The Life of the Mind

February by Michael Sowa

“February” by Michael Sowa

Do you have light-bulb moments when you realize that a word or phrase has escaped your lexicon? They’re often accompanied by a revelation that you missed something interesting. It can be that way with ideas as well.

While writing a post on personal discipleship, I came across a podcast by William Lane Craig in which he mentioned “the life of the mind.” I didn’t bird-dog the phrase at the time, but it registered. Then, while reading Kenneth Samples‘ work I tripped over that phrase on his blog. Finally, I heard Clarke Morledge use the phrase in conversation.

As stated previously, I have an anti-intellectual prejudice—big thoughts are best communicated with small words. On the other hand, I might just be turning into a closet intellectual. Or maybe not.

This morning, after starting this post, I wandered into a hallway conversation with one of our church’s founders. At one point he said, “I really don’t like intellectualism.” To a non-intellectual like me that’s both encouraging and amusing. He is ridiculously smart—a college professor with a Ph.D. in chemistry. He then started quoting the Apostle Paul to make his case.

So how much faith did Paul place on his intellectual understanding—merely on what he knew—and how much did he appeal purely to the intellect in witnessing for Jesus Christ? Paul uses the word ‘know’ in 101 verses (according to the ESV). Here are some of the most profound statements Paul makes about intellect:

  • For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. (Romans 7:18)
  • Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. (Romans 8:26)
  • And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
  • For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. (1 Corinthians 1:21)
  • For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:2)
  • Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. (1 Corinthians 8:1-2)
  • For we know in part and we prophesy in part, (1 Corinthians 13:9)
  • For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)
  • I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven–whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise–whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— (1 Corinthians 12:2-3)
  • and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:19)
  • that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, (Philippians 3:10)
  • I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. (Philippians 4:12)
  • which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. (2 Timothy 1:12)

Paul stuck his neck out on that last one. So much so that 2 Timothy should be the starting point for those seeking assurance of the Christian faith. Find out what Paul went through, and what he was thinking about as he awaited martyrdom. There’s a lot to think about.


The phrase, “The Life of the Mind” originates in Socratic Intellectualism and Aristotelian Ethics.

“(The wise person will) be more than human. A man will not live like that by virtue of his humanness, but by virtue of some divine thing within him. His activity is as superior to the activity of the other virtues as this divine thing is to his composite character. Now if mind is divine in comparison with man, the life of the mind is divine in comparison with mere human life. We should not follow popular advice and, being human, have only mortal thoughts, but should become immortal and do everything toward living the best in us.”
Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle, 350 BCE

Scholars such as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas interpreted and systematized the works of Socrates and Aristotle in accordance with Christian theology. German-born philosopher Hannah Arendt completed two of three intended volumes entitled The Life of the Mind before her death in 1975, and many others have taken a kick at the phrase as well (including Bernard of Clairvaux).

It’s not much of a stretch to appreciate that Paul, in writing to the Corinthians and others, was working in the wake of Socratic and Aristotelian influences on the Greek culture. One great example is 1 Thessalonians 4:11, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you,” which flew in the face of Greek Stoicism (which deprecated manual labor). But then Paul made tents for a living—a great encouragement to all of us non-intellectuals out here in the workaday.

About John Paine

This blog is topical and devotional--we post whatever interests us, whenever. If you want to follow in an orderly fashion, please see our Kaqexeß page. View all posts by John Paine

8 responses to “The Life of the Mind

  • Virginia

    John, so much of the ‘battle’ we face each day against temptation, selfishness & more begins in the mind – therefore, carefully tending the life therein toward healthy growth Might Be A Good Idea! : )

    – & 2 Timothy 2:15 plays like a recorder when i’d rather put study books aside (‘Study to show thyself approved unto God’) … but then Paul covers us working stiffs too -( ‘a workman needeth not to be afraid’). as then we all (‘rightly dividing the Word of Truth.’)

    There is Hope ! grace, peace & Mind lives – Virginia

    p.s. a fav Bernard of Clairvoux quote: “learn that to do the work of a prophet, what you need is not a scepter, but a hoe.”


    • John Paine

      (Sorry Virginia, for some reason your comment ended up in our spam filter.) I can’t make up my mind whether the problems originate in my brain or my heart. ;-}

      Actually, now that I think about it, it would help to exercise them both.

      Thanks for all the support!


  • fred nice

    “amen”, said all the non-intellectuals….(at least this one)


  • Clarke Morledge


    Perhaps there is some confusion here?

    I have this terrible habit of forgetting to brush all of the dirt off of myself after I have been working in the yard. I will go through the house, tracking in dirt, and not realizing it until Lisa points it out to me. So I do not think I really said “the life of the mind”. Instead, I think it was more like “my wife says I am blind”.

    Hope that sets the record straight 😉



  • C. Richard Terman

    Hi John,

    I enjoyed the post on “the mind”. I should mention that a person having significant influence on my life other than my father was C. S. Lewis.

    As a predoctoral fellow at the Jackson Lab in Bar Harbor, Maine I studied Lewis’ books and met weekly with a non-scientific friend to discuss what we each had been reading by Lewis. In the lab where I was doing research, Lewis’ writing was a great help in discussions with scientific friends and mentors.

    Clearly, we need to be balanced in our witness.


  • John Paine


    I think about this topic frequently, and I totally agree. There is a devotional side to our faith, and that’s the apex of the pyramid. It’s exactly what Dick Woodward is all about in his ministry. But there is also an intellectual, fact-based foundation that I overlooked for a very long time, so I’m catching up a bit in my writing.

    It’s really a both-and deal: facts and faith, as Paul notes. One without the other just wouldn’t work. Finding out just how real the Christian faith is has been a great source of joy, and that journey of personal discipleship is the reason for this blog. Likewise, reading scholars like Lewis, Tim Keller, Lee Strobel, William Lane Craig, John Lennox, Hugh Ross, Norm Geisler, and many others brings the power of the intellect to bear upon my appreciation for “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

    I appreciate where Paul is more certain of his shortcomings and the power of his Savior than he is about his ideas (or anyone else’s). Paul was nobody’s fool, and was obviously as intelligent as he was effective and persuasive.

    Thanks for commenting!



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