There exist several mythologies in evangelicalism. One of these mythologies is that thinking about the Bible is bad. Bertrand Russel cites this myth and this interpretation of the following scripture as one of the many reasons for rejecting the gospel. One passage of Scripture that is utilized in the myth to follow is Matthew 18:1-5:
In that very moment, the disciples came to Jesus saying, “Then, who is the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens?” Then, calling to himself a child, he stood him in their midst and he said, “Truly am I telling you that unless you turn and become as children, you will not, under any circumstances, enter into the kingdom of the heavens. Therefore, if any should humble himself as this child, this one is the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens.” Also, if any should receive (show hospitality to) one such as this child in my name, this one receives me.” (Matthew 18:1-5 author’s translation)
- The Myth
I wish that I could find an example of this in a book or a sermon, but I have to go with anecdotal evidence. Almost every time I ask somebody what they think Matthew 18:1-5 means, they reply, “To trust God without question, like a child,” “to obey Jesus without thinking about it,” or “to obey everything you read in the Bible.” The problem is that this passage does not actually say any of those three things. Not only that, but the very experience of obedience used (that of a child) is not even realistic to the experience of any parent or teacher. Also, the myth comes up when I challenge Christians to read a commentary (even an old one designed for devotions), read a book by C.S. Lewis, learn a Biblical language (that’s a big ask), or read a simpler writer like A.W. Tozer. The response is usually, “I just want to keep things simple, like Jesus says about accepting things like a child.” Admittedly, Jesus does thank God as one point for revealing the gospel to the simple and childlike over against the wise and scribally gifted of the age (Matthew 11:26-30), but the context there is that Christians should learn from Jesus as the giver of true wisdom. Jesus’ statement there is not an indictment of study and knowledge, but an indictment of the arrogant dismissals of Jesus’ ministry by the scribes whose ideologies and actions he challenged. Nevertheless, the myth persists. Christians shouldn’t read or think about Scripture, their faith, or the world because Jesus wants us to be like children, and children, after all, don’t know stuff, invent things, or do Calculus (neither do most people by the way).
- Reasons this interpretation does not make sense:
- Children ask questions all the time.
Really, they love knowing things until being smart feels uncool in junior high. One of the most annoying things that children do is ask too many questions when you’re trying to do or explain something very simple to them. The gospel of Luke even says that Jesus was this way: “And it happened that after three days, they found him in the temple sitting in the midst of the teachers and listening to them and inquiring of them. All who heard were impressed by his intelligence and his responses.” (Luke 2:46-47 author’s translation) Now, we’re often amazed at the questions of children because they’re clever though mistaken in their assumptions and observations. The teachers were impressed for different reasons, but they weren’t surprised that Jesus had questions and responses to their own questions. They were amazed at the quality of his questions and answers. In personal experience, we also know that children do not always or perhaps even often “simply obey” without either disobeying or asking questions about meaning (‘why’) and procedure (‘how’). Christians are, of course, supposed to ask those questions.
- Christians are commanded all over the New Testament to think.
If we, as Christians rightly do, assume some type of unity of thought in the Canon of the New Testament, then these commands to think might be thematic of Christian living at any stage of history. Thus, if one passage of the New Testament seems to radically contradict the rest, then we should question our interpretation of it. Here are four examples of commands to think in the New Testament (randomly drawn from memory):
- be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Romans 12:1)
- love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30)
- be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16)
- Think over what I am saying and the Lord will give you understanding. (2 Timothy 2:7)
- Recent and ancient commentaries say the passage means something else:
- John Nolland (recent)
Though the words of challenge are directed to the disciples, we are not to understand that they are being treated as not having yet undergone this vital reorientation (they have come in humility to Jesus to have their questions answered); sustaining the new orientation and becoming aware of its implications for life are, however, ongoing challenges.1
- St. Jerome (ancient)
And he said. Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. He does not enjoin on the Apostles the age, but the innocence of infants, which they have by virtue of their years, but to which these might attain by striving; that they should be children in malice, not in understanding. As though He had said, As this child, whom I set before you as a pattern, is not obstinate in anger, when injured does not bear it in mind, has no emotion at the sight of a fair woman, does not think one thing while he speaks another; so ye, unless ye have the like innocence and purity of mind, shall not be able to enter into the kingdom of heaven.2
- A.T. Robertson (last 150 years)
Except ye turn, and become as little children. Jesus applies the object lesson to the disciples. The spirit of envy will prevent entrance into the Kingdom of heaven at all. There will then be no need for dispute about preëminence. It is a sharp rebuke. Jesus does not stop to explain about the true idea of the kingdom. He wishes rather to kill the spirit of jealousy. A child is gentle, humble, trustful. Cf. Mk. 10:15 on a later occasion.3
- Cornelius Lapide (somewhat ancient)
Converted, i.e., from this emulation and ambition of yours, which is at least a venial sin, and therefore an impediment to entrance into the kingdom of Heaven.As little children: for, speaking generally, they do not envy others, nor covet precedence, but are simple, humble, innocent, and candid. I say generally, for S. Augustine (Confess. l. 1, c. 7) testifies that he had seen an infant at its mother’s breasts growing pale with envy, because he saw his twin brother sucking at the same breasts. 4
- Calvin (somewhat ancient)
Whosoever shall humble himself like this little child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. This is intended to guard us against supposing that we degrade ourselves in any measure by freely surrendering every kind of distinction. And hence we may obtain a short definition of humility. That man is truly humble who neither claims any personal merit in the sight of God, nor proudly despises brethren, or aims at being thought superior to them, but reckons it enough that he is one of the members of Christ, and desires nothing more than that the Head alone should be exalted.5
- John Nolland (recent)
- Children ask questions all the time.
Robertson includes the idea of trust, but notes that the chief idea is of being a child who is not obsessed with status, but rather is lowly in the social system. One commenter I excluded, Hilary of Poiters, includes the idea of listening to what you’re told but only in the context of learning to love, refusing to hate, showing honor to the lowly, and living a life in imitation of Jesus. So the main idea has been preached for quite some time that becoming as a child means to stop vying for social status. This is exactly what the passage is about if read in context. “Who is the greatest Jesus? You said Peter is the rock, you said we’re all sons at the temple, you took Peter, James, and John alone to pray at the mountain…who do you like the most?” Jesus answered, “You cannot even be my disciple (enter the kingdom), unless you get over that attitude.” Later on, the same question is answered with this phrase, “Whoever wishes to be great must become a servant to all.”
The myth that evangelicals buy into, that intentional ignorance and cognitive cobwebs are good, is in the teeth of several lines of evidence. Jesus wants Christians to be humble. He wants them to avoid making live decisions solely for status, but he does not want his disciples to check their minds at the door, and at home, and at work, and when we read (or don’t read) scripture.