Woe to the Wise and Learned

Therefore, behold, I will again do a marvelous work
Among this people,
A marvelous work and a wonder;
For the wisdom of their wise men shall perish,
And the understanding of their prudent men shall be hidden”

Isaiah 29:13

At that time Jesus answered and said, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight. All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.”

Matthew 11:25-27

Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.

Proverbs 26:12

The above passages are not those that our culture may be eager to accept, but that is why their message is very needed today, not just in the secular culture but also in the Church. Since the New Atheism, there has been a resurgence of Christian intellectualism and apologetics, which, on its own, is a good thing. However, with this resurgence of intellectualism comes a different set of evils and temptations that can be spiritually fatal. It is easy for Christians to regard these scriptures as merely a vindication of God’s wisdom against secular intellectuals. That they certainly are and Christians are in a unique position to see the ways in which the  “wisdom” of secular intellectuals harm lives and destroy societies. The prophecy in Isaiah 29 is constantly being fulfilled before our eyes. But, I don’t think these words are aimed merely at secular intellectuals, or at liberal “Christian” theologians who have apostatized in all ways but in name. These warnings are also meant for truly Christian intellectuals and theologians, people who believe the Bible or who endeavour to believe it. Paul quotes the passage from Isaiah above in addressing a genuine Christian audience ( but a little decadent), the Corinthians. It is clear that he did not believe that the warnings in the Bible for the “wise and the prudent” ( other translations say “intelligent”), was meant merely for people who explicitly rejected God. The Corinthians were too enamoured by the secular elites of their day, which is why 1 Corinthians chapter 1 was needed, to get their focus off those people. He appeals to them as follows:

Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.

1 Corinthians 1:20-21

Something similar applies to North American Christianity today. It may be too enamoured not just by secular intellectualism, but by non-Christian perspectives on morality. The result of this is a spiritual disease state (that may prove fatal if left unchecked) where the only parts of Christianity that are taken seriously are the parts that can be used to justify secular moral movements. In other words, the world determines the theology that we take seriously, the theology that is preached from pulpits. We just slap “Jesus” onto it.

Jesus says that God has hidden the truth from the wise and prudent and revealed them to “babes”. The idea communicated here is very similar to the beatitudes, proclaiming a blessing on the mourning and the weeping and the poor. This does not mean that intelligence, wealth and happiness are sins on their own, or that unhappiness, poverty and stupidity are virtues. This is clear from the fact that Jesus contrasts the wise and the learned, not with the “stupid” but with “babes”. Other translations say “little children.” This calls to mind Jesus’ saying unless you become like a child you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3). Jesus is contrasting the attitude of the wise and the learned who don’t have the revelation of God with an attitude of simplicity and humility, the attitude of a child who has no pretension. The “wise” like the “rich” are said to miss God’s truth in the New Testament. Why is that? It must be because of pride. The rich man trusts in his riches and is unfair to his subordinates. The wise man trusts in his intelligence, wants to appear intelligent, is full of pretension and looks down on those he regards as unintelligent. The intelligent person is vulnerable to pride, because he is tempted to worship his own intelligence. Since he has great regard for his own intelligence, he will be less likely to submit to the intelligence of God. He will be less likely to think, more reluctant to believe, that there is a God who knows better than him and that he needs to submit to God. The attitude that contrasts with this is simplicity (sometimes mistaken for stupidity), which is eager and willing to submit to God’s authority and to not lean on our own understanding. The intellectually prideful person thinks it is stupid to submit to something that is outside your comprehension or to obey an authority higher than your own mind. Since he worships his own intelligence, he will never be able to submit to something he doesn’t fully understand. Ironically, as I’ve written here, the usefulness of the intelligence of someone who is intellectually prideful will wither. Such a person is more likely to think they know more than they do and they will think they have less need to “find out.” Diligent research will feel like a humiliation. To the extent that intelligence is worshiped it harms, rather than helps, intellectual endeavours. Careers which have a lot of prestige decline, because people enter them for the wrong reasons (greed, pretension, or a desire for fame). Intellectual pride is a way to destroy intellectual endeavours or to ensure that they don’t get to truth. Humble intellectuals will achieve more than prideful intellectuals and humility here will involve the knowledge that what you’re doing is not the most important thing in human existence (which some scientists and philosophers may believe about their own work) and that there is something more important, namely knowing GodThis is not an argument for “anti-intellectualism”, though this caveat is useless to a society that worships intelligence, because if someone worships intelligence, anything less than that worship will seem like anti-intellectualism. When someone sees a particular thing as the most important thing on earth, he will not be able to bear someone who does not agree and something in him will react against such a person. 

And further, my son, be admonished by these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh.

Ecclesiastes 12:12

The other big problem with intellectual pride is that it leads people to regard the stupid with contempt. To the extent that you define yourself by your intelligence, you will do the same to others. If you’ve decided that you have value because you are intelligent, you will decide that the value of others is also a function of how intelligent they are. But this is wrong. Intelligence is a trait over which we have no control. Praising or blaming someone for intelligence is as irrational as praising and blaming someone for athletic ability. Intelligence is a lot more useful to society than athletic ability, but people have equally little control over both traits. So insulting someone for being thin and physically weak should carry as little weight as insulting someone for being stupid ( but it does not). Just as God favours the poor, I believe he also favours the stupid, precisely because people look down on them.

But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence.

1 Corinthians 1:27-29

The Dangers of Corinthian Christianity

Corinthian Christianity is worldly, rides cultural trends, eager to be accepted by the elites, eager to appear intelligent, erudite and sophisticated. A Corinthian Christianity is a Christianity preoccupied with image and worldly honours. It is self-satisfied and vain. It yearns for the praise of men and not the praise of God. It has its eyes fixed on the world rather than God. It wants to be seen of men. Backsliders and the lukewarm are the heart and soul of this type of Christianity, because it is not a faith that wants holiness, only worldly honour. Thus, it will also be a Christianity that attracts wolves and false prophets and where they will be more likely to make it into positions of influence and power. The Christian can pursue intellectual endeavours and even use it in Christian outreach, but you should not trust in it, or put your spiritual hope in it. Christianity is not the religion of the intellectuals, or, to put it another way, intellectualism is not necessary for Christian faith, and does not give it power. That is why God so often does his best work through the simple and uneducated, so that “no flesh may boast before him”. As soon as you start thinking that Christian renewal is a matter of more innovative philosophizing, apologetics, or better Christian literature, you’ve already gone of the deep end, because you’ve placed your trust in the wrong things. They may help only if your priorities are right, or they may work only in converting people to a weakened Christianity. Those who place their trust in human cleverness will see their movements stagnate, their preaching become dry academic treatises, and their churches become intellectual discussion groups or decline in number. Why? Primarily, God has not chosen to do it that way, but also because most people are not interested in the humanities (and they really don’t have to be). If your Christianity only appeals to people who are interested in that, it will appeal to very few people. Human intellectualism is not the key to better Christian faith. A Christian who makes his intellect the energy behind his faith will find that his faith stagnates, not because Christianity cannot defend itself intellectually, but because intelligence is not how you know God and because intellectual pride is like acid on your ability to understand God and to be in right relationship with him. If intelligence is how you know God, then that would mean that high-IQ people could understand God better than low-IQ people. Intelligence is not the energy of faith. It never will be. And if the world wants a faith where high-IQ people understand God better than the stupid, where intelligence gives you higher status with God, or better access to his truths, we’ll have to disappoint them, or pervert our faith and earn God’s anger. If you start to trust in human ingenuity to get you to God, or to get you more of God, or to get you to revival, then you have a Tower of Babel. 

The answer to any spiritual malaise is the Spirit of God. That is the answer of any good Christian. But how do you get more of the Spirit? Prayer, perhaps some fasting, repenting of any sin in your life, living as God requires and waiting on the Lord. That is the “formula” we are given in the Bible. The main point here is focussing on the activities the Bible gives us for accessing the presence of God, not thinking that human cleverness will produce more conversions and better Christians.  

So he answered and said to me: “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ Says the LORD of hosts.

Zechariah 4:6

And we can also say: not by literature, not by philosophy, not by apologetics, not by human cleverness, but by God’s Spirit! Isn’t the situation of Zerubbabel and his group of exiles similar to the situation of the Christian Church in the West? Again, that doesn’t mean that these intellectual endeavours are wrong, but they are certainly wrong if we place our spiritual hope in them, if we think that they will save Western Christianity from oblivion. God will not bless their fruits if we hope in them and not in Him. On the contrary, if you trust in human cleverness for Christian renewal, you can have a hundred thousand world-class Christian humanities intellectuals, each outdoing each other in terms of philosophical and literary innovation, but it will not lead to Christian renewal. That is not where God is found. Seek his face. Nothing fancy, no pretension, just a contrite heart and a desire to know God. If you place your spiritual hopes in human ingenuity, you are doomed. Not only is your hope for revival down the gutter, your own soul is on its way to the grave. God will topple your Tower of Babel. Isn’t God the God of knowledge? Yes. But God is the God of any good thing, but not of their perversions. God is not the God of the worship of human ingenuity, the worship of human knowledge, and the spiritual trust in human thinking and creativity. 

Part of what seduces people into a Corinthian Christianity that is preoccupied with worldly honours is a seeker-sensitive paradigm of church life. There is nothing wrong with changing small things here and there to make your church more appealing to outsiders, but as soon as this becomes the thing that determines a lot of what you do, when it starts to determine the content of your sermons, the content of the worship and everything else, you’re going to mislead those who are influenced by you. The seeker-sensitive church leadership is focussed outward not upward, which means that it will be made not in the image of God, but in the image of the culture, in the image of apostates who are leaving the church and need to be wooed back, or in the image of non-Christians. Your theology may remain technically the same, but parts of it that are uncomfortable to the culture gather dust and are never said. Once this “outward” orientation becomes ingrained, that community is in trouble. The primary focus must be upward. Sometimes the church can learn from it’s critics, but it’s primary orientation must always be upward. The seeker-sensitive paradigm makes you into an appeaser of the world and its prince. It thinks the way to get people to the church is to focus more on pleasing them, rather than focussing more on the Spirit of God. The priority of the church is to know God and to worship him well, not to worry about what apostates and non-Christians think and attempting constantly to appease them ( but also without antagonizing them and treating them with contempt).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s