Reason in the Christian life

“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.”Romans 12:1.

“All Thy works shall praise Thee!” Our rubric’s title is a certain truth found in Psalm 145:10. “All thy works shall praise thee, O Lord; and thy saints shall bless thee.” Prior to and after this verse, numerous praiseworthy attributes and works of our great God are listed. Immediately following this verse, the idea contained in the second phrase of verse 10—“and thy saints shall bless thee”—is extended. Bible commentaries commonly describe the idea of this second phrase to be something along the lines of the following: Man is the pinnacle of God’s creative work and has been endowed with attributes that allow believers to praise God most effectively and to the highest degree among all His works. Some commentaries point to the enumeration of praiseworthy works and attributes listed in this psalm as reasons that believers perceive to praise God. That is, believing humans offer praise to God through their ability to reason that God is praiseworthy. In one sense, Psalm 145 lays out in front of believers compelling evidences of the goodness and greatness of God. Believers then recognize these evidences and use their capacity of reason to conclude that God is most assuredly worthy of praise! Anyone familiar with the Psalms knows that Psalm 145 is not unique here—this is a common feature of many Psalms. Therefore, it may be useful to consider God’s work of creating the capacity for reason in humans.

Entire academic disciplines are founded on the topic of reason and, therefore, numerous definitions of reason exist. However, most definitions approximate Merriam-Webster’s definition: “the power of comprehend­ing, inferring, or thinking especially in orderly rational ways.” Rationality carries many of the same ideas as reason and is usually defined as the utilization of rea­son, while the term logic can be thought of as a specific system of using reason.

Topics related to reason have been treated at length in the pages of the Standard Bearer before. George C. Lubbers described the difference between rationalism and Christian logic as a difference between positing that “the logical is true” (rationalism) and “revealed truth is logical” (Christian logic),1 and later described the error of the Galatians, in part, as an error in applying true or sanctified logic.[1] Herman Hoeksema treated human logic and reasoning related to revealed truths in Scrip­ture when he reviewed claims of rationalism brought against Gordon Clark,[2] and earlier addressed the con­cepts of reason, incomprehensibility, and irrationality.[3] In the 1990s, Rev. Bernard Woudenberg authored a se­ries describing the proper use of logic as we approach God’s Word.[4] These are just a few examples—many more articles directly and indirectly touch on the sub­ject. The interested reader can learn much that is quite relevant to today’s religious and secular societies by a careful reading of these articles.

We all use this capacity to think in our everyday lives. We must constantly make decisions and resolve prob­lems. For the sanctified believer, decision-making and problem-solving include prayer and the study of Scrip­ture. Our Scripture-searching and prayer life vitally in­fluence our rational decision-making processes and the resulting actions we take. We also critically use reason when we interact with fellow believers in the pursuit of sharpening iron by discussing doctrine and things of the kingdom. On the other hand, as we recognize that we are fallen creatures, we can reflect on how the Fall has affected our rationality. Based on information from a recent doctor’s visit, we can use reason to resolve to eat healthier and with more moderation. And yet, when presented with large quantities of our favorite unhealthy food, we can “rationalize” our way into overindulging. Everyone with besetting sins has likely experienced an internal rationalization again and again that these sins are really not so bad. Whether we are using this aspect of our created nature in God’s service or against Him, we have to admit that we employ it almost constantly throughout our conscious lives.

In our current society, reason is a ‘hot’ topic. Some philosophers who make the topic of reason their liveli­hood contend that the last five to ten years has yielded a surprising mix of both a return to the dark ages and a reinvigoration of the Enlightenment as far as reason and rationality go. With respect to the former, readers of the Standard Bearer know from the “All Around Us” and “Church and State” rubrics that a wave of irrationality seems to have gripped the globe. This movement some­times seems to make its express purpose to counteract all forms of reason and often leaves even steadfastly secular institutions and thinkers bewildered. The “glimmerings of natural light” seem to grow dimmer. If the results of this movement were not so sad (indeed dangerous!), one might even be somewhat entertained by the lengths to which those who yearn to be “culturally relevant” go in order to be accepted by this anti-reason movement. It is nearly impossible to read with a straight face officially issued corporate and public statements that bow to this irrationality. It seems the Mad Hatter is making a good career out of writing policy statements.

For evidence of the latter, one can observe the recent phenomena of theaters and lecture halls (which hold thousands of people) regularly selling out across the na­tion (and globe) when contemporary thinkers come to town to hold public lectures, discussions, and debates. These thinkers are best-selling authors who boast some of the most influential podcasts and YouTube channels through which they reach millions of people on a week­ly basis. While the movement seeking to reinstate rea­son into society may seem safer than the irrational al­ternative, some of the most prominent rationalists have turned their foremost efforts towards extinguishing religion. The “New Atheists”—who some point to as the initiators of the “reason movement”—have turned out numerous best-selling books that challenge modern people to use their reasoning capabilities to conclude that all religion is utterly irrational and, in fact, holding back and even hurting society at large. Many of the new rationalists claim that reason, rationality, and logic always oppose religion. But we should never give in to this charge, even when it may seem that these thinkers are right. Numerous Christian thinkers such as Gor­don Clark, William Young, and J.P. Moreland have ably defended Christianity (and often Reformed Christianity) through reason. Reason and rationality are not opponents of the regenerated mind and, therefore, do not need to be ceded to the opponents of Christianity. The rationality movement has directly clashed on many occasions with the irrationality movement, and both now spend considerable time launching assaults on each other. For now, it is difficult to tell whether the irratio­nality movement or the new rationalists are “winning.” Leaders of the irrationality movements have succeed­ed in closing college campuses, forcing institutions to cancel lectures by the new rationalists, and convincing institutions to sever the employment of some of the ra­tionalist thinkers. However, the new rationalists’ audi­ences continue to grow at a breathtaking pace and the rationalists have generally been successful in courts of law when they bring litigation against institutions that have aggrieved them. The battle rages on over reason—the capacity with which humans were endowed for the purpose of bringing high praise to the Creator.

These battles and our own experience, of course, demonstrate that every aspect of human nature was to­tally corrupted by the Fall. As a clear result, reason in unregenerate man can only be pressed into the service of rebellion against God. Reformed Christianity has historically recognized this sad truth. Even as Reformed Christianity has admitted that fallen humanity retains the capacity for reason and can use this capacity to develop society, fallen humanity cannot use this ca­pacity rightly—it is corrupted (Belgic Confession, Art. 14; Canons of Dort, Heads III/IV, Art. 4).[5]

Some powerful examples of corrupted human rea­soning have arisen from the new rationalists referenced above—examples that have effectively drawn some away from at least nominal Christianity. In one example, these rationalists accurately demonstrate that nominal Christi­anity is always playing catch-up with secular morals at the expense of historical, biblical-based morals. They then rationally conclude that this “Christianity” is a religious impostor and has no right to a voice in the modern worldview conversation. They recognize that as long as this trend continues, true religious morals will steadily erode, leaving it up to secular society to define what is acceptable in the complete absence of any religious context. In another example, they argue against Christianity based on erroneous views that have crept into Christianity and become accepted by almost all Christians. Examples include the belief that God is only love and only wants good for all creatures (with love and good defined outside of a true biblical context), and the belief that prayer is chiefly a means to heal sick loved ones, ameliorate an undesirable situation, or attain a de­sirable material good. The new rationalists provide much evidence that these are, in fact, mainstream beliefs, and subsequently perform an admirable job of demonstrating that these beliefs cannot be true. Therefore, they ratio­nally dismantle important aspects of what many Chris­tians believe to be core tenets of their religion. While these false beliefs are straw men with respect to ortho­dox Christianity, they are apparently central beliefs for much of nominal Christianity and, therefore, are fair tar­gets for the new rationalists’ insightful critique.[6] While the reasoning of these thinkers may be sound from one point of view, it is certainly corrupted in that it is used to “prove” that Christianity is senseless rather than used to demonstrate the disastrous consequences of allowing unbiblical ideas to take hold in the church. Corrupted reasoning is not new to this age: John Calvin and Martin Luther wrote extensively on how a certain corruption of reasoning can lead men to teach that God is the author of sin, election is based on foreseen faith, and that after the Fall, man retains a free will. The Canons of Dort further caution against using corrupted reasoning (“un­stable minds wrest” [that is, twist], Head I, Art. 6) when contemplating the decrees of election and reprobation.

In contrast with the corrupted reasoning of unregenerate man, regenerated man can and must press his capacity to reason for the glory of God. Within the Reformed tradition, reason and rationality occupy an honorable place and the right use of these capabilities is revealed. Man’s rationality, that is, his ability to think about, comprehend, and subsequently act on given data is an essential aspect of his created nature.[7] It is man’s rationality within his nature, in part, that gives him the ability to be an image bearer and has been described as one component of his being endowed with God’s image in a formal sense.[8] Further, the ability to reason is one characteristic God created in man so that man could exist in covenant fellowship with Him. This fact alone should cause us to take an intense interest in what rea­son is and how we can use it to heed the call of Psalm 145 to praise God.

A prime example of using reason for God’s glory is the careful reading and analysis of Scripture for the pur­pose of ordering essential doctrines in a coherent, logical fashion. This is the practice of generating systematic theologies and dogmatics, a practice that, in addition to providing a valuable resource for believers, often produc­es clearer or deeper understandings of doctrinal truths. As a result of better understanding the Christian faith, believers are able to offer more fruits of praise. One well-known systematic theology, The Christian’s Reasonable Service by Wilhelmus a Brakel, was written for this ex­press purpose: to lead readers into high praise of God by engaging the believer’s intellect and rationality as it encountered the revelations of Scripture.

Reason, rationality, and logic are also to be employed at every level and within every charge of ecclesiastical assemblies. Whether an annual budget is being developed, a particular action on the mission field is being considered, or an aspect of a doctrine is being debated, reason must be employed, and must be employed in a God-glorifying manner. Of course, in these pursuits, reason is never the end goal, as though an academic correctness is the real objective of its exercise. Instead, reason is an essential tool to be wielded for God’s glory and the building up of His church.

As described above, our everyday lives are also satu­rated with the need for reason and rationality—they are not limited to seminary professors and officebearers. A friend recently described to me a “practice of rational­ity” that ties everyday activities to deep understanding of doctrine. He pointed out to me, that when he teaches his children catechism and the basic doctrines of faith, he makes a point of not allowing them to memorize a doctrine or an answer without encouraging them to draw out the implications of that doctrine or answer. In this way, his children are constantly engaged in rea­soning and critical thinking in the context of working out Reformed doctrines. The point is not to base our children’s theology, piety, and practice on reason—that is the firm territory of faith and Scripture. The point is to demonstrate that Reformed doctrines are reasonable, and that reason can be used in explaining and defend­ing these doctrines.

Finally, we must keep in mind that, while sanctified believers can and must use their capacity for reason to God’s glory, our rationality is both finite and affected by the Fall. Therefore, again, reason and rationality must not be the ultimate objective of the Christian’s praise. We know that there are some revealed truths that are reasonable but that our finite, fallen minds cannot com­prehend. In the end, therefore, we (reasonably) believe and take great comfort in the truth that the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and we can praise Him for saving us through the foolishness of preaching.

1 Standard Bearer, December 15, 1942 (vol. 19, no. 6).

2 Standard Bearer, September 1, 1978 (vol. 54, no. 20); January 15, 1979 (vol. 55, no. 6); March 15, 1979 (vol. 55, no. 12); April 15, 1979 (vol. 55, no. 14).

3 Standard Bearer, March 1, 1945 (vol. 21, no. 11); March 1, 1945 (vol. 21, no. 15); June 1945 (vol. 21, no. 17).

4 Standard Bearer, March 1, 1944 (vol. 20, no. 11).

5 Standard Bearer, April 15, 1994 (vol. 70, no. 14); August 1994 (vol. 70, no. 19); October 1, 1996 (vol. 73, no. 1).

6 See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Henry Beveridge, transl. (Peabody, MA: Hendrikson Publishers), 2008, 165-171 for specific applications.

7 See Jerry Coyne, Faith versus Fact (New York: Viking Publishers, 2015), for striking examples of these rational strategies.

8 John Calvin, Institutes, 168.

9 Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1966), 208-209.