Friday, December 27, 2013
The Christian and the Intellect: Biblically Positioned Critical Thinking
This post will disrupt my series on “A Manual to Create Atheists” ever so briefly, in an attempt to address the area of intellectual ethics in the Christian worldview. Since the Christian worldview encompasses every part of the human person, and since the intellect is central to the human person, it follows that Christian ethics has much to say about how Christians use or, unfortunately, neglect intellectual activities. There are two extreme states of the intellect that every believer must avoid. The first state that we must avoid is the state of an undisciplined, uncontrolled insatiable intellectual curiosity where speculation reigns supreme. The second state is no better, and perhaps may be worse, namely, the state of a radical intellectual lethargy, which I also call intellectual sloth. This latter state is just as undisciplined as the former.
The purpose of this post is to demonstrate that the Scripture takes a high view of intellectual perseverance and discipline within the Christian community. That is to say, Scripture encourages and praises the principle of a disciplined approach to intellectual performance on the part of God’s people and it proportionately condemns the idea of intellectual lethargy. The perlocutionary goal of this post is to persuade the reader to “give themselves” more fully to intellectual excellence. I hope to convince you that the reward is worth the effort by showing you first and foremost that the immediate reward is actually pleasing God.
My aim is to goad you, as a Christian, to either take up the goal of becoming a critical thinker, or if you are already progressing in that skill, to encourage you in your quest. However, it is no easy task to become a biblically positioned critical thinker. It is not something that just comes to you. Like philosophy, or logic, critical thinking is not a skill that you can acquire through rote memorization. It is a skill that requires tremendous focus, methodical study, and intense discipline. Critical thinking is not something a person just does once in a while. It is something you become. How does this relate to Christianity? What is the relationship between critical thinking and Christianity?
I believe Scripture has a lot to say about relationship between Christianity and critical thinking. 1 John 4:1 says, Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. The Greek word dokimadzete (δοκιμάζετε) carries the sense of scrutiny. The act here is primarily mental in nature. In this case it means to examine, to give to intellectual scrutiny. The idea is to attempt to learn the genuineness of something (Louw-Nida). In addition, the word is an imperative, which means it is a command. The word is employed once by John and Peter, and twice by Luke. The other 18 occurrences are in Paul. In fact, Paul informs us that the unregenerate scrutinized God and after their own evaluation considered the acknowledgement of God unworthy of their approval.
Paul uses the word in Rom. 12:2 to inform the Roman Christians that the renewal of the mind is precisely how we engage in the process of intellectually scrutinizing the will of God. This involves exegesis, logic, and questions. Lots of questions. Paul tells the Corinthians that they are to scrutinize themselves. (1 Cor. 11:28) He repeats this command in 2 Cor. 13:5. In Gal. 6:4, each man is told to scrutinize his own work. Phil. 1:10 tells us that it is through this intellectual scrutiny that we are able to identify those things that are excellent. Paul tells the Thessalonian Church to scrutinize all things carefully. (1 Thess. 5:21)
Paul informs the Corinthian Church that he is “Destroying speculations” and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God. This word, logismos (λογισμός) has the sense of a statement containing a logical conclusion. It is intimately related to the idea of an argument, a logical argument. Those of us in American culture typically think of an argument in incredibly differently ways from how the ancient Greeks thought about it. One has to bear in mind that Corinth was situated just beside Greece, the birthplace of western logic. Therefore, we have to understand the meaning of this word in its more technical sense. It was much more technical than the American idea of a mere disagreement. It was a disagreement but far more intellectual than we might imagine. The point here is that Paul viewed the use of the Christian intellect as central in spiritual warfare, in refuting the false teachings of the enemy, which are viewed as intellectual and spiritual weapons designed to spoil and thwart the spiritual growth of Christians. We battle these intellectual weapons with our own sanctified intellectual weapons, but intellectual nonetheless.
Paul prays that the Philippian Christians’ love would abound in real knowledge. To the Colossians his prayer was that they would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will. In the next verse, Paul links “walking in a manner worthy of the Lord” with “increasing in the knowledge of God.” Peter informs his audience that they are to add to their moral excellence, knowledge. Peter words were literally to supply or to furnish knowledge. The idea is that we are insure that we also furnish knowledge along with our moral excellence. Knowledge is something that is both given and acquired. We add to the knowledge imparted to us at salvation, knowledge of other spiritual truths. Genuine acquisition of knowledge is an intellectual enterprise that is wrought with troubles, and one that requires more energy than most people in our culture are willing to expend. The sad fact is that this state of affairs is at times even more truthful of Christians than it is of unbelievers.
The Proverbs inform us that we are to make our ears attentive to wisdom, to incline our heart to understanding, to cry out for discernment. The idea is that effort is clearly being made to gain understanding. Understanding is an intellectual constituent. Praying is not enough. If you pray for understanding and never tackle Scripture, listen to a sermon or lecture, read a book, it is likely that your understanding will be quite limited. Prayer helps, but it alone will not produce much by way of understanding. God has chosen specific methods for how Christians are to acquire knowledge. Christians are supposed to love understanding, to love knowledge. The one who loves instruction loves knowledge, but the one that hates correction is stupid. Every time you put forth the effort to learn, you are engaging in the practice of correcting yourself. You are correcting your understanding. And this correction should also produce a change in your conduct. You conduct yourself according to how you understand moral principles. Intellectual performance is the self-correcting behavior designed to produce spiritual growth in the knowledge of Christ. Those who hate intellectual discipline hate knowledge. Knowledge should be pleasant to our soul (Pr. 2:10). Wise men store up knowledge (Pr. 10:4). Prudent men act with knowledge (Pr. 13:16). The sensible are crowned with knowledge (Pr. 14:18). The lips of the wise spread knowledge (Pr. 15:7). The mind of the prudent acquires knowledge, And the ear of the wise seeks knowledge. (Pr. 18:15) It is not good for a person to be without knowledge (Pr. 19:2).
For too long now Christians have been satisfied not to spend energy on intellectual acumen. We have neglected genuine Bible-study, in preference for shallow talk about nearly anything that doesn’t require laborious thought. We would rather rehearse how the game went or will go or how the vacation was or what is the goings on at work than we would anything remotely resembling intellectual labor. We prefer to spend our free time watching American reality TV. Who needs all this abstract theological talk? Christianity, we hear from nearly every quarter, is about a relationship, not about doctrine. This kind of witless and mindless thinking has robbed Christianity of almost all its intellectual acumen, and stripped away nearly every shred of critical thinking that it had remaining over the last thirty years or so. It is dishonoring to God for the Christian to neglect the wonderful mind He gave us. We should endeavor to explore the vast potential of the human intellect in a way that seeks to express the spectacles of His grace and saving redemption. This requires that we devote lots of vigor, being diligent to achieve a level of intellectual acumen that makes us skilled discerners of truth claims so that we can spread God’s truth on the one hand and effectively refute detractors of God’s truth on the other. In short, it makes us biblically positioned critical thinker.