Review of Thinking Biblically by John W. Robbins

Thinking Biblically, A Challenge to Christians, by John W. Robbins, ed. Thomas W. Juodaitis, Unicoi, TN: Trinity Foundation, 2022, 423 pp. $21.95

I started reading books from the Trinity Foundation in the year 2008. I later found this was the same year the foundation’s founder John Robbins passed away. This posthumously edited volume Thinking Biblically now arriving feels like a “Robbins Speaks from the Grave.” It was quite a joy to receive it in the mail and brings me to envy those who were blessed to read Robbins and Clark books as they came out. This is perhaps my only such opportunity.

As much as I was excited to receive the volume, my reaction now having read it is mixed. While I agree with most of Robbins’ theological statements in the book, it contains few if any ideas which haven’t been presented in other Robbins or Clark volumes. Still there is value in the book putting together in one place much about the presuppositions and method of proper Biblical thinking. I would even recommend this to be read first of all Robbins’ books.

As the foreword to Thinking Biblically informs us, “The contents of this book were first delivered as lectures at the Westminster Institute in June and July 2000, and a few months later at Midway Presbyterian Church.” Whether Dr. Robbins ever intended for the lectures to be published I do not know, but it does explain the feel of the book as something less polished than his other writings. That is not all a bad thing. While there are negatives like some repetition in material from lecture to lecture, the question and answer periods at the end of the lectures give excellent feedback and further thought on the subjects at hand.

There is one specific criticism I’d like to note. While Robbins well-defines thinking as “to make judgments, to reason, to subject to the processes of logical thought” (p. 26), I must question his statement that “Babies are not capable of thinking as we have defined it.” (p. 58) I would expect such a view from a Baptist who holds to an “age of accountability” or from an empiricist who finds no evidence for the case. But, for a Scripturalist like Robbins, Biblical proof is needed. Where in the Bible do we find that babies do not think? Robbins provides no such reference. Does not Robbins own critique of the empirical “blank mind” as “no mind at all” also apply to the unthinking infant? And how does an unthinking person (if such did exist) possibly become a thinking person? Ultimately, if the image of God includes reason, is Robbins’ non-reasoning infant not (yet) made in the image of God?

7 thoughts on “Review of Thinking Biblically by John W. Robbins”

  1. I listened to these lectures numerous times over the years in attempt to memorize their content, and always found them worth the time. They’d re-orient my interpretation of other other authors I had been reading, so that I would judge them and my own thinking more biblically. I will be buying this book.

    Yes, like any man, I think Robbins made some mistakes at times. It’s interesting you mention this connection between the blank mind theory and his definition of thinking. I recall Robbins arguing in another place seemingly the opposite of your conclusion. But it might be that babies have knowledge (contra tabula rasa) but don’t “think” per Robbins’ definition, that is, subject these items of knowledge to ratiocination?

  2. Whether Robbins asserted it clearly or not, I assert (without being age-of-accountability Pelagian, or Lockean in philosophy of mind):

    Babies are incapable of making any logical inference from premises to conclusion.

    Because – to assert any premise, or the conclusion, requires language. Language, however, is not innate, but acquired. The child learns to talk, and thereby transitions from infancy.

    Logic is reasoned discourse, and newborns cannot discourse.

    Rationality as part of God’s image in man is a capacity. Transitioning out of infancy, it begins to be exercised.

    Even when we’ve grown up, rationality in man does not consist of unceasing logical discourse. All of us sleep of course, about a third of our life. In dreams there is some discourse, but much of the time sleeping doesn’t include that, during dreamless sleep.

    Getting back to childhood development, there are Biblical indications that the exercise of the reasoning capacity is, at first, imperfect. There is maturing in how we think.

    When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things.
    1 Corinthians 13:11

  3. I don’t know about babies, though I am sympathetic to the critique on this point, but there are a few adults I know that are trying hard not to think and evince that little is going on in their minds.

  4. I think there’s some difficulty in some of the unstated assumptions of Mr. Latimer’s asserions, though I don’t want to expand this too much beyond trying to disentangle the supposed Robbins “paradox”.

    To get to the point, the assumption that language is aquired is only a half truth, in that it doesn’t recognize it’s nature as a bearer of meaning, and not meaning itself. If this weren’t true, translation of words into different languages would be impossible. So perhaps babies can’t express themselves to us in words, but it doesn’t follow that they don’t know anything and make no logical inferences.

    By extension, expressing the propositions (or assertions) one has in mind requires language (the half truth again), because without it we can’t communicate with each other. But that doesn’t mean we don’t know these propositions (the meanings of declarative sentences) apart from the ability to express them to others. It seems to me there’s too tight a correlation, or perhaps a conflation with “language” and “logic”; with knowledge and expression; with “reason” and the ability to express oneself in argument, which I think is unwarranted by either the scripture or the nature of language itself.

    I mentioned knowledge even though Mr. Latimer didn’t, because individual words don’t mean anything and propositions are basic in a Clarkian view of the matter. And since logic is an essential concomitant of propositions (as Clark argued all the time with his ‘cat’ argument) it follows that at least identity, contradiction, and excluded middle are operative in babies, so that any items of knowledge a baby does pocess are subject to at least some rules of logical inference on an intra-subjective level.

    To put things more concretely, I think there’s a real distinction between spoken or written words and the ideas behind them. Aren’t we imagio dei from conception? Abortionists would love to view that as only a capacity that’s actualized at a later date. Aren’t babies in scripture presented as knowing things? And what about “imbeciles” and those dying in infancy in the WCF? Just because they may never learn how to speak, shall we say they make no logical inferences? In sum, “logic”, “language” and “reason” are ambiguous terms, almost always. I think Robbins’ definition of thinking can be squared with a denial of tabula rasa, but this requires something along the lines I’ve tried to put forth. For all the dad’s on here, we translate our babies sounds and finger pointing all the time into propositions. But just because the child couldn’t express themselves doesn’t mean they didn’t know what they were talking about, or that their thinking was an illogical or an extra-logical process.

    1. I think I agree with Robbins on the point discussed, and that neither of us (Latimer, Robbins) asserted anything inconsistent with Clark’s position.

      To answer objections alleged in this thread, let me assert that my (and Robbins’) position does not require the Lockean absurdity, that the newborn (or the fetus for that matter) knows nothing. Indeed they do, even at day zero. They know God, as per Romans 1. But this knowledge has no linguistic representation in the newborn, till language is acquired. And the exercise of logical reasoning must follow language acquisition. As with any acquired skill, the child’s development in this is imperfect at first. Paul says, when I was a child I thought as a child, 1 Corinthians 13:11. Children at first really aren’t firm on the Laws of Thought. The mature person has progressed way beyond such an infantile attitude . In understanding be men, 1 Corinthians 14:20.

      Besides the verses I cited before, let me also note the following:

      Before they [Esau, Jacob] *had done anything*, either good or bad, it was said…. (Romans 9:11.)

      Esau and Jacob existed in utero at that point. Logic involves doing something (going from premises to necessary conclusion); ergo, Esau and Jacob at that point in their history, had done no logic. Still, they were rational, being human.

      I affirm the rationality of the newborn and even the fetus. Not because they have done something, but because they are created with such a character. This character is foundational to logic acquisition. Were they not rational beings, they could not later learn logic. (And indeed as little lawyers, their self-interest urges them to pick it up pretty soon, to argue for what they want).

      That they soon manifest as little lawyers evidences their fallen condition. Adam was not fallen at his creation. We understand the image in which he was created, as including “righteousness”, Ephesians 4:24. (For in the new birth, that’s renewed. ) Now it is sound and orthodox to affirm that this “righteousness” (either in Adam, or at the moment of regeneration) is a character. Adam was not lacking in this character before he did righteous deeds. And at conversion the new believer “worketh not”, Romans 4:5 . He does righteous deeds afterwards because of the character imparted in regeneration; not earning the character by performing righteous deeds. Post-conversion righteous deeds flow from the regenerate character. Matthew 12:33.

      I consider rationality in the same light; a character in the person, before the person is even able to “reason together” (Isaiah 1:18) with God.

  5. There’s still many points of misunderstanding in this response.

    On the nature of language and what that entails.
    On the definition of logic and what reasoning is.
    On what the assertion of pre-expressible knowledge means for this discussion
    On what propositional realism requires

    And there seems to be some misunderstanding of what I was arguing for, namely, that although Robbins’ definition of thinking seemed to contradict innate knowledge, it doesn’t have to be so conceived if we examine things more closely. Perhaps it was a mistake, perhaps not.

    But let’s just agree to disagree and move on. Thank you for the healthy engagement.

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