The Danger of a ‘Merely’ Intellectual Gospel






I recently completed a course at my seminary titled ‘Special Topics in Ancient Christianity.’ It dealt with the historical personalities and major events and developments of the early Church, from the New Testament period up to about 600 A.D. One of the major topics we discussed was the post-Apostolic, early Church fathers. These include guys like Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Justin Martyr, and the list goes on… Being raised in what is known by the outside church at large as the ‘Stone-Campbell Movement,’ and having attended a university affiliated with this movement, I was naturally deprived of any serious study on the history of Christianity during my undergraduate studies. As such, I was surprised by the amount of Church history in general that I did not know. For instance, I was completely unaware that there existed an entire set of writings known as the “Apostolic Fathers,” which contain some of the earliest known writings of the Church in the generations immediately following the Apostles. For example, the “Apostolic Fathers,” contain an epistle known as 1st Clement, which was written to the same church in Corinth that Paul had previously addressed in his epistles to the Corinthians just a few decades before. My professor Dr. Brandon Withrow describes 1st Clement this way:

“It represents a chain of information passed on from the Apostles to the next generation. With citations from Paul and James, Clement tells us something about how the letters of the Apostles were received by early Christians. It tells us about ecclesiastical structures and what were considered important theological ideas. 1 Clement is just one of many gems awaiting the student of early Christianity.”

Anyway, during the course I decided to purchase a copy of the “Apostolic Fathers,” which comes in two small volumes, translated from the Greek as part of the Loeb Classical Library (Harvard University Press). This most recent translation is from Bart D. Ehrman, who has both a Ph.D. and a M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. His list of accomplishments and qualifications goes on and on; suffice to say, he is considered to be an expert in the areas of New Testament interpretation, the history of ancient Christianity, the formation of the Canon, Jewish-Christian relations in antiquity, Greco-Roman religions, the Christianization of the Roman world, etc., etc. He has received numerous awards and is currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

With my class and semester being over, I’ve been going through reading withdrawal, so I was perusing Amazon for books that might catch my attention when I noticed the list of suggestions they were tossing my way. Among them, a new release titled, “God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer,” by none other than Professor Bart D. Ehrman. As you might expect, this caught my attention, so I began doing some research into the contents of the book, and sifting through the reviews on Amazon. An hour later, I was completely stunned to find that the title of Ehrman’s book wasn’t just a capitalistic ploy to generate public interest, but an accurate statement reflecting Ehrman’s personal and professional conclusion. Here is the official summary from the publisher HarperCollins:

“In times of questioning and despair, people often quote the Bible to provide answers. Surprisingly, though, the Bible does not have one answer but many “answers” that often contradict one another. Consider these competing explanations for suffering put forth by various biblical writers:

The prophets: suffering is a punishment for sin

The book of Job, which offers two different answers: suffering is a test, and you will be rewarded later for passing it; and suffering is beyond comprehension, since we are just human beings and God, after all, is God.

Ecclesiastes: suffering is the nature of things, so just accept it.

All apocalyptic texts in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament: God will eventually make right all that is wrong with the world .

For renowned Bible scholar Bart Ehrman, the question of why there is so much suffering in the world is more than a haunting thought. Ehrman’s inability to reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of real life led the former pastor of the Princeton Baptist Church to reject Christianity.

In God’s Problem, Ehrman discusses his personal anguish upon discovering the Bible’s contradictory explanations for suffering and invites all people of faith—or no faith—to confront their deepest questions about how God engages the world and each of us.”

So this renowned scholar has actually rejected Christianity in light of his own study. Sad as it may be, this doesn’t surprise me. It only serves as another example of something God has been teaching me as I’ve begun my journey into the depths of theological education these past several months. It is something that I am reminded of when I read the Book of Acts. In the fourth chapter, after Peter and John are disciplined by the Sanhedrin for preaching about Christ it says, “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13-14 NIV).

Unschooled, ordinary men, who had been with Jesus… not highly educated, renowned theologians who knew about Jesus.

And this cuts to the heart of what God has been teaching me for some time, and which I’m sure he will need to remind me of again and again as I continue in my formal education… that my scholasticism is not what makes me a Christian. I’m not a follower of Christ because I have a B.A. in Biblical Studies and I’m getting a M.A. in Theological Studies… I am a Christian because I know the Lord, and he knows me. I am reminded of two other verses:

Many will say to me on that day, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, `I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!‘” (Matthew 7:22-23 NIV).

No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, `Know the LORD, ‘because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34 & Hebrews 8:11 NIV).

With that said, I don’t want to belittle Ehrman’s issue with not being able to accurately grasp the Biblical understanding of suffering, (which by the way, is not contradictory) but I’m afraid that this boils down to a classic case of intellectual pride; ergo Ehrman concludes that his problem is not actually his problem, but is instead, “God’s Problem.”

I’m sure I could go into this at length, but for now I’ll just say in regards to the issue of suffering, that the issues which Ehrman suggests are biblical contradictions on the nature of suffering are simply different perspectives on suffering which together provide a rich understanding of a complex issue. These different perspectives from the prophets, to Job, to Revelation all compliment each other, provided the person reading them actually knows Jesus Christ as Lord. I’ll just conclude with this thought: outside of Christ, the human race cannot begin to fathom what suffering really is, and why we must go through it.

Ok, one more quote, this one from Watchman Nee, and I’ll leave you with that:

“The weakness of today’s knowledge, is that it is mere information. Without the strength of the Lord satisfying us, and producing knowledge, we have no knowledge at all. The vessel God want’s for his work is not prepared by hearing a lot of things, but by seeing and receiving and being satisfied. Its understanding is based on the life of Christ within, not on information about Him. We must beware of just passing on to others what we hear. No matter how precious or profound the teaching may be, we are not to be disseminators of information. In this respect people with good memories can be most dangerous. To prattle on about divine things will achieve nothing, and may take us far from the will of God. God’s power on earth cannot be maintained by what we hear, but only by our knowledge of Him. What must characterize the Christian Church is what we know within us. God deliver us from a merely intellectual Gospel! (From ‘Changed Into His Likeness’ 1976, p. 39)