Evangelicalism and Anti-intellectualism: Two Proposals

American evangelicalism remains an interesting segment of the greater Christian tradition. I personally think that conservative evangelicalism is being reshaped in this country, not least due to the recent political questions and debates that have emerged (see here for what I am talking about). This is not, in my mind, a bad thing, though time will tell if this “reshaping” is going to result in something good or not. We shall see. At any rate, what has become particularly interesting to me is how evangelicals view the role of education in the life and practice of the church. I plan to muse a bit more on this subject down the road, but I want to flesh out some preliminary and provisional thoughts, as well as some observations I have made personally over the past several years.

Here is my thesis: The American evangelical church has a strong tendency toward anti-intellectualism. I am by no means the first to recognize this. But presently, I want to discuss why our anti-intellectual bias is a bad thing—a terribly bad thing.

Over the years, I have heard things like, “Theological education will take the evangelistic zeal out of you” or “Learning about the history of the Bible is not what being a Christian is all about.” I even once heard a person say, “You may read the Bible in Greek, but I read it in the Holy Spirit.”

Huh? I’m not even sure what to do with that last one!

I have come to learn that these reactions are actually based upon more underlying problems within conservative evangelicalism, namely, a stunted view of the life of the mind. It was Mark Noll who said, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” He was correct. It is all the more unfortunate that anti-intellectualism has become a sort of modus operandi for the church. For example, in some evangelical traditions, people need not prepare to become a pastor; the only requirement is to be “called.” If they are “called,” then that is all that matters. I think this can be dangerous. Interestingly, most people prefer going to a medical doctor who has been educated, someone who has set aside years of their life to study medicine, chemistry, and physiology. I’m sure that God could miraculously equip a person with the knowledge needed to become a medical doctor overnight, “calling” him or her to the medical field; I suspect, however, that he uses other means to equip them—specifically, the discipline to work hard through years of medical school. We applaud our medical doctors for having devoted years to research, study, and practice, but when it comes to matters concerning the evangelical church, education matters little. (I wonder if this is not due, at least in part, to the fact that evangelicals have grown obsessed with “quick fixes” and have little motivation for things that take time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears—things like education.)

Of course, formal education is expensive these days, and so I understand why it is often out of reach for most people, not to mention ministers (perhaps we ought to do something about this?). I am not at all saying that those who are formally educated are better or smarter than those who are not; there have been notable and influential people, after all, who were self-educated. Formal education is neither here nor there; but education itself remains important. After all, our anti-intellectual leanings present a noticeable problem for conservative evangelicals, one that comes with dire consequences. One of those consequences is that evangelicals come off looking silly or confused or both—and that before an unbelieving world. Making statements like the ones quoted above betrays our calling to excellence. As a result, our witness comes off as being irrelevant. And why shouldn’t it? It is always appropriate to question the relevance of any group that shuns knowledge and applauds its own lack of it.  We can do better!

But the fact is that knowledge and education are both necessary components for the existence and well-being of the church. Take, for example, the significance of being educated in the biblical languages. Some evangelicals I have met laugh away at such things as being “too scholarly” and therefore “not relevant.” In light of these charges, a question needs to be asked: Is knowing Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic required for reading the Bible? I say, yes. I will even take it one step further. Without knowledge of the original languages, there is absolutely no way you can read your Bible. It is absolutely impossible.

Obviously, I am not saying you cannot read the Bible if you do not know the original languages. By no means. What I am saying, rather, is that somebody must have known the original languages in order for you to read your english Bible. For you to be able to pick up your Bible and read it, there must have been a person to translate it into English in the first place. So yes, knowledge of the original languages is a must. Either you will need to have been educated in the languages or you will need to rely on an educated translator’s version. But make no mistake about it: Knowledge of the original languages is required—either from you or someone else. In this case, education is not a mere flowery benefit or some abstract scholarly endeavor; it is a practical necessity.

I only mention the language bit above so as to make a general point, namely, that education is important. But I also wish to highlight the fact that, specifically, theological education is necessary for the church. Again, however, many evangelicals continue to think otherwise, feeling as though intellectual pursuits are somehow necessarily rooted in pride and arrogance. But this is simply not true. Some of the most humble people I have met have been scholars; and some of the most arrogant have been those who take pride in their ignorance. For someone to boast about their abundant knowledge is distasteful, yes. But for someone to boast about their ignorance is more than distasteful, it’s dangerous. The consequences of our anti-intellectual bent are dangerous. (I will tease this last part out later down the road.)

I suspect that anti-intellectualism is less a problem than it is a symptom. Maybe we need to first address why evangelicalism is prone toward an anti-intellectual bias. I feel the underlying issues here are deep, and I reckon that there are both philosophical and theological reasons for why we are bent that way. (I’m still working through these things, and I plan to lay out some thoughts in the weeks ahead.)

In the meantime, I want to offer two preliminary proposals.

First, perhaps evangelicals should stop and think. Maybe we should re-think our assumptions that education is not relevant for the church, for our communities, for our mission. After all, as we have seen above, education is very practical and beneficial. It is necessary even. We should also consider our Christian calling, for God calls us to a life of right thinking and calls us to flourish in our pursuit of wisdom, knowledge, and discernment (Rom 12:2; Phil 1:9-10). Thinking is not an option. We all engage in the act of thinking. The question is whether or not our thinking is informed or uninformed, educated or uneducated, wise or foolish. It has been my experience that the church is hungry for education, for in-depth training, for catechesis. It is true that not everyone feels called to master the Greek New Testament or philosophical hermeneutics or the ins-and-outs of second temple Judaism, and that’s okay. We are all gifted differently, and we each have our respective ministries. But having offered more in-depth classes within a church setting, I can say that there is a huge thirst among our people for it. The question for us pastors and teachers is, Will we feed the sheep?

Second, perhaps evangelicals should stop and thank. Maybe we should take a step back from our anti-intellectual tendencies and thank God for the scholar. This could be good for the evangelical soul. I recall a few years ago having a lively (not to mention informative) conversation with a Catholic monk. In the midst of our conversation, he was quick to assert that, “If it were not for us monks, you wouldn’t have a Bible.” How true that is. If it were not for those who have given their lives over to study, to a life of learning, the modern church would be in a world of trouble. The monasteries were the wombs of our sacred tradition. Likewise, our local community projects would be null and void if it were not for the scholar, for we would never be able to hand a Bible to anyone in our community if it were not for the good people who gave themselves to scholarly pursuits—to years of toiling through the original languages, mastering grammar and syntax. Let us thank God for the scholar. They make the local church’s job possible.

Again, I am still working through my views here. But I am convinced that it would do us well to see education as important precisely because it is necessary. Any bias toward anti-intellectualism should be abandoned. 

More thoughts to come…

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