Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Death and Resurrection of Rational Christianity

Last week I talked about the nature of apologetics, the desperate need for apologetics in your Christian life and ministry, and the purposes and focuses of apologetics. In passing, I commented on the distressing anti-intellectualism that characterized segments of the Western Church in the 20th century. Today I want to share some thoughts on how that came to be.

1. Western Christendom & The Predominance of Theism
The Christian Church was born in the midst of a robustly pagan Roman empire. The Roman religion incorporated numerous ‘gods,’ who were remarkably human in both form and behavior. Christians were actually accused of being atheists in the Roman Empire, because they refused to worship the various gods of the Empire, including the emperor (who was understood to be a living incarnation of the gods). In the midst of this pagan polytheism, monotheistic Judaism gave birth to monotheistic Christianity—the decisive cry that there is only one God, and that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh.

Christianity did not go over well in the Roman Empire. Christians faced intense persecution, first from fellow Jews, and later from pagan emperors and other regional authorities. The famous persecution of Christians by the emperor Nero in the 60s A.D. saw Christians being used as human torches to light the streets of Rome at night. Christians were crucified, burned alive, and thrown to wild animals in raunchy Colosseum games. Despite persecution, the Christian Church flourished and grew. As Eusebius records, “the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church.” The Church quickly spread to all corners of the empire, spread by traveling missionaries (like Paul), but also by merchants traveling from city to city, and by ordinary citizens. Within two hundred years, a sizeable portion of the Empire’s population had converted to Christianity.

In 311 A.D., the Emperor of the Roman Empire, Constantine, converted to Christianity. The Church was no longer the object of persecution. Within a few generations, the Church became favored, and within a hundred years, the Empire was predominantly Christian. Eventually, the Roman Empire was vanquished by hordes of barbarian invaders (from whom I am descended, incidentally), and the political empire ceased to exist. The Eastern Empire, governed by Greek Orthodox kings, continued on, but our primary interest this morning is the fate of the Western Empire.

The annihilation of the Roman Empire brought on what is commonly called “The Dark Ages,” but is more appropriately titled “The Middle Ages” or “Medieval Christendom.” During this roughly 1000-year period, the Christian Church was the beacon of light and learning in Western Europe. Gradually, Christian missionaries (like the famous St. Patrick) converted barbarian Germanic and Norse tribes to Christianity. More importantly, the cathedrals and monasteries of Christendom were the primary, and often the only, repository of learning and intellectual life. Philosophers, historians, theologians—all were educated within the confines of the Christian Church. The three great giants of the medieval West were Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. During their eras, almost everyone acknowledged the existence of God. Theism was basically the default intellectual position. Even those who were not Christians were generally theists – Muslims and Jews, for instance.

2. The Englightenment & The Rise of Naturalism
The intellectual climate began to change in the Enlightenment, a period that began (depending who you ask) in the 15th century, at the same time as the invention of the printing press. During the Enlightenment, the universality of belief in God began to wane, ever so slightly. Atheistic humanism became rationally respectable. David Hume was one of the earlier explicit skeptics, and helped develop a naturalistic worldview. What does that mean – a naturalistic worldview? Basically, this is the belief that everything that happens has a purely natural, material cause and explanation. As Francis Schaeffer puts it, this view of the world accepts “the presupposition of the uniformity of natural causes as a closed system.”[1] In this worldview, if there is a God, He does not act within the universe. Everything that occurs is a result of a closed system, a box. And, if everything that happens can be explained naturally, then, as physicist Stephen Hawking concludes, “what place is there for God?”

3. Critical Biblical Scholarship & The Demise of Rational Christianity
Not long after a naturalistic worldview arose, Western Europe saw the rise of critical biblical scholarship. Throughout the Middle Ages, Christians viewed the Bible (Old and New Testament) as the inspired Word of God. They did not argue about such things as inerrancy, authority, and inspiration, as Christians argue about them today—rather, they all took these for granted! With the rise of critical scholarship (or liberal scholarship), this began to change. German scholars like Friedrich Schleiermacher, David Strauss, and Henri Reimarus began to propose that the Bible, rather than being inspired Word of God, was error-laden mythology. They sought out difficulties, inconsistencies, and contradictions within the Bible. Moreover, they accepted the Enlightenment’s worldview and operated within it. Thus they rejected everything miraculous and supernatural, including that in the life of Jesus Christ. For the most part, these scholars remained “Christians.” They believed in the existence of God (although they redefined Him substantially), and attempted to preserve Jesus’ ethical example and teaching. But they cut the branches out from underneath themselves by arguing that the intellectual and rational conclusion was that the Bible is full of mistakes and myths, and that everything that happens has a natural explanation (including Jesus’ miracles). By the late 19th century, the viewpoint of critical scholars had come to dominant European theology.

a) Orthodox retreat to pietism
There were, however, many within the church who continued to hold to the ancient Christian creeds, including the belief in an omnipotent, intimate God and belief in the deity of Jesus Christ. Sadly, as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, these orthodox Christians began to retreat intellectually. Faced with a powerful alliance of theologians and philosophers who doubted the inspiration and reliability of the Bible, who believed God to be a distant uninvolved deity (at best), orthodox Christians ran away from the academy and withdrew into a pietistic fortress where “reason” could not assault them. “Just give me Jesus,” was the rallying cry. Throughout the Middle Ages, throughout the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, throughout the Reformation and the rise of the physical sciences, the most eminent, intelligent, and innovative scholars in the Western world were devout believing Christians. This began to change in the 1700s, and was simply no longer true in the 20th century. Devout Christians shied away from the academic world, afraid, so it seems, of losing their faith like so many before them.
This trend is particularly marked in the North American Church, where the retreat from the academy resulted in the rise of anti-intellectual fundamentalism. This represented a failure of Christians to obey the Greatest Commandment, “To Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.” It also abandoned the imperative of 1 Peter 3:15 – to be prepared to give reasons for the hope that we have as Christians. Christianity abandoned rational faith and retreated to “mere belief”—what we call fideism. As a consequence, Christianity became intellectually bereft, and rightfully the object of academic and cultural scorn.

4. God is Dead (1960s)
By the mid-1900s, intellectual Christianity had sharply declined, and the result was a stark, disturbing lead article in Time magazine. “On April 8, 1966, Time magazine carried a dramatic cover with just three words emblazoned in red upon the black background. The words read: ‘Is God Dead?’ The article described the movement then current among American theologians [e.g. Paul Tillich] to proclaim the death of God.”[2] Note the key – it was American theologians who were proclaiming the death of God as a useful concept. The belief was that there was no point talking about God, because the word, the very idea, was meaningless. This from Christian theologians! The belief was that God was no longer a meaningful concept. Well-educated, intelligent Christians were somewhat difficult to find. Certainly Christian scholarship had declined.

5. The Resurrection of Rational Christianity
But a funny thing happened on the way to the morgue. Just as secular atheists (and some theologians) in the West declared God to be dead and buried, He made a stunning comeback. “In a quiet revolution in thought and argument that hardly anybody could have foreseen only two decades ago, God is making a comeback. Most intriguingly, this is happening not among theologians or ordinary believers, but in the crisp intellectual circles of academic philosophers, where the consensus had long banished the Almighty from fruitful discourse.”[3]
The work of prominent and brilliant Christian philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Alistair McGrath, Gary Habermas, J. P. Moreland, Ronald Nash, Richard Swinburne and William Lane Craig have brought substantial credibility to the resurgence of intellectual, rational Christianity. Christians have returned from academic exile. Atheist philosopher Kai Nelson lamented that “over ¼ of all philosophy professors in secular universities are now theists.” There have been three happy results of this academic resurgence within the western Christian Church.

a) Resurgence of traditional arguments for God’s existence
William Lane Craig writes: “Today all of the various traditional arguments for God’s existence find prominent, intelligent proponents, who defend these arguments in books published by the finest academic presses, in articles in professional journals of philosophy, and in papers presented at meetings of professional philosophical societies.”[4] Why does this matter? Well, if the most important question that anyone can ask is “Does God Exist?”, then we as Christians better have some rational backing for our answer, “Yes, He does exist.” And our answers had better be superior to the realm of “Yes, Victoria, there is a Santa Claus.”

b) Rejection of anti-intellectualism (at least in some circles)
Second, at least most of the Western Church has repudiated the anti-intellectual fundamentalism that characterized much of the 20th century. There was a time when parents grieved if their children were going off to university, particularly for Masters or Doctoral studies. The fear was that, if they went in a Christian, they would come out an atheist. Many Christian parents (and churches) urged their youth to fear the university, to see the university as “the Great Satan.” As Christians have re-entered academia in large and robust numbers, that sentiment is on the decline. Today it is not unusual to hear exhortations for Christians to engage the academy, to enter into university to face the best that secular atheism has to offer.

c) Emphasis upon the objective truth of Christianity, not just feeling or assent
Along those same lines, there has been a re-invigorating emphasis upon the objective truth of Christianity. The Church has come to acknowledge that Christianity is more than a feeling, that to embrace Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord requires more than an irrational leap into spiritual assent. Rather, the Christian faith is founded upon objective, rational, historical truth.
I don’t know about you, but I am thankful for this. As Socrates argued, the unexamined life is not worth living. Moreover, I want to live according to the truth. I want to know what is real, and to live accordingly. Hugh Ross, a Christian astronomer and the founder of “Reasons to Believe” Ministries, says that if he was not convinced that Christianity is objectively true—that there really is a God out there, that Jesus Christ truly is His Son—he would not be a Christian. I have to say that I agree. This is why I am so thankful for brilliant men and women who are demonstrating the rationality of the Christian faith, who are arguing for the historical evidence that supports the truth of Christianity.

There are reasons to believe. Our Christian faith is a rational faith. God commands us to love Him with all our mind, and expects that we will do so by pursuing His truth. The descent of Western Christianity into irrational fideism was lamentable. The abandonment of academia to secular humanism was a grave error and a grievous sin. Let us return to the intellectual battle arena with a vigor inspired by the certainty the Holy Spirit gives us that our faith is true.


[1] Francis Schaeffer, The God Who is There (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1968), 52.
[2] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 93.
[3] “Modernizing the Case for God,” Time, April 7, 1980, 65-66.
[4] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 94.