The Marriage of Learning & Piety

One of the great challenges to contemporary Evangelicalism is the mentalité that divorces piety from learning. Yet, it’s not a new problem. It was, for example, during a trip that Samuel Davies (1723-1761), a Presbyterian minister from Virginia, made in September 1753 to Great Britain on what would turn out to be an arduous, though highly successful, fund-raising expedition for the then-fledgling College of New Jersey (later to be renamed Princeton University) that he encountered Baptist disdain for learning. He was gone for a total of eighteen months, and met quite a number of key British evangelicals and churchmen, among them the leading Baptist theologian of the era, John Gill (1697-1771). He paid a visit to Gill on January 30, 1754, and found him, in his description, “a serious, grave little Man.” Gill was quite willing to lend his support to the College, but he told Davies not to expect much from the English Baptists as a whole: “in general,” he said, the Baptists “were unhappily ignorant of the Importance of learning.” Being a convinced Baptist I am happy that there have been a goodly number in the Baptist tradition who have successfully married what Gill called “the importance of Learning” with vital piety—Gill himself being a good example. But there have been, and still are, far too many Baptists whose thinking on this subject is that of those whom Gill knew and of which he was rightly critical.

But it is not simply Baptists who exhibit this problem. Gill’s Evangelical contemporary, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), without doubt the most important theologian from the eighteenth century, was fond of emphasizing that genuine spiritual affections are “not heat without light.” In his thinking, genuine Christianity entails both spirituality and reason. Trust in the Scriptures as the supreme authority when it comes to truth and error does not entail, for Edwards, the casting aside of the use of one’s mind. And it is noteworthy that, in contrast to much of later American Evangelicalism that emphasized the “religion of the heart” over theological reflection, Edwards was firmly committed to an “affectionate knowledge” that avoided both “an anti-intellectual enthusiasm” as well as “an unfeeling rationalism.” In particular, Conrad Cherry has rightly argued, Edwards, “unlike the revivalists of a later America,…avoided the sanctimonious conclusion that religious intuition is sufficient unto itself and that theology is a waste of time.” [“Imagery and Analysis: Jonathan Edwards on Revivals of Religion” in Charles Angoff, ed., Jonathan Edwards: His Life and Influence (Cranbury, New Jersey/London: Associated University Presses, 1975), 19-21].

Of course, this interface of heart and mind has even deeper roots than the ones I have just noted. It can be found in the theological synthesis of Reformation thought that issued from the pen of John Calvin (1509-1564), whose motto was Cor meum tibi offere domine prompte et sincere, “Unto you, Lord, I give my heart, promptly and sincerely.” It’s there in the theology of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), whose work was shaped by his motto fides quaerens intellectum, “faith seeking understanding.” And we find it in an Augustine (354-430), who, about thirteen years or so after his conversion described what God had done in his life in a deeply learned Latin:

“You called me; you cried aloud to me; you broke my barrier of deafness. You shone upon me; your radiance enveloped me; you put my blindness to flight. You shed your fragrance about me; I drew breath and now I gasp for your sweet odour. I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am inflamed with love of your peace” (Confessions 10.27).

Of course, the root of all of these thinkers and theologians are the Scriptures that display a piety that is suffused with learning and a doctrinal faith that burns for the glory of God. With such mentors before us, and with the Scriptures as a foundation, let us seek in our day to be distinctly counter-cultural and develop a piety that is aflame with the coals of doctrinal orthodoxy. What God has brought together, let not man put asunder!