Beginning in the late 1800s and concluding (to some extent) in the early 1900s,[i] part of American Christianity went through a “Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy.” Reactions for and against higher criticism, Darwinism, and theological liberalism[ii] divided within several Protestant denomination two broad factions – evangelicals/fundamentalist who kept to historic Christian Orthodoxy and modernists/liberals who embraced some or all of higher criticism, Darwinism and theological liberalism. The term “fundamentalist” was coined to identify those who held five theologically orthodox beliefs. The beliefs were first set forth by the Presbyterian Church USA in 1910, in response to the Presbytery of New York licensing three ministerial candidates who did not affirm the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. The Bills and Overtures Committee of the PCUSA developed a “Doctrinal Deliverance” which ministerial candidates would affirm in order to be ordained. In it five “essential and necessary” articles are identified thusly: (1) the inspiration and inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures, (2) the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, (3) the substitutionary atonement of Christ, (4) the bodily resurrection of Christ, and (5) the reality and historicity of miracles recorded in the Scriptures.[iii] Sometimes this are rearranged today as:
- The Deity of our Lord Jesus Christ
- The Virgin Birth of Jesus
- The Substitutionary Blood Atonement
- The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus and His Saints
- The inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures
From the controversy emerged The Fundamentals: a Testimony to the Truth[iv] – 12 volumes edited by A. C. Dixon, R. A. Torrey and others from 1910 to 1915. Funded by Christian businessmen Lyman and Milton Stewart, The Fundamentals was freely distributed to missionaries, pastors, churches, and seminary professors. It was a massive and masterful work that had immediate effect and historical significance.[v]
Two Wrong Turns
The above is written to lay some historical background. What follows is not directed to specific persons or events detailed above, but rooted in the history. The modernist response to higher criticism and such was one huge U-turn, biblical acquiescence, the laying down of the spiritual weapons of war. In my opinion, inerrantists (conservatives/evangelicals/fundamentalists) took two wrong turns in response to modernism – intellectualism and anti-intellectualism.[vi] These may be defined, based on several dictionaries, as follows:
- Anti-intellectualism: opposition to or hostility toward intellectualism and the academics; or the belief that intellect and reason are less important than actions and emotions in solving practical problems and understanding reality, as well as minimizing an intellectual view or approach.
- Intellectualism: devotion to intellectual pursuits, or excessive emphasis on abstract or intellectual matters; and, in philosophy, the idea that knowledge is wholly or chiefly derived from pure reason.
By the “wrong turn of intellectualism,” I mean the response of orthodox Christians trying to out-do, out-degree, out-scholar, and out-school the modernists – the smugly sophisticated scholar. By the “wrong turn of anti-intellectualism,” I mean the response of trying to emphasize just how anti-intellectual, anti-education, anti-tolerance, and anti-everything that one can possibly be – the uncultured Philistine. Oddly enough (or probably not), I have some schizophrenic tendencies in me that want to run in both directions![vii]
Yesterday, when I was young, a popular story told for truth – but likely apocryphal – mocked those who mocked the seminary. A young minister resisted all attempts that were made to convince him to attend seminary to prepare for the ministry. Asked why he would not consider it, he responded, “Why, the seminaries are hindering the second coming of our Lord!” “What?” gasped the questioner, severely taken aback. “Yea, that’s right. Them seminaries teach preachers to think, and the Bible says, ‘for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh’.” Seminarians would tell this for truth, and laugh and laugh. It is sad, if it be true, but it is no laughing matter. The story illustrates the extremes at both ends – the arrogance of the seminarians, and the ignorance of the contrarians – both with which we need to grapple biblically.
Mark Noll wrote, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”[viii] The Bible promotes wisdom, knowledge and learning – at least that of the spiritual kind. One purpose of the proverbs of Solomon was that the wise man would hear, and hearing would increase in learning (Proverbs 1:5). The Bible praises Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego for their knowledge, skill, wisdom, and in the learning and language of the Chaldees (Daniel 1). It blasts ignorance and does not tolerate fools (Proverbs 14:9; Matthew 23:16-19; 2 Corinthians 11:19; 1 Peter 2:15).[ix] The Bible is not the companion of deliberately entrenched ignorance or bumptious negligence in thought.
Job aptly upbraided his friends who knew it all, “No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you” (Job 12:2). The Bible warns against the wisdom and ways of the world (1 Corinthians 3:19). All that passes for intelligence in the sight of men does not pass for intelligence in the sight of God. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10). He who is not educated in the Bible is not educated. The Bible is the companion of the meek and lowly in heart, who love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God. The proud look and proud heart is an abomination to God (Proverbs 6:17; Proverbs 16:5).
Each reader probably knows one of these types. We might even be one of them! May we rather look to the Scriptures, and look like those in the Scriptures.
- Jesus, at age 12 and without formal education, attended the center of religious instruction and amazed the doctors (“sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions,” Luke 2:46-47).
- The education of Jesus was not accredited or recognized by the doctors of the law. Jesus’s marvelous teaching was made all the more marvelous by the fact it could not be traced to the centers of Jewish learning (“And the Jews marvelled, saying, How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?” John 7:15).
- The education of the Twelve was not accredited or recognized by the doctors of the law. (“Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marvelled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus.” Acts 4:13)
- Paul received an education that was highly regarded among the Jews (the school of Gamaliel, Acts 5:34, Acts 22:3), but the haughty philosophers at Athens mocked his manner of presentation (“What will this babbler say”) and message (“when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked”).
- In the midst of intellectualism and mysticism, the disciples of Jesus are to walk a middle road. (“we preach Christ crucified…the power of God, and the wisdom of God,” 1 Corinthians 1:21-24)
There is both rhyme and reason in God’s purpose: 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: that no flesh should glory in his presence.
Part of the intellectual direction includes assuming that people know what they’re talking about based on the number of degrees attached to the front and back sides of their names. The anti-intellectuals who flock to the degree mills are sucked into the same black hole – the felt need for a prop to exude authority. How different from our unaccredited Lord, who simply spoke with authority (Matthew 7:28-29).[x] The Philistines may in turn rush to the guys without training! We must teach folks to discern whether persons have biblical knowledge, rather than assuming they are educated based on their degrees. If not, how does one discern a conservative Bible-believer with a lesser degree (or none at all) is more trustworthy than a liberal Bible-denier with a more respectable degree?
True Christians do not create castes of greater and lesser degrees based on the levels of education they have received! We do not search the letters before and behind the name – or the institutions behind the letters – for an academic pedigree. “Deep calleth unto deep.” Things alike recognize one another. By the Word and the Spirit we recognize the credentials of the one speaking or writing by what is spoken or written. [Those of Berea] were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so (Acts 17:10-11).
Regardless of how respectable we try to become in the eyes of the world, the Bible-believing, Bible-keeping Christian will never be quite acceptable in a culture that casts away God and his moral compass.
The Middle Road
An important answer to the two wayside roads is found in an intelligent Bible-believing culture at the local church level – from the greatest to the least. Understand Paul’s exhortations to the Corinthians: that God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27) and Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant... (1 Corinthians 10:1). Without being recognized by the doctors, Jesus nevertheless confounded them, so that they could not answer him (Matthew 22:41-46). On the other hand, he chided those who had not read (Matthew 12:3) did not understand (Mark 8:21) and needed to search the scriptures (John 5:39). He tolerated neither intellectual elitism nor refusal to study.
Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15
[iv] The linked book is Volume 1.
[vi] These two terms are problematic, in that the latter has a much great negative connotation. Nevertheless, I never know no better terms to use.
[viii] The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark A. Noll, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994, p. 3; he goes further, writing, “Notwithstanding all their other virtues, however, American evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking, and they have not been so for several generations.”
[x] None of us can speak with authority in the manner of Jesus, but my point is that the hearers were able to distinguish his authority to speak and teach without inquiring of which degrees he held.