Science in Christian Perspective




The State of Evangelical Christian Scholarship

George Marsden

The Divinity School
Duke University
Durham, NC 27706

From: PSCF 40 (September 1988): 155-159.

Reprinted with permission from The Reformed journal, Volume 37, Issue 9, September 1987.

When talking about evangelical Christian scholarship, we should avoid lapsing into the kind of rhetoric that seems to presume that the scholarship in our own communities is coextensive with all of Christian scholarship. We want to avoid the sort of parochialism suggested by a remark attributed to one of the promoters of Liberty University, who said that one of Liberty's goals was someday to show that a Christian university could have as good a football team as Notre Dame's.

I am not the person best qualified here to comment on Notre Dame as a Christian university, but I have seen their football team play, and I can say that they are in fact downright unchristian. They are almost always selfish, mean, and uncaring, not to mention brutal-which I did just mention. It will be interesting to see if the more rigorous Christian perspective at Liberty University will produce an alternative. I can warn them, however, that the last real attempt to have a Christian football team was at my alma mater, Haverford College. Haverford is a Quaker school, and for years the Haverford football team practiced passive resistance. They had great practices; but that never got them anywhere. As Woody Allen once said of his experience at an interfaith camp, he got beaten up by boys of every race, creed, and color. So with Haverford on Saturday afternoons in the fall. And so they abandoned their football program entirely.

We do not want, then, to claim too much when we talk about "Christian" this or that and we do not want to claim that evangelical scholarship and Christian scholarship are coextensive.

When we talk about evangelical scholarship, we are talking about an international movement that, to the extent that it has been organized, has had largely American and British leadership. Moreover, in America evangelicalism is a complex transdenominational movement that cannot be reduced to any of its subtypes. Nonetheless, to the extent that there have been, efforts to mobilize transdenominational evangelical scholarship, the leadership has been drawn disproportionately from the Reformed side of the American fundamentalist-evangelical movement. This is not to say that other evangelical traditions-Holiness, Pentecostal, Anabaptist, black, Lutheran, Southern Baptist, and so forth-have not produced significant scholars. It is only to say that those Americans who have attempted to build evangelical scholarship into a movement have come mainly from the Reformed side of American evangelicalism (usually with British allies).

One of the striking features of the state of Christian scholarship today is that this relatively small community of mostly North American and British scholars is one of the few groups in the world who would sponsor a conference on this topic. There must be some Catholic counterparts; but in this country, at least, there is considerably less talk about Catholic scholarship than there was a generation ago. Essentially the same is true of old-line Protestant groups. If they were to talk about Christian scholarship, they would be talking about theological disciplines only. Their scholarship is pretty well confined today to theological seminaries. I think that not many communities exist today where one would find interests such as many of us share in the relationships of Christianity to the sciences, the arts, and the liberal arts.

Since most of the Christian scholarship of previous generations has died out or been secularized, perhaps the principal question we should ask concerning evangelical Christian scholarship today is whether it represents simply a transitional stage in the secularization of our community. Are evangelical academics today simply introducing secular standards to our community, but doing so by giving them the gloss of Christian education? Or is what we are seeing the emergence of an evangelical Christian renaissance?

Signs of the Times

Evangelical scholarship today presents some moderately encouraging signs. Today evangelicalism (broadly defined) is a recognized, even if fragmented and not always welcomed, force in American Protestantism. Evangelicalism even has some basis for claiming to be the wave of the future. Evangelicalism's strength in scholarship, however, is much less than its strength in other areas. Nevertheless, it is much stronger than it was a generation ago, and it is strong relative to most other Christian groups. A non-evangelical friend tells me that when he lectures in his American religious history survey on neo-evangelicalism, he always points out that this is the most literate group of American Christians, writing and selling relatively more serious Christian books than any other major American Christian group. Such serious Christian literature still tends to come disproportionately, though far from exclusively, from more or less Reformed evangelicals, both British and American. In America today there are also scores of evangelical colleges, representing the scores of evangelical sub-traditions. These colleges include some with fine faculties, and several can be classed in the upper ranks of American liberal arts institutions. The discouraging dimension is that the total enrollment of all evangelical colleges is equivalent to that of only about two major universities; so evangelical Christian higher education makes up only a tiny proportion of American higher education today. Also, of course, a number of self-consciously evangelical scholars are in university positions, but they make up a tiny fraction of the whole.

In theological education, the situation is more encouraging. There, the largest and perhaps the best American seminaries are evangelical, a vast revolution from forty years ago. Another encouraging sign is in numbers of young evangelicals seeking graduate education. At least at a place like Duke Divinity School, where I teach, a disproportionate number of the degree candidates and applicants in the field of religion (at least half, I would guess) are identifiably evangelical. People from strongly religious backgrounds may be more likely to think that beliefs, and hence intellectual pursuits, are important. Hence they may be overrepresented in some fields of graduate education. In the long run this should have an important impact. It is too bad, in my judgment, that we have hardly any graduate institutions for training these young people. This problem is difficult to resolve since at present it is still almost necessary for gaining credibility to get credentials from a leading secular institution. I think two parallel strategies are important. Evangelical scholars should remain involved in university higher education, and at the same time evangelical educators should be building their own institutions with such standards of academic excellence that eventually they will gain wide academic recognition. I think this has already happened at the liberal arts level and there is no reason it cannot happen higher up.

These mostly promising signs in evangelical scholarship are, of course, part of a larger picture of evangelical growth. This growth, we should keep in mind, is a mixed blessing. Religious movements flourish for a combination of reasons that include the disturbing along with the admirable. In the case of the growth of evangelical scholarship, for instance, one of the trends it reflects is the growing suburbanization and affluence of our communities. More and more evangelicals, like others in their social classes, are interested in higher education and so our academic enterprises have grown.

If we describe what is happening from this perspective, we are driven back to our central question: Is the growing interest in higher education among evangelicals a step on the way to the secularization of the movement? The growth of evangelical wealth and the rise in status among many white evangelicals have been important contributors to the rise of evangelical scholarship and educational institutions. Clearly we need that wealth for evangelical scholarship to flourish, but we do face the danger that the growing affluence of our communities could do us in. This is especially true if we do not take a prophetic stance toward usual American attitudes toward wealth.

This social-economic factor is related to the larger issue of whether our community is simply secularizing. A number of observers from all sides recently have noted that progressive evangelicalism, such as that which dominates our higher education, is at about the point where mainline Protestants were a century ago. William Hutchison of Harvard has made this observation. So has Leonard Sweet from a more sympathetic viewpoint. Critics to the right often make similar suggestions. So does James Hunter in his recent survey, American Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, which well documents moderate changes in some traditional beliefs among a minority of students at evangelical colleges and seminaries and emphasizes the secularization theme. Are the changes taking place signs of a healthy tolerance for diversity and recovery of balance, or symptoms of decline?

So here is the important question for us today. Evangelical scholarship has so far grown to only modest proportions. These look considerable, however, if we compare the situation to, say, forty years ago. In 1947 evangelicalism was still part of fundamentalism, and all the substantial scholars in the movement would have fit in one train car. The movement may be poised for continued geometric growth in the next forty years. But is this growth we are experiencing the sign of the emergence of a major new movement or is it a step toward secularization?

Two Counterforces

I see two major counterforces to the possible secularization. First, I think it is immensely important that we are now living in a post-liberal age. The intellectual atmosphere is very different from forty years ago. Protestant liberalism has flowered and seems to be dying on the vine. It is difficult to see it as the exciting promise for the future. We can hope that we have learned enough from the fundamentalist-modernist era to retain our resolve to stay on the distinctly evangelical side, even if we reject the overstated emphases of fundamentalists in defending that side. We have perhaps an opportunity to exercise intellectual maturity, not being swept away by the pressures from either fundamentalism or liberalism. Part of being on the evangelical side means that, unlike modernism, which tried to defend Christianity by wedding it to the prestige of modern scholarship, we see our scholarship as providing an informed critical alternative to the prevailing intellectual trends of our day.

The other counterbalancing hope I see comes from within our intellectual life itself. That is in the triumph-or nearly of what may be loosely called Kuyperian presuppositionalism in the evangelical community. Perhaps we could call this Augustinianism, if that does not conjure up too many specifics. In any case, I refer to a style of Christian thought which emphasizes that crucial to the differences that separate Christian world views from non-Christian ones are disagreements about pretheoretical first principles, presuppositions, first commitments, or basic beliefs. Thus, without denying the value of human rationality, it denies the autonomy or competence of reason alone to adjudicate some of the decisive questions concerning the context within which rationality itself will operate. This viewpoint can be contrasted with the older common sense, Baconian tradition that once dominated American evangelical thought. This tradition assumed that only one objective science existed for all people, and hence, that ultimately there should be no real distinction between Christian thinking and clear thinking. Christianity, they thought, should therefore be able to win its case on rational or scientific grounds alone.

The prevailing view now emphasizes that Christian thought and non-Christian thought, being founded on some opposed first principles, reflect wide differences in total world views. So those who presuppose that the universe was created by the God of Scripture are going to have many differences in viewpoint from those who suppose we have a chance universe. Since Christian principles will thus relate to all of thought and life (though not to all in the same degree), an important activity for such scholars is to define a Christian world view in contrast to the prevailing outlooks of our day. Though such emphases are not the only ones found among evangelical scholars today, they describe what I think is the dominant outlook.

One of the encouraging dimensions of the present state of evangelical scholarship is that this approach, which grew largely out of the Dutch Protestant thought of a century ago, can speak effectively to some of the principal intellectual trends of our day. In the era since Thomas Kuhn and of anti-foundationalism in philosophy, few claim today that there is just one world view that can be demonstrated as superior on rational grounds alone. Even in the hard sciences, it is now widely recognized that the prevailing assumptions of communities play a role in what they count as true science. I would think that the Kuyperian versions of this insight, which add a chastened realism that is essential both to historic Christian belief and day-to-day human behavior, should be crucial in shaping the style and strategy of evangelical intellectual life.

Early in this century most American intellectuals seemed to believe that ultimately one enlightened and scientific view would triumph for all educated humankind. Liberal Protestants shared in this view and so generally believed that eventually all Christians would have to be convinced of their views of religion and of Scripture. Almost all conservative Protestants held to the same principle, expecting that a triumph of rationality would lead to the universal vindication of their views. In both cases their outlooks reflected the combination of certain Enlightenment assumptions about rationality and Protestantism's long habit in America of thinking of itself as the cultural establishment, whose views ought to ultimately prevail for all properly assimilated Americans and ultimately for the whole world.

Today's intellectual environment is far more pluralistic, and we are fortunate to have available a developed intellectual tradition that is suited to taking account of the implications of that pluralism. Today, I think, it is much clearer than it was a generation ago that evangelicals do not have to take over the old Protestant agenda of dominating Western civilization or world civilization. Rather, we should give up our vestigial establishmentarianism and accept our status as one community (or a coalition of communities) within civilization. This, it seems to me, is a healthier position for the church anyway.

Our Agenda

For us as scholars this means that our agenda ought to be directed toward building for our community as solid a place in the pluralistic intellectual life of our civilization as is consistent with our principles. Helping to establish the intellectual viability of our world view and pointing out the shortcomings of alternatives can be an important service to our community and an important dimension of our witness to the world. To perform this task properly requires a delicate combination of modesty and assertiveness. Our intellectual life must display the Christian qualities of self-criticism and generosity to others. Richard Neuhaus puts it well when he says we should have "reverence for those with whom we disagree." At the same time, we properly attempt to establish for others the attractiveness of our world view.

Establishing the attractiveness of a world view, however, is not strictly or even primarily an intellectual enterprise. Rather we should hope that evangelical Christians will demonstrate the attractiveness of our world view by the way our communities address the whole range of human experience. This involves the way we live and not just the way we think. As Nicholas Wolterstorff has reminded us in various contexts, action is the goal of Christian intellectual life. This does not mean that action is identical with intellectual life or can be substituted for it. These are important provisos in our pragmatically inclined communities, where, as Mark Noll has observed, "to urge activist evangelicals to get more active is like pointing an addict toward dope." Unfortunately, there is considerably more danger today of intellectual and artistic life being overwhelmed by various kinds of activism than there is danger of the reverse. Nonetheless, our ultimate goal is not primarily intellectual. Our role as scholars is to play one modest part in building and enriching communities that are models of a balance of piety, worship, intellect, art, charity, and social concern.

What are the major challenges we face today? I see three, two of which I shall mention just briefly. The first is that of the politicization of the scholarly enterprise. Politics, broadly conceived, constitutes one of the operative religions for most people today. It is also the operative religion for many evangelicals. Sheer political partisanship could easily take over our scholarship, so that we could become fragmented into competing ideological camps. One antidote to this trend is to emphasize that Christian scholarship should always be self-critical scholarship, even though inevitably partisan to some extent.

A second challenge is simply that of maintaining our momentum in defining the distinctives of evangelical Christian scholarship. As I observed at the outset, one of the most striking features of Christian scholarship today is that so few communities are enthusiastic about promoting it. So one of our most important challenges is simply that of vindicating, for secular audiences but especially for Christian communities, the significance of our enterprise itself. Our communities must gain a vision of the primary importance of critically assessing the prevailing world views of our day, and of intelligently defining the distinctive characteristics of Christian views of reality.

The third of the challenges will perhaps be the most difficult to meet. Though we are in a far stronger position than forty years ago to deal with pluralism in the larger scholarly community, the corollary is that we have to deal with more pluralism from within. In one sense this is a strength. Today there is wide recognition that "evangelicalism" is not a simple entity but a loose coalition of subgroups who share similar traits and traditions. Our presuppositionalism helps us to deal with such internal pluralism, to be less dogmatic than has been traditional in insisting that there is only one "evangelical" view of an issue. But how do we keep that recognition from drifting into a relativism? This has always been the problem for Protestants, as their Catholic critics were quick to point out. Typically Protestants have responded with assertions that we have rational and scientific procedures for determining the one definitive meaning for Scripture. So Baptists thought they could rationally demonstrate that adult baptism was a requisite church ordinance, and non-Baptists thought they could demonstrate just as certainly that infant baptism was permissible as well. Today, with a clearer recognition of the limits of science and rationality, we should be in a position better to tolerate differing readings of the same texts.

But what if such disputes concern more central issues? Certain views surely go beyond the bounds of evangelicalism into something else. So I do not think you could have an evangelical who denied the bodily resurrection of Christ. Or that the Bible was uniquely inspired and authoritative. Or the atonement. Or the necessity of the atoning work of Christ. Or a fair number of other doctrines. But how do we set such boundaries for evangelicalism?

Finding the answer to such questions is especially perplexing for communities that have so little regard for the visible church or churches. Nonetheless, I see two steps in the right direction. First, whatever presuppositionalism we might have should not entail entirely abandoning traditional categories of common sense rationality in adjudicating disputes. Contrary to some 20th century mythology, some interpretations of texts are more reliable than others, and I see no reason to suppose that God has created us without the ability often to tell the difference between the relatively better interpretation and the relatively worse.

But let me put the point in broader terms. I think that a central starting point of evangelical thought must be the Incarnation. A foundational premise in any coherent evangelical world view is that we can know Jesus, the Jesus of history. We affirm that God has entered into real history and that we creatures can know something about God through this revelation in history. Moreover, this implies that we affirm that God has created us with sufficiently reliable mechanisms for knowing about reality, even on the basis of testimony by others, so that we can know what we need to of the historical Jesus through revelation as it has come to us through Scripture. So a knowledge of the incarnate Christ among our fundamental principles excludes much of the historical and hermeneutical relativism of our day.

The other step in the right direction I would propose is that we American Protestants, lacking much sense of the authority of any church, try to recover some sense of the value of tradition. This will always be an imperfect and not wholly reliable authority, but it could provide an important confirmatory test of our beliefs. Our sense of being part of a community of faith should involve a sense of being part of an historical community of faith.

Twentieth-century intellectual life has the peculiar bias that the newer an idea is, the better it is. When you reflect on it, this is an astounding bias, especially in an age when we are unusually conscious of the social-cultural origins of ideas. This bias for the latest idea seemed to make sense in the 18th century, when it first became common. Then the faith in one universal science supported a faith in simple intellectual progress. But today, with the wide abandonment of the myth of a single science for humanity and with a high awareness of the importance of the sociology of knowledge, one would suppose that twentieth-century thinkers should be especially suspicious of new ideas (including strong emphases on the sociology of knowledge). Just to the contrary, however, today's scholars rush after the latest fads in much the same way that as children they rushed out to get Davey Crockett coonskin caps or hoola hoops (I use these examples since the world has been taken over by baby boomers). Evangelical scholars, by contrast, should benefit from the wisdom of many times and cultures. Though the antiquity of a belief is far from decisive evidence of its truth, it may provide reason to give that belief preferential consideration, especially if that belief has long been held by the communities we consider to well represent the church through the age.


Let me conclude with a very brief summary. It is conceivable that we are witnessing the beginnings of a renaissance in evangelical scholarship. Even if so, evangelical scholarship has a long way to go. Compared to forty years ago, we seem to have made great strides. Compared to the wider intellectual community, we still represent a tiny minority enterprise. Assuming we do not lose sight of our primary task of building a strong sustaining community that witnesses to the gospel by action as well as belief, it seems to me that we could sustain a healthy geometric growth in our enterprise if we maintained these three emphases: (1) a willingness not only to assert the superiority of our traditions, but to be self-critical and generous as well; (2) a continued emphasis on building critical analyses of the presuppositions dividing our thought from that of other world views of our age; and (3) a healthy respect for the mainstreams of the Christian tradition as an antidote to the parochialisms both of our subcommunities and of our century. If we can maintain at least these three emphases, in addition to the fundamentals that define evangelicalism, then evangelical scholarship should not quickly drift into either a liberal Christianity or into the merely secular. Truly evangelical scholarship can flourish.