A Reasonable Faith
What is the Christian faith? Faith includes a body of knowledge that Christians believe and affirm. Furthermore the object of faith is the whole person of God – his character traits and the way he interacts with his creation – as revealed by God in the Bible.
In our experience, we have found that many Christians are unclear of the relationship between faith and reason. Christianity is much more than a belief system based on subjective feelings and personal preference. Christianity is a reasonable faith.That doesn't mean that Christianity is purely rational or that faith in God requires that we absolutely prove that God exists. What it means is that we have good reasons for believing that the Christian faith is true. J.P. Moreland says "Understood in this way, we see that faith is built on reason. We should have good reasons for thinking that Christianity is true before we dedicate ourselves completely to it. We should have solid evidence that our understanding of a biblical passage is correct before we go on to apply it."
A Brief History of Faith and Reason
Throughout the history of the church, faith and reason have been connected. Here are some highlights:
The Apostle Paul. Nobody did more to establish the early church than Paul. Paul was skilled in apologetics – that is, providing a reasonable explanation for his faith – whether he was offering a defense before governors and kings. Throughout his letters to young churches and Christians, Paul consistently teaches that the Christian faith is something they can know. In his letter to the Roman church, Paul writes in Romans 1:19-20 about the ability of people to know the truth about God:
The Early Church Fathers. The early church fathers continued to use apologetics to show that the Christian faith is true. In the second century, Justin Martyr argued that Christianity should be tolerated because it was a true philosophy like Platonism. Justin Martyr also use the Old Testament prophecies to prove that Jesus is the Messiah. In the third century, Origen offered a defense of the resurrection of Jesus and showed that the miracles of Jesus, while not natural, were credible.
Augustine (354-430). Widely considered to be the greatest theologian and apologist of all time, Augustine taught that faith and reason work together to help people know God. On the one hand, said Augustine, rather than trying to prove such truth as the existence of God and the resurrection of Christ, we need to accept what Scripture says about them because God is invisible and the resurrection occurred in the past and cannot be observed. On the other hand, Augustine believed that it was foolish to "believe in Christ without any proofs concerning Christ." Augustine didn't think it was possible to come to faith through reason alone, he saw the two as interactive and interdependent.
The Middle Ages. The middle ages was a time of intellectual development for the Christian faith. Anselm (1032-1109) develop several proofs to answer the questions of unbelievers including ontological argument for the existence of God. However, Anselm's primary goal in combining faith and reason was to help Christians gain a better appreciation for their faith as a reasonable faith. Anselm is famous for saying, "I believe in order to understand."
Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). Aquinas develop many of the traditional arguments used to this date to show God exists, including the cosmological and moral arguments and the argument from design. At the same time, Aquinas didn't believe that faith is just about reason. He taught that some truths about God are discoverable through reason and faith working together, while others are known only through faith.
The Reformation. Two giants of the Reformation presented to views of faith and reason. Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) thought that reason had limits in helping people trust in Christ for salvation. Not only did Luther believed that the only way to be justified in God's sight is by faith alone, but he also believed that reason plays no part in knowing the true God. Later in his life, Luther admitted that non-Christians can gain a general knowledge about God to evidence, but this knowledge alone is not enough to save them.
By contrast, John Calvin (1509 – 1564) taught that faith is always reasonable. However, he clarified that faith doesn't always appear to be reasonable to non-Christians because their reason has been corrupted by sin. This is what Paul means when he writes about "wicked people who suppressed the truth by their wickedness" Romans 1:18.
Colonial America. The pilgrims who came to America in the 17th century weren't stupid. They were highly educated and valued education. Most of the great universities in the 17th and 18th century – Harvard, Princeton, and Yale– were founded by Christians. Christian scholars like Jonathan Edwards, who possessed a towering intellect to go along with a deep spirituality, demonstrated by their writings and teachings that faith and reason belong together.
Apologetics in the Twentieth Century and Beyond
A number of brilliant scholars with a heart for Christ reshape the landscape. Chief among them was C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) and Oxford graduate who had influenced many Christian apologist and philosophers as well as tens of millions of Christians. Through such popular books as the Problem of Pain, the Screwtape letters, Miracles, and Mere Christianity, Lewis showed that Christianity is based on reasonable evidence. As a twenty-first century has unfolded, a new generation of Christian apologist is delivering the timeless message of truth in new context. Gifted communicators such as Lee Strobel, William Lane Craig, and Timothy Keller are communicating the truth about God in ways that are relational and culturally relevant.
When Reason was Pushed to the Margins
J.P. Moreland says that three different European trends and 18th and 19th century began to push reason into the margins as a factor in people coming to Christ in faith. First, philosophers such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant said that we cannot know God exists because we can't experience him with the five senses. Second, German higher criticism of the Bible question its reliability as a historical document. Third, the publication of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin challenge the belief that God created the universe.
In America, Christians responded in two ways to these challenges to biblical authority. First, they withdrew from the arena of public intellectual debate and focused on the inner life, with an emphasis on the Holy Spirit. "To be sure," writes Moreland, "Christians must rely on the Holy Spirit in their intellectual pursuits but this does not mean they should expand no mental sweat of their own in defending the faith." The second response from Christians to these challenges was the rise of fundamentalism. The term came from an emphasis on the fundamentals of the Bible. Rather than engage the culture with the foundational truths of Scripture, the fundamentalist started their own Bible institutes and gathered in their own Bible conferences. The net result according to Moreland was the marginalization of Christian ideas in the public arena.
Evidence, Faith, Reason, and Truth
When we talk about evidence for faith, what we are really after are the reasons for our faith. Now it's time to defend what we mean by evidence. In order to do that, we also need to look at to related terms: reason and truth.
Evidence. This is the data presented to prove the facts especially in a court case. In a broader sense, evidence is anything that tends to prove or disprove something. From a positive perspective evidence gives as ground for belief. From a negative perspective evidence gives as ground to no longer believe something previously thought to be true.
Reason. The act of reason is the mental process we engage in order to form a conclusion about something, whether that conclusion is taken as a fact, a judgment, or an inference.
Truth. The best definition of truth we have found is this: truth corresponds to reality. Truth is the objective of evidence and the object of reason. In other words, evidence is presented in order to reveal the truth about something, and we use reason in order to point us to the truth.
How can we know the truth?
Jesus was big on truth. No surprise! He claimed to be the truth (John 14:6) and said the truth was knowable. Not only that, but knowing the truth will set us free (John 8:32). Obviously, Jesus had something concrete in mind, namely himself. We need to be reminded that the truth of the Christian faith is rooted in reality and back by evidence. It's truth is objective.
By contrast, today's culture places an emphasis on subjective or relative truth objectivity is passé unless you can tie it to empirical scientific data. What counts is individual opinion and perspective in other words what's true for you may not be true for me. This is one of the main reasons why Christianity is under fire these days. The Christian faith, based in the person of Jesus, there is to suggest that you can know the truth. It's also why Christians are often accused of being intolerant. How dare we think that there is an objective standard for truth! In our culture, tolerance is often valued more highly than truth.
When it comes to establishing the Christian faith – that is, everything God has revealed in the Bible about himself and the world he created – evidence and reason are important but they aren't the only way we can know the truth. Reducing faith to the level of empirical evidence – that which we can experience with the five senses – results in evidentialism. So we don't want to go to the extremes but neither do we want to throw out evidence and reason. That results in the other extreme of faith, which is fideism.
When it comes to help us to get to the truth. Reason gets us thereby enabling us to discover, understand, and through certain things that correspond with reality. But faith is also necessary to cause you can't personally prove everything that is real in the world. To illustrate this point, we're going to assume three things about you: you've never been to Nepal, you weren't alive during the Civil War, and you've never been bitten by a rattlesnake. That being the case, how do you know that Mount Everest is a real place, that Abraham Lincoln was a real person, and that rattlesnake bites can be fatal? The reason you know these things is that you have exercised faith by believing what other people – such as parents, friends, teachers, and scientists – tell you about real places, people, and things. You can't personally prove these things, but you have good reason to believe that what other people have concluded about them is true.
A Balanced Approach
If your goal is truth – that is, everything that corresponds to reality – then we need to find a balance between evidence, reason, and they as they relate to truth. In coming up with this balance, Peter Kreeft distinguishes between three categories of truth and how we arrived at them.
Category 1. Truths of faith and not of reason. These truths revealed by God in the Scripture that are not understandable, discoverable, or provable by evidence and reason. An example of something in this category of truth is that Trinity – one God in three persons.
Category 2. Truths of both faith and reason. These are things revealed by God, but they are also understandable, discoverable, or provable by reason. An example of something in this category of truth is the existence of God.
Category 3. Truths of reason and not of faith. These are truths that are revealed by God but are known to evidence and reason. An example of something in this category is the existence of the universe.
Just because we arrived at truth in these different ways doesn't mean that one truth is better or more reliable than another. Truth is truth, whether it is understandable, discoverable, provable by science, or revealed by God in his Word. However, this doesn't mean there won't be questions or objections to certain kinds of truth. For example, if someone questions the existence of God or the nature of the Trinity, we can't just smile, fold our arms, and say, "Hey, what can I tell you? God said it, I believe it, and that settles it for me." That kind of approach is irresponsible and unproductive.
According to Kreeft, our job as apologist is twofold. First, we need to prove the propositions about the Christian faith that fall in category 2. This is a positive task of Christian apologetics. For example, we can show that belief in an invisible God is logically coherent. Second, we need to answer the objections of the propositions in category 1. This is the negative task of Christian apologetics for example, we can't prove that God is one God in three persons, but we can answer the objections to the truth through sound reasoning.
A Reason to Believe
Taking a balanced approach to evidence, reason, and faith as a way of getting to the truth should give you a sense of security and comfort. On the other hand, you don't need to rely on reason alone to prove everything you believe about Christianity. On the other hand, you don't have to throw reason out the window. Christianity is a reasonable faith that corresponds to reality whether that reality can be backed by evidence or is simply revealed by God through His word.
- Christianity is a reasonable faith and not just a belief system based on subjective feelings and personal preference.
- Throughout the history of the church, faith and reason have been connected.
- As the 21st-century unfolds, a new generation of Christian apologist is communicating the truth about God in ways that are relational and culturally relevant.
- When it comes to faith and reason, it's both/and, not either/or. Reason enables us to discover, understand, and prove certain things, but faith is necessary to know certain truths that we can't discover, understand, or prove for ourselves.
- Peter Kreeft distinguishes between three categories of truth: Truths of faith and not of reason, Truths of both faith and reason, and Truths of reason and not of faith.
- The positive task of apologist is to prove the propositions of the Christian faith that are known by both faith and reason. The negative task is to answer the negative objections of propositions known by faith alone.
Reflection and Discussion:
- What do you think your family, friends, and coworkers would say about the Christian faith? Have these perceptions ever kept you from engaging them in conversations about faith?
- Review the definitions of evidence, reason, truth. Why are all three necessary components of faith?
- Give examples of each category 1,2 and 3.
Bickel, Bruce and Stan Jantz. Evidence for Faith 101:Understanding Apologetics in Plain Language. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2008, 39-48