Faith, Reason, Knowledge I


This past winter (yes, it’s officially spring, though one barely can tell here in Chicago) I reflected on what it meant for a Christian to think faithfully, that is to say, what foundations lay under a Christian’s mind in the various tasks of thinking. I would like to turn my attention now to a related question: can faith, specifically Christian faith, provide knowledge?

The question actually arose out of a conversation I had yesterday with my professor during our meeting for my directed reading on ancient scepticism. We were examining Sextus’ account of the five modes (which had been preceded by the ten modes, and followed by the two modes and the eight modes . . .). These are typically called the “Agrippan modes” and three of them have been called “the Agrippan trilemma.” Essentially these are criticisms for the justification of a belief as true. The trilemma is this: one’s belief is a) justified by something else, which itself needs justified by something else, and so on in infinite regress, or b) justified by something else, but that other thing receives its justification by the belief in question, which is circular reasoning, or c) justified by simple assertion of its truth, but this is no justification.

My reply, which I should note came from some significant ignorance of current epistemological debates, was something along the lines of: “Well, one is left either with fideism or foundationalism.” Foundationalism was out, due to the Agrippan trilemma, and, frankly, I misunderstood fideistic accounts of knowledge. My professor was examining my statement, correcting it and so forth, when I made this apparently self-evident–to him–statement, “Well, that assumes that faith does not produce knowledge.”

He knows I’m a professed Christian of Eastern Orthodox predilections so he made an obviously careful (and gracious) response. (In other words, he didn’t burst out into a bit of a chuckle and a “Well, duh!”) But as I reflected on it later it became clear to me that he and I were using faith in slightly, but perhaps with significant consequences, different ways. And that led me to this project.

Preliminary Questions

The standard philosophical tradition on faith, reason and knowledge derives from the Platonic accounts of knowledge (as in the Theaetetus) as “justified true belief” (though even in the Theaetetus this definition is not without its problems). That is to say, belief (pistis, which in Christian terminology is faith) must be justified (if you prefer, warranted) by reason if it is to produce knowledge. Or, to say it another way, only reason’s actions can produce knowledge.

So the spheres of faith/belief and reason have been kept separate and their contents and sources separate as well. Belief’s/faith’s content (or product) is opinion derived from (largely unexamined) human experience or, in Christian terms, is dogma derived from divine revelation. Reason’s content (or product) is knowledge derived from dialectic and contemplation (theoria). Each are, in their own way, somewhat self-referential (which is why the sceptics attacks on reason are so challenging). So both rationalists and fideists welcome the attacks of scepticism on the other, though perhaps the fideists gain more from the sceptical attack than do the rationalists.

This distinction between faith and reason has always been set in terms of opposition, or at least the two spheres (as in Aquinas) have only minimal overlap (in natural theology, say). Reason’s actions cannot found Christian dogma, and Faith’s actions cannot found knowledge.

But I deny that it is Christian at all to set these two things, faith and reason, in opposition. Both activities are necessary for human thought and its content. Nor am I alone in this. Kant had his Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone, but Nicholas Wolterstorff has his Reason within the Bounds of Religion. With the work of Alvin Plantinga, Kelly Clarke, et. al., this sort of assertion is perhaps unremarkable.

Still, this does not answer other concerns. How does one (and should one) prioritize the claims of faith or reason when these appear to be in opposition? In what way is faith and reason unified in the person? Are dogma (the presumed product of faith) and knowledge (the presumed product of reason) essentially different things, or is dogma itself some form of knowledge, or are both together aspects of something else (wisdom?)?

These are the sorts of things on which I want to reflect for the spring. I doubt I’ll come to definitive conclusions, but hopefully I can better articulate the questions.

4 thoughts on “Faith, Reason, Knowledge I

  1. I look forward to seeing where you go with this. I will refrain from offering my own two cents at this time, but will just mention that back before Plantinga and Wolterstorff, there is the very important work of Cornelius Van Til and Herman Dooyeweerd on this question. Both are in the Reformed tradition, but I think they will still have plenty that is valuable to think about. You might find it easier to get at the thought of Van Til by starting with Greg Bahnsen’s anthology of his writings.

  2. Alan:

    I’ve read Dooyeweerd’s “Critique” (though it was more than a decade ago), but cannot claim to be intelligently informed about his project. I’ve not read any van Til.

    By the way, I’m looking forward to where I’m going to head with this as well, because I don’t know that I really have a clear point of hypothesis where I may want to go. At least I have much less of a path in mind than I did with my “project of faithful thinking.”

    And go ahead and offer your comments–if you want. They can only help clarify if nothing else.

  3. With all due respect to Van Til and his followers, presuppositionalism is nothing less than empty rhetoric not to mention philosophically untenable. I wouldn’t waste your time, especially wth Bahnsen.

  4. I’m not familiar enough with presuppositionalism to endorse or refute Nikolai’s comment, but a cursory glance over a handful of websites reminded me of the popularizer of presuppositionalism I read in Bible college: Francis A. Schaeffer.

    To some degree my coming thoughts will overlap with presuppositionalism, but I depart/diverge from some of its tenets quickly, particularly with the Reformed emphasis on total depravity and what the implies for human reasoning.

    I hope to show (if tangentially) how evidentialism and presuppositionalism are both necessary and appropriate to both fallen and redeemed humanity.

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