Drown Your Mind
June 4, 2024

Minister: What is the true and right knowledge of God?

Child: When we know Him in order that we may honor Him.1

Recently, a friend confessed to me a serious intellectual issue he was having that was blocking his ability to believe and trust in Christ. We talked about it a few different times but I could tell the skeptic in him was winning. The logical loop was too well-worn and my friend seemingly couldn’t get out of it.

The internet has a name for this: “brain worms.” Brain worms are cognitively degenerating ideas. Allegedly, this comes from a Pink Floyd song. While the term is usually applied to paranoid conspiracy theorists, I’ve come to find it very useful to apply to many intellectually-minded people on the Internet who find some new, encompassing system to think about the world. This new idea completely consumes them and they become obsessed with applying their new theory to everything, yet it doesn’t yield fruitful results. You see it in both religious and non-religious circles from traditional Roman Catholics to famous almost-Christians like Jordan Peterson and Tom Holland.2 People with brain worms are fixated on a systematic belief, but the story they have chosen to latch on to is untrue and therefore unhelpful in getting them anywhere useful.

In Orthodoxy, Chesterton says, “The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious.”3 If trying to illuminate the whole world usually results in deeper darkness, what are theologians supposed to do? What is the secret ingredient of great theology that avoids getting brain-worms?

John Webster says that theology is “the process in which reason is put to death and made alive by the terrifying and merciful presence of the holy God.”4 Theology, in other words, cannot be done unless our brain has been baptized. Drown your mind, kill the worms. Reason, according to Webster, must be sanctified, just like everything else.

This is not to say that our reason is entirely unreliable. Calvin says very early in the Institutes that all humans have “some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and occasionally enlarges.”5 The problem is not that humans can’t or don’t think about God. The problem is that reason is fallen and in need of divine aid. Humanity is incurvatus in se as Augustine and the Reformers say.6 Christians alone, then, can insist both on thinking through the secrets of the universe, while providing the antidote for turning that endeavor into a futile loop.

The secret ingredient is holiness. Before we begin to exercise our reason, we have to remember our Baptisms. This is difficult for modern people, because we typically think of our reason as inherently trustable without divine aid. But, as Webster goes on to say, the idea that reason can be sectioned off from the rest of creation is a myth. If we want to do real theology, we have to invite God’s presence into that corner of our minds that we so desperately want to section off from Him. In doing that, we will see we are not the investigators we thought we were; we are the investigated: “God is not summoned into the presence of reason; reason is summoned before the presence of God.”7

Curiously, the Church Fathers used this same sort of language to describe their work during the Council of Nicaea. They didn’t conceive of the Council as figuring things out about God, but rather as an act of prayer and right worship of the one, true God. Athanasius, writing to various bishops many years later says, “The Word of the Lord, which came through the Ecumenical Synod at Nicaea, abides forever.”8 T. F. Torrance summarizing the Council says “the fathers of Nicaea did nothing new” and drew up a Creed that was “essentially a godly or devout act of faith made by the whole Ecumenical Council as in the presence of God.”9 This is the same language Webster uses. Theology is exercised with a fear of God and responsibility toward His revelation. Theology is practiced with a dependence upon the Holy Spirit.10 As the Fathers say: the theologian is the one who prays.

This means, as Webster says, that the end of theology is not bare knowledge, but sanctification both for the theologian and the people of God.11 The great theologians and doctors of the Church are always connecting the right knowledge of God with piety. Taking up Ezekiel 34, Gregory the Great says that pastors “‘disturb the water with their feet’ when they corrupt the study of holy meditation with an evil life.”12 Likewise, Calvin in the Institutes and in his Catechism equates “knowledge of God,” not with correct understanding of doctrine, but with prayer and good works.13 Calvin says, “God is not known where there is no religion or piety.”14 If we want to contemplate God, we must add prayer and obedience to our study.

There is no such thing as a great theologian with bad character. Faith and reason always go together. But they must go together in the same way that humanity goes together with God. Faith leads as God leads. Faith seeks understanding, not the other way around. This following-after is not a subordination or total eclipse of reason; rather, as Webster says, it is a fulfillment of reason–there is nothing else we have been given reason for.15 The grim diagnosis of our fallen mind a few paragraphs above is not the final note of theology but the preparation for grace.16 Theology is an encounter with the living God, like Webster says, a deadly encounter, wherein whatever those things that are holding us back from God are put to death. Yet, we are not eclipsed. Instead, we find our telos. The alternative is staying in our own lonely mind palace at the expense of God’s reconciling love.

Sharpening this scalpel, it is easier to hide our darkening mind by saying our problems with God are actually very important intellectual issues that need to be respected and given ample time and space for. To go back to famous non-Christians, both Holland and Peterson have written extensively about the usefulness of Christianity, but have yet to take on this usefulness in their own souls. One wonders why anyone would spend years lecturing and writing books on how Christianity built the West, and yet refuse to surrender themselves to Baptism and repentance. But don’t we all do this in our own spiritual lives? Even regenerate Christians make bargains like this with God. Once I understand, then I will surrender. Like Augustine in Book VIII of the Confessions, we delay our surrender over and over, citing heady ideas and asking one more teacher or book for another excuse to forgo the waters of Baptism or to forgo improving our Baptism. It’s not another idea we all need, it’s the mortification of sin.

Being a great theologian means giving up the fight against God and applying our reason, now enlisted in Christ’s army, to fight the good fight. This will look different for every saint who would have courage to hear God’s Word. With a drowned mind, the point is not to find the perfect formula or process to reading the Bible, that’s a recipe for brainworms. It’s more about the prayerful posture with which we read and the character we cultivate as we read.17 If we are going to read a Spiritual book, then we need Spiritual eyes, ears, and good reading partners and mentors.18

In the case of my friend who is typically drawn to critical readings of Scripture and searching for the meaning behind the text, he might find a good mentor in Robert Jenson.19 Whereas an unbaptized, critical reading might ask questions like “what is Paul up to in this text? What are we up to reading Paul? What have others been up to reading him?”, a drowned mind might ask “what is the Triune God up to in this text? Why has this Word, in God’s Providence, reached me in my circumstances today? What has the Church been up to when receiving this Word?” Then, taking a cue from Leithart, he might go through the fruit of the Spirit. How can I read this text with love? With joy? With peace? With patience? And so on. The point is not to simply read Scripture to get certain information but to pray it. This text is for encountering God. This is a praying text for a praying people. There’s no other way to read it.

But mentors are not just found in books. When we put our reason to death, our rebirth is not an individualistic enterprise. We are reborn into a new nation, a new people, a gathered assembly under one Lord. If we are not listening to the Word proclaimed in the assembly next to our brothers and sisters in Christ, then we are still not living into this text’s telos. Perhaps better than someone in a book, even someone as great as Jenson or Webster, is a local saint, a “little old lady” as Leithart says, the people who’ve never had to read a textbook on historical criticism.20 All of our churches have these folks; the people who have lived a life in the Word, a life in prayer, who have suffered, who have watched the Lord deliver them, who so clearly know more about this drowned life than we do. We will never grasp the meaning of Jesus if we don’t find a committed place in the community which He created, the Bride for which we died, the family to which we now belong to through Baptism.

Come to the Scriptures to be mastered, to surrender to grace, to wrestle with God like Jacob and Jordan Peterson,21 yes, but to leave changed forever by the life-long wound of repentance and a new name. Drown your mind. The One who raised Jesus will raise you too, through, “the right kind of death.”22 This is most certainly true. No one can see the face of God and live.

Joseph Whitenton is a youth pastor, music director, and seminarian. He lives in Frisco, Texas with his wife and son.

  1. Calvin’s Catechism. ↩︎
  2. See Justin Brieley’s recent podcast series and book The Surprising Rebirth of the Belief in God ↩︎
  3. Chesterton, Orthodoxy. ↩︎
  4. Webster, Holiness, 8. ↩︎
  5. Calvin, Institutes, 1.3. ↩︎
  6. Allen, Reformed Theology, 17 ↩︎
  7. Holiness, 17. ↩︎
  8. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith, 15. ↩︎
  9. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith, 13–16. ↩︎
  10. Webster, Holiness, 9-10 ↩︎
  11. Webster, Holiness, 25-30 ↩︎
  12. Gregory, Book of Pastoral Rule, 31. ↩︎
  13. Dennison, Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, 1:469, cited from A Puritan Theology, 46. ↩︎
  14. Institutes, 1.2.1. ↩︎
  15. Holiness, 22 ↩︎
  16. Allen, Reformed Theology, 18. ↩︎
  17. Leithart, Typology, Mentors, and the Faithful Reading of Scripture. ↩︎
  18. See Peter Leithart, Theopolitan Reading, Chapter 1. ↩︎
  19. Robert Jenson, Creed and Canon, especially Part 3. ↩︎
  20. Leithart, Typology, Mentors, and the Faithful Reading of Scripture. ↩︎
  21. Alluding to Jordan Peterson’s upcoming We Who Wrestle With God. ↩︎
  22. Leithart, Baptism, 34. ↩︎
Related Media

To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.