Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Revelation vs. Reason

Hymn time during a recent Sunday morning worship service featured “By Faith,” a popular new song by Keith and Kristin Getty. Verse 1 begins “By faith we see the hand of God in the light of creation’s grand design.” The subject of faith juxtaposed with creation’s grand design in only one line of the hymn is fascinating.

In the context of the hymn’s text, faith may be defined as an inner assurance that our course of belief or action is correct and supported by the will of God. Tangible proof may not exist to support our belief or course of action, but we are confident we are on the right highway. Over the centuries, theologians have sometimes referred to the embrace of revelation or revealed truth as faith.

Recognition of “creation’s grand design,” in contrast, is an embrace of reason. We recognize by our logical, rational thought process how unlikely or even how impossible it would be for the created order to have assembled itself to function with such apparent efficiency and purpose. Beyond that we acknowledge God as the agent responsible for creation and the apparent design features of the cosmos.

Historically, either reason or revelation was held in favor by theologians. Sometimes they stressed both reason and revelation. Early theologians Tertullian (160-220 AD) and Augustine (354-430 AD) and later figures such as Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) stressed the revelation of theological truths over reason. Pascal, a brilliant scientist and mathematician, was noted for his Christian conversion experience. His focus turned to theology after his conversion. Thereafter he de-emphasized finding God through evidence from the natural world.

Other theological notables stressed the importance of reason in acquiring knowledge of God. Justin Martyr (103-165 AD) promoted an early reason-based Christian apologetic as did Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) in the Middle Ages. Aquinas also blended revelation with reason in forming his theological belief system.

Is acquisition of our belief in God a matter of either revelation or reason? At times my personal enthusiasm for science may slant my thinking in favor of reason; the wonder of the design and function of the natural world is powerful affirmation of the reality of God. But for others their theological belief system is supported by their embrace of the revealed truth of scripture or other forms of personal enlightenment.

Scripture affirms the value of both revelation and reason. Our embrace of Christ as the Son of God, a truth brought forward to us in our day by the witness of scripture, may be regarded as revealed truth. Scripture also points to the design and beauty of the cosmos, the behavior of living creatures, existence of the whole personhood of the pre-born, and many other deep truths to support our ability to reason concerning the deeper significance of our existence and origin.

Congregational hymn singing satisfies our desire to offer worship to God as well as to express theological truths gained by revelation and reason. We would do well to study the lyrics sung by church musicians and thoughtfully contemplate the hymn texts used each Sunday. The gift of music allows us to express our heartfelt worship of the Creator who makes Himself known through the gifts of revelation and reason.