Section navigation

Intellectual Excercises

Category Articles
Date November 19, 2019

The idea that the Christian faith is better felt than thought and believed is a widespread one. Its roots are widespread as well. In Protestantism since the time of Kant it has been axiomatic that God cannot be known, only ‘postulated’ or ‘projected’. This by-now traditional agnosticism has been reinforced by challenges to the meaningfulness of religious language, and by vocal expressions of discontent over our ‘technological’ culture. The preoccupation with drugs, tongue-speaking and Eastern religions is one of the more newsworthy expressions of this trend.

Even among those who, within the Christian church, stress the importance of doctrine, and of what Machen called the ‘primacy of the intellect’, there are uncertainties, and perhaps some confusion over the place of the mind, and of truth, in the Church’s life. There are whisperings about the ‘irrelevance’ of theology, and the attention of Christians is frequently drawn to the dangers of a ‘merely academic’ approach to Scripture. It is deplorable that those who voice such fears rarely if ever go into details about what they mean. It might be a useful thing to attempt to disentangle some of the threads in this confused but important area.


What is it that those who stress the importance of the intellect want to bring home? The importance of truth. Christianity is not a moral code, nor a ‘set of values’, nor a wordless, mystical tradition. It offers its message as the truth of God. Christ is the truth. He came into the world, that he might witness to the truth (John 14:6; 18:37). By the knowledge of this truth a man is set free (John 8:32). It is because of this claim to be the truth that the Christian message can be stated, and discussed and contradicted. The truth is not ineffable. Though it is deeply mysterious, it can be grasped, though never completely fathomed. And, since the Christian message is of the highest importance, it ought to be grasped. Hence the importance of the mind.

But to say that the Christian faith involves the mind is not to say that it is a ‘merely academic’ matter. But what is meant when something is referred to as ‘academic’? It is the job of the academic to be disinterested in his enquiries, to look at both sides of a question, whatever that question is. Further, he is interested in a problem or issue for its own sake, irrespective of the practical consequences and the commitments that people have made. (Though this is not to say that he views practicalities or commitments as absurd or irrational.) He is critical of arguments, if he is honest, of his own pet arguments. So what is considered to be ‘academic’ is a matter of what a man is interested in, and what not. To someone who is interested in the question of whether the Norsemen discovered North America a thousand years ago, the question of whether the Vinland map is a forgery or not is academic, because whether it is a forgery or not is irrelevant to the reality of the Norse discoveries. There is more than enough evidence of them, without the Vinland map. But if what a man is interested in is whether or not the Vinland map is a forgery, the evidence that it may be is not ‘academic’, because he is involved in the question of the map’s authenticity.

The danger of this ‘academic approach’ is that, because there is an interest in an issue for its own sake, there will be a lack of commitment to any issue, and a contempt for any who make such a commitment. But though this is a real danger it is by no means an inevitable one. And the academic approach, for all the hard things that are said against it, has certain distinct virtues. Although it ought not to cultivate irrelevance or obscurantism for its own sake, yet a true academic approach makes it possible to follow up an issue or problem unencumbered by the need for quick results (for ‘relevance’, in the current jargon). Theologians and exegetes should take heart from this. Their minute and ‘academic’ enquiries into God’s truth may seem irrelevant now, and they may become impatient for results. But who knows at what stage in the future their work may enrich and strengthen the Church’s faith?

The academic handles his problems detachedly, not necessarily because he lacks feeling, but because of the sort of interest he has in the problems. Such an interest ought by no means to amount to the whole of a Christian’s interest in God’s truth. But at its best it does inculcate standards that are vital for the long-term well-being of the Church — habits of mind needed for assessing evidence, self-criticism, the ability to discriminate between conflicting claims, to be clear and logical. One danger in constantly stressing the pitfalls of the ‘merely academic’, without stressing the compensating advantages, is that care and discrimination in biblical interpretation and in theology will be discounted and wither away.

So, the issues raised by the Christian faith are not (of course) merely academic. They are issues of life and death. But they are intellectual, for they have to do with the truth. And the best academic traits — patience, fairness, orderliness, clarity — are graces that the Church ought to covet.


Further, to say that the Christian faith involves the mind is not to say that the Christian faith is necessarily abstruse and technical. It involves many difficult matters in language, culture, history, philosophy and so on. And the fact that the Christian message claims to be God’s truth makes studying such matters both intelligible and appropriate. But to gain the necessary expertise to pursue these questions at length is not every Christian’s cup of tea, just as not everyone ought to be a missionary. Yet the gospel, whether expressed at a level that calls for special expertise or not, involves the mind’s grasp of the truth, and a trusting reliance upon the One who has uttered it. A Christian cannot say that, because he is not interested in or gifted for abstruse questions, he has no need to engage his mind at all.

Finally, to say that the Christian faith is intellectual is not to say that it is concerned with meanings rather than truths. It is possible to get absorbed in a system of ideas solely on account of the symmetry and beauty of the system, and to work out its implications for interest’s sake. While, as we have stressed, Christian theology aims at coherence and consistency, its primary claim upon men is because of its claim to be God’s truth. A fairy tale such as Lord of the Rings can be beautifully worked out, and utterly fascinating. But this does not make it true.


So far we have tried to distinguish between saying that Christianity is academic and saying that it involves the mind. And it has been suggested that, while the study of the Christian faith involves certain qualities that purely academic study requires, the Christian faith is primarily intellectual.

But, someone will say, surely to claim that Christianity is intellectual is not to say that it is merely intellectual. Our first reaction is to agree and applaud this. How could God’s truth be merely intellectual? But even here it is necessary to be careful.

The first reaction is to say that since God’s truth is intended to change the conscience and the will as well as affect the mind it cannot be merely intellectual. As Warfield put it, Scriptural revelation ‘terminates on the heart.’ No reader of the New Testament could dispute this. Christians are familiar with the ‘therefores’ of Paul, with how doctrine leads to and provides the structure for Christian experience and practice. And they know the danger of knowledge ‘puffing up.’ Christianity cannot be merely intellectual.

But this is not all that can be said. It is necessary to draw a vital distinction between intellectualism as a motive and a concern for knowledge for its own sake. The New Testament warns repeatedly, in a variety of ways, of the danger of having intellectual satisfaction and amusement as the only motive for being interested in doctrine. But at the same time it stresses equally repeatedly that the knowledge of God is the supreme end of men. Men are called to this knowledge not because of what they can get out of it, nor (primarily) for what such knowledge will do to them, but because the knowledge of God is sublime, glorious and final. To ask what relevance such knowledge is meant to have is blasphemous. Because of who God is, the knowledge of God carries its own justification. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.

Paul brings this out in a variety of ways. At his conversion, Paul was enlightened by the shining in of the knowledge of the glory of God as this is mirrored in Jesus (2 Cor. 4:6). In Ephesians chapter 4, Paul shows how the function of the ministry is to bring the church to maturity, to ‘the knowledge of the Son of God’ (4:13). And Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is for this enlightenment (1:17). Certainly, this knowledge is meant to have a transforming effect. But the point to be stressed is that, for Paul, to ‘know God’ expressed the height of his ambition (Philippians 3:10-14). For Paul, the blessedness of heaven is to be found in the ‘face to face’ knowledge of God which it will afford. Paul’s religion — his desire to be ‘apprehended’ by God, and to ‘apprehend’ God — derives from his theology, his recognition that ‘from God and through God and unto God are all things’ (Rom. 11:36). And John echoes Paul. Eternal life consists in the knowledge of the only true God, and of Jesus Christ (John 17:3). This knowledge of God engages the whole man. It is not just intellectual. But it is still knowledge for its own sake. There is no higher end than God himself.

The temptation we feel when we read this stress on knowledge is quickly to balance it by stressing the practical effects of the knowledge, and to assess the value of the knowledge in terms of these effects. But this temptation is not felt by Paul and John. These ‘practical’ matters are the accompaniments of the knowledge, they attest its genuineness and form a pre-condition for its final fulfilment (for only the pure in heart shall see God) but the knowledge of God to which Paul and John call us is knowledge for its own sake.

Paul and John express the true theological spirit, the knowledge and enjoyment and service of God. ‘Theology does not exist when only the intellect is busied with the apprehension of logical propositions of God, but can come into existence only in beings that possess religious natures and through the action of the religious faculty. The knowledge of God, accordingly, which it is the end of Theology to produce, is that vital knowledge of God which engages the whole man.’ Warfield writes here of theology producing the knowledge of God, and by theology he means systematic theology. But it is possible to place theology and the knowledge of God in an even closer relationship: theology is not to produce a knowledge of God. Rather, a true knowledge of God is theology.1

The way in which textbooks of systematic theology are organized often hides this closeness between theology and the knowledge of God. In Hodge or Berkhof, for example, each topic is treated on its own, and for its own sake. The treatment is precise and analytic. But if a stranger asked what the point of all this exactly-stated information is he would not easily find the answer from the text-book itself.

Calvin‘s Institutes could hardly be more different. The structure of the entire work is controlled by the concept of the knowledge of God. Calvin’s aim is clear. Contrary to cheap jibes about his ‘merciless logic’ he aims not just to set out revealed truth in a logical order (though he is no friend of illogic) but to demonstrate even by his theological method that the purpose of God’s revelation is to bring men to a knowledge of himself. Thus Book I treats of the innate but smothered knowledge of God the Creator, and the necessity of special revelation for the right knowledge of God. Book II deals with ‘The knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ’, and the unfolding of that knowledge in the two Testaments. Book III concerns the way in which men receive the grace of Christ, that grace which is indispensable for, and is indeed the vehicle of, the true knowledge of God. Book IV provides an account of the Church as the ‘external means’ of bringing men to Christ and keeping them there. (How many who think about the Church today, whether to promote or to oppose the ecumenical movement, consciously connect it, as Calvin did, with the knowledge of God?). The whole work is a many-sided exposition of this one great theme.

On this view, the relation of theology and religion, which has been so perplexing to Protestantism since the time of Kant, and seems to be even more perplexing today, is straightforward. There is no bemusement over the relation between the ‘theoretical’ and the ‘practical’, or mystification about I-It and I-Thou relations. True religion consists in the knowledge of God (‘delighting in God’, as John Howe put it). This knowledge has its source, externally in Scripture, our ‘guide to God’, and internally in the work of Christ’s Spirit renewing the mind. And the devotion to God, in which true religion consists, leads, in turn, to further knowledge of him as the Scriptures are further explored and the ‘dealings’ of God further experienced.


The idea that the true theological impulse is concerned with the knowledge of God prompts a question or two. How much is the Church’s interest in ‘doctrine’ the product of this theological temper that we have been examining? This is not just a question about a Christian’s motives in studying doctrine, or a Church’s in confessing it. It concerns what is considered to be relevant in that study. Does the Church just admit enough doctrine into her system in order to have something to say, to be able to preach a ‘gospel message’ and keep a congregation together? Or to keep up a running battle with defective theologies? A man may see the worthlessness of liberal theology, and have enough commonsense to see that for the Christian faith to be viable it must be doctrinal. But is this all the justification there is for ‘orthodoxy’?

Since the various challenges offered to orthodox belief in the last hundred years there has been a response in terms of the need to ‘defend’ the faith, the ‘fundamentals.’ That such a defence is constantly necessary is not here in question. But in stressing that the Bible is God’s truth has there been a tendency to forget that it is also, and primarily, truth about God? Apologetics, like other branches of theology, ought to have as its rationale the safeguarding and publicizing of that ‘knowledge of Christ the Redeemer’ without which there can be no true knowledge of God. The Church ought not to be content for theology to be, in Vos’s words, ‘a mere instrument for the salvation of men.’ Theology is concerned with God himself. Revelation is God’s self-revelation.2 The goal of that revelation is the utter absorption of the mind of the new humanity in the contemplation and adoration of the eternal God.

There is the danger of a subtle pragmatism. In the Church’s anxiety not to be found guilty of ‘mere intellectualism’ there is the danger that she will proclaim only, what is thought to be ‘practical’, not in a narrow ethical or social sense, but in the sense of what Christians can find directly useful here and now. To be sure, the Christian faith has this aspect. God is a very present help in time of trouble. But if the Church’s stance, in her preaching and teaching, and in what she is seen truly to value, is to be truly theological, then her activity will have a visionary, eschatological character to it. Concerned as she will be with imparting to men that true knowledge of God, she will all the time be calling men to ‘the future vision of God.’

‘There is obviously, then, some kind of blissful vision reserved for us; and if at present only a partial glimpse may be caught through a glass in a dark manner (1 Cor 13:12) yet the radiant beauty of that beatitude which God stores up for them that fear him, which he perfects for them that hope in him, utterly transcends the power of speech. It is for this that our hearts are being trained in all the hardships and trials of this life. Do not feel surprise at being schooled amid toil: you are being schooled for a wondrous destiny. . . What shall we give to that Physician who heals our inward sight and enables us to behold that very light eternal which is himself?’3

This article was first published in the June 1974 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.


  1. A difference in terminology that is sometimes to be found among Reformed theologians ought not to throw us off balance here. Warfield, for example, regularly speaks of theology as a human systematization of revealed truth, and thinks primarily in this connection of systematic theology. Vos, on the other hand, writes of ‘Paul’s theology’, that is, of theology as being a part of revealed truth. Both stress the close relation between theology and the knowledge of God, but while Warfield speaks of systematic theology as having for its end ‘the knowledge of God’, Vos speaks of Paul’s theology, for example, as embracing or involving the knowledge of God, and as ‘deriving its inspiration’ from his religion.
  2. Note, in addition to the stress on the knowledge of God, Calvin’s insistence in the Institutes that the object of the Church’s attention ought to be God ‘as he is revealed to us’ and not ‘God as he is in himself.’ Calvin warns repeatedly of the danger of the ‘frigid speculations’ to which an attempt to know God ‘as he is in himself’ can lead.
  3. Augustine on Psalm 36:8.

More for the Christian Mind

    The Christian Mind Mini-Guide by William Edgar

    The Christian Mind

    Escaping Futility

    by William Edgar

    price From: $6.50


    The idea that the Christian faith is better felt than thought and believed is a widespread one. Its roots are widespread as well. In Protestantism since the time of Kant it has been axiomatic that God cannot be known, only ‘postulated’ or ‘projected’. This by-now traditional agnosticism has been reinforced by challenges to the meaningfulness […]

    cover image for Knowing God and Ourselves

    Knowing God and Ourselves

    Reading Calvin’s Institutes Devotionally

    by David Calhoun

    price From: $15.00
    Avg. Rating


    The idea that the Christian faith is better felt than thought and believed is a widespread one. Its roots are widespread as well. In Protestantism since the time of Kant it has been axiomatic that God cannot be known, only ‘postulated’ or ‘projected’. This by-now traditional agnosticism has been reinforced by challenges to the meaningfulness […]

    Book Cover For Biblical Doctrines
    price $28.80


    The idea that the Christian faith is better felt than thought and believed is a widespread one. Its roots are widespread as well. In Protestantism since the time of Kant it has been axiomatic that God cannot be known, only ‘postulated’ or ‘projected’. This by-now traditional agnosticism has been reinforced by challenges to the meaningfulness […]

Latest Articles

How to Read a Soul-Improving Book June 20, 2024

The following, which appeared in Issues 611–612 of the Banner of Truth Magazine (Aug–Sep 2014) is from John Angell James, Pastoral Addresses, Series I (1840). We are grateful to Mr Martyn Jolly for bringing this extract to our attention and supplying the text. It may seem strange to some persons, that I should give directions […]

The Real Evidence about Scripture and Homosexual Practice May 31, 2024

1. Jesus Claim: Jesus had no interest in maintaining a male-female requirement for sexual relations. What the evidence really shows: Jesus believed that a male-female requirement for sexual relations was foundational, a core value of Scripture’s sexual ethics on which other sexual standards should be based, including the ‘twoness’ of a sexual union. Jesus predicated […]