Reasoning About Fideism
Apologetics is the “reasoned defense of the Christian religion. Christianity is a faith, to be sure; but there are reasons for this faith. Faith is not to be confused with reason; but neither is it to be separated from it” (Sproul, et al., 1984, p. 13). However, some suggest that if there are reasons, there is no room for faith, and that religion must be founded solely on faith, absent of reason. “One must choose,” fideists say, “between a religion of faith and a religion of reason; one cannot have both” (Sproul, et al., p. 13). Geisler and Brooks noted:
Fideism holds that the only way we can know anything about God is by faith. Truth is subjective and personal, so we can believe it but not prove it. There are no rational proofs or empirical evidence that can lead us to knowledge of God. We must simply believe that what He has said in His Word and done in our lives is true. Ultimately, as the old hymn says, “You ask me how I know He lives; He lives within my heart” (1990, p. 267).
This is the fallacy of fideism. “You commit this fallacy when you say…that one must ‘just accept it by faith’” (Hoover, 1975, p. 2).
Often, even religionists insist that the correct basis for belief in God, Christ, or the inspiration of the Bible, must be devoid of reason. They say it’s alright for us to believe in the metaphysical, but we had better not argue for the validity of our claims by using evidence and reaching reasonable conclusions from such evidence. Some who profess Christianity express a fideistic conviction when they say things such as, “I don’t need evidence that God exists. I just believe it.” Christian apologist Dick Sztanyo wrote: “Most modern ideas of faith are fideistic, since they deny or denigrate the role of reason in Christianity…. The agnostic says, ‘I do not, and cannot know, whether God exists.’ The fideist merely adds, ‘but I accept it by faith’” (1996, pp. 9-10).
Michael Martin gave a fitting summary of the doctrinal implications of this approach: “A Christian could maintain that I am correct to argue that it is irrational to believe that Christian doctrines are true but nevertheless affirm that he or she will continue to believe despite all the counter-evidence and arguments” (1991, p. 224). If Christians are unwilling to argue rationally the validity of their faith, then, the atheist rightly insists, they are forced to discard artificially the reasoned arguments of those who are antagonistic to Christianity.
MAY FIDEISM BE TRUE?
Fideism defeats itself from the outset, because it uses reason to imply that we should not use reason in matters of religion. Geisler articulated this contradiction:
[E]ither a fideist offers a justification for his belief or else he does not. If he does not, then as an unjustified belief it has no rightful claim to knowledge (since human knowledge is justified belief). On the other hand, if the fideist offers a justificiation for his belief—as indeed the whole argument for fideism would seem to be—then he is no longer a fideist, since he has an argument or justification for holding his belief in fideism. In short, either fideism is not a rightful claimant to truth or else it is self-defeating. But in neither case can it be established to be true (1976, pp. 63-64).
Still, it is necessary to consider the specific charge of fideism, that religion is exclusively a matter of faith, and never human reason.
As it attacks the pillars of Christianity, fideism strikes at the very foundation of knowledge itself. Fideism logically reduces to experientialism, the concept of a suprarational comprehension (Gray, 2005, p. 108). A subjective, “better-felt-than-told” experience becomes the foundation for all belief; we cannot know the truth unless we have “experienced” it in some way. Again, in this construct, reason has nothing to do with knowledge, comprehension, or application of truth. Gray summarized this particular problem with fideism: “If it works for me, it is true…. In fideism, the heart has primacy” (pp. 108,118). The belief that all Jews should be eliminated from the planet “worked” for Hitler in his heart, but was his heartfelt belief true? Obviously, fideism leaves us without hope for knowing absolute truth.
Consider that the principle that reason precludes belief is an unreasonable rule, one which is applied nowhere other than in the debate concerning God and religion. In the legal arena, for example, witnesses provide evidence which leads unbiased judges and juries to ascertain the facts. The presence of reliable evidence that points to the conclusion that suspect Smith murdered Jones, for example, causes jurors to develop faith in the fact that Smith did commit murder. The jurors do not quibble, “How can we believe that Smith murdered Jones on the basis of the evidence that proves Smith murdered Jones?” In every practical and theoretical arena, we consider evidence to be valuable because it allows us, as rational individuals, to use our reasoning skills and reach appropriate conclusions. Why should we view questions related to religion in a totally different light?
In the light of the devastating problems with fideism, why might a person become a fideist? Many are attracted to fideism because they sense the fact that human reason alone cannot save (see Geisler, 1976, p. 47). Or, one may choose fideism out of a desire to emphasize the personal, practical aspects of Christianity instead of the “nuts and bolts” of doctrine. Fideists frequently emphasize the personal factor of religion, avoid an exalted view of human reason, and call people to faith in Christ (see Boa and Bowman, 2001, p. 444). Regardless of these positive conceptions of fideism, we must ask whether the Bible teaches that human reason has nothing to do with faith in God and salvation.
SCRIPTURAL EVIDENCE AGAINST FIDEISM
It is true that the Christian religion and the plan of salvation is the product of God and not human reasoning (2 Peter 1:20-21; cf. Thompson, 2003b). This does not imply, however, that God requires people to believe in Him without providing them with adequate evidence for His existence, or that God does not require people to use their rational capabilities.
The natural order demands that the rational person must conclude that a Creator caused nature to come into existence (see Thompson, 2003a, pp. 67-154). The intelligent design evident in the Universe imposes upon our thinking the existence of a Designer. As Gray explained, “The fideistic posture denies that one can gain an understanding of the reality of God from nature alone through an objective investigation of empirical fact. At the least, one could not demonstrate how one arrived at this understanding according to publicly accepted canons of discursive reasoning” (2005, p. 109, emp. added).
There is an abundance of scriptural evidence supporting the position that right religion is founded upon the use of reasoning from the natural order. The prophet Isaiah recorded these words: “‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 1:18, emp. added). The psalmist contended, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). Paul explained this point in greater detail: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse…” (Romans 1:20). God demands that people use their powers of reasoning to come to know Him (see 2 Thessalonians 1:8).
Jesus upheld the significance of reasoning and intelligent, critical thinking. On one occasion, a Pharisaical lawyer asked Jesus, “‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?’ Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind’” (Matthew 22:36-37, emp. added). The mind operates in the realm of rationality. As humans dedicate their minds to the Lord’s service, they will reason concerning the evidence for their convictions. In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus claimed that people must understand the Gospel in order to accept and apply it (Matthew 13:19). We cannot fulfill our responsibility to worship “in truth,” without first analyzing and reasoning about the biblical doctrines related to worship (John 4:24).
Furthermore, Jesus participated in rational argumentation. Hoover noted:
You could never say that Jesus avoided argument. He engaged in skilled disputation with his opponents, confuting them on such matters as paying tribute to Caesar (Mt. 22:21), the authority of John the Baptist (Mt. 21:24), the resurrection and the afterlife (Mt. 12:18-27), and the relation between David and the Messiah (Lk. 20:41-44). Even though Jesus often accused his opponents of intellectual dishonesty (Jn. 9:41), he seldom shunned a discussion with a serious and honest opponent. On one occasion, when he found such an opponent, he said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (1975, p. 3-4, parenthetical items in orig.).
Our Lord rejected the notion that faith and reason are mutually exclusive. If we subscribe to fideism, we do so without divine authority (Colossians 3:17).
Peter emphasized the necessity of “giving a reason”: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15). The fideist would have Christians respond to inquiries concerning the hope that lies within us by saying, “There is no reason. Reason has nothing to do with it. I simply believe it because I have chosen to do so.” In the New Testament, we find numerous accounts of reasoned defenses of the Christian religion (see Acts 2; 4; 7; 22; etc.).
Peter’s admonition to “give a reason” stands alongside other New Testament passages which teach the necessity of a reasoned approach to Christianity: “Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21, emp. added). “I speak as to wise men; judge for yourselves what I say” (1 Corinthians 10:14). “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment (Philippians 1:9, emp. added). Paul prayed that the Ephesian brethren would have “the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling…” (Ephesians 1:17-18, emp. added).
We could spend much space considering scriptural illustrations of the need for human reason in the process of obedience. Concerning the example of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, Sproul and his colleagues noted:
God Himself provides evidence for the claim that He is the true God, displaying His divine credentials openly. Elijah stood on Mount Carmel and put the question before the people: “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kings 18:21 RSV). Elijah stood in the breach between two mutually exclusive truth claims. He did not ask for an arbitrary decision or an existential leap into the abyss of subjectivity. He called for a decision based on evidence…. The fire that fell from heaven not only consumed the altars of Baal, but reduced the false claims of Baal to ashes (p. 18, parenthetical item in orig.).
God gave Gideon a sign to demonstrate the authenticity and authority of His commands (Judges 6:30-40). God gave signs to Moses that demonstrated that Moses spoke on behalf of the Creator (Exodus 4-5). In the New Testament, Jesus healed the paralytic in order that those present might believe that He had authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:1-11). In John’s gospel account, Jesus explained the importance of evidence in His ministry:
If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true. There is another who bears witness of Me, and I know that the witness which He witnesses of Me is true. You have sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. Yet I do not receive testimony from man, but I say these things that you may be saved. He was the burning and shining lamp, and you were willing for a time to rejoice in his light. But I have a greater witness than John’s; for the works which the Father has given Me to finish—the very works that I do—bear witness of Me, that the Father has sent me (John 5:31-36).
Therefore, “By divine example and divine command apologetics is a mandate God gives to His people. If God Himself provides evidence for what He declares to be truth it is calumnous [sic] to repudiate the value of evidence. If God commands us to do the work of apologetics it is disobedience to refuse the task” (Sproul, et al., 1984, p. 20). The notion of “blind faith” is completely foreign to the Bible (see Miller, 2003). To deny the proper role of evidence is to stand against not only common sense, but the Scriptures. Noted Christian apologist Thomas B. Warren observed: “The very way the Bible is written demands the recognition and honoring of logic and/or the law of rationality. The Holy Spirit guided the writing of sixty-six books, all of which must be considered and fitted together logically by the correct use of man’s powers of reason” (1982, p. 2). If we believe the Bible, then we must conclude that God expects human beings to use their reasoning powers in order to come into a right relationship with Him. We must agree that God reveals evidence in the natural realm, and that we must deal reasonably with that evidence (see Estabrook and Thompson, 2001).
According to the Bible, there is no way to live a life of faith without trusting in the Word of God. According to the Bible, knowledge always precedes faith. Consider Warren’s logical examination of this issue:
The Bible makes clear that men must know the truth in order to be saved (John 8:32). The Bible also makes clear that men are to “walk by faith and not by sight” (II Cor. 5:7). But it must be noted that these two passages do not contradict one another. Rather, handling the two passages correctly (reasoning correctly about them) leads one to the conclusion (in the light of Romans 10:17, which says that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God) that, in so far as salvation is concerned, knowledge and faith are inextricably related. One cannot have the faith which God requires as a prerequisite to salvation without knowing what the word of God teaches. There is one and only one way of demonstrating that one has faith: obedience to the word of God…. [F]aith must be preceded by knowledge of the word of God! (1982, pp. 116-117, emp. and parenthetical items in orig.).
If biblical faith, and therefore salvation, are contingent upon a reasoned knowledge of God (which is available through general and special revelation), then a person cannot be both a fideist and a Christian.
There are good reasons for belief in God, the divinity of Jesus, and the inspiration of the Bible (see Thompson, 2003a; Warren, 1972; Butt and Lyons, 2006; Thompson, 2003b). As Sztanyo concluded, “any concept of faith that severs it from its objective, epistemological bases (i.e., its foundation of knowledge) is at variance with biblical teaching” (1996, p. 10, emp. and parenthetical item in orig.).
It is impossible for a person, absent of God’s revelation, to reason his way into a right relationship with God. No one ever will “think up” his own ticket to heaven (Romans 10:13-14; cf. Ephesians 2:8-9,14). For the plan of salvation, we look to the inspired Word of God (see Lyons and Butt, 2004), which appeals to human rationality. Miller summarized:
The proof in our day is no less conclusive, nor is it any less compelling. While it is not within the purview of this brief article to prove such…the following tenets are provable: (1) we can know (not merely think, hope, or wish) that God exists (Romans 1:19-20); (2) we can know that the Bible is the verbally inspired Word of God, and intended to be comprehended in much the same way that any written human communication is to be understood; (3) we can know that one day we will stand before God in judgment and give account for whether we have studied the Bible, learned what to do to be saved, and obeyed those instructions; and (4) we can know that we know (1 John 2:3) (Miller, 2003, emp. and parenthetical items in orig.).
The God Who created us expects us to base our beliefs and actions upon nothing save rational principles. If we are fair with the Scriptures, we will find that the truth which makes us free is understandable and reasonable (John 8:32). The Christian life is one of faith based on reason (see Miller, 2002).
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