Matthew 18:3 and 1 Corinthians 1:27 are not an anti-intellectual manifesto

Just thought I’d cross-post this here from Facebook. It’s quite common to hear people cite verses such as Matthew 18:3 or 1 Corinthians 1:27 as justification for anti-intellectualism or dumbing things down. Here’s what I posted on my Facebook wall this evening about what Matthew 18:3 actually means:

In Matthew 18:3, Jesus said, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

I’ve heard many interpretations of that verse over the years. Many of them make good and noble statements in themselves, but unfortunately they almost always miss the point that Jesus was actually making.

Take, for example, the idea of “child-like innocence.” Innocence is indeed important, but how many children do you actually know (other than your own, of course – everyone knows that their own children are perfect) who this actually describes? Anyone who’s ever been bullied at school, or who has ever had to look after a screaming toddler throwing a tantrum in Tesco, will know full well that the concept of “child-like innocence” is a fantasy.

Nor is this verse an anti-intellectual manifesto. Jesus is not telling us here that our faith should be child-like, or, as an old song by Chris Bowater once put it, “believ(ing) the truth unhindered by reason.” On the contrary, the Bible tells us that we should move on to a mature faith, informed and tempered by wisdom. 1 John 4:1 tells us not to believe every spirit, but to test the spirits to see which are from God. If your faith is unhindered by reason, you won’t just believe the truth, you’ll end up believing a whole lot of patent nonsense along with it. Somehow I don’t think Jesus was intending here that we should fall hook line and sinker for astrology, homeopathy, water divining, reading tea leaves, feng shui, ancient aliens, anti-vaccination, or accelerated nuclear decay.

So what was Jesus talking about then? The answer becomes clear when you look at the one thing that everyone ignores: the context from which this verse was taken. Here are the first five verses of Matthew 18 in full:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me."

Puts an entirely different perspective on it, doesn’t it? Jesus’s words were in response to yet another argument among His disciples about who was the greatest, who would be in charge. Children, by contrast, are anything but in charge. They are accountable to everyone and responsible for no-one. They have rules and restrictions that adults don’t. They lack rights that adults enjoy. They have to go to bed early. They are not allowed to drive or to vote. They have to go to school. All in all, they are Just Another Brick In The Wall.

By telling us that we have to become as little children, Jesus was not telling us how to behave, nor that we had to dumb things down. On the contrary, He was calling for humility. He was telling us that the entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven is not at the top of the org chart, but at the bottom.


This is what I posted a few weeks ago about 1 Corinthians 1:27:

“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”

This verse is not an invitation to drop out of school or university. It is not an excuse for sloppy thinking, intellectual laziness, or recklessness or carelessness with fact-checking. It is not a blanket condemnation of reason, or critical thinking, or academic pursuits. It is not an anti-intellectual manifesto.

It’s important to remember that in the time of Jesus and Paul, only one or two percent of the population could even read and write. Basic literacy and numeracy skills were a privilege on a par with getting into Oxford or Cambridge University today.

The “foolish things of the world” of which Paul speaks are people who lacked education and wisdom through lack of opportunity (or lack of ability). He is not talking of people who lower their intellectual standards by choice. Because that is not foolishness; it is laziness and dishonesty.

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Thanks for this James.
I understand Matt 18:3 as referring to very young children who are curious, nonjudgmental, open to learn and who do not carry the prejudice and dogma of the past. It is a prelude to requirement to become perfect (Matt 5:44–48) as God is perfect.

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Thanks Shawn. I think those are attributes of childhood that we can and should seek to emulate, even if I don’t think they’re exactly what Jesus had in mind for the reasons I stated above. There are definitely some ways in which we can and should become like little children and those should be encouraged.

However, we shouldn’t become like little children in every respect. What concerns me is when people try to use these verses to justify “becoming like little children” in ways that contradict other instructions in the Bible. The main example that comes to mind, as I said, is dumbing things down, or any kind of anti-intellectualism. Hebrews 6, for example, tells us that we need to stop dwelling on elementary teachings and move onto maturity.

I agree with you and that is why I listed those specific characteristic, especially curiosity. This is truly lacking in many intellectuals. I look at Socrates and Einstein in this regard, those who learned so much that they realized they know nothing…

If you google verses about knowledge in the Bible, you will find that they are all positive and knowledge itself is regarded as something good to obtain. Pride however is warned against, and having knowledge should be accompanied by humility, which is where we often get tripped up.

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Far more of the Bible extols and praises wisdom, so to overturn all that with just these two verses is absurd. So what shall we take away from the these verses then? Although logic, intelligence, and even the lessons of experience have their uses, they are not the be all and end all of life. They are not even the most important things. Just as logic, intelligence, and experience can be used for both good and evil so also can foolishness, silliness, and just plain contrariness. To be sure love is a higher value and when logic and experience stand in the way of love then we ought to question whether it has gone too far.

I am reminded of times and sectors of Christianity which made no room for art and music with a dedication to somber service of God that went to such an extreme that I would consider it obscene. There is nothing in the Bible to support such a demolition of joy and beauty in life. When Jesus said He came that we may have life and have it more abundantly I don’t think he was talking even primarily about length of life let alone exclusively. I think He was mostly talking about the quality of life. Indeed I would say that the most basic difference between heaven and hell is having that which makes existence worthwhile. Simply to exist without love, joy, and beauty is hell already.

Nor do I think these passages are sufficient justification for irrational nonsense in theology like this western distortion from medieval times which makes the atonement about as system of justice where the innocent can literally pay for other person’s crime or where the value of a crime and punishments depends on the value of the victim. If these passages tell us anything about this issue, it only to say that there is still value in the metaphor that Christ paid the price for our sins. Indeed, it is too much use of logic to try justifying this central Christian belief with an alteration of justice itself.

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It probably is catchy or appealing for many anti-theists simply because the average believer does appear to be anti-intellectual. I was watching an atheist present on faith on YouTube and heard some of the Martin Luther quotes for the first time on reason and faith as well. I went to try and find some context and came across a Rauser blog post which was interesting and similar to some of the posts in this thread:
https://randalrauser.com/2011/10/quote-others-the-way-you-would-have-them-quote-you/

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It seems like one of those paradox examples of doing or becoming that which is seemingly impossible.