“I must be frank with you: the greatest danger confronting American evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism.”
—Charles Malik, speaking at the Billy Graham Center Dedication Ceremony
Several months ago, I had the rare pleasure of spending an afternoon catching up with a dear friend of mine (who shall remain anonymous). At that time, I was about halfway through my second semester at Biola, and had not yet had the opportunity to tell my friend much about my first year in graduate school. When she asked how it was going, I was beyond eager to gush about the program, to expound upon how wonderful it felt to be learning so much about philosophy, theology, church history, and (of course) apologetics. She nodded and smiled politely as I talked, and when I was finished I expected to hear something along the lines of, “Wow, that’s fantastic, Melissa. I’m happy that you’re finally able to study what you’ve loved for so long and that you’re gaining so much valuable knowledge!”
This is not, however, even remotely close to what she actually said.
“That’s nice…but…um…don’t you think all that stuff just gets in the way of the simplicity of the Gospel?”
My heart sank.
I should not have been surprised to hear this question, but I was pretty dumbfounded to hear it come from the lips of this particular friend. This girl loves Christ with a sincerity and depth that is reflected in her life nearly constantly. She’s in my top five list of prayer warriors. She loves to serve in her home church, and displays a rare brand of generosity with her time and her resources. She has tons of scripture memorized (which is something I personally struggle to improve upon). So, I was not prepared for her words, to say the least.
Quite unfortunately, this apathy towards Christian intellectualism has become commonplace in today’s church. The mentality seems to be: know Jesus and let others see Jesus in you so that they, too, will desire to know Him. The End. How often do you hear serious theology or doctrine discussed in a Sunday School class? At the last retreat or conference you attended, were there challenging ideas of substance being taught and discussed, or was it not much more than a “Yay, God rocks!” rally that would have been foreign and perhaps repellent to a non-believer? As a result of this “dumbing down,” an enormous number of self-described Christians are poorly educated on the facts of their faith, let alone how or why they can have confidence in Christianity above all other belief systems.
Try this little experiment. You can be the test subject, or you can corner a few long-time church members next Sunday and ask them for a quick interview (wow, that would be FUN!). Make sure they don’t have their SmartPhone anywhere close by. Ask them the following questions, which involve basic information about Christian doctrine and heritage. See if you (or your guinea pig friends at church) can answer them accurately (you’re allowed to Google AFTER recording the answers of the participants).
- What are the three branches of modern Christendom?
- What was the Council of Nicea?
- Are you Calvinist, Arminian, or Molinist in your theological viewpoints?
- Name one major heresy of Mormonism.
- Define “substitutionary atonement.”
- Who was Martin Luther?
- Who wrote the book of Hebrews?
- Give one reason why our canon of scripture is trustworthy.
- What is the Apocrypha?
- Can you give one OBJECTIVE reason for your faith in the Gospel of Christ without using scripture?
I’d love to see comments posted about how your test subjects performed!
Dr. William Lane Craig laments, “Our culture in general has sunk to the level of biblical and theological illiteracy…But if we do not preserve the truth of our own Christian heritage and doctrine, who will learn it for us?”
In Love Your God With All Your Mind (a book that changed my life), Dr. J.P. Moreland says that when you have “emotional, simple, popular preaching instead of intellectually careful and doctrinally precise sermons” and you emphasize “personal feelings…instead of a deep grasp of the nature of Christian teaching and ideas,” you end up with an “intellectually shallow, theologically illiterate form of Christianity.” And that form of Christianity isn’t going to do much to impact the world for Christ.
What about the command to love God with all our minds (Luke 10:27)? Why aren’t Christians eager to expend some mental sweat in order to achieve a deeply intellectual, well-founded faith? Why could so many of us name all the characters and recount the plot line of our favorite book or movie but can’t give a general outline of Salvation History and its major players? (Here’s some sad comic relief for you. Dr. Craig says, “A great many, if not most, people cannot even name the four Gospels—in a recent survey one person identified them as Matthew, Mark, and Luther! In another survey, Joan of Arc was identified by some as Noah’s wife!”)
The church is suffering for its lack of well-informed Christians. Evangelism suffers; discipleship suffers; the Kingdom suffers. But, as Moreland says, “When people learn what they believe and why, they become bold in their witness and attractive in the way they engage others in debate or dialogue.”
Let the learning begin (or continue)!
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