Crossway, 2010. (Available in Australia at Koorong Books)
While it is true that with God all things are possible, it seems one of the more difficult things he has to do is try to get his people to think. Sadly many Christians are not exactly noted for their mental prowess. Indeed, some even glory in their anti-intellectualism.
It is to this unfortunate situation that noted Christian leader John Piper turns his attention. This book is a clarion call for God’s people to start making use of their minds, and loving God and others with it. Of course none of this should be very surprising.
After all, when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he told us quite clearly: it was to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. This is found in all three of the Synoptic gospels, and is continually staring every believer in the face. Yet so many Christians seem to have missed it altogether.
This book is about the spiritual importance of the mind. The aim is “to encourage serious, faithful, humble thinking that leads to the true knowledge of God, which leads to loving him, which overflows in loving others”. And Piper’s life has been a great example of this very thing.
He begins with a bit of autobiography, discussing his own move from the classroom to the pulpit. He relates how he looks to Jonathan Edwards as someone who embodied both worlds. He was a great intellect and theologian, yet also a devout pastor and man of God.
He then reminds us that it is in the Bible that we mainly learn about God, and as a book, it requires thinking. Bible study is more than rational activity, but it cannot be anything less. The Word is illuminated to us as the Spirit works by means of the mind, not by its absence.
In Proverbs 2:4-6 we are told to seek understanding like silver. In 2 Tim. 2:7 Paul says “think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything”. This is a collaborative effort. We do our bit in thinking and studying, and God does his bit in providing the understanding and wisdom.
Piper makes it clear that the extremes of anti-intellectualism and over-intellectualism are both to be avoided. The history of the church has witnessed both, and Scripture speaks to both as well. In John 8:32 we read the words of Jesus who said that knowing the truth will set us free.
Yet Paul can warn about knowledge making us proud (1 Cor. 8:1). So as always, the biblical balance must be sought. If anything, in modern evangelicalism the main danger is anti-intellectualism. But it is not meant to be a choice between thinking and studying on the one hand, or prayer and spirituality on the other. It is both/and, not either/or.
A thoughtful person who does not pray will not get it, just as a prayerful person who does not think will not get it. We need both to properly receive from God. Indeed, Jesus warned that hearing without understanding will produce nothing.
Even salvation requires knowledge and thinking. Those who believe in Jesus will be saved. This belief surely implies trust and commitment, but it also means having knowledge of who Jesus is and what his demands are. Of course the devil believes in terms of basic knowledge about Jesus. Thus saving faith is more than just facts, but it is also not less.
This is true of the Christian life as well. Our faith as believers is not mere acceptance of facts, but it must be based on fact. Says Piper, “we cannot love God without knowing God; and the way we know God is by the Spirit-enabled use of our minds”.
Truth and knowledge presuppose objective, universal standards. Thus Piper devotes two chapters to relativism. He shows how it is contradictory and philosophically bankrupt, and demonstrates how it is really a device used by those who wish to justify their own selfishness.
Ultimately relativism is “a revolt against the objective reality of God. The sheer existence of God creates the possibility of truth.” Indeed, relativism in the end enslaves. This is just the opposite of truth, which Jesus said sets us free.
Has the church been guilty of barren over-intellectualism at times? Yes, but the answer is not anti-intellectualism, but “humble, faithful, prayerful, Spirit-dependent, rigorous thinking”. Even to read the Bible requires thinking: “Either we do it carefully and accurately or we do it carelessly and inaccurately”.
Piper tackles some of the passages thrown up against reason and thinking, such as 1 Cor. 1:20 and Luke 10:21. As to the first passage, he shows how Scripture distinguishes between human wisdom and divine wisdom. It all has to do with a childlike trust and dependence on God.
But it is not about childlike knowledge or learning. Paul elsewhere commands us to be adults, not children, in our thinking and understanding. And the second text is also about humility and pride. It is not about learning and knowledge per se, but one’s character, and ability to receive truth. The humble will receive it while the proud won’t.
So the contrast is not between the educated and the uneducated, but between the proud and the humble, between the self-sufficient and those who realise their spiritual need. Therefore these passages “are not warnings against careful, faithful, rigorous, coherent thinking in the pursuit of God”.
He concludes by reminding us that “all learning, all schooling, formal or informal, simple or sophisticated, exists for the love of God and the love of man”. This takes us back to the greatest commandment which Jesus spoke to. This book will help every believer to fulfil this.