October 4, 2016 Aaron Ross

The Madness of Learning

There has been somewhat of a stigma that too much theological learning, too much questioning, or too much interaction with those who might question some orthodox beliefs will lead one to lose his/her faith. Sometimes Acts 26:24 is even cited poorly as an attempt to credit those claims. We recently asked Dr. Craig Keener, F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and author of over 20 books ranging from works for the church to dense theological tomes, how he understands the intersection of faith and learning.

Given how prolific of a writer you are, which is sometimes dauntingly filled with what can seem like more footnotes and references than content, what would you say to those who have tried to argue that too much learning is bad for the Christian?

In context Acts 26:24 is the governor accusing Paul of being insane for much learning because Paul is alluding to Scripture! And God invites us to meditate on Scripture all the time and everywhere we go (Deut 6:6-9; Ps 1:2)! As for learning other knowledge to function in other contexts, Scripture offers good models. Moses was trained in all the wisdom of the Egyptians (Acts 7:22), as we would expect for members of the Egyptian elite. Daniel and his friends were trained in the learning of the Chaldeans (Dan 1:4). Paul can quote Greek poets (though maybe after studying the ancient version of Cliff Notes) when relating to elite Athenians in Acts 17:28. Apollos’s apparent training in rhetoric (Acts 18:24) helped him debate for Jesus (18:28).

Honesty with the data leads us toward truth.

But this also requires us to think critically about what people say. Everyone starts with presuppositions, and grids through which they interpret reality; anyone who claims not to can be immediately dismissed as naïve. People who challenge the faith usually make misinformed or unfair arguments that are easy to take apart if we have the knowledge that we should, or know where to acquire that knowledge. Many skeptics’ smug assurance reveals ignorance rather than knowledge. I was an arrogant atheist before I met Christ, but Christ makes far more sense of the world than I had made of it myself as an atheist. Because I know Christ, I can now embrace the starting premise that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7).

During my research, I rigorously faced the challenges people raised against faith, carefully evaluating their claims and doing research. I can’t reasonably expect everyone else to go spend ten or twenty years doing research, but you should at least be able to read believers (or at least skeptics of skeptics) who have done solid research. Most discourse on a popular level simply trades insults and clichés barely worth answering, but today we have some superb Christian thinkers who have done excellent research and whose arguments can more than hold their own.

Sooner or later you will (hopefully) have friends who genuinely want to know why you believe what you believe.

It is no secret, though, that there are those who through deep learning have left the faith, whether this came from supposedly irreconcilable enigmas (like the philosophical problem of evil), or through the apparent discrepancies between history or science and the Bible, or many of the other difficulties that are cited in the loss of one’s faith. What might be a helpful way for some to learn and explore theologically and biblically that may challenge one’s faith without pushing one away from the faith?

My answer to this would start with, “Read my answer to Question 1.” There are also many people whose questions have led them to Christian faith instead of away from Christian faith. Indeed, many of those who came to Christ this way end up doing apologetics (on a popular level, e.g., Lee Strobel, J. Warner Wallace, or Nabeel Qureshi, or on a more advanced level William Lane Craig or Gary Habermas). (Skeptics dismiss them as “apologists,” but “apologetic” means a defense, and anybody who is arguing for a particular view—including skeptics—is in a sense making an apologetic for it. Someone supporting skepticism is not arguing a neutral position!)

Some of those who turn away from the faith do so because of witnessing hypocrisy among professing Christians, the difficulties of temptation, and so on, but some also do so because of experiencing either an intellectually empty version of faith or an indefensibly rigid one. There are some popular versions of “inerrancy” (though rarely held by biblical scholars, even inerrantist ones) that try to harmonize every detail in the Bible in ways that are obviously forced. Most of us laugh when somebody has to have Peter deny Jesus nine times to harmonize the different Gospel accounts of his denials. That sort of rigidity demands a level of precision that ancient readers did not expect in even their most reliable historical writings.

Some people get so rigid with details or with particular doctrines that if you pull out one piece their entire faith collapses. I had one professor who, when he discovered some errors in his fundamentalist upbringing, threw the baby out with the bathwater and thereafter attacked faith instead of held it. One of his colleagues, a Jewish professor, dismissed him as simply a “repressed fundamentalist.” This former fundamentalist maintained his completely either-or worldview and just switched sides. He even lumped me and Rudolf Bultmann together as fundamentalists because we both believed in God, but conceded that unlike Bultmann I at least offered reasonable arguments for what I believed!

With how much exploring you have done on some topics that may not have concrete or “black and white” answers, how important is it to always try to find a concrete answer, and how should we understand our faith in light of some of some of these topics?

On many issues we can just do our best. There are different epistemological approaches—or ways to know something—for different spheres of knowledge. With mathematics, you can demonstrate something with certainty given particular axioms, or assumptions. With science, you examine evidence repeatedly and infer the best explanation that covers all the evidence, though it remains provisional in case you discover conditions somewhere (say, black holes or superconductivity, or perhaps special divine action!) that don’t fit your explanation. With historical reconstruction or detective work, you try to achieve the highest level of probability possible based on surviving evidence.

The experience of the Spirit inspires faith, especially when we meet God’s message in Christ.

Regarding the faith, some matters are more central than others. At the core of our faith is that Jesus died for our sins, God raised him from the dead, and that by entrusting ourselves to him we can be with him forever. Ethically at the heart of our faith is Jesus’ command to love one another, and to spread the just-forementioned good news about him. But working out from the center there are other issues where we might disagree, yet still be brothers and sisters in Christ. I absolutely affirm that God empowers women as well as men for ministry, for example, but I will not break fellowship with someone who disagrees. I love to pray in tongues, but somebody who is suspicious of this experience yet loves Jesus is still my brother or sister. And you can go further and further from the center until, like us scholars, you are sometimes debating the meaning of a Greek verb or whether a particular preposition is in the original text of some verse. We scholars devote an inordinate yet enjoyable proportion of our time trying to resolve such matters, but it’s important not to swallow a camel while trying to strain out a gnat—to miss the forest for the trees. Keep the focus where it belongs.

Ethically at the heart of our faith is Jesus’ command to love one another, and to spread the just-forementioned good news about him.

Finally, can you give any thoughts or encouragements to both students of theology and the church as a whole on learning, theological explorations, and their importance in the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth?

Knowing and proclaiming Jesus is what matters most. But the more you know and understand about him, and about what pertains to him, the more you can make use of this for the kingdom. For example, I do enjoy studying history even for its own sake. And Proverbs urges us to seek knowledge, and wisdom especially (which shows us what to do with our knowledge—you don’t want to be like a fool in whose mouth a proverb is like a thorn in a drunkard’s hand, Prov 26:9!)

But I am now in my fifties and understand now that it is impossible for anyone to master all knowledge in our lifetime; such a pursuit is “striving after wind” (Eccl 1:17). By contrast, the fear of the Lord is the foundation for wisdom; we can trust Someone infinitely smarter than all of us put together. Learn everything you can—but make it count eternally by devoting it to the service of the One who merits all our devotion.

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About the Author

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Aaron Ross Aaron Ross is an instructor of theology at Southeastern University and a PhD student at the University of Birmingham (UK). He is also the senior editor of ECCLESIAM. In his spare time, Aaron enjoys running and being an avid movie watcher.