Wednesday, November 18, 2015

School Paper: “Faith and Reason” (Fall 2010)

This is a shoddy paper, I’m afraid. I don’t necessarily disagree with anything that I said here. The paper was just sloppily put together. I had taken an interest in presuppositional apologetics, and so this was an opportunity for me to float some of those ideas in the classroom and see what happened. But the topic is just way too large to try and cover in the space of four pages. Pascal was thrown in at the end, because he was technically the thinker I was supposed to be writing about. If memory serves me, this paper got a surprising A-minus.

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Faith and Reason
History of Ideas 3
December 8, 2010

The question of the proper relationship between faith and reason is one that Christendom has grappled with for centuries. Generally speaking, there are two polar extremes between which Christian thinkers have typically sought some kind of middle ground. These positions are rationalism, the view that human reason is the only source and final test for all truth1, and fideism, the view that faith is independent of (and perhaps even antagonistic toward) reason.2 The variously nuanced viewpoints between these two extremes are many, but all of them can be adequately subsumed under two basic views: 1) the view that faith is grounded on reason, and 2) the view that reason is grounded on faith. The latter of these, it will be argued, is the correct view.

The first view is the position of natural theology, that is, any theology that claims to rest its case on reason instead of revelation3. One famous expression of this view comes from the pen of Thomas Aquinas who writes, “reason in man is . . . like God in the world.”4 In other words, for Aquinas, reason assumes a kind of authority for the human being which reflects the absolute authority that God exercises in the world. Charles Hodge likewise concedes reason as the judicium contradictionis, granting to it “the prerogative of deciding whether a thing is possible or impossible”5. He adds that if reason judges a thing impossible, then no authority of any kind can obligate one to receive it as true.

The main problem with this view is that it does not reflect the Bible’s contention that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7, 9:10). The apostle Peter likewise understood knowledge as a supplementary attribute to be added to one’s faith (2 Pet. 1:5), and Paul insisted that all wisdom and knowledge is found in the person of Christ (Col. 2:2-4). Reason should not be viewed as an independent, “neutral” authority. From a biblical perspective, any laws of logic obtain only because Yahweh has determined that they obtain, and thus when Christians attempt to divorce reason from the presuppositions of a Christian worldview, they sever it from the very foundations that make it meaningful at all. Cornelius Van Til rightly argues that a purely rationalistic methodology not only fails to convince the unbeliever of the truth of Christian theism, but actually drives him farther away from it.6

Gordon Clark uniquely illustrates part of the difficulty in a “bare reason” approach to theistic arguments, ironically, by pointing out the fallacious nature of what many might view as one of reason’s great achievements. Clark deems the cosmological argument of Thomas Aquinas as “worse than useless” and adds that “Christians can be pleased at its failure.”7 As his principal critique, Clark points out that essentially the only reason Aquinas offers for the absurdity of an infinite regress of motion is that it would indeed rule out a first mover.8 Thus, according to Clark, Aquinas is guilty of using his conclusion as part of the premise. However, one will not quickly fault Aquinas. As John Frame argues in his defense of presuppositional apologetics, circularity is unavoidable in any worldview.9 Frame further elucidates this idea:

“God is the ultimate standard of meaning, truth, and rationality. For the philosophical rationalist, human reason is the ultimate standard. But how can the rationalist argue that position? He must, in the final analysis, say, ‘Reason is the ultimate standard because reason says so.’ . . . One cannot argue for an ultimate standard by appealing to a different standard. That would be inconsistent.”10

One interesting, dynamic, and extensively debated perspective on the relationship between faith and reason is found in the pensées (or thoughts) of Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century mathematician and philosopher. Peter Kreeft, in his commentary on the Pensées, insists that Christian fideists erroneously look to Pascal as a champion of their view.11 While Pascal is perhaps not a fideist in the truest sense of the word, he is much more fideistic than the Thomistic Kreeft would have him be.

Pascal clearly contends for the subjection of human reason to the “first principles” of faith (No. 282).12 He is also at least hesitant about the efficacy of the law of noncontradiction, arguing that “contradiction is not a sign of falsity, nor the want of contradiction a sign of truth” (No. 384). In fact, for Pascal, the doctrine of original sin is “against reason” even though he is thoroughly convinced of its truthfulness (No. 445). In what is arguably his most famous statement, Pascal insists that “the heart has its reasons, which reason does not know” (No. 277). In Pascal’s understanding, faith, over and above reason, is the superior means by which to arrive at truth. Make no mistake, though, for Pascal readily admits the frustrations of nagging doubts and elusive certainty. Sage is the advice he offers to those who struggle likewise: “It is good to be tired and weary by the vain search after the true good, that we may stretch out our arms to the Redeemer” (No. 422).

The preceding discussion has sought to address some of the issues related to the debate surrounding the proper relationship of faith and reason. A second goal was to argue for the primacy of faith in the Christian’s epistemology, or theory of knowledge. By no means has the aim been to jettison reason entirely from the Christian worldview. Reason does indeed play a valuable, confirmatory role in the Christian’s intellectual life, and it would be a mistake to discard reason as if it were an enemy of faith. This discussion, however, is concerned with the question of ultimate starting points, and while a full treatment of these topics is beyond the scope of this paper, suffice it to say that Christians ought to, with Pascal, reject the modern rationalistic notion13 that the special treatment of God’s revelation is something it must deserve on the basis of reason.

1. Francis Aveling, “Rationalism,” Catholic Encyclopedia, (accessed December 6, 2010).
2. Richard Amesbury, “Fideism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (accessed December 6, 2010).
3. William Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought, 2d ed. (Amherst: Humanity Books, 1996), s.v. “Natural Theology.”
4. Thomas Aquinas, Philosophical Texts, ed. Thomas Gilby (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), 236.
5. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology: Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1940), 51.
6. Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1955), 119.
7. Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason, and Revelation, 2d ed. (Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1986), 41.
8. Ibid., 36-7.
9. John Frame et al., Five Views on Apologetics, ed. Steven B. Cowan (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000), 217.
10. Ibid.
11. Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined and Explained (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 235.
12. Quotations and numbers are taken from the Brunschvicg edition.
13. Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Pocket Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 81.

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