By Ron Corson
The word intellectual when not prefaced by the term “pointed headed,” reflects by definition the use of one’s intellect over emotion or experience. It is by and large in Western society the legacy of early Christianity. The Christian faith is built upon the books written by people after the time of Christ. Jesus wrote no words for us to quote or they would surely have become the Scripture to all Christians. There was no shortage of books about Jesus or about Christians in those first three centuries of the Common Era. There were many literary works with many differing views of God and Jesus Christ.
In the second century Marcion edited and presented his own view of what the Christian canon should be well before the proto orthodox (those who were the first to hold to what would become orthodox Christianity and the compiled a more standardized Christian belief) decided that a canon was a good idea. Marcion’s canon included several books by Paul and an edited version of something very similar to Luke’s Gospel minus the first few chapters. Marcion was a member of the Gnostic form of Christianity. As such the God of Jesus Christ and the God of the Old Testament were two different Gods and as with many Gnostic’s Jesus was not man or God/man He was a spirit, a phantom who only appeared to be a man. We know about Marcion because of what the Early Church Fathers wrote about him, we have none of his writings but we have a good number of other Gnostic writings many found in Nag Hammadi in 1945. Examples of Gnostic writing include the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Truth. Those being the most readable but by no means cover all the Gnostic or other works from the early centuries of Christianity. Recently the news has told us about the new find called The Gospel of Judas. The debates in the first 400 years of the early church dealt with what today some call the “Lost Gospels”. It was from the Early Church Father’s writings until the find at Nag Hammadi that the Gnostic views were known. It was up to the Early Church Fathers to deal with those works and we can still read of their intellectual arguments.
The Early Church Fathers and even the Gnostic Christians were intellectuals. They used literary works to argue their position against the Gnostics and we have even seen Gnostic literary work that argues against the proto orthodox form of Christianity. The very literature we have today can often be traced back to these intellectual debates in early Christianity. Even the very simply logical idea of context of written material was decided by Christian argumentation. What is common sense to us today was part of the battle ground of the intellectual processes of our early Christian fathers. Today we would likely laugh at many of the arguments that some of the Early Church Fathers used. Yet the encapsulation of the Christian Canon was based upon years of Christian debate; arguments, rebuttals and appeals to reason. However these Christians show us intellectual debate does not remove God from the process. God must act upon the human mind; it is the point of contact between the transcendent God and the physical man; the nexus between the spirit of man and the Spirit of God.
Intellectual Christianity takes work and as time passed it became easier to merely follow religious institutions. Man by his nature is often lazy and seeks the path of least resistance. Not all men of course, for the Christian church could never have been founded by lazy men and women. As orthodox Christianity grew and spread so did the power of the church. With time intellectual Christianity diminished. The Protestant Reformation gave renewed hope to Christianity as the intellectual Christians began to question what tradition had done to the orthodox Christian religion. The Bible as the accepted standard, again took center stage and intellectual Christians championed new ways of understanding the messages that God had inspired. The mind, perhaps God’s greatest handiwork was used by God through the agency of intellectual Christians to rehabilitate the Christian church from the damage done by tradition. When emotion and experience based upon tradition were opposed by the God enabled intellectuals, the church changed.
Protestants today are in need of intellectual Christianity as much as any other time in history. The intellectual activity of our predecessors does not automatically flow to us. Their wisdom and their folly are there to be seen and learned from by those willing to process the information. Protestant heritage includes great minds; men and women of great accomplishments. But to use our intellectual faculties we have to make decisions that likely will lead us away from traditions which were not well founded. Not all emotion, experience or tradition is contrary to intellectual process. But it is the intellectual process that evaluates emotion, experience and tradition deciding what to keep and what to discard. History is less a guide and more a milepost; a sign to the ever vigilant and a message to those who desire understanding.
As the Adventist church stands at a point where it must decide to cling to tradition or accept intellectual Christian challenges, so also must other Protestant churches. The term Evangelical at one time meant the idea of a church spreading the good news of God found in the four gospels. Today the term has come to mean the same as fundamentalist. Evangelical now means people who hold to the Bible as inerrant, infallible and holding to a strictly vicarious atonement, scientifically and socially out of step with reasonable people. While a Christian may not worry too much about what the world says of them (realizing that as Jesus said the world would reject His followers as it rejected Him). Still there may be some truth to those who now use the word Evangelical as derogatory.
The intellectual Christians that built up the church are becoming less and less visible. Today many of the large Protestant churches have abandoned the long held Protestant church practice of Sunday school. Many churches offer little opportunities for adults to interact with one another in the discussion of religious topics. Cell groups, the popular innovation of the last 20 years are sometimes so authoritarian that questioning a leader is not even allowed. Singing and Sermons have become the main form of religious instruction in today’s Protestant churches with the exception of Televangelists. Divergent views and questions have no place in today’s modern Christian churches. While Adventist churches have not abandoned the Sabbath school program it may be so poorly attended or conducted that it often becomes hard to find a Sabbath school that one feels comfortable presenting a differing view or posing serious questions.
The reason for this situation is very likely that today’s Protestants, as well as Adventists, have accepted the idea that his or her church has “The Truth”. The truth is being preached and there is nothing anyone needs to question or challenge. To challenge and question is what the atheists and the worldly folk do, it is not what we Christians do. It is the decline and fall of the Christian intellectual as the traditional once again gains ascendancy. It is possibly a new Dark Ages at a critical time for Christianity, with the concurrent lack of viability of Christianity in Europe and Canada and the attacks of progressive secularism in America. For Christianity to survive outside of the uneducated third world intellectual Christianity must be maintained. It is something that the Adventist church must fight for; it is something our Sabbath schools must fight for. Sabbath or Sunday school are a good indication of how well members are assimilated in a church, equally importantly however they are vital to intellectual Christians. Stimulating the thinking process and spurring continued study and application of knowledge.
The Christian church has a long history of argument. The arguments are recorded in the New Testament book of Acts and the writings of Paul. Several New Testament authors warn of the false teachers of the day. Truth and error have always existed inside the Christian Church; even the very godly can produce error and error repeated can become tradition. Christian Intellectuals may not be in agreement, they may even argue in Sabbath school and be critical of their own churches, but it is all apart of the process of thinking and applying knowledge. Christian Intellectuals believe that God will lead them into all truth, as the Bible says. However, since throughout history we have not arrived at all truth it is not likely that we will arrive at all truth today or tomorrow. We are all works in progress, and it is our faith in God manifested in Jesus Christ that maintains our unity even during the disagreements.