Over the course of the twentieth century, the evangelical church has been of two minds about thinking. On the one hand, many in evangelical circles (especially in the South) have embraced an anti-intellectual approach that substitutes experience for education and rejects the role of formal theology and rigorous thought. This is the mood that has characterized most evangelical churches over the last several decades.1
On the other hand, some church traditions, especially mainline denominations and those that have maintained Reformed convictions, have overemphasized the power of intellect and reason, sliding slowly into a faith without expression. With the resurgence of Reformed theology over the last five or ten years, there has been an uptake in these circles to the point where the intellectualism so feared by the rest of evangelicalism has in fact appeared in many churches.
People espousing each view have been guilty of pride, often accusing the other of missing the depths of God’s truths. Both camps have legitimate critiques of each other’s positions.
John Piper steps into this turmoil with Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God. The short volume (224 pages in the paperback edition) is an exploration of the necessity of thinking for the glory of God. Piper argues that thinking is not optional for the Christian life: Scripture demands that we worship God with our minds.
How do we worship God with our minds?
Piper’s thesis is simple but revolutionary:
But thinking under the mighty hand of God, thinking soaked in prayer, thinking carried by the Holy Spirit, thinking tethered to the Bible, thinking in pursuit of more reasons to praise and proclaim the glories of God, thinking in the service of love—such thinking is indispensable in a life of fullest praise to God.2
Piper first explains his own history and then begins by tackling the poles toward which evangelicals have historically tended. To the anti-intellectuals, he offers a bracing dose of Scriptural challenges. As he puts it,
The apex of glorifying God is enjoying him with the heart. But this is an empty emotionalism where that joy is not awakened and sustained by true views of God for who he really is. That is mainly what the mind is for.3
He explains this in detail and traces out some of its ramifications, noting that God has chosen to reveal himself in a book. Reading requires thinking—we can’t get off without engaging our minds, and doing so deeply. Not everyone should be a robust philosopher, but all of us should use our minds to know God as he really is.
But what about…?
Anticipating the objections some will raise, Piper takes on the passages in the New Testament that other use to suggest that knowledge is dangerous or bad—and he takes these passages head on. Whereas some have taken Jesus’ call to a childlike faith to mean that we should have an unintellectual approach to Christianity, Piper argues the real problem is prideful hearts. Do we come before God in humility, trusting him to reveal his truth to us, or do we come before him confident in our own strength in one way or another?
Piper likewise tackles the falsehoods offered by relativistic claims that there is no true knowledge, noting, “Jesus knew this sort of evasive use of the mind. He did not like it”.4 Venturing through the example provided by Pharisaical self-deception, he demonstrates the dangers of minds put to work apart from the love of God.
Having thoroughly critiqued both intellectualism and anti-intellectualism, Piper concludes, “The remedy for barren intellectualism is not anti-intellectualism, but humble, faithful, prayerful, Spirit-dependent, rigorous thinking”.5 Similarly, he reminds us that “pride is no respecter of persons—the serious thinkers may be humble. And the careless mystics may be arrogant”.6
What to do?
Piper’s turn toward practicality drives these truths home, applying them to everyone, the academic and the plumber alike. All of us are called to think about God, to know him better, to feed the fuel of our desire for God with true knowledge of him. The particulars will look different, but the command remains the same: each of us must love the Lord our God with all of his mind (Matthew 22:37).
This book is a treasure. It should be read and savored and taken to heart.
My only concern is that few people will finish this book who do not already value thinking. Although Piper has written an accessible book, it remains a book for those who are not intimidated by lengthy quotes from other authors, rigorous examination of Scriptural texts, and relatively high language. These things will endear the book to readers like me—I couldn’t stop reading—but for those who are opposed to intellectual engagement, the book’s very approach may be a barrier to their hearing its message.
My hope is that such people will hear this much-needed message anyway, that their pastors will be challenged by the book and will stir up their own congregations to begin truly worshiping God with their minds as well as their hearts and souls. It is not a long or difficult read, and if you’re a pastor who harbors suspicions about the value of serious intellectual engagement in the church, you need to read this book.
Similarly, the intellectuals among us should read this book. Those who struggle with pride and confidence in knowledge desperately need this reminder that our knowledge only matters if it is aimed at knowing, loving, and honoring God.
Even those who already love thinking humbly will find much to be challenged by here. All of us need our thinking about thinking sharpened, and Piper paves the way for us to truly think for the glory of Christ.