I remember when God led me to begin studying the scriptures I would read for hours, devouring everything I could. I loved reading commentaries and listening to teachers who seemed to have an endless wealth of knowledge. I loved every bit of it. Questions were being answered and life seemed to make more and more sense.
Then, it happened.
First, I began encountering differing opinions on what appeared to be straight-forward scriptures. Some were good food for thought while others seemed to be so far out in left field they might have been from a different Bible. Not only that, some of these teachers began to accuse those who dared to disagree with them of being God-hating heretics.
Then, I went to Bible college and seminary. Wow…that was eye opening. What seemed like a straight-forward call to make disciples was often turned into an argument regarding God’s sovereignty and man’s will. What looked like a call to God-focused spiritually responsive worship was turned into an argument regarding traditional forms versus new…well, you know the drill.
How does this happen? How can those who “know” the scriptures so well sometimes become the most divisive, unloving, and judgmental people in the room?
I’ve come up with a name for this phenomenon: intellectual legalism.
Our world is dominated by humanistic philosophies. Humanism is the belief that the human mind is the final arbiter of truth and is able to recognize and apply truth without outside help. In humanistic systems education reigns supreme due to the belief that the more knowledge a person gains, the better choices he or she will make, and the better person he or she will become.
There are those who seek to combine faith in God with humanism; they admit that truth is found in God, but that it is up to the individual to find it, define it and apply it. “Christian humanism” tells us that we can study our way into righteousness—by knowing more about God—as we seek and find the truth. The answer for a weak spiritual condition is simply more study. Learn the scriptures better and you will become a better person.
This, however, is not true Christian spirituality. Jesus ran into this exact same problem with the Pharisees. Look at John 5:37-39:
“And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me…”
The Pharisees had a broader knowledge of the scripture than anyone and yet they did not recognize Jesus as the Son of God. They depended on their own intellectual abilities, which failed them. They were intellectual legalists. They believed that the more they knew, the more spiritual they were. We have the same problem today.
One of the counterintuitive things about Christianity is that Jesus didn’t call us to find the truth; he called himself the truth. Our spirituality begins and ends with him. He is the “author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). It is not our study or intellectual ability that gains us anything, but rather the perfect, finished work of Jesus Christ that gains us everything.
Just listen to how the apostle Paul describes the humanist mind in Ephesians 4:17-20:
“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!”
The first thing Paul tells us to do as Christians is to stop trusting our own intellect! The mind, apart from Christ, is futile, darkened, calloused, and given to sensuality. Worse, we deceive ourselves and equate theological information with knowing Jesus himself. We quickly forget that we did not marshal all of our intellectual power and so discover Christ. We forget that we know Christ because God graciously revealed Him to us.
The answer then, is to live under grace, even in our Bible study and discipleship. We must admit to ourselves that we cannot “figure God out” no matter how hard we study or how much we know. We are dependent on Him for all things.