We are all bombarded with truth claims. The news you hear, the blogs you read, the television shows you watch—all want you to believe what they are telling you. To really determine what is true and what is false requires that you test everything in light of the only source of ultimate truth—God’s Word.
So how do you know if the latest fossil find actually lives up to the exalted claims of the headline? How do you evaluate the claims of the history lecture at the public library? How do you train your children to spot the false thinking in that cute dinosaur cartoon? And don’t forget, you need to be evaluating those things taught by your fellow Christians, whether in Sunday school, VBS, the latest book, and even this article.
The answer is to ASK the right critical thinking questions with the Bible as our foundation.
A Solid Foundation
By what standard do we test all things? The Bible. But what if the Bible doesn’t directly address the issue?
In 2 Timothy 3:16–17, we see a clear explanation of the usefulness of Scripture for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness that we may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. Paul called the Colossian church, and each believer, to beware of being cheated by philosophies that are founded in the tradition of men and the principles of the world. Rather, we should be looking to put our trust in Christ, in whom we find all of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:1–10).
Paul also calls us as believers to test all things and hold fast to what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21). By what standard do we test all things? The Bible. But what if the Bible doesn’t directly address the issue? In these cases we can apply the wisdom we have gained through experience and by the Spirit to bring the truths and principles of the scope of Scripture to bear on the problem—putting biblical discernment into practice. But we must not forget that true wisdom only comes when we first acknowledge God as the source of all truth (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7, 9:10).
When we look to God’s Word as the standard for understanding truth, we have a solid foundation from which to begin applying critical thinking to claims we hear. Further, God does not leave us alone in this endeavor. He has given us the Holy Spirit to guide us and other believers to support us. Working together with the body of Christ from a biblical framework and empowered by the Holy Spirit, you can discern truth from lies, even in areas where you may not be an expert, by asking the right critical thinking questions.
Whenever a truth claim is presented, you have to determine whether you will accept it as true or reject it as false. Here is a framework that you can use, as well as teach to others, to evaluate those claims. When you hear a claim, stop and ASK some questions:
- What is this person’s Authority to make such a claim?
- From what Starting point is this person looking at the world?
- How do they Know what they claim to know?
Let’s expand on each of these ideas, and then we can turn to some examples of critical thinking.
Authority: Is the Person Credible?
When asking the authority question, you are evaluating whether the person making the claim has studied the issue and can speak with credibility. We often look for credentials in a teacher to establish authority, but it doesn’t take a PhD to be an authority on a topic. An earned degree from an accredited institution can help establish authority, but diligent study on a topic or extended experience can also provide the authority needed in various situations.1
Authority often comes from studying a topic thoroughly or extensively, whether formally or informally. You can become an expert on many topics through reading, practical application, or experience. The access to information and teaching through electronic forms has made it much easier to learn about many topics, but also much easier to be deceived by people presenting false ideas.
“I am not a doctor, but I play one on TV. When I have chapped elbows, I reach for Flarinex.” You may have heard similar claims or seen celebrities promoting the newest health fad on television, but this is a demonstration of a false authority—being an actor gives you no expertise in exercise, nutrition, or skin creams. You have to learn to be aware of false authorities—just because someone is an expert in one area does not mean they are an expert in another area. When addressing the issue of authority, you must decide the threshold you require based on the way you intend to use the information. Look for the appropriate level of authority for the situation, acknowledging that you must ultimately trust others to some extent when evaluating a truth claim. We must not blindly accept someone’s authority, especially if they are speaking outside of areas where they have studied or have extensive experience. However, we must acknowledge that it is often impossible to know just how much experience or study someone has in a given area. In these situations, we should focus on the other two questions—starting points and knowledge. Use critical thinking to analyze their worldview in light of Scripture and consider how they claim to know what they know.
Sometimes, people will appeal to some other expert when they don’t have much expertise of their own. In this case we have to evaluate the expert’s claims to get to the heart of the matter. Some people abuse their authority or expect other people to believe their authority based on deceit. It is our responsibility to think critically and evaluate their credibility, and we can never divorce their authority from what they look to as their authority—their starting point.
Starting Points: Is the Foundation Biblical?
Once the authority question is answered, you need to try to discern the starting point of the person making the claim: Does this person base their thinking on human philosophy or God’s Word? In other words, do they have a biblical, Christian worldview or a humanistic worldview? Ultimately, these are the only two options—you either trust God or you trust man. Although humanistic philosophy must borrow ideas from a Christian worldview in order to make logical arguments, it is very dangerous to make human reasoning the absolute standard.2
You may have heard the saying “the facts speak for themselves.” But stop and think for a moment: do they really? If you walk along a creek and notice some fossils in the rocks, do the fossils tell you how old they are or how they came to be buried in a rock? No. And that is why starting points are so important. Evidence does not speak for itself; it must be interpreted! When examining the fossils found in rocks, many scientists begin with the assumption that the Flood recorded in Genesis never happened. If they begin their examination of the evidence by rejecting the true biblical account of history, they can never come to the proper interpretation of the formation of fossils in the past (2 Peter 3:3–6).
While it may be difficult to examine the worldview of someone making a truth claim, there are many buzz words and clues you can listen for as they talk. If the idea of millions-of-years or evolution is introduced, you know you are dealing with an unbiblical worldview. If the complexity of the eye is attributed to a master designer, you may be dealing with someone who believes in a “higher power” or a Muslim, but not necessarily someone who believes Jesus is the Creator and Savior. If you hear someone talking about “traditional marriage,” they are appealing to tradition rather than approaching the topic from a distinctly Christian worldview by speaking of “biblical marriage” and calling people to look to the Bible as the defining source rather than a tradition in Western culture. Look for clues in areas where God or the Bible should be credited or referenced as an authority, but are not. Knowing that a person trusts the Bible as the ultimate source of authority can offer us more confidence that their claims are true.3
Knowledge: Is the Claim Confirmable?
The final aspect of this critical thinking framework takes a closer look at the evidence presented in light of the conclusions to answer “how do they know what they claim to know.” There are different levels of certainty when we begin to analyze knowledge claims. “We know the fossil clams in this rock are 127 million years old” is a different claim than “there are fossils in the rock that resemble clams living today.” The first assumes many things to make its claim while the second is a simple observation. To claim to know that the fossils are a certain age requires an interpretation of observations, known as data, not just direct observations. If you claim there is a jack in the trunk of your car, that claim can be examined by opening the trunk. If you make a claim about how the jack came to be in the trunk, a different type of inquiry is needed to evaluate your claim.
As described above, this interpretive process is based in a person’s worldview. Is the claim being made an interpretation of data or the data itself? Most often, the claim is an explanation or interpretation of the data. Evaluating whether the interpretation is correct is the goal of this framework.
Another thing to consider is the certainty with which a claim is made. It may be appropriate to frame a knowledge claim with words like “probably,” “most likely,” “from this perspective.” Look for these “squishy” words to help evaluate the claim in light of the evidence that is available and think critically about how certainly the claim is being made.
Ultimately, the knowledge claim must be compared to the truth of God’s Word. If the truth claim disagrees with a clear meaning of Scripture, it must be rejected. For example, if someone were to claim that all the languages spoken today developed from a common language as ape-like human ancestors spread across the globe, we know that is a false claim because it contradicts Genesis 10–11.
Using this ASK framework, you can equip yourself and others to stop and think critically, carefully, and biblically about ideas presented as truth. Admittedly, this is a simplistic critical thinking tool—hopefully simple enough for a child to use. But it is also flexible enough to allow for extensive study within each area so that it can be used on complex truth claims. If you will stop and ASK about the ideas you are receiving, you will be able to discern whether they are true or not.
In the following articles, we will look at several examples of critical thinking and put this framework to the test—with the goal of helping you to put it into practice the next time you scan your favorite news site or sit down to watch an educational program with your children.