A Review of Think. By John Piper.

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.

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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.

[950 words]

11 Replies to “A Review of Think. By John Piper.”

  1. The things of God are so simple that a child can have faith and yet so deep that one can spend a lifetime studying the word and never exhaust it’s depths. (I’m sure it’s been said before, and better but I don’t know by whom.)

    That is so true Bill, if we do not think we do not understand our faith nor can we defend it. We can be shaken by fancy sounding arguments that are easily refuted by one that knows the word of God. Of course all heat and no heart will get us nowhere, we must know God not just know about him.

    Kylie Anderson

  2. Thanks Kylie

    To take this a bit further:

    All head and no heart will get us nowhere.
    All heart and no head will get us nowhere.

    The biblical balance is always needed.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Yes I was trying to balance out everything I’d said about thinking. God made us rational and emotional being and he relates to us in both spheres.
    Kylie Anderson

  4. Thanks Kylie

    Yes quite right. God made us with mind, will and emotions, so we should love God with mind, will and emotions. Whenever we seek to love God with just part of our being, we get off balance. God wants all of our devotion, not just some of it, and He wants us to come to Him in our fullness, not just in bits and pieces.

    The reply of Jesus on the great commandment comes from the Shema in Deut. 6 which I discuss here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2008/03/17/let-my-people-think/

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  5. I also recommend Nancy Pearcey’s terrific work in this area and her continuence of Frances Schaeffer’s mission. Start with Total Truth (although How Now Shall We Live with Charles Colson was brilliant too). This reviewer sums up the main point

    “The premise of the book is that Christianity is captive to the culture, and it is captive in a way you may not have considered. It is captive in that our world has bought into a two-tiered approach to reality where there is public truth and private truth. The realm of public truth is the realm of science and fact, and it purports to offer publicly verifiable truths which are binding on all. The realm of private truth is the realm of opinion and preference. This is the realm of “what’s good for you is good for you, but not binding on me.”

    Christianity is captive to the culture in the sense that Christian belief has been shuffled off to the private realm. It is pictured as a matter of opinion and personal preference. Christianity is respected and it has a place in our world, but only as long as it is kept in a private place. Pearcey quotes H. L. Mencken on page 204 as follows:

    “We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.”

    A prescription for the church today;

    Her point is that evangelicals have bought into the “privatization” notion and this has had many adverse effects. To combat this we must recover the notion that Christianity provides a total world and life view and that it is public truth. Hence, the title, Total Truth.

    http://jollyblogger.typepad.com/jollyblogger/2005/08/review_of_total.html

    Damien Spillane

  6. It seems that many preachers are frightened of an adult church, but try to keep it in a prolonged state of infancy before leading it, like themselves into premature senility, without any intervening period of maturity having occurred.

    Hebrews 5:11-14: “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”

    David Skinner, UK

  7. Thanks Damien, I have had Nancy Pearcey’s book on my book shelf, along with others, for sometime now. But I never get the time to read them because of all that’s going on around us. I must open its covers.

    David Skinner, UK

  8. Somewhere along the line a myth was born that said you can’t have faith and think as well. In my opinion, that is nonsense.

    In some cases historically, anti-intellectualism was a reaction against the perceived evils of certain kinds of theology that one might want to avoid, but even in those cases anti-intellectualism is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    A healthy combination of thought and faith is often a sign of maturity.

    John Symons

  9. Isaiah 5:13 ” …. therefore, my people have gone into captivity because they have no knowledge”
    Hosea 4:1b “There is no truth or mercy or knowledge of God in the land” and vs 6 “my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge, because you have rejected knowledge I also will reject you from being priest for Me…” etc. etc.
    I surely am going to buy Piper’s book. However, our main problem is (I learned to recognise) that we do not examine ourselves in our thinking. Too much teaching about self-esteem, that should change into God-esteem, which we should express through knowing Him more and more and more. Earthly knowledge without God does not benefit me for eternity and may “puff me up”.
    Thanks Bill.
    In Him, Evangeline

  10. Personally, having been brought up in “Holy Spirit” churches, lead by pastors with little/no theological training or even attended Bible College, I can’t begin to describe what it was like finally going to a theological seminary (ex baptist too!!)! I completely fell in love again with this apparently foreign, yet warmly familiar God, when I approached him with my mind!!

    I must love him with all my heart, all my mind, all my soul and strength! To think the opposite is quite Gnostic!

    Blessings
    Adam Elovalis

  11. You certainly need head and heart, but again it is more than mental assent and emotions.
    When engaging the scriptures it should hurt the head and burn the heart into action.
    Kenneth Meyer

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