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Understanding the Times

David Noebel ambitiously defends the biblical Christian worldview as “the one worldview based on truth” as he examines its chief rivals: Marxism/Leninism and secular humanism. In doing so, he underscores several significant points: First, beliefs matter. They are not simply “preferences.” A battle of ideas is a welcome advance beyond the anti-intellectualism of early fundamentalism, warm-hearted pietism, and lazy relativism. Second, beliefs have contexts and consequences. Noebel presents beliefs in the contexts of comprehensive worldviews, analyzing their implications for a variety of disciplines. Lastly, his extensively documented research usually avoids caricature, as he often relies on key sources. He generally presents what opposing worldviews believe before criticizing them. In short, he avoids a privatized, anti-intellectual Christianity; the Gospel of Christ has radical implications for the public arena of ideas.

His presentation of “the biblical Christian worldview” ironically fails in serious ways. Most importantly, his Christian or “Christ-centered” worldview relies on intellectual grounds independent of Christ himself. “Christian epistemology,” he writes, “is based on special revelation, which in turn is based on history, the law of evidence, and the science of archeology.” The truth of Christianity, according to him, “rests squarely” on ordinary historical and archeological investigation. He does acknowledge that the Christian God–not merely the God known through independent evidence–can only be known “in the light of who he is.” If this is true, then why not let one’s Christian epistemology rest squarely on the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

James Orr warned against a “bare” or “abstract” theism as a “hopeless attempt to prove by external witness the bare fact that a revelation has been given, and only after that sit down to inquire what the content of the revelation is.” Christian apologetics, Orr believed, are inseparable from Christian theology. He rejected the domino theory that revelation depends on the inspiration and historical evidence of the Bible. “Christianity,” he concluded, “is its own best apology.”

Noebel allows his opponents to dictate the terms of intellectual battle. He accepts, for example, the false alternatives of absolutism or relativism. His abstract theism leads to an abstract ethic: The Ten Commandments–the concrete commands of Yahweh to his newly liberated people–become timeless absolutes issued from the eternal being of God. He also accepts the false dilemma of choosing between monism and dualism. He interprets the Christ of John’s Gospel (the Logos of God) as a dualistic argument for the priority of mind before matter, ignoring John’s Hebraic and unitary worldview (“the Word became flesh”). In Noebel’s thought, flesh has become Word; Christ, a first principle of a Christian philosophy.

He oversimplifies intellectual camps. His polarization of “Christians” and “Humanists” ignores Christian humanists such as Erasmus. He divides the Christian world into “evangelicals” and “liberals.” The former include not only Carl Henry, Francis Schaeffer, and John Warwick Montgomery, but also St. Augustine, Mortimer Adler, and C. S. Lewis. (Lewis’ views, for example on biblical inspiration, Adam’s historicity, theistic evolution, and purgatory fundamentally disagree with Nobel’s brand of evangelicalism.) He quotes writers as allies by ignoring the context or whole of their thought. He speaks for Christians too freely, presuming to represent the entire Christian world on complex matters such as the relation of science and religion or moral absolutism versus relativism. (For example: “Christians emphatically embrace the concept of moral absolutes;” though occasionally he merely speaks for “a” instead of “the” Christian worldview.)

He also fails to appreciate the distinctive perspectives that different disciplines bring to discussions. Biology, he contends, is a battleground for creationism–which “fits the facts of science better than the evolution model.” Even theistic evolution, he charges, undermines the Christian message. Genesis must be read literally, he reasons, for Christ is “analogous to Adam,” and thus his salvific significance depends (quite univocally, it appears, rather than analogically) on the historicity of Adam. Genesis, however, is not a scientific text preoccupied with the modern “how” question. Rather, it answers the “who” and “why” questions by proclaiming that God created humans to live in fellowship with him and one another and to act as stewards of creation. His abstract and literalistic doctrine of creation leads him away from Genesis’ emphasis: God’s covenantal relationship with humanity.

On a final, practical note, the book’s nearly 900 pages of analysis would be too unwieldy for his intended audience: Christian high school and college students. They would also lack the sophistication to recognize his sectarian appropriation of Christian sources and would be better served by reading the myriad of primary sources to which he refers.