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Jesus Debate

The logical mind of Jesus should be our example


Peter Harris writes on how Jesus’ own use of logic and reasoning shines through scripture and adds even greater depth to his glory and how we can follow his example as disciples.

When Jesus was asked what was the most important commandment, he said this:

‘“The first of all the commandments is: Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment”’ (Mark 12:30).

What is noteworthy in Jesus’ teaching is that we ought to love God with our minds. The mind, which is taken to be our capacity to think as distinct from the heart which is understood to be the source of emotion, does not seem to be something equipped for love. How then can Christians love God with their minds?

Knowing is Loving

One way of loving God is to know who he is and think accurately about him. If this does not sound like love, let me illustrate:

If a man says he loves his wife and then displays ignorance of basic things about her such as her favourite foods, colours and past-times, we would doubt whether he loves her as much as he says he does, or even if he loves her at all. If we love someone, it is not simply because we know of him/her, but also because we know about him/her which has aroused our love in the first place and because of our love, we desire to know more. By knowing well whom we love, we can love him/her better. Therefore, if a wife knows her husband is fascinated by butterflies, she can show her love for him by organising a trip to a butterfly farm or buying for his birthday a book about butterflies written by his favourite lepidopterist.

Now someone might argue that it is possible to love someone without knowing much about them. For example, if we are kind to strangers, we are demonstrating a sort of ‘civic love’ to them, even though we do not know them. That might be true, but that is not the sort of love we are talking about. Loving God is not meant to be like loving a stranger; it is a love that is described as the intimate love between parent and child (John 14:21) or between friends (15:14,15).

It is impossible to love people deeply when we know nothing or little about them. The same is true of God who because he is the most lovable of all deserves to be known most of all, though what we may know of him is circumscribed by our capacity to understand. This is a salutary lesson for those whose faith is all about feelings and sensations and which disdains theology (the knowledge of God) as an arcane irrelevance.

The Gift

Another way in which we can love God is by using rightly the gifts he has given us. God has endowed humanity with the capacity for logical thinking. It would be ingratitude on our part, and therefore unloving, to neglect the ability he has given to us to think rationally. It would also be to our harm if we did not choose to think like that. 2 Timothy 1:7 is often translated as telling us that as Christians we have been given sound minds or sound judgement as some translations render it. A sound mind means one that is rational. If we have been given such a mind, we have been given it for a purpose: to know the truth and make right decisions. A life lived on the basis of deception and poor decisions is indeed a life of needless suffering.

Logical Jesus

Jesus is rightly held up as an example of perfect love, grace and self-sacrifice. However, when was the last time we heard a sermon about Jesus’ sublime capacity for logic? If we have never heard such a sermon (and sadly I have not), we ought to be shocked, because not only is Jesus ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14:6), he also displays in the Gospels many examples of logical thinking that get at the truth.

Jesus therefore is our guide as to how to think well that forms an integral part of a life lived well. We are, after all, supposed to be imitators of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Although it is not possible in the space available to examine all the instances of Jesus’ logic, I shall explore four principles he used which can be understood and used by Christians who are willing to understand.

The Law of Identity

First, the law of identity says that something is what it is and cannot be anything other than what it is. Simply put, an ink pen cannot be a glass of water. Jesus knew who he was and that he was who he was and no one else. At one point, Jesus asked his disciples who people said he was. Their response was that some thought he was John the Baptist, while others thought he was Elijah or Jeremiah or another of the Old Testament prophets (Matthew 16:13,14).

Jesus could only have asked that question and his disciples could only have responded to it in the way they did if they believed in the law of identity. Jesus rejected these identities because they conflicted with who he was and is. Thus, when Peter declared Jesus to be ‘the Christ, the Son of the Living God’ (v.16), Jesus was overjoyed because Peter had chosen from among the competing identities ascribed to Jesus and was right because it had been revealed to him by the Father (v.17).

This point might seem trivial: Jesus is who he is. But knowing who Jesus is constitutes an essential part of salvation. If we do not recognise he is the Saviour and identify someone else as such, we cannot be saved. Moreover, in our context of religious pluralism in which all religious faiths are held to be roads to salvation and individuals construct their own personal Jesus, it is important to challenge this way of thinking with the law of identity. Jesus cannot be God the Son in human flesh, a New Age avatar and an extra-terrestrial from the Pleiades at the same time. He is who he said he is, or he is not.

The Syllogism

The syllogism is a logical form of argument. It can be expressed as follows:

  1. All men are mortal.
  2. Socrates is a man.
  3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Jesus used this form of argument to refute the Pharisees’ accusation that He used Satan’s power to cast out demon. Jesus response was as follows:

‘“Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city and house divided against itself will not stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?”’ (Matthew 12:25-27).

Jesus’ response does not look like a syllogism, but it has the logic of the syllogism and can be rendered syllogistically thus:

  1. All kingdoms divided against themselves will fall.
  2. (If) Satan’s kingdom is divided,
  3. Satan’s kingdom will fall.

The point of this syllogism is that Satan would not want to divide his kingdom, therefore he would not give power to Jesus to expel demons. Jesus’ power over demons thus had to come from somewhere else.

To reinforce his point after having made the above argument, Jesus asked the Pharisees by what power their followers cast out demons (v. 27). By doing so he revealed the hypocrisy of their criticism.

Argumentum a minore ad maius

Argumentum a minore ad maius is a logical argument which moves from a weaker to a stronger proposition on the basis that if the weaker proposition is true, then so much more will the stronger proposition be true. Jesus used this type of argument to teach spiritual principles.

For example, in Matthew 12:10-12, Jesus went into a synagogue on the Sabbath and inside there was a man with a withered arm. This man was put there because the Pharisees wished to test Jesus with this question: ‘“Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”’ (v.10).

In response, Jesus presented his first proposition in the form of a rhetorical question: “What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it up?”’ (v.11).

From this he went to a stronger proposition about humans: ‘“Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath”’ (v.12).

And in order to prove his logical point (as well as because of his great love) he healed the man (v.13). In Jesus, divine thought and emotion were perfectly balanced.

A False Dilemma

Like the Pharisees, the Sadducees also attempted to make Jesus look like a fool. They tried to catch Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. In other words, they challenged him to choose between two propositions, neither of which was acceptable to him. To set up the dilemma, the Sadducees imitated Jesus’ method of telling a parable:

They began by reminding Jesus of Moses’ law that if a man died childless, his brother was obliged to marry the childless man’s widow and provide children for his brother (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). They then described a hypothetical situation in which a woman is married first to a man who dies and then is married successively to his six brothers, all of whom fail to conceive children with her and who then die afterwards.

Their question then is this: at the resurrection of the dead, whose wife will the woman be since she was married to all of them (Matthew 22:23-28)? Jesus now apparently had a choice of either concluding that the woman would be the wife of all these men, which is polyandry and condemned by Moses’ law, or contradict his own teaching by denying the existence of the afterlife. Jesus dealt with their trap by exposing the faulty premise on which it was set.

The Sadducees had assumed for the sake of their argument that the institution of marriage would continue after death. None of the Old Testament teaches this and neither does any part of the Old Testament that the Sadducees accepted as inspired-the Pentateuch. To be consistent with their own teachings, the Sadducees ought not to have posed this question.

Jesus did not believe it, because He said this: “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven” (v. 30). The hypothetical woman therefore would not be married to any of her husbands because marriage is discontinued in the afterlife. This is the piece of knowledge that refuted the faulty premise and dissolved the dilemma. No wonder the people who heard Him ‘were astonished at His teaching’ (v. 33).

The Logos

Some final points on the matter of logic need to be made:

First, it has become trendy for some Christian preachers to say that whereas ancient Greek thinking was logical, ancient Hebrew thinking was paradoxical and therefore Christian thinking ought to be paradoxical also.

But Jesus’ use of logic with his audiences and critics makes it abundantly clear that first century Jews were logical in their thinking and so too is the Son of God! Being a Christian therefore means being and doing the same.

Second, Jesus used logic during his earthly ministry, but his connection to logic is ontological also. Consider the first verse of John’s Gospel. It calls Jesus ‘the Logos’ which is translated into English as ‘The Word’. Words are the means by which God and humans present the truth. When someone asserts a proposition, they use words to do so. As the Word, Jesus is the source of everyone’s capacity to know and assert the truth. It is from the Greek word ‘Logos’ that we get the English word logic.

Therefore, if Jesus is the Word, he is also the Logic. He is the Truth (John 14:6).

When humans think logically in search of the truth by means of words relating as propositions, they are manifesting the divine image gifted to them by God. To deny or reduce logic and reason as an essential part of Christian being and culture generally is to render Christians less human and to deny an essential aspect of God. It is therefore-to use an old fashioned term-blasphemous.

Dr Peter Harris is the author of The Rage Against the Light: Why Christopher Hitchens Was Wrong (Wipf and Stock) and Do You Believe It? A Guide to a Reasonable Christian Faith (Wipf and Stock).

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