9th February 2014

“Spiritual savvy”. (1 Corinthians 2:1-16).

I am sure that Martin Luther, the great German Reformer of the Church, was not only single-minded and courageous but also highly intelligent. He studied theology and philosophy at University and later became a Professor at the prestigious University of Wittenberg. He lectured and wrote commentaries on many different books of the Bible; later on he formulated views on the ways in which a truly Christian State should function. He devised a prayer book and two catechisms for the developing Protestant Church; he also led the way in translating the whole Bible into German.

We are, of course, familiar with some of the many hymns which Luther wrote; what you might not know, however, is that he read the whole of the Qu’ran (in a Latin version) and wrote several treatises on the relationship between Christianity and Islam – I don’t think that we would agree with his opinions today! Sadly, Luther’s outspoken views on the Jews may have paved the way for Nazi anti-Semitism; but perhaps it is unfair to judge him today’s criteria. What is clear is that Luther was an original and prolific thinker of the highest degree. He used his intellect to the full and the whole Church benefitted.

And yet this same man said of human reason, “Reason is a whore, the Devil’s prostitute eaten by scab and leprosy, the greatest enemy that faith has. She never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God. Reason deserves, the wretch, to be banished to the closets, the filthiest place in the house”. They certainly knew a thing or two about invective in those days (and it probably sounds even better in German!) – but does this mean he felt that human intelligence counted for nothing?

It is clear that St. Paul, too, was an educated man. Although we don’t know a great deal about his early life, he tells us that he studied under Rabbi Gamaliel, one of the greatest teachers of Jewish Law in the first century. And it is clear from his writings that Paul not only knew the Jewish Law inside out but had also been trained in how to think creatively. In his letters we not only see him applying his fierce intellect to think through the pressing problems that confronted the infant Church, but also leading him along sophisticated logical and theological pathways which certainly flummoxed the apostle Peter! So Paul was clearly someone who made no artificial distinctions between Christian faith and human intelligence; yet here in his letter to the Christians at Corinth he appears to be saying that human wisdom is basically worthless. What on earth is going on?

To answer that question we have to know what Paul is talking about when he mentions “wisdom”; and his understanding of the word is not the same as ours. To us, wisdom is “knowledge gained through experience” or simply a “good dollop of common sense”, something that we have learned over the years in the “school of hard knocks”. But the term had a rather different meaning in first century Corinth: a “wise” person there was someone who was very adept in polished oratory or clever speech, more specifically someone who could deliver the “killer argument” in a classical debate and win over the audience. This kind of so-called wisdom can still be found in our society today, in places such as the Oxford Union or – just possibly – the House of Commons! I suspect, though, that most of us are not impressed by it as we feel it has little to do with everyday life.

However the Corinthian Christians were most impressed by highly articulate preachers or skilled orators – so much so that they were easily carried away by their rhetoric without stopping to ask, “Is this really correct Christian teaching?” or “What will these people gain if I buy into what they are saying?” Crucially they had decided that Paul, for all his intelligence and enthusiasm and spiritual integrity, simply did not measure up to these silver-tongued speakers; for instead of delighting them with a glorious flow of eloquence he kept going back to home truths and had an infuriating tendency to focus on the hugely embarrassing and unfashionable topic of Jesus’ death on the Cross. And so what Paul is saying in this letter is: “Please don’t be taken in by their stylish speechifying! For God’s sake, listen to me instead, for what I’m telling you is the genuine truth of our Gospel”.


I suspect that we are rather less likely to be taken in by orators like those; we know all too well how people such as political dictators such as Adolf Hitler or quick-talking sales representatives can seduce and entrap people. We pride ourselves on being more rational and less gullible; in fact we may be highly suspicious of eloquence and say to ourselves, “Do you know what I think? He’s just too slick for my liking, I’m not really sure I can trust him”. Nevertheless, people do still fall prey to confidence tricksters, in the realm of religion as much as in personal finances or health: possibly because these con-artists are peddling attractive and apparently attainable promises to people who are vulnerable, downtrodden or simply in pain. Sadly the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is an illusion, the only person who does well is the charlatan himself, laughing all the way to the bank.


Now we Reformed Christians do pride ourselves on our intelligent and critical approach to the faith, almost to the point of saying that we are spiritually superior to those ignorant and emotional Pentecostals and Charismatics down the road. While I wouldn’t go so far as suggesting that we actually prefer dry and boring preachers to inspirational and exciting ones, I am reminded of the story of the two ladies coming out of church one Sunday who were discussing the minister’s sermon (and I have to tell you that, in the version I heard, it was the Church of Scotland they were coming out of, so you’ll need to imagine their accents). “Oh”, says one to the other, “Didn’t the Minister preach a good message today?” “Yes”, replies the other, “It was marvellous: it went right over my head and I couldn’t understand a single word”!


We may laugh; but anyone who says things like that is in grave danger of falling into a very similar trap to the Corinthians. I have to tell you that I am much happier listening to an erudite, informed and carefully worked-out sermon than to one which seeks primarily to grab my emotions; I prefer to have my mind stretched and challenged rather than to be browbeaten by a series of pious platitudes or spiritual clichés, however well intentioned; and I will bear down mentally on sloppy thinking or historical inaccuracy. There is nothing wrong with that; but the danger for people like me is that it is all too easy to be carried away by academic erudition, impeccable logic or philosophical flights of fancy – when what we need to be confronted with are the harsh realities of human sin, of Christ and his Cross.


As I said last week, those doctrines do not appeal to Christians of refined tastes; indeed, they are anathema to card-carrying “liberals” who regard them as primitive and crude, unfit for our modern age. But Paul declares that they lie at the heart of our faith and must never be side-lined or argued out of court. And he is supported by the famous Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon who wrote: “Men of education are apt to look upon the simplicities of the cross of Christ with an eye too little reverent and loving ... They are snared in the old net in which the Grecians were taken, and have a hankering to mix philosophy with revelation. Their temptation is to depart from the simple truth of Christ crucified, and to invent, as the term is, a more intellectual doctrine”.


The question I am therefore asking is this: is Paul saying that it is wrong to put reason and intellect at the service of the Christian faith, that intelligence and belief are mutually incompatible? To put things more bluntly, is Paul suggesting that Christians must hang up their minds on clothes pegs by the door whenever they come to worship?

To be fair, I have often rubbed up against an anti-intellectual streak like that in church life, and talked to people who have not only made a huge distinction between what they call “head knowledge” and true spirituality. Indeed, some folk even say that using our minds to critically think through the faith ends up destroying that very faith; they will decry academic theology for diluting and complicating what they regard as the “plain truth” of the Gospel. I do know what these people are getting at – and, after all, Jesus himself spoke about having a “child-like” faith” and trust in God – but I think that they are ultimately misguided and have misunderstood what Paul has written.


For I do not think for one minute that he was against the deployment of our intellects in matters of faith; after all, he used his own brain to the full and exhorted the Christians in Rome to have their minds “renewed” by God. But I do think Paul was saying that we must never privilege human intelligence and rationality over and above faith and God’s revelation, nor must we be taken in by clever reasoning which sounds marvellous but actually has an empty void at its centre. Such an emphasis on human logic was by no means unique to Paul’s day; indeed it has flowered and continued to challenge Christians, particularly in the Western world, for at least the last four centuries.


We have heard already from Luther, the Reformer and Spurgeon, the Baptist. Let’s now turn to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who grew up at a time when reason and rationality were at the cutting edge of contemporary thought. He, of course, was another educated man: not merely a graduate but a fellow of Lincoln College in Oxford. Wesley was a working preacher rather than a systematic theologian but his writings laid the foundations of Methodism; these include many sermons, “Notes on the New Testament” and other works. He was very much aware of current trends in science and philosophy, often reading while riding his horse between preaching engagements (that’s something you can’t do that while driving a car!)


However Wesley – while not expressing himself as pungently as Luther! – firmly declared that human reason must always come second to God’s revelation in matters of faith and life; indeed, it is unable to engender faith. In a sermon snappily entitled “The Case of Reason Impartially Considered”, Wesley argues that human reason is only one of four foundations for our faith, the others being tradition, experience and Scripture. And Scripture is not “the first among equals”; it is far ahead of the other three. Wesley is by no means against academic study and criticism of the Bible as he thinks this actually strengthens its authority rather than weakening it. But he is convinced that we must allow the Bible to frame our thinking, rather than letting human reason govern our approach to the Bible and decide which beliefs are acceptable and which are not. Indeed, Wesley is very cautious about the limitations of human reason: not only is it unable to work out everything, but its very inadequacies were established by God in order to curb our arrogance and pride. Rational intelligence doesn’t have all the answers and it needs to know that.


Well, I have taken you on a fairly length journey this morning, one which at first sight seems to have ended up far from Paul and his Corinthian Christians with their love of stylish rhetoric. But all the way through I have tried to be faithful to what I believe is the right balance between faith and reason, divine revelation and human philosophy, blind belief and over-critical analysis. I do not think that Christians should switch off their God-given brains when it comes to matters of faith; I hope I demonstrate that every Sunday. But I do not think, either, that we should evaluate everything we believe under the microscope of rationality and reject it because it doesn’t seem to make sense or – worse – simply because we don’t like what it is saying.


For ultimately we cannot break down every mystery into bite-sized chunks which our feeble brains can easily assimilate. In fact, we shouldn’t even attempt to do so, for it will be a waste of time if we truly believe in a God whose activity, knowledge and intelligence is so much greater than ours, a God who has disclosed himself to us through unimaginable acts and superhuman revelations, a God who “moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform”. Yes, we reflect upon him; yes, we engage our minds so that we may know him, and understand his world, in the best way we possibly can. But eventually we come to a point where we declare that God and his ways are simply beyond our the limits of human comprehension; and that


            “We are not skilled to understand
             what God has willed, what God has planned;
             we only know that at his right hand
             is One who is our Saviour!”