The lack of knowledge of God: ecclesial ignorance

In my last post on what I called “anti-intellectualism,” I focused on my experiences with other seminary students. In the past few weeks I become convinced that we need to address this issue on a church-wide basis. The global Protestant church is in a crisis: the crisis of ignorance. This is a problem that extends to both “conservative” and “liberal” churches and denominations. Ignorance is no respecter of persons; it is a disease that plagues the church through and through.

Most mainline churches have dispensed with catechesis, including the PCUSA, despite having the best modern catechism of any Protestant church. According to George Hunsinger, who helped compose the Study Catechism, at best about one-quarter of PCUSA churches train people with the catechism. Conservative and evangelical churches are split: the conservative Reformed churches are on the whole much better in their persistent use of traditional catechisms (primarily the Westminster Catechism). Evangelical churches—which dominate the American religious scene—on the whole refuse to use catechisms at all; their training in the faith occurs in Bible studies and small groups, but there is little if any training in the doctrines of the faith. I did not even know what a catechism was until high school, and I never even read one until college. I have still never attended a church which uses a catechism.

Let us recall John Calvin’s timeless definition of faith: “We shall now have a full definition of faith, if we say that it is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit” (Institutes, 3.2.7). Faith, for Calvin, depends upon the knowledge of God. This was a universal sentiment among the magisterial Reformers. They broke with the Catholic Church for (primarily) doctrinal reasons, and thus they were tireless in their efforts to catechise their parishioners. By catechising and instructing new believers, the early Protestant churches were robust in the faith. If they were persecuted, they knew what they were being persecuted for; if they were called on to present the gospel, they could. When preachers spoke, they could often depend upon the fact that they were preaching to a catechised congregation.

In our churches today, we need to do remedial training. Our churches are fat and lazy (spiritually, though probably physically as well). Our congregations have imbibed at the well of wishy-washy spirituality, in which individual experiences and emotions are sufficient, in which some inner conviction is the extent of faith and knowledge of God is merely a bonus for those who have the intellectual disposition to pursue such arcane ideas.

Ecclesial ignorance is going to be the end of Protestantism if we do not radically alter our ways. The Catholic Church catechises every person who wishes to be baptized or confirmed in the faith, and their catechism is many hundreds of pages long. The average Catholic may not always understand everything, but the exposure plants seeds in the lives of an individual which blossom with a life of discipleship. The Protestant churches need to learn from the Catholic; the reform needs to go the other direction. Without robust communities of faith, without a strong rooting in the knowledge of God, our churches open themselves up to threats, such as the following:
  1. The threat of being asleep when oppression and persecution take place around us. This happened with the church in Germany during Hitler’s reign; it is happening again now in the United States.
  2. The threat of not knowing what the ethical commands of God are for our lives, which leaves us open to permitting whatever the culture around us deems permissible.
  3. The threat of not knowing what salvation is and how one becomes saved, which had led to the propagation of semi-Pelagianism and other forms of individualistic self-salvation which undermine the primacy of Christ’s person and work.
  4. The threat of weak doctrines of Scripture which give the text supernatural status (inerrancy) or merely human status and make our congregations either incapable of encountering textual-historical-critical research or incapable of reading the Bible as the Word of God to us.
  5. The threat of Jesus idolatry and the loss of the Trinity in prayer and worship.
  6. The threat of science idolatry on one hand or of bibliolatry on the other, which leads to a blind acceptance of whatever science and technology dictates or the blind rejection of modern science because of corrupt readings of, say, Genesis.
  7. The threat of individualism in all its forms, whether in salvation or in the voluntarism that plagues America.
  8. Add your own threat here...
Who will educate our churches? Who will address these problems? Who will stand up for catechesis and instruction? Who will raise the banner for theology and biblical studies? Who will demand that our churches teach and preach the doctrines of the faith? Who really cares about the problem of ecclesial ignorance?


Anonymous said…
"The threat of Jesus idolatry"

Can you elaborate?

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
D.W., see my similar comments:; ; .

I will be sure to link to your post. Thanks.
John P. said…
You and I seem to come from a similar evangelical background. I was reared in churches through formative high school and college years that had no time for catachesis. In many ways, i feel like my pursuit of a theological education is a direct result of the questions that were never addressed (much less thought of) at the time of conversion.

One church I attended once held an "Ordination Sunday" during worship. Essentially, the preaching pastor and administrative pastor basically stood up and ordained a group of people to be elders and deacons and leaders in the church. A few years earlier, this may not have registered with me. But, by that time, I couldnt help but think: what authorizes or qualifies these people to ordain? And, more importantly, what qualifies these congregants to be ordained?

To be sure, education is not salvation much less sanctification...but the early church seemed to have a very strong opinion about catachumens taking years to be eligible for baptism: i.e. these people need to know what they heck they are committing too!

But, to answer your questions, i suppose the onus of responsibility must rest on the pastors leadership. And, by default, on those who educate the pastor. Ideally, congregants should want to have such knowledge of God...but it seems that they also need to be told that it is something to want in the first place.
byron smith said…
Who really cares about the problem of ecclesial ignorance?
I do.

I'm with you again on this entire post. Perhaps the endless fragmentation over doctrinal statements produced weariness with the process of catechism. But however we do it, spiritual formation of the mind must remain a key part of what the church does.
Anonymous said…

Who will educate our churches? Who will address these problems? Who will stand up for catechesis and instruction? Who will raise the banner for theology and biblical studies? Who will demand that our churches teach and preach the doctrines of the faith? Who really cares about the problem of ecclesial ignorance?

I have had similar concerns about our situation in our churches in my country, although the situation there in the US is very different but the growing anti-intellectualism, in my opinion, is prevailing. You can read it in my post We have the same questions… who will???

Serge, by "Jesus idolatry" I simply mean the tendency among modern Christians (mainly since the 19th "life of Jesus" movement) to worship Jesus, and not the triune God. Jesus tends to be abstracted from the being of God, often because the Trinity seems to abstract as a concept and/or because Jesus is much easier to relate to as another human being (the whole "Jesus is my boyfriend" stuff).

Christians tend to talk about God (in the abstract) and Jesus. And the contemporary term "followers of Jesus" instead of Christians is another example of privileging the person of Jesus in an almost Marcionite manner.

(Speaking of that, as far as church practice is concerned, most churches are indeed Marcionite — in practice, not creed, of course.)