Faith vs Reason


Certain philosophers argue that faith without reason is blind therefore worthless and irrational, and can not be substantiated by reasoned arguments. Many Christians view that kind of philosophy as an enemy of the faith and view the rationality arguments as in conflict with their faith, separated by some unbridgeable gap between the two sides. Christians hold the view that there is no compatibility between the two concepts, as where one starts the other stops. However, and in fact, faith and reason work together effortlessly, it’s what some in Christian theology refers to as apologetics,  which aims to present historical, reasoned and evidential basis for the defence of the Christian faith, and aid Christ followers know and love the creator.

As faith is defines as a belief in inspiration, revelation or authority, for Christian that authority is God as revealed in the Scriptures. Though the word faith sometimes denotes a belief that is held with the absence of rationality or proof, or a belief that is held in spite of or against rationality or proof, it can also refer to belief based on a degree of evidential certification.  To put them into some kind of categorisation of views regarding the relationship between faith and reason, on the one side is ‘Rationalism’ which argues that truth should be determine by reason and factual analysis, rather than faith, dogma, tradition or religious teachings. However, on the opposite side, is ‘Fideism, which maintains that faith is necessary, and that beliefs may be held without any evidence or reason and even in conflicts with evidence and reason. For many Christians, true faith and correct reason are good companions, when argues properly. However, though God called Israel to reason, ‘Come now, let us settle the matter,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool’ (Isaiah 1: 18), many genuine Christians identify a conflict between reason and faith. However, Christians are to have a strong reason for what they believe, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1Peter 3:15). Therefore, Christian theologians must take up the challenge to demonstrate to sceptics that belief in God as revealed in the Scriptures is rational, warranted, and plausibly defendable.

The teachings of the scripture are, people should have faith, to believe in God, and Christians are expected to have confidence in Him alone and not lean on man,  “This is what the Lord says: ‘Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the Lord” (Jer. 17: 5). The scriptures further exhorts, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith” (Romans 1:17). There is no alternative in this; Christians are encouraged to have faith in God irrespective of whether Gods words in the bible make rational sense to us.

So are people, or Christians expected to live by reason or by faith in God alone? Should Christians trust his intelligence, depends on rational deductions, and so discard the teachings of the Scriptures that do not make perfect sense to him? Alternatively, should he accept the teachings of Bible without respect to reason or rationality, even if it does not make any sense?

The ostensible struggle between faith and reason distresses many Christians, but when they are viewed in the biblical context correctly, such superficial conflict evaporates. “The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, ‘When evening comes, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,” and in the morning, “Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.’ Jesus then left them and went away” (Matt 16: 1-4).

Jesus responded to this use of observation and reasoning in verse 3b: “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky.” In other words, you know how to use your eyes and your minds to draw right conclusions when it comes to the natural world. In other words, he approves of their use of experiential reflection and rational discussion.

In fact, it’s precisely this approval that makes the following disapproval valid. He says in verse 3c, “But you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” And when he says, “You cannot,” he does not mean you don’t have the sensory and rational capacities to do what needs to be done. He just showed them that they do in fact have the sensory and rational capacities to do what needs to be done. They are very adept at observation and deliberation when it comes to getting along in this world. Why then can’t they use those same faculties to interpret the signs of the times? The answer is given in verse 4: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” What does this mean? What does being adulterous have to do with their inability to use their eyes and their minds to interpret the signs that is, to recognize Jesus for who he is.

Mark Twain once defined faith as ‘believing what you know aren’t so’. Perhaps this is what many people have in mind when they think of the word faith. Indeed some people seem to pride themselves in their belief in the irrational thinking that such ‘faith’ is very pious. “Why do I believe in the Bible? Well, I guess I just have faith’. But is this what the Bible means when it uses the word faith? Not at all. The Bible does not promote a belief in the irrational or any type of unwarranted “blind faith.” Some people have said, “Faith takes over where reason leaves off.” Taken this way, rationality is seen as a bridge that reaches only partway across a great chasm; faith is needed to complete the bridge and reach the other side. People who take this view would say that Christianity cannot be proven, that reason leads us most of the way to God and then we must make a “leap of faith” in order to say that Jesus is Lord. This is a very common view among Christians. But this is not what God’s Word teaches about faith.

The Bible itself tells us what faith is. Hebrews 11:1 tells us that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. So biblical faith is not blind but is strongly warranted confidence. The phrase “hoped for” does not imply a mere wishful thinking as in “I sure hope the weather is nice next week.” Rather, the Greek word (ελπιζω) indicates a confident expectation: the kind of confidence we have when we have a good reason to believe something. Biblically, faith is having confidence in something you have not experienced with your senses. Biblical faith is not “blind”; it’s not the act of “believing without a reason.” Just the opposite; biblical faith is the act of believing in something unseen for which we do have a good reason. For example, when we believe that God will keep a promise, this constitutes faith because we cannot “see” it and yet we have a good reason for it: God has demonstrated that He keeps His promises.

As many people have misunderstandings of faith, they also have misunderstandings of reason. Reason is a tool that God has given us that allows us to draw conclusions and inferences from other information, such as the information He has given us in His Word. Reason is an essential part of Christianity; God tells us to reason (Isaiah 1:18) as the apostle Paul did (Acts 17:17). In fact, I could not know that I am saved apart from using reason. The Bible tells us that “if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). I have genuinely acknowledged that Jesus is Lord, and I believe that God raised Him from the dead. Therefore, I am saved. I must use logical reasoning to draw this conclusion. This is perfectly appropriate and is the kind of reasoning God expects us to use. We are to reason from the principles of God’s Word.

People misuse reason when they frame their worldview apart from God’s Word. This can involve either treating reason as its own ultimate standard (in other words, a replacement for God’s Word) or tossing it aside as irrelevant to faith. Neither of these positions is biblical. We are never to attempt to reason in opposition to the Word of God. That is to say we are not to treat God’s Word as a mere hypothesis that is subject to our fallible understanding of the universe. This, after all, was Eve’s mistake. She attempted to use her mind and senses to Judge God’s Word (Genesis 3:6). This was sinful and irrational; she was trying to use a fallible standard to judge an infallible one. We are never to “reason” in such an absurd, sinful way. Instead, we are supposed to reason from God’s Word, taking it as our ultimate unquestionable starting point. Any alternative is arbitrary and self-refuting.4 Reason is not a substitute for God; rather, it is a gift from God. On the other hand, we are not to reject reason. God is rational,5 and so we should be, too (Ephesians 5:1). We are commanded to seek wisdom and understanding (Proverbs 4:5, 7). God wants us to use the mind He has given us. But He wants us to use our minds properly, in a way that is honouring to Him.

Biblical faith and biblical reasoning actually work very well together. In fact, faith is a prerequisite for reason. In order to reason about anything we must have faith that there are laws of logic, which correctly prescribe the correct chain of reasoning. Since laws of logic cannot be observed with the senses, our confidence in them is a type of faith. For the Christian, it is a reasonable, justified faith. The Christian would expect to find a standard of reasoning that reflects the thinking of the biblical God; that’s what laws of logic are.6 On the other hand, the unbeliever cannot account for laws of logic with his or her own worldview. Since laws of logic are necessary for reasoning, and since the Christian faith is the only faith system that can make sense of them,8 it follows that the Christian faith is the logical foundation for all reasoning (Proverbs 1:7; Colossians 2:3). This isn’t to say, of course, that non-Christians cannot reason. Rather, it simply means they are being inconsistent when they reason; they are borrowing from a worldview contrary to the one they profess.

Since reason would be impossible without laws of logic, which stem from the Christian faith, we have a very good reason for our faith: without our faith we could not reason. Even unbelievers (inconsistently) rely upon Christian principles, such as logic, whenever they reason about anything. So the Christian has a good reason for his or her faith. In fact, the Christian faith system makes reason possible. Although reasoning from the Scriptures is an important part of the Christian’s life, reason alone is not sufficient to lead us to Christ. After the fall of Adam, human beings no longer possessed the ability to correctly understand spiritual matters (1 Corinthians 2:14). It is our nature to distort the truth (2 Peter 3:16). So we need the help of the Holy Spirit even to understand and accept the fact that Jesus is Lord (1 Corinthians 12:3). This explains why it is impossible to “reason someone into heaven.” Salvation is accomplished by God’s grace received through faith in Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8; Romans 3:24; Titus 3:5). Ultimately, the Holy Spirit convinces people and enables them to receive Christ (John 16:8–15). Some may ask, “Why then should we do apologetics? Why should we try to reason with people if it is the Holy Spirit who will ultimately convince them?”

First, God tells us to. We are to be ready at all times to give a good reason for our faith (1 Peter 3:15). So it is our duty as followers of Christ to preach the gospel (2 Timothy 4:2) and reason with unbelievers (Acts 17:17). Second, God can bless our discussions with unbelievers and use them as part of the process by which He brings people to Himself (Romans 10:13–14). Although Christ alone accomplishes salvation, God has given us the privilege of telling others about this good news and making a reasoned defence of it.

Reasoning is a crucial part of defending the faith. But we must always keep in mind that conversion is up to God alone. It is not our job to “convince” the unbeliever—nor can we. It is our job to make a good case; it is the Holy Spirit’s prerogative alone to bring repentance.

One Christian may plant a seed, and another water it, but God alone brings the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6–7). Nevertheless, the New Testament speaks of the use of our minds everywhere in the process of Christian conversion and growth and obedience. For example, at least ten times in the book of Acts, Luke says that Paul’s strategy was to “reason” with people in his effort to convert them and build them up (Acts 17:2, 4, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8, 9; 20:7, 9; 24:25). And Paul said to the Corinthians that he would rather speak five words with his mind to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue (1 Corinthians 14:19). He said to the Ephesians, “When you read this, you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ” (Ephesians 3:4). In other words, engaging the mind in the highly intellectual task of reading and construing Paul’s language is a pathway into the mystery God has given him to reveal.

And perhaps most helpful of all is the word to Timothy about the relationship of reason and divine illumination. In 2 Timothy 2:7, he says, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” So many people swerve off the road to one side of this verse or the other. Some stress “think over what I say.” They emphasize the indispensable role of reason and thinking. And they often minimize the supernatural role of God in making the mind able to see and embrace the truth. Others stress the second half of the verse: “And the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” They emphasize the futility of reason without God’s illumining work. “The Lord will give you understanding.”

But Paul will not be divided this way. He says: not either-or, but both-and. “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” The willingness of God to give us understanding is the ground of our thinking, not the substitute for our thinking. “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding.” There is no reason to think that a person who thinks without prayerful trust in God’s gift of understanding will get it. And there is no reason to think that a person who waits for God’s gift of understanding without thinking about his word will get it either.

Paul commands us to think about what he says. Use your mind. Engage your reasoning powers when you hear the word of God. Jesus warned what happens if we don’t and what blessing may come if we do. In the parable of the soils, he said concerning the seed sown on the path: “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart.” Understanding with the mind is not optional. Our lives hang on it. And concerning the seed sown on good soil, he says, “This is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (Matthew 13:23).

It is true that, as Paul says in Romans 10:17, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” But Jesus says that hearing without understanding produces nothing. When we hear the word of God, Paul says, we must “think over” what we hear. Otherwise, we will fall under the indictment of Jesus: “Hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matthew 13:13).

So, even though our natural minds are depraved and darkened and foolish, nevertheless, the New Testament demands that we use them in coming to faith and leading people to faith and in the process of Christian growth and obedience. There is no way to awaken faith or strengthen faith that evades right thinking. Before we ponder how that can be, in view of how corrupt we are, we turn briefly from the focus on reason to consider the nature of faith.

The only kind of faith that matters in the end is saving faith — the faith that unites us to Christ so that his righteousness is counted as ours in justification, and his power flows into us for sanctification. In other words, I am not interested in faith in general — the faith of other religions that is not faith in Christ, or the faith of science in the validity of its first principles, or the faith of children in their parents, or any other kind of faith that is not in Christ. I am only interested in the faith that obtains eternal life. The faith that saves. The faith that justifies (Romans 3:28; Galatians 2:16) and sanctifies (Acts 26:18; 1 Peter 4:11).

To get at the nature of that faith, it is helpful to ponder why faith alone justifies. Why not love, or some other virtuous disposition? Here’s the way J. Gresham Machen answers this question in his 1925 book, What Is Faith?

The true reason why faith is given such an exclusive place by the New Testament, so far as the attainment of salvation is concerned, over against love and over against everything else in man . . . is that faith means receiving something, not doing something or even being something. To say, therefore, that our faith saves us means that we do not save ourselves even in slightest measure, but that God saves us. (173, emphasis added). In other words, we are justified by faith alone, and not by love, because God intends to make it clear that he does the decisive saving outside of us and that the person and work of Christ are the sole ground of our acceptance with God. A hundred years earlier Andrew Fuller (the main rope-holder for William Carey in England) gave the same explanation.

Thus it is that justification is ascribed to faith, because it is by faith that we receive Christ; and thus it is by faith only, and not by any other grace. Faith is peculiarly a receiving grace which none other is. Were we said to be justified by repentance, by love, or by any other grace, it would convey to us the idea of something good in us being the consideration on which the blessing was bestowed; but justification by faith conveys no such idea. So, what sets faith apart from other graces and virtues is that it is “a peculiarly receiving grace.” That’s why Paul says in Ephesians 2:8, “By grace you have been saved through faith.” Grace from God correlates with faith in us. And the reason is that grace is God’s free giving and faith is our helpless receiving. When God justifies us by faith alone, he has respect not to faith as virtue but faith as a receiving of Christ. So it is the same as saying that not our virtue but Christ’s virtue is the ground of our justification.

Now the key question is: What does faith receive in order to be justifying faith? The answer, of course, is that faith receives Jesus Christ. “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Faith saves because it receives Christ.

But we must make clear what this actually means because there are so many people who say they have received Christ and believed on Christ, who give little or no evidence that they are spiritually alive. They are unresponsive to the spiritual beauty of Jesus. They are unmoved by the glory of Christ. They don’t have the spirit of the apostle Paul when he said, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). This is not their spirit, yet they say they have received Christ.

One way to describe this problem is to say that when these people “receive Christ,” they do not receive him as supremely valuable. They receive him simply as sin-forgiver (because they love being guilt-free), and as rescuer-from-hell (because they love being pain-free), and as healer (because they love being disease-free), and as protector (because they love being safe), and as prosperity-giver (because they love being wealthy), and as Creator (because they want a personal universe), and as Lord of history (because they want order and purpose); but they don’t receive him as supremely and personally valuable for who he is. They don’t receive him as he really is — more glorious, more beautiful, more wonderful, more satisfying, than everything else in the universe. They don’t prize him or treasure him or cherish him or delight in him.

Or to say it another way, they “receive Christ” in a way that requires no change in human nature. You don’t have to be born again to love being guilt-free and pain-free and disease-free and safe and wealthy. All natural men without any spiritual life love these things. But to embrace Jesus as your supreme treasure requires a new nature. No one does this naturally. You must be born again (John 3:3). You must be a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15). You must be made spiritually alive (Ephesians 2:1–4).

Therefore, saving faith is a receiving of Christ for who he really is and what he really is, namely, more glorious, more wonderful, more satisfying, and therefore more valuable than anything thing in the universe. Saving faith says, “I receive you as my Savior, my Lord, my supreme Treasure; and I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Which is why Jesus said, “Therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). And again, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). And again, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44).

The infinite glory of Jesus makes him infinitely valuable and infinitely satisfying. Saving faith receives this Christ. Not that we experience the fullness of joy now, or the climax of satisfaction in this life, but we taste it (Psalm 34:8) and we know where it is found (John 6:35) and we “press on to make it [our] own, because Christ Jesus has made [us] his own” (Philippians 3:12).

This brings us now to the relationship between faith and reason as we have described them here. What we have seen concerning the nature of saving faith determines what will be a sufficient and reasonable ground for such faith. Saving faith cannot rest only on the ground of raw facts, facts like Christ lived a perfect life, and Jesus is the Messiah, and Christ died for sinners, Christ is God, and Christ rose from the dead etc. The devil believes all those facts and tremble.

The nature of saving faith demands more than facts as a ground, not less, but more. We have seen that saving faith is not the mere receiving of facts. It is the receiving of Christ as infinitely glorious, wondrously beautiful, and supremely valuable. Therefore, the ground of such faith must be the spiritual sight of such glory and beauty and value. This sight is not separate from the narration of historical gospel facts. We must tell the old, old story. But the sight of Christ’s divine glory in the gospel is not identical with seeing the facts of the gospel. Therefore, human reason, the use of the mind to explain and defend the facts of the gospel plays an indispensable, but not the decisive, role in the awakening and establishing of saving faith. We must tell the story and get the gospel facts and the doctrine right. But the decisive ground of saving faith is the glory of Christ seen in the gospel.

The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:4–6)

The gospel is the “gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’ (v: 4). This is what must be seen for saving faith to respond to the gospel and receive Christ for who he really is infinitely glorious. Jonathan Edwards commented on this text to the same effect. He said, ‘Nothing can be more evident then, that a saving belief of the gospel is here spoken of . . . as arising from the mind’ being enlightened to behold the divine glory of the things it exhibits’. In other words, the ground of saving faith is the glory of Christ seen in the gospel.

This divine glory is really and objectively there in the gospel. Otherwise, Paul would not speak of the god of this world blinding the minds of unbelievers. If something is not really there, you don’t need to be blind to miss it. But if it is really there, you must be blind to miss it. Therefore, the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” is really there. It is a self-authenticating divine glory. Jonathan Edwards calls it an “ineffable, distinguishing, evidential excellency in the gospel.”

The sight of this “distinguishing, evidential excellency’, the glory of Christ in the gospel is not seen in a vision or a dream or a whispered word from the Holy Spirit. It is seen in the biblical story of Christ as the inspired apostle preaches the gospel of Christ. (V:5) “What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus; sake.” Here is the place of reason. Paul uses his mind to proclaim, explain, defend, and confirm the facts of the gospel. He argues that Jesus is the Christ, that he rose from the dead, and that he died for our sins. He does the sort of thing we read in the book of Romans and Galatians and Ephesians and Colossians. He reasons with facts and arguments and sets Christ forth. Therefore, we know that the sight of the self-authenticating glory of Christ is not separate from the rational presentation and demonstration of the truth of the gospel. That is indispensable.

However, this indispensable use of reason in proclaiming the gospel is not the decisive and unshakable ground of saving faith. That ground is the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” And seeing this unshakably compelling and authentic light is a gift of God. This is the point of verse 6: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

In verse 4, we could not see this “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God” because we were blinded by the god of this world. No amount of reasoning or historical argument could produce spiritual sight in the blind. Nevertheless, the rational proclamation of the gospel in verse 5 is indispensable.

But now the decisive change happens in verse 6. God, who speaks and causes light to happen, opens our blind eyes, and amazingly the gospel of Christ crucified and risen (and rationally set forth in preaching and teaching) is now radiant with “ineffable, distinguishing, evidential excellency” — with the glory of God in the face of Christ. The glory of Christ seen in the gospel is the decisive ground of saving faith because saving faith is the receiving of Christ as infinitely glorious and supremely valuable. It cannot be grounded on anything less.

This basis of faith is a rational foundation and the conviction that flows from it is a sensible conviction. It goes beyond what mere reasoning upon the facts can produce, but it is itself reasonable. Jonathan Edwards explains, “By a reasonable conviction, I mean, a conviction founded on real evidence, or upon that which is a good reason, or just ground of conviction. Nothing is more reasonable than that saving faith, as the receiving of Christ as infinitely glorious, must be grounded on the spiritual sight of his divine glory.

The reason this understanding of the relationship between faith and reason is so important is that the great mass of ordinary people cannot come to an unshakable conviction about the truth of Christianity any other way. If our only confidence rests on rational historical argumentation, we will only know probabilities, but no spiritual certainty. But the apostle John said, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). And what should burden us on this issue is not only how to commend and defend Christianity to intellectuals, but how to proclaim it among a thousand unreached peoples around the world who cannot wait for generations of education. This is what drove Peter and the other apostles and is what drives me on today. This is why Christ came, He only want to produce the kind of Christian who are fearless, offering the loss of everything, ready to endure the worst hardships for Christ, trampling the devil underfoot, counting everything dung for Christ’s sake, and when death comes in this cause calling it gain.

We have minds and must exercise our reason in the proclamation and explanation and confirmation of the gospel. We must contend for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3). We must be ready, like Paul, to go to prison “for the defence and confirmation of the gospel” (Phil 1:7). That is essential, but, as we use all our renewed mental powers for Christ, we must pray with Paul that the Holy Spirit would empower the preaching of the gospel. That God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, would shine in the hearts of our hearers to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Then more Christians would be created and with confidence join with Paul in saying, ‘I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3: 8).

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