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Howard and Giberson on Problems and Prospects for an Evangelical Academic Renaissance

This Spring Biola University opens its Center for Christian Thought.

I just read a fantastic piece in Inside Higher Ed by Karl Giberson and Thomas Howard on the possibilities and pitfalls for evangelical institutions attempting to advance Christian learning.  The items on the credit side of the ledger should be well known at this point, but less often are the debits stated so baldly: Many evangelical institutions are hamstrung by both the theological tenets and intellectual habits of Fundamentalism.  The tenets can be found in these schools’ statements of faith.  The habits are harder to define.  They might include a tendency towards amnesia about the greater Christian tradition, literalistic and simplistic reading habits, and a knee-jerk-reactionary bent.

But, in any case, such tenets and habits prevent such institutions from engaging constructively with the natural sciences (particularly when it comes to the issue of evolution), with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, and I would add (ironically) with the best of contemporary Biblical scholarship.

The piece is a bit long, but well worth a read.  It has certainly given me a lot to think about.



4 thoughts on “Howard and Giberson on Problems and Prospects for an Evangelical Academic Renaissance

  1. I’ll try again; looks like my first comment didn’t post.

    The problem goes much deeper than just an institutional struggle with fundamentalist elements. The whole notion of religious scholarship (outside of the narrow field of religion talking about itself) is questionable. When one approaches any topic with a priori commitment that restrict the boundaries of investigation and dictate what the conclusions must support, one is no longer doing scholarship.

    Posted by Mark Traphagen (@sagethefool) | February 25, 2012, 2:27 pm
    • Thanks for commenting, Mark. I don’t really think that your characterization of religious scholarship is really a fair one. For one thing, everyone has a priori commitments. Presuppositions, paradigms, cultural assumptions, instincts, and the like inform the perspective and the work of every scholar, regardless. So I don’t think we can begrudge religious scholars for having pre-theoretical commitments.

      I think the question is whether religious pre-theoretical commitments are necessarily going to be restrictive and dictatorial in the way that you suggest. Can religious scholarship be anything but obscurantist? Personally, I don’t see any reason why it can’t be and the work of self-consciously Christian scholars from a wide variety of fields attests to Christianity’s viability as an intellectual framework for serious scholarship.

      I am curious, Mark, as to what you make of people like John Polkinghorne, Karl Giberson, Francis Collins, Mark Noll, Kent Sparks, N.T. Wright, and the like? Is their scholarship necessarily tainted by their faith commitments? Are their faith commitments irrelevant to their scholarship? What’s your take?

      Posted by dmwilliams83 | February 25, 2012, 2:59 pm
      • I think you fail to make a distinction between scholarship within a limited scope or field of reference and scholarship as a general approach to the big questions. All the people you mentioned do excellent scholarship within their fields, such as “what was likely meant by the author of bible passage x in his original context.” but take them outside a narrow self-referential context, say to questions of the origin of existence, and they cannot function as true scholars because of a pre-commitment that the answer must involve God.

        Posted by Mark Trsphagen | February 28, 2012, 12:52 pm
  2. That’s interesting that you would say that. I am curious as to just who you would see as acting as “true scholars” when it comes to the big questions. For my part, I find thinkers like Polkinghorne, Plantinga, Wright, Eagleton, Hart (David Bentley, not D.G.) to be at least as erudite in their wrestling with the big questions as folks who come down on the other side like Dawkins or Hitchens or Russell or whoever.

    Sure, they may continue to hold on to belief in God and faith in Christ in the face of data that would lead others to give such convictions up. But no theory is without its anomalies and paradoxes. In fact all scientific research is an effort to work through the anomalies, paradoxes, mysteries, and kinks in our best existing theories. To continue to adhere to a scientific theory or a religion or a philosophy even when one hasn’t worked out all of its problems is hardly a strike against one’s intellectual honesty, much less an abdication of scholarly responsibility.

    You can, of course, be intellectually dishonest. But that requires more than seeing that your theory or faith or whatever has its problems to be sorted out. It requires that you have other theories or faiths or explanations before you that are considerably more plausible overall than the one you’re sticking with. But for you to show that that’s the epistemic situation that Polkinghorne, Plantinga, et al., are in would require quite a bit more argument.

    Posted by dmwilliams83 | February 28, 2012, 9:09 pm

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NCSU Graduate Christian Fellowship

Hi! I'm David, the campus minister for InterVarsity's graduate and faculty ministries at NC State and Meredith College. I hope you'll join me as I learn to "practice resurrection" in the City of Oaks, in her universities, and in the wider world. You can contact me at dmwilliams83@gmail.com

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