We should develop the attitude that life is far better if we use our minds actively to whatever degree we are able, and that slothfulness of mind is an unfortunate misuse of the uniqueness God gave men. Consider these reasons for continuing our education through developing a learning posture to life:
1. Learning is exercise with a purpose.
Constant accessing of new thoughts by reading and conversing cogently keeps our mind exercised for gaining and retaining the more significant biblical knowledge. The sheer joy with which we approach learning helps. I have a friend who never stops thinking. He adds to his study an occasional mystery and works through difficult riddles with friends because they prepare him for understanding the mysteries and riddles of the Word of God. More often than not I find him thinking through some issue in the Bible, attempting to unlock an enigma. He works his mind.
It is well known that the Puritans, as an illustration, were devoted to learning the logic of Peter Ramus which formed their approach to Scripture analysis by successive dichotomies. Ramus was a French humanist converted to Protestantism in 1561 and later killed in the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day. There would be those who debate whether logic is useful in correct interpretation of Scripture in our day, yet I must side with those who use it for the glory of God without letting their philosophical tendencies overwhelm their exegesis. This is a day of many inconsistencies among Evangelicals. How many of these inconsistencies would be thrown down with the most basic rules of logic. After all, hermeneutics must be logical.
2. Learning in a broad spectrum of categories better prepares us for evangelism.
My wife and I read through one of the seminal New Age books over a couple of evenings, for instance – not a book about the New Age from a Christian perspective, but an important book in the movement’s own judgment. This reading paid big dividends when we encountered the confusion of our bed-and-breakfast hostess one evening. Three hours of conversation cleared her thinking a great deal. I believe she was freed from some dangerous views and brought to think more soberly about ‘the only true God.’ It goes without saying that the study of the Word is that which filters and interprets all other information.
I might add to this that the very learning process which intelligent conversation with others brings to you can be evangelism itself. This is one of my most basic approaches. As I ask genuine questions, probing deeper and deeper into the other person’s philosophy throughout the dialogue, I am simultaneously uncovering the deficiency of their belief system leaving the door open for the truth. Often my sincere interest in their beliefs evokes genuine questions from them as to my own philosophy. Ingenuiness can be easily detected; we must want to know what they are saying.
3. All learning teaches us something about God.
A case can be made for the Christian laying the preponderance of his study on the subject of God. Paul said that we are to be ‘growing in the knowledge of God’ (Col. 1:10). The ocean of knowledge of God is in the Bible itself, yet their are other streams to fish which reveal much about him. Since all things were made by him and for him (Col. 1:16), we can expect all things to tell us something of him, however hidden.
In a certain sense then, knowledge in any field speaks of God as magnificent and excellent in all he has done to man, for man, with man, and against man. Whatever we learn will tell us something about God either by thesis or antithesis. We draw a necessary line on reading what is designed as morally impure and destructive (because of the biblical injunction not to be polluted by our association with it – Rom. 8:6), yet even to know the raggedness of man, for instance, speaks volumes about God – whom he loves, rebukes, warns, tolerates, damns, and just how he does it. If God’s glory is the manifesting of the excellent nature of God, then it is true that ‘the whole earth is full of his glory.’
4. Knowledge, though able to defeat us through pride, can, in fact, humble us.
‘Knowledge puffs up . . .’ (1 Cor. 8:1). We are constantly reminded that any field of knowledge, even the spiritual, can leave a man proud. I have known many proud biblicists. Yet there is another man who is humbled by what he learns. I suppose that the difference is in his purpose for learning – does he seek to know God through what he learns, or to be known as one who knows about God. With the proper desire, how could we contemplate the vastness of the universe, for instance, and fail to say, ‘What is man, that thou art mindful of him?’ (Psa. 8:4). Why, God has created at least one star that we are aware of which has a diameter of twice the distance from the earth to the sun!
5. Learning tends to keep us from boredom, making us interested and therefore interesting.
Amusement (‘a’ = not, ‘muse’ = thinking; thus ‘the practice of not thinking’), on the other hand, dulls us and creates an insatiable appetite for more. A man or woman who is interested in what he or she is seeing or hearing or reading, and approaches all things as opportunities to learn, enjoys life far more than the person who believes life is principally for the purpose of relaxing and making the mind idle and empty. I once heard an active eighty-year-old Christian leader in our church ride a group of senior adults pretty hard by saying something like, ‘If you would get up in the morning and read the Word of God and find out what’s in the news and read some good books, and talk seriously to somebody, you wouldn’t be so bored all the time.’ All of us had a difficult time keeping up with this lady. The result is that the learner is the most interesting of people, and this, again, is a great benefit in presenting the gospel.
6. Most importantly, pursuing knowledge of God and his creation, and all things excellent, is obedience.
We are commanded to love the Lord with all our mind, and to meditate on what is true. ‘Think on these things . . .’ (See Phil. 4:8).
7. Useful Rules in the Learning Process.
Five guidelines are necessary:
First, learn for the exaltation of God. In other words, do not learn to make a show of erudition, but for more noble reasons. Learn in order to boast in the God who has made magnificent items and ideas to be explored – such order, such immensity, such force, such complexity, such detail, such beauty!
Secondly, learn ‘Christianly.’ By this I mean to say that we must acknowledge God in all things sensed and reflected upon. Grind that new thought through the teeth of Scripture; let the enzymes of sound doctrine dissolve and digest it. This places the Bible first in our learning and the bringing together of Scripture in categories which answer the questions and posit the extensions (theology) as next in our pursuits. Who can judge life without sound criteria for judgment? The noble theologian Turretin considered his Elenctic Theology the best biblical work he could offer: ‘Let other books, then, be commended for their novelty. I do not want this statement to justify mine.’ Something of this spirit should pervade our learning.
Third, value the standard old works over the new. Now I write this as an author, so I could never bring myself to say we should avoid all new works. But something destructive has happened in our day. Today an author writes on subjects he knows nothing of – he finds a subject people wish to hear about, gathers a bit of material, mixes in a catchy outline and a striking title, and he has a best-seller. Not all old books are worth your time, but at least most older authors wrote having some sense of their subject being a driving passion. There are many fine older works, numbers reprinted, readily available.
You will read so few books in your lifetime, you cannot afford to waste your time on contentless froth. ‘It is a good rule, after reading a new book not to allow yourself another new till you have read an old one in between’ said C.S. Lewis. And go to the original sources. ‘The simplest student’ he says, ‘will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.’
Fourth, despise an idle mind. Paul said to be ‘careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil’ (Eph. 5:15). An hour wasted is never to be retrieved. Play hard when needed, but do not learn to enjoy mental emptiness. The idle brain feels a great deal of pain in thinking at first, but has all the potential to make progress if it is exercised. Take a book with you when you may have to spend time waiting; ask questions that lead to more significant discussions while eating dinner; pose a problem to solve when you are driving to work; or chew on a passage of Scripture while bathing (like the early church father Chrysostom, by the way). It is commonly known that a blind person has an improved use of his other senses tending to help overcome the disability. Why? Because of use alone. His nose is no better than yours, nor his ears. But he has used them more carefully, paying attention, focusing the mental powers. This illustrates what concentration can do for a person. The practice of scriptural meditation is a great help in developing that concentration.
Finally, do not let the gaining of knowledge of any kind, not even biblical knowledge, usurp the principal aim of knowing God. Here is a subtle trap. I cannot make too much of this. I have fallen into this snare many times myself. Knowledge proper can be a substitute for intimacy. If one could love without knowledge and love were pitted against knowledge, then never learn another thing for the sake of your love for God. Adam and Eve, you remember, were the first to desire knowledge over intimacy with God. Rather, ‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me . . . (Jer. 9:23-24).
As I look around this room lined with books, I cannot help but feel a bit embarrassed how little I have learned so far when so much is available to me. My embarrassment is aggravated when I think of an acquaintance of Dr. Don Whitney’s on a mission trip to Kenya. Perhaps this story will be an eloquent argument for learning:
. . . I met a schoolteacher in his early thirties named Bernard. He lived in the back of a store that was one of four buildings in the Kilema community. He walked several miles even further into the bush country each day to the mud-brick elementary school where he taught. He returned home to his ‘cube,’ an eight-foot-by eight-foot-by eight-foot room where he lived with his wife and infant son. A twin bed was against the back wall with a sheet hanging from the ceiling to separate the ‘bedroom’ from the rest of the cube. Only a small table with one chair occupied the front half. What interested me most was what he had on the cement walls. On every wall were several pages from long-outdated magazines or pictures from old calendars. He explained that they were all he had to read. Though he’d been a Christian for many years, he was too poor even to own a Bible. The only books that ever came into his hands were a few second hand books the teachers used at the school.
So as he holds his son to get him to go to sleep he reads the words on the magazines for the umpteenth time. While he eats at his table or lays on his bed, he looks at the pictures of far-off people and places and wonders what they are like. As I stood in that concrete cube, looking at a couple of dozen faded pictures and yellowing pages, I realized that before me stood a wise man. Bernard understands that knowledge really is like a rare treasure. Though it is more scarce than gold, he had stored up all he could. That’s the attitude all who are wise will have, for ‘wise men store up knowledge.’
‘The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge; the ears of the wise seek it out.’
Jim Elliff is founder and president of Christian Communicators Worldwide (CCW). This article, which is used with his kind permission, is adapted from ‘An Argument for Learning’, by Jim Elliff, 1991, www.CCWtoday.org.
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