Saturday, January 16, 2010

Ratio et Mysterium.

Now that I've argued that Christian belief is not just something we take a leap of "faith" (in a convention sense of the word, not the NT version) to believe in, but is simply a historical fact, we should ask some other questions and clarify the ultimate relationship between faith and reason.

The first point that should be made is that by claiming that the Christian faith is a historical "fact" I am not suggesting that the claims that the Christian religion makes are any less paradoxical or mysterious.  My main argument in the previous post was that the authoritative sources of the Christian faith were historically provable as valid- it was not that the propositions contained in the Christian faith 1. Have to be believable in terms of the bar of human reason.  2. Are rationally understandable in and of themselves.

My attitude on this point is the same as the Lutheran Scholastics (notably Johann Gerhard) who's approach goes back to both Martin Luther and St. Thomas Aquinas.

First, the Lutheran Scholastics as I showed in previous posts have arguments proving the truth of the Christian faith.  They didn't have any trouble with the idea that the sources of the faith were rationally provable.  

George and Mike made a good point in an earlier post that part of the the reason why modern people are afraid of giving rational proofs of their faith is because they are afraid that secretly it's really not true after all and placing it the realm of the rational would open it for falsification.  In any case, Christianity cannot avoid this since it is actually a religion about history- not a form of mysticism.  That being said, there should be proofs of the authoritative sources behind the Christian faith.  As I have argued below, the real proof of the Christian religion is the resurrection and one can adduce the authority of all Christian doctrine from that fact.  This is totally in keeping with Jesus own claim that the "Sign of Jonah" would be the one proof of this Messiahship and everything else he claimed.  So, my argument I think is good exegesis also.

The second point strikes at the actual propositional content of the faith.  Is it reasonable?  Aquinas would say something like this: The content of the faith is rational and can be worked with reasonably.  Nevertheless, it take the foothold of faith and the knowledge of revelation to get up to that level of knowledge- but once you're there, you can use reason to understand it.

Luther would go a different direct, as would the Lutheran Scholastics.  Although sources of the faith are rationally provable as true, the propositional content is above reason.  God is not bounded by human reason and cannot be understood by it.  Every proposition of the faith is trans-rational.  So, how God could be God and then a human being is a mysterium that cannot really be picked apart rationally.  Neither can it be understood how there can be one God and three persons- or how something can be bread and also the body of Christ or how a human body can be in multiple places at once and eaten by people Sunday after Sunday for 2,000 years and not run out.  These are great mysteries and paradoxes.  One is right to call them the "mystery of faith."

Nevertheless, they are knowable.  Augustine's distinction here of "knowledge" and "comprehension" is helpful.  So for example, I can know what infinity is or even, let's say, a trillion is.  Nevertheless, I can't really totally wrap my mind around it.  It's too much for me to think of in and of itself.  Nevertheless, I have knowledge that it is a reality and what it is.  I think we can say the same of the mysteries of the faith.

Do you buy this?  Let me know.


  1. I buy it. Sounds good (and rational) to me.

  2. Dr. John Kleinig has some good comments on mystery.

    I agree with your position here, though I think of the problem first in terms of the unity and coherence of the person of Christ. Our Lord walked up to people and spoke intelligently to them, touched them, healed them and absolved their sins, died a real death and rose in a real resurrection. Each of these things were intelligible (they were proclaimed and recorded by other human beings that were not also God, after all), yet who can say he comprehends them? Christ didn't hand each person He met a book on epistemology or prolegomena, patiently waiting for him to get his philosophical groundings straight before He spoke to him and acted before and upon him.

  3. Phil- Dr. Kleinig's concept of mystery is very good I think and in agreement with that of Augustine and of course, the NT as well!

    Responding to your second point, I guess what I'm trying to say is not that revelation is irrational or incoherent- or unintelligible. Saying something is trans-rational is different than saying something is sub-rational or irrational.

    Reason works in world because it works on the basis of certain logical boundaries. In other words, something is rational because it conforms to the boundaries we recognize existing in the world by experience or by speculation on the basis of analogy of experience. Since God made the world and is infinite, he possesses no boundaries. Consequently, it was Luther's understanding (and that of the Nominalists before him) that the truths about God, because the lacked the created boundaries of logic present in the temporal world, could not be subject to the investigations of reason or understood by reason.

    This does not mean though that they contradict correct reason or that they are sub-rational or incoherent.

    Did I respond to your point? Or did I miss something?

  4. You may have misinterpreted what I was saying, or maybe I was just unclear. I wasn't disagreeing with your point at all (at least as far as I know), only trying to provide an illustrative analogy in comparing your point to Christ's incarnate existence. Christ was a visible human being, easily apprehended as such by the people with whom He interacted, and He demonstrated His divinity by means of the miracles, first among which was the Resurrection, and all of which could be factually comprehended by the witnesses (you say, "the sources of faith are rationally provable"; the "propositional content" is "knowable), yet in His specific person are hidden the unfathomable truths of the faith (you say, "trans-rational"). The analogy here is between the body of Christian doctrine and the person of Christ. My follow-up question would then be which one of those two should we think of as prior...

    It's easier for me (granted, a believing Christian) to see the person of Christ as being the primary thing here, and then the body of Christian doctrine being analogous to the person of Christ, as opposed to vice versa. That is, it sounds more natural to say that doctrine is analogous to Christ than that Christ is analogous to doctrine. It seems more Biblical to me, at least.

    I was really just trying to explore other ways in which you could reframe your argument to explore its significance more deeply or make it more rhetorically appealing.