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The Life of the Mind for Knowing God

I have some formal education but not as much as others. I don’t have a PhD. I’m not a professor. I’m entertained by mindless T.V. shows and video games on my iPhone. If asked to do a math problem I freeze, blackout, then vomit.

However, I’ve recently become aware of how much the Bible actually pushes the importance of serious biblical study. “Yeah,” you may say, “I know we are all supposed to read the Bible as Christians.” However, I think I mean something stronger than that. I mean something closer to “almost all we should be doing is growing theologically because our devotion to the Bible shows how much we believe it really is God’s Word.” Yikes! That is a pretty strong statement. So let’s see if it is true. Let’s see what the Bible itself has to say about how much we should study.

High-level Bible Study

The Bible is not ambiguous about the fact that Christians are to be serious studiers.

We are told to love God with all of our “mind” (Mk. 12:29). We are commanded to “Destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). We are told to meditate on God’s law “day and night” (Ps. 1:2). We are told to discuss it with our children when we walk and when we rise and when we sit and at all times of the day (Deut. 11:9). We are told to question everything, especially teaching and “prophesies” (1 Thess. 5:21). We are called to supplement our faith with virtue and virtue with knowledge (2 Pt. 1:5).

And that’s not all . . .

The king of Israel was to copy God’s entire law by hand and read it every day of his life (Deut. 17:18). The sole academic requirement for elders is that they are “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). God’s people perish due to their lack of theological knowledge (Hos. 4:6). We are commanded almost forty times in Proverbs to seek, not just “wisdom,” but “knowledge.” Paul rebukes those who have a zeal (i.e. passion) for God but not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2).

And this is just a tiny fraction of all the times we are told to know God’s word, to seek knowledge, and to study, study, study!

Church Leaders Yesterday

We also see a pattern regarding the importance of education in church history. All the major players in church history seem to be very highly educated either formally or informally:

  • Jerome translated the entire Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin.
  • Augustine was a Rhetoric professor in Milan before his conversion and had a broad education in the humanities.
  • Gregory the Great said, regarding the education of ministers, “No one claims to be able to teach an art until first having learned it through careful study. With what incredible boldness then do the unlearned and unskillful stand ready to assume pastoral authority, forgetting that the care of souls is the art of arts! For it is clear that the ills of the mind are more hidden than the ills of the bowels. And yet quite often those who have no knowledge whatever of spiritual principles dare to declare themselves physicians of the heart, while those who do not know of the use of drugs would never dare to call themselves physicians of the flesh!”
  • Martin Luther had a doctorate in Theology and translated the entire Bible into German by himself while locked up in a castle struggling with spiritual attack. Luther thought that the biblical languages were so important that he said he would be willing to go to school with the devil to learn them. He also encouraged people to study until they “had taught the devil to death and had become more learned than God himself and all his saints.”
  • John Calvin studied at both the University of Paris and at Orleans and wrote one of the most popular Protestant Systematic Theology textbooks ever.
  • Ulrich Zwingli, in addition to having a strong formal education, had all of Paul’s letters memorized in Greek.
  • George Whitfield and John Wesley both studied theology at Oxford.
  • Jonathan Edwards graduated from Yale at 17 and then became the president of Princeton. His dissertation was delivered, of course, in Latin. He sometimes studied 14 hours a day and is considered to be the greatest mind to ever come out of America.
  • Even those like Charles Spurgeon, who didn’t have a lot of formal degrees, were highly educated . . . Spurgeon tutored Greek at Cambridge.

Evangelicalism Today

Great church leaders in the modern era are the same way. Some of the most influential, godly, Christian leaders are also the most knowledgeable:

  • John Piper has a PhD from the University of Munich.
  • Wayne Grudem has a Bachelor’s degree from Harvard, a Master’s degree from Westminster (which broke off of Princeton Seminary), and a PhD from Cambridge.
  • N. T. Wright has 5 degrees from Oxford, including two doctorates.
  • Alister McGrath has 5 degrees from Oxford, including two doctorates.
  • D. A. Carson, in addition to having a PhD from Cambridge, reads 500 books a year. Think about that… there are only 365 days in a year!

But what about the Apostles? Weren’t they uneducated?

Despite the overwhelming pattern above, some will object and say, “The Apostles were a bunch of uneducated fisherman and God seemed to use them despite their lack of training.” However, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, some were highly educated (like Paul who wrote a lot of the New Testament). Second, these other men spent three years personally walking with Jesus! What better education is there to knowing God then living with the God-Man for 3 years?! Also, the Apostles knew Aramaic (and some knew Greek and possibly Hebrew) which are more biblical languages than most pastors know. They didn’t need to study the background or culture of the Bible because they lived in it. They had also seen the risen Jesus, been commissioned by him to be Apostles, and had been empowered by the Holy Spirit to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth. That is a far cry from anyone’s meager education today. In a sense we could say they had more theological training than anyone else, not less. Ministerial training is not about a lot of knowledge but about the right knowledge.

Discouraged Yet?

The above facts don’t make me want to be a Christian—they make me want to give up. If the above information is true then I feel like God will never use me. I’ll never attain the level of these guys. I don’t have a PhD. I don’t debate scholars in Latin. And I’ve never translated the entire Bible into a new language.

However, my purpose is not to tell you that you have to be a scholar but merely to correct a trend in our evangelical culture which seeks to make Christians a people of the heart without also being a people of the head. This shouldn’t make you feel as though you have to become an ivory tower monk. It should, however, encourage you just to take “baby steps” and to devote yourself to studying God’s word. Part of loving God more is to know more about him.

Jonathan Edwards described knowledge about God like firewood and passion for God like fire. A fire with no firewood just produces a big flash but no lasting heat. Firewood without fire doesn’t do much good either. But if there is a fire the more firewood you add to the pile the brighter and hotter it will burn. Theology is the ceiling to your worship – by knowing more about God your capacity to love him grows.

God uses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. So the power is not in education in and of itself. But it is the education that allows one to better unlock the treasures of God’s Word. That is why these men are great and that is what the Bible itself tells us to seek.

Reconnecting Head and Heart

We have a tendency to vilify academics and act as though study is somehow unspiritual. We also have a tendency to feel as though serious Bible study is only for the “experts.” However, God wants all his people to be serious Bible students. So how can we take some “baby steps” and what are some practical things we can do to grow? Perhaps this means participating in some of these activities:

  • Asking seminary professors or pastors what books they recommend so you don’t waste your time on poor books.
  • Auditing a class at a local seminary.
  • Listening to seminary lectures on iTunes U.
  • Just devoting yourself to reading for fifteen minutes a day.
  • Asking more questions from people who know a lot about theology.

It’s not about reading a lot of books. It’s about reading the right books and to know what books those are you have to ask the guys who know. The easiest thing you can do to start is just to read the Bible a little every day. You won’t understand everything at first, but the more familiar you become with the Bible the more it will make sense over time.

It is easy to accidentally separate “head” from “heart.” We do it all the time. We either try to merely know facts about God (and not love him) or we just try to love him and conjure up emotion (and don’t correctly think about whom we are loving). However, it doesn’t have to be this way. The Christian is called to love God with our whole heart and our whole mind. It is not so much a “scale” or “spectrum” (which would mean that loving God moved one away from knowledge and having knowledge moved one away from love). Rather, these are two separate categories in which one should seek to grow. If one finds that they love God but don’t know much about him they shouldn’t try to love him less as if that will make them know more. Conversely, if one finds that they know about God more than they love him they should not study less as if being dumber will somehow make them love God more. Rather they should just seek to grow where they are weak whether that be head or heart.

The goal is not degrees but knowing God. Or, as church historian Justo Gonzalez says, “The goal of theological studies is not a degree or diploma. Their final goal is the contemplation of the face of God in the final reign of peace and justice.”

Zach Lee is Associate Home Groups Minister at The Village Church and is married to Katy.  Follow him on Twitter: @zacharytlee.