Is the Christian faith compatible with reason?
Surprisingly, some believers throughout church history have agreed with nonbelievers in proclaiming that Christianity is not compatible with reason. Nevertheless a powerful consensus within the history of the faith has argued that the historic Christian faith involves knowledge and is indeed compatible with reason. This historic agreement has often been expressed in the statement: “faith seeking understanding.” Its most articulate and persuasive spokespersons through the centuries have been such great Christian thinkers as Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas.1
Four Aspects of Christianity’s Reasonableness
Since the perception that faith is not compatible with reason persists today, it is important to examine four ways that historic Christianity is reasonable.2
First, the Christian worldview offers a plausible explanation for affirming an objective source for knowledge, reason, and rationality. That basis is found in a personal and rational God. Infinitely wise and all-knowing, God created the universe to reflect a coherent order of nomos and logos (Gk., laws and logic), and also created humankind in his image and endowed with rational capacities to discover that reasonable organization (Genesis 1:26–28). God, in effect, networked the comprehensible cosmos and rationally capable human beings together with himself to allow for a congruence of intelligibility. Thus, in Christianity, the rationality of the universe has a reliable metaphysical ground.
Second, Christian truth-claims do not violate the basic laws or principles of reason. Christian faith and doctrine, though they often transcend finite human comprehension, are not irrational or absurd. In other words, faith does not damage reason. Moreover, when skeptics have challenged the logical coherence of biblical teachings, Christian thinkers through the centuries have offered viable models for showing these ideas to be mysterious, but not actually incoherent.
Third, the Bible encourages the attainment of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding (Job 28:28; Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7). Scripture also promotes such intellectual virtues as sourcechecking, discernment, testing, reflection, and intellectual renewal (Acts 17:11; 1 Corinthians 14:29; Romans 12:2; Colossians 2:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:21).
Fourth, the truths of the Christian faith correspond to and are supported by such things as evidence, facts, and reason. Biblical faith (Greek: pisteuō, the verb “believe”; pistis, the noun “faith”) can be defined as confident trust in a reasonable and reliable source (God or Christ). Faith (or belief) is a necessary component of knowledge because a person must believe something in order to know anything (in other words, knowledge means believing what is true with proper justification). And reason can be applied to evaluate, confirm, and buttress faith.
Reason and faith therefore function in a complementary fashion. While reason in and of itself, apart from God’s special grace, cannot cause faith—the use of reason is normally a part of a person’s coming to faith and supports faith in innumerable ways. In summary, faith is foundational to reason (believing in order to know), while reason supports faith.
In the New Testament, descriptions of faith always focus on an object. And the trustworthy object of a person’s faith is God or the Lord Jesus Christ. Even the very faith that results in salvation involves knowledge (facts surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ) and discursive reasoning (as to what those facts really mean). Saving faith then includes knowledge of the gospel, assent to its truth, and confident reliance on the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It incorporates a human being’s full faculties—mind (knowledge), will (assent), and heart (trust).
Christianity and the Life of the Mind
Christian faith and reason also connect in the renewing of the mind. In this important transformation, people use their cognitive faculties to the fullest extent in devotion to God. Faith is the beginning of the journey in the Christian life but such faith moves in the direction of genuine understanding.
Believers would do well to use their God-given reason to explore the depths of their faith. Loving God with a person’s mind is part of fulfilling the overarching commandment to love and honor God with one’s entire being (Mark 12:30). Christians should strongly endeavor to discover the Bible’s truths—stretching mental and spiritual muscles, so to speak, to apprehend (yet never fully comprehend) such doctrines as the Triune nature of God and the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Such exercise moves a person from the initial stage of faith to a deeper place of reflective understanding and a greater sense of God’s infinite and eternal majesty. And that’s not a bad place to be.
- For a discussion of Augustine’s expression of “faith seeking understanding” (Latin: fides quaerens intellectum) see Ed L. Miller, God and Reason, 2nd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall), 134–37.
- This article is an expansion from a section I wrote in A World of Difference (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 82–83.