Last week, I wrote about the dignified and noble search for all kinds of knowledge about the world and our place in it. This week I would ask: under what terms of engagement should we as Christian researchers join the broader academy in this search for knowledge? In research, we stand on the shoulders of, and beside, other scholars in our fields. Besides the general imperative to conduct our research ethically—do the premises and aims of our research overlap with those of other convictions?
In several passages of scripture, we get the distinct impression that there are objective standards of wisdom, excellence, beauty, and morality that are recognizable to all human beings apart from revelation. In Proverbs 8:22–31, we saw that wisdom is woven into the fabric of the universe, and is widely recognizable through human observation, trial, and error. Moreover, the Law given to the Israelites through Moses, if they had lived according to it, would have been recognized by other peoples as an objectively good set of laws:
“See, I have taught you statutes and judgments just as YHWH my God commanded me, that you should do thus in the land where you are entering to possess it. So keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people!’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is YHWH our God whenever we call on Him? Or what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today?” (Deut 4:5–8)
The Law/Instruction of God would be attractive to those outside Israel (Isa 2:2–4). Conversely, through human inquiry and experience we discover that “the way things work in the world” are accurately predicted by God’s revelation. Thus, as we walk alongside fellow image-bearers who seek truth about God’s world—our academic colleagues—we are confident that God’s word and God’s world will ultimately be found to be in harmony. Nothing that we discover to be true in natural or social sciences, history, philosophy, aesthetics, rhetoric, economics, linguistics, politics, etc., will ultimately be found to be contrary to God’s Word.
And yet…there are limits to human understanding due to createdness and fallenness. “Of the making of many books there is no end” (Eccl 12:12)—and all books are limited and perspectival. As sinners, we tend to “suppress the truth,” “become futile in our speculations,” “profess to be wise but become fools,” and “exchange the truth of God for a lie” (Rom 1:18, 21, 22, 25). Our natural hearts, apart from the work of the Spirit of God, tend toward error.
Our gospel convictions may ultimately lead us to diverge from our colleagues—in our premises, our methodologies, and our conclusions. Paul writes of the “wisdom” of the world and the apparent foolishness of the message of the Cross (1 Cor 1:18–31). The whole issue of human knowledge and general revelation continues to be an object of deep reflection, in all branches of Christianity. In the early centuries of the church, Christian apologists (just as Justin Martyr, Clement, and Origen) defended the respectability of Christianity by attempting to demonstrate the harmony of biblical truth with Greek philosophy. Others, like Tertullian, held “Jerusalem and Athens” at arm’s length from one another.
Our vocation as Christian seekers of truth requires of us 1) the courage to part ways with our broader scholarly guild when the premises, methodologies, data, or ethical frameworks run contrary to God’s word; and 2) the wisdom to know when such divergence is warranted. Are we prepared to endure exclusion or other cost, in order to pursue truth wherever it leads, to the glory of God?
Coming back to Deuteronomy 4: we see the connection between “being a wise and understanding people,” and nearness to God. By drawing closer to God—in worship, prayer, the means of grace—we will be recognized by others as people of wisdom, understanding, and justice.
And the presence of God himself is the reward for our careful, just pursuit of wisdom and understanding. May we enjoy his presence this week, as we study!