Scott Smith: Christian Philosophers Should Care about Naturalism’s Effect on the Church
September 19, 2018
Longtime EPS member and Philosophia Christi contributor, Biola’s Scott Smith, applies his philosophical arguments against naturalism and Christian physicalism to discerning the effects of naturalism on the church. See his recently released video:
Moreover, in his Summer 2018 release of Authentically Emergent, not only does Smith provide an updated response to ’emergent church’ advocates and their progressive Christianity but he offers a word to fellow conservative evangelicals in the West, especially in the U.S.: be alert to how we have become ‘naturalized’ or ‘de-supernaturalized’ in our thinking and practices.
Scott’s various academic books have sought to address the problems of naturalism on knowledge, and especially moral knowledge (see, for example, In Search of Moral Knowledge; Naturalism and our Knowledge of Reality).
Importantly, I think they [emergent church advocates] miss the mark in two subtle, yet deeply important ways: first, I think they do not realize a root problem in all too many conservative churches. I think that these churches have been unwittingly, yet deeply, shaped by naturalism, in the sense that, practically, God has become irrelevant for their lives in various ways and to various, yet significant, extents. That means that in those regards, they live in the “flesh” – their own sinful propensities. This can be described as a practical atheism.
So, one thing I do [in Authentically Emergent] is show how many historical, cultural, philosophical, scientific, and other factors have shaped Christians in the west, and the US In particular, so that in various ways many Christians don’t really expect God to show up in their lives – in many ways, such faith has been de-supernaturalized. But, second, and ironically, I think that McLaren, et al. don’t realize that they are advocating a kind of Christianity that also has been deeply naturalized.
Instead, I argue that that the real solution both groups need is to embrace the fullness of Christ, in fullness of Spirit and truth, as Paul describes in Ephesians. That way, Jesus Himself can be powerfully manifested in Christians’ lives, which is so desperately needed today.
The importance for all Christians to take seriously the empowering present of the Spirit has been an important theme and motivation for Scott Smith’s philosophical and theological work. In a 2016 article he wrote:
Surely God is at work doing many things in the United States, and evangelicals have been trying to hold to the doctrinal truths of Christianity. Moreover, Christians are to be marked by God’s presence and power. Nevertheless, it seems that, overall, evangelicals do not have much influence, especially given the promised power of the gospel and the risen Lord Jesus, and His promised presence. So, where is the power and presence of the Lord?
With this in mind, I have been impressed by how often Paul mentions the fullness of the Lord in his letter to the Ephesians. I think this emphasis is not minor; rather, it is one of vital importance to the Christian life. But, I also think too many Christians, particularly in the states, do not really appreciate it. Paul explains how we, even in the increasingly secular west, can know and experience God’s amazing power and presence.
Writing in a 2017 issue of the Christian Scholar’s Review [CSR], Smith calls Christian scholars to embrace a way of doing scholarship, teaching and worldview integration that is attuned to the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in light of how academic disciplines [and often Christian practice toward those disciplines] have become naturalized.
The goal of this paper is to help flesh out more contours of a biblical theology of the Spirit, with a view toward the roles and work of the Spirit in integration, teaching, scholarship, and formation in Christian higher education. I will start with a development of that model. Then, I will shift to survey, as well as assess, how our understanding of the Spirit’s role in our profession has been shaped by the influences of modernity and postmodernity. Finally, I will apply this model to real-life issues and case studies, to help show how it works in practice.
For Scott Smith, simply being a Christian who does excellent philosophical work is not sufficient for producing work that is full of life [whether for the academy or the church or wider culture].
Scott’s own experience models the power of learning to abide in Jesus as the fount of all life, wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. And it is not about merely ‘getting’ something from Jesus via the Holy Spirit (e.g., insights, or specific knowledge of a problem] or instrumentalizing communion with Him for the sake of scholarship Scott cautions in his 2017 CSR article, “Toward a More Biblical (and Pneumatological) Model for Integration, Teaching, and Scholarship”:
If we do not go to [God], on his terms, for his insight and wisdom, including for what is not given directly in Scripture, then a danger of idolatry looms. For I think it would be all too easy to act (even unconsciously) as though we are our own god. How? Since Scripture does not give us detailed knowledge about all the various disciplines, then just like Adam and Eve in Gen. 3:5, we too would be tempted to think we could de- fine reality in all these disciplines, without having to depend utterly upon, and listen closely to, the voice of the Lord. That means that at least to some extent, we would be elevating their own hearts and minds over his, which is our default sinful mindset, an attitude that opens us up to the suggestions from Satan and cannot please God. But, if we do seek and abide in him in the ways Scripture indicates, then I think there is a rich, bountiful treasure we can receive from the Lord as we allow him to mentor us in our disciplines in evangelical higher education.