(Continued from Part 1)
We have already established that there is an interrelation between faith and reason. Now the question is: How do they relate to each other? This, the second post on this subject, will seek to answer that question. There are three major categories in which faith and reason can relate. These are (1) faith only; (2) reason only; and (3) faith and reason.
Fideism (Faith Only)
The “faith only” perspective says that reason plays no part in matters of religion. As Tertullian said, “I believe because it is absurd!” This view asserts that the only valid way to know anything about God is solely through faith. Famous faith-only Christians include individuals such as Tertullian (160?-230?), Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Karl Barth (1886-1968), and to a slightly lesser degree, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662).
The driving force behind Fideism is the separation of man from God. The finitude of human beings (specifically in regard to the intellect), and the transcendent nature of God keeps us from being able to effectively reason on spiritual matters. On the one hand there is the fallen state of man which has left his mind and intellect in opposition to God; while on the other, there is the infinite greatness of God’s power and wisdom, which is totally foreign to human reason and can only present paradoxes to mankind.
One of the most influential proponents of the “faith only” movement was the Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard. Among his many written works, his book, Fear and Trembling, especially sets forth his case.
The theme of Fear and Trembling is the well-known story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Kierkegaard’s literary skill is superb as he captures the poignant emotions that Abraham must have felt as he traveled with his son to the mountain of sacrifice. According to Kierkegaard, Abraham – unable to ascertain a rational motive explaining God’s command – had to make a “leap of faith” and obey God instead of his own reason.
This “leap of faith” stands at the core of Kierkegaard’s conception of faith and reason. In essence he taught that the only way to understand God was to let go of reason and venture out on faith alone, that rational proofs of God’s existence were pointless and an affront to his nature, and that (contrary to Romans 1) there was no such thing as natural revelation. Frederick Copleston, in his History of Philosophy, describes Kierkegaard’s philosophy:
God is not man, and man is not God. And the gulf between them cannot be bridged by dialectical thinking. It can be bridged only by a leap of faith, by a voluntary act by which man relates himself to God and freely appropriates, as it were, his relation as creature to the Creator, as a finite individual to the transcendent Absolute.[i]
Although the “faith only” viewpoint does indeed contribute some important teaching concerning God, faith, and reason, it has made a serious error in attempting to disregard reason altogether. God created man a rational being and expects him to use his reason even in matters of faith. If reason is denied then we have no basis of certainty for Scripture and faith.
Rationalism (Reason Only)
Whereas Fideism advocates that we should disregard reason for faith; the “reason only” view holds to just the opposite. According to Rationalism, anything that cannot be apprehended or explained by reason must be rejected. Famous rationalists include such individuals as Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677), and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).
Although there are various degrees within the “reason only” perspective, the basic idea that is held in common is the belief that all truth can be discovered by unaided human reason. Therefore the reason of man becomes the measure of all things. Even Scripture must acquiesce to reason as it must pass the test of rational inquiry before it is accepted.
This ideology is the basis for higher criticism and theological liberalism. Spirituality and religion are measured only by man’s ability to comprehend them. Immanuel Kant succinctly summed up the “reason only” movement with the title of his book, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone.
On a positive note, the “reason only” movement has been successful in dampening some of the influence of the more extreme versions of anti-intellectualism, although in the final analysis, this system of thought has consistently demonstrated itself to be bankrupt of any legitimate insight into the nature of God and Scripture. While it is correct in assuming that God intends for us to use the reasoning powers of our minds, it errs in placing the mind of man above God and denying the role of faith in the Christian experience.
Interrelation (Faith and Reason)
The final view that will be stated here represents a synthesis of faith and reason. This view asserts that faith and reason are interrelational, that is to say, that they both play a part in understanding God and Scripture. This view was set forth in particular by two of Christendom’s greatest thinkers: St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225?-1274).
This perspective can best be described by the phrase, “faith seeking understanding”. In Augustine’s opinion, faith was necessary to reason correctly about God. We all have to place our faith in some authority as the basis for how we think; Augustine said that the authority of the Christian faith is Scripture. However we should not be satisfied with simply resting on an authority, but we should seek to understand the authority in which we have placed our faith. In other words, we should not just believe, but we should seek to understand why and what we believe
Aquinas’ position was very similar. He believed that man could come to a basic knowledge of God based on reason but that Scripture was necessary for understanding many things within the realm of the Divine. As he said in Theology, Faith, and Reason:
There are some intelligible truths to which the efficacy of [reason] extends, such as the principles which a man naturally knows and the things which are deduced from them, and for knowledge of these no new intelligible light is required, but the naturally inborn light suffices. But there are things to which these principles do not extend, such as what pertains to faith and exceeds the capacity of reason…The human mind cannot know these unless it is illumined by a new light superadded to the natural.[ii]
Thomas was basically saying that there are things about God that the human mind can deduce from creation itself, but there are other things which can only be understood through the revelation of Scripture. Based on this premise, Thomas believed that it was possible to prove the existence of God from reasoning about creation, which he set forth in his famous “Five Ways” in the Summa Theologica.
It has been said before that Satan does not care whether you or going Upstream or Downstream just so long as you are Extreme. The “faith only” and “reason only” viewpoints represent the extremes of our subject. The Christian life is one of perpetual balance and this extends to the realm of faith and reason. It is important that we see that there is an interrelationship between faith and reason, and that we do jump to the fringe on either side. Blind faith and cold reason are both dangerous guides. The balanced Christian seeks to have the body of reason animated by the fire of faith.
[i] Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Vol. II. (New York: Image Books, 1994), p. 336[ii] Aquinas, Thomas. Theology, Faith, and Reason: On Boethius’ “On the Trinity”.