Faith and Reason in Christian Perspective: The Curse of Autonomy

Read the series so far.

In this article on the roles of faith and reason I want to turn to examine some biblical passages which, I think, really help us to understand why reason must be driven by faith. The first of these comes from the Garden of Eden.

Autonomy: our default position in the use of reason

Although we do not have a protracted narrative of all that went on between the serpent and Eve, we do have everything necessary for us to learn what God wants us to learn. The culmination of the devil’s temptation of the woman was in the words, “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen. 3:5). Of course this was a lie. No one could know good and evil like God without being God. But the promise of “being like God” was what did it.

Ironically enough, Eve and her husband were already like God. They had been created in the image and likeness of God. Also, they were with God. The Lord fellowshipped with them in the Garden, and it is certain that these regular interactions would have expanded both the knowledge and the image of God in our first parents. What Adam and Eve most needed was not to be “like God” in the way Satan promised, but rather they needed to be with God. As it happened their disobedience left them less like God and deprived them of His close fellowship.

But what led up to it? We can begin to see the answer if we compare the two descriptions of the trees in Eden in chapter 2 and chapter 3. In chapter 2:9 we get an appraisal of the trees, via Moses, from God’s point of view (emphasis added):

And out of the ground the LORD God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Notice the twin description of the trees of the garden as being (1) “pleasant to the sight,” and (2) “good for food.”

Now take a look at the woman’s appraisal of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 3:6.

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate.

I have again emphasized the pertinent parts of the verse for comparison. Notice how Eve’s independent analysis of the tree agreed with the Lord’s appraisal in 2:9. After listening to the serpent Eve in effect stood back and sized up the tree, and she concurred with God that the tree was (1) “pleasant to the sight”, and (2) “good for food”, but she reasoned independently from God that the tree was (3) “desirable to make one wise.”

The main point here is that there was a movement from dependence on God’s Word and authority to independent evaluation, and hence reasoning. In the autonomy of her reasoning about the tree Eve put reason before revelation. It didn’t matter that she agreed with God (at least some of the time). What really mattered was that she arrived at her conclusions apart from Divine prescription.

Since the Fall we have all functioned from a default position of independence from God and His Word. False religions sprang from false notions of God. From false notions of God come equally false notions about ourselves and our world. Hence, the triad God, Man and the World is crucial to a correct Christian Worldview. Get any one of these wrong and the other two will be affected. Even in militant atheism the triad remains; only now “God” is substituted for “no God” (though God pervades their writings). An autonomous view will warp all of these because of the idol of independence in the determination of final truth.

To give one example, in a recent work on Hegel’s mature thought, John McCumber (according to Sebastian Rand), provides some added insight into Hegel’s (and Kant’s) theory of ethical drives (emphasis added):

What makes McCumber’s reading of the Philosophy of Right so striking is his emphasis on the role Hegel assigns to our natural drives, and on the idea that for Hegel, ethical theory must explain how these drives can be purified and ordered, or rationalized, so as to achieve genuine human autonomy.

And again,

The goal of Hegelian practical philosophy is thus very similar, on McCumber’s view, to the goal of theoretical idealism: ethical theory seeks to take our desires, motivations, and needs as they are, reducing them to moments in a larger whole, and reappropriating them for the project of freedom through their systematization.*

Within biblical Christianity too, this default of human independence shows itself in our reasonings about the interpretation of texts, particularly those texts which might make us feel uncomfortable about any number of subjects. Among these subjects I might mention the age of the earth, evolution, the global flood, the covenants made with Israel, the beginning of the Church, the headship of the husband, women in the ministry, Christian counseling, and a whole lot more.

I am not saying that everyone who uses the Bible to guide their reason will automatically come out at the same place. There are variables in things like competence and experience which may affect interpretation. But placing faith before reason will tend to hold off interrogative approaches to the text like, “Are you saying that…?” or “But what about…?” etc., when clear passages are quoted.

The great Methodist Bible commentator Adam Clarke (d. 1832) wrote:

Prayer is the language of dependence; he who prays not is endeavoring to live independently of God; this was the first curse, and continues to be the great curse of mankind.

(Tomorrow: Jesus on Faith and Reason.)

* Many thanks to Jason Schaitel for calling this article to my attention.

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There are 2 Comments

josh p's picture

Paul, again thanks for the article. I think a lot of Christians (myself included) have chronologically assigned the fall to the actual bite of the fruit. Your mention of 3:6 though would seem to place it at Eve's independent reasoning just before. Here is my question: my understanding of the Noetic effect of the fall is that it is part of the curse and came about as the result of Sin. How then was she able before the fall to reason independently of God? I realize this has to do a lot with one's view of compatiblism/free-will but it would seem that either

1)Eve's reasoning that the fruit "made one wise" was not in itself sinful or

2) Her independent thought was actually the first sin.

Or am I neglecting some other option here?

Paul Henebury's picture

Good question Josh, I have myself wondered about this.  

First, 1 Tim. 2:14 where we are told that Eve "became a transgressor" (lit.).  This then was the first human sin, and I understand it to mean (2) in your list (although this would include (1) IF she treated that information as authoritative alongside of God's words.  But it did not cause the Fall as a necessary consequence.  The Fall occurred, not on the basis of her transgression, but of the man (Rom. 5:14, 19).  Thus, only when Adam partook of the fruit were their eyes opened (Gen. 3:6-7).


Paul H.  

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

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