To Love God with Our Mind
When a lawyer asked Jesus about the greatest commandment, the Lord replied: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind..." (Matthew 22:37). Jesus' answer shows that our entire being must be involved in the service of God, not only our will and emotions, but also our intellectual gifts. In what follows I want to deal with the question how we are to love God with our mind.
Christianity and Learning
To love God with our mind is not necessarily the same as to study the Bible or to become an expert in theology and related disciplines. Those things can be done as mere intellectual pursuits. They are then not a means to come to know God, but simply to know about Him.
Yet to love God with our mind does involve study of the Scriptures, and also of those subjects that can help us in understanding them and defending their truth. The intellectual aspect of the faith has therefore rightly occupied the church throughout its history. Although there have been exceptions, generally speaking Christian thinkers have been convinced that the mind, and therefore reason, plays a valid and necessary role in the Christian religion. As beings made in God's image, they believed, we have been given the power of reason so that we may know and serve God.
That gift is a talent which may not be buried but is to be diligently used. And this means first of all that God's Word must be interpreted and proclaimed, and that attacks which unbelieving reason directs against it must be countered. But that does not exhaust its meaning. The gift of reason also obligates us properly to train our minds so that, to the best of our ability, we can fulfil our daily task, promote justice and truth, proclaim God's providence in nature and history, and fulfill the mandate He gave us with respect to the guarding and development of creation. The commandment to love God with our mind has a bearing on all of life.
What do we Mean by Reason?
In the foregoing, I have used the word reason a number of times. Because that word (and related terms) will keep coming back in this article, and because the term can be used in more than one sense, I will give a description of its different usages. The best way of doing so is by means of a brief walk through the history of our civilization, all the way from the ancient Greeks to the postmodern era. This approach has the added advantage of providing examples of the proper and improper use of reason.
The modern concept of reason has been modelled very largely on that of the Greeks, who exalted reason highly. Anxious to know God but not having his special revelation, Greek philosophers thought that reason was perhaps the means by which to "reach out for Him and find Him" (Acts 17:27). The belief that the mind could climb up to and understand the Infinite was an intoxicating one, which our own civilization inherited. It has greatly influenced not only its approach to scholarship in general (such as the study of philosophy and the sciences), but to theology as well.
We can note the influence of the Greek concept of reason already in the theology of the early church and, even more so, in that of the Middle Ages. The medieval scholar Thomas Aquinas, for example, taught that unaided human reason could prove several biblical doctrines. Among these were the existence of God, his infinite power and wisdom, his providence, and the immortality of the soul. These doctrines, he said, were matters of reason, rather than of faith proper. Revelation and faith were necessary only for the so-called mysteries of the faith, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, Christ's sacrifice on the cross, the resurrection, and the last judgment.
The Roman Catholic Church accepted the substance of Thomas' philosophy and made it official church doctrine, but many of his contemporaries attacked his system. So did, some centuries later, the Reformers. Among the objections all these critics had to Thomism was that reliance on reason in matters of theology tends to push the truth of God's self-revelation in Christ into the background; and as Luther was to remind his contemporaries, the only way in which God allows Himself to be known is in Jesus Christ. Deriving God's existence and attributes from human reason can lead to a concept of God similar to that of the Greek deities. Ceasing to be the God of the Scriptures — the Creator and Redeemer of man and nature — He becomes little more than the Supreme Being, the First Cause of all that exists, the creation of human logic. That this is indeed no imaginary danger became apparent later, with the rise of deism which followed Thomas in proving God's existence with reference to reason alone.
Thomas Aquinas himself was not a deist. He was a believing Christian, who placed the Bible above Greek wisdom. If faith and reason clashed, reason had to go. In Thomas' case, therefore, reason was not yet critical reason — the kind acts like an acid, destroying whatever it cannot explain. For him reason was still subject to revelation, even though it was given a dangerously large degree of autonomy. It was not until the modern period that reason became fully autonomous. But before dealing with that development we must turn to the intervening age of the Reformation.
Faith and Reason in the Reformation
In what follows we must distinguish between rationalism and rationality. When reason becomes fully autonomous we speak of the former; when we refer to something that is reasonable or endowed with reason, rather than being irrational, we use the latter. The term rationalism, then, refers to the attitude of rejecting the supernatural and making human reason the only source of knowledge and truth. The fact that we must reject such unbelieving rationalism, as well as the Christian rationalism of Thomas Aquinas, does not mean that the rationality of biblical Christianity is to be denied. The foregoing has made that clear. For although revelation is certainly beyond reason, Christianity is a reasonable faith, or else the Lord would not have told us that we must love God with our mind. Reason properly defined belongs to the essence of faith, rather than being a hindrance to it.
The Reformers knew this as well as the scholars of the Middle-Ages. Because they attacked the abuse of reason under Roman Catholicism and stressed the principles of sola scriptura and sola fide ("the Scriptures alone" and "by faith alone"), the Reformers have been called despisers of reason. The charge has stuck especially in the case of Luther, who on one occasion referred to reason as "the devil's whore." That remark, however, must be seen in context. Luther had studied at universities where the curriculum was still very much influenced by the traditions of the Middle-Ages. The God presented to him was the God of the philosophers, a cold and distant being who despised sinners and whose word could not really be trusted. Searching for a merciful and trustworthy God, and finding Him at last in the Scriptures, Luther for the rest of his life, and with all the many gifts he had, promoted the principle of sola scriptura and attacked the type of reason that exalts itself above revelation.
But Luther did not despise reason as such — that is, the type of reason which knows its place and submits to revelation. He had to take a clear stand here, for his situation was not all that different from the one we find ourselves in: rationalism and irrationalism both posed a threat to religion in his days as in ours. That Luther was far from being an irrationalist is clear from practically all his writings. It is also clear from the fact that he himself, as well as his friend and successor Melanchthon, worked hard to promote literacy and education in Germany.
And what applies to Luther applies with perhaps even greater force to John Calvin. Like Luther, Calvin fought the prevailing threat of irrationalism and strongly promoted learning. One of his greatest achievements in the field of education was the establishment of the Genevan Academy, the first Protestant university. The Academy was instituted so that the churches would be provided with a well-educated ministry, but that was not its only function. Like his follower Abraham Kuyper more than three hundred years later, Calvin knew that Christ is the ruler of all of life and must be served in all areas of life, and the Academy therefore provided also for the training of students seeking non-theological careers, such as law and medicine.
Calvin spoke highly of the human intellect. Well-known is his praise of learning in Book II of his Institutes (II, ii, 15, 16). Having mentioned there the work of ancient philosophers, medical doctors, mathematicians, and other pagan scholars, he writes that their accomplishments are gifts of the Holy Spirit, and that therefore Christians may not despise them but must make a grateful use of them. But he adds that "all this capacity to understand" is but "an unstable and transitory thing in God's sight, when a solid foundation of truth does not underlie it." And with respect to the role of reason in theology, and indeed in all other scholarly pursuits, he holds, like Luther, that it is indispensable as a servant but very dangerous as a master.
Modern Critical Reason
After the Reformation, with the triumph of modern secularism, we note a return to the Greek view of reason. Impressed by the achievements of the human intellect as evident especially in science, modern thinkers once again saw reason as the means by which mankind can climb up to heaven. They began by equating reason and revelation, but soon they made reason the judge of revelation, and from there it was but a step to the rejection of revelation and the reliance on reason alone.
This optimistic rationalism did not last indefinitely. In the end critical reason proved to be a reed that pierces the hand of the person who leans on it. It led to unreason. That the idolatry of human reason tends to have this effect had become clear already in ancient Greek history. After the time of the great Athenian philosophers, many Greek thinkers rejected reason and turned to scepticism (disbelief in objective truth) and/or mysticism.
Something similar has happened in modern history. For two or three centuries faith in man's critical reason was strong. People believed that philosophy, science, and the social sciences could solve all mankind's problems and bring about an earthly utopia. The disasters that the West experienced in our own century, however, replaced that heady optimism with a profound pessimism, which in western history, too, led to scepticism and the exaltation of unreason.
Reason and Unreason Today
Although irrationalism is widespread in our postmodern world, faith in reason has not disappeared. Many people still believe, for example, that the sciences and the sciences alone can and will solve the many problems that confront our world. The rationalistic attitude continues to be found in religion as well. For many people science and logic still decide about the credibility of religious doctrine. Whatever cannot be observed, or whatever contradicts human reasoning, is rejected. The influence of this rationalistic attitude is as strong as it has ever been. It continues to be very much a part of our worldview, and it therefore does not fail to affect Christians.
But if rationalism remains strong, irrationalism is rapidly gaining ground. In our days it manifests itself in such things as the New Age religion and the widespread belief in the occult. The same type of thing happened, as I mentioned, among the Greeks, and the process has occurred at other times in western history. In all cases it came after a long period of rationalism. For as I said earlier, critical, autonomous reason acts like an acid, corroding and destroying whatever truths and realities it cannot account for. This means that it destroys a great deal, for there is much in life that is beyond reason. And the many things that reason cannot account for — such as religious truth, and the experience of beauty and love and goodness — are among those that are most meaningful for a human being.
The rebellion against rationalism is therefore bound to come sooner or later. But it can take different forms. If it comes as a simple rejection of the idolatry of reason, it can bring healing; but if it takes the form of irrationalism, it can lead to a destructiveness that exceeds the harm done by the rationalism it is reacting against. History provides examples of both, but especially of the latter. And because, as a modern philosopher reminds us, those who fail to study history will be forced to repeat it, it is well to keep these examples in mind. That applies to Christians, for the irrationalist trend affects believers as much as the rationalist one.
Home, School, and the Christian Mind
When we speak of the cult of unreason we usually refer to such excesses as the New Age religion and the popularity of the occult. And when we look at its effects on education, we have in mind things like the removal of subjects (such as history and literature) that could serve as an antidote to the dominant worldview and the dumbing-down of the curriculum in general. We blame the Ministries of Education for giving in to the spirit of the age, deplore the educational mess in our country, and try to limit the damage to our own schools by adding traditional courses and instituting higher academic standards than the Ministries demand.
I believe that adding traditional subjects and raising academic standards are good and necessary, but I am not convinced that they are a cure-all. Schools can try very hard to promote learning and create an interest in the things of the mind, but unless they have the support of the home, they cannot accomplish a great deal. The proper mental habits and the proper love of learning must be formed at home, and at an early age, if they are to be formed at all. They must also be constantly reinforced at home.
This implies that we as adults must practise what we preach. If we want young people to learn to think as Christians and to see their education as a means to serve God, we must show them by our own behaviour that these goals are very much worth striving for. If we fail to act as role models, the risk is very real that children adopt other models, perhaps sports heroes or media celebrities, or simply turn to their peer group for guidance. And experience shows that once those patterns have developed it is almost impossible for the school and the parents to break them.
As the foregoing will have made clear, when I am speaking of a love of learning I am not concerned simply with the students' career prospects. It is nice when high standards and high marks allow them to get into the college or university of their choice, but this should not be the schools' and the parents' primary aim. And our schools should certainly not be seen as training places for a job or career. Elementary and secondary schools are not vocational or trade schools. They exist to prepare children for a much wider and higher calling than simply the economic one. Children go to school because they must be acquainted with the character and history of their culture, develop their talents, and learn to discern the spirits, so that they will be able to serve God with their entire being, including their mind. And that service, as Calvin and Kuyper taught, is not for the church only, but also for the world, for both fall under the rule of Christ.
The training of the mind is as necessary for Christians in our days as it has ever been, for today many of the brightest secular intellects are devoted to the promotion of unbelief and unreason. And because of the modern means of communication, their ideas affect our young people, also when they go to a Christian school. They will affect them even more at college and university. Our schools exist to show children what is at stake in the battle of the spirits and to arm them for it.
This means, among other things, that they must be made aware of the battle as it was waged in the past. For although today's heresies often appear in a new dress, they are not really new, and in fighting them we do not have to reinvent the wheel and think of entirely new offensive and defensive systems. There are weapons and strategies to be discovered in the past, from ancient times onward. But to find them, we must search for them. And that necessitates a thorough grounding not only in Bible and church history and the history of Reformed dogma (although that first of all), but also in literature, general history, and the history of various other academic subjects. Our students must know about these things — and so, indeed, must the rest of the community. We have no choice here. Unless we form the children's minds, our antichristian culture, fed by a formidably influential antichristian scholarship, will do it for us with the help of the omnipresent media.
Evangelicalism and the Christian Mind
There is a threat to the faith resulting from a simple disinclination to develop the mind. There is also the danger of a conscious disregarding of the mind in favour of the emotions, an attitude that can lead to the adoption of a full-fledged religious irrationalism. We now concentrate on that danger.
The trend toward an antirational emotionalism is a fairly recent one in our Reformed community. In one form or another it has long characterized the evangelical movement on this continent, however, and in attempting to understand it we can benefit from the experiences of evangelical fellow-believers. Their history provides us with both examples, showing us the excesses to be avoided, and direct instruction. With the latter I refer to warnings which evangelical thinkers themselves have been issuing in recent years about the dangers of non-rational and irrational approaches to religion and life. Because the appeal of evangelicalism is growing among us, and because an uncritical adoption of its traditions will jeopardize the Reformed character of our schools, we should give attention to these warnings.
Before proceeding, I want to make clear that the attention evangelicalism gives to the emotions constitutes, in my opinion, not only a weakness but also a strength. I think that many of us — also those who rightly reject much of its theology — have experienced evangelicalism's appeal. Evangelical Christians at their best are open about their religion, they want to know Christ personally, they are anxious to spread the gospel, they are committed to their faith and truly want to live it. In these respects they can provide much-needed correctives to a Reformed tradition that has not always escaped the danger of an orthodoxism which (in the words of Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck) puts its faith in its confessions rather than confessing its faith.
It is not surprising that especially young people, in their search for a religion that indeed makes a difference, have been inspired by the evangelical movement. But again, they are not the only ones to learn from it. The confrontation with evangelicalism has reminded many older people as well of the biblical truth that biblical knowledge is of no profit if it does not bear fruit in a Christian life. In that respect its influence has been altogether positive.
But among the dangers to which the evangelical mindset is prone — and that we must avoid at all costs — is the belief, firstly, that biblical doctrine can be subjected to the demands of the emotions, and secondly, that the Christian life can flourish while the Christian mind is put on hold. It is these dangers that evangelical thinkers have been warning us against, reminding us that doctrine and life are inseparable. In what follows, I will give a summary of the concerns of one such thinker.
An Evangelical Voice
The one I have chosen is the American historian Mark A. Noll, a leading evangelical scholar who in 1994 published a bestselling work under the title The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Having informed the reader at the start of his book that "the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind," Noll goes on to show that at one time evangelicals did have a high regard for the role of the intellect, although their use of it was not always well directed. In the nineteenth century evangelical leaders tended to exalt reason, managed to harmonize religious doctrine with the science of their day, and used a scientific approach to the study of the Bible. Theologians and other professors provided empirical, scientific "proofs" of the truth of the Bible, of traditional ethics, and of the protestant worldview as a whole. The popularity of this rationalistic approach meant that little time was devoted to careful exegetical and dogmatic studies, or to a biblical analysis of intellectual, socio-political, and cultural trends.
The price to be paid for the lack of such studies became apparent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Darwinism and the higher biblical criticism took possession of American universities. Reason and mainstream science could now no longer be seen as allies of the faith. This development caught the evangelical community off-guard. Some people responded to the challenge by withdrawing from the world and the life of the intellect to concentrate on the cultivation of an inner spirituality. Others continued their alliance with science, but now, with the help of creation science, in an attempt to disprove the new scientific theories. At about the same time the so-called holiness movements, pentecostalism, and premillennialism spread. All these separate movements, most of which had spiritualistic, biblicistic, and anti-intellectualistic tendencies in common, influenced mainstream evangelicalism.
Although Noll's critique of evangelicalism's anti-intellectualism is devastating, he has good things to say of the movement as well. He commends the evangelicals' sincerity and personal commitment, the sacrifices they make for mission and evangelism, their charity and zeal, and the fact that they place Christ at the centre of their religion and life. He adds, however, that they limit Christ's function to that of Saviour, rather than also confessing His cosmic rule. Indeed, their concern with the world is restricted to the saving of souls. The cultural influence of evangelicalism is therefore practically nil. Today's evangelicals, Noll says, continue the habit of their predecessors and still devote little effort to a serious analysis of socio-political, intellectual, and cultural issues. Activism and biblicism must fill the gap. During the Gulf War, for example, the runaway evangelical bestsellers did not reflect on the causes and background of the conflict, or on the moral issues involved, but simply offered dispensationalist explanations of how the war was fulfilling so-called end-time prophecy.
The tendency toward biblicism, emotionalism, and oversimplification, Noll warns, makes the evangelical movement vulnerable to the influence of biblical criticism. It also makes it easy for so-called charismatic leaders to take control of the movement, and it accounts for the otherwise incredible fact that televangelists who market the most bizarre perversions of the gospel can attract American Christians by the millions. Indeed, if we are looking for conclusive arguments in favour of developing the Christian mind, the phenomenon of American televangelism should rank high on our list. (It should not, of course, be the only one.)
The Ongoing Battle
Luther once said that he could be preaching Christ with all his might, but if he failed to attack the forces which at that particular time were setting themselves up against Christ's rule, he was not really preaching Him. Among the dominant anti-christian forces he had to contend with in his days as we in ours (for as I said before, heresies don't die but are recycled), were an arrogant rationalism on the one hand, and an emotion-driven irrationalism on the other.
Although these two heresies seem to be each other's opposite, Luther knew that the differences between them are more apparent than real. For both rationalists and anti-rationalists create a God in their own image. The former do it by the use of their reasoning powers, the latter by consulting their emotions. But both lose sight of the God of the Bible, who infinitely transcends human thought and imagination and can be known only because, and insofar as, He has chosen to reveal Himself. It was in struggling with the age-old temptation of creating God in man's image and of exalting human insights over the wisdom of God, that Luther and the other Reformers reasserted the principle of sola scriptura.
And it was to ensure that the truths of Scripture would continue to enlighten "the coming generations," that they and their followers promoted education and established schools. And let us not forget that in establishing these schools they had in mind not only the saving of souls, but also the restoration of their culture and the enlightening of the world. As Paul wrote to the Philippians (2:15), it is the function of Christians to shine as lights in the world or, as the NIV translates, "like stars in the universe" (Philippians 2:15).
That same vision guided those who, when an antichristian modernism turned public schools into bastions of secularism, established their own Christian schools. It is up to us, their heirs, to keep the vision alive. For the warning still holds: unless we take care of the development of our children's minds, our culture will do it for us. And because the battle that is being waged is indeed a battle for the minds of the children of the church (and therefore also for the mind of our culture), our schools must continue to focus on the old question of the proper and improper use of reason. When searching for a biblical answer to that question, they can hardly avoid meeting up with the Reformers, who taught that reason must be rejected as a master but retained as a most valuable, indeed an indispensable servant.