Thinking for the Glory of God

(The following is a lightly-edited paper I wrote in seminary.)

1.  Is There a Christian Mind?

The Christian Mind by Harry Blamires begins with the startling claim that “there is no longer a Christian mind.”[1]  The explanation for this is because “the Christian mind has succumbed to the secular drift with a degree of weakness and nervelessness unmatched in Christian history.”[2]  J.P. Moreland makes a similar claim in his book, Love Your God with All Your Mind.  He says that the spiritual awakenings of the mid-1800s brought to American Christianity a distinctly anti-intellectual flavor which resulted in “the intellectually shallow, theologically illiterate form of Christianity that came to be a part of the populist religion that emerged.”[3]

Anti-intellectualism has continued in the church to the present day.  And one of the results of this, Moreland says, is “a loss of boldness in confronting the idea structures in our culture with effective Christian witness.”[4]  The intellectual surrender to the secular worldview has been accelerated by rampant anti-intellectualism in the church.  Because “there is not much of an evangelical mind,”[5] evangelicals are not equipped to deal with the intellectual challenges presented by the secular worldview.

Yet there is hope.  Blamires and Moreland each provide positive biblical, theological, and philosophical treatments of the Christian mind in an effort to combat the anti-intellectualism of Western Christianity.  And the Christian faith is profoundly intellectual.  Jesus commands his followers to love God with all their mind (cf. Matthew 22:37).  With this in mind, this post will present a biblical theology of the Christian mind before considering the nature of and challenges to Christian thinking in the contemporary culture.

2.  Biblical Theology of the Christian Mind

Drawing on 1 Corinthians 10:31, John Frame says, “it is tempting to think that this passage is limited to our narrowly religious and ethical life.  But in fact, it is about every part of life (‘whatever you do’), including the intellectual.  So there is a distinctly biblical doctrine of knowledge, just as there are distinctly biblical doctrines of God, sin, and redemption.”[6]  That is to say, the Bible provides a doctrine of the Christian mind.  It contains information on the nature of human knowledge and how knowledge is to be rightly acquired.  The Bible speaks of what knowledge is, what has gone wrong with it, and how it is redeemed in Christ.  Thus, a distinctly biblical doctrine of knowledge must include the following theological themes: creation, fall, and redemption.

The fact that humans are created in the image of God has implications for how one understands the nature of human knowledge.  The most important implication is the necessity of the Creator-creature distinction.  As Frame says, “there is a sharp distinction between Creator and creature, between the One who makes all things and the beings that he makes.”[7]  When applied to the question of knowledge, this means that there is a sharp distinction between God’s knowledge and human knowledge.  God’s knowledge is archetypal, and human knowledge is ectypal.  God knows as Creator; humans know as creatures.  Frame argues that this means at least these three things: 1) “God’s knowledge is original,” and human knowledge is derived from His; 2) “God’s knowledge is exhaustive,” and human knowledge is limited; and 3) “God’s knowledge serves as the ultimate criterion of truth and right,” and human knowledge must observe those standards.[8]

What all of this means for human knowledge is that it is not autonomous, or self-governing.  At no point do humans exist apart from the God who “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25), and therefore human knowledge, which is intimately related to human being, is everywhere dependent upon God.  Human knowledge depends at every point upon God and God’s knowledge.  Since God’s knowledge is the criterion for ultimate truth, human knowledge is right insofar as it corresponds to God’s knowledge.

And this is an entirely good thing.  God created humans “in His own image” (Genesis 1:27) and then “blessed them” (Genesis 1:28), seeing that everything He created was “very good” (Genesis 1:31).  To be made in the image of God means to be designed to reflect God’s glory throughout creation, and this includes thinking God’s thoughts after Him.

A biblical theology of the Christian mind must also take into account the effects of the fall on human knowledge.  Adam and Eve were deceived by the serpent and subsequently fell into sin.  God told Adam that he could eat “of every tree of the garden” except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:16-17).  Then the serpent promised that upon eating from that tree Adam and Eve would “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).  The temptation was for Adam and Eve to think autonomously, to think apart from God.  If they ate of the tree they would be like God in that they know like God.

And this constituted the first rebellion in the universe (apart from Satan’s rebellion, but that goes beyond the scope of this post!).  Adam and Eve assumed that they could think rightly apart from God and God’s Word to them, coming up with their own way to view the world.  Because of this, they subsequently rebelled against God by transgressing the commandment He had given to them.  To intentionally assume that human knowledge is autonomous, as Adam and Eve did, is to rebel against God’s original design in creating humans in His own image.

The fall has devastating effects for human knowledge.  Paul says, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.  For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them” (Romans 1:18-19).  For Paul, all humans know God in a certain sense because they exist in God’s world and because God has revealed himself to them.  Yet, says Paul, humans suppress the truth they know about God in unrighteousness.  Indeed, “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law” (Romans 8:7).  Since the fall, humans fundamentally suppress the knowledge of God in unrighteousness and are hostile to God in their minds.

What this means is that fallen human beings cannot know anything rightly.  They can and do use their minds to know things about themselves and the world, but at the foundation of their thinking they assume their minds to be autonomous.  And this constitutes rebellion against God and God’s design, for God designed humans to think His thoughts after Him.  Since human knowledge is right insofar as it corresponds to God’s knowledge, fallen human beings, who are hostile to God in their minds, cannot know anything in the way that God designed for them to know things.  In the end, fallen humans are “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:18).  It is not merely the case, however, that human understanding is darkened; humans intentionally rebel against God in and with their minds.

The state into which the human mind has fallen subsequent to Genesis 3 is an important backdrop for understanding the full character of redemption which Christ brings to his people.  Redemption is not only the forgiveness of sins through his blood (cf. Ephesians 1:7), though that is the foundation upon which the rest of the theme stands.  But redemption also includes “being renewed in knowledge after the image of [the new self’s] creator” (Colossians 3:11).

Paul says that when God regenerates people, He shines “in [their] hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).  Where fallen sinners do not “accept the things of the Spirit of God for they are folly to [them]” (1 Corinthians 2:14), redeemed saints are given “the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of [God]” (Ephesians 1:18).  For those who are in Christ, there is a fundamental change of mind compared to those who are fallen and apart from him.

Solomon says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7).  The implication of this is that it is impossible to know anything rightly unless one fears the Lord.  But the Christian, since he or she has been redeemed by God, fears the Lord and therefore knows that “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are hidden in Christ (Colossians 2:3).  This demonstrates that there is a fundamental antithesis between believing and unbelieving thought.  The believer seeks to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5) and to glorify God in everything they do (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:31), and the unbeliever, on the other hand, is a “fool” who “says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1).  The believer “honors Christ the Lord as holy” from the heart (1 Peter 3:15), and the unbeliever who finally rejects that Jesus is God “will die in their sins” (John 8:24).  A redeemed mind is the fundamental opposite of a fallen, hostile mind (cf. Romans 8:6-8).

3.  Christian Thinking in the Contemporary World

With a biblical theology of the Christian mind in place, one can consider the nature of Christian thinking in the contemporary world.  To think Christianly is to acknowledge God’s authority over all things, to submit to him according to his Word, and to glorify Him with all of one’s mind.  Because God has created and rules over all things, the Christian ought to think about every aspect of his or her life underneath this supreme God.  And because God rules His people by His Word, Christian thinking ought to submit to that very Word.  And finally, since all of the Christian life is to be lived for the glory of God, Christians ought to think for the glory of God.

Christian thinking submits from the outset to the supreme God who created heaven and earth.  Proverbs 9:10 says that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”  The importance of reverent submission to God in order to have knowledge and wisdom cannot be overstated.  Without fear of the Lord, one cannot rightly have either knowledge or wisdom.  Therefore, Christian thinking in the contemporary world must at every point submit to God.  Without such submission, thinking will be neither Christian nor fruitful.  The alternative is to “not choose the fear of the LORD” and thereby hate knowledge (Proverbs 1:29).  Surely any endeavor to think without a love of knowledge is futile.

In order for thinking to be authentically Christian in the contemporary world, it must recognize the authority of God as revealed in his Word.  Moses tells the Israelites that God “humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna…that He might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 8:3).  The Word of God is not merely important for the Christian life; rather, the Word of God is the very life by which the people of God live!

From 1 Corinthians 10:31 and Colossians 3:17, the Christian is to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus and to the glory of God.  Since the act of thinking is included under the umbrella of “everything,” thinking ought to be done for the glory of God.  This means that there should be a Christian way to think about religion, education, art, music, science, literature, politics, family, entertainment, and so on, with the express purpose of bringing glory to God.  Without such an end in mind, Christian thinking cannot fulfill its God-given design.

In  a related move, Bradley Green says that what Christians most need is a renewed “understanding of the intellectual life that takes as its ultimate end the eschatological vision of God.”[9]  This eschatological vision of God is ultimately found in Habakkuk’s proclamation: “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (2:14).

4.  Challenges to Christian Thinking in the Academy and the Church

There are a variety of challenges to Christian thinking within the academy.  First, the vast majority of contemporary scholarship functions with either non- or anti-Christian presuppositions.  That is, most scholars today do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord, nor do they consider Christian theism to be a valuable or coherent worldview for understanding reality.  As Moreland says, “three of the major centers of influence in our culture—the university, the media, and the government—are largely devoid of serious religious discussion.  In fact, it is not unfair to say that university, media, and governmental leaders are often illiterate about how Christians see the world and why.”[10]

Thus, the challenge for Christian thinking in the academy is to be able to identify the functioning non-Christian presuppositions in scholarly work and to subsequently communicate the truth of the Christianity in such a way that it will be seen to be what it is.  The temptation will be to alter or jettison fundamental truths of Christianity in order to make one’s work more palatable for an unbelieving community.  But altering or rejecting these would constitute a fundamental lack of integrity on the part of any Christian.

A second challenge to Christian thinking in the academy is closely related to the first.  Most contemporary scholars operate with an assumed epistemology of autonomy.  That is, they view themselves, or at least other humans who may have greater expertise, as the final authority in matters of truth and reality.  But this is opposed to the Christian worldview and Christian thinking, which holds that humans are to think God’s thoughts after him.  Christians ought to think about God and about God’s world in light of God’s revealed Word.

Christianity is foundationally revelational in character, meaning that the entire Christian faith is based upon God’s revealing Himself to humankind.  Of God’s revelation in His Word, Moreland says, “The Lord’s Word is not only practically useful, it is also theoretically true (John 17:17).  God has revealed truth to us and not just Himself.  This truth is addressed to our minds and requires an intellectual grasp to understand and then apply.”[11]  Since human knowledge depends upon God’s knowledge, the Christian in the academy must also depend upon God’s revelation in all his or her scholarly work.

Sadly, there are challenges to Christian thinking inside the church as well.  Anti-intellectualism, as Moreland has pointed out, is perhaps the greatest challenge of all, for it is diametrically opposed to Christian thinking, by definition.  Churches now are not characterized necessarily by the biblical or theological character of the preaching and administration of the sacraments, but are rather known more for their feelings-driven worship music and emotional appeal.  Worship music and emotional appeals are not wrong in themselves, but when anti-intellectualism is the background for these things, the music and the appeals lose their foundation.  Without that foundation, there is nothing solid on which to stand in times of trouble.

A distinct affinity for individualism and anti-institutionalism within the church also presents a challenge to Christian thinking.  Even in contexts in which anti-intellectualism is not as prevalent, there is still a palpable streak of anti-institutionalism in the evangelical church.  And with the rejection of institutions comes the subsequent rejection of the historic confessions of the church since those are typically seen as institutional documents.

Functionally, this means that contemporary individuals believe they have the authority in themselves, apart from the church perhaps, to declare what is and is not genuine Christianity.  Without a view to church history or the historic confessions of Nicaea, Chalcedon, and the post-Reformation era, most Protestants today simply believe whatever they want to believe.  In a climate of individualism, there is hardly any basis for understanding the objective reality and truth of the Christian faith throughout the ages.  This presents a challenge to the Christian thinker who seeks to be faithful to the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

5.  Conclusion

Contemporary Christianity, especially in its evangelical variety, is largely devoid of any kind of intellectual character, and there are a variety of challenges to authentic Christian thinking in the academy and the church.  Yet a biblical understanding of the life of the mind and of the Christian worldview provides a foundation for approaching these issues and challenges.  Christians must learn to acknowledge the authority of God in all things, submit to Him according to His Word, and glorify Him in all our thinking.  In this way, Christians will begin to love God with all our minds. 


Recommended Reading

Blamires, Harry. The Christian Mind. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1963.

Green, Bradley C. The Gospel and the Mind. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010.

Moreland, J.P. Love Your God with All Your Mind. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2012.

Noll, Mark A. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994.

Piper, John. Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010.


Endnotes

[1] Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1963), 3.

[2] Ibid.

[3] J.P. Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2012), 17.

[4] Ibid., 25.

[5] Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 3.

[6] John M. Frame, Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2013), 698.

[7] Ibid., 48.

[8] Ibid., 700.

[9] Bradley C. Green, The Gospel and the Mind (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 77.

[10] Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind, 27.

[11] Ibid., 47.


Thanks for reading.  Have additional thoughts?  Leave a comment below.

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