The Supremacy of God in the Life of the Mind
Northwestern College Chapel | Minneapolis
I come to you today with a burden for the supremacy of God in the life of the mind. I speak to you as people who are called for a season of your life to engage in the work of the mind. I speak to students and faculty and administration concerning this tremendously crucial matter, because I believe it's your calling in this community to cultivate in each other the ability and the habit and the desire to read with understanding, and think with accuracy, and observe with discernment, and research with thoroughness, and evaluate with fairness, and memorize with discipline, and write with clarity, and speak with cogency, and perform with excellence, and hate what is evil, and love what is good, and feel with fitting passions all the beauty and goodness and truth of our great God and his amazing world.
I believe that this is your calling in these days. My burden is that in all of this—in all the life of the mind—the supremacy of God would be manifest at Northwestern College and in your individual labors.
I have no particular indictment to make on this point. I don't know what goes on here from day to day in any detail. I only know that I sense in general in evangelical higher education that the manifest supremacy of God in the life of the mind is not apriority, just like it is not a priority in preaching, and church growth, and missions, and social work, and entertainment, and almost every other sphere of life.
I sense that in the humanities and the natural sciences and social sciences and the arts God and his Word are often taken for granted. If someone queries why concrete biblical truth is not more explicitly wrestled with in relation to the tenets of literature or sociology or history or economics or psychology or speech or math or chemistry or physics or theater or physical education or political science—if someone queries why the biblical vision of reality has such a low profile, the answer is too often, "We take that for granted. That's our working assumption while we deal with the world of contemporary thought and practice. That's the foundation on which we build."
Making God Explicit in Your Life
What I want to say this morning is that God does not like to be taken for granted. God does not want to be a silent assumption. Speaking of God as the foundation for the life of the mind is a wholly inadequate metaphor. That he is! O, yes, and a great and deep and unshakable foundation he is. But foundations are invisible, and are seldom thought about in the daily life of the house. They are taken for granted. They are silently assumed.
But God wills not only to be the massive, silent, unseen foundation beneath the walls of our academic lives; he also wills to be the visible cap stone adorning the top and the brightness of the glory that fills the house for all to see.
I want to plead with you this morning—students and faculty and administration—that you not imprison God in the silent basement of your busy academic houses by taking him for granted and calling him merely the Foundation for your labor.
There is a more radical, more pervasive way that God wills to be honored in your academic work. I call it the supremacy of God in the life of the mind.
A Foundation for the Supremacy of God
Let me give a biblical foundation—an explicit, manifest foundation—for this supremacy from the story of the Exodus. What we see in this story above all else is that God does not like to be taken for granted. He does not like to be a silent assumption. He has an almost unbelievable passion to be central and supreme and celebrated.
The contest with Pharaoh begins and things at first go very badly for the Israelites. But God comes to Moses and says,
Say therefore to the people of Israel, 'I am the LORD . . . and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment . . . and you shall know that I am the LORD your God. (Exodus 6:6–7)
God wills to be known among his people as a great and powerful deliverer.
But not only among his people. He wills to be known as the Lord among the Egyptians as well. He sends Moses back to Pharaoh with these words:
I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring forth my . . . people . . . out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD." (Exodus 7:4–5)
He does not want to be the silent assumption of the Israelites; he wants to be acknowledged as supreme Lord over the Egyptians.
The Terrible Power of God
Then begin the ten plagues. And in this narrative Moses gives us a litany of God's words about his will to be supreme in all the world—one trumpet blast after the other calling all the world to marvel at the supremacy of God over all the powers of the universe.
Exodus 8:9–10, "[Tomorrow] the frogs will be destroyed from you and your houses . . . that you may know that there is no one like the LORD our God."
Exodus 9:15–16, "By now I could have put forth my hand . . . and you would have been cut off from the earth: but for this purpose have I let you live, to show you my power, so that my name may be declared throughout all the earth."
So we can see that God wills for his power to be known and marveled at not just in Israel and not just among the Egyptians, but in all the earth. God is jealous for his reputation in all the universe—that he be known and celebrated as central and supreme everywhere.
Exodus 9:29, "As soon as I [Moses] have gone out of the city, I will stretch out my hands to the LORD; the thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, that you may know that the earth is the LORD's."
God wants the to world know not only his power, but also his Creator rights over all the earth—over every discipline in the academy and over every sphere of culture: he owns everything. This is not a doctrine he wants tucked away in a book, not a silent assumption, but a daily conscious sense that controls the way we handle all things and all truth.
Exodus 10:1–2, "Go in to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, in order that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your son's son how I have made sport of the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them; that you may know that I am the LORD."
God not only wills that the Egyptians and the Israelites and all the nations hear and know of his mighty power and creator rights over all things; but he also has a view to the coming generations—"I am doing these things now in Egypt so that all generations may know and marvel at my power and right, even the 20th century."
Remembering the Power of God
So he establishes the Passover tradition as a part of the ten plagues—the tradition that we now continue in the form of the Lord's Supper. Why? God answers,
In the time to come, when your son asks you, "What does this [Passover] mean?" you shall say to him, "By strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage." (Exodus 13:14)
The Passover means that the hand of the Lord is mighty to save. The Passover means that all generations should remember that the Lord is God and that he did unspeakably great wonders in Egypt for his people. The Passover memorializes the supremacy of God over all other powers.
Then came the night of death angel and God said,
Not a dog will growl against any of the people of Israel, either man or beast; that you may know that the LORD makes a distinction between the Egyptians and Israel (Exodus 11:7).
The litany is unmistakable: that you may know . . . that you may know . . . that you may know . . . the supremacy of God in all the universe.
And when the people are almost out of Egypt, God commands Moses to turn them back from the simple land route, and sends them into a trap between Migdol and the sea (Exodus 14:2). Why did God do that? So that neither they nor we would miss the point of what God has been doing for all these ten plagues—and is still doing. He explains to Moses,
Because Pharaoh will say . . . "They are entangled in the land; the wilderness has shut them in." And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he will pursue them and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD. (Exodus 14:3–4)
The Glory of God is the Point
The aim of the whole great conflict with rebellious Pharaoh is that God might get glory—that he might be shown and known as the Lord over all kings and over all gods, and as owner of all the earth, and that his supremacy in all the universe might be marveled at by his people and his enemies and all the coming generations, even today, including the students and faculty and administration of Northwestern College.
God does not like to be taken for granted. God wills to be central and supreme and celebrated in all of life, including the life of the mind.
I think what I am pleading for here is very hard for people to grasp because our age is so utterly and thoroughly God-ignoring, which is probably worse than God-despising. We get all worked up when Hugh Downs puts people like James Dobson in the same category with Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan because they all claimed Christian sanction for their "family values" crusades. But we swallow hook, line, and sinker the utter absence of God as normal. Aggression against God offends us: but omission of God escapes us.
We get anesthetized to the unspeakable and appalling insult rendered to God day in and day out by his being ignored. It starts to feel normal—the way it's normal not to think about air or a solid earth under our feet.
Seeing God in All of Life
For example, God owns the land under Cowles Media Building where the offices of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune are housed. He owns the building. He also supplies all the paper used in production from his own trees. He also gives life to every custodian, manager, reporter, editor, and publisher. He holds them and their computers in being every second of the day. He designed their brains for marvelous use. He preserves order in society so that their business can prosper. He governs and controls all events that they report, and he himself is the most interesting, powerful, intelligent Person in the universe.
And what is the response of the newspaper to this reality? Sports get an entire section in the paper and God gets not one column. Now test your numbness to blasphemy. Has that shocked you? If it does not, then you may be unable to recognize when God is not supreme in the life of the mind. Which is why I am delivering this message.
But I fear that we preachers are a great part of the problem. The absence of God's supremacy is not unique to academia or the media. Albert Einstein gave a devastating indictment of preaching fifty years ago that may be more true today. Charles Misner, a scientific specialist in general relativity theory, was quoted like this:
[The design of the universe] is very magnificent and shouldn't be taken for granted. In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organized religion, although he strikes me as a basically very religious man. He must have looked at what the preachers said about God and felt that they were blaspheming. He had seen much more majesty than they had ever imagined, and they were just not talking about the real thing.1
When God is taken for granted, and functions as a silent assumption, while we talk about other good things, his majesty is abased and his glory is obscured and his supremacy in the life of the mind vanishes. And people may well say, "I wonder if they have seen the real thing."
My Hope for You
May it not be said of any course at Northwestern College that the students and the faculty in state universities have seen more mystery, or more wonder, or more majesty than we have seen—we who know the One from whom and through whom and for whom all things exist and hold together.
I am not pleading for anything superficial—just another prayer at the beginning of class, just another Bible verse quoted. I am pleading for the deep, earnest, thorough engagement with God and his Word and his ways at every level of research and analysis and interpretation and reflection and creation. All things—every academic discipline—were made by God and for God. His fingerprints are everywhere. The main meaning of all things derives from their relation to God. Not to seek that meaning with all our heart and mind and soul is to be superficial, no matter what grades we make, no matter what articles we publish.
My closing prayer: may the supremacy of God in the life of the mind be the title over this academic chapter of your life.
1. Quoted in First Things, Dec. 1991, No. 18, p. 63 (italics added).