The Power of One Christ-Centered Mind

There was a time not all that long ago when I really thought I knew a thing or two about the Bible. Not all that long ago, I would confidently dive into any and all theological discussions/debates that happened to pop up within earshot. Not all that long ago, I allowed myself to be somewhat satisfied with the fact that I had read the entire Bible, cover-to-cover, three whole times!

Yeah…those days are gone forever.

In the Fall of 2009, I began taking graduate-level courses at Covenant Theological Seminary and very quickly learned two immensely-valuable and practical lessons: 1) I know next to nothing about the Word of God; and, 2) striving after more intellectual knowledge about God could easily be rendered futile for several reasons, chief among them the inherent danger that knowledge tends to “puff up” (1 Corinthians 8:1-3) and, perhaps more importantly, knowledge of God apart from a deepening relationship with Jesus Christ is spiritual suicide. After all, Satan and his demons have a far better theology of God than you or I could ever hope to achieve (James 2:19). Fat lot of good it does them.

Not all that long ago, I was confiding one of my own battles with a particularly besetting sin to a married couple who have been faithful to Christ far longer than I have. One of the pieces of advice they gave me to combat my outward demonstrations of unbelief was to “endeavor to think Paul’s thoughts after him” and try to imagine what must have been going on inside the Apostle Paul’s heart and mind as he labored under tremendous duress and difficulty (2 Corinthians 11:22-30) to plant churches, spread the gospel to the Gentiles and in all ways glorify Jesus Christ…all of it while living under the long, dark shadow of the destruction he had previously wrought in the lives of his fellow believers (1 Timothy 1:12-15).

Though I listened with the very best of intentions, I nevertheless effectively ignored this wise counsel for some time by using the ever-popular yes-I’ll-definitely-get-around-to-doing-that-sometime-soon dodge.

Turns out, though, this was some pretty darn good advice. In God’s great providence, I am now being “forced” to read page after page of biographical information and commentary on the life of Paul as part of this semester’s coursework at Covenant. (In addition to His infinite patience, our Lord clearly has a razor-sharp sense of humor.)

So…to rather-brazenly sum up almost 2,000 years of critical scholarship in one simple sentence: The Apostle Paul was – by all accounts – a brilliant man. World class. Far beyond anyone that you or I have ever met…or ever will meet. The recitation of his qualifications contained in Philippians 3:4-7 is fairly impressive in and of itself, but then to realize that he considers all of these valid, meritorious achievements to be worse than rubbish (3:8) in light of the knowledge of God found in Jesus Christ is, I think, to understand that Paul has grasped something so far superior to earthly wisdom that he is happy to burn his diplomas from the University of Gamaliel-Jerusalem (“Go, Vipers!”) and head off to Asia Minor to start a few churches and endure tremendous suffering along the way.

No one trashes a lifetime of dedicated learning on a whim, especially those at the very top of their game; clearly, Paul had found a vastly superior source of knowledge.

Back here in Nov. of 2010, one of the more challenging texts currently being shoehorned into my tiny little brain this semester is A Theology of the New Testament by George Eldon Ladd. Perhaps not surprisingly, Ladd devotes roughly a third of his pages to understanding Pauline thought and doctrine. In a section entitled “Humanity Outside of Christ,” he begins a discussion on how Paul uses the Greek word kosmos, a word that has no Hebrew or Aramaic equivalents (and is thus somewhat more difficult to interpret accurately in every usage). “Paul uses kosmos with a variety of meanings. He uses it first of all to designate the universe – the totality of all that exists (Rom. 1:20; Eph. 1:4; 1 Cor. 3:22; 8:4, 5).”

Ladd goes on to offer his opinion that Paul associates this single word – kosmos – with five different meanings, but it is interesting to note that whenever the word (again, in Paul’s usage) is applied to humankind, the word takes on “overtones of evil.” While acknowledging that human beings are God’s creatures and that God’s work is always good, the rebellion of mankind is such that even our ability to apprehend (i.e. attain knowledge) is fallen, tainted by sin, and hostile toward God. Ladd continues:

Intellectual attainment of knowledge and wisdom is not denied to this world; but the highest intellectual and rational achievements of humankind cannot attain to the knowledge of God and are therefore ultimately foolish. There is no necessary deprecation of human wisdom and knowledge as such; but as a means of acquiring the knowledge of God, inasmuch as the very mind of the race is perverted by sin, it is folly; such knowledge can be acquired only through revelation. The “spirit of the world,” i.e., the whole outlook and orientation of the life of the world, is on a different level from that of the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:12). Therefore, the wisdom of this world can never commend a person to God, for it is foolishness; and when one depends solely on the attainments of human wisdom, he or she inevitably will be led astray from the knowledge of God (1 Cor. 3:19). The principles of the world, which include human speculations and traditions and even religion, are antithetical to Christ (Col. 2:8).
[See page 438 in Ladd; all emphases mine.]

Characterizations don’t come much stronger than “antithetical to Christ.”

Ladd, I think, is simply trying to echo Paul and affirm that human knowledge can, in and of itself, be a very good thing. It’s good (for example) to know how to fix a water heater, how to develop new drugs in the battle against cancer, how to play the violin, etc. None of these things are bad things…it’s just that none of these things will – by themselves – bring us into closer relationship with God. That type of knowledge is only, ever, and exclusively held out to humankind through the open, nail-pierced hand of Christ. Our relentless desire to turn away from Christ and pursue merely-human knowledge is, ironically, one of the least-intelligent traps we all tend to fall into (1 Corinthians 3:18-20). Paul is clear on at least one thing: We can pursue knowledge and, in the process, become utter fools.

Christians are oftentimes accused of being anti-intellectual, anti-science, and so forth. Honestly, this perennial complaint drives me completely nuts. I have seen more than one faithful believer bullied and cowed into sheepish silence simply because he or she did not immediately have the ability to refute one or more anti-God assertions. As if the declaration “I am a Bible-believing Christian” is automatically to be rendered as “The merits of the faith stand or fall on my own personal ability to defend each and every single action and doctrine of the church from 40 A.D. to present.” While we should be able to defend our beliefs, we are not all called to be as scary-smart or well-educated as Paul. So the question should never be “Do I have the right answer here and now?” The question is, and always ought to be, “Will this unbiblical, anti-God assertion really stand up in light of 2,000 years of historical-critical analysis?”

For my part, I’m going to confidently vote “No.”

Having just passed ever-so-briefly over the jaw-dropping scope and depth of New Testament scholarship this past semester, I am indeed grateful for an enhanced ability to deconstruct arguments that tend to paint Paul as someone who was “more concerned with starting a new sect of Judaism” than he was with worshipping the risen, glorified Lord. More powerful than that, perhaps, is an enhanced appreciation for how many “really smart people” across all of human history have been utterly undone, even without their very own Damascus Road experience (Acts 9:1-19). We should be unmoved by clever-sounding arguments of unbelievers (2 Corinthians 10:3-5), praying for more of them, and regularly inviting those brilliant unbelievers to church, encouraging them to meaningfully engage with Paul…and His Lord.

1 Corinthians 2:1-5 (ESV)
“Proclaiming Christ Crucified”

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

P.S. A personal note to anyone who has ever thought they might want to receive more solid, reformed Christian teaching in their spare time: Set aside an hour or two sometime soon, pour yourself a mug of coffee, and visit Covenant Seminary’s Worldwide Classroom and/or Resources for Life. Load up you iPod (or whatever) and really dig into some of this stuff; it’s all excellent and it’s all completely free. You won’t end up with a Covenant degree doing it this way, but you will for sure grow in grace and wisdom.

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