Reason, Faith, Heresy

In the history of the Christian Church discussion reason, faith and heresy have often gone together. Off hand I recall a thread being woven between these three in the writings of Athanasius, Augustine, John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. Thus, I think that it is important to clarify several points regarding reason, faith and apostasy. Each of these could easily be elaborated on at some length but since I have dealt with them in past blogs, analyzing them from different angles, I will briefly make some notes and comments that I hope will be helpful. As in many of these blogs, I will be acknowledging my debt to other authors by including some quotations to further elaborate these points.

Reason is the capacity of the human intellect to assess and make judgments about things, people, ideas in the world. The discipline of logic is one way that reason is exercised. But for those not formally trained in logic or philosophy reason is still a great aid to discerning between what is real and fantasy, valuable and worthless, prudent and foolish and true and false. Our reasoning capacities can be completely corrupted (for example, see Psalm 14) but that state of decay of God-given abilities (general result of sin) need not be corrupted so as to become entirely worthless. This is quite obvious as there are people around us who demonstrate the ability to exercise sound reason about many aspects of life in community or regarding scientific study of the physical world yet say it is difficult to believe in God or the Gospel. The reasoning capacities of these people is not utterly corrupt but neither is it fully awakened.

Reason that is consecrated to God and sanctified by the precious blood of Jesus the Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit has splendor and dignity which reflect the image of God. For our reason was gifted to us in creation to complement faith and to help us to discern the great catastrophe of apostasy. The grave problem for humans erupts when we elevate the reasoning powers of the mind so as to assume that all knowledge worth having is to be gained by reason. The person who has discovered the Gospel to be true knows that knowledge of reality is only partially perceived through reason. For it is through the spiritually renewed heart that knowledge of the truth can be discerned, sharpened and acted upon. Reasoning capacities of the mind are helpful in that they help us pull together the differing aspects of our direct perceptions, inherited ideas (religion, traditions) and new ideas and conceptions into a (more or less) integrated whole.

However, when a person deifies him or herself by exalting reasoning abilities then there must be a confrontation with the Truth. God names such folly the fruit of pride. For it is the reversal of reason, faith and apostasy. John Own is helpful in clarifying how faith confronts such twisted use of reason which rejects faith and thus embraces apostasy.

“The aim of the gospel is to bring every thought into subjection to the obedience of faith. So Paul says, ‘Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise’ (1 Cor. 3:18). Unless men renounce carnal wisdom and their own presuppositions and prejudices they will never become wise by that wisdom which is from above. They must become fools to become wise.” (John Owen, Apostasy from the Gospel [Banner of Truth Trust:1992], p.83.)

The human mind cannot fully comprehend any aspect of reality in which we humans find ourselves living. Every aspect of life as we perceive and experience it has some hidden and mysterious qualities and attributes that are beyond our abilities to fully comprehend. This is why scientism (not science) is so foolish; for it presupposes that not only is the material world the whole of reality but that the human intellect can understand it and how it works in totality. And further, a materialistic philosophy purposely disregards the evidence for the unseen aspects of the world; about which we are at a loss regarding how to assess or draw conclusions by the use of reason. Such is the height of human arrogance that we cannot acknowledge what we do not know!

The Gospel directly challenges the deification of human reason and intellect. Again, Owen states:

“Men find the gospel resisting the natural pride of their minds and the absolute sovereignty of their reason. So they turn away from the gospel into apostasy. Refusing to become foolish, despising to become like little children, humble and teachable, they reject the gospel and follow teachers who are more suited to their proud reasonings. When corrupt man exalts his reason to absolute supremacy in religion, it is unavoidable, but each must judge that his own reason is the only standard of judgment he will accept.” (Apostasy from the Gospel, p.83)

I vividly remember when I was in high school and came to understand the choice I had to make. I knew enough about the Lord Jesus at that point that I could not dismiss him or the testimony of Scripture to him. The point at which I was resistant and quite unwilling to yield was the use of my own reason to determine and define what was true about spirituality and reality. I had concluded, using my own limited ability to articulate and clarify with words, the exact point which John Owen makes: “So we see that in the gospel there are things which are above finite and limited reason and there are things contrary to corrupt and depraved reason.” (Apostasy from the Gospel, p.83)

My own reasoning (based on my life experience) was useless to help me understand what I had come to perceive about the Lord and spiritual reality. I had to accept that my ability to comprehend, no matter how much it may be developed over time, was totally inadequate to fully understand the One who had come and spoken to me. I had a choice between humbling myself and receiving the truth (without the assurance of intellectual certitude) or continuing to insist that I somehow knew what life was about (which was a lie).

Since that time I have dedicated a lot of time to read widely and learn about what people believe about religion, philosophy and ethics. This study has yielded one main conclusion: The one person whose teachings makes the most sense is the Lord Jesus. I have found many true observations and important insights in the writings of others but none of them has the intellectual clarity and piercing characteristic of truth like the Lord Jesus himself.

Further, I have noticed that those who veer from the plain meaning and application of the Lord’s words in Scripture are also the same ones who tend to embrace and advocate for ideas that are destructive to human community and individual well-being. These persons have tended to appeal to what was considered reasonable by the standards of their culture. Yet in each case they clashed with the truth even as they attempted to mold Jesus into a likeness that suited them (and many who followed their teachings).

I assert that reason, faith and apostasy can represent a continuum on which people can stand, in terms of their attitudes, moral judgments and intellectual affirmations. For the disciple of the Lord Christ, reason is a gift to be given freely back to the Master and kept in submission to him. As they do this, the Lord gives it back to them with a power of perception that encompasses more than just intellectual ideas but also keen moral judgements (gift of discernment). For the person turning to heresy, he or she has already substituted self-judgment for that of Scripture or other believers (living or dead)—and thus is cut off from perceiving the light of truth. The heretic can have faith but it is faith in himself or herself and not God alone. For the believer reason and faith are close friends who operate together in harmony; for each knows how to walk together in service to the living God.

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