The Christian Mind: Sapientia and Scientia

In 1994 the evangelical historian Mark Noll published The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.[1] The book is not much more than a sustained lambast against two conservative subtraditions, Young Earth Creationism and Dispensational Premillennialism. Howbeit, Noll rightly laments “the generations-long failure of the evangelical community to nurture the life of the mind.”[2] In fact, he admonishes his peers because, “fidelity to Jesus Christ demands from evangelicals a more responsible intellectual existence than we have practiced throughout much of our history.”[3] This is because “the gospel properly belongs to the whole person”[4]

 

A. The Need for Wisdom and Knowledge

 

Noll’s prime example of a Christian intellect is the great American philosopher-theologian Jonathan Edwards. For Edwards, he writes, “True knowledge was rather ‘the consistency and agreement of our ideas with the ideas of God.’”[5] One is reminded of Edwards’ words in his great sermon entitled “Christian Knowledge,” where he states that,

 

The faculty of reason and understanding was given for our actual understanding and knowledge. If a man have no actual knowledge, the faculty or capacity of knowledge is of no use to him. And if he have actual knowledge, yet if he be destitute of the knowledge of those things which are the last end of his being, and for the sake of the knowledge of which he had more understanding given him than the beasts; then still his faculty of reason is in vain; he might as well have been a beast as a man. But divine subjects are the things, to know which we had the faculty of reason given us.[6] (Last italics mine).

This is crucial to recognize. Man is not put on earth to “do that which is right in his own eyes”; he is to think God’s thoughts after Him; to gather up, as it were, the wonders of creation in his mind and to reflect upon them, finally returning ever new praises back to the One who placed them there. Like D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once reminded his hearers,

 

Do let us, therefore, examine ourselves very seriously about these things. It is very wonderful and enjoyable to have fellowship of kindred minds. What is more enjoyable than this? But it can lead to nothing – nothing at all – if we are not ever mindful of the fact that it is merely the means provided by God to bring us to a knowledge of Himself.[7]

 

How different is this to the way the world looks at human knowledge. For example, Jungian psychology has made the mind the servant of Self. Its preoccupation with self-actualization, self-enhancement and psychological wholeness has affected the thinking even of many who have been given “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16).[8]

Christian theology, on the other hand, rejects such vanities. Salvation and truth are communicated to us from the outside by a God who cares. “For the Christian, revelation presents the redeeming work of Christ as a great rescue operation for fallen man. If the liner of worldly self-satisfaction is sinking, comfortable and opulent though it be, it is time to leave it.”[9]

 

Misology in Pulpit and Church

Sadly, many believers, theologians among them, accept uncritically “a frame of reference constructed by the secular mind and a set of criteria reflecting secular evaluations.”[10] This situation denudes theology of its main purpose of orienting the Christian mind towards the truth of God.[11] It also isolates the thinking Christian from the rest of the unthinking Church,[12] and it leaves the Church without anything meaningful to speak to contemporary society about.[13]

 

There is a widespread ignorance of God in today’s churches. We are convinced that many church-goers have unclear and sometimes improper conceptions of who God is and what He is like. This should not really surprise us; after all there is a dearth of doctrinal teaching in the Church today. Famine in the pulpit cannot produce fruit in the pew. God’s children are, by and large, spiritually malnourished. They are in no position to assess the world because they do not enjoy the advantage of viewing it, as it were, from “outside the camp”; which is to say, from a Biblical perspective. Many Christians are too much involved with the world to think differently from it. In counseling believers it is surprising how much confusion can be cleared away with a little instruction about who God is.[14] Without a foundation here, Christians grow needlessly fearful and recklessly proud. The reason for this was given by John Calvin many years ago. Calvin began his great book on the Institutes of the Christian Religion by pointing out that the most fundamental knowledge we need is a knowledge of God and of ourselves. Indeed, the Reformer reminded us that, “our feeling of ignorance, vanity, want, weakness, in short, depravity and corruption, reminds us that in the Lord, and none but He, dwell the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, [and] exuberant goodness.”[15]

 

True self-knowledge results in an urgent search for more “God-knowledge.” We are learners not instructors when it comes to understanding God. The focus must shift to Him and His works. Christian knowledge starts there. We start going wrong when we entertain wrong views of God. This is seen in a passage from Jeremiah where the Lord is remonstrating with Jehoiakim, king of Judah, for forgetting what kind of God the Lord is. The ruling class was exploiting the poor and perverting justice for personal gain. So the Lord addresses the king through the prophet; “Shalt thou reign, because thou closest thyself in cedar? Did not thy father [Josiah] eat and drink, and do judgment and justice, and then it was well with him? He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well with him: was not this to know me? saith the LORD.” (Jer. 22:15-16). The lesson is straightforward enough. A true knowledge of God affects our thoughts and our actions. And this is true whether we are sinning willfully, or simply erring in our thinking about the Lord.

 

How often do a handful of truisms replace a fuller appreciation of the Godhead in people’s minds? And how can such a want of knowledge satisfy the thirsty soul? Again, to cite Calvin, “…men are never duly touched and impressed with a conviction of their insignificance, until they have contrasted themselves with the majesty of God.”[16] But how shall they attain this knowledge in the average church? These are not the subjects which are preached to many congregations today. As one observer has said,

 

Despite some blessed exceptions, not enough sermons carefully develop arguments and explanations based on a sustained scrutiny of the biblical materials. Instead, a biblical text is …illustrated with anecdotes and humorous asides – sometimes only faintly related to matters at hand. The congregation may be left with a vague warm feeling but receives little instruction. This doesn’t mean that some truth isn’t spoken, but truth is seldom presented in a rationally compelling manner or in its divine depth.[17]

 

The space between the thinking Christian and the majority of Christians has become so wide that when “the Christian mind” is even broached as a topic of serious discussion, it is often taken to mean that one is to “start thinking mainly about Christian subjects.”[18] Not uncommonly a conversation about Christian truth being, in actuality, theological truth, would be likely to produce far more heat than light nowadays. Gone are the days when cottagers and farmers would line their bookshelves with Thomas Boston’s Human Nature in Its Fourfold State, or John Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence, or John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Today it is all self-focus and shared ignorance. David Wells is surely right when he characterizes us in the West as having so much more than our predecessors, yet in ourselves we are much less.[19] We have substituted the healthy sustenance of spiritual objectivity for the cotton-candy of personal subjectivity. One commentator, writing thirty years ago, wrote: “The theological criterion has already become an existential Christ-in-the-heart, who, because of his nonpropositional, analytically indefinable character, can take on, chamelionlike, the qualities of his spokesman.”[20] Or, as Harry Blamires reported even earlier, “We have too readily equated getting into the world with getting out of our theology. The result has been that we have stopped thinking Christianly.”[21]

 

This age (the years between 1960 and now) has well been described as “an age of confusion, in which people simply do not know how to think.”[22] It is a real shame that Christians have not only mirrored the age in which they live, they have led the way! Consider these well chosen words of Blamires:

 

The bland assumption that the Church’s life will continue to be fruitful so long as we go on praying and cultivating our souls, and irrespective of whether we trouble to think and talk Christianly, and therefore theologically, about anything which we or others may do or say, may turn out to have dire results. Already the deference shown to Christian attitudes is wearing thin in some circles. The conventional polite allowance that at least “there must be something in it – something behind the line these Christians take” is made with increasing grudgingness. The suspicion grows apace that our inhibiting slogans are mere postures concealing an arid emptiness, mere expressions of an irrational resistance to progress.[23]

 

It is not easy to escape this suspicion, or the caricatures which follow in its train. There is too much evidence to the contrary. A look at many modern churches will show that the emphasis is upon feeling and “felt needs.” To take one example, in a study of the services at Willow Creek Church near Chicago, the author G.A. Pritchard, notices a de-emphasis on all those aspects of Christian worship which contribute so much to the development of a Christian mind. He shows how psychological jargon,[24] entertainment,[25] dumbed-down theology stripped of its key terms,[26] and a pragmatic worldview[27] effectively distort the Christian message and leave the Church looking like a therapy center where, along with many Americans, they “experience their relationship with God in their emotions, not their rational ideas.”[28]

 

After a survey of the congregation the Senior Pastor of Willow Creek, Bill Hybels, revealed that, among other things, 12.5% of the congregation had committed adultery in the previous six months, while 27% of the men admitted to viewing pornography. Upon giving out this news, here is what Hybels told his people:

 

Put your chest out a bit – we are acknowledging our unrighteousness and we are exposing it to grace and truth. And we are banding together learning how we can have it forgiven and learning how the Holy Spirit can help us walk a little differently next week and next month and next year.[29]

 

What produces such attitudes in both congregation and pastor? The answer is what Pritchard calls “A Fulfillment Theology.”[30] A theology where “God rests too inconsequentially upon the church, his truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common.”[31] But what is this if not a form of idolatry? It is therefore imperative to encourage the “Christian mind” in the churches today. A far-reaching sea-change is called for, and theologians must be at the vanguard of the reversal process.

Theology As Sapientia (Wisdom)

One way that this subject has been addressed in the history of Christianity is the Augustinian concept of Theology as sapientia, that is, “spiritual wisdom.” John Owen summed up the discipline as such in his Biblical Theology.[32] What these men meant by this is that theology is food for thought of the very best kind. It is, to change the metaphor, the most fertile soil for the mind to work. When one takes a little time to ponder the matter it could be no other way, for, as Calvin famously says, “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”[33]

 

As we have already seen, since in the biblical account of epistemology all knowledge presupposes the Self-disclosure of the triune God of Scripture, it could be no other way. When this Self-disclosure is gathered together and put into a book, we call that volume a book of theology. The aim of that volume, if it is at all true to its subject, is not just to impart information.[34] It must do that, but it must have higher aspirations, for it ought to be concerned with bringing the reader into a deeper knowledge and contemplation of God Himself.[35] Along these lines, Alister McGrath defines theology as, “reflection upon the God whom Christians worship and adore.”[36] Theology is for God’s people; not just individually but corporately. Theology is for the Church. Indeed the Church is the truest setting for theology, for theology is churchly as opposed to worldly. “The mission and values of the church shape evangelical theology. The church, which desperately needs theology, is the proper home for theology.”[37]

 

But theology as wisdom for living in Creation, has a special status which places it above any other discipline. Theology is the konzertmeister, the conductor that puts every other branch of learning in its proper place. This role cannot be taken up by anything else without marked consequences. Science cannot be given the duty since it will slip into erroneous habits of anthropocentrism without theology guiding it. As we shall see, science without the hand of biblical theology upon its shoulder trails off into false assertion and incoherence. Philosophy is often given the responsibility. In fact, many Christian scholars are enthusiastic in their support of philosophy as a guiding discipline. The Dooyeweerdian school, for all its insight, falls into this category. The true guiding influence upon man’s thinking must be spiritual wisdom, led by faith in the One who has revealed Himself to us in the Bible: in a word, Theology.

 

Theology As Scientia (Knowledge)

Augustine also saw theology as scientia or “knowledge,” by which he meant the “active understanding of temporal and mundane things.”[38] These “mundane things” include the phenomena which every man meets and evaluates in day to day experience.

Back in the times of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, to refer to theology as a science was second nature. To these men, a subject must be approached on the basis of the demands of its own first principles.[39] Since theology deals with God and His Self-revealing Word, God Himself reveals the principles by which His truth may be known.[40]

Theology had no problem being seen as a truly scientific enterprise as long as this definition of science pertained. The problem for theology began when in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, science was redefined by men like Bacon, Hobbes, and Descartes as an investigation of observable phenomena within the natural world. With the tremendous successes of Newtonian man and the eagerly grasped naturalistic “creation-myth” which Darwin supplied, theology could not hold on to the claim of being a science. Once the focus of science was narrowed down to the study of how the world works there was no place for the older theological propositions within the academy.[41]

 

At this point many theologians, particularly in North America, made a grave mistake. They attempted to prove that theology was indeed a science under the restrictions of the new definition. This meant that they had to ditch the traditional theological formulations and creeds and make a new theology that would be relevant to modern sensibilities. As Erickson observes, “In an attempt to be regarded as scientific, disciplines dealing with humanity have tended to become behaviorist, basing their method, objects, and conclusions on what is observable, measurable, and testable, rather than on what can be known introspectively. All intellectual disciples are expected to conform to this standard.[42]

For those conservative theologians the dilemma was how to give theology a voice in the intellectual forum. They tried this, as we have seen, by making revelatory truth pass under the yoke of the inductive principle. This was a test they were willing for theology to endure. They did not seem to realize that theology could not, in the nature of the case, succumb to such a cross-examination. The evangelical historian D. G. Hart makes this comment on the Princetonians:

 

These Presbyterian theologians made regular, if selective, use of the Scottish philosophy of Common Sense to frame their apologetics. This included the adoption of Francis Bacon’s inductive method and the complementary belief in the basic reliability of ordinary human perception. That philosophy was rooted in the notion that ordinary people, not just philosophers, could truly understand the physical universe and human experience through careful observation. The apparent contradiction between Princeton’s trust in Common Sense and its adherence to the doctrine of universal human sinfulness had little effect on these professor’s assertions about the scientific character of theology.[43]

 

The theology of the Bible is God’s theology before it is man’s theology. It must be treated accordingly.[44] Sadly, although most Reformed scholars now see this ambiguity, dispensationalist theologians do not. Many are stuck in a discarded paradigm of nineteenth century modernism. Perhaps none have put their finger on the problem better than Mark Noll.

 

A major impediment created by fundamentalism for a doxological understanding of nature, society, and the arts was its uncritical adoption of intellectual habits from the nineteenth century. Especially dispensationalism was heavily dependent upon nineteenth-century views of the goals and systematizing purposes of science. This overwhelming trust in the capacities of an objective, disinterested, unbiased, and neutral science perhaps was excusable in the early nineteenth century, but by the early twentieth century it was indefensible…

The influential popular leaders of dispensationalism, from the time of Cyrus Scofield through the era of Charles Ryrie, spoke with one voice in defending the scientific, objective character of theology and in making that defense entirely in terms of the nineteenth century. Scofield, for example, justified the preparation of his study Bible by claiming that “the old system of references, based solely upon the accident of the English words, was unscientific and often misleading.” Chafer’s Dispensationalism claimed to center on “the specific meaning of the Scriptures” and so come to its conclusions by “the most exacting proofs.” In Chafer’s Systematic Theology, the catchphrases of nineteenth-century mechanistic scientism constantly recur whenever theological method is discussed.[45]

 

Noll’s criticism applies only to theological methodology, not the theology of dispensationalism itself – which is better than its epistemological and methodological assumptions. Notwithstanding, he puts his finger on a real problem area for traditional dispensationalists: one which, it appears from the literature, they seem to be unaware of.

Theology cannot be scientific if what is meant by that word is “inductive.” The object of theology is not open to scientific investigation so narrowly defined, but must be studied on its own terms. Hence, theology as scientia must seek a better description. Vanhoozer is right when he states, “Christian theology is scientific in the sense that it seeks to engage a particular reality – the communicative action of God – according to its distinct nature.”[46]

 

Certainly, theology is strongly a posteriori[47], since it has to do with the Word as given in its canonical whole. Christian theology, and hence Christian epistemology, could not be derivative unless that were so.[48] The main thing to remember in the joint appreciation of theology as coordinately sapientia and scientia is that the study of systematic theology should help us keep a spiritual balance. “It enables us to avoid paying attention to that which, by virtue of our temperament, appeals to us.”[49]

 


[1] Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994). Quotations are taken from the 1995 paperback edition.

[2] Noll, 21.

[3] Ibid, 27. This appears to go against what he says on page 35 where he thinks that “serious intellectual labor had been the norm for at least many Protestants in the evangelical tradition.”

[4] Ibid, 46.

[5] Ibid, 50.

[6] Jonathan Edwards, “Christian Knowledge,” in Select Works of Jonathan Edwards, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1959), ed., by Iain Murray, II.15.

[7] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Summing Up: Knowing and Doing,” in his book, The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1996), 51.

[8] Paul C. Vitz, “Secular Personality Theories: A Critical Analysis,” in Man and Mind: A Christian Theory of Personality, (Hillsdale, MI: Hillsdale College Press, 1987), 73.

[9] Harry Blamires, Recovering the Christian Mind, (Downers Grove, Il: IVP, 1988), 36.

[10] Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind, (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1978), 4.

[11] See John Owen, Biblical Theology, 639.

[12] Blamires, The Christian Mind, 13.

[13] Ibid, 37.

[14] This might seem an extreme statement. But listen to these words from one of the greatest preachers of the 20th Century: “The Apostles not only preached the truth but they emphasized the importance of a knowledge of the truth. Ultimately most of the troubles in the church, according to the teaching of the epistles, stem somewhere or another from a lack of knowledge and of understanding.” – D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors, 27 (italics mine).

[15] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion , 1.1.1. (1.37).

[16] Ibid. 1.1.2.

[17] Douglas Groothuis, Christianity That Counts, 31.

[18] James Montgomery Boice, Mind Renewal In A Mindless Age, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 98.

[19] David F. Wells, God In The Wasteland, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 15.

[20] John Warwick Montgomery, The Suicide of Christian Theology, (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Fellowship Inc., 1975), 340.

[21] Blamires, The Christian Mind, 38.

[22] Elton Trueblood, A Place To Stand, (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 14.

[23] Blamires, 77.

[24] G. A. Pritchard, Willow Creek Seeker Services: Evaluating a New Way of Doing Church, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 156, 200.

[25] Ibid, 98-99.

[26] Ibid, 129

[27] Ibid, 206-208.

[28] Ibid, 111.

[29] Ibid, 264

[30] Ibid, 249

[31] Wells, God In The Wasteland, 30.

[32] John Owen, Biblical Theology, 641.

[33] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.1.1

[34] Unfortunately, this is the impression which has all too often been given.

[35] See David K. Clark, To Know and Love God, 209.

[36] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001, third edition), 137.

[37] Clark, 212.

[38] Ibid, 208.

[39] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2005), 247.

[40] See Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 35.

[41] Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948, 1984), 5.

[42] Erickson, 36. (Emphasis added).

[43] D. G. Hart, Defending The Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 25.

[44] Blamires, 40.

[45] Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 126-127. Noll is careful to give documentation for his assertions.

[46] Vanhoozer, 248.

[47] Ibid, 249. Cf. Alister McGrath, A Scientific Theology, vol. 2, Reality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

[48] Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 12.

[49] Ibid, 5.

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4 comments

  1. Hi Paul, I was surfing articles on the net and noticed this article by a popular teacher in dispensationalism, who is teaching the 1970s/80s popular psychology in Christian prooftexts!

    I think your article is a timely rejoinder to what Jack Kelley has written. Lord helps us if a lot of dispensationalists promote false teachings on far more critical fundamental theology than amillennial Refomed Calvinists:

    Wisdom Of The Ages

    Last Week’s Feature Article

    by Jack Kelley

    http://gracethrufaith.com/selah/wisdom-of-the-ages/

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