Leading Question: If for some, the church is for believers and the school for thinkers, where can we go in Scripture to provide a more balanced perspective?
Theodore Hesburgh, at one time President of Notre Dame University, said that “the university is a place where the (Catholic Church) does its thinking.” Would that mean that the saints assembled for worship are not to be in a thinking mode? The members of the church at Berea might have something to say about that. Acts 17:11 highlights the role of the members as both believers and explorers.
Acts 17:11 (NLT): And the people of Berea were more open-minded (KJV = “more noble”) than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.
Generally it would not be a good idea to compare one church with another. But in this instance the book of Acts seems to have had good reasons for doing so. Acts 17:11 combines two ideas: eagerness and skepticism. Now skepticism may be too strong a word, but the point is that the Bereans were eager learners, willing, no more than just willing – they were enthusiastic. And they were skeptical enough not to simply accept everything they were told.
Let’s look at two additional passages that could help us recognize that believers don’t have to be in a university to be thoughtful and inquiring. These passages focus on the experiences of Nicodemus and the disciple Thomas:
Nicodemus: John 3:1-10 (NRSV): Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
Another of Jesus’ high profile disciples was Joseph of Arimathea. While he is not known for raising questions like Nicodemus was, he still took his time to ponder his commitment to Jesus. He made a commitment at a crucial time, but he must have had his questions, just like Nicodemus did.
One of Jesus’ twelve disciples, Thomas, was also known as someone who doubted. Here is part of the narrative from John 20, telling the story of Jesus’ appearances to the disciples after his resurrection:
John 20:24-29 (NRSV): 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Question: What do you think Jesus would tell a modern “doubting Thomas” about the advantages and disadvantages of doubting?
More Examples of Biblical Doubters
Abraham. This great man of faith was also a man of significant doubts. Four examples from his life make the point:
Abraham and Sarah in Egypt: Genesis 12:10-20. Abraham did not believe that God would protect Sarah from the advances of the pagan Pharaoh.
Abraham and Sarah and the prospect of an heir: Genesis 17:15-27; 18:9-15: Abraham believed that he and Sarah were both too old to have children. And when the heavenly messenger told them otherwise, they laughed.
Abraham questioned God’s right to destroy the innocent and the wicked together at Sodom: Genesis 18:22-23: God did not condemn or even rebuke Abraham for his questions, but granted his request.
Moses: Exodus 32:11-14: This great man of faith was also a skeptic. He confronted God over God’s stated plan to wipe out his disobedient people Israel. Moses told God that this would ruin his reputation with the Egyptians: “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (NRSV).
Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father (Luke 1): Because he did not believe the angelic messenger, Zechariah was struck dumb until the John was born.
Comment: God responded in a variety of ways to those who doubted God’s plans. In the case of Abraham at Sodom and Moses at Mt. Sinai, the doubters won their way through. Sometimes there was a temporary judgment for doubting (Zechariah), or a gentle rebuke (Thomas, Nicodemus). But in no instance was there lasting punishment – in other words, there were no she-bears that came out of the woods to mall 42 boys, and unlike Uzzah, no one was struck dead.
Wisdom in the Old Testament: Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs
The classic KJV rendering of Isaiah 1:18, uses the word “reason,” but in the context of forgiveness of sin: “ Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”
What biblical scholars describe as “wisdom literature” focuses on the disciplined human intellect, the very stuff on which education thrives. So while there may be no specific passage of Scripture that bring education/schools and church together, the sacred text of the church gives us illustrations of what the disciplined human mind can and should do.
Wisdom literature is typically divided into two types: “Higher Wisdom” is more speculative and exploratory. In our Bible, the books of Job and Ecclesiastes represent this kind of wisdom. “Lower Wisdom” is more practical and conservative. The book of Proverbs is the best biblical example of lower wisdom.
Of the two books of “higher wisdom,” the book of Ecclesiastes is more secular in tone. God is present, but more on the fringe. There is no prayer or praise anywhere in the book and Ecclesiastes 5:1 provides the framework within which the author operates:
Eccl. 5:1-2 (NRSV): Guard your steps when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice offered by fools; for they do not know how to keep from doing evil. 2 Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.
The book of Job is one of the masterpieces of world literature. In the book, Yahweh responds to the Accuser’s challenge and allows him to put Job to the test. Job knows nothing about the challenge. After 29 chapters of vigorous dialogue between Job and his friends, God intervenes with 84 questions for Job, who has no answer. The book ends with Job’s vindication, but no real explanation of the “test.”
Technically, Job presents an attempt at theodicy – the “justification of a good God in the presence of evil.” But its answer is complex. That’s why church and education belong together.
Twice in the early chapters of Proverbs, a familiar keynote is sounded:
Proverbs 1:7 (NRSV): The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.
Proverbs 9:10 (NRSV): The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
Many of the proverbs make no reference to God, “secular” to all appearances. But God can still play a part in ordinary affairs of life.
Question: How can believers make sure that their thoughts and actions are directed by the Spirit of God and not the spirit of the age?
Question: In our last lesson, we discussed the role of wisdom as mentioned in 1 Corinthians 2. That chapter is quite relevant to this lesson as well:
1 Cor. 2:1-16 (NRSV): When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3 And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4 My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. 6 Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. 7 But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—
10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. 13 And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. 14 Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny. 16 “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”
But we have the mind of Christ.