Restoration of Reason

from FAITH MISGUIDED, Exposing the Dangers of Mysticism, Arthur L. Johnson, Moody, 1988.

Many Christians find themselves sympathetic to mysticism for another reason beside experience-centeredness.  They have confused rationality with rationalism.  This confusion must be avoided if, on the one hand, we are to see clearly the place of the Scriptures and to escape the problems of mysticism, and, on the other, we are to avoid reducing God's Word to mere human speculation.


During much of this century it has been popular in conservative churches to treat rationalism as a significant attack of Satan on the faith of believers. Without a doubt, much of what has been said in this regard is both correct and proper. Unfortunately, however, the untutored layman and the inadequately trained pastor have often moved beyond this legitimate concern to the extreme of anti-intellectualism. Then, in an attempt to fill the void left by the rejection of intellectual understanding, many have turned to mysticism. If we are to avoid doing the same thing, we must have some grasp of both the proper and the improper uses of reason.

It may be that some of the confusion has resulted from the similarity of the two terms, rationalism and rationality.

Rationalism is the general name for a group of theories that have in common the idea that all knowledge depends ultimately upon some natural quality in the human mind. The mind comes equipped from birth with broad principles that make it possible for man to develop all knowledge without dependence on any outside source. A variant position claims that man needs sensory input to provide the raw material for knowledge, but he is not seen to need anything from any other mind, not even the mind of God. Thus, both the source of all knowledge and the final criterion of all truth is said to be human reason.

Rationality on the other hand, refers to the ability to understand and think according to the rules of logic. Used in the general sense, it is the God-given ability that makes man distinct from animals, that ability which we all use in every aspect of our lives. For our purposes, the two words, rationality and reason, mean nearly the same thing.

It is not our purpose here to concern ourselves with theories of knowledge that are forms of rationalism and at the same time claim to be true to biblical Christianity. In general, I believe it is correct to say that most forms of rationalism proposed in the past have stood in opposition to Christianity. There are several reasons for this.

This is primarily so because biblical Christianity is based on the position that all knowledge of God begins with God's revelation. The ultimate source of truth is God Himself. Since this is so, the ultimate standard by which truth judged is God's revelation. Therefore, if the result of human reasoning stands in opposition to God's revelation, the Bible, the results of such reasoning must be rejected. To say, as rationalistic theories do, that man's reasoning ability is, itself, the final criterion against which all things must be tested before they can be declared true is to make man and not God ultimate. This is a form of blasphemy, since it ascribes to mere man what is the prerogative of God alone.

Reason, or rationality, then, is God's good gift, whereas rationalism is a theory that says that man has in himself the ability to discover all truth without the aid of God. Rationalism, of course, rejects the need for revelation and makes God's Word subject to the test of human reason. As Christians, we must reject such a theory.

Furthermore, biblical Christianity says that the Scriptures are the ultimate standard of all truth. This position goes beyond merely claiming that God's Word, and not human reason, is the ultimate standard of truth in spiritual matters. This means that any claim in any area that itself contradicts Scripture, whether explicitly or implicitly, is false.

This strong position must be maintained by the Christian if he is to be true to what the Bible says about itself, as well as to what it says about God. If God is truly almighty, all-knowing, all-good, unable to lie, and if He has communicated to man in the form of the written Word, then what He has said simply cannot be false in any way. If it is totally and absolutely true, then it follows that anything that disagrees with it must be false. When, therefore, men's ideas disagree with Scripture they are false. The Bible, and not human theories or abilities, is the ultimate criterion of all truth. There is no area of human investigation in which human reason can state total autonomy apart from any prior claim of God.

This is the position that Christians must maintain, and it is to a large degree the belief that identifies one as an evangelical Christian. Unfortunately, some have mistakenly believed that this means that all reasoning is bad. It is as though to say that reason is not the ultimate criterion of truth is the same as saying that rationality always leads to what is false. But when a Christian denies that reason is the ultimate criterion of truth he is not rejecting the process of thought. God's communication to man cannot be grasped, understood, or acted upon without the use of our God-given reasoning ability. The question is really not concerning reason itself, but rather about the content of human reasoning. Perhaps it would be even better to speak of the starting point for the reasoning process.


Part of the difficulty people have at this point has its roots in an historical confusion. The sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries are often called "the Age of Reason." It was during this period of time that rationalism reached its most prominent position in Western Europe. One of the interesting things that a careful examination of the literature of this period will reveal, however, is that although everyone talked about "reason," few defined it. The way the word was used showed that there were almost as many meanings for the word as there were writers using it. There was, it seems, one common element, and an unfortunate one at that.

Most writers used the word reason to designate the process by which they arrived at their beliefs. What they did not recognize is that whatever process one uses, that process operates upon some prior basis that is not part of the process itself. Thus, if one's process is strict logical deduction, for example, there must be some premises treated as true and on which the process of deduction is to operate before one can proceed. For lack of a better designation I will refer to this "beginning material" as the assumptions one makes. The term assumptions is appropriate here because these beginning points are usually taken for granted.

What these rationalistic writers did not realize was that the same rational process used to the same degree of accuracy by several thinkers will give as widely differing results as the differing assumptions with which the thinkers begin. In other words, the end product is determined at least as much by one's assumptions as by one's process.

Unfortunately, Christians have not recognized this fact any more clearly than did writers in the so-called Age of Reason. When an author argued that belief in miracles, for example, is "contrary to reason," it seems that Christians often believed that this was true. But if by reason we mean only the careful and accurate use of our minds in accordance with the rules of logic, such a statement is not true at all. The claim makes some sense only if we add to the meaning of reason what we have no right to do, namely the assumptions of naturalism.1 And this is precisely what still happens every time some statement is made to the effect that Christianity violates reason. Tragically, Christians themselves have come to believe these false statements that spring from anti-Christian assumptions and biases.

An example of the tension between biblical faith and rationalism is in the area of modern science. It is naturalistic assumptions at the heart of much of scientific discussion that create many problems for Christians. Bible believers are told that the Bible contradicts science. They are also told that what has been "scientifically proved" is thereby shown to be absolutely true. They fail to recognize that the scientific method can never provide results that are absolute (something that every knowledgeable scientist understands very well). Nor do believers realize that the word science may be used in several different ways. When science contradicts the Bible it does so because science here includes the theories that are based, at least in part, on naturalism. It is not the raw data with which the scientist works, nor yet the process of formulating hypotheses and testing them that results in the contradiction. Instead, it is the assumptions that result in a rationalistic interpretation of the data.  Many of the theories of modern science do contradict the Bible, but these must be recognized for what they are: interpretations that originate with anti-supernatural assumptions.

It is easy to see why some sincere Christians are inclined to reject reason and promote anti-intellectualism. They believe the biblical accounts of creation, the Flood, and miracles. They believe the biblical claims that God is active in our lives and is able to intervene supernaturally. Unfortunately, however, they also tend to believe that science is the most accurate expression of reason. Confidence in science conditions Christians to believe the false claims of the naturalists--that belief in creation and miracles runs counter to the dictates of reason. Thus, they feel forced to make a choice between God's Word and reason. In that situation, Christians often choose God's Word and reject reason. However, such a choice is unnecessary. There is no contradiction between the Bible and the use of reason as such, but there is a great chasm between the Bible and the theory of naturalism.

No method by itself, regardless of its field, can ever guarantee true results. This is true of the rules of logic, as well as of the scientific method. Much of the time we are interpreting and evaluating data on the basis of doubtful assumptions. The correctness of the final results depends, to a much greater extent than most realize, on the correctness of those presuppositions.

If I begin by assuming that there is no God, I will arrive at false conclusions even if I follow the rules of logic without any error. Only by beginning with God and His truth can careful reasoning lead us to truth. It is imperative, therefore, that the thinking Christian bring his mind to the service of Christ while also examining his presuppositions in the light of the Word.

Christians, then, have no good grounds for rejecting reason. Furthermore, Christians cannot grasp God's truth without the use of this divinely given ability. The fact that God, in His sovereignty, chose to express His truth to us in rational words and ideas demonstrates that He intends for us to use our reasoning ability.

"But," someone may ask, "could God not communicate to us by some method that does not use our reason? Is He not free to do what He pleases? And since He is, may He not relate to us through some form of mysticism?"

This is certainly a fair question, but it shows a basic misunderstanding. It is true that God is not "boxed in" by some method imposed on Him from the outside. He is free to choose whatever procedure He wishes. However, He is not free to violate His own rational nature. This is so, not because of something outside Himself, but because of His very essence. He is unchanging and unchangeable (Hebrews 1:12; 13:8), and He cannot lie (Titus 1:2). The question is not what God is capable of doing, but rather what He has chosen to do. God has not shown either by example or by direct statement that mystical experience is a method He has chosen by which to accomplish His purposes.

For someone, then, to argue that God does speak to us through mystical means merely on the basis of the general fact that He is able to do so, is a violation of available evidence that such teaching transgresses the prohibition against saying in God's name what He has not said (Deut. 18:20).


The Christian, then, is bound by God's sovereign choice to the use of his reasoning ability as he relates to God. This will shock and dismay some very sincere Christians for several reasons. It will seem to depersonalize God and make their relation to Him a cold, sterile thing. This also will seem to strip their faith of emotion and thus reduce Christianity to little more than rational assent. None of this is really true.

Let's recall certain facts. Faith in God depends on the truth of God's statements.2 We have been created in such a way that if we are emotionally healthy people we will experience emotions that are appropriate to what we believe. Appropriate emotions will vary in degree as our understanding and certainty of the issues fluctuate.

We must not forget, however, that we are fallen creatures living in a fallen world. Our emotional response will never be perfectly what it should be. Perhaps even more significantly, it will never be what it should be because our understanding of God's truth will never be all it should be until we ultimately stand in God's presence in our redeemed bodies (Rom. 7:24-25).

But emotion there will be. If there is no feeling of joy, no sense of peace, no shame or sorrow for sin, no thankfulness for God's great salvation, no wonder at God's love, no humility and awe at the recognition of who God is, then it is doubtful that we understand God's truths. Without some degree of understanding there can be no faith; without faith there is no salvation. It may well be that he who never has any emotion is not a Christian. If this is so, however, it is not that his salvation somehow depends on his having certain emotions, but rather that both emotion and salvation depend on understanding and belief. (On the other hand, a lack of emotion may not indicate a lack of faith at all, but rather an emotionally abnormal person. This type of person is not, however, the issue at this point.)


By now it should be clear that emotion is not a part of faith, but that the person who understands correctly will have emotions. But this is not to make our relationship to God an emotion. Perhaps an example will help.

When the relationship between husband and wife is what God intended, two normal people will feel an entire range of emotions. But it would be improper to say that their relationship is an emotion or even that it depends on emotions. The relationship depends on what they know to be true: their God-ordained mutual responsibilities and privileges, their commitment to God and to each other, and their love for each other. That love is a decision, constantly renewed, to seek each other's best. But what joy, what intense emotions, result from such a relationship. Just so it is with our relationship to God.3 Emotions have their proper place as a result of our relationship, but that relationship does not depend solely on those emotions. Nor are emotions the proper way of knowing one has this relationship.

This, then, is the progression of the individual human-divine encounter. God extends His gracious revelation to man through the Bible and general revelation. Man receives the message of God from outside himself, and he thinks it over. Hopefully, man then responds appropriately to the message of God. If man trusts the Word of God, he will in due time experience the emotions of a heart in proper fellowship with its Savior and Lord.

1. By naturalism I mean the philosophical theory that insists there is no God, at least not one who in any way affects affairs here on earth. Thus, every event can be totally explained by referring only to other natural and physical events. For a more thorough explanation of naturalism and its implications, see James Sire, The Universe Next Door (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity, 1976), pp.58-75.  [return]

2. See the discussion of faith in chapter 3.  [return]

3. See those parts of chapters 2 and 3 that deal with the relation that exists between belief and emotion.  [return]


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