Faith and reason

I’ve been reading through Bavinck’s material on general and special revelation, and it has tacked down some loose pieces in my thinking about the relationship of faith and reason. In the biblical schema of human knowledge, there are three basic components: from God’s side (1) revelation (both general and special), and on man’s side (2) reason and (3) faith. Scripture presents the interplay of these components in three different contexts: 

First is the pre-Fall context. Here man received from God both general revelation (in nature and history) and special revelation (e.g., Gen 2:16–17). His reason and faith were perfectly integrated such that he received God’s revelation with a reasonable faith and a believing mind. It was not the case (and this is important) that he engaged God’s general revelation by means of reason and God’s special revelation by means of faith. Things were not so compartmentalized. Adam took in general revelation believingly, and he took in special revelation rationally. At no point (prior to the Fall) were his faith and reason operating independently from each other, nor did his faith and reason operate at any point autonomously from divine revelation. 

Second is the post-Fall context among the unredeemed. In the post-Fall context, from God’s side we find a flurry of new special revelation that is redemptive in nature (messages of grace, “good news”). Fallen man, however, can neither believe this special revelation nor understand it; both his faith has turned to unbelief and his reason has been darkened by the Fall. And this affects his apprehension not only of special revelation but also of general revelation. Man may be able to dodge special revelation, but he cannot escape the general revelation of God that confronts him in every created thing, including himself; and he wars against the revelation of God, suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18). This does not mean, however, that man has become a brute. He retains the faculties of reason, but he does not know created things truly because he does not receive in them the revelation of God (he is like someone trying to understand a piano while firmly rejecting the whole notion of music). 

More, however, must be said. Fallen man is without exception a believer; he is at every point a man of faith. He always believes in something, he always assumes something, for without a set of basic beliefs (principia, we might say) he could have no epistemology, he could account for nothing. But the faith-commitments of fallen man turn out, upon examination, to be irrational. Perhaps he believes in a realm of forms, or a noumenal realm, or a Weltgeist, or “laws” of logic, or whatever. But why is such blind faith warranted? None of these faith-commitments can fund a coherent epistemology: given any one of them, at the edge of human thought always lies a void, an unexplained and unexplainable blank. The realm of forms is “just there”; the noumena is “just there”; the Weltgeist is “just there,” unexplained and unexplainable and (which is very important) unable to explain the world that confronts us. If ultimate reality is idea, whence come concrete particularizations? If the noumena is that of which nothing can be predicated, how can we even ascribe to it “existence” (whatever that means)? If laws of logic are “just there,” is it not equally plausible that they are “just not there” (without a basis for attributing order and uniformity to the universe, for example, how can Hume’s objection to these things be countered)? Is an impersonal Weltgeist adequate to account for consciousness, for love, for beauty, for morality? It is true that the Triune God of the Bible is also “just there”; but at least, given Him, things can be accounted for. Reject Him, and there is no substitute. All the idols turn out to be lying imaginations that can neither speak nor save; given them, there is no basis for making the slightest sense of the world. 

It is not the case then that “faith” can be confined to the realm of special revelation, and “reason” given dominion in the sphere of general revelation. Such a schema does not take account of the idolatry of unbelief, or the epistemological implications of such idolatry. As Milbank and others have argued, from a Christian point of view there can be no legitimate “secular.” Secularity is religiously idolatrous. It is epistemologically, morally, and aesthetically impossible, borrowing whatever stability it has from outside itself. It is cosmically treasonous, and all of its territory is graciously but authoritatively claimed by the gospel. (I leave aside here the matter of “common grace,” though it certainly pertains to the issues at hand.) 

Third is the post-Fall context among the redeemed. As noted above, from God’s side after man’s Fall we find a flurry of special revelation that is redemptive in nature. But God must also give to man the gift of faith, since his heart has become wicked and unbelieving; with this gift of faith, man can once again believingly respond to God’s special and general revelation. Man’s reason having been darkened and made futile, the things of revelation are foolishness to him (however much he may borrow from them to construct some sort of coherent worldview); and so God also gives to man a sound mind, a renewed mind, that he may know God truly in all things, and know all things truly in God. 

This is a very rough sketch and would need nuancing and revision at points, but I hope I am making some progress in organizing my thoughts.

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