Wineskins Archive

December 19, 2013

Reason and Revelation (Apr-May 1997)

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by Phillip Black
April – May, 1997

“He that takes away Reason to make way for
Revelation puts out the light of both.” — John Locke

We do not have to check our brains at the door when we become Christians! Thankfully, a significant part of our spiritual heritage is anchored in a rational, or analytical, approach to Christianity.

The religious movement of which Churches of Christ are a part bears the unmistakable imprint of Alexander Campbell who was himself heavily influenced by the inductive reasoning championed by such men as Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Isaac Newton. Campbell, along with other luminaries such as Barton Stone, Walter Scott, and John Smith, emphasized a rational process of conversion which was as strange to the religious world of their day as was Newton’s Scientific Method to his day.

It is because of the brave efforts of such men as Campbell, Stone, Scott, and others who were willing to persevere in the face of those who wanted to maintain the status quo that we have become blessed with a “teaching brotherhood.” Many have become Christians because of a logical and orderly teaching process through which people have been influenced to respond to the facts of the gospel. We have understood the teaching of Jesus, that “Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him” comes to him (John 6:45).

While the rational approach to studying Scripture commends itself to almost everyone, emotions do color much of what we see. The extreme forms of Enlightenment Rationalism could not grant this obvious-to-most-of-us fact. And to find the rewarding balance between what our hearts feel and what intellectual honesty demands is most difficult.

The easier road is the familiar one. Consequently, those who have opened new intellectual horizons have usually suffered the opposition of those who are satisfied with driving in the well-worn ruts of orthodoxy. As one lady said in a Bible class that was trying to decide what to study next, “We don’t want to study anything we don’t already know.” But a rational approach to the scriptures demands a mind and heart always open to a reexamination of the judgments which we have already made.

Being open-minded does not mean that one accepts everything he hears but that one is willing to examine evidence as it is made available. This is the beauty of a truly rational approach to Scripture.

Open-mindedness also demands a willingness to become uncomfortable as our searches lead us down unfamiliar paths. Had it not been for courageous men and women before us who were willing to hack out a rational path through the jungles of accumulated traditions and intellectual stagnation in search of more light, we would be suffering even more from spiritual darkness.

God has graced his people with a diversity of gifts. We have those who bless us with their ministries of personal service, others are good teachers, some inspire us with their artistic abilities in worship music. Some are experts in motivating us to more dedicated lives. Then there are those few who, having prepared themselves academically and spiritually, are true scholars of the Word. And it is this last group which often faces the most opposition. Their rational approach to Scripture demands a willingness to leave no path unexplored. Yet that very willingness leaves them open to being accused of heresy by those who believe that they have all the knowledge they need.

To be sure, we have consistently championed a high view of biblical inspiration. We hold that God’s Word is complete and infallible. However, our processes of interpreting that Word are subject to all the frailties of the human mind. Our fallible interpretations, which are often colored by our backgrounds or personal agendas, should never be confused with the infallible Revelation itself. But, in a polarized brotherhood, for someone to suggest that there may be some truths which we have not fully appreciated is to leave himself open to all kinds of accusations which range from being called “liberal” to being accused of trying to destroy the church.

I once saw an epigram which said, Those who know the least, often assume the most.” It is ironic that many of the verbal stones being thrown in our brotherhood are aimed at some of those humble souls who are very learned but have been willing to admit that they do not possess all knowledge and are continually pursuing more of it. The missiles usually come from those who assume that they know it all but who often have less reason to feel that way than the ones whom they assault. However, the rational pursuit of knowledge produces a humility that does not allow such behavior.

We have all seen mob violence influenced by a few who, for their own reasons, incited others to follow their lead. The honesty of the rational approach demands that we not allow ourselves to be dominated nor led by those whose chief concern seems to be in building a fence around the current level of knowledge.

Social, economic, and political movements have historically begun with noble impulses and with a thirst to explore new territory. Then they tend to crystallize into hardened institutional positions which countenance no dissent. The same process is particularly noticeable in religious movements, probably because religion is such a life or death proposition to many. But as critical as our convictions are, we cannot afford to let ourselves become hardened to the further exploration of spiritual knowledge. Thought leaders have historically been pilloried. As John Locke pursued the truth with his rational approach, he so infuriated the “establishment” that he had to hide to do some of his writing. Our brotherhood needs to be careful lest we allow the same reactionary and sectarian spirit to quench honest inquiry. Often we crucify those whose only aim is to make us think.

College presidents regularly feel the wrath of political and economic pressure when their professors are bold enough to introduce fresh and challenging thoughts for consideration. Some of the most sincere truth-seekers in the brotherhood are assaulted regularly in our “tabloid” papers and bulletins. But we should be grateful to those brave souls who are willing to be modern-day Stephens—courageous enough to point out our frailties. To stand unflinching before a sectarian mindset in order to preserve open inquiry demands uncommon strength.

Spiritual peripheral vision is not to be confused with a lack of conviction; it simply gives one the ability to view a premise in light of everything he can see from all sides. The argument for a particular premise may turn out to be valid or faulty. Regardless, it deserves to be courteously considered without condemning the one who offered it. In fact, religious liberty depends upon the free exercise of rational examination without fear of retribution. A true disciple, the very nature of whom is to learn, is never intimidated by being exposed to more light. The Greek philosopher, Plato, said, “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”

While the rational approach to spirituality must never become obsolete, neither should it become the shrine before which we worship. An alarming characteristic of the human mind is that it can lose all sense of proportion. One does not have to choose between impersonal logic and spirituality. There should be no tension between the rational approach to truth and a personal connection with the Father of Truth.

Although we value the Father’s words to us, one does not necessarily have a warm relationship with God by simply dissecting his letters. Imagine a baby boy becoming separated from his father. Many years pass and one day he discovers an exhaustive autobiography about his father. He studies it, learns that he is still alive, and memorizes all the facts about his father. He even devotes enough time to its study that he is able to quote passages to his friends. But he never attempts to meet him or establish any kind of personal relationship with him.

We would view such behavior as abnormal. Yet that abnormal situation could be a parable describing the dangers of losing our perspective and focusing only upon the legalistic analysis of Scripture. A rational approach to discovering truth and a warm personal relationship with God are not mutually exclusive, but complementary.

God has communicated to us through language, therefore, it is essential to understand it correctly, using the best methods of inductive reasoning possible. We must take into account the historical and cultural setting in which a text was written. We must recognize poetry, metaphor, and imagery, as well as propositional language and commandments. But the understanding of language, culture, and literary types is not the highest point of our search. It simply leads us to the door of God’s grace where we can walk through in the full assurance of a tested faith and enjoy our life with him.

We neither seek nor glory in a misguided Rationalism that reduces faith to atomized sections of biblical text. We do, on the other hand, celebrate the fact that God has created us in his own image as rational beings. And we rejoice that he has captured our hearts via the avenue of our minds.

As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ has to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,’ he said” (Acts 17:2-3). Reason, explanation, and proof are valuable in the divine process of revelation to lead us to the Redeemer-Christ in whom we have placed our hope.

Reason and revelation are enemies in some schemes—but not in the divine order.Wineskins Magazine

Phillip Black

(Transcribed for the Web from the archived print edition by Neita Dudman)

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