Making Thoughts Captive to Christ

About this time of the year, when we contemplate the excitement of starting another school year and wonder aloud how we are going to payoff the tuition account, the necessity of Christian schools again begins to nag us. Are Christian schools really worth the cost of tuition? Is there enough difference between Christian and secular education to pay hundreds of dollars in tuition every month?

In order to answer such questions with any sense of finality, we have to dig deeply again into fundamental questions about the character and the primary purposes of the Christian schools we have established. Oftentimes we tum to Proverbs 22:6 for answers and find the reminder to “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (NIV). This classic passage is certainly worthy of our attention and should continue to spurus on for many generations to come, but it is not the only text which should be used to justify Christian education. Let me suggest another that is not so transparent, but one that I think is rich with meaning and insight.

In Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth, he defends his frequently controversial ministry with these words:

We demolish arguments and every pretension that
sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we
take captive every thought to make it obedient to
Christ (II Cor. 10:4b–5).

When we take a look at this particular verse in the Bible, we can focus on anyone of the words or phrases that is used here by the Apostle Paul and, depending on which word or phrase we begin with, we could give quite a different spin or twist to the intended meaning. If we had just come from one of those wreck-um derbies at the county fair, we might look at that phrase “demolish arguments” and conjure up all kinds of wild scenarios. That would be a mistake, however, because the NIV uses a “dynamic equivalency” here which has too many explosive connotations. Also, Paul would be extremely disappointed because we would be focusing on his methodology rather than on his message.

THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD

We would do better to start our probe with the phrase, “the knowledge of God,” for we ought always to start and to end with God. The “knowledge of God” is difficult enough to comprehend, for that little preposition “of” can mean either “about” or “belonging to.” If we are talking simply about the knowledge that we may have about God, we are going to limit our studies to the area of theology, which is defined as the “study about God.”

If we choose the other preposition, namely the “of” that “belongs to” God, we are asking a far broader question and one that may be more difficult to answer. I am convinced that in this passage, the phrase “the knowledge of God” can and should be defined both ways, addressing then the questions of the knowledge about God and also the question about the knowledge that belongs to God. It is with the second question that we will concern ourselves primarily today. When we address this second question, about which knowledge belongs to God, we must confess at the outset that God obviously has knowledge of everything that He created. He knows intimately
everything He has made, and thus has knowledge of everything.

One of our first concerns therefore, about the knowledge belonging to God is its dimension, or its boundaries. The Belgic Confession leads us to two very significant terms common to the Reformed faith:

General revelation

When we study the contents ofeither the Belgic Confession of Faith [II.] or the Westminster Confession ofFaith [I.I], we find that “We know God by two means: first, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to see clearly the invisible things of God...” (Belgic, Art. II). When we think of the magnitude of “general revelation,” we are thinking of everything outside of the Bible itself. The entire universe, including the farthest stars, the largest trees, the tiniest insects, the prettiest flowers, and every thing or person that God has created, are part of that “general revelation.”

When we think of our school curriculum, we need to put all of the subjects, except Bible, within that category. We then have to acknowledge that history, mathematics, physics, art, Spanish, bookkeeping, English, basketball, tennis and biology are all a part of “general revelation.” None of our school subjects are outside that category.

We also do well to remember that God’s world, the vast universe which He created, is not a veil or mask designed to hide the Creator's power and majesty. On the contrary, “the heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). Everywhere we look in the world around us we see evidences that there is a mighty and marvelous Creator. The proofs for intelligent design are so numerous as to leave all of us totally without excuse!

General revelation is not always the most easily understood term, but it is so-called because it comes to everyone, just through our being alive in God’s world. God has revealed Himself this way from the start of human history. He actively discloses these aspects of Himself to everyone, whether that person be living in the inner city of Chicago, in the gutters of Calcutta, in the mountains of Peru, on the streets of Palos Heights or on a farm in Iowa.

Special revelation

Our confession is very explicit in telling us that any, and all of the above categories of “general revelation” are sufficient to convince men that there is truly a God, and to leave them without excuse; “yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation” (Westminster, I). In order to give that knowledge of God necessary unto salvation, God “makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to His glory and our salvation” (Belgic, II). As a primary means of grace, God has chosen to give us His Word and to give us the abilities to read it, to translate it into hundreds of different languages, and to comprehend its meanings.

But there is another way by which we have the “knowledge of God.” Technically it is not separate from the above two categories, so we should think of it as one of the dimensions of general revelation, on the grounds that it is a part of God’s created order. It is contained within us, as the crown of creation, but is so special that we need to focus on it separately for a moment.

One of the most amazing aspects of the way in which God has created us is in the fact that we are born with a conscience. We come into the world with “the law of God written on our hearts.” From the day that we are born, we know right from wrong. We don’t have to have our parents tell us that it is wrong to steal or wrong to punch our little sister or wrong to tell lies. We know when we do evil simply because God crealed us with that capacity. Adam and Eve were created with perfect righteousness and perfect holiness. They felt guilty as soon as they disobeyed God's commands, so they went off to hide themselves and to cover their nakedness with fig leaves.

Even in the fallen world everyone is endowed with a conscience that condemns them, telling them that they ought to suffer for wrongs that they have done. “Conscience” comes from two words, “con” meaning “with,” and “science” meaning “knowledge.” We are created with knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. When we go against that knowledge, contrary to what we know is right, we suffer the pangs or jabs of that conscience, telling us that we should not do that again.

THE SOURCE OF KNOWLEDGE

We all have to recognize that there is a great deal of knowledge around us and available to us. We can take a look at our libraries (“media centers” is a more current term) and stand in awe of the millions of books that have been written, of the hundreds of thousands of movies and videos that have been made, of the many software programs for our computers. Where does it all come from?

Our secular culture has a variety of answers, many of which have come down to us through history. Some philosophers such as Immanuel Kant have argued that all knowledge is experiential, that we can only come to know those things that we have experienced. He would even argue that we cannot know God, i.e., know about God, because He is not experiential; He is not in the category of the phenomenaL Others, like John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau, have argued. that all knowledge comes to us from our environment, that the material things of this world radiate knowledge from themselves and that we are simply there as a passive sponge to absorb what we can. We have no conscience at birth, and no original sin, but only a blank slate or a tabula rasa! They claim that we are only what we become, what our environmental influences make us to be.

There are also vast numbers today who would like to have us believe that “science” is thesource of knowledge. Only as we put our faith in “science,” they claim, can we hope to increase our knowledge and someday come to a knowledge of the truth. Such belief is rank heresy and can be “demolished” (to borrow Paul’s term) at the most fundamental level by pointing out that “science” is nothing more than a synonym for “knowledge,” thus leaving us with the indefensible hypothesis that knowledge is its own source, that it is self-generating.

When the Bible talks about “the knowledge of God” though, it is talking about the knowledge that belongs to God and that comes from Him. It belongs to God because He is the source. All knowledge, whether that be the knowledge of arithmetic, or of biology, or of music, or of chemistry or any other study, comesIrom Him and from nowhere else.

THE CHAMBER OF KNOWLEDGE

What we have to recognize from all of our foregoing discussion is that all knowledge is revelation. When we put all knowledge into the two categories of either general or special revelation, we have to focus on more than the two categories, on more than the distinctions between general and special revelation. We have to come to recognize that everything is REVELATION! To make that claim is to admit that it does not originate in discovery or rational deduction or scientific experiment. If we read the conventional textbooks of teaching and learning theory, we would never get the impression from them that knowledge has anything to do with revelation. As a matter of conviction, they would refuse to allow such terminology into their textbooks, for “revelation” suggests strongly that knowledge comes, gift-fashion, from somewhere outside of ourselves.

Learning theorists who give us conventional wisdom, are much more inclined to talk of knowledge in terms of “discovery” or “rational deduction” or “scientific experiment.” Knowledge, the secularist claims, is something that we acquire for ourselves. If we happen to possess any significant amounts, we and we alone should get all of the credit. Autonomous man loves to claim, “I am the source of all wisdom. Look what I got for myself! Look how smart I am!”

THE PRIMARY PURPOSE OF KNOWLEDGE

We have learned long ago, in the language of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever” (Q.1). God gives us knowledge, not so that we may puff out our chests and brag to the world about our IQ’s, or that we may brag when we compete for the highest scholarships; but He gives us His knowledge so that we may know Him, glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. This world exists for God’s glory and not for ours. In the words of Herman Bavinck, “The purpose of God’s revelation according to Scripture is this very thing: that man shall learn to know God, and hence may have eternal life” (The Doctrine of God, p.15).

According to the Scriptures, “knowing God” is the ideal of the spiritual person, representing the fullness of a faith relationship that brings salvation and etemal life. The dimensions of this knowledge are intellectual (knowing the truth about God, Deut. 7:9; Ps. 100:3); volitional (trusting, obeying and worshiping God); and moral (practicing justice and love and right behavior, Jer. 22:16; I John 4:7–8). Furthermore, the knowledge fostered by God’s covenant with us is reciprocal, with affection on both sides: we know God as ours because He knows us as His (John 10:14; Gal. 4:9).

THE STRATEGIES OF GOD’S ENEMIES

We all know that the world is not a friend to grace and that there are enemies of God all around us. Claiming to be autonomous, that is, self-ruling, they set themselves up to take God’s place. Not wanting to acknowledge the sovereignty of God, they “suppress the truth in unrighteousness...” (Rom. 1:18). It is not a matter of the truth being sought but tmable to be found, but rather that people have the truth and know the truth, but deliberately suppress it so as to prevent it from being seen or heard. Anyone who has tried to have a spiritual truth published in the secular press knows how that “suppression of truth” works. That which the Bible says “is clearly seen” fallen humanity seeks to hinder and obstruct so that its influence cannot be felt. Because they “suppress the truth in unrighteousness,” they are without excuse and will have to answer some day for their obstructionist tactics.

The apostle Paul, who had his share of encounters with the enemies of the gospel, goes on to tell us: “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25). A “lie” is a distortion or perversion of the truth and is attributable to the work of Satan rather than to the Holy Spirit. God gives us only true knowledge, but Satan takes and twists and distorts that knowledge in such a way that God is no longer given the credit or the glory.

Whenever we think we can operate apart from God, or whenever we let Satan get control in our lives, we end up suppressing the truth and swallowing the lie. Whenever we think that we have acquired knowledge by our own ingenuity, we are giving credit to ourselves and taking it away from God. That is idolatry, says Paul! Whenever we buy into the idea that knowledge comes as a result of scientific activity, or that “science” is somehow the source of knowledge, we are making an idol out of science. We do the same if we think that truth is the discovery or the product of human reason. Harsh though it may sound, we have to realize that religious honor cannot be given to any of God’s creations without taking it away, in a disgraceful and sacrilegious manner, from God Himself. 

THE OBLIGATIONS OF GOD’S CHILDREN

In light of all the above, what are we as Christians supposed to do? What should our children, as students who are learning to find their way in this world, be taught to do? Borrowing again the language of Paul, “We demolish arguments and every pretension....” Paul is reminding us here that the “wisdom of this world” is really foolishness in God’s Sight. He is also saying that the wisdom of men must be brought low, that the secular and atheistic answers of this world must be "demolished." That is strong language, but we need to rememer that the Kingdom of Christ cannot be set up or established until we first tear down everything in the world that is in opposition to it. Nothing is more opposed to the spiritual wisdom of God than is the “wisdom of this world”; nothing is more at variance with the glory of God than is the human attempt to put man on God’s throne, to give man credit for things that God gives to him.

William Barclay gives us a translation of this passage that captures in contemporary language the thoughts that Paul was conveying. Barclay translates this, “Our campaign is such that we can destroy plausible fallacies and all the lofty-mindedness which raises itself up against the knowledge that God has given” (Letters, 1975, p. 238). To illustrate, let us take just one contemporary example of a thought or idea that has been raised up against the knowledge that God has given. I think of the very common and passionately held assertion that the earth on which we live is millions or even billions of years old. The vast majority of Americans hold this to be a self-evident truth, even though the Bible, as God’s special, corrective revelation, strongly suggests that we hve m a young earth.

Paul says that weare to “take captive every thought....” At first such language may seem somewhat strange, but he is obviously continuing the theme of warfare suggested earlier. The term “captive” is borrowed from military fiFes and suggests that when we “demolish arguments” or tear down “every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” we are going to have ideas or thoughts which must be taken captive. When we encounter an idea like the ones about an “old earth” we are to capture that thought and bring it in captivity, to Jesus Christ who is the Captain of the Lord’s army in this spiritual warfare. To put it simply, we have to come with that idea and measure it against the Word of God. Does it harmonize with Scripture, or does it contradict what God is saying in His Word? Can I find the idea of an earth that is billions and billions of years old to be in agreement with all of the genealogies of Adam and of Jesus Christ that are given for us in Genesis 5 and 11, or m I Chronicles 1, or in Matthew 1, or in Luke 3?

In the work which we call Christian education, we are to take every thought and “make it obedient to Christ...” When we have taken ideas and measured them up against the standards of the Word of God, we cannot stop there if we find an apparent contradiction in this spiritual battle for the souls of men there are to be no “draws” or “declarations of neutrality.” We may not rest with such a conflict. Because all knowledge belongs to God and comes from Him, we must make every thought obedient to Jesus Christ. We must recapture ideas and thoughts that have been pirated by the world and bring them back into captivity to Christ. That is the task of Christian parents and Christian teachers and Christian school administrators and board members. We may never concede a square inch of God’s world to the clutches of Satan, but must “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”

Rev. Norman De Jong is pastor of Covenant Church (OPC) in Palos Heights, FL.

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