I’m quite grateful for my roots in the Evangelical tradition. I have received a deep appreciation for and knowledge of the scriptures that bless me (and I think others) every day. But there are times when such knowledge becomes more an idol than a gift. Listen to this quotation from one of the novels of George MacDonald in which one character highlights this problem to another:
“[Donal Grant answers Lady Arctura’s question, ‘How could all the good people be wrong?’] Because the greater part of the teachers among them have always set themselves more to explain God than to obey him. The gospel is given not to redeem our understandings, but our hearts; that done, and only then, our understandings will be free. If the things be true which I have heard from Sunday to Sunday in church since I came here, then the Lord brought us no salvation at all, but only a change of shape to our miseries. It has not redeemed you, Lady Arctura, and never will. Nothing but Christ himself for your very own teacher and friend and brother, not all the doctrines about him, even if every one of them were true, can save you.” (MacDonald, George. The Shepherd’s Castle. Ed. Michael R. Phillips. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1983, p. 97.)
Here, MacDonald’s character speaks to the difference between ideas about God and living encounter with God. The irony is that many who call themselves followers of Jesus have made an idol of their Christian ideas of doctrine or theology. They worship at the altar of theological accuracy rather than offering their religious intellect at the altar of Jesus Christ himself. One can tell the difference between the two by the kind of fruit that is borne.
Knowledge as idol can be recognized in the company of haughty arrogance, self-importance, impatience and contempt for those who don’t share their position, and harsh ridicule. I’m pretty sure none of these are fruits of the Spirit. I have recently had some self-appointed discernment experts send me some pretty ugly emails. Lucky me. I guess all it takes is writing a book and gaining a little bit of visibility to discover a sign painted on my chest.
Knowledge that builds up rather than puffing up is good friends with kindness, patience, gentleness, and genuine care for others. It knows what is truly central and what is peripheral. It remembers that the greatest commandment is not “have all the right answers as defined by your little theological neighborhood,” but “love God with all you are and all you have” and, of course, “love your neighbor.” There is a variety of knowledge that is miles from that command.
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