“It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way.” (Proverbs 19:2)
by Chris L. Verschage
A Beginning Question
What is “Critical Thinking”? This is a question I ask near the beginning of every English Composition class I teach. And every semester, I discover that people have an incomplete view (or an erroneous view) of what “critical thinking” is. And the thing that I find most surprising is the belief among many Americans that “critical thinking” and biblical faith are mutually exclusive. This misguided idea has been around for quite a while since it was even expressed by Benjamin Franklin, who said, “The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.” Although Mr. Franklin was extremely intelligent about some things, this apparently did not include biblical faith. This common misconception is, unfortunately, becoming the accepted view of the mainstream, even those who have grown up in many churches.
For example, recently, while I was in-between classes, I happened to speak with two students on two different occasions in the area outside my office next to the pop machines. On one occasion, I spoke to a female student who told me that her church taught against them asking questions. Consequently, she was surprised when I was willing to answer questions that she had regarding the Scriptures. On another occasion, I spoke to a student who was an ex-Catholic and had left the church, because, he said, they refused to let him ask questions regarding God or the Scriptures growing up. And so, as a result, he saw the church as a “brainwashing institution” that he wanted nothing to do with.
Asking questions is the beginning step to critical thinking, and it’s one of the main ways that we learn. And by preventing people from engaging in this normal cognitive function, it results in people getting hurt, and in them leaving the church and God, which is what happened to this second student. He ended up leaving the faith and becoming an angry atheist. Although during our conversation, he continued to try and show me how intellectually superior he was to Christians, I believe his resultant atheism was motivated more from him seeking revenge against those who had emotionally hurt him at the church he had been attending than in his rationalistic rejection of God. And unfortunately, there are many more examples of people who have been hurt by some church for its “anti-critical thinking” position.
However, to be fair in our discussion, it should be noted that not all churches teach against the use of critical thinking. There are many good pastors in America and elsewhere that encourage their congregants to engage in critical thinking and to ask questions as they go through a particular study and/or during their own private studies.
A Common Misconception
A prominent common misconception among many people, including college students, is that Critical thinking is doubting everything. They believe by going around doubting everything, it indicates they have a free, independent mind. But this view of critical thinking is a logical fallacy that I point out to my students when I teach. Doubting everything doesn’t make someone any more a critical thinker than someone who believes everything. A critical thinker is someone who is willing to examine all sides of an issue or idea and to objectively weigh the evidence presented. Those who believe everything don’t take the time to objectively examine and weigh the evidence since they accept it all, but those who doubt everything also don’t objectively examine and weigh the evidence since they doubt everything; consequently, both extremes fail to engage in critical thinking.
What is “Critical Thinking”?
So then what is “critical thinking”? Many people hear the word “critical,” and they automatically think that it means being “negative” or “judgmental,” but instead, critical thinking, in its most basic sense, is “thinking about thinking.”
It’s thinking about why we do what we do, say what we say, and think what we think. It’s also thinking about why others do, say, or think what they do, including thinking about what we read, asking questions about it, and analyzing the text. For example, in reading the Bible, we might ask the questions: “What is the Bible?” “Why is it broken down into two ‘Testaments’? What is a ‘Testament’?” “What does it mean to call God or Yeshua (Joshua/Jesus) ‘Lord’?” “What is a ‘Messiah’ (‘Christ’)? Was that Yeshua’s (Joshua’s/ Jesus’) last name or did it mean something?” These are just a few of the thousands of questions that people may ask as they begin to study the Scriptures.
But critical thinking does not just involve asking questions. That’s where it begins. It also involves the ability to analyze; to examine the relationship between ideas; to examine the causes and the effects of what people think, say, or do; to properly interpret a text using the rules of interpretation (called Hermeneutics); to do further research; to synthesize material from a variety of sources; and to evaluate those sources and the information provided. These are many of the ideas and the techniques I teach to my college students every semester. But instead of critical thinking moving people away from God and the Bible, as some erroneously believe, it can also be used to help give people a more in-depth knowledge of the Scriptures, greater faith, and a more intimate relationship with God. The two keys, though, is (1) in teaching people what critical thinking actually is, instead of what many people think that it is; and (2) in teaching people how to use it to help our understanding of what we are reading or listening to, instead of misusing it as a cover for one’s own doubts, fears, or past hurts.
The Bible – A Place for Critical Thinking
There are many people who are surprised at the idea that God created the Scriptures to be a place where our critical thinking could be practiced, tested, and even strengthened, rather than a place where critical thinking is set aside. God desires to engage us spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, physically and even socially. God is not interested in us being robots who just follow commands, but He wants to engage us, to dialogue with us, which is part of His desire to build a relationship with us.
However, too many Christians and churches have reduced their understanding of God and the Bible to just a list of “Do’s and Don’ts” or to a “list of beliefs” that people are “to simply accept without questioning,” preventing them from learning how to move into the depths and riches of biblical study that God has intended for us to discover in order for Him to bless us.
For example, in Acts 17 when Paul and Silas went to Berea and taught in the synagogue there, it says,
Now these [Jewish and non-Jewish individuals] were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so. (17:11)
The Jewish and non-Jewish men and women who attended this synagogue were receptive to the Gospel message proclaimed by Paul and Silas, but they also did not just accept it simply because two great evangelists came to town, named Paul and Silas, and taught this message, but they searched and examined “the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so.” In other words, they not only listened to the message, but they analyzed it, broke it down into its various parts, and then sought proof [evidence] from the Scriptures that what they were teaching was in agreement with what they saw taught throughout the Tanakh (i.e., Old Testament). And what was the result of their analysis and research into the evidence of the Scriptures:
Many of them therefore believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men. (Acts 17:12)
The implication of the text is that if the Gospel message had contradicted the Tanakh (Old Testament) Scriptures (which they were examining), then they would have rejected the message, but since many of them believed, then we can logically conclude that the Gospel message, as it was proclaimed by Paul and Silas, was in agreement with what the Tanakh (Old Testament) teaches.
A Divine Command
Not only do we see examples of individuals engaging in critical thinking, but we are even commanded to use our thinking skills and abilities, including critical thinking, in expressing our love for God. For example, in Mark 12:29-31, Yeshua (Joshua/Jesus) responds to a scribe’s question: “What is the foremost (or greatest or most important) commandment of all?” His response was the following:
Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is One. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, and with all your strength, and the second is this, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these. [emphasis added]
In this command, we are commanded to love God “with all [of our] mind.” How are we to do this, if we are not allowed to use our mind in the study of His Word, in prayer, or in His service? The sad reality is that although there are ministers who encourage critical thinking in the study of the Scriptures, there are many ministers who deny their congregants the opportunity to worship and honor God with their minds by not allowing them to use their mind, to ask questions, or in other words, to use their critical thinking skills. However, based on what I see taught with in the Scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation, I firmly believe that God wants us to use our minds in the study of His word, in prayer, in fasting, in serving Him, and in serving others.
Critical Thinking vs. “the Carnal Mind”
So let’s examine a passage to give an example of how critical thinking can be used to deepen our knowledge of Scripture. In Romans 8, Paul discusses what he calls “the carnal mind.” Now there are many people who erroneously believe that critical thinking is a synonym for “the carnal mind.” However, Critical Thinking involves a systematic approach to analyzing, breaking something down, and examining the issues, viewpoints, ideas, and behaviors of whatever it is we are examining; whereas, the “carnal mind” deals, not with a systematic approach, but with the condition of one’s heart. The “carnal mind” does not deal with how we think, or the techniques we use when we think, but what we set our thoughts upon. To be “carnally minded” means that we have set our minds to thinking and focusing on the things of “the flesh” – those desires and wants we have that run contrary to God and His Word – rather than the “things of the Spirit,” or those things that are in agreement with God and His Word. For example, in Romans 8, Paul writes,
For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:6-8)
So let’s deepen this discussion by using some critical thinking by inferring what it means to be “spiritually minded.” An inference is a logical conclusion we draw based upon what we know about what we do not know. In this instance, we want to use what we know (what Paul says about being “carnally minded”) and use it to infer – or draw logical conclusions from the text – about what we do not know (what it means to be “spiritually minded”). We can do this by setting up a table like the following:
|It is death.||It is life and peace.|
|It is enmity (or in opposition) against God.||It is in agreement or union with God.|
|It is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.||It is subject to the law of God, and indeed, it can’t do anything else.|
Consequently, when we realize that Paul establishes these two positions as being diametrically opposed to one another, then we can logically deduct what it means to be “spiritually minded” by formulating the opposite of what Paul says about being “carnally minded.”
And if we look at what we have inferred from the text, then it raises a rather interesting question about what much of today’s Christianity teaches. Many teach that we cannot be subject (or obedient) to the law of God, but from our chart, this is only true if we are “carnally minded.” If we are “spiritually minded,” on the other hand, then we will be “subject (or obedient) to the law of God.” Consequently, this seems to suggest that much of Christianity today is operating on a mindset that’s “carnally minded,” rather than “spiritually minded.”
A Major Shortcoming
So, indeed, one of the major shortcomings I find in many ministries is that they do not encourage people to engage in critical thinking when it comes to things not only taught by the dominant American culture, but also when it comes to teachings they hear in church and to what they read in the Scriptures. Maybe, it’s because they don’t want people coming to the same conclusions as we did above since that would raise many interesting questions that some ministers may not want to address. Critical thinking is not an innate skill, but it’s a skill that must be taught and repeatedly practiced.
Is God Threatened?
There are those who have embraced the erroneous idea that God is somehow threatened if people ask questions, express doubts, or express their criticisms. God is not up there in heaven nervous about the fact that someone asked a question, nor is He angry at us because we are having trouble grasping a concept in Scripture. God desires to engage our hearts and our minds, which means He wants to engage our critical thinking, our reasoning, and our rationale. God is no way threatened by our use of logic and reasoning, and He most certainly is not threatened nor offended if we come to Him, with our questions, our confusions, our pains and hurts, and even our anger and frustration. In fact, God has even invited us to reason with Him, “Come,” God says, “let us reason together,…” (Isaiah 1:10).
Job — An Example
Job had been put to the extreme test of devotion. He had lost His wealth, His seven children, and even His health, all so the adversary, Satan, could try and prove him disloyal to God. However, in spite of it all, Job stood firm in His faith in God, but Job did have his questions after all of this. He wanted an explanation since he felt he had been unjustly treated. In Job 31, Job asserts his integrity, and in 31:35, he makes the following proclamation:
Oh that I had one to hear me! Behold, here is my signature; Let the Almighty answer me! And the indictment which my adversary has written. (NASB)
Job here not only proclaims to his three “friends” his innocence, but he calls upon God to show him his supposed wrong doing. Job 32 begins with this statement:
Then these three men ceased answering Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes. (New American Standard Bible, Job 32:1)
I’ve heard many ministers come down on Job because the Bible says that “he was righteous in his own eyes.” However, I believe this is a superficial reading of the text and they criticize him unjustly. This statement is merely noting that Job did not believe he had committed any wrong-doing to deserve these series of calamities that he had experienced. And according to the book of Job, he hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact, these calamities came on him because Satan was trying to get him to reject God. But instead of rejecting God, Job held firm in his faith.
Therefore, the text is not saying, as these same ministers have tried to argue, that Job was “self-righteous.” Instead, Job was experiencing the same confused emotions that many of us would go through after experiencing some major trauma in our lives. In fact, Job was wondering if God had somehow lost sight or control of his life and circumstance. Many people, like Job, who have undergone a bad experience, or even a traumatic experience, have wondered, “Where was God through all of this? How could He be in control of my life and something like this happen to me?” So rather than saying that Job was “self-righteous,” it indicates how truly human Job was considering the recent events that had occurred in his life.
However, at the end of the book of Job, God does come, but He doesn’t sit down with Job and provide Him with an explanation, as we would’ve liked to have seen; instead, since Job challenged God, God returns and challenges Job:
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said, “Who is this that darkens counsel with words without knowledge? Now gird up your loins like a man, and I will ask you, and you instruct Me!” (Job 38:1-3)
Then beginning in Job 38:4 through to the end of chapter 39, God shoots question after question at Job wanting his response in regard to his knowledge of how everything around him in the heavens and the earth had been created and formed.
I have heard many ministers explain this exchange as God putting Job “in his place,” and rebuking him for thinking that he was sinless. I disagree. I don’t believe that is what is happening at all. Job is a middle-eastern man from a middle-eastern culture, and in that region, it is common to have people respond to a question with a question. And therefore, God in this exchange was, in all reality, responding to Job’s most urgent concerns.
In fact, I was listening to Dwight A. Pryor, the President and founder of the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, a man and teacher I greatly admire, and he was talking about a time when he was in Texas, and he saw an ice cream truck going down the street, so he went up to buy an ice cream from the guy driving the truck. When the man started speaking, he noticed he had an Israeli accent, and he asked him, “Are you, by chance, from Israel?” The man nodded, and he asked him, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” The man smiled and agreed. Dwight asked him, “Why is it that Israelis answer a question with a question?”
The man thought for a few minutes, and then shrugged his shoulders and said, “Why not?”
In the Gospels, we find another example of this sophisticated form of question dialogue as a means of exchanging information. At the age of twelve, Yeshua (Joshua/Jesus) and His parents had gone down to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and instead of going back with them, Yeshua (Joshua/Jesus), without their knowledge, stayed behind in Jerusalem. After three frantic days of looking for Him, they finally found Him involved in a discussion with the teachers of the law (Heb. Torah), exchanging question for question:
And it came about that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them, and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers. (Luke 2:46-47)
Notice, He was “asking them questions” and they were “amazed at His understanding and answers.” The questions He asked were, in fact, His “answers.” This form of dialogue of exchanging question for question was a very sophisticated form of rabbinic dialogue that Yeshua (Joshua/Jesus) was engaged in at only twelve years of age. However, in like manner, I believe God in the book of Job is answering Job’s questions the same way, in the form of questions. Rather than rebuking Job for his questions, God is majestically reaffirming to Job, and to all of us, that in spite of appearances, He is still on the throne, and He is still in control. Job asked for an intellectual exchange — to reason with God — and God did not rebuke him for wanting to reason with Him, but wonderfully and majestically responded.
Obviously, if God felt that it was wrong for us to use our human reason with Him, He would not invite us to use it with Him. As I mentioned earlier in Isaiah 1:10, God says, “Come, let us reason together….” We must remember that it was God who gave us the ability to think, to analyze, to compare and contrast, to weigh ideas and consider, and to synthesize information and to evaluate it. Why would God give our minds these abilities and skills, if He did not intend for us to use them?
Why the Parables — Another Example?
Another biblical example of God desiring us to use our minds, our critical thinking skills, can be found in Matthew 13. In this passage, Yeshua (Joshua/Jesus) tells the crowd the parable of the Sower:
“Behold, the sower went out to sow; 4 and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Others fell on the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.7 Others fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out. 8 And others fell on the good soil and *yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. 9 He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 13:3b-9)
After telling the crowd this parable, the disciples came to Him privately and asked Him the question: “Why do You speak to them in parables?”
Yeshua (Joshua/Jesus) responded to their question by saying that God had not granted them the privilege of receiving the mysteries concerning His kingdom. When I read that, it bothered me.
To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. 12 For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. 13 Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says,
You will keep on hearing, but will not understand;
You will keep on seeing, but will not perceive; (Matthew 13:11-14, NASB)
I wondered, “Why? Why would God not want all of us to know and understand His mysteries, to understand Him? Why would He hide that information from people?” I just don’t get it, I thought. But then as I read His answer, I was surprised by it: “because their minds were dull:”
15 For the heart of this people has become dull,
With their ears they scarcely hear,
And they have closed their eyes,
Otherwise they would see with their eyes,
Hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart and return (or repent),
And I would heal them.
16 But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. 17 For truly I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” (Matthew 13:15-16, NASB)
In this statement, the Greek word translated “heart” is kardia (Strong’s #2588), which literally means “heart,” and it is from this same Greek word, we get the word Cardiac, like in a “cardiac arrest” which deals with the heart. But this word can also refer to one’s mind, or one’s “thoughts and feelings” (“Greek Dictionary of the New Testament”). The Greek word kardia corresponds to the Hebrew word Lev, which also means “heart” and “mind.” And since the Messiah Yeshua (Joshua/Jesus) is a Jew, speaking to His Jewish disciples, it’s unlikely He would have been carrying on this discussion with them in Greek, but in Hebrew.
Consequently, Yeshua (Joshua/Jesus) is saying that the “heart” (or mind) of this people has become “dull.” They’ve stopped thinking about the Scriptures, about what they mean and their importance to their lives; instead, they’ve become completely reliant on someone else to tell them what to think and believe. Therefore, since they’re not wanting to engage God mentally, God is honoring that desire by not challenging them at all. And as a result,
with their ears they scarcely hear, and they have closed their eyes lest they should see with their eyes; and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart and return (or repent), and I should heal them. (Matthew 13:15)
By them not seeking to engage God through prayer and the study of His Word, they had, in fact, closed their minds and hearts to Him, which resulted in them not being healed or even saved. After explaining this, Yeshua (Joshua/Jesus) builds on this with his explanation of the parable of the sower.
In this parable what I find interesting is that there is only one sower and one seed. Most Christian ministries today would have four different sowers with four different seeds to meet the needs of each of the four different grounds. But Yeshua (Joshua/Jesus) in His parable only has one sower and one seed for the four different types of ground.
In His explanation of the first ground, the ground beside the road that was barren, He says,
When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is the one on whom seed was sown beside the road. (Matthew 13:18-19)
The Greek word translated “understand” is the word Sunieami (Strongs #4920), which means “to put together, i.e., (mentally) to comprehend; by impl. to consider, understand, be wise.” In other words, while the Word is being taught, if someone does not understand (or comprehend) it, then the evil one is right there removing “the seed” from “the ground” or life of the individual. If you contrast the barren ground (ground #1) with the fruitful ground (ground #4), you discover that the difference between the two is understanding:
And on the one whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit, and brings forth, some a hundred-fold, some sixty, and some thirty. (Matthew 13:23)
Notice that it’s only individuals who have received the Word and understood it who ended up bearing fruit for the kingdom. So this indicates a process: (1) we must hear it, then (2) we must understand it before (3) we can properly apply it. And it is only after we’ve applied it, that we will experience the blessings of God. Hearing it alone is not enough, nor is hearing and understanding it enough. Instead, we must hear it, understand it, and apply it, and only then will we experience God’s promised blessings. For James says, that if we only hear the word without doing it, we only end up deceiving ourselves (James 1:22).
Belief is Not Enough
Consequently, then, simply telling people to just “believe what the Word says,” even if they don’t understand it, only opens the door for the Adversary to come in and remove the Word from their heart and lives, resulting in their lives being “barren” and unfruitful for God. But what many people don’t realize is that people who hear the Word, understand it, and even believe what it says, but they don’t take the time or effort to apply it to their lives, Yeshua (Joshua/Jesus) says their lives will still remain “barren” and unfruitful for God.
On the other hand, those people who do hear it, understand what’s being taught, believe it, and then apply it to their lives,Yeshua (Joshua/Jesus) teaches that they will produce an abundance of fruit for God’s kingdom, “some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty” (Matthew 13:18-19). It should likewise be noted that “understanding” here means more than mere “mental acceptance.” It requires the allowance of people to read a text, analyze it, ask questions, consider options, and then to formulate a conclusion. In other words, it involves “critical thinking.”
What about those who aren’t so smart?
Does this mean that only those who are intelligent enough to think deeply will be blessed by God? I am not saying that; rather, I do believe that if we want to walk in the blessings of God and His Word, we do need to invest our time and effort in not only reading the Bible but also in understanding it. It’s important that we remember that we, as believers, are not all at the same level of understanding. However, as long as we are sincerely seeking God, reading His Word, spending time in His Presence, and we are trusting Him to show us how to apply His Word in our day-to-day lives, and we follow through by obeying what He teaches us to do, then He will bless us for our obedience.
God is looking for a people who heartfully and sincerely want to spend time with Him and to serve Him. This is often reflected in the amount of time we spend in His Presence and in studying His Word. We need to understand that there is a big difference between someone reading a passage and just seeing it as something to check off for the day, and someone who truly desires to spend time in the Word of God, struggling with the reading or even seeking to understand it as thoroughly as possible, so that they then can ask God to show them how to apply it to their life.
Finally, we need to remember that critical thinking is not the enemy of the believer. Critical thinking is a systematic approach that we can use to study the Word, analyze it, and come to a deeper level of understanding and appreciation for what it teaches us about God and His Kingdom. Rather than telling people to “simply believe,” we need ministers and teachers to instruct people on how to use critical thinking effectively within our churches. I believe one of the reasons there are kids who grow up in church and then leave the faith when they get to college is because colleges are teaching them to use critical thinking, but they use it to show why the Bible cannot be true. We need to teach our kids the same critical thinking skills, but use those skills to show our kids why the Bible is true, and in so doing, we will better prepare our kids with the techniques and evidence they will need to face an unbelieving world. It is our choice. Someone is going to teach our kids critical thinking skills. Don’t you think it should be us?
Thank you for a helpful article!
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Thanks Neal for the kind feedback.
Wonderful examples selected to illustrate your points. With your experience teaching University level young minds, I would love to read your description and thoughts of “critical theory” or the prevalence of deconstructionist thought that masquerades as critical thinking today. You addressed it briefly without detail and aptly categorized it along with blind faith as lazy thinking.
My question for you is a bit deeper though. Do you think the unwillingness/laziness of believers to fully engage Biblical material to the depth that we can effectively address the questions of children at their level the cause of them being susceptible to the equally lazy thought of critical theory and unreasoned rejection of faith once they get older?
I think the reasons for this are the following:
1. One is the false idea that the Bible is so simple that a child can understand it. Although there are simple parts, there are also others (like the book of Leviticus or Revelation) that are quite complicated, so not all of the Bible is simple.
2. We do not teach people in church how to use critical thinking in order to engage the text. We tell them what the text is saying, instead of guiding them through the process of how to figure it out for themselves. In other words, we “tell them,” we don’t “train them.”
3. There are many times when we discourage some questions by labeling them as “doubt,” and thereby shut down some potentially interesting discussions.
4. We don’t teach people the proper rules and guidelines for interpretation; consequently, people read into the text their own values, beliefs, and ideas, and again, they don’t learn how to use critical thinking in interpreting the text.
5. And finally, yes, I believe that there are many people who do not want to struggle with the text, whether out of fear, laziness, or apathy, but just want someone else to tell them what to think or believe.