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Sola Scriptura: Implications For Christian Scholarship And Integration

By John Woodbridge - August 22nd, 2017

John Woodbridge discusses Academia, Christian scholarship, and the way they should interact.

The Protestant Reformers Martin Luther (1483- 1546), John Calvin (1509-1564) and their evangelical colleagues taught that Holy Scripture should play a determinative role in any form of education.As advocates of sola scriptura, Luther and Calvin firmly believed the Bible inspired by the Holy Spirit reveals divine, fully trust-worthy doctrine and teachings about who God is, who we are and what the world is. Scripture, the central focus of which is Christ, constitutes a norma normans (“the determining norm”). It rules over all human opinions, church traditions, church doctrines, creeds and academic disciplines [“science” or natural philosophy, liberal arts]. Infallible Scripture is not “normed” or shaped by any of these sub-disciplines. Put another way, the Bible reveals reality from God’s perspective. The Lutheran Book of Concord reads: “The Holy Scriptures alone remain the only judge, rule, and standard, according to which, as the only test-stone, all dogmas should and must be discerned and judged, as to whether they be good or evil, right or wrong.” Infallible Scripture is to interpret infallible Scripture.2

 

Rules of Academia 

Today Christian academics who engage in scholarly research and writing face a genuine quandary, especially if they want to adhere to this reformational ideal of sola scriptura. They often feel that for them to punch their ticket into the secular Academic world, they must agree to all of its “rules”. Unfortunately, one of the principal “rules” of the secular academic world is to accept the methodological postulate of naturalism. A scholar’s failure to accept this “rule” can mean possibly forfeiting entrance into Academia as an authentic peer scholar. 

In 2011, historian Brad S. Gregory of the University of Notre Dame described the hegemonic grip of the use of the secular postulate of methodological naturalism in the Academic life in the West: 

Regardless of the academic discipline, knowledge in the Western world today is considered secular by definition. Its assumptions, methods, content, and truth claims are and can only be secular, framed not only by the logical demand of rational coherence, but also by the methodological postulate of naturalism and its epistemological correlate, evidentiary empiricism. Knowledge must be based on evidence, it must make sense, and (aside from purely conceptual abstractions) it can neither assume nor conclude that anything which putatively transcends the universe is real, else it ceases to count as knowledge.... 3

In the Academy, any scholarship that denies the presuppositions of naturalism is generally dismissed as counterfeit or “tribal” because it does not agree with the prevailing assumptions of the academy’s foundational dogma. us, scholarship which cites “causes” or “agencies” (other than naturalistic ones) is relegated to a non-scientific, non-objective designation, and is seen as a lesser form of inquiry and research. 

Those Christian academics who dare to cite divine or supernatural agency as a causative force are immediately deemed scholarly outsiders. ese Christian academics might be heroes and heroines in their own “culturally,” sequestered communities such as Christian colleges and churches; however, they should not expect a warm welcome from the gatekeepers of the secular academy. They should not wait by their phones in anticipation of a call from faculty search committees at the leading universities of the land; they should not hope that any of their writings acknowledging God’s existence and divine agency in a substantive fashion will in fact be published by prestigious presses. Professor Gregory argues that the grip of secularism upon the larger academic world is total and profound. It is unforgiving of appeals to supernaturalism. 

Faith and Learning (and the Academy) 

Since World War II literally hundreds of seminars devoted to “faith and learning” have taken place in Christian schools. Educators like Dr. Arthur Holmes of Wheaton College often led seminars of this kind. Professor Holmes was well known as the author of Faith Seeks Understanding (1971), The Idea of a Christian College (1975), All Truth is God’s Truth (1977) and Building the Christian Academy (2001). Professor George Marsden, in his studies, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (1994) and The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (1997), offered a persuasive account of secularism’s rise to dominance in American higher education. 

In The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges & Universities from their Christian Churches (1998), James Burtchaell also traced the rise of secularism’s growing influence in Christian schools. He recounted the stories of various Protestant and Roman Catholic schools which were once church related. Often seeking the approval of the secular Academy, their boards, administrators and faculty members distanced themselves from the Christian churches that gave them birth. Burtchaell observed: “But the greatest outside authority to which all these colleges in our study now defer is that of the academy itself” (834). He analyzed the mindset of the professors teaching at these schools saying, “But Christian scholars, to be at home in this kind of academy, need not actually forswear their faith. All they must do is agree to criticize the church by the norms of the academy, and to judge the gospel by the culture. And most of them have burnt that incense when bidden” (p. 850). 

In the eyes of Academic secularists, those schools which seek to remain faithful to their Christian convictions do not engage in responsible scholarship. In describing the secularists’ assessment of these Christian schools, Professor Gregory observes: “But such doctrinally circumscribed institutions thereby exclude themselves from the critical inquiry characteristic of the pursuit of knowledge, it is usually thought, and they are therefore properly ignored by scholars and scientists who are dedicated to the pursuit and transmission of value-neutral knowledge.”4 Professor Gregory’s provocative and dire assessment that scholars in Christian schools are somehow quarantined and isolated in parochial institutions and should not be chalked up as an infallible analysis. After all, the volume in which he complained that secular academia had no room for scholarship acknowledging the divine was published by a leading secular press — Harvard University Press. Nonetheless, Professor Gregory’s lament does suggest that Christian scholars do need to continue thinking through carefully what it means to punch the ticket required to enter the secular Academy of our day. 

Finding the Foundations of Our Field(s) 

Some years ago, I was invited by a college administrator to lead an integration seminar at a Christian University with a group of members of the faculty. The school affirmed sola scriptura – that is the Bible is the inerrant written Word of God. It reveals fully trust-worthy doctrine and teachings about who God is, who we are and what the world is. It rules over all human opinions, traditions, church doctrines, creeds and academic disciplines. Infallible Scripture is not “normed” or shaped by any of them. Infallible Scripture interprets infallible Scripture. Put another way, the Bible reveals reality from God’s perspective. 

At the time of the invitation, I was aware of Professor Gregory’s assessment of higher Christian education. I myself wondered if the Christian distinctive of some Evangelical institutions resided less in their distinctly Christian course instruction but in their important community “pieties.” These “pieties” might include the fact the schools still retained Bible and eology departments, still required students to attend chapel, still enforced “Christian” community standards of behavior for students and faculty members and still sponsored “mission trips.” Were these very important “pieties” of Christian college life the trait that distinguished the schools from secular institutions and not any robust engagement with the challenge of secularism’s impact on the teaching of academic disciplines? 

The moment of truth arrived when in the first session of the seminar I indicated to the professors what I anticipated we might be doing together to advance our understanding of the integration of faith and learning. We agreed that our work together should focus on integrating their respective disciplines with Holy Scripture. I applauded their desire. I mentioned in passing that the approach some evangelical scholars were embracing — “playing by all the rules” of the Academy — had a major drawback, the embrace the “methodological postulate of naturalism.” 

I immediately tried to reassure the professors that my goal was not to urge them to withdraw from participating in the Academy. If anything, I was a strong proponent of Christians writing for the Academy and teaching at secular universities as well as at Christian institutions. I myself had taught at three secular universities — two in Europe and one in the United States. My concern was to discern an approach to “doing scholarship” that would simultaneously permit evangelical professors to remain faithful to scripture alone and at the same time participate in the larger world of Academia. 

I then gave to the professors the following “to do” list for the seminar designed to help them think through the integration model for their own discipline: 

1. Research, in brief, the historical origins of your discipline regarding its founding principles. 

2. Draw up a list of the traits a scholar today must exhibit to gain entrance into the guild of your discipline as a respected member (one of the traits would inevitably be an acceptance of the methodological postulate of naturalism). 

3. Assess one by one the required traits in terms of whether it is inimical to or compatible with the Christian faith. 

4. Draw up a strategy for handling traits that are inimical to the Christian faith in such a way that you do not compromise your Christian walk, nor do you jeopardize your participation as fully accredited members in the Academy. 

Then it was arranged that I would meet with each of the professorial-groups for an hour to discuss what their findings were. Their written assignment was to write a paper in which they summarized the results of what they discovered in pursuing their “to do” list. To give them a touch of solace, I indicated to them that I had worked through this same “to do” list in trying to sort out the ways the study of history could be integrated faithfully with the Christian faith. As it turns out, several of the professors discovered they had taken on board many more naturalistic assumptions than they had ever imagined. 

Reformation of the Academy 

This practice was enlightening to many, but the question remained, “What should professors do if they discern their discipline includes key elements not compatible with biblical teaching?” In this context, the remarkable resources of a Christian University or College comes to the fore. This is where biblical- integration becomes a critically important practice in the life of a Christian University, and where the reformation might give us an example moving forward. For those of us committed to sola scriptura, we believe that scripture does in fact speak (directly or indirectly) to the range of truth that has been revealed in God’s word. Perhaps, these fields have built the structures of their methodological interpretations upon a faulty foundation. If this is the case, then providing a better, or a more sure foundation would be a worthwhile opportunity for the Christian Academy. One way this may happen is through dialogue between university departments and the faculty of the Bible/theology departments. These individuals might be helpful as you think through, together, how to mitigate the potential conflict in a biblically faithful manner, or perhaps to assist in the reframing or replacing of faulty foundational assumptions in the field. 

As a Christian University, I charge you with this goal — in the spirit of the reformers — to cast off the dressings of tradition that limit one’s understanding of the real reality. Replace these with a view of life that harnesses the eternal perspective and is rooted upon the sure foundation of Holy Scripture. 

 

1. See Roland Bainton, Here I Stand A Life of Martin Luther (Louisville: Abingdon, 2013), and Herman J. Selderhuis, John Calvin A Pilgrim’s Life (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009). 

2. This opening paragraph has been used with permission from one of my upcoming publications titled, “The Protestant Reformation and the Role of Scripture in Education” in Christian Higher Education and Learning in the Evangelical Tradition edited by David Dockery (Wheaton: Crossway, forthcoming 2018). 

For Luther’s perspectives on biblical authority, consult: C. B. Smyth, Martin Luther’s Authority of Councils and the Churches (1847) (London: William Edward Painter, 1847); 23, 46-48, 56-61, 189-190; Mark D. Thompson, A Sure Ground on which to Stand: e Relation of Authority and Interpretive Method in Luther’s Approach to Scripture (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2006); Robert Kolb, “ The Bible in the Reformation and Protestant Orthodoxy,” in eThe Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans: 2016, 89-114. See also: Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966). 

3. Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 299. 

4. Ibid. 

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