In our circles, it’s common to hear pastors and scholars bemoan the lack of critical thinking in many evangelical churches today. From the books and magazines gobbled up by the evangelical populace to the sheer gullibility on display in our forwarding of emails, it seems that biblical illiteracy and theological aberrations are widespread even in Bible-believing churches.
It’s no wonder that in recent years we’ve seen a surge of theological interest among younger pastors, particularly within the “gospel-centered” movement. We like good books. Lots of them. And not just easy books. Some of the books are ancient, hard to work through, and only pay off after spending significant time and energy in them.
The more we read, the more we know.
The more we know, the more we recognize the shallowness of much of contemporary evangelicalism.
In an age described by J. I. Packer as “a mile wide and an inch deep,” the blogosphere has become a place where critical thinking and sharp analysis are celebrated. I know firsthand. I am often pointing people to thoughtful book reviews, incisive critiques of theological developments, and pastoral warnings against compromise. I’ve posted a number of critiques myself.
A Celebration of Critique?
But I wonder at what point our appreciation for insightful analysis turns into a celebration of critique that leads to an unhealthy elevation of the critic.
Yes, I realize that some of the greatest authors and thinkers have been critics. Mark Twain was masterful in his critical commentary. And G. K. Chesterton was a critic who is celebrated even today, when the books and people he critiqued are largely forgotten.
But these kinds of critics stand out because they were always about ideas bigger than their own critiques. Twain had a wit that forced people to take him seriously. And Chesterton’s marvelous sense of humor infused all of his critiques with such joy that one wanted to be conquered by his logic and reasoning even if people ultimately rejected his position.
(Furthermore, both Twain and Chesterton were creators too. They gave us Huck Finn and Father Brown.)
What concerns me today is that in our celebration of the critical mind, we may be indulging the critical spirit. There is a difference. A big one. And it’s largely one of the heart.
Where’s Your Delight?
Charles Spurgeon once said:
The church is imperfect, but woe to the man who takes pleasure in pointing out her imperfections!
Notice how that statement reads. Spurgeon doesn’t condemn the man who points out the church’s imperfections. After all, he himself did that… often! He condemns the one who takes pleasure in criticizing. The difference is instructive. It concerns the heart. Spurgeon recognized the difference between a critical mind (incisive, analytical, fair-minded) and a critical spirit (delighting in exposing the flaws of others, quick to judge, dismissive and proud).
There have been times when my cultivation of a critical mind has led to having a critical spirit. When I was in seminary, I confided in a pastor friend that after taking homiletics (the art of preaching), I was having a difficult time hearing God speak to me in church because I was constantly analyzing and critiquing the sermon. My discernment radar was so strong that I could only hear my own thoughts about the sermon and not the truth the pastor was proclaiming. My pastor friend told me that recognizing this as a problem is the first step toward its resolution. “Trevin, a lot of guys never realize it’s a problem.”
By God’s grace, I now ask for the Lord to speak to me through His Word – no matter who is preaching or what the sermon is. And without fail, God does. The sermon may not be completely tied to the text, biblically faithful in all its particulars, or well illustrated, but God can use it. And thank God He does! Otherwise, how would those of us who preach ever have the confidence to open up the Word and deliver a message?
This doesn’t mean we should turn off the critical mind. It doesn’t mean we no longer test everything according to the Word. It doesn’t mean we just accept every sincere message as being helpful and positive.
It does mean that when we critique, we do so with a spirit of love. We overlook small flaws and winsomely talk to our brothers and sisters when we see big issues. We refrain from insisting on agreement for every jot and tittle of theological precision. We don’t dismiss an idea outright just because it comes from someone outside our theological camp.
Your brother and sister in Christ is on your team. Isn’t the Evil One a big enough opponent for us? Or do we have to have an adversarial posture toward Christians too?
There will be times of confrontation. There will be times to call into question your brother’s words and actions. (Paul’s confrontation of Peter comes to mind.) But that was a big deal. Peter was denying the gospel with his actions. The stuff we get worked up about is usually not that critical.
Theologically Minded for the Mission
I am excited at the thought of God stirring up a revival in our day – a movement that refocuses our attention on Christ and His work for us. I pray that King Jesus will raise up a generation that is theologically minded as well as mission-driven. The good that could come from this development is incalculable.
But the Evil One would love nothing more than to infect such a movement with a critical spirit, to have us be theologically minded at the expense of mission-driven rather than having our theological acumen drive us toward mission. It’s a small jump from engaging in critical thinking to having a critical spirit.
I’ve made that jump before. Too many times. And I don’t want to go there again.
We will not critique our way to gospel-centered revival.