Faith and Reason

If we lived in the first generation of Christians we might have assumed that Jesus was coming back in our lifetime. The Thessalonian letters make it clear that some believers thought that way. If we thought that way we would not concern ourselves for long with some of the issues that would come up for Christians over time. But it came to pass that Christians, like the Hebrews of old, had to think about how their faith relates to culture, politics, philosophy, science and technology.

The tension between the natural and the supernatural has had concrete effects in the history of Christian faith. When the supernatural is emphasized to the exclusion of the natural, the rigors of asceticism and negative theology result. Some have called this belief in an “unnatural God.” The doctrine of an unnatural God led to the rigors of asceticism and monasticism via the negative way [see The Vision of God. Kirk 1931 lecture IV]. The historic reply to this excess was to show the natural God, but this too has its dangers. “No mere doctrine of a wholly natural God a God whose character and lineaments are to be seen indifferently in all the processes of nature or all the aspirations of the heart and mind is adequate either to the evidence of conscience, or to the spirit of Christ as revealed in the New Testament. If it be true that God is not far from any one of us (for in Him we live, and move, and have our being); it is true also that He dwells in light unapproachable. If He humbleth Himself to behold the things on earth, in His primal nature nevertheless He stands very high above them; if He finds a home with the contrite and humble yet His abiding dwelling is the high and holy place.” [K. E. Kirk 1931p304]. Kirk goes on to emphasize the admirable labours expended to weave together “into a single harmonious system” [Ibid]  the balance of the supernatural with the witness of nature and conscience. It should further be noted that the conscience, which is of great importance in this discussion, can be viewed as itself a part of nature.

         No one who reads the Bible can doubt that faith is basic to our relationship with God, but it is equally true that no one who lives in the world God made can doubt that we were made reasonable creatures and that reason plays a major role in our survival and progress in the world. It even plays a role in our worship and service to God. But so often reason and faith seems like they may be challenging each other, maybe even in conflict at times. So how do we find the balance?




The Natural and the Supernatural

 Read: Jeremiah 33:19-26 & Colossians 1:15-20

Intro: Christians are sometimes thought of as other-worldly, but the truth is we are, like the Master, people of two worlds, the world of flesh and the world of spirit. It is in fact the unbeliever who denies the true nature of the world. By insisting that the world is nothing but what is seen and measured by the brain, they deny a large part of what is.

We who go by the name Christian are called to live in these two worlds. Christianity is not a natural religion, but it is consistent with and intimately related to all that is natural. [The Jews in the OT displaced the natural religions of Canaan, those religions that built their theologies around the cycles of the seasons and modeled their gods after the image of the things in creation.] Even though the cosmos is created by God, and thus has a supernatural origin, we have found it fruitful to speak of many of its functions as “natural.” This is just a way of saying that it is a consistent law-abiding place. Thus science is possible on the principle that there are natural laws that are discoverable and dependable. People have not always realized this. Many tribes and peoples have thought that the universe is magical and capricious. A scientific approach to nature is not possible under such conditions of belief. Everything is religiously superstitious under such conditions.

What is the basis for the dependability of what scientists call natural law?  It surely is not to be found in the creation itself. Creation is neither eternal nor immutable. It didn’t have to be, and it could have been otherwise than it is. Therefore we have to look beyond the creation for an explanation of its dependability. Natural law is not God.

Genesis 9:8-17 and Jeremiah 33:19-26 give us the clue to follow. The biblical-theological basis of natural law is the covenant-keeping faithfulness of God.   God has revealed himself through two books in this order: Nature and Scripture. These two revelations are in perfect harmony. In nature God’s works exhibit order, consistency and dependability.  At the Hall of Fame for Great Americans on the campus of the Bronx College in NY, there is a sculpture of Maria Mitchell, outstanding 19th century astronomer after whom an observatory in Nantuckett is named. The inscription quotes her as saying: “Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God.”

In the Scriptures we learn that God is a faithful covenant-keeping Person. [The God of hesed] Natural laws are dependable not because of something in themselves, but because the word of the Creator is dependable. When we read in the NT that Christ “holds all things together” (Col. 1:15ff) this is due to His covenant-keeping faithfulness. When we read in Christ’s sermon on the mount that he causes his rain to fall and his sun to shine on the just and the unjust, it is because he is the faithful covenant-keeping Lord of all.

“I asked the heavens, the sun, the moon, and the stars: ‘We are not the God whom you seek;’ said they. To all the things that stand around the doors of my flesh I said ‘Tell me of my God…’ With a mighty voice they cried out, ‘He made us!’ My question was the gaze I turned on them; the answer was their beauty. . .” [Augustine Confessions X.6.234]

Biblical Theism provided the framework of thought that made scientific progress possible at last. It even provides us with a biblical framework for thinking about natural law. Natural law does not have an independent existence.  As the Christian scientist Donald MacKay put it: “‘Natural laws’ are neither necessary nor even available to [God] as an instrument of creation; for he creates by a mere word, and what we call natural laws emerge only post hoc as features of and within the created order.”

The Incarnation is the ultimate Natural/Supernatural meeting place. Everything is about Jesus (see Col. 1:15ff!) This is a powerful passage that demonstrates beyond a shadow of doubt that the first Christians understood something of the wonder of what had happened in the coming of Jesus.

Some of you like to work on jigsaw puzzles. When you dump a thousand pieces out on a table the task would seem almost impossible were it not for one significant thing. You have in front of you a picture of how the thing is supposed to look when it is put together. Jesus is the picture that shows how all the pieces of this troubled world will fit together.

Where are the miracles? Are they more common than we recognize? Does God hold back due to our unbelief, or because of our lack of need due to technology? We do still have many needs, but our greatest need is to trust the living God in all circumstances. This sustaining faith makes all things possible for us, including rejoicing even in suffering. As Peter puts it, “Those who suffer according to God’s will, should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” (I Peter 4:19).

At the heart of Christianity is the cross and resurrection of Jesus. These events plainly illustrate for us that we cannot depend upon appearances in judging what is true about God’s action in the world. Surely Jesus looked defeated. Surely his disciples left him and apparently were disillusioned. Yes, Jesus who held such promise was dead! Evil seemed to have won the day. But God had not yet finished what He was doing. On the third day he rose! That changed everything.

Conclusion:  Read Col. 1:15ff from The Message. You cannot meet the true Christ and continue in the status quo!