What is the Relationship of Reason to Revelation?
Reason and revelation. To many Christians the two terms seem contradictory. The word "reason" sends chills up and down some spines because it is seen to oppose faith and the miraculous. Other Christians welcome reason and treat it as a gift from God to be used to its fullest extent. The fact of the matter is that Christians have several viewpoints concerning the relationship between revelation and reason. Some completely eliminate one or the other from their belief-system, others tend to lean more heavily toward one over the other, while others treat both with equal emphasis. We could term the various positions as "Revelation Only," "Reason Only," "Revelation Over Reason," "Reason over Revelation," or "Revelation and Reason."1
The first hurdle to overcome in any discussion is the defining of terms. "Reason" is the natural ability of the human mind to discover and process truth. "Revelation" is the supernatural disclosure of truth, by God, which could not otherwise be discovered by the unaided powers of human reason. Let us examine and evaluate the five views of the relationship of revelation to reason.
Soren Kierkegard argued that since man is fallen and in a state of rebellion and isolation from God, he cannot understand God’s truth without revelation. God is transcendent. As such His ways are higher than our ways and His thought are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9). The ways of God are past finding out (Romans 11:33). God is wholly other than man, so attempting to understand the truth of God with man’s reasoning ability is futile. God is not irrational, but suprarational and beyond the scrutiny or testability of human reason.
He further argued that reason can only reject the absurd or irrational, but it cannot be of any positive benefit in discovering divine truth. We need to take a "leap of faith" beyond rationality to believe divine revelation. This is why any attempt to offer proofs for God’s existence is an insult to God. No one needs proof who believes, and those who do not believe will not be convinced.
This view is true insofar as all truth flows from God, and must be revealed to men by some means. It seems inadequate, however, in that it fails to allow men to use their God-given minds to discover and contemplate God's truth. It turns humanity into nothing more than a computer who can only process the data that is input into it. We are made in God's image, which includes the ability to reason. To deny this essential aspect of our humanity is to deny the image of God in us. God gave us minds for a purpose. Although our minds should not be used to contradict God's revelation, our minds must be used to understand it.
This view states that nothing is known from divine revelation, but all truths are discovered by human reason. Immanuel Kant held to this view. He believed that we must filter the Scripture through reason. This necessitated his denial of miracles, demon possession, the resurrection of Christ, etc.
This view is good insofar as it stresses man's need to use His God-given mind to discover the truths of the universe that God created, and to discover truths about God. It is seriously deficient, however, in that human reason unaided by divine revelation is limited in its scope. Even aside from the effects of sin on our ability to reason to truth, there are many things that could never be known apart from revelation. We would not know of Jesus Christ, the resurrection, or the future kingdom of God apart from divine revelation. Human reason could never discover such truths.
Reason Over Revelation
'Reason over revelation' affirms both reason and revelation’s importance in the life of the believer, but reason is given more importance than is revelation. Justin Martyr said that those who lived reasonably were Christians, even if they did not have faith in Christ. Starting with the idea that all truth is God’s truth, Justin believed that the Greek philosophers were Christians because their reasoning brought about the discovery of God’s truth. Clement of Alexandria even compared the Greek’s philosophy to the Jewish law. He said that both were intended to lead one to Christ.
The Deists of seventeenth and eighteenth centuries held to such a view. In fact, Thomas Jefferson went through the Bible and literally cut out every supernatural event and printed the rest as the "Jefferson Bible." Reason over revelation concludes that if the Bible’s teaching does not line up to good reason, it must be rejected.
The best modern-day example of those who hold to reason over revelation are the higher critics of the Bible who determine by reason which parts of the Scripture are truly God's revelation to man and which are not.
The truth of this view is found in the fact that revelation must be examined by human reason. We examine revelation, not to determine if it is indeed revelation, but in order to understand, comprehend, and apply that revelation to our lives. This view is weak in that it can lead to the idea that human reason is able to judge whether something is revelation, such as the resurrection of Christ and miracles in general.
Revelation Over Reason
Tertullian said, "I believe because it is absurd." He did not mean he believes in that which makes no sense. The Latin word translated as "absurd" means "foolishness." He was not against reason because he spoke against those who were "content with having simply believed, without full examination of the grounds of the traditions" they believed. But his comment does show the superiority that revelation held over his ability to reason through that revelation and it to make sense to the human mind.
One of his most famous statements is, "What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the academy and the church?" He decried the Greek philosophy and reasoning that rejected God’s revelation. Again he said, "It is the more to be believed if the wonderfulness be the reason why it is not believed."
This view holds that the believer reasons about revelation, but never against it. Kant held to "revelation within the limits of reason," but Tertullian held to "reason within the limits of revelation."2
Cornelius Van Til said that reason is dependent on revelation. Too many Christians ground God in reason instead of reason in God. God is creator of the human race, therefore all reason must be His servant. Reason stands under God’s judgment but never in judgment of God.
This view is correct in an ontological sense. Revelation is prior to reason ontologically. Before one can reason about revelation and truth, they must know it. Surely one cannot reason about something they do not know. Apart from God giving us revelation, human reason as incited by the fallen nature, will naturally lead to error. God is superior to all things, including human reason. This view's weakness is that it tends to belittle human reason, commonly viewing it as an enemy to God. It does not give enough attention to man's reason as part of the image of God in us, and something which should be utilized to its fullest extent, but within the limits of revelation.
Revelation and Reason
Augustine held that one can reason for revelation, but never against it. The thinking Christian should attempt to render the credible intelligible. He said that "faith is understanding’s step." Without faith one would never come to a full understanding of God’s truth. He based this off of the Septuagint reading of Isaiah 7:9 which says, "Unless you believe, you will not understand." He also held to the fact that no one believes without first having some understanding of what he is to believe. No one should believe a revelation which he has not first judged by reason to be worthy of belief.
Augustine also taught that "understanding is faith’s reward." Because one accepts God’s revelation, he is rewarded with a fuller understanding than he could have had otherwise. A partial understanding is necessary for one to know by reason in order to believe, but after believing, a fuller understanding will come. Ultimately, man must accept by faith that which can be proved by reason, and that which cannot.
Thomas Aquinas believed in the total depravity of man, but still believed that our human rationality was not destroyed altogether. If it was destroyed altogether, he reasoned, we would no longer be capable of sinning, or at least being held accountable for our sins.
The best that reason can do for us is demonstrate that God exists, but divine revelation is the only ground for believing in God. Reason leads to our belief that something is truth, while revelation is the only basis for belief in that truth. Even the Scripture says that demons believe that God exists, but they do not believe in God (James 2:19).
Even though one cannot reason to belief in God, he can find reasons for it. The believer finds reasonable support for his faith in experiential and historical evidences and miracles, and philosophy. Faith is prior to reason philosophically, for no non-Christian ever offered proofs for God’s existence. Yet reason is prior to faith personally; for one does not believe in God or His alleged Word if he has no evidence that it is true.
This view's strength is found in that it gives proper emphasis to both reason and revelation, understanding that each work together to bring the believer truth and understanding. Without reason the concept of faith is belittled to a mere confession or dogmatic commitment to a list of non-intelligible "facts." Only when we reason about revelation can it truly be understood, and only then can we truly have faith in that revelation.
Seeing that God has the ability to reason, and we are made in His image, it follows that God has intended for us to use our reasoning ability to discover and contemplate truth. Many truths, however, can only come via revelation. Revelation and reason cannot be separated from the life of the Christian. That we cannot divorce reason from our lives in favor of ‘revelation only’ is evident from the fact that those who hold to a ‘revelation only’ view must give logical and reasonable arguments for their position. They call upon our reasoning abilities to prove that their view is correct. On the flip-side, any attempt at pure rationalism divorced from revelation is also futile because not everything can be proved. Something is always presupposed or simply believed behind every provable belief. Justification, which comes by reason, must stop somewhere.
That reason is necessarily connected to revelation is evidenced by the fact that we are called upon to decide true revelation from false revelation (testing the spirits—I John 4:1-2). How can we do such discerning apart from reason, even if it is reasoning from the Scriptures? It must be remembered that there is a difference between reasoning to see whether something is revelation, or to determine what in the Bible is revelation. The former is a noble endeavor (Acts 17:11), while the latter is not. Belief is blind and unworthy unless it tests whether something is revelation or not. It is foolish to believe everything without applying reason to test its believability or truthfulness, but likewise it is arrogant to assume that everything must be accepted by our reason before it can be accepted as God’s Word, or truth.3
Part of the tension can be resolved by viewing the issue from two different perspectives: epistemologically (what we know) and ontologically (how we know). There is a difference between the way we know reality and what we know about reality. If God is the source of all truth, then truth must come from the "top down," and thus be known by revelation; however, epistemologically we start from the "bottom up" to determine whether or not God exists.4 In the epistemological sense, then, reason is prior to revelation, since reason must be used to evaluate whether or not the Bible is indeed revelation.
Reason precedes faith as a method of knowing the existence of God. One cannot believe in a God in whom they have no knowledge of, and cannot truly know something without reasoning about that which is to be known. A certain amount of knowledge (and thus reason) must be known of God if one is to have saving or experiential faith. One may have knowledge without faith, but one cannot have faith without knowledge.
Reason and revelation work together. God bestows faith simultaneously with our understanding. We do not have to crucify our intellect in order to believe. Faith may sometimes go beyond our ability to know something or understand it to the fullest extent, but faith is not illogical. Healings may seem illogical to some, but we know from God’s Word (revelation) that He heals, and therefore can believe (reason) that He will heal.
All other views besides ‘revelation and reason’ produce logical complications concerning salvation. The idea that one can move only from faith to understanding, and never from understanding to faith is lacking for reasonable support. Michael Bauman said it best:
Saving faith is not without its necessary prior theological content. To become a Christian requires one to come to at least some rudimentary conclusions about God, about Christ, about one’s own spiritual status and need. In other words, it requires (correct) theology…. … Adherents to such a view … do not seem to realize that their position actually eliminates the possibility of saving faith because it asserts that saving faith is the sine qua non of theology. The truth, however, is quite the opposite because correct theology of some sort (however primitive and unsophisticated it might be in the case of some new converts) is the sine qua non of saving faith.5
For the above reasons we conclude that both revelation and reason are gifts of God to men for the purpose of knowing and understanding truth, and subsequently knowing and understanding the God of all truth. By rejecting either revelation or reason, or under-emphasizing either aspect, we are discarding part of the equipment that God has endowed us with to know Him. As a result our understanding of God and the spiritual grow He intends for us be stunted. To dismiss one aspect or the other is like cutting with a pair of scissors having only one blade. To minimize one aspect over the other is like cutting with a pair of dull scissors. Only by emphasizing both revelation and reason can we cut the truth straight!
1. This paper is heavily indebted to the material found in Norman L. Geisler, Paul D. Feinberg, Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective (Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, 1980), 255-270. <back>
2. Geisler and Feinberg, 263. <back>
3. Ibid., 269. <back>
4. Ibid. <back>
5. Michael Bauman, Pilgrim Theology (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1992), 53. <back>
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