Biblical Anti-Intellectualism

The Thinker. The Wise Man, the Philosopher of This Age.

The Thinker. The Wise Man, the Philosopher of This Age.

Where is the Philosopher?

When you really look at the matter carefully, casting aside all preconceived notions and prejudices, frankly, the Scriptures do not speak well of intellectuals or intellectualism:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:

   “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

Where is the wise man? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? 1 Corinthians 1:18-20

Now, let’s be clear: When I speak of intellectuals and intellectualism, I am not speaking simply of thoughtful people ruminating on subjects of interest. Nor does it refer to mere intelligence; one can be highly intelligent (i.e., possessed of strong cognitive skills, rapid problem-solving ability, a prodigious memory, and so forth) and not consider oneself an intellectual. Nor am I embarking on an anti-education rant. An intellectual, I think, is a person who relies primarily on human reason. He is one who believes in the primacy of the mind — over instinct, or habit, or tradition, or even faith. The intellectual grasps the world by his mental power. Any other notion that may come to him by whatever means, is tested and tried by the mind as the final arbiter of what will be his personal worldview and philosophy. It would be hard to argue that Solomon, the wisest man of his generation, recommended intellectualism. Quite the opposite, in fact:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5-6

Paul, a learned man, likewise apparently encouraged his hearers to avoid the intellectual life:

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher 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 know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. 1 Corinthians 1:17-29

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. Colossians 2:8

These passages suggest strongly that dependence on human reason is fraught with error. “Lean not on your own understanding.” “The world through its wisdom did not know Him.” Scripture, in its wisdom, seems to disdain the “life of the mind,” knowing the weaknesses and limitations of human reason. Regrettably, many Christians lapse into this mode of thinking. It is an earthly way of thinking, a fleshly mode, a “basic principle” (stoichos, irreducible element) of this world. I have often heard Christians say something like “God gave us a mind, and he expects us to use it!” This is complete nonsense, of course, a worthless argument. Reliance on our minds is the result of the Fall of man. As Watchman Nee describes it,

Now we know the course that Adam chose. Standing between the two trees, he yielded to Satan and took of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. This determined the lines of his development. From then on he could command a knowledge; he ‘knew’. But—and here we come to the point—the fruit of the tree of knowledge made the first man over-developed in his soul. The emotion was touched, because the fruit was pleasant to the eyes, making him ‘desire’; the mind with its reasoning power was developed, for he was ‘made wise’; and the will was strengthened, so that in {the} future he could always decide which way he would go. The whole fruit ministered to the expansion and full development of the soul, so that not only was the man a living soul, but from henceforth man will live by the soul. It is not merely that man has a soul, but that from that day on the soul, with its independent powers of free choice, takes the place of the spirit as the animating power of man. We have to distinguish here between two things, for the difference is most important. God does not mind—in fact He intends—that we should have a soul such as He gave to Adam. But what God has set Himself to do is to reverse something. There is something in man today which is not just the fact of having a soul, but which constitutes a living by the soul. It was this that Satan brought about in the Fall. He trapped man into taking a course by which he could develop his soul so as to derive his very life from it. Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Life (public domain: available free online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/nee/normal)

As Brother Nee says:

Many of us Christians today are men with over-developed souls. We have grown too big in ourselves. We have become ‘big-souled’. When we are in that condition, the life of the Son of God in us is confined and almost crowded out of action. …

Take for example the human mind. I may have by nature a keen mind. Before my new birth I had it naturally, as something developed from my natural birth. But the trouble arises here. I become converted, I am born anew, a deep work is effected in my spirit, and essential union with God that has been set up in my spirit, but at the same time I carry over with me something which I derive from my natural birth. Now what am I going to do about it?

The natural tendency is this. Formerly I used to use my mind to pore over history, over business, over chemistry, over questions of the world, or literature, or poetry. I used my keen mind to get the best out of those studies. But now my desire has been changed, so henceforth I employ the same mind in the things of God. I have therefore changed my subject of interest, but I have not changed my method of working. That is the whole point. My interests have been utterly changed (praise God for that!), but now I utilize the same power to study Corinthians and Ephesians that I used before to pursue history and geography. But that power is not of God; and God will not allow that. The trouble with so many of us is that we have changed the channel into which our energies are directed, but we have not changed the source of those energies.

A Resting Place

When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. 1 Corinthians 2:1(b)-5

The critical issue is this: What does your faith rest on? I have heard believers say that if the Christian truth-claims were found at some future date to be not intellectually tenable, they would necessarily no longer be able to consider themselves Christian. How does this square with Paul’s comments? If I declare that I cannot hold an assertion that I find unsupportable by reason, I am asserting that my reason is antecedent to my faith; i.e., that my reason sits in judgment over my faith, not the other way around. By this view, my reason can nullify my faith, but my faith can never nullify my reason; i.e., my faith is dependent on reason. It is resting on “wise and persuasive words” that could one day succumb to a challenge. It is a shaky foundation.

The natural man must know in order to believe; the spiritual man must believe in order to know. The faith that saves is not a conclusion drawn from evidence; it is a moral thing, a thing of the spirit, a supernatural infusion of confidence in Jesus Christ, the very gift of God. Faith based upon reason is faith of a kind, but it is not of the character of Bible faith, for it follows the evidence infallibly and has nothing of a moral or spiritual nature in it… True faith rests upon the character of God and asks no further proof than the moral perfections of the One who cannot lie. A.W. Tozer

Intellectual Pride

The Scriptures are pretty unequivocal in their condemnation of the sin of those who boast over their intelligence:

Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise.  1 Corinthians 3:18 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight  Isaiah 5:21

The strongest words in opposition to intellectual pride, in my view, come from the almost-devotional tone of the 131st Psalm:

My heart is not proud, O Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have stilled and quieted my soul: Like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. Psalm 131:1-2

Be aware that the Psalmist has slipped us a bit of teaching “under the radar,” so to speak. The first bit speaks of avoidance of pride and pretension. Many Christian believers would no doubt nod in assent. The second bit (starting with “But…”) presents a sort of attitude of the mind, a happy place to be. The implied teaching is this: In juxtaposing these two elements, the Psalmist is implying that one is the antithesis of the other. The way for a believer to evade the temptations of pride and pretense is exactly the way of the stilled, quiet soul. This is not a spiritual exercise, a sort of fifteen-minutes-a-day discipline. This is talking about a lifestyle of stillness and quietude of the soul. A mind at rest. A mind at peace because it is not grasping for things “too wonderful” for it. It knows its limits. As Paul wrote to the Colossians,

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. Colossians 3:15-16

The peaceful, settled heart and the Scripture-infused mind are two closely-linked components of the life in Christ  that the New Testament urges. This life is the opposite of the factions and strife that plagued the church at Corinth – the church full of intellectuals and “wise men.”

The Happy Anti-Intellectual

So I declare myself today a Biblical Anti-Intellectual. I choose, with Solomon, not to lean on my own understanding:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5-6

Where to find wisdom? Where to get knowledge?

Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true. The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. Ecclesiastes 12:9-12

Brothers and sisters, we do well to study, but recognize that the objective to which God wants to bring us is rest for the soul, not exercise. To weary ourselves with intellectual pursuits is to waste energy and bring misery upon ourselves without reason. Be happy. Trust God. Worry less.

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