Martin Luther called the church back to the bible’s authority 500 years ago. New attacks in our scientific age demand a new reformation.
Since the early 1500s, Western culture has drifted from the nearly universal assumption that God exists to its current widespread assumption that he does not. How did this happen? After all, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg—500 years ago on October 31, 1517—the Reformation swept Europe and seemed to revitalize the church.
In his 1985 book, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America, historian James Turner pointed his finger at an unexpected culprit. He examined closely the topic of origins science and found that, following the Reformation, Christians mishandled the new discipline of science, particularly origins science. In their efforts to accommodate the Bible to the latest secular ideas, Christian thinkers opened the floodgates to abandonment of belief in a revealed, personal God:
“In trying to adapt their religious beliefs to socioeconomic change, to new moral challenges, to novel problems of knowledge, to the tightening standards of science, the defenders of God slowly strangled him” (xiii).
Whatever does this mean? Well, simply, he meant that it was not merely the bullying of secular irreligion but the compromise of Protestant religion that brought the West to its present atheist state. Sound over the top? At first, I was skeptical too. But at the end of a captivating read, I was persuaded.
Unfortunately, Turner’s research has effected few changes in the Christian community. As I pick up my own pen (so to speak), I am convinced that it’s worth another try. To that end I’d like to rehearse the same story, pressing home the implications of the Reformation in the present day, with the goal of preventing further carnage.
The Protestant Reformation began promisingly with a robust return to the Scriptures as our first and final authority for understanding the world and all truth. In the formal words of its leaders, the Bible was the “norming norm that cannot be normed” (norma normans non normata). In other words, no authority external to the Christian Scriptures may rightly “norm” or correct them.
This formula, more famously captured in the phrase Sola
Scriptura, is known as the formal principle of the Reformation.
For the Reformers, the Bible alone was the foundation
of a proper perspective on all knowledge—and not spiritual
knowledge alone, but common knowledge as well. They took
seriously the words of Proverbs 1:7 that “
the fear of the Lord
is the beginning of knowledge.”
The principle was initially well received, and was espoused in the 1500s and 1600s not only by the religious community, but by a great many scientists and other luminaries as well. These cultural leaders made huge strides in every field of study. The prevailing assumption was that modern science was affirming, even proving God.
Isaac Newton was exemplary of this school of thought, and to this day “Newtonian” science remains synonymous with theistic science. Few considered the possibility that we could detach the natural realm from the supernatural. The result was a brief window of scientific inquiry that sought, as one of its principal ends, to declare the glory of God.
The Enlightenment changed all that. Beginning in the late 1600s and early 1700s, an anti-supernatural approach to scholarly inquiry began to dominate. This was the Age of Reason, and increasingly an age of skepticism.
Intellectuals no longer considered God necessary for knowledge, and their urgency to check science with Scripture began to dissipate. This did not mean that they discarded God summarily—many still regarded him quite highly, especially in the disciplines of ethics, law, and other social sciences. But even here pragmatism began to take hold. Christian thinkers appealed to God only when it was convenient to do so—and as time passed, it rarely was.
Household names in the “hard” sciences, such as Carl Linnaeus, James Hutton, Benjamin Franklin, and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, were even more aggressive in suppressing God. In the academic world, they replaced theism (the belief that God is active and personal) with deism (the belief that God is passive and impersonal); they replaced creationism (belief that God directly created the universe and intervenes in nature and world affairs) with naturalism (the belief that nature runs itself by independent laws, and can be understood without reference to God). They believed they could explain the world without God.
But secularism should not be credited with slaying God. No, that dreadful responsibility falls on the heirs of the Reformation. Why? Because they did not finish the Reformation by insisting that its formal principle, Sola Scriptura, be pressed to its logical end in science as well.
Instead, when the pressures mounted to explain the world without reference to the Bible or the Creator, the defenders of God permitted these philosophies to “norm” (that is, to correct) that which never should have been normed—the Christian Scriptures.
The first concessions, mostly in the field of geology, seemed rather innocuous. What possible difference could it make if the rocks were older than a literal reading of the Bible allowed? None at all, mused the enlightened believers of the day! And so the defenders of God sat in their ivory towers and congenially supervised a shocking shift in Scripture’s role in understanding the world. Brute science became an independent norm for interpreting reality and its meaning, and when the Bible got in the way, the defenders of God meekly set it aside.
A few conservative Christians dissented with this approach, but their dissent was short-lived and soon faded into the background. In Turner’s sad words, “Furor proved temporary: prudent retreat from extreme literalism (never universally practiced in any case) saved the authenticity of Scripture. By 1850, few regarded geology as a serious threat to Christianity” (p. 99).
The defenders of God had successfully blocked the attempt to assassinate him. Or had they?
The following decades proved that the initial concessions had unlocked the door, and the coming surge could not be contained. Now that the secular geologist had a foot in the door, scholars in other disciplines began to demand similar concessions. The secular astronomer asked for the privilege of standing in judgment over the biblical account, and it was granted. Next came the secular biologist. Then the secular zoologist. And so forth. In time the concessions became routine, and the principle of Sola Scriptura was slowly whittled away until little remained apart from a few “fundamentals.” But at least we had those, the defenders of God said with relief, and they seemed to be enough.
But then came a crisis that could not be ignored. Darwin was the primary catalyst, but we mustn’t blame him. He was simply following the well-worn path taken by many before him. The idea of biological evolution was just the next logical step.
But one aspect of Darwin’s views—human evolution—went a step too far, and it was theologically impossible—scandalous, really—to concede it. By mainstreaming this idea, Darwin had struck a blow to the very root of the Christian system, and that system now teetered on the precipice of dissolution. Adam had lost his unique function as God’s image bearer and representative. The concept of original sin no longer made any sense, and sin could no longer be considered the cause of death in the world—even human death. And the framework for understanding Christ’s work on the Cross collapsed.
No, the defenders of God had to draw a line in the sand, and here they would make their stand.
500 years after the Reformation caught fire in Europe, few Europeans claim to be Christian. In the latest Eurobarometer poll, only a small percentage believe in any kind of God at all.
The crisis climaxed in July of 1925—at least in the minds of the American press and the public—in the unlikely little town of Dayton, Tennessee. The American Civil Liberties Union decided to challenge the line in the sand drawn by the defenders of God. They recruited a teacher named John T. Scopes to defy the state’s newly minted Butler Act, which barred the teaching of human evolution in state-funded classrooms.
Scopes was found guilty and summarily fined. But this detail is incidental to the trial. It was not really Scopes, but rather God, who was put on trial. And the world watched, through the lenses of a sensationalizing media, as two conflicting worldviews—naturalism and biblical supernaturalism—went to war to decide his fate.
And God, for all appearances, died. Not by the hand of secularists or naturalists, but by the hand of his appointed defender, William Jennings Bryan. A devout Christian and three-time presidential candidate, this famous orator chose as his apologetic method the same flawed arguments the church had employed in previous defenses of Christianity against secularism. And he lost the battle.
There are many interpretations of Bryan’s legacy in the Scopes trial. One extreme makes Bryan out to be an intellectual buffoon whom modernity had left behind; the other makes him a heroic martyr for truth. (Bryan died days after the trial ended, and the toll of the trial was almost surely a catalyst.) The truth very likely lies in between.
Bryan was a tragic figure caught on the horns of a dilemma that still confronts believers today. He wanted earnestly to defend God, and did so as eloquently as a man of his grand intellectual stature could muster. But like so many others of Turner’s “defenders of God,” Bryan slowly strangled God on the witness stand.
The opposing attorney, an agnostic named Clarence Darrow, artfully led Bryan through a long series of questions on science and faith, revealing Bryan to be a man both of incredible brilliance and of naïve generosity toward his opponents. So generous, in fact, that he effectively abandoned the foundational principle of the Reformation.
Darrow asked Bryan if “creation might have been going on for a very long time.” Bryan responded, “It might have continued for millions of years.” In this way, Darrow won by making the Bible subject to reinterpretation by the claims of scientists.
Bryan mistakenly believed the only line that he could not cross was human evolution. So when Darrow asked if the Bible could be reinterpreted on that point, Bryan stopped abruptly. But Darrow would not allow Bryan to alter his apologetic method so easily, and demanded that Bryan argue with consistency. In the end, Bryan sided with Scripture, but by doing this, he effectively discredited his earlier testimony. The general public interpreted his waffling as emblematic of the Christian worldview’s futility. The culture had reached a tipping point and no longer needed God.
In the aftermath of the Dayton debacle, the defenders of God faced a new moment of decision in an increasingly secular and hostile world. What would be their strategy going forward? Some decided to persist in the old paths of compromise and accommodation. In the name of scientific respectability, they continued to abandon plain readings of the Scriptures to appease the greedy demands of the naturalists. They developed new and more sophisticated arguments. Some even tried to harmonize Scripture with human evolution. Pandering to faithless and condescending intellectuals, this new generation of God-defenders have won some empty victories; mostly they have gagged and strangled God afresh.
Not everyone, however, followed the piper. In the face of the Dayton scandal and further ivory-towered compromises, grassroots efforts to reestablish the Bible as the absolute authority took root. These efforts finally managed to breach the ivory towers of intellectualism in 1961 with the landmark publication of The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris.
Progress has been slow, but it has been sustained, and several young-earth creationist organizations are now flourishing. They have recovered a superior way of defending God and his Word by focusing on the starting point for properly understanding all truth. With the Bible as their foundation, they are developing successful models for integrating new scientific advances into a biblical worldview without jeopardizing the absolute authority of Scripture.
These, I would argue, are among the ranks of the true heirs of the Reformation, which we celebrate on this anniversary year. Even better than some of their forbears, they have truly grasped the implications of Sola Scriptura, its formal principle. The Bible truly is the norma normans non normata. This rallying cry of the Reformation must be pressed to its right and logical end, without compromise.
It is the privilege of young-earth creationists to continue the great work of the Reformation.
God calls us to unity around the truth, not unity for the sake of unity. We must not give in to the voices that call us to compromise our stance on biblical origins. This by no means minimizes the gospel of Jesus Christ—on the contrary, the gospel was and is the material principle (central teaching) of the Reformation. But the gospel cannot long survive without the formal principle, Sola Scriptura. God’s Word must be our absolute authority on all matters, or we lose everything.
It is the privilege of young-earth creationists to take one more step toward finishing the great work of Martin Luther and his 95 Theses, which launched the Reformation. May God strengthen us to that end.
During the Middle Ages, the church went astray because it abandoned the Bible as its final authority for understanding truth. The Reformation called the church back to “Scripture alone.” Since then, a new threat has arisen—“naturalistic” science, which demands we interpret the world without the Bible. By accommodating this view, the church again went astray. It’s clearly time for a new Reformation.