“Faith & Reason” or “Faith vs. Reason”

detail, Le Penseur (The Thinker) at the Gates of Hell, Musee Rodin (image credit below)


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In his last sermon, Martin Luther declared:

But since the devil’s bride, Reason, that pretty whore, comes in and thinks she’s wise, and what she says, what she thinks, is from the Holy Spirit, who can help us, then? Not judges, not doctors, no king or emperor, because [reason] is the Devil’s greatest whore. [1]

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Yet, years earlier Luther had declared at the Diet of Worms with similar resolute:

Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.

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The German word Luther used for Reason is  klare Vernunftgründe which means “clear reasoning” or “clear rational grounds.” So, it would seem that what later was to him a “whore” had been in younger days a companion, a fitting tool, a solid ground upon which to stand – Reason.

 


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We have a rich heritage in Evangelical theology in its many branches. I believe that this theological wealth is most evident in the Reformed tradition. There is in it a pleasing blend of mind-filled academic investigation as well as heart warming devotion to Christ. We have much to appreciate and continue learning in its wide and deep veins of Scripture study and theological wisdom, the Presuppositional corpus included. Yet, we believe that in certain key areas Presuppositional apologists have over-stated their position on the matter of Faith & Reason. In various contexts on the question of Faith & Reason it would appear that their position is instead Faith vs. Reason.

 

Post-Reformation Scholastic literature, thriving on the new territory won by Reformation theological battles, represented the continuation of Thomistic proofs and analysis in some form or another under the commitments summed in the Five Solas. The Reformation turned into a clear break with Rome, but it was not a break with “clear reasoning.”

Herman Bavinck noted that “Essentially the teaching of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in regard to predestination was accepted by the Reformers: the modifications introduced by them were slight and unessential, if we except the doctrine of assurance. The Reformers agreed with Augustine and Thomas Aquinas on many points…” (The Doctrine of God).

 

The use of Natural Theology by the Reformers did not abate with the fading echoes of Luther’s hammer on the church castle door in 1517. In a recent article for Ad Fontes quarterly, David Haines concludes that “Our investigation [of natural theology] shows that by the application all four Protestant standards, natural theology is a necessary element for complete orthodoxy.”

 

However, in a more extended analysis we are told “…that there is no such thing, since the fall, as a ‘natural reason’ that can produce a true knowledge of the true God. The best that natural reason can do, since the fall, is to produce an idol, a god of our own imaginings” [2]. And that “Natural Theology, according to the Reformed, is a product of ‘pilgrim theology,’ that is, of the theology of the regenerate” [3]. So the Presuppositional position seems to affirm General (natural) Revelation, but deny any Natural Theology from it though the Apostle Paul (stated below) did and Van Til did, at least here:

 

“We thus stress Paul’s teaching that all men do not have a mere capacity for but are in actual possession of the knowledge of God” (Defense of the Faith, 109).

 

Clearly with the Reformers we affirm the full impact of the Fall on man’s being and faculties. Yet, mankind in his present rebellious state is not left without the instrument of reason, though depraved it is. Man is a thinker.

 

The Presuppositional view as stated by many of his practitioners has made the case for Faith & Reason into one of Faith verses Reason with assertions such as “natural theology…is of the theology of the regenerate.” It almost appears that this strain of Presuppositional thought leans upon a Fideist hermeneutic regarding the province of “natural theology.”

 

Is this breach beyond repair? Is this a chasm too wide to spam between a Reformed approach to Faith & Reason whose heritage reaches back into the bowels of the 16th century and an apologetic grounded in anti-thesis? Is it possible to show how God uses instruments and means (including reason) in his sovereign workings and in the divine disposition of his saving grace such that Faith is not a thing apart from Reason, but are parts of the allurement in which the Gospel figures most prominently? I would hope so.

We may not be as apart as it sounds.

 

Notice how closely Thomas Aquinas is to the Apostle Paul on this matter of reason.

Another knowledge is that by which God is considered in himself yet nevertheless is known through his effects, insofar as someone proceeds from the knowledge of his effects to the knowledge of God himself. And this can be had through the inquiry of natural reason, although not immediately. And it was thus that the philosophers and other wise men arrived at knowledge of God, to the extent that it is possible to attain it.

 

and Paul in Romans 1

 

… since what may be known about God is plain [klare Vernunftgründe, “clear reasoning”] to them [the lost, the unbelieving ones, not “regenerate” believers], because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people [the lost outside of Christ] are without excuse.

For although they [the lost] knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him…

Furthermore, just as they [the lost] did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God…

 

How can those under the judgment of God be rightly judged on the Last Day if they had not access to a “natural theology”? The heavens [and all under them] declare the glory of God and it is by this natural theology that God first gives witness to his existence and then by a Reason redeemed gives the believer new eyes to see much more than he saw before and to see all things in the light of the glory of his grace.

 

The matter of Faith & Reason is for the Christian, and especially for the old ways of Reformed theology, not a false dichotomy nor two warring parties that must be signed to a truce. Both are gifts from the Almighty to use in us as he sees fit and to his ultimate saving ends. No man who comes to Christ by faith comes mindlessly. So without setting the two categories at extreme odds and yet reasoning that they must be reconciled we can say with John Donne…

“Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.”

(Batter My Heart, poem, 1618)

 

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image credit: By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France – Le penseur de la Porte de l’Enfer (musée Rodin), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24671002

 

Notes:

  1. Martin Luther’s Last Sermon in Wittenberg, Second Sunday in Epiphany, 17 January 1546. Dr. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. (Weimar: Herman Boehlaus Nachfolger, 1914), Band 51:126, Line 7ff
  2. Scott Oliphint, Thomas Aquinas (Great Thinkers), page 52.
  3. Ibid., 79.

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