Not Merely Intellectual
“This name indicated that the way of life He was revealing was intended to enable His people to know who God is, to know their creator, not just intellectually, but in a truly personal way.”
-Andrew Stephen Damick, Arise O God pg. 77
Kevin J.N. Hughes
I have several times now mentioned on my show, on other people’s shows, and even in this blog that one of the things that drew me to Orthodoxy was the fact that in Orthodoxy, religion is about truly knowing God as He is, and having a relationship with Him, not merely knowing facts or doctrines about God. And I have mentioned that in my very personal story, it was the death of my only son that triggered an awakening in me to the fact that intellectual religion was not enough. Today, I want to explain a bit more about what exactly that means.
Let me start by saying that when I was a protestant, it was generally taught that “The gospel” was “justification by faith alone”, and that it was primarily or even entirely by believing what protestants called the gospel that a person was “justified” and therefore made right with God. As a Calvinist, I was also under the impression that the clearest explanation of the gospel was found in five points called TULIP. Namely, that human beings are totally depraved, that God has called some unconditionally (but not others) to Himself, that Jesus Christ died only for those God had chosen irrespective of the person, that if God chose to save you you were going to be saved irresistibly, and the logical conclusion of that was that once someone was truly saved they could never be unsaved. These teachings being the outgrowth of five other protestant teachings, namely that justification is by faith alone, that God saves us by His grace alone (apart from anything good we do), and that the Scripture alone is our authority for doctrine and practice. I’m not going to spend any time refuting these here in this article, I have engaged with Calvinist and Protestant ideas elsewhere and will continue to do so elsewhere, but here I bring these ideas up simply to say that whatever practical implications one may draw from such teachings, they are in themselves intellectual ideas. In fact, very often, people do not like when the practical implications of these ideas are expressed. For example, Calvinists often get very angry when confronted with the fact that if God truly elects some and not others, and there is nothing I can do to please God, He simply chooses or does not choose to save me based on nothing at all, then that logically means that there is no reason to conclude that He has chosen you… So, you see, the practical, how to live my life and love and serve God, is not what these teachings serve. Lutherans and Calvinists as well as other protestants may also teach very practical things. I have learned much about the Christian life from studying protestant authors. However, the core of their message is purely intellectual. A set of premises that they believe to be “the gospel.”
Andrew Stephen Damick does a great job in Arise O God at explaining why none of that is actually the gospel at all. And we can discuss that more in a future article. The point I want you to see though is that in protestantism, the gospel is all about “what to believe”. It’s intellectual. Again, I’m sure that some protestants will want to object to that, but I am intentionally phrasing this in such a way that I am not being negative or positive, and not misrepresenting anyone. Again, protestants can and do teach the need for good works, and for practical things. They simply relegate all of this to the realm of “sanctification” which is distinct from “salvation.” Salvation being about what you believe intellectually, the outflow of which being what you do practically in sanctification.
Okay, so, that’s protestantism. And that’s how I viewed things as a protestant. I believe this is why you find most protestants feel the need to argue a lot, especially online. It isn’t because they are rude or mean and like to argue as many portray it. In fact, that’s purely temperamental, and unfortunately, every church and every kind of religion, and every subset of humanity has people like that. I’m talking more generally, about the fact that protestantism fractures into thousands of denominations, or the fact that groups like “calvinists” and “arminians” are so similar from an Orthodox perspective, and yet hate each other and see each other as opposites. In fact, within Calvinism I see so many people constantly arguing about what is or is not “truly reformed”, such that it is clear that even without arminianism, Calvinists would have plenty to argue with one another about. I’m being a bit cheeky there, but the point is this, the reason all that arguing and division happens is partially because of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, which eliminates any possible arbiter of the Scriptures and leaves each man to ultimately form their teachings off of Sola interpretatio, but also, because protestantism is so focussed on the intellectual, these intellectual disputes can easily seem like disputes about “the gospel”. In any case, that’s where I was as a protestant, and I was pretty happy with it too. I liked reading all my reformed guys. I loved studying RC Sproul, Douglas Wilson, Kevin DeYoung, Voddie Baucham, James White, Sye, and so many many others. I could read them all day long. They were my bread and butter. And since I was an intellectual guy, the more purely intellectual the better. And I was perfectly happy to argue with anyone about any topic because that was just part of religion. I adored reading the Church Fathers, and I got lots of practical lessons from them, but even that was all just part of “sanctification” or worse, part of my goal to “refute” someone.
Then my wife informed me that we had conceived, and I was so happy. I was going to have a son. But it wasn’t meant to be. The Sovereign God who gives can also take. And His precious gift so late given was also so soon taken back again. I was broken.
More importantly though, I wanted to throw myself into religion. I wanted to orient my whole life around God. And for the first time, the intellectual rigors of protestantism weren’t enough. Being, “right” doctrinally about how God could be “glorified” in the death of my Angel wasn’t enough. I needed more, I needed to be able to live in God’s love. Not to feel something, feelings come and go, I needed to make everything about me be about Jesus. I needed to know that I could throw myself into my religion and never plumb the depths.
I quickly discovered the reason why the patristic writers talked so much about “sacraments”. Suddenly baptism and the eucharist meant a whole lot more to me. People actually told my wife that they thought I was weird because they would see me walk up and take the elements, and I would start smiling, even grinning. Here was Jesus, come down to be partaken of by an unworthy sinner. For the first time religion was about more than just intellectual ideas that produced good works for… reasons. It was about God and me in a relationship. It was about reality, it was about who He is, and about submitting myself to that reality. That filled my soul with joy.
After I had mostly finished writing this article, it was brought to my attention that many people, especially in evangelicalism, will say things like, "Christianity is a relationship not a religion." Or, "I don't need theology, I just have a relationship with Jesus." So, let me just be clear that I am not in any way endorcing people being idolatrous, presumptive, or lazy. The human intellect is good, and learning about God is good. Theology is important because if you love someone, you will want to learn more about them. So, please don't misunderstand me, I would never endorse and have always been opposed to the "relatioship not a religion" subculture, as it's very problematic. The point I was making was that our religion needs to go beyond the intellect to touch the whole person. The physical, the spiritual, AND the intellectual nature. Only then is our religion pleasing to God, and only then can we truly know God more and more each day.
I could go on and on about how I discovered the Saints, the Theotokos, Mattins, etc. I could go on and on about falling in love with the liturgical calendar, about the joy of fasting and feasting. I could go on and on, but the point is this, in Orthodoxy, there was something mysterious that changed for me. It wasn’t just intellectual ideas about God. It was that God was now someone I truly had a relationship with, and my whole life was oriented around that. Vespers is beautiful, the Liturgy is glorious, time spent in prayer is wonderful, all of those things are part of what I’m talking about, but they only make sense when you have a real relationship with God, and you realize that all those things are ways to cultivate and grow in that relationship. Ways to carry on a conversation with Him. And that’s why I have fallen in love with Orthodoxy, and with the God who has made Himself to be the center of my life and of all that I am, and all that I believe, and all that I do.
St. Tsar Nicholas, Pray for us.
For the book, Arise O God, follow this link: