Question: "How should a Christian view the intellect?"
Answer: The Bible says that God is a Being with intellect (Romans 11:34), and He has made a well-ordered universe in which truth can be known and logical rules applied. God is the Creator of the human intellect, giving us the ability to comprehend, think, reason, and remember. In Isaiah 1:18, God invites us to “reason together” with Him (ESV)—the Creator and the creature involved in a rational discussion about sin and forgiveness.
In considering the human intellect, we must avoid two extremes: rationalism and anti-intellectualism. Rationalism, for the purpose of this article, is the promotion of reason as the supreme authority and the answer to all of life’s problems. The rationalist believes that, given enough time, he can always “figure things out” for himself—that human intellect can surmount any problem. The mind of man is capable of understanding all reality, solving any problem, and producing whatever we need. Philosopher Immanuel Kant praised the power of the human intellect in his Critique of Pure Reason: “All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.”
Anti-intellectualism, for the purpose of this article, is the rejection of reason as a remedy for what ails the world. The anti-intellectualist downplays academic pursuits and instead promotes feelings, intuition, and spontaneous action as much more useful in engaging reality and solving problems. Poet William Wordsworth reacted against rationalism by promoting a more sentimental, anti-intellectual view of life in his poem “The Tables Turned”: “Enough of Science and of Art; / Close up those barren leaves; / Come forth, and bring with you a heart / That watches and receives.” Wordsworth’s command to “come forth” is an invitation to leave the study and step outdoors ready to learn, instinctively, from nature.
Both rationalism and anti-intellectualism go astray. Rationalism’s reliance on human reason as the source of truth (or at least the only way to discover truth) leaves out the need for divine revelation—what happens when God’s Word doesn’t “make sense”? And anti-intellectualism’s opposition to reason precludes any comprehension of objective truth—smelling the roses should cause us to praise the Creator of the rose, but the act of smelling roses can never lead us to a full revelation of God.
The Bible teaches that human intellect is limited. “‘No human mind has conceived’ the things God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). Even the greatest intellects in the world have never been able to grasp the magnitude of God’s plan for the redeemed.
The human intellect is unable to grasp God’s wisdom. What we naturally consider “foolishness”—a Savior dying on a cross—God calls “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). Relying solely on our own ability to reason, we would never arrive at the truth of the gospel. “For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; / the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate’” (1 Corinthians 1:19). We must depend on the Word of God, not our intellect, to lead us to truth (Romans 10:17). The result of God’s revelation of the gospel is that no one can boast in his own wisdom (verse 31).
Every part of us, including the intellect, has been affected by mankind’s fall into sin. The intellect of the unregenerate person has been darkened, spiritually speaking. The unsaved walk “in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts” (Ephesians 4:17–18). Even the brightest minds in the world, apart from Christ, have no real understanding of the truths of God (see also 1 Corinthians 2:14).
The intellect of the unregenerate person is hostile to God. The natural desire of man is to disobey God, and it makes sense for him to do so. It is easy for the unsaved man to find mental justification for his own sin. “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (Romans 8:7).
The intellect of the unregenerate person is also a source of pride. “Knowledge puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Human nature being what it is, we often take pride in our knowledge and academic accomplishments. Truth be told, we tend to nurture feelings that we are smarter than others.
Obviously, our intellect needs redemption. Left to our own devices—and our limited, darkened, rebellious, and prideful minds—we would never arrive at the truth of God.
Praise the Lord, when He saves a person, He redeems the entire person—body, soul, and mind. The regenerate person is a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17) and has been given “the mind of Christ” through the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:16).
The saved person can be transformed by the renewing of his mind (Romans 12:2). She can discern between the fleeting “wisdom of this age” and the “message of wisdom among the mature” (1 Corinthians 2:6). He is devoted to studying the Word (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV). She is committed to loving the Lord with all her mind, thus fulfilling the greatest commandment of all (Mark 12:30).
The biblical view of the intellect is that the mind is a wonderful gift from God, but it has been damaged by sin. As we receive God’s forgiveness through Christ, our understanding can be purified, transformed, and humbled, and we will have a new perspective on ourselves and God’s masterful plan.