Reason and Theology

Posted: March 4, 2012 in John Wesley
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What is the role of reason in Christian theology?

Reason plays an integral role in theology.  For those who claim that Christianity is a religion of ignorance, they seriously under appreciate the interaction of logic with experience and Scripture that has been implemented throughout the history of the Church.  Theology is where reason, guided by the Spirit, synthesizes the knowledge gained from both experience and Scripture.  Logic allows us to move from knowledge to understanding.  Jeremiah 3 promises that God will provide such leaders and shepherds to guide his people.  It is by discernment that we evaluate the profit of a belief, as well as, testing to see if it is cogent and sonsistent.

Experience and Scripture provide the information and data with which reason may construct a framework.  Reason, as such, is merely a tool for interacting with that raw material.  It is very much the refining process by which that information may be re-introduced back into the arena of experience to be evaluated.  Reason provides a coherence and consistency as both Scripture and experience are weaved together to express Truth in its many facets.

Of course, there have to be several commitments for reason to play such a large role in theology.  Like Wesley, one must believe that faith impacts reality.  Furthermore, one must believe that both the sensory and the trans-sensory realities work by the rules of logic.  In other words, it informs our experience both positively and negatively.  It defines what we might know and what is impossible to know (i.e. the average height of a unicorn).  As such, reason really helps provide boundaries and framework for our theology.   And, one must have a commitment that the secular and the sacred are really not separated but enmeshed in one another.

If this is true, the secular and the sacred work according to logic, we can assess the validity of truth claims by an “empirical” process.  This renders theology as a very practical endeavor.  It does not simply allow a theoretical, mental bent for theology.  That does not mean, as Wesley tended to think, that a truth claim’s validity rested upon its immediate applicability to reality.  There is room for knowledge that is in the process of being refined and tested.  Additionally, a claim’s worth does not rest on a time frame.  However, it ultimately must be able to be applied to the realm of life and experience.  Or, as Wesley might put it, knowledge and understanding must meet together to produce genuine Christian living.

If Truth is governed by the rules of logic, it is necessary for it to be consistent in its application to both experience and Scripture.  Experience and Scripture cannot be contradictory if they are both held to be authorities of Truth.  Reason provides a tool by which we work between the tension that is often found existing from the knowledge gained in Scripture and experience.  Reason helps us see the connections between the two and allows them to interact with one another, informing each other, giving accountability.

There is an undoubtedly important role that reason holds in theology.  However, reason, like our knowledge is limited in its scope.  Where knowledge is limited, reason, which is dependent upon experience and Scripture, will be limited in what it can assert.  For instance, Scripture only hints at the nature of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Speaking about something that in nature and character is both three and one is beyond the full capacity of reason to explore or understand.  Another example is the humanity and divinity of Jesus.  How is it possible that God became fully man as well?  It is a mystery which is not fully explained by Scripture.  As such, we can only guess and speculate with the information we do have… but this is often unsatisfactory in communicating the full reality of these mysteries.

In relying upon reason, one might tend to say it has the ultimate authority in determining Truth.  The danger in relying solely on our powers of logic is self-deception.  This can render us closed to Truth that other voices might add to our endeavors.  One voice that might be hindered by such pride is the Holy Spirit.  From a Christian perspective, it is only the Holy Spirit that enables us to understand Truth.  Without the Spirit to guide us, it is likely that our theology will be impractical or simply informational, rather than transformational.  Or, we might say that reason must be joined with love, as the apostle Paul exhorts us.  All knowledge and understanding means nothing if love is not present in our engagement with God and others.  Wesley understood this aspect well.  Christian history has attested that logic alone does not provide for Christ-like living.

Dr. Crutcher states, “If it is true what Wesley says, concerning a prophetic enthusiast, ‘When plain facts run counter to their predictions, experience performs what reason could not, and sinks them down into their sense,’ then we cannot say experience is always constrained by reason.”  Experience must be allowed to sit in judgment upon the value of truth claims proffered by reason.

Reason cannot be left to the individual alone, lest it become easily corrupted by personal bias.  Tradition, in the sense that Barth discusses it as a dialogue among students, provides a sounding board with which reason can interact.  It allows us to hear the voice of reason found in others throughout the history of the Church by which we might evaluate our own theology.  Again, this is based on the assumption that Truth will be consistent throughout time.  Therefore, reason must be in constant discussion with others to help guide, shape, and refine it.

Another problem that reason can present, given its empirical nature, is the dismissal of personal experience.  Whether those experiences be visions or some other type of activity attributed to the spiritual realm, Reason might not grant any credence to such events.  In fact, it might seek a natural explanation (i.e. delusions, drugs, sickness, or lying).  However, logic cannot necessarily disprove the validity of such events.  In such cases, it is important to understand the restrictions that bind logic.

This, I believe, shows the precarious nature of logic.  Logic is not an innate gift that each person is born with.  Rather, it takes effort and time to develop that ability.  That is also why it is important and necessary for logic to be guided by other “students” participating in the theological discussion.  Proverbs 27:17 reads, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”  Logic gives us a level playing field in which to begin the theological discussion.



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