Taking the Bible Seriously in Scholarship

Guest Blog: Dr. David Koyzis

Dr. Koyzis is a global scholar with Global Scholars Canada who makes connections around the world from his home in Hamilton, Ontario (especially Brazil at this time, thus the flag below). His foundational text is in its second edition in English and Portuguese: Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (IVP 2019). You can read more about his work here, follow his blog and various publications here and his Facebook page here. This piece below offers the Christian scholar a way to ground and orient their faith in the practise of their discipline, keeping in mind worldview assumptions.

Some six decades ago, Calvin College philosophy professor H. Evan Runner delivered a series of popular lectures later published under the title, The Relation of the Bible to Learning. In these lectures he undertook to show how the Bible is relevant to the academic enterprise. After reading this book in my youth, I became convinced that such polarities as faith and reason, sacred and secular, the church and the world, had to be overcome. Life is an integral whole under the all-encompassing sovereignty of God through Jesus Christ. The cleavage between faith and reason is an old and tired one that has become habitual for so many Christians down through the generations. Too many churches see parishioners attending weekly but having little awareness of how their faith affects the rest of life.

Looking to Theology

Increasing numbers of Christians are dissatisfied with this reality. They are on fire for the faith and are eager to apply it throughout the range of life’s activities. If God is sovereign over the whole world, then he is sovereign over every area of our lives in his world. This, of course, includes the academy, with its array of disciplines spanning the arts, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. How does this work? At Christian universities, faculty are encouraged to apply their faith to their specific disciplines. But junior faculty, entering such an environment fresh out of graduate studies at secular institutions, often have little sense of how they are to do this, and the institution may provide little guidance. They may see what they are expected to do as a matter of developing a theology of this or that discipline. In my own field of political science, some Christians see themselves as political theologians engaging in something called political theology. They will try to draw analogies between, say, the inner nature of the Trinity and the social nature of human beings made in God’s image. Or they may find a parallel between God’s sovereignty and earthly sovereignty.

Looking to Specific Texts

A related enterprise will see scholars going to the Bible and gleaning from it all the passages having to do with, say, political life or sociology or biology and attempt to construct a “biblical understanding” of the discipline. Taking to heart the relevant texts from the scriptures is surely a good thing. In my first-year courses I would give my students several biblical texts relevant to doing justice, including Psalms 72 and 82, Isaiah 1:11-17 and 10:1-4, Amos 5:21-4, Romans 13:1-7, and 1 Peter 2:13-17. It is always good for young people to grapple with such texts as this:

Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.

Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

(Psalm 82:3-4)

Photo: Pixabay

God is a God of justice, and he calls us to do justice as well. These biblical passages opened my eyes when in my youth I became aware of them. Doing justice is not just an optional sideline; it is central to our life of obedience coram Deo—before the face of God. This has implications for our lives as citizens of our respective political communities. Furthermore, the Decalogue can be understood as a series of commands to do justice to God and neighbour. Surely this is relevant to a biblical understanding of our social and political life.

But what we cannot do with such passages is to construct a political theory or political philosophy that will account for the realities of empirical bodies politic. Nor can we use, for example, the first chapter of Genesis to construct a primitive cosmology or paleontology, any more than we can use Genesis 30:25-43 to put together a “biblical” genetic theory. So how should we use the Bible?

What is the Bible? A Story We Live Inside

Before we can answer this question, we need to establish what the Bible is. Some people, especially academics in the discipline of biblical studies, treat it as a collection of ancient literature little different from the Epic of Gilgamesh or Hammurabi’s Code. Others treat the Bible as a series of propositions revealed by God to his people to which they must assent—“propositional revelation,” as they call it. Still others view it as so much ancient wisdom to help us on our journey through life, as if we must somehow, with the help of Scripture, summon up within us the effort to ascend to the divine.

But the Bible is so much more than these accounts tell us. Above all, the Bible is the grand story of God’s dealings with his people throughout history. It tells a story beginning with creation and spanning the fall into sin, culminating in the coming of Jesus Christ into the world for our salvation, and the final consummation of his kingdom, which we await with hopeful anticipation. As such, the Scriptures speak in an immediate way to our hearts, which the Holy Spirit prepares in advance to be receptive to their message. We hear the Scriptures read in church on at least a weekly basis. We read the Scriptures in our daily prayers. In doing so, we not only absorb their message; we find our own place within the larger redemptive story, as Bishop Lesslie Newbigin aptly expressed it (Newbigin, 98-99). In so reading the Bible, we come to see the world in a different light. We see, not just so much matter in motion, but an orderly creation which God loves and for which he gave his life. In the changes of the seasons, in the starry skies above us, in the cities and farms where we live and work, we see God’s handiwork and his providential care for everything he has made.

Stock Image provided by Vapi, from Pond5

Atheists and agnostics look at the world and claim not to see evidence of a God. By contrast, believers look at the world and see it as God’s handiwork. They do not wait for wonders and miracles to find evidence for God. The fact that they exist at all is evidence enough. This recognition comes at a pre-theoretical level. We do not reason to it, any more than we would reason to our own existence. This is what philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd labels naive experience—something that precedes theoretical activity and is available to every person in an immediate sense. We all know of people who are formally uneducated yet possess a deep wisdom that comes of knowing God intimately and living according to his ways.

Creation and Theorizing

Yet this does not rule out theory, which enriches our understanding of the world. We are the beneficiaries of generations of scholars and scientists enlarging our grasp of God’s world through their empirical observations and careful attention to its contours. During the 17th century, the early pioneers of the scientific revolution were devout Christians who believed firmly that God had given them the holy task of uncovering the hidden intricacies and riches of his creation. It is at the stage of theoretical thought that we begin to articulate the meaning of the cosmos and the interrelations within it. Philosophy occupies a crucial place as we do so. As Gus Portokalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) might put it, philosophy is a Greek word! Φιλοσοφία literally means the love of wisdom. But it has come to mean more than this. Given its history, philosophy might better be described as a systematic theoretical account of the creation encompassing the broad range of elements, activities, aspects, and interactions within it. It includes the “stuff” of creation and the ways in which it functions in the real world. In this sense, philosophy comes prior to the special sciences or academic disciplines that specialize in a particular field of endeavour.

The typical research university today is a multiversity that sees scholars virtually imprisoned within the confines of their respective disciplines and methods, incapable of understanding the larger reality of which these are part except in terms of that discipline. Not only is cross-disciplinary dialogue not encouraged at such institutions; it may be implicitly discouraged as scholars keep ploughing within their respective ruts, unaware of what their colleagues are doing elsewhere. As such, it is not surprising that an entire discipline may be captured by an ideological vision while other disciplines remain blithely unaware of it. The humanities may be in the grip of a postmodern historicism, while the social sciences may pay homage to behaviourism.

Christian Worldview

A biblically Christian worldview is well positioned to compensate for the compartmentalization we see in the secular academy. After all, our most basic confession as Christians is that our world belongs to God, which has huge ramifications for our task as academics. If God has brought into being an orderly creation subject to his laws and norms, we can come to our respective fields of scholarly endeavour confident that they find their place within an integral whole sustained by God himself through Jesus Christ. Thus my own discipline of political science is not the master science of the good, as Aristotle expressed it (Aristotle, I.2, 1094b). There are no hub sciences on which other sciences are dependent. Instead, each has its own appointed place within the panorama of God’s creation, ready to be explored through careful observation and capable of being applied to our lived experience in his world. The relation of the Bible to learning thus looks something like the figure below, provided we understand that it represents, not a model of our life centred in Christ, but an illustration of how we come to know the world over which he reigns as king:

Although the Scriptures inform our understanding of the coherence of the academic disciplines, we do not go to them to find the data of the disciplines, which we explore through careful empirical observation. Rather, the biblical redemptive story shapes our worldview, which in turn shapes the way we philosophize, and this in turn conditions the manner in which we approach the academic disciplines. These include physics, chemistry, biology, geology, geography, psychology, sociology, history, anthropology, the visual arts, music, economics, jurisprudence, political science, and theology. The disciplines in turn have an impact on our lived experience.

Note, however, that in the above figure the Bible also speaks directly to our lived experience and continues to inform our worldview, philosophy, and academic pursuits. These, in turn, inevitably condition our reading of the Scriptures, as reflected in the thick arrows going both ways. This is why, for example, the Benedictines and their heirs down through the centuries have prescribed a regimen of daily prayer that would see ordinary Christians immersed in the Scriptures, which would thereby come to live in their hearts and shape their identity in Christ. This is why the Reformers were so preoccupied with the need to render the Word of God in the languages of the people. This is why the 20th and 21st centuries have seen so many translations of the Bible in English and an increasing number of other languages, along with constant updates of these translations. We want people to read the Bible and to fall in love with its redemptive message. We want people to sing the Psalms and biblical canticles and to come with eagerness to God’s written word, for in it we find the source of life eternal. In so far as we recognize that we will one day enter into God’s rest on that eschatological seventh day, we carry this knowledge with us into our everyday activities in this life, including the academy.

SOURCES

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics.

Bartholomew, Craig G., and Goheen, Michael W. The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004.

________. Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008.

Dooyeweerd, Herman. In the Twilight of Western Thought: Studies in the Pretended Autonomy of Philosophical Thought. Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1960.

Koyzis, David T. Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies. 2nd ed. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2003, 2019.

Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids and Geneva: Eerdmans and WCC Publications, 1989.

Runner, H. Evan. The Relation of the Bible to Learning. Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1967.

Skillen, James W. God’s Sabbath with Creation: Vocations Fulfilled, the Glory Unveiled. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2019.

Wolters, Albert M. Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985, 2005.


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