Rediscovering Faith in its Relationship to Reason

“Faith is confidence grounded in reality, not a wild, desperate “leap.” ~ Dallas Willard

I once attended a lecture in which Christian philosopher John Mark Reynolds relayed a story about a woman in his parents’ church who in an attempt to demonstrate the extent of her faith proclaimed, “Even if you were to roll out on a cart the bones of Jesus I would still believe the resurrection to be true.” The purpose of his anecdote was to make us aware of an issue within the church that is manifested as a gross misunderstanding of the definition of faith in relation to reason. The woman’s proclamation was disturbing for several reasons. But my gut reaction to this story was to become defensive. I thought to myself, “I pray to God that non-Christians don’t ever think they need to disregard the use of critical thinking, ignore their doubts, and hang up their minds on the shelf in order to become a disciple of Christ.” But sadly, many people do view faith in direct opposition to reason, thereby determining that the Christian faith has no place for rationality. This is highly unfortunate, especially because the Christian faith places reason in such high regard. When speaking about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the apostle Paul states, “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (I Corinthians 15: 14-17). Paul’s point is that it would be nonsensical to believe in something that does not at its core correspond to reality.

Although there are pockets of Christians who have a misunderstanding of the definition and role of faith, it is important for us all to acknowledge the rich intellectual history of the Christian church. During the age of Enlightenment, John Locke helped lay an epistemological foundation for shaping religious thought. “He maintained that religious belief must have a rational foundation and that where such a foundation is absent, religious belief is unwarranted.”[1] This is not to say that there is no room for legitimate religious experience in bringing someone to faith in Christ. It is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit to convict us and challenge us to a life of faith in Christ. Because of this, we should not disregard the earnest faith of someone who may not be able to sufficiently articulate the reasons they believe, at an early point in their faith journey. It is true that many people begin their walks with Christ without being able to offer more rationale than “You ask me how I know He lives…He lives within my heart.” But still, at some point in each believer’s faith journey he or she must be able to fully understand his or her need for a Savior, and the divine Son’s death and resurrection that make salvation possible, and be able to articulate these truths to some degree. Everyone need not be acquainted with N.T. Wright’s or William Lane Craig’s extensive work on the historicity of the resurrection; however, each believer should be able to state legitimate reasons that correspond to reality, for the hope that lies within them (I Peter 3:15). In Faith and Reason, Ronald Nash states, “While Christian believers should beware of those who exalt their private religious experiences above the normative Scriptures or who get carried away by excessive emotionalism, Christians have to acknowledge the importance of religious experience and be prepared to defend it.”[2] Therefore, every follower of Christ must be able to give a defense for the source of his or her faith.

Thomas Aquinas played a significant role in elevating the role of reason in the spiritual life of the believer. Rodney Stark comments, “[Summa Theologica] consists of logical ‘proofs’ of Christian doctrine and set the standard for all subsequent Christian theologians. Aquinas argued that because humans lack sufficient intellect to see directly into the essence of things, it is necessary for them to reason their way to knowledge, step by step. Thus although Aquinas regarded theology as the highest of the sciences, since it deals directly with divine revelations, he advocated the use of the tools of philosophy, especially the principles of logic, in seeking to construct theology.”[3] In some Christian circles, it is unacceptable to appeal to philosophy or reason in general to support the facts of the Christian faith. I believe this stems from a misunderstanding of the meaning of faith as well as an error in scriptural interpretation of Colossians 2:8, which states “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” The study of philosophy is highly valuable in the life of the believer who earnestly desires to love the Lord with his mind as well as his heart (Luke 10:27). It is true that any discipline can be misused for the purpose of taking away glory from God; in this case we use the discipline of philosophy in order to reverse this effect and “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5). Thus, philosophy can be employed to do away with the very ideas it is accused of perpetuating in some Christian circles.

Again, it is highly unfortunate that anti-intellectualism is on the rise in today’s church, to the detriment of our mission to reach out to the world with the true gospel of Jesus Christ. Like the woman Professor Reynolds mentioned in his lecture, many church-goers are content to leave their reasoning capability aside, terming it as secular or fleshly. But this is not how God has called us to think. Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland defines faith as “a power or skill to act in accordance with the nature of the kingdom of God, a trust in what we have reason to believe is true.”[4] Faith was never meant to be a blind intellectual leap into the irrational. Faith is “confidence grounded in reality, not a wild, desperate leap.”[5] It boggles my mind that I grew up in a church tradition that claimed if an idea or statement contradicted one’s little faith, then it was all the more reason to dismiss the idea as untrue! Rather than examining the scriptures to shed light on the issue, one would simply, blindly and boldly grasp onto their “faith,” which really wasn’t faith at all, but revealed itself to be a product of intellectual laziness. Christians have a rich cultural heritage in philosophy, science, and history, which is why it is a shame to observe the decline of the theological mind in the American church. On the other hand, though, I am encouraged by the growing numbers of people who are seeking training in the discipline of apologetics, and have a deep desire to employ both faith and reason in their daily Christian walk. May God bless His church with the intellectual commitment and spiritual fervor it once held in times past that we may be able to earnestly contend for the faith that was once delivered to the saints (Jude 3).



[1] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994), p. 22.

[2] Ronald H. Nash, Faith and Reason (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), p. 143.

[3] Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason (New York: Random House, 2005), p. 10.

[4] J.P. Moreland, Love your God with all your Mind (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1997), p.25.

[5] Dallas Willard Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002)

candace@apologetics.com

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