“Intellectual people can’t have faith in God.”
Have you ever heard that? The arguments assert that faith and reason are incompatible or that the dichotomy between them too vast to reconcile. So the conclusion that many (have been told to) have, especially in the modern age, is that reason is superior to faith. But I think the arguments hinge on an unnuanced and underdeveloped understanding of faith as well as an inflated optimism of human intellect.
Let me explain.
INTELLECTUAL VS. INTELLECTUALISM
There’s a way of thinking that’s prideful and dangerous. It’s not intellectual, it’s intellectualism. Being intellectual has the goal of properly using the mind. That’s good. Intellectualism has the goal of creating elite classes of people. It’s like any other -ism like racism and sexism. Here’s its definition:
Intellectualism – excessive emphasis on abstract and intellectual matters, especially with a lack of proper consideration for emotions; the doctrine that knowledge is wholly or chiefly derived from pure reason; the belief that reason is the final principle of reality.
And it’s almost inevitable that the intellectual elitists will conspire to lead others in their ideas and definitions of human flourishing. And did I mention that this isn’t specifically a secular or religious problem?
It’s a human problem.
WHY HUMAN REASON BROKE AND GAVE BIRTH TO EXTREME SKEPTICISM
In its first chapters, the Bible tells a story that modern people can relate to because it gives an intellectualistic explanation for how people came to doubt God. Genesis 3 tells a story not about how healthy reason leads to the objection of God, but about how the obsession for knowledge did it. It’s a story about how good is not enough and how the first humans seek to become the elite and sole proprietor of knowledge. It’s a story about intellectualism. The obsession for knowledge warps our thinking in a way that actually rejects the truest things about ourselves and reality.
Intellectualism is a blinder. And the collective human race has unplugged its power chord from the Primary Source for knowledge and plugged itself back into itself or into what was called the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Whether taken literally or figuratively the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil wasn’t just a tree. It was the line drawn between knowledge deriving from a holy source and knowledge deriving from a human source. And from that point on, while humanity was still smart enough to determine what was good and evil, it became utterly incapable of determining what was godly.
Human reason, as God created it, broke.
MODERN CHILDREN OF BROKEN REASON
And now today we doubt God for reasons that in the past others have never really doubted him for such as suffering and the problem of pain. Tim Keller quotes Charles Taylor, a French Canadian philosopher and professor emeritus at McGill University:
“Charles Taylor explains why modern people are far more likely to lose their faith over suffering than those in times past. He says it is because, culturally, our belief and confidence in the powers of our own intellect have changed. Ancient people did not assume that the human mind had enough wisdom to sit in judgment on how an infinite God was disposing of things. It is only in modern times that we get ‘the certainty that we have all the elements we need to carry out a trial of God.’ Only when this background belief in the sufficiency of our own reason shifted did the presence of evil in the world seem to be an argument against the existence of God.” (Tim Keller, Making Sense of God, p. 36)
You see what happened? Obsessive intellectualism creates pride and pride leads to unbelief. It’s Genesis 3 played out in modern times. Most of us don’t feel this intellectual elitism because we’re too ingrained in it and can’t see it for ourselves. We weren’t just born into it, but we were born from it. It is our condition and our modus operandi. Different cultures from different ages manifest it differently, but we all have a common root. Unbelief comes from the pride of thinking we know enough about life to flourish on our own.
However, doubt and unbelief is not new to God and it’s not a problem for Him. He’s found a way not just around it, but through it. What happens when the mind is part of the problem? You don’t ignore the mind and you don’t condemn it. You help it and develop it.
And this is the beginning of the gift of prophecy.
WHY DO WE NEED THE GIFT OF PROPHECY?
The prophetic gift described in the New Testament and practiced for thousands of years has been the answer to what was lost in Genesis 3. Whether you’re familiar or not with the concept of New Testament prophecy, its actual practice is not as mystical as you might wonder. Prophecy is communicating God-thoughts to build people up.
Prophecy is a gift of Jesus (Ephesians 4:11) and it is a part of what God is doing to compensate for the deficiency in human reason until the time he renews everything. When we receive God-thoughts (prophecy) our minds function like Jesus’ mind, who not only has perfect reason, but is the perfect Reason (the Logos, John 1:1).
When we communicate God-thoughts, we prophesy.
Before the Fall, Adam and Eve didn’t need prophecy because their reason was in harmony with God. But in the Fall this logical harmony broke. They lost it and we lost it. But Jesus recovers it for us because he never lost it.
Prophecy seems to be a temporary solution for us to have God-thoughts. Apart from God’s Spirit communicating to me, it’s impossible for me to originate a God-thought. Left on my own I can originate a good thought or an evil thought, but never a God-thought. But Paul says one day this problem will be resolved:
As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away…For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:8-10, 12)
Prophecy is not a matter of telling someone’s future or declaring “thus saith the Lord.” Prophecy is a reminder that God is making all things new, but he’s not done yet. It’s a glimpse, a reminder that one day our minds will be completely in harmony with God’s. One day soon I will reason and know perfectly just like God perfectly knows me.
In the meantime, I develop prophecy to train my mind to have God-thoughts.
PROPHECY IS PRACTICAL AND THEOLOGICALLY ROBUST
Paul explains the purpose of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14:4: “The one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” This is the one gift that fortifies and builds strong community. When we use it, it gives others confidence and affirmation in their calling. When we prophesy, we release people to be confident in faith and to move forward in their identity and destiny in Christ.
When done right, it’s very practical and natural. But let’s not pretend that it’s not mysterious. We don’t know how the Holy Spirit implants God-thoughts. But if you can accept that God communicates to us and we can receive it by grace through faith – then hearing and sensing God is no more mysterious than our own salvation.
Paul explains in Ephesians 2 that salvation is initiated by God’s Spirit and we receive it by grace through faith. And for most people, their salvation experience was the first time they heard God’s voice and received it as loving and authoritative. He sounded like and felt like a good Father.
So one analogous way to understand prophesy is:
What regenerative salvation has done for my spirit, prophesy is doing for my mind.
But the point is that where our minds fail, prophecy fills in the gap. God’s perspective is ultimate reality and he apportions that reality to us through the prophetic gift. When we receive his perspective on a situation and accept it to be truer than what we know and feel, this is the beginning of Biblical repentance and confession. We can shape our response and situation according to his perspective and not ours.
JESUS, THE PERFECT INTELLECT
The ancient Greeks had a philosophical idea called the Logos which was interpreted to be the mind or rule of order behind the universe. It was the reason why the Stoics didn’t feel the need to live by their emotions because they were confident that there was a greater Reason or Logic for why things happened. It’s the reason why in modern times we still say, “There’s a reason for everything.” The Logos was the reason behind the universe.
The Apostle John was clever enough to pick up on this when he called Jesus the Word, the Logos:
In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.
Jesus is the mind or the rule of order behind the universe. And by becoming human, he modelled for us what was lost by Adam and Eve in the Fall: Perfect human reason is a mind plugged into the Father who is the primary source and authority over all things.
Jesus was no dummy and was intellectually rigorous enough to stand toe to toe with any intellect of his day. But he also understood that life isn’t contained in knowledge. Life is contained in the Source of knowledge. He wasn’t plugged into the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He was plugged into the Tree of Life. This is how he knew to only say what the Father told him to say and to do only what he saw the Father doing.
Perfect obedience to God as Father is the ultimate display of unbroken human reason.
Because Jesus is the perfect reason, his gift of prophecy can be thought of as him redeeming of our intellect through his Holy Spirit. And not only is he redeeming our intellect, but he’s undoing the effects of intellectualism, bringing people from doubt to belief, from good and evil to godly, and from death to life.
In Jesus we find the perfect harmony of faith and reason. His gift of prophecy makes this available to humble receivers of his grace. It removes the temptation to become intellectual elitists and frees us to become faith-filled intellectuals.