Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Thinking Theologically (1)


This is written out of a particular interest in and concern for the task of ministers and ministerial students in defending and preaching the faith of Scripture. How better may we think theologically, that the legacy we have inherited may not only be passed on but even improved upon?

This is also written in the conviction that due to a variety of pressures in our day, theological thinking is under threat. We at least need to address this fact.

This is not the work the subject deserves. Sometimes, though, it is better to say something badly than not at all. Perhaps it will provoke or inspire someone else to do better.

‘The mind’ and ‘thinking’

One could spend much time discussing and trying to define ‘mind’ and ‘thinking’ and that would take me way beyond the purposes of this piece. Yet some starting point is helpful. These are secular definitions but they are helpful and in no sense conflict with the biblical idea of mind I shall be looking at later.

‘Mind’ according to a fairly standard definition (in the 'New Oxford Dictionary of English' is ‘the element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought’. The mind, for present purposes, is that faculty with which we think, though it is more than that.

‘Thinking’ has been defined as ‘the process involved in manipulating information either collected through the senses or stored in the memory from previous experience’. It will be instructive to see how a more specifically biblical approach to the subject alters this, if at all.

We are doing it all the time. Thinking is an intellectual activity – it uses the intellect - but it is of course not just for ‘intellectuals’. I am thinking as I write; you are thinking as you read. Sometimes ‘thinking’ is said to be ‘realistic’ in that it is more purposeful, more focused on outside stimuli and on problem solving; other ‘thinking’ is said to be ‘autistic’ in the sense of imaginative, expressive, and responding more to inner stimuli; this includes daydreaming.

Now if thinking is a basic activity that we cannot avoid for long, why do we need any kind of instruction to help us? Well, first, we can all learn to do things better even if they come naturally. Breathing is natural, but I may learn ways that are more efficient. Public speaking may be ‘natural’ but can be improved by better techniques. Second, this is particularly true if I have to think to a specific purpose such as ministers must do when studying the Bible or thinking about theology. Thirdly, it is even more true if there are factors in our culture which are undermining the whole practice of purposeful thought, which I suggest is the case today.

First however we need to put ‘thinking’ in a Christian context.

Humans as Thinkers

1. We are created in the image of God

Man, male and female, is made in the image of God. If God thinks, we can think. His thoughts are infinitely higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8,9), but at least there is analogy in the function of thought itself. We are called to ‘reason together’ with God (Isaiah 1:18). The first task of Adam’s mind was to receive God’s special revelation (Genesis 1:28) and obey. He was also to use his mind analytically and creatively in the context of general revelation by naming the animals. The animals, meanwhile, could not name him.

There is a case for saying that the presupposition of all thought is the existence of God, the infinite - personal Triune Creator God who speaks. Drawing on a paragraph from John Henry Newman’s 'The Idea of a University' James Sire suggests that three truths provide most of what is needed to undergird the possibility of human knowledge (and therefore, human thought): first, the primacy of God’s existence; second the nature of this God as intelligent, living, personal and almighty; thirdly, that he is the intentional creator of a rational, orderly universe that is not himself (that is, creation is not just an extension of God as pantheism teaches). Only if there is an objective, orderly universe to which our reason correlates, can there be any real basis for human thinking.

2. We are to love God with the mind

The greatest commandment, taught Jesus, is to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’ (Mark 12:30). This is the first and great duty of men and women and the first duty of the mind. The mind is to be applied to God through his Word and in obedience. ‘For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments’ (1 John 5:3).
A point of interest here is that thinking, if it an expression of love, is evidently to be accompanied by emotion or affection. Love is not merely feeling but it cannot be without it. Thinking is not to be an ice-cold activity.

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