The Purpose of Learning

The particular end of literature (though not observed by many, men’s eyes being fixed on false ends…) is none other but to remove some part of that curse which is come upon us by sin.

John Owen, Of Communion with God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Part II, Digression 21

Why do you read? Why do you learn?

Owen makes two assertions:

  1. The real reason to read and learn is to overcome the curse of sin.
  2. Learning does not achieve this end.

The Purpose of Learning Is to Remove Sin’s Curse

John Owen states engaging in language studies, history, the arts, and science—which he groups under the label of “literature”—is an effort to remove the curse of sin. He also claims that overcoming this curse is the only proper reason to learn.

Is he right? Yes, but maybe only partially.

Learning can certainly be part of an endeavor to reverse sin’s curse. Both suffering and death are direct results of Adam’s decision to rebel against God. Let us consider medical writings. An immediate application of this literature is the alleviation of suffering and the postponement of death. Therefore, the utilization of medical knowledge works against the results of the Fall.

Is the reversal of the fall the only end of literature? Owen acknowledges that people read for other purposes, but he asserts that these purposes are not the true end of literature. For instance, if someone read for pleasure, Owen would likely say that is not the real reason we should read.

While Owen is right that much literature rightly aims to counteract the fall, to say that all literature should point to this singular end seems like an overstatement. What I’m about to write is speculative, but it does not seem far-fetched to admit the possibility that Adam, had he not sinned, would still have learned more about God as time went on. Some of that knowledge may have come through the immediate operations of the Holy Spirit. Some may have come through audible communications from God. It’s also possible that science would have flourished in the Garden of Eden eventually. Each new discovery could have been another opportunity to learn about God’s creation, and about the Creator. Writing down discoveries would have been a way to disseminate this learning to others.

I’m not confident this would have happened, but neither am I confident that it would have been impossible. It is conceivable that no written account of God’s character or deeds would have been necessary if Adam had not sinned. Jeremiah prophesied of a time when people would not need to teach others to know God, for everyone would already know him (Jeremiah 31:34). It is certainly possible that many scientific facts would have forever gone undiscovered, but that humanity would still know everything they needed to know in order to glorify and enjoy God fully.

My goal is not to disprove John Owen on this point. I am just trying to show that he may have been wrong when he said the only true goal of learning is to overcome the curse of sin.

Learning Does not Achieve Its End

…[learning and wisdom in civil affairs] are utterly insufficient for the compassing and obtaining of those particular ends whereunto they are designed.

If we agree, for the sake of discussion, that Owen is right that the purpose of learning is to overcome the results of sin’s curse, he is certainly right that it does not achieve this end.

First, part of the curse of sin is that we are no longer able to do what God wants us to do. We no longer have the capacity, in our natural state, to glorify Him or to enjoy him for who he is. No amount of learning can give us an appetite for God. Neither books nor science can, by themselves, cause us to love or obey God. “And without faith it is impossible to please him” (Hebrews 11:6). Faith may come through the means of learning, but we cannot say learning causes faith. Only God causes faith.

A second part of sin’s curse is death. At its best, learning can only postpone the inevitable demise each of us must face, should Christ tarry. Trying to escape this fate by learning is like building a sandcastle to stop the tide: it may work for a while, but the ocean will eventually win. Learning can only help diminish the effects of sin temporarily. It cannot cure either sin or death.

What about the Bible? Without the Scriptures, we know God exists. We know something of his eternal power and divine nature. These things are plan to us because God has shown us through the things he made (Romans 1:19–20). However, we either suppress some of that knowledge (Romans 1:18), or are ignorant through the hardness of our hearts (Ephesians 4:18). A verbal account of what God is like, and what God has done, is vital if we are to know God.

Jesus says that we can’t get eternal life from the Scriptures. They point us to him, and he is the one who gives life (John 5:39). Even the learning we get from the Scriptures requires the Holy Spirit’s work for this learning to profit our souls eternally. The apostle John says that his purpose in writing his gospel is so that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God. His goal is that our belief would lead to life in Jesus’s name (John 20:31). We need the Holy Spirit to grant us belief that the words are true, and that the Savior whom they describe is alive and trustworthy and ready to save us from our sin.

1 Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost by John Owen. Public domain. Republished by CCEL. Accessed January 31, 2021.