The Urgent Need for Critical Thinking

Bill Muehlenberg’s commentary on issues of the day…

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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