CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Let My People Think

Mar 17, 2008

This title is not original to me. It is the title of the US radio program of Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias. It is also one of the biggest asks in the Christian church today. Contemporary Christians are not exactly known for being great intellects or for carefully reflecting on the issues of the day.

Some years ago R.C. Sproul went so far as to say that we live in the most anti-intellectual era of church history. That could well be the case. Of course the use of the intellect is not highly championed in most of society, but that should be no excuse for the mushy minds of so many believers.

We are clearly instructed to love God with our minds. Indeed, things are quite clear in this regard. If believers are struggling to discover the will of God, well, some things have been nicely laid out for us in black and white. Indeed, Jesus was once asked what is the greatest commandment. That should have every believer’s attention. Here is a question we should all be asking, and should all be seeking an answer for.

The good news is, the answer is plainly given. In fact, this episode is repeated in all the Synoptic Gospels, so it is hard to miss (Matt. 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-8). It is worth spending a bit of time on these passages.

When Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, (or how to inherit eternal life, as in the Lukan version), Jesus gives a two-part answer: to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself. Here Jesus appeals to two well known Old Testament passages: Dt. 6:4-9 and Lev. 19:18, respectively. Jesus nicely sums up the whole of the law in our Godward duties and our humanward duties.

The Shema

The former passage, Dt. 6:4-9, is known as the Shema (along with Deut. 11:13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41). It is this passage that I want to spend some time on. The Hebrew word shema means to hear or to listen. That is the opening word of Deut. 6:4: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one”. This is the fundamental call to monotheism in Jewish thinking. The passage continues with the words quoted by Jesus, and then instructs Hebrew parents to teach these words to their children. It is a very key passage, even for Jews today, and recited twice daily by the devout.

The interesting thing to note here is if you compare the three Synoptic versions with each other, and with the Hebrew of Deut. 6:5, as well as the Greek translation of 6:5 in the Septuagint, the passages vary somewhat. The four words are not always there – sometimes just three are mentioned: heart, soul, and strength. And the order of the words varies as well. Why is this? Is it an indication of errors in Scripture, or bad copying?

No. The exact phrasing does not matter here. Deut. 6:5 is what is known as a Hebraism. That means it is a rhetorical device, an idiom, used to indicate the whole person – the totality of one’s being. Just as God is one (Deut. 6:4), so our response to this one God must be one (Deut. 6:5). God is undivided, and so should be our loyalty to him. Just as unity, singularity and integrity characterise God’s being, they should also characterise our love for him.

Thus both the Deuteronomy passage and the Synoptic passages are not dividing persons into three or four distinct parts, but are calling followers of God to be totally one in their love to God. Our whole person must respond to God. Not just the emotions, not just the will, not just the mind, but all of us. We are to love God with every ounce of our being – nothing is to be excluded.

But for our purposes, this passage reminds us that we have been a bit divided in our response to God as 21st century believers. We are often good at loving God in our worship services, especially with our emotions, but we have too often neglected to love God with our minds as well. Thus these passages remind us of a total response to God, and certainly to pick up where we have been slack. Instead of checking our minds in at the door when we enter God’s house, it needs to be an integral part of our Christian worship and devotion.

The importance of the mind and truth

The importance of the mind is stressed throughout Scripture. Paul tells us that we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Sadly, many believers read that as saying we should be transformed by the removing of our minds. I have written up this biblical material elsewhere.

But the related concept of truth is also worth noting. Truth is mentioned repeatedly in Scripture. In brief, it has at least two components. First, truth is a person, as we are reminded in John 14:6 when Jesus says that he is the way, the truth and the life. Truth is personal and relational.

But truth also has a propositional component. For believers, this means truth has to do with beliefs, doctrines, creeds, and theology. Most believers steer well clear of such things, but we do so at our own peril. Just consider the riches in the biblical understanding of truth and how important it is to the Christian life. The following passages provide just a small sampling of how Scripture deals with the importance of truth.

We are told that the reason Jesus came to planet earth was to testify to the truth (John 18:37). That is why he came, thus emphasising the vital nature of truth. We are also told that truth is what sets us free (John 8:32) and that the truth sanctifies us (John 17:17).

Moreover, it is by means of truth that we worship God aright (John 4:24). The Spirit of God that is given to us is known as the Spirit of truth (John 14:16-17), and this Holy Spirit guides us into all truth (John 16;13). And believers stand firm by means of the truth (Eph. 6:14).

It is God’s overwhelming concern that people come to knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:3-4). The prophet Isaiah complains that truth is nowhere to be found (Is. 59:14-15). Jeremiah also laments that truth has perished from the land (Jer. 7:28).

The New Testament writers tell us that those who do not know God will reject the truth (2 Tim 4:3-4; Rom. 1:18; Rom. 1:25; Rom. 2:9; Acts 20:30). We are told that those who perish do not believe the truth (2 Thess. 2:9-13). Scripture informs us that the devil does not hold the truth (John 8:44-47). In the Bible sin is connected with refusing the truth (Rom. 7:11; 2 Thess. 2:10; Eph. 4:22; Heb. 3:13).

On the other hand, we can tell if someone is from God if they listen to the truth (1 John 4:6). All who listen to Jesus are the ones who have the truth (John 18:37). And we can escape the snares of the enemy by coming to a knowledge of the truth (2 Tim. 2:24-26).

On and on the list goes. Truth is vitally important. Thus we dare not minimise it or downplay it in our Christian journey.

Conclusion

We are to love God with the totality of our being. And as unpleasant as it may be for some, that means with our minds as well. That may mean for the first time some believers will need to start using the old bean that we have been given. It might mean switching off the TV and actually reading the Bible and other good books. It might mean – horror of horrors – studying some theology, reading a Bible commentary or consulting some biblical reference works.

But it is something we all must do. As the passages on truth listed above make clear, if we do not, we are going to get into all sorts of strife. And we will be violating the greatest commandment as well.

So consider this to be a divine exhortation: let my people think.

[1370 words]

15 Responses to Let My People Think

  • Thanks Bill. Good words there. I agree; this period in the church is lacking thinking from the lay people, and from many leaders too. Churches, particularly churches of the mega variety, seem to churn out mindless believers who have little doctrinal foundation at all. May the Holy Spirit inspire more people to “[switch] off the TV and actually [read] the Bible and other good books.”
    Simon Kennedy, VIC

  • It is my belief, for it is worth, that the greatest attack on truth in our present age is the pro-homosexual issue. Stonewall, including those proud homosexuals within the Anglican Communion, are attacking the very ontological, moral and epistemological foundations of the Bible. Like Jesus Christ being tempted by the devil they attempt to deceive us by turning lies into truth, sin into virtue and man into an evolving creature of his own making. So it is for these reasons alone, in some way far removed from the issue of homosexuality that we need to confront the underlying lies of the Sexual Orientation Regulations. Idolatry in the Bible, that had always been picked up from surrounding cultures, always had at its heart temple prostitution. For most of us our sexuality is our most vulnerable point; it certainly was with Samson, King David and Solomon.
    David Skinner, UK

  • Bill,
    It is quite true that this is a profoundly anti-intellectual age. But it began in the 1960s (probably earlier) when the youth repudiated the long-held “modernism” with its heavy emphasis on rational thought as leading nowhere. Now modernism was in many ways just as destructive of Christianity as is the newer post-modernism: it gave us negative criticism of the Bible (the JEDP theory of the Pentateuch, three Isaiahs etc.), but at least it held to a concept of truth.
    However, even in the modernist ranks the concept of propositional truth began to fade as the C20th wore on, and now it is widely rejected across the board.
    Yet the irony is that one needs propositional truth in order to deny propositional truth. One cannot state the view that logic is passe without invoking the Law of Non-contradiction, i.e. that the view that logic is valid is false.

    The trouble is that many Christians, and whole churches, have bought into all this (post-modernism). That is one reason why I for one cannot get into churches with presentations on the truth of Scripture in the light of archaeology and history. People are not interested in this sort of thing. It’s all about relationship studies and ‘feel good’ personal orientation courses – these are the things that are all the rage. Meanwhile, people don’t know their Bibles, and could not begin to refute the Dan Browns and James Camerons of this world with their scepticism about the gospel record of Jesus.

    One does not have to have any sort of grasp of logic, reasoning, and clear thought to absorb these relationship courses, so popular now in the mega-churches. Meanwhile, Christians fall for the most egregious logical fallacies from others, and use them themselves.

    I fear that the judgment that God brought on Nebuchadnezzar, that he lost his faculty of reason (Dan.4:32, 34), has fallen on our whole society. We may not eat grass like a cow, but we are encouraged to think of ourselves as animals, and new age ‘thought’ (if one is to dignify it with such a term) attempts to bring us all to the jungle in many ways.

    Murray Adamthwaite

  • Murray, great comment. In the sixties I was instructed not to comment by saying I think, but to say I feel. Fletcher’s Situation Ethics and secular humanism were the centres that pastoral counselling were based on. The Old Testament was disconnected from the New. The New Testament lectures instilled a certainty that the New Testament was not normative for ethics. So theological education in the sixties is causally related to the death of the Uniting Church. Later jokes were made about propositional truth, and a relationship with a Jesus who will fit a postmodern paradigm was enthroned.
    Stan Fishley

  • Perhaps the most outrageous propositional statement put forward by the Joint Council for Equality and Human Rights is: the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth. A statement that immediately cancels itself out.

    With regard to sex education in schools, the British JCEHR (only a fiend in hell could have thought up such a title) came out with a truly staggering statement:

    “In our view there is an important difference between this factual information [about sexual morality] being imparted in a descriptive way as part of a wide-ranging syllabus about different religions, and a curriculum which teaches a particular religion’s doctrinal beliefs as if they were objectively true. The latter is likely to lead to unjustifiable discrimination” (paragraph 67).

    This statement actually condemns its authors of that which it would accuse others – namely unjustifiable discrimination against Christian Morality. “In our view “ ( Ben Summerkill‘s ) is no view at all but a dogmatic assertion that there are no absolute, objective truths concerning sexual morality. This has been taught in schools ever since the labour party got into government, in 1997, but is now becoming law.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/07/31/nwrong31.xml
    (Teachers to stop teaching children right from wrong)

    Britain has moved on a long way since the article below was written. Apart from crossing the Ts and dotting the Is, a bill has been passed that with enforce the Sexual Orientation Regulations so that openly opposing homosexuality will be interpreted as a hatred crime carrying a seven year prison sentence.

    http://www.gaysandfascism.com/note/gay_note_2nd_march_2007.htm

    http://www.robgagnon.net/articles/HateCrimesBill.pdf

    David Skinner, UK

  • Bill,

    You might find this article of interest.

    http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,2265395,00.html

    My apologies if you’ve already commented upon it.

    M.E. Huffmaster

  • Bill,

    Thank you for an excellent reminder of the need to love God with our whole being, including our Christian thinking. Your emailer synchronised with part of the content of the Good Friday service I attended this morning.

    The pastor mentioned a conversation he had with a leading pastor in Brisbane. The Brisbane pastor was commenting on how difficult it is to attract 20-year-olds to church and asked my pastor for his suggestions as to why this is so.

    Many years ago J. Gresham Machen (d. 1937) wrote a booklet, “Christianity and Culture.” I don’t have the booklet (which is only 15 pages) but I am reading quotes from this book in William Lane Craig’s, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Machen wrote, “The chief obstacle to the Christian religion to-day lies in the sphere of the intellect. . . The Church is perishing to-day through the lack of thinking, not through an excess of it” (in Craig, p. xv).

    I agree with Bill Craig’s assessment that, I think, addresses some of the problems in engaging 20-year-olds today:

    “Our churches are filled with Christians who are idling in intellectual neutral. As Christians, their minds are going to waste. One result of this is an immature, superficial faith. . . They know little of the riches of deep understanding of Christian truth, of the confidence inspired by the discovery that one’s faith is logical and fits the facts of experience. . . If Christian laymen don’t become intellectually engaged, then we are in serious danger of losing our children. In high school and college Christian teenagers are intellectually assaulted on every hand by a barrage of anti-Christian philosophies and attitudes. As I speak in churches around the country, I continually meet parents whose children have left the faith because there was no one in the church to answer their questions. For the sake of our youth, we desperately need informed parents who are equipped to wrestle with the issues at an intellectual level” (William Lane Craig 1994, Reasonable Faith, Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois, p. xv).

    What can we do to encourage people to engage the issues of our day and the questions of the younger generation, with a Christian mind which is being renewed daily?

    I am not hearing too many examples of a Christian mind in action on the issues of our day, from the pulpits I visit.

    Spencer Gear
    Hervey Bay, Qld.

  • Thanks Bill for a timely reminder of our need to seek out, obey and promote truth. As Murray and others have said, our society is not intersted in or capable of assessing truth because truth has become no more than a matter of opinion. Why research an opinion?
    Surely, then, this is an opportunity to those of us who believe that the truth is in Jesus to take a lead and demonstrate truth in our lives. To complete your quote from John 8:32, “If you hold to my teaching you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”. Propositional truth and relational truth are united in the person of Jesus and in everyone who lives by his teaching.
    David Esdaile

  • Thanks Bill – an important reminder especially for me. I have witnessed a few ‘believers’ fall when a former pastor fell – mainly because they depended on the pastor for their growth and not the source of our faith – Jesus Christ and the Word of God. The Bible warns against ignorance on many an occasion.
    Noel Arulanantham

  • The lack of thinking in the Church would explain why there are so many lefties these days. Lefties believe that government has a right to take property from one Australian and give it to another. Were a private person to do the same thing, we’d call it theft. When government does it, we euphemistically call it income redistribution, but that’s exactly what thieves do — redistribute income. Lefties in the church are too illogical to see that this violates the Eighth Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal”, given that my Bible doesn’t say “thou shalt not steal unless there is a majority vote in Parliament.”
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • Spencer, see Christianity & Culture by J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937)

    Google is handy 😉

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • There is a true and false concept of thinking. Judges 21:25 says “In those days there was no king in Israel ; everyone did what was right in his own eyes”. Their thinking was based in man’s understanding, not in the revelation of God through scripture. Given that this verse was written 3000 years ago, how modern is “modern” thinking?.
    My experience has been that thinking in church is a sin and a quick way to become unpopular. The opinion of fellow believers and particularly pastors is that of Shakespeare’s Ceasar “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous”.
    To think is to be an outcast, as thinking is considered to be an act of rebellion against minds that are lazy and closed. I serve God by thinking as act of obedience, and suffer the rejection from those who say they obey God but whose minds are asleep (and do not want to wake up).
    However I believe that God is raising up an army of “thinkers” to enable the church to become to instrument he created it to be.
    Richard Coonan

  • Widespread Christianese is also a substitute for clear thinking based on biblical principles. Rev. Peter Bloomfield wrote a very astute little article on this, Why Can’t Chistians Speak “Normal”?
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • A great read……inspires me!

Leave a Reply