How Can We Know? (RJS)

Scot posted a brief excerpt of a column by Karl Giberson last week – Bachmann’s World – that received a great deal of comment, some good comment, some not so good comment repeating the old back and forth without really engaging in the content of Giberson’s column. This column was part of a publicity campaign for a new book by Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson – The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. I will get a copy of this book and look at some of the ideas developed by Stephens and Giberson in more depth. In the mean time, Giberson had another column last week in the Huffington Post, Why Evangelicals Are Fooled Into Accepting Pseudoscience, that also touched on the ideas that are explored in greater depth in the book.

A  short excerpt from Dr. Giberson’s article in the Huffington Post:

In our new book, “The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age,” historian Randall Stephens and I look at the widespread and disturbing inability of American evangelicals to distinguish between real knowledge claims, rooted in serious research and endorsed by credible knowledge communities, and pseudo-claims made by unqualified groups and leaders that offer “faith-friendly” alternatives.

These claims are often taken without much critical thought. Dr. Giberson goes on to note:

The tragedy is that nothing within the faith commitments of evangelicals requires the adoption of these various knowledge-denying views. There are authentic and contributing evangelical Christians within every knowledge community. Francis Collins, for example, is a committed evangelical Christian and an important leader in the scientific community.

And concludes:

American evangelicals desperately need credible leaders to wean them off their preference for discredited and indefensible knowledge claims. At the moment, however, it is hard to imagine where these leaders might come from.

This is a pretty serious indictment of American evangelicalism. I would have to say that I think it is an indictment with some teeth – Mark Noll wrote about this in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind – and while we have progressed in some areas, the problems still exist. Today I would like to open a conversation around the idea of knowledge – especially, but not only, knowledge as it relates to questions in science and faith. First a warning. I want to keep this post productive – and I will delete comments that become derogatory or that degenerate into “he said” “she said” back and forth. Support your assertions with substance. Keep comments short enough to read. I will also delete any comments that complain about Dr. Giberson’s tone – that was hashed out in detail after the post last week. Today I would like to concentrate on the content of this  idea of knowledge, how we know and who we trust.

Do you think there is a problem within evangelicalism with the ability to evaluate truth claims?

If so why? If not, why not?

The question of evolution is one place were this ability to evaluate truth claims becomes a bit murky – and it sneaks into the conversation in a wide range of ways and and in an equally wide range of places. Skepticism about evolution is asserted as fact without any serious analysis.

I posted a short series on Dr. Mary Poplin’s book Finding Calcutta. This is an excellent book. I enjoyed reading it. It was thought provoking and challenged some of my deep seated assumptions and presuppositions. Dr. Poplin is a fine scholar.  And yet … and yet…

In two appendices to the book Dr. Poplin deals with A Brief History of the University and Dominant Worldviews and Toward a Twenty-First Century University. The premise here is that we need Christians in the academy, we need Christians who bring the heritage and view of Christian faith into their academic disciplines – not in exclusion of other views, but alongside other views. We also need, she suggests, a network of Christian Universities where scholarship and faith can be combined. I agree with much of what she says and find much, even where I may not agree worth careful consideration and discussion.

And yet … in reading these appendices it was clear that the problem described by Stephens and Giberson has wormed its way into Dr. Poplin’s thinking about some of these issues.

Some scientists cling to the purely naturalistic Darwinian theory to explain the evolution of the natural world, in particular the emergence of the human being. While plenty of evidence exists of evolution within species, there is still scant evidence to support the evolution of one species into another.22 Yet there are both Christians and non-Christians who believe in some form of evolution, theistic or otherwise.23 Science and Christianity are completely compatible, indeed modern science emerged from Christianity. Today there are many more Christians who are professors of science than there are Christians who are professors of the social sciences and the humanities.

The major intellectual debate that continues to this day is between naturalists, who believe that natural phenomenon is all there is, and those who believe, like Francis Collins, “in the complementary nature of the scientific and spiritual worldviews.” (p. 169)

She goes on to note that the image of the science and faith debate as portrayed by the media tends to distort all disagreements to uneducated nonscientists vs “real” scientists.

That is simply not the case. Both groups are scientists, and the major debate is over a purely naturalistic worldview and its assault on ways of knowing outside of the scientific method, as well as its insistence that the material world is all there is. (p. 170)

What about the source for skepticism? Several things here. First – the reference for scant evidence to support the evolution of one species into another are books by Michael Behe, Philip Johnson, and William Dembski (note 22).  The references for those who believe in evolution? Darrel Falk, Kenneth Miller, John Polkinghorne (note 23). She refers to Francis Collins in the next note (24) – and could easily include him here as well.

If we look at this – the idea that there is scant evidence for evolution from one species comes from a biochemist (Michael Behe – who does support the idea of common descent, although he thinks random mutation and natural selection is insufficient. The process must be front-loaded), a lawyer (Johnson), and a mathemetician/philosopher (Dembski).

The Christians who support evolution are two biologists (Falk and Miller), a physicist (Polkinghorne), and a geneticist (Collins).

I give Dr. Poplin credit here because she really has zeroed in on the key issue. The argument that matters is between those who assert a purely naturalistic world view and those who believe that this is not the whole story. Every one of the Christians who are scientists – Falk, Collins, Miller, Behe, Polkinghorne, and more she could have mentioned – stands against the purely material naturalism that pervades much scientific discourse.

Unfortunately Dr. Poplin has not really analyzed the sources for her “common knowledge assertion” (common within evangelicalism at least) that there is scant evidence for evolution of species. She is not a scientist, I don’t expect her to necessarily understand the science, and yet she takes the view of a mathemetician/philosopher and a lawyer as given without, apparently, reading what Dr. Falk, Dr. Collins, and the others have written about evolution.  She doesn’t really do justice to what Dr. Behe actually says. It is important when making a statement that there is scant evidence to support evolution to cite credible sources that demonstrate this and use them appropriately.

The evidence for evolution is strong and is getting stronger with each new experiment and discovery.  There are continuing modifications to our understanding of how evolution works and the historical course of the process. This is normal in any scientific endeavor. But evolution is not a theory in trouble with scant evidence in support. The evidence comes from genetics – the DNA within every living creature – and from the fossil record. I’ve discussed transitional forms and the evidence for transitional forms in the past (Tiktaalik roseae and Friends, Missing Links?, Tiktaalik roseae revisited). Biologos has posted a series by Stephen Matheson on New Limbs from Old Fins relating to this discussion (Five parts so far: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

More importantly, human evolution is not a theory in trouble with scant evidence in support. A recent discovery that combined both paleontology and genetic analysis highlights the growing body of knowledge and understanding: Genetic history of an archaic hominin group from Denisova Cave in Siberia. Two posts on Biologos help to put this evidence in context. The first by Darrel Falk, A Geneticists Journey, is particularly good. The second, Understanding Evolution: Neanderthals, Denisovans and Human Speciation by Dr. Venema (a Biology professor at Trinity Western University in British Columbia) is also good, but a little harder to read. Many details are yet unknown – but nothing appears that causes deep cracks in the general scope of evolutionary theory.

I am not trying to pick on Dr. Poplin here – I really appreciated her book. But as evangelicals we often don’t step back to analyze the evidence for various truth claims, we simply repeat accepted formulas. The evidence that needs to be considered includes, but is not limited to, the credentials and experience of the experts. The evidence must also include an assessment of the arguments advanced in favor and opposition to the various claims. I’ve written about this before – particularly in the post Who Can We Trust?

This is one of the most important problems confronting Christians in academic settings. When we fail to investigate truth claims, and to exercise care in making statements about science, history, linguistics, and more we are setting Christians up for a crisis of trust and a crisis of faith.

How do you evaluate truth claims within evangelicalism? Is this important?

Have you ever felt deceived by fellow Christians over some of these claims?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • DRT

    Wow, excellent post pulling quite a bit of information and ideas together.

    I occasionally go to an apologetics study group and met with the leaders afterwards the last time I went. They buy all of the pseudo-science. They contended that they must give firm basis to young people to believe in the content of the bible and to do that they have to support people who support YEC, bible dating, inerrency of the whole thing etc.

    I tried to convince them that they are setting the young people up for a bigger fall by not telling them the truth about the actual data. But they refuse to acknowledge it.

    I get the impression that they have a dualistic mentality where people who do not believe what they believe are trying to trick them and are inherently incorrect. They start out with the assumption that someone who does not believe as they believe is going to be wrong.

    This attitude is supported by people who believe they are part of the elect, and they bible certainly has its share of passages that say things like the world will not understand you if you are a Christian.

    I am thinking that you are correct, we need strong leaders who will challenge this thinking.

  • Paul

    I think there is a serious problem within evangelicalism and our ability to evaluate truth claims and it stems from the way we view Scripture from a foundationalist perspective.

    Many evangelicals and all fundamentalists are effectively Docetists in their view of Jesus, treat Jesus as if he is the Bible (Logos/Word=Bible) and, therefore, elevate the Bible to effectively be the fourth member of the Trinity. From here is should be easy to see why Islam and fundamentalist Christianity have some striking similarities.

    When you have these views of Jesus and Scripture, as well as a foundationalist worldview, it is almost impossible to evaluate truth claims in a way that is reasonable.

    I think it is further complicated by evangelical piety around quiet times and Scripture, treating the Bible as if it was written to us as individuals. I actually blame Dispensationalism for this in particular, because it fosters ahistorical/anachronistic eisegetical readings of ancient texts. The question that comes to most evangelicals minds when they read the Bible is “What is God saying to me?” not “What would this have meant to the first readers?”

    I feel very deceived by people like Chuck Missler, for instance, who makes outlandish claim after outlandish claim to eager and vulnerable Christians who hang off his every word on everything from science to international affairs and politics. A lovely man, to be sure, but he is really just a conspiracy theorist with e PhD in physics who has *gasp* touched a nuclear weapon.

    Without being exposed to formal “secular” tertiary education and formal theological education, I would still lack the skills to assess his truth claims. It is theology in particular that helped me with that.

    Key, at least in my mind, is understanding that the Bible doesn’t need to describe exactly how the earth was created to be true, understanding the concept of worldview and understanding how the Bible can be a product of cultures and languages, limited by those cultures and languages, while also revealing the Word to us.

    Instead of talking about the Bible being the Word we should talk about Jesus being the Word and the Bible being a record of God’s revelation of himself to his people.

  • phil_style

    DRT: “I get the impression that they have a dualistic mentality where people who do not believe what they believe are trying to trick them and are inherently incorrect.”

    Yes. I’ve seen this in action. Many laypeople are generally afraid of being “baffled” by experts and are concerned that could be tricked.

  • Paul

    @DRT: ‘This attitude is supported by people who believe they are part of the elect, and they bible certainly has its share of passages that say things like the world will not understand you if you are a Christian.’

    Where do you think this mind of belief about being part of the elect comes from? It seems to me to be fed by the dispensationalist siege mentality.

    It’s like the more evidence stacks up against an idea the more convinced they become they are right. It’s like they think they are like Noah before the flood or Joshua at Jericho, except there’s still no rain and the walls haven’t fallen down after 7 billion years of trying 😉

  • Rick

    I wonder whether if this article could have been run in Christianity Today, instead of (or in addition to) the Huffington Post.

  • Alan K

    This is what happens when foundationalism is substituted for Jesus Christ.

  • MatthewS

    About evaluating truth – I believe one problem is that the operating metaphor for many conservative believers is warfare: We are soldiers, we fight in a battle, and the person who is not with us is likely a hostile combatant.

    Eph 6 and other passages certainly give us the warfare image, and some claims to truth (scientific and otherwise) have certainly been used as weapons against religious belief but it is woefully inadequate to let this one metaphor rule them all.

    We are also brothers and sisters, friends, builders, a body, farmers, vines (abiding and growing fruit), parents, children, ambassadors, servants, disciples to name a few more NT images. We “fight” but we also “walk” and “run.” I believe it would help if people could learn to think of themselves more in terms of some of these other metaphors.

  • Jason Lee

    I think Giberson is right to point out leaders. Although evangelicals say they follow the Bible, what they actually tend to do is follow their various leaders. If several prominent evangelical leaders sent out strong persuasive messages for how mainstream science (especially evolution) needs to be reconciled with faith, this would immediately open up a lot of people’s thinking and give permission to many who are right now afraid of promoting mainstream science in their faith communities. There would still be the small groups who resist of course, but its simply because their particular leaders hadn’t been reached and hadn’t sent out the message yet. The onus is on those in these leaders’ insider social networks to lean on them and persuade them.

  • Psalms4guitar

    Refusing to accept and loudly arguing against scientific claims that appear obviously true creates huge barriers to our faith.

    All of our arguing does this: It simply helps reinforce the stereotype that Christians are angry, divisive, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific people who are easily fooled by cult-like religious leaders. Who would ever want to be part of that?

    Peace, Brian

  • Tim

    “Do you think there is a problem within evangelicalism with the ability to evaluate truth claims?”

    Yes. Particularly among church-goers. While increasingly Evangelical institutions (of the non-Fundamentalist or only borderline-Fundamentalist types) have made great strides in breaking away from decades of anti-intellectualism, anti-scientism, and overly-Biblicist views of Scripture, the church-going laity has not enjoyed similar progress. The blame primarily rests with how, historically, leaders in Fundamentalist (and even in large part non-Fundamentalist Evangelicalism) have taught their flock to think (i.e., non-critically).

  • Psalms4guitar

    Let me be clear, I do NOT think all YEC are divisive, easily, led, etc. from my post in #9. Not at all! I think both TE and YEC proponents would do well to say, “This is what I think and why. There are several other points of view in Christianity. This is how they interpret scripture. I respectfully disagree with them on these points.”

    Peace, Brian

  • rjs

    Matthew S (#7)

    Nice comment – these are things we really need to remember. The warfare metaphor is far too significant – and it comes back from the other side with both non-Christian and Christian scientists and scholars taking a stance of warfare against many of the less well supported ideas within evangelicalism.

    I can do little about non-Christian response, but I regret harsh Christian response from all sides. This does nothing to improve our witness as Christians.

  • Susan N.

    Oh, rjs… there is a problem all right.

    Did you by chance see Roger Olson’s post ‘Some Thoughts about Conversations/Debates Between Calvinists and Arminians’? Different “gestalts”, especially seeing faith and science as a whole, is a good explanation for the fruitless debates.

    I think a certain theological perspective will necessarily “box” a person into a corner, so to speak, in terms of what can be embraced as far as scientific evidence. For example, take the issue of global warming. If one believes that God is in control (divine providence), and that individual responsibility has no effect on the playing out of events/history, then wouldn’t one be suspicious of scientific evidence which suggests that individuals bear a responsibility for changes to the earth?

    Morgan Guyton (Mercy Not Sacrifice blog) wrote an interesting piece about this conflation of secular humanism and divine providence as it effects politics and economic ideology among (some) evangelical Christians. I think it is relevant to the perceived conflict between science and faith as well.

    Dogged atheists err too, by placing too much faith in science alone, denying that there are some things bigger than us, mysterious, and — at least at this moment in time — inexplicable. How can one positively determine that there is no God? That is a dogmatism equally as off-putting as the fundamentalist evangelicals.

    This is more a theological issue pertaining to faith, than an inability to discern truth in scientific claims. Those who hold to beliefs in the science realm that defy modern evidence/data, do so because they absolutely must (or feel that they must) in order to hold together their system of theology. In my experiences, those with dogged young earth, anti-global warming, etc., beliefs, will jump through hoops to justify their position; because, I think, the whole theology will fall apart if there is room for the scientific beliefs to be untrue.

    The mind is closed to scientific curiosity and new information. I think unless an alternatively acceptable system of theology can be offered and embraced, no amount of evidence or argument is going to convince those folks to believe differently about the science.

    Francis Collins has a gift for writing about science in the context of his faith in God. More scientists who also put their faith in God need to be heard from in the public sphere, to balance the Richard Dawkins’s of the world.

    In my 20’s, I felt very angry, disappointed, misled, etc., about the theologically shallow, downright wrong-headed indoctrination I received in a fundamentalist (Baptist) religious setting. The theological unraveling didn’t lead me to embrace cold, rational scientism/atheism, but did leave me adrift in my faith for several years of my adult life. The theological implications are far more potentially devastating than the lack of scientific knowledge, imho.

    To make good, sound decisions about our actions (or lack thereof) in the world requires a knowledge of science, though, so one isn’t duped into believing silly propaganda and meaningless data/graphs/charts.

    Thank you rjs, for your perseverance as a person of faith representing good, sound science. Sign me, Learning All the Time (and that’s a good thing!)

  • Aslan Cheng

    Giberson rightly alert us how we accept “truth” from famous leaders. I like his books.

  • rjs


    The major issues are theological – and these need to be faced head on. Some of the ill-posed scientific claims are, I think, an attempt to avoid these issues by brushing them under the rug. … The science is wrong so we don’t need to face the questions. This will be less and less persuasive, I think.

  • T

    Almost all people, evangelicals and non, Christians and non, hold or obtain knowledge via trusted communal sources. When we need to know a good mechanic, we don’t give quizzes to potential mechanics, we get a referral from a trusted friend. Right now, evangelicals trust the medical scientists for the most part, but not the scientific community generally. In fairness, the amount of athiesm that is communicated from that community is Exhibit A for the idea that this community, for all its intellectual priority, is foolish. If they are blind to the central Character of the Universe, how deep can the trust be?

    It’s like the Wills and Trusts that I produce for clients. 90% of the documents are filled with things that clients don’t fully understand. But they do know how all the names should be spelled. If I make an error there, they question whether all the other verbage (that actually required legal training!) is right. By making an obvious error in an area they do understand, they find it very hard to trust me for the areas of the document they don’t understand, no matter my credentials.

  • Jerry S

    Yes, there is a problem and I think it is fear. Are we afraid of what science has to say and how it might shape our beliefs?

    I remember memorizing “creation apologetics” so I could win arguments but as I grew in true scientific knowledge I had to adjust my understading of what it means to believe in God as creator.

  • Robin

    I found myself dealing with this issue surrounding the disucssion on Giberson last week. Prior to that discussion I had basically viewed BioLogos as a group of TE who otherwise shared an evangelical understanding of the gospel, thus if I wanted to get an evolutionary perspective from a believer, I would have trusted them, or just asked RJS for a recommendation.

    Then Giberson came out guns blazing against not just creationists but Christian opposed to homosexuality, “Christian” historians, etc. and it appeared that he had a large chip on his shoulder regarding everything evangelical.

    In that moment, without hearing anything from Collins or others still associated with BioLogos, all my trust in that institution vanished. It shouldn’t have, and when I found out Giberson had moved on from BioLogos some of it returned, but my immediate reaction to perceiving that a TE supporter was vehemently, angrily opposed to large swaths of the evangelical community, was to stop trusting his (and those associated with him) ability to be an honest, unbiased source of information.

  • DRT

    Paul and phil, yes, I feel the dispensationalism feeds it. And Paul appears to be right to me, the more outlandish the claim the more the tribal mentality makes them stick to it.

    AS MatthewS said in 7, the war mentality is prevalent. I listen to AFR radio pretty often so I can hear what they are saying, and today they were pounding into people “stay in the fight”. I immediately was thinking of this post listening to it. The words are divisive.

    Rjs#15 makes an excellent point in response to SusanN – fighting against the science is a red herring so they don’t have to think about the theology.

  • Joel

    It might go without saying, but the difficulty with evaluating truth claims extends well beyond evangelicalism. I think T (#7) brings up the important point that most of us are simply not equipped with enough resources (e.g., domain knowledge, experience with evaluating truth claims in the domain, access to relevant data, sufficient time), and necessarily rely on trusted experts.

    Others bring up the point that there is an issue with the dominance of the warfare metaphor, which I think is important because, once experts are perceived as being “against us”, trust erodes, and therein also collapses much of our scaffolding for evaluating truth claims. In fact, this erosion process is not completely irrational, because non-empirical/logical forces (e.g., world views, metaphysical assumptions, motives) do affect expert judgment (selecting, interpreting data, etc.). I think Gilberson, Collins, and his ilk (and by extension, Christian academics with access to necessary resources for directly evaluating truth claims) have a critical responsibility to love and communicate with our brethren who are not similarly equipped, to make it clear that the warfare metaphor is inappropriate.

  • DRT

    I continue to be a big fan of the researchers working on the moral foundations data set and believe it sheds light on these issues for us. For example, check out this post.

    The top differentiators for liberals over conservatives are:
    Peace – I believe peace is extremely important
    Justice – Offenders should be provided counseling
    Universality – Understanding, appreciation protection for all people and nature
    Ethics – Ethical judgements vary by society and situation
    Equality – It feels wrong when an employee who needs a job is fired.
    Fairness – I think it’s morally wrong that rish children inherit a lot of money whil poor get nothing
    ID with the world – How close you feel to the people all over the world.

    Top differentiators for conservatives over liberals.
    Authoritarianism – The “old fashioned ways” and “old-fashioned values” still show the best way to live (this is by far the biggest differentiator)
    Social Dominance – if certain groups stayed in their place, we would have fewer problems
    Purity – People should not do things that are disgusting even if no one is harmed
    War – War is sometimes the best way to solve a conflict
    Authority – Respect for authority is something all children need to learn
    Justice – Eye for an eye is right for punishing offenders
    Loyalty – People need to be loyal to family, even if they are wrong

    It starts to become obvious why the conservative evangelicals don’t like science and believe their own over the objective evidence.

    As far as a solution, we really need to come up with an approach that takes these traits into account. An acquaintance of mine told me that he can’t believe in evolution just because it is disgusting to think we came from animals. I can see why he says this since Purity is a big driver. We can also see the affinity for War and believing your own.

  • Adam

    I don’t think this problem is only an evangelical problem. I think it’s a human problem. Evangelicals, atheists, muslims, hindus, and so on… all believe truth claims that aren’t actually true. Humans are irrational beings. Dan Ariely has done a huge amount of research into human psychology and proven we humans aren’t nearly as smart or rational as we think we are.

    The only thing specific about this problem that I would attribute to Evangelicalism is the refusal to admit that we can be wrong. Evangelicalism has created an environment that supports like-mindedness at the expense of truth-ness.

    Beyond that it’s a human thing.

  • DRT

    ….and it is important to note the things that both liberals and conservatives can agree on.
    1. Morals – One should never settle on a moral outcome that is less than the best (how ironic though that the morality is not judged the same between the sides)
    2. Individualism – I am a unique individual
    3. Attachment avoidance – I try to avoid getting too close to mey partner
    4. Somatic problems – During the past 7 days, trouble getting your breath
    5. Relatedness Sat – I really like the people I interact with
    6. Satisfier – I never settle for second best
    7. Extravert – I see myself as a big talker

  • Luke Allison


    To give you some context, I work in a fairly standard “mega”-like church. Mainstream evangelicalism to a T.

    Of late we’ve begun a course called “Skepsis”, designed as a safe place to process questions about Christianity, both with believers and unbelievers.

    The most fascinating thing to me is the absolute lack of intellectual curiosity that either side has.

    It’s most certainly not the evangelicals only who are closed off or resistant to new ideas. Most of the agnostics/atheists haven’t thought things through in the slightest. In some of their cases, they make the young earth people in the group seem like titans of intellectual ingenuity. We need to shred the stereotype that those who hold to an atheistic worldview are somehow more educated or more honest somehow. That’s romanticized crap.

    Here’s what I’ve seen: The evangelicals who hold to YE or some variation of it (about 99 percent in this group) have a view of knowledge descended through long generations from Tyndale’s idea that the ploughboy would be as educated as the clergy. The idea that all the worthwhile knowledge in the world is contained in the Scriptures leads this type of person to believe that they’ve got what they need, and nothing else need be added.

    Read the “Pyromaniacs” blog sometime (if you dare!). Frequently, the assertion is made that the average layperson, with limited education and few resources, can attain the necessary amount of knowledge about EVERY area of life purely through reading the Bible. If not, their logic goes, then no one could understand life except for those with Phds and oodles of experience. (There’s something to this thought…my grandmother has never been anywhere, but she knows a lot more about following Jesus than I do. Then again, she doesn’t engage in apologetics with anybody either)

    Interestingly enough, I feel like these types of people are simply really really scared. They’ve discovered a certain amount of peace and happiness through becoming a Christian, and anything that threatens that is to be destroyed at all costs. A variation of plugging their ears and yelling “LA LA LA LA!” occurs whenever people undermine these foundations. Not because they’re ignorant or angry, though. I think it’s because they’ve never been taught that doubting is a necessary and very productive part of following an invisible Lord.

    One of my “callings” within this setting, I believe, is to teach people how to wrestle and doubt, and in doing so refine their Christianity into something that is edgy and dangerous, instead of safe and comfortable.

    There’s plenty more to be said, of course.

  • T


    I see huge problems for evangelicals (and for the scientific community) regarding how to perceive truth. Each has their own form of myopia which allows them to see some things and blinds them to others. Each just tends to discount or even be in denial about what the other calls the foundation of all truth.

  • Rick

    Luke #23-

    “One of my “callings” within this setting, I believe, is to teach people how to wrestle and doubt, and in doing so refine their Christianity into something that is edgy and dangerous, instead of safe and comfortable.”

    I understand the idea behind wrestling and refining, but not so sure about the doubting aspect. Doubting is a common amongth the journey of many. Why is necessary to teach “how to doubt”? Critical thinking does not mean doubting.

  • Ted M. Gossard

    For me I have to evaluate the best in biblical scholarship, what I think is the best, in understanding texts such as the early chapters of Genesis. I also take what I consider the best of theology, and we gather that from various sources in Christendom, and sort it out and think through it for ourselves. And then listen to people with reference to the science. Science journals written for people like me who are not trained in it: Scientific America I have found fascinating, I think it is. I also try to consider the impact naturalism might have on science as well as what is science and what is not.

    We are so limited, but we can’t just throw up our arms therefore and quit. But I think a big, basic problem among American evangelicals is a weakness theologically which fails to take into consideration all scripture places as important in understanding God’s truth such as tradition, reason, and experience (I think of the latter scientifically with testing hypotheses).

  • Amos Paul

    @2 Paul,

    I fully agreed with the first half of your post–that much of the problem is trating the Bible as literally God.

    However, I found your criticism of personal devotion using the Bible quite misplaced. Just because something is an ancient text is no reason at all to read it only one way (Scholastically). *Especially* if we think that Scripture is ‘special’ text. Though I most vehemently assert that Scripture is *not* the Word of God (that is Jesus), I also assert that God speak can speak especially in a variety of different ways via Scripture. It’s technically the *Spirit* that we’re looking for when we open up Scripture to instruct us personally, but Scripture can be and is a good tool for this.

    I see no reason to criticize a personal devotional method of Scripture reading as being illegitimate. Rather, I see it as one amongst many other perfectly valid that all accomplish different things.

  • TSG

    DRT’s comment in thread #21 resonates. It is supported by Jonathan Haidt’s research into the positions of liberals and conservatives(there may be something in the water in Virginia).
    And Susan N. makes a good point in leading to the discussion of Roger Olson’s position about debates(his Calvin/Arminian example can be extrapolated). As soon as the research of Haidt shows the foundational differences between groups- the following discussion is not about the truth of the research, but an exercise in dialogue where the presenter actually seems to think by the words used the other side will be converted.
    Just one more point. I really believe one needs to look at the the lives of people who take positions, whatever they be. I mean Rousseau sounded believable about children but his life didn’t back it up. There isn’t a whole lot of philosophically new. Some of us have had beautiful families and some of us have had horrors. But this is not the defining factor. In Christianity IMHO we should have emphasized the fruits of the Spirit, not the gifts. It is the fruits that this world so desperately needs. And non-believers certainly feel that Christians have not modeled them.

  • Robert

    Sometimes I despair. I have a geology degree, and I once sat down and tried to get my head round creationism. I read a string of their books, and all I found was a mass of half-truth and plain nonsense, which could only have been designed by someone who knew exactly what they were doing. One thing I can’t stand is people who make money (a lot of it in this case) by deceiving gullible believers. It’s the modern equivalent of simony.

  • DRT

    Fuel for the mindset of not changing.

    Exhibit A for our Challenge

    Hopefully you will still be Reformed, if you stand fast, and pay no attention whatever to the theologians of Academe, in whatever their latest attempt might be to escape from the clutches of the apostle Paul.

    Being settled is where the trouble might lie. This is often a function of selling out, of compromising, of selling your soul to the devil at the crossroads. But there is another kind of settlement, the kind that comes to a man who has faithfully fought the good fight assigned to him.

    Don’t give in! Don’t think differently!

  • Luke Allison

    “I understand the idea behind wrestling and refining, but not so sure about the doubting aspect. Doubting is a common amongth the journey of many. Why is necessary to teach “how to doubt”? Critical thinking does not mean doubting.”

    I run into many people who left the church at an earlier age because they were told that their doubts were sinful or even satanic.

    On the flip side, many people seem to think that their doubts are completely unique. To be able to see doubt within the greater context of everybody’s experience can be very helpful.

    I think when I mean “teach how to doubt” what I mean is provide a framework for engaging doubt in the same way that we engage strong belief.

    Would we agree that completely walking away from God in the face of some intellectual or moral objections isn’t the very best option for a believer? In my ministry experience, this is more often than not the reality.

    I don’t know where everybody is from, but in my context, I meet people constantly who have very real adult problems that they’re trying to apply Sunday-School level theology to. Noah and the Ark isn’t going to help when your son commits suicide or your marriage falls apart. Nine times out of ten, what a lot of people seem to be doubting is a faulty view of following Christ that usually doesn’t include the “following Christ” part.

    So teaching someone how to doubt is teaching them to integrate doubt into their discipleship, rather than viewing it as the enemy of discipleship.

    Does that make sense?

  • DRT

    Robert#30, I am exactly with you, and that is why I am happy to see Al Mohler’s statements that the reasons to not change are theological.

    Last year I thought he was being just downright dishonest with people and that infuriated me. But I now understand that he aknowledges that the evidence says the earth is old, but his theology won’t allow it.

    The trouble is evangelicals don’t understand that.

  • Luke Allison


    Is “think differently” always the best answer? In what cases might “conservation” be a good idea?

  • normbv

    The truth will eventually win out. Evolution is a truism and theologically the truth of the scriptures reveals it is not a material discussion of the material world. Once the truth of the scriptures becomes more settled then science can go about its business unencumbered. This will be a gradual process in which the present generation must fade away so a new culture may become established. However there will always be those who are on the fringes as you still find flat earther’s and Geocentricism out there today.

  • DRT

    Luke, thanks for allowing me the elaboration.

    I believe there is always a choice and in every situation people must chose. The question is how one goes about making a choice. In most cases it makes sense to give more than equal weight to a previously held position, all else being equal. As a species, we have evolved to look for patterns and then repeat them, its in our genes

    But the situation is that the world and knowledge is expanding at an ever increasing rate. Things are not equal. Therefore it is good to look at other choices in many situations.

    Our species is also predisposed to placing a great value on avoiding downside risk. Just think, the one who wants to innovate on alternative ways to form a friendship with a tiger has a downside risk that potentially outweighs the potential benefit.

    But things are different now in many respects. Often it is good to take chances because the upside potential is greater than the downside risk.

    Therefore, I believe many situations today involve much more upside risk and the downside risk can be limited so it is a good idea to consider other choices and judiciously make a selection. That means being honest with the risks that are present, and mitigating the downside risk as much as prudent.

    You will be happy to know that I really do go the same way to work almost every day. But I do try and change something in my life every week. I do this because I like a zen/Jesus attitude, that we should live in the moment and enjoy what we are doing and the world around us. We go on auto-pilot way too much and it causes anxiety because it tends to be the bad things that get our attention and not the good.

    In short, yes, think differently is always good. Action comes after that.

  • DRT

    …and Luke, I think many just don’t think. So thinking differently is never an option.

  • Peggy

    rjs … nice post, as usual. Thank you for both what you bring and the way you bring it, sister!

    Just last night I was reading from Peck’s “The Road Less Travelled” — as I have been posting about on my blog for the last little while — and finally got around to reading the end of his section on Growth and Religion and following on to his section on Grace … and the challenge of clear thinking that scientists come up against.

    Peck asserts that there are two basic problems that scientists have when approaching topics that challenge their “scientific religious beliefs”(He has an entire chapter on The Religion of Science”): throwing the baby out with the bath water and tunnel vision.

    As I have been pondering over at my blog concerning Peck, he really gets to the bottom line when he talks about the big problem with humans is laziness. Laziness leads to problems with thinking clearly — because, well, thinking clearly is difficult work. And why should I have to do the hard work when someone else has already done it?

    And that is what this post is about, isn’t it? That folks tend, at some point, to take the easy way out when they don’t do the hard work of asking all the hard questions and following all the rabbit trails that will eventually lead them to the truth. And it isn’t a truth that I can really defend if it isn’t truth that I have hammered out with my own clear thinking.

    I am all for encouraging the skepticism that fueled the Bereans to search the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was true….

  • Jon G

    “How do you evaluate truth claims within evangelicalism?”

    This might sound reductionistic, but, for me, it all comes down to explanatory power. What makes the most sense of the data before me.

    The only problem I see is that one may be led astray when they don’t consider/aren’t exposed to all the data. This certainly was the case for me when I was first challenged on my anti-evolutionary beliefs.

    And when something comes along that better explains the data, you must reevaluate and refine your beliefs. Instead, much of evangelism wishes to cut out the reevaluation and refining process because they find more security in the previously held belief, and thus, must ignore the data.

  • Ann

    I guess I’ve never understood why as Christians we would think we have anything to fear from science. The way I see it, science is just part of God’s creation. It’s impossible for the creation to ever undermine it’s Creator. It can only help us to understand our Creator better. So I don’t worry about what science shows us because it can only guide us to a better theology. There is nothing to fear from science. There IS reason to fear anti-intellectualism. If science tells us that the earth is billions of years old, then why wouldn’t we question our reading of Genesis? It doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist (as a Christian, that is a given for me) but it might mean we need to rethink the way we interpret Genesis.

  • rjs

    Robin #18,

    I think your comments illustrates pretty clearly why it is important to be careful with language and tone. This goes in many areas – from politics to science and more.

    When someone comes out guns blazing they will immediately lose the trust of those with differing views – and cause collateral damage as well.

    This can be true in other situations as well. I remember one situation bringing Catholic visitors to church where a “guns blazing” anti-catholic message by a guest speaker destroyed the credibility of the church and me as the one who invited.

    And another situation where an only slightly less “guns blazing” approach to the evils of the secular academy from the pulpit led to a loss of credibility.

  • Robin


    I think the opposite tends to be true as well. You can gain trust of those with differing views through your tone and demeanor.

    I think the current conversations regarding Mormonism illustrate the well. Mouw and others on this forum are now ready to accept Mormons as Christians, not because anything about Mormonism has changed, but because they have positive interactions with mormons and are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Graciousness and respect can overcome many things.

  • James

    Pastors in my denomination seemed to be completely unable and unwilling to even discuss these issues – some due to fear of being “outed”. However, I have two groups of lay people reading through Collins’ book and they
    1. feel a giant sense of relief – “waiting for 25 years for someone to write such a book”
    2. anger with the evangelical community that has misrepresented science and made them so suspicious and judgmental toward those open to scientific evidence.

  • DRT

    James#43 brings up a good point that we need to explore.

    Pastors are the leaders whom the parishioners look up to, but they themselves are skittish about going against to body politic. So we end up with a self reinforcing cycle that is quite difficult to get out.

    Now the RCC has it all over them in this regard ( 😉 ) the Priests can afford to be more daring in their congregation. That is why the political structure of evangelical churches hinders the conversation. No one has an interest in a minority opinion. And minority opinion is the only way change starts.

  • Patrick


    Tremper Longman was at a conference last weekend and he held the same view. He used the geocentrism debate as his logic to re-evaluate how we interpret texts when obvious facts arise.

    It’s a great point you both make.

  • R Hampton

    Reminded of two things I read today:

    “The lesson — at least the lesson my wife drew from it — is that she and her deeply sincere young Southern Baptist Christians operated from a position of supreme confidence that was completely unfettered by an awareness of history, nuance, or context. It’s a problem, this culturally-conditioned unsubtlety of mind, and it’s one that Al Mohler speaks to fairly eloquently in the context of conservative politics.
    -Rod Dreher, “Against Southern Baptist parochialism”

    “Churches seem overprotective — One-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said ‘Christians demonize everything outside of the church’ (23% indicated this ‘completely’ or ‘mostly’ describes their experience). Other perceptions in this category include “church ignoring the problems of the real world” (22%) and “my church is too concerned that movies, music, and video games are harmful” (18%)

    Churches come across as antagonistic to science — Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that ‘churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in’ (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that ‘Christianity is anti-science’ (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have ‘been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.’
    -The Barna Group, “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church”

  • rjs

    Several people have commented that this tendency to just quote authorities or to uncritically accept a “common knowledge” truth claim within a group is not a problem unique to evangelicals. I agree completely – this is a problem in many different contexts.

    I find it particularly troublesome in evangelicalism (or Christianity in general) because these claims can be attached to the truthfulness of the gospel – and when discovered to be untrue can be devastating to faith.

  • AHH

    It seems to me that a big contributor to this part of the scandal of the Evangelical mind is the way extreme political polarization (in the US) has infected the church. The authorities are Rush Limbaugh and James Dobson and World Magazine and Fox News, and other sources are not to be trusted because they are part of the enemy. There are probably similar isolated circles of pseudo-authority on the left, but they have much less influence among Evangelicals.
    And, as RJS illustrates with her example, what comes out of this evangelical intellectual ghetto seeps into the wider church culture so that it even shows up in writing by people like Dr. Poplin who are not right-wing culture warriors.

    An acquaintance who teaches middle school science told me of a student saying to her “We don’t believe in global warming because we’re Christians.” I fear this sort of scary confusion of categories is all too common.

    The material linked in the “Who Can We Trust?” post a while back would be a good start toward healing much of this. But I find it hard to be optimistic about change in that direction in the current cultural climate, at least in the US.

  • rjs

    Luke (#24,32)

    Great comments – I like the idea of the class you are running. We are in a university town and I would like to be able to do something like that someday – especially, but not solely, directed at the university community.

  • normbv


    I agree with rjs, you have made some important observations that get to the heart of the struggle people of faith or lack of faith deal with. People give up when they should be looking deeper. It happens at all stages of faith from my observation. Helping people bridge that gap reguires God given talent. May the Lord Bless you in your classes.

  • Jake Ulasich

    I’m trying to wrap my head around this, because I grew up in this evangelical atmosphere, and for the most part I bought into it. For me it wasn’t an unwillingness to think critically. There was, to be sure, always a theological backdrop to my thinking, which later changed, allowing many ideas in, which before then weren’t allowed, but at the same time, I also had the ability to think skeptically.

    I think “T”(#16) touched on it: for me it was mostly an issue of trust. I had no great inclination to become an expert scientist and do all the data myself, and so I had to trust someone. I believed that most of the research done for Evolutionary Theory was spearheaded and most especially interpretted by atheists, who even admitted to an agenda that involved disproving religious beliefs (I still don’t know of this was true). To my mind at the time, how could one trust their interpretation of the data?

    To further complicate the issue, unless a person was reading the experts directly, inspecting their data along with their interpretations of that data, they were stuck listening to junior high and high school teachers, most of whom were decidedly not experts. When questioned, these teachers would give rote answers and merely repeat the words of scientists, whose interpretations they obviously trusted, but whom I had found no reason to trust personally. I found the explanations of my teachers nons4nsical and counter-intuitive. The interpretations always seemed slanted or biased, and a host of other explanations seemed just as likely – at least to one without access to the raw data or expertise in the field.

    With this backdrop, I look back and wonder how I could have acted otherwise. I was a smart kid. To me it was a problem of education and a simple matter of trust. I never trusted my teachers. If my English teacher got a piece of grammar wrong, I argued with her, though the rest of the class was telling me to shut up. They were no more “experts” in linguistics than my high school science teacher was an “expert” in science. The education problem was that teachers told people what scientists had concluded, without going into enough depth to what they had found and why they had interpretted the way they had.

    Interestingly, having changed much of my theology, I am no longer resistent to Evolutionary Theory, though I maintain a certain level of skepticism – a healthy skeptisicm which I usually apply to knowledge in general

    So I agree that Christians need qualified experts to trust in the field, who really understand it inside and out, because some of us really don’t wish to become experts in everything, and we’re simply going to have to settle for trusting someone who we think knows what they’re talking about and isn’t going to twist facts around because of they’re worldview (but then, who doesn’t do that on some level?).

  • Tim


    “Several people have commented that this tendency to just quote authorities or to uncritically accept a “common knowledge” truth claim within a group is not a problem unique to evangelicals. I agree completely – this is a problem in many different contexts.”

    I think this misses the point. Of course it’s pretty much natural for most people to think this way. We’re not all hyper-rationally minded scientists after all. :)

    But what is more “unique” among Evangelicals (particularly Biblicists/Fundamentalists), is that this type of thinking is explicitly elevated as good. I mean, I’ve discussed this issue explicitly with my own family. I’ve asked, “well, have you ever taken a look at what scholarship is out there from non-Fundamentalist Evangelical sources?” And they’ve pretty much told me that if it doesn’t come from an Evangelical source they don’t trust it, don’t want to read it, and pretty much get uncomfortable even talking about it. My Dad runs the church library and he will only stock books from Evangelical “trusted” sources.

    And this is no mere accident that this is the intellectual climate among Evangelicals (again, mainly Biblicists/Fundamentalists). It is the outcome of a conscious, explicit push by Leaders to insulate their flock from “modernist” sources of “knowledge” that they find so threatening.

  • rjs


    Excellent points. This is one of the reasons that I think it is so important to get writings of evangelical scholars out “for the church” in a form where they can be trusted (at least somewhat).

    Of course there are many problems here. One who takes an unpopular position can be hounded and ousted from at least some “trusted evangelical” lists. Pete Enns and his experience with “Inspiration and Incarnation” is a good case in point. Others write with a caustic tone and simply lose credibility on that account, they don’t help make the case.

    Any change needs to start with (1) Christian scholars making the ideas and arguments accessible to lay readers and (2) Pastors and other Christian leaders setting an example and making materials available.

    The books by Francis Collins and Darrel Falk are good starts here.

  • rjs


    Great points – I am going to have to think about some of these a bit more. They certainly impact how to speak about these topics for the church. One important piece is removing this notion of an atheist or naturalist agenda corrupting the whole. This, of course, is complicated by the fact that there are those (Dawkins leaps to mind) who implicitly or explicitly promote an atheist view using science as the main tool.

  • normbv

    I would point out that I find it somewhat easier to trust scientist now than I can theologians. Theologians bring more presuppositions to the table due to our historical background while science is an attempt to rid oneself of preconceived positions and depend upon the empirical evidence. In science if you don’t discard the baggage others will do it for you in a heartbeat. In theology differing camps protect and circle the wagons more readily as a natural cocooning environment. Therefore one must become more proficient in Theology than in science simply to recognize biases that are not filtered out.

  • Jon G

    I think what is coming out of the comments is that we are seeing the normal evangelical refusing to expose themselves to both sides of an argument…that they are only listening to one party, and thus working from insufficient data. To me, this is one reason why they don’t properly evaluate truth claims.

    It reminds me of my favorite Tim Keller quote (loosely paraphrased). When asked how he knows so much, Keller replied:
    “If you listen to one expert, you become a clone. If you listen to two experts, you become confused. If you listen to 10 experts, you begin to discern the truth. And if you listen to 300 experts, you become wise and develop your own voice.”

    Ever since I heard that, I made it a point to listen to both sides of an argument. Whether on Evolution, Politics, Theology…whatever. I still, mostly in the confused stage, but I feel like I’m moving in the right direction…

  • rjs

    Nice quote Jon G, and perhaps why I appreciate Keller’s voice whether I agree or disagree with his conclusions on a particular topic.

  • Dutch Rikkers

    As one who is involved in the evangelical creation-care community, I am as frustrated by evangelicals who trust in pseudo-science as RJS is regarding the disbelief in evolution. Take,for instance, the issue of anthropogenic climate change. There are only a couple people in my evangelical milieu that believe it–thanks to Hannity, Limbaugh,Beck, and every other non-authority who takes the denial position–primarily because of politics. So the topic here is very apt.

    Where I have a problem with evolutionary theory is that as science continues to gain more knowledge, the process of evolution is taking on the characteristics of a creator God. Contrary to the supposed simple theory of everything, everything gets more complex. If the natural world is going to demonstrate (as per the apostle Paul) God’s “ETERNAL power” and “divinity” (attributes of the natural world that will compel us to the worship of the great Originator,) then it is likely that we will see no beginnings and no endings in both time and space and we will come up against complexities and mysteries that should cause us to drop to our knees.

    God is in the whole show, and science seems reluctant to confess that much of what they study constantly brings them up against the reality that nothing in God’s creation will ever fit perfectly into any human categories.

    If we believe that evolution is the way God created things and continues to create them, we cannot but be humbled by the whole show. Evolution and God seem to be synonyms, but the philosophical naturalist won’t buy that. And that’s one reason that evangelicals fail to trust in the word of scientists. At which point does the scientist finally stop and worship?

  • rjs


    I could have picked examples involving creation care – no question. These particular examples were “on my plate” so to speak because I had just read Dr. Poplin’s book and the two articles on BioLogos (not to mention the original article in Nature).

    And of course, scientists (like everyone else) stop and worship when convinced of the glory and presence of God. That doesn’t happen (often anyway) through an investigation of nature alone.

  • Dutch Rikkers

    Tim #52,

    The sad fact is that even when a well-respected authority in a given field is an evangelical believer, instead of changing their minds, most conservative evangelicals merely stonewall that authority. Some climate scientists like Sir John Houghton, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, and Dr. Thomas Ackerman are sound evangelicals, and John Houghton was chair of the International Panel on Climate Change for a decade or more (IPCC). Nonetheless, Focus on the Family, Acton Institute, and almost all other organizations and think tanks that are committed to conflating Christianity with laissez-faire, libertarian economics absolutely refuse to have these Christians appear on their programs or give them any sort of platform.

    They don’t want to hear the facts!

    No wonder we often appear like idiots to good scientists–when good science is what Christians should be about. After all, the general revelation is God’s book too! How can we say we respect the special revelation of God’s word and not respect the general revelation of God’s works? Maybe some day seminaries will offer at least one course in “natural hermeneutics”!

    This statement is attributed to Francis Bacon: “We are more likely to believe true that which we wish were true, than that which is actually true.”

  • Dutch Rikkers

    RJS #59,

    My understanding of Paul is that if the natural world shows us the “divinity” of God (or “divine nature” in some translations of Romans 1:20), everyone WILL worship–will worship either the Creator or the creation. I believe evangelicals have the perception from secular scientists that they indeed are worshiping, but worshiping the wrong God. I feel that’s one reason why there is always that sense of conflicting gods that compels Christians to doubt the conclusions of science. That would also explain why some Christians won’t believe books or authorities unless it can be determined that it is fellow believers who are offering their views.

    But that does not explain why well respected Christians in the sciences are doubted because what they say does not jibe with what the deniers have accepted as true–mostly from non-scientific sources!

  • Clint

    DRT, I think the theme of your frustration with the Reformed crowd is a lack of openness to other views. But, then again, your frustration seems to accuse you of the same.