Jesus: The Master of Critical Thinking

Have you ever considered Jesus Christ, the thinker?  Let’s dig into it in this Diving Deeper!
“Does not the ear test words, as the palate tastes its food?” Job 12:11
It is easy to overlook Jesus the Thinker! Much has been written on Jesus the Redeemer, Jesus the Healer, Jesus the Miracle Worker, Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Lord, etc., but the topic of Jesus as the greatest thinker of all time doesn’t seem to get as much attention. Understanding Jesus, the Thinker, and his use of powerful arguments can turn out to be invaluable in today’s hostile world.  The gospels dedicate an enormous amount of time and space describing how Jesus engaged the arguments and responded to the attacks that were launched against his truth claims. In doing so, Jesus engaged in a reasoned defense of the faith using critical thinking as one of his primary tools.   As Douglas Groothuis so powerfully asserts, “When Jesus defended the crucial claims of Christianity—He was its founder, after all—He was engaging in apologetics, often with the best minds of first-century Judaism.”(1)  As Christians facing hostile arguments and attacks on our faith, there is much to learn from a careful consideration of those encounters.
Preliminary Considerations
Jesus’ engagements were undergirded by the desire to attract (not alienate) the lost. Above the strategies and specific critical thinking skills Jesus employed, we find Jesus gently and respectfully seeking to persuade his opponents. He was not out to destroy them, but rather to enlighten them. Dallas Willard is on point when he affirms that, “Jesus’ aim in utilizing logic is not to win battles, but to achieve understanding or insight in his hearers.” (2) This ought to be our objective as well.  We are called to demolish arguments—not people! We must constantly remind ourselves that we are not trying to win arguments, but rather win people over to the truth of the Gospel.
Jesus’ pedagogical strategy was very effective. He was able to engage his opponents in the thinking process by making them active participants instead of passive listeners. As Willard explains,
“…he does not try to make everything so explicit that the conclusion is forced down the throat of the hearer. Rather, he presents matters in such a way that those who wish to know can find their way to, can come to, the appropriate conclusion as something they have discovered—whether or not it is something they particularly care for.” (3)
As an educator I can attest to the effectiveness of this strategy. Too often we focus, almost exclusively, on presenting strong arguments and lists of evidences without really engaging those we are attempting to persuade.  Asking questions was one of Jesus’ most successful strategies for getting his audience actively involved in what he was attempting to teach.  These questions were meant to allow his opponents to reach certain conclusions on their own without him having to spell it out for them. We must learn the art of engaging people in thought and not just conversation.
Jesus was not concerned with being politically correct, especially when it came to unmasking errors in the opinions and arguments of his opponents. Whether he was speaking to the Pharisees or the to a Roman governor, he was quick to correct erroneous thoughts and ideas. As Groothuis so clearly explains,
“Jesus engaged in extensive disputes, some quite heated, mostly with the Jewish intellectual leaders of His day. He did not hesitate to call into account popular opinion if it was wrong. He spoke often and passionately about the value of truth and the dangers of error, and He articulated arguments to support truth and oppose error.” (4)
In an age of intolerance towards the Christian faith, we must continue to stand firmly for truth and against error.  We must do this, as Jesus did, with the right attitude (gentleness and respect) and with strong sound arguments.
Jesus was a master logician.  He used a wide variety of arguments and did so with extraordinary skill. An exhaustive review of Jesus’ use of logic and critical thinking would be a very rewarding endeavor, but it is beyond the scope of this article.  Nevertheless, let us consider five examples of how Jesus employed the various types of logical arguments.
1) Jesus’ Use of A Fortiori Arguments
Jesus often used a fortiori arguments. The latin phrase ‘a fortiori’ means, “from something stronger.” These are very persuasive arguments that build the case for a particular proposition by showing that it has even stronger support than other related propositions commonly accepted as true. The structure is as follows:
Premise 1:  Proposition “X” is widely accepted.
Premise 2:  Support for proposition “Y” is even stronger than the support for proposition “X”
Conclusion:  Therefore, if proposition “X” is accepted, then proposition “Y” should be accepted all the more.
Consider the exchange found in Luke 13:14-16. Jesus was continually attacked for supposed violations of the Sabbath. In this passage, Jesus presents an a fortiori argument in his defense as follows:
Premise 1: Loosening the cattle from their stall to taking them out to water on the Sabbath is widely practiced and accepted by the Pharisees.
Premise 2: This woman, a daughter of Abraham, (far more valuable than cattle) has been bound by Satan for 18 years and has also been loosed on the Sabbath.
Conclusion: Therefore, if it is acceptable to loosen the cattle on the Sabbath, then it should be even more acceptable to loosen a daughter of Abraham.
2) Jesus’ Use of Disjunctive Syllogisms (or Argument by Elimination)
This type of argument usually consists of a premise with two options, a second premise denying one of the options, and a conclusion asserting the remaining option.  The idea is to eliminate all of the options until one is left as the only possible answer.  The structure is as follows:
Premise 1:  Either p or q
Premise 2:  Not- q
Conclusion:  Therefore: p
Consider the words of Jesus in Luke 11:23. Where Jesus confronts the Pharisees with TWO Disjunctive Syllogism in the same verse as follows:
Premise 1:  Either you are with me or you are against me.
Premise 2:  They were obviously not with him (since they were attacking him)
Conclusion:  Therefore: they were against him.
Premise 1:  Either you gather with me or you scattereth.
Premise 2:  They were obviously not gathering with him
Conclusion:  Therefore: they were scattering.
3) Jesus’ Use of Hypothetical Syllogisms (or Chain Argument)
This type of argument consists of three conditional statements linked together as follows:
Premise 1: If p then q
Premise 2:  If q then r
Conclusion:  Therefore: If p then r
Consider the words of Jesus to his disciples prior to sending them out in Matthew 11:40. He uses a Hypothetical Syllogism to explain the impact that receiving their message would have for those who believed.
Premise 1: If they receive you then they receive me.
Premise 2:  If they receive me then they receive him that sent me.
Conclusion: (implied) Therefore: If they receive you then they receive him that sent me.
4) Jesus’ Use of Syllogisms
A syllogism is a three-line argument in which the premises lead to a definite conclusion. By using deductive reasoning, the argument establishes the conclusion without question. If the premises are true than the conclusion must also be true. A common form is known as Modus Tollens and is structured as follows:
Premise 1:  If p then q
Premise 2: Not- q
Conclusion: Therefore: not p
Consider the words of Jesus in John 8:47 where he has been engaged in a long series of arguments with the scribes and Pharisees that leads to this powerful argument.
Premise 1: If you are of God then you heareth God’s words
Premise 2: You hear them not
Conclusion:  Therefore: you are not of God
Sometimes the argument is easier to see in the paraphrase versions of the Bible. For example, this verse reads as follows in the Living Bible:
“Anyone whose Father is God listens gladly to the words of God. Since you don’t, it proves you aren’t his children.”
5) Jesus Wisdom in dealing with the Horns of a Dilemma
The Pharisees were constantly trying to trap Jesus. They plotted and schemed to come up with arguments that would trap Jesus, regardless of his response. This is known in philosophy as a dilemma. The argument presents two alternatives as if they were the only options and responding with either option gets you in trouble. That is why it is often referred to as being trapped in “the horns” of a dilemma. They tried numerous times throughout Jesus’ ministry, but were always unsuccessful due to his mastery of logic and his divine wisdom.
Consider the passage in Matthew 22:15-22. Matthew prefaces the dialogue with the warning in verse 15 that the Pharisees “took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk.” (KJV). The present Jesus with a dilemma regarding the paying of tributes (taxes) to Caesar. The two horns of the dilemma are presented in verse 17, “What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?” (KJV). If Jesus answered that it was lawful, then he was recognizing that Caesar was a higher authority than he was. If Jesus answered no, then he would be declaring himself an enemy of Caesar. However, they never anticipated Jesus’ response. Jesus presented a third alternative—“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” (22:21 KJV). As was usually the case, “they marveled, and left him, and went their way.” (22:22 KJV). Jesus’ intellectual brilliance was enough to leave anyone, even his most ardent opponents, speechless and in awe.
We are called to always be prepared to give an answer to anyone that demands a reason for the hope that is within us, but how do we go about doing that? I think here, as in other areas of our walk, Jesus presents a wonderful model to follow. Jesus modeled for us the attitude with which we are to engage this world as well as the methodology. As Geisler and Zukeran suggest,
“Since reason and logical arguments were a part of Jesus’s defense, the apologist and all Christians today should make this an area of study as they engage in the battle of ideas.”  (5)
As we endeavor to engage in this dark world with the light of God’s Truth, we must be careful not to skip the mind and focus only on the heart, as is so often the case. God wants us to love Him with all of our hearts AND all of our minds. Only then will we be truly stable in our walk with the Lord. This should be paramount in our strategies for fulfilling our mission. Again, Geisler and Zukeran powerfully argue,
“The mission of transforming lives and bringing people to faith in Christ does not come by moving people emotionally; God does not bypass the mind to speak to the heart. Logic and well-reasoned arguments are required to refute false beliefs and turn people in the direction of truth.” (6)
Spending time with Jesus, the Thinker, and studying his use of critical thinking, logic and powerful arguments can be instrumental in fulfilling our calling as Christians to engage our world with Truth.
(1) Douglas Groothuis. “Jesus: Philosopher and Apologist.”   Accessed, 11/25/2015.
(2) Dallas Willard. “Jesus the Logician.” Christian Scholar’s Review, 1999, Vol. XXVIII, #4, 605-614.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Groothuis.
(5)  Norman L. Geisler and Patrick Zukeran. The Apologetics of Jesus: A Caring Approach to Dealing with Doubters. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009) pg. 76.
(6) Ibid.
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