Fundamentalists and Scholarship, Part 4

Does Fundamentalism Need Scholars?

In The Nick of Time
Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Not all fundamentalists think that scholarship is a good thing. After all, scholarship comes at a high price, and it carries certain risks. Why should they want to spend resources on something hazardous? The answer is that there are risks to not having scholars, too. Knowing these risks is essential to making a proper evaluation of scholarship.

Why do we need scholars? Let’s start with something basic. We ought to be interested in knowing all that we can about God’s creation and God’s Word. Why? First, because they are His, and He discloses Himself in them. Second, because we have been invested with dominion over the created order, the right exercise of which requires us to know both creation and Scripture. Third, because human improvement (whether material or spiritual) demands the advancement of knowledge. Advancements in technology and medicine, for example, require increased knowledge of creation, and knowing the right use of those technologies requires increased examination of Scripture. All other things being equal, expanding the stock of human knowledge is a good thing.

Neither nature nor Scripture, however, is likely to yield many more secrets to casual observation. Therefore, in order to increase human understanding, we need people who will give themselves to the task. These people must make a focused effort to master all that has been learned within a particular discipline, to hone the skills that the discipline requires, and then to advance the total knowledge within that discipline. That is the task of a scholar.

Not everyone can or should pursue scholarship. Some people should repair cars, and some should bake bread, for those are great and noble callings of God. Some, however, must give their lives to the focused study of some aspect of God’s self-disclosure, whether in nature or in Scripture. That, too, is a great and noble calling.

The increase of knowledge is a lifelong task. Whether one is studying the structures of cells, atoms, or theological ideas, advancing one’s discipline requires a lifetime of concentrated work. Just as a violin player becomes a world-class soloist only by devoting his or her life to music, scholars contribute to knowledge only by making research and writing their lives.

So we need scholars—but do we need Christian scholars? Yes, we do. If Christians shrink from the task of scholarship, then they abandon the disciplines to unbelievers. That is a problem because there is no such thing as a brute or uninterpreted fact. While unbelievers can know some things, they know nothing as they ought. Whatever they do know, they do not place within the context of the ordered, transcendent, and moral universe that God has created, and therefore their knowledge is necessarily skewed. They may gain knowledge of specific facts or even networks of facts, but they will always misconstrue the facts to some degree.

If Christians shirk scholarly research and exchange, then the tasks of investigation and interpretation will fall to unbelievers. Two consequences will follow. First, the perspectives of the various disciplines will no longer be shaped by any significantly Christian contribution. We are already suffering from this consequence in many ways. For example, we have scientists who know how to clone human beings, but they cannot guess whether they should. Second, Christians will be forced to get their understanding of the disciplines secondhand, and they will always get it from people whose interpretations are askew. Ultimately, non-Christian perspectives will seep undetected into the consciousness of Christians. We will begin to adopt increasingly worldly assumptions without even being aware of what we are doing.

This point bears repeating. Error creeps into Christianity in two ways. Sometimes it comes through learned heretics. More often it arrives through the unwitting absorption of erroneous thinking. Pragmatist revivalism and church marketing were not the inventions of unregenerate intellectuals. Too often, naïve believers have adopted clichéd philosophies that have their roots in disciplines dominated by worldly thinkers.

Of course, Christians who become scholars will confront plenty of error. In most cases, that confrontation helps us more than it hurts us. On the one hand, a Christian faith that could not survive critical examination would not be much of a faith, and we need Christian scholars who are ready to test Christian ideas against every unbelieving challenge. That is how we learn to articulate our views carefully and coherently.

On the other hand, an error cannot be refuted until it is known and understood. Interestingly, the progress of Christian thought has almost always been propelled by confrontation with error. Our understanding of the Trinity grew from the challenges of Gnosticism and Arianism. Our understanding of human sinfulness was shaped by opposition to Pelagianism. Our doctrine of Christ was enriched by confrontation with Apollinarianism and Eutychianism. Our articulation of justification gained specificity because of the errors of Romanism. Our most important doctrines have been articulated in the face of heresies. Furthermore, they have been articulated by individuals who had an advanced and detailed understanding of heretical thinking: Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and Machen, for example.

If we do not have Christian scholars, the results are disastrous. We will not have responses for errors when they emerge. Worse, we will not even know the questions that need to be answered. We may not even be aware that an error exists until it has had years to entrench itself within the scholarly world, from which it will be able to exert a magnetic influence over popular thinking.

We need Christian scholars. Do we need fundamentalist scholars? Well, if we do not have fundamentalist scholars to engage the academic world, then we will be forced to look outside of Fundamentalism for intellectual leadership. If fundamentalists want to get their questions answered, then they will have to turn to non-fundamentalists. After a while they will begin to wonder whether fundamentalists are really serious about Christianity, since they do not bother to answer the most fundamental challenges. In the long run, people will gravitate to the leadership that helps them the most.

Second, Fundamentalism itself is an idea that is not generally held among contemporary Christians. In other words, fundamentalists believe that most gospel-affirming Christians are guilty of some level of error. To make a judgment like that without defending it is plain arrogance. To defend the judgment, however, fundamentalists must do more than deliver tirades and publish popular pamphlets. They must grapple seriously with the ideas that distinguish Fundamentalism from other forms of Christianity, and that is the work of scholars.

To put it bluntly, if Fundamentalism does not have scholars, then it can expect to see its credibility and following erode. Without scholars, Fundamentalism runs the risk of being dominated by demagogues and pontificateurs. Without scholars, fundamentalists will not be able to answer the current questions or even to defend their own distinctives. People will have to look elsewhere for intellectual leadership, and they will inevitably transfer their loyalties to whoever provides that leadership.

We need scholars. We need Christian scholars. We need fundamentalist scholars. This fact is not to say that scholarship is more important than other callings. But the consequences of not having fundamentalist scholars will likely be far more serious than the consequences of not having fundamentalist mechanics or bakers. Somehow we must find a way to encourage scholarship within Fundamentalism.

from Preparatory Meditations Before My Approach to the Lord’s Supper

Edward Taylor (1642?-1729)

What Love is this of thine, that cannot be
In thine infinity, O Lord, confined,
Unless it in thy very Person see,
Infinity, and finity, conjoined?
What! Hath thy Godhead, as not satisfied,
Married our manhood, making it its bride?

Oh, Matchless Love! Filling Heaven to the brim!
O’re running it; all running o’re beside
This world! Nay overflowing hell; wherein
For thine elect, there rose a mighty tide!
That there our veins might through thy person bleed,
To quench those flames, that else would on us feed!

Oh, that thy love might overflow my heart.
To fire the same with love! For love I would.
But oh, my straightened breast! My lifeless spark!
My fireless flame! What chilly, love, and cold?
In measure small? In manner chilly? See!
Lord, blow the coal. Thy love inflame in me.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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