Does critical thinking lead to sceptical theology?

92y5puLast month, John Inge, the Bishop of Worcester, wrote in the Church Times an eirenic but penetrating review of Sceptical Christianity: Exploring credible belief by Robert Reiss:

He believes that we should engage with his doubts — about the Virgin birth, the incarnation, the resurrection and life after death, to name some. His heroes, whom he quotes frequently, are those who expressed them a generation ago: people such as Maurice Wiles, John Hick, Dennis Nineham, John Robinson, Harry Williams, and Leslie Houlden. The author wonders how much the fact that today’s bishops do not engage with the issues with which he remains preoccupied has “contributed to the increasing marginalisation of Christian belief”. Very little, if at all, in my opinion — but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

The historian David Edwards once wrote in this paper that it seemed for a while as if the theologians above would lead a renewal of the Church. They did not, he continued, because they concentrated more on what they did not believe than on what they did. Whatever else it might be, that is not the way to renewal.

For me, reading this book was like entering into a time warp. The author seems to assume that we all share his doubts but choose to be silent, and suggests that this might indicate a lack of intellectual integrity on the part of bishops. That is a difficult charge to sustain against the likes of Rowan Williams and Tom Wright. He engages hardly at all with other contemporary scholars, except briefly with the immensely impressive David Bentley Hart. There are many others who argue persuasively for a much more orthodox approach.

Many of the author’s difficulties stem from an inability to reconcile his understanding of science with Christian belief. Like Reiss, I was once a scientist. To me, unlike him, it seems easier now to believe in orthodox Christianity with intellectual integrity than it was. Science, like theology, has moved on.

To gauge a little of whether this is a fair review, it is very enlightening to read some of the reviews on Amazon:

Reiss has an acute sense of history. His book will bring immense comfort to the many who call themselves Anglicans, but who are embarrassed when they recite the creeds, claiming to believe what is incredible, and irritated when preached to by apparently half-witted clergy who never raise the question of truth or evidence. (Baroness Mary Warnock, Oxford)

As the author clearly states, the Church of England is quite permissive in allowing its followers – and even its clergy – to express views and beliefs that are contrary to the creeds and liturgies of the church. Even sermons that contradict doctrine are tolerated, albeit with raised eyebrows and the shaking of heads…

The method he [Reiss] uses is generally to re-define what the words mean, and to interpret them as symbols or allegories for truths that any person – believer or not – might find useful in living a meaningful and useful life. For example, ‘God’ for Reiss is roughly similar to the ‘God’ of the late atheistic scientist Carl Sagan: it is the universe and its predictable and dependable laws. ‘Salvation’ is not being saved from eternal punishment, but rather finding peace and a place in the complex world in which we live. The guilt and fear instilled by religion, says Reiss, are likely to be helped more by good psychotherapy than by church doctrine.

Reiss doubts that Jesus actually rose from the dead, or that he was literally divine. He views Jesus’ suffering and death as being a symbol of how God (the universe?), as represented by Jesus, participates in our everyday human suffering. The purpose was to make us aware that there is (was) suffering greater than ours. Prayer and public worship, Reiss suggests, are most important not for one’s relationship to God, but for providing psychological support to the worshiper and a meaningful participation in a community. To be a Christian is to be involved in the world in order to help relieve the pain and suffering of others, not to have correct beliefs and correct rituals.

Some readers, of course, may review his summary of all the problems with Christian doctrines and beliefs, and conclude, ‘Why bother with religion? Do I really need it to be a happy, useful, moral and beneficent human being?’ (Richard Packham)

In light of this, what is truly astonishing has been the reaction against Inge’s review in subsequent letters. Anthony Phillips, who was chaplain at my college in Oxford (and antipathetic to the activities of the CU), protested:

The review by the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, of Canon Robert Reiss’s Sceptical Christianity cannot go unchallenged. The Bishop describes reading Canon Reiss with his frequent quotations from Wiles, Hick, Nineham, Robinson, Harry Williams, and Houlden as “entering into a time warp”. He is, of course, unfortunately right.

In recent years, the kind of inquiry into which these scholars entered has in general been aban­doned for a simplistic “the Bible says” approach. How often is critical examination of such issues as the Virgin birth, the incarnation, resur­rection, or life after death heard from the pulpit today?

At one level Phillips is right: critical questions are not all that often properly engaged with in the pulpit. But that can happen in one of two directions—either to assume that things are easy, and that there are no questions, or to assume that the questions are intractable, and that there are no answers. Neither helps to build mature faith. But, like Reiss, Phillips appears to be ignorant of a whole generation of evangelical and orthodox scholarship which has fully engaged with these questions and found (with Inge and against Reiss) robust, convincing and critically reflective answers. This, therefore, was my response the following week.

I was a student at Oxford in the early 1980s, when Canon Anthony Phillips was our college chaplain. The theology department at the university had a (well-deserved) reputation for undermining Christian faith because of its dogmatic commitment to liberal scepticism.

The era of “Wiles, Hick, Nineham, Robinson, Houlden” and the others which Canon Phillips mentions was not a “high point” at all, but one that, by identifying critical thinking with scepticism, hollowed out the Church’s theological understanding. This is not unconnected to the challenges that we are facing today.

When studying theology, I was grateful to have been introduced to another, parallel, generation of scholarship, including the late Dick France and Howard Marshall, Tom Wright, and Richard Bauckham. This generation was equally critical and equally scholarly, but went beyond embracing agnosticism to offering good, well-established, and critically robust reasons for orthodox belief — not least by being willing to be critical of criticism itself.

It is just such a well-informed confidence that is needed to undergird Renewal and Reform — not more tired, dogmatic liberalism from the 1960s.

John Inge is absolutely right: the scepticism of a previous generation is never going to lead to a renewal of the Church. It didn’t then, and it won’t now. As Phillips says, neither will a naive credulism. But what is tragic is the continued existence of a liberal tradition of the Church which has never stepped out of its own ideas to engage with others (evangelical scholars never have that luxury, since we cannot avoid engaging with the historic liberal mainstream) and realise that there are good answers to these important questions. Would that the Church, and local churches, spent more time engaging both with the important questions and with the plausible and persuasive answers offered by faith that seeks understanding.

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15 thoughts on “Does critical thinking lead to sceptical theology?”

  1. I think understanding the Bible in the context of the cultures of its authors, especially in their understanding of God, people, and nature, compared to what science now reveals, is for me, a very helpful way of deepening my faith & understanding and communicating it to others, especially scientists and agnostics

  2. These 1960s thinkers were:
    (1) somewhat married to the Zeitgeist (and therefore became widowed in the next age);
    (2) mostly indulging in speculative theology – it is questionable whether this (as opposed to, say NT history or Philosophy of Religion) is a sufficiently verifiable/falsifiable area of study to be counted as a scholarly discipline;
    (3) short on substantial works of scholarship as opposed to potboilers. Robinson was a good NT scholar who produced some important work; and Houlden produced some impressive reference works towards the end of his career.

    The four Ian quotes as having helped him (France, Marshall, Wright, Bauckham) are all biblical scholars, a different discipline from Wiles’s, and a more grounded, historical one. The last two named would have been great in any era.

    If we have turned away from speculation since the 1960s that is all to the good. (But have we?) Robinson’s speculations included a proposal to reduce the age of consent, and his depth good / height bad idea is illogical.

  3. Thanks Ian for your letter to the CT which was a breath of fresh air.

    In my experience, most of those seeking faith are untroubled by the questions that the enlightenment asked – they have more pressing needs, personal and otherwise (*). Which is why the new churches and Pentecostals are far more effective than your regular C of E. Not that there isn’t room for an ‘intelligent orthodox Christianity’ e.g. Tim Keller, Tom Wright, C S Lewis etc. It’s just that it is a minority interest.

    (*) you see this all the time on Alpha as people glaze over during the apologetic bits and are impacted by the more personal insights and stories. ‘The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of’ (Pascal)

  4. This is, at its heart, a battle between the primacy of authority and evidence. Most who prioritize evidence have simply left the church, leaving the field open to arguments from authority.

    The “orthodox” scholars listed haven’t come up with any radical justification for magical thinking: they’ve just produced wordy apologetic. N.T. Wright’s doorstop on the resurrection started with its conclusions and worked backwards. He believes Jesus rose again due to faith, not some knockdown argument or compelling piece of evidence.

    Liberal theology does, I agree, suffer from an excessive focus on what it’s against, not what it’s for: but given the howls of outrage that greet liberalism when it does break cover (John Shelby Spong’s been vilified, and Richard Holloway was driven from his post), is it any wonder that so many liberals choose obfuscation?

    • Arguments from authority are not arguments at all, by definition. As you say, NT Wright has written many pages, but in all of them I have never seen him make an argument from authority rather than evidence. Can you point me to where he has done so? Thanks.

      Secondly, as you agree with me that evidence is what is needed, what is your evidence that Wright worked backwards? I shall be interested to see and analyse it.

      • Example’s the one given: The Resurrection of the Son of God, in which Wright makes an argument for a miraculous resurrection (alien idea, therefore miracle) that could equally be used to defend intervention by the equally fantastical devices of a time traveler (tips hat to Michael Moorecock) or an extra terrestrial.

        How do we know he presumed his conclusions? Wright came to it as a devout evangelical who’s had faith in God since his childhood, and proceed to fit every piece of evidence to Christian doctrine, even when it obliged him to resort to the methodology noted above. He’s undoubtedly sincere in his views, but the reasonable inference is there.

  5. No. If anyone proceeded that way they would not be sincere but dishonest.

    ‘Alien idea, therefore miracle’ is by no stretch an argument at all. I have never heard Dr Wright make that argument. What is the page ref? I once read a similar assertion from his pen, but I don’t think it was on the topic of the Resurrection.

    Faith since childhood. Yes. Children instinctively know which things are good and do them good. But the Resurrection and the facts of Jesus’s life are empirical / historical matters. They cannot be deduced from the general reality or goodness of God.

    • James and Christopher,

      Here’s a video of Tom Wright that I think is making the point that James is referring to:

      I wonder, though, whether James has ever read ‘The Meaning of Jesus’ where wright and Marcus Borg argue it our about the resurrection . Plenty of appeals to evidence there.

      For my money, though, I think James has a point. As a believer myself I don’t think there is a ‘knock down argument’ or smoking gun that will make a believer of a non-believer. That’s not to say that I don’t think the Christian worldview is the best explanation of the world and universes as it is, but one piece of evidence? I think it’s more a series of circumstantial things.

      Ultimately, I agree with James that it is a question of argument from authority – and I would say that not only fits perfectly with the Christian worldview but in fact is necessary for its integrity. The clue is in the name – ‘God’. Christianity isn’t one of a smorgasbord of valid faith choices. The worldview of Christianity is in fact pretty binary. Yes sometimes people have valid intellectual questions, and we can help with those, but there comes a point where the issue isn’t intellectual but deeply personal – whether we’ll bow the knee to Jesus Christ, as he commands us to. The New Testament view is that in the end we aren’t intellectual enquirers in need of a new paradigm, or looking for that elusive final piece of the historical jigsaw – we’re sinners who need to turn to Christ as Lord and Saviour.

      • Well said, Peter.

        Wright of course adduces evidence: as you rightly say, plenty of it. (I’ve flicked through the book, although not in-depth, since Borg’s as biased as Wright, but in the opposite direction, indulging in Crossan’s Jesus of California.)

        Problem is that Wright considers himself bound by the authority of scripture (itself an extension of the authority of God), so his reading of the evidence is constrained by those parameters. He can’t allow himself to say, “Here, the Gospels are likely inaccurate,” anymore than he can allow himself, while writing history, to set theological claims to one side.

    • I don’t have the doorstop to hand, but Wright summarizes the argument here:-

      “If we are to think in first-century Jewish terms, it is impossible to conceive what sort of religious or spiritual experience someone could have that would make them say that the kingdom of God had arrived when it clearly had not, that a crucified leader was the Messiah when he obviously was not, or that the resurrection occurred last month when it obviously did not.”

      Either Wright’s somehow ignorant of the glaringly obvious fact that, even accepting his reading of the texts, our knowledge of 1st century Judaism is extremely limited by the fraction of documents that survive; or he’s biased by his faith. This isn’t an insult: he openly accepts it:-

      “… I myself stand in a line of historians who have explicitly renounced that pseudo-objectivity and have instead argued for a form of ‘critical realism’ in which the interaction between the historian and the subject matter is fully allowed for.”

      By contrast, E.P. Sanders’ portrait of Jesus is alien to his liberal Protestant theology, because he works to counter his biases; Wright embraces them, and makes a Jesus that just happens to fit the creeds to perfection.

  6. Hi Peter

    You couldn’t be more wrong. There is no such thing as argument from authority, since authority is no argument. If X said something, that does not make it true. Obviously.

    James said that NTW uses the non-argument ‘alien idea, therefore miracle’. The video clip does make his central oft-repeated pro-argument, but that argument cannot be summed up that way. Historical data (the appearances, the transformed lives, inability to provide a convincing alternative explanation) have been used as evidence for the resurrection but the case would be weakened if belief in resurrection were a standard step to take in similar circumstances in this culture. NTW’s book shows that it was not a standard step, so strengthening the case for the belief being connected to the data. That is his point.

    What NTW says is that the Christian worldview works better than its competitors, makes sense of the data better (and therefore is more likely to be true). On that ground, why he should say ‘fine’ to his philosophy tutor beats me. His philosophy tutor had no right to say ‘I choose to believe XYZ’ since we should believe anything on the basis of evidence not choice! If it’s on the basis of choice it’s nothing but ideology or personal preference (which scholars, I thought, had no regard for, or certainly *should* have no regard for) and is therefore worthless.

    Of course there is not a single argument because there is not a single issue. Creation, resurrection, what happened at the cross, providence/prayer – these are 4 quite separate issues before we even start. They have to be addressed separately.

    I therefore find no evidence that NTW uses the ‘argument’ from authority, nor that he ‘argues’ backwards.

    • Christopher you mistake me, I’m not saying that I or NTW are arguing from authority in that sense. I fully agree with the idea that the Christian worldview makes more sense than any other.

      However, I don’t think that chucking a Josh McDowell book at someone is a surefire way to bring them to Christ – it may answer a lot of questions for the person – but in the end it’s repentance and faith that brings someone to Christ. In that sense it’s the authority of Jesus I’m talking about – Jesus didn’t say ‘I’m going to answer all your questions exhaustively’ – he said ‘Follow me’ – the basal issue is whether we do follow Him or not.

  7. But the way he makes things fall into place when we do obey and follow him – that is evidence. If things do not fall into place, that is evidence against.

    So everything is evidence in the end.

    Plus – if people are not evidence-centred, they end up being ideology-centred and thinking they can tailor-make their own reality, their own world, according to their own specifications. Josh mcDowell is evidence-centred, which makes him one of the good guys, provided he handles the evidence honestly.

  8. Non belief will out. The curious – even bewildering – thing to me is why the unbelievers still want to hang around the Church of England. You can’t help but feel they would be happier and more fulfilled elsewhere

    But then I’m a Baptist. These mysteries are too profound for me


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