The Reason ‘Human Reason’ Should Not Be Trusted: A Christian Dogmatic Account

Here is a post I wrote just over a year ago. It did not get much notice the first time I posted it, so I am going to recycle it in lieu of my inability to write many blog posts at the moment (until I finish my personal chapter for our forthcoming EC book). I think what John Webster communicates here, as usual, is spot on. Apparently I was responding to another blogger with this post, the blogger’s name is John Shore. I don’t recall what he was writing upon, but it must have had something to do with the role reason has in the life of the human agent; particularly Christians. 

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.



  1. Your insight on Weber is true, but I think his point requires a preceding thought. Theologians during the Reformation, at its beginning, disparaged reason as in bondage (Luther’s infamous “reason is a whore” and Cranmer’s anthropology of Human action). There is truth to that, but it wasn’t properly contextualized. I’m not blaming them for that. But what Webster does is force Christianity back to its roots, beyond the notion of an untouched intellect.

    But the untouched intellect is not because the intellect is corrupt per se, but because the intellect is a Human intellect. It cannot be moved outside of its contingent, subjective, and time-bound state. And in this space reason can, in Christ, be redeemed and recognize its modest throne in Human life. So contrary to Luther’s rage, we can praise and celebrate reason, but in its rightful place and with recognition that it too, like the rest of Man, requires redemption.

    Maybe I wouldn’t go as far to say Human reason shouldn’t be trusted. Rather, it’s the point when Human reason becomes Reason which is problematic. We start treating it less like a fallen and created reality and more like a demi-god or sliver of the divine within us.


  2. I don’t agree, Cal.


  3. Touche 🙂


  4. @cal@ Bobby. Disagree? Sorry I am puzzled. I’d totally agree with cal’s inclination to resist the deification of “reason” to “Reason”. I would have thought that qualification might line up with the later more moderate Barth, though Torrance might be more of du rate to water down natural thought.


  5. “obdurate” is meant


  6. Why is that, ReinZ?

    What I disagree with is the idea that the intellect can be thought of in any other way, but fully corrupted by the stain of sin. Luther was right to critique the intellectualist anthropology of Aquinas /Aristotle. That is a good and worthy critique. So I don’t agree that Luther needs to be “contextualized” on this point, I think his point stands in a universal kind of way.


  7. I don’t disagree with everything Cal noted.


  8. Without the stain of sin, what would reason look like? The problem is that Luther seems to go as far as to say reason is irrelevant, a stupid lover either enthralled to God or the Devil. I don’t think that’s right either. However, even with a liberated reason, I do not think the Human mind capable of scaling up to God. This is the root of thinking about Pure Nature, whether theoretical or otherwise.

    The question is what place reason plays, given the contours of Christ’s redemption? I do not want to deify it vis. the Platonic-Aristotelian tradition or the Enlightenment, and I do not want to negate it vis. Luther, Cranmer, Romantics, etc. I think Webster’s emphasis on the createdness keeps reason as a Human faculty than some sort of pseudo-divine Nature that acts as a kind of Demiurge in Modernity, sprouting as it did from Ancient Greek notions. This emphasis allows both a baleful mourning of reason’s corruptedness and corruptibility and an exaltation of its redemption and proper place restored.

    I see this in Torrance through his adherence to Athanasius, not exhaustively or exclusively, but I see it.


  9. In Torrance what we see is a recreated reason in the vicarious humanity of Christ. This is what we see in Webster as well, although not as pronounced. The critique I see Webster making is of reason in a pure nature scheme. And that is in line with Luther.


  10. You’re right about grounding Human reason in the vicarious Humanity of Christ, who shows us the archetype of Human reason and its restoration. Thus, even Christ listens to the Father, and not a probing, so-called philosophical, invader vis. the intellectualist tradition you critique.

    But that’s not the same as the anti-reason that aspects of the Reformation uphold. While they may be convenient allies for a time, they are divergent traditions. They both attack Thomism, but offer different alternatives.

    But maybe that’s where we part ways.

    Luther’s notion of a ‘hidden God’, the reprobatory shadow-caster, still lurks. I see this and anti-Reason connected, as the Augustinian paradigm can end in some particularly nasty places. Better to burn the bridges of speculation, than question one’s own paradigm and resituate Human rationality. Maybe it’s not that Man ought not to speculate on the nature of the Decree, but rather that God is unapproachable by Human reason, and reveals Himself in the form of Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ is the ‘Decree’, so to speak, than we can marvel and ponder Him. Hence the 7 ecumenical councils etc.

    Of course, this is radically different than the Thomist tradition, but to hell with it.

    As for me, I think Sophia is a helpful category to reject Pure Nature and the Aristotelian tradition, while also allowing for the flourishing of Human inquiry and reason, in its proper context. But that’s, perhaps, a bridge too far!

    Anyway, this is good dialog!

    some thoughts,


  11. I think Barth’s emphasis upon Grace is the best. It is not the usual binary of grace versus nature/grace compliments nature etc. it is that grace for the creature is all that there is. In the atonement, for Barth, it isn’t so much of a reversal but a radical recreation. The only correspondence between the original creation and recreation is that their shared purpose and ground is Jesus Christ. This is why I am taking this kind of qualified fideist approach to human reason, and why I say it shouldn’t be trusted as a foundation for anything; at least not in an abstract way.


  12. Hi Bobby, Cal
    You both seem theologically far more informed than I am; however I think the Kiss principle might apply here more. Scripture itself seems to commend human reason and Sophia e.g. Ps 1 and again the invite: “Come let us reason together…”; mind you: properly aligned to an a priori of Divine aseity; where any absence of such assent is matched by a vacation of Spirit/ ruach. Barth himself left the door open to stress the qualitative difference between God and man (sic) but also that through Jesus the Christ there is and always was a bridging of that chasm ( c.f. The Humanity of God). Here gifts of grace and mercy are at the root of the universal human quest for forgiveness; divine rendered faith here can be a regarded as human attribute (never a pure possession) and in turn feed in to greater fidelity and surrender/ bodies as in a sense of oblation and holy sacrifice. (Human) reason can be very necessary here because that again is part of what Paul calls in Romans (NIV) “your reasonable service”, in other words a logical conclusion to arrive at. However I also se and agree with the proviso that such reason cannot ever be held as Reason to pry open deeper insights of God’s nature. That is true apostasy and the root and feeding grounds of human sin.


  13. Rein,

    The only point I’m trying to drive home is that human reason, like in a modernist/enlightenment conception of that, cannot be trusted. Properly framed, yes human reason, when understood that Jesus is the human par excellence, is very important. So we participate from his human reason for us; His human reason orders things properly and fittingly to their end and telos in God. A truly sanctified human reason; something not our own, but His, which He graciously calls us to participate in through union with Him by the Spirit.


  14. Hi guys
    It was great having that conflab. Thanks. In the end we got closer to understanding each other. I too am taken with Barth’s wondetful defence of the primacy of grace before faith can be extended; but I do feel he interprets everything against the glare of an intrusion (or even just a possibility) of natural theology and the subsequent perverse spiral into human independent and fallenness. In that he bends scripture to conform to that theology. c.f. Hab 2// Rom 1 where the possessive pronoun gets conveniently dropped to make faith a constant Divine derived entity whereas the Jewish more anthropological orientation can see it comfortably sited as a very necessary human attribute (albeit derived from God) again to enable true fidelity to function.
    A trifling objection similar to Bonhoeffer’s qualification of Barth”s undue theological “positivism”. Though while Barth objected it soured their relationship for a period.


  15. Rein,

    I disagree with you on Barth and Romans 1. So does Morna D. Hooker (see her book From Adam to Christ), and she’s not even a Barthian or arguing for Barth. She’s a professional exegete of the highest standard and has been a distinguished professor at Cambridge for years.