Intellectual Arrogance

A cursory reading of the New Testament reveals a distinct attitude taken by our Lord and his apostles regarding human wisdom. James went so far as to describe such wisdom as "sensual, demonic" and declared that it causes "envy and self-seeking... confusion and every evil thing..." (cf. James 3:15-16).

Jesus in his personal ministry dealt with men who were intellectually arrogant. This was a characteristic of both the Pharisees and the Sadducees. When Jesus had taught that eating with unwashed hands does not defile a person, defilement rather coming from within, his disciples informed him that the teaching offended the Pharisees. No doubt it did, as it set aside the traditions they held dear. Concerning them, Jesus said, "Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch" (Matthew 15:14).

Likewise, our Lord had little patience with the sophisticated Sadducees, and admonished their "logical" dismissal of the resurrection by saying, "You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God" (Matthew 22:29). Anytime the doctrines of man (human wisdom) were imposed upon men, Jesus condemned them. "And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Matthew 15:9).

Paul likewise had to deal with the intellectually arrogant, as he addressed the Athenians in Acts 17. Of that group, Luke records, "For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing" (17:21).

This characteristic of the Gentile was characterized by Paul as, "seek [-ing] after wisdom", and stated that he had none for them. Rather, "But we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Corinthians 1:23-25).

The incursion of Gnosticism into the early church is another example of intellectual arrogance. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states, regarding Gnosticism, "It involves, as the name denotes, a claim to 'knowledge,' knowledge of a kind of which the ordinary believer was incapable, and in the possession of which 'salvation' in the full sense consisted." (Vol. II, pg. 40).

The apostle Paul warned Timothy, "O Timothy! Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge" (1 Timothy 6:20). This conceivably was a direct allusion to the heresy at work in the first century church. Rather than being tolerant of such a philosophy, Paul told Timothy to avoid it.

Peter and John also warned against the Gnostic influence, Peter described the Gnostic advocate, "...Like natural brute beasts made to be caught and destroyed, speak evil of the things they do not understand, and will utterly perish in their own corruption... having eyes full of adultery and that cannot cease from sin... For when they speak great swelling words of emptiness, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through lewdness, the ones who have actually escaped from those who live in error" (2 Peter 2:12-18).

The Gnostics, because of their peculiar beliefs, often had both libertine tendencies, and a disinterest in their brethren. Of them John wrote, "In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother" (1 John 3:10).

While God indeed would have us to be wise, the origin of our wisdom must be from above, that it might be "first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy" (James 3:17). This in contrast to the aforementioned earthly wisdom that is "sensual, demonic" and causes "envy and self-seeking..., confusion and every evil thing" (3:15-16).

Concerning the intellectual arrogance that can beset Christians, Paul warned, "For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves. But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise. We, however, will not boast beyond measure, but within the limits of the sphere which God appointed us; a sphere which especially includes you" (2 Corinthians 10:12-13).

Paul also wrote, "...Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know" (1 Corinthians 8:1-2).

The preceding constitutes only a small portion of the admonitions and condemnation of intellectual arrogance. It existed in the first century and remains in our time.

Modern Examples of Intellectual Arrogance

When the modernist takes the position that the New Testament writings are full of inaccuracies and superstitions, he is indicating his intellectual arrogance. Consider John's record of the Lord's crucifixion, as the Roman centurions examined our Lord as he hung on the tree. "Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who was crucified with Him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out" (John 19:31-34). Though John records this as an eyewitness, and proclaims, "And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe" (vs. 35), some modernists, 2000 years after the fact, postulate that he was not dead, but in a swoon. This to deny the fact of our Lord's resurrection. "Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty" (1 Corinthians 15:12-14).

The modernist does the same with the New Testament claims of inspiration, the virgin birth of Jesus, the miracles performed by Jesus and his followers, and even much of the teaching Jesus did during his personal ministry. Everything stated plainly by our Lord and his disciples is weighed through the filter of our modern day "sophistication", and appropriate changes are made. This is egregious arrogance on the part of man.

Intellectual Arrogance Among Christians

Modernists, however, do not have an exclusive claim on intellectual arrogance in our time. Many Christians are guilty of the same. Perhaps their guilt is a bit subtler than the modernists blatant rejection of the conventions of scripture, but it is no less excusable. Consider the following three examples:

First, brethren continue to practice the arrogance that characterized the carnal Corinthians, recorded in 1 Corinthians 5. Paul had knowledge of their acceptance into fellowship one who was unworthy. The man's sin was sexual immorality, "such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles; that a man has his father's wife!" Rather than dealing with this man's sin, the Corinthians had allowed him to continue in their fellowship, despite his ungodly behavior. Paul defined such behavior as arrogance. "And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you" (1 Corinthians 5:2).

Consider, what many today describe as actions of mercy, humility and love, Paul described as being "puffed up." More and more Christians, when faced with a teacher of error, or an immoral member of the church, react by saying, "Who am I to judge," or "As long as his actions do not harm me, I can accept him as my brother." It is fashionable to consider such an attitude as a show of humility. "Far be it from me to presume to judge another." In reality, it is intellectual arrogance. In so doing, brethren are indicated to God that His instructions on how to deal with sin are not sufficiently tolerant and merciful. When we refuse to deal with sin, we disobey God!

Second, brethren continue the unwise practice of comparing themselves to others, as did the Corinthians (see again 2 Corinthians 10:12-13), and as did the Pharisee in Luke 18:11, "The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men; extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.'" The Pharisee's arrogance permeated the entirety of his address to God. His pride caused him to go away unjustified before the Almighty.

It is extremely important that brethren everywhere contend for the truth and refute error. When such is done, because of the first example above (a toleration of error), some will say, "Who set you up as brotherhood watchdogs, or arbiters of truth, or modern day prophets." We have heard such, and the whining we hear when the false teacher is exposed is indicative of the whiner's arrogance, as we have already noted. Is it possible, however, that on occasion there is a kernel of truth in their complaints? Is it possible that some take delight in the exposing of the false teacher, because they are guilty of "comparing themselves among themselves"? I would assert that it is possible, and have even seen indications of such arrogance among some who are quick to defend God's word.

The truth must be defended. But, it must be defended humbly and with uprightness. My being right on a particular doctrinal position does not guarantee I am acceptable to God. My being in a particular "group" or writing for a particular "paper" or having particular "friends" in no way proves me to be righteous. If I have a superior attitude because of who I associate with, or because "I have the truth", then I am guilty of arrogance.

When truth is defended, the enemies of truth will be quick to launch attacks against the defender. May it always be that those who preach the gospel do so with sincere motives, and with the integrity that the task demands. "Likewise exhort the young men to be sober-minded, in all things showing yourself to be a pattern of good works; in doctrine showing integrity, reverence, incorruptibility, sound speech that cannot be condemned, that one who is an opponent may be ashamed, having nothing evil to say of you" (Titus 2:6-8).

Third, brethren are today guilty of desiring innovation, as were the Athenians, recorded in Acts 17:21, "For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing." As brethren have become more tolerant of hearing some "new thing" there have been teachers coming out of the woodwork, willing to tickle their ears. Internet discussion lists, for example, are hotbeds of such innovation. Men are quick to "throw out" something to the list, to see if it will gain acceptance. Arguments are made rapidly, without sufficient study and reflection, as brethren clamor to be known as "open-minded" or as "free-thinkers." Young preachers, subtly influenced by the liberal thinking in the colleges and the more sophisticated culture of the day, begin to ridicule and dismiss the scholarship of pioneer preachers and teachers of an earlier generation. Such men do not heed the warning of Paul, "that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting," (cf. Ephesians 4:14).

In the end, all that matters is the truth of God. Just because a generation of Christians believed a particular doctrine does not in itself make it compatible with the will of God. However, when preceding generations, studious in their preparations and respectful in their attitudes, have taught their convictions, we must not dismiss them lightly. As I study God's word, I tremble at the thought that I may come to a conclusion which differs from such combined scholarship. In the end I must act upon my conviction, but I must not be cavalier in my attitude toward those who have gone before. I must not be quick to "preach" my conclusions. I must carefully consider the arguments of those wiser than myself, and be cautious in propounding anything "new." I must not be arrogant to think that I have come across a truth that generations before have not grasped.

Concluding Thoughts

Intellectual arrogance can touch us all. But, by its nature, it is seldom recognized by the guilty. The Corinthians fancied themselves tolerant, and yet Paul called them "puffed up." Such pride is subtle, and can affect us all. "Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12). May we all emulate the mind of Christ..?

"Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross" (Philippians 2:3-8).

by Stan Cox

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