Is Christianity reasonable? It seems the tension between faith and reason has escalated every year since the dawn of the enlightenment. Do religious claims have any sort of epistemological legitimacy? Is Christianity simply a fideistic jump into presuppositions that must be believed before they can be understood? Or, can Christianity be believed and accepted by the fierce consistency and coherency of the evidentalist apologetic seeking to prove the case for Christianity? These questions have been wrestled and debated by theologians and philosophers much greater than I, yet I think there is an epistemological legitimacy to the Christian faith that necessitates both presuppositions received by faith and the convincing evidence and truthfulness of rationality. I believe we see both of these elements clearly in the life of Paul and his life will serve an illustrative purpose in understanding the reasonableness of Christianity.
The Rational Mind of the Apostle Paul
The apostle Paul stands before Agrippa in Acts 26 defending his missionary work and his teaching concerning The Way. The defense he gives, as recorded by Luke, is his testimony of his conversion. He appeals to the king and appeals to the Old Testament, the prophets and Moses, concerning the death of Jesus and his resurrection. (Acts 26:22). Fetus, Pauls accuser, states and loudness and anger tells Paul, “you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” Paul was a well-educated man trained by Gamaliel himself and trained as Pharisee. Paul had an education that few were privileged too in his day. Festus accuses that Paul’s great academic training has led to his current state of insanity. On a side note, many Christians today think so very similarly to Festus thinking that intellectual pursuits concerning the Christian mind are determined to lead either to cold rationalism or a dangerous heterodoxy. Paul certainly didn’t see this as the case. Paul responds to Festus claiming that he is not out of his mind, “but I am speaking true and rational words”. Paul not only sees his arguments of Jesus as the Christ as true, but rational.
Paul the thinker, was skilled in presenting a rational case and an apologetic for the Christian faith. His missionary strategy involved him going into the Jewish synagogue and lecturing on the Messiah in the Old Testament only to conclude that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ. Paul believed that his arguments from the Old Testament were both convincing and rational. Even in his appeal to Agrippa, he calls him to see the truthfulness of the Gospel because of the of the consistent and coherent arguments he makes from the Old Testament Scriptures, which were a source of authority both Paul and Agrippa shared.
Paul did not see the Christian faith as anti-rational. Anyone who has ever given Paul’s writings in the New Testament even a cursory read knows that the man was fiercely argumentative and ruthlessly logical. Yet, neither too did Paul adopt an epistemology of rationalism. Although Paul believed deeply in the rationality of the Christian faith he knew that convincing arguments were never enough to convince anyone to make Christ their Lord. Paul himself knew this better than anyone. His own conversion testifies to the inability of reason to lead him to the Christian faith. His dedication and intellectual pursuits as a Pharisee did not lead to his conversion, but his conversion came on that dusty road to Damascus. It was there that Saul of Tarsus had an encounter with the resurrected Christ appearing before him in the blinding light. That moment for Paul changed the trajectory of his life. His talents and abilities trained and refined by Gamaliel have now been opened up to a new reality – a reality in which Christ is Lord. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus led him to pour his intellectual ability into defending and preaching a Gospel he not only now knew to be rationally true, but one in which he experienced its truthfulness.
An Experience of the Knowledge of God
This experiential component of the Christian faith was incredibly crucial in Paul’s thinking. For Paul, true knowledge was not simply accepted mental facts or data about God, but the facts and data should lead to an intimate experience and knowledge of the divine, hence, Paul’s emphasis in knowing Christ in Philippians 3. He counts everything as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord. This is no mere cognitive knowledge but an intimate knowledge that deepens as he is united to both the painful sufferings of Christ and the incredible victory of his resurrection. As he shares in the sufferings and victory of Christ he receives a deeper knowledge of God. Paul’s life and thinking is a reminder that reason and experience should not be dichotomized. When it comes to the knowledge of God both are crucial.
It must be remembered that when it comes to conversion scripture emphasizes that this is a divine work of God. It is an act of God’s grace that penetrates the depravity of the human heart. No one is ever convinced into the kingdom of God, rather they are converted. Just as we do not choose our physical birth, neither do we choose our spiritual birth. Jesus tells us that the new birth is like the wind. The spirit blows where it wishes. (John 3:8) Although Christianity is rational, it cannot be accepted apart from the new birth. It is only when a man or woman is born again that their faulty presuppositions due to the noetic effects of sin are replaced within divinely given eyes to see the truth and reasonableness of the faith.
Jonathan Edwards famous illustration of honey serves as an important distinction:
There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness. A man may have the former, that knows not how honey tastes; but a man can’t have the latter, unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mind. So there is a difference between believing that a person is beautiful, and having a sense of his beauty. The former may be obtained by hearsay, but the latter only by seeing the countenance. There is a wide difference between mere speculative, rational judging anything to be excellent, and having a sense of its sweetness, and beauty. The former rests only in the head, speculation only is concerned in it; but the heart is concerned in the later. (JER, 112)
Just as a man may be told about the sweetness of honey, he does not truly know its sweetness until he experiences it himself. The same is true when it comes to an understanding of God. Apologetic and evidences for the truthfulness of Christianity can be presented powerfully and persuasively, but the human mind cannot accept the rationality of Christianity until a work of God has first taken place in the heart. Only by the work of the Spirit of God can a man move from an distant and dry intellectualism to a warm personal experience of divine grace.
This connection between the rationality of Christianity and the need for experience leads to a few practical application that must be remembered.
1. Conversion is a Super Natural Work of God
Apologetics is a worthwhile field of study. It is essential to provide a defense for the rationality of the Christian faith. Christianity is reasonable and explain the best the world as it is. Yet, we must be careful that we don’t turn conversion into a work of philosophical argument to be made. Conversion is not a work of the convincingness of man, but of the convincing calling of God. Conversion is first and foremost a supernatural work of God. Does this mean however that the quest of apologetics is purposeless in evangelism? Certainly not.
2. Apologetics Can be the Means Used By God to Convert the Lost
Apologetics is not a waste of time. Although the rational faculties of man have been severely distorted due to the Fall, in the words of Francis Schaeffer, man is not a zero. He is still made in the image of God and is a rational being. Often in presenting an apologetic case for the Christian faith, the Spirit will use the evidences for the truthfulness of Christianity to save.
3. Christianity is Reasonable
The Christian faith has a solid case for its reasonable and has epistemological credibility. The foundation for Christian epistemology comes from divine revelation both generally in the created order and specifically through His Word. The truth that has been given by God himself provides a firm footing to climb high on the mountain of God. There is a tendency among some Christians to elevate religious experience to idolatrous levels that not only go beyond the revealed truth of God’s word, but are contradictory to it. Although we want to achieve a balance between Christian reason and experience, it is crucial that personal subjective experiences do not rest in the chief seat of epistemological authority. Scripture understood through Spirit enlightened reason is always where we must begin when it comes to the reasonableness of Christianity.
Faith is the Catalyst to True Rationality
Christianity is rational, but its rationality can’t be fully comprehended by a divine work of grace. However, once God’s grace has been given to illuminate the human mind it is discovered that faith does not the antithesis to reason but rather the gateway to true rationality. It is by faith in Christ that the mental faculties of the human mind are regenerated to work properly and begin thinking clearly. Faith is the catalyst enzyme unlocking the true reasonableness of the human mind. It is only by a divine work of God bringing us to faith that we can see the inconsistencies and incoherence of our former worldview and see the incredibly rational and convincing understanding that Jesus is Lord. In the words of C.S. Lewis, "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”