The Life of the Mind in the Life of the Christian

by Derek Brown

Christianity is a thinking religion. Historically, where the Christian worldview (broadly speaking) has held sway, the pursuit of knowledge has thrived. This is due to the fact that the Christian worldview provides a framework in which the mind is valued, the existence of an all-knowing God provides a sound basis for knowledge, and human beings are viewed as those who have been endowed by their Creator with a capacity to understand the world he has made. 

For reasons we cannot explore in depth in this article, however, Christianity is no longer recognized as a religion that values the mind. To some, to embrace Christianity, is by definition, to cast reason to the wind and embrace a belief system that is improbable at best, patently false at worst. Even among some professing evangelicals, there seems to be a hesitancy to engage the mind with serious rigor, to think over tough theological issues, to become familiar with sound apologetic arguments, and to strengthen the mind through reading and study. 

Faith and Reason
This hesitancy among Christians is usually due to a desire to avoid intellectualism, where the emotions are neglected and one’s relationship with God is conceived mainly in terms of growing in rational knowledge. But this hesitancy can also be due to a misunderstanding of what faith really entails. Ever since the Enlightenment, faith and reason have been increasingly viewed in opposition to each other. Faith believes that which is non-falsifiable and non-empirical while reason accepts which is publicly verifiable and factual (or so we’ve been told).  

It’s vital to hold a biblical balance between thought and emotion, truth and feeling, study and worship. Christianity is more than intellectual, but it isn’t less. Yet we must emphasize that faith, far from being irrational, is actually truly rational: it is grounded in truth about reality provided by an omniscient Creator in a written Word. When someone experiences regeneration, they experience a renewal of their whole inner person. Their mind, once futile (Eph 4:18) is now fruitful. Scripture instructs the believer from that point on to make the pursuit of genuine knowledge a top priority of their life (Prov 1:22; 2:1-10; 8:9; 2 Chron 1:10; Matt 22:37).

The life of the mind, then, is an essential component to discipleship. Teaching, training, and transforming the mind is one of God’s primary goals in sanctification, and we are to join with him in this important pursuit (Rom 12:1-2). Given our contemporary setting and the biblical call to cultivate our minds, we must give some time to rediscovering this easily forgotten discipline.

Mind and Heart
When we discuss the importance of cultivating our minds for the glory of God, we must begin by defining the “mind” and its relation to the “heart” as these terms are found in Scripture. Contemporary anthropological categories notwithstanding, Scripture would counsel us away from drawing a sharp separation between these two “components” of our personhood.

The OT and the NT make a distinction between the mind and the heart, but there are several places where an overlap of meaning exists between these two terms. For example, hearts (καρδίας) can be hardened (Eph 4:18) but the mind (νόημα) can also be hardened (2 Cor 3:14). While we tend to think of the mind as the domain of intellectual activity, Scripture tells us that the heart can have thoughts as well (Luke 1:51). 

The Inner Person
The overarching category in Scripture is “inner person” or “soul.” Within our immaterial souls we have what Scripture calls a mind and a heart. These are not discrete metaphysical components of our being, so we must be careful to not radically separate them. But maintaining a distinction without separation helps us best understand how the mind works in correspondence with the heart. Specifically, because our minds are compelled, motivated, and guided by our hearts (Prov 4:23; Matt 15:19), we must see that our minds can only work properly to the degree that our hearts are right with God.

This is why Solomon says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Prov 1:7). It is also why Paul, when describing the spiritual state of unbelieving Gentiles, identifies the heart as the source of their intellectual futility: “They 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” (Eph 4:18). Their ignorance of God is ultimately due, not to mental challenges, but to a heart that is set against their Creator. 

The Theological Parameters for Knowledge Acquisition
These foundational truths are not merely to help us address how other people think; these truths must dictate how we, as Christians, use our minds and acquire knowledge. Unless we humbly recognize who the Lord is and who we are in relation to him, our minds will not operate the way they are designed to operate. In all of our thinking, therefore, we must begin with the fear of the Lord and proceed in the fear of the Lord. We must first embrace and submit to God’s existence and His Word, recognizing that this revelation sets the parameters for all of our thinking. 

For example, Scripture enables us to understand:

  • the source of all that exists (Gen 1:1; John 1:1-3; Col 1:15-16)
  • where we came from and what is wrong with our current condition (Gen 1-2; 3:1-19; Rom 5:12-21; Eph 2:1-3; 2 Cor 4:1-6)
  • the only ultimate solution to what ails us (John 3:16; Rom 3:19-26)
  • the central event and direction of history (Gal 4:4; Eph 1:10)
  • right and wrong (1 Kings 11:38; Ps. 19:7-11; John 17:17)
  • that all thinking and reasoning and the interpretation of facts is not a neutral enterprise but is ever-guided and motivated by assumptions about the nature of reality and one’s own personal desires (Rom 1:18-32; Eph 4:17-18; 2 Cor 4:1-6)
  • that we are fallen so we are in need of regeneration (inner-renewal) and the power of God’s Son, God’s Spirit and God’s written revelation in order to think rightly (Prov 30:5-6; John 14:6; 1 Cor 2:10-16; 2 Tim 3:16-17).
  • that Christ is the source of all genuine wisdom and his Word serves as a repository of this wisdom (Col 2:4; 3:16).

Once we have established these theological parameters and the proper approach to mental labor, we can begin to think hard about God’s Word and God’s world. In order to wield the mind in a way that is pleasing to God, good for us, and good for others, the heart must be right. The fear of the Lord unlocks the mind from the shackles of spiritual pride and blindness so that the mind can work and function as it was designed to function. “The Lord leads the humble in what is right” (Ps 25:9). If we do not begin our intellectual work with reliance upon God and his revelation, we will inevitably misinterpret the world around us and our thinking will go astray very early in the process.

Are Christians Anti-Intellectual?  
But we also need to consider how the categories of sin and the fall reshape how we define the “intellect” and what it means to be “anti-intellectual.” This will be an important consideration because Christians are often ridiculed for being anti-intellectual. Such an accusation sometimes finds a basis in believers who refuse to exercise their mind and offer reasonable arguments for the truth of Christianity, preferring rather to remain obscurantist and irrelevant out of a kind of false piety. More often, however, the accusation of “anti-intellectualism” is grounded in vastly different notions about how we know what we know, and what constitutes genuine knowledge.

In our discussion of Christian discipleship of the mind, we can never forget that the human mind has been radically affected by the fall (see Rom 1:18ff; Eph 4:17-18; Prov 17:2). The mind by its very nature no longer submits to the Creator’s Word. We must be careful, therefore, with how we define “intellectual” as in “Christianity is anti-intellectual” or in the phrase “intellectual respectability.” 

What “Anti-Intellectual” Really Means These Days
For much of the academic world, to truly use one’s intellect means beginning with neo-Darwinian evolution as a basic assumption. If you do not accept the foundational premise of neo-Darwinian evolution, you are, by definition, anti-intellectual because you are refusing to work within what evolutionists perceive as known, public, indisputable facts.

When Christians are tagged as “anti-science,” it is just another way of saying the same thing. Because science is now broadly defined in naturalistic terms, the conclusion that God does not exist or that he does not work directly in the created order is already assumed in the definition of the word “science.” To begin with a supernatural creator and his revelation in Scripture is to be, according to such a definition, anti-science. (For more on the importance of how we define science, please see my article, “Where’s the (Philosophy of) Science: A Review of Four Views on Historical Adam.”)

Not a Matter of Intellect
But the issue is not the strength of one’s intellect or whether one is for or against using it; rather, it is about the underlying assumptions about the nature of reality with which we exercise our intellect. As we have already noted, these assumptions are often very different for the Christian and the non-Christian.

If using your “intellect” or being “intellectual” means, by definition, ascribing to or assuming certain positions like neo-Darwinian evolution, then Christians who reject this theory of human origins because they believe it conflicts with biblical teaching and cannot be demonstrated empirically, will be considered anti-intellectual no matter how rigorous their thinking is.

For example, take Nathanial Jenson, a graduate from Harvard with a Ph.D. in cell and developmental biology who is also a young-earth creationist and a committed Christian. In seeking to engage evolutionists on the weakness of neo-Darwinian assumptions, he is often dismissed and mocked. In an interview about a recent debate he had with an evolutionist, Jenson recounts how his fellow debater had written a blog post arguing that it was better to ridicule creationists than debate them. Why? Because debating a creationist makes it appear as though creationism is a legitimate idea. Even a Ph.D. from Harvard can’t secure you intellectual respectability in the greater scientific guild if you openly hold to a biblical framework of cosmology and the origin of life. 

Truly Intellectual
While it is true that some professing Christians throughout history have neglected to give serious effort to cultivating the mind, engaging unbelieving arguments with intellectual rigor, or, out of some mistaken view of Christian piety, viewed growth in knowledge as unnecessary at best, it does not follow that Christianity is anti-intellectual. Far from it! For one to rely upon God and his revelation in order to rightly interpret the world in which they live is not anti-intellectual, it is truly intellectual.

Now that we’ve been renewed by God’s Spirit and equipped by God’s Word with insight into the way the world really is, we can study the creation with delight, diligence, and devotion (Ps 19:1-6). All our labor, however, must be for the glory of God and the good of our neighbor (1 Cor 10:31; Matt 22:37-39). While our work may occasionally win us some favor among those who reject God and his revelation (Prov 22:29) we can never allow the accolades and acceptance of the world to motivate our intellectual labors. We use our minds for the glory of Christ, and leave everything else to him. 

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