Critical Thinking— What Is it and Why is it Important to Believers?

Critical thinking has become something of a hot topic in reason years, even within the context of conservative Christianity. Here, to start us off are several definitions culled from the Wikipedia page on critical thinking—
Critical thinking has been described as “reasonable reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do.”[2] It has also been described as “thinking about thinking.”[3] It has been described in more detail as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action”.[4] More recently, critical thinking has been described as “the process of purposeful, self-regulatory judgment, which uses reasoned consideration to evidence, context, conceptualizations, methods, and criteria.”[5]

You will notice that ‘critical thinking’ often comes up in the context of persons trying to decide what to believe and what not to believe. Unfortunately, ‘critical thinking’ has sometimes gotten a bad name, especially in very conservative Protestant circles because it is associated with people negatively assessing or even criticizing the Bible. This is unfortunate on various grounds. If you want to see a presentation of what the component of critical thinking known as ‘deductive logic’ is like watch any episode of the recently acclaimed series Sherlock (BBC) in which Benedict Cumberbatch plays Sherlock. But critical thinking is not just the ability to construct syllogisms and thinking logically. Nor is it merely the ability to reason from a hypothesis to a conclusion.

Critical thinking involves thinking about epistemology, the study of how we know what we know, and even the study of whether we can know certain kinds of things. Philosophers of this particular field talk about the epistemic principles of the mind. Critical thinking also involves reasoning carefully about the role presuppositions play in one’s belief system and one’s reasoning.

For example, when it was presupposed that the sun revolved around the earth and the earth was the center of the universe, people reasoned as follows— ‘since it is evident, and we can see with the naked eye that the sun revolves around the earth……’ . The problem of course was not the reasoning which followed from this presupposition or premise that was taken for granted, or the amount of logic applied to the inferences one draws from such a presupposition, the problem was the presupposition itself. Or, take the case of the person that dogmatically says ‘miracles don’t happen because in the natural world as it exists they can’t happen’. Now the person may be capable of all kinds of critical thinking about things other than this presupposition. He may appear to be a very rational being. But his initial assumption has forced him to only allow and follow certain kinds of rabbit trails of evidence and so his reasoning circle and cycle is too small, too confined because of the narrowness of his presuppositions. Critical thinking needs to involve not just the logic of one’s arguments, or one’s ability to analyze accurately empirical evidence. It also needs to be able to assess presuppositions.

In the context of conservative Protestantism, there has often been an anti-intellectual spirit that has ruled out of court, ab initio, critical thinking. This has been seen as corrosive or destructive to a person’s Christian faith. It has sometimes come with the advice of my Southern Baptist grandmother– ‘don’t be so open minded that your brains fall out’.
Another form that this anti-intellectualism takes is pneumatic. For example I once had a rather Pentecostal student come to me and say’ I don’t know why I need to learn all this history stuff to preach the Bible. Why I can just get up into the pulpit and the Spirit will give me utterance.’ My reply was— ‘yes Charlie you can do that but its a shame you are not giving the Holy Spirit more to work with. Beware of using the Holy Spirit as a labor saving device’.

In my view, two of the crucial reasons even conservative Protestants need to learn how to think critically are: 1) they need to be able to defend their faith, and talk reasonably and rationally about it to skeptics and antagonists; and 2) since Christianity is not a philosophy of life but rather an historical religion it is absolutely necessary to be able to analyze historical evidence, sift data, assess conclusions, sort out whether certain kinds of arguments or interpretations of the Bible and historical evidence are faulty or not, and so on.

A good opportunity to apply such skills has arisen lately with the exploration of Talpiot Tomb B aka the Patio tomb and the ossuaries that have been found in it. Here are a few questions that one can reflect on: 1) is it true that ossuaries were only used for early Jewish burials in the vicinity of Jerusalem up to A.D. 70 or did such a practice continue into the second century, at least until the repression of the Bar Kokhba revolt? This is a historical question that needs to be answered with historical evidence, not presuppositions; 2) is it true that only Christians used images of Jonah to express something about their faith in resurrection? 3) why is it that equally capable and critical scholars come to such differing conclusions about whether the image on the ossuary in question is a) a fish, b) a nephesh, c) an amphora? 4) why is it that equally capable scholars read the inscription on one of the other ossuaries in various ways, some thinking nothing is said about resurrection in the inscription some thinking there is, and some thinking its a pagan inscription, and some thinking it isn’t?

What roles do presuppositions and wishful thinking play in where one scholar or another comes down on these issues?

Why do some scholars want to connect the findings in Talpiot tomb B with those in tomb A, whereas others think there need be no connection? Why do some scholars think there is some connection with Joseph of Arimathea with either or both these tombs in Talpiot whereas others think this whole argument is flimsy and without hard evidence to support it? Why do some scholars think the evidence suggests that Talpiot Tomb A has something to do with the family of Jesus whereas other equally capable scholars find this highly unlikely? While answers may be hard to come by to some of these questions, critical thinking is necessary to assess such questions always.

  • Allen Browne

    Classic Freudian slip in the first sentence:
    Critical thinking has become something of a hot topic in *reason* years …

  • Andrew

    Excellent. Well said.

  • Mike Taylor

    This piece is one of the reasons I really enjoy reading your work. Especially with regard to our faith, you’re honest. Even though I many not agree with you on all subjects, I know you don’t just scoot around the questions to conclude what you want to. Truth – this, we of the historical faith, must always hold most dear.

  • Eliyahu Konn

    No. Critical thinking has only to do with objectivity, science, and discrete mathematical logic. Apart from those religion is a canard.

  • David Hull

    Dr. Witherington,

    When we are engaging questions like the ones you pose at the end of your piece, wherein it is numerous scholars with variant opinions, where do you propose that we begin that search for answers?

    The reason I ask is because for most people, we go to the scholars to seek answers because they have the expertise and knowledge that we lack. Without the requisite knowledge, it is very difficult to “critically think” and sift through all of the scholarly data… because the reason you went there in the first place was because you didn’t know something.

    Also, ascertaining the presuppositions behind a particular scholar’s opinion on a matter involves knowing something about who they are as a person, as well as a general knowledge of the corpus of their writings in which their foundational convictions might be ascertained. This seems to be pretty tedious. Is there another way?

    I am not advocating shirking on doing the difficult work of research, but what would your recommendations be for those for whom “research” is not inherently part of their occupational field (i.e. scholars, teachers, pastors etc)?

    Thanks for your insight in advance!

  • Patrick Mitchell

    A much needed post Dr. Ben. And it’s great to see that SBC relatives are consistent across the board as I’ve heard the same appeal :)

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Eliyahu: Unfortunately, history is messy, and mathematical logic is not applicable to analyzing history for the most part. And indeed, many of the empirical skills learned in the hard sciences (say chemistry) are simply not applicable when it comes to critical thinking about history and its subject matter. Sherlock Holmes only occasionally used mathematical logic to solve crimes, precisely because not all of reality can be subjected the empirical tests and analysis. BW3

  • Oscar

    Dr. Ben and Eliyahu: “Science” is a catchall term for a number of different disciplines. “Hard science” also has its own philosophy that, out of hand, rejects anything that cannot be empirically proven. Miracles do not exist unless they have some naturalistic explanation, the dead cannot be reanimated by science so, therefore, there cannot be resurrection from the dead. From this thinking, then, comes the conclusion that “faith” is just a construct of the human mind, so then religions that depend on “faith” are therefore impossible and irrelevant.

    Dr. Ben’s reasoning is much more focused and specific than Eliyahu’s general statement.

  • Juniper

    Thank you for this post. I think part of the problem is that engaging critical thinking skills, employing methodology, and critically analyses can be a lot of hard work. Not many people want to do that. Unfortunately, it can be extraordinarily difficult to engage someone with different (or non-existent) presuppositions about the bible, life, the universe and everything without applying this skill. FYI, its not only SBC relatives, its some of the Pentecostals too!

  • Rick

    In light of this post, what are your thoughts about this new “analytical” mind study?

  • Mike

    Hi Dr. Witherington, excellent post as usual. I do agree that critical thinking is an essential skill. I know this a tad off the topic of your post, but I have been attempting to engage it this and apply it to the study of the Bible and issues of inspiration (inerrancy vs infallibility). I have been reading a lot about all the various “criticisms” (historical, textual, and the like). Would you be so kind as to recommend a few resources (especially any books that you have penned on the subject) that approach this from an evangelical perspective? Thank you and God bless you and your work!

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Mike:

    I’d say you will need to go through my Introduction to the NT I just wrote for Oxford… which comes out next year. In the meantime, read my The Living Word of God on the inerrancy issue. BW3

  • Patrick

    I was a fundy for 40 years. When I heard , “The Bible is The Word of God” as a child, it seemed natural to me to assume everything in it was 100% accurate. How can God err in anything?

    I changed my perspective and now see only Christ as “The Word of God” perfect in all respects, the Bible as an inspired word to us, but, only in the spiritual knowledge about Yahweh and the historicity. The cosmology, science, etc is ignorance.

    Took me probably an entire year to come to terms with this. The fundy hermeneutic needs help bad, but, we also need to be careful not to cause reaction in attempting to reach this goal. I was converted slowly and with patience or I would have reacted and still be a fundy I fear.

    I’ve seen some blogs that were very condescending and that’s a terrible approach. Not just condescending, outright hostility. They had a better hermeneutic and had still missed the whole point, IMO.