What Are the Roles of Faith and Reason in Christianity? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

A typical accusation of atheists toward Christians is that we only believe what we believe because of blind faith.  In other words, we have no rational reasons for believing in God or believing that Jesus died for our sins.  The person who believes in fairies or unicorns is no different than the Christian belief in God.

Richard Dawkins makes this point dozens of times in his book The God Delusion.  Here is one example: “Christianity . . . teaches children that unquestioned faith is a virtue. You don’t have to make the case for what you believe.”  And elsewhere: “Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument.”

Is this a fair characterization of Christianity?  Is it totally based upon blind faith with no justification whatsoever?  As we’ve mentioned about Dawkins before, he avoids, at all costs, actually engaging with the best of Christian thought.  So, what has been the Christian answer to the question of faith vs. reason?

For this answer, we turn again to Philosopher Edward Feser.  In his book The Last Superstition he takes on this atheist misconception.  Feser describes what the traditional Christian account of the roles of faith and reason are.

First, we start with reason.  According to Feser, “Pure reason can reveal to us that there is a God, [and] that we have immortal souls.”  By using philosophical arguments, we can conclude these two things.

However, Christians claim to know much more than just that God exists and humans have immortal souls.  They claim to have actually received revelation from God.  Does faith come into the account now, after we have established by reason that God exists and humans have immortal souls?  No.  “For the claim that a divine revelation has occurred is something for which the monotheistic religions typically claim there is evidence, and that evidence takes the form of a miracle, a suspension of the natural order that cannot be explained in any other way than divine intervention in the normal course of events.”

By reason alone, we know that if God exists, then miracles can occur, because of God’s very nature (creator and sustainer of laws governing nature).  The God that we have arrived at by reason is a God who can suspend the laws of nature.  To what miracle do Christians point?  The resurrection of Jesus.  Feser reminds us, “If the story of Jesus’s resurrection is true, then you must become a Christian; if it is false, then Christianity itself is false, and should be rejected.”

Is this where faith comes in?  No.  Feser explains that “the mainstream Christian tradition has also always claimed that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a historical event the reality of which can be established through rational argument.”  So, the historical evidence of the resurrection of Jesus builds upon the philosophical argumentation that God exists and that humans have immortal souls.  The philosophy comes first, and the historical evidence second.  Please note that so far, we have only discussed reason, and faith has not yet entered the picture.

If the historical evidence for the resurrection is overwhelming, then there are “rational grounds for believing that what Christ taught was true, in which case the key doctrines of Christianity are rationally justified.”

Feser takes us back through the argument again, and it is worth reviewing:

The overall chain of argument, then, goes something like this: Pure reason proves through philosophical arguments that there is a God and that we have immortal souls.  This by itself entails that a miracle like a resurrection from the dead is possible.  Now the historical evidence that Jesus Christ was in fact resurrected from the dead is overwhelming when interpreted in light of that background knowledge.  Hence pure reason also shows that Jesus really was raised from the dead.  But Jesus claimed to be divine, and claimed that the authority of His teachings would be confirmed by His being resurrected.  So the fact that He was resurrected provides divine authentication of His claims.  Hence reason shows that He really was divine. . . .  At every step, evidence and rational argumentation – not ‘blind faith’ or a ‘will to believe’ – are taken to justify our acceptance of certain teachings.

In part 2 of this series, we will move to the role of faith.

30 thoughts on “What Are the Roles of Faith and Reason in Christianity? Part 1”

  1. For those who want to read some of the top scholarship on the resurrection, pick up N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. You’ll need to be ready for the marathon, as it’s just short of 800 pages. In short, the only way to explain the emergence and the shape of the Christian Church in the first century is if the resurrection actually happened, and Wright takes you through countless objections and how they fall flat. But needless to say, that’s far too short a summary!

    Have a blessed day all!

  2. Would you read a book that took 800 pages to claim that the only way to explain the emergence of Mormanism is if Joseph Smith really did have golden plates sent by God? Or a similar claim for the emergence of Islam?

  3. Where is the proof that Jesus was real and in fact died on a cross and was resurrected? Here’s the catch you cannot use the bible as proof. A book is not proof. If you believe that a book can be proof than you’re saying that Frankenstein’s Monster is true.

  4. Opps..I accidently clicked ‘liked’..oh well..

    what I wanted to say was, “why not?” If there are such books I would like to read them.

  5. For the dying on a cross part, I suggest you read writings by Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian etc. Or just read John Dominic Crossan’s, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography.

    For the ressurection part, ask this question, what was the the origin of the Christian faith?

  6. You said:

    “If the historical evidence for the resurrection is overwhelming, then there are “rational grounds for believing that what Christ taught was true, in which case the key doctrines of Christianity are rationally justified.”

    But if there was historical evidence, there would be no faith–as faith is belief without evidence–and you would not have to continue to argue for your faith because there would be evidence! Unfortunately, there IS NO evidence.

    You quote: Feser explains that “the mainstream Christian tradition has also always claimed that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a historical event the reality of which can be established through rational argument.”

    Argumentum ad populum does not make what you believe fact. The majority of Christians could think dogs are reptiles–but biology tells us they are warm blooded mammals. ” Just because the “mainstream Christians believe something, does not make it true. Only evidence and argument can establish “best explanations”–and the supernatural is ALWAYS going to be the LEAST likely explanation for things.

  7. You’re in luck then tiswas – every religion has countless books and other apologetics resources explaining why you should believe in them.

    For example: google ‘bookofmormonevidence’

    “You are cordially invited to participate in a special presentation titled ‘DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography; New scientific support of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon’. This new research validates the Book of Mormon as both a spiritual and historical record and testifies of the Prophetic calling of The Prophet, Joseph Smith Jr. This was accomplished through DNA, Prophetic, Scriptural, Historical, Climatological, Archaeological, Social and Cultural evidences found as a result of four years of research.”

  8. I would argue that the evidence became more difficult as a result of what 2 roman emperors did at different times in the post Christ period. They tried to burn every copy of the New Testament, such was the threat they saw it to be. Other evidence was lost in the medieval period such as ‘The Book of the Hebrews’, apart from a few fragments, and the ‘The expositons and sayings of Jesus’ by Papias, of which only a few fragments also remain. Others are not referred to, such as the slavonic passages of Josephus, which give greater detail on what Jesus said and did.

  9. Johndoe,
    Your question is a bit multi-faceted, and so bears a little exploration. Tiwas helped you with the first part of your question, I’m going to help with the second.

    When you say you cannot use the Bible as proof because then Frankenstein’s Monster is true you are making an implicit assumption that the genre of the two books are the same. The genre of the Four Gospel narratives is Historical Biography. It would be very similar to if today someone wrote about President Bill Clinton’s time in office by interviewing people that were with him and around him (in fact, such books have been written!). If you read one of these books, would you then say, “Bill Clinton never lived or did anything?” You wouldn’t because it’s telling a story that actually happened. It’s the same case in the four gospel accounts.

    I mentioned a book above which is highly recommended. If you’re asking those questions genuinely, engaging with the historical evidence can be quite exciting!

  10. Dear Professor,
    We need to unpack your statement a little bit. First of all, we need to level-set with the defnition of faith. The definition of faith that you give is not the same way the word “faith” is used in Christian tradition. “Faith” is not the belief without evidence, but it is the belief of what we do not see. For example, we exercise faith when we talk about quarks, because we cannot see quarks, but we believe they are there, because we DO have evidence for there being quarks. It is the same with the resurrection, there IS evidence that it happened.

    I do not see the Argumentum ad populum in the statement. Christianity appeals to history, and therefore to history it must go. Historians use evidence and argument too, so I invite you to engage with the historical evidence. Hopefully this is very exciting for you, because you have found that this evidence exists and you can go read about it and make up your own mind!

    The interesting thing about the argument for the resurrection is that in this case it happens to be the ONLY explanation for the evidence that we have, which is precisely why it is rational to believe it happened! That does not mean that you have to believe that it happened, but what it does mean is that if you reject the explanation, you do not occupy the intellectual “high ground” as it were.

  11. Andrew! Good to see you again!

    While an interesting question am curious why you ask it. How does it relate to the historical evidence of Jesus’s ressurection?

    In any event, I don’t think I’d be interested. Mr. Smith and Mohammed didn’t die for me, Jesus did. And if that’s true, that has enormous implications for everything about life (and death). So the path I took was, is this really true? And the evidence is very very compelling.
    But I should stress, the intellectual side isn’t everything, as God made us whole people. There are other factors, such as personal and emotional that go into making the decision for Christ. While there may be other barriers, the great part about this post above is that historically there isn’t a barrier! What I hope to do is find what barriers skeptics DO have so that they can be removed so they can see the beauty of Jesus, experience His forgiveness, and be part of His renewal of the entire cosmos!

    God bless!

  12. A Horse, I believe you are begging the question with your claims as to the book’s genre.

    And the comparison to Clinton is unfortunate. We know much about such biographers, and such books have contemporaneous interviews, and have much outside corroboration.

  13. @ horse

    Faith IS belief without evidence. Your definition is just typical Humpty Dumpty semantics, in which Christians attempt to make words mean whatever they want them to mean. Kierkegaard was a Christian philosopher who noted that believers must believe by faith alone, as there is no evidence for Christian beliefs such as the trinity.

    Christianity has no historicity as the gospels are based on hearsay, and are not evidence of anything. There are no “first hand” witnesses to anything written in the gospels. They were written decades after the supposed events by authors UNKNOWN. They are also inconsistent and contradictory, and are therefore, unreliable sources. And as I mentioned already, just because there are many people that believe something to be true, that does not make it true.

    The post quote:

    ” Feser explains that “the mainstream Christian tradition has also always claimed that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a historical event the reality of which can be established through rational argument.”

    Now, let’s assume that this amounts to evidence. If this amounts to evidence, then the mainstream Hindu tradition has always claimed that Brahman is god, and that the resurrection of Krishna is a historical event the reality of which can be established through rational argument. So, Brahman is god, and Krishna was resurrected. But this leads to an absurdity for the Christian position, as now, Yahweh is not the only god, and Jesus is not the only one resurrected! So if we accept Bill Pratt’s claim for the resurrection, which is argumentum ad populum, but even if it were not, it still leads to contradiction and absurdity for Christians.

    Not only is not the only explanation, it is not even the best explanation. There are far better explanations for the story of a resurrection. It could be based on older religions which have resurrection stories, because we know that Christians often times “borrow” stories from other groups. Or, it could be that Jesus’ few believers were dismayed and were being mocked, because Jesus’ predictions did not come true, so they made up their own stories to validate themselves. Or, his few followers snuck back to the tomb, removed the stone, and hid the body. Or, as Bart Ehrman has suggested, perhaps Jesus had a twin brother! In any case, the least likely explanation is that a dead man came back to life, and that he is god.

  14. Feser says:

    “The overall chain of argument, then, goes something like this: Pure reason proves through philosophical arguments that there is a God and that we have immortal souls.”

    I think you need a [citation omitted] there. What exactly is the (presumably Kantian) argument from pure reason that there is a God and we have immortal souls?

  15. The goal of the blog post and of Feser in this section of his book is not to present the philosophical arguments (he does that elsewhere in his book) and not to present the historical evidence (he refers the reader to others for that evidence), but to simply state that traditional Christian thought does arrive at these conclusions by rational argument, not faith. He is merely trying to correct the twisted definition of faith propounded by the New Atheists. Part 2 of the series makes this clear.

  16. so hold on Bill, question:

    If one arrives in a beliefe in (let’s call it) the eternal *because* of science, and understands the moral teachings of Christ, but veiws the miracles and resurrection as purely allegorical – then you are saying that eithher a) they do not have faith, or b) they are not practicing proper and “pure” reasoning?

  17. Dear professor,

    Thanks for your comments! Christians believe with the presence of evidence, so I’ll let you choose the word which properly reflects that so that we can bypass Mr. Humpty.

    Your second and final paragraphs have been dealt with at length in the book that I recommended, so if you’re genuinely raising those as objections, I invite you to engage with the evidence. Until you do so, it is difficult for us to speak, because I will be unable to appeal to your reason.

    Finally, I think you’re mixing up Bill’s purpose of the post with your comment. Bill is establishing that the resurrection is based on rational argument. That statement itself is not evidence, it is a proposition which is sustained by the evidence for the resurrection. It is this evidence which I invite you to engage!

    I have asked the same questions you have professor, but I also seeked the answers. I even see a lot of what I once believed in your post. I invite you to be as skeptical about your faith in there being no evidence as you are in the Christian faith. All I am asking for is a level playing field, and it could transform your life.

  18. I’m not sure I understand your question. What these posts are explaining is the traditional Christian view of the proper roles of faith and reason. How does your question fit into that framework?

  19. I guess that’s what I was asking you Bill. How would this view fit into your frame work?

    “If one arrives in a beliefe in (let’s call it) the eternal *because* of science, and understands the moral teachings of Christ, but veiws the miracles and resurrection as purely allegorical”

  20. Ian, Can you give us any references re. the supposed two Roman emperors trying to burn every NT copy? I’ve never encountered such a claim and find it very questionable, in that there WAS no definite “New Testament” (settled canon) until after Constantine, and the formal acceptance of Christianity. Within a few more decades, the faith became the “state religion” or official within the empire… certainly not opposed as a threat. And by the way, Christianity was not the only religion opposed and whose followers were persecuted in the Roman Empire, though Judaism generally carried a high regard.

  21. If you just want my opinion on what I would think of a person who believes in the supernatural, but views the resurrection as purely allegorical, I would say that person doesn’t understand the literary genres of the NT books, nor the historical evidence for the resurrection.

  22. I was going to continue under the asumption that we are talking about a hypothetical person, but i’ll drop that. These are my views and understanding.

    I have read the NT King James Version, and understand it well. I have commited large passages to memory, but still – intelect leads me to accept the miracles as allegory, and not literal truth.

    As for historical evidence, there is greater proof and understanding of third dynasty egypt, and the battle of thermopylae, than there is of the resurection of Christ.

  23. Romans 1:21 “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his
    eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being
    understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”
    Imho,you have to deny what you are seeing about the universe/living beings to believe they popped into existence. What lit the fuse? To me,as has been said before,it requires more faith to believe the universe,or the makings thereof,just appeared. Where is your evidence for that?

  24. Karla, are you responding to the more specific earlier context of this thread… evidences for the resurrection of Jesus? (And related, the claimed “historicity” of the Gospels and Acts?) If you ONLY are arguing for the existence of some kind of Creator (or Intelligence guiding material and spiritual existence), I find Paul’s Rom. 1 statement persuasive.

    However, he never argues clearly for the PHYSICAL resurrection and corporeal state of Jesus as do the Gospels, and certainly not an “empty tomb” (writing much earlier than the Gospel writers). Some feel he does, as his position about the reality of a resurrection of “whole persons” (presumably, not his words) in a “spiritual body” (HIS words) may imply this… as is often the case with Paul’s creative (inventive) genius, his thought train lacks logical/linguistic precision (even in the original Greek) and can be confusing. (I refer here to his main passage re. this, I Cor. 15.)

    Note his argument for the resurrection is based on “appearances” of Jesus to others and to himself, apparently in the same general manner (he at least makes no distinction… no pre/post ascension issue for example, and his clearly was post “ascension”). So what does this all imply?

    First, I’ll say that it is clear Paul’s recounting of things carries more “historical” or “factual” weight than does Luke’s in Acts, his Gospel or the other Gospels…. All had agendas to serve, but the Gospel writers a more complex and “distant” one… and NONE of them, including Paul, was writing to and for Jerusalem/Judea/Galilee Jews or others who were likely to have been present around the time of the crucifixion and in the vicinity. So, among other things, it implies strongly that the convoluted, complex “resurrection accounts” of the Gospels, as well as the muddled accounts in Acts of Paul’s visionary encounter with Jesus are later concoctions, NOT “eye witness accounts”.

    There are other lines of strong evidence for this as well… but fascinating how most Christians conflate Paul’s experience and his related arguments with Gospel/Acts accounts of the origins of belief in Jesus’ messiahship and eventual elevation to godhood (a godhood of which Paul was an early, perhaps THE earliest proponent, and the original Apostles/disciples almost certainly never believed it, though presented that way particularly in John–almost surely the latest Gospel, well beyond the deaths of all the Apostles, or at least their disappearance from history before or following the war and Jerusalem’s destruction, 66-70 CE).

    Final point: Paul’s statements also undercut the idea of any NEED FOR as well as the actuality of an “ascension” of Jesus, who supposedly had a resuscitated physical/spiritual body and spend time instructing the disciples after his being raised and reviving their faith. Had this already been a core part of the “Jerusalem Church’s” belief, he would have either used it OR explained how/why it was wrong (as he did on circumcision, following the Law and other points, repeatedly) rather than write as he did… as himself seeing the same kind of, and the “last of all” appearance of Jesus. Also interesting how he presumed no one else had belatedly received an appearance or might yet….

    Seems he wanted to be THE ONE to lay out the radical new theology around Jesus the Christ, most of which he claims “The Lord” to have revealed to him… fits with the elevated status Paul asserts for himself, with the repeated point that it was direct from God, NOT via the Jerusalem Apostles.

  25. I would love to see J.P Moreland take on both Dawkins & Feser. The Vegas odds would probably read 10-1 Moreland. They would both get a good taste of Christian intellect.

  26. “If the story of Jesus’s resurrection is true, then you must become a Christian; if it is false, then Christianity itself is false, and should be rejected.”

    This quote really does astound me. If we grant that Lazarus and many other people were raised from the dead in the bible, why is Christ’s resurrection so special (among all the resurrection stories?) I don’t think that anyone can say that Jesus is the only one to have claimed to have been God, and then was raised from the dead, because we don’t know WHAT these other guys did and did not say during their lives. Should we conclude that:everyone here is God?: http://www.pathlightspress.com/resurrection.html

  27. “…we need to level-set with the defnition of faith…”

    There is a level set definition for faith. You’re rejecting just rejecting it because it doesn’t support your position in this instance.

    Even if you redefine the word faith, Quarks are real because of evidence, regardless of what terms you use to label why we know quarks are real. The distinct difference in the resurrection and quarks is that physical evidence has been submitted to confirm the existence of quarks(regardless of whether you call this faith, truth, jelly beans or peter pan – this is the key distinction)

    “…It is the same with the resurrection, there IS evidence that it happened…”

    -This is nothing more than an assertion. Again, regardless of whether you call it faith or jelly beans, you have to provide physical evidence to support the claim that something is real.

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