In this third and final 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 fellowshiped 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:
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 underlined 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 this reviewer), provides some added insight into Hegel’s (and Kant’s) theory of ethical drives:
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. (Emphasis added).
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 effect 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.”
Christians are not immune from thinking independently of God. We do it when we think we can circumvent clear passages which we would rather say something other than what they say.
Jesus on Faith and Reason
We can see this in two episodes in the life of our Lord.
In the first, Jesus warns the disciples to “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt. 16:6).
The narrative then says the disciples “reasoned among themselves, saying, ‘It is because we have taken no bread.”
This brought forth a rebuke from Jesus:
“O you of little faith, why do you reason among yourselves….do you not understand…How is it you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread? – but to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matt. 16:8-11).
Then the narrative tells us that “they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
Clearly the reasoning of the disciples was faulty and brought forth a righteously indignant response from Jesus. They were reasoning this way because faith was not guiding their reason. Notice that Jesus does not explain His meaning to them in verse 11, but simply repeats the warning of verse 6. That was because there was sufficient information in what He said to them for them to gain the right understanding – provided they let faith guide their reason!
The other example is in Mark’s Gospel. In Mark 4:35-41 we have the record of Jesus’ stilling of the wind and the sea. It starts out with Jesus’ statement of intent:
Let us cross over to the other side.
As the story moves forward these men, some of whom were seasoned sailors, began to panic and fear for their lives because of the squall which was pitching their boat up and down and throwing water in on the sides. In their fretting they petulantly rose the Lord with the words, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
Then what do we read? The Lord rebuked the wind and the waves, and then He rebuked the disciples.
Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?
You see, faith would have prevented them from reasoning to the conclusion that they were on the verge of capsizing. While the noisy and raucous storm had their attention they couldn’t employ faith to guide their thinking. But Jesus was in the boat! Jesus had said they were going to the other side. It wasn’t for them to reappraise His words because they could not see how they could be true given the present circumstances. The same lesson can be gathered from Peter’s turn on the water in Matthew 14:22-33.
A very telling episode is found at the close of John’s Gospel where Jesus replies to Peter’s question about John,
If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me.” (Jn. 21:22).
But look what happens next. Reason is taking the helm and they begin thinking independently:
Then this saying [which is completely misinterpreted] went out among the brethren that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but… (Jn. 21:23).
And, of course, the words of Jesus are repeated exactly as He spoke them in verse 21. What is the lesson? Surely it is take heed of what God says and let faith guide the way you reason about it. (This is what the ‘Rules of Affinity’ seek to help us do). The more divergence there is from what God actually says, the more opportunity there is for us to reason independently in our attempts to understand. And in such circumstances we are always at more risk of missing what God is saying.
A Shining Example of Right Reasoning
There are many examples of men and women of God who get it right because they believe in order to understand. In Hebrews 11:17-19 Abraham provides perhaps the greatest example of faith going before reason in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac because that is what God told him to do. He did not reason like this:
“Oh, well, since Isaac is the promised one who I’ve waited so long for, God wouldn’t really want me to kill him. God isn’t like those pagan deities which demand such sacrifices! Obviously this is meant as an allegory or a type or something like that…”
I might have reasoned that way under the circumstances, but Abraham’s faith controlled his reason. And so Abraham,
conclud[ed] that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead…” (Heb. 11:19a).
He could not have come to that conclusion if his faith had not assured him that the only way out of the apparent contradiction was that God would just have to raise Isaac up again!
Faith connects us with our Creator and Father. It makes us dependent on Him and that pleases Him. Since we are urged to “bring every thought into captivity to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5), employing “the mind of Christ”(1 Cor. 2:16), we are to renounce autonomy, and struggle in faith to cleave to God. As Solomon put it,
Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. (Prov. 3:5-6).
From a Christian-biblical perspective then, faith ought always and everywhere to guide and instruct our reason.
† – Many thanks to Jason Schaitel for calling this article to my attention.