Are Christians too Academic? 

 

To a non-believer, parts of our community can appear far too academic. We spend whole days at our Bible Schools, whole chapters in our writings, intensively studying just a few Bible chapters, analyzing verses and phrases in great detail, striving to really understand what God is saying. And the question arises with most of us at some stage: are Christians too academic? 

To be academic and intellectual for its own sake is evidently wrong. There are whole theological libraries full of dry, dusty commentaries on Scripture; reading those books will make little practical impact upon our lives. Theology can become, for those with the time, opportunity and intellectual bent, an endlessly fascinating hobby. And it must be said that our own writers and speakers, especially in the eyes of the newly baptized, can sometimes appear academic to no end. We talk about the exact meaning of Hebrew and Greek words, we seek to follow through the nuances of Paul’s arguments, pick up possible allusions...but at the end of it all we are the same weak, spiritually struggling creatures as when we began.  

But- and it is a big ‘but’- the Proverbs encourage us to lift up our voice for understanding of God, to cry aloud for it more than for anything else in this mortal life. The Bible is a book of doctrine, a book of God’s words to us. God is His word (Jn. 1:1-3); if we are to know God, we must study His word. And because His ways are infinitely above ours, this won’t be so straightforward. And likewise with our Lord Jesus Christ; to know Him is to understand the doctrines about Him. To falsely understand them is to be ignorant of Christ (1 Jn. 2:22,23 cp. 2 Jn. 9). Conversion is a receiving “the knowledge of the truth” (Heb. 10:26). These verses teach that there can be no relationship with Christ unless there is some kind of correct doctrinal understanding of Him. He Himself told us that we show our love for Him by both having and obeying His teaching (Jn. 14:21). It is easy to overlook this; to have His teaching is a sign of our love for Him. To study and truly know His word is therefore vital; and those who hold the doctrines of a false Christ cannot love the real Christ, according to John.  

Knowledge is proportionate to works (Tit. 1:16); true understanding is the basis for behaviour. Otherwise works are just the result of our natural inclinations, not a desire to glorify God. God's people are described as " them of understanding" (Dan. 11:35). Evidently knowledge and appreciation is  related to our having covenant relationship with God. Those who do not understand will ultimately be condemned by God (Rev. 1:16-18 cp. 14:10). Understanding and perceiving the meaning of the parables would result in conversion, repentance and forgiveness (Mk. 4:12). Moses persevered because he understood. “Give me understanding, and I shall keep thy law” (Ps. 119:35) is one of many links in David’s thought between understanding and obedience. " For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter" (Mk. 7:29) shows the value which the Lord placed on correct understanding. The Gentile woman had seen the feeding of the 5,000 and understood the implications of the lesson which the Lord was teaching. We get the feeling that the Lord was overjoyed at her perception and therefore made an exception to His rule of not being sent at that time to the Gentiles, but to the house of Israel. 

The Importance Of Doctrine

We are sanctified by the presence of God’s word within us, as well as by the blood of Christ (Jn. 17:17). But God's 'word' clearly refers to that word understood, as it is in Christ. Thus Paul breathes a sigh of relief at the end of his life when he says that he has “fought a good fight...finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). To keep believing true doctrine (“the faith”) is likened to a lifelong struggle, a gruelling race. It hardly appears like this when we first learn the basic doctrines and are baptized. That it will be a struggle to continue believing them properly hardly seems possible in those innocent days. But holding on to true doctrine is a pre-requisite for acceptance into the Kingdom: “Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth the truths (AV mg.) may enter in” (Is. 26:2). Watching our doctrinal beliefs is as important as watching our own life: “Take heed unto thyself (i.e. lifestyle), and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee” (1 Tim. 4:16). Even the salvation of others can be partly dependent upon our own correct understanding. 

A correct understanding of the Law and the sacrifices meant that a man was near the Kingdom (Mk. 12:34). Cornelius was told “words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved” (Acts 11:14). Belief is essential for salvation, and yet belief must have some intellectual basis; there must be some knowledge to be believed before faith can exist. Therefore it is utterly impossible to divorce understanding from ultimate acceptability. This is because the vital virtue of faith is rooted in understanding. With the heart (mind / brain) man believes unto salvation (Rom. 10:10); the early believers clung to the Lord they had believed " with purpose of heart" (Acts 11:23). They that had not heard of the cross of Christ were made to see, understand and therefore believe by Paul's preaching (Rom. 15:21). Our appeals likewise must be to the understanding. Abraham 'accounted' that God was able to raise Isaac (Heb. 11:19); his faith involved an intellectual process. Israel were to hear / understand “the statutes and judgments…that ye may learn them, and keep, and do them” (Dt. 5:1). Understanding is related to obedience.  

This said, we must be careful to avoid the feeling that if we cling on to the basic doctrines we understood at baptism, this alone will somehow tide us into the Kingdom. The man who hung on to his talent but did nothing profitable with it made this mistake. We must come to know the Father and Son and develop a dynamic relationship with them. This doesn’t mean that we must ever be on the lookout for new, fascinating interpretations of Bible passages; for this can become an obsession in itself. Our appreciation of the essential being of God is what should be ever increasing. By rightly dividing (i.e. ‘correctly expounding’, Dr. Thomas’ translation) the word of truth in our study of it, we show ourselves “approved unto God” (2 Tim. 3:15). We are all professional students of the word- producing our workmanship of study, and presenting it to the Master. Now it depends what we mean by the word 'academic', but from this viewpoint it's not possible that Christians can be too academic. Our acceptability with God partly depends upon our correct understanding of His word. And true understanding leads to true practice. Thus Dan. 12:10 says that the wicked cannot understand the prophetic word, but the righteous will- in other words, true understanding is related to practical righteousness. God's word makes us wise, it gives us wisdom, unto salvation. Wisdom is therefore necessary for salvation. Not wisdom in a worldly sense; but spiritual knowledge and appreciation (intellectual things, in the pure sense of the word) are essential in the salvation process. 

“Search the scriptures”

The Lord told the Jews to “search the scriptures” so that they would have the word of God and the love of God abiding in them (Jn. 5:38-42). They academically knew “the scriptures”, but the voice of God, the presence of God, and the love of God this reveals, was simply hidden from them. They weren’t really studying. These 'Christians' weren't academic enough. But the Saviour also upbraided His very own men for their lack of true Biblical perception: “O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Lk. 24:25). Note that He did not upbraid them for not understanding His own clear prophecies concerning His passion; instead He rebukes them for not grasping the OT teaching about His death and resurrection. Yet if we try to prove from the OT alone that Messiah would die and resurrect, we are largely forced to reason from types. Even Isaiah 53 is only a prophecy of Christ insofar as Hezekiah (to whom it primarily refers) was a type of Christ. Stephen in Acts 7 resorts to typology to prove his points about the Messiahship of Jesus. The point is, the Lord expected those simple fishermen to have worked these things out, to have heard the voice of God in those OT types. And He upbraided them because they failed to do so.  

God Expects...

God expects us to understand much more than we think He does. Thus He condemned Israel in Jeremiah’s time because He had spoken to them but they had not understood, and therefore they had not responded (Jer. 35:17). They heard the word, as we read it, but they didn’t really hear His voice. They thought that getting to grips with Bible study was just for those who were into that kind of thing; with the result that God rejected them. Elisha told Joash that his arrows represented " the arrow of the Lord's deliverance from Syria: for thou shalt smite the Syrians" (2 Kings 13:17). He then told Joash to smite with the arrows upon the ground. Joash did so, three times- and Elisha was angry with him, because the number of times he smote the ground with them would be the number of times he defeated Syria. We might think that Elisha was being rather unreasonable with Joash; how was he to know what was in Elisha's mind? But the point is, Elisha expected the king to be more spiritually perceptive, to understand that they were enacting a parable of deliverance, to have grasped that those arrows were symbolic of victory over Syria. And so the lesson comes to us: we may be expected to have a greater understanding than we think reasonable of God to expect of us. 

All this ought to impart a sense of urgency to us. God expects us to search His word if we love Him. Because of the evil of the world around us, we should “redeem the time” by coming to understand God’s will, buying up the opportunities to understand as we see the Lord’s coming approaching- so Paul reasons in Eph. 5:16. Study of the word isn’t easy, and doesn’t always yield immediate results. Paul likens it to the ox treading out the corn, tramping monotonously up and down (cp. in a concordance or between passages), only slowly producing the bread of life (1 Cor. 9:10 cp. 1 Tim. 5:18). we will not see flashing lights all the time, wonderful things don’t just come jumping out of every page. To the onlooker upon our Bible study, the whole procedure can look boring and pointless. But what do we expect as mortals, seeking to understand the infinite God, searching the pages of His word to do so? Of course there will be some dead ends, whole passages will remain closed to us. But we are oxen, trampling out the corn. And slowly, it comes. 

“With all the understanding”

Our thoughts are brought together by a consideration of Mk. 12:33,34. The Scribe said that the most important commandment to love God “with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly (Gk. ‘in an intellect-having way’), He said unto him, Thou art not far from the Kingdom”. Notice how ‘understanding’ with the intellect is put higher in the list than loving one’s neighbour. The fundamental thing is to correctly understand, and this will naturally lead to a life of practical love. Our surrounding ‘Christian’ world has inverted this order; love of neighbour has been placed above correct understanding of God. Because the Scribe answered in an intellect-having way, the Saviour said that He was near to the Kingdom. To reach the Kingdom therefore involves correct understanding.  

The words of Mk. 12:33 allude to a number of OT passages which likewise show the superiority of knowledge and practical service over sacrifices (1 Sam. 15:22; Hos. 6:6; Mic. 6:6-8). Putting them together we find the following parallels:

To obey God’s word is better than sacrifice
To listen to God’s word  is better than sacrifice
To show mercy

is better than sacrifice

To know God 

is better than sacrifice

To be humble and just

is better than sacrifice

To understand God  is better than sacrifice

Understanding God, hearing His word, knowing God (all acts of the intellect) are therefore paralleled with practical things like loving out neighbour, showing mercy, justice etc. These practical things are an outcome of our correct knowledge of God.  The works of a doctrinally apostate ‘Christian’ world must be considered in this light. 

So we return to our question. Are Christians too academic? If by ‘academic’ we mean ‘applying the intellect to God’s word’, the answer has to be: ‘Not nearly enough!’. But if we mean simply ‘academic for the sake of it’, my response is ‘Yes, probably a bit too much, with a fair bit of pseudo-science and pseudo-learning thrown in too’. Our love of God should kindle a real burning fire inside our minds, to know Him and His Son the more. This thirst for knowledge will not be constrained by our brainpower, linguistic ability, education, powers of analysis etc. This earnest desire to know the love of Christ which passes such human knowledge can (and does!) wonderfully bind together all true believers, from the illiterate farmer to the professor of nuclear  physics.