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Faith, Reason, and Personal Persuasion

Recently a newspaper reporter asked me to respond to two provocative questions:

(1) “Is it necessary to leave reason and move to faith in order to embrace Christianity?” and (2) “If there are strong arguments in support of Christianity’s actually being true, then why aren’t more people, particularly intelligent, well-educated people, persuaded as to its truth?”

As to the first question, historic Christianity doesn’t require believers or nonbelievers to choose between faith and reason, as though the two are unalterably separate spheres. Rather, Christianity is uniquely a reasonable faith (a trustworthy and reasonable belief system). The events that form the core of Christian belief-the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth-are rooted in history. Christian apologists for two thousand years have presented diverse evidences and arguments for embracing Christian truth-claims.

While specific Christian doctrines such as the triune nature of God and the union of the two natures of Christ certainly transcend human comprehension, Christian belief never violates reason itself. In fact, Christian philosophers have argued that the God of the Bible uniquely provides the metaphysical foundation for logic and rationality.1 The consensus throughout church history is that faith and reason are compatible and complementary.

The New Testament word for “faith” or “belief” (Greek: pisteuo, the verb; pistis, the noun) is rich in meaning. To have biblical faith in Jesus Christ for salvation includes: (1) a genuine (factual and historical) knowledge of the gospel events; namely, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, (2) a personal assent to the truth and importance of those events, and (3) a confident trust in the object of that faith (the risen Lord Jesus Christ). Faith, in a biblical context, is therefore not separated from authentic human knowledge of truth and reality.

As to the second question, it is true that some highly educated people are not persuaded of the truth of historic Christianity. However, many leading intellectuals in the world from various academic and professional fields do embrace historic Christianity as a rational and viable world-and-life view.2 Early twentieth century Christian apologist and writer G. K. Chesterton makes this comment about those who reject Christianity: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”3 When it comes to the “ultimate issues of life,” people persuasion involves more than exposure to rational arguments typically presented via the public educational system, even higher education.

Christian philosopher Ronald H. Nash argues that it is important to distinguish between arguments on one hand and personal persuasion on the other.4 People come to their beliefs about reality and truth based upon various factors, some rational and some nonrational. A good argument provides reasonable and truthful support for its claim. Just because a person is not persuaded by a given argument doesn’t necessarily mean that the argument is somehow logically defective. Nonrational factors such as ignorance, bias, self-interest, fear, or pride may stand in the way of a person genuinely understanding and feeling the full force of a powerful argument and thus being persuaded by it. A person’s noetic (belief-forming) faculties are seldom as neutral, detached, and coolly objective as many people-including especially “intellectuals”-would like to think. This subjective, egocentric predicament is shared by all people, regardless of educational level.

Persuasion, then, seems to be “person-relative,”5 and no single argument will likely persuade everyone-especially when it comes to the big issues. And simply because some questions are hotly contested does not mean that all positions on them are equally valid and none superior; hence, the importance of the biblical imperative to put beliefs to the test (1 Thess. 5:21; 1 John 4:1).

It would be fair to say that few people accept or reject Christianity based purely upon rational factors. After all, human beings are far from purely rational creatures. Scripture indicates that a person’s coming to (or conversion to) faith in Christ is never a solely intellectual decision (Acts 13:48; 1 Cor. 12:3). God’s efficient grace works in remarkable ways to draw people to Himself (John 6:44, 65).

In conversation with nonbelievers, one might ask why they reject specific Christian truth-claims. Is their unbelief based upon rational or nonrational factors? Instead of a reasonable faith, it may be that nonbelievers have, in effect, an unreasonable lack of faith.

  1. Kenneth Richard Samples, Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), see chapters 1 and 2.
  2. See, for example, Kelly James Clark, ed. Philosophers Who Believe: The Spiritual Journeys of 11 Leading Thinkers (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1993); and Eric C. Barrett and David Fisher, Scientists Who Believe: 21 Tell Their Own Stories (Chicago: Moody, 1984).
  3. G. K. Chesterton,;accessed July 14, 2004.
  4. Ronald H. Nash, Faith and Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 108-10.
  5. Nash, 109.