This fall, InterVarsity at Hillsdale College asked me to speak on pride and intellectualism. My background includes both topics, with painful lessons learned; therefore, I agreed, in hopes of helping students to avoid what I experienced. The following is the gist of what I presented:
By my own experience, I know that pride comes quickly with intellectualism. In pursuing graduate studies, it was not long before I felt that what I had been taught earlier about opposing parties was incorrect. Although common to academics, this disillusionment led me personally not to trust others. I needed to see things for myself. With mathematics training, I thought I could treat the Bible as a collection of philosophical sayings that could be constructed together to form a theological tower. I hoped to answer the big questions through research alone. In addition to mathematics, I had been learning the original languages and had been trained in a hermeneutical method of ascertaining the logical progression of a passage. My pride was invisible to me because I was studying the Bible, the unerring source of truth. What I did not detect was a sinful confidence in my own ability to interpret the Bible apart from others.
When I became a youth pastor, I entered real life. Isolated in academia, it can seem like all questions are solvable through intellectual pursuit alone. Real life has a way of exposing personal weakness, and forcing us to ask new questions of God in His word that we had never considered before. My sin was exposed when two grievous deaths occurred—a twenty-one-year old drowning and an eight-year-old dying in a lawn-mower accident—and the pastor asked me to preach. I had assumed that it was my job to school the pastor in theology (and I had only been there a month), and I chose to preach on my favorite pet doctrine. No sympathy. No comfort. That sermon nearly split the church. The complications sent my pastor into a nervous breakdown and sent me to many homes apologizing. The controversy did not end, so I resigned in less than a year. By the end of the year, due to God’s discipline (for He refuses to reward pride), I lost my assurance of salvation and then questioned how I knew the Bible was true or not. I was taking six seminary classes, working over forty hours per week, and in conflict with my family. It was the blackest period of my life.
I did not know where to put my feet down. The rationalist reasoning of the past did not bring the confidence I desired, so I did not lean on that reasoning to work up to faith. In searching, I was tempted by other options, such as viewing all religious knowledge as poetry. Others in such circumstances have resorted to an authoritative church to gain certainty (such as John Henry Cardinal Newman). In agony, and for the first time in my life, I cried out to God for Him to teach me the gospel. No longer was I the knower, studying the Text. I was the beggar, crying out in agony for any light the Lord will give to my soul.
In that season, the Lord showed me several things.
First, personal assurance of salvation would come when a mature love arrived, due to His divine life in me (1 John 3:17; 4:18).
Second, I learned that Jesus did not design for Christians to gain their interpretation of the Bible singlehandedly, but in company with “all the saints” (Ephesians 3:18). He did not just give “apostles and prophets” who wrote the Bible (and they alone are the foundation, with Christ), but also “evangelists, pastors, and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11). It is arrogant for any young man to say to Christian teachers past or present, “I have no need of you” (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:21). Now, those teachers are not the source of truth. They are in class with me, and Jesus alone is the Teacher; but they are the smart kids, and I get to look at their notes, and I often get insights handed to me through them.
Third, I learned that the Holy Spirit alone gives assurance to our faith through what is called “the testimony of the Holy Spirit,” a very traditional Protestant teaching. I had earlier looked down on such a notion, but now I began to ask for the Spirit’s working in my heart. Jesus said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). The Spirit alone gives us the ability to know the things God has revealed to His people in words (1 Corinthians 2:9-14).
Therefore, in being a Christian scholar, we first need to become a fool in order to become wise (1 Corinthians 3:18). “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). No amount of wisdom, individually or pooled together in community, can break out of The Box of our world (see the book of Job!). God must reveal things to us, and we need His Spirit behind our eyes to see these things in Christ.
Then we need to recognize that all knowledge is for relationship. “Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. If anyone thinks he knows something, he has not yet known as he ought to know; but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him” (1 Corinthians 8:1-3). Knowledge is for loving others. By God’s grace, if I were presented with that same hurting congregation now, as I was in my twenties, I would hope that I would preach entirely different. Being in a real church and not alone in academia can be good for the soul, but it is not necessarily comfortable.
Finally, a Christian scholar should never lose his glorying in Jesus Christ. “For we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, that we might know Him who is true, and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life. Little children, guard yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:20-21). We did not know truth until the Son of God spoke—He brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (2 Timothy 1:10)—and we are truly His disciples if we remain in His word, by which we know the truth and are set free (John 8:31-32). In fact, we did not even know love until He died on the cross. “By this we know what love is, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16).
In the Hillsdale context, our glorying in Christ may appear through the following contrasts. In addition to the philosophical good, true, and beautiful, where are faith, hope and love? There may be many “great books”, but there is only one Holy Book. Quoting human authors is acceptable, but how quick and proud are we to quote Jesus, the Truth? Ultimately, we answer to Him. All praise to Jesus Christ!