12 January 2012

Is Christianity rational? (Re-post from 2006)

by Dan Phillips

Re-posted from 8/31/2006, slightly edited.

A Mormon friend, in passing, remarked that religion is not rational, so he didn't expect it to make sense. It's a matter of faith, not reason.

You might think, "Right: Mormon. I don't expect rationality, either." Hang on.

He went on to give an example—but the example was not how a human could become a god, or how there could be only one god and many at the same time, or how God can keep changing His mind about things, or how two equally-inspired books could contradict each other. His example was the virgin birth. I said there was nothing irrational about the virgin birth, and the conversation simply moved on elsewhere. (I now wish I'd asked instead of stated; still looking for a do-over.)

But was he right? Is religion irrational?

"Religion," maybe. Christianity, no.

Now, before we stay too focused on my friend's Mormonociousness, I'd add that some Charismatic friends have said the exact same thing. Try to follow out some thinking to its uncomfortable conclusion, and you get a shrug and a dismissal. It doesn't have to make sense. It's faith, man. "A man with an experience is never at the mercy of a man with an argument," I heard a Charismatic church elder say.

Perhaps definitions are part of the problem. There is a world of difference between rational and rationalism. The latter is a philosophy, a worldview that asserts that man can know truth by the use of his unaided reason. The former merely means that something is in accord with reason, it doesn't violate fundamental canons of thinking such as the law of non-contradiction.

Is Christianity rational? Without re-writing van Til, Gordon Clark, Carl Henry and the gang (—as if I could), I'd rather just focus on one generality and two specifics.

First, some who karaoke this tune are actually simply anti-intellectual. Their religion is a Schleiermacheranian mish-mash of feelings and sentimentality; and, lazily, they like it that way. Like Alice's queen, they have "believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." They can splop! down an absurd statement and, when challenged to try to make any kind of sense of it—let alone Biblical sense—they can loftily murmur that their religion is a matter of the heart, not of the mind.

This is of course to stand Biblical religion on its head (pun noted, but not intended). As soon as you assert anything about God, life, reality, you find yourself in the arena of thought and ideas. Even the assertion that nothing can be asserted about God is an assertion about God, open for analysis, criticism, acceptance or rejection.

This is by the design of God, who crafted us to analyze, understand, exercise dominion (Genesis 1:26-28). Thus He positions the first commandment as "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind"(Matthew 22:37; cf. Deuteronomy 6:5).

The resurgence of the irrational is not new, either. It was in vogue in the seventies, but was already old then. J. Gresham Machen had fought and slain this dragon a half-century earlier — nor was he the first. The shade of rouge, the odor of the cheap perfume, and the color of the plastic jewels change, but it's the same old whore.

But second, even among Christians who are not anti-intellectual jellyfish, I've met some who very reverently think that some of our beliefs simply are not rational. They're mysterious, they have to be held by faith, not reason.

To this I'd just begin by noting that the opposite of faith is not reason; it is sight (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:7).

But are some of our faith-tenets irrational? Two that I hear cited specifically are the Trinity, and the Virgin Birth.

The second example is just plain silly. I have never understood how this can be an issue to anyone who believes Genesis 1:1, and thus grants the premise of a God who created everything out of nothing. It's like saying, "Everything out of nothing? Sure! But make an existing egg alive without a sperm? No way!" Canons of rational thought are not even stretched, let alone violated, by the fact of the Creator and Ruler thus operating within His creation.

How about the Trinity? Surely the doctrine that God is three and one is not rational?

When I informally debated a Jesus-only heretic on the radio once, he described the Trinity as the belief that "God is three people and one person at the same time." That belief is irrational; if that were what the doctrine of the Trinity meant, I would agree with him. God is not one in one way, and three in the same way.

Yes, the Trinity, stated that way, is irrational. That statement is also irrelevant. Because Biblically-instructed Christians do not believe this.

(By the way, this is a classical straw man argument. You'll meet it in every anti-Trinitarian cultist or heretic. The procedure is as old as dirt: mis-state, then refute the mis-statement, then declare victory. This is yet another reason why it is so vital that we know what we believe better than those whom we seek to evangelize.)

The Trinity is the Biblical teaching that there is but one God (Deuteronomy 6:4), and that this one God is Father (2 Peter 1:17), Son (John 1:1), and Spirit (Acts 5:3-4). The simplest way I have been able to understand and express the truth is that God is one in one way, and three in another. Or, we could say that God is one "what" (i.e. one as to His essence), and three "who's" (i.e. three as to His persons).

Now, do we understand the Trinity exhaustively? Of course not! How exactly does God manage being what He is? We don't really need to know, since we'll never need to be God. Nor should the finite expect to understand the infinite exhaustively. It is as C. S. Lewis says:
If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about. (Mere Christianity [Macmillan: 1960], p. 145.)
But we know enough to love Him, to worship Him, and to discern truth from error. And we know enough to know that there is nothing irrational about the doctrine.

Is Christianity rational? I daresay it's the only worldview, ultimately, that is.

Put another way: if it isn't rational, it isn't Christianity.

Dan Phillips's signature


Tom Chantry said...

I dare say that in this age of philosophical ignorance the problem is largely a matter of failing to discern the difference between "rational" and "empirical."

Robert said...

A hearty amen and thanks for the link to your post about "What is Faith?" (and for suggesting that I read it) and Machen. I finished it recently and now think that both it and "Christianity and Liberalism" should be required reading for all Christians. I know I'll have both of my sons read it when they are a few years older.

I'll add that my wife got me the best gift ever in this Nook tablet...so many books available for free on such a wonderfully portable device with a screen that is easy on my eyes.

Scooter said...

+2 for Tom's remark.

In addition, jestoning rational thought seems make the American version of "Christianity" more irrational every year. God has become something you prove with miracles or some feeling in your heart. Ironically this god only starts with man, not Revelation.

Johnny Dialectic said...

And there's a difference between something being "irrational" and something being "absurd."

Andrew Lindsey said...

For materialists, "rational" and "empirical" must be the same thing.

Milton said...

"Or, we could say that God is one "what" (i.e. one as to His essence), and three "who's" (i.e. three as to His persons)."

Been listening to Hank Hanegraaf (Bible Answer Man), I see? Or even if great minds think alike, I think the phrase is an excellent way to clear up the logical fog in which many Trinity doubters wander.

stratagem said...

"Try to follow out some thinking to its uncomfortable conclusion, and you get a shrug and a dismissal."

OH how many times I have experienced that - frustrating!

Neal Doster said...

If there is one Church with many members then why can’t there be one God with three members. I understand the Trinity to be three beings that are one in being. As a family is one entity while existing (at least) as husband and wife thus two individuals. God in three persons. They are unified in every way and in every thing. They are not distinct in purpose, thus manifesting themselves as One.

Terry Rayburn said...

Christianity is not irrational, but man is -- that is, the unregenerate natural man will reject the rational to excuse his nature, until he is born again.

Or to put it another way, the natural man cannot understand spiritual things, even if they're rational (1 Cor. 2:14).

Until one is born again, he cannot even SEE the Kingdom, let alone truly believe in the King, making a book title such as "How To Be Born Again" an absurdity (John 3:3).

Still, as a believer, I LOVE the rationality of the Word. It's truly a thing of beauty, as it's Author is.

Jared T. Baergen said...

"Put another way: if it isn't rational, it isn't Christianity."

Amen! I just had this conversation with a coworker the other day as we were discussing some things in "The World-Tilting Gospel." The fact that God is sovereignly in control over everything, including salavtion, as chapter 5 thoroughly talks about, my friend was realizing that none of that makes any sense. But now that he is a believer, most likely due to reading this book, it was making so much sense to him.

It occurred to me then, and even now, that to the worldly minded, the things of God really don't make much sense, like in 1 Cor 2:14. However, to those who are in Christ, it all becomes much more clear because we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16). Obviously we are still in the flesh and therefore can't fully understand every little detail of all the difficult doctrines, but we have no problem accepting them as true because they make so much sense, since we are in Christ. And on the flip side, because before we were in Christ, they made so little sense. 

I hope that is biblically accurate. If not, correct me. 

But my friend, who I believe has just come to a saving knowledge of faith in Jesus Christ by the sovereignty of God through Dan Phillips new book, is starting to realize that for the first time Christianity is the only worldview that actually makes any sense at all. What a joy it was to have that conversation with a newly converted man. 

Thanks Dan for your true love for the Lord and by being faithful in presenting the true Gospel of Jesus Christ so that those who hear it might be saved. And trust me, they are being saved!

stratagem said...

Well, that is the most encouraging news I've heard all day - by a wide margin!

DebbieLynne said...

Interestingly, I blogged about J. Gresham Machen as recently as Monday. Great writer. And yes, quite rational!

trogdor said...

"A man with an experience is never at the mercy of a man with an argument."

I am shocked - shocked! - to hear of this phrase being abused in this way. And by a charismatic, no less. Inconceivable!

The saying, like many quips, has a perfectly cromulent application, and is also susceptible to abuse. Basically it means that someone who has a neat idea or theory has nothing on the guy who's been in the trenches putting it into practice.

A related common churchy saying is "I like the way I do it better than the way you don't." Or as noted theologian Mike Tyson explained, "Everyone has a plan until he gets punched in the face."

The saying is not anti-intellectual, as the dude used it. Rather, it's about the greater value of theory put into practice and refined by experience than mere theory alone. This little quip assumes that the 'experience' is based on sound theoretical principles - unlike the charismaticism this guy's promoting, in which the 'experience' is independent from the knowledge, and is superior in and of itself.

If he can't handle a simplistic, 16-word pithy saying, I can only imagine the mincemeat he makes of God's Word. Which might explain how he got to be a charismatic elder.

Mr. Fosi said...

Why'd the Portuguese comment + translation get removed?

And without the usual "Removed by amin" message?

Too off-topic?

DJP said...

It was off-topic, they were a pair, and we generally remove clean like that unless there's some admonitory purpose. Readers would have assumed you had done something wrong warranting administrative action, which you didn't.

Mr. Fosi said...

Roger that and thanks for the clarification. :^)

Gordan said...


My advice: get the rights to this word right now. I can see it really catching on.