Thursday, October 2, 2008

Faith and Reason

Faith and Reason

Semantic Issues: Is there a relationship between faith and reason? For starters, there needs to be a definition of our terms.

Reason denotes the human function of using rational criteria to evaluate ideas. Or it can mean the relatively neutral human function for assessing evidence and arguments. Reason assesses knowledge claims; it does not generate them. Hence, to say humans only know things by reason is a circular argument.(1)

In relationship to reason, it is imperative to understand biblical anthropology (the study of humanity from a Christian/biblical perspective). As Norman Geisler says:
"God is a rational Being, and man is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Since God thinks rationally, man was given the same capacity. Brute beasts, by contrast, are called “irrational” (Jude 10). The basis laws of human reason are common to believer and unbeliever; without them, there would be no writing, thinking, or rational inference. Nowhere are these laws spelled out in the Bible. Rather, they are part of God’s general revelation and special object of philosophical thought." (2)

In their book 101 Key Terms In Philosophy And Their Importance For Theology, authors K.J Clark, R. Lints, and James K.A. Smith define rationality as the quality of an individual who has done her best to acquire true beliefs. The goal of being rational is to acquire true beliefs. Rationalism as a philosophy stresses reason as the means of determining truth.We are truth seekers and reason is a means to that end. Rationality is a matter of how one believes, not what one believes. In a negative sense, rationalists who share the same attitudes of Enlightenment skeptics tend to stress that all knowledge claims must have an extremely high level of certainty (including the knowledge of God).

The rationalism associated with Enlightenment skepticism can be labeled as what Francis Schaeffer termed "autonomous reason," which is the haughty human attempt to build a worldview without recourse to God. This form of reason claims priority and ultimacy for itself. (3) While the Christian is called to use good reason (hence, he is called to be rational), which the Bible commends to discover truth (Isa 1:18; Matt 22:27;1 Peter 3:15), he is also called to avoid the rationalism of the Enlightenment.

Part of the debate about reason and rationality in relationship to faith centers around evidentialism, which maintains that one must have evidence and arguments for one's beliefs (in God) to be rational. Therefore, in the case of God, who isn't a physical object but a invisible divine being, it is imperative to clarify what qualifies as evidence. Clark, Lint, and Smith define sensible evidentialism as the view that belief in God is rational because someone in the theistic community has evidence for God's existence.

According to sensible evidentialism, is it realistic to think that God would require people to become specialists in a variety of academic disciplines such as philosophy, history, linguistics, theology, biology, cosmology, etc. before they make a commitment to follow Him? After all, is God playing hard to get?

Rationality is not identical with truth since a person may hold a belief for "good reasons" and yet believe what is false. Suppose Sam believes the testimony of an otherwise reliable person about an event. Unknown to Sam, the person is lying, though Sam has no good reason to believe that person is lying. Sam believes what he is told and appears to have followed rational procedures and yet believes falsely. So a person may rationally hold a false belief. Rationality is also person- and situation-specific. That is, what is rational for one person at a particular sociohistorical time and place might not be rational for another person at a particular time and place. For example, it used to be rational for most people to believe the earth is flat, but that is no longer acceptable.(4)

Biblical faith is belief, trust, or commitment in God through Jesus the Messiah. Biblical faith involves an objective element (the existence of God, Jesus' resurrection), and the subjective appropriation, moved by the grace of God, of those truths. (5) For example, in James 2:19, it says that the demons believe that God exists. Objectively speaking, the Holy Spirit works in conjunction with the evidence for the truthfulness of the Christian faith to enable us to understand that God exists. However, from a subjective perspective, we also must place our trust in God, which can only happen with the help of the Holy Spirit (John 16: 12-15). A good example of this is seen in Acts 17:1-4, “And according to Paul's custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ. And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large number of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women." In this passage, we see that the Holy Spirit worked through the objective evidence (the Tanakh), which caused some of Paul's audience to place their trust in the Jewish Messiah.

In the Tanakh (the acronym that is formed from the first three parts of the Hebrew Bible: Torah (the first five books of the Bible), Nevi’ im (the Prophets), and K’ tuvim (the Writings), the Hebrew word for heart is "leb," or "lebad." While the word "heart" is used as a metaphor to describe the physical organ, from a biblical standpoint, it is also the center or defining element of the entire person. It can be seen as the seat of the person's intellectual, emotional, affective, and volitional life. In the New Testament, the word “heart” (Gr.kardia) came to stand for man’s entire mental and moral activity, both the rational and the emotional elements. Therefore, biblcial faith involves a commitment of the whole person.

Faith and the resurrection: In 1 Cor 15: 1-17, Paul discusses the truth of Jesus' resurrection. It is important to note that a Christian's faith in the resurrection of Jesus will not change whether Jesus objectively rose from the dead in the context of time, space, and history. In other words, a Christian's faith cannot change the history of the past. The first followers of Jesus had a clear understanding about the relationship between faith and history.

As New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III says:
"Any position in which claims about Jesus or the resurrection are removed from the realm of historical reality and placed in a subjective realm of personal belief or some realm that is immune to human scrutiny does Jesus and the resurrection no service and no justice. It is a ploy of desperation to suggest that the Christian faith would be little affected if Jesus was not actually raised from the dead in space and time. A person who gives up on the historical foundations of our faith has in fact given up on the possibility of any real continuity between his or her own faith and that of a Peter, Paul, James, John, Mary Magdalene, or Priscilla. The first Christian community had a strong interest in historical reality, especially the historical reality of Jesus and his resurrection, because they believed their faith, for better or for worse, was grounded in it. " (6)

In relation to faith and reason, one passage that is misunderstood is Matthew 18:3-5 when Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” In interpreting this passage, it is important to note that Jesus challenged his followers to be like children morally, not intellectually. Christians are called to exhibit childlikeness in being sensitive to evil and sin, in being humble and contrite in spirit. Jesus contrasts the need for humility with tough-mindness in Matt. 10:16, when He says, " Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves." (8)

Another passage that causes the confusion between faith and reason is 1 Corinthians 1: 19-21:" For it is written, I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE." Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe." I have heard many people use this passages as a proof-text that God is against reason. Is this correct? It is important to note that Greek orators prided themselves with possessing “persuasive words of wisdom,” and it was their practice to persuade a crowd of any side of an issue for the right price. So, since Paul is most likely condemning hubris (which is the Greek word for a form of pride that is arrogant, self-confident and overbearing), Paul is against false pride, or prideful use of reason, not reason itself. (9)

Religious fideism argues matters of faith and religious belief are not supported by reason. Religion is a matter of faith and cannot be argued by reason. One must simply believe. Faith, not reason, is what God requires (Heb. 11:6). Fideists are skeptical with regard to the nature of evidence as applied to belief. Since there is very little discipleship about the relationship between faith and reason, most Christians fall into the mindset of fideism. (10)

Reason and Revelation- Why God Expects His Children To Use Reason

Reason also utilizes the laws of logic (the law of non-contradiction- A is not non-A; the law of identity- A is A; the law of excluded middle- either- A or non-A). When speaking about logic, most of Western culture appeals to formal logic which is the study of the principles and methods of argumentation. This method of logic finds its origin in the ancient Greek philosophers Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates. In Greek logic, we use the methods of valid thinking that enable us to draw proper conclusions from premises. In many cases, this kind of logic it is very helpful.
One objection may be that logic makes God subject to human logic. Is not God beyond logic? This objection confuses the source of logic; logic flows from the nature of God, not from humans. God determined logic; Aristotle discovered it and put it into writing.

Since we see in Scripture that the God of Israel is a rational being, principles of good reason do flow from his very nature. For example, “It is impossible for God to lie” (Heb 6:18), and God cannot deny Himself (2 Tim 2:13). (11) Furthermore, since humans are created in the image of God, logic is not opposed to revelation; it is part of it. Learning the rules of clear and correct reasoning play an integral part in our service to our Lord. (12)

There is another aspect to logic that Marvin Wilson talks about in Our Father Abraham: The Jewish Roots of Christianity. The Jewish people often made use of block logic. That is, concepts were expressed in self-contained units or blocks of thought. These blocks did not necessarily fit together in any obviously rational or harmonious pattern, particularly when one block represented the human perspective on truth and the other represented the divine. This way of thinking created a propensity for paradox, antinomy, or apparent contradiction, as one block stood in tension—often illogical relation—to the other. Therefore, we see that a polarity of thought or dialectic often characterized block logic.(13)

As we look to the Scriptures, do we see anywhere where Jesus utilized critical thinking methods? After examining several passages about this very issue, Douglas Groothuis concluded:
"Our sampling of Jesus’ reasoning, however, brings into serious question the indictment that Jesus praised uncritical faith over rational arguments and that He had no truck with logical consistency. On the contrary, Jesus never demeaned the proper and rigorous functioning of our God-given minds. His teaching appealed to the whole person: the imagination (parables), the will, and reasoning abilities. For all their honesty in reporting the foibles of the disciples, the Gospel writers never narrated a situation in which Jesus was intellectually stymied or bettered in an argument; neither did Jesus ever encourage an irrational or ill-informed faith on the part of His disciples. " (14)

Reason also includes systematic criteria. In using systematic criteria, an individual appraises the truth of a system of thought. These criteria do not produce systems of thought; instead they judge them. David Wolfe has identified four ways in which one may judge a system of thought: consistency (meaning ideas do not contradict each other) and coherence (the ideas have a positive fit). These are the rational criteria. Comprehensiveness (a system of thought that incorporates the broad range of experience) and congruence (the idea fits human experience) are part of the empirical criteria. (15)

The Bible calls for a balanced view between reason and revelation. In relationship to a Biblical worldview, the word “revelation” comes from the Greek word “apokalupsis” which means “an “uncovering,” or “unveiling.” One of the most important themes of the Bible is that since God is infinite and transcendent while man is finite, God takes the initiative in revealing himself to mankind. Therefore, the rationalism of the Enlightenment is nothing more than what philosopher Paul Moser calls a "cognitive idolatry." (16)

Furthermore, the Bible stresses that humans are blinded by sin. This is sometimes called the noetic effects of sin. This phrase denotes the damaging consequences human sin has on the knowing process (Isa. 6:9-10; Zech. 7:11-12; Matt. 13:10-13; 2 Cor. 4:4). (17). Also, in the Tanakh and the New Testament, knowledge involves active participation. According to the Hebrew view of knowledge, the opposite of knowledge is not ignorance and error. Instead, it is often related to disobedience, rebellion, and sin. (18)

As the late Jewish scholar Abraham J. Heschel said, “The God of Israel is a God who acts, a God of mighty deeds."(19) God has taken the initiative to reveal Himself to mankind through general revelation (the created order, the conscience), as well as special revelation (miracles, theophanies, the Messiah, the Bible, and messengers who share the Messiah with others). We see how the rationalist theologian Jonathan Edwards made an important distinction: All truth is given by revelation, either general or special, and it must be received by reason. Reason is the God-given means for discovering the truth that God discloses, whether in his world or his Word. While God wants to reach the heart with truth, he does not bypass the mind along the way. Therefore, in the example of Edwards, there is great value in Christian rationalism. (20)

There are reasons as to why the the “revelation only” view has some criticisms. There are several faiths that claim to be founded on divine revelation. After looking at the following religious claims, it is evident that it is impossible to not use the law of non-contradiction which states that two opposite views cannot be true at the same time. Without the law of non-contradiction, we could not say God is not non-God (G is not non-G). Regarding the deity of Jesus, here are the claims about Him from various faiths.

Orthodox Christianity/ Messianic Judaism: Jesus is both God and man/Jesus is an uncreated being. Jesus is the Jewish Messiah as foretold in the Tanakh.

Islam/Traditional Judaism: Jesus in not God and man.Traditional Judaism says Jesus is not the Jewish Messiah as foretold in the Tanakh. Islam's founder is Mohammed who was forty years old when he began having visions accompanied by violent convulsions during which he received his revelation from Allah. His writings are called the Koran, which he claims were dictated to him directly by the Angel Gabriel. Islam states Jesus was never crucified, and therefore, never risen.

Mormonism claims to be founded on divine revelation. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, claimed to have received personal revelation from God on the basis of two visions, (the first allegedly given to him in 1820, the second one in 1823). The Bible asserts that Jesus is that He is uncreated (John 1:1-3; Col. 1:16-17) while the Mormon claim is that Jesus is a created being.

The Watchtower Society/Jehovah Witnesses: Jesus is not God and man/Jesus is a created being.

Buddhism/Hinduism-are not theistic faiths, they are pantheistic (all is God). Therefore, they are already different from Christianity. Buddhism teaches that Jesus was an enlightened man, but not God. Hinduism says that Jesus was a good teacher and perhaps an incarnation of Brahman who is an impersonal, supreme being. Therefore, it does not take a rocket scientist to see that it is impossible to not use reason in evaluating contradictory religious claims.

As John P. Newport says,
"No sane person tries to accept as authoritative revelation from God all writings which are self-declared to be such. However eager we may be for harmony and tolerance, we cannot be intellectually honest unless we face the fact that there is a real contradiction between conflicting truth claims. As we reflect on how we are created in the image of God, we need to remember that we are creatures of both will and mind, of faith and reason. We are called to think as well as act and feel; therefore our faith will always have a rational element to it." (21)

1. Clark, D.J. Dialogical Apologetics: A Person Centered Approach to Christian Defense. Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books. 1993,84-87.
2. Geisler, N.L. Systematic Theology: Vol 1. Bloomington, MINN: Bethany House Publishers. 2002, 91.
3. Clark, 14.
4. Clark, K.J., Lints, R., and James K.A. Smith. 101 Key Terms In Philosophy And Their Importance For Theology. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, 78-79.
5. Ibid, 26.
6. Ben Witherington III. New Testament History. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2001, 167.
7. Clark, Lints, and Smith, 79.
8. Clark, 20-21.
9. Moreland, J.P and Craig, W.L. Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press. 2003, 18-19.
10. Geisler, N. L.: Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, Mich. : Baker Books, 1999, 634.
11. H. Wayne House and Joseph M. Holden. Charts of Apologetics and Christian Evidences. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2006, C
12. Geisler, N.L. and Brooks. R. Come Let Us Reason: An Introduction to Logical Thinking. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.1990, 5.
13. Wilson M. Our Father Abraham: The Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.B.Eerdmans Publishing Co.1989, 150-153.
14. Jesus: Philosopher and Apologist by Douglas Groothuis. Available at
15. Clark, 85-86.
16. See Moser, P. Why Isn't God More Obvious: Finding the God Who Hides and Seeks. Available at
17. Clark, 22.
18. Newport. J.P. Life’s Ultimate Questions: A Contemporary Philosophy of Religion. Dallas: Word Publishing. 1989, 440.
19. Heshel, A.J. The Prophets. New York, N.Y: 1962 Reprint. Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishers. 2003, 44
20. Geisler, N. L.: Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, Mich. : Baker Books, 1999, 634.
21. Newport, 452-453.

No comments: