Dear Theophilus: On the Spiritual Discipline of Study and Intellectual Engagement

By Manny Cota, MA
College of Theology

April 03, 2018

At times I struggle balancing my spiritual life and my intellectual life. I like to go deep and ask deep questions, but some have recently condemned my questions as prideful and “worldly.” Does the Bible condemn academic study or intellectual engagement because it counts as “worldly wisdom” and knowledge that make one to “puff up” with pride?

Sincerely, Theophilus

Dear Theophilus,

Your question reveals the heart and mind of a person hungry for knowledge and truth. Though it is certainly possible to become prideful and arrogant in one’s intellectual pursuits, Scripture applauds those who go deep for the sake of truth and relationship with God. The antidote to pride is not ignorance but humility. Moreover, your intellectual life ought to be cultivated for the sake of relationship with God and the sake of His kingdom.

Humility, not ignorance, is the antidote to pride.

What would it mean to say that one’s questions or desire for knowledge are “worldly” or prideful?

Consider first what it actually means to know something. When contemporary Philosophers discuss knowledge, they speak of having a justified true belief about the object of knowledge. In this way there are essentially three parts to knowledge; essentially one must have a belief. Secondly, that belief must be true. Finally, one must be justified in holding that belief such that they have good reasons to accept the belief in question.  For example, if I were to have knowledge of the proposition that “I don’t owe any taxes to the IRS,” I would have to first have the belief “I don’t owe any taxes to the IRS.” Secondly, that belief must be true. And finally, I must be justified in accepting the belief “I don’t owe any taxes to the IRS” such that I have good reasons to accept this belief by way of receipts, a statement in the mail, etc.

The important thing is that in order to have knowledge, you must acquire greater justification (i.e. more and better reasons) to believe something is a good thing. Therefore thinking hard and asking deep questions is a prime way to increase one’s justification and confidence in one’s beliefs, including beliefs about God and the teachings of Scripture.

Interestingly, in addition to breaking down knowledge into three constituent parts, philosophers also speak of different kinds of knowledge. For example, having knowledge of the kinds of statements that give me information, such as “Paris makes the best food in the world,” is known as propositional knowledge. This is knowledge that…Paris makes the best food in the world or knowledge that “Paris is the capital of France,” By contrast it is another thing to know “Paris makes the best food in the world” in an experiential way by walking its streets, smelling the fresh bread and tasting the wine. This kind of experiential knowledge is known as knowledge by acquaintance. There is also a third kind of knowledge by which one acquires a certain skill or ability such as riding a bike which is known as know-how. A child can have know-how in regards to riding a bike but not be able to explain the process propositionally.

What is important to point out for our purposes is that one can be arrogant and prideful about all sorts of “knowledge,” even if it is not academic or propositional knowledge. This should serve as a sober warning to those of us in ministry who might falsely assume we are innocuous to pride and arrogance because we were not formally educated (as in seminary for example). The antidote to pride is not anti-intellectualism or ignorance, but humility (Eph. 4:2; Phil. 4:8; Jam. 4:6; 1 Pet. 3:8, 5:5-6).

Humility is required because it is recognition of our finiteness as creatures given our inability to know everything. To be sure, our desire to know more and more may reveal deeper desires or motivations, which may be sinful or contrary to scriptural truths. For example it is easy to think “the more I know, the more in control I am of my life and destiny,” or “If I know more, I can prove myself to be better than others and exert my power and will over them,” etc. Such desires and motivations echo something like the forbidden knowledge obtained in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) and the desire to make a name for oneself in the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-8). Nevertheless, we are called to worship God with every part of our being including our intellect.

Cultivate the mind for the sake of intimacy with God and service to others.

If this is the case, your intellectual life need not be thought of as a hindrance or distraction to your spiritual growth but rather a vital part of it. Some of the most brilliant thinkers in the history of the church were those who devoted their whole selves to the service of God including their minds. One of my favorite examples is Anselm of Canterbury, who served as the Archbishop of Canterbury around 1100 AD.

In his famous book called the Proslogion, Anselm begins with the following meditation and prayer:

  1. A rousing of the mind to the contemplation of God

Come now, insignificant man, fly for a moment from your affairs, escape for a little while from the tumult of your thoughts. Put aside now your weighty care and leave your wearisome toils. Abandon yourself for a little while to God and rest for a little in Him. Enter into the inner chamber of your soul, shut out everything save God and what can be of help in your quest for Him and having locked the door seek Him out [Matt. 6:6]. Speak now, my whole heart, speak now to God: ‘I seek your countenance, O Lord, your countenance I seek’ [Ps. 26:8].

After immersing himself in intimate worship, Anselm then goes on to present one the most famous and complex arguments for the existence of God, known as the ontological argument. For Anselm, his deep thinking and academic work was his worship. In fact Anselm would describe his study as an exercise in faith seeking understanding; for him study and intellectual engagement were spiritual disciplines. And so, they should be for us as well.

I hope this discussion was useful to you, may God bless you in your efforts and studies for your good and to His glory and honor.


St Anselm, Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G. R. Evans, Reissue edition (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

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