Thursday, November 10, 2011

Against Anti-Intellectual Faith

It is quite often said, particularly in evangelical circles, that we do not need to worry about theology or history or intellectualism; indeed, such things are sometimes vilified in churches. Instead, they say, we just need practical sermons that make us better today—a sort of self-help motivational speech with a dash of Bible thrown in.

Now to be certain, theology can become an end to itself. I do not think it is all that critical that every person can discuss soteriology or Near Eastern suzerain covenants or any of that. But the modern evangelical too often takes the alternate extreme: that we need not know anything about our faith, only have a strong convictional relational feeling with God.

On the one hand, I do agree that you need not understand much theology to accept Christ. You need to understand that you are a sinner who cannot reach heaven on your own; you need to understand that God loves you despite the fact that you are unlovable; you need to understand that Jesus’ death is substitutionary for your sins, and it is the only way for you to be right before Him; and you need to commit to loyalty to God. So a full systematic theology is not necessary.

But whether it is necessary for salvation is not the question; the question is whether it is important to our faith.

Clearly, Paul thought it was important. He spent most of his career as a minister writing letters of theology—the Pauline Epistles. John clearly thought it was important, spending much of his Gospel addressing Christological concerns. In Acts, we see that the early church devoted most of their worship time to studying the teachings of the apostles, and held conferences (such as the Council of Jerusalem) to discuss key matters of the faith. Peter’s sermon on Pentecost was not practical at all: it was completely theological, discussing who Jesus was and how the cross plays into our lives. Really, the majority of the New Testament is highly concerned with theology – who is God, how do we relate to Him, how does salvation work, how does this relate to Israel’s history?

Yet today we are told to ignore these things, and “theology” is viewed as an ivory-tower elitism.

We are told in the Scriptures that our sword against the devil is to be the Word of God – yet anti-intellectualism undermines our understanding of the Word. We are told that faith shall be our shield – yet a faith based upon nothing but emotional connection is weak and frail, and easily destroyed by the darts of the enemy.

Consider your relationship with your spouse. If you get married purely based upon your passion, but do not take the time to actually know each other, how successful is your relationship? If I am not interested in knowing my wife’s past, her politics, her opinions, her loves, her hates…how strong will we be? At best, we will have a shallow relationship; at worst, we will divorce.

Such it is with God, as well. If we commit our lives to being Christians purely based upon passion, and then never actually decide to learn about Him—where He came from, what He’s done in the past and why, how He wants us to act, how He saves us—then our faith is decidedly weak and self-focused. We will be at best marginal followers.

What Paul considered the “milk” of the faith was in fact more theological than most evangelical churches today preach! And yet he thought that a time should come where we leave the “milk” behind and move on to even weightier subjects.

Some say that all of our answers should be simple—wrong. Simple questions can be answered simply, of course. But complex questions will demand a complex answer. If you ask, “How do planes fly?”, one answer might be, “They go fast enough that the wings lift them up.” And if you are a five-year-old, that is probably fine. But that is not good enough if you want to be a pilot, is it? You need to understand physics at that point—the Bernoulli principle and airfoil design basics. Once you become an adult, and have adult concerns, a child’s knowledge is not sufficient. Why do we think God is different? True, you can boil the Gospel down to a child-like faith of three or four points. And that is great if you are just to be a passenger on the plane. But if you actually want to fulfill your role and fly the plane for others, and build the plane for others…then you will need to ask (and be able to answer) much harder questions.

In the end, it is critical that we all know, at least at some level, the theology and history of our faith. If we do not, we are like a branch that does not know it is a part of a tree—much less does it know what fruit it should bear, or how to handle the harsh winters when they come!

Should we all be theologians? No. God did not make us all to be theologians. But we all should know just as much history and theology as we are capable of knowing. We are, after all, to worship God with all our minds, as well as all of our souls; we are to be as wise as serpents, not just as harmless as doves. Whatever intellect God gave you, it should be devoted to understanding as much as you can about Him. Only then can your relationship bring forth maximum fruits.

“The only people who ever prize purity of ignorance are those who profit from a monopoly on knowledge.” – O.S. Card, Children of the Mind

Don't settle for being a child in the faith of God. Whatever intellectual gifts God gave you, turn them toward Him. Don't just love Him with your heart, through faith. Don't just love Him with your body, through piety. Love Him also with your mind. It is, as Jesus said, the first and greatest commandment.

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