The Role of Reason in Theology
Theology is “the reasonable study of the Christian faith”. (Albl 2) In Theology, scholars have to use more than just their own beliefs to describe their research. They need to understand what is recognized by the people who are part of the different religions and how their lives are impacted by following their God. Christians use several references when studying Theology. We use the experiences we have had in life. We also look at what traditions were passed down to us from our family, as well as what we learned from the Bible. We also must use reason. In other areas of scientific studies, such as biology, scholars will look under a microscope to figure out how things are impacting our bodies. However, in theology, we have to use more than what we can prove. We also can’t just look at what is written in the bible. We have to use reason. Reason is extremely important when we study Theology and must be used to explain the beliefs of Christians.
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To truly understand the divine, you have to have a reasonable amount of faith. Faith and Reason go hand in hand. “Reason itself is a matter of Faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all” (Albl 31). There are books throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament that we can reference to understand the role that reason plays in Theology.
The books of Genesis, Exodus, and Habakkuk three of the books in the Old Testament. These books stress the importance of having reason. An example of this is how we are taught of creation of man and nature in Genesis. Genesis 1:1 states “God created the heavens and the earth.” Explaining creation to someone who can’t or won’t just rely on faith will need something to prove it or reason to believe in creation. While we do need to have faith to believe to accept and embrace lessons that are taught in the bible, reason is how many people are able to justify it in their minds.
In the book of Exodus, we learn about the plagues that impacted Egypt. Some of the stories about the plagues, including those with frogs, have magicians in them. Magicians are not often thought of as someone with the utmost integrity and honesty. Yet, when you apply reason to these stories, you can conclude that they could in fact happen. Most people, both Christian and non- Christians, have a hard time grasping the differences and relationships between God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Then when you consider the economic Trinity, how the three parts of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, interact with humans, that adds another layer of confusion for most. Hill stated that “the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh is actually a cosmic struggle between the true God, Yahweh, and the false gods of the Egyptian religion” (Hill 114). But with reason, one could formulate that struggles between people whom we were are introduced to in the bible are representative of things occurring that would otherwise not be able to see.
Towards the end of the Old Testament we find the book of Habakkuk. In Habakkuk we learn about how God dealt with evil. There nations that God looked down upon with discerning judgement. If the book of Habakkuk was written in 2019, it would be the book that would remind us that there is indeed evil in the world. But also, a reminder that evil deeds do not go unpunished. In this book there is a prophet who is yelling at God questioning why he wasn’t helping him. God’s response in the book was, “Look at the nations and watch—be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe” (Habakkuk 1:5). Even after hearing the Lord’s answer, he responded again, asking “Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (Habakkuk 1:13). Hill states “The book of Habakkuk gives us confidence in God’s sovereign and just control in the world today that often appears on the brink of self-destruction.” (Hill 666) To say that most people, without both faith and reason, would look at what is happening in our world today and say with reason that it will be dealt with could be a stretch.
There are also books in the New Testament that combine reason and faith to help us better understand the word of God. The Holy Spirit was proclaimed as being seen by prophets in the Bible, however most of us will never see it. The Trinity “can only be seen through special revelation” (Albl 132) In other words, to fully understand the nature of God, you have to look past reason. For most, reason is best understood and used when we can relate it to things that have happened to us, something that we have experienced, or witnessed in the past. We have seen that one most recognized uses of reason are when we can relate occurrences we read about with things that we have experienced or seen elsewhere. In the beginning of the New Testament, we find the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. All three of these gospels are similar in the story they are telling. They are all telling us the story of Jesus. However, it is believed that the three different books were written by different people. They do not match up word for word. In fact, there are different takes on Jesus’ life in each of them. In Luke’s story of Jesus, he is made out to be a Good Samaritan. In the same book, when Jesus died, there were more females in attendance that there were when the death of Jesus was discussed in Mark and Matthew. Just like any second-hand information, the authors take and tone on a stance can heavily sway the way it is interrupted by the reader. Reading these different gospels is like listing to two different political candidates describe the same situation. Cory describes this as “liberation theology” as it “demonstrates a commitment to the poor and underprivileged that is modeled on God’s commitment.” (Cory 193). While some would say one even could not have happened three different ways, we know that this type of thing can occur. Our own experiences tell us this. We know that different news reporters will report a new story three different ways. One may paint an event as the most tragic thing to ever happen, while another may say it could have been worse. The person listening to the first reporter will likely walk away from the new cast with a somber outlook, while the person listening to the second one would be thankful that something worse didn’t happen. From these types of experiences, it is reasonable that three authors would portray the same even three different ways. With some details left out, some added, and some stretched a bit beyond proportion.
Reason allows to take what is written in the bible and relate it to things we know about from our lives. This is how we determine if we think something could have really happened. Reason may require us to think back to something we know of from the past to really understand the meaning of what is happening now.
Prayer, Baptism, and Communion
There are three significant things that occur in the Christian Faith that do require followers of Christ to have both faith and reason to understand. These two things are prayer and receiving communion. We learn as Christians that Jesus died so that our debts were paid. We are told that at his last supper, he asked his disciples to eat the bread he gave them to symbolize the body of Christ and to drink the wine as if it were his blood. We can use reason to understand why Jesus gave his disciples bread and wine. We can say that he loved those closest to him and wanted them to enjoy the life he was leaving for them. It is with reason, or past experiences, that we can make that connection. If we were sitting at a table with our family and closest friends, we would be sharing any secrets of eternal life with them that we knew of. Without adding faith to that reason, it is difficult to explain why we take communion to someone who did not consider themselves a follower of God. The same is true when we speak of Baptism. There is a mystery that surrounds the ritual. To have water symbolize new life and purity, and to believe that a rebirth occurs upon baptism also takes some faith and reason. It would seem reasonable that water would “wash away” sins. When combining that with the faith of the Holy Spirit amongst the waters, it seems reasonable that the act of baptism allows the Holy Spirit to come and lift one into a new life, or rebirth.
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Prayer is also a complicated subject and a mystery to some. At one time or another, even believers ask themselves, “What do I say? Does God know I’m talking to him? If I pray silently, will he hear my prayers? As Mueller explains, “if we imagine prayer as “talking” to God, whether out loud or quietly “in our heads,” we will not be wrong, but our understanding will be limited.” (Mueller 32) If we believe that God is the creator of everything, certainly we can reason that he can hear our prayers all the time, both spoken aloud and silently.
We have to use both reason and faith to truly understand God. When something seems out of reach, or unknown, or just something beyond what we normally see, we see it as something mysterious. There are many times throughout the bible and studying Christianity that we believe what we are reading and what we are told, but only because we can say that they are reasonable actions.
Without reason, Theology would not be complete. Without reason, we would not be able to help someone who is questioning revelation better understand and begin to believe. In Theology, we need to use the bible, experience and faith. But only reason can be used to decipher the mystery of Jesus Christ.
- Albl, Martin C. Reason, Faith, and Tradition: Explorations in Catholic Theology. Winona: Saint Mary’s Press, 2009. Print.
- Cory, Catherine. A Voyage Through the New Testament. Upper Saddle River: Pearson, 2008. Print.
- Hill, Andrew E. and Walton, John H. A Survey of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009. Print.
- Mueller, JJ., ed. Theological Foundations: Concepts and Methods for Understanding the Christian Faith. Winona: Saint Mary’s Press, 2011. Print.