In Defense of Christian Scholarship

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This is a follow up on an earlier post, in which I wrote a review of A. G. Sertillanges classic The Intellectual Life. Here I expand on what it means to be a Christian scholar and defend it as a legitimate calling for the Christian.


Critics of religious belief dismiss the notion of Christian scholarship, maintaining that faith and scholarship are epistemological opposites. For much of the intellectual community, the Christian scholar is an oxymoron. Unfortunately, many Christians would agree with these critics. A survey of the history of the church indicates a long tradition of skepticism (at times hostile) regarding the relationship between faith and learning. Many have latched on to Tertullian’s oft misunderstood words, “What is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem? What between the academy and the church?”[1] These believers would have us hold that God’s wisdom and man’s wisdom are contradictory. If faith is a gift from God, why would anyone feel the need or desire, to study the wisdom of the world? Such a study would be unproductive at best, and potentially damaging to faith. And so, the Christian who finds herself called to pursue academic scholarship faces the unenviable task of being criticized by enemies of the church, as well as the church herself. Why would anyone want to be placed in such a position? The answer is simple –the call to Christian scholarship comes from God. He has ordained it. The reality is that faith needs scholarship.

MalikIn his well known address at the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College, Charles Malik asserted that Christians have a necessary duty to pursue scholarship. “It is not enough to be set on fire for evangelism alone,” declared Malik.[2] He argued that the truths of the Judeo-Christian faith are constantly beset with false ideas and empty philosophies competing for the allegiance of the hearts of men (especially at the university level). Failure to address these, as part of the work of evangelism, is failing to actually do evangelism. “The problem is not only to win souls but also to save minds. If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover that you have not won the world.”[3] Malik’s words reflect a holistic view where mind and soul are both involved in the conversion process. While saving souls is not merely a matter of intellectual assent to the facts of the Gospel message, it cannot be accomplished apart from it. If this is so, then it becomes imperative that the evangelist pay careful attention to the ideas she communicates, as well as the ideas she is communicating against. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig supports this notion by asserting that the Gospel is never proclaimed in a philosophical vacuum, “It is always heard against the background of the cultural milieus in which one lives.”[4] Left uncontested, these philosophical and cultural background noises become like thorns choking out a person’s ability to hear and receive the truth.[5] John Gresham Machen said it best:

Machen. . . it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favorable conditions for the reception of the gospel. False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion. Under such circumstances, what God desires us to do is to destroy the obstacle at its root.[6]

If we fail to engage in scholarly discourse, the work of evangelism becomes increasingly more difficult. While God most certainly can transcend these barriers without human involvement, he has chosen to use his church in this process (a point I will make below). The evangelist and the Christian scholar work together in the work of evangelism. When error goes unchecked, when bad ideas are allowed to proliferate, the truth becomes ambiguous.  In such an environment, even the message of evangelists can become imbued with false notions and philosophical baggage. The Church needs the intellectual as much as she needs the evangelist.

But need alone does not establish a calling to Christian scholarship. Does God explicitly call men and women to pursue academic study and the intellectual life? In Colossians, the Apostle Paul provides us with an often misunderstood admonition.

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.[7]

I have long wrestled with the meaning of these words. On the surface, this passage seems to disparage the notion that Christians should pursue the study of human knowledge, and particularly philosophy. It is important to note exactly what Paul is saying in this verse. Philosophy is not categorically condemned. What is condemned is a philosophical worldview that sets itself against the things of God and the truth of the Gospel. It is not philosophy itself that is cast in a negative light; it is philosophy according to human tradition.

In a very real sense, philosophy is unavoidable. We all think. We all have ideas, accept ideas, and share ideas. In many ways, these beliefs and ideas are deeply ingrained in our unconscious thinking. The question is not whether we choose to engage in philosophy. We do it every day without even thinking about it. Our deeply rooted beliefs about the world come through in what we say and do. We are all philosophers. The only question is whether we are good philosophers, or bad philosophers. Have we taken the time to think about the ideas and beliefs that are daily confronting us? Have we allowed ourselves to be unknowingly carried along by things that may very well be contrary to the truth of Christ? If we are to avoid falling prey to bad philosophy, wouldn’t that mean that we have to know what it is we are avoiding?  We would have to be able to distinguish good philosophy from bad philosophy. In other words, anti-intellectualism is not an option for the Christian. Failure to make ourselves aware of bad philosophy is to leave ourselves open to its influence. How can we avoid what we can’t identify? How can we ensure that we are not taken captive, if we can’t recognize or distinguish truth from error? Paul tells us, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh.  For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.  We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ. . .”[8]  These words convey action on the part of believers. God wants us to confront and dismantle arguments that are in conflict with the knowledge of God. This is clearly something that God is calling his representatives in the world to do. Christian scholarship is a genuine work that Christians are explicitly called to do.

It seems apparent to me that to be faithful to this calling, the Christian scholar must be committed to two things. First, the Christian scholar must be committed to grounding all truth in the knowledge of God. The knowledge of God is the framework for how we view and approach the world. This is not to say that the Christian scholar blindly accepts belief in God and then forces all other beliefs to arbitrarily conform. It means that once we come to accept the truth that God has created the universe (philosophers and theologians disagree on how we come to that knowledge), it necessarily guides us. It is all encompassing. John Piper conveys this idea succinctly:

It is an abdication of scholarship when Christians do academic work with little reference to God. If all the universe and everything in it exist by the design of an infinite, personal God, to make his manifold glory known and loved, then to treat any subject without reference to God’s glory is not scholarship but insurrection.[9]

PiperFailing to do as Piper suggests, will only lead the Christian scholar away from truth. God is the hermeneutical key to all knowledge. If we accept that he has designed the world, then we cannot approach it, interpret it, or describe it from any other reference point. James Sire elaborates on this in Habits of the Mind, within the context of discussing Henry Newman’s notion of the perfection of the intellect. As the rational creator of the universe, God necessarily imprints his rational nature both on the created order and upon thinking human beings. This results in a thread of rationality knitting together all knowledge into one whole.[10]  That thread of rationality originates in God. Therefore, our knowledge of God is the key to understanding the universe. The Christian scholar sees all things through the lens of the Christian worldview, the eyes of faith. Attempting to see the world any other way is to force upon it a pattern that is not inherent within it. All truth originates in him, points to him, and should be used to proclaim his glory.

Secondly, the Christian scholar must be committed to living the truth. Since all truth comes from the divine, there is a close connection between the good and the true. Good character is necessary for truth to be manifested; and once it is made known it must be acted upon (put into practice). Sertillanges provides the insight that, “Truth visits those who love her, who surrender to her, and this love cannot be without virtue.”[11] He stresses that one must become a slave to truth; truth comes only to those with the resolve to serve it. “We must give ourselves from the heart, if truth is to give itself to us.”[12] Sertillanges uses the imagery of a garden to drive this point home. “The true springs up in the same soil as the good . . . By practicing the truth that we know, we merit the truth that we do not yet know.”[13]  Just as poor health affects sight, so also a sick soul and poor character affect our ability to perceive truth. Virtue is necessary for knowledge and a prerequisite for the intellectual life. To think true thoughts, we must have a true (pure) soul.

I have focused a great deal on Christian thought. While it is true that Church history demonstrates the dangers of anti-intellectualism (which is why we desperately need Christian Scholars), it also demonstrates the dangers of over-intellectualism. I am not advocating scholarship and academic pursuit at the expense of love and devotion to Christ. No one wants an overly rational faith. I believe that properly exercised, Christian scholarship should result in increased spiritual fervor and a changed life. As John Piper shares, “the mind serves to know the truth that fuels the fires of the heart.”[14] Faith and knowledge go hand in hand. Knowledge should properly result in faith, passion for truth, and a changed life. If it doesn’t, then it is not true knowledge. Truth, especially truth about God, ought to have an impact on our actions and affections.

So, what are we to make of this notion of Christian scholarship? In the past, pastors were not only seen as spiritual leaders in the community, they were also looked upon as intellectual leaders.[15] Contrast this with today, when doctors and scientists are seen as intellectual authorities, and pastors are ridiculed as buffoons. Sadly, it is our failure as a Church to cultivate Christian scholarship that has led to this situation. It can only be rectified by once again placing a high value on Christian scholarship. As Mark Noll famously said, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind . . . modern American evangelicals have failed notably in sustaining serious intellectual life.”[16] Os Guinness goes much farther than simply declaring anti-intellectualism a scandal:

guinessAt root, evangelical anti-intellectualism is both a scandal and a sin. It is a scandal in the sense of being an offense and a stumbling block that needlessly hinders serious people from considering the Christian faith and coming to Christ. It is a sin because it is a refusal, contrary to Jesus’ two great commandments, to love the Lord our God with our minds. Anti-intellectualism is quite simply a sin. Evangelicals must address it as such, beyond all excuses, evasions, or rationalizations of false piety.[17]

These words represent a serious charge. While much of the church has not overtly adopted an anti-intellectualist stance, her failure to fully embrace scholarship represents a sin of omission. To take Christ’s command seriously, she must seek out ways to cultivate this calling in all facets of her mission. This means that Christian scholarship is not relegated to a Bible study only reserved for those curious enough to attend. A proper representation of faith and scholarship needs to be reflected in sermons, Sunday School lessons, missions work, financial contributions, and doctrinal statements. Only then will the church once again take her proper place as the definitive source of knowledge and truth, both spiritual and intellectual.

 


[1]Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, eds., Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 6.

[2]Charles Malik, “The Two Tasks,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 23, no. 4 (December 1980): 294.

[3]Ibid.

[4]William Lane Craig, “In Intellectual Neutral,” in Passionate Conviction: Contemporary Discourses on Christian Apologetics, ed. Paul Copen and William Lane Craig (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2007), 8.

[5]Here I am making an allusion to Mark 4: 18-19. The thorns in Christ’s parable represent all the things in the world that prevent the word of God from fully taking root in a person’s life. While the passage specifically refers to cares and desires, it is not hard to imagine that false ideas and beliefs could also serve to choke out the word.

[6]J. Gresham Machen, “Christianity and Culture,” Princeton Theological Review 11, no. 1 (1913): 7.

[7]Colossians 2:8 (ESV)

[8]2 Corinthians 10: 3-5

[9]John Piper, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2010), 168.

[10]James W. Sire, Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2000), 60.

[11]A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1987), 19.

[12]Ibid., 4.

[13]Ibid., 19.

[14]Piper, 36.

[15]J. P. Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1997), 188.

[16]Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1994), 3.

[17]Os Guinness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do About It (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994), 11.

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