A False Dichotomy

image of a study bible
Intellectual faith is not exclusve of holiness and piety.

Today is Father’s Day so first things first: Happy Father’s Day! I hope you can spend this day with your loved ones and your family. So far, here in Asunción it has been a beautiful day, warm and sunny.

I would like to comment about an idea that’s been echoed over and over within my social networking circles of Paraguayan Reformed friends. The idea is something like this:”Your deep theological knowledge is nothing if you don’t have a holy life”; “It doesn’t matter how many Bible books you know by memory; it matters that you live them” and similar slogans and punchlines. In a nutshell: for the Christian faith, a deep knowledge means nothing unless you live a holy life.

That is a great sentiment, a lofty ideal… if you in fact have a deep knowledge, a solid theological learning, a mastery of the Bible, or some other manifestation of said deep Christian knowledge. But is this so?

I live in Paraguay. There, by the grace of God we are experiencing a Reformed, Calvinistic revival that moves me to give joyful thanks to the Lord for His work in this country, which was (and still is) a hotbed of the worst strands of Arminianism and Neopentecostalism when it comes to its evangelical church. As part of this revival, however, it is only understandable that some brothers and sisters in Christ display more zeal than truth in some of their statements; and the idea I quoted above is a good example of this.

Our Paraguayan culture is strongly against all things intellectual. Reading is usually considered something you only do when you are at school, a chore, a bore, and the sooner the better you’re done with it and move on. And this also shows in the church. Speaking of the Paraguayan evangelical church as a whole, the degree of Biblical and doctrinal ignorance is truly appalling, on both pew and pulpit. It is a matter of course that fresh new seminarians enter theological schools without doing the most basic task of all: having read all of their Bibles from cover to cover. And if those who are going to minister the flock don’t know their Bibles, how can we expect the people in the pews will fare?

And now we see memes with this idea within our circles. These memes would be appropriate in circles of intellectual Christians; people who may be at ease quoting Calvin, Aquinas, Berkhof, Frame, Pannenberg, or any of the Bible books with a good breadth of knowledge. But this is not the case of Paraguay. Here we need to encourage people to acquire more knowledge. We need more Christian thinkers. We need to raise a generation of intellectual Christians who are able to reflect on their faith with integrity, honesty and creativity. Telling them that they should de-emphasize their intellectual efforts is not only a false dichotomy; it’s counterproductive and wrong.

Let’s remember how the Lord Jesus summarized the first table of the Law:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.

(Matthew 22:37 ESV; emphasis mine)

That’s right. We should love God with all of our hearts, but also with all of our minds. I could go on quoting a lot of other verses, but let’s just use Deuteronomy 29:29, which I consider a capital text for any Christian theology of revelation:

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.

There are some secret things; thing that we might never know. But there are other things that God chose to reveal to us. Learning about these things is not an option. They belong to us and to our children forever, in order to comply with the instruction (law, torah) that God gives us.

If we are to learn, if we are to live, if we are to obey; that is, if we are to be holy for God, we need to study and to know. Intellect and holiness do not exclude each other. On the contrary, true Christian piety requires both a discerning mind and a humble, willing heart.

Enough, then, with this false dichotomy. Instead, we should take heed of the principle stated by the Lord Jesus Christ when He spoke about tithing: “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Luke 11:42 ESV) We should aim for a holy life, without neglecting the life of the mind. Instead of discouraging the intellectual reflection on Christian faith, we ought to say instead: “It is great that you should strive to learn about God. Do it, by all means. And don’t forget to translate what you learn about Him into a holy life.” This is a message I would gladly subscribe.

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