This is the transcript of Tim Laurence’s address at the inaugural conference of the Association of Christian Postgraduate Groups within IFES Europe’s Postgraduate Initiative, ‘Good News for the University’, delivered from Cambridge by Zoom on Saturday 22 May 2021.
II. Practical Outworkings (continuted)
Outworking 2: Our Common Ethos
We have noted that one secular account of academic purpose has been the enjoyment of radical intellectual autonomy, leading to fragmentation, in denial of the wider context of creation, Christ and the church.
But another feature of our contemporary university context is our ‘cancel culture’. In the UK there is currently draft legislation trying to force universities to protect freedom of speech because the government is concerned that ‘cancel culture’ has started to run wild, with speakers being cancelled at the last minute for saying something that's deemed to be politically incorrect or potentially offensive by a group of students, administrators or academics.
But our vision is that our Christian postgraduate groups are not a place where we ‘cancel’ each other. And, importantly, our rationale for this vision emerges consistently from the same Christian intellectual vision which gave us our clarity of purpose.
Intellectual humility, love, and worship
It is not merely our vocation which is ‘from God’, ‘through God, and ‘to God’ - but it is also - more specifically - our knowledge. In other words, there is a Christian epistemology. We recognise that, as creatures, we do not gain knowledge autonomously, but by God’s generosity. He not only gives us our rational powers and a knowable universe, but he sustains us in the process of learning. This should ensure that ‘intellectual humility’ is the first mark of the Christian scholar. But when we not only consider that our knowledge is ‘from God’ but also ‘for God’ then our intellectual humility should be redoubled. It means we are stewards of our knowledge, and that, ultimately, we are not only seeking to use it to love our neighbour (and promote our neighbour’s good, through cultural flourishing) but we are seeking to hold it in an orientation of worship toward God in praise of his glory. So if we disagree with others, all those disagreements will take place in a broader epistemological-ethical context of humility and love. This integrated combination of epistemology and ethics is what sits behind what we summarise as our ethos.
As Christians we should therefore interact with other academics in an exemplary way. This applies all the more to relationships within the Christian academic community, where, in our disagreements, we can unfortunately sometimes find ourselves mirroring the secular culture instead. The similarity doesn’t lie in following the secularists by absolutising our own intellectual freedom. On the contrary, the similarity can derive from our commitment to God’s consistency and truthfulness, leading to difficulties when we disagree over the best way to integrate what we learn as humans through God’s wider creation (‘general revelation’) and what we learn specifically through our being Christians with access to Scripture and the Holy Spirit (‘special revelation’).
Of course, ‘all truth is God’s truth’. Both sources of knowledge come from God, both refer to the same reality, and both will be consistent with one another. But we don’t always see how this is the case. In that interim period, a strong commitment to one form of revelation on a particular matter can sometimes be interpreted by someone else as an undermining of the other form of revelation. Whichever we are defending, ‘first-order’ foundational principles can seem to be at stake. In the case of general revelation these will be the principles which undergird the university itself and our celebration of rationality and the intellect (including, therefore, indirectly, the rationality of the gospel message, and the goodness and persuasiveness of our witness). In the case of defending special revelation we’re directly concerned with the gospel itself through our holding to the entire trustworthiness of Scripture as that which, in practice, is our supreme authority in all we do - including in our pursuit of truth. In practice our holding to special revelation includes the reality that wherever there is a perceived tension between sources of authority, our consciences are bound to hold what we believe Scripture is teaching - and we hold to that teaching as an expression of trust in God.
So one way we can put our humility and love into practice in this context is to assure one another at the outset that, whatever the details of our discussion, as a group we all specifically affirm the foundational importance of both general and special revelation. We can also affirm that they are mutually interpreting: for example, our understanding of Scripture draws on our rational and linguistic capacities and what we learn about its cultural context; conversely, how we understand ourselves and the world around us should draw on what Scripture tells us. This principle of mutual interpretation means that at times we may need to revise our interpretation of Scripture in the light of the world, and vice versa. But ultimately this is not an endlessly relativistic hermeneutical circle, leading to scepticism, because we also recognise that there is an asymmetrical relationship between these two forms of knowing and interpreting.
This ‘asymmetry’ might be an unfamiliar term for some, but this probably reflects the fact that the integration of ‘faith and scholarship’ may still be an unfamiliar conversation in some quarters. The word merely summarises the orthodox Protestant or evangelical position within categories that allow for our conscious comparison between these two forms of knowing. But it may be that a brief excursus will be helpful.
Asymmetry of general and special revelation
We can explore this ‘asymmetry’ by two complementary approaches. First, when we think of an asymmetrical relationship between general and special revelation, we can begin by thinking of the asymmetry of salvation history, as it moves in a linear fashion from creation, through the fall, to redemption in the gospel - the categories we noticed earlier in 2 Corinthians 4:4-6. In big picture terms, the effectiveness of general revelation of God’s creation has been impaired by the fall (cf. Rom. 1:18-25), but special revelation brings within it God’s re-creative power through the Holy Spirit to overcome our sinful blindness (2 Cor. 4:4-6).
We can also think of this asymmetry in terms of the degree to which our knowledge corresponds directly with our personal relationship with God. The paradigmatic expression of God’s special revelation is the person of Christ himself - the Word (John 1:1). Certainly he was fully human, but the Word entered our world from outside the given system of creation, and as God he addressed us directly. The same principle is true of God’s verbal revelation in Scripture, which interprets Christ’s coming to us. Certainly, God used human authors but the doctrine of divine inspiration means Scripture is also nonetheless addressing us directly from God (2 Pet. 1:21, 2 Tim 3:16). In the case of the Old Testament this was largely shaped around his covenant promises, and in the case of the New Testament it is built around the apostolic testimony - and both categories should be received with our trust. As God identifies himself directly with his Word, and as the whole of God’s special revelation is shaped around his revelation of Christ, and as our appropriate response to Christ is to trust him, the general paradigm for our interaction with Scripture is to be one of our personal trust in God.
As the gospel concerns not only faith but also repentance so too our requisite trust in God is often to be contrasted with trust in ourselves or in other things. So to distinguish and highlight our trust in him alone, God sometimes calls us to trust in his words without (or even in spite of) other more common forms of evidence in creation through general revelation (Heb. 11, Rom 4:19). This might even entail a call to believe something - like the death of God on a cross! - that seems foolish to the unbeliever (1 Cor. 1:18). Abraham’s response to God’s promise - of a miraculous birth despite the ‘deadness’ of his and wife’s elderly bodies - shows that special revelation correlates with the way the comparative deadness of our experience of this fallen creation is overcome by God’s resurrecting new-creation power within the gospel (Rom 4:17-20, Eph. 2:1-10). In this way Abraham’s example also turns out to illustrate our earlier principle of asymmetry as it is seen in the pattern of salvation history, with its pattern of creation (life), fall (deadness), and redemption (miraculous birth, cf. resurrection life).
Abraham’s paradigmatic example also recapitulates the bigger picture we have seen with Augustine’s City of God. The ultimate rationale for God’s interaction in this way with Abraham, and with us, is that we should give glory to God alone. Hence the result of Abraham’s trust was that ‘no unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God.’ (Rom. 4:20). This is why the episode sits within the wider narrative of justification by faith alone - it is ‘so that no-one may boast’ (Rom. 3:27, Eph. 2:9, cf. 1 Cor. 1:29). As Augustine contrasted the two cities he concluded:
“...the earthly city glories in itself, the heavenly city glories in the Lord. The former looks for glory from men, the latter finds its highest glory in God.”
In this way it is clear that the principle of ‘asymmetry’ is theologically inseparable from the gospel itself, emerges from the flow of salvation history in ‘creation-fall-redemption’, and corresponds with the highest principles of the Christian tradition.
Loving one another in practice
Having said that, this principle of asymmetry is going to be very complex to work out in practice - almost by definition. By analogy we can say that parallel lines are symmetrical, while a vertical line and a diagonal line are asymmetrical. But how asymmetrical is our diagonal line? One person’s diagonal is nearly vertical, and another’s is nearly horizontal - but they are both asymmetrical!
Of course, there is more to be said about how these principles will work out in different disciplines and how we distinguish between data and models or hypotheses, or between our confessional goals and our systematic formulations, and how we must not compare apples and oranges when working between two different formal academic disciplines and their appropriate modes of discourse.
But none of these caveats will ultimately remove the practical challenge of pursuing truth in practice. When doing this together, aside from our deciding to protect certain confessional or doctrinal boundaries, the only tool we have is to love one another by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Having said that, the New Testament nonetheless demonstrates how this ethical calling can be helped significantly by the reminder of some other broader principles of the gospel, which is the source of our love for one another in the church. This will be helpful especially as we consider fostering an evangelical ethos within our postgraduate groups.
Romans 14 speaks about Christians disagreeing on disputable matters. We should neither hold each other in ‘contempt’ nor ‘judge’ one another (14:3). These words usually refer to perceived cultural trajectories - where the liberals hold the conservatives in contempt (e.g. for being ‘anti-intellectual’), while the conservatives judge the liberals (e.g. for heading toward doctrinal compromise).
So how does Paul use a gospel-perspective to help avoid a ‘cancel culture’ in this early church? We can note two themes as being especially pertinent to our own context and my talk today in particular. They both draw us to recognise that we should not trample on one another, because in dealing with one another we are treading on holy ground.
First, to ‘judge’ in this context is not merely to judge someone else’s opinions but it is to judge their worship. The issue concerned what someone did or did not do ‘to the Lord’ (Rom. 14:6-8). In our own context, as we have already seen above in our ‘common mission’, our knowledge is not merely held ‘from God’ but it is also held ‘to God’. So our knowledge is held not only in an orientation of royal stewardship but also in priestly worship. This connection between worship and knowledge is especially the case when the matter of disagreement concerns our interpretation of Scripture, and the holy ground of an individual’s personal trust toward God. This is all the more pertinent when we disagree with those who feel ‘weak’ because their conscience holds them back from the enjoyment of behaviours or beliefs embraced by other Christians or the wider culture - thereby causing them the discomfort or even shame of missing out. Even if we or they are wrong, it is God, not we, who accept their worship, and in Christ he does accept the worship of our fellow believers (Rom. 14:3-4).
Second, regardless of our activity, within the Christian community the individuals concerned are brothers and sisters: we are not to destroy someone ‘for whom Christ died’ (Rom 14:15). On the contrary, we will seek to think the best of one another - giving the best possible construction on their motivations and trusting they are seeking to pursue truth with God’s help just as we are. So there will be a particularly special ethos to any community which is self-consciously uniting around the celebration of the shared gospel centering on our trust in the cross of Christ. Such a community is built on a shared confession. And this takes us to our third and final outworking of the big idea of Christ’s glory.
For now, we might summarise our common ethos within our postgraduate groups:
Summary: common ethos
We want to pursue our common mission together in a way that recognises the deep connections between our relationship to God, our relationship to knowledge, and our relationship to one another:
Attitude to God: We want to work with intellectual humility and worship, obedience and trust - because our knowledge is not self-existent but received as a gift from God.
Attitude to knowledge:
God has made us rational creatures to pursue truth. We learn through our experience of his creation (‘general revelation’) and through our participation in Christ, as the Holy Spirit helps us understand Scripture (‘special revelation’).
We recognise that these are mutually-informing and that our interpretation of one is helped and corrected by the other. At the same time we recognise their asymmetrical relationship. Through special revelation the Spirit’s ongoing re-creative work overcomes the effects of the fall in our lives, including in our minds. We are called to respond to Christ and to Scripture with our personal trust.
Attitude to one another: We want to share our knowledge generously without boasting; where we disagree we seek neither to judge nor hold in contempt, but act in love - especially toward our fellow believers.