Two Evangelicals' Rejection of Reason

E. Calvin Beisner

Two Evangelicals' Rejection of Reason

This morning my email brought a note from my good friend S. Fred Singer, Ph.D., an atmospheric physicist, Emeritus Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia, and a leading opponent of global warming alarmism. Fred directed me to the article “The Evangelical Rejection of Reason,” by two professed evangelicals, physicist Karl Giberson and historian Randall Stephens, who ridicule other evangelicals for rejecting that alarm and call them “anti-intellectual.”

“Can one ‘convert’ Giberson on climate science?” Fred asked.

One seriously doubts it. The anti-intellectualism he and Stephens so excoriate precisely pictures their own stance. I doubt they’ve ever sought to become intimately aware of, let alone to understand and impartially evaluate, the scientific arguments against catastrophic, anthropogenic global warming (CAGW).

It’s interesting that they write of themselves, “Like other evangelicals, we accept the centrality of faith in Jesus Christ and look to the Bible as our sacred book.” That’s about as minimalist a definition of “evangelical” as I, a former professor of historical theology, have ever encountered. Anyone reasonably informed of American religious history would know that “evangelical” is a narrower term than “Christian” — yet their definition would fit each and every “Christian” throughout history.

In American usage, “evangelical” has denoted especially those who, in the 1940s through 1970s and beyond, retained the “fundamentalists’” belief in what were termed “the fundamentals of the faith” (e.g., the Trinity; the incarnation of Christ via virgin birth; the substitutionary, satisfactory death of Christ on the cross; the bodily resurrection of Christ and His ascension into heaven; justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone bearing fruit in a changed life of increasing good works; and the authority of the Bible alone as the Word of God written and therefore inerrant in its autographs — these and others were stated and defended quite intelligently in a series of scholarly pamphlets, called “The Fundamentals,” published periodically running from about 1900 to about 1930). But while the evangelicals retained those “fundamentals,” they turned away from the societal isolationism and political inactivism of the fundamentalists.

Foundational to the evangelicals’ whole belief system is belief in the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible (in its “autographs,” that is, in the original languages and as first written down by the prophets and apostles). Thus, for example, the doctrinal basis of the Evangelical Theological Society declares, “The Bible alone and the Bible in its entirety is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.” (Founded in the 1950s, ETS requires a Ph.D. in Biblical or theological studies for full membership — and if I remember correctly there are around 5,000 of these Ph.D.’d “anti-intellectuals” in its membership, and most earned their Ph.D.s at major secular research universities—something Giberson and Stephens write of as an indication that they’re not anti-intellectuals.)

From this premise it follows that the Bible is the ultimate criterion of truth. While there are many things not revealed in it but discoverable elsewhere, nothing that contradicts it is true. One can of course reject that premise and thus its conclusions, but to understand “evangelical” in any substantive sense as it’s been used in American history, one must understand that.

Now, what Giberson and Stephens tell us is that they “look to the Bible as [their] sacred book.” Well, okay, and Hindus look to the Bhagavad Gita and Vedas, and Muslims to the Koran, etc., but interestingly enough those books don’t play the role for Hindus or even for Muslims that the Bible does for (at least evangelical) Christians. As Winfried Corduan showed in A Tapestry of Faiths: The Common Threads Between Christianity and World Religions, they function not so much as sources of truth but as talismans, sacred items the very possession of which almost magically brings blessing. Not so the Bible for (at least evangelical) Christians. It is the ultimate, the definitive, source of truth.

What is particularly revealing about Giberson and Stephens is their snidely worded description of one evangelical organization they detest as founded “on the premise that biblical truth trumps all other knowledge.” The word choice is telling. Had they written that the organization was founded “on the premise that the Bible provides the presuppositions on which the Christian faith is built and that what is revealed in it is the ultimate criterion against which other truth claims are to be tested,” they’d have lost the rhetorical effect of “trumped” (which even sounds dumb) and endangered their rejection of that view by making it clear that what they reject is in fact the historic position of Protestantism — for which sola Scriptura was the formal principle of the Reformation.

And had they written that for this organization “biblical truth is the criterion by which to judge all other opinions,” they’d have not begged the question by ignoring the fact that much that masquerades as knowledge (which is justified true belief) is in fact not. (For example, apparently, that nothing can go faster than the speed of light — something every physicist since Einstein “knew” until scientists working at Gran Sasso, one of the world’s largest physics laboratories, reported last month that they’d observed neutrinos exceeding that limit, perhaps adding to the long series of upsets of scientific consensus so brilliantly explored in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.)

Dr. Giberson is a former professor of physics, and Dr. Stephens is an associate professor of history. Very well. I suppose those credentials indicate that they’re not anti-intellectuals, however anti-intellectual their diatribe in The New York Times might be. The network of scholars who constitute The Cornwall Alliance, numbering well over one hundred, includes scores of Ph.D.s in the natural sciences, Biblical studies, theology and the social sciences, all of whom reject CAGW.

The authors of a book we published early this year and a major paper we’re about to release are, respectively, a Ph.D.’d current professor of physics (James A. Wanliss) and a Ph.D.’d economist (Timothy Terrell). I’m a Ph.D.’d historian and theologian. All of us have credentials to match Giberson’s and Stephens’s; all of us believe in the inerrancy of Scripture and that it is therefore the ultimate criterion of truth; all of us, almost certainly unlike Giberson and Stephens, have committed the cardinal sin of actually studying both sides of the debate on CAGW; and all of us disbelieve in CAGW.

Can Giberson and Stephens be “converted” on CAGW? I doubt it. Their article, dominated by ad hominem and petitio principii, suggests that their minds are closed. But if they are true intellectuals, that is, if they have open minds, they might study, for example, The Cornwall Alliance’s A Renewed Call to Truth, Prudence, and Protection of the Poor: An Evangelical Examination of the Theology, Science, and Economics of Global Warming (the work of 29 scholars roughly evenly divided among scientists, economists and theologians) or, more ambitiously, Climate Change Reconsidered, the work of the Non-Governmental International Panel on Climate Change, and learn the reasons for rejecting CAGW enough to understand them, even if not to embrace them. Who knows? With God, all things are possible — if the conversion of a Saul of Tarsus, then surely also of two anti-intellectual “evangelicals.”

E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., is Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, has written four books on the theology, ethics, science and economics of resources and the environment, and has testified as an expert witness on the ethics of climate policy before committees of the United States Senate and House of Representatives.

Publication date: October 19, 2011