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Faith and Reason (Matthew DelValle)

Last spring I was tutoring a student who wrote a sociology paper on how our society demeans women. At the end of the paper the student wrote, “I believe […]” and then restated her thesis. The professor had already briefly reviewed the paper and upon spotting the word “believe” crossed it out and wrote in the word “think.” She added a comment on the paper that said this: “Faith = Belief.”

I spotted this and recognized what this professor was conveying to the student. She was asserting that faith is not based on rational thought. It is an opinion not based on objective facts. To write, “I think,” conveys, at least for the professor, that the author has thought things through and reached a reasonable conclusion, an informed opinion. Faith, on the other hand, does no such thing; it blindly believes.

The Mind and the Christian Life
This presents a problem. If we define faith in this way, then faith loses its credibility. It is not for the thinking man; it is for the blind. For Christians this is particularly problematic. Everywhere in Scripture, from the teaching of Moses to the instruction of the apostles, we are told to use our minds to believe, articulate, defend, and guard the faith. Take the teaching of the apostle Paul for example. Paul instructed Timothy, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Tim. 2:7). He told the church in Corinth, “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Cor. 14:20).

Paul himself modeled a faith controlled by sound thinking in his presentation of the gospel to the Jews in Thessalonica, as “he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead” (Acts 17:2-3). The Christian faith requires rigorous thought in order to grow in our knowledge of the Lord.

Of course, there is a sense in which the mind is unhelpful: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (2 Cor. 2:14). Because we are sinners by nature, every facet of our being is corrupted by sin – our hearts, our wills, and our minds. Our natural minds do not comprehend the things of God; they do not make sense to us. They appear to us as pure “folly.”

The problem, however, is not our minds; the problem is sin. Our minds were created by God to know truth and the God of truth, to help us exercise dominion over the earth, and to bring glory to God. Our minds are inherently good, not evil. What is needed, then, is redemption – renewal – of the mind. This starts with the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit and continues in His sanctifying work, as He brings our minds closer and closer to holy thinking that results in holy living. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). We are to pursue right thinking because “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16).

This is why the Christian faith appears as folly to the world but in reality is intensely reasonable. The Christian faith is based on objective, external facts: the reign over creation by the almighty, holy, triune God, the rebellion into sin by created man, and the redemption of sinners by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God – all objective, external realities that ground the response of repentance and faith by those who trust in Christ for salvation. This is the message Paul preached, “not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:4-5). This is why we must always be ready “to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).

A Reality Check
But I digress. What about the student’s paper? I was witnessing firsthand the “wisdom of the world.” I decided to engage in a bit of apologetic training for the student (apologia = a defense). Granted, she did not ask for it (she just wanted to get a good grade), but I felt compelled to give it anyway. This is what I told her:

Ask your teacher if she believes that gravity will hold her down to earth and prevent her from floating into orbit, and if it will return her to the ground should she take a leap into the air. If she says “yes,” ask her why. What are her reasons for trusting gravity? Has she thought through her belief? If she says “no,” ask her why. What reasons does she have for deeming gravity as untrustworthy?

It took a while for the student to understand what I was communicating, but she eventually got it. Faith does not have to mean by default objective, external facts are thrown out the window. Admittedly, certain faiths and beliefs are rooted in pure speculation and thus hold no rational weight. But this does not mean that pure speculation is a condicio sine qua non of faith. The sociology professor had thrown the baby out with the bath water, so to speak. As a sociologist (who claim to be essentially objective and unbiased because they work with tangible data/evidence), I understand her desire to distance herself and her students from pure speculation. But she made a faulty assumption that faith necessarily does not work with tangible, objective, external facts.

In the end, I told the student that she was not incorrect in using the word “believe” to express her thesis. However, I did not tell her to oppose the word change to “think.” “Think” was just as appropriate for her paper as “believe,” and her paper was not necessarily strengthened or weakened by one term over the other. My main goal was to persuade the student about the crucial relationship of reason to faith: that if our faith is to be a good faith – a strong faith – then reason is indispensable. I would argue almost the opposite way: reason is a condicio sine qua non of faith. How we can we trust what is not trustworthy or even real? No – we trust what we know to be trustworthy.

Exercise Your Reason!
There is true value in rigorous use of the mind. Christians of all people should be most passionate about educating our minds with truth. But what are the benefits of this disciplined way of thinking? What is the value of apologetics? I saw two basic ways apologetics is useful from this episode alone:

  1. Apologetics is helpful but not sufficient for evangelism. There was an intellectual quandary encountered with this student. It is a dilemma that we as Christians face. How shall we harmonize faith and reason? I had the opportunity to explain this tension from a Christian worldview. However, I did not present the gospel to the student. My job is to help students improve their writing, and I was attempting to show that “believe” was an appropriate word choice. Had I been off the clock, I would have made the leap to Christianity as a faith founded on reasonable truths.

    The point is this: apologetics can provide an opportunity to present the message of the gospel, but it is not a substitute for presenting the gospel. Many people have questions about all sorts of matters, and the ability to answer tough questions can lead to evangelistic opportunities. That is one of the great values of apologetics.
     

  2. Apologetics strengthens the faith of other believers. I have experienced this firsthand in my own life. From watching videos of R.C. Sproul and Ravi Zacharias and John Lennox, to attending conferences and listening to great men of God respond to questions, I learn how to give reasonable answers. In addition, I gain confidence that for matters that I don’t know how to answer, there are Christians out there who can. Knowing that Christianity can stand under the closest scrutiny is incredibly strengthening to my faith.

Shortly after the student left the tutoring station, my friend Cory came by as he usually does to say hello for a few minutes. I proceeded to recount the story to him as I have done here. The reaction on his face expressed it all. It was as if a light went on in his head. He told me that was really cool and he needed to keep coming by when I work to get such nuggets to chew on (my paraphrase). As we talked, a girl who was standing nearby overheard our conversation and came and asked us if we were Christians. She said she had transferred to PSC from Southeastern and was wondering if there were any Christians on campus. It was so encouraging to her to hear two guys discussing the deeper things of God.

This is why I write these posts and share what I learn. I do it because I want to strengthen my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ with what the Lord teaches me in my daily life. I do it for any who read these posts and are not persuaded about the sufficiency of Jesus Christ to save by faith alone. Apologetics is helpful to accomplish both ends. May we as Christians long for the solid food of the Word and grow up from infants to mature believers in the Lord, and may God grant us the grace to do it by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, so that in all things God might get the glory.