“The Over-Intellectualisation of Ministry” is part of the Teleioteti Training Initiative

I am convinced we have over-intellectualised Christian ministry—and Christianity itself. I know that the moment I utter such words, I open myself to misunderstanding. By saying we have “over-intellectualised” Christian ministry, I am not saying that there is no place in the Church for intellectual thought nor that intellectual engagement with Scripture and culture is a bad thing. I know many people who would argue that precise point—that intellectual engagement with Scripture and the world is genuinely a bad thing. This is not what I mean. Instead, I want to suggest that we have taken something genuinely good and useful and made it the main thing; in doing so, we have moved far beyond what is good and useful. By “intellectualisation,” I mean 1) an emphasis on explicable, definable knowledge; 1) an emphasis on logic and philosophy; 3) an emphasis on universal, necessary truths; 4) an emphasis on higher education; 5) and an emphasis on excavational hermeneutics. In this post, I want to show how these emphases are found in Christian history, contemporary ministerial education, and Christian ministry. Then I want to show how they are absent from Scripture, concluding with a reflection on the problems of over-intellectualisation, the positive role of Christian intellectual engagement, and the implications for the training of Christian ministers.

The Presence of Intellectualisation

Intellectualisation in History

Intellectual engagement with the Bible and the world is present throughout Church history. In the 2nd century, Irenaeus and Justin Martyr engaged with the Bible and Philosophy, seeking to commend the Biblical faith to their opponents and to refute distortions of the Biblical teaching. Irenaeus, for example, drew on the philosophical doctrine of Divine simplicity to refute false teaching about the nature of God. The early Church also engaged intellectually with Scripture. Tatian, for example, sought to present a unified narrative of Jesus’s life by harmonising the four Gospels, producing the Diatessaron. In the 3rd century, Origen pioneered text-critical work concerning the Bible, producing the Hexapla, a compilation of then-existing manuscript traditions of the Old Testament (in Hebrew and Greek). He also began to synthesis a systematic, philosophical presentation of Christian teaching, especially in his On First Principles. With Origen, there seems to be a subtle drift from the use of philosophical tools for commending Christianity to outsiders and refuting false teaching to the pursuit of philosophical synthesis for its own end. Both emphases, on apologetic theology and constructive theology, come together in the 4th and 5th centuries. The 4th century is often remembered for its significant councils, Nicaea (AD 325) and Constantinople (AD 381), but it was a time of tremendous theological construction. Both orthodox and heterodox parties followed in the tradition of Origen, engaging heavily with philosophy to articulate a Christian philosophical theology. In doing so, they discussed the traditional philosophical accounts of God, expressed the Trinity within the received Platonic metaphysic, and established an epistemology sufficient to account for the true knowledge of God. When Nicaea was convened, its significance was not yet established. In the following centuries, it came to be seen as the necessary confessional bulwark against heresy. By the late 5th century, Nicaea was understood to be a sufficient basis for Christian theology. What may not be immediately apparent is how orthodoxy came to be associated with highly intellectual beliefs in these centuries.

Alongside Scripture, philosophy and logic were the main tools employed in the Trinitarian and Christological controversies. All parties agreed to a basic doctrine of God, such that he was incomprehensible, immutable, impassible, and simple: much of the debate swirled around how such beliefs could be reconciled with Christology and Trinitarian theology. The emphasis in these debates was classic theology, which meant the doctrine of God as he stands behind revelation or the investigation of the universal, necessary truths that must be true concerning God.1 By the end of the 5th century, with the Nicaean and Constantinopolitan creeds and the definition of Chalcedon, orthodoxy required the articulation of specific beliefs about God and the incarnation that required extensive philosophical background to understand (see my review of Contemplating God). The tradition of theology, in this sense of the pursuit of universal, necessary truths and a synthetic account of Biblical theology and philosophy, continued throughout both Western and Eastern Christianity.

When we reflect on the history of the Church, who stands out as our heroes? It is often the most intellectually accomplished and articulate defenders of orthodoxy, Athanasius, Augustine, the Cappadocians, Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor, and Thomas Aquinas. Even though most parishioners and probably most ministers did not receive the level of education necessary to understand the level of thought developed by these men, orthodoxy and Christian faithfulness is most often associated with intellectual greatness. Even mystics like Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite were steeped in Neoplatonist philosophy (Dionysius followed the philosopher Proclus in much of his thought).

Intellectualisation in Our Seminaries

This intellectualist emphasis is prominent in the contemporary Protestant Church. Many denominations require a degree from an institute of higher education for ordination, so seminaries are ubiquitous. The focus on most curriculums is generally along the lines of the classic Christian intellectual tradition. Church history and the history of doctrine focus on the towering intellectual figures of the past and present. Most theological methods are based on the idea that theology and right belief refer to universal, necessary truths. As such, theological methods focus on aggregating the data of Scripture to discern the system that stands behind it (e.g. Charles Hodge, Rhyne Putman) or focus on the Aquinian method of synthesising philosophy and Scripture into a system of theological truth (e.g. John Webster, Craig A Carter, Matthew Barrett, James Dolezal, etc.). The primary hermeneutical model taught is excavational exegesis, where the locus of authority lies in the historical act of communication between an author and audience. In such a method, one has to learn a significant amount of historical background material to understand and apply the Biblical text. Theological interpretation is the main alternative to excavational exegesis, but here the interpreter must use a robust theological framework, involving extensive philosophical claims, to properly interpret Scripture (see my review of Contemplating God). Because of the history, the theological method and doctrines, and the exegetical method taught—not to mention higher education itself—qualifying as a minister in most denominations requires significant monetary resources and social access to such institutes along with the intellectual acumen to succeed.

Intellectualisation in Ministry

Because this is what our seminaries teach, ministry itself has become highly intellectualised. Most denominations require a post-secondary degree, so the ordination system favours the intellectually capable. Many confessional standards incorporate Nicaean and Chalcedonian orthodoxy along with the Classical Theistic concept of God, requiring significant intellectual skills to understand properly and affirm these standards. The focus on excavational exegesis flows from the seminary halls to the pulpit, with extensive use of historical-grammatical exegesis in preaching and corresponding need for extensive resources for aid in study. Many preaching styles also focus on the explanation of the text in historical-grammatical terms and the communication of information, such as the text’s “big idea.”

It is worth re-iterating that intellectual engagement itself is not a bad thing. However, in contemporary Evangelicalism and the so-called “Great Tradition,” intellectual engagement is the main thing. I have not argued so far that any of these are negative things; indeed, they strike us as good, right, and necessary. However, when I turn to Scripture, I cannot help being struck by the stark contrast between the intellectualisation of the Christian tradition and many aspects of the Bible. It is this contrast, between the Bible’s prioritisation of intellectual engagement and that of the tradition that leads me to conclude that, as measured by the standard of Scripture, the tradition’s degree of intellectualisation is over-intellectualisation.

The Absence of Intellectualisation

The absence of any sense of intellectualisation in Scripture is conspicuous. Not only is intellectual engagement itself (defined above as the emphasis on philosophy, logic, and universal or necessary truth) not commanded or overtly encouraged in Scripture—and only occasionally presented (Acts 17:16-34; 19:9)—the intellectualisation evident in the Tradition and Evangelicalism would seem to run contrary to the Biblical models for and the standard of ministry and run contrary to the Bible’s claims about itself. We can look at these by examining who qualifies for ministry, what qualifies for ministry, and the Biblical claims about God and its sufficiency.

Who Qualifies for Ministry?

If intellectual engagement is important for the health of the Church and its witness, we would think that its leaders would be intellectuals. Moreover, our seminaries and ordination procedures favour those with intellectual acumen, so we would expect that those who qualify for ministry would be intellectually accomplished. However, when we look at the Bible, few of its leaders are presented as intellectuals in the sense defined above (the emphasis on philosophy, logic, and universal or necessary truth). Jesus was a carpenter, and his teaching is utterly profound yet earthy, not concerned with abstract truths and universal statements but with the character of God expressed in his relationship with His creatures, with the fulfilment of God’s promises, and the with the expansion of Jesus’s rule on earth through the activity of His people. Jesus’ brothers, James and Jude, would probably have been engaged in a similar vocation. Most of the apostles were fisherman; one was a tax collector. None of them were philosophers as found throughout the Hellenistic world, nor were they rabbis. Paul was, of course, an accomplished young rabbi, but his life as a Jewish leader was characterised by malice towards Christians. Paul is responsible for a large portion of the New Testament, and his letters demonstrate careful reasoning and vast knowledge of the Old Testament. However, despite this—and some knowledge of Greek literature (cf. Acts 17:28)—none of his epistles are “intellectual” in the above sense. Though I would argue that they demonstrate a rich understanding of the Old Testament, Paul’s use of the Old Testament does not demonstrate the historical-grammatical method of excavational exegesis. His letters do not demonstrate a concern for formal logic, for any of the philosophical doctrines of God (though they were well discussed at this time by the middle Platonists, including the Jew Philo, and the Peripatetics), or universal, necessary truths. Instead, his letters concern the events of Jesus life, present and future (1 Corinthians 11 and 15; 1 Thessalonians) and the implications of his saving work (Romans and Galatians). The rich theology of his letters comes from mediation on what Christ has accomplished in time and space for specific individuals in the fulfilment of God’s eternal purposes for Jews and Gentiles alike, expressed in His historical covenants. Even in Romans, the height of Paul’s theology, theology is expressed for the ends of practical obedience: the body of the letter is bracketed by Paul’s purpose, to ensure the “obedience produced by faith” (Rom 1:5; 6:16; 16:26). Romans 12 along with the following chapters, which focusing on right living, is expressed as the implications of the theology presented earlier (Rom 12:1). When we look at who the Apostles’ chose to lead the churches, they are not identified as exceptionally talented or learned individuals. Both Timothy and Titus are young men. To be recognised as elders/overseers, they surely qualify according to the standards of 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9, but as we will see shortly, neither list requires much intellectual prowess. Timothy, at least, has also been “acquainted with the sacred writings” from childhood (1 Tim 1:15). In sum, the leaders of the New Testament church are tradesmen and faithful young men.

Luke is well learned (a physician, Col 4:14), but The Gospel of Luke and Acts do not demonstrate this in their content, only in their form of expression (the language is a high register, similar to the book of Hebrews). Apollos is a man “eloquent” in words and “competent in the Scriptures” (Acts 18:24). This is demonstrated in the way he “powerfully refuted” the Jews, but this is described as demonstration through Scripture (Acts 18:26-28). He may be an intellectually accomplished man, but even if he were the author of Hebrews—as some claim—he neither engages in the sort of intellectual theology with which we are concerned nor was qualified for ministry because of such abilities. So, with only few exceptions, none of the leaders of the early church were intellectuals, and those that were intellectually accomplished do not engage in the sort of intellectual theology with which we are concerned. This is confirmed when we turn to the three passages that explicitly discuss the qualifications of Church leaders.

What Qualifies for Ministry?

In 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, and 1 Peter 1:1-5, we find the clearest qualifications for leadership in Christ’s church (Cf Acts 20:28-35). In each list, the primary emphasis is on character: an elder/overseer was to be humble, sober, and mature, an exemplary model of Christian behaviour. 1 Timothy 3:4-5 speaks of “managing” one’s household, which would seem to require some level of administrative competence, but the parallel descriptor in v. 5, “care,” suggests that “managing” is what we would call spiritual leadership or soul care (cf. Luke 10:24). 1 Timothy 3:2 indicates that an elder/overseer must be “able to teach,” and Titus 1:9 that he must “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to instruct in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” “Able to teach” sets a low bar: not great at teaching, not the best teacher in the world, but capable. What he is to “teach” (διδακτικος) is not explicitly stated in 1 Timothy 3:2. In Titus 1:9, an elder/overseer must be firmly committed to the “trustworthy word,” which enables him to give instruction in sound doctrine (διδασκαλια) and rebuke false teachers (those who contradict false doctrine). Ability to teach is thus closely linked to “sound doctrine,” presumably the content to be taught. For several reasons, we can identify this as the teaching of Scripture in general and the apostolic teaching in particular. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Paul identifies the Scriptures as sufficient so that the man of God “may be complete, equipped for every good work.” In context, “every good work” clearly encompasses the teaching ministry of Timothy and his fellow leaders. Furthermore, a similar phrase to “trustworthy word” is used several times in Paul’s letters for particular elements of his teaching (e.g. 1 Tim 1:15; 3:1; 4:9; 2 Tim 2:11; Tit 3:8). However, in the context of Titus 1:9, it does not have a clear referent. All we are told is that it was taught to him, presumably by Paul or other church leaders. Thus, the “trustworthy word” is minimally the apostolic teaching canonised in Scripture but probably also encompasses Scriptures more broadly consider, Old and New Testaments. What is important to realise is that the “teaching” and “doctrine commended directly pertain to the Scriptures. Certainly, the Scriptures need to be applied in the varied circumstances of the readers, as the New Testament epistles demonstrate (see this article). Still, they are the fundamental content of that which is to be taught and that which qualifies as doctrine regarding Christian ministry.

Thus, when Scripture speaks of teaching in the context of the local church (e.g. Eph 4:11-16; Rom 12:7), it is concerned with the communication and application of Scripture for the rebuke of false teachers and the building up and exhortation of believers. It is possible that doing so in some contexts will require incredible intellectual ability and the use of the tools of philosophy and logic, but this is clearly not the norm. Moreover, because the focus is on Scripture with its robust narrative framework (i.e. historical persons and historical events presented as a cohesive story or plot), the development of universal, necessary truths can only be an accidental or secondary pursuit in Christian ministry. The moral framework for the Christian life is given in terms of particular commands and scenarios, not abstract principles such as “duty for duty’s sake” (as Kant would have it), the pursuit of the good (as Plato would have it), or the development of virtue. These may be appropriate perspectives on the Christian life but are certainly not requisite for Christian life or ministry. However, making intellectualisation central to Christian life and ministry actually subverts the Bible’s specific claims about God and sufficiency.

Intellectualisation and the Bible’s Claims about God and Sufficiency

In our brief sketch above, I argued that Christian history has placed an excessive amount of attention on intellectual pursuits and beliefs. Intellectual acumen is treated as a prerequisite for Christian ministry in the Western World and across the globe. The Nicene framework of theology, especially as articulated at Chalcedon in AD 451, makes certain philosophical claims necessary for orthodoxy and for speaking rightly about God. Correct knowledge of God becomes the knowledge of specific claims about his Being, none of which are explicitly stated in Scripture (cf. Contemplating God). That is, the orthodox doctrine of God is an expression of classical theology, as in universal, necessary truths. The early church and modern theologies distinguish between theology in this sense and economy, or God’s actions revealed in space and time. There is a coordination between these two in the sense that who God is according to theology is the necessary explanation of what God does according to the economy. However, Scripture reveals God according to the economy and philosophy is necessary to move past the economic revelation to God “as he is in himself.” In this sense, the philosophical doctrine of God is treated as more true or as providing more accurate knowledge of God than the portrait given in Scripture. In Scripture, God is spoken of in human terms, such that he experiences emotions (shows compassion, feels anger), yet we supposedly know from Philosophy that passibility (to be moved to emotion by the actions of others) is an imperfection, so these Biblical expressions are anthropopathisms (uses of human-emotive terms to describe what is eternally and necessarily true about God who does not change). Philosophy thus brings us beyond the accommodated language of Scripture to God as He is in Himself, even if only in negative statements, such as impassibility and immutability. Philosophy with or without Scripture (for the Christian God is “not less than the God of the philosophers,” as Carter puts it in Contemplating God) gives more accurate knowledge of God as He is in Himself and is necessary if we want to know God or even speak of him (once again, Contemplating God).2 The question we need to ask ourselves is this: is this what we learn from Scripture? To the contrary, the Bible presents itself as the definitive revelation of God and as entirely sufficient for the Christian life before God.

Knowing God in Scripture

The Bible has no qualms about expressing God’s radical difference from us. When the Israelites gather at Mount Sinai, the mountain is shrouded in thick clouds and darkness; lightning flashes, and thunder peels out across the land; trumpets blast, and smoke rises (Exod 19:16-20; 20:18-19). God then speaks, and the people are terrified: “do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (Exod 20:19). Such a response is not atypical. However, the terror surrounding God does not suggest that He is unknowable or that His revelation in space and time needs to be supplemented with philosophical reflection. Instead, the people are terrified because His presence makes Him known, and this revelation (His glory) is terrifying. God does not give His people philosophical arguments or abstract propositions to make Himself known; instead, He performs mighty deeds. God raised up Pharoah to make known His glory (Exod 9:6; Rom 9:17); He judged and redeemed Israel that they might know He is Yahweh (Ezek 6:7, 10, 13, 14; 7:4, 9, 27; 11:10, 12; 12:15, 16, 20, etc.). He raised up Chaldea and will judge them so that the world would be saturated with His glory—the evident revelation of His character—like the waters cover the sea (Hab 2:12-14). The God of the Bible is rich and inexhaustible but truly known through His historical deeds, their interpretation as given in Scripture, and through the incarnation of His Son, Jesus Christ (e.g. 2 Cor 3:7-18).

The Enlightenment famously produced a statement that would have suited the ancient Greek philosophers, “the contingent truths of history can never become the proof of the necessary truths of reason” (Gotthold Lessing; Immanuel Kant says something similar about the Bible in Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone). This was seen as a reason for abandoning history for logic, but the Bible would have us flip that around: it is true that contingent events cannot teach us necessary truths, but because the Bible is completely caught up in the contingent, we should recognise that these (the contingent truths of history and the knowledge of persons caught up in these events) are more important than the universal, necessary truths of reason (see further my forthcoming The Gift of Seeing: A Biblical Perspective on Ontology). It seems preposterous to suggest that Aristotle knew God better than Abraham, but if knowledge is primarily of universal, necessary truths and not of contingent, historical realities (or persons, which is a more difficult matter), then someone who talked with God face to face but only received the “accommodated” speech of Scripture would not know God as well as Aristotle, who articulated nearly the entire picture of Classical Christian Theism in Metaphysics. As counter-intuitive as this appears, such is the result of defining the knowledge of God in intellectual terms.

The Sufficiency of Scripture

It takes hard work to interpret Scripture: we need teachers to help us. We need those who will learn Hebrew and Greek and translate the Bible into the ever-changing languages of our day and age or teach us Greek and Hebrew. There are good reasons God gives the Church intellectually able pastors and teachers. However, recognising this truth is different from acknowledging the necessity or rightness of the over-intellectualisation I have been identifying. The tools for interpreting Scripture are there in the Bible itself; we need teachers to help us learn to recognise them, encourage us to spend the time seeing them, and to get started in the process (see further my The Gift of Reading Part 1 & Part 2). This is a vastly different claim than those of the intellectual tradition with which we are concerned. In this tradition, the Bible is not sufficient in itself; we need to move beyond it or bring it into union with something else to know God rightly and to minister in His Church faithfully.

The metaphysical apparatus of Greek philosophy informs the Classical Theist model of God but cannot be argued from the Bible itself, so this apparatus and the logical tools necessary to defend it must supplement Scripture to arrive at this doctrine (see Carter and Dolezal). With excavational exegesis, the text of Scripture must be supplemented by historical data revealed through archaeology and other texts. In both cases, key aspects of Christian life and ministry—namely, the data necessary to interpret Scripture and arrive at the orthodox doctrine of God—cannot be defended from the Bible itself. Yet we have already seen that the Bible claims to reveal God truly and sufficiently. Moreover, it implies that it is document intended to govern all who live in covenant with God. It explicitly makes the claim that it is sufficient for this task at least twice. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Paul tells Timothy that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Paul specifically speaks to Timothy about his pastoral work, but “the man of God” is general enough that it would not be wrong to conclude that all of God’s people find in Scripture a sufficient Word for their life lived before God. If Timothy’s work is to equip people and see them to grow into full maturity (cf. Ephesians 4), and Scripture is sufficient for this task, then it follows that Scripture is sufficient for the Christian life Timothy is teaching others to live. This is echoed in 2 Peter 1:3, where Peter claims that God has “granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.” Here, the whole scope of life and godliness is related to the knowledge of God. How God in His power has made this known is through Scripture (e.g. 1:16-21, 3:14-18). Thus, whole Christian life—knowing, loving, and serving our God and Father—is provided for in Scripture (see further my series God’s Gifts for the Christian Life, in particular the forthcoming volume, The Gift of Revelation). When it comes to knowing God and living faithfully before Him, we do not need the sort of intellectualisation that I have identified as pervasive in the so-called “Great Tradition” and contemporary Evangelicalism.

Where does this leave us? Does this mean that intellectual engagement has no role in God’s kingdom? I want to say that that is exactly the wrong conclusion, though it is certainly a tempting one when we recognise the problem of over-intellectualisation. The challenge is to avoid swinging to the exact opposite pole of anti-intellectualism. But I do not think we need to choose between either pole: God in Scripture has granted us a via media, the recognition that intellectual activity can have a critical constructive role in God’s kingdom but only when subordinated to the clear teaching of Scripture and the primary purpose for the Christian life, seeing God’s kingdom expand across the creation (cf. The Gift of Purpose).  

Concluding Reflections

The Problem of Over-Intellectualisation

Perhaps the problem is not in the level of intellectualisation found in Evangelicalism and the Tradition but our reception of it. That is, intellectualisation was necessary in certain contexts to effectively minister the Gospel, but the problem is that we have chosen to laud a secondary, contextualised expression of the Gospel as the main thing. Though I will argue below that there is a place for intellectual engagement, I do not think reception is the problem. We can give several reasons why there is an actual problem of over-intellectualisation, not merely a misperception of proper Gospel contextualisation. In contemporary society and in the ancient world, many in our churches or communities do not have the intellectual ability to wrestle through and understand the complexities of Classical Christian Theism. If the intellectual engagement perceived in the tradition were merely situational, then it would be unnecessary in many ancient and modern contexts. However, our denominational requirements and training structures, along with the requirements for ordained ministry in the ancient church, make this level of intellectual engagement necessary regardless of your ministry context. So there is genuine over-intellectualisation here.

Moreover, the standard of orthodoxy presented by the tradition, such as Classical Christian Theism, is treated as a universal standard; it applies to all Christians everywhere, not just in a specific context. In as much as this standard presupposes and requires an extensive philosophical apparatus that it is not itself defensible from Scripture, this again an example of over-intellectualisation. There is, therefore, a genuine problem here. Contemporary Evangelicalism and the Great Tradition have made central what is barely on the periphery of Scripture. In doing so, they have gone far beyond healthy contextualisation. One is reminded of Jesus strong rebuke of the Pharisees, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” (Mark 7:9-10). What did the Pharisees do to earn such a stinging rebuke? First, they question why Jesus’ disciples did not follow the traditions of the elders (7:1-5). Jesus responds with a quotation from Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (7:6-7, cf. Isa 29:13). He concludes, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (7:8). On the surface, this appears to be a ridiculously strong rebuke for their commitment to the traditional hand washing ceremony. However, it is clear that Jesus is targeting a surface issue to draw attention to a heart issue. The traditions have taken the place of the commandments of God. He illustrates this with the tradition of corban, where a person could declare something devoted to God (“corban”) and thereby bypass their obligations to their parents (7:9-13). They are guilty of “making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down” (7:13). The tradition of corban seems particularly pious: people are giving their possessions to God, making Him the priority. Should this not be a good thing? No, for it replaces how God said he should be honoured. Similarly, the handwashing tradition is one of many that supplement the Old Testament purity laws: should not this be excused? They are merely trying to guard what God Himself demanded! Once again, this is wrong because God declared exactly what He wanted people to do. His Laws was perfect; by instituting their own supplements, they raised their own ideas to the level of God’s ideas, simultaneously disparaging the sufficiency of God’s Word and undermining its purpose. Do you see the parallel?

What if God wanted the bar of pastoral ministry to be ethically high and intellectually low? What if God did not particularly want the ministry to be filled with intellectuals? By hedging in God’s demands with our own, what if we have subtly subverted His very purpose? What if we have overemphasised certain aspects—even peripheral aspects—of ministry in place of the Bible’s primary emphases? What if by exalting the “god” of the philosophers to the place of the God of the Bible, we have lost the uniqueness of the one True God and have put a creature in his place, a projection of the ideals of our reason? Listen to the words of the Definition of Chalcedon, “this wise and saving symbol of divine grace [i.e. the Nicaean Creed] sufficed for the perfect knowledge (ἐπίγνωσίν) and confirmation of godliness (εὐσεβείας), for concerning the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit it has taught perfectly, it also sets for the incarnation of the Lord to those who accept it faithfully.”3 This is a statement about the Nicene Creed; contrast that with 2 Peter 1:3, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness (εὐσέβειαν), through the knowledge (ἐπιγνώσεως) of him.” Consider also 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of Godmay be complete, equipped for every good work.” The Fathers practically allude to 2 Peter and 2 Timothy in favour of the tradition of their Fathers: they attribute to the Creed the very role that the Bible attributes to itself. To be fair, “confirmation” (βεβαίωσιν) is a term often used with reference to a higher authority (the Constantinopolitan Creed “confirms” Nicaea, and the Tome of Leo “confirms” the Creed and the Definition as subordinate to the letters of Cyril of Alexandria), but they make sure to say that the Creed “suffices” (ἤρκει) and is “perfect” (ἐντελῆ) for “knowledge of Godliness (τῆς εὐσεβείας ἐπίγνωσίν),” not just its “confirmation” (βεβαίωσιν). It is hard to escape the conclusion that by the 5th century, Nicaea is couched in the language the Bible reserves for itself. In doing so, a significant part of Classic Christian Theism is codified as definitive orthodoxy, and the intellectual bar is set exceedingly high to qualify as orthodox.4 Hear once again the words of our Lord to the Pharisees who were “making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down” (7:13).

The Proper Role for Christian Intellectual Engagement

My point is not anti-creedal, for I believe there is an important role for confessional standards (see my review of Fesko’s The Need for Creeds Today), nor is my point anti-intellectual—I am a PhD student after all. My point is simple: our intellectual activity must never make “void the word of God” (7:13). If the Bible claims to be sufficient for life and godliness, for knowing God and pleasing him, then our theology and practices must not undermine these claims. Where they have and currently do, we must repent of our pride—that we would dare exalt our ideas to the place of God’s Word.

What then is the place of Christian intellectual engagement? If the primary purpose of the Christian life is to see God’s kingdom expand on earth through complete commitment to Christ and (by extension) to a local church, then our ministerial or theological intellectual engagement must be oriented towards the building up of local church and the expansion of Christ’s kingdom.5 From my limited perspective, I see several ways our intellectual gifts can be used towards these ends.

First, we can produce resources for pastors and parishioners to understand God’s clear word. I mean commentaries, lexicons, grammars, vocabulary guides, translations, etc. However, if we are not to make “void the word of God,” these resources must be firmly grounded in the text of Scripture itself, not communicating the belief that we need extensive extra-Biblical knowledge to understand the Bible (see this article and my books, The Gift of Reading – Part 1 & Part 2).

Second, we can engage intellectually with competing worldviews and challenges to the Christian faith so that our congregations might be encouraged and unbelievers won to faith (see, for example, my book The Gift of Knowing). However, in doing so, we must not surrender the Biblical teaching concerning God for the sake of academic acceptability or an unbelieving audience (see John Frame’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God). Our intellectual engagement must be Biblical faithful first and foremost.

Third, we can intellectually engage with “secular” disciplines and be thoroughly Christian in counselling, psychology, medicine, etc. I do not believe engaging in this way is parallel to the previous two areas: when we engage with “secular” disciplines, we must maintain our Biblical commitments, so we will invariably depart from our peers on significant issues, such as the mind-body problem, methodological naturalism, the existence of the supernatural, evolution, and, perhaps, the age of the earth. However, though the Bible forms a basic worldview from which we perform all our endeavours, it will not speak as extensively to these issues (cf. John Frame’s The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God and Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief, and my forthcoming, The Gift of Revelation).

I am sure you can think of other ways that intellectual engagement can be a way of “[doing] good to everyone, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:9). However, we must not let intellectual engagement make void the word of God: it may be a useful servant, but it can never become the master.

Implications for the Training of Christian Ministers

The final implication for our reflections on over-intellectualisation is the training of ministers. The model of Christian ministry as overly intellectual is wrong. There is room for intellectuals in ministry, but nothing in the Bible would lead us to believe they should be the majority. Therefore, if our models for training ministers overemphasise intellectual acumen, we are risking replacing God’s requirements with our own. We do need to train ministers, but perhaps this does not look like higher education.

The model of training in Scripture (personal and corporate teaching accompanied by long term personal discipleship) corresponds far more closely to the model of apprenticeship or trades than it does to higher education. In our training of ministers, we must not over prioritise intellectual ability and accomplishments. In their place, we must communicate the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture. We must also prioritise the development of mature Christian faith and practice, or life and godliness, in future ministers.

I am convinced that the best model that reflects the Bible’s own priorities is one of personal discipleship and training in the context of the local church. This appears to the model employed throughout Scripture (sometimes with the local church replaced by missionary journeys). In future articles, I hope to unpack some of the logistics that pertain to effectively raising up future leaders in the context of the local church, including collaboration with other churches (see the overview and introduction to this series).

Photo by Kon Karampelas on Unsplash

  1. “Obviously it is the province of a speculative science to discover whether a thing is eternal and immutable and separable from matter; not, however, of physics (since physics deals with mutable objects) nor of mathematics, but of a science prior to both. For physics deals with things which exist separately but are not immutable; and some branches of mathematics deal with things which are immutable, but presumably not separable, but present in matter; but the primary science treats of things which are both separable and immutable. Now all causes must be eternal, but these especially; since they are the causes of what is visible of things divine. Hence there will be three speculative philosophies: mathematics, physics, and theology—since it is obvious that if the divine is present anywhere, it is present in this kind of entity; and also the most honorable science must deal with the most honorable class of subject.” Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Ζ.3, translated by Smith and Ross []
  2. If you think I am cherry-picking one radical source, Craig Carter is a particularly bold example of a significant stream of Evangelicalism and rightly captures the concerns of much of the “Great Tradition.” []
  3. “Ἤρκει μὲν οὖν εἰς ἐντελῆ τῆς εὐσεβείας ἐπίγνωσίν τε καἰ βεβαίωσιν τὸ σοφὸν καὶ σωτήριον τοῦτο τῆς θείας χάριτος σύμβολον· περί τε γὰρ τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ καὶ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος ἐκδιδάσκει τὸ τέλειον καὶ τοῦ κυρίου τὴν ἐνανθρώπησιν τοῖς πιστῶς δεχομένοις παρίστησιν.” Session V, §34, my translation. Cf. Richard Price and Michael Gaddis’ translation. The opening words follow the reading of the Constantinopolitan Creed, but by referring to one “creed,” the fathers treat the latter as an exposition of the sufficient Nicaean Creed, which is how they will explain the role of the Definition of Chalcedon. []
  4. Nicaea seems simple enough, but the word homoousios was a minefield when it was chosen and required extensive philosophical tools to unravel. Consider, for example, the short correspondence between Basil of Caesarea and Apollinaris of Laodicea (at this time, a renowned defender of orthodoxy) or Gregory of Nyssa’s letter That There Are Not Three Gods). []
  5. there are other forms of intellectual engagement, such as being a Christian scientist, that I am intentionally excluding with the terms “ministerial” and “theological []

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