Faith and reason: Some history

June 26, 2007 at 12:57 pm 3 comments

How do we know Christianity is true? Is our confidence supposed to be based on evidence that demonstrates the truth of Christianity, or are we simply supposed to believe on faith?

It’s on this question that William Lane Craig focuses in the first chapter of Reasonable Faith (which I reviewed a couple weeks ago). I like Craig’s historical survey, but his own answer to the problem isn’t entirely satisfactory in my mind.

Today, I’m posting an overview of (some) historical approaches to this problem, then tomorrow I’ll discuss Craig’s proposed resolution.

A bit of history

AugustineAs Craig explains, St. Augustine was the first major Christian thinker to address the relationship of faith and reason. Augustine held that belief must be based on divine authority (i.e. the authority of the Scriptures and the Catholic Church), not reason. The fundamental principle that guided his way of thinking was faith seeking understanding–in other words, a person must believe before he or she can know.

However, Augustine also believed that reason and authority work together, in the sense that authority prepares man for reason, which leads eventually to knowledge and understanding.

LockeIn the 17th century, John Locke insisted that belief must be based on a rational foundation. If this foundation is missing, he said, belief is not legitimate. Though some revealed truths might be unattainable through reason, revealed truths can never contradict reason. In that sense, although we know that no revelation from God can ever be false, it’s still the role of reason to determine which revelations are from God.

BarthTwentieth-century theologian Karl Barth believed like Augustine that faith must be based simply on the authority of the divine word. He felt that it was impossible to approach God through reason, because apart from Christ’s revelation of God, humans know nothing of God. God is completely other than us, and hence none of our ways of thinking or our forms of logic can access Him. God is incomprehensible, and we believe purely on the authority of God’s word.

(Significantly, Barth also believed that belief is irresistible: If the Word of God confronts a person, it is not in human power to resist it. Thus reason is somewhat irrelevant in the process of persuasion.)

PannenbergWolfhart Pannenberg, another 20th century theologian, stood against Barth and took an evidential approach to the matter of faith and reason. Unlike Barth, Pannenberg did not believe God’s word was self-authenticating and without need of external verification.

To Pannenberg’s mind, Barth’s way of thinking completely undermined the relevance of history and made Christianity vulnerable to attacks from outsiders who criticized Christianity’s isolationist thinking. If Christianity was to make meaningful truth claims, said Pannenberg, it could not be simply subjective, but would have to submit to outside verification. Belief, then, must rest on evidence.

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So there’s a bit of history on the issue. Tomorrow, as I said, I’ll discuss Craig’s own assessment of this problem and his proposed resolution.

Meanwhile, what are your thoughts on this issue?

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Heavy TV viewers likely to have different worldview William Lane Craig on faith and reason

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Stephen  |  June 26, 2007 at 3:46 am

    Re Locke’s position:
    Though some revealed truths might be unattainable through reason, revealed truths can never contradict reason.

    It’s fair to say that truth cannot contradict truth. But where “revealed truths” come into conflict with “reason”, Locke would evidently assume that “reason” is right.

    Alternatively, maybe the person’s reasoning is faulty, and revealed truth is right after all.

    Ideally, the Bible would withstand any amount of scrutiny and still prove to be inerrant. Then we could put complete confidence even in those claims that we cannot verify.

    But in matters that anyone can examine — for example, the two completely independent accounts of Judas’s death; or the two different dates given for Jesus’ crucifixion* — the Bible does not appear to be inerrant. One can always attempt to explain away the evidence, but how many flimsy explanations can one tolerate before concluding that the dogma of inerrancy is no more solid than a house of cards?

    In my view, both reason and revealed truth are subject to error. And that’s where it gets interesting: when the two ways of knowing come into conflict, how do we decide which to trust? One may be right and the other wrong, or perhaps both are wrong in whole or in part.

    Life is like that. Courts are forever faced with competing versions of events. Lawyers for either side mount the strongest case they’re able to put together, and the judge reaches a verdict based on the balance of evidence.

    The problem is, we’re left with residual uncertainty. Sometimes the judge errs in his/her judgment. Life doesn’t deliver watertight certainty, even on matters of great importance. We may regret that, but perhaps we have to learn to live with it.

    Maybe the Calvinists are right: faith is given to some but not to others. We study, we pray, we strive after truth; we exercise faith, and we trust God for the results. That’s not good enough for many Christians, I know, but that’s my approach, more or less.

    Reply
  • 2. Nicholas Z. Cardot  |  June 26, 2007 at 6:20 pm

    I haven’t stopped by your blog in a while. I am glad that I stumbled back onto it. You still post great things. Thanks for staying with it.

    Reply
  • 3. Jamie  |  June 28, 2007 at 12:28 am

    Stephen: I’m not that familiar with Locke’s views, so I don’t know whether he was an inerrantist or not, and I also don’t know if he would have equated revealed truth with the Bible. (Perhaps revealed truth would include truth imparted directly by the Holy Spirit.)

    But that aside, I’m not sure how comfortable I am with saying that revealed truth is subject to error, per se. After all, if God reveals truth to us, then surely it can’t be erroneous. That said, I think it’s highly probable that our interpretations of revealed truth are fallible, and human reason is certainly fallible.

    So you’re right, we have residual uncertainty. (Kind of like, if you really probed me on it, I’d have residual uncertainty about whether my mom is really my biological mother.) But I don’t think that means faith is an irrational leap in the dark, or that we believe in spite of evidence. We might not have all answers, but I tend to sympathize with Pannenberg and Locke in their view that faith should be based on evidence and a rational foundation.

    Nicholas: Good to see you around again–and it’s good that someone still thinks I have something worthwhile to say. 🙂

    Reply

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Profile

profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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