The Intellectualism Gap

Like many people, I am deeply grateful for Christian apologetics. It’s developed my own faith and confidence that Christianity is true; it’s given me a wealth of resources for communicating my belief in God effectively in the public square. Most of all, it has enriched and stimulated me intellectually. I am the kind of person who has a strong affinity for ideas, for books by dead people which those outside the hallowed halls of academic have never heard of, for arguments and counterarguments, for information, philosophical dialogue… yes, even for footnotes! I once feared that Christianity could never stimulate me intellectually the way that my studies of mathematics, history or biology could. Though my mind was being stretched in physics or literature, my early experiences of church suggested that my Christianity could never invigorate my intelligence to the same degree but was destined to remain at a rudimentary, Sunday-school level. Unfortunately, far too many Christians have assumed the same thing. I was completely wrong, however. And it was being introduced to world of Christian apologetics – as well as to some incredible mentors who taught me how intellectually rich the Bible actually is – that I discovered that Christianity could be as much, if not more, intellectually stimulating than my other academic interests.

Yet as appreciative as I am of the importance of developing our minds as Christians, and as someone now thoroughly embedded in the world of apologetics and academic theology, I have come to recognise the real perils in these enterprises that coexist alongside their promises. I confess that I often find it considerably easier to spend countless hours swimming in the pools of Christian apologetics than spend ten minutes in concentrated, heartfelt prayer before the Lord. In fact, I am regularly guilty of allowing my investment in these areas to only serve to satisfy my own intellectual appetites or, at most, allow me a contribution with a niche Christian apologetics subculture. It never, therefore, transcends to serve meaningful engagement with unbelievers. In other words, Christian apologetics can often become an end in itself, rather than a crucial means by which we might effectively make straight the paths for others towards Jesus and shine the light of the Gospel within public spaces. This is the Intellectualism Gap to sharing the gospel of Jesus.

Of course, we need to be careful that whilst seeking to avoid any pitfalls of Christian intellectualism we do not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater by angling ourselves towards an equivalent error of anti-intellectual theology. A ‘simple faith’ is not by definition a stronger, more authentic faith and there is no inherent tension between deep Christian devotion and enriching our God-given minds by thinking more deeply and developing our intellectual potential. We need to avoid what John Stott once referred to as ‘… the misery and menace of mindless Christianity.’[1] There is no necessary tension between human reason and divine revelation. Rather, we use our reason to understand what God has uniquely and sovereignly revealed, for as Stott further highlights, the God of the Bible ‘… is a rational God, who made us in his own image rational beings, has given us in nature and in Scripture a double, rational revelation, and expects us to use our minds to explore what he has revealed.’[2] Elemental to Christianity is the command to worship the Lord with our minds (Matt. 22:37; Mk. 12:30).

So we can clearly see that developing our minds is fundamental to what it means to follow Jesus. Yet the bible also cautions us about the potential snares pursuing knowledge as an end in itself can harbour. It can puff people up with conceit or senses of superiority that make it extremely difficult to be loving and generous towards others (1 Cor 8:1). It can even subtly delude us that theoretical knowledge and information about God and faith in God are synonymous. They are, of course, related but we can run into all kinds of problems if we conflate the two.

Christian intellectualism also contains the potential to impede our evangelism. Let’s consider two ways in which it might do so…

First, it can become a weapon of mass distraction. C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters imaginatively captured the hazard to faith of being distracted by things that, on the surface, might appear virtuous or even of spiritual benefit. In Letter XII the senior demon Screwtape advises his young nephew Wormwood that one of the most effective methods of hampering a Christian’s faith is not by temptation to some lurid vice but by continually occupying their attention with otherwise good things, which become ends in themselves and ultimately distract that Christian from real engagement with God. Screwtape writes that the lure of occupying our time and attention with these distractions, most especially if they have a veneer of spiritual substance, can become extremely strong. He reminds the junior demon Wormwood:

You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards do the trick.[3]

Lewis’s insight is as sobering as it is brilliant: ‘…the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man [or woman] from the Enemy [i.e. Christ].’ In other words, Satan’s number one priority in the life of a believer is to do all that he can to disconnect them from sincere and meaningful engagement with God as a person, rather than a theory. One of the most effective strategies for this is to encourage them to invest their energies in things that may be moral, even Christian, in their content but which distract them from God himself. It is all too possible that, as beneficial as Christian apologetics can be as a means to augment our personal faith and public witness, it can also become an end in itself whose cumulative effect is, ironically, to subtly circumvent these activities.

What might this look like? It could be that we spend so much time watching videos of our favourite apologists on Youtube or listening to apologetics podcast episodes that we are left with neither the time nor the inclination to build meaningful friendships with actual non-Christians. It could that we are so thoroughly initiated in the niche questions, discussions, and vernacular of our favoured apologetics social media groups  that, either we can only assume, rather than know from real experience what the particular obstacles to faith for the unbelievers in our world might be. It might mean that we can only address such questions abstractly, akin to answering a question on a Philosophy exam rather than meaningfully connecting with a real person in a way that honours their emotions, experiences and personality in addition to their reasoning. It could ever be that our fascinations and sense of value has been so conditioned by the apologetics subcultures that, in all honesty, our attentiveness to others – whether non-Christians or recent believers – is limited because they do not share our particular interests or intellectually stimulate us enough to wish a deeper relational investment with them.

A second way that Christian intellectualism or allowing apologetics to become an end in itself can disable evangelism is by its temptation to place our faith in our intellect rather than God. As Christians, we are called to trust God for the effectiveness of our evangelism and use our intellect. Yet, as people who rightly value the brilliant resource of intellect and education, we can unconsciously shift our faith functionally from God to our reason. Paul was all too aware of this danger when he arrived in Corinth to proclaim the Gospel. He writes in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5…

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

Some have misinterpreted this passage by suggesting that Paul is here discounting the use of intellect and education in favour of the Spirt, which is a false dichotomy. The heart of Paul’s message here is not about what methods we ought or ought not to not use in sharing the Gospel but about where we ultimately place our trust (faith) for the power that transforms hearts and minds. Paul himself was brilliant thinker, able to compete with the best and brightest minds of his day (cf. Acts 17:17-34). When necessary, he put his educational credentials and intellectual prowess to use in order to gain a hearing for the Gospel. However, Paul was also very aware that certain groups such as the Corinthians were unhealthily enamoured with intelligence, elegant oratory skills and personality gravitas, so much so that there was a real danger that they would place their faith in the truth of Paul’s message on the basis of his sophisticated rhetoric rather than the power of God. So committed was Paul to the Corinthians placing their faith in Christ on the right basis that he intentionally avoided using these elements of his skillset. Instead he came to them in ‘weakness’, knowing nothing among them ‘except Christ and him crucified’. In that sense, Paul used his reason but he didn’t trust in it and certainly didn’t want others to trust in Jesus because of it. Where his credentials and intellect became a potential distraction or stumbling block to people anchoring their faith in the power of God alone, Paul was free enough and devoted to the Gospel enough to not use them. This is the difference between using our intelligence in evangelism but trusting God, and subtly trusting our learning and only using God when we get stuck. There is always the danger of this latter offence in Christian apologetics. It’s the kind of problem that leads to things like devoting ourselves to endless hours of downloading content from thinkers/speakers we admire but spending virtually no time before God in prayer in order that we might access his power and wisdom. It can lead to fraudulent academic credential inflation or the constant need to embark on further programmes of study in the hope that it will guarantee us power and influence among people we admire and platforms we would like to occupy. And, like the Corinthians, it can also lead to immature forms of sectarianism (1 Cor. 3:1-10), judging ourselves against others in the apologetics world, or juxtaposing speakers against each other (like the real Twitter account that pits well-known apologists against each other and asks followers to vote on their favourite!) or identifying ourselves with particular thinkers over and against others on the basis of who impresses us most with their intelligence or communication All of these are evidences that we have shifted our faith from God and his power to the force of our own intellect. The peril of doing so – other than the obvious fact that this is not where spiritual power and influence truly reside – is that it will leave us feeling either unwarrantedly overconfident or continually inferior and insecure.

So as brilliant a resource as information or knowledge or apologetics often is in developing our faith and public witness to Christ, it is important that we are humble and vigilant enough to recognise when they might be becoming an end in themselves. We must continually remember that God is a person, not a theory, and ultimately expects to be related to on that basis, either by ourselves personal or by those we might be representing Christianity to.

So if we think we may be in any danger of falling into the Intellectualism Gap with our evangelism, what can we do? Let me very briefly suggest three responses:

  1. Take some time before the Lord to think about your relationship with philosophical/theological thinking or Christian apologetics and honestly evaluate what sort of fruit it is producing in your life. If it is only stimulating you intellectually but not actually drawing you into a deeper active faith relationship with God, or motivating you to meaningfully engage with actual unbelievers and sceptics (as opposed to abstract sceptical arguments!), it may be time to take a step back, and perhaps even repent of some elements of intellectual idolatry. Talk to a trusted Christian leader about your relationship with apologetics, or even reach out to us here at Solas and we would be only too happy to listen and offer any advice we feel might be helpful. Remember Pauls words 1 Corinthians 6:12: “I have the right to do anything”–but I will not be mastered by anything.’
  2. Consider a period of fasting from podcasts or your favourite apologists or Christian thinkers on Youtube and, instead, invest some time in developing friendships and evangelistic conversations with friends, neighbours or colleagues. Why not sign up to help at an Alpha or Christianity Explored course or even launch your own evangelistic event with supportive members of your local faith community. Yes, you may not find it as intellectually stimulating as the latest episode of Premier’s Unbelievable or Philosophy Bites, but if it allows you to actually discover actual – rather than presume upon – the questions or concerns of real people with whom you can walk a faith journey with it will be more than worth the sacrifice.
  3. I am convinced that one of the greatest antidotes to the Intellectualism Gap to faith or evangelism is an active prayer life. I so often forget that prayer is actually the deep end of the pool where all of my thinking comes together in glorious contemplation and conversation with the living God. There is no greater use nor higher purpose of the human mind than this: to know God and be known by him in living, personal relationship. Prayer is the place where our minds are stimulated to grasp more of the ‘depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God’, yet paradoxically sobered in acknowledgement of ‘how unsearchable [are] his judgments, and inscrutable his ways!’ (Romans 11:33); here our hearts are warmed to capture God’s abounding love for lost people; and here we access the true source of spiritual power and authority that will put our feeble thoughts and words to incredible and eternal use in calling prodigals come. If forms of Christian intellectualism are creating a gap in our evangelism, prayer is the means to fill that gap in.

[1] John Stott, Your Mind Matters: The Place of the Mind in the Christian Life, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 17.

[2] Ibid, The Contemporary Christian: An Urgent Plea for Double Listening(Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1992), 115.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters: Letters from a Senior to a Junior Devil (London: HarperCollins, 2012), 60.