Reasons to Believe

Intellectual Repentance, Part 1 of 6

Back when I was a graduate student at Caltech, the Christian fellowship group of which I was a part invited several outside speakers to address us (and anyone else on campus who was interested) on a variety of topics that touched on faith and science. One speaker was Dr. Bernard Ramm, a Baptist theologian who had written extensively on how to incorporate the findings of modern science into the Christian worldview. At another time we had a spirited debate between a couple of local pastors and Dr. Richard Feynman, a Nobel laureate and Caltech physicist who, though an atheist, was not as antagonistic toward the Christian faith as are some atheists today.

One speaker who I remember very well was the highly respected Fuller Theological Seminary professor, Geoffrey Bromiley. He chose Paul’s comments in the second chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians as his text, and gave a series of talks to us scientists of the need for what he called “intellectual repentance.” His basic message was that to receive the grace of God, we must come to the realization that we do not have the resources within ourselves to know certain things without the help of God. There are areas of knowledge that we cannot comprehend on our own, no matter how intelligent or educated we may be. If our own views on these matters hinder us from coming to God, the only solution is, we must repent (change our mind). What I would like to do in the next few weeks is walk our way through this passage, following what I remember from Bromiley’s talk, and see how Paul instructs us.

When Paul came to the city of Corinth to preach the message of the gospel, he took great care in the way he came across to his hearers. His concern was not only for the content of his message (as you would expect, based on the way he writes his epistles) but also for the form he used to present it. As a reminder to the Corinthians, he describes this form in the first four verses of the second chapter of his letter:

1And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. 2For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. 3I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, 4and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power. (New American Standard Bible)

As I think about what he is saying here, I suspect Paul has been influenced by two particulars: one historical and the other personal.

First, as can be learned from almost any historical account of the Greek civilization, we know Corinth was one of the major city-states of Greece. At this time in its history, Corinth was quite cosmopolitan, being a mixture of native Greeks, Roman colonists, and other nationalities, including a large colony of Jews. Due to its proximity to two seas, Corinth had a natural advantage in commerce and flourished as a center of trade between Asia and Italy. Its citizens prided themselves in their artistic achievement, statesmanship, and philosophical pursuits. They were also known as a very immoral and depraved people—a trait fostered by the degraded forms of their religious practices.

Paul knew that any attempt to reach the Corinthians with the gospel must not in any way appeal to their pride or perverted interests. He has already explained this in the first chapter of his letter, where he says that he must not preach the gospel “in cleverness of speech, that the cross of Christ should not be made void.” What I think Paul is saying here is that it is possible to nullify the impact of the gospel message by merely getting people’s attention through an area of their lives of which they must repent before they can receive the message. It would be like sprinkling an evangelistic message with prurient humor. Such a technique would likely hold the attention of those who need the message most, but would hardly cause conviction from the sin of lust and lead to their conversion.

Second, Paul’s journeys had previously carried him through the Greek city of Athens, where he had preached to the philosophers on Mars Hill. His message is summarized near the end of Acts chapter 17, and is frequently used as a model for how to communicate the gospel to intellectuals. However that may be, I don’t think he felt terribly successful. Their response, in large part, is described in rather skeptical terms. I suggest that he may have come away from that experience determined to take a different approach when he later came to Corinth.

We’ll explore that approach next time.


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

Subjects: Christian Life

Dr. David Rogstad

Dr. Dave Rogstad received his PhD in physics from Caltech and worked over 30 years for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Though now retired, Dave continues to serve as an RTB board member and participates regularly in several RTB podcasts.