Christianity vs. Reason


How does reason work with Christianity? It seems that in the modern age we like to put them opposite of each other. There is ‘reasoning’ and ‘Spirit guided living,’ and never the two shall meet. Yet, this isn’t exactly the Biblical model for reasoning. Here I plan to offer a defense of Christian reasoning by opening with a section from a previous article I wrote:

There is one view that began during the Reformation, but has been revived and popularized in the modern day, which can possibly solve the problems raised by Pascal and Descartes. Reformed epistemology teaches that knowledge and the ability to reason toward truth is an innate concept placed within man by God. While Descartes taught that man’s reasoning would ultimately lead to an understanding of absolutes and Pascal taught man’s reasoning was fallen, Reformed epistemology teaches that, though fallen, man’s ability to reason is not totally lost and can lead to an understanding of truth.

Alvin Plantinga, the modern day proponent of Reformed epistemology, has stated that the cornerstone for such thinking is that the belief in God is basic in all humans, which drives the way they view the world [1]. Since all men are created in the image of God, and since all men have an innate desire to know God, it can therefore be concluded that God placed a way to know Him (truth) within all men. Reasoning, under Reformed epistemology, no longer becomes a tool used and invented by man, but instead becomes a tool that God uses to help man communicate with Him that man sometimes fails to use properly. Views that deny the one true God are not rational, but are ultimately irrational. The more rational a person is, in Reformed Epistemology, the closer to God he is [2]. Since man has the innate desire to know God, man has the innate ability to reason.

Reformed epistemology accepts two types of knowledge, much as Pascal did, but with certain reservations: the natural and the supernatural. As Brian Follis writes, “Calvin speaks of a double knowledge: the ‘simple and primitive knowledge to which the mere course of nature would have conducted us, had Adam stood upright’ and the saving knowledge revealed through Scripture that focuses upon the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ who paid the penalty due to us, by which ‘salvation was obtained for us by his righteousness’ [3].” According to Calvin, the natural view is what man was to be guided by from the beginning, but this view was tarnished by the Fall. God must then reveal Himself in creation in order to enlighten man to the natural view that was apparent from the beginning. Therefore, man can know the physical world through the natural sciences, but he can also understand the supernatural world through his ability to reason and also to interpret the signs within the natural universe.

Some would object and say that Calvin believed in the total depravity of man and was thus incapable of supporting any form of rationality, but this objection is wrong. Though Calvin taught that man was fallen, he taught that only in a spiritual sense – his relationship to God – was man totally fallen; man’s ability to reason was damaged, but still remained intact and useful [4]. Though Pascal taught man’s reasoning was fallen, Calvin taught man’s ability to understand true reasoning was damaged, but still useful, even to the point of salvation [5]. Man was, therefore, not only able to know truth, but has truth instilled in him from his birth. Calvin taught that man’s understanding of this truth would be incomplete, but it would still exist.

Finally, Reformed epistemology teaches a concept that both Descartes and Pascal missed – all truth, knowledge, and reasoning extends from God and not from within man. Descartes taught that man could know truth under his own power and Pascal taught man could only look at truth blindly. Reformed epistemology teaches that all truth comes from God and is naturally revealed within man due to God’s grace [6]. Reformed epistemologists tend to take John 14:6 quite seriously in teaching that all truth comes from Christ, thus truth can be known experientially and propositionally. Most importantly, however, is that subjectivity within truth is eliminated within Reformed epistemology. Descartes taught that man could only know things absolutely that could be defined physically or mathematically. Reformed epistemology teaches that man can know anything through his ability to reason, which was given to him by God. Pascal taught that man could not reason properly due to the Fall, thus what might be sinful to one person could be permissible to another. Reformed epistemology teaches that there is a way to know what a sin (an offense to God) is and what is merely unwise for a person (a non-sin). Overall, reformed epistemology acknowledges that God is sovereign over all things, including truth, and placed this truth within man.

_______________________________

[1] J.P. and Craig Moreland, William Lane, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003), 162.

[2] This is not based on intellectualism or rationalism, as the term is much different than in those two beliefs. Instead, what is being implied is that true rationality comes from God and is not from man. Thus, any claim that is made outside of what God has revealed is ultimately irrational, no matter how rational man might make it attempt to appear.

[3] Brian Follis, Truth With Love: Apologetics of Francis Schaeffer (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2006), 22.

[4] Ibid. 20

[5] Calvin did not teach that one could rationalize oneself to salvation – this would have gone against his soteriological viewpoint. He did teach, however, that God could use the mind in order to break down presuppositions and bring a person to truth.

[6] Edward J. Carnell, An Introduction to Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: WMB. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948), 56.

 

 

Now we must ask a few questions: What does it mean to reason, what is the role of reason in salvation, how do reason and revelation work, and what does the Scripture say about reason?

I – What it is to reason

First and foremost, there are two different understandings about reason in the modern age. Even for those that de-emphasize reason, they will still hold onto these two different views. The first one is called internalistic reasoning, or structural/coherent reasoning. In this view, we reason in order to discover what is truth within our own society. Thus, we determine what is and is not true, we declare what is and is not logical outside the realm of hard science. If society dictates that it is logical to prevent murder, then this is ‘reasonable’ to that society.

On the other hand, the second view is must more pre-modern. This view teaches that reason helps us to understand the Truth that is already out there. Man’s reason is faulty and imperfect, thus can lead man in the wrong direction. At the same time, this reason can also lead humans to an understanding of morality that is universal and outside of the cultural context. This is called externalism or foundationalism. It teaches there are certain beliefs about the world that are properly basic and, in light of this; humans can interact with this universal Truth. Reason, therefore, is not something we created, but instead reason is something that is innate within the human mind, as natural as the ability to taste, hear, or smell (and just like the physical counterparts, is subject to functioning improperly).

Therefore, reason is not necessarily something that we start, but is merely a way we understand the world around us. This doesn’t lead to a perfect understanding, but does provide a rational medium for most human experiences.

II – The role of reason in the life of the believer

What, then, does reasoning play in the life of the believer? I believe that it aids us in salvation somewhat, but is more vital for growing in our Christian walk and understanding of God:

1) Reason aids in salvation – the important word to note is the word “aids.” This shows it is merely a part of the salvation experience, but does not encompass it or necessarily play a major role. For some it might be an act of reasoning that removes all intellectual barriers so that the Holy Spirit can deal with that person. For others, it might be an encounter with Christ on the Road to Damascus, where very little reasoning was involved. Thus, the amount of reason in initial act of salvation is extremely subjective to the individual, with the only absolute being that reason cannot be the total sum of the salvation experience (for this would leave out an actual experience), but cannot be totally absent either.

For instance, even if one were to have an encounter with Christ or to see an image of a man on the Cross, one would have to accept (even if subconsciously) that such an experience is valid. A person on LSD that sees purple elephants might, for the moment, believe that there is actually a purple elephant in the room. Once the high leaves the person, however, she will no longer think it is valid to believe there is a purple elephant in the room. Alternatively, however, when Paul experienced Christ on the road to Damascus he continued to believe in what he had experienced even after the experience had passed. This shows that he reasoned – again, it could have been subconsciously – that he had an actual encounter with a real being.

In order to accept an experience as valid, we simply have to reason, even if this reason is minimal. We have to assume the proposition that, “What I just experienced is actually real” if that experience is to have any effect on our lives. Much like the blind man healed by Jesus, we may not know all the inner workings of what happened, but we can reason that something actually happened to us.

At the same time, we must be careful not to say that reason saves us. To use an example by Peter Kreeft, reason is the boat that takes us across the river of doubt, but it takes faith to leap off the boat once it has hit the shore. There must be an acceptance of this faith that is based on propositional Truth, but not propositional. After all (to use Kreeft again), no one proposes in propositions, yet there is a propositional truth behind all proposals. Likewise, we must acknowledge we are entering into a relationship that is more than reason, but is based on Truth.

2) Reason aids in our walk with Christ– once again, the important word here is ‘aids.’ Even when walking in faith, Christianity is not purely rational, but depends upon the Holy Spirit to change our reasoning. This does not negate, however, that Christians are supposed to be reasonable people once accepting Christ.

A child may not understand how a train works, but the train will enthrall him nonetheless. An engineer, however, will know all the inner workings of the train, but still be impressed. How much more, then, is a Christian’s view of God? God is both transcendent and immanent. This means that a new-born Christian may not understand as much about theology as someone that has studied it for 30 years, but both can love God with the same fervor and both still view God as a mystery.

It is a mistake to think that by studying God we will figure Him out. Rather, we study God and His commands just to get a tiny grasp on who He is and what He wants us to do – we have knowledge of God, but this knowledge is far from comprehensive. We often forget that God is infinite and, therefore, no matter how hard we try we will never comprehend Him. This is important for both the theologian and layperson to understand: It shows there shouldn’t be any fear in studying theology, because there is always something new to discover, but one shouldn’t become haughty in it either because God can elude us no matter how studied we are.

Instead, one must rely on the Holy Spirit for illumination in these matters. Though we are called to use our minds, we are also called to conform our minds to Christ. This would indicate that illumination and reasoning actually go hand in hand and are not diametrically opposed to each other (as many Christians sadly believe). Rather, one uses one’s reason, but asks the Holy Spirit to illuminate the knowledge to that one.

III – The function of reason and revelation

Some might be curious as to how one can reason when our reasoning is faulty. After all, we are told not to lean not unto our own understanding. We are told that the wisdom of God is foolishness to man, that our thoughts are not the Lord’s thoughts, and so on. It seems the Bible would rather us trust in God rather than reason about what He has to say.

The above would stand true if the first definition of reason given were the actual definition. However, due to the second definition we are allowed to acknowledge there is fallibility within our faculty of reason.

The Bible tends to teach a dual concept for understanding – natural understanding and Divinely illuminated understanding. The natural understanding teaches that reasoning is something that was implanted in humans from the beginning of creation, that we could know God through His creation. It also teaches that such reasoning is faulty and that we have often ignored it in order to partake in a lie (due to our sinful desires). Thus, we are also told that the Lord illuminates all knowledge to humans when they seek after Him. It is the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of all knowledge. If one wishes to have proper reasoning, then one must seek after Him.

This works well within Reformed Epistemology. RE teaches that there is a design plan within all humans that is aimed toward truth with the probability of obtaining truth. This fits in perfectly with the Bible, showing that God wants us to know Him through nature and the physical world. At the same time, RE also teaches that we are fallen creatures and, therefore, will not always willingly follow this design plan aimed toward truth.

Sin, therefore, would cause the human mind to function improperly (another component in RE). In light of this, a mind functioning improperly is not a mind that can gain knowledge. It is in this improper function that we are to seek God and begin to conform to Him so that we might function properly. It is through illumination caused by sanctification that the Christian mind begins to function in a proper fashion that allows a believer to grow.

IV – Scriptural support

Romans 1 – almost the entire chapter teaches that God has been known since the beginning of creation and that He has created humans with the ability to know. Unfortunately, as Romans 1 states, we have willingly traded His truth in for a lie because of our perverse nature, showing that we chose to be irrational creatures.

Proverbs 1:7 – this shows that in order to gain true knowledge one must fear the Lord first and foremost. This means one must acknowledge His place as the creator of the human mind and, therefore, the redeemer of it as well.

Proverbs 2:6 – this is a passage that supports an external epistemology, showing that God is the one that illuminates knowledge onto humans, rather than knowledge coming from within. We can say knowledge comes from within if we mean this loosely, but we must ultimately acknowledge that God implanted this knowledge in us due to His design plan for the mind.

1 Peter 3:15 – here Peter implores Christians to be ready to make a logical and evidenced defense (apologia) for the reason (logos) of Christianity.

Matthew 22:37 – Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all of our hearts, souls, and minds. When He says mind (dianoia) He is meaning our understanding, thoughts, and reason. This shows that reason does play an important part in the growth of a Christian (but, as this verse shows, it is not the biggest role, just a partial role).

Romans 12:2 – Paul shows that sanctification is more than our actions, but extends into our reasoning abilities and thought processes.

Romans 8:6 – Paul points out that there are two minds; one of sin and one of life. Note that he says mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life. He does not say that once one has become a Christian, one has given up reasoning or given up one’s mind – rather, one’s reasoning is in the process of sanctification.

There are many other passages that show how God is known through creation, but also how He must interact and change our minds. However, the above should suffice for showing that the Bible supports the role of reason in the life of the believer.

 

Further reading on my own view:

The Necessity of God in the Acquisition of Knowledge

Descartes, Pascal, and Reformed Epistemology: Re-evaluating Epistemology

Further reading from other philosophers:

Warrant and Proper Function by Alvin Plantinga 

The Francis A. Schaeffer Trilogy: Three Essential Works in One Volume by Francis Schaeffer

Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensees by Peter Kreeft

Love Your God With All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul by J.P. Moreland

Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do About It by Os Guinness

 

 

Advertisements