Faith and Reason in Christian Perspective: Definitions

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Paul Henebury's picture
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Faith and Reason in Christian Perspective: Definitions

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It appears to me that one of the first things a faithful theologian needs to do is to straighten out the confusion brought about by the world’s separation of faith and reason. This relationship is so vital to a biblically fastened worldview that to neglect it will involve the believer in a host of conflicting beliefs and practices. For it is just here that the negligent Christian theologue will be attacked.1 To the average man in the street, “faith” is that “I really hope so” attitude that many people employ when their circumstances get tough. It is that blind trust that things will turn out all right in the end. Faith thus defined is the opposite of reason. “Reason” deals with the cold hard facts, so it goes, and is what we have to use in the “real world”—in business, in science, in education.

One Christian writer has put the matter in the form of a question: “Is it rational for us to believe in God? Is it rational for us to place our confidence in Him and his revelation to man? Can a person believe in God without performing a sacrifice of his intellect?”2

According to many people, faith and reason are polar opposites. Faith deals with hopes and aspirations and dreams and “religious stuff,” while reason concerns itself with the facts of day to day experience, the world in which we live and do science learn about what is and what is not so. As the late Harvard paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould stated it, in what has become a mantra among secular scientists, “religion tells us how to go to heaven; science tells us how the heavens go.” To put it in less deceptive terms, “religion deals with gods and heaven and pixies and UFOs; while science (which knows these things are non-existent) concerns itself with what is so.” Gould even thought up a nice anagram for his concept: NOMA, or “non over-lapping magisteriums.”3 Secular science gets all the facts; faith gets all the pink elephants. Or as one astute critic observed,

The power to define “factual reality” is the power to govern the mind, and thus to confine “religion” within a naturalistic box. For example, a supposed command of God can hardly provide a basis for morality unless God really exists. The commands of an imaginary deity are merely human commands dressed up as divine law…. [N]aturalistic metaphysics relegates both morality and God to the realm outside of scientific knowledge, where only subjective belief is to be found.4

It is because of misconceptions such as these that the matter deserves more attention than it gets. We must begin by defining our terms. Gould and his followers are so impressed by their formulation of the issue because they have defined faith away while reconstituting reason so that it mirrors their own opinion of themselves and what they think they are doing. The first thing that any person should do, therefore, is to know what he means when employing specific terminology.

Definitions

I will define reason along with theologian-philosopher John Frame as, “the human ability or capacity for forming judgments and inferences.”5 This is employing the word in a descriptive sense. Frame goes on to narrow the definition down to a normative sense “to denote correct judgments and inferences.”6 The important thing to notice about Frame’s definition is that it houses no built-in biases against supernaturalism. While being itself a perfectly good description it does not contain anything in it with which the secularist can control the debate.

Faith, meanwhile, may be accurately defined as “ ‘persuasion of the divine truth,’ upon which we rightly presume when we renounce all self-dependence, and upon which all our hope is based.”7 Carl Henry provides a perceptive yet succinct definition when he calls faith the “knowledge based on and issuing from revelation.”8 Within this definition it is important to realize that such faith is impossible without the effectual working of the Holy Spirit. Hence, we are not concerned with a general religious belief, but in a living faith which has “its object, basis, and origin” in a relationship “between a human being and God.”9 This faith is dependent on revelation and can come to certainty through a divine in-working by means of the Word of God.

We may add one more definition to those given above, this time from the Scots worthy, Hugh Binning: “Faith is the soul’s testimony to God’s truth; the word [i.e. the Bible] is God’s testimony.”10 To hearken back to a previous set of posts, the divine Logos who created and structured the world and created us to interpret the world through Him via the Scriptures, has given faith as the mechanism by which the two are brought together.11 Thus, faith is not opposed to reason; but in fact it is served by reason. We see this taught in Hebrews 11:3, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word (rhema) of God, so that the things which are seen were not made by things which are visible.” As the “we” in the verse refers to saints, the understanding is available only on the basis of faith (cf. vv. 1 and 6). Since the verse refers either to the created spheres, or, most probably, in view of the historical references in the chapter, to the program of history itself, and it takes the prerequisite of faith to comprehend, then, patently, a Christian view of knowledge places faith before reason. Or as the Puritan commentator William Gouge put it, “Faith is in the understanding.”12 Therefore, the teachings of the Bible should act as the “control beliefs”13 of the one who has come under the sway of the Bible.

Notes

1 To give one example, this sharp dichotomy is a main plank in the atheistic arguments of George H. Smith’s, Atheism: The Case Against God, (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1989). Just read any atheist and you will discover the same approach. Many unbelievers think that the dichotomy between faith and reason is basic to why they can remain in their unbelief. Given the standard dichotomy I think they are correct.

2 John P. Newport, Life’s Ultimate Questions, (Fort Worth, Scripta Publishing Co,1994), 415.

3 We shall not tarry at this point to discuss the relationship of Theology to Science. That will be gone into later. There it will be shown that outside of a Christian-theistic description of the world science would be impossible.

4 Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin On Trial, (Downers Grove: IVP, 1993), 161-162.

5 John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1987), 329.

6 Ibid, 330.

7 Edward A. Dowey, Jr, The Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, Third edition, 1994), 154. The initial definition is from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, III. 2:14.

8 Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000), 2.57.

9 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 1.568.

10 Hugh Binning, Works, (Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, [1858] 1992), 32.

11 Cf. Bavinck, 1.231.

12 William Gouge, Commentary on Hebrews, (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1980 reprint), 762.

13 The term “control beliefs” is borrowed from Nicholas Wolterstorff’s important little book, Reason within the Bounds of Religion, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 70.

Aaron Blumer's picture
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Clarity

Paul, much appreciate the clarity here.  (A 2nd installment posts tomorrow)

Paul Henebury's picture
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Appreciate that Aaron.  I

Appreciate that Aaron.  I hope the series will spark interest in an important topic. 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder/ President of Telos Theological Ministries, and teach at

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Good article Paul. Looking

Good article Paul. Looking forward to another installment.

Paul Henebury's picture
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Thanks Josh.  I believe this

Thanks Josh.  I believe this is a crucial area to nail down for Christians.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder/ President of Telos Theological Ministries, and teach at

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