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NOBTS’ Oxford Study Program spans notable lectures & historical sites

OXFORD, England (BP)–“The golden age of atheism is over,” Oxford University professor Alister McGrath said in his lectures during the 2004 Wycliffe Hall Summer School on the famed campus in England.

A group from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary attended the Wycliffe Hall Summer School in conjunction with a new initiative -– the NOBTS Oxford Study Program.

Under the direction of Robert Stewart, NOBTS assistant professor of philosophy and theology, a group of 27 students, alumni and family members traveled to England and Scotland for a combination study program and sightseeing tour July 5-18. The weeklong study program led by Oxford faculty focused on apologetics and evangelism. Students from NOBTS were able to receive course credit from NOBTS.

McGrath, professor of historical theology at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, was the featured lecturer for the summer education program at Oxford University.
The author of “The Twilight of Atheism” defended his premise that atheism is not attractive in and of itself. He credited the popularity of atheism during certain periods of history to the cultural and intellectual atmosphere of the day.

Citing Winston Churchill’s statement in 1943 that the “empires of the future would be the empires of the mind,” McGrath argued that atheism has been a formidable empire, whose golden age can be marked by two events: the fall of the Bastille in 1789 and the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

French Peasants seized the Bastille prison seeking to overthrow an oppressive ruling class, McGrath said. At the time, everything status quo was subject to removal, including belief in God. Atheism appealed to those who viewed religion as oppressive and who valued human reason and freedom from authority.

The Enlightenment period nurtured the rise of atheism and the idea that society would be better and kinder without God, McGrath recounted, noting that, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the evil face of atheistic communism was exposed. The archives of the Soviet bloc were opened and it was revealed that more had perished under Stalin’s regime than even under Nazism. Atheism had failed.

“Karl Marx’s indictment of religion as the opium of the people has been inverted,” McGrath said. The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who lived under both Nazism and Stalinism, said, “A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death — the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders, we are not going to be judged.”

“Postmodernity makes atheism unattractive,” McGrath noted. “The postmodern values tolerance, and atheism is seen as intolerant.” The rigid doctrine of atheism denying God’s existence does not fare well with a postmodern generation’s renewed interest in spirituality, he said.

According to John Lennox, professor of abstract mathematics, Green College, Oxford University, the empire of atheism is underpinned by Darwinian evolution. During the Wycliffe Hall Summer School he argued that the leap from Darwinian evolution to atheism is an error in logic.

Addressing Oxford colleague Richard Dawkin’s famous watch illustration, Lennox pointed out that the fact a watch is blind, unconscious and automatic does not mean that it does not have a designer.

“The existence of a mechanism is not evidence that an agent [designer] does not exist,” Lennox said. “Explaining how something works is not the same as explaining how it came to be.”

Lennox illustrated the limits of science by telling of a woman baking a cake. “The cake can be analyzed molecule by molecule, chemically and mathematically. But explaining how the cake is made does not explain why it was made. Only the cook can explain why. Science cannot answer that question.”

The apologetics emphasis included a defense of doctrine. David Wenham, renowned New Testament scholar and Wycliffe theologian, argued that the Apostle Paul’s theology and the teachings of Jesus are in agreement. Wenham is widely known for his scholarship countering skeptics who call Paul the true founder of Christianity.

Other lecturers included Reformation theologian and vice principal of Wycliffe Hall, Graham Tomlin, author of “The Provocative Church.” Well-known author and evangelist Michael Green spoke on the use of evangelistic missions for effective church outreach. “Faith and Film” was the topic of Elaine Storkey’s lectures concerning modern film and how the church can engage the culture in dialogue.

The trip began by traveling through the beautiful Lake District of England to Grassmere, home of the English poet William Wordsworth. A two-night stay in Edinburgh, Scotland, included a guided tour of Edinburgh Castle, birthplace of King James VI, commissioner of the King James Version of the Bible.

In England, the group visited majestic York Minster, site where Constantine assumed the title of Roman emperor. The remains of Anglo-Saxon and Roman walls lie beneath the cathedral, with York marking the farthest point of advance into England by the Roman army.

Other tour stops included the home churches of John Bunyan, John Sutcliffe, John Newton, William Carey and John Wesley. In London, the group toured St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey (site of coronations) and worshiped at the church led by Charles Spurgeon, the Metropolitan Baptist Tabernacle.

Oxford is known as the “City of Dreaming Spires,” famous for its tall spires in the perpendicular architectural style. Tours provided by Wycliffe Hall allowed the group to visit sites connected to C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Wesley and Thomas Cranmer; to church history junctures such the Oxford Movement, or Anglo-Catholic Movement of the first half of the 1800s; and the “X” that marks the spot on Broad Street in Oxford commemorating the death of the “Three Martyrs,” reformers Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer and Thomas Cranmer, who were burned at the stake for refusing to recant their Protestant beliefs.

The 2005 Oxford Study Program will include Alister McGrath and well-known apologist Ravi Zacharias. The NOBTS trip is open to all who wish to attend. Course credit will be available but is not required in order to participate.
For more information contact Robert Stewart at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary at [email protected]. More details will be made available at www.nobts.edu in the fall.

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  • Marilyn Stewart