Sunday, October 07, 2007

Intellectual Quicksand - Dr. Clay Nuttall

Editor's Note: I am interrupting my series on “A Text without a Context” to publish an article by Dr. Clay Nuttall. One of the characteristics of what might be termed a “Reformed hermeneutic” is an arrogant, “cerebral” approach to the scriptures. This results in a “we are smarter than you are” attitude. Human reasoning at times takes precedence over biblical teaching.

In his article “Intellectual Quicksand” Dr. Nuttall deals with the arrogant attitude of intellectualism that is threatening the consistently literal hermeneutic that those who write for this blog hold so dear.


One of our readers, a good friend, wrote me about a conversation he had had with a future seminarian. The young man was quite enamored with the intellectuals in today’s evangelicalism, and he complained about a lack of intellectualism among fundamentalists. I mention this incident because I have had the same experience with at least a half dozen young men over the past few months.

Personally, I am thrilled to find anyone who not only is searching for information, but also is willing to screen massive amounts of material in order to understand the meaning of a given subject. One of my major goals as a teacher is to press my students on toward analytical and critical thinking. They need to learn to ask questions about everything.

The problem with this illustration is that every one of the above-mentioned young men was guilty of the same mistake; they sought intellectualism, but seemed unable to recognize the difference between truth and error in the midst of it. Several of the popular figures they identified as intellectuals teach theological error openly, but the younger men seemed to lack the ability to recognize that fact.

Such is the danger of broad intellectualism, an elitism that is heady for a young student - it is a spider’s web. It is quicksand, ready to entrap the unsuspecting.


Now mind you, I am not defending the presence of dull or lazy minds in fundamentalism. Although it has had - and does have – many thinking theologians, I don’t think I could honestly say that this is the norm in our movement. The absence of careful and demanding study has provided us with a fairly nasty list of examples of how not to do it. The debates we have observed are too often extremely shallow, usually ending with personal attacks. (We have probably learned that technique from the liberals, who always attack character when they don’t have an answer.)

The blame for this void cannot be pinned on any one thing. It could be that so many of our churches, with their lame excuses for any kind of organization, have caused this. The lack of really serious Bible study, along with too many flat-line sermons, might have something to do with it. In addition, I’m sure our educational institutions haven’t put this issue on the front burner because, without exception, all the young men referred to at the beginning of this article are from “schools of our stripe”.

No matter who or what is to blame, it is sad that we have failed to stir their thinking process. It is tragic that we did not give them the tools that would enable them to recognize theological error. And so they rush off to study under some intellectual guru who will instruct them to think about error as though it were truth.


Please don’t write me before you read the following: I am not against intellectual pursuit! We need to demand that our young folks learn to practice analytical and critical thinking. They need to do so with a strong Biblical understanding of how to recognize error even when it is cloaked in apparent intelligence.

What kind of intellectualism is it that passes error on as if it were equal to truth? It is an information repository that is less than honest, that lacks integrity. Intellectual pagans are not deserving of our adulation. The apostle Paul speaks of this very issue in II Timothy 3:7 - “Ever learning, and never coming to the knowledge of the truth.”

Elite intellectualism in itself is a curse, rather than something to be worshiped. It is information without benefit of wisdom. It is academia at its worst. Someone who is smart only about facts may possess only half the wits he needs in order to be actually intelligent.

Every reader could do something to set this aright. Step No. 1: spend those hours reading instead of staring at the tube. Step No. 2: learn to ask questions about everything you read. In your study of the Scripture, stop telling the text what it says, and instead start asking questions of the text. Learn to think; and pass that skill on to those around you, particularly the young people. Perhaps then in the future we will have fewer young men being drawn into the quicksand of intellectualism. We need more people who, when they come face to face with bald-faced error, are aware of it. That, surely, would give joy to the heart of our Heavenly Father.


It is not just the young men who are in danger of being taken in by an orator with information and a smooth tongue. Some months ago in this journal I referred to a very popular writer as a “false teacher” because he holds or supports several unbiblical views, such as Preterism. That makes him a false teacher. Since he is viewed as an intellectual, I was not really surprised at how many of you wrote to scold me.

The real problem behind all this is that I do not know of any of these evangelical icons who practice a hermeneutic that is Biblical. What, then, does that say for the well-meaning friends who rush to their defense?