Faith and Reason 1

The place of reason in theology is the main subject covered in this post. The materials in this post are taken from Cornelius Van Til’s “Introduction to Systematic Theology” (1974) and Herman Bavinck’s “Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena” (2003). I find five relevant subjects under Van Til’s discussion. The second part of this post presents Herman Bavinck’s explanation on the relationship between faith and reason and the role of reason in theology.

Cornelius Van Til

1. Necessary Distinction

Van Til claims that since theological method is properly understood as part of Christian theistic method in general, the place of reason in theology must also be understood as part of Christian epistemology in general (Van Til, 1974, p. 21). Here, we see the distinctive feature of Van Tilian scholarship, which is an emphasis on distinguishing between the Christian and non-Christian way of thinking. For Van Til, non-Christian epistemology assumes that reason is everywhere the same, a conception that a reformed Christian philosopher cannot tolerate.

2. Tendencies Among Orthodox Theologians

Van Til identifies two tendencies among orthodox theologians regarding the place of reason in theology:

  • One school of thought is afraid of reason that results to rejecting any legitimate place for reason in theology.
  • The other school emphasizes reason beyond its proper bounds that yield into making theology as a valid science. Though Van Til does not reject the notion that theology is a science but he is careful to distinguish his understanding of science from the popular one.

3. Necessary Definitions

In epistemology, the issues about the object and subject of knowledge are considered primary. Christian epistemology is said to be distinct from epistemology in general in its views about the object and subject of knowledge in the areas of their existence and meaning. Concerning the existence of the object of knowledge, Van Til considers the doctrine of creation provides the fundamental foundation. The Bible teaches creation out of nothing. This doctrine means that there is no pre-existing material out of which God created the world. This doctrine cannot accept the notion that both God and the world originate from the void. Creation declares that God eternally exists and the world owes its existence from Him. “The absolute and independent existence of God determines the derivative existence of the universe” (p. 22).

On the other hand, the doctrine of creation also applies to the meaning of the object of knowledge. The meaning of the entire universe and everything in it cannot be understood apart from God. The Bible clearly teaches that all things exist for the glory of God (Revelation 4:11; Romans 11:36). Now, applying the above principles to the question of man’s knowledge of facts of nature, man must therefore presuppose the existence of God and his plan for the world for him to obtain true knowledge. This would mean that man’s task is to bring the knowledge of the particulars in this world in relation to the universals.

The existence and meaning of the subject of knowledge is also derivative. As such, man’s knowledge of both God and of this world cannot be exhaustive but true. It cannot be exhaustive because man is created in God’s image. However, man’s knowledge is true simply because he is created in God’s image. Except from the fact that the existence and meaning of man’s knowledge is derivative, it is also ethically depraved. For Van Til, this point is a crucial distinction between the Christian and non-Christian view of human reason. The ethical depravity of human knowledge overturns the belief in the myth of neutrality. No man is neutral in his quest for knowledge. This distinction arises from the biblical doctrine of sin. A man under sin cannot comprehend the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:14; Ephesians 2:1-3). Sin affects even the mental faculty of man not only in his “spiritual” quest but including also the academic one.

At this point, Van Til introduced his idea about the three kinds of human consciousness. He designates them as Adamic, unregenerate, and regenerate:

a. Adamic consciousness is man’s reason before the fall. It is derivative. It is not exhaustive but true. It is in covenant with God. It receives and interprets the revelation of God. Van Til labels this knowledge as “analogical” (p. 25).

b. Unregenerate consciousness is the reason of natural man. It claims to be comprehensive. Man is the ultimate interpreter of the world. Due to the difficulty of assessing the value of the knowledge of non-Christians, Van Til affirms that one can be safeguarded from it by understanding the essence of “absolute ethical antithesis” (p. 26). This is Van Til’s way of putting the ultimate distinction between the knowledge of Christian and non-Christian. In other words, as a whole, non-Christian misunderstood not only God, but also, everything in this world for not recognizing its relationship to Him.

Another point that will help clarify the value of human reason is the fact that the non-Christian knowledge of God needs to be understood in two senses: metaphysical and epistemological. Human consciousness testifies to the metaphysical sense of man’s knowledge of God. This is the better knowledge of God possessed by everyone. This is the knowledge of God stated by Paul in Romans 1. In this sense, all men know God. Their conscience testifies about this knowledge. Sin cannot destroy this knowledge.

Moreover, the epistemogical sense of man’s knowledge of God due to sin wants to suppress his better knowledge of God. This epistemological knowledge of man is evident in his use of reason in academic field most especially in the realm of philosophy. This is why in non-Christian use of reason, one can always find a mixture of truth and error.

c. Regenerate consciousness is “Adamic consciousness restored and supplemented” not in degree (actuality?) but in principle (p. 28).

4. Place Of Reason In Theology.

Van Til made the following qualifications in explaining the location of reason in theology:

  • Adamic consciousness does not exist at present.
  • Only two kinds of consciousness exist today: unregenerate and regenerate. However, the two kinds of consciousness cannot be maintained apart from accepting the reality of the historicity of Adam’s fall.
  • A reformed theologian cannot speak of human reason or consciousness in general except in the objective sense. To do so is to compromise the teaching of the Bible especially the doctrine of sin.
  • Unregenerate reason is qualified as “monistic” (p. 29) in assumption.
  • Man is responsible for his blindness.
  • Christians are to speak and teach as well as reason with the natural man.
  • Reason must receive and reinterpret the revelation of God.

For Van Til, understanding the foregoing qualifications will help us see that the conflict between reason and faith does not exist. Faith instead is “the impelling power, which urges reason to interpret aright” (p. 30).

5. Critique Of Herman Bavinck’s Position

Van Til appreciates Bavinck’s emphasis on quantitative and qualitative difference between human and divine knowledge. He also admires Bavinck’s identification of faith as the internal principle (principium internum) for the reception of the revelation of God. However, for Van Til, the weakest point in Bavinck’s position is the latter’s failure to distinguish between the Christian and non-Christian basis of the certainty of human knowledge (p. 46). He said that Bavinck did not escape the Thomistic way of thinking. He classified Bavinck’s position as “moderate realism” to avoid both the extremes of realism and idealism.

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