Faith and Reason – Adversaries or Partners

By Peter Corney

The French Revolution in the late 18th Century began France’s great secular experiment. The age of Reason had arrived. Reason was now to be supreme. (Mind you it is worth remembering that it was ushered in with most bloody and frequently unreasonable actions!) Of the many extraordinary events that took place at that time one in particular stands out in my mind.

On November 9th 1793 the Revolutionary Convention declared that God did not exist and that the worship of Reason was to be substituted instead. A woman wearing a veil was brought before the Convention, one of the Revolutionary leaders taking her by the hand declared – “Mortals, cease to tremble before the powerless thunders of a God whom your hearts have created. Henceforth acknowledge no divinity but Reason. I offer you its noblest and purest image; if you must have idols, sacrifice only to such as this.” Then the veil fell from the woman and revealed was the Paris opera singer Madame Maillard. She was then put on a magnificent carriage and taken by the crowd to Notre Dame Cathedral. There she was elevated on the altar to take the place of God and received the adoration of all who were present!” The next day a “Festival of Reason” was held in Notre Dame Cathedral – the church was declared a Temple of Reason and a stage and a mock mountain built inside the Cathedral crowned with a Temple of Philosophy.

The elevation of Reason to this supreme place by the enlightenment led many Christians to be very suspicious of reason and intellectuals and philosophy. The 19th Century saw the rise of Biblical criticism, Darwinism and Scientific Rationalism – which reinforced these fears and suspicions. Christians also saw people in their own ranks so elevate reason and become so sceptical of emotions and enthusiasm that their faith became dry and arid, where the Holy Spirit was a proposition to believe rather than a person to know. So Faith and Reason became adversaries, not partners.

But once Christians pitch faith and reason against each other we can expect to reap a very negative inheritance further down the track.

Some examples

  • Shallow Christianity
    • that lacks a depth of knowledge and understanding.
  • Subjectivism
    • a Christianity that is too dependent on experience and emotion
    • that develops a hyper or false spirituality that seeks to justify all decisions and actions on subjective guidance.
  • Privatised faith
    • restricted to the personal and private.
    • that fails to think through the implications of the Christian faith for our work, our professions, for society, for “The public square.”
    • does not engage the culture.
  • Cultural conformity
    • while emphasising personal faith it fails to critique its own conformity to the culture it is part of.
  • Powerless evangelism
    • An evangelism that doesn’t engage the mind, that replaces argument with dogmatic statements.
    • That fails to engage the intellectual idols of our day. That does not have the intellectual “grunt” for effective apologetics.
  • Marginalised from the culture’s intellectual debates:

Richard Lovelace in his history of Evangelical Renewal says this: “The leaders and shapers of the Reformation, the puritan and pietist movements and the first two evangelical awakenings included trained theologians who combined spiritual urgency with profound learning, men who had mastered the culture of their time and were in command of the instruments needed to destroy its idols and subdue its innovations : Luther and Calvin, Owen, Edwards and Simeon.”

He goes on to make the telling point that this was not true of the later movements of renewal in the first half of the 20 Century. The key people in these movements were evangelists like D.L.Moody, Billy Sunday and Charles Finney, who did not have the same depth of learning. This loss of intellectual command proved to be a critical weakness as secular humanism’s full impact hit the west like a nuclear bomb in the 20 Century.

Among other disasters this led to the loss of control of the main stream seminaries to liberal reductionist theology – a legacy the church is still paying the cost of today.

Theological colleges like Ridley College, founded in the1920s, were set up originally as alternatives to the official denominational Colleges that had been overtaken by liberal theology.

  • Fundamentalism is another negative outcome, it grows out of the conflict between faith and reason and fundamentalism leads to some very devastating outcomes for the Christian church:

(a) It leads to an intellectual reaction within the church that produces a reductionist liberal theology. Christians who have not had their serious questions addressed eventually throw the baby out with the bath water.

(b) It leads to ridicule and dismissal by the general culture.

(c) It leads to the loss of a generation of Christian young people who grow up without being intellectually equipped to deal with the withering fire of secular humanism when they hit university or the work place. As they leave the trenches of their homes and churches they are cut down without even returning fire.

Bertrand Russell was arguably one of the great minds of the 20 Century. At 18 he had a faith but could find no one who would address his questions. Eventually he abandoned his faith and became one of the great protagonists for secular humanism in our generation.

On the other hand consider C S Lewis’ influence. A brilliant mind captured by Christ and used so effectively in Christ’s service as a powerful apologist

So what should our attitude be to faith and reason?

Jesus gives us a clear starting point in Mark 12:28-34.

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God , the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

In this passage Jesus makes it clear that we are to love God with our whole being, including our minds – and notice how the teacher of the Law who asked him the question understands the answer; (verse 33) we are “to love God with all our heart and mind.”

Paul in Romans 12:1-2 makes the same point but from a different angle. He says:

We are to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God – our whole life and person is to be set apart for God – this, he says, is our spiritual act of worship.

Then in verse 2 he says we are to embark on the project of personal transformation by renewing our minds, and by refusing to let them be shaped by the patterns of this world i.e. the world that does not honour or serve God.

“Therefore I urge you brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

We renew our minds by informing them with God’s word under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and not just once a week in church!

Do you spend as much time reading, thinking and discussing your Christian faith as you do all the other media you are surrounded by and saturated with?

We live in an age where we struggle to swim in the tidal wave of information and images that pours over us daily.

To constantly renew our minds with God’s truth in this context requires real intention and discipline.

The tools, the books, the opportunity for fellowship and discussion and learning are all there. The decision is ours.

Tolstoy has a great image in one of his novels that illustrates the difference between a Christian with a static view of Christian knowledge and one who continues to grow in the understanding and application of their knowledge of God’s Word.

There are two pictures:

  1. In the first picture we see a man standing under a solitary street lamp in a dark street. It’s the only light and it throws a circle of light around the lamp pole to which it is fixed. If the man walks too far from the pole he eventually walks outside the circle of light and into the darkness. He is free to do so but if he does he no longer has any light to show him a safe path.
  2. In the second picture we see a man carrying a lantern on a long stick. He is walking ahead confidently, the circle of light constantly accompanying him and lighting the way ahead.

The Christian who is growing is the one who carries the light of God’s Word with them into all aspects of their life and is constantly using that light to shed understanding on the way ahead , constantly grappling with the complexities of life in the light of God’s Word, constantly seeking to understand it more clearly and more deeply as it applies to life and work, education and government, family and community, popular culture, etc. etc.

Augustine the 5th Century Christian leader and thinker said, “A Christian is one who thinks in his believing and believes in his thinking.”

In other words – faith and reason are partners not adversaries. That should be our attitude and practice.

But this partnership is still incomplete without a 3rd partner – “obedience”.

The ultimate purpose of believing and understanding is to love God and our neighbour – to obey the great commandment.

  • The Christian faith is essentially relational. The essence of it is to be in a right relationship with God, a relationship of love, forgiven-ness and worshipful obedience . This is the relationship we were made for and so the one in which we are most fully human and most fulfilled. So faith and reason are meant to bring us into a relationship of loving obedience to God and love for others.
  • Further, the biblical view of wisdom and understanding is profoundly ethical. It is not just about logical process and knowledge and cleverness but right action.
  • Righteousness and wisdom are inextricably connected in scripture.

These three ideas of relational faith, understanding (or wisdom) and obedience are summed up clearly in Job 28.

Job asks: “Where does wisdom come from? Where does understanding dwell?”

God answers: “The fear of the Lord , that is wisdom and to shun evil is understanding”

What do these three ideas mean?

Faith = awe filled trust in God

Reason = a tool that assists us to know and understand God’s Word to us.

Obedience = to do what God commands and calls us to .

These 3 produce wisdom.

The last issue I want to look at briefly is the relationship between reason and revelation.

By revelation I mean how and what God has revealed of himself to us in the history of his people, in Jesus and in the Apostolic witness to Jesus and the record of these things in the Old and the New Testaments – the Bible.

The Christian who holds to classical orthodox Christianity will have a basic commitment to the Bible as God’s Word and as their primary authority.

But this raises a key question: how are we to read it and interpret it? How does our trio of faith, reason and obedience apply to our study of the Bible?

1. Faith

We come in faith believing God has revealed himself to us in his Word. But we come in “relational faith” ie. we come believing that God is in relationship with us through his Holy Spirit and he wants to communicate with us. So we expect to “hear” not just information about God but God’s Word to us, a word that will nourish us and transform us.

2. Reason

We come with the God given faculty of reason to understand. And so we read:

  • intelligently, thoughtfully, not superstitiously.
  • within the rules of language and grammar and context and historical background.
  • we seek to understand what the original writer was trying to convey under the inspiration of God when he wrote.

3. Obedience

Having understood, having “heard” – we then seek to obey – by reshaping our mind and attitudes to a Christian mind and by putting it into practice in our life.

So our reason has a very important place and role. Reason only becomes a problem when it seeks to become ‘autonomous’. When it breaks away from faith and obedience.

Eg. When we allow it to become an instrument to justify and rationalise a breach by us in our relationship with God or an act of disobedience or rationalise away some moral challenge we don’t want to obey.

Remember our reason like all our faculties is affected by our fallen natures. It’s not as though we carry reason around with us like a mobile phone or a calculator, some self contained instrument that is unaffected by the rest of our nature that we can turn off and on like some objective tool.

Reason will help us discover wisdom, and knowledge contributes to wisdom. But wisdom is bigger and deeper than reason or knowledge , it is knowing and doing what is good and right and true. So obedience must accompany faith and reason.

Reason is easily seduced by the prevailing “plausibility structure” in society. A plausibility structure is what a culture at a particular time finds easy to believe , what’s plausible to it.

Anything of course that fits the current plausibility structure seems reasonable and anything that doesn’t seems unreasonable!

We always need a healthy scepticism about the prevailing plausibility structure because it keeps changing!

There are 100’s of examples that we have all fallen victim to in:

  • food and health theories
  • education theories
  • political scenarios
  • social engineering experiments
  • government programmes

Dean Inge said, “He who marries the spirit of the age will be widowed in the next.”

Earlier I mentioned liberal reductionist theology. It is partly a product of the plausibility structure trap. It keeps reducing the Christian faith to fit what people find plausible. Instead of critiquing the current cultural thought with the Gospel it critiques the Gospel with the current cultural thought.

The damage it creates in the church is increased by the fact that it continues to use the classical language and symbols of the faith but radically changes their meaning or evacuates them of their original meaning. By the time faithful lay people wake up congregation after congregation is ready for the body bags. Great tracts of the Anglican and Uniting Churches in this country have been destroyed by this or emaciated to the point where they are waiting for the ecclesiastical undertakers!

Dr Graeme Cole used to say, “The alternative to theological liberalism is not fundamentalism but intelligent orthodoxy”.

If fundamentalism is faith in conflict with reason and liberal theology is reason in conflict with revelation then intelligent orthodoxy is revelation, faith and reason in partnership, with revelation as the senior partner!

Autonomous reason becomes completely feral when it begins to submit God to its own moral judgments.

Camus wrote: “When man submits God to moral judgment, he kills him in his own heart.”

Reason is a good servant but a bad master.

The Beeson Divinity School in the US was one of those seminaries created by an earlier generation to re-introduce Biblical, but thinking theology back into the American church, it’s motto is this: “Minds ablaze, hearts on fire.”

That’s a great motto – training a generation whose hearts are on fire with the Spirit of God, passionate for the Gospel but with minds ablaze, intellectually lit up and equipped to tackle the ideas and challenges of their culture.

Three questions to take away:

  1. How much time each week, apart from church, do you spend developing a Christian mind? Reading, thinking about or discussing serious Christian material?
  2. What is the proportion in relation to the rest of your reading, viewing and thinking?
  3. If you have young teenagers – how intellectually equipped are they as Christians to face an aggressively secular university and work place? Are we doing enough as a congregation to intellectually equip our young people?