Christianity · Theology

Escaping the Snare of Christian Intellectualism

“I have found that nothing is more dangerous to one’s own faith than the work of an apologist.” ~C.S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics”

When I first read this statement, I thought C.S. Lewis as almost completely oblivious to the role of reason in the Christian faith. I love the methodology of a good logical argument, the solid connections between Christian teaching and reality, and the deeper realms of theology by-and-large.

However, the more I wrote posts like “A Word on Denominations” or “The Intertwining of God’s Goodness and Our Suffering”, the more I felt the piercing truth of C.S. Lewis’ words. In an effort to discuss the deeper things of Christianity—the things believers and unbelievers alike are most confused about, are afraid to examine, or both—the easier it is to lose sight of the simple beauty of the Gospel. As I wrote in “Three Books That Will Forever Transform Your View of the Gospel”:

“[E]verything upon which our faith is based stems from the Gospel. Its success at breathing new life and hope into humanity remains and will remain unparalleled, unhindered, unmeasured. We can never overstate its importance, yet sometimes we lose sight of it.”

As much as I love defending the Christian faith and sharing its profound beauty with everyone who reads my words on Defy Augury, blogging has also shown me just how hard it is to discipline the flesh, to find a balance between endlessly working at understanding the Bible to resting in the Scriptural truths that the littlest child can comprehend. The inclination toward the former side is what I call “intellectualism.” To assist anyone struggling with the same difficulty, here are a few resolutions that, when applied, will help draw you closer to acheiving that ever-elusive balance.

Be a continual student (that is, avoid being a teacher) of someone more mature in the faith.

Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” ~First Peter 5:5, ESV

When the believer puffs excessive, foundationless pride and abundant knowledge into himself, leadership seems more appealing than servanthood. Instead of exposing himself and his sins to the brethren and expressing a sincere willingness to listen to the counsel of the wise, this believer is more inclined to start a debate on eschatology or ecclesiology, thinking of ways to revolve the Scripture around himself instead of placing himself at the feet of the One who wrote it. A conscious striving to sit at the figurative pupil’s desk than to stand in the place of teacher, though, can remedy this problem—for the person who contains a mass of Biblical knowledge is often the person who will benefit most from mature teachers who can show him how to translate that knowledge into life.

Think of everything you do as a ministry, not as an accomplishment.

“No member of the body exists to serve itself, nor does each member exist merely for its own private use. Rather, it puts its abilities to use for the other members of the body. Nor does any member of the body alone receive any advantage from itself outside of that which belongs to the entire body. Whatever, therefore, a godly man is able to do, he should do it for his brothers.” ~John Calvin, “A Little Book on the Christian Life”

This statement implies that the student must also become a servant. No matter how much one calls “talents” “gifts from God”, one can easily succumb to the temptation of acknowledging knowledge, talents, and the like as his own and for his own glory if those special things are hidden away for the sole use of himself. As John Calvin said in the aforementioned book, “The proper use, then, of all the good gifts we have received is the free and generous sharing of those gifts with others.” To call the fruits of our gifts our own, then, is for the pen to boast of what the Author has written, or for the needle to brag of what the Tailor has sewn. If God has given one of His sons or daughters a flexible intellect, then, he must not keep his “-ologies” to himself, but share his knowledge with others via gentleness and an attitude of equality with the rest of the brethren.

Always remember that without dependence on God, one can never be a Christian.

“[H]aving been impressed with our own weakness, we learn to despair of ourselves. Then, having despaired of ourselves, we transfer our trust to God. Next, we rest in our trust in God, and we rely on His help and persevere unconquered to the end. Then standing on His grace, we see that He is true to His promises. Finally, being confident in the certainty of His promises, our hope is strengthened.” ~John Calvin, “A Little Book on the Christian Life”

Just as the Christian struggling with intellectualism must find ways to be both student and teacher (teacher, indeed, only if he is teaching without pride), so must he also find his more intangible role as “depender.” This is neither an actual occupation like the other roles, nor is it limited to those who are fighting the temptation of taking pride in knowledge. Dependence on another Being is the foremost mark of the Christian, because the world depends on itself. Unlike student and teacher, though a believer can depend on God jointly with his neighbors at church, the role of “depender” requires an individual’s conscious sharpening of his or her own faith. Like salvation, how well one depends on God is not defined by who he is but who he will sacrifice himself to be individually. If a Christian struggling with intellectualism learns how to depend on God, he will realize that, suddenly, God defines him, and not his brain.

In the end, intellectualism is cured only by humility. For after all, what is intellectualism but a form of Satan’s attempt to dethrone God and our attempt to replace Him with man’s reason? All believers, no matter how brilliant they are, must realize “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” (First Timothy 1:15, ESV) and that everyone has committed wrongdoing against God. If the most intellectually gifted Christians were able to say along with Paul, “We are the foremost of sinners,” (First Timothy 1:15, ESV) I firmly believe this world can be a better place—because we wouldn’t call ourselves “apologists,” “intellectuals,” or “philosophers”; we would identify first and foremost as children of God.

“[I]f God’s gifts to us are ultimately sanctified to us after our hands have offered them back to their very author, any use of those gifts that is not perfumed by such an offering will be a corrupt abuse of them.” ~John Calvin, “A Little Book on the Christian Life”

“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” ~First John 3:1-3, ESV


~Sarah Merly

November 24, 2018

Isaiah 53