The Learned Fool

“A learned fool is more foolish than an ignorant one.”

While conducting research for my book (Such a Mind as This), I ran across an intriguing statement by the French playwright Molière (1622–1673). His play “The Learned Ladies”  satirizes pseudo-scholars and their acolytes for their pretentious aspiration to glory and influence through knowledge acquisition. In this context, he stated, “A learned fool is more foolish than an ignorant one.”

In my book, I apply Molière’s aphorism to the mentality of Qohelet, the main speaker in Ecclesiastes. He was intelligent and learned. But his intellectual project was skewed and foolish. He grasped for illegitimate knowledge “under the sun.”[1]

Is it possible for learned evangelicals to be foolish? Absolutely. Let us consider how.

I argue that the fool of Psalm 14, who claims that God does not exist, represents the apex of noetic corruption in the Old Testament.[2] The fool is not a philosophical atheist, but a functional or willful non-believer. He is an epistemological rebel. He knows deep in his heart that God exists but operates as if God were irrelevant (unknowing, impotent, uncaring). The fool minimizes and marginalizes deity as a form of self-justification for doing evil.[3] This outlook is expressed several times in the Old Testament:

In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, “There is no God.” . . . He says in his heart, “God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it.” (Ps 10:4, 11)

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good. (Ps 14:1)

How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High? (Ps 73:11)

The LORD does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive. (Ps 94:7)

He will do nothing; no disaster will come upon us, nor shall we see sword or famine. (Jer 5:12)

The LORD will not do good, nor will he do ill. (Zeph 1:12)

Ethical maleficence rooted in divine marginalization is not something in which most Christian thinkers engage. However, we do slip into forms of intellectuality that are not in accord with biblical revelation and that minimize God’s dominion. One way this occurs is through an epistemic sacred – secular division.[4] This mental posture functions as if God’s reign does not extend to all human thinking, as if he were intellectually irrelevant. It is observable in the following practices:

Professors who do academic (secular) thinking from Monday to Saturday and sacred thinking on Sunday.

Devoting oneself to professional intellectual development while also exhibiting aspects of anti-intellectualism or illiteracy with reference to the Bible.[5]

Operating cognitively as if pluralism or relativism is valid and obvious truths.

Failing to recognize sin as an epistemological reality as it applies to personal cognition, as well as social thought.

Negating the importance of apologetics and cultural critique under the influence of tolerance and pluralism.

False neutrality―i.e., imagining that any fact, thought or experience can be properly understood apart from the existence of God, the Creator and Lord, and his revelation.

Theoretical naivete―not thinking about one’s discipline with reference to its fundamental assumptions or the biblical worldview.

Inconsistent intellectual piety―i.e., failure to apply intellectual virtues consistently to each day of the week and every sphere of knowledge.

Each of these compartmentalized ways of thinking minimize God’s lordship over the mind. Indeed, operating as if God is extraneous in any sphere of life, is folly. Such foolishness implies a negation of Jesus’s claims about himself (“I am the way, the truth, and the life”) and ignores the applicability of the Great Commandmen to every aspect of life : “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29–30).

On the other hand, John M. Frame describes a mental posture consistent with the biblical worldview. All human knowing, he says, is “servant knowledge” or “a knowledge about God as Lord and a knowledge that is subject to God as Lord.”[6]

Paul M. Gould explains how this works out in practice, providing guidelines for the would-be missional thinker: “Christian scholars ought to be, among other things, actively engaging the dominant plausibility structures embedded within culture, so that the gospel message can gain a fair hearing.” He adds, “We need Christian scholars to engage the underlying presuppositions of every discipline, correcting assumptions where needed and making connections that have hitherto gone unnoticed, to demonstrate the unity and elegance of the Christian worldview within the fragmented academy.”[7]

Christian thinkers should self-consciously flee folly. They ought to possess epistemic self-awareness. They should know where to draw the line regarding intellectual assimilation.[8] They must discern the difference between the common good and biblical distinctives. They must navigate epistemological relativism and ontological pluralism, carrying their solid biblical grounding into the world around them for God’s glory and mankind’s blessing.

[1] See my book chapter 5 concerning Qohelet and chapter 6 about ignorant foolishness.

[2] Paul cites Psalm 14:2–3 in Romans 3:11–12 indicating that noetic depravity is a central and universal aspect of the human condition. As no one obtains epistemic perfection in this life, no one escapes the influence of folly this side of eternity.

[3] As Dostoevsky noted, “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”

[4] Other ways include, for instance, laziness or the lack of curiosity about biblical knowledge.

[5] Christian scholars invest many years of study and thousands of dollars to gain an academic specialty. But how many hours and dollars do they invest in acquiring biblical wisdom? Paul M. Gould observes, “While experts within their own particular fields of study, Christian professors often possess a Sunday school level of education when it comes to matters theological and philosophical . . . and the result is a patchwork attempt to integrate one’s faith with one’s scholarly work and an inability to fit the pieces of one’s life into God’s larger story.” (The Outrageous Idea of a Missional Professor, 7)

[6] Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 40 (emphasis in original).

[7] Gould, “The Consequences of (Some) Ideas,” Cultural Encounters 8, no. 1, 124.

[8] See chapters 13–14 in my book.

“THE SCHOLAR’S PRAYER”

Handley Carr Glyn Moule (1841–1920) was the epitome of a pastor-scholar. He possessed a fervent evangelical piety. His father was an Anglican pastor. His mother modeled saintly prayer and “read to him from great books, instilling in him a lifelong quest for learning.” (See “Profile in Faith: Bishop Handley Moule.”)

Moule became a renowned academic at Cambridge University. He was known for his godly affection and was particularly sensitive to those struggling with doubt and despair. He was an ardent supporter of missions and hosted Hudson Tylor at the University.

He was appointed the first Head of Ridley Hall at Cambridge, established to preserve, and instill evangelical knowledge and piety. He wrote over sixty books, including biblical commentaries. He composed hymns and wrote two volumes of poetry.

In 1901, he was appointed the Bishop of Durham. He wrote the people of the Diocese:

I need and seek your prayers. Ask for me especially . . . a real effusion in me of that grace of the Spirit whereby Christ dwells in the heart by faith; a strength and wisdom not my own for my pastorate, and for the preaching of Christ Jesus the Lord; and a will wholly given over for labour and service at our Master’s feet.

In May 1920, he preached before the King and Queen at Windsor Castle. He died shortly after.

I am particularly taken with his meditation about scholarship. He expresses eloquently the mindset of one who desires to love God with the mind (Deut 6:4‒5)―as an academic:

Lord and Savior, true and kind,
Be the Master of my mind;
Bless, and guide, and strengthen still
All my powers of thought and will.

While I ply the scholar’s task,
Jesus Christ, be near, I ask;
Help the memory, clear the brain,
Knowledge still to seek and gain.

Here I train for life’s swift race;
Let me do it in Thy grace;
Here I arm me for life’s fight;
Let me do it in Thy might.

Thou hast made me mind and soul;
I for Thee would use the whole;
Thou hast died that I might live;
All my powers to Thee I give.

Striving, thinking, learning, still,
Let me follow thus Thy will,
Till my whole glad nature be
Trained for duty and for Thee.

TEN BOOKS THAT CHANGED MY LIFE (PT. 3)

The Doctrine Of God by Herman Bavinck

I encountered Bavinck in the spring semester of my first year at seminary (January 1990). As the saying goes, I was “blown away”! This is the Table of Contents from this book: God’s Incomprehensibility, God’s Knowability, God’s Names, God’s Incommunicable Attributes, God’s Communicable Attributes, The Holy Trinity, and God’s Counsel. Bavinck taught polemical theology, that is, he compared and contrasted other worldviews with the biblical understanding of deity. He also provided much historical information about the development of the doctrine of God. This statement was especially intriguing:

The Bible never attempts to prove the existence of God but assumes this; and it presupposes all along that man has an ineradicable idea of that existence, and that he has a certain knowledge of the being of God: an idea and a knowledge which are not the result of man’s own study and research, but of the fact that God on his part has revealed himself both in an ordinary and in an extraordinary manner, has manifested himself in nature and in history, in prophecy and miracle. Accordingly, the knowledge of God is never presented as a doubtful manner.

The Proslogion by Anselm

Anselm (died in 1109) was a monk in England who wrote a famous demonstration of God’s existence (Proslogion). Anselm assumed that it is possible for faith to gain understanding, as God illumines the mind. He prayed, “Well then, Lord, You who give understanding to faith, grant me that I may understand, as much as You see fit, that You exist as we believe You to be.” Later on in his document, he testified with joy, “I give thanks . . . since what I believed before through Your free gift I now understand through Your illumination . . .” Anselm taught me the necessity and beauty of intellectual piety in all thinking, especially about God. Here is how he prayed about his intellectual project:

What shall he do, O most exalted Lord? What shall Your servant do, anguished out of love for You and cast far away from Your face? . . . Indeed, I was made for seeing You; but not yet have I done that for which I was made. O the unhappy fate of man when he lost that for which he was made! O that hard and ominous fall!

Teach me to seek You, and reveal Yourself to me as I seek; for unless You teach [me] I cannot seek You, and unless You reveal Yourself I cannot find You.

O Lord, I do not attempt to gain access to Your loftiness, because I do not at all consider my intellect to be equal to this [task]. But I yearn to understand some measure of Your truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order to understand.

Heaven―A World Of Love by Jonathan Edwards

In 1997, my first wife, Karen, was diagnosed with cancer. It was a terrible shock and disruption in every way. Later, in 2002, she died. During her time of illness, I thought a lot about heaven. I studied the Bible and read several books. In the last chapter of Charity and Its Fruits by Edwards I found a beautiful description of heaven called “Heaven―A World of Love.” The heaven he describes is worth dying for. Here is an excerpt where he links heaven and Eden with everlasting love:

And all this in the garden of God―in the paradise of love, where everything is filled with love, and everything conspires to promote and kindle it, and keep up its flame, and nothing ever interrupts it, but everything has been fitted by an all-wise God for its full enjoyment under the greatest advantages forever!

Future Grace by John Piper

For my birthday in 1997, Karen gave me this book. This was shortly before she was diagnosed. She wrote on the cover, “But he gives more grace” from James 4:6. Piper writes, “At the heart of this book is the conviction that that the promises of future grace are the keys to Christ-like Christian living.” That reality―and experience― became very real as we soon confronted illness, decline, and death. It was also sustaining knowledge in the twenty years since, as I have relocated to another culture and embraced new aspirations. This is a meaningful quote from book:

Future faith in grace produces love not only by what it pushes of out the heart, but also by the strong desires it brings to the heart. Faith has an insatiable appetite for experiencing as much of God’s grace as possible.

 

A Positive Review of My Book

Bill Edgar was my mentor at Westminster Theological Seminary

It has often been remarked that some of the best epistemologists (thinkers about thinking) are not particularly grounded in the text of Scripture. If that is true then you need to read Richard Smith’s excellent study on knowing in the Old Testament to rectify this failing. What may sound to some like an academic diversion turns out to be a first-rate examination of where human knowledge was meant to originate and where it is now. Why is this important? Because we have lost the sense that our understanding matters in order to navigate life. Many people today are either hostile to thinking or (worse) indifferent to it.

In a now famous statement, Mark Noll’s book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, opens with the declaration, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Noll has walked back this devastating indictment a bit, partly because evangelicals have begun to respond to his accusation and partly because Noll found certain pockets where evangelicals have made a difference. Had he been able to read Smith’s book he would have celebrated a new awareness of the epistemological self-consciousness so greatly needed.

This book has many virtues. The first is that it links knowledge to piety. Knowledge should never be severed from it spiritual roots both for weal and for woe. To prove this Smith goes beyond quoting Proverbs 9:10, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding,” fundamental as is this truth. But he delves into specific episodes in redemptive history, culling from them the admonition to know, and to know aright. Accordingly, the book begins with an extensive look at how unfallen man would use his mind to explore the wonders of God’s world. It then moves on to describe how sin has affected knowledge adversely. Particularly engaging is he examination of troubled souls such as Qoheleth and Job, as well as influential figures such as Daniel. Finally, Smith focusses on Jesus Christ and the age of redemption without leaving off the Old Testament emphasis.

The voices of Cornelius Van Til, John Frame and others in the Reformed tradition echo throughout. But they are embedded in Bible study. Side refences abound with great quotes, confirming Smith’s insights.

Perhaps one of its unintended consequences is to re-introduce us to the riches of events and persons throughout redemptive history. This could become a devotional book exposing us to the treasure hidden in the biblical story. It is not a book to read rapidly from cover to cover. It is a book to be savored. Like a good wine it should not be gulped but tasted judiciously.

A unique book that will be read profitably for many generations.

William Edgar
Professor of Apologetics
Westminster Theological Seminary
Philadelphia, USA

TEN BOOKS THAT CHANGED MY LIFE (PT. 2)

The God Who Is There by Francis Schaeffer

I first read Schaeffer when I went back to university in 1981 to finish my Bachelor’s degree. Before reading his book, I never thought much about the intellectual plausibility of the biblical worldview. Schaeffer showed how Christianity made sense and he modeled “intellectual hospitality” with those who did not believe. He demonstrated how to interpret unbelief and how to communicate with unbelievers. When I went to seminary in 1990, I began to encounter more and more thinkers who had been discipled by Schaeffer. He also prepared me theoretically for the study of apologetics at seminary by utilizing the concepts of presupposition and worldview. This statement was helpful:

Non-Christian presuppositions [fundamental beliefs] simply do not fit into what God has made, including what man is. This being so, every man is a place of tension. Man cannot make is own universe and then live in . . . . Thus, when you face twentieth-century man, whether he is brilliant or an ordinary man of the street, a man of the university or a man of the docks, you are facing a man in tension; and it is this tension which works on your behalf as you speak to him . . . . A man may try to bury the tension and you may have to help him find it, but somewhere there is a point of inconsistency. He stands in a position he cannot pursue to the end; and this is not just an intellectual concept of tension, it is what is wrapped up in what he is as a man.

Knowing God by J. I. Packer

This book was my first exposure to systematic theology―specifically Reformed theology―and Packer expressed it in a very pastoral manner. I learned about God’s nature, his wrath and forgiveness, his word and scripture, his devotion to us, justification and sanctification, and the path of discipleship. I remember saying at this time, “I discovered that I could use my brain and be a Christian!” Reading Knowing God was a revival. When I was considering going to seminary in the late 1980’s (and leaving the American Dream behind), I read this counsel from Packer in a section called “The Adequacy of God”:

We know what kind of life Christ calls us to . . . . But do we live it? Well, look at the churches. Observe the shortage of ministers and missionaries, especially men; the luxury goods in Christian homes; the fundraising problems of Christian societies; the readiness of Christians in all walks of life to grumble about their salaries; the lack of concern for the old and lonely, or of anyone outside the circle of ‘sound believers’ . . . . Why, compared to them [Christians of the New Testament] do we appear as no more than half-way Christians? . . . One reason it seems is that in our heart of hearts we are afraid of the consequences of going the whole way into the Christian life.

The Institutes Of Christian Religion Vol. 1 by John Calvin

I discovered Calvin in my first class at seminary―the beginning of a five-year renewal. I wrote on the inside cover of this book “January 14, 1990.” The Introduction says that the Institutes “holds a place in the short list of books that have notably affected the course of history, molding the beliefs and behavior of generations of mankind.” This is clearly true, including me. When I read Calvin and received instruction about his system, I saw how he labored to love God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. Volume One concerns “The Knowledge of God, the Creator.” Here are a few insights that I highlighted years ago and which still influence me:

It is certain that a man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.

And because nothing appears within or around us that has not been contaminated by a great immorality, what is a little less vile pleases us as a thing most pure―so long as we confine our minds within the limits of human corruption.

Our mind cannot apprehend God without rendering some honor to him . . . unless we are also persuaded that he is the fountain of every good, and that we must seek nothing elsewhere than in him.

TEN BOOKS THAT CHANGED MY LIFE (PT. 1)

In October of this year (2022), I will celebrate fifty years of Christian faith. I was converted in Munich, Germany, during my second year of university study. It was a time of crisis and prolonged searching.

In this blog and the next two, I will tell you about ten books that deeply impacted me during the first twenty-five years. In the future, I will describe books that influenced me in the second twenty-five years.

Prayers by Michel Quoist

In the inside cover of this book, I wrote “August, 1975,” but I suspect that I began to read it even before I became a believer. Quoist eloquently expresses many human aspirations, weaknesses, and emotionsand in the process teaches us how to pray. Early in my life, I was deeply moved by “Help me to say ‘yes’” and “Lord, deliver me from myself.” I have read these many times throughout the  fifty years. In the last two decades, I have embraced another prayer by the author, “I would like to rise very high,” especially with reference to my intellectual aspirations as a Christian. Here is a short excerpt:

I would like to rise very high, Lord, above my city, above the world, above time. I would like to purify my gaze, and borrow your eyes.
I would then see the universe, humanity and history, as the Father sees them. . . .
And I would see that today, like yesterday, the most minute details are part of it, every person has his place, every group, every object. . . .
Startled, I will begin to understand that the great adventure of Love, that started at the creation of the world, continues to unfold before my eyes.

The Sacred and Profane by Mircea Eliade

Eliade was certainly not a Christian, but I learned a lot from him. (I still have my original copy with my dormitory room number from 1973.) From him, I discovered the uniformity (what is similar) and diversity (what is different) in religions. I became curious to understand homo religiosus (man, the religious being) and homo adoranas (man, the worshipper). From Eliade, I first learned that human beings are incurably spiritual. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he also opened my eyes to the dynamic of idolatry, when he wrote: “The majority of men ‘without religion’ still hold to pseudo religions and degenerated mythologies.” The following observation stills seems prophetic:

From the Christian point of view, it could also be said that nonreligion is equivalent to a new ‘fall’ of man―in other words, that nonreligious man has lost the capacity to live religion consciously, and hence to understand and assume it; but that, in his deepest being, he still retains a memory of it, as, after the first ‘fall’, his ancestor, the primordial man [Adam], retained intelligence enough to enable him to rediscover the traces of God that are still visible in the world.

The New Demons by Jacques Ellul

Beginning with Ellul, I began to discover that the mind played an essential role in Christian faith and spirituality. For the first fourteen years of my church life, I participated in a movement that did not celebrate the intellect or cherish a deep knowledge of scripture. The New Demons was the beginning of my cure. Ellul critiqued culture―including popular evangelicalism and political ideology―in a way that fostered healthy skepticism. He wrote: “In every critical period of history myths reappear which have as their purpose to assure maintenance of a certain type of society and to confirm the dominant group in its faith in the system.” I learned that this dynamic can also occur among religious groups. The following statement had a big impact on my developing mind and anticipated my doctoral dissertation on Romans 1:18–25 (we “suppress” the truth for a “lie” and “exchange” the true God for idols):

It is forgotten that in this word of God there is attestation of man’s sin, of the rupture between man and God and, of man’s situation within evil. To void that, to reduce it, is on the one hand, to render the remainder of revelation completely meaningless, and the other hand, it is to prevent oneself any longer from seeing modern man’s sacralizing, for this man creates a sacred for himself and finds a religion only in order to counter the prior situation.

 

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