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Scholarship vs. Godliness

“But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death” (Philippians 3:7–10).

In some arenas, scholarship has grown into idolatry. Technical scholarly pursuits have become a substitute for the pursuit of God Himself. There is a fine line between academic/technical excellence and obsession. You can lose sight of God behind the infinite literary, language, and technical details of the text. People are attracted today toward men of great charisma who communicate with technical knowledge and clever articulation. This may be coupled with a tendency to look down upon some godly men whose devotional ministries are viewed as shallow and insignificant. In the end, one may knowingly or unknowingly be exalting scholarship while disdaining or demeaning genuine godliness. Exalting knowledge about God over God Himself is idolatry. And it is very easy to disguise a passion for knowledge as a passion for God. It is usually assumed that scholars who can recite volumes of facts about God from Scripture have a close relationship with Him. But the truth is many scholars may not even be believers. Nicodemus was a leading theological scholar of his day, but he did not have a personal relationship with God. The Scribes and Pharisees were groups boasting of multitudes of scholars, many who were doctors of the law, and included many eloquent speakers whom the masses lauded. While Jesus exposed the Scribes and Pharisees for many flaws, the most significant issue seemed to be a problem with their hearts (Matt. 15:7–9). At the same time, He selected simple fishermen to become the future leaders of His church, men who would later be called “unlearned and ignorant” (Acts 4:13). What made those men great? They “had been with Jesus.”

Another serious danger exists. Scholarship and knowledge, when practiced without balance, tend to promote pride, while genuine godliness promotes humility. Of course, godliness is not improved by ignorance, nor is it destroyed by knowledge. Certainly godly leaders should work diligently to accurately interpret God’s Word and expand their technical knowledge as best they can in that pursuit. Otherwise they face the serious danger of misrepresenting God’s Word in their preaching and teaching. But a greater danger is being puffed up with pride through an abundance of knowledge (“knowledge puffs up,” 1 Cor. 8:1).

How is scholarship to be balanced then? The student of God’s Word must understand that God is not discovered merely in technical details or in greater knowledge. He is a living Person with Whom we must develop a relationship. He is a Person with Whom we must communicate, not simply an intellectual challenge to figure out by scholarly pursuits. Some scholars discover millions of theological details about God but rarely talk to Him personally.

A number of sports nuts twitter away their days poring over sports statistics. A person may be able to impress you with oodles of information about basketball player LeBron James. He may know more about LeBron’s statistics than LeBron himself. But that doesn’t mean this sports fanatic knows LeBron. He may even be able to talk with great eloquence about LeBron and impress you with his knowledge, while never having met the basketball star. And so it is with many theologians. They are theological fanatics poring over the text of Scripture, discovering thousands of fascinating details from this infinite Book, yet they may have not even met the Author personally! Some have truly met Him, but they are more taken with the technical details of His Book than with Him personally.

Like the apostle Paul, seek “the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus” so your whole being may cry out with Paul, “that I may know Him” (Phil. 3:8, 10). Be sure to search for Christ in every scholarly pursuit of Scripture! Never substitute study for prayer. Make sure the passion of your heart is a genuine relationship with the Living Word, not merely the ink scratchings on paper. Be sure to maintain a proper focus on the basic and simple truths from Scripture while applying them personally in your walk with God. In the words of that quiet and simple fisherman, John, “keep yourself from idols” (1 John 5:21).

Kenneth Spink is senior pastor of Berea Baptist Church, Berea, Ohio.


  • A fantastic – and challenging – reminder! Let’s shoot for both – scholarship and relationship. But if we have to choose, relationship must always come first! Our ultimate priority is to know HIM in a personal and vital way. And let’s never get so “puffed up” about our knowledge that we look down on other godly servants of Christ who are ministering for Him in sincerity and truth. Thanks, Ken, for reminding us of these important truths.

  • Jeff Gates says:

    I have to agree that our relationship with God should be a priority over scholarship, but I hardly think this is a problem for most fundamentalist pastors. Each pastor has his calling, but so few spend time in scholarship that the wisdom of most pastors will die with them instead of being left for posterity. Scholarship can be an idol, but lack of scholarship can be laziness. My guess is that the latter is much more prevalent than the former. Not everyone is a Spurgeon, but look what we would miss if Spurgeon never wrote. This is not to suggest that pastors should be prolific writers, but to say that more should write – even if it is a few choice articles or a book. Actually, an article or book that is years in the making is usually much more influential than quickly written works. So while scholarship should not rise to the level of God, in my opinion it is something that more pastors should do.

  • Russ Boone says:

    Ken, I agree wholeheartedly with this article. Thank you for having the courage to write it. I know for myself scholarship is much easier than a real relationship with God. Speaking from my own experience, my flesh is quite satisfied with scholarship, but it recoils at the idea of prayer. It is so easy to lose yourself in study about God without ever communicating with God. I think that many in fundamentalist circles greatly admire (if not to say bow to) scholarship. Jeff, I wonder if the reason for some not writing is that they feel intimidated by scholars and critics. Perhaps they feel that they don’t have the proper credentials to publish anything. They leave that to the scholars. When in reality, perhaps these faithful fundamentalists actually have a much closer relationship to God. With that said, I agree that those men with a close relationship to God should write. I think one of the best examples of this from a previous generation was H. A. Ironside. He was largely self taught. He was certainly not an ignorant man, but he did not take the traditional route of scholarship. He was a man who it is obvious had a close relationship to God. I often find that his simple commentaries grasp the meaning of a text when scholarly critical commentaries fumble around with it. Just some of my thoughts.

  • Ken Spink says:

    Thanks Russ – I agree wholeheartedly. Jeff, I also agree with you. I think many more pastors should write! It would force the issue of improved scholarship. This is a greater issue for some of the (shall we say) older generation of pastors. I am more concerned (in this article)with the more recent developments in colleges and seminaries where scholarship unwittingly seems to overshadow godliness.

    Thanks for the response!

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