The Scandal of the Charismatic Mind (Part III)

The Realities

While duly acknowledging the complexities of charismatic resistance to scholarship and that not all charismatics are in fact resistant myself included, I do think the perceived standoff between inspiration and education remains a major factor in charismatic anti-intellectualism. I think it is that important because it stems from a particular view of scripture and scripture is central to historic Christian faith. In other words how you view the Bible colours your beliefs and practices as a Christian. The idea is that the Bible is spiritual and scholarship is secular but there is an impassable gulf between the sacred and the secular so the two can never meet.

I do not believe our choices are limited to the two and we can have both education and inspiration, reason and revelation. Historically, this has actually been the case in the life of the Church through the ages. I am not saying that there was always perfect harmony between the two but there was an enduring partnership. Rather than rejecting learning, Christianity has singularly impacted the growth of education globally more than any other worldview. As a quick example, Ancient Greece is the cradle of Western civilization. Intellectual giants like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Archimedes, Pythagoras, Herodotus and Hippocrates are the forefathers of the pillars of Western thought. [1]However like ancient democracy, education in the ancient world was only limited to an elite few. Teachers would only instruct a few dedicated students and generally did not insist society had to follow. It was only through the influence Christianity, which had an aggressive programme for social change across all social strata, that the idea that the idea of universal access to education was gradually pushed into the mainstream. There are many more wonderful and surprising examples of Christian influences on education. [2](Who Is This Man? by John Ortberg has a chapter that provides a good overview of this.)

How do we account for Christianity’s historic interest in learning and education? To burrow a term from Destroyer of the Gods by Professor Larry Hurtado, Christianity is a “bookish” religion. The centrality of a book to Christian faith i.e. the Bible, is the reason for Christianity’s bookishness. [3]Early Christians produced and disseminated writings in disproportionately large volumes compared to the relative size of the nascent movement. Where the Old Testament took several centuries to be composed, the New Testament was largely written within a generation of Jesus’ crucifixion. The nature of the biblical texts themselves is what prompted such a flurry of activity. The Bible did not drop from heaven, completely sanitized from human reasoning. When we look at the text on which we base our belief in divine inspiration, we find that inspiration is far less straightforward than we like it to be. Even though the Bible is divinely inspired, it is undeniably a product of its time. It readily interacted with the learning of the day (a point we will further discuss a little later.) This served as an impetus for early Christians to do the same in their writing to help instruct and educate.

Similarly, even the most spiritually gifted charismatic minister today is not exempt from his culture. He does not teach people using a nonhuman language of divine origin and his every action is certainly not by special revelation. Most charismatic anti-intellectuals would concede this point but would still maintain this has nothing to do with their rejection of scholarship. The problem is that if you reject one thing on the basis of it being unspiritual, why do you allow other things which are equally uninspired? To disregard scholarship on the basis of it being worldly would mean we have to reject the Bible’s we read. Most of us are incapable of reading and comprehending biblical Hebrew and Aramaic and Koine Greek, the original languages scripture was written in. We rely on scholars to translate the Bible into our local vernacular. I have never heard anyone, no matter how miraculously gifted they are, who the Holy Spirit has supernaturally blessed to read the Bible in the “original tongues.”

Furthermore, the protestant doctrine of sacred scripture being its own interpreter, a consequence of believing in the inspiration and clarity of scripture, which is used as a corner stone of Charismatic intellectual resistance, does not stop the text referencing things outside itself. It frequently draws upon “secular”, non-Christian sources which means we have to be familiar with them to better understand scripture. We would not know this if we only read the Bible. The consideration of “extrabiblical” material has significantly helped our understanding of the Bible, none of which would have been possible without scholarship. The Bible did not appear in a cultural vacuum so we need to study the original historico-cultural context as well to properly appreciate it. In short, whether we accept the Bible as the inspired, specially revealed, word of God or not, we invariably have to accept the significant contribution of scholarship, whether we are aware of it or not. If we are really adamant on the scholars “taking their books” we would have no Bible to read.

Through scholarship we able to interact with the world of the early Jesus movement. We must remember with all ancient history we only have a limited amount of information to work with. However small this amount of data, it has and continues to yield tremendous insights into the pasts. The Bible, even though it is unique in many respects, still belongs to the ancient cultural milieu of the Roman Empire. It therefore makes sense for us to situate our understanding of the Bible in that context. Charismatic anti-intellectuals consistently paint a picture for us that God used only illiterates. [4]To be sure literacy rates in the Roman Empire though they are hard to reliably estimate were very low. As I discovered over a year ago literacy in the ancient world, which I wrote about in Reclaiming Biblical Literacy I & II, was a complex affair. Just because a person could not read or write, or had a limited ability to do so, did not mean they were not familiar with certain texts. This phenomenon is known as textuality which was unsurprisingly prevalent in Israel. Centuries later the Quran aptly described Jews and Christians as people of the book.

Ever since the time of Moses education and learning has been a key feature of Jewishness. This because they had a sacred text central to their beliefs which required them to learn and be instructed by it. This made learning part and parcel of Jewishness. Christians inherited this religious peculiarity in the ancient world from Judaism. As such in the Jewish world of the second Temple period there was an explosion of literature and lively intellectual dialogue and debate. Groups like the Pharisees emerged who were the ancestors of the rabbinic tradition who devoted themselves to learning the sacred scriptures and produced many commentaries on what it meant and how to live it. It is quite interesting that modern day Christians tend to caricature the Pharisees as the villains of the Jesus story whose chief character flaws are stifling religious legalism clothed in intellectual snobbery. One of the glaring problems with picture is that arguably Jesus’ most famous follower was unapologetically a Pharisee. We shall say more about this later.

[5]While reading Evidence for Jesus by Josh McDowell, a great reference work for the layperson, I was shocked by how much in common Jesus had with the Pharisees of his day. He taught in a similar manner to them, saying similar things, referencing similar people and debating similar things. For example Jesus’ statement of the golden rule, one of his most famous statements, as I mentioned in another post, was actually a rehash of what an earlier rabbi had said. I am not saying this all to downplay the uniqueness of Jesus but to point out he was considered in his time an intellectual. Passages like John 7:15 and Acts 4:13 which are often used as evidence by anti-intellectuals of the stark illiteracy of Jesus and his disciples so God somehow supernaturally endowed them with knowledge are actually saying the opposite. In both verses the point is not that they are ignorant hicks but they have not gone through the formal channels of schooling. That is why they find it surprising they are intellectually formidable. However, they are not Jewish Will Huntings. They had a teacher. In both instances Jesus is recognized as a bona fide rabbi and an exceptional one at that, albeit without formal training but qualified nonetheless, confidently handling the thorny issues of the day. To this day he is acknowledged as a teacher par excellence so it is quite astonishing that Charismatic anti-intellectuals seem to conveniently forget this fact. Though Jesus did claim God was his teacher so the message came from divine revelation, revelation here certainly does not mean he miraculously knew the Bible without ever reading it. Being human he had to learn the scriptures like everyone else. With these things in mind it is hard to imagine the good teacher having problems with the enterprise of scholarship. Teachers instruct students and a scholar is essentially a student of a discipline. Jesus had many students or disciples and he commanded them to make even more. This would invariable mean learning and scholarly attitudes.

Not only are the charges of stark illiteracy of Jesus and his disciples misconstrued, there is a gross misrepresentation of ancient Israelite attitudes towards education. I must reiterate even though there was very high illiteracy in the ancient world, the world of Jesus was highly textual, that is, they were very familiar with the biblical texts even though most people were not able to read and write proficiently. In Deuteronomy Moses instructed Israel to write the Torah on their doorposts, bind it to their clothes, and commit it to memory. Jews in Jesus’ day took this very seriously and soaked their environment with the scriptures. [6]At around the age of 5 Jewish boys started learning the Torah in the synagogue. [7]Though girls did not participate in this they too were not ignorant. They had to know what the Torah had to say about them and their role in society so their mothers taught them the scriptures from a similar age. Daily they would pray the scriptures. Every Sabbath at the synagogue the entire community would gather to hear the Torah being read. National hopes in fact were based on God’s word. [8]The average second Temple Jew who did not own a personal copy of the Bible could quote scripture better than the average Christian today. When you have a sacred text which is integral to your worship and religious identity it automatically makes learning a natural part of the fabric of your culture. This is true of Christians as well who from the beginning have produced so much material inspired by scripture and its god who is sovereign over all knowledge and understanding.

Not only was Jesus a learned man, the other intellectual heavy weight in Christianity and perhaps the most famous Christian is Paul the Pharisee. (Paul continued to identify himself after as a Pharisee after his “conversion” which is a major spanner in the works for resistance to intellectualism and also the caricature of the ancient sect.) Pre-eminent New Testament scholar Tom Wright has described him at par with Plato and Aristotle. [9]Leading 20th century British philosopher and former atheist Antony Flew said the diminutive apostle to the Gentiles “obviously possessed a first class philosophical mind.” Anyone who has seriously tried to read Roman’s would soon realise it is a challenging, sophisticated, breath taking exercise in thought. He said of his former life that he excelled beyond his peers in his intellectual pursuits. In hindsight he is considered the first Christian theologian. According to him he trained under probably the greatest rabbi of his generation, Gamaliel. He was the leading student of the leading teacher (Acts 22:3, Philippians 3:5-6.) I could go on and on about him. I do not only consider the apostle a “first rate thinker” but his Lord as well. The one who inspired him to commit his considerable mental powers to an itinerant teaching ministry that spanned the Roman Empire must himself have been a very compelling intellectual figure.

The New Testament is a distinctively Christian document. It makes the Bible the Bible, a truly global document. Civilisations have been influenced and shaped by it. Paul an intellectual wrote a significant portion. Luke, Paul’s friend and missionary companion, who was a learned man and a physician, wrote another large portion. Together they wrote almost half of the New Testament. If we can be certain the majority of New Testament was written by learned men, why is it that we read scripture and come to anti-intellectual conclusions? Far from being ignorant and simple, the scriptures have generated learning and scholarly work for centuries and will continue to do so till the Lord returns.

Theologically speaking the mind has a central place in the New Testament. Funnily enough it is Jesus who added the mind when he was quoting the greatest commandment to love the Lord your God with all your being (Deuteronomy 6:4-5; Mark 12:30.) It is high time that we submit all our understanding and wisdom to the knowledge and power of Christ our Lord in the devotion to him (2 Corinthians 10:5.)

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. – Philippians 1:9-12 ESV

Amen.

[1] Hurtado L.W., Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, p. 378.

[2] Ortberg J., Who Is This Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus, p. 105.

[3] Hurtado L.W., Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, p. 240.

[4] http://newtestamentperspectives.blogspot.com/2012/05/was-jesus-literate-interview-with-chris.html

[5] McDowell J., Wilson B., Evidence for the Historical Jesus, p. 233.

[6] https://sites.google.com/site/educationinjesustime/

[7] http://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hbd/view.cgi?n=1737

[8] https://www.thattheworldmayknow.com/rabbi-and-talmidim

[9] Habermas G.R., Flew A., My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism: A Discussion between Antony Flew and Gary Habermas, Philosophia Christi, vol. 6, No.2, p. 208.

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