Christian Agnosticism

Christian Agnosticism July 18, 2018

A common refrain in evangelical higher education for the last thirty years has been that Christians pursue academic work from the perspective of faith or belief and that by virtue of that insight they produce scholarship that is different from a secular or unbelieving scholar. Whether the insights that Christian scholars possess stem from regeneration, theological training, or biblical knowledge is seldom addressed by those who champion the cause of faith-informed scholarship.

One way of illustrating this point is to consider the post that Tim Challies recently wrote about history:

As a Christian, my interpretive grid is to look for the hand of God in guiding nations. All of the Christian histories I’ve read promote the understanding that God is behind the rise and fall of the nations. Historians, seeking to talk about the exceptional qualities of a nation and its people, emphasize the providence of God in that nation’s history. In this way, history truly is his-story. It is seeking to tell the story of what God means to accomplish in the world that he has made (A great example of this is Nick Needham’s tremendous four volume history titled appropriately 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power).

But as I read the works of non-Christians, I have seen that their interpretive grid is completely different. Because they will not acknowledge the existence of God, they cannot acknowledge the purpose of God. Because they will not acknowledge God as creator, they will not acknowledge God as storyteller—the one who is telling the story of his glory in the world. Instead, they tell what is essentially a history of nothing, no one, and nowhere.

The Bible recounts primordial history and wastes absolutely no time in introducing us to a person and his purpose: “In the beginning God created…” In just the first few words we learn history has a beginning, and history has a beginner. Behind the very first molecules in existence was the creative power and deliberate providence of an almighty God. Over six days we see him creating, shaping, and sustaining all that he has made. We see him forming the crown of his creation, his pride and joy, a human being, to whom he assigned a noble purpose. Christian historians follow this pattern in seeing the deliberate act of God behind every person, every nation, and every action.

On some of the meta-points a Christian agnostic historian could not disagree. God is in control of history, non-Christian historians do not acknowledge God’s existence, and the Bible does reveal God’s power in creating everything.

The problem, though, is that even if God is in control of all of history, which he is, a Christian does not know what purpose God has for historical events that transpire outside the scope of Scripture. The Bible does reveal God’s plan for using Assyria to conquer the Israelites, or Roman authorities to carry out what led to the atonement, the crucifixion of Jesus. But Scripture says nothing about the U.S. war for independence, the rise of Saddam Hussein, or the fall of the Berlin Wall. All a Christian historian can say is, “God is in control.” But what the divine purpose is, beyond the truth that nothing that happens can separate a believer from his savior, is unknown.

Here is one effort to describe Christian history as basically agnostic (except for the history recorded in Scripture):

The year 1929 was a significant one in the lives of many Americans. That year, as most people know, was the time of the “Great Crash” on Wall Street that escalated into the “Great Depression.” Most historians of the United States recognize this event as one of the most profound crises in the life of the nation….

In 1929 another event transpired, one usually skipped in survey textbooks on United States history, but with arguably even more significance the decline in stock prices that hit Wall Street on October 29, 1929. This was the reorganization of Princeton Seminary and the subsequent start of Westminster Seminary as a school that would carry on Princeton=s original mission. The larger events surrounding Princeton=s administrative adjustment are part of the fundamentalist controversy that engaged liberal and conservative Presbyterians for most of the 1920s. Although Princeton did not experience directly a liberal takeover, its new administrative structure after 1929 would mean that conservatives were a minority on the board that oversaw academic and theological standards. J. Gresham Machen’s decision, with support from many Presbyterian conservatives, to found a successor seminary to Princeton was arguably one of the major developments in the Presbyterian controversy. And even if the founding of Westminster did not affect as many Americans as did the crash of the stock market, the stakes in the new seminary’s existence were actually higher since they reflected not the price of temporal assets but the value of eternal realities–ones pertaining to the redemption purchased by Christ. In other words, from the perspective of eternity, the downfall of old Princeton and the creation of Westminster were more important than the fall of stock prices at the New York Stock Exchange.

If this comparison is not adequate to start mental gears turning on the subject of doing history from a Calvinistic outlook, then perhaps J. Gresham Machen’s perspective on the meaning of 1929 for conservative Presbyterians will. At his convocation address for Westminster delivered before faculty, students, and well-wishers in center city Philadelphia, Machen admitted that he was at a loss in trying to make sense of Princeton Seminary=s demise. He said:

At first it might seem to be a great calamity, and sad are the hearts of those Christian men and women throughout the world who love the gospel that the old Princeton proclaimed. We cannot fully understand the ways of God in permitting so great a wrong. Yet good may come even out of a thing so evil as that.

As a student of Scripture, Machen knew that many times throughout redemptive history God had accomplished his purposes through events that looked as if God=s people were actually experiencing defeat. The story of Joseph and his brothers, the selection of the diminutive David as King of Israel, and above all Christ=s death on the cross all made plausible Machen’s sense that good may spring from evil in the course of redemptive history. Even so, he was unsure about Princeton. And if uncertain how to interpret developments in the church, how much more reluctant would Machen have likely been to try to interpret the significance of the Great Depression.

As disquieting as historical uncertainty may be, Machen’s Calvinistic instincts were exactly on target. Although many historians and theologians have claimed that the Reformed faith specifically and Christianity more generally equip historians with insights into the meaning of historical developments, a deeper reality exists, namely that the Reformed faith inhibits attempts to derive the ultimate meaning of historical events. (“1929 and All That,or What Does Calvinism Say to Historians in Search of Meaning?

The irony is that careful attention to the sufficiency of Scripture and the explicit teaching of the Protestant confessions does not lead to an ability to explain the Christian meaning of everything. Those starting points — Bible and confessions — actually limit what a Christian scholar can meaningfully claim. Which means a Christian historian has more in common with unbelieving historians than many promoters of Christian-world-and-life-view admit.

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