The Reason ‘Reason’ Should Not Function in Place of Revelation: Against Modernity

In my last post I quickly and from the top sketched the problem that John Shore had in his appeal to reason as if it was a new form or mode
Aristotle Small
of revelation from God, and more importantly, about God and his ways within a God-world relation; particularly as that God-world relation applies to Christian ethics. Fortuitously I just happen to be reading theologian par excellence, John Webster’s little book Holiness; in this little book Webster is discussing, but of course: God’s holiness in its reach into various spheres within the Christian’s life. For the rest of this post I will be engaging a bit with Webster’s thinking about holiness, and in particular, and in dovetail with what I was inchoately talking about in regard to the elevation of reason by John Shore (and many others). That said, I don’t really want to get sidetracked by applying this discussion to closely to Shore, maybe only insofar as his approach serves as a contemporary and popular illustration of what Webster describes in regard to a modern understanding of reason and its elevation.

John Webster writes this of modernity’s understanding of reason:

… Modernity has characteristically regarded reason as a ‘natural’ faculty – a standard, unvarying and foundational feature of humankind, a basic human capacity or skill. As a natural faculty, reason is, crucially, not involved in the drama of God’s saving work; it is not fallen, and so requires neither to be judged nor to be reconciled nor to be sanctified. Reason simply is; it is humankind in its intellectual nature. Consequently, ‘natural’ reason has been regarded as ‘transcendent’ reason. Reason stands apart from or above all possible convictions, all particular, historical forms of life, observing them and judging them from a distance. Reason does not participate in history but makes judgments about history; it is a transcendent and sovereign intellectual legislator, and as such answerable to none but itself.

Such conceptions of reason have become so deeply embedded in modern culture and its most prestigious intellectual institutions that they are scarcely visible to us. But for the Christian confession, these conceptions are disordered. Above all, they are disordered because they extract reason and its operations from the economy of God’s dealings with his creatures. To think of reason as ‘natural’ and ‘transcendent’ in this way is, by the standard of the Christian confession, corrupt, because it isolates reason from the work of God as creator, reconciler and perfecter. Once reason is thought of as ‘natural’ rather than as ‘created’ (or, to put it differently, once the category of ‘the created’ is collapsed into that of ‘the natural’), then reason’s contingency is set aside, and its sufficiency is exalted in detachment from the divine gift of truth. Or again, when reason is expounded as a natural competency, then it is no longer understood as fallen and in need of reconciliation of God. Again, when reason is considered as a human capacity for transcendence, then reason’s continual dependence on the vivifying Spirit is laid to one side, for natural reason does not need to be made holy.

Christian theology, however, must beg to differ. It must beg to differ because the confession of the gospel by which theology governs its life requires it to say that humankind in its entirety, including reason, is enclosed within the history of sin and its overcoming by the grace of God concerns the remaking of humankind as a whole, not simply of what we identify restrictively as its ‘spiritual’ aspect. And so reason, no less than anything else, stands under the divine requirement that it be holy to the Lord its God.[1]

This could bring us into a discussion of how pure nature has functioned in Christian theology, or in secular theologies; or this could bring us into a discussion of Thomas Aquinas’ appropriation of Aristotle’s idea of an ‘active intellect’ and how that forms us as people anthropologically; we also could get into a discussion about how the Puritans, for example, spoke about such things in their appropriation of Aristotle’s tripartite faculty psychology—indeed all of these things are really correlative with and even fund, to extent, Webster’s insights on reason. But let’s not, and say we did, for time’s sake.

What is of import, at least to me, in what Webster is highlighting is how all of who human’s are needs redemption. We are noetically flawed, even in redemption we cry out to Jesus along with the man in the Gospel accounts “Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief!” It should be clear though: any appeal to human reason, any appeal to reason embedded in the image of God, as if that sanitizes reason in a way that keeps it untouched by sin is a non-starter for the Christian; as Thomas Torrance has said more than once: ‘We are sinners all the way down, so we need grace all the way down.’

[1] John Webster, Holiness, kindle loc. 122.

*Credit: Image of Aristotle taken from Matt Ryder’s collection here.

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One comment

  1. I work in a sawmill. I regularly express this thought to my coworkers by saying it is like measuring your tape measure by checking it with a board. That is backwards. The tape is the standard, not the other way around.

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