Weekend Broadcast

Four Possibilities

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Christians down through the centuries have used a number of different methods to try to establish proof for the existence of God. For example, some use philosophical arguments, while others rely on a leap of faith. In this lesson, Dr. R.C. Sproul explains his preferred system of apologetics, the classical method that finds its origin in Saint Augustine.

From the series: Defending Your Faith

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    Faith Has Its Reasons

  2. devotional

    Faith and Evidence

  3. article

    Faith and Reason

Faith Has Its Reasons

R.C. Sproul

Christians from every theological tradition have for centuries confessed their faith by reciting the Apostles' Creed. Elsewhere I have taught on the actual content of this creed, but if there is one aspect of this confession that we often fail to reflect on, it is the creed's opening words: I believe.

Here I want to consider faith in relation to what are often seen as its opposites—reason and sense perception. Epistemology is the division of philosophy that seeks to answer one question: How do we know what we know, or how do we know what is true? Reason, sense perception, or some combination of the two have been among the most common answers to this basic question.

Our minds function according to certain categories of rationality. We try to think in a logically coherent manner. Our judgments and deductions are not always correct and legitimate, but our minds always look for logical, intelligible patterns. Some people say that we find true knowledge exclusively within the mind. These "rationalists" stress the mind and reason as the sources of true knowledge.

The mind processes information that we acquire with our five senses. Our minds act on what we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. Perception is the experience of being in touch with the external world, and "empiricists" emphasize sense perception as the true basis for knowledge.

The scientific method combines sense perception and reason. In scientific experiments we gather facts with our senses. Our minds then draw conclusions, reasoning through what our five senses discover. Some want to oppose this way of learning to faith, but I don't find in Scripture the idea that faith is irrational or anti-sense perception. According to God's Word, reason and sense perception form the foundation of knowledge. Faith rests on this foundation but takes us beyond it.

We live in the most anti-intellectual age of history, and even many Christians believe we can compartmentalize faith as a way of knowing completely separate from sense perception and reason. Yet as Augustine told us centuries ago, how could we receive knowledge from God if it were not accessible to the human mind? Could we say that "Jesus is Lord" without some understanding of what the term Lord means, what the verb is indicates, and who the name Jesus refers to? We can't believe the gospel without our minds understanding it to a degree.

Christianity also features a book—the Bible—that is designed for our understanding. Why would God give us a written document if faith bypasses reason entirely? Moreover, sense perception is key to the biblical story. Luke wrote down those things to which he had eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1–4). Peter said the Apostles didn't proclaim clever myths but what they saw with their eyes and heard with their ears (2 Peter 1:16). The biblical writers tell us about actual events in history that they experienced. Christianity isn't ahistorical. God reveals Himself with reference to history: He is "the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob" (Ex. 3:16).

Faith never requires us to crucify our minds or deny our senses. It's not virtuous to take a "leap of faith" if that means we plunge into irrationality. The Bible never calls us to leap into the darkness but to leap out of the darkness into the light.

The New Testament defines faith as the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen (Heb. 11:1). This doesn't mean faith is against what we see. We are called to trust Him whom we haven't seen—God—but He hasn't remained wholly invisible. We have seen the Lord's handiwork in this world, which Calvin called "a magnificent theater of natural revelation." One day we'll see Him directly in the beatific vision of His glory, but until then, He has not left Himself without a witness in creation.

Revelation is the third category of knowledge. Christianity is a revealed religion. The Christian God is not mute. When we talk about faith as the evidence of things not seen, we're talking about believing the Lord who has spoken. Not just believing in God but believing God. Believing God for things we cannot see now is the essence of faith, but it's not an irrational or unscientific faith. God makes it very rational for me to believe He's there. He's shown Himself in the created order. He's broken into time and space. Jesus came in the flesh, was seen, and rose from the dead in history. The Apostles testify to these events in Scripture, recording those things they witnessed with their senses.

It's not irrational to believe in the One who vindicated Himself as the incarnation of truth. This is not blind faith but faith that embraces testimony. The real opposites of faith are not reason and sense perception but credulity and superstition. Credulity, or naive believism, believes something that has no basis in reality. Superstition believes in magical things that have nothing to do with Scripture.

We find superstition and credulity throughout the church. That's why we continually measure our faith by the Word of God and make sure we are assenting to the reasonable, historical testimony of the prophets and the Apostles to the triumph of Christ. Faith is not mere intellectual assent. We aren't saved simply because we affirm the truth of certain facts but because we trust the Person whom those facts reveal. So, faith is definitely more than knowledge. But it is not less.

Faith and Evidence

Before we examine how faith manifests itself, we do well to remind ourselves of how it is related to reason. While many today discuss faith and reason as if they are opposed, Christian orthodoxy has not seen such a conflict. Great theologians including Augustine and Aquinas have at times made a distinction between faith and reason, but these and other orthodox thinkers have never seen the two as antithetical. Knowing that all truth is God’s truth, faith and reason cannot ultimately be opposed.

This is evident when we consider the creation of the universe. Hebrews 11:3 tells us by faith we know the Lord made the world out of that which is invisible. Reason testifies to this truth as well. As we saw in our studies last January, the laws of cause and effect prove there must be a self-existent origin, an “uncaused cause” of all that exists. The heavens declare God’s glory (Ps. 19:1), and so an objective, rational exploration of the natural world can never end in atheism; it cannot disprove the existence of the Creator.

Belief in the Lord’s existence is one of the elements of faith set forth in today’s passage (Heb. 11:6). This goes without saying; how could we trust someone who does not exist? We must have confidence, in our minds, that God is real.

However, Christian faith is not mere assent to certain propositions, no matter how essential this is for true belief. Faith also grasps the promise that the Almighty “rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6). We show trust that the Lord rewards us when we strive to do what He says. Following His way in expectation of receiving blessing reveals loyalty to the promise that He blesses those who seek Him.

In no way should this be construed as saying our good works earn our right standing with the Lord. Nevertheless, the faith by which we lay hold of Christ’s righteousness and are thereby justified is always a living and active faith, one demonstrable not only by our lips but in our right attitude and good deeds (Isa. 29:13; James 2:14–26). This is most evident in the good works performed by Abel, Enoch, Noah (Heb. 11:4–5, 7), and many other old covenant saints.

Faith and Reason

Keith Mathison

It has been said that he who defines the terms, wins the debate. Skeptics know this and take advantage of it. Witness some of the famous definitions of "faith" provided by unbelievers. Mark Twain, for example, quipped, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so." Closer to our own day, the atheist author Sam Harris defined faith as "the license religious people give themselves to keep believing when reasons fail." Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most famous atheist of our generation, claims: "Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence."

The one thing all of these definitions have in common is the explicit or implicit idea that faith is in conflict with reason. Unfortunately, some Christians in the history of the church have said things that have provided support for this view of the relationship between faith and reason. Martin Luther, for example, made very strong negative statements about reason, many of which are quoted by skeptics in their attempts to prove that Christianity is inherently irrational. Luther called reason "the Devil's greatest whore." He said in a number of different contexts that reason should be destroyed. The context is crucial, because in these instances Luther was talking about the arbitrariness of unaided human reason to discern divine things. Still, his tendency toward hyperbole has played into the hands of skeptics.

The vast majority of Christians throughout history, however, have not rejected the right use of reason. This stems from their attempt to be faithful to the teaching of Scripture, which itself provides reasons to believe. John wrote his entire Gospel to provide reasons to believe that Jesus is the Christ (John 20:30–31). John, Peter, and Paul appeal to evidence for the claims they make (1 Cor. 15:5–6; 2 Peter 1:16; 1 John 1:1–4). All human beings believe certain things based on the testimony of others. Christians believe what they believe based on the testimony of the Apostles. Such faith is a gift, but it is not divorced from reason.

If we are going to understand better the relationship between faith and reason, we must have a clearer understanding of these two words. The word faith is used in several different ways by Christian thinkers. It can refer to the beliefs that Christians share (the "Christian faith"). The word faith also can refer to our response to God and the promises of the gospel. This is what the Reformed Confessions mean when they speak of "saving faith" (for example, the WCF 14). This faith involves knowledge, assent, and trust. Finally, many philosophers and theologians have spoken of faith as a source of knowledge. As Caleb Miller explains, "The truths of faith are those that can be known or justifiedly believed because of divine revelation, and are justified on the basis of their having been revealed by God."

The word reason also has been used in different ways. It can refer to our human cognitive faculties. The relation of faith to reason in this sense involves asking whether Christian beliefs are reasonable. In other words, did we properly use our cognitive faculties in evaluating these beliefs? We can also use reason to refer to a source of knowledge. In contrast to the "truths of faith" known by divine revelation, the "truths of reason," in this sense, are truths known through natural faculties such as sense perception and memory. A conflict between knowledge derived through natural human faculties and knowledge derived from divine revelation occurs only if an apparent contradiction arises. Finally, in the narrowest sense, reason can be used to refer to logical reasoning. Christians should never argue that there is a conflict here because this faculty is part of who we are as human beings created in the image of God.

Most of the contemporary discussion about the supposed conflict between faith and reason has arisen in the context of discussions about science and religion. Space constraints prohibit a full discussion of this issue, but a few general points should be made in order to help us understand how to think about any alleged conflicts that arise. In the first place, we must acknowledge with Augustine, John Calvin, and many others that all truth is God's truth. That which is true is true because God revealed it, created it, or decreed it.

HE REVEALED IT: All that God reveals, whether through general revelation in His creation or through special revelation in Scripture, is necessarily true. It is impossible for God to lie.

HE CREATED IT: When we learn something about creation that corresponds with what God actually made, we have learned something true. God is the source of these truths by virtue of the fact that He is the Creator.

HE DECREED IT: God is the one who has decreed whatsoever comes to pass. When we learn something about history that is in accordance with what actually happened, we have learned something true to the extent that our knowledge corresponds with what actually happened, and what actually happened only happened, ultimately, because God decreed it.

A second major point that must be made is this: If all truth has its source in God and if all truth is unified, then one thing we know to be certain is that if there is a contradiction between an interpretation of Scripture and an interpretation of what God has created, then one or both of those interpretations is incorrect. They cannot both be correct. Christians must recognize that the conflict may be due to a misinterpretation of creation, to a misinterpretation of Scripture, or to a misinterpretation of both. This means we need to do a thorough and careful examination of both the scientific theory and the biblical exegesis to discover the source of the conflict. We must make sure we are dealing with the actual teaching of Scripture as opposed to a mistaken interpretation of Scripture. And we must examine the evidence for the scientific theory in question to discover whether we are dealing with something that is true about God's creation or something that is merely speculation. All of this hard work takes time, and it means that we do not jump to hasty conclusions.

God created us in His image as rational creatures. Our cognitive faculties were distorted by the fall, but they were not destroyed, and even unbelievers can use these faculties to discover truths about earthly things—as opposed to heavenly things, about which they are completely blind (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.2.12–21). We do not fully comprehend God, but this is because we are finite and God is infinite. Faith and reason, rightly understood, cannot be and are not in any real conflict.

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