Is the Bible Anti-Intellectual?

Viewed in isolation, some passages of Scripture seem to convey that there is a special danger in the human intellect—danger that is greater than the hazards of, for example, “the heart.” Sadly, these passages are often viewed “in isolation” in churches strongly influenced by revivalism, romanticism (see also IEP), or both.

Used as slogans, passages like the following seem solidly anti-intellectual:

Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth. (1 Cor. 8:1)
God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise. (1 Cor. 1:27)
Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit. (Col. 2:8)
Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. (2 Tim. 3:7)
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. (Prov. 3:5-6)

Based on passages like these, anti-intellectuals teach that Christians should focus more energy on “matters of the heart” in contrast to the intellect. Study and analysis should be viewed with greater suspicion than impression and intuition (supposedly, the special domain of the Holy Spirit). The quality of worship should be gauged by what’s felt more than by what’s thought or learned.

But these are errors, and we can correct or avoid them by looking more comprehensively at what Scripture reveals about the inner man. What follows is intended as a start.

Four Reasons to Reject Anti-Intellectualism

1. We don’t live in overly intellectual times.

Some ministries have a tradition of seeing intellectual pursuits as worldly. The attitude is that Christian teaching should act as a corrective influence against this form of worldliness by warning often against intellectualism.

But I often wonder what world they’re looking at. It doesn’t seem to be the one I live in. Twenty-first century society in the West has many problems, but are we suffering from an overabundance of sound reasoning, solid facts, and precise communication? Is our educational system too thorough? Are students spending too much time reading great books or are their critical thinking skills overdeveloped?

In politics and social policy, do our debates often get bogged down in too much detailed analysis? How often do we actually debate at all?

Looking at conservative churches, do we find an excess of biochemists, philosophers, neurosurgeons, astronomers, and physicists? Are churches plagued with too much rigorous thinking about what Scripture means and what it demands in the times we live in?

Intellectualism might have once been a kind of worldiness in our culture in the past, but today, the dominant attitude of “the world,” is one of intellectual laziness, emotion-driven belief, and decision-making based more on group-loyalty (a.k.a. tribalism) than on a diligent quest for truth.

So Christian ministry doesn’t have an intellectualism problem to fix. If there is any reason to emphasize “heart” over intellect in Christian ministry, “the world is too intellectual” can’t be it.

2. The intellect and the “heart” aren’t really alternatives to each other.

There’s a kernel of truth in the old “head belief vs. heart belief” contrast. It’s possible to acknowledge that a conclusion makes sense but not actually embrace it as truth. It’s possible to acknowledge that an idea is true, yet attach no personal importance to it. It’s easy to accept something as true but fail to accept how that truth relates to who we are and how we live, then accept those implications, and act.

But none of these problems are actually failures of elevating intellect over “heart.” They really aren’t “head vs. heart” problems. They can’t be, because Scripture shows us that our emotions, affections, and values (“heart”) are so intertwined with our reasoning, analysis, and gaining of knowledge (“head”) that a good bit of the time we can’t really tell where one ends and the other begins.

The most common word for “heart” in the Old Testament is the Hebrew lev. In Proverbs, the lev feels the whole range of emotions (15:13, 15; 13:12; 14:10) and makes choices (3:1, 5; 5:12). But it also understands (2:2), devises plans (6:18; 16:9), studies (15:28), teaches (16:23), and ponders (23:7). So when Proverbs 4:23 warns us to diligently keep our hearts (lev), it’s calling us to guard (natsar) our entire inner man—including both the intellectual and the nonintellectual.

The most common word for “heart” in the NT (kardia) shows a similar pattern. Along with its connection to a range of emotions and attitudes, the kardia thinks (Matt. 9:4) understands (Matt. 13:15) questions (Mark 2:8, Luke 3:15), ponders (Luke 2:19)—even reasons (dialogismos, Luke 9:47).

Since the Bible reveals that our intellectual and non-intellectual capacities are complementary, trying to pit them against each other to produce a winner is foolish.

3. The Bible doesn’t teach that the heart is trustworthy.

Scripture not only shows us that the intellectual and non-intellectual within us are complementary and intertwined, but it also warns us about both them in roughly equal measure. Whatever we understand the “heart” to be, it’s certainly not more reliable than the brain.

  • In Mark 7:20-23, the heart (kardia) is a source of all sorts of defiling behavior.
  • In Acts 5:3-4, it’s the heart of Ananias that Satan fills so that he lies to the Spirit.
  • In Acts 8:20-22, Simon’s heart is what has evil “intent” (v.22) and drives him to think incorrectly (v.20).
  • In 1 Kings 11:4-9, Solomon’s heart (levav—clearly,  his affections) eclipses his wisdom and turns him after false gods.
  • In Jeremiah 17:9, the heart (lev) is deceitful and sick.

4. Not all knowledge “puffs up.”

Pride of knowledge is a real problem, but so is the pride of any other possession. Whether we’re proud to have more knowledge than others or more land, money, friends, experience, or good looks—it’s all the same.

And some knowledge clearly isn’t pride-inducing at all. Consider knowledge of the gospel, for example (1 Tim. 2:4): knowing that we’ve grievously wronged the God who made us, that all the good we could do in a thousand lifetimes wouldn’t even begin to merit God’s forgiveness, and that only His own righteousness graciously credited to us can make us acceptable to Him is humbling knowledge!

So it’s not surprising that the New Testament often speaks of the importance of knowledge and, therefore, of intellect.

Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?” (Mark 12:24)

For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. (Rom. 10:2)

Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering. (Lk 11:52)

[W]e have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, (Col. 1:9)

Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. (1 Cor. 2:6)

The Bible is anything but anti-intellectual. In the beginning, God created us as thinking beings in His image and gave us work for our minds (Gen. 2:19). Jesus commanded His followers to be mentally sharp (Matt. 10:16), and the apostle Paul urged us to “take every thought captive” to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). Drawing our conclusions about truth, error, right and wrong based on intuition and feelings—without disciplined attention to knowledge and clear thinking—isn’t Christian; it’s a worldly capitulation to the lazy sentimentality of our times.

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There are 13 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

....if God didn't want us to engage in intellectual pursuits, why did He give us His will in a Book written in multiple languages not spoken by most modern men?  One where getting to the right answers requires, in many cases, a fair amount of what academics would call literary criticism?  

It also strikes me, having inhabited secular academia for a while, and having watched it from a distance for decades since, that the excesses of academia do not  consist in the rightful use of academic tools, but in their abuse--trying to pull the wool over peoples' eyes, more or less.   If one reads the ancients and the debates that would take place in places like the Aeropagus, one will see about the same thing.

That is, "vain" philosophy did not necessarily consist of an over-emphasis on the tools of reasoning and the sensible processing of evidence.  It consisted--and consists today--of people starting with an invalid premiss that contradicts the Scriptures, and taking that invalid premiss to either a logical or illogical conclusion--and shipwrecking mens' faith in the process.  You've got the gnostic heresy assuming all matter is evil, the stoics denying the validity of our natural emotions, etc..

And to spot that kind of thing, you've got to do precisely what Paul appears to have done; study some of this philosophy along with the Scriptures to be able to quote the philosophers and point out where it deviates.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Yes, I also see it mainly as a problem of abuse of the intellect. Romans 1:18 is insightful on this. By the time you get to the end of that sequence of events you see that it's spiritual rebellion that blinds and twists the whole person: intellect, emotions, will, and eventually even body. But it all starts with suppressing truth.

A major cause of the anti-intellectual energy out there is, I think, some presumptuous belief about the Holy Spirit. It seems to be widely assumed that one hears from the Spirit only when one is not actively reasoning from reliable information. So the Spirit is seen as "what we hear when not thinking logically." But Scripture nowhere associates the Spirit with wild emotion, or limits Him to unplanned, unexpected, non-rational, and dramatic experiences. Acts 2 is all that, but Jesus describes the Spirit as relating to mind (e.g. John  14:26, 16:13) and Paul relates Him to mind (Rom 8:6), and also understanding and judgment (1 Cor. 2:14-16).

In light of these passages, it's actually pretty hard to argue for excluding the cognitive from the Spirit's area of influence.

G. N. Barkman's picture

The Holy Spirit speaks to me by enabling me to understand a particular passage of Scripture.

G. N. Barkman

Bert Perry's picture

Part of it can be a presumptuous assumption regarding the Holy Spirit, and I'm guessing another part of it has a lot to do with history.  Theological liberals made a big point of imposing their views from the "top down" via seminaries and bishops to churches that wanted nothing to do with form criticism and the like, and as a result those churches which left the mainline churches became suspicious of many of those academic institutions. 

It's guilt by association, yes, but it's understandable.  After the MDivs and such that wrote The Fundamentals died off, what was left but for people to see "higher degree, apostate, but lesser degree, faithful."

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I do think a portion of anti-intellectualism in IFB churches has to do with how historic fundamentalism came to be--as a response to higher criticism/modernism that permeated institutions, first, from academia on down. So, as humans tend to do, it's easy to oversimplify that--into the attitude that thinks it's cute to call seminaries "cemeteries" and deride education in general. Bad ideas came via educational institutions, therefore education is the enemy of genuine Christian living.

I've heard it said almost that directly from pulpits quite a few times... Not coincidentally, always by men who are not well educated (though some were thoroughly schooled. Not the same thing).

MF's picture

excellent!

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Thanks. 

I've been trying to write something on signs of anti-intellectualism/how to spot it in your ministry, but so far, not coming together. Probably just need to get a hard copy of the original edition of JP Moreland's Love God with All Your Mind and just quote alot (revised version might have the same in it but I haven't read it). 

Bert Perry's picture

On the fringe, it's easy to spot anti-intellectualism--the "pastor" leads with some personal attacks and then discusses how he learned his Greek at a gyros joint and that sort of thing.  But really--as I think Aaron hints--we're looking at the more subtle signs of problems, and that requires us to be a little more sophisticated.  Perhaps one good starting point is to take a look at what resources the pastor/teacher brings to bear, and what theological moorings he uses as references.  

Big thing, again, is that we need to recognize genuine intellectual tools and their often abusive counterparts--a lot of primo professors specialize in the latter.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

MF's picture

It seems to me that the crux of the problem is staying within the correct sphere of influence. I don't want a carpenter working on my car or a mechanic working on my house. what I mean is this. Our job is not to interpret science in light of the scriptures. Our job is to interpret the scriptures in light of science. So then, If I have questions about the history of the Bible, I should go to historians. If I need to examine the makeup, I should seek literary advice. To do otherwise, is just bad academics.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

That makes sense in a lot of ways, but a comprehensive Christian worldview requires that we look at everything through the lens of special revelation -- Scripture. It's the final authority but also the starting authority, so a Christian approach to academics is kind of sandwich shaped.

Sort of. 

Where that image fails is that we're too bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.. So special revelation is at the beginning and end of Christian thought but also intertwined all through everything in between.

The anti-intellectualism I'm mainly concerned about takes the form of

  • An exaltation of feeling and intuition above intentional reasoning and information
  • Intellectual laziness
Mike Harding's picture

If one studies the apologetics of Cornelius Van Til or Greg Bahnsen, both of whom were great intellectual giants, they would inform us that the one true and living God has self-attestingly revealed himself through the infallible, inerrant, inspired Scriptures---the 66 inscripturated books of the protestant Bible.  This is the fundamental presupposition by which Christians must approach all factual matters.  Facts are not self-interpreting in-and-of themselves.  Thus, we interpret all facts through the unified, systematic, non-contradictory theology of the Bible.  Science is not the 67th book of the Bible.

Pastor Mike Harding

MF's picture

Word for the day:

A FOOL TAKES NO PLEASURE IN UNDERSTANDING, BUT ONLY IN EXPRESSING HIS OPINION.

(ESV) Proverbs 18:2

Mike Harding's picture

Mark Snoeberger notes in his essay on Fundamentalism that in James Turner's 1986 work Without God. Without Creed. The Origins of Unbelief in America, the author traces the rise of atheism/agnosticism in the late 18th to early-20th century America, and he assigns much of the blame to Christians accommodating science as an independently authoritative discipline.  Turner points out that the Princeton School led the compromise of Christian Theology as queen of the sciences.  Incrementally they surrendered the plain truth of Genesis 1-11 in order to accommodate uniformitarian science by abandoning the universal flood and adopting geological evolution and biological Darwinianism. In all of this theology had been dethroned as queen of the sciences. In so doing the so-called defenders of God "slowly strangled Him."  Some evangelicals (i.e. Tremper Longman) in their efforts to equivocate between science and Scripture have seriously questioned the necessity of the historical Adam, considering his existence "unlikely".  They do so to their own peril without realizing the serious implications for the doctrines of original sin, solidarity of the human race, the second Adam, and imputation.

Pastor Mike Harding

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