The Problem of “Head Knowledge”

Rev.John Gresham Machen. Orthodox Presbyterian...

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One topic I haven’t treated nearly enough lies ironically at the heart of the underlying theme of my blog, which theme is an expression of my experience as a fundamentalist turned Reformed confessionalist. The topic is the tension in modern fundamentalism and evangelicalism between so-called “head knowledge” and “heart knowledge.” Having been too busy living amidst that tension for the past couple of decades, I haven’t done a great deal of blogging about it since I started this blog.

To be truthful, this blog’s title and theme, “The Misadventures of Captain Headknowledge” is both an indictment and a confession. It’s an indictment for the kind of reason that you may have already read about on my “About Me” page. The confession lies in my honest recognition that I am the sort who has the tendency to, as it is sometimes put, read about the Bible, rather than actually take time to read the Bible.” This is certainly a flaw which stunts my spiritual growth in sanctification and the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. To the extent that my blog is a personal confession, it reminds me to cultivate my own spiritual growth. In the past, I was made to feel that many think this means I must therefore utterly repent of and entirely forsake my tendency to “read about the Bible.” But I disagree, and this is where the indictment part comes in. I regard that attitude to be an overreaction to an otherwise valuable gift of God. A love for reading theology and related Christian literature must not supersede my personal study and application of Scripture, but it needn’t be excluded from my life, either. Old Princeton scholar, Benjamin Breckenridge (B.B.) Warfield has the ultimate quote on this issue, from his book, The Religious Life of Theological Students (P & R Publishing Co.):

Nothing could be more fatal, however, than to set these two things over against one another. Recruiting officers do not dispute whether it is better for soldiers to have a right leg or a left leg: soldiers should have both legs. Sometimes we hear it said that ten minutes on your knees will give you a truer, deeper, more operative knowledge of God than ten hours over your books. “What!” is the appropriate response, “than ten hours over your books, on your knees?” Why should you turn from God when you turn to your books, or feel that you must turn from your books in order to turn to God? If learning and devotion are as antagonistic as that, then the intellectual life is in itself accursed, and there can be no question of a religious life for a student, even of theology. HT: Hot Orthodoxy

Such an imbalanced rejection of academic theology as unnecessary or unhelpful “head knowledge” in favor of so-called “heart knowledge” in its extreme forms often seems little more than an individualistic, experiential mysticism.  This brings up another, I suppose, the final member of the Old Princeton (before their fall into theological liberalism) and his comments regarding this very problem. Reformed blogger, Jack Miller, recently posted an excerpt from J. Gresham Machen’s book What is Faith? Miller also includes his own remarks, but here’s a little of what Machen has to say on the question of subjective anti-intellectualism and the resultant mysticism against which this blog is in part an indictment:

The depreciation of the intellect, with the exaltation in the place of it of the feelings or of the will, is, we think, a basic fact in modern life, which is rapidly leading to a condition in which men neither know anything nor care anything about the doctrinal content of the Christian religion, and in which there is in general a lamentable intellectual decline. (What is Faith?, p.28)

But if theology be thus abandoned, or if rather (to ease the transition) it be made merely the symbolic expression of religious experience, what is to be put into its place?… Mysticism unquestionably is the natural result of the anti-intellectual tendency which now prevails; for mysticism is the consistent exaltation of experience at the expense of thought. (p.35)

You can read the rest of Miller’s post here.

My sentiments, exactly, Drs. Warfield and Machen!

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5 responses

  1. Nice work, Cap’n. I’m going to link to this on my blog.

  2. […] a helpful post this morning on something that impact the spiritual lives of all Bible students:  The Problem of “Head Knowledge” – an interesting essay on the ‘tension … between so-called “head knowledge” […]

  3. LOVE the post man! Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks for subscribing! I admire how clearly you write on your own blog.

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