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Christian Ignorance and Christian Action

6 January, 2009

brannansmall1I just read an interesting article from Gary Thomas, “Ignorant Christians”, and a summary of it by Suzanne Hadley. The article’s point is the now well-worn but often little-heeded claim that we are called to love the Lord our God with all our mind as well as with our heart and soul, along with and flowing out into love of our neighbors as ourselves (Matt 22:37-40). Cultivating the Christian mind is not an option (see e.g. Prov 4; Rom 12:1-2; 1 Cor 2:16, 14:20; Phil 4:8). For a recent and lively discussion, listen to this White Horse Inn broadcast.

Although this is touched on in Thomas’s article a little, a point I’d especially like to highlight is the inseparability of ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’ according to a biblical mindset. So often the response to articles like Thomas’s is explicit or implicit agreement — ‘Yes, we need to be more active and faithful in learning and understanding things…’ — which immediately raises the following response — ‘But the life we live that flows out of and testifies to our knowledge is what’s ultimately most important.’ Some are willing to admit that both knowledge and action are or should be of equal importance for Christians (you can see variations of each of these in the comments to the links above).

But is this missing the biblical point of the importance of our minds — our mindset, the way we think about and interpret and engage things? The last word ‘engage’ reveals the point I’m trying to make: knowing is part and parcel of living, and living is a vital aspect of knowing. I’m not saying that Christian doctrine and practice are the exact same thing; I’m saying that doctrinal learning is part and parcel of Christian practice, and likewise Christian practice is itself a vital aspect of Christian knowing, learning, interpreting and so on.

We can’t assume a disconnect between “learning about stuff” and “actually doing stuff”, since Christian learning is an important part of Christian living, and we are ‘doing’ the Christian life while we are knowing and learning. To put this same point slightly differently, we can no longer say in the same off the cuff way, ‘Actions speak louder than words,’ after we realize that speaking is a very important kind of action.

Biblically, this is quite significant. Some Christians applaud ignorance as a sign of being more spiritual and less worldly-wise; other Christians decry ignorance as unfaithfulness to the Spirit who gave us minds and calls us to exercise them wisely in the world. While my sympathies (as a theology PhD student!) are obviously with Option Number 2, both sides are in trouble if they’re assuming that learning is something that is to some extent sealed off from living. When Paul tells us to use our minds, isn’t this false distinction between ‘information’ and ‘action’ one of the key themes of what he’s saying? One of the passages Thomas quotes is Ephesians 4:17-19 :

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.

Thomas comments:

Christianity exalts the role of the mind as a necessary part of right living, but our faith is unique in stressing how our behavior and our minds influence and act upon each other. When our thinking goes, our behavior doesn’t lag far behind. And when our behavior slips, our minds begin to slip as well.

I really wish he would’ve developed this point more, particularly in light of the gospel itself. Is the gospel itself simply something we learn about so we can then move on to go do things? Or is the gospel itself on the other hand something that we live out? No — the gospel is by the Holy Spirit the powerful word of God that accomplishes the very reality of salvation that it proclaims, so it’s not mere information, but ‘living and active’ (Heb 4:12). Neither is the gospel something we live, but something Christ lived so that we may live. You see, the danger is that in our assumptions about knowledge and action — whichever we like better or whether we like them equally — we can miss the character of the gospel. The gospel is information that re-creates the world.

This is so much of why the Christian mind is important; we act out of who we are, and through the good news that we receive the Spirit gives us a new identity in Christ and enables us out of that identity to live to God and one another. Both the identity and the life are given in and through Christ, not contingent upon the faithful exercise of our minds (or hearts or souls), but depending upon Christ’s faithful exercise of his mind and heart and soul, for the complete salvation of our minds and hearts and souls. Christ and his gospel are the powerful and effective answer to the futile thinking Paul describes in Ephesians 4: the wisdom of God in answer to our folly, the light for our otherwise darkened minds, which is also precisely as such a lamp for our feet (Ps 119:105).

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3 Comments
  1. Brandon Wilkins permalink
    6 January, 2009 10:17 pm

    These are great points, Brannan.

    Another example of this (if I’m reading you correctly), is in Col. 1:9-12. Paul prays that the Colossians would be “filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding.” In speaking of “God’s will,” Paul has most specifically in mind the person and work of Christ (cf. 1:27). The purpose of being filled with this knowledge of the Gospel is “so that” the Colossians would “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him.”

    Interestingly, Paul proceeds to make the same point as you about “knowing being part and parcel of living” because he describes one of the aspects of this “walk” as that of “increasing in the knowledge of God (v. 10).”

  2. creedorchaos permalink*
    7 January, 2009 7:13 am

    Brandon~

    Thanks; Colossians 1 is a great example. It’s remarkable in verses 3-8, for example, how tightly knit our faith and love are with the word of truth about the Son that we hear from the Father and learn by the Spirit. The fruits are just that: fruits of God’s working in and through our coming to ‘understand God’s grace in all its truth’, and the fruits of who we come to know, the Triune God:

    “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints— the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you. All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth. You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, and who also told us of your love in the Spirit.”

    ~B

  3. creedorchaos permalink*
    16 January, 2009 6:23 pm

    In “The Christian Life” Sinclaire Ferguson says that knowing is for living. What you know effects how you live.

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