The Credibility of Our Gospel Witness
One of the reasons that we devoted an entire issue of the Concordia Journal to the subject of science and faith lay in our concern for the Gospel…but not in the way that you might think.
For much of the 20th century, the focus has often been (and nearly exclusively so) on the question of origins (especially human evolutionary theory) and the threat it poses to basic Christian truths regarding what Scripture says about the uniqueness of God’s human creatures (being made in his image), their moral responsibility to God and culpability following the fall, the entrance of death into the world, the first Adam and second Adam, etc., etc.
Given this focus, many have risen to challenge evolution by arguing on scientific grounds. This approach, often taken by Christians, sought to play on the field and by the rules of modern science. I don’t want to take anything away from such an endeavor, especially when carried out by those who are trained in science and especially by those who are engaged in scientific research. They can raise valuable questions about lacunae in accepted theories and can debate the science in a way that has scientific veracity. But this approach also carries significant risks by granting science an a priori authority for setting the epistemological rules as well as risks for those who don’t know the science.
In postmodern 21st century America, I believe that another threat presents itself to our witness of the Gospel, one that does not come so much from the science as it does from the church, particularly its pastors and teachers. Human knowledge continues to explode and expand exponentially as a result of new discoveries in science. The pace at which this occurs makes it virtually impossible to keep up with the science from the evidence it considers to the theories and models that it constructs in order to account for the evidence. One can’t simply rely upon basic or superficial understandings of science (including the topic of evolution) that we may have learned decades ago or even a couple years ago.
But if most pastors are like me, we don’t know the science. And that lack of expertise could call into question our personal credibility when we give witness to the Gospel. And that means, we must be careful about how we describe it lest it becomes clear that we don’t know what we are talking about. This becomes all the more risky given the fast pace with which scientific knowledge is moving. If we get the science wrong, what else might we get wrong? Interestingly enough, this is not a new problem. Since the Concordia Journal has come out, several readers have sent us a great quotation from St. Augustine who makes this very point…1600 years ago! Augustine writes:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion. [1 Timothy 1.7] (Saint Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, translated by J. H. Taylor in Ancient Christian Writers, Newman Press, 1982, volume 41).
We need to develop a theological approach that is authentic to persons and to our theology. Hopefully, the Summer issue of the Concordia Journal can provide a nudge in that direction….
While we’re at it, we also wanted to mention the Lutheran Mission Matters, published by the Lutheran Society for Missiology, did an issue on faith, science, and technology in 2016. It includes articles by Concordia Seminary colleagues Joel Okamoto, Tim Dost, Gillian Bond, and David Berger (emeritus).
Rev. Joel T. Dieterichs October 11, 2017
Yeah, but…you missed the elephant in the room: We do not add credibility to the Gospel! God takes care of that! However, we DO know enough about origin/historical science to hold fast, and confidently so, to the historical-grammatical view of Genesis and all of Scripture. For example, one does not need to understand every aspect of biological systems to assert that there is absolutely no feasible, mathematical chance on God’s green earth that some type of primordial matter slammed together to randomly create amino acids, proteins, and the complexities of biological life–including human beings–nearly or all by chance over millions of years. So why equivocate? There are equally compelling cases for the biblical account of Creation now entering the popular consciousness for those who remain open minded enough to consider them. Perhaps you and the Systematics Department should read up on *those*.
Charles Arand October 16, 2017
Hi, Joel. Thank you for commenting! I apologize if I gave the wrong impression regarding what I was trying to get at. Of course you are absolutely correct that the Gospel carries its own authority to convince people of its credibility and efficacy. I like how you put it, “God takes care of that!” I have always maintained that and taught and will teach that in accord with our Lutheran Confessions and the CTCR document on Gospel and Scripture (which in my opinion is one of the best ever written). My only point—about which I now see that I could have been clearer—is that if I misrepresent someone’s views or the views of a particular school of thought (in this case scientists), that I may well lose my own personal credibility, which in turn can get in the way or raise an unnecessary obstacle to my Gospel witness. In other words, someone would be within their right to say, “why should I listen to you on this issue when you distort/misrepresent or don’t know what you are talking about on that issue.” “Or if I can’t trust that what you say is an accurate reading or hearing on this issue why should I assume that you are being fair and accurate in your reading of Scripture?” Now maybe they wouldn’t say that…and that would be very kind on their part for giving me the benefit of the doubt.
In any event, I do believe that I have the responsibility both as a Christian and as a scholar to state another’s position in such a way that if they heard me say it, they would respond: “Yes, that is exactly what I am saying.” It is at that point that I can most effectively analyze and critique their arguments. I believe that this is the approach of the Formula of Concord. First it identifies accurately the question at issue. Second, it accurately and fairly states the position of the other parties. Third, it sets forth its own position and arguments followed by rejections of contrary to positions. I believe that I have a responsibility both as a scholar and as a Christian not to misrepresent what someone else says and before I criticize someone make sure I understand what they are saying and not saying. That’s all. And that’s why the lengthy Augustine quote.
I absolutely agree with you regarding our historical-grammatical reading of Scripture and our theological rejection of evolution and everything being produced by chance. No question! And I think that we need to continue making the biblical case on theological grounds along with providing critiques on epistemological and philosophical grounds.
Finally, I realize that tone can be difficult to convey online. So I am a little puzzled by your last sentence and am wondering if it was intended to be sarcastic.
Rev. Joel T. Dieterichs October 18, 2017
Dr. Arand, Thanks for your comments! I should not have added that last comment, please accept my apology! One part of my reaction, sir, is that I do not have a lot of space in my life to sound unsure about something. The devil, our sin and flesh look for cracks in my armor all day, every day. Interestingly, the Denver Creation Society was at our latest Pastors Conference…and my faith in the Word of God through Moses is once again strengthened. They are so wonderful, the many graces God is now giving us in YEC. (Young earth creationism). For, with great integrity, the YEC’s admit their bias and state it openly. Unlike the secular evolutionists, who just tell us that we DO NOT in any certainty of the term “practice science.” They refuse to look at evidence for Design. And that only serves to discredit THEM. So be the academic that you have to be, but don’t be bullied at the same time, sir. May God strengthen you for your task!