Last week, I critiqued an excerpt from Joyce Meyer’s book, Battlefield of the Mind. I considered this important because Meyer’s misguided and self-contradicting attitude (“reasoning is dangerous”) likely represents a large swath of the Christian community. Why bother to write about it? Because I believe that this mindset is harmful–both to society in general, and to the Church. But rather than focusing on the harms as reasons to reject Meyer’s view, I will focus chiefly on the fact that being anti-reason is thoroughly unbiblical. That approach provides more persuasive power among Christians.
Reason In the Bible
Aside from the numerous passages in the Bible encouraging the use of reason, there is the overall milieu to be considered. The Hebrew/Jewish tradition stands as one of the most intellectually rich in the world, spanning from Moses to Einstein. The Hebrew Bible makes use of every sort of literary genre and device, much of which escapes us because we cannot read it in the original language. The New Testament, continuing that same tradition, provides beautiful examples of Rabbinic teaching and philosophical argumentation.
In the Hebrew scriptures, there is an entire genre of “wisdom literature,” (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, Song of Solomon, some of Psalms) which was what we might call philosophy or science today. Most of what we have are religious and social wisdom sayings, but these sayings would have been part of a larger collection that included agricultural, political, and other kinds of wisdom. The Hebrews, under the guidance of Yahweh, were devoted to education, discovery, art, and science.
Arguing with God & Man
The prophets frequently engaged in spirited, rational dialogue with Yahweh, who welcomed such exchanges. “Come, let us reason together,” is an oft-quoted quote from God to the people of Judah, by way of Isaiah (Isa. 1:18). Jonah and Habakkuk famously disputed with God, and Habakkuk’s conversation reminds me of a courtroom scene. Moses and Abraham reasoned with God in prayer, hoping to obtain mercy for others.
In the New Testament, Jesus towers above everyone as an example of the skilled use of reason. In numerous confrontations with the religious leaders, he defeats their arguments and accusations with logic. When they try to pin Jesus into a dilemma between two ways of violating God’s law, he “splits the horns” of the dilemma and shows them a third, unimagined solution (Mt. 22:21). He does the same when the Saducees try to force him to choose between denying the resurrection and rejecting God’s law. (cf. Mt. 22:23-33) Jesus, in the tradition of the Jewish Rabbis, uses his intellect to understand and defend orthodox faith. Unfortunately, it is hard to recognize the beautiful reasoning in these passages unless you’ve studied a little logic yourself.
Paul’s Great Learning
Paul the Apostle (St. Paul, to some), provides perhaps the clearest example of biblical reasoning. A student of the legendary Rabbi Gameliel, Paul was highly educated in both the Hebrew and Greek traditions. At one point, when Paul defended himself before Festus, the Roman Procurator of Judea, Festus exclaimed, “Your great learning is driving you mad!” It was evident to the highest authorities in Rome that Paul was a brilliant intellect, even if they could not fathom why he would believe such a thing as the resurrection of Jesus.
Paul’s letters are structured with impeccable logic and argument, and his ministry was characterized by the use of rational discourse. Six times in the book of Acts (17:2, 17:17, 18:4, 18:19, 19:8, 19:9), Luke describes Paul as engaged in “reasoning.” Paul used reason and logical argument to try and persuade people that Jesus was the Messiah and resurrected Son of God. Certainly Paul relied on God’s power to change minds, but he did not stop using his intellect and education as well.
I don’t have space in this post to talk about all the passages that some (like Meyer) interpret to be anti-reason. But I will mention two, and I also need to say a few words about interpretation in general. First, we have two basic choices: either (A) texts mean whatever we want them to mean, or (B) texts have a limited range of objective meanings. If we choose (A), then there’s no point in talking about this at all. You have your interpretation, and I have mine, and Daffy Duck has his, and they’re all “correct.” If we choose (B), then it is possible that some interpretations are closer to being correct than others, like arrows stuck in a target at various distances from the bulls eye. I’m going to assume approach (B), and if you think I’m wrong about my interpretation of the Bible, then you’re assuming approach (B) as well.
Two of the passages that Meyer mentions are 1 Corinthians 2:14 and Prov. 3:4-5. Let’s start with 1 Corinthians. It says, “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” Three important terms stand out here: accept, understand, and discerned. To say a person without the Spirit (one who does not trust Jesus for salvation) does not accept the things of God is to say that they do not receive or desire them. This speaks of a failure to value, not a failure to comprehend. Paul also says the unspiritual person cannot discern spiritual things. Discern (Greek anakrino) means to appraise or sift — to determine value. It seems unproblematic to me that the unbeliever would lack the capacity to value the gospel. At least it certainly has little or nothing to do with an intellectual disability.
But Paul also says the “natural” person can’t understand spiritual things. These seems to support Meyer’s view–that the only way to understand God and spiritual reality is by some supernatural gift of the spirit, and not by reason. Because the “natural” person has reason , right? Well, this is a tough one. The Greek term here is ginosko, which always refers to experiential knowledge and understanding, rather than the abstract, theoretical kind. We simply don’t have a good word in the English to express this other sort of understanding.
I like how Eugene Peterson translates this section: “Spirit can be known only by spirit—God’s Spirit and our spirits in open communion.” It is a relational, experiential understanding that can only be had by a person who has entered into relationship with God. I don’t think Paul is saying that a nonbeliever can’t intellectually grasp the ideas or claims of the gospel. He is saying that the “natural” person can’t appreciate, value or experience the truths of the gospel. That’s my best take on this passage. Feel free to push back with a comment.
Leaning On Learning?
Another verse Meyer mentions is Proverbs 3:5-6.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.”
This one seems easier to explain. First, remember that this is poetry, not a didactic epistle. Second, I think the interpretation turns on the meaning of “lean on” in verse 5. One of the best rules for interpreting literature is to let the literature interpret itself, whenever possible. In other words, if you come across a curious term, look and see how the term is used in other contexts that might be clearer. Well, the term for “lean on” here is used quite a bit in the Old Testament, and it typically refers to someone physically leaning on something, like a staff or crutch.
“Lean on” has a deeper meaning as well: to rely or depend on something or someone. It sometimes refers to leaning on things you shouldn’t lean on. People are said to “lean on” a spider’s web (Job 8:15) or to “lean on” political alliances with Egypt (2 Kings 8:21; Isa. 36:6). But one can also “lean on” the Lord. (Isa. 48:2) I think the best understanding of “lean not on” here is to say “don’t rely exclusively or inordinately on your own wisdom–seek the Lord’s guidance.” This seems like great advice, even for an atheist, if we secularize it: “don’t think you have all the answers, be humble and realize you need others.” It doesn’t mean “don’t use reason.”
Hopefully, this helps you see how the Bible values the mind. I could go on and on. I didn’t even talk about my three favorite passages that speak of the importance of the mind: Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 22:37-39; and 1 Peter 3:15. The authors of the Bible assumed that education and rigorous thought were central values to the community of faith. Not that they are essential to salvation, but they are necessary for maturity in our relationship with God. Any follower of Jesus should seek to use her mind as He did.