Faith and Reason, Part 1

spiral staircase photo

Photo by StockSnap

Frequent ESN contributor and Graduate & Faculty Ministries Staff Mark Hansard returns to give us a summer series on faith and reason. We’re always happy to share Mark’s thoughtful writings. Interested in reading more by Mark? You can explore his thoughts on learning about godly scholarships through Hebrews, his popular posts on The Fruit of the Spirit in Academia, or all of his literary and theological reflections for ESN

In this series on Faith and Reason, we will take a brief look at a Scriptural basis for using reason and logic, and then we will visit several thinkers through the Ages and their views on how faith and reason go together.

Do the Scriptures affirm the use of reason, and its use in the pursuit of knowledge? The answer is a resounding “Yes.” Some of the most important scriptures about faith and reason are found in the book of Acts.

Numerous times in Acts, Luke mentions that Paul “reasoned in the Synagogue” with the people he found there. Dialegomai, the Greek word for “reason” here, can also be translated “argue,” “dispute,” or “rebuke.” It is clear from the context of passages such as Acts 17 that it meant to “reason” or “build a case.” For example: “As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (17:2, NIV). In Athens, Luke repeats that Paul “reasoned in the synagogues” as well as the marketplace (17:17), just before Paul’s famous speech at the Athenian Areopagus (more on that below). Whether one translates “reason,” “argue” or “dispute” in these passages, the context makes clear that Paul is laying out a reasoned, scriptural case for the idea that Jesus is the Messiah.

As well, there are several places in Acts in which a reasoned evangelistic speech is recorded; the most famous are Peter’s speech in Acts 2 and Paul’s speech in Acts 17. In Acts 2 at Pentecost, Peter sets out a case from Scripture that well-known Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament are really describing Jesus. He quotes Psalm 16 and Psalm 110 as speaking about Jesus and his Resurrection, and makes a case, through Jesus’ miracles and the miracle of the Holy Spirit that morning, that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. The result of Peter’s case is that the people were “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37). The work of the Holy Spirit and a reasoned case go hand in hand to convict people of what they heard.

As well, Paul’s speech at the Areopagus in Acts 17 makes a case that there is one God, and that he sent Jesus who rose from the dead. Paul starts with an inscription “to an unknown God,” and, quoting secular poets Epimenides and Aratus, makes a case that there is one God who created all before moving to Jesus and his Resurrection. In other words, Paul builds a case beginning with what he has in common with his opponents, a frequent tactic in philosophical discourse today.

In addition to this, there are a couple of Scriptures that mention intellectual study. In Ezra 7:10 it says, “For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it…” And interestingly in Acts 7:22, Stephen’s comment on Moses’ background supports a secular study program: “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.”

However, there are Christian leaders today who clearly don’t believe that faith and reason go together, viewing reason and philosophy in “worldly” opposition to faith. They usually quote passages such as 1 Corinthians 1:20: “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (NIV).” What are we to make of this?

Well, these verses are a commentary on Paul’s quotation of Isaiah 29:14 in the preceding verse. And the context in Isaiah is that the Israelites were legalistically following the law, so that they thought they could keep sinning and worship God at the same time. God says he will judge them anyway. He is not admonishing them against using their minds.

What is Paul saying in 1 Corinthians, then? The three words “wise man, scholar, and philosopher” can be translated different ways. Thiselton translates them as “sage, expert, and debater,” which I think is more accurate in the context.[1] The Corinthians were very class conscious, as many were in that city. And they thought that Paul’s rhetoric, his speaking skills, were lacking compared to other Christian teachers. In other words, they were judging him on style rather than content. At the time, there were orators who made very flowery speeches so they could be praised by various audiences. The content wasn’t as important as the flowery style. And Paul says in verse 2:1 that he did not use these rhetorical skills on purpose, so that there would be “a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.” The Corinthians simply didn’t understand this.

Thus, there is a second kind of wisdom Paul talks about here: it is the wisdom of the Spirit, through which we ascertain truth (2:6-16). The Spirit shows us that the Cross is God’s power, not God’s weakness. According to Greek and Jewish thinking, a person who was crucified was cursed and could not be good, let alone be God or the Messiah. But Paul says God’s wisdom is the opposite.

Thus, Paul’s main argument is that the foolishness of the Cross is more powerful than rhetoric, status, speaking skills, and debating skills. The Corinthians should not judge their leaders based on such worldly things. He’s not saying to refuse to use logic, philosophy, or get an education.

Therefore, we can see that Scripture, especially in Acts, clearly supports to use of reason and how God powerfully speaks when reason is utilized under the influence of the Holy Spirit. We can also see this in Jesus’ life, as Dallas Willard so eloquently argues in his article “Jesus the Logician.” Clearly, in Scripture the Holy Spirit’s filling and reason go together.

[1] For this section on 1 Corinthians, I am indebted to Anthony C. Thiselton’s excellent work, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdman’s, 2000), pp. 145ff.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Mark Hansard

Mark is on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Manhattan, Kansas, where he ministers to Faculty at Kansas State University and surrounding campuses. He has been in campus ministry 25 years, 14 of those years in faculty ministry. He has a Master's degree in philosophy and theology from Talbot School of Theology, La Mirada, CA, and is passionate about Jesus Christ and the life of the mind. Mark, his wife and three daughters make their home in Manhattan.

More Posts

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.