The Problem of Anti-Intellectualism in the Church-Problems and Possible Solutions

Over the years I have had the opportunity to teach apologetics. Apologetics is the branch of Christian theology that offers reasons for the truthfulness of the Christian position/worldview. Most of the classes I have taught are about 8 weeks long. After the first class I can guarantee that the hands will go up. Several students lament that their local congregation has zero interest in apologetics. When we start to discuss the reasons for problem, one issue that always surfaces is that there is little emphasis on the discipleship of the mind. It is apparent that many in the Church have been taught to that it is more spiritual to be simple- minded. In other words, don’t think so hard. God is only pleased by simple faith. By the way, I do understand that many of us don’t have the time or resources to learn all we can about our faith. But let me move forward here.

One book that traces the history of the problem of anti-intellectualism in the Church is Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul by J. P. Moreland.

In this brilliant book, Dr. Moreland traces the history of what has happened in relation to the Christian mind.

Moreland discusses the history of the pilgrims arriving to the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century. The Pilgrims along with other American believers placed a high value on the intellectual life in relation to Christian spirituality. The Puritans were highly educated people (the literacy rate for men in Massachusetts and Connecticut was between 89 and 95 percent) who founded colleges, taught their children to read and write before the age of six, studied art, philosophy, and other fields as well. Evangelical scholars such as Jonathan Edwards were scholarly and well informed about other fields other than theology. Christians originally founded several American universities. The minister was regarded as proficient in both spiritual and intellectual matters.

When the first Great Awakening happened in the United States from the 1730′s to 1750′s, Christianity was not prepared for the philosophical thought that began to undermine biblical authority in the late 1800′s. In other words, Christianity was not prepared for the philosophies of David Hume (1711-1776) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), German higher criticism, and Darwinian evolution. During the middle 1800′s, Christianity continued to see an anti-intellectual approach in sermons. Ministers such as Charles Finney who preached during the Laymen’s Prayer Revival ( 1856-1858), delivered simple sermons that were more tailored around emotions in contrast to sermons that were reflective and doctrinally informed. Moreland notes that many positive things did come out of this period. However, the downside was that since thousands of people were converted on the basis of emotion and warm fuzzy feelings, these new converts were not trained to think theologically or doctrinally.

Moreland has also commented on the impact of Christians refusing to be informed about the language of ideas in the marketplace. As Moreland says:

“Instead of standing up and doing the hard work of responding to the critics, Christians opted out and said, It doesn’t matter what the facts say, I feel Jesus in my heart and that’s all that really matters to me. So we opted for a subjective pietism instead of hard thinking on the issues, and therefore we lost our place in the public square. The way to deal with vain philosophies, wherever they may be found, is to have good philosophy, not to abandon the art of critical thinking altogether.” (1)

Another book that has traced the history of anti-intellectualism in the church is Fit Bodies Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do About It by Os Guinness.

In this book, Guinness says:

“Loving God with our minds is not finally a question of orthodoxy, but love. Offering up our minds to God in all our thinking is a part of our praise. Anti-intellectualism is quite simply a sin. Evangelicals must address it as such, beyond all excuses, evasions, or rationalizations of false piety. We need to affirm certain truths: Intellectualism is not the answer to anti-intellectualism, for the perils of intellectualism-supremely in Gnosticism- are deadly and ever recurring. Or passion is not for academic respectability, but for the faithfulness to the commands of Jesus. Our lament is not for the destruction of the elite culture of Western civilization but for the deficiencies in our everyday discipleship as Christians. For anti-intellectualism is truly the refusal to love the Lord our God with our minds as required by the first of Jesus’ commandments. Thus, if we take the commands of Jesus seriously, we cannot dismiss the charge of anti-intellectualism as elitism or intellectual snobbery. As God has given us minds, we can measure our obedience by whether we are loving him with those minds, and disobedience whether we are not.”

In his book,The Opening of the Christian Mind: Taking Every Thought Captive to Christ, author David W. Gill makes a significant contribution about the relationship between intellectualism and discipleship: Gill says:

“ Mindless emotionalism or traditionalism, segmented fragmented lives and ignorance disguised as simple faith are all terrible deformations of Christian discipleship. But so is arid, dry intellectualism. Developing a Christian mind is but one crucial aspect of Christian discipleship.”

It could not be more evident to me that one of the reasons that Christians are discipled into anti-intellectualism is because of poor exegesis.

Let’s look at some of the Scriptures that can be misunderstood as speaking against anti-intellectualism:

1. Acts 4:13: “The Jewish elders and rulers observe that Peter and John were uneducated and unlearned.” Many have concluded that intellectual emphasis has no place for the life of the believer. Is this right? It is important to understand that the Jewish leaders did not mean that Peter and John were irrational or intellectually unskilled. They meant that they had not undergone the proper rabbinical training.

2. Colossians 2:8: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” Some have concluded from this passage that Paul is commanding people to avoid secular studies or philosophy. If we look at this passage in context, Paul was dealing with a proto-Gnostic philosophy that was threatening the Colossian church. If Paul had not had a vast understanding of philosophy, he could not have addressed the problem in the Colossian church. It is important to note that Paul quoted pagan philosophers in Acts 17:28.

3. 1 Corinthians 1: 19-21:
” For it is written, I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.”

Does this passage say God is against reason? It is important to note that Greek orators prided themselves with possessing “persuasive words of wisdom,” and it was their practice to persuade a crowd of any side of an issue for the right price. So, since Paul is most likely condemning hubris (pride), he is against false pride, or prideful use of reason, not reason itself. (2)

4. Matthew 18:3-5: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.”

In interpreting this passage, it is important to note that Jesus challenged his followers to be like children morally, not intellectually. Christians are called to exhibit childlikeness in being sensitive to evil and sin, in being humble and contrite in spirit. Jesus contrasts the need for humility with tough-mindness in Matt. 10:16, when He says, ” Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.” (3)

Some Suggestions in Restoring the Christian Mind

1. Calling all Leaders: What Are You Doing About This Problem?

As Christian philosopher Douglas Groothius says:
“Since we as Christians are called and commanded to have a reason for the hope within them (1 Peter 3:15), it is the responsibility Christian teachers, pastors, mentors and educators of all kinds are remiss if they avoid, denigrate, or minimize the importance of apologetics to biblical living and Christian witness. ” (4)

But as a leader, you may object, “But my people aren’t that deep. They just want the simple stuff.”
My response to this objection is that it is YOUR responsibility to show them the need for discipleship of the mind. If you don’t do anything about it, the Church will be in the same condition 50 years from now. Why do we keep dumbing it down for the people of God? Is that really what God wants? So be pro-active.

2. Created in the image of God?

As Norman Geisler says:

“God is a rational Being, and man is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Since God thinks rationally, man was given the same capacity. Brute beasts, by contrast, are called “irrational” (Jude 10). The basis laws of human reason are common to believer and unbeliever; without them, there would be no writing, thinking, or rational inference. Nowhere are these laws spelled out in the Bible. Rather, they are part of God’s general revelation and special object of philosophical thought.” (5)

Can we all agree that we see in Scripture that the God of Israel is a rational being, and the principles of good reason do flow from his very nature? It is evident that God calls on us to use our reason (Isa. 1:18; 1 Pet. 3:15; Matt. 22:36-37). God is a rational being, and He created us as rational beings. So we can agree that since humans are created in the image of God, reason is not opposed to revelation; it is part of it. Learning the rules of clear and correct reasoning play an integral part in our service to our Lord.

3. Establish a Worldview:

The term worldview is used in the sense described by prominent German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911). Dilthey affirmed that philosophy must be defined as a comprehensiveness vision of reality that involves the social and historical reality of humankind, including religion. A worldview is thus the nature and structure of the body of convictions of a group or individual. Worldview includes a sense of meaning and value and principles of action. It is much more than merely an “outlook” or an “attitude.” Each person’s worldview is based on a key category, an organizing principle, a guiding image, a clue, or an insight selected from the complexity of his or her multidimensional experience. (6)

Believe it or not, a worldview will impact our view of our vocation, our family, government, education, the environment, etc. A worldview also impacts ethical issues in our culture such as homosexuality, abortion, stem cell research etc. Remember, the issues of competing worldviews shape the past, present, and future of a nation.

4. Christians Need An Integrated Faith

I already touched on this in Point #2. We all can agree that the God of the Bible is certainly a God of revelation. However, the Bible does command us to love God with our minds (Matt. 22:27), as well as love God with the rest of our being. We can’t forget the commandment, “’Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:28-30). Biblical faith involves a commitment of the whole person.

The Hebrew word for heart is “leb,” or “lebad.” While the word “heart” is used as a metaphor to describe the physical organ, from a biblical standpoint, it is also the center or defining element of the entire person. It can be seen as the seat of the person’s intellectual, emotional, affective, and volitional life. In the New Testament, the word “heart” (Gr.kardia) came to stand for man’s entire mental and moral activity, both the rational and the emotional elements In other words, the disciple of Jesus is called to use good reason, which the Bible commends to discover truth (Isa.1:18; Matt. 22:27; 1 Pet. 3:15).

5. Engage the Culture:

According to a Barna study, 95% of all professing Christians have never attempted to share their faith. Out of that 5%, only 2% share on a regular basis. Now Jesus said in John 14:15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”.Since Jesus commands His people to “make disciples of the nations” (Matt.28:19), the Christian who is not ashamed of the gospel (Romans 1:16), will desire to share the good news of Jesus with his neighbor. It is my conviction the reason that there is such a lack of interest in apologetics and critical thinking is because evangelism and outreach are neglected. Christians also have a responsibility to be aware of the issues within our culture.

My suggestion to change this problem is to challenge congregants to take a survey with five spiritual questions and engage people on a regular basis. Once they see how people respond to the questions, they will begin to see how inept they are to handle objections to the faith. By doing a survey, this allows the congregants to witness firsthand the tremendous amount of diversity in our culture. One of the reasons the Holy Spirit was able to use Paul with a variety of audiences was because Paul had a vast knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, as well as Jewish and Greek culture. If someone asks a question that cannot be answered, it allows the Christian the privilege of doing research about a particular apologetic issue.

As William Lane Craig says:

” It is not just scholars and pastors who need to be intellectually engaged with issues. Laymen need to become intellectually engaged. Our congregations are filled with people who are idling in intellectual neutral. As believers, their minds are going to waste. One result is an immature, superficial faith. People who simply ride the roller coaster of emotional experience are cheating themselves out of a deeper and richer faith by neglecting the intellectual side of that faith.” (7)

6. Realize the Holy Spirit Works in Conjunction with Hard Work and Study

Sadly, I think many Christians think the Holy Spirit is some sort of mystical force that just does it all for us. He doesn’t care about serious study and would rather have us be lazy minded. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Holy Spirit works with our disciplined study, not against it.

7. The University:

From a university perspective, it is imperative that students be trained to think critically as well as apologetically. By the time Christian students leave to college, they should have a grasp of a biblical worldview as well as the ability to understand the importance of integrating the mind into all areas of spiritual life. If young college students compartmentalize their spiritual life, they will end up viewing spirituality as simply going to Bible studies, private prayer time, and congregational attendance. Classes and study time will be viewed as “secular” and something they need to get through in order to graduate. This must be corrected. How can students impact the university if they do not understand the way the culture thinks?

What about Christians who want to study philosophy in college? Should they avoid it? Groothius says:

” Young Christians with an aptitude in philosophy and academic pursuits in general should be encouraged that these disciplines are just as spiritual as anything directly church-related. For example, being a Christian philosopher at a secular college or university is just as godly and spiritual than being a pastor, missionary, or professor at a Christian institution (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17). One may prudently apply one’s apologetic skills in these settings and extend the Christian witness.” (8)

Conclusion

In all my evangelism efforts, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard complaints from the non-Christian that they don’t understand why so many Christians seem to be so anti-intellectual. As I noted above, the problem started a long time ago. We are now playing catch up for this problem. I also want to make it clear that I am not advocating the type of rationalism birthed during the Enlightenment period. This type of rationalism was what Francis Schaeffer termed “autonomous reason,” which is the haughty human attempt to build a worldview without recourse to God. I hope and pray all of us will listen and apply some of these things that I have mentioned in this short post.

Sources:

1. Koukl. G. The Value of Philosophy. Retrieved November 9, 2007. Available at http://www.str.org/site/.

2. Moreland, J.P and Craig, W.L. Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003, 13.

3. Clark, D.J. Dialogical Apologetics: A Person Centered Approach to Christian Defense. Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books. 1993, 20-21.

4. Groothius, D. Christian Apologetics Manifesto 2003. Retrieved November, 12th 2007 from Answers in Action. Available at http://www.answersinaction.org.

5. Geisler, N.L. Systematic Theology: Vol 1. Bloomington, MINN: Bethany House Publishers. 2002, 91.

6. Newport. J.P. Life’s Ultimate Questions: A Contemporary Philosophy of Religion. Dallas: Word Publishing. 1989, 4.

7. Craig, W.L. Reasonable Faith. Wheaten, ILL: Crossway Books. 1984.

8. Groothius, D. Christian Apologetics Manifesto 2003. Retrieved November, 12th 2007 from Answers in Action. Available at http://www.answersinaction.org.

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3 thoughts on “The Problem of Anti-Intellectualism in the Church-Problems and Possible Solutions

  1. Jonathan Sherwin November 27, 2011 / 3:47 pm

    This is a really useful post tackling common anti-intellectual questions that others in the church ask of Apologetics. Guinness’ book – Fit Bodies, Fat Minds – was an eye-opener for me and something I still dip back into from time to time.

    I can relate to where you’re coming from with running Apologetics classes and the questions that follow. It’s something that I experience too. Thanks for posting!

  2. chab123 November 27, 2011 / 8:26 pm

    Thanks Jon, I appreciate it.

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