The Challenge of Modern Intellectual Errors

The Challenge of Modern Intellectual Errors (Part 1)

This writer analyzes the influences undermining the idea of God in the world today. The logical consequence of Darwinian evolution—"hostility, compromise, acceptance"—are here presented and documented in a way that will help our readers.

D.S. Porter, The Bodleian Library, Oxford, England                                                                                     

"For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people." (Isa, 60:2.)

Despite the boasted intel­lectual advances of our modern civilization, this text may be taken as an apt sum­mary of the state of man's thinking as God views it. The world considers itself philo­sophically rich and increased with intellectual goods, whereas God sees it—in the things of the mind as well as in those of the spirit—as "wretched, and mis­erable, and poor, and blind, and naked" (Rev. 3:17).

Why is there this apparent paradox, this contrast between the intellectual self-satis­faction of our world and its real state? Paul, in writing of the Roman world, gives an answer to this question, which is as true to­day as it was then: "And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind [margin: "A mind void of judgment"]" (Rom. 1:28).

In the past hundred years man has been steadily divesting his mind of all traces of what Laplace called the "hypothesis" of God. But nature abhors a vacuum in the mental and spiritual, as well as in the physi­cal realm, and so man, having banished God from his thinking, must fill his mind with something else. Paul prophetically tells us what that is: "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doc­trine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itch­ing ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables" (2 Tim. 4:3, 4).

A fable is a story perhaps interesting, perhaps pleasing, perhaps useful, but, by its very nature, not true. Can it be that our modern civilization, with all its in­tellectual light, is really clinging to fables and exalting them to the position of eter­nally valid truths? We believe that to be so, and being so, how pathetic does it demonstrate the state of modern thinking to he. "If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that dark­ness!" (Matt. 6:23). Let us review some of the fables abroad in the intellectual world of today.

Basically, of course, man's century-old flight from God originated in Darwinian evolution, the acceptance of which in the 1860's was greatly facilitated by its con­sonance with the then-prevalent mood of political, social, and economic optimism, and by the sterility of much of nineteenth-century religion. This aspect of modern thinking is too well known to need elabora­tion here. I should, however, like to recom­mend most strongly what I consider one of the most stimulating books I have read in recent years—Gertrude Himmelfarb's Dar­win and the Darwinian Revolution (Lon­don, 1958).

For an exposition of the origins of the theory, the methods of its propagation and acceptance, and its present position in modern thought, this book is unrivaled. Dr. Himmelfarb is no fundamentalist, but she is all too conscious of the limitations and weaknesses of Darwinism not to be a rebel against it, and her book, coming at the end of 1958 after all the paeans of praise evoked by the centenary of the pres­entation of Darwin and Wallace's joint pa­per to the Linnaean Society, caused a sen­sation in scientific circles, but has, as yet, brought forth no effective answer.

While we are on the subject of Darwin­ism, two facets of the question—one inci­dental, the other basic to what follows in this article—may be touched upon briefly.

Darwinism went through three stages in the thought of religionists—hostility, com­promise, acceptance. The first and last of these attitudes are maintained today by minorities of Christians. (It is ironic, how­ever, that those clergymen accepting evo­lution are usually even louder in its de­fense than are many scientists, who, per­haps because they have more knowledge, have more doubts.) The second attitude, however, is widespread and probably con­stitutes a greater threat to Bible religion than the third. That being so, it may be well in passing to touch briefly upon the three major ways in which many Chris­tians seek a via media between the words of Scripture and what they believe to be the teachings of science.

What may be called the "long-period" theory is the simplest and most widely held, being accepted by even so literal-minded a body as the Jehovah's Witnesses. It simply equates each day of Creation with a period of several thousand years (usually seven), although even this is a poor com­promise with the vast geological ages re­quired by orthodox Darwinism. It is in­teresting to note that William Jennings Bryan, whose inept efforts to defend Gen­esis in the celebrated "monkey trial" at Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, and still pa­raded as evidence of the ignorance and incompetence of fundamentalists, could ac­cept this theory with complacency without apparently realizing how much it weak­ened his whole case.

The so-called "revelation" theory is some­what more subtle and therefore less widely known. It maintains that certain aspects of a creation, which had taken place long before, were revealed to the author of Gen­esis (Moses is rarely credited with having written the book) on one day, certain oth­ers on a second, and so on. The account of the institution of the Sabbath alone is sufficient to show the inadequacy of this idea. The third and most insidious attempt to reconcile Genesis and Darwin takes the form of what may be termed the "gap" theory.* The foundation of this is an al­teration in Genesis 1:2 in order to make it read, "And the earth became without form, and void." Having made this alteration, the proponents of this theory go on to tell us that after God had created the heaven and the earth in a "beginning" as infinitely remote as any evolutionary geologist could wish, the earth degenerated and "became without form, and void," and consequently had to be remade. This reworking, God carried out, as recorded in the latter part of verse two and onward, some six thou­sand years ago. Thus the irreconcilables are reconciled and the best of both worlds is open for our enjoyment! It need hardly be added that whole-hog evolutionists have probably more contempt for this rather pa­thetic type of theistic evolution than they have for fundamentalism.

Praise God for the institution of the Sab­bath, which has kept at least one Christian body free from the infiltration of such nox­ious viruses!

But this has been by way of digression. The other facet of Darwinism more rele­vant to our study is its introduction and fostering of a belief in the omnicompetence of science. The acceptance of this belief has led to a considerable diminution, and in many cases indeed the outright disap­pearance, of God's place in man's think­ing. Gone now are the days in which men could declare with Roger Bacon that sci­entific knowledge could "assist the Church . . . by leading the mind through a study of the created works to a knowledge of the Creator." Now there is a new gospel. As Sir Richard Gregory expressed it in his self-chosen epitaph:

My grandfather preached the gospel of Christ,

My father preached the gospel of Socialism,

I preach the gospel of Science.

C. A. COULSON, Science and Christian Belief (London, 1955), p. 7.

And religion? To some (and especially Christianity), as to an unnamed American professor of physiology quoted by Coul­son (op. cit., p. 4), it has been shown by science "to be history's cruelest and wicked­est hoax." To others less extreme, or per­haps professionally interested in maintain­ing some remnants of an outworn faith, religion has had to be made to square with the supposedly established facts of science, and in the process it is religion alone that has had to be cut, chiseled, and planed until for many it bears little resemblance to its former state. To change the metaphor, the citadel of orthodox Christianity is sub­jected to attacks from without by skeptics who wish to overthrow it altogether, and to treason from within by "scientifically-minded" clergy and compromisers gener­ally. These attacks have used, and in turn given rise to, a whole armory of miscella­neous errors. To these some attention must now be given.

One of the major distinguishing marks of Christianity is that it worships one su­preme God who claims to have made all things (Ps. 96:5). Once this cornerstone of belief had been removed by the new sci­ence, it was but a short step to demonstrate that Christianity is really no better than any other religion. This demonstration is effected in two ways: by subjecting the his­tory of Christianity itself to critical scru­tiny, and by comparing it with other world faiths. The former process gives rise to what may be termed the "historical myth." This says that Christianity has been tried—indeed given a long and very favorable trial —and has been found wanting, and that a new religion must be found to take its place. The evidence adduced for this as­cription of failure is usually the record of reaction, persecution, and general intoler­ance that has marked the history of some of the larger religious bodies. The history of the Middle Ages is naturally grist to this mill, and a damning indictment can be made out of the material provided by that period. But is it an indictment of Christian­ity? To the Adventist, as to many of his Protestant forebears (although modern Protestant affirmation of the fact is some­what muted), there is no doubt that the system in power then was not that of Christ but of antichrist.

Thus, just as the Sabbath, one of the fundamentals of our faith, is a bulwark against the acceptance of pseudoscientific ideas, so our interpretation of prophecy guards us against the fallacies inherent in the historical myth.

The practice of comparing Christianity with other world faiths, or the cult of com­parative religion as it may be called, is another of the lesser errors springing from the misuse of scientific ideas. This new branch of learning has established itself so rapidly that there are now chairs in the subject in British universities, and almost any public library bears some testimony to the large literature produced by the study. Yet "cult" is probably a better description of it than "academic subject," for its dev­otees appear possessed by an almost fa­natical desire to "cut Christianity down to size," and when writing of it their vocabu­lary is repeatedly ransacked for words such as myth, legend, folklore, primitive, et cetera. The subject is a complicated one, but its methods and results may be stated quite simply. It examines the history of the world religions, both living and extinct, and finds that all stem ultimately from some common source (the influence here of evo­lutionary biology is unmistakable), al­though the source is not always agreed upon. Their modern manifestations are also, as it were, put under the microscope side by side and investigated and, as might be expected when reasoning from the prem­ise of common origins, they are found to be in all essentials identical. All are of equal validity, nothing more than manifestations of a psychological need and the expression of subconscious desires, varying in the dif­ferent faiths only because of the varying national characteristics developed by man in the latest stages of his evolution.

Thus many intellectual skeptics march to attack the Christian citadel with the strategy of evolution and the tactics of either historical mythology or comparative religion. Whichever of the latter two they accept, they agree with those who follow the other in asserting (either openly or tacitly) that Christianity is of little value. To both, in Arnold Toynbee's words, we live in a "post-Christian" age. The follow­ers of the former would get rid altogether of the vestigial remains from medieval times; those of the latter would keep it, but treat it merely as a philosophy, a mode of thought not a way of life, and its Founder as a philosopher, just as Plato and Aristotle, or, for that matter, Buddha, Con­fucius, and Mohammed, were philosophers.

In the ranks of the comparative religion­ists, however, there are, in addition to skeptics and non-Christians, some clergy­men. The monthly journal History Today has of recent years given prominence to a number of articles by Dr. S. G. F. Brandon, professor of comparative religion in the University of Manchester. These have fol­lowed the usual pattern of "debunking" Bible Christianity. It was therefore with some surprise that in a list of members par­ticipating in a recent conference on New Testament studies at Oxford, I came across the name of Dr. Brandon. His participa­tion in such a conference appears to indi­cate that he is not merely retaining the title while professing no belief in that for which it supposedly stands, as was the case, for example, with the late J. N. Thompson, the noted historian, who kept the Angli­can orders of his youth until his death, al­though for many years he had been an athe­ist. Professor Brandon is perhaps simply one of those "advanced" clergymen who feel that a philosophical Christianity is still worthy of acceptance, although in no way superior to other faiths.

Many, both clergy and laity, are not, however, agile enough for the intellectual gymnastics that such a frame of mind in­volves, and also are not prepared to dis­pense with Christianity altogether. Many of these, being unable or unwilling to march boldly with the skeptical army out­side the walls, join the fifth column within. From these proceeds another crop of mod­dern intellectual errors, which, like Tro­jan horses, are introduced into Christianity to make it more attractive or "up to date," but which, once inside the citadel, set about destroying it.

These errors may be comprehended un­der the name of religious liberalism. Its crudest expression is found in the oft-re­peated statements that it does not matter what you believe so long as you are sincere; God has no special church; all are equally right and wrong; and all who are sincere will eventually enter heaven. This attitude is far from being confined to the compara­tively small number that call themselves universalists. In fact, it permeates the thinking, preaching, and writing of many of the clergy, especially of the larger de­nominations. Almost invariably it is found in company with its twin, modernism.

If you wish to accept the supernatural as presented in the Bible, the religious lib­eral will smile patronizingly and a little pityingly, but he will raise no objections as long as he considers that your outmoded views are sincerely held. But as for him and his house they are modernists. Modern­ism in the Western world reached its apo­gee in the years leading up to World War I (by that time the full impact of Darwinism had come to be left in the Christian churches), and from that period comes an apt summary of its position vis-à-vis the Bible:

When we found that . . . Adam was not made directly from dust and Eve from his rib and that the Tower of Babel was not the occasion of the diversification of languages, we had gone too far to stop. The process of criticism had to go on from Genesis to Revelation, with no fear of the curse at the end of the last chapter. It could not stop with Moses and Isaiah; it had to include Matthew and John and Paul. Every one of them had to be sifted; they had already ceased to be taken as un­questioned, final authorities, for plenary inspiration had followed verbal inspiration just as soon as the first chapter of Genesis had ceased to be taken as true history. The miracles of Jesus had to be tested as well as those of Elijah. The date and purpose of the Gospel of John had to be investigated historically as well as that of the Prophecy of Isaiah; and the conclusion of historical criticism had to be accepted with no regard to the old theologies. We have just reached this condition, and there is repeated evidence that it makes an epoch, a revolu­tion, in theologic thought.—New York Independent, 24 June, 1909, quoted in Our Firm Foundation (Washington, D.C., 1955), vol. 1, pp. 574, 575.

With such an attitude to Biblical reli­gion it is not surprising that what we may call the iconoclastic myth grew and flour­ished. This is a practice that has found its way into theological thinking from secular historiography. Increasingly under the in­fluence of evolutionary concepts, historians in this century have turned from the Vic­torian idea that history has been shaped largely by a succession of "great men" to a belief in the greater influence of long-drawn-out processes silently working their will upon mankind. This has led to a re­duction in the status of historical charac­ters hitherto believed to have been of out­standing influence. Thus Luther, for ex­ample, has been degraded from his exalted position as the greatest of the reformers and the leader of a movement that was to have epoch-making results, to the status of a mere tool in the hands of an inevitable historical process, the importance of whose contribution to that process is questionable. More significantly still, the iconoclasts have laid impious hands upon the reputa­tion of Jesus Christ, who to the modernistic religious liberal has become simply some­one well in advance of His time, "the leader in the column of progress," or the highest product of the evolutionary process (in which case it is somewhat odd that in nearly two thousand years that process has failed to produce anyone comparable; but then we must remember that two thousand years are a mere drop in the bucket in the evolutionary calendar). Socinianism was already well established and able to lend support to this notion (the increase in the influence of unitarian views in the nine­teenth century is most significant). Com­parative religion stepped in to assert that Christ was but one of a number of great moral teachers and not necessarily in any way superior to the founders of other faiths. More recently still, the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, with their references to the Teacher of Righteousness, has given opportunity to the iconoclasts to denounce Christ as a plagiarist, taking His teachings from an unknown rabbi of a century ear­lier. The statement quoted above from the New York Independent significantly con­cludes:

To this present teaching, which has invaded all our denominations, Jesus is the world's prime teacher, but it can assert nothing more. There is, it declares, no reasonable proof of His birth from a Virgin, no certainty of a physical resurrection; the Gospels must be analyzed, for they contain mythical elements, non-historical miracles, un­verified assertions.

But just as many liberalists and modern­ists are not sufficiently advanced to get rid of Christianity altogether or to assert that it contains no inherent element of superiority, so within their own ranks are some who are not sophisticated enough to discard altogether the many parts of Bib­lical teachings which their brethren cast aside so lightly. For these there is the com­fortable error of spiritualization by which one may have one's cake and eat it too. Spiritualization of the Scriptures is perhaps the only error discussed here that owes noth­ing to the modern climate of pseudoscien­tific thinking. Its ancestry may be traced clearly from the medieval schoolmen who, when they were not discussing such classic questions as the number of angels able to dance on the point of a pin, busied them­selves in trying to find the hidden, or al­legorical, meaning of texts of Scripture. No text could be accepted as it read, for it was the underlying meaning that was the real one, and this could be extracted only by the exercise of much ingenuity—and a lib­eral use of the imagination.

Modern spiritualizers tragically believe that their handiwork is a great improve­ment upon the original, rather like the Vic­torian architectural "restorers" who de­faced so many of our lovely ancient churches. It would be difficult to think of one major Bible doctrine that has not suffered at their hands, but that of the Second Advent has been a special victim. So over­lain have the beauties of this truth become with the stucco of spiritualization that at the second assembly of the World Council of Churches at Evanston in 1954 its intro­duction in something like its pristine form caused a major sensation and it was treated by some almost as a newly invented heresy! Spiritualizers have, naturally, nothing but contempt for literalists.

Some years ago I attended a series of lectures at the University of London on the Reformation. They were given by a man who professed to be a Calvinist. In his lec­ture on Calvin he enlarged upon the benefi­cent results of Calvin's teachings, but con­cluded that with all the good there was also one unfortunate—even disastrous—effect, namely, that Calvin injected into Protes­tantism the virus of "Biblical literalism." To this lecturer apparently the acceptance of the Bible as it stands could be productive of nothing but harm. This is not an isolated case, for reaction against their founder's insistence upon the importance of the words of Scripture has gone far among Cal­vinists. Thus today the very ones who are held to be the foremost champions of neo­orthodoxy, being in most cases Calvinists, are also Biblical spiritualizers, and it may be that the much-trumpeted "return to the Bible" is nothing more than the creation of a vaguely Biblical milk-and-water theology that is scarcely less destructive of true faith than outright modernism.

H. J. Paton puts his finger upon the fatal weakness of neo-orthodoxy when he writes of its leading exponent, Karl Barth:

Hence his theology, since it can appeal neither to human reason nor to an infallible authority, is bound to become personal and arbitrary: he may use Calvin's words, but they no longer have the same meaning. No doubt he still appeals with supreme assurance if doubtful consistency, to the words of the Bible and the writings of the Re­formers as witnesses to a divine revelation. But once the doctrine of verbal inspiration is abandoned, how can he distinguish between testimony which is worthy of trust and testimony which is not? If he does not judge by the principles of logical con­sistency and moral sanity and religious insight, must he not claim, and does he not in fact claim, that this distinction is revealed to him by God? If so, he seems to fall into a kind of personal dog­matism which is rare, at least in this explicit form. —The Modern Predicament (London, 1955) pp. 50, 51.

For the fact that the type of theological anarchy represented by Biblical spirituali­zation has not invaded the Advent Move­ment we have to thank the invariable in­sistence of our pioneers upon a "Thus saith the Lord" and particularly their proclama­tion of a literal Second Advent.

*An interesting discussion of this theory by P. W. Heward (for) and F. F. Bruce (against) will be found in the Journal of Transactions of the Victoria Institute, LXXVIT (1946), 13-37.


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D.S. Porter, The Bodleian Library, Oxford, England                                                                                     

July 1963

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