Whenever I talk with fellow Christians about the necessity of an intellectually responsible faith, I often receive a response that is a mixture of agreement and anxiety. Most Christians would agree that our belief system should not look like the secular caricature–a blind leap past the cliff edge of rationality. However, in some important respects, many believers are at a loss for how to improve upon loving God with their minds. The vast number of books, journals, articles, video lectures, online courses, and formal degree programs overwhelms them, and sadly, many never begin at all, choosing instead to continue through life with an intellectually shallow, emotions-driven faith. Others do just enough studying to make them dangerous.
In this post, I’d like to offer a short set of guidelines for Christians who wish to be obedient to the command to worship God with their minds while avoiding the common pitfalls that, quite frankly, produce more stumbling blocks for unbelievers than they remove.
1. Getting Started
Becoming an intellectually responsible Christian is a challenging, lifelong process! Don’t allow this fact discourage you. The journey is, without a doubt, deeply fulfilling and continually rewarding. Set reasonable, short-term goals for yourself and don’t allow the sheer volume of available resources overwhelm you.
I recommend starting out with the new revised and updated edition of J.P. Moreland’s Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul. Take your time with it. A good goal might be a couple of chapters per week, making notes and highlighting key passages along the way. You’ll want to review your notes and highlights in this book every couple of years.
2. Tackle Key Topics, One at the Time
It’s important to be well-rounded in your knowledge, but this doesn’t mean that you have to master every subject related to Christianity (as if that were even possible). I suggest that you read at least one high-quality overview volume from a respected scholar in each of these main categories:
Essential Christian Doctrine— Whether you are a new Christian or you were raised in the church, you will greatly benefit from becoming more familiar with the central doctrines of the faith and how to identify heresy. A good way to approach an independent study of Christian doctrine is to tackle one subtopic at the time. I recommend obtaining a single-volume general theology textbook for your library, such as Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology by Thomas Oden. This is a hefty tome, as are most comprehensive theology texts, but don’t let that discourage you! Start from the beginning, work through a chapter, and then take a break to do some of your other reading before coming back. Don’t set any sort of deadline for finishing, just commit to studying it regularly.
Church History— It’s extremely important to understand the history of our faith and how the church has impacted society over the past two thousand years. An excellent introductory volume is Church History in Plain Language: Fourth Edition by Bruce Shelley.
Origin of the Bible— This topic is essential to a deeper understanding of our faith and for the project of Christian apologetics. A wonderful text is The Canon of Scripture by F.F. Bruce.
General Apologetics— There aren’t enough hours in the average life span to become a specialist on every facet of Christian apologetics, but you at least need exposure to them. A very nice, dependable volume is Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith by Douglas Groothuis.
Defense of The Resurrection— This is a central topic for Christian apologetics, because it is the central doctrine for Christianity itself. You need to be familiar with the basic arguments for the historicity of the resurrection. I recommend The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona.
Origins— Where did the universe come from? How did life begin? Is man made in God’s image, or is he simply the product of blind biological processes? These are fundamental questions, and we need to be able to discuss them responsibly. More on this in the next section.
3. Read More Than One Perspective on Controversial Topics
Some topics pertaining to the Christian belief system are HIGHLY controversial. Whenever you are ready to brave these waters, it is crucial that you read different points of view FROM GENUINE PROPONENTS OF EACH DIFFERENT VIEW. This is a lesson I learned the hard way!! Don’t accept one person’s word about the views with which they disagree, because mistakes are often made when someone attempts to characterize an opposing viewpoint. Furthermore, almost no one manages to be unbiased whenever they defend their favored view against another. Read what the “other guy” actually says! Get your information straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.
For example, if you are studying biological origins, read offerings from at least four well-qualified authors: an intelligent design proponent, a theistic evolutionist, an old-earth creationist, and a young-earth creationist. A wonderful way to do this is to buy a volume that contains essays from multiple authors. A nice starter book is Three Views on Creation and Evolution edited by J.P. Moreland and John Mark Reynolds. Another helpful text is Science and Christianity: Four Views edited by Richard Carlson. Finally, an EXCELLENT treatment of the earth-age controversy is John Lennox’s short book, Seven Days That Divide the World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science.
4. Don’t Give Up!
Setting out to become an intellectually responsible Christian is a wonderful lifelong endeavor. The more you learn, the more you will desire to learn. If you go through a season of life that is particularly hectic, it’s okay to set aside your serious studies for a time, but make sure you get back with the program as soon as possible, even if you have to ease back in a little at the time by watching scholarly lectures on iTunes (Biola University has a DYNAMITE collection of free videos!), listening to podcasts, or reading short articles from reputable sources. Keeping the brain juices flowing could be as simple as loading your iPod with lectures you can turn on during your commute or your gym session.
You can do it! Glorify God with your mind! You will never be the same!