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The Bushel of Anti- Intellectualism

By Monte E. Wilson, III
February 01, 1997

Intellect needs to be understood not as some kind of claim against the other human excellences for which a fatally high price has to be paid, but rather as a compliment to them without which they cannot be fully consummated.

Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

The Great Commission must be wed to the Cultural Mandate. Yet this is exactly where the church in America is failing. It refuses to be a city set on a hill. It has placed all its emphasis on converting individuals but ignores the commandment to disciple these converts and then, by extension, to disciple their nations.

The church in America is called to be a light, which implies that she is to be a leader in society. Because of our failure to adequately understand our call to make disciples and to subdue the earth for God’s glory, we have actually become odious to the world. Even the pagans see the inconsistency of our claims of knowing the Creator on an intimate basis and yet failing to have any concrete answers for what plagues His creation. Rather than suffering for righteousness’ sake, we are being ridiculed for our ignorance.

While the world is crying out for leaders, the church is hiding its light under a bushel. We are barely able to defend orthodoxy, much less give intelligent answers to the world’s questions. We don’t even try. At best, all we do is seek to save a few brands from the fire.

Our duty is to show the world how every aspect of life is summed up in Christ. To do this we must be educated. We are called to be ambassadors to America; this requires that we are able to communicate intelligently with our nation’s leaders. And it does not wash, when we hide our willful ignorance behind the excuse of avoiding intellectualism.

Anti-Intellectualism

One of the greatest weapons in the enemy’s arsenal is the fear of the intellect. When one thinks of Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards, he quickly sees that such a fear has not always been with us. These men were highly educated. It is no coincidence that they were used to lead their respective nations into spiritual reformation.

Of course, Paul is a wonderful example of the power of the redeemed intellect. He clearly understood the foundations of the classical world. He quoted the poets, manipulated the political and legal system and debated the philosophers of his day. It is certainly no coincidence that God chose this man to have the most expansive ministry and to write the most New Testament books.

In the beginning of our nation’s history, the majority of our forefathers did not fall into the trap of “either/or.” They understood the necessity of education and saw a sound mind as a character quality required by God. In fact, because of their “soundness,” it was the Christians who had the major influence in society. The Puritans placed a very high value on education and were typically the leading educators. This meant they were educating the nation’s future leaders. As Richard Hofstadter writes,

Among the first generation of American Puritans, men of learning were both numerous and honored. There was about one university-trained scholar, usually from Cambridge or Oxford, to every forty of fifty families. Puritans expected their clergy to be distinguished for scholarship, and during the entire colonial period all but five percent of the clergymen of New England Congregational churches had college degrees. These Puritan emigrants, with their reliance upon the Book and their wealth of scholarly leadership, founded that intellectual and scholarly tradition which for three centuries enabled New England to lead the country in educational and scholarly achievements.1

Today, the typical American evangelical is known for his subjectiveness and emotionalism, not his intellectual achievements. Hofstadter traces the change in attitude toward intellectuals in America to seeds of destruction planted during the Great Awakening. Because so many of the leaders of the “dead” churches were not “truly converted,” a polarization took place between men of the “Spirit” and men of “intelligence.” It became a badge of honor to be ignorant! To be educated could well call one’s conversion—or at least his sanctification—into question.

The foundation for such an evaluation is found in the historical problem of pitting knowledge against character. Either one is moral or he is intelligent. A minister has either been taught “by the Spirit” or has “gone to seminary”:

The case against intellect is founded upon a set of fictional and wholly abstract antagonisms. Intellect is pitted against feeling, on the ground that it somehow is inconsistent with warm emotion. It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or diabolical. It is pitted against practicality, since theory is held to be opposed to practice, and the “purely” theoretical mind is so much disesteemed. It is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction that defies egalitarianism. Once the validity of these antagonisms is accepted, then the case for intellect, and by extension for the intellectual, is lost. Who cares to risk sacrificing warmth of emotion, solidity of character, practical capacity, or democratic sentiment in order to pay deference to a type of man who at best is deemed to be merely clever and at worse may even be dangerous?2

This distrust of the intellect, and, consequently, for education took on a quality of fervency with the great revivalists D.L. Moody and Billy Sunday. Both of these men openly held education in disdain. To them, the chief end of man was to make converts. Moody actually reveled in the fact that he had no theology. “My theology! I didn’t know I had any.”3 To him, learning was an impediment to the man of the Spirit. During Billy Sunday’s examination for ordination, he repeatedly evaded the questions by saying they were too deep for him and summed up his feelings on the importance of theology by saying, “I don’t know any more about theology than a jack-rabbit knows about ping-pong, but I’m on my way to glory.”4 With the victory of rationalism following the Civil War, the enemy succeeded in convincing the church to hide its brains under a bushel. While there were some outstanding Christian intellectuals like B.B. Warfield and Charles and Alexander Hodge, to the more famous revivalist at the turn of the century, theology, like education, was of little concern. What was important was converting sinners. If one’s theology contributed toward the conversion of sinners, it was “good.” If it didn’t, it was “bad.” With this kind of pragmatic standard, do we even need to guess what happened to serious scholarship in large portions of the evangelical church? And what of the call to be a light to the nations?

As the evangelical impulse became more widespread and more dominant, the selection and training of ministers was increasingly shaped by the revivalist criterion of ministerial merit. The Puritan ideal of the minister as an intellectual and educational leader was steadily weakened in the face of the evangelical ideal of the minister as a popular crusader and exhorter. Theological education itself became less instrumental. Simple dogmatic formulations were considered sufficient. In considerable measure the churches withdrew from intellectual encounters with the secular world, gave up the idea that religion is a part of the whole life of intellectual experience, and often abandoned the field of rational studies on the assumption that they were the natural province of science alone. By 1853 an outstanding clergyman complained that there was an “impression, somewhat general, that an intellectual clergyman is deficient in piety, and that an eminently pious minister is deficient in intellect.”5

The results of anti-intellectualism are staggering. To put it bluntly, we are culturally irrelevant. We have not disciple ourselves to a degree where we are qualified to speak into the crises that face our society. We have so narrowed the concept of spiritual warfare to “matters of the heart” and “religious concerns” that we have surrendered the battles over every other area of human endeavor to the enemy. We have not taken Paul’s words seriously when he commanded us to pull down every false philosophy and idea that exalts itself against the knowledge of Christ.

While John Walvoord teaches that “Christians have no immediate solution to the problems of our day,”6 Jesus said to disciple the nations. This says that He expects us to work toward applying His Lordship to the nations He has planted us in. Now, Mr. Walvoord, how can He command us to do something and then not supply the basic answers?

Certainly it is not the church’s responsibility to teach lawyers how to be judges or physicians how to perform surgery. However, they are in need of sound theological training to spiritually equip them for their tasks. Moreover, there are Biblical laws in which they must be grounded that relate to their professions. These professionals are also in need of being discipled so that their character upholds them in the battles they face every day.

Another fruit of anti-intellectualism is that the church becomes a perpetual kindergarten. We can never get away from the ABCs of the Faith. Anything that might cause the mind to sweat a little is seen as suspect. If a minister uses a word that is above a senior-high-school level of comprehension, he is being pretentious. If he discusses theology, he is being divisive.

How can we disciple the nations if we fail to intellectually equip ourselves? If we never graduate from theological kindergarten, how can the church ever become a city set on a hill whose light is a beacon to the nations concerning the Way of Life? Certainly, we need the power and love of God. However, we will never be as effective as He intends until we also have sound minds.

The Beginning of the Problem

I would like to suggest another possible cause of our neglect of the proper emphasis upon intellect and wisdom. For the most part, we Christians approach the Bible as the story of God’s plan of redemption. One could easily say that this is the paradigm from which we interpret all of Scripture. However, what if our paradigm is incomplete? What if we have left something out of the equation? What if our key to understanding Scriptures has left some doors unlocked?

I believe that for most of us, when we read the Bible, we see Divine Interventions erupting on every page. There is the calling of Abraham, the Great Exodus, the giving of the Ten Commandments and many miraculous interventions to save the children of Israel while they were in the desert. There is the coming of the Messiah, His death, resurrection and ascension. Of course, there are also those interventions where Christians were rescued from peril in the book of Acts. What does this tell us? How does this read to us?

How it reads is this: Life is a litany of miraculously orchestrated divine escapes. Not just those we read of in Scripture but those which occurred throughout history: The Reformation, the Great Awakenings and other such supernatural outpourings of God’s Spirit. These are The Norm. But can we define supernatural interventions and rescues as “norms”?

Think about it. What if the Bible is strictly all-about-redemption (which we translate to mean “divine intervention”)? If such intervention is the normal stuff of life, what about my life? Do I experience Abraham-like callings? Do I cross over a Red Sea watching my enemies drown? Am I slapped on the side by an angel and led out of prison? Hardly. And how, then, do I evaluate my life? “Well, at least there will be the Great Rescue when Jesus Christ snatches me away into the sky.” But what if we are not living when He returns? “Oh, that won’t happen. “ Really? What about the Jews who lived and died as slaves in Egypt? What about the prophets and apostles who were martyred? What about Christians who lived during the one-thousand-years- plus between Augustine and Luther? What about the centuries of oppression before the Puritans and Pilgrims? What about those times when there will be no divine intervention? When God does not speak or move or rescue?

A Truncated Paradigm

Because of our limited paradigm, we have a faulty understanding of the Christian life and, consequently, a low view of our minds and the need for wisdom. Where we wish to live from intervention-to-intervention, with supernatural direction and deliverance being the normal Christian life, the Bible reveals a much more “human” existence for us.

Look at the life of Paul. He was knocked off his donkey and told to go see Annanias. Here at this brother’s house Paul was told he was to go to the Gentiles. In Acts 13, Paul is prophetically commissioned as an apostle. Later he had a dream calling him to Macedonia. Toward the end of his life he was prophetically warned not to go to Jerusalem where death awaited him. (He went anyway.) Now, forgetting the supernatural experiences involved in penning his Epistles, what we have here is only a handful of interventions. What was Paul doing in the mean time? How did he live? How did he make decisions? How did he know where to go and when?

Consider the experience of Adam in the Garden of Eden. God shows him the Garden, defines his responsibilities and notes the prohibition concerning the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He then leaves Adam to carry on. He does not “prophecy” to Adam, “Behold, call this animal an Elephant.” He does not tell Adam what part of the Garden to tend to first. No, Adam is left to his considerable endowments. In brief, Adam was expected to take his best shot, increasing in wisdom and maturity each day of his life. This is exactly what Paul did in considering how he should live, move and make his way through life. He utilized his mind, under the tutelage of Scripture, and increased in wisdom. When we consider our redemption we think about God’s divine intervention on our behalf. He seeks us out, convicts us, grants us repentance and faith in Christ and fills us with His Holy Spirit. But why? Is it so that we can sit around and experience daily interventions? Is it so that we can merely wait for the biggest intervention of all, “The Rapture”? Or is He after something else?

Those whom God “saves” He immediately places in the process of restoration. Believers are expected to mature in the use of all of their God-given faculties. This includes their minds and the need for intelligence and wisdom. Any doctrine or paradigm which calls on people to forfeit their reason and the need for sound decision-making systems is counterproductive to the believers’ process of transformation.

Read the book of Proverbs. This wonderful book is all about how to live. These maxims tell us how life usually works out. I say “usually” because these words of wisdom are not magical. For example, just because we raise our children in a godly manner doesn’t mean they will always turn out to be Christ-like. Yet, because so many of us approach Scripture with a limited paradigm, we think these maxims will tell us how to escape this life with no harm, no failures and no sicknesses. However, this book tells us how to get through life—how it is to be lived—not how to escape it. It is a book of wisdom, not magic. It is a book that implicitly tells us that our minds are to be used, not ignored.

As I travel through modern evangelical church-ville, what I see is men and women who are rejecting wisdom (maturity) for special revelation (escape via gnosis). Rather than obeying Scriptural commands to work for the support of family, they have “heard from God to live by faith” (read: “Depend on the benevolence of others”). Rather than studying Scriptures, these men and women—”having been filled with the Holy Spirit”— have the truth within and need not be inconvenienced with such mundane matters as studying the Word of God. Having rejected the proper place of the sanctified or Biblically informed intellect, is it any wonder these people have nothing to say to the world God called them to serve?

  1. Richard Hoftadter, Anti-Intellectualismin American Life, (New York, 1979), 60.
  2. Ibid., 45, 46.
  3. Ibid, 108.
  4. William G. McLoughlin, Billy Sunday Was His Real Name
  5. (Chicago, 1955), 123.Hofstadter, op. cit, 86, 87.
  6. John Walvoord in Charles Lee Feinbeag’s, Prophecy & The Seventies (Chicago, 1971), 212.

Monte E. Wilson, III

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