The Christian scholar in the 21st Century

The Christian Scholar in the 21st Century: Rev. Prof. Alister McGrath [A Keynote Paper]
This was the key-note talk for the C-A-N conference 2001

The Christian Scholar in the 21st Century
(The Rev. Dr. Alister McGrath)

In reflecting generally about evangelicalism and the academy, I find that evangelicalism has always been suspicious of the academic world---and rightly so. There is much justified anxiety about the secularism, relativism and pluralism, which seems to be endemic in much of today's higher education. Evangelicals-and, increasingly, many others as well---have noted with growing concern the indications that the modem academy seems to have more to do with elitism, ideological warfare and rampant anti religious propaganda than with learning.

Then there is the issue of relevance. Why bother with higher education? The important thing is to get on with preaching the gospel. Anything else is irrelevant. And the issue of relevance is at the top of the agenda for many evangelicals. As John E. Smith points out in his major study of I963, The Spirit ofAmerican Philosophy [Oxford University Press, I963I, "It is no exaggeration to say that in American intellectual life, irrelevant thinking has always been considered to be the cardinal sin." Evangelicalism has always shown itself to be at its best in insisting that the gospel is deeply relevant to the life of ordinary people. So why risk sidetracking evangelicalism from a seriously relevant activity by suggesting that it become more deeply involved in higher education?

These are genuine concerns, and I have no intention of dismissing or trivializing them. Others could easily be added to the list; I mention merely these two anxieties to illustrate the reasons why many evangelicals will want to question what I am suggesting. Yet there is another side to this matter, which causes me to feel that we might want to consider taking a risk. Let me explain.

The story is told of a conversation between two of the most celebrated German liberal Protestant theologians of the nineteenth century, Albrecht Ritschl and Adolf Hamack. The more conservative sections of the German Protestant churches had recently gained some significant political victories. Ritschl's advice to Harnack is reported to have been something like this: "Never mind about the politics; get on with writing the books that will change the way people think. In the long term, that is what will be of decisive importance." As one looks at the sustained gains made by liberalism in German protestantism up to the eve of the First World War, the wisdom of Ritschl's advice is clear: to win the long-term victories, you have to influence the way in which a rising generation thinks.

Others have seen the wisdom of this. In the period immediately following the Second World War, the World Council of Churches secured funding to allow it to launch a program to encourage potential theological educators in emerging nations to be taught at leading western seminaries. Needless to say, these seminaries tended to be strongly liberal in their orientation. The result? Countless seminaries in developing nations found that their faculties began to be dominated by people who had received their Ph.D from institutions dominated by a liberal ethos. By a gradual process, which mingled osmosis and replication, those seminaries often drifted into sharing that same liberal ethos. That lesson has been learned. John R. W. Stott, who is widely celebrated as one of global evangelicalism's wisest and most discerning leaders, saw the importance of this point, and set up a program in England to encourage such emerging leaders to gain Ph.D.s at educational institutions which were either evangelical or sympathetic to evangelicalism. The results of that program---named the "Langham Trust" after Stott's flagship church of All Souls, Langham Place, London---have been substantial.

Yet my argument is not simply that evangelical seminaries have a vital role to play in the consolidation of evangelicalism. The vision I wish to set out is broader. There is a need for evangelicalism to see itself as going beyond a purely theological agenda, and to begin shaping discussion on a broader front. Let me make it clear that continuing engagement with theological debate and education is of major importance, and I have no intention of minimizing the significance of the role of evangelical seminaries in shaping and consolidating our future. My concern is rather to build on the success of that engagement, which allows us to think ahead to the next stage of the evangelical agenda. The success of this next stage depends on the continuing excellence of evangelical theological education, but takes things further---and, potentially, into some very significant territory.

Much has been written in response to Mark Noll's excellent analysis of the current strengths and weaknesses of evangelicalism, set out in his masterly Scandal of the Evangelical Mind [W.B. Eerdmans, I994I. Noll's point is that evangelicalism has not, despite its excellent track record in theological and biblical studies, done much to change the way people think outside those narrow realms. What about literature? The arts? Culture? Evangelicalism has done an enormous amount to ensure that the leaders of churches have a firm grasp of the gospel and its application to life. In my recent work A Passion for Truth [InterVarsity Press, I996], I suggested that "the evangelical passion for truth must become a passion for the evan

gelical mind." And I am convinced that if we really believe that this is worthwhile, then we can do it.

But why should we want to do this? Would it not be a distraction from the real work of evangelism and pastoral care? I concede that we must ensure that these are not neglected, and that My dream has to do with supplementing these concerns, not displacing or replacing them. But the goals are laudable, and the results potentially enormously significant.

Evangelicalism has been given a hard time in the liberal arts colleges, being depicted as intellectually vacuous, culturally destructive and spiritually simplistic. Evangelicalism is portrayed as something you grow out of, not something you grow up within. I am quite sure that evangelicalism, firmly grounded in the truth and relevance of the Christian gospel, has the potential to extend its influence into the higher education sphere. Not only would this invalidate the seductive stereotypes which are force-fed to our students; it could also lead to the values and beliefs of evangelicalism percolating into areas of our culture where it is at present a silent absence.

It would also be potentially enabling to our lay people. Am I the only one to be slightly uneasy that evangelicalism seems to have concentrated so much of its resources in seminaries, concerned to educate future clergy? What about the large numbers of lay folk, who have a vision for what the Lord could do in and through them in their everyday work? While I am thrilled by what has been achieved already, I still long for us to be able to give our lay people-who run supermarkets, businesses, corporations and governments---access to those same rich resources. Maybe it has to do with my roots in the Reformation, and my firm belief in the idea of the "priesthood of all believers". Why is it that evangelicalism sometimes seems to focus its educational resources on pastors and clergy, rather than the laity?

But what if we were able to look ahead to a day when we would have financiers who knew as much about the Christian faith as they did about economic theory? And more than that: not simply that they knew about both, but were able to relate them, and bring them together in such a way that we could talk about "evangelical economic theory"? You can extend this list as long as you please. My point is simply that we need to make connections with what is going on in the real world, and allow the gospel to bear on the issues that are facing those who live and work in our complex modem culture. We cannot allow the gospel to be squeezed out of that culture because it is seen to be of no relevance on account of our failure to make those connections in the first place.

Now these are just some general reflections, which help me begin to understand why the evangelical scholar has a real role to play. Now let's get specific, and start looking at the details. How can evangelical scholars--whether working in the areas of biology, history, theology, or physics-serve God within the academy?

First, we need a sense of vision. We need to realize that each of us can make a difference. Through God's good grace, we can help people capture a sense of the wonder and glory of the Christian gospel. Sometimes it will be through the things that we say; at other times, through the things that we do. In his providence, God has placed us somewhere special-somewhere that he can use us. We all need to start asking questions like this: "Why has God placed me here?"

The basic issue is building a vision---a vision of who God is, and the way in which he can take and use us.

We need to catch a fresh vision of the glory of God, and the wonderful fact that this God takes pleasure in using weak and foolish people such as ourselves to further his purposes and advance his kingdom. One of the things Paul had to be taught through his "thorn in the flesh" incident was to realize that the grace of God was sufficient for him, and that God's strength was made perfect in weakness. Believing that we can make a difference to people is not about being arrogant; it is about trusting in the grace and promises of God.

Second, we need to ask what special opportunities are open to us through the subject which we teach. For example, the physicist will be able to point to the remarkable ordering of the universe, and see this as pointing to the wisdom of God as its creator. John Calvin suggested that astronomers and medical physicians were in an especially privileged position in this respect. They, he argued, were able to see the wisdom of the invisible God embodied in his works of creation. A professor of Christian literature would be in a position to introduce students to the writings of Dorothy L. Sayers, G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis-important works in their own right, yet possessing an especial importance on account of their ability to mediate some of the central themes of Christianity.

The need to identify apologetic possibilities in our areas of teaching or research expertise leads naturally on to the third point: the importance of fellowship with other evangelical scholars. It is easy to become disheartened and discouraged. Being an evangelical scholar can be lonely at times. It helps to meet up with others, and find comfort in their company. We can pray together. And we can exchange ideas. What approaches have worked for us? It is important to share wisdom and insights, many of which are won at great expense. One of the reasons why I believe the upcoming conference "The Resurrection of the Evangelical Mind" to be so important is the opportunities it will bring for networking, dialogue, prayer and fellowship.

Fourthly, we need to identify role models; that is, scholars who have managed to bring together faith and learning in their own professional careers, and whose wisdom and example can be an inspiration to others. By this, I do not mean that we blindly and woodenly imitate them. Rather, they come to be seen as an encouragement and inspiration. We seem to have lost sight of some of the great themes of an earlier period in evangelical history, in which what we would now call "mentoring" was seen as being of immense importance. Yet this is something that we can recover. Those who have given much thought to bringing together faith and scholarship have both the privilege and responsibility of helping those at an earlier stage in their careers who are seeking to do the same.

So who are the leading Christian scholars in the field of literature, history and cosmology, to mention only three disciplines out of the many possibilities? How do we identify role models? And perhaps just as importantly, how do we ensure that there will be role models in the future? My own impression of the situation, based on close observation of the situation in the United Kingdom, is that such figures of excellence seem to have just happened. In other words, there was no conscious attempt by others to encourage them to develop such a role; it was something that just developed as things went along.

Maybe we need to be more proactive here. Maybe we need to try to identify the future role models early, and encourage them to deliberately and purposefully plan for this possibility, prayerfully and in consultation with colleagues. Their future role could be immensely important and helpful. We need to give thought to this now.

Finally, we need to be aware that evangelical scholars come in two different categories: the teachers and the researchers. Each has their own distinct gifts and merits, and both must be honoured and encouraged. Many owe the consolidation of their faith, and the beginnings of their attempts to relate faith and learning, to the patient teaching and personal example of those who first taught them, and introduced them to the great themes which would shape their future careers. Great researchers can stimulate that process of reflection and consolidation still further and turn a sure and steady flame into the white heat of someone on fire with excitement about God and their discipline. But the foundation needs to be there first.

St Paul used the analogy of the human body in making the point that every member of the body of Christ has a role to play. We must not allow ourselves to value one member more than another, when all are required for the healthy functioning of the body. Whether we are committed to teaching or to research at the cutting edge of our field, we need to keep this broader perspective in mind. We all need each other; together, we can do things for God which we could not possibly manage on our own. And we need to be reminded once more of our total dependence upon the grace of God, in case we begin to get big ideas about our own importance!

A great challenge lies ahead. How can we bring our faith to the life of the academy? How can God continue to be found at Harvard? At Oxford? At wherever we have the privilege of teaching or researching? Some immensely challenging and exciting times lie ahead. We need to prepare for them. I believe that the December conference will help us to make preparations for the great task that lies ahead. I hope and trust that we will all come away with a sense of vision and wonder, which will give us a new sense of purpose and perspective on our lives as scholars.

The Rev. Dr. Alister McGrath is Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University. He also has a Ph.D. in physics and is principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He is the author of 40 books, including The Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion (Blackwells, I999).

The Rev. Dr. Alister McGrath is Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University. He also has a Ph.D. in physics and is principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He is the author of 40 books, including The Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion (Blackwells, I999). The Rev. Dr. Alister McGrath is Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University. He also has a Ph.D. in physics and is principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He is the author of 40 books, including The Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion (Blackwells, I999).