Several years ago, I was asked to give a convocation address at a major theological seminary in America. In that address, I spoke about the critical role of logic in biblical interpretation, and I pleaded for seminaries to include courses on logic in their required curricula. In almost any seminary’s course of study, students are required to learn something of the original biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek. They are taught to look at the historical background of the text, and they learn basic principles of interpretation. These are all important and valuable skills for being good stewards of the Word of God. However, the main reason why errors in biblical interpretation occur is not because the reader lacks a knowledge of Hebrew or of the situation in which the biblical book was written. The number one cause for misunderstanding the Scriptures is making illegitimate inferences from the text. It is my firm belief that these faulty inferences would be less likely if biblical interpreters were more skilled in basic principles of logic.
Let me give an example of the kind of faulty inferences I have in mind. I doubt I have ever had a discussion on the question of God’s sovereign election without someone quoting John 3:16 and saying, “But doesn’t the Bible say that ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life’”? I immediately agree that the Bible says that. If we were to translate that truth into logical propositions, we would say that all who believe will have eternal life, and no one who has eternal life will perish, because perishing and eternal life are polar opposites in terms of the consequences of belief. However, this text says absolutely nothing about human ability to believe in Jesus Christ. It tells us nothing about who will believe. Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). Here we have a universal negative that describes ability. No person has the ability to come to Jesus unless a particular condition is met by God. Yet this is forgotten in light of John 3:16, which says nothing about a prerequisite for faith. So, John 3:16, one of the most famous texts in all of the Bible, is routinely, regularly, and systematically butchered with faulty inferences and implications.
Why do such illegitimate inferences happen? Classical Christian theology, particularly Reformed theology, talks about the noetic effects of sin. The English word noetic derives from the Greek word nous, which is often translated as “mind.” So, the noetic effects of sin are those consequences of the fall of man on the human intellect. The entire human person, including all of our faculties, was ravaged by the corruption of human nature. Our bodies die because of sin. The human will is in a state of moral bondage, in captivity to the evil desires and impulses of the heart. Our minds, likewise, are fallen, and our very ability to think has been severely weakened by the fall. I would guess that Adam’s IQ before the fall was off the charts. I doubt that he was given to making illegitimate inferences in his time of tending the garden. Rather, his mind was sharp and acute. But he lost that when he fell, and we lost it with him.
However, the fact that we are fallen does not mean that we no longer have the ability to think. We are all prone to error, but we also can learn to reason in an orderly, logical, and cogent fashion. It is my desire to see Christians think with the utmost cogency and clarity. So, as a matter of discipline, it is much to our benefit to study and master the elementary principles of reasoning so that we can, by the help of God the Holy Spirit, overcome to a certain degree the ravages of sin upon our thinking.
I do not think for a moment that any of us, as long as sin is in us, will ever become perfect in our reasoning. Sin prejudices us against the law of God for as long as we live, and we have to fight to overcome these basic distortions of the truth of God. But if we love God, not only with all of our hearts, our souls, and our strength, but also with our minds (Mark 12:30), we will be rigorous in our attempts to train our minds.
Yes, Adam had a keen mind before the fall. But I believe the world has never experienced such sound thinking as was manifested in the mind of Christ. I think that part of the perfect humanity of our Lord was that He never made an illegitimate inference. He never jumped to a conclusion that was unwarranted by the premises. His thinking was crystal clear and coherent. We are called to imitate our Lord in all things, including His thinking. Therefore, make it a matter of chief and earnest business in your life to love Him with all of your mind.
This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.