In 1964, Richard Hofstadter won the Pulitzer Prize for his work Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, published a year earlier. In the book, Hofstadter traces an endemic strain of American anti-intellectualism all the way back to the Great Awakening and earlier. From the very beginning, for better and for worse, America’s emphasis on practicality and common sense has imbued the pulpit as well. In a modern age when the word “theology” is often a pejorative term, blue-collar ministry can sometimes disparage any sense of real biblical learning. Three hundred years ago, the Puritan concept of “practical divinity” embodied the idea that daily study of Scripture supported everyday Christian living. Nowadays evangelicals can exhibit such a tendency for the practical that even daily study of Scripture seems impractical. Sadly, countless churches have forsaken personal devotion and piety under the banner of “living out their faith.” Over the years, with the influence of movements like Scottish Common Sense Realism and modern revivalism, American Christianity has begun to establish a false dichotomy between biblical learning and biblical living, placing a heavy premium on praxis while dismissing heavy biblical thinking. The following are three ways that pastors can address anti-intellectualism in the church without forfeiting a faith perfected by works. (James 2:22)
- Practically Demonstrate The Importance of Scripture
Some of the most important questions to ask in a church concern the meaning of words. For example, “What does propitiation mean?” There’s often a common misconception in evangelical circles that five-syllable words inevitably fall in the “theology” bucket instead of the Bible. Words like hilasmos are counterintuitive to that type of thinking. Intellectuals didn’t cook up the word “propitiation” in a classroom; it’s actually God-breathed. (1 John 2:2, Rom. 3:25, 2 Tim. 3:16) In short, if it was worth God’s time to reveal it, it’s worth our time to learn it from every angle possible. Practical Christian living only stands as tall as it’s grounded in practical Bible study. When Christians understand that God expects us to use our heads as well as our hearts, theology isn’t such a scary word.
Pastors, explain what you mean. Expecting all of your hearers to understand and absorb words like ecclesiology and eschatology is the height of pastoral arrogance. It’s the reason that so many churches today unknowingly equate a word like Calvinism with a word like Gnosticism: a faith for the few. One of the best ways to address anti-intellectualism is accommodation of speech almost to the point of being pedantic. Augustine asks, “What is the use of correct speech if it does not meet with the listener’s understanding? There is no point at speaking at all if our words are not understood by the people to whose understanding our words are directed.” (On Christian Doctrine) The Apostle Paul even warns us about quarrels over words. (2 Tim. 2:14) However, when preachers stick to the text of Scripture, quarrels over words become quarrels with the Holy Spirit. Practically demonstrating the importance of Scripture also means the public reading of Scripture in other ways than just the Sunday message. Are the leaders of the church being asked to preach or read? Theology is also practical in our liturgy as well as our daily Christian living.
- Evangelism is the Epitome of Practical Christianity.
Paul reminds Timothy, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” (1 Tim. 1:5) In other words, the ultimate purpose of theology is love. It’s why we study Scripture: to love God and to love His people. And there is no more loving thing in the world than to deliver the good news of Jesus Christ to the soul who is lost. Pastors aren’t just called to preach theology; they’re also called to do theology. When the church understands the purpose for theology and witnesses its loving fruit, anti-intellectualism is squashed. Likewise, a church without a burden for the unreached and unchurched has misunderstood its call and has made a theology an end unto itself. Evangelism demonstrates our love for the world and our faithfulness to the very Scriptures that fuel our efforts. Biblical learning and Christian living don’t have to be placed in separate corners of the Christian life. In fact, they come together nicely when we share our faith with the unregenerate.
- Be a Friendly Intellectual.
Everyone loves the intellectual they know. The truth about the church is that not every part or limb is going to look like the other, and that goes both ways. (1 Cor. 12:12) Just as the retired deacon who worked 30 years at the local plant shouldn’t expect you to share all of his giftings, the pastor shouldn’t expect every member to share his love of the Greek language. Pastor, celebrate the diversity of Christ’s body. You are called to disciple, not make intellectuals. (Matt. 28:19) This process is made easier on both ends when a church believes and sees the pastor’s love for his people. At its heart, anti-intellectualism isn’t really an aversion to heavy biblical thinking; it’s usually an aversion to the pride of heavy biblical thinking. When the Apostle Paul spoke of knowledge puffing up and love building up, he was addressing the kind of egotistical knowledge that comes with someone who values their own brilliance. (1 Cor. 8:1) Be a friendly intellectual. While we’re not all called to be locust-eating, camel-wearing mountain men, likewise many are not called to parse the entire book of Romans. God’s kingdom is diverse. Have understanding. Celebrate His body.