Incorporating a long-term historical perspective into the analysis of current processes or events is often helpful, but is frequently ignored. On December, 18, 2009, the Wall Street Journal published a Houses of Worship article, “Winning Not Just Hearts but Minds”, by Jonathan Fitzgerald. Mr. Fitzgerald seemed to suggest that the Christian evangelical faith is an experience based movement, and, as such, is anti-intellectual in nature. His article also seemed to imply that evangelical faith is a modern day phenomenon and is not part of the historicity of Christendom. This article seeks to complement Mr. Fitzgerald’s thinking by addressing the questions: Does history support that the Christian evangelical faith is experience based? Does the historical record reveal a depth of thinking throughout the Christian ages that has been currently overlooked? And does this thinking rest on the foundation of evangelism (from which ‘evangelical’ is derived)?
In his article, Mr. Fitzgerald referenced John Mark Reynolds of Biola University. “The new evangelical is not yet a true intellectual. Instead, the new evangelical is what Mr. Reynolds calls an ‘intellectualist’, or a person more concerned with appearing to be an intellectual that with actually being so. But Mr. Reynolds has a plan to take evangelicals the rest of the way; the solution he proposes is a return to the concept of Christendom, which he defines as a ‘culture created by the happy fusion of Greek and Roman philosophy with Jewish and Christian thought’”. With appropriate acknowledgement to Mr. Reynolds for his insightfulness, the author of this article wants to assert that this process is already taking place within some areas of the evangelical Christian church. And it is a return to the past that is bringing it about.
Before exploring this idea further, a reflection on Hebrew and Greek philosophy is first needed. The Bible was given through the Hebrew people.Hebraic philosophy embraced the concept of ‘relationship’ as of primary importance in life. Greek, and later Roman, cultures embraced ‘wisdom and knowledge’ as their central philosophy of life. Thus, the Bible was written from the perspective of outlining God’s relationship with man, man turning away from God, God seeking after man, and the plan God instituted for man to return to Him in relationship. (‘Man’ is used in the generic to refer to all of mankind.) This plan culminated with Jesus Christ becoming the perfect sacrifice on behalf of sinful man so that the relationship could be restored. Scripture declares that it is truth as revealed from God Himself, so the Bible starts with the fact that ‘God Is’. In contrast, Greeks and Romans revered philosophy as a way to find truth. (An interesting contrast between how the Hebrew and Classical cultures approached religion can be found in a book by Don Richardson, Eternity in Their Hearts.)
During the first century A.D., Paul wrote in the New Testament epistles that all knowledge and wisdom are in Christ Jesus. This goes beyond mere intellectual knowledge to relationship based knowledge (Greek epignōsis). In the gospels, the story is told of how Jesus, ‘The Word’ (from Greek Logos, which is ‘thought expressed’) became flesh (living matter) and dwelt among us (in relationship). (John 1:1) Contemporary intellectuals who have evangelical backgrounds may not go far enough in their thinking. They become fixated where the Greeks and Romans were – on knowledge and wisdom. But ‘people of the mind’, who proclaim themselves intellectuals and former evangelicals, because they see these two conditions as mutually exclusive, do err.
There are three levels of thinking: feeling, fact, and (for alliteration’s sake) faith. For clarity’s sake, however, the faith level could be called ‘reason’. Facts are the building blocks of thought. Facts are always interpreted within the framework of the worldview of the thinker – his ‘reason’. When one ‘reasons’, one takes the facts at hand, reckons with them deliberately and thoroughly, and draws a conclusion. (In other words, he thinks about them and arrives at a conclusion based on his own way of viewing the world. His philosophy of life creates his worldview.)
As mentioned earlier, the Bible reveals God as He seeks to restore relationship with man. Man’s sin is the problem in his broken relationship with God. God says that man’s faith, man’s salvation, is a reasoned one: Let us reason together, says the Lord, though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow (Isaiah 1:18). Emotion and feeling are not at the root of Christian salvation, reason is. New Testament evangelism, or a telling of this good news, is based on reason. Evangelicals are Christians who proclaim the gospel. The gospel is ‘good news’ because the sins of mankind have been justly atoned for by the substitutionary sacrifice of the perfect God-Man, Christ Jesus (Mark 16:15).While this article will not go into further theological reasons, the intended point is that Christian faith is intellectual and evangelical at its core.
The history of the Christian Church is a history of intellectuals at work. Note the work of the Early Church Fathers, among them Ignatius, Polycarp, and Justin Martyr, and their importance in establishing Christian creeds and doctrines. The Christian Church civilized the barbarism of Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in A.D. 476. Of particular note is how monks in Irish monasteries preserved Western Civilization from destruction by the Germanic tribes. These Christian monks became repositories for the wisdom, knowledge, literature, and culture of the Greek and Roman world. (See How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill) As the Germanic tribes that populated Western Europe adopted the tenets of the Christian faith, the Church of the Middle Ages took Greek and Roman philosophy and literature, melded it with Jewish and Christian thought, and came up with a unique and excellent educational system:the classical Christian model. European settlers brought this educational model to America and established institutions of higher learning like Harvard, Yale, and other colleges which are known for being the apex of intellectual acumen. (These were, by the way, started as colleges to train ministers of the gospel; they were schools of theology. Theology is a systematic science and is known as the ‘Queen of the Sciences’. ‘Science’ means knowledge and comes from the Greek word gnōsis.)
The classical Christian model was used for American education, in both grammar schools as well as higher education, until the twentieth century. This model is rigorous, analytical, and highly intellectual. Thus, Mr. Reynolds, as quoted above, is correct to want a return to the concepts of Christendom. He may not be aware that currently there are classical Christian schools all over the United States that are pursuing the rigorous studies that create true intellectuals, not students who are just intellectualists.
Starting in the late 1800s and continuing into the twentieth century, progressive professors in American Colleges of Education sought to bring about social engineering in the classroom through a revised pedagogy. The classical Christian educational model gradually became displaced by the progressive model. No longer were students required to learn the phonetic rules of the English language. The ‘look-say’ whole language reading method became the standard (and became the primary reason that Johnny couldn’t read). This was an anti-intellectual move since a phonetic system is more advanced than a character based system, (which the ‘look-say’ model became since it required memorization of words instead of decoding as in phonics). Character based systems limit literacy. This anti-intellectual assault by progressive education continued by eliminating great literary classics from curricular, thus shutting out twentieth century students from the centuries old ‘great conversation’ of intellectuals. Further assaults came in the elimination of the study of logic (‘how to think’), a forsaking of the teaching of the rigors of grammar, a neglecting of the essential methodology in teaching math, and a denial of the wisdom of an early teaching of Latin.
Sometimes one becomes an intellectualist because one has to find for oneself the moorings to become an intellectual. These moorings, however, will not be found by looking to the future for an answer, but by turning attention to the past and recommitting to the intellectual foundation on which America was founded. Some of the greatest twentieth-century Christian intellectuals have been embraced by modern audiences: J.R.R. Tolkien and his Lord of the Rings; C.S. Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia; Francis Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto and Whatever Happened to the Human Race. These great thinkers were classically educated and publicly lamented the loss of academic quality and moral integrity that they saw taking place. (Actually, C.S. Lewis wrote Screwtape Proposes a Toast to denounce the American educational system.) American people can appreciate excellence and quality in intellectual endeavors, but when one is fed mental pablum for long enough, the palate becomes accustomed to the bland. If schools do not have an intellectual bent, and are not teaching in ways that advance thinking and rhetoric, then all aspects of society are affected, including the evangelical church. As a result, modern culture gradually became less reasoned and ‘thinking’ during the twentieth century.
Heart and mind – they were joined together at the formation of the Christian church. It is only man who has caused their divorce in a contemporary, progressive society. Perhaps thinkers like Mr. Fitzgerald, Mr. Reynolds, and other like-minded individuals, who would want and appreciate a return to a reasoned faith, will be successful in bringing this about during the twenty-first century.
Mrs. Nester is a former executive administrator of two classical Christian schools, and a former staff member at a large evangelical church. She currently works with HistorConsulting, Inc. as a financial and management consultant for nonprofits, with a specialty in independent schools.
copyright Jan. 2010. All Rights Reserved.