How do we pursue our shared mission in a way that is shaped by the gospel?
Learning together with integrity
How might our common mission be understood from an epistemological perspective, so that the same theological vision which shapes what we are doing together will also shape how we are doing it together?
We want our commitment to ‘matters of first importance’ to foster unity rather than division. In practice, for evangelical academics our primary commitments include both ‘general revelation’ – which provides the basis for our shared academic vocation alongside unbelievers (and we avoid anti-intellectualism) – and ‘special revelation’ – through which we receive the gospel (and we avoid theological liberalism).
Within the scheme of creation, fall, redemption, evangelicals recognise both the asymmetrical and positive relationship between general and special revelation, and the more we celebrate their positive relationship, the less a celebration of one will be perceived to entail a critique of the other. So how might we articulate this together?
We are committed to learning together with integrity: where our approach and attitude is consistent with our evangelical confession and mission. Christ is our model. As we look at his humble, faithful love to us in the gospel – the Word made flesh – we see the consistency of God’s revelation in both creation and redemption.
This integrity is important because modernity’s sacred/secular divide has not only separated university evangelism from our engagement with the university’s work (cf. our mission), but it has also created the conditions in which it is possible to have affirmed an evangelical statement of faith for years without working through its implications for our academic approaches and attitudes. So when Christianity and our academic work are brought back into conversation we sometimes discover tensions between trajectories which are perceived to be either anti-intellectual or theologically liberalising. A consistently evangelical alternative offers a unifying stance which both advances our pursuit of knowledge and builds trust between us.
Integrity in the way we learn
Our mission and our confession have implications for the way we learn (an evangelical epistemology).
Our mission calls us to relate Christ and our work: so we take our academic field seriously and we take Scripture seriously – moving from one to the other and back again, as each helps us appreciate the other. This positive view of learning arises because God speaks to us through the creation he has made (‘general revelation’) and through Christ in the gospel – now principally held out to us through Scripture and the Spirit’s work in our minds helping us to understand it (‘special revelation’).
Instead of being ‘anti-intellectual’, with a largely negative or fearful stance toward education, we recognise that all our knowledge and our reasoning powers are a gift of God, which he wants us to use in dependence on him. Our “faith seeks understanding” (to quote Anselm’s Augustinian motto, with the emphasis our own). This gives us a humble confidence as we engage in genuine learning, and a willingness to reassess both our interpretation of the world and our interpretation of Scripture, as general and special revelation are mutually informing and mutually interpreting.
Our confession reminds us that this spiral of interpretation is not symmetrical however: it is the gospel which is the power of God for salvation to those who believe. Christ is the Word in creation but the climax of divine communication is he was made flesh. Everything was created through him as an act of God’s self-communication. But while the fall has impaired the effectiveness of this general revelation, God’s special revelation of Christ in Scripture by the Spirit re-opens our blind eyes and changes our hearts. Whereas the creation is fallen, including our own natural minds, we have been born again by God’s word and by the Holy Spirit who is transforming us and our thinking. This faith we confess is a gift from God, and this confession identifies us with Christ and with his church through the ages. It is this “faith” which “seeks understanding”. So just as no-one comes into the world as a blank page, we too have a starting point and an end goal:
- As Christians we have been sent out into our academic fields from the local church, under Christ’s supreme authority mediated by Scripture, through which lenses we are to see and interpret the world.
- Christ is not only our starting point but he is also the ultimate end of his creation. So the signposts, questions and longings of creation find their fulfilment in the gospel of Christ held out in Scripture, which often reframes our questions themselves.
In both of these core activities Scripture functions as our supreme authority, as described by our confession. So just as we are not anti-intellectual (see above), neither are we post-evangelical or theologically liberalising. We do not relate ‘academia’ or ‘science’ and ‘religion’ as if they are just two equal sources which offer complementary voices to one another.
The danger of presenting ‘academia’ and ‘religion’ as two symmetrical sources is not only one of category confusion but also that it does not do justice to the impact of the fall and the power of the gospel. It is liable to result in a circle of interpretation which, ironically, becomes asymmetrical in the other direction, led by the culture around us.
Integrity in the way we learn together
This integrity also has implications for the way we learn together (an evangelical ethic).
Humility: The insight that all knowledge arises from God’s revelation carries ethical implications, especially a distinctive humility against academic arrogance where ‘knowledge puffs up’, and a desire to make more of Christ and less of ourselves. It will also include a confidence in God’s gifts and work which contrast with the scepticism or despair which results from a purely naturalistic account of knowledge. Working with others in our wider task under God, we will risk sharing our own research while also giving credit where it is due. We will also recognise the limits of our own field and, when asking bigger questions, seek deliberately to pursue interdisciplinary thinking, especially with evangelical theology.
Faithfulness: This humility calls us to do full justice both to God’s general revelation and his special revelation. We have long-term confidence that there will be no final conflict between them when all the facts are known. But in the near-term we might be unsure whether something requires us to revise our academic model, our theological model, or both. In such cases integrity demands that we do not rush to adopt or propound inadequate answers, and that we should be willing if necessary to suspend our judgement. But this is not a mandate for agnosticism because the history of the church has shown that significant questions will result in the helpful clarification of our teaching. In the meantime we continue to hold to our faith, giving priority to what we believe Scripture teaches as it has been passed down to us through the ages, and we humbly admit that our faith continues to seek understanding.
Love: We also seek to ascribe this desire for faithfulness to other Christians as we seek to relate Christianity and scholarship.
- When as scholars we propose our own creative academic ideas we will serve others by flagging anything which may seem to raise question marks as to its consistency with the historic teaching of the church.
- When describing others’ ideas we will describe them at their best, avoiding ‘straw man arguments’.
- Where we disagree we will not exaggerate in order to write them off. Rom 14:10 warns us not to ‘judge’ our brother or sister, nor to ‘treat them with contempt’. Instead, we will reaffirm points of agreement, including where appropriate, our common biblical methodology. Wherever possible we will allocate disagreements to the level of localised judgement calls being made further down the decision tree, rather than allow them to be magnified as evidence that someone is either characteristically anti-intellectual or theologically liberal.
- We will interpret another’s work as their act of worship ‘to the Lord’ (Rom 14:6). Not that we should refrain from being good academics: it is right for us to scrutinise one another’s work. But our shared gospel shapes the way we go about the exercise in certain contexts, as Scripture teaches us to treat one another with gentleness and warns us not to let our knowledge or conduct to destroy ‘the one for whom Christ died’ and who is seeking to be faithful to his conscience for the Lord’s sake (1 Cor 8:11, Rom 14:15).