December 7, 2016

Isaac Watts & How to Think – Part 1

by Eric Davis

As I look back, one of my greatest educational irritations is that I never was offered a class on thinking. Even if I was, I probably would not have taken it. Consequently, I operated contently with a sloppiness of thought and did not know it. And the problem seems to be widespread. Our day is one which is filled with thinking errors. We persuade with sentiment and experience rather than truth and logic. Rules of reason are violated often in the public sphere with little concern. Subjective fancies carry more sway in convincing us than objective revelation. It’s a day of serious errors in thought and reason.

Enter a well-educated, logic ninja, Puritan to the rescue. Isaac Watts is typically most known for his classic hymns, especially “Joy to the World,” which is resounding this time of year. But in his spare time amidst pastoring, writing children’s poetry, books, and 750 hymns, he wrote an excellent book on how to think. Written in 1724, it is concisely-titled, Logic: The Right Uses of Reason in the Inquiry After Truth  With a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Sciences. It’s a great introductory book on the art and science of responsible human thinking, or, logic. For about two centuries, it was the go-to textbook at places like Oxford and Cambridge (where Watts was earlier forbidden from attending for his non-conformism), and Harvard and Yale.

Like a sharpened ax, a sharpened mind will bring a greater yield with less frustration (cf. Eccles. 10:10). Think about it: a sharpened mind will bear fruit in all things for which you use your mind. I’ve found Watts’ book a great place to begin the sharpening

First, some reminders about reasoning.

Reason is not epistemologically superior to Scripture. Due to the inspiration of God, the 66 books of Scripture speak inerrantly and infallibly to that which they speak. However, correct reasoning is necessary for interpreting Scripture. This is where hermeneutics comes in. In some sense, hermeneutics is simply the use of good logic.

Second, the use of good logic is a responsibility that God’s image-bearers are delegated by virtue of being image-bearers. The ability to reason is a great common grace which evidences the stamp of God’s image on us. The power of logic and reason is an immense gift of God. As his image-bearers, we have the responsibility to steward it well.

Third, poor thinking among Christians is a bad witness. As Christians with a regenerate mind, we have a double-responsibility to steward it well. When we do not, we tell the world that this immense gift is an optional thing and God is an irrational God.

Even more, the misuse of logic and reasoning is a functional abandonment of God as our Creator and King. When we violate logic; when we elevate experience and sentiment over objective truth and reasoning, we elevate our minds over God’s. In a sense, we say, “God, you may have wired us for logic and inspired your word, but I have a better way of thinking.” To abandon right thinking, especially with Scripture, is to abandon God.

bible-06Further, poor thinking among Christians is a gateway to unbiblical doctrine. Irresponsible reasoning has birthed entire religions. Things like elevating sentiment and experience over truth and the right use of reason therewith has been the source of many doctrinal errors in our day. Thus, many errors could solved simply by reasoning through the argument logically.

Finally, despite the necessity of it, proper reason will not land us in right standing with God. Reason alone is insufficient for salvation. Since we are depraved, we are totally dependent upon the sovereign grace of God. Of first importance is faith in Jesus Christ, whereby we receive the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:14-16).

However, even with a regenerate mind, we are not immune from sloppy thinking. Many things threaten the responsible exercise of the mind. For that reason, I found Watts’ book helpful. He lays out several “prejudices” of thought which shipwreck correct reasoning and deductions. Over the next few days, we will consider several of them.

  1. The prejudice arising from words.

At times, doctrinal error propagates due to incorrect use of words in argumentation. Watts proposes several errors. First, when words are vague, overly-flowery, or have no idea associated (e.g. “[A]s when the mystical divines talk of the prayer of silence, the supernatural and passive night of the soul, the vacuity of powers, the suspension of all thoughts,” 188). The risk here is an acceptable imprecision of theological ideas and doctrines or a precision, but upon the wrong truth, both of which are entrances to error.

Second, improper handling of words with multiple meanings can foster error. In Scripture, for example, one word may have a variety of senses, which are contextually determined. Words like “world,” “law,” “faith,” “light,” “flesh,” and “last days,” are often used in multiple ways. Especially as it pertains to Scripture, if we ignore things like context, definitions, and harmony of Scripture, all of which are rules of logic, we will go astray.

Also, the use of eloquent and sentimental words can usher in error. This, in part, was the occasion for Paul’s penning of 1 Corinthians, as they were hypnotized by such tactics. Watts comments:

“Rhetoric will varnish every error so that it shall appear in the dress of truth, and put such ornaments upon vice, as to make it look like virtue: it often conceals, obscures, or overwhelms the truth, and places sometimes a gross falsehood in a most alluring light. The decency of action, the music of the voice, the harmony of the periods, the beauty of the style, and all the engaging arise of the speaker, have often charmed the hearers into error, and persuaded them to approve whatsoever is proposed in so agreeable a manner…So Cicero and Demosthenes made the Romans and the Athenians believe almost whatsoever they pleased” (189-90).

To guard against this, we must be vigilant to restrain ourselves from eloquent sway by separating content from method. Watts concludes, “Oratory is a happy talent, when it is rightly employed to excite the passions to the practice of virtue and piety; but…this art hath nothing to do in search after truth” (190). To embrace an argument on the grounds of eloquence is like evaluating the functionality of a car based upon its color and chrome. This is not to say that creativity with words is insignificant, but top priority is truth in content.

  1. The prejudice from the things about which we are thinking.

We can go astray in our reasoning due to some issue with the very matter about which we are thinking. As will be seen, however, the issue is not a problem with the thing, but the thinker.

First, some apparent obscurity about the matter can wreck our reasoning. Upon first glance, the matter may be complex or obscure. It becomes obvious that a thorough understanding of the idea or truth will require several steps which are laborious and complex themselves. We may conclude that the matter is not worth our time, or, worse, that it is not worth anyone’s time on the grounds of complexity. Instead, we take the easier road, and make a conclusion that requires less labor and wrestling of thought. In doing so, we have formed a rash and hurried judgment. The grounds upon which we did so was simply that it was easier, or, perhaps, the lack of wanting to feel humbled by a complex or self-lowering truth.

Watts writes, “This sort of prejudice, as well as most others, is cured by patience and diligence in inquiry and reasoning, and a suspension of judgment, till we have attained some proper mediums of knowledge, and…sufficient evidence of the truth” (182).

Second, the appearance of a thing can solicit error in reasoning. The title of the thing or initial presentation of a doctrine may sway us one way or another. A proposition or personality may appear insensitive or hateful. However, upon patient, thorough examination, withholding judgment, we may come to see that we were presumptuous or shallow in our evaluation. Perhaps we misdefined love or hate. Watts illustrates, “It was through the power of this prejudice that the Jews rejected our blessed Saviour: they could not suffer themselves to believe that a man who appeared as the son of a carpenter was also the Son of God” (183).

We can cure this prejudice by exercising humility in restraint. Longer observation of things, people, and doctrines with restraint of conclusion will prevent this error.

Third, we might err in reasoning about a thing which has several different characteristics. A person, doctrine, or God may have many characteristics which are necessary to study thoroughly. If we are rash in our view of the thing, we will myopically understand it. The classic illustration is attempting to describe an elephant by only touching its tail while wearing a blindfold.

Using the character of God as an example, Watts observes:

“Some men dwell entirely upon the promises of the gospel, and think [God] all mercy; others, under a melancholy frame, dwell upon his errors and his threatenings, and are overwhelmed with the thought of his severity and vengeance, as though there were no mercy in him” (186).

Responsible reasoning refrains from answering a matter before it hears. It asks, “Is there anything else here to consider? The issue in thinking is not expedience but right reasoning.” We may not be able to crank out a conclusion or book on the matter as quick as we would like, but, we will ensure greater accuracy and truth in patient observation and inquiry. Excessive excitement combined with immature impatience about a subject can produce a narrow understanding: we may have only considered 30% of the thing. The danger is that the tree becomes all about the bark.

The ability to reason correctly is a great gift from God. Like the rest of our being, it is to be used responsibly, for his glory. But we can be sloppy in our thinking in many ways, including a prejudice arising from words and that from the matter at hand. As we sharpen these God-given abilities, we will find a new joy in the comprehension of truth and the world around us. Plus, the right use of reason can save us from a multitude of false conclusions and untruth. In tomorrow’s post, we will examine the most common, and dangerous, errors of reason.

Eric Davis

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Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
  • Ira Pistos

    I look forward to your upcoming posts Eric. This first has given me cause and pause for Prayer and reflection.
    Thank you.

  • Same “educational irritation.” Have ordered the book from the library. Looking forward to the series.

  • tovlogos

    Right, Eric — “Consequently, I operated contently with a sloppiness of thought and did not know it.” This ostensible
    deficit was a blessing; as a result of it you are very organized when you write a composition. Such organization
    is a great teaching tool.

    “Reason is not epistemologically superior to Scripture…” (If it were, it would beg the question: From where does knowledge
    come?) A huge pearl — something you do very well…seeing the light. Blessings.

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