This article was originally published by Trinity Southwest Seminary, and has been reproduced with permission.
If we've heard it once, we've heard it a thousand times: "Those who ignore history are destined to repeat it." This little truism would long ago have slipped to the status of mere cliche', except for the fact that it's painfully true. Indeed, we can't correct the mistakes of the past unless we know what they are, and understand their negative impact on our lives. In this category, Christianity seems to have a colossal case of nearsightedness regarding its mission in the world. In short, our desire to put people under the hearing of the Gospel drives us to create missions strategies that reach around the globe, but at the same time we tend to bypass our responsibility "to contend for the faith" (Jude 3) in the midst of our own culture. This has happened in the past, and with catastrophic results. Now we're doing it again.
Let's look at that passage from Jude more fully:
Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord...In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire...Yet these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals-these are the very things that destroy them. (Selected verses from Jude 3-10)
The warning of the passage is clear, as is the entire book of Jude: Unless we as Christians contend for the faith within our own culture, we'll lose the culture, and even become corrupted ourselves! Not only do we have this scriptural warning about the dangers of not engaging our own culture with the truth of the Bible, but also we have numerous historical examples of Christianity's failure to "mind the home front" while following its fervor for doing missions in foreign lands. No more potent example of this tendency exists than that of Christianity in 19th century Europe, including Victorian England.
In 19th century Europe, the overseas missions activities of churches, missionary societies and organizations heated to a fever pitch. Christians over Europe seized upon their growing peace and prosperity and invested huge portions of their wealth in taking the gospel to the naked natives of distant lands. From continent to continent, they spread what they felt was the civilizing influence of European Christianity. The globe-encircling English Empire gave impetus, even protection, to waves of missionaries penetrating into the darkest recesses of unexplored territories-Dr. Livingstone, I presume! After all, wasn't it commanded in Scripture to "preach the gospel to all nations"? Of course! As Christians, their missionary zeal was biblical and justified-albeit not always fulfilled by biblical means!
But while thousands of Christian missionaries were coursing over the world, and churches and missions societies held meetings and conventions to fuel evangelistic flames in the hearts of fellow Europeans, an insidious little worm was quietly eating away at the innards of European civilization itself-and multiplying undetected by Christendom whose gaze was intently fixed on foreign fields. As the 19th century progressed, European society became more and more intellectual, sporting educational systems from primary through university, with the greater part of it under the control of the Church (in one form or other). So the missionaries were evangelizing while the thinkers were thinking, and the worm was gnawing ever so silently, invisibly at the core of it all.
What lay at the core Western Civilization's success? In a word, the Bible. It was the influence of the biblical worldview and biblical morality that had provided a framework for society to care for the sick, poor and needy (benevolence), to act responsibility under the fear of God (theology and ethics), to study and expand one's God-given intellect (education), to think the thoughts of God in creation (science), to work for the betterment of society (sociology and economics), and to increase the quality of human life (art and technology). From Scripture we had learned that God will judge every person-the foundation of personal responsibility. From Scripture we understood the equal value of every human being, the foundation of human dignity. From Scripture we had gleaned that God can reward or smite a nation-the foundation governmental responsibility. With the Bible as its conscience, 19th century Western Civilization, even with all its shortcomings, raised the bar of human achievement higher than it had ever been in the history of the world.
The cultural (often utopian) optimism of 19th century Europe seemed wellfounded. But there was that worm-that insidious little vermin of gnawing doubt about the credibility of the Bible. And while Christians were busy focusing on the salvation of Polynesians and pygmies, a handful of marginal university scholars were breeding worms of doubt about the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. At first, the scholarly majority paid little attention to their theories. By the mid 19th century, in the absence of anything like biblical archaeology or ancient Near Eastern studies that might have acted as a corrective, higher critical scholarship was well on its way toward acceptability. But if Moses didn't write the Pentateuch, then who did, and where did all those stories come from? The higher critical answer: The first five books of the Bible derived from a series of Jewish writers during the 9th through the 5th centuries BC, who wrote down their versions of ancient "campfire" stories spun by more ancient Israelites, embellished by vivid imaginations and theological agendas. In a nutshell, the growing community of European higher critics was saying that the foundational portion of Scripture, the Mosaic Torah itself, was historically unreliable and little better than fiction. And the gnawing of the worms was increasing exponentially.
By the late 1800s, the tide of scholarly opinion concerning the historical reliability of the Bible was turning decidedly in the favor of the higher critics. The worms of doubt had eaten a whole through the (former) Christian faith of vast swaths of academia, and were beginning to gnaw into the minds of the public as well. The missionaries were still preaching to the natives in distant lands, but back home the credibility of Scripture was quickly disintegrating. European Christianity wasn't paying much attention, however, and what worms it did see, it simply tolerated. Churches took no steps to cure the rising doubts about biblical reliability, and the worms began to eat away at European Christendom itself.
The erosion of belief in the historical authenticity and authority of Scripture might have gone farther and faster if not for the rise of biblical exploration and archaeology in the 1880s. Early in the 19th century, the published exploits of Napoleon in Egypt had lit a fire of interest in the Near East, the Bible lands. British, German and French explorers plied through Egypt, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and the Levant, shedding light on the biblical word and hauling back huge quantities of artifacts to the museums of Europe, heightening interest in biblical history. During this period the disciplines of Near Eastern studies and archaeology were born, and they slowed the public acceptance of higher critical scholarship, even tempering it in the universities, by demonstrating the tangible reality of the world described in the Bible. But right here the story takes an almost bizarre turn.
Ironically, the church, its universities and seminaries, by the late 19th century, had almost completely swallowed critical biblical scholarship hook, line and sinker. And they chose mostly to ignore the secular phenomenon of digging up the biblical world. That's right-biblical archaeology was almost entirely a secular enterprise because the church and its schools for ministers chose to ignore it in favor of studying the biblical text in isolation, and higher critical theory was now their adopted method for doing just that. The worms had eaten the need for biblical reliability right out of the church! From the latter part of the 19th century into the first half of the 20th century both European and American Christianity had the opportunity to embrace and support the scientific confirmation of the Bible through archaeological research, but failed to do so. The churches were still so focused on missions elsewhere in the world that they didn't take advantage of the situation at home that would have allowed them to contend for the faith through the powerful public demonstration of biblical credibility provided by the rise biblical archaeology. They had an historic opportunity to promote biblical accuracy and authority throughout Western culture, but they didn't see it, and, therefore, they missed it.
So archaeology in the Near East-biblical archaeology-remained a predominately secular enterprise, and was itself eventually eaten away by the worms of doubt spread by higher biblical criticism. The Western church remained focused on preaching the gospel to far-off tribes, and continued to miss the importance of engaging its own educated, intellectual culture at all levels. And what was the historical outcome of all this? Tragically, by the mid-20th century, Europe, including Great Britain, was declared by historians to have entered into a postChristian era. European Christianity had shriveled into a vestige of its former self, and the importance of the Bible as the foundation of all truth was a fading memory. The worms of doubt had eaten the biblical core out of both European Civilization and Christianity. The churches shrank. The missions societies folded. Cathedrals turned into museums. Church buildings became shops and apartments. And America's post-Christian era isn't far behind, if it hasn't already overtaken us.
Did we learn anything from this historical sequence of events? Perhaps we haven't. Have we learned to invest both in missions and in the intellectual fight for our own culture? It remains to be seen, but most indicators seem to suggest that not only have we ignored this lesson of history, but also we're now in the process of repeating its mistakes! Our church-supported colleges and seminaries are still being eaten up by higher critical doubts as to the historical accuracy of the Bible. While missionary efforts worldwide are hitting historical highs, churches still spend more on Sunday bulletins and toilet paper than they do on supporting the scientific confirmation of Scripture that would powerfully contend for the faith in the public arena.
Interestingly, biblical archaeology is, once again, rising up to challenge the tenets of biblical criticism with remarkable new evidence of the historical authenticity of the Bible, particularly of the oft-berated patriarchal narratives of Genesis. At the cutting edge of this surge in biblically-focused archaeological research is the recent discovery of the city of Ai (destroyed by Joshua; The Khirbet el-Maqatir Excavation, directed by Dr. Bryant Wood, Associates for Biblical Research), the likely discovery of King David's palace in Jerusalem (The City of David Excavation, directed by Dr. Eilat Mazar, Hebrew University), and the search for, and discovery of, biblical Sodom in Jordan (The Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project, sponsored by Trinity Southwest University). The excavation of biblical Sodom is of particular interest to me, not only because my research led to its discovery and I now direct the excavation, but also because Sodom and the other Cities of the Plain form a geographical framework for a large portion of Genesis, the Bible book most attacked on the point of historical accuracy. The discovery of the lost city of Sodom will dramatically confirm the historical authenticity and geographical precision of the Genesis text. It's this kind of dramatic, high-profile biblical discovery that provides Christianity the opportunity to press the issue of biblical truth in our society.
The churches of the 19th century failed to take advantage of their historical situation to "own" the biblical archaeology of their day. They didn't see the importance of it. They ignored it. They didn't contend for the authenticity of Scripture in their own highly educated society. The worms of doubt chewed a gaping hole in their European culture, and eventually ate through their own core belief in the Bible as the historically accurate Word of God. And, in the end, they lost their culture to out-and-out secularism. When we fail to contend for the faith, Christianity loses the culture. It's as simple as that.
So here we are. The worms of doubt that gnaw away at our trust in biblical truth have infested our American culture, and have even shredded much of contemporary Christianity's belief in biblical reliability. But individual Christians and churches still have a chance not to repeat history, but to take the present opportunity to support the scientific confirmation of Scripture in the field most relevant to the biblical text itself: archaeology. If we do not stand up and press the issue of biblical reliability at all levels of our society, we will, as our 19th century counterparts did, lose altogether our influence on the culture, and watch impotently as historians write new chapters on post-Christian America.
Recommended Resources for Further Study
Dr. Steven Collins is the Director of The Tell el-Hammam Excavation Project in Jordan and Dean, College of Archaeology & Biblical History, Trinity Southwest University, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Dr. Collins has been a long-time friend of ABR.
Editorial Note: Dr. Collins refers to the location of Sodom as being at Tel-Hamman. Dr. Bryant Wood, ABR Director of Research, has provided some reasons why he differs with Dr. Collins on the location of Sodom. Dr. Wood's article, The Discovery of the Sin Cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, can be found in the Summer 1999 issue of Bible and Spade. Dr. Collins' case for the Northern location can be found in the Summer 2007 issue of Bible and Spade.