Philosophy Fridays: Faith and Reason: How Do They Work Together?

A common misconception among believers and unbelievers alike is that faith and reason are incompatible. Atheist Richard Dawkins arrives at this conclusion based on his definition of faith: “Believing in spite of evidence to the contrary.” Now, no person of faith can agree with such a definition. Dawkins is clearly fighting dirty with such a statement. On the other hand, some religious people defy reason by believing that faith requires irrationality, and that reason is unnecessary to religion.

So how do faith and reason work together?  In his book, Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology (P&R, 2006), Westminster Seminary apologetics professor Scott Oliphint summarizes 17th century Swiss theologian Francis Turretin’s explanation:

First, it is reason’s task to judge the consistency and coherence of biblical truth. Not only so, but reason is to function as a judge of what is contradictory and what is not. At the same time we must remember that reason can only function this way after it has been restored and renewed by the Spirit of God. This does not mean that reason is the final arbiter of what is possible and what is impossible. God alone legislates such a thing.

Second, reason functions as a servant, never a master, to theology. Its proper place with respect to theology is to provide whatever tools what might be helpful to theology to carry out its own task. This means that the law of contradiction, and the use of that law, can never fully determine whether a particular Christian doctrine is true. That determination is left to revelation. What reason can do is help theology to organize, articulate, and expand its truths in such a way as to clarify their meaning.

Third, the law of contradiction’s service to theology is not in matters of interpretation per se, but rather in the organization and articulation of our interpretations. Interpretation of Scripture is given to us by way of other Scriptures. We do not need another external source in order to compare and bring together the truth as God has given it to us in his Word.

Given these points, Oliphint concludes 1) that regenerate reason is to judge of the consistency of doctrine, 2) that reason is never to take a magisterial role with respect to theology, and 3) reason is to help articulate and organize our interpretations of Scripture.

This summary helps us to see that reason is necessary to a sound faith, but also that reason is flawed and marred by sin, whereas Scripture is not. Our faith then should be in the Word of God, while at the same time, using our reason aright.

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About Mark Farnham

Associate Professor and Coordinator of Pastoral and Pre-Seminary Majors at Lancaster Bible College, Lancaster, PA. Adjunct Professor of World Religion at Strayer University. PhD (cand.) in Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
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3 Responses to Philosophy Fridays: Faith and Reason: How Do They Work Together?

  1. Leward says:

    Interesting read, Mark. I really appreciate this blog and the many thought-provoking topics.

    On my first reading, some of the comments above make it seem like the law of condradiction can be “proven” wrong by revelation. If that’s the case, then the law of contradiction is fallible and therefore not useful as a tool of reasoning. So maybe I misunderstood?

    I’d suggest that the law of contradiction is itself revelation – general revelation, that is – and emanates from God’s very character to govern His creation. Where faith comes in is the undertanding that the specific revelation of Scripture does not violate the law of contradiction. The key to interpreting Scripture, therefore, is in the acceptance by faith that the Scripture does not violate the law of contradiction, and when it appears to do so, it is only because my interpretation is flawed, and therefore I must seek another. This seems, on one hand, in opposition to the third point above, but isn’t it the law of contradition what we use “to compare and bring together the truth as God has given it to us in his Word”?

    • Leward says:

      By the way, I should have said “not reliable as a tool of reasoning” above instead of “not useful”.

    • Mark Farnham says:

      Leward, you are correct AND I am correct, which tests the concept of non-contradiction :-). You are correct that the law of contradiction flows from God’s character and therefore does not and cannot conflict with revelation. Turretin’s point, however, is about the use of the law by finite and flawed humans. Turretin was trying to prevent someone from declaring certain doctrines to be considered as contradictions. For example, some say the Trinity and the hypostatic union of Christ’s divine and human natures are logical contradictions. Therefore, he concluded rightly that revelation, and not a human understanding of the law was ultimately authoritative. This is why Turretin said that the law’s role is not in interpretation of Scripture, lest it declare these critical doctrines to be contradictory.

      Thanks for the exchange!

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