February 19, 2016

Bahnsen on the Role of Reason

by Mike Riccardi

One of the best books I’ve ever read on apologetics is Greg Bahnsen’s Always Ready. It is a great read, and I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the theory and practice of defending the Christian faith biblically. Dr. Bahnsen—of the famous “Bahnsen-Stein Debate” (audio, transcript)—was a very sharp thinker and a very clear writer. One particular section of his book that I thought offered great clarification on an often-misunderstood issue was his discussion of the role of “reason” in the Christian’s apologetic.

The following is an extended quotation from pages 113–115 from that book (used with permission, see below). Enjoy this as a sort of guest post from Greg Bahnsen.

Reason and Reasoning

Believers who aim to defend their faith make a serious mistake when they imagine…that something like “reason” should displace Christ as the ultimate authority (Lord) in their thinking and argumentation. They also fall into very sloppy and confused thinking due to misunderstanding over the word “reason.”

Christians are often befuddled about “reason,” not knowing whether it is something to embrace or to eschew. This is usually because they do not pinpoint the precise way in which the word is being used. It may very well be the most ambiguous and obscure word in the field of philosophy. On the one hand, reason can be thought of as a tool—man’s intellectual or mental capacity. Taken in this sense, reason is a gift of God to man, indeed part of the divine image. When God bids His people “Come let us reason together” (Isa. 1:18), we see that we, like God, are capable of rational thought and communication. God has given us our mental abilities to serve and glorify Him. It is part of the greatest commandment of the law that we should “love the Lord thy God… with all thy mind” (Matt. 22:37).

Reason Not Ultimate

On the other hand, reason can be thought of as an ultimate and independent authority or standard by which man judges all claims to truth, even God’s. In this sense, reason is a law unto itself, as though man’s mind were self-sufficient, not in need of divine revelation. This attitude commonly leads people to think that they are in a position to think independently, to govern their own lives, and to judge the credibility of God’s word based on their own insight and authority; more dramatically, this attitude deified Reason as the goddess of the French Revolution. “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,” as Paul said (Rom. 1:22). This view of reason does not recognize that God is the source and precondition of man’s intellectual abilities—that reason does not make sense apart from the perspective of God’s revelation. It does not recognize the sovereign and transcendent character of God’s thought: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are…My thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:9).

Reason as God’s Gift

Should Christians endorse the use of reason? Two equal but opposite mistakes are possible in answering that question. (1) Believers can recognize the appropriateness of using reason, taken as their intellectual faculty, but then slide into endorsing reason as intellectual autonomy. (2) Believers can recognize the inappropriateness of reason as intellectual autonomy, but then mistakenly think this entails rejecting reason as an intellectual faculty. The first group honors God’s gift to man of reasoning ability, but dishonors God through its rationalism. The second group honors God’s ultimate authority and the need for obedience in all aspects of man’s life, but it dishonors God through anti-intellectual pietism.

Paul counterbalances both of these errors in Colossians 2. He writes that “all treasures of wisdom and knowledge are deposited in Christ” (v. 3). Accordingly we must “beware lest anyone rob you through philosophy, even vain deceit, which is after the tradition of men, after the elementary principles of the world, and not after Christ” (v. 8). This exhortation is not a diatribe against the use of reason or the study of philosophy.

Paul makes it clear that believers have the advantage of the best reasoning and philosophy because Christ is the source of all knowledge—all knowledge, not simply religious matters or sentiment. Moreover, if there are many philosophies which are not “after Christ,” there is also that philosophy which is. Anti-intellectualism throws the baby out with the bath. It destroys true wisdom in the name of resisting foolishness.

On the other hand, it is equally plain from Colossians 2 that Paul does not endorse reasoning and philosophy which refuse to honor the ultimate authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is in Christ that wisdom and knowledge must be found. Any alleged wisdom which follows the traditions of men and elementary principles of the world—rather than Christ—is to be rejected as dangerous and deceitful.

The Bible teaches us, therefore, that “reason” is not to be taken as some neutral authority in man’s thinking. It is rather the intellectual capacity with which God created man, a tool to be used in serving and glorifying the ultimate authority of God Himself.

Sharpening the Tool

Reason properly understood (reasoning) is to be endorsed by believers in Christ. In particular it is to be employed in defending the Christian faith. This is one of the things which Peter communicates to us when he wrote that we should always be “ready to give a defense to anyone who asks from you a reason for the hope within you” (1 Peter 3:15). A word of explanation and defense is to be offered to those who challenge the truth of our Christian faith. We are not to obscure the glory and veracity of God by answering unbelievers with appeals to “blind faith” or thoughtless commitment. We are to “cast down reasonings and every high thing exalted against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5), realizing all along that we cannot do so unless we ourselves “bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.”

In 1 Peter 3:15 Peter uses the expression “always ready.” This is significant for those who wish to honor the Biblical necessity of engaging in apologetics. What the Lord asks of us is that we be prepared to offer an answer in defense of our faith, whenever anybody asks us for a reason. We are to be “ready” to do this—indeed, “always ready.” And that means that it is imperative that we reflect on the questions that unbelievers are likely to ask and challenges which are commonly laid down to Christianity. We should study and prepare to give reasons for our faith when the faithless ask.

Christians need to sharpen the tool of their reasoning ability so as to glorify God and vindicate the claims of the gospel. We should all give our best efforts in the service of our Savior, who termed Himself “the Truth” (John 14:6). Every believer wants to see the truth of Christ believed and honored by others. And that is why we need to be “ready to reason” with unbelievers.

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Taken from Always Ready, by Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen, edited by Robert R. Booth, © 1996/2010, pp. 113–15. Used by permission of Covenant Media Foundation, Nacogdoches, TX 75961, http://www.cmfnow.com.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.