Friday, February 12, 2010

Zeal vs. Knowledge

What is that strange phenomenon where those with the most zeal often seem to lack "knowledge," while those with the most "knowledge" often seem to lack zeal? Popular American Christian lore has of course romanticized the person with zeal who defies those with "knowledge." The idea is that this person intuits with the Spirit things the person with "knowledge" cannot. Correspondingly, the person with "knowledge" is villianized as an unspiritual person.

Surely it doesn't have to work this way. In the words of Jack Handy, "Sometimes I think the experts actually are experts." Mark Noll called it the "scandal of the evangelical mind," the sanctioning of ignorance in the name of truth. It hardly makes sense to think that knowledge and learning is in an inverse relationship with spirituality. Wouldn't this line of thought ultimately imply that the truth is contrary to spirituality? Wouldn't this imply, in the end, that Christianity isn't actually true? On the contrary, doesn't the first paragraph above sound an awful lot like a coping mechanism for ignorance, a way to justify not having to think or learn anything?

My own ignorance has no doubt been apparent to those with more knowledge than I from time to time. Was it when I was most zealous? Surely it doesn't always work the other way either, where zeal means a person's wrong!

So what got me thinking about this was a recent sermon I heard with a zealous speaker who has done way more for the kingdom of God than I have. But there was this typical tone too. "People ask me what my eschatology is... Look it up. Matthew 24--when the gospel is preached to all the nations Jesus will come back."

I fully accept the Christian mission to take the good news of Christ to everyone. But I would like to pose a few questions. I've created a new category I'm calling "Deepening Faith." The purpose of this category is to try to join zeal with knowledge. I want to pose questions, because it may very well be that I also lack knowledge. But just maybe over time we can all grow together, those with knowledge in zeal and those with zeal in knowledge.

The acquisition of knowledge can involve reversals, and perhaps this in part feeds the "those with knowledge don't know what we feel" sense. One bit of knowledge seems to lead in a new direction. But a slightly more advanced set of knowledge points back in the way of the one without the first bit of knowledge. And so it can be. The acquisition of knowledge can involve reversals.

So here are the questions. Colossians 1:23 says that the gospel has been preached to every creature under heaven. That was way back in the first century. In other words, Colossians seems to say Matthew 24:14 was already fulfilled 2000 years ago.

After all, what was "every nation" back then (Matt. 24:14; Mark 13:10)? Would not anyone in the first century hearing such words have thought of the Mediterranean world? In short, we can understand how Colossians could consider the gospel already proclaimed to every creature. The gospel had reached the "limits of the west" by the time of Paul, as 1 Clement says, probably in the 90s.

The idea that Christ would return when we finally brought the gospel to the deepest unreached tribe has never made sense to me. Hardly any of the "tribes" around today were here at the time of Christ. Those who were have long since died, unreached, if that were really what Matthew meant. Countless tribes have come into existence and passed out of existence unreached since the time of this verse.

It seems to me that our choice is either to consider these verses fulfilled in the first century, as Colossians 1:23 seems to say, or it would be a failed prediction. So let's continue to take the good news of Christ to the nations! But maybe eschatology is a little more complex than the simplistic answers of some zealous folk.


Joel said...

Php 3:6 Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. 7 But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. 8 Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord...

Using the King James wording here... Paul trades zeal for knowledge :-)

Stephen S. said...

"One body many parts"...they reject us "thinker types" and we reject those "zealous types." If they do not appreciate what we bring to the table then they get blown off into some crazy subjectivist crusade driven by how they somehow "feel" the movement of the Holy Spirit. If we neglect to really engage and work with the zealous amongst us we become boring and irrelevant; no good to ourselves or anyone. However, the possibility does present itself that by working together...who knows what might happen?

Chris said...

Though, as one of those 'crazy subjectivists', I would say that neglecting the zealous might result in something far worse than becoming 'boring' or 'irrelevant'; the real danger for us is that we might end up rejecting an aspect of God's nature - his eschatological wildness.

Caleb Landis said...

It seems to me that in order to be zealous is to want to learn more. Isn't it the newest Christians in the Church that are asking the questions? Aren't they also the ones monst zealous towards their new found faith? It seems as if the "new borns" or "children" might actually be the wisest of us all, again!