The Urgent Need for Critical Thinking

One of the most pressing needs of contemporary Christians is to learn how to think critically. And the very fact that some of you are already murmuring to yourselves at this point is an indication of this. That is, there has not been real critical thinking about what I have just said.

So before I go any further, let me remind you that the word ‘critical’ means more than just what some of you are now thinking. Some have in mind a negative, condemning and harsh spirit. Of course that is one definition of the word, but that is not the one I am referring to.

What I am talking about here is another meaning. As one dictionary puts it, critical means “exercising or involving careful judgment or judicious evaluation”. Now that is what I am talking about indeed. I am not here referring to the other dictionary definition of those “inclined to criticise severely and unfavourably”.

So from here on in, when you see me using the word ‘critical,’ realise that I am not talking about negative criticising, but careful assessing. Christians are called to discern, to assess, to reflect, to test, to think carefully, to weigh up options, to think things through, and to carefully evaluate.

Yet sadly it seems many believers today are failing to do that. Far too many are simply going with the flow, accepting whatever the world throws at them. They seem to lap up every latest trendy idea, cause, theory, or belief, without critically reflecting on just what it is they are latching on to.

The Bible everywhere tells us to be careful that we do not be deceived, but to test all things, weigh up what we hear, and make sure we are not being conned. All that means we must use the brains God has given us, and make sure that what we are saying and doing lines up with the Word of God.

Our classic example of this of course can be found in the book of Acts, concerning the proclamation of the gospel at Berea. As usual a local Jewish synagogue was the place where the action took place. A short account of Paul and Silas’s time there is given in Acts 17:10-15.

Of real interest is verse 11: “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” They did not uncritically accept what Paul said, but made sure first that it lined up with Scripture.

They were eager and enthusiastic about this new teaching, but they were not gullible or naive. They daily checked it out with the Old Testament Scriptures. This was not a case of relying on emotional reactions, but of critically thinking about what was being said.

As David Peterson comments, “They were not gullible or unthinking in their approach. Paul had offered them a new way of understanding the Scriptures, proclaiming the fulfillment of Israel’s messianic hope in the death and resurrection of Jesus (cf. v. 3). They needed to ‘test’ or ‘cross examine’ (anakrinontes is used in a legal sense, as in 4:9; 12:19; 24:8; 28:18) the Scriptures to see if Paul’s case proved true.”

This was a careful examination and a thorough scrutiny. Their eagerness was hardly just an emotional response. But how many believers today act primarily on their emotions and feelings, instead of carefully, intelligently and thoroughly assessing and discerning what is being presented to them?

Tragically so many believers today simply latch on to whatever is trendy or popular or cool. There is not careful critical assessment of all sorts of things: ideas, lifestyles, philosophies, behaviours, political parties, social trends, spiritual experiences, and so on.

What this really means is that far too many Christians do not have a biblical worldview. That is, they do not make it a regular habit to judge everything in the light of Scripture. Instead of depending on a sanctified mind and a Spirit-led reason, they tend to rely mainly on emotions, impressions and feelings.

They seem to forget that when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he of course said it is for us to love God with all of our being – our minds included (Matthew 22:34-40). Specifically: “Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment” (vv. 37-38).

And Paul said we will be changed and transformed not by hyping up our emotions or jumping on the latest trendy bandwagon, but by renewing our minds (Romans 12:2). Indeed, that verse is well worth sharing here in its entirety: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

The only way we can keep the world from squeezing us into its mould is by the renewal of our minds. Yet far too many Christians seem to think this verse says, ‘by the removal of our minds’. God gave us a brain and he expects us to use it for his glory. Indeed, he commands us to love him with our minds.

The Bible is full of commands for us to test, to evaluate, to judge, to discern, to analyse, to weigh up, to sift through, to think about, and to not allow ourselves to be deceived or dragged off course. Here are just some of the many admonitions as found in Scripture:

1 Kings 3:9 So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?

Psalm 119:66 Teach me good discernment and knowledge. For I believe in Your commandments.

Prov 2:2-6 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.

Prov 14:15 A simple man believes anything, but a prudent man gives thought to his steps

Lam 3:40 Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord

Ezek 22:26 Her priests do violence to my law and profane my holy things; they do not distinguish between the holy and the common; they teach that there is no difference between the unclean and the clean.

Luke 12:56-57 Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time? Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?

John 7:24 Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.

1 Co 2:15 The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment:

1 Cor 10:15 judge for yourselves what I say

I Cor. 12:7-10 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom … to another distinguishing between spirits.

1 Cor 14:20 Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.

2 Cor 13:5 Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.

1 Thess 5:21-22 Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.

2 Thess 2:3 Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way,

1 Tim 4:16 Watch your life and doctrine closely.

2 Tim. 2:15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

Heb 5:14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

1 John 4:1,2  Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.

Rev 2:2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.

All these verses make it absolutely clear that we must be thinking critically at all times. That is, we must think as biblical Christians, and not as the world thinks. We must discern, test, evaluate and carefully understand all things, and seek to have the mind of Christ in our daily walk with God (1 Corinthians 2:16).

If not, we are not really thinking; and we are not really being biblical Christians either.

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14 Replies to “The Urgent Need for Critical Thinking”

  1. Great article Bill, and it’s message is sorely needed today. I think a reason Christians aren’t critical thinkers is because they haven’t read their Bibles from cover to cover and don’t know their Bibles in the first place so they don’t know where to look to find the answers. Also it’s much easier and more fun to read (and talk about) a book written by some ‘notable’ luminary about the topic, and accept what they say because of ‘who they are’.
    Garth Penglase

  2. Yes exactly right Garth. Biblical illiteracy is rampant in our churches today – even in so-called Bible-believing churches. That is indeed a big part of the reason why we have so many undiscerning, naive and gullible Christians in the pews. Of course some blame for this needs to go to the pastors as well, who are simply not feeding their flocks, but are instead simply entertaining them or telling them what they want to hear.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. I’m not sure that I agree with Garth that the problem is as simple as people not knowing their Bibles. That is probably true as a statement, but equally, there are many who do know their Bibles but still don’t ‘think.’ Furthermore, this inability to think is not limited to the church.

    I believe we must distinguish between ‘learning’, ‘thinking’ and ‘intelligence’. Many intelligent people learn, but do not necessarily think. At school, the best children academically, who are not automatically the most intelligent, tend to be those who never make a mistake which all too often means regurgitating the propaganda pumped at them by their teachers. An ability to think, especially if it challenges the status quo, can even be a disadvantage.

    In his book the God Delusion, Richard Dawkins – whose logic and argumentation in the book is extremely poor – suggests that the higher one’s intelligence or education level (but as above, not necessarily the same thing), the less one is likely to be religious. Whereas the statement may well be true, it could be inferred that the higher levels of education you achieve, the more indoctrinated you become and the less able you are to ‘think’.

    This was highlighted by Thomas Kuhn in his classic book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. Kuhn showed that even when the data is completely inconsistent with the facts, scientists – who one presumes are not illiterate – will not ‘think’ the paradigm is wrong until another, more acceptable paradigm is proposed. This would appear to confirm that it is not just people in the church who are unable to think critically and hence open to error.

    The problem in the church is highlighted by the fact that Bill has to defend the concept of ‘critical thinking’ in his opening paragraphs. Far too many churches demand uncritical acceptance of their teachings – even when it is unbiblical. I recall a comment from a student when we were debating a particular topic that “If my church knew we were debating this, I’d be thrown out.” Sad, but very true.

    I agree completely with Bill that we need to learn to think critically. I also believe in education which, in the church, means learning about the Bible. Furthermore, I believe, contra Dawkins, the more education one receives, the stronger ones faith can become (cf Matt 22:37-38 as mentioned by Bill).

    However, given the probability that Dawkins’ statement above is true (although not its inference that only uneducated, illiterate people are ‘religious’), then the ability to think critically becomes not only crucial but almost a pre-requisite to entering ‘higher education’ to ensure your faith is strengthened and not shipwrecked.

    Roger Birch

  4. Thanks Roger

    Yes our inability to think critically is killing the church – both in terms of not reaching the lost, and in dumbing down our faith. Well did R.C. Sproul once say, “We live in the most anti-intellectual era of church history”.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  5. I am convinced that the intellectual pursuit of knowledge is not enough to enable anyone to know truth. You could point to many theologians who know the words in the Bible well and yet the untold mysteries of the Gospel are lost to them. However, when I say Christians, I am assuming that people read that as ‘those who have been been born again and made alive in Christ’ . Thus I am referring specifically to the supernatural process that follows when a believer reads their Bible – a renewing of their mind to be more like the mind of Christ. Ergo, the result is truth which sets us free, and knowledge which makes us wise.

    You point out that Bill has to defend ‘critical thinking’ in his open paragraph…. and I’d say that this is because Christians (those who should be able to ‘hear the voice of their master’) have not read their Bible’s for themselves and thus have not read the passages that speak plainly of judging, and testing as dealt with in this article.

    My brother, a holder of two doctorates, was always sprouting that ‘only at University do you learn to think’ to my sisters (I think it was more to irritate them than anything), until of course they got their doctorates as well 🙂 but what he failed to see is that ‘learning to think’ is not the only factor – it is learning to think the right way. And that’s where the answer lies … the renewing power of the Word through the power of the Holy Spirit revealing the mystery of His Word to those who Christ said ‘could hear’ what he had to say – yet it was foolishness to others.

    So it comes back to the fact that we’ve been given access to the Truth, but it’s up to us to seek it, and we shall find it. I agree absolutely that pastors should be telling their congregations to read the Word and to test everything, and this alone would make a massive difference in this anti-intellectual world. And, I can’t remember who said it, but the Bible should be read on our knees – not with us looking to satisfy our pet theories or agendas but will an open heart and an ear to hear.

    But ultimately the responsibility is ours, as we have no hindrance to the Word and every opportunity to make it live in our lives.

    Garth Penglase

  6. My observation is that it’s not just Christian that suffer from the inability to think critically. I agree Bill that the church is suffering from this lack, but I’ve come across many people who demonstrate a clear inability to think critically on some topics. Some of them even have “PhD” after their names.

    I think it is quite possible for someone to be very clear and critical in their thinking on one subject (say engineering for example) and very immature and far, far from anything vaguely critical on another subject (theology, for example). There seem to be emotional or spiritual factors which influence this in some cases.

    John Symons

  7. Colossians 2:8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.

    The Bible is clear we should not be following what the world does. The simple fact of the matter is that God’s truth never changes, but the way the world thinks changes on a daily basis. We can see how quickly things change by just looking at the changes that are happening.

    Ian Nairn

  8. Good subject Bill
    I’ve had some recent and old experiences with this. My own family are cleverer, wealthier and more even tempered, yet they can’t be objective. I find it strange that they can’t even entertain the possibility that there may be another way of looking at something and when I try to highlight an alternative, I’m met with judgment and accusations.
    I think it’s demonic.
    Daniel Kempton

  9. I am reminded of the book title: ‘The Closing of the American Mind’, by Allan Bloom.

    To be transformed by the renewing of the mind with a new logic, namely Christo-logic is the key. Thinking through life’s issues – in Jesus Christ’s Living Presence gives one a new logic. Then, engaging in ‘issues’—speaking the truth in love—assured the Word will do its work, his Work, is a new approach indeed.

    Better even than a well known Bible, is a well-known Christ.

    That, could even lead to ‘The re-opening of the American—and Aussie—mind’. Cheers Bill.
    Trevor Faggotter

  10. Sadly there is one simple command that is repeated many times in the Bible that people do not want to hear or follow. It is one of the last commands in Revelation 21:14 yet people do not want to obey.

    God states keep my (his) commandments. However through deception in the churches this has been nailed to the cross.

    Revelation clearly states that Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.

    We must keep all of God’s commandments since if we break only one we might as well have broken them all.

    Matthew 7:14 warns that few will find the gate to heaven.
    Matthew 7:15 continues by warning of false prophets.

    Ray Wilkie

  11. Take heart Bill, I for one, understand exactly where you are coming from in your use of the word “Critical”.
    Steve Davis

  12. Though I have the greatest regard for intelligence it can only take us so far. One of the problems with great intelligence is it is also great grounds for pride and God hides himself from pride but delights to give grace to the humble. I often struggled with the attempts at faith by a Lawyer I know (at the top of his field in the state) who yet remains unsaved despite strenuous efforts at one time. Maybe Nicodemus was in this same condition as “the” teacher of Israel, but Jesus knew the truth as he instructed him he had to lay it all down and go back to the beginning and start over. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and that requires a humble dependent heart. Paul was the one who discovered the great secret, the ultimate critical thinker because he was rightly related.
    Rob Withall

  13. Thanks Rob

    But of course your same concerns can be said about any gift of God. In a sinful and pride-filled world, all good gifts can be misused and abused, be it mind, will or emotion. But these are gifts God has given us, and he expects us to use them for his glory. It goes without saying that humility and reliance on the Spirit will allow us to use these gifts properly. Anything used apart from God and his grace can only go so far – quite so. But anything used with God and his grace can go very far indeed. That is exactly what Jesus said about the first and greatest commandment, which I cite above. But sure, the fear of the Lord is crucial in all this.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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