Thoughts on Christian Theology and Pastoring

Six Convictions of the Christian Scholar

At the outset of my PhD program, my professor assigned a paper with the topic “faith and scholarship.” Due to the word count limitations, what I’ve posted here never made into the paper I actually submitted. But writing that paper compelled me to think through the convictions that would guide me as I began my…

At the outset of my PhD program, my professor assigned a paper with the topic “faith and scholarship.” Due to the word count limitations, what I’ve posted here never made into the paper I actually submitted. But writing that paper compelled me to think through the convictions that would guide me as I began my academic journey. I’ve tried to arrange these convictions in order of logical necessity. Beginning with God, who is the source and ground of all being, they proceed to the certainty of God’s revelation, then to the scholar himself and his ability to know truth. Finally, they circle around to God and his call to scholarship.

1. God is the source of all truth: faith in seeking.

The Christian scholar is convinced, first, that God is the source of all truth. The fundamental building blocks of thinking—the laws of identity and noncontradiction—find their spring within the existence and nature of God. The mystery of unity in diversity finds its supralogical rationale in God’s Trinitarian nature. The formulas for goodness and beauty reside within the secrets of God’s mind. Because God is the source of all truth, the Christian philosopher affirms with the psalmist that “in your light do we see light” (Psalm 36:9, ESV). Because God is the source of beauty, the Christian artist can “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 96:9, KJV). Because God is the source of goodness, the Christian ethicist can “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8, ESV)

2. Human knowledge is real but fragmented: humility in knowing.

Convinced that the God who exists is also the God who imparts knowledge, the Christian scholar can be certain that he can possess knowledge. In this respect, he rejects the false epistemic humility of Humean skepticism. If God exists, he has chosen to reveal himself. And if he has chosen to reveal himself, there must be objects of that revelation, namely humans, created in his image. This conviction breeds a humble confidence—confidence that we can know, yet humble in that the source of knowledge springs from God, not ourselves.

The scholar finds himself further humbled by another conviction: exhaustive knowledge on any topic is impossible. Because he is finite, the scholar will only ever have an incomplete grasp of any area of study. The scholar’s incomplete knowledge compels him to maintain some tentativeness about truth claims outside of Scripture.

Still another conviction about human knowledge produces humility in the scholar: the noetic effect of sin. In their natural state, humans “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). Our sinful wills obscure the light of God’s revelation. Although the regenerated mind has a radically new orientation, endowed with the Holy Spirit’s guidance (John 16:13), the influence of the sinful flesh is not automatically eliminated. Accordingly, the Christian scholar must constantly fight laziness, pride, self-deception, and the temptation to defend rather than examine cherished beliefs and habits. Thus, because of the self-revealing character of God, the scholar can have real knowledge, but his confidence in that knowledge must be tempered by a humility that is the only appropriate response to his finiteness and the lingering effects of sin.

3. Special revelation gives certain knowledge and final authority: confidence in the Scripture.

Yet there is knowledge about which the scholar can be certain, and that knowledge is found in the Holy Scripture. The scholar must not be tentative about what the Scripture teaches. In contrast to knowledge gained by experience and reason, knowledge gained from the Scripture is certain and unassailable. Because of this, the scholar should apply the test of Scripture to whatever claim he encounters. The Christian scholar moves forward in his scholarship with the conviction that true and certain knowledge is found in Scripture.

4. The scholar is a composite whole: balance in living.

A fourth conviction that impels the Christian scholar concerns himself: that he is a composite being, composed of a body as well as a mind. While he may not be able to explain the nature of these psychosomatic connections, he at least acknowledges that his mental, emotional, volitional, social, spiritual, and physical aspects are inseparable, each part affecting the others.

5. Scholarship shapes and is shaped by other people: thinking in community

Scholarship does not happen in a vacuum—it takes place in conversations with other scholars, past and present. The scholar recognizes that he is an intellectual heir of a long line of scholars whose ideas have shaped, unconsciously or consciously, his own thinking. He recognizes that he is listening to a conversation that began millennia before he was born, and will most likely continue long after he dies. He recognizes, further, that if he listens carefully and thoughtfully, he can have a voice in the conversation that may be heard for generations to come. For good scholarship to happen, then, the scholar must master ideas—good and bad, past and present.[1]

6. Christian scholarship is a divine calling: loving God with one’s mind

The Christian scholar is devoted to cultivating the life of the mind—not merely as a career path or hobby, but as God’s call on his life. The call to love God with all one’s mind applies to all Christians; but for some Christians, whose capacities, interests, and opportunities allow, this love takes the form of scholarship. Christian scholarship, then, is an expression of love for Christ.

The Christian scholar views his scholarship, not only as an expression of love, but as his obedience to the dominion mandate (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:15). Just as God delegated to Adam the responsibility to extend God’s kingly dominion over the flora and fauna, so God delegates to the Christian scholar dominion over another corner of his garden—the wild frontier of ideas. If Adam had work to do in that primal garden before the fall, how much cultivation must the modern Christian scholar do! Before him is a chaotic jungle strewn with unbelief, error, and wickedness. And within him is a fallen (though regenerate) mind, prone to the same moral laxity. The task of the Christian scholar—to bring the world of ideas under the liberating lordship of Christ—is a daunting task indeed.

If it were not for God’s divine calling, then, the Christian scholar would have no courage to move forward. But with the assurance of God’s calling and enablement, he can face the task with joy and adventure. As the scholar applies his energy, learning, and creativity, the pure light of his Christian faith will be refracted into spectral colors through the prism of his particular academic discipline—whether natural science, psychology, history, philosophy or theology. God has called him to study, and he will do it will all his might (Colossians 3:23).

[1] Dulles, A History of Apologetics, 206. In his assessment of the apologetics during the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, Dulles laments that apologists “seem[ed] unable to turn the tables on the adversaries by mastering and correcting the new currents of thought.”

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