Pietism, Anti-Intellectualism, and Doctrinal Disputes

Over the last 2 weeks – has it really been that long?? – the Trinity discussion/debate/deathmatch has raged like a wildfire through certain corners of the blogosphere. I’ve been heavily invested, as have others. One trend that I do not think has been adequately addressed but that I have repeatedly taken note of is a critique of this entire discussion as unimportant, distracting from our love for God in Christ, “a tempest in a teapot,” etc.

I should say first that, given the tone of the discussion’s beginning, I can understand why some would be put off. When you start throwing heresy bombs, calling people names, using derisive language to describe others’ positions, and the like, it’s difficult for many, including myself, to hear anything except that (IMO poorly chosen) tone. But I am not talking about tone here, I am talking about substance.

Understanding rightly who God is and in light of his revelation to us in his Word is no small matter. In fact, nothing could be more important. There is a strain of pietistic anti-intellectualism within evangelicalism that sees much doctrinal debate as just an academic exercise, divorced from real life and as important as arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin (actually an important question, btw!). If you are a Christian, though, this is not the attitude the Bible prescribes with respect to knowing God. Yes, God calls for us to love him, but “loving God” is not some emotional enterprise divorced from our intellect. We are whole people, body and spirit, and our minds matter as much as our emotions and our senses and our spirit.

Further, this debate, as with most (all?) doctrinal debates, has application for believers, even if it is in a trickle down manner. But let’s say it doesn’t have any “application,” for the sake of argument – that does not make it unimportant to the life of the average believer. Knowing God is the reason you and I are redeemed through the blood of Christ, and “knowing” doesn’t just mean in an emotional or spiritual sense but also in an intellectual sense, in that we are called to know him rightly. Obviously some have different cognitive abilities, and so we do not want to put the onus on intellect to the neglect of other means of knowing, as Jamie Smith has rightly noted. But each of us are called, to the best of our intellectual abilities, to love God with our minds (Matt. 22:37).

Don’t eschew doctrinal rigor as unimportant, unable to produce love for God in Christ, or without a point. The Bible doesn’t; in fact, it commands the opposite.

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