Faith & Reason

Fides et ratio, faith and reason. Christians adopt the position of fides quaerens intellectum – “faith seeking understanding.” Or, showing their hand a bit more, credo ut intelligam – “I believe that I may understand” (Anselm). While reason may distinguish humanity from the animal kingdom, Christians have distinguished ourselves by remembering the importance of faith. Rather than allowing our reason to dominate our decisions and days, or even trying to hold the two in an uneasy tension, divine revelation requires us to shape our understanding and experience of the world, and we aim for a reason that submits to revelation as received in faith.

(To put the connection of faith and reason more precisely, as te Velde does here, notes that “the Reformed scholastic insistence on the principal harmony of faith and reason differs from the early Socinian claim (which was later commonly held by other rationalists) that the truths of faith may be ‘above reason’ (supra rationem), but are never ‘against reason’ (contra rationem). While the Socinians gave in fact the primacy to human reason as an independent judge of truth, and rejected classic doctrines such as Trinity and Christology on rational grounds, the Reformed scholastics took the revealed truths of faith as their starting point, and on this basis attempted to demonstrate the rational intelligibility and consistency of these articles” [p. 102])

Within the broad unity that the confessions of Reformed theology give us on fides et ratio, there have simultaneously been some important important accents from different streams in Reformed churches. For example, B.B. Warfield (1851 – 1921) represents the Old Princeton School when he argued:

…faith, in all its forms, is a conviction of truth, founded as such, of course, on evidence… Christianity must think through and organize its, not defense merely, but assault. It has been placed in the world to reason its way to the dominion of the world. And it is by reasoning its way that it has come to its kingship. By reasoning it will gather to itself all its own. And by reasoning it will put its enemies under its feet.

Warfield and Bavinck

Obviously, reason has an elevated role to play under the Common Sense Realism of Old Princeton.

Herman Bavinck (1854 – 1921), on the other (Continental) hand, represents a different perspective at nearly the same cultural moment. He argued that God “does not despise reason,” and that theology is “faithful thinking (reasoning),” yet there is a noted difference. Rather than building a mental edifice of reason, faith takes a stronger role for Bavinck as dominant throughout the reasoning process. In his Reformed Dogmatics, he argued,

Believing is the natural breath of the children of God. Their submission to the Word of God is not slavery but freedom. In that sense faith is not a sacrifice of the intellect but mental health (sanitas mentis). Faith, therefore, does not relive the Christian of the desire to study and reflect; rather it spurs them on. Nature is not destroyed by regeneration but restored.

(Vol 1, p. 616-617)

For Bavinck, faith makes reason possible. (The quotes above are suggested by M.E. Osterhaven in Reformed Review (1998) p. 183 – 201.)

All of these thoughts on fides et ratio were prompted by a much older Reformed theologian. Gisbertus Voetius (1589 – 1676) showed that trying to understand the relationship between these two is not a recent undertaking. Rev. Dr. Eric M. Parker translated a portion of Voetius’ Selectarum Disputationum Theologicarum (1648 – 69; from a selection entitled “De ratione humana in rebus fidei”) where Voetius lists authors from the patristic and medieval eras that help us understand faith and reason.

Of note is Voetius’ familiarity with such a wide range of literature. Unlike some Reformed today, Voetius is not afraid to learn from Thomist thought, and it is clear that he does not suffer from chronological snobbery. Despite (or because of?) Voetius’ well known antagonism of Cartesian skepticism, he was conversant with Pierre Charon, a seventeenth century French Catholic who articulated his own brand of skepticism. John Owen called Voetius a polymath, and it shows that the modern scholars he cites were writing in Latin, but also Spanish, French, and Italian.

A huge thanks to Dr. Parker for the translation:

“I add that [reason is used in matters of faith] for directly opposing false Theology, consequently and indirectly defending the one truth, that is, by removing impediments and prejudices, and so for strengthening the way of truth. Such a defense of the Faith appears in [the following authors of antiquity]:

  1. Athenagoras
  2. Justin Martyr
  3. Clement of Alexandria
  4. Origen
  5. Tertullian
  6. Arnobius
  7. Lactantius
  8. Augustine
  9. Theodoret
  10. Cyril of Alexandria, and others.

Also, writers of the Middle Ages [include]

  1. Thomas [Summa] contra gentes, and the rest of the Scholastics, if they are chosen discriminatively and judiciously;
  2. Also, Savanorola in his Book on the Triumph of the Cross
  3. Raymund of Sabunde in [his] Natural Theology
  4. Cardinal [Nicholas] of Cusa
  5. Dionysius the Carthusian
  6. And others [who argue] against the Muhamedans

And finally, more recent [authors]:

  1. Juan Louis Vives
  2. Augustino Steucho
  3. Pierre Charron
  4. Scholastic investigations and commentators on Lombard and Thomas.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s