Three Attacks of the Modern World

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, November 08, 2012

Three Attacks of the Modern World

During the high middle ages of the 13th century, few things matched the importance and strength of the castle. Its military, political, social, economic and cultural role was paramount. 

The castle was born in 10th-century continental Europe as a private fortress of timber and earthwork, brought to England by the Normans and converted to stone in the 11th and 12th centuries. It was then refined and improved through the engineering knowledge gained from crusading Syria. This medieval land fortress achieved its ultimate development at the end of the 13th century. 

Then a single development in the 14th century, which spread rapidly in the 15th, led to its decline.  

Gunpowder. 

Where the castle had been able to withstand countless sieges and attacks, it suddenly found itself falling with astonishing speed to the heavy stone balls fired by iron cannons.

As gunpowder-firing cannonballs ended the age of castles, so the volleys of modern thought have decimated the fortress of faith. 

Of particular damage were those lofted by Copernicus, Darwin and Freud. 

The Cosmological Attack. Copernicus initiated the cosmological attack. In determining through his telescope that we live in a heliocentric universe, as opposed to an Earth-centered one, he challenged more than the centrality of human existence on planet Earth; he brought into question the trustworthiness of faith itself. 

At the time, the official teaching of the Christian church considered anything other than an Earth-centered universe heresy. The church’s position was, of course, wrong. 

It wasn’t that the Bible was wrong, only their interpretation of obscure texts that had been skewed by the bias that the Earth needed to be at the center of creation to uphold the special nature of God’s creation on Earth. No such assertion was necessary to the doctrine of creation, much less the doctrine of humanity, but the damage had been done. 

Religious pronouncements on matters of public discourse have been automatically suspect ever since, and modern cosmologists now speak to issues of faith and philosophy with greater authority than priests and theologians.

The Biological Attack. Darwin’s assault was not cosmological, but biological – or perhaps more accurately, anthropological. In Origin of Species, this minister’s son contended that the origin of humankind could be accounted for in ways other than direct spiritual activity, namely natural selection. 

No matter that the theory of macroevolution continues to have its fair share of detractors in regard to it failing to account for the actual origin of species (e.g., one of the push backs against naturalistic evolution is that you need self-reproducing organisms in place for natural selection to even begin); the very idea of an alternative explanation rooted in science proved compelling. And, of course, few believers at the time considered the idea of theistic evolution.

Consider the staggering nature of these two volleys alone: First, Earth was not the center of the universe, and now neither were human beings. 

The Psychological Attack. With the walls severely weakened, the third wave of assaults came whistling through the air. Sigmund Freud used psychology to maintain that the idea of the soul itself is conditioned. 

God is nothing but a projection of our desires. We want there to be a God, so we imagine such a Being. Or as Voltaire wrote earlier in 1770, “Se Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer” (“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”). 

Forgetting that such an argument would war against the integrity of many of the intellectual achievements of civilization, including his own theory of psychoanalysis, Freud hit his target in the same manner as Darwin. There was now an option to explain spiritual conviction apart from faith, but seemingly rooted in that which was intellectually apprehensible.

Intriguingly, in writing of such challenges, Freud himself noted that the church’s response was to retreat. Rather than engage the challenge in light of a Christian worldview and the exercise of a rigorous intellect, the church did little more than denounce and deny, leaving the faithful believer with scant resources for grappling with the issues confronting them in the marketplace of ideas. As has often been observed, the church abdicated the throne of factual, public truth, and gave it over to science, which was only too eager to assume the role. 

Why am I raising these three volleys against faith? 

I mean, really, aren’t they a bit dated?

Yes, they are.

But only in the sense that they have done their work. The ideas behind these three volleys continue to fuel the skepticism of those who aren’t even aware of the origin of their doubt. 

The cosmological attack laid the groundwork for the godmongering among the new physicists, and the declaration that God is officially dead and that science and religion do not mix.

The biological attack laid the groundwork for continued assaults against the Bible in terms of “literal interpretations” and a dubious attitude toward its integrity.

The psychological attack laid the groundwork for a subjective approach to all matters related to faith, making it a private, personal matter akin to color preference or preferred vacation spot.

Richard Weaver famously intoned that “ideas have consequences.”

Yes, they do.

But do we even know what those ideas are? And even more to the point, how to fire back a truth that is more powerful than any gunpowder ever conceived?

Many have answered the three attacks above in light of a Christian mind. They actually aren’t that difficult to answer. But sometimes we seem to forget what it really means to fire back, and with what.

Here is your answer:

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.  For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last” (Romans 1:16-17, NIV).

Rome had the strength of her military, the superiority of her wealth, the advancement of her learning, but Paul knew that in the gospel was the very power of God.

Of the six possible words for power that Paul could have used from the Greek language, he chose the word “dunamis,” which is where we get our word for “dynamite.” 

It’s interesting – there is no definite article used in this verse in the original Greek.  I don’t want to get too technical, but it’s actually quite significant.  It means that it doesn’t say that the gospel is the power of God, but a power of God.

In other words, it’s not simply something that God uses from time to time; it is – in itself – a power. The gospel itself contains power and energy. It doesn’t bring power, it is power, energized by the Holy Spirit Himself. The gospel is not a worldview, or a philosophy, or an argument that you try to win. 

It is the very power of God turned loose.

Think of it like you would the perfect storm. We saw the awesome power of a storm in Hurricane Sandy as it tore into the northeast. The idea of the power of a perfect storm was first introduced in recent thought through the book by Sebastian Junger, later made into a movie starring George Clooney, called The Perfect Storm.

It was based on a true event.

In October of 1991, all the elements came together to create the most powerful storm in recorded history. It struck just off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. It was really three storms in one – a hurricane, energy flowing from the Great Lakes, and a frontal system sweeping through New England.

It created an almost apocalyptic situation in the Atlantic, with boats encountering waves of 100 feet, which is the equivalent of a 10-story building.  It was actually the National Weather service that called it “The Perfect Storm.” It took the lives of many people, including the six men aboard the now famous swordfishing boat, the Andrea Gail.

When you share the gospel, you are unleashing a force that brings together everything for a moment of eternal impact: the message of the gospel, the power of God, and a living human soul.

So yes, know the ideas shaping our world. And yes, know what underlies the thinking of those who question the Christian faith. And yes, know how to answer the skepticism.

But also know the power of the gospel. 

And then, for Christ’s sake, fire back.

James Emery White

 

Sources    

Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph and Francis Gies.

On the tenability of the theory of evolution, see Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box; Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial; William A. Dembski, Intelligent Design.

Paul Vitz, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism.

Philip Clayton, The Problem of God in Modern Thought .

Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences.

Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm.

White, James Emery. A Mind for God.

White, James Emery. Serious Times.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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