Reasons for Christian Anti-Intellectualism #2: Over-emphasis on Spiritual Truth

This post is part of a series of posts about what it means to love God with our minds. In the process, I touch on a number of issues that are sure to raise questions. If you have questions for me regarding any of this, you can post them in the comments or feel free to contact me directly through this site or my Facebook Page.


Review

I think there are three reasons Christians tend to be anti-intellectual. The first reason came from 1 Corinthians 2:1-2:

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. 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.

1 Corinthians 2:1-2 NIV

Christians read this verse and decide that Christianity should be simple and straightforward. As a result, there is a presupposition that Christian truth should be simple and straightforward. In most cases, that’s a good perspective and a good goal, but it easily transforms into an over-simplification of complicated matters. It can lead to a rejection of complicated answers in favor of answers that seem more simple. It’s a temptation for all people, not just Christians. However, it’s a problem for Christians because it causes us to miss complicated truths in favor of simple falsehoods. In the previous two posts, I shared just two of the myths that Christians have developed because they seem simple and straightforward even though they have no solid evidence for them.

In this post, I will move on to the next reason Christians have for being anti-intellectual. Once again, it is drawn from statements of Paul in 1 Corinthians.

The Over-emphasis on Spiritual Truth

More accurately, the reason Christians tend to be anti-intellectual is that there is a general conviction that spiritual truth is more important than other truths, and that truth discerned through spiritual means is more trustworthy than truth uncovered through other means. Here’s the passage from 1 Corinthians 2 that seems to bolster this idea:

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began…. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.

1 Corinthians 2:6-7, 13 NIV

This isn’t the only time Paul will say something that seems to go against “human reason” or the “wisdom of this age.” Consider these other verses:

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.

Colossians 2:8 NIV

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12:2 NIV

In all these passages, it seems that Paul is creating a preference for spirit-revealed truth about spiritual matters over all other truths and methods of discovery. At least, they do if we limit ourselves to the simplistic / literal understanding of these verses and ignore their context. In a future post, I’ll address the proper interpretation of 1 Corinthians 2, so for this post, let’s discuss why the over-emphasis on spiritual matters is wrong.

Why It’s a Problem

1. It improperly handles the Word of God.

Of course, the first reason it’s a problem is that it fails to properly understand the teaching of the Bible on the matter. Yes, there are times when Paul encourages people to learn the spiritual truths of God, but he never makes the point that other forms of inquiry should be rejected. Let’s consider one of them.

Remember this verse:

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.

Colossians 2:8 NIV

It really seems like Paul is opposing philosophy and human traditions, but put the verse back in its context:

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ….

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

Colossians 2:6-8, 16-19 NIV

The purpose of Colossians 2 is that Paul wants the Christians in Colossae to continue trusting in Christ rather than the “philosophy” and “human tradition” that has taken hold among them. Then, later in the chapter, Paul reveals that when he says hollow philosophy he means the reasons for religious tradition! People have good reasons for their religious traditions, but those reasons are hollow and deceptive. They have fallen for “idle notions” from an “unspiritual mind” and have been expressing “false humility and the worship of angels.”

Let’s be clear. Paul is not opposing the “philosophy” of Isaac Newton who used the word “philosophy” the way we use the word “science.” Paul is not opposing the “philosophy” of Plato, Socrates, or Kierkegaard who were philosophers because they loved (philo) wisdom (sophia). No, Paul is opposed to the empty-headed thinking of people who claim to have developed some kind of spiritual discipline that doesn’t actually come from the teaching of Christ.

Paul’s point is that when it comes to the spiritual life, Christ himself is the only authority.

The simplistic/literal understanding of the Bible can lead you to take verse 8 out of context and think it means spiritual truths are better than other truths, but a closer look at the bigger picture reveals that spiritual truths are better than other truths only when it comes to spiritual questions!

2. It rejects Biblical examples.

Throughout the Biblical story, we see time and time again that someone has learned something about the world through methods we should rightfully call scientific and not at all spiritual. Consider these examples:

Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.

Proverbs 6:6-8 NIV

He spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing. He wraps up the waters in his clouds, yet the clouds do not burst under their weight.

Job 26:7-8 NIV

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world…

Psalm 19:1-4 NIV

We can learn a great deal from observing nature, and the Bible encourages us to do so.

3. It leads to the heresy of belief-ism.

When we over-emphasize spiritual matters over other matters, we fall into the trap of belief-ism. It’s a trap that focuses on doctrine more than anything else, and it’s an eternally dangerous trap. Consider this:

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Matthew 25:44-46 NIV

Certainly, Jesus wants his followers to have a correct understanding of him, his work on the cross, and the promise of eternal life to all who believe, but obviously, he also wants his followers to know that belief by itself is never enough. Paul emphasizes the obedience that comes from faith, James reminds us faith without works is dead, and Peter tells us to work to make our calling and election sure.

However, if we believe the lie that doctrine matters more than all other things, we can easily fall into the trap of trusting our doctrine to save us rather than getting to know Jesus by following him in his work to love the world.

4. It makes us antagonistic.

Finally, an overemphasis on spiritual matters against all other matters leads us to avoid, reject, and disdain any truth that comes through “unspiritual” means. Of course, determining which truths are spiritual and which ones are not is another problem. Once I decide what I think is spiritual and true, I then can reject other people who think differently.

This one presupposition, that spiritual truth matters most, leads to all kinds of problems for each of us. Who gets to say when a truth is spiritual enough? Who gets to say when a claim to spiritual truth is actually false? What’s the process for “testing the spirits” as John encourages us to do? Who determines when I’m right and you’re wrong or vice versa?

An over-emphasis on spiritual truth leads invariably to animosity and antagonism between believers and each other and between believers and the world.

5. It shoots us in our own foot.

Something Christians frequently fail to remember is that all the “spiritual” truth we have has come to us through “unspiritual” means. Sure, there are people who claim to have received revelation directly from God in the modern day, but those claims are frequently spurious, and I won’t address them here.

On the contrary, the entirety of our faith is based on one specific historical event:

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

1 Corinthians 15:17-19 NIV

According to Paul himself, the fundamental truth claim of Christianity is that Jesus Christ died and rose again.

But, here’s the kicker: How do we know it to be true?

Someone told us it was true.

How do we know that person is trustworthy?

We tested their claim against the evidence.

The entirety of the Christian faith depends on the truth claim that Jesus died and rose again, but we believe that truth claim because it has held up according to the methods of journalistic investigation and historical integrity. Let me illustrate briefly.

  • Methods of normal archaeological investigation have acquired for us truly ancient fragments of New Testament writings.
  • Methods of normal textual analysis have enabled us to reconstruct the original manuscripts of the New Testament with extreme accuracy.
  • Methods of normal historical inquiry have demonstrated the accuracy of the original writings in the New Testament and the martyrdom of the first followers of Jesus.
  • Methods of normal journalistic inquiry have demonstrated that the followers of Jesus really did believe he had risen bodily from the dead.

The bottom line is that Christians have used the “unspiritual” methods of secular science to validate the central claim of Christianity. No, it doesn’t make scientific sense that a man died and rose again, but it makes clear historical sense that he did. The accuracy of the Bible has resulted from these same methods of inquiry.

Simply put, to reject truth unless it comes to us through some “spiritual” method is to reject the truths underpinning our faith itself.

Conclusion: Truth is Truth

Once again, what sounds simple, literal, and noble turns out to be dangerous and wrong. We think it makes sense to trust spiritual information over other information, but an over-emphasis on spiritual matters leads to all kinds of problems.

However, there is a simple solution.

All we need to do is realize that truth is truth wherever it is found. If an evil person discovers a truth, that truth is still true regardless of the one who discovered it. If an invalid method leads to a true conclusion, that true conclusion is still true even when the method to find it was flawed.

The secular world has generally accepted this perspective and has created for itself a system of checks and balances in the pursuit of real truth.

  • Claims of truth are compared against known facts and other claims.
  • Claims of truth are tested by multiple people and multiple groups.
  • Claims of truth are investigated for improper bias.

These checks and balances help us discern truth in science, in journalism, and even philosophy, and we all should be grateful for a world that has done so much work to test truth claims. However, Christians should be even more grateful because we have access to bonus truth. Unlike the world of unbelievers, Christians have put their trust in the truth claims of Jesus and as a result have access to a world of truth taught to us directly by the resurrected Son of God.

Christians do not have access to different truth, we have access to more truth. More than that, Christians know that God is the God of truth no matter who discovers it or how. Therefore, no matter where or how a truth is found or what that truth is, all truth is a reason to worship!

It’s no wonder Jesus said the Father is looking for people who will worship him in spirit and in truth.

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