The Intellectual Life of the Redeemed

‘Learning to Learn as Children of God’

The fallen children of Adam are often concerned with studying created “things.” While this is not wrong in itself, by the vice of curiosity, we become fixated on studies of society, the nature of matter, and the like without tracing these objects back to their ultimate principle (principium): God the Trinity. Curiosity kills the mind that was meant to know and love God. It focuses on surface matters and does not look past those surfaces. 

The intellectual life is mistaken, perhaps more accurately, tragically falls short of its telos if it merely studies all that which is not God and does not refer them back to God. Rather than following divine instruction, we become so interested in what we think are “easier” matters—those things in creation—and try to persuade ourselves that’s where Scripture’s center of gravity lies. But such thought fails to recognize the intellect’s God-given purpose: to see and savor God.

However, when we let divine instruction direct our minds, as Aquinas says, “the minds of those given the revelation are not allowed to remain arrested with the images but are lifted up to their meaning.”[1] Here, we might thus see that the purpose of many intellectual disciplines of any rank really are meant to bring the mind up, so to say, to the living God. Failing to look up is simply to fall short of the intellect’s purpose. Studies of many sorts are thus “preparatory, contributory or dispositive, serving to conduce the mind to contemplation of the infinite excellence of the divine being.”[2] Contemplation of God in love and knowledge is the goal of all intellectual endeavors.

John Webster has a rather lucid and helpful paragraph in his essay “On the Theology of the Intellectual Life” that continues what has so far been said: 

“Regenerate intellectual life devotes itself to the study of created things in order to ascend to contemplation of God, for in contemplation of God lies our true happiness. There are two objects of intellectual consideration: creatures and God. We study creatures in the natural and social sciences and the humanities—‘creatures’, note, not nature of society or human culture as if these were complete in themselves and did not refer us to God. For the regenerate intellect there are no secular studies, because there is nothing which is not to be traced back to God as its principle. Say, therefore, that in our study of natural and social and cultural objects we study the ‘works of God’; that is, we treat such objects of inquiry as objects which have their own natural integrity but which in that very integrity point us to the creator. The fallen mind, trapped in curiosity, does not permit study of creatures to prompt consideration of the creator; instead, it arrests the movement of intelligence by fastening on natural surfaces, and does not penetrate to the depth beneath the created sign. Regenerate studiousness, by contrast, inquires into creatures—with ardent attention, respect and well-tempered delight—in order to be drawn also to knowledge of God. Created things, Augustine says, are like steps that lead us ‘towards immortal things that abide forever.’ To study them as such is not pass over them inconsiderately, as vain and shallow matters scarcely fitting for the regenerate mind; it is, rather, to study them in such a way that intelligence is stretched out to God. ‘The ultimate fulfillment of the human intellect is divine truth’, Aquinas tells us; ‘other truths enrich the intellect by their being ordered to divine truth.’”[3]

For those given life by the Spirit on the basis of Christ’s redeeming work, our intellectual efforts and endeavors—whether it be Greek syntax, the theology of Paul, human anatomy, geology, mathematics, astronomy, or learning with our children the simple yet demanding things of this life—ought to begin and end with contemplation of God. If we merely study the surfaces of created things we (1) insufficiently study created things (as created things are created, we need to understand them in relation to their Creator), (2) we miss the goal of the intellectual studies, and (3) we pierce our hearts with many pangs, for our true happiness rests in knowing God. As the children of Adam, we slowly learn how to learn as children of God,[4] and as such learning children, surely our life will flourish when we study and act like children of God—those who do “not suspend [their] talk about God,”[5] but as those who “[talk] about everything by talking about God.”[6]

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, Ia.1.9 ad. 2, quoted in John Webster, God Without Measure, 1:123.

[2] Webster, God Without Measure, 1:214.

[3] Webster, God Without Measure, 2:155–156; Webster first quotes Augustine, De vera religion, XXIX.52, and then quotes Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ IIaIIæ.180.4 ad. 4 (ET altered).

[4] Similar wording from Webster, “Principles of Systematic Theology,” in IJST, 71.

[5] Webster, God Without Measure, 1:214.

[6] Webster, God Without Measure, 1:117.