Evangelical Center for Christian Thought: Issues

Thomas Albert Howard and Karl Giberson:

This spring semester, California’s Biola University, among the nation’s largest evangelical institutions, opens the doors of its ambitious new Center for Christian Thought. Resembling institutions such as Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, Biola’s center seeks to bring a mix of senior and postdoctoral fellows to campus to collaborate with internal fellows and faculty.

Is the launch of Biola’s Center for Christian Thought a victory lap for American evangelical intellectual life or at least another level attained on the purgatorial ascent toward intellectual respectability?

The center is unusual in operating from a distinctly Christian vantage point.  The mission statement is forthright: “The Center offers scholars from a variety of Christian perspectives a unique opportunity to work collaboratively on a selected theme…. Ultimately, the collaborative work will result in scholarly and popular-level materials, providing the broader culture with thoughtful Christian perspectives on current events, ethical concerns, and social trends.”

Biola’s center is the latest chapter in a comeback of the “evangelical mind.”  While serious scholarship by self-professed evangelical Christians did not disappear entirely in the 20th century, it went into eclipse in the postwar period.  These decades, especially 1960-1980, saw the high-water mark for Western secularism when, contrary to subsequent evidence of religion’s persistence, Time Magazine in 1966 asked on its cover “Is God Dead?”  Social scientists in The New York Times confidently predicted in 1968 that “by the 21st century religious believers are likely to be small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.” …

All of this has begun to change in the past quarter century: evangelical Christians have been shedding their “fundamentalist baggage” and reclaiming a place within deeper traditions of Christian learning and at the table of American cultural life.  Signs abound of this recent shift, clearly in evidence by the mid-1990s.  In 1994 Mark Noll (formerly of Wheaton College in Illinois, now holding an endowed chair at Notre Dame) published The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, calling evangelicals to repent of past anti-intellectualism and honor the Creator of their minds with first-order inquiry and creative expression.  The book became a manifesto of sorts for younger evangelicals attracted to the life of the mind.  Nineteen ninety-four also witnessed the publication of George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief, analyzing the secularization of mainline Protestant universities and offering a blueprint for revitalized “Christian scholarship.” …

In 1995 the journal Books & Culture, was launched; it has become a leading organ of evangelical thought.  Significant funding initiatives of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Lilly Endowment — such as the Lilly Fellows Program at Valparaiso University — also empowered a new generation of engaged Christian scholars, including evangelicals.  These developments together with the influence of scholars like Wolterstorff and Plantinga, and the emergence of evangelical Christians into key places of academic leadership — such as the presidencies of Nathan Hatch at Wake Forest and Ken Starr at Baylor — put a new face on evangelicalism.  As such, it bears little resemblance to your grandmother’s backwoods open-tent revival anymore, but represents, to quote the title of a much-regarded book by D. Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College, Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite….

But beyond the problem of Mr. Worldly Wiseman is the problem of Biola itself.  The problem of Biola, however, is not the problem of Biola alone; it is shared by a number of the more than 115 evangelical schools in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), the largest umbrella network of evangelical institutions of higher learning.  The problem is, quite simply, lingering attachment to some of the more dubious certainties and habits derived from Fundamentalism and hardened by the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies of the 20th century.

This presents two acute problems for the emerging evangelical mind.  First, in a well-intentioned effort to avoid “scientism” — the belief that all knowledge claims must conform to standards of evidence found in the “hard sciences” — it perpetuates skepticism about science itself.   Second, lingering fundamentalist accents put these institutions in a deficient and compromised position vis-à-vis more venerable and enduring resources of fides quarens intellectum, faith seeking understanding — traditions going back to the seminaries of the Reformation era, the universities and monasteries of the Middle Ages, and the earliest formulations of Christian teachings in the creeds and councils of the early church.

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  • I agree with the last paragraph summary. Indeed, for many evangelicals. to accept contemporary scientific, geologic and archaelogical discoveries seems to involve an apostasy of sorts to faith in Christ. But this is not inevitable.

    I’ve traveled over the bridge from scientific contempt to a genuine appreciation of the diligence and self-critical work of experts in scientific exploration. It can be done without sacrificing faith in Christ…but only if Christ is central rather than doctrinaire and political allegiances.

    My willingness to critically evaluate the evidence with an openness to changing my mind enabled me to cling to Christ while suspending other commitments. This then enabled my faith to grow deeper and evolve at the same time.

    Can an evangelical institution of higher learning get away with honest evaluation and respect for views that are not orthodox by the standards of Biblicism without being othered or demonized by the “official” voices in the camp?

  • RJS

    Chris (#1),

    That is an interesting question.

    Can an evangelical institution of higher learning get away with honest evaluation and respect for views that are not orthodox by the standards of Biblicism without being othered or demonized by the “official” voices in the camp?

    I think the answer may be no, and individual Christian thinkers can not operate in such institutions. I don’t hold out much hope for a Biola based center, although the intentions are good. I know that I would not affiliate with many “Christian” institutions of higher learning for just this reason.

  • CGC

    There has been this nagging question in the back of my mind for the past few weeks concerning all this. When one looks particularly at the demise of christian discipleship (whether the discipleship of the mind or lifestyle) in North America, is there a connection to any to the academy that trains ministers and other leaders of the church?

    I still hauntingly remember something I read many years ago from Soren Kierkegaard in regards to killing all the biblical commentators (of course he was speaking metaphorically). It just seems much of the academy and church seem to continue on their merry way doing things as they always do never questioning that maybe they may be part of the problem and not just the solution to the spiritual problems they see today? Just asking . . .

  • Scot,
    Re: your question. I’m not sure that representing this as an either-or question does justice to the center. I don’t have any stake in Biola’s development, but the center impresses me as holding some potential to break out of some intellectual log-jams that are suggested by Howard and Giberson in the last paragraph.

    Does that represent a victory lap? Or some attempt to gain respectability from the academy outside of Biola? Seems to be a leap here.

    Additionally, it’s not clear to me from reading Biola faculty that the problem Howard and Giberson named holds the “lingering attachment to fundamentalism”. The larger concern of “scientism” goes well beyond fundamentalism, and it exists among people who are not Christians; it seems that the Center is neither avoiding this or trying advance skepticism. See the latest theme on neuroscience at the Center as one attempt to advance some development of knowledge on the brain and the soul.

    But…I do have some questions about the searching for the soul… 🙂

  • Rick

    Chris and RJS:

    “Can an evangelical institution of higher learning get away with honest evaluation and respect for views that are not orthodox by the standards of Biblicism”

    Maybe they, and we, need to help stress what true orthodoxy is.

  • AHH

    I was starting to mentally compose a comment while reading this, before seeing that the last 2 paragraphs and comment #1 said much of what I would have said.

    Biola has been to some extent the sort of intellectual “Evangelical ghetto” this is often decried on this blog. Things along the lines of the “Truth Project”, the Intelligent Design movement, rejection of any postmodern insights, conforming Christianity to the strictures of Enlightenment philosophy and modernist evidentialist apologetics have all been characteristic of that institution. Probably I’m generalizing unfairly, but that is my impression from outside.

    If this is just an attempt to build a more impressive fortress within that fundamentalist-leaning, culture-war-promoting ghetto, that’s too bad. On the other hand, if this is an attempt to leave behind that baggage and engage in genuine intellectual pursuit from a Christian perspective, pursuit that does not have to fear bumping against fundamentalist third rails like inerrancy or evolution, then that is commendable and I wish them success.
    The fact that this is funded by the Templeton Foundation, an organization that is anathema to the anti-science elements in Evangelicalism, is one good sign IMO.

  • RJS


    Yes, of course. Although I’d be reluctant to depend on any such effort for livelihood.


    If it is a pursuit that doesn’t have to fear the “third rails” I too wish them success. This is really tough though. The rails are ubiquitous and the shocks painful.

  • Rick


    Would you say Biologos has been a success thus far?

    Although its mission and methods are different from this endeavor, there are similarities in their goals and challenges.

  • Like MikeK, I don’t see the connection between this new Center and the authors’ Unwelcome Ghost of Fundamentalism. And what exactly dispensational eschatology has to do with the whole thing is even less clear except that the authors seem to think its intellectually silly.

    The implicit critique in this article ends up sounding more like this: “No one can believe this crazy stuff and be intellectual.”

    There’s some good stuff in the article though. The shift in order from bibliology to theology proper in doctrinal statements is not good either.

  • First – why is it wrong or bad to encourage skepticism? Shouldn’t those who engage in science always maintain a certain degree of skepticism? Christians may in fact be doing science a service by challenging not only scientism, but science that demands conformity and ridicules fringe thinkers.

    Second – doesn’t accusing colleges such as Biola of having “lingering fundamentalist accents”, which I’m assuming means believing in such things as a young earth and a historical Adam and Eve just presuppose these beliefs can’t be defended in a rational manner. To me the issue is not what one believes, but how one engages others. “Fundamentalist accents” would not therefore be certain beliefs, but a response to others who think differently. If Biola and other collages like them (including my alma mater Multnomah) can actually encourage their students to engage outsiders in a reasoned, rational, honest manner won’t they have exorcised their supposed fundamentalism? If we marginalize people with the label of fundamentalism based solely on what they believe, rather than how they engage with others, we fall into our own fundamentalism. We dismiss the other’s view based upon our presuppositions and feelings, not based upon an open assessment of the evidence.

  • RJS


    Yes. I think BioLogos has been reasonably successful and will continue to contribute substantially to the science and faith discussion. But there is some carefull tightrope walking because of the kinds of questions discussed in this article. The question of Adam is one of the biggest and potentially most explosive issues.

    BioLogos isn’t as much an evangelical think tank as a goal oriented educational endeavor.

  • “All truth is God’s truth”, Thomas Aquinas

  • TJJ

    I think the Center is a positve development. The investment of educational money in an educational institution that is not secular, not traditionsal mainstream, not postmodern should be aq welcome thing.

    Hopefully it is at least an indirect recognition that there is now a very large, almost all embracing and certainly massively dominating “mainstream educational/scholarship groupthink” that threatens to swallow up whole all other dissenting points of view and perspective, and that such a reality is neither good nor desirable for the future of education or culture.

  • Kenny Johnson

    I know several people who have gone to BIOLA, many who I love and respect. I also know a couple people who teach at Talbot, the seminary affiliated with BIOLA.

    Their standards of conduct always seemed too strict to me. Of course I’m a 35 year old married man. I might not feel as strongly if I were an 18 year old. How strict? Well students you cannot gamble, use tobacco, or drink alcohol. I thought they had a restriction on dancing too, but it’s not listed now.

    I don’t know if you have to agree with their doctrinal statement for admission (you do for Talbot), but I would certainly have some minor disagreements — which would exclude me if I had to agree.

    Their doctrinal statement does exclude evolution, for example, “Concepts such as theistic or threshold evolution do not adequately explain creation.” and their view on inerrancy is probably too wooden for many who read this blog. Talbot’s statement has some additional distinctives: Therefore, creation models which seek to harmonize science and the Bible should maintain at least the following: (a) God providentially directs His creation, (b) He specially intervened in at least the above-mentioned points in the creation process, and (c) God specially created Adam and Eve (Adam’s body from non-living material, and his spiritual nature immediately from God). Inadequate origin models hold that (a) God never directly intervened in creating nature and/or (b) humans share a common physical ancestry with earlier life forms.

    But with that said, I do think this is a step in the right direction. Hopefully it allows for some dialog with differing views.

  • RJS


    This, of course, is why some are skeptical that, however good the idea is in principle, it can be pulled off at Biola with any real level of success. Too many potential answers to questions are declared out-of-bounds from the beginning, too many answers and positions are asserted rather than argued and defended.

    We can discuss, argue and disagree about the content of the book by Peter Enns for example. But his position is off the table and out of bounds at Biola.

    In principle the idea is very good – but it needs to be situated at an institution with a more open perspective.

  • DRT

    (a bit off topic, but relates to the article and trend)

    As a pet project of mine (I have some time…), I am starting to wonder what will replace the rigid perspective in evangelicalism after, perhaps, the next 20-40 years. What I mean is that I believe that the culture of the adherents is one where they need to rally around some sort of concept that binds them together. To think that the idea would be openness to reality seems to not be in keeping with the needs and personality. It will have to be something tangible as a literal, no holds barred, adherence to a literal truth of the bible. Once that is gone then where does the rallying cry coalesce?

    It may have to center around a person. If it is not the literal bible, it will need to be something. There is no pope, no Graham, what is there?

    One step further, I predict that there will have to be an organization to which they will pledge allegiance. There has to be something, and if history in religion shows anything it is that there is power in organization allegiance. Where will it land? It won’t be intellectualism.

  • RJS (#16),
    Really? This kind of center puts itself clearly in the eye of not only alumni and students, but the evangelical church: and beyond.

    If the publications and presenters are dodging questions or issues because both had to be vetted by the director or the funding sources, that will be sniffed out in a heartbeat. But, let’s not throw them under the bus in advance.

    Although I don’t know the history of resistance to consideration of Enns’ book at Biola, isn’t the formation of a center/institution intended to offer the kind of academic focus so such content can be addressed?

    There’s nothing they can do about the past. I’m not expecting a John Searle to show up at Biola anytime in the future. But, they can be earnest to take up urgent questions that are important to western culture. If they don’t, then it won’t matter. I think we agree here.

  • RJS


    You are right that we shouldn’t consider the past too heavily in judging a new effort. And because it brings in people who are not employed by Biola the discussions may be broader in perspective. But Biola has the statement of faith that Kenny quoted it will be limited in what can be accomplished. You can find the Doctrinal Statement on the website. Advertisements for faculty openings note that “faculty endorse the University Doctrinal Statement.”

    I have no idea if Enns’s book has been discussed – but it would probably run afoul of the Doctrinal statement.

    Why should I expect an open discussion of the issues? I am not saying that people cannot in good consience agree with this doctrinal statement – but it should come out as the conclusion of carefull consideration, not as an a priori given.

  • RJS

    Oh and you can see the center site (also linked in the OP). The original speakers they list are Plantinga and Wolterstorff. This is a decent start, but only a start.

  • DRT

    My my my, they say “Inadequate origin models hold that … and/or (b) humans share a common physical ancestry with earlier life forms.”

    More than a bit arrogant. So much for enlightened.

  • RJS,
    Thanks. I spotted the same things you did, i.e., Doctrinal Statement, and the invitation of Plantinga and Wolterstorff.

    Let me add my bias here: it was the presence of Plantinga and Wolterstorff that made me anticipate that matters that would be out-of-bounds at Biola could be engaged in fresh ways through the center.

    This would make for a good start.

  • Bob Smallman

    #12 – I think Frank Gaebelein beat Aquinas to the punch on this particular quote 🙂

  • Kevin Wong

    “Can an evangelical institution of higher learning get away with honest evaluation and respect for views that are not orthodox by the standards of Biblicism without being othered or demonized by the “official” voices in the camp?”

    Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: Can an evangelical institution of higher learning get away with honest evaluation and respect for view that are not orthodox by the standards of who reject a skepticism against scientism and the “fides quarens intellectum” tradition?

    Perhaps the best response is one of suspending judgment. Surely an attempt to further Christian scholarship can be judged to be a good or bad one by its results. Otherwise, wouldn’t it be prejudice or elitism itself that one is engaging in to doubt the merits of a Center before it has succeeded or failed? Maybe Biola will move away from its fundamentalist roots. Maybe Biola will reinvigorate its fundamentalism to meet the challenges of the 21st century and surprise us all. But any scorn heaped upon the Center at its inception might be telling of a fundamentalism of another sort.

  • RJS


    Few of us who commented here “reject a skepticism against scientism”. In fact such skepticism runs rather high for many of us.