The Role of the Intellect in Loving God

In the 1820s in Kentucky, a fiery debate emerged between Baptists over the issue of missions. Neither side opposed the idea of missions, for nearly all Baptists in the state at that time believed the Bible instructed Christians to go out and proclaim Christ among those who had never heard the gospel. Specifically, the opposition in this dispute took offence at the way educated elites from New England had targeted Kentucky and other rural western locales for mission work. Many Kentucky Baptists did not believe they needed what these “Yankees” had to offer and despised the haughty superiority and unabashed “money-begging” that often accompanied missionaries from New England.

Sectional jealousies and political partisanship best explain the level of animosity that energized this intellectual conflict in the early republic. Books have been written exploring its complexities. However, one aspect of the debate has hung around ever since. The mission societies advocated for the necessity of education for ministers. They wanted to establish seminaries to train pastors and scholars of the Bible, while many of those on the other side believed such measures would interfere with a Spirit-filled ministry. To many rural Kentucky Baptists at that time, the pursuit of knowledge only “puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1) and transfers ministry from reliance on God to reliance on human intellect.

I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed throughout my life and ministry. I’ve heard preachers jokingly refer to “seminaries” as “cemeteries,” implying that such institutions sap the life from young and impressionable ministers. I’ve often heard “doctrine” disparaged as standing in opposition to “relationship with Jesus.” Culturally, this mindset manifests itself by widespread distrust of experts in their fields. Often, the person who has spent a lifetime studying a certain matter is the person from which we least want to hear. Somehow, in the age of the internet, expertise has become despised and education discounted.

To be sure, the Bible does contain warnings concerning knowledge, just as it does for money. In the verse alluded to above, Paul warns the church at Corinth against using knowledge to pridefully build up one’s own reputation. It’s possible for education to provide the basis for the kind of haughty chest-thumping the anti-missionists were critiquing in the 1820s. We’ve all met real-life Sheldon Coopers who need the world to know they are the smartest people in every room they enter.

However, education is not the problem; pride in one’s education is. Knowledge doesn’t have to puff up. Paul, who warned about this danger, was also highly educated—a man who devoted his life to studying God’s law as a Pharisee and continued to study deeply after his conversion (2 Timothy 4:13). The Proverbs of Solomon praise knowledge when it begins with the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 9:10).

Not only is growth in knowledge permissible, but I want to argue that it’s necessary. Without knowledge, in fact, it’s impossible to love. British Baptist Andrew Fuller, who died just before the antimission debate across the Atlantic started raging, put it like this:

“Knowledge and affection have a mutual influence on each other…We cannot love an unknown gospel, any more than an unknown God. Affection is fed by knowledge, being thereby furnished with grounds, or reasons, for its operations. By the expansion of the mind the heart is supplied with objects which fill it with delight. It is thus that it becomes enlarged, and that we feel ourselves sweetly induced to ‘run in the wary of the Divine commandments.’”

When I first met my wife, I wanted to know everything about her. The more I learned, the more I delighted in her. To this day, after nearly seventeen years of marriage, learning about her continues to fuel my love for her. Knowledge fuels love. If we quit learning, we quit loving. We grow stagnant. Our delight will run out of fuel.

Don’t believe the lie that knowledge and education get in the way of the Spirit. Doctrine about God is not the enemy of relationship with God; it is the basis for it. We learn doctrine so that we can rightly worship the One about whom we study. The more we learn, the more we realize his majesty and greatness and the more we are motivated to worship (Romans 11:33-36). Don’t be afraid of knowledge. Run after it. Love the Lord your God with all you heart and soul, but love him also with all your mind (Matthew 22:37). Study the Bible, read theology books, go to seminary if you can, and think deeply. Continue to pour the fuel of knowledge on the fire of your devotion to Christ.

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