When I decided to take the intellectual aspect of my spiritual beliefs more seriously, it left some of my Christian friends scratching their heads.
My newly acquired love of learning landed me on the receiving end of comments like, "Don't let your head get in the way of your heart," and "I don't need to study because I have faith," and "Be careful not to study too much because 'knowledge puffs up' (1 Corinthians 8:1).”
As well-intended as these comments may have been, they appear to reflect the anti-intellectualism that has saturated American culture and seeped over into the church. In an article aptly titled “Burning Hearts Are Not Nourished by Empty Heads,” R.C. Sproul wrote,
But this hasn't always been the case. With Christians founding Ivy League universities such as Harvard and Princeton—and pioneering the scientific revolution—the intellectual mark made by Christians on world history is incalculable.
A little history....
When the Puritans first arrived in America, they deeply valued the life of the mind. American philosopher J.P. Moreland noted,
Back then, ministers were considered to be authorities not only on spiritual matters, but on intellectual matters as well. This all began to change after several revivals broke out in America in the mid-1800’s. Much good came out of these revivals, including an emphasis on personal conversion to Christ and an emotionally engaged faith.
However, an overemphasis on these experiences began to take the place of quiet reflection, thoughtful consideration, and a deep grasp of authentic Christian teachings. Thousands of people heard revivalist preachers and became Christians, but many of these new believers lacked an intellectual understanding of essential doctrinal issues. As a result, cults such as Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses gained momentum and went on to have a profound impact on the beliefs of millions of people around the globe.
Increasing theological illiteracy also weakened the church's ability to respond to the intellectual attack on Christianity that culminated in the late 1800’s. The empiricism of the "Era of Enlightenment," the skepticism of German higher criticism, and the development of Darwinian evolution led many Christians to mistrust intellectual pursuits, rather than motivating them to confront these ideas head-on.
By the early 1900’s, liberalism began to influence mainline denominations, provoking fundamentalists to retreat from the arena of public discourse to form their own theological institutions and thus isolating Christian ideas from the rest of the world. Rather than being the "salt of the earth," we effectively put the salt back in the cupboard.
Together these trends weakened the church's influence on broader culture and led many modern Christians to devalue a robust intellectual understanding of their faith. (3)
A little theology....
But doesn't the Bible say "knowledge puffs us up”? When someone uses a single verse to make a point, remember Greg Koukl's useful tip: Never read a Bible verse. Many words and phrases have multiple definitions and meanings, and when we don't consider the passage surrounding a particular verse, we may miss its intended meaning.
Right before the phrase "knowledge puffs up," the Apostle Paul wrote, "Now about food sacrificed to idols.” Some Christians knew that idols weren't real, whereas others didn't know that and believed eating food sacrificed to idols made it ceremonially unclean. In context, Paul was exhorting the believers who had greater knowledge to show love to those with the weaker conscience and to refrain from eating food offered to idols in front of them so they wouldn't stumble. His point was that knowledge should be exercised in love, to build up other believers and not our own arrogance.
Just as we should consider verses in their contexts, our theology needs to be based on the whole of Scripture. Here are a few of the many places where Scripture speaks positively of knowledge:
Fools hate knowledge. (Proverbs 1:22)
A wise man will hear and increase in learning, and a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel. (Proverbs 1:5)
Hosea chapter 4 says God's people perish for lack of knowledge regarding the law. 2 Peter 2:1 tells us to add to our faith goodness, and to goodness, knowledge. In Philippians 1:9, Paul prayed "that your love will keep on growing in knowledge and every kind of discernment."
Paul even praises knowledge as a part of spiritual warfare in 2 Corinthians 10:5 by saying, "We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God." Proverbs 15:4 says the "discerning heart acquires knowledge," and Proverbs 1:29 warns of the destruction that follows a hatred of knowledge.
Over and over in Scripture we are commanded to seek out knowledge, and over and over we are warned of the consequences if we don't. In fact, when Jesus commanded us to "love the Lord your God with all your mind," He was saying we must love God with all of our intellectual capacity.
Knowledge must be held in tension with love. When it isn't, pride and arrogance can gain a foothold. But true knowledge is humbling. The more I learn, the more I know how much I have to learn—the more I realize my smallness and intellectual inadequacy.
When we engage our faith intellectually with love, knowledge will not puff us up. In fact, I have to agree with the writer of Proverbs who said, "Lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel!"
1. R.C. Sproul, "Burning Hearts Are Not Nourished by Empty Heads," Christianity Today 26: (Sept 3, 1982), p. 100 (Cited in J.P. Moreland, Love Your God With All Your Mind)
2. J.P. Moreland, Love Your God With All Your Mind, (NavPress, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1997) p. 22
3. For more on the history of anti-intellectualism in the church, see chapter one of Moreland's Love Your God With All Your Mind, cited above.