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A Biblical Foundation for Critical Thinking

God’s Word is sharper than a sword.  And, it should also be the foundation from which we start our thinking!
“Does not the ear test words, as the palate tastes its food?”  (Job 12:11)
Ideological Instability
There are countless people in our world that will embrace almost anything without questioning it as long as the presenter seems believable or they have a vested interest in accepting it. Their response to the assertion that the sky is purple would be one of astonishment and embarrassment for not having noticed it sooner.  They will continue to believe this until someone more persuasive comes along and posits that the sky is actually green at which point they will blush at their naivety for having believed it was purple and they will join the green sky club with militant resolve.  Sadly, this has led to very tragic consequences both individually and corporately; and Christians are not exempt. Every time science claims to have found the “missing link” many believers jump on board the macro-evolution ship, only to find themselves in a sinking ship months later when it is confirmed that it wasn’t in fact the “missing link.” Every time a false teacher comes around with a different gospel, many believers embrace it without giving it due thought. Christians often appear to be a most ideologically unstable bunch.  But why is it that so many people are so easily moved from one position to another?
A Problem of Spiritual Immaturity
What makes people so ideologically unstable? From a biblical perspective, ideological instability is often a sign of spiritual immaturity. As Paul explained to the Ephesians in the fourth chapter of his letter to them—the spiritual gifts and diverse ministries were given to the church to accomplish numerous important objectives. They were meant to equip Christians for the work of the ministry, for the edification of the body of Christ, to bring about unity of faith and knowledge, to help us become more Christ like, and to keep us from being vulnerable to all types of false ideas that come our way. But notice how Paul associates that ideological instability to immaturity. In verse 14 Paul explains that the gifts and ministries have been given to the Church, “that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting,” When we consider the words of this particular verse, what stands out is the fact that many Christians appeared to be vulnerable to any and all teachings. The expressions “tossed to and fro” and “carried about” speak of a total lack of critical thinking skills among these early Christians. As Paul wrote this to the Ephesians, he may have been motivated by what had happened to the Galatians. They had heard the Gospel and embraced it under the ministry of Paul, but thoughtlessly abandoned it as soon as someone else arrived with a different gospel.
Paul’s analogy comparing the spiritual immature Christian with children has powerful implications. What makes children so vulnerable is their tendency to believe everything they are told without giving it due consideration, and the consequences are tragic. It is very easy and sadly, far too common for children to be manipulated and misled because of their gullibility.  Therefore, just as parents spend time teaching their children not to trust strangers and not to believe everything they are told, believers must be taught how to guard themselves against the trickery, the cunning craftiness, and the deceitful plotting of false teachers and wicked men, lest they also be manipulated and misled. It is the same terminology that Paul uses when addressing the Colossians, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” (Col. 2:8 NASB).  What about today’s church? Are we as Christians any stronger in our convictions?  The David Koreshes and Jim Jones’ of modern times prove that there continues to be a desperate need for critical thinking. One of the most effective ways to avoid being “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine” or idea is to master the art of critical thinking. Christians needed to think critically and develop a strong intellectual foundation for what they believed.
The Critical Thinking Mandate
What is critical thinking? Let us not be confused by the word “critical.”  While this word is often associated with being negatively judgmental and faultfinding, that is not the only sense of the word.  The type of critical thinking we need is about using all of our faculties to evaluate ideas in an attempt to discover their veracity or falsity. Paul seems to summarize it along with its practical application when he exhorts the Thessalonians to “Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” (1 Thes. 5:21-22 NKJV). Paul’s use of the verb “test” is synonymous with critical thinking.  While the context of this exhortation pertains to prophecy, the terminology and the principles involved can be applied to critical thinking in general.  Critical thinking is about testing all things (ideas). But how is this to be done today? One New Testament scholar sheds light on the process.
How were the Thessalonians to test all things, and how do we do that today? By comparing what we hear with the written Word, just as the Bereans did in Acts 17:11. This was no innovation: ‘To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them’ (Isa. 8:20). We are to search the Scriptures in order to make sure that what we hear is biblical. Then we are to hold on to what is good: we are to remember it, note it down, add it to our store of biblical knowledge but, above all, if it is a practical exhortation in line with God’s Word, we are to put it into practice.
Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians includes very practical applications for critical thinking. First, EVERY idea should be subjected to critical analysis (testing). Second, critical thinking helps distinguish between good and evil.  In other words, it helps us identify those ideas that are biblical (good) and those that are contrary to what is taught in the Bible (evil). Third, critical thinking is of utmost important when deciding how to live our lives. We are to “hold fast to what is good” and we are to “abstain from every form of evil.” Woolsey captures the idea in no uncertain terms,
But then, after testing, the instruction is, Hold on to the good (1 Thess. 5:21b). The word is a strong one, meaning latch on to it and hold it fast! This requires openness to new truth and readiness to incorporate it in our thinking and living, appropriating valid insights and living by them. That is to say, we are not to become professional critics, forever testing, always holding back, never committing ourselves. On the other hand, after testing, Avoid every kind of evil (5:22). This word, too, is a strong one (same Greek word as in 4:3). The call is for discernment: test, and then hold on or avoid, as appropriate for those bearing the name of Christ.
When this passage is properly understood, it becomes apparent that Christianity, unlike other religions calls for the critical evaluation of the tenets of the faith prior to them being accepted. In his well-known commentary, Notes on the New Testament, Barnes explains regarding this passage,
Christianity does not require men to disregard their reason, or to be credulous. It does not expect them to believe anything because others say it is so. It does not make it a duty to receive as undoubted truth all that synods and councils have decreed; or all that is advanced by the ministers of religion. It is, more than any other form of religion, the friend of free inquiry, and would lead men everywhere to understand the reason of the opinions which they entertain;
The importance of this truth cannot be understated. A unique distinction of Christianity is that is does not require nor demand blind faith. God gave us a mind and expects us to use it. It is our greatest earthly defense against the lies of the enemy. As Barnes explains,
Other religions require their votaries to receive everything upon trust; Christianity asks us to examine everything. …we are to examine it freely before we embrace it; but when we are convinced that it is true, it is to be held, no matter what current of popular opinion or prejudice may be against it; no matter what ridicule may be poured upon it; and no matter though the belief of it may require us to die a martyr’s death.
That is what it means to “cling to” or “hold on to the good.” Or, in the case of false ideas—we are to “avoid” or “reject” or “stay away from” them. The immediate result of putting this mandate into practice is ideological stability.
Conclusion
The idea that we are supposed to use our minds to evaluate ideas goes back to the very beginning. In the book of Job, dated in the time of the Patriarchs of Genesis, we find the concept expressed in a beautiful yet powerful metaphor’
“Does not the ear test words, as the palate tastes its food?” Job 12:11
Job draws an analogy between the use of our ability to distinguish good and bad foods via our taste buds and our ability to distinguish good and bad ideas via our hearing.  In his commentary on Job, Hooks sums it up brilliantly,
Job appeals to the sensory receptors of ear and tongue as metaphors of human discernment. Just as the palate discriminates between tasty and unsavory food, so does the ear discern between true and false claims.
Thus, in a time of such ideological instability, we must tackle the problem of spiritual immaturity by teaching all believers to adhere to the critical thinking mandate found in Scripture. Otherwise, believers will continue to be “tossed to and fro” and “carried about” by any and all ideas that come their way; the consequences will be devastating.
Look for our next article: Galatians: A Case Study on the Importance of Critical Thinking
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