former employment by, and continued contributions to, BioLogos.
For the most part MN in natural science is innocuous: the same science results if one discounts teleology and ignores primary causation. But of course, theistic evolution is not science, but science with theology – how God created living things, and therefore also why he did so, and also how mankind’s spiritual situation arose. Doing theology without teleology is like trying to be a materialist Young Earth Creationist. The attempt is bound to end in tears, because the combination of naturalism and supernaturalism is inherently unstable.
We can see this instability in the TE insistence on divine non-intervention in nature, jostling with belief in the bodily Resurrection of Christ, biblical miracles and answered prayer. We see it in the rejection of Biblical inerrancy at the same time as dependence on Scriptural concepts like the Image of God, the Creation, the Incarnation and so on. It’s a chalk and cheese sandwich.
At least the original liberals realised that there is only one reality – if naturalism was true in science, it was also going to be true in theology. “Liberal evangelical evolutionism”, if one may temporarily coin the term, appears to be attempting the impossible task of dividing the world into naturalistic and supernaturalistic portions, with some parts (like the Bible) hopelessly torn between the two. The result can only be incoherence, and eventually, some kind of meltdown.