Seven Disciplines of the Christian Scholar

In a previous post, I discussed six convictions to guide Christian scholarship. By “disciplines,” I mean habits that spring from these convictions and require determination to maintain. These habits will not be easy. As Sertillanges put it, “The life of study is austere and imposes grave obligations. . . . The athletes of the mind, like those of the playing field, must be prepared for privations, long training, a sometimes superhuman tenacity.”[1] The disciplines listed here are essential and actionable—essential in that scholarship cannot advance properly without them, and actionable in the sense that they move beyond convictions to concrete actions.

1. The discipline of worship.

Scholarship is not an end in itself. It is a means to worshiping God. Indeed, the more a scholar seeks after truth, the more he finds reason to worship. As he traces intricate paths of inquiry, he often finds that they disappear beyond his comprehension, but that they always lead back to their source, the God of truth. Thus, the Christian scholar does not hesitate to mingle devotion and prayer in his studies, no matter the discipline. In fact, a silent word of gratitude, an earnest prayer for insight, or a brief pause to reflect at the beauty and grandeur of a God so lofty, are rational responses for a human who delves deeply into any subject.

Some of the most influential intellectual works in Christian literature are steeped in a spirit of worship—for example, Anselm’s Proslogion. While many dispute the effectiveness of the ontological argument, no one can question its worshipful tone:

“So truly therefore dost Thou exist, O Lord my God, that Thy non-existence is inconceivable; and with good reason; for if a man’s mind could conceive aught better than Thou, the creature would rise above the creator and judge Him; which is utterly absurd.”[2]

Many portions in Augustine’s Confessions are also stated as prayers, including this well-known passage:

“You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.”[3]

While not all realms of scholarship require explicitly addressing God in articles and essays, Christian scholars would do well to infuse their scholarship with this same spirit, if not the letter, of God-adoring worship.

Of course, a indispensable feature of Christian worship is the gathering of Christ’s people in the context of a local church. So gathering weekly with one’s church (including the fellowship and accountability that accompanies church life) is an indispensable part of genuine Christian scholarship.

This discipline does not come naturally, for it is the mind’s tendency to wield intellectual attainment for self-glory. The scholar must bend his efforts to God’s purposes. He must remind himself that he carries out his work God’s enablement alone, for God’s glory alone, and ultimately in God’s presence alone. With the Apostle Paul Christian scholars can exclaim, “For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36). The scholar does not worship his scholarship, but rather worships in his scholarship.

The discipline of holiness

If it is true that our minds have been adversely affected by sin, then the banishment of sin can only have a salutary effect on our minds (Romans 8:6). Thus, the Christian scholar must make the pursuit of holiness an essential discipline. He cannot ingest poison into his moral life and expect that that his intellectual life will retain its vigor and clarity. The partitioned life is a myth. As noted above, the intellectual, social, moral, and spiritual components of a human are interrelated. They affect and are affected by another. The scholar must pursue holiness, putting off sinful habits, renewing his mind, and putting on actions that resemble Christ’s character (Ephesians 4:22-24).

3. The discipline of healthy living.

The conviction that we are composite beings created in the image of God means that we cannot devote time and attention to one segment of ourselves and neglect others without also damaging that segment we are seeking to cultivate. Just as ignorance can lead to poor health choices, so poor health can obstruct mental growth. Wrong beliefs can cause emotional distress, but emotional distress can also cultivate wrong beliefs. The actionable item here for the Christian scholar is that he must maintain health in all areas of his life, not just his intellect. Sertillanges urges this composite discipline on his readers: “You will not imagine that your work is of more importance than you, and that even an increase of intellectual possibilities should prevail over the achievement of your true self. . . . To be where we ought to be, to do what we ought to do, disposes us for contemplation, and feeds it.”[4] Thus the Christian scholar manages his work responsibilities, relationships, exercise and nutrition, not merely as necessary evils, but as essential parts of what it means to be a human created in the image of God, as he is convinced that health in all these areas will only serve to heighten the vigor of his intellectual output.

4. The discipline of quiet solitude.

Both James Sire and A. G. Sertillanges discuss silence and solitude as separate disciplines, but there is a great deal of overlap. “Interior silence” may be maintained in the midst of noisy surroundings. Yet simply because one is alone does not mean he has dismissed all distractions.[5] Ultimately, both disciplines have the same aim: to allow the scholar to think unbrokenly. There must be a deliberate stilling of noisy and conflicting thoughts, the decisive elimination of distractions that derail that essential train of thought, the consistent putting aside of curious interests that are winding trails off the central path toward truth. Quiet solitude will help the scholar see past mere facts to the underlying truth.

In an age when we have vast amounts of information about virtually anything at our fingertips, the discipline of quiet solitude is more difficult yet even more critical to maintain. The Christian scholar must resist the temptation to know what everyone is saying about his particular topic. This might mean the setting aside of social media, unsubscribing to blogs, and putting the phone out of one’s reach. It will also mean staying on top of one’s other responsibilities, so the mind will not be constantly be nagged with these concerns.

5. The discipline of curiosity.

James Sire calls this discipline lateral thinking.[6] I have chosen to call it disciplined curiosity, the inquisitive branching into other areas of thought, with the result that the whole of truth is seen more clearly. This curiosity is an essential component of creativity, which is in turn an essential component of the intellectual life. When the scholar intentionally peers into other arenas completely different from his own, he brings fresh insights into his own study, seeing new connections to which he was formerly blind. Just as constant smelling can immunize the olfactory nerves from an intense fragrance, so the mind can begin to be dulled by fixating on the same topic with no break.

This curiosity is not merely diversion. It takes discipline to explore another topic, especially one in which the scholar is not naturally interested. Yet this disciplined curiosity, or lateral thinking, is especially essential in the realm of theology, whose metaphysical atmosphere can seem so far removed from the realities of daily life. Thus, the scholar of theology can benefit from exploring psychology, behavioral sciences, art, law, history, and a host of other disciplines.

6. The discipline of reading.

The cultural and intellectual conversation throughout history is a paper trail—the great ideas have been enshrined in writing. Even more importantly, God has condescended to communicate his mind in human syllables reduced in Scripture to paper and ink. For these reasons, the Christian scholar must read, but his reading must be disciplined in choice and subject matter. As Francis Bacon has famously advised, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”[7] The Christian scholar should choose books which expand his mind, challenge his thinking, and pull him to a higher level.

7. The discipline of writing.

Finally, the Christian scholar must write. He must not be content to be a consumer of ideas, but a producer of them. Like other areas, his writing must be disciplined if he will have any productivity at all. Good writing is the result of deep thought, careful planning, but mostly laborious rewriting. The scholar that tends to be perfectionistic must be careful not to spend all his time researching every possibly pertinent datum and never reach the writing stage. Neither should he allow his writings to never see the light of day due to his obsessive revisions. He strives for perfection, but realizes his writing will never be perfect. Only God has the last word to say on any topic. Inevitably, there will be sentences, paragraphs, chapters, perhaps even a thesis, that he would modify or scrap completely. Yet this should not keep him from contributing to the intellectual conversation.

Faith and scholarship are not mutually exclusive. Christian scholarship is no oxymoron. Christians should be scholarly, and scholarship must be Christian. Of course not every Christian is called to a life of scholarship, nor is every aspect of scholarship explicitly about Christ. However, no aspect of scholarship can be legitimately separated from the person and work of Jesus Christ.

[1] OP A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, trans. Mary Ryan (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1987), 4.

[2] Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (Oxford University Press, 1999), 151.

[3] Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding and John E. Rotelle, Second edition (Brooklyn, NY: New City Press, 2012), 39.

[4] Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life, 58.

[5] Ibid., 67.

[6] Sire, Habits of the Mind, 136.

[7] Francis Bacon, Bacon’s Essays (Indo-European Publishing, 2010), 84.

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 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.”