The Bible and Critical Thinking

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(This article is an excerpt from my new book, Biblical Logic: In Theory and Practice)

Many Christians balk at the mention of critical thinking. They associate the phrase with skepticism and “criticism” of the Bible and of religion in general; thus, they want nothing to do with it. “Critical thinking” gets taught at colleges and places where they use reason and logic to lure children away from the faith their parents taught them. While university professors have often stolen away children in the name of “critical thinking,” the unbelieving skepticism promoted by these types does not deserve the label: it is not “critical” in the least bit, at least not in the biblical sense of the term.

That’s right, I said the biblical sense of the word “critical.” I say this because the Bible uses the word “critical” in a very important way. The word “critical” merely comes from the common Greek word krites, which means “a judge,” and appears in many related forms (krima, krivo, krisis, and others). Perhaps the closest sounding equivalent to our English “critical,” kritikos—meaning “able to judge (or discern)”—appears only once in the New Testament but is attributed to the Word of God: For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge [kritikos] the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb. 4:12). This Bible surely does have something to say about “critical” thinking, in fact, the Bible itself sets the ultimate standard for godly critical thinking.

The Bible describes God Himself as the ultimate, fair, righteous judge (Gen 18:25 [o krivov]; 1 Pet. 2:23; 2 Tim. 4:8; Heb. 9:27; 12:23), who will critically evaluate and recompense all works (Eccl. 11:9; 12:14; Rom. 2:6; 2 Tim. 4:1; 1 Pet. 1:17), even judging hidden things (1 Cor. 4:4–5; 2 Cor. 4:2), and who will preside at a final judgment (Ps. 1:5; John 5:29; Acts 10:42; 17:31; Rom. 2:16; 3:6; Heb. 10:30; 1 John 4:17).

We can say, even if just for instructional purposes, that the Bible describes God as the ultimate, fair, righteous Critical Thinker. We can maintain this as long as we divest the phrase “critical thinking” of the humanistic, skeptical baggage normally associated with it. If we instead accept God’s Word as the standard of critical thinking, then we have a proper, powerful, and challenging doctrine of critical thinking. This way we can rescue godly judgment and discernment from the corrupt minds and wills of the humanists.

Jesus Himself, the embodiment and exemplar of faithful human thinking, engaged in faithful critical thinking (judgment) obedient to the will of the Father: As I hear, I judge [krivo]; and My judgment [krisis] is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me (John 5:30). We should not avoid critical thinking, but rather, as Jesus, engage in faithful critical thinking in submission to our Father in heaven. As He is a righteous judge, we also should strive to discern, understand, and make decisions based on righteous critical thinking. In fact, we must engage in critical thinking. All decision making involves us in critical thinking; we cannot avoid it. The question is not one of critical thinking versus not critical thinking; the question is one of good critical thinking (wisdom, discernment, judgment) versus poor critical thinking (foolishness, sloth, rebellion).

The obligation to engage in “judgment” may sound foreign to the Christian who has heard all along judge not, that ye be not judged (Matt. 7:1). Truly, we should not pass judgment upon other people in the sense that we point out their sins and mistakes while ignoring our own, or hold them to superfluous religious standards that the Bible does not call for (Rom. 2:1; 14:4; Col. 2:16; James 2:4; 4:11; 5:9). Yet this does not mean that we should exercise no judgment at all. Jesus does command us to engage in a critical-thinking type of judgment according to righteousness: Do not judge [krinete] according to appearance, but judge [krisin] with righteous judgment [krinete] (John 7:24). In other words, work hard to conform your judgments (and life!) to the standard of God’s law. This will infuse your thinking with honesty and truth, according to the ninth commandment. Other godly standards such as humility and mercy will dictate that you practice criticism of your own positions first (and thus not so quickly judge others, Matt. 7:1; James 1:19).

We should begin to train our children to think critically according to biblical standards at a very young age. Such training in wisdom and judgment should play a core role in education. In fact, Solomon’s Proverbs aim at such training:

To know wisdom and instruction, To discern the sayings of understanding, To receive instruction in wise behavior, Righteousness, justice and equity; To give prudence to the naive, To the youth knowledge and discretion, A wise man will hear and increase in learning, And a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel.… The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Prov. 1:2–7).

This process of learning and training toward good judgment requires an intimate relationship and strong passion for God’s word: 

My son, if you will receive my words And treasure my commandments within you, Make your ear attentive to wisdom, Incline your heart to understanding; For if you cry for discernment, Lift your voice for understanding; If you seek her as silver And search for her as for hidden treasures; Then you will discern the fear of the Lord And discover the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding. He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to those who walk in integrity, Guarding the paths of justice, And He preserves the way of His godly ones. Then you will discern righteousness and justice And equity and every good course (Prov. 2:1–9).

Parents and other adults who never had such an emphasis in their education (including Sunday School!) should study and exercise their critical thinking skills before God as well. The process begins with a desire to apply God’s standards to every area of life. Critical thinking is merely faithful thinking, and we can all use more of it.

God’s Prosecuting Attorney’s

Paul shunned worldly wisdom, and in place of it advocated the standard of God’s wisdom. He called Christians in light of this standard to critically examine all things

Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom, which God predestined before the ages to our glory.… Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises [avakrinei: critically examines] all things, yet he himself is appraised [anakrinetai] by no man (1 Cor. 2:6–7, 12–15).

There that word krino (to judge) appears again, only in a purposefully modified form: ana-krino, which essentially describes the work of a cross-examiner in a courtroom. Christians must critically examine all things by the standard of God’s word. We must act as prosecuting attorneys, questioning and trying the testimony of human society and exposing its fallacies. In doing so, we witness and submit to both the sovereignty of God, and the high standard to which Christ raises His people: For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16; see Is. 40:13–14).

Christian books on philosophy and logic often refer to the use of the word “reason” in Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the Lord, “Though your sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They will be like wool.” The Hebrew here, however, merely uses a special version of the standard word for “judge,” or “rebuke,” and particularly applies to a courtroom setting. The English translation “reason” today carries overtones of individual scholarship or thinking, and these lead us away from Isaiah’s context of God’s lawsuit against Israel for breaking the laws of His covenant (read Is. 1:1–17, and then read verses 18–20). For this reason, Isaiah evokes a courtroom scene as the Lord essentially challenges Israel, “let us debate our case in court."[1] Perhaps the NRSV (despite its many and great flaws) gets closest: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.” God engaged Israel in a debate through critical thinking that views His word as the standard. Rebellious Israel would have been wise to accept His gracious terms, for they could not have reasoned successfully against God’s covenant terms. He issued the challenge to jerk their thinking to reality, as if He said, “Let us dispute,” in order “To know if I do accuse you without cause."[2] The only logical conclusion Israel could have reached required repentance and obedience to His law on their part. Yet God called them to draw this logical conclusion.

The Greek Old Testament uses a very strong and pointed word to describe this “reasoning” in Isaiah 1:18: dielegchthomen, an enhanced version of the word elengchi (“reproof,” or “conviction”) which, as I discuss in another chapter, plays an important role in the concepts of biblical truth and faithful thought. This version means “to refute utterly,” as employed by Plato (Gorgias, 457e), Aristotle, and others. In the context of Isaiah 1:18 it clearly refers to the work of an expert prosecuting attorney who will utterly refute his opponent’s (in this case Israel’s) case. The same word only elsewhere appears in the exact same scenario in the Greek Old Testament: Listen, you mountains, to the indictment of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth, because the Lord has a case against His people; even with Israel He will dispute [dielegchthesetai] (Mic. 6:2). In each case, the Bible places “reasoning” within the scene of God’s courtroom, and calls man to witness according to the truth of God and by God’s standards. Yet note that it still calls us to do so.

Conclusion

So, rather than fear critical thinking, Christians should seek to reclaim, reform, and embrace it. We must exercise judgment in conforming our lives to God’s word; we should seek to expand the area of that influence further into our lives, and thus should embrace the idea of learning to “judge.” This follows a scriptural ideal. The apostles, Jesus promised, would sit upon thrones in judgment over Israel (Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:30). Paul argued that all Christians will sit in judgment over the world and even angels (1 Cor. 6:2–3), and should therefore have the critical thinking skills to arbitrate each others’ minor disputes (1 Cor. 6:4–6). Moses reminded the Israelites that he taught them God’s law, and thus standards for good judgment: I have taught you statutes and judgments just as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do thus in the land where you are entering to possess it (Deut. 4:5, 14). We should employ godly logic and reasoning and recapture business, ethics, law, education, and everything else, destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).

True, sometimes seats of judgment and learning get overtaken by wickedness and unbelief. Sometimes false witnesses make a mockery of judgment (Prov. 19:28, KJV); sometimes wickedness fills the seat of judgment (Eccl. 3:16, KJV), and yet this does not mean reasoning, judgment, or critical thinking are wicked in themselves. A wise man will continue to discern time and judgment (Eccl. 8:5, KJV). Despite the failures (fallacies!) of man’s reasoning even in high places, God still expects us to pursue truth through godly critical thinking. In fact, He empowers this pursuit through the work of the Holy Spirit: He convinces the world of sin, righteousness, and judgmentconcerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged (John 16:8, 11). In this sense, critical thinking moves us to understand that God has judged (condemned) the devil, and Christians must live in light of the judgment that—as Christ said already when He walked the earth—Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out (John 12:31).

Returning to a theme from an earlier chapter, logic simply involves the organized study of discerning and telling the truth. Added to the context of the biblical theme of godly wisdom and judgment, logic becomes much more than simple truth-telling; it becomes clear that logical thinking, to meet a biblical standard, must adopt the larger scope of a consistently biblical worldview. Logic becomes a way of thinking that reflects biblical law, biblical purposes, biblical covenant life, and biblical theology. When the Bible speaks of wisdom and judgment (and thus krites) it includes all of these things. Thus, only logic and reasoning that remain faithful to the Bible properly deserve the label “critical thinking,” because only reasoning that begins with God constitutes good judgment.

Endnotes
[1]
Paul R. Gilchrist, “yakah,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2 vol, eds. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980) 1:377. Westminster Seminary professor William Edgar notes something similar in Isaiah 41:21, and also mentions the Hebrew behind 1:18, though he does not elaborate too much on either case. See his Reasons of the Heart: Recovering Christian Persuasion (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2003), 44, 123 (“Chapter 4…” note 1).
[2] Geneva Bible note, Is. 1:18. See 1599 Geneva Bible (White Hall, WV: Tolle Lege Press, 2006), 679.

(This article is an excerpt from my new book, Biblical Logic: In Theory and Practice)

Article posted July 10, 2009

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