4.4 Are Christians Too Academic?
To a non-believer, parts of our community can appear far too academic.
We spend whole days at our Bible Schools, whole chapters in our writings,
intensively studying just a few Bible chapters, analyzing verses and phrases
in great detail, striving to really understand what God is saying. And
the question arises with most of us at some stage: are Christians too
To be academic and intellectual for its own sake is evidently wrong.
There are whole theological libraries full of dry, dusty commentaries
on Scripture; reading those books will make little practical impact upon
our lives. Theology can become, for those with the time, opportunity and
intellectual bent, an endlessly fascinating hobby. And it must be said
that our own writers and speakers, especially in the eyes of the newly
baptized, can sometimes appear academic to no end. We talk about the exact
meaning of Hebrew and Greek words, we seek to follow through the nuances
of Paul’s arguments, pick up possible allusions...but at the end of it
all we are the same weak, spiritually struggling creatures as when we
But- and it is a big ‘but’- the Proverbs encourage us to lift up our
voice for understanding of God, to cry aloud for it more than for anything
else in this mortal life. The Bible is a book of doctrine, a book of God’s
words to us. God is His word (Jn. 1:1-3); if we are to know God, we must
study His word. And because His ways are infinitely above ours, this won’t
be so straightforward. And likewise with our Lord Jesus Christ; to know
Him is to understand the doctrines about Him. To falsely understand them
is to be ignorant of Christ (1 Jn. 2:22,23 cp. 2 Jn. 9). Conversion is
a receiving “the knowledge of the truth” (Heb. 10:26). These verses teach
that there can be no relationship with Christ unless there is some kind
of correct doctrinal understanding of Him. He Himself told us that we
show our love for Him by both having and obeying His teaching
(Jn. 14:21). It is easy to overlook this; to have His teaching
is a sign of our love for Him. To study and truly know His word
is therefore vital; and those who hold the doctrines of a false Christ
cannot love the real Christ, according to John.
Knowledge is proportionate to works (Tit. 1:16); true understanding is
the basis for behaviour. Otherwise works are just the result of our natural
inclinations, not a desire to glorify God. God's people are described
as " them of understanding" (Dan. 11:35). Evidently knowledge
and appreciation is related to our having covenant relationship
with God. Those who do not understand will ultimately be condemned by
God (Rev. 1:16-18 cp. 14:10). Understanding and perceiving the meaning
of the parables would result in conversion, repentance and forgiveness
(Mk. 4:12). Moses persevered because he understood. “Give me
understanding, and I shall keep thy law” (Ps. 119:35) is one of many links
in David’s thought between understanding and obedience. " For this
saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter" (Mk. 7:29)
shows the value which the Lord placed on correct understanding. The Gentile
woman had seen the feeding of the 5,000 and understood the implications
of the lesson which the Lord was teaching. We get the feeling that the
Lord was overjoyed at her perception and therefore made an exception
to His rule of not being sent at that time to the Gentiles, but to the
house of Israel.
The Importance Of Doctrine
We are sanctified by the presence of God’s word within us, as well as
by the blood of Christ (Jn. 17:17). But God's 'word' clearly refers to
that word understood, as it is in Christ. Thus Paul breathes a sigh of
relief at the end of his life when he says that he has “fought a good
fight...finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). To keep
believing true doctrine (“the faith”) is likened to a lifelong struggle,
a gruelling race. It hardly appears like this when we first learn the
basic doctrines and are baptized. That it will be a struggle to continue
believing them properly hardly seems possible in those innocent days.
But holding on to true doctrine is a pre-requisite for acceptance into
the Kingdom: “Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth
the truths (AV mg.) may enter in” (Is. 26:2). Watching our doctrinal beliefs
is as important as watching our own life: “Take heed unto thyself (i.e.
lifestyle), and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this
thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee” (1 Tim. 4:16).
Even the salvation of others can be partly dependent upon our own correct
A correct understanding of the Law and the sacrifices meant
that a man was near the Kingdom (Mk. 12:34). Cornelius was told “words,
whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved” (Acts 11:14). Belief is
essential for salvation, and yet belief must have some intellectual basis;
there must be some knowledge to be believed before faith can exist. Therefore
it is utterly impossible to divorce understanding from ultimate acceptability.
This is because the vital virtue of faith is rooted in understanding.
With the heart (mind / brain) man believes unto salvation (Rom. 10:10);
the early believers clung to the Lord they had believed " with purpose
of heart" (Acts 11:23). They that had not heard of the cross
of Christ were made to see, understand and therefore believe by Paul's
preaching (Rom. 15:21). Our appeals likewise must be to the understanding.
Abraham 'accounted' that God was able to raise Isaac (Heb. 11:19); his
faith involved an intellectual process. Israel were to hear / understand
“the statutes and judgments…that ye may learn them, and keep, and do them”
(Dt. 5:1). Understanding is related to obedience.
This said, we must be careful to avoid the feeling that if we cling on
to the basic doctrines we understood at baptism, this alone will somehow
tide us into the Kingdom. The man who hung on to his talent but did nothing
profitable with it made this mistake. We must come to know the Father
and Son and develop a dynamic relationship with them. This doesn’t mean
that we must ever be on the lookout for new, fascinating interpretations
of Bible passages; for this can become an obsession in itself. Our appreciation
of the essential being of God is what should be ever increasing. By rightly
dividing (i.e. ‘correctly expounding’, Dr. Thomas’ translation) the word
of truth in our study of it, we show ourselves “approved unto God” (2
Tim. 3:15). We are all professional students of the word- producing
our workmanship of study, and presenting it to the Master. Now it depends
what we mean by the word 'academic', but from this viewpoint it's not
possible that Christians can be too academic. Our acceptability with God
partly depends upon our correct understanding of His word. And true understanding
leads to true practice. Thus Dan. 12:10 says that the wicked cannot understand
the prophetic word, but the righteous will- in other words, true understanding
is related to practical righteousness. God's word makes us wise,
it gives us wisdom, unto salvation. Wisdom is therefore necessary for
salvation. Not wisdom in a worldly sense; but spiritual knowledge and
appreciation (intellectual things, in the pure sense of the word) are
essential in the salvation process.
“Search the scriptures”
The Lord told the Jews to “search the scriptures” so that they would
have the word of God and the love of God abiding in them (Jn. 5:38-42).
They academically knew “the scriptures”, but the voice of God, the presence
of God, and the love of God this reveals, was simply hidden from them.
They weren’t really studying. These 'Christians' weren't academic
enough. But the Saviour also upbraided His very own men for their lack
of true Biblical perception: “O fools, and slow of heart to believe all
that the prophets have spoken” (Lk. 24:25). Note that He did not upbraid
them for not understanding His own clear prophecies concerning His passion;
instead He rebukes them for not grasping the OT teaching about His death
and resurrection. Yet if we try to prove from the OT alone that Messiah
would die and resurrect, we are largely forced to reason from types. Even
Isaiah 53 is only a prophecy of Christ insofar as Hezekiah (to whom it
primarily refers) was a type of Christ. Stephen in Acts 7 resorts to typology
to prove his points about the Messiahship of Jesus. The point is, the
Lord expected those simple fishermen to have worked these things out,
to have heard the voice of God in those OT types. And He upbraided them
because they failed to do so.
God expects us to understand much more than we think He does. Thus He
condemned Israel in Jeremiah’s time because He had spoken to them but
they had not understood, and therefore they had not responded (Jer. 35:17).
They heard the word, as we read it, but they didn’t really hear His voice.
They thought that getting to grips with Bible study was just for those
who were into that kind of thing; with the result that God rejected them.
Elisha told Joash that his arrows represented " the arrow of the
Lord's deliverance from Syria: for thou shalt smite the Syrians"
(2 Kings 13:17). He then told Joash to smite with the arrows upon the
ground. Joash did so, three times- and Elisha was angry with him, because
the number of times he smote the ground with them would be the number
of times he defeated Syria. We might think that Elisha was being rather
unreasonable with Joash; how was he to know what was in Elisha's mind?
But the point is, Elisha expected the king to be more spiritually perceptive,
to understand that they were enacting a parable of deliverance, to have
grasped that those arrows were symbolic of victory over Syria. And so
the lesson comes to us: we may be expected to have a greater understanding
than we think reasonable of God to expect of us.
All this ought to impart a sense of urgency to us. God expects us to
search His word if we love Him. Because of the evil of the world around
us, we should “redeem the time” by coming to understand God’s will, buying
up the opportunities to understand as we see the Lord’s coming approaching-
so Paul reasons in Eph. 5:16. Study of the word isn’t easy, and doesn’t
always yield immediate results. Paul likens it to the ox treading out
the corn, tramping monotonously up and down (cp. in a concordance or between
passages), only slowly producing the bread of life (1 Cor. 9:10 cp. 1
Tim. 5:18). we will not see flashing lights all the time, wonderful things
don’t just come jumping out of every page. To the onlooker upon our Bible
study, the whole procedure can look boring and pointless. But what do
we expect as mortals, seeking to understand the infinite God, searching
the pages of His word to do so? Of course there will be some dead ends,
whole passages will remain closed to us. But we are oxen, trampling out
the corn. And slowly, it comes.
“With all the understanding”
Our thoughts are brought together by a consideration of Mk. 12:33,34.
The Scribe said that the most important commandment to love God “with
all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul,
and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more
than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. And when Jesus saw that
he answered discreetly (Gk. ‘in an intellect-having way’), He said unto
him, Thou art not far from the Kingdom”. Notice how ‘understanding’ with
the intellect is put higher in the list than loving one’s neighbour. The
fundamental thing is to correctly understand, and this will naturally
lead to a life of practical love. Our surrounding ‘Christian’ world has
inverted this order; love of neighbour has been placed above correct understanding
of God. Because the Scribe answered in an intellect-having way, the Saviour
said that He was near to the Kingdom. To reach the Kingdom therefore involves
The words of Mk. 12:33 allude to a number of OT passages which likewise
show the superiority of knowledge and practical service over sacrifices
(1 Sam. 15:22; Hos. 6:6; Mic. 6:6-8). Putting them together we find the
|To obey God’s word
|| is better than sacrifice
|To listen to God’s word
|| is better than sacrifice
|To show mercy
is better than sacrifice
|To know God
is better than sacrifice
|To be humble and just
is better than sacrifice
|To understand God
|| is better than sacrifice
Understanding God, hearing His word, knowing God (all acts of the
intellect) are therefore paralleled with practical things like loving
out neighbour, showing mercy, justice etc. These practical things
are an outcome of our correct knowledge of God. The works
of a doctrinally apostate ‘Christian’ world must be considered in
So we return to our question. Are Christians too academic? If by ‘academic’
we mean ‘applying the intellect to God’s word’, the answer has to be:
‘Not nearly enough!’. But if we mean simply ‘academic for the sake of
it’, my response is ‘Yes, probably a bit too much, with a fair bit of
pseudo-science and pseudo-learning thrown in too’. Our love of God should
kindle a real burning fire inside our minds, to know Him and His Son the
more. This thirst for knowledge will not be constrained by our brainpower,
linguistic ability, education, powers of analysis etc. This earnest desire
to know the love of Christ which passes such human knowledge can (and
does!) wonderfully bind together all true believers, from the illiterate
farmer to the professor of nuclear physics.