EVERY THOUGHT CAPTIVE: Thoughts on the Christian View of the Mind
Christians hold a set of beliefs about the mind and its uses that has often been hard for them to sort out. Students at institutions of biblical higher education therefore often find themselves caught between two sets of attitudes toward the mind that they have not analyzed very well. Professors at such institutions need to be prepared to help their students come to a fully biblical view of the mind. We dare not assume that, because they have enrolled in a Christian college, they already have one.
On the one hand, it would seem that there could be no greater gift than the mind, and that nothing could be more important. God is a God of truth who cannot lie, and he has made us in his own image (Gen. 1:26). He holds discourse with us and even reasons with us (Is. 1:18). We are, as far as we know, the only physical creature of whom this is true. So we would seem to be expected to act, not out of instinct like the other creatures, but out of understanding. And because our minds were made in the image of that Mind which designed the rest of the physical creation, they should be able to deal with it perceptively, constructively, and responsibly—on their own level, to see and embrace the truth of things; on their own level, faithfully to think their Maker’s thoughts after him.
On the other hand, it would seem that nothing could be more dangerous to Christian faith than the mind. The human mind as it now exists is fallen, twisted and corrupted. Bullied by passion and enslaved by the will’s rebellion against its Creator, it is possessed by a sinful indisposition to the truth that makes it incapable, apart from grace, of receiving or embracing spiritual truth (1 Cor. 2:14). So often has it been used to rationalize its rebellion against its Maker that what is now called “human reason” seems most untrustworthy. It becomes easy to see Reason as inherently opposed to Faith and to be suspicious of anyone who puts much stock in it. So Martin Luther infamously called Reason “the Devil’s whore.” And history seems to confirm these suspicions. It is not from simple Men and Women of Faith, but from Intellectuals, that Secularism and Liberalism have arisen to infiltrate the Church and seduce it from faithfulness to its message. Enough people have gone to university or (even worse!) seminary and lost their faith—or at least their zeal—that we feel justified in thinking that where there is academic smoke there must be secular fire.
But—oh, my—look what we just did! We perceived evidence of a correlation between education and secularism and drew from this evidence a conclusion: the mind and its pretensions to reason are suspect and should not be trusted. But wait a minute. If we did not trust our minds and their thought processes, how could we use them to arrive at and argue for the conclusion that we should not trust them? This is an irresolvable impasse. It seems we have no choice. We have to use our minds, and even trust the processes by which they work. We only have the choice to use and trust them honestly, recognizing the risk that we may get things wrong, or the choice to deceive ourselves by pretending that we do not use and trust them—thus doubling the risk that we will not only make even more of the inevitable mistakes, but have no valid means of recognizing or correcting those mistakes when we do. Even if we try to correct our mistaken ideas by quoting Scripture, we have to use our minds, in obedience to the rules of logic, to understand those Scriptural passages, perceive their relevance to the issue at hand, and apply them to it. Christians who reject the use of the mind as “unspiritual” do not have a position that they can–or do–practice consistently. They have actually been known to use their minds quite rigorously for the purpose of thinking up convincing reasons why we should not be using them! And this irony should be a clue that, in spite of the evidence that would seem to lead to their conclusion, they have gotten something wrong.
Once we stop to think about it, it is not hard to see where their error lies. We began by presenting two biblical views of the mind: created in the image of God and therefore able to think his thoughts after him; and corrupt and fallen, incapable of receiving the things of the Spirit. As these views are both biblical, any accurate view of the mind must then be one that somehow encompasses both of them. The suspicious believer acts as if he thought the second of those descriptions could simply overturn or replace the first. But in so doing he forgets both the role and the power of Grace. For Redemption is about beginning the restoration of what was lost in the Fall, and the life of the mind is no exception to this principle. Why should the mind be the only human faculty that is so fallen that God cannot save it, Christ cannot redeem it, and the Spirit cannot sanctify it or use it?
A fully biblical view of the mind would therefore see the Scriptural view of its fall and corruption as tempering the Scriptural view of its grandeur rather than merely replacing it. The mind was corrupted, like every other aspect of our nature—not destroyed. It needs to be redeemed, not discarded. This is proved by the fact that God’s invitation to come and reason together was addressed to people after the Fall (Is. 1:18), and by the fact that the New Testament describes the renewing of our minds as part of redemption (Rom. 12:2). The mind functions spiritually only when it is saved by God’s grace, sanctified by his Spirit, informed by his Word, submissive to his wisdom, and motivated by his love. So we should strive to be sure these things are true of our minds and then think with them to the glory of God, not simply reject them and their use out of hand.
Grounded in such a holistic view of biblical teaching on the mind, we would then be able to beware of our propensity to rationalization, but without despising the role of right Reason. We could be suspicious of our own motives and of our conclusions when they seem self serving, but without succumbing to Post-Modernist cynicism. We could be cautious in our reasoning, but without losing faith in the Holy Spirit’s ministry of illumination. And above all we could ask God by his grace to help us obey what our Lord called the greatest commandment: to love the Lord with, among other things, all our minds (Mat. 22:37).
Donald T. Williams, PhD, is Professor of English and Chair of the Humanities and Natural Sciences Department at Toccoa Falls College. His most recent books include Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman, 2006), Credo: Meditations on the Nicene Creed (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007), The Devil’s Dictionary of the Christian Church (St. Louis: Chalice, 2008), Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 1012). His website is www.doulomen.tripod.com.
Order Stars through the Clouds ($15.00) or Reflections from Plato’s Cave ($15.00) at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.