Challenges to Christian belief in the 21st Century

In a previous blog post John Loftus has been prognosticating about an imminent resurgence in scholarly unbelief, and says that he feels pity for those who have taken on themselves to defend evangelical Christianity. Triumphalist rhetoric aside, any intellectually honest apologist (whether religious or secular) will face up to the evolving nature of challenges to a particular belief system. Ever since Kuhn it has been widely recognized that the most difficult choice which any adherent of a particular intellectual paradigm has to face is whether the theoretical and evidential difficulties of that paradigm warrant abandoning it altogether, or these difficulties are merely apparent and the advantages of that paradigm outweigh the disadvantages. There is no hard and fast rule for deciding this. Obviously some people, like Loftus, have reached the former conclusion, while others like myself and the rest of CADRE still think that the evangelical Christian paradigm is worthy of adherence. That does not preclude identifying particularly cogent challenges, however. Here I want to just briefly list some of the issues which I feel are the most pressing, and which I will be devoting my future career to investigating (P.S. I think the best concise summary of the challenges to belief in the 21st Century is Philip Kitcher, "The Many-Sided Conflict Between Science and Religion" in The Blackwell Guide to Philosophy of Religion):

1) The fragmentation (and some would say dissolution) of biblical studies. On the one hand there is a widespread postmodern suspicion of any claims to a 'rational' or 'objective' method of biblical inquiry. On the other there is a secular suspicion that much scholarship on the historical Jesus or the historicity of the Bible, for example, is driven by a covert theological agenda. In Old Testament studies minimalists such as Niels P. Lemche, Thomas L. Thompson and Philip R. Davies are proclaiming the demise of biblical history and heap scorn on the sophisticated efforts of evangelical scholars like James K. Hoffmeier, Kenneth Kitchen or V. Phillips Long to respond to the varied critiques of the OT's historical accuracy. On the New Testament front things are slightly more congenial to evangelicals as many of the universally acknowledged top historical Jesus and NT scholars are practicing believers who have produced substantial work defending the orthodox interpretation of Christian origins (i.e. James Dunn, John P. Meier, N.T. Wright, Raymond Brown, etc.) But this in itself leads to the suspicion, noted above, that there is a 'guild' of theological interests which promotes the orthodox view and tries to suppress dissenting voices. A recent articulation and defense of this many-faceted challenge is Hector Avalos's The End of Biblical Studies.

2) Philosophical theologians have not come to any sort of consensus on the best way to deal with the problem of evil. Philip Kitcher goes so far as to describe recent work on this problem by Plantinga, Van Inwagen or Adams as "the last gasp of a desperate scholasticism".

3) The rise of a so-called 'third culture' in which philosophically and culturally literate scientists constitute the new intelligentsia with little concern for or interest in traditional theological questions. Fundamental advances in cosmology, computer science, neuroscience and artificial intelligence promise to radically transform our vision of reality in ways which theologians may not be prepared for.

4) Increasingly detailed knowledge of the workings of belief systems around the world make functional explanations of religion seem more plausible. A fundamental assumption of the rapidly advancing field of the cognitive science of religion is that religious ideas are by-products of mental tools evolved for social living among other human beings. In the view of many skeptics the best way to explain the immense, bewildering variety of belief systems is that they reflect changing social circumstances and needs, without postulating a transcendent referent.

5) While the 20th Century saw an astonishing resurgence of Christian philosophical theology, the philosophy of unbelief and naturalism has become increasingly sophisticated as well. New and powerful ways of articulating basic naturalistic intuitions make it an increasingly serious contender in the marketplace of ideas.

So much for the bad news. The good news is that evangelical scholarship is experiencing a renaissance, with ever more evangelicals having taking up Mark Noll's challenge in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and being accepted at top universities around the world as researchers and professors, and scholarly work is becoming ever more sophisticated. To give some examples in the relevant fields, Michael F. Bird, a rising star in NT studies, self-consciously works to integrate historical and theological concerns in the study of early Christianity, and has taken full account of the various competing paradigms (a forthcoming book will be a collaboration with James Crossley presenting a believing and a secular perspective on the rise of Christianity). One of the pioneers of the cognitive science of religion, Justin Barrett, is an evangelical Christian and is working to integrate the results of the new science with a Christian worldview via Reformed epistemology, as are Michael J. Murray and Kelly James Clark. Scholars such as Noreen Herzfeld have begun to investigate the relevance of advances in artificial intelligence for theology. And then of course there's me and CADRE:) Seriously, though, there are challenges to be faced but I am more than confident that increasingly sophisticated Christian scholarship will give the Church the resources to meet them, so that Christian theism can continue to give the world a vision of hope and redemption in this troubled world.


Ron said…
Interesting post. I have to admit that my knowledge of NT studies is a lot better than OT studies, of which I know next to nothing about.

There are many questions this brings up. One is, which side is truly being rational and which side is just rationalizing its own worldview? That is, who's actually in tune with reality and who's off in their own fantasy-land? This is a question that plagues me at times.

There is much more at play here then mere intellect of course. The human heart is quite sinful and will not give up on it unless moved by the grace of God. Yes, having a rational faith is important but also remembering that the world we live in is fallen is essential as well.
jack perry said…
(1) Raymond Brown, sadly, has passed from this world to the next.

(2) Is the problem of pain really a problem if you are not a materialist who believes that life continues beyond death?

From an apologetic point of view, it is a problem insofar as we have to give an explanation to materialists who do not believe in eternal life. From a spiritual point of view, it is a different problem entirely, and not really a problem "to solve", so much as a challenge "to live".
Leslie said…
These are good points to consider. Some of these don't really bother me that much. A couple of points came to mind while reading though.

1) It is of particular interest to me that skeptics will claim that there is a " 'guild' of theological interests" which attempts to "suppress dissenting voices." From my side I don't see this as a real possibility, as there is no evidence of such. But the interesting part is that when Christians say that there is such a bias in the scientific fields, skeptics and atheists cast it off as "conspiracy theory." Seems a bit hypocritical. But more importantly, when you look at independent studies into situations such as Sternberg and Meyer, you realize that there is evidence for it.

2) I'm no scholarly theologian, but the theodicy debate has never really bothered me. It seems to me that any God who would create beings with free will would have to allow evil as well. This is a logical necessity, and just like I have no problem saying God cannot make a square circle, I have no problem saying free will requires allowance of evil. It's not a limit of his power, but just like saying "God cannot sin" shows that he is all the more powerful, this shows that something such as logic is part of his very nature as well.

4) This is an intriguing issue, and I would like to see more talk about this. Even when Habermas or others talk about NDEs, they mention cultural experiences in there, but it isn't given much focus.

But I think you're right - there are plenty of people ready to step up to the plate, and while the naturalists et al. may have some curve balls, I think we've got some good batters, both experienced and rookies.
John W. Loftus said…
JD, very impressive post. You understand the problems. So I just linked to your Blog.

But you too made a prediction when you said...there are challenges to be faced but I am more than confident that increasingly sophisticated Christian scholarship will give the Church the resources to meet them...

There are two series of questions you must answer here. (1) Why does it seem evangelicals are always on the defensive? If the arguments are on their side then liberal and non-believing scholars should be the ones on the defensive, trying desperately to answer the latest evangelical arguments. If there aren't as many evangelical scholars when there are many more evangelicals, then what best explains this disparity, especially because God has called Christians to defend the faith? Can it merely be that Christians have not taken this charge seriously as Noll challenges? I claim that the trend is clear; as evangelicals become scholars they gradually lose their evangelical beliefs. Do I need to name some of those who have? What best explains that? (2) Why there is an increasing number of non-believers among the industrial nations? Europe is already considered a mission field. Will America be one in the future? The prospects don't look bright. Are you that confident the trend will reverse itself?
J.L. Hinman said…
where does God call us to "defend the faith?" I know of no passage where it says "defend the faith." where do you see that?

O there's the one about be ready to give an account, that's not really saying defend the faith. It's also balanced by don't get caught up in stupid arguments.

One could ask why do atheist always seem so ready to attack? Doesn't seem to you that "atheist" and "fudie" are like communist and anti-communist? Isn't it ridiculous to be "tails" to someone's "heads?"
JD Walters said…

You know the situation is more complex than just 'having the arguments on your side'. People weigh arguments differently. Otherwise all reasonable people would believe exactly the same things. And I really don't see evangelicals as being on the defensive all the time. Sure, part of recent evangelical output has been in response to specific criticisms, such as the recent flurry of response to the "Da Vinci Code" or the Jesus Seminar. But just as much has been original, constructive research, such as Miroslav Volf's widely acclaimed "Exclusion and Embrace" in theological studies or James Dunn's "Jesus Remembered", which presents a specific proposal for a new paradigm for the study of the historical Jesus. But even if there is a certain default defensiveness that is because as a plausibility structure evangelicalism HAS in fact been weakened in recent times. That, however, is a sociological fact that has nothing to do with the rationality or otherwise of evangelical belief and everything to do with present socio-cultural conditions. A lot of harm has been done over the past 300 years or so by misleading presentations of Church history and Christian thought by the aggressive Enlightenment philosophes and other secular dogmatists, and so evangelicals now face the arduous task of correcting those misrepresentations.

If anything, I'd say that atheists are much more on the defensive. Why else has there been such a glut of increasingly shrill atheist polemics? Even secular commentators like Madeleine Bunting have proposed that this is due to a crisis of confidence in the atheistic community. And atheists do scramble to respond to the latest evangelical arguments. Take "The Empty Tomb" for example. Don't fool yourself: we're all in the same boat on this, arguing with words for the truth of our position and scrambling to respond to any and every challenge.

As for evangelicals leaving the faith as a result of scholarship...well, it happens, though I can't think of any examples right off the bat. I would actually be interested in hearing some. I don't know that I would call it a trend, though. All the major evangelical scholars whose work I have profited from are still evangelicals, whether in biblical studies, philosophy, science-and-religion, etc. And in any case cognitive science suggests that these defections are due more to socio-cultural pressures to conform to the ideas of the academic elite than real problems with specific intellectual issues.

So the answer is yes, despite the formidable challenges I outlined in this post and the other issues you pointed out I remain optimistic about the future of evangelical scholarship. There's already so much more top-notch work than I can read, to say nothing of contributions from other streams of Christian tradition, such as Anglican (Rowan Williams, Colin Gunton, Markus Bockmuehl, etc.) or Catholic or even Eastern Orthodox.
John W. Loftus said…
Thanks for the respectful discussion.

Walters...If anything, I'd say that atheists are much more on the defensive. Why else has there been such a glut of increasingly shrill atheist polemics?

There are other reasons, and I think Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins have clearly spelled these reasons out, even if you judge them to be wrong. To claim they are losing the argument is, well, how shall I tactfully put it, pulling something out of your behind. [Sorry] There is no justification for this at all.

Walters...As for evangelicals leaving the faith as a result of scholarship...well, it happens, though I can't think of any examples right off the bat. I would actually be interested in hearing some.

Those who have left evangelicalism? John Hick, J.A.T. Robinson, Bart Ehrman, William Dever, Robert Price, Michael Shermer, Marcus Borg, and lots of others like Ed Babinski, Dan Barker and me. In fact what has motivated most people to enter Biblical studies is an evangelical faith in the first place, but the more they study the more liberal they become. Do you affirm inerrancy by any chance? If not, did you at one time? Many former evangelicals are affirming Open Theism following on the heels of those like Clark Pinnock who once affirmed and defended inerrancy who no longer do.

Many of the scholars you can point to are not strictly evangelical anymore (Robert Gundry?). Most of those who are reside within the walls of seminaries and who do not allow themselves to seriously entertain their doubts because their livelihoods are at stake as well.

While the case must be made for or against evangelicalism on its own terms, this is still an indicator, to me anyway, of the future.

John W. Loftus said…
Joe said...Doesn't seem to you that "atheist" and "fudie" are like communist and anti-communist? Isn't it ridiculous to be "tails" to someone's "heads?"

You recently told me you attempt some humor here and there. Okay, this came across very well. ;-)

Can I be the "heads" please? I hate being on the bottom.

Seriously, is there a middle ground? Is truth to be found in a Hegelian synthesis? If so, let's all skip the arguments and fast-forward 100 years to the views our grandchildren will have then. Oh, but wait, we need the thesis/anti-thesis in order for us all to get there, don't we? We cannot do otherwise.
JD Walters said…
It seems to me that the scholars you cite, except for John Hick and J.A.T. Robinson, came from a much more fundamentalist wing of evangelicalism than I had in mind. Maybe I should have been a bit clearer. I am referring to (and count myself in) what may be called a 'broad' evangelicalism which still places emphasis on the primacy of Scripture and personal redemption through Jesus Christ, but without necessarily adhering to the positions of the most conservative thinkers within this community. No, I am not an inerrantist and I don't think I ever was, at least not from when I was reflectively aware of having an opinion on these issues. I do think the Bible is the foundation document for Christian faith and I accept as historically reliable the portraits of Jesus found in the Gospels. In some sense (which I haven't fully worked out yet) the Bible reveals the will of God, but I think this has to be 'teased out' through careful interpretation and bringing to bear all of our contemporary knowledge and modes of investigation.

I would hesitate to make any inferences about what evangelical professors at seminaries 'really believe'. Many of the scholars I admire have gotten into trouble for expressing more 'liberal' opinions than their employing institutions were used to, which indicates that these people have not been hiding behind their desks just to save their careers.
John W. Loftus said…
JD, have you seen this. I wonder how many Christian professors in seminaries have doubts but won't allow themselves the freedom to follow them or to express them.
J.L. Hinman said…
they have it in liberal seminaries. they get paid for having doubts at Perkins.
Ron said…
I think I'm most concerned with OT studies. I just read N.T. Wright's Simply Christian and was distressed that he pretty much discounted the whole issue of the reliability of the OT. Does this tacitly mean that he thinks the OT is unreliable?

Can you guys point me to books defending the reliability of the OT and perhaps to those critical of it (I want to be fair to both sides)?
J.L. Hinman said…
I think you need to specify in what way the OT is reliable. It's a collection of works over a board time period. they aren't all written for the same thing, they are not all reliable in the way way. I think once you come to terms with that problem the reliability of it will be a lot easier to find. Unfortunately I don't know of a book that says the OT is reliable across the board. I'm sure one exists.
Jason Pratt said…

Running a little behind the thread here, but: I don’t think things are that simple as a description for one vs. another side. There are sceptics and believers making rational points, and sceptics and believers only doing rationalizations (in the pejorative sense), and any given person might be doing a mix of those even on one particular topic.

Which might not be especially reassuring as an observation. {lopsided g} But I think it’s realistic. (Applies the ‘fallen world’ principle to us, too.)

The book mentioned by Kitchen (which is written in a very naturalistic fashion) is On the Reliability of the Old Testament. I’m not personally familiar with works by the other authors JD mentioned; and I sympathize with his ‘too many good works to ever read’ problem. {g} Kitchen refs a lot of other authors, though, and without particular regard to their ideological status. (It’s true he takes amusingly irate Scottish potshots at scholars he thinks are being sloppy, but he doesn’t have much patience for “fundamentalists” either.)


I think there are technical problems that do need addressing in regard to unjust suffering; and anti-theistic proponents of the argument sometimes (even though not always) do have important critiques worth listening to and even accepting on the topic.

The eternal-life reply, meanwhile, is often handicapped (in my evaluation) by a common insistence among theologians that in fact reconciliation and salvation from sin will never take place and cannot be legitimately (or even ethically!) hoped for.


The neo-Darwinian gradualists are having to rush through all the hard lessons learned (usually at others’ expense) by orthodox (and other) theologians over 2000 years. And I agree there is evidence of mere suppression in that field, and strong evidence too. But everyone agrees truth claims are important (except for some materialists who would prefer to get away from truth claims altogether when they aren’t making such claims themselves {wry g}), and individual institutions have to make definite choices about how to proceed on particular issues. In order to gain the benefits of making those definite choices, the choices do have to be enforced. That’s absolutely no excuse for fudging, but it can’t be practically avoided either in some cases; and (paradoxically) it’s part of operating in a free society. Just as any side is going to have a strong temptation toward fudging in order to meet that decision to be faithful (in the sense explicated famously by CS Lewis) to what they have once believed to be true, any side is going to have a strong temptation toward charging an enforcement by the other side as suppressing, fudging, etc.

So I think the situation won’t get less complex, or even less onerous in some cases, even if greater honesty and willingness to follow (rather than to force) objective data prevails.


{{(1) Why does it seem evangelicals are always on the defensive?}}

Because our position is already on the ground and has been for a couple of millennia now. For better or for worse, regardless of who actually has the better position at any time, the establishment is always going to be on the defensive against the revolutionaries, even when the defense consists of counter-offensives. That’s just a strategic reality.

For instance, if Europe is already considered a mission field, then the evangelicals have to be on the offensive there against a more-or-less standard position, don’t they? Still, they’re the old guard going up against the new guard, historically speaking.

Of course, there’s desperation and there’s desperation. When “liberal and non-believing scholars” throw out dozens of challenges, does bothering to try answering them constitute desperation?--or do the dozens of challenges constitute the desperation? Some kind of case might be made either way--and could easily be ‘made’ (or at least innuendoed) either way by mere rhetorical appeal. (Such as counting a situation as though it constitutes evidence of weakness compared to its opposite; and then counting evidence of the opposite as weakness, too, when that’s found. ‘Any stick is good enough...’ looks a lot like desperation, too, sometimes--on any side.)

Personally, I don’t put stock in defense or offense as strategic evidence of strength or weakness. Nazi Germany in 1945 or Poland in the late 30s, about to be overrun, will naturally be on the defense. But Cyrano de Bergerac being ambushed by a hundred men is technically on the defensive, too. (I love the bug-eyed look on the faces of the assassins in the José Ferrer/Stanely Kramer version when he snarls, “I have been robbed! There are no hundred here...”)

Excellent post, JD. {g!}


Yeah I’m pretty sure one exists somewhere, too; but I’d be sceptical of it in advance.

JD Walters said…
The first reference source to go to on the Old Testament is the "Dictionary of the Old Testament" series with individual volumes for 'Pentateuch' and 'Historical Books' being the most relevant. After that see V. Philips Long, "The Art of Biblical History", Tremper Longman, "An Introduction to the Old Testament", James K. Hoffmeier, "Israel in Egypt" and idem, "Ancient Israel in Sinai" and Kenneth Kitchen, "On the reliability of the Old Testament". Like I said in my post, all these books come in for heavy criticism by the likes of Lemche, Thompson and Davies but many of these criticisms are ideological in nature and it seems that they pick on them just as much for supporting conservative conclusions about the Bible as for illegitimate use of evidence, etc.

For critical points of view see books by the above.
Ron said…
Thanks, JD. By reliability I was referring to the Pentarch and the Prophets mostly. Are they reliable in that they tell accurate history? Are the prophecies legit or were they written after the fact? Did Israel really escape from Egypt in the manner described by Exodus? Questions like these bother me since every once and a while I hear claims that the OT is totally fictitious on these matters. Apologists tend to be on the other end of the spectrum. I just want to figure out objectively (if that's even possible) where the evidence leads.

I think this has significant theological impact as well.
Ron said…
These books should more then suffice. Thanks, Jason and J.I. as well.

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