In Matthew 22, Jesus is asked the question, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” (vs. 36, NIV). Jesus responds by saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (vs. 37). The idea of loving the Lord with one’s entire mind reveals God’s desire to see His people think. There is an element of worship, which comes as people use their minds for the purpose of revealing God’s glory. Ultimately, the use of one’s mind in the realm of critical thought can be bring honor and praise to the creator of the mind.
The world of Christian academia and thought is built upon the fact that individuals seek to understand that which is known and discover that which is unknown. This is the basis for learning, furthering one’s knowledge, and broadening one’s perspective. This basis has provided the knowledge and insights that have brought the modern world to its current advancements.
However, within Christian academia and thought, the basis of study has a different motivation. Within the context of biblical and theological studies, Christian academics are not looking to add new revelations to the biblical text; instead, Christian academics should care deeply for a greater understanding of who God is, what God has done, and how God speaks through His Word. Furthermore, Christian academia not only requires knowledge, but also a self-evaluation based on this knowledge.
In this way, critical thinking in Christian academia can be a blessing in that the knowledge attained has eternal implications for both the student of academia and those with whom they will share this knowledge. However, it can also threaten the vitality and influence of those within academia if the motives and intentions are not proper. Each of these is worth addressing.
Christian Academia: A Blessing
Within the realm of Bible schools, seminaries, and other higher learning institutions, there is a high regard for critical thinking. Within these institutions, critical thinking must be a priority because it becomes the foundation for thoroughly wrestling with the great mysteries of God, His nature, and His interaction with humanity. If a person, especially a teacher of the Word, is unwilling to wrestle through their uncertainties and doubts, it will leave them susceptible to being swayed. In fact, the Apostle Paul addresses this in his second letter to Timothy when he implores Timothy to watch out for “those who creep into households and capture the weak…” (2 Tim. 3:6, ESV) and lead them astray. Unless the spiritual leaders and those they are leading are willing to wrestle through their doubts and “build themselves up in the faith” (Jude 1:20), they could be lead astray.
Dr. Timothy Keller (2008) in his book, A Reason For God, implores people to wrestle with the aspects of faith that they do not understand. He essentially calls people to be far more critical and insightful in the way they are thinking. He said the following:
“A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubt, which should only be discarded after long reflection.
Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts-not only their own but their friends and neighbors. It is no longer sufficient to hold beliefs just because you inherited them”.
While some might see questioning and wrestling with doubts as a lack of faith, the reality is that questioning can lead to a greater and deeper faith as God makes Himself known. It is for this reason that Bible school and seminary students, as well as laity, must critically think through elements of their faith. It is important for a student to understand alternative perspectives, look beyond the surface of an argument, determine the credibility of sources, pause when there is a lack of understanding, pursue understanding, commit to learning from those who are more qualified in specific disciples, and refuse to simply parrot back the opinion of others, even if there is agreement.
Additionally, the use of critical thinking keeps believers from falling into error and being swayed by the opinions of others. This becomes a blessing because it provides them with a firm foundation as it allows them to have asked and answered the questions of others before they have even asked for it. Furthermore, it allows for growth in the knowledge of God as one submits themselves to truth. In the famous words of St. Augustine, “All truth is God’s truth” and therefore, if one’s motives are pure, the truth will come forth as one seeks after knowledge.
Christian Academia: A Curse
However, without a proper heart and motivation, the pursuit of knowledge can also be a curse. This is largely due to the fact that when one’s pursuit of knowledge becomes a primary element of existence, the area of faith is replaced with one’s insatiable need for empirical and rational answers. This can easily lead to secularism and a removal of faith in a person’s life.
Dr. John Piper, addresses the potential issues with the critical thinking mind and the asking of questions. He would certainly affirm Dr. Keller’s statements concerning “asking hard questions”, however, he also believes there are necessary pre-requites to the asking of questions. He says, “Not all question asking is good. It depends on the attitude. Is there a submission to the Word of God and a readiness to obey God when we understand what he wants of us?” (Piper 2010, 50). If the heart is not prepared and submitted to the authority of Scripture and the Lordship of Christ, then questioning can lead to improper conclusions. The result is that any heart issue, coupled with critical thinking, can affect each level of Christian academia.
For the student, critical thinking can bring them into a deeper relationship with God. Questioning that which is not understood, delving deeper into biblical texts, and addressing real world issues in light of Scripture will all produce a greater effectiveness. However, this only takes place after surrender to Scripture and Christ as Lord. If it does not, the uncertainties will turn to doubt, doubt will turn to unbelief, and unbelief will ultimately lead to destruction. In this way, it seems that blindly and unquestioningly approaching the Scripture would have been the better decision for the sake of the soul. However, God is not honored in a lack of Scriptural engagement, therefore, critical thinking must be coupled with submission otherwise it can be dangerous.
As a side note, it is important to address those engaged in vocational academia. For the professorship and institutions, a corporate submission to the authority of Scripture becomes the mark of a credible Bible school or seminary. Dr. Piper, in an interview, was asked how to go about choosing a seminary. He implored people to search for nothing except “a faculty who revere the Bible as God’s inerrant Word…and look for rigger in their exegetical labors” (Piper 2013, “Choosing a Seminary”). If these elements do not exist, the danger becomes that an institution will, like the individual, be swayed by the falsities of skeptics. Furthermore, the obvious consequence of this swaying will be the influence on the students and their future pursuits. Yet, critical thinking coupled with submission could force an institution to continually come back to the Word as authoritative and inerrant. Critical thinking without submission will eventually result in seeing the Scriptures as an ancient text with principles one should follow, but be studied as any other ancient text.
With this is in mind, all Christians should be vigilant in who they are allowing to influence and teach them. There are many who claim sound teaching and yet are not faithful the text and have not faithful thought through its message. We do not stand on a book of principles, rules, good ideas. We stand on the living and active Word of God, which declares the God’s redemptive plan for humanity, through Christ. Anything less is a misuse of the Word.
Ultimately, critical thinking comes back to one’s desire to honor and worship God with their minds. When this becomes the motivation for the believer, they will see the Sovereign God of all reveal Himself in greater and deeper ways. God is capable of handling the most difficult of questions and His Word is enough to sustain through the questioning. Therefore, a submission to Him and His Word will allow for a greater blessing as one pursues the greater knowledge of Him.