The well-trodden road to somewhere

What with other commitments and the temperamental editing software at BioLogos, I’ve only posted there once recently, but at least I got a reply. My post was on Mike Beidler’s (so far) four-part article on his conversion from Young Earth Creationism to BioLogianism – a common pathway, or so it seems. Expanding a point of Eddie’s I suggested that the Socinian view of incarnation applied to the Bible by Peter Enns, Kenton Sparks and their like, with Scripture’s consequent susceptibility to historico-critical dismemberment, was inherently unstable and will inevitably lead to a re-run of nineteenth century liberalism.

My respondent was Cliff Martin, whose main point was that recycling the liberal programme would be no bad thing if that’s where the evidence takes us. My own reply was that it is the presuppositions of higher criticism, rather than evidence, that dictate where one will end up – a point that I have made before here, here and here.
There is more to be said, though, than would fit well into the BioLogos combox. I remember my first week at medical school, where I had a conversation with the flatmate of the chairman of the Christian Union. He himself was undergoing a kind of conversion to liberal Christianity from what Cliff Martin calls “once-comfortable and tidy evangelical theology”. The transition was clearly uncomfortable, but the purpose was clearly greater comfort. Foremost among his arguments, I remember his wish not to be “left behind” intellectually.

That was 39 years ago, and the sad truth is that it is liberal theology, as such, that has been left behind. Culturally that’s true as Evangelical and Charismatic churches have grown whilst liberal ones have declined. But intellectually too classic liberalism has become something of a Victorian dinosaur. There are at least three strands to this intellectual trend – and I’m not sure that the prevalent theological drift of BioLogos has recognised any of them.

In the first place, higher criticism’s pretence to be a reliable scientific enterprise has been completely discredited. I shall try to make this the last time I speak of “the assured results of higher criticism” in their customary scare-quotes, because if it was ever said by a liberal it’s been absorbed into the weaponry of the critics of the critics so completely as to make the original author wish he’d never said it. But the fact is, the common assumption is that the results are assured. Suggest a unified Flood account and you’re simply peddling nursery tales. And yet after two centuries of effort, there is no longer any consensus on either of the main planks of criticism: the origins of the Pentateuch in the OT and the Synoptic Problem in the new. I believe I’m right to say that naturalistic critical presuppositions will inevitably lead away from a high view of Scripture to a naturalistic one, but as for the firm establishment of anything positive, the project has demonstrably failed. Or it had until Evangelicals picked up the baton from the expiring corpse in the road together with a dog-eared copy of Origin of Species.

The second strand is the discrediting of modernism by post-modernism. This movement seems to have gained a spectacular hold in academic theology, for reasons that would be worthy of sociological study in themselves. But whereas liberalism’s project, like that of Enns and Sparks, was to cut incisively through the dross of Scripture to find some objective golden truth about God, post-modernism in essence denies that there is any message, let alone a divine one, to be found in ancient texts other than the subjective one we make for ourselves. In practice the two viewpoints are held in an uneasy tension – there is much of the post-modern influence, for example, in Enns’ approach to intertextuality, yet it is combined with the modernist liberal expectation that God speaks, in some ill-defined way, through the texts.

I suppose one could say that this synthesis presents a laudable moderation. Frankly one sometimes feels that academics promote theories in complete isolation from self-evident reality. So the genuine insight (probably known by wise men for centuries, though!) that we bring the baggage of our own cultural presuppositions to texts composed in a very different context becomes, in post-modernism, a denial that any meaning at all can be communicated across the centuries, or even from person to person. The lie to this is given by the fact that post-modernist writers expect to be understood in their own terms. They’re not at all happy for us to make their words mean whatever we choose them to mean, like the truly post-modern Humpty Dumpty did back in 1871. Modernism itself was such an academic exaggeration from, “critical investigation might improve understanding” to “there is no truth but critical truth.”

In any case, the fact is that the radical objectivism of the modernist approach and the radical subjectivism of post-modernism are scarcely compatible. As far as I can see, BioLogian liberal theology hasn’t really thought through the place post-modernism has found within it. Otherwise they’d have less respect for the certainties of current science than they do.

The third strand in my rope is that liberal evangelicals seem oblivious to the profound changes in epistemology in recent decades. Thomas McCall gives a good overview of these in the first chapter of Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith. In the religious field, Alvin Plantinga’s work is particularly important, but the wider philosophical program has shown the severe limitations to what was, in modernism, was held to be “objective” truth. Whilst the certainty of scientific, or higher-critical, knowledge has been severely reduced, at the same time the reliabiity of other types of knowledge has been increasingly recognised. Plantinga’s “Warranted Christian Belief” is a significant example of this shift.

At the time I had the conversation with my liberally-leaning fellow-student, it was perhaps two years since a profound experience of my own that, divorced from any obvious rational process, left me utterly convinced of the divine authorship of Scripture. What that led to was a very rational approach to studying it, yet never separable from a conviction that was never gained by reason. That, in the climate of 1976, would never have been an argument to convince my conversation partner, who it seemed held all the intellectual high ground. Incidentally, that’s why I can never identify with the idea of Evangelical Theology being “comfortable and tidy” – it’s often on the contrary put me in a conflict between my deep conviction and, apparently, the rest of the world.

Yet all these years on, the liberal intellectual ground has largely sunk into the bog, and my own insecure-looking island has risen, at least to some limited extent. It has by no means become the spirit of the age, but that’s a good thing, and I never expected it to be so this side of glory. But it does, at least, show that there is at least as much danger in following a trend as in bucking it. There’s an even bigger danger in following trends that have already proved their weakness.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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