Darwinian critic, sharing his testimony, says evangelicals must engage academy

by Russell D. Moore & James A. Smith Sr., posted Thursday, March 26, 1998 (20 years ago)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)--Now is the moment for evangelicals to invade the academy, creation apologist Phillip Johnson told students March 23-24 at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Recognizing the perilous results materialistic naturalism wrought on American culture and himself, Johnson summoned evangelicals to bring the fervency of an evangelistic crusade and re-engage their intellects to challenge the major bastion of the damaging worldview.

A professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, Johnson was the featured speaker at the seminary's annual Norton Lectures, giving four addresses during his two-day visit to Southern Baptists' oldest seminary. An internationally renowned proponent of intelligent design in creation, Johnson is the author of three best-selling volumes which critique evolution and the materialistic philosophy which stands behind the widely held origins of life theory.

During a March 23 evening lecture opened to the Louisville, Ky., community, Johnson made his case for dismantling evolution's "hegemony" by exposing the flaws of materialistic naturalism, which has propped-up Charles Darwin's theory for more than a century. Earlier that day, Johnson lectured for the seminary's Graduate Club, students in the Ph.D. program.

On March 24 Johnson spoke during the seminary's chapel service, a Christian theology class, a luncheon and held a book-signing session at the seminary bookstore.

One of Darwinism's most unrelenting critics, Johnson spoke in the seminary's chapel service from John 1:1-5, the prologue to the gospel, calling it, rather than the creation account in Genesis, the "crucial verses in the Bible that provide the doctrine of creation."

Illustrating the "orthodoxy" of Western culture, Johnson read a friend's paraphrase of John's prologue written in "modernist" terms: "In the beginning were the particles. And the particles became complex living stuff. And the stuff became aware. And the stuff conceived of God."

This reigning orthodoxy has reverberated throughout American culture, Johnson said. "In the immediate aftermath of this triumph of Darwinism and the materialist way of thinking, of course something immediately happened to God's moral authority. If God is revealed as an illusion and if our true creator is a mindless material process of evolution, then God's moral authority and the rules that go with it are illusory as well," he explained. While the social implications of devaluing of God's authority was felt across the culture, "the most spectacular one was in the nature of marriage," he said, noting it impacted his own life.

Johnson traced his life's journey of professional success and familial and personal failures with the ascendancy of materialistic philosophy in American culture. Although he clerked for the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and became successful in his teaching post, Johnson explained that his first marriage adopted the culture's rejection of God's biblical standards of morality and ultimately ended in divorce after his wife left him.

"I was now in a state in which you can see that I was ready to re-examine a lot of the thinking that had gotten me into that position," Johnson said. "Obviously, what I had relied on wasn't working. Although it did work at a superficial level, I got what I thought I wanted; it turned out to be not what I thought it was going to be."

At this critical moment in his life, Johnson explained that he first considered the possibility of becoming a Christian while attending a Vacation Bible School graduation ceremony at the invitation of his 11-year-old daughter. A few months later, Johnson confessed Christ, which set him upon his intellectual campaign against materialist philosophy.

"I found personally that what I thought was solid rock was in fact quicksand. And I find intellectually that it's quicksand too," Johnson said. "We can learn how to show people why what they are putting their feet down on is not solid and will not sustain them. And that is why I have gone into this career of examining the foundations of scientific materialism."

Johnson asserted, "We are not alone in a meaningless cosmos. We don't have to look for other civilizations to find what we need for our tutelage. We have it available to us in the Word of God and in what God has done for us. And isn't that an awfully exciting time for seminarians to contemplate when they think of what the future holds for them?"

During his luncheon address, Johnson contrasted the tale of Charles Templeton and world-renown evangelist Billy Graham. Templeton was an evangelistic colleague of a young Graham who later discarded the orthodox Christian faith and embraced historical-critical methods while studying at Princeton Theological Seminary. In contrast, Graham remained committed to the authority of Scripture and became one of the greatest evangelists in Christian history.

Praising Graham's diligence in proclaiming the gospel, Johnson recalled notoriously liberal Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong delivered newspapers to the Grahams' home when he was a boy growing up in a conservative Christian home in North Carolina. Spong, who has written numerous volumes rejecting such doctrines as the deity of Christ, the virgin birth and the resurrection, is what Billy Graham could have become had he followed lead of Templeton and Spong.

Johnson warned, however, that evangelicalism has met with only "partial success." While Graham and others have marshaled evangelicals to unprecedented successes in personal and corporate evangelism, Johnson noted, "That world of the seminaries, let alone the secular universities, was ceded to the Charles Templetons and the John Shelby Spongs. There was no equivalent of Billy Graham there."

While the 1960s saw a fundamental shift in American culture toward the more noticeable implications of Darwinian naturalism, Johnson argued the evolutionary agenda had been gaining ground in American culture for decades through such developments as the widespread acceptance of John Dewey's humanist educational theories within the universities.

Just as the Warner Brothers cartoon character Wile E. Coyote obviously pedals in place on thin air beyond the precipice of a cliff before looking down and falling to the canyon below, Johnson argued the 1960s are when Americans began to realize how much everything had changed.

"This is what happened in 1960," he said. "We looked down and saw that there was nothing there anymore."

Johnson said the crumbling foundations of scientific naturalism calls for faithful, equipped evangelicals to seize an opportunity to fill the void with the truth.

Scientific rationalism has turned on itself and has left in its wake a prevailing philosophy of postmodernism which rejects the reality of objective truth. As Darwinism is increasingly proving to be scientifically and philosophically untenable, evangelicals must be diligent to nurture their children in a vital faith in the context of a savvy Christian worldview.

"We need to prepare young people so they can see the world as the missionary field that it is," he said. "So they can have confidence in their ideas and know how to defend them."

Johnson spoke personally of how evangelicals can change the world by mentioning his daughter at whose Vacation Bible School graduation ceremony he heard the gospel and trusted in Christ for salvation.

He described his daughter as an "inquirer," in terms of her faith, who is completing her Ph.D. He recalled an Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship member who had invited him to speak at a college in Massachusetts, a visit which he had been unable to schedule on his itinerary. Johnson emotionally told of a call soon after from his daughter announcing that she had accepted a faculty position on that very campus. The only problem, his daughter said, was that she would not know anyone there and would not have a single friend on the campus when she arrived.

"Oh yes, she will," he said, fighting back tears. "I've already arranged it. I think of the tremendous integrity and courage of the young people in that college environment who are standing so firmly for the faith and meeting these challenges. I think of what my daughter did for me, what they might do for her. ... What a glorious opportunity this great commission is."

Download Story