Challenges for the Adventist Intellectual
By Reinder Bruinsma
This text has often been stretched beyond its intended meaning. Preachers at times have taken these words as the basis for a sermon about the simplicity of the gospel, and have told their church members: “You must believe the gospel message and accept it as a child. You do not need to understand it. Too much thinking will lead you only into trouble and make you doubt.”
Though many Christians have indeed been suspicious of intellectual endeavors, the Adventist Church has a long tradition of emphasizing education. We have opted for an educated ministry. We have created a network of higher education around the world. Adventists tend to be career people who enjoy their upward social mobility.
I remember that in my childhood in the Netherlands very few professional people made up the Adventist Church membership. Today we have thousands of Adventists throughout the world with university training, which certainly enriches the church.
The gospel tells us we must love God with all our heart, all of our spirit, and all of our mind. That is true Christian service.2 A love relationship with God has different components. It involves the heart and the soul. It has to do with feelings and emotions, with total commitment, perseverance, and will power. But it also has to do with our mind.
Some evangelical Christians have indeed argued that too much knowledge is dangerous. They ask, “Did not Paul say that knowledge puffs up; that it tends to lead to arrogance and loss of faith?”3
We would do a great injustice to Paul if we make him say that all thinking is negative and ill-advised. He did not oppose good thinking, but inaccurate thinking. Paul counseled us to be intentional in our thinking. “Whatever is . . . excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things,”4 he said. And, whatever you do, do it to the glory of God.5 So, use your mind to the glory of God.
I came across a challenging book about the lack of thought among many evangelical Christians: Fit Bodies Fat Minds. Many modern Christians, Os Guinness argues in this book, have toned up their bodies, but dumbed down their minds. This observation may well be relevant to some Adventists. We emphasize healthful living, care for our body, eating good food. We hear sermons about these topics and read about them in our journals. But when did you last hear a sermon or read an article in one of our publications about the qualities of a sound mind? About thinking in a consistently Christian way? A Christian mind is no luxury. It is part of the abundant life Christ promised us.
How do we serve God with our entire mind? First, we should underscore the need for humility. When you first start down the academic path, you may experience a sense of elation, maybe even superiority. You think you know so much more than other people do. This early stage in the process of acquiring knowledge is full of danger. But eventually you begin to realize you do not know everything. In fact, you are soon overwhelmed by the realization of how much more you need to learn and how little, in fact, you do know—even in your own discipline. You meet great minds and sense the difference. So, every reason exists to remain humble and avoid any arrogance.
You should also keep on learning after you have earned a degree or diploma. And not only from books but also from experiences, from life, from all kinds of people—colleagues, peers, and also “common” folk. Appreciate their wisdom and insights. An Adventist intellectual can learn a lot from many of the people in the church who have not had the privilege of attending a university. Always remember: Christ, the greatest teacher of all times, never attended a formal university.
If you want to develop as an Adventist intellectual and serve God with all your mind, you must dare to ask questions. Your mind will develop no further if you think you already have all the answers.
This was the genius of early Adventism—going beyond accepted opinion; being prepared to think outside the box, to ask new questions, to go down new paths—uncertain where they would lead.
Serving God with your mind is a lifelong adventure, and you cannot totally be sure where it will lead. There is always more to discover. And you will discover only by asking questions.
You cannot be a theologian or social scientist or any kind of Adventist intellectual if you refuse to ask questions—even troubling questions—about the nature of the Bible; about the origin of the world and humanity; about the origin and nature of evil; about matters of life and death; about the paradox between human free will and God’s foreknowledge; and more. But you must learn to live with unanswered questions. You will never get all the answers, but do not let that worry you unduly. After all, you are just a creature, while He is the Creator. Only God knows all the answers.
I have found it a good practice to tackle problems one at a time. I try to concentrate my thinking and reading (and prayer!) on one particular issue, and consciously shelve other issues until later. I will not simply ignore them, but will postpone dealing with them. But when everything is said and done, we must stand ready to confess: Lord, it is OK that I do not know the answer. And we must not feel ashamed if we have to tell others, “I simply do not know.”
A Christian mind grows over time, but it will never be perfect or inerrant. Accept that you may have been wrong in holding certain views, and be willing to change your mind when the evidence demands it.
Even though it sounds somewhat contradictory, the fact that you are not perfect in your thinking does not mean as a Christian intellectual you do not have a responsibility as a thought leader. Serving God with all your mind means you open yourself to the great Source of wisdom. As you drink from that Source you develop ideas, you generate vision, you are able to share and give direction. At the same time, be responsible and gentle with others who need time also to change their minds. Be a leader, but do not run ahead so far that people no longer see you.
As we serve God with all our mind, we must allow for a creative tension with others. As an intellectual who is active in the church you will play an important role in the life of the church, but you will also be criticized. Many people have legitimate concerns. So be understanding and patient as you ask others for space to question things and debate issues.
On the other hand, the church needs people who ask questions, who want to delve deeper, and are eager to keep the church in tune with the times.
As you serve God, pray you will never sacrifice your intellectual integrity. Never “sell your soul.” Never change your convictions in order to be given a particular position in the church or to be popular. Never succumb to the temptation to believe one thing in church and another thing at work.
Finally, never separate the life of the mind from genuine spirituality. You can know a lot about the Christian religion without having a relationship with Christ. You can know a lot about the way human beings interact and society operates without having a real love for people. Serving God with our mind is an essential part of our discipleship, but it does not operate in a vacuum. There must always be a close relationship between knowing and doing, believing and obeying.
We are asked to love the Lord with our mind, but not only with our mind. We must serve Him with all we have and are—with our heart and with our soul and with our mind.
Reinder Bruinsma is president of the Netherlands Union Conference.