As we stand with our feet planted in the soil of this earth, we can look around and know that we are not our own creator, and sense within ourselves a certain divinity. The evidence of such possession is intangible, yet largely beyond controversy. 1 As we undertake this contemplation of our nature, and the necessary existence of a creator God who has made us and all of the reality that we inhabit, we must seek to order this knowledge of the grand mystery of existence. To do so, unlike so many other pursuits of knowledge however, we must recruit our heart into the equation. This is theology, the contemplation of God, coupled with a right state of the heart. 2

As we undertake the task of theology, we must first identify the truth we seek to understand. In that regard, the most realistic aspiration of our process is to attain the best explanation of the complex world we live in. If empirical proof of a creator God is beyond our grasp, then we must search for an understanding sufficiently comprehensive to afford the basis for ration commitment and ultimately, belief. 3 For theologians, then, we are seeking to collect and organize all of the information that we can attain in order to form a reasonable view of the relationship between ourselves and our creator. We must also recognize and establish that our goal is to arrive at a belief in what the creator God has done, and understanding the methods and means of how God accomplished His many great works is not a critical conclusion we seek.

What data, then, is available to theologians to contribute to our pursuit of reasonable belief? Our primary and most important source of knowledge about God comes from the transmission of His revelation through inspired Scripture. These collected writings self-proclaim God himself to be the author of them. (1 Tim 3:16-17) In order to be both “God-breathed” and the literal product of man, we must first understand the nature of revelation and inspiration. The object of God’s revelation to man is the communication of knowledge, both in the form of truth and understanding. In order to guard the transmission of revelation through the vehicle of man, inspiration from God, through His Spirit, serves to secure infallibility in teaching. 4 God thereby and in tandem with human writers has given theology its starting place, an authoritative text that governs and guides our pursuit of knowledge about and concerning to God.

The Word of God itself, revelation its substance and inspiration its guide, must be then interpreted by man, who is undoubtedly fallible. For this purpose, God instituted the church so that man’s corrupting influence might be mitigated through the establishment of tradition. As we seek to correctly interpret, this tradition acts to keep our interpretation closely tethered to beliefs held universally, in antiquity, and by consensus. 5 It is a certainty that men fail to agree upon these tenets. Nevertheless, theology accepts this fact and does not count it against God, but against man, and furthermore as a motivation to continue to pursue Him.

We must further recognize that Scripture was handed to man in order that we may know him, but not as a list of empirical facts or as an account of all truths. Instead, God provided us with a body of Scripture that bestows on us knowledge through narrative, poetry, wisdom literature, collections of letters, and apocalyptic revelation. Theology, then, must operate within this context, and proceed by finding truth in the forms in which we have received God’s Word. We discover God’s nature and character through narrative stories of His historical dealings with man, and yet still we find deeper understanding through the inclusion of poetry and wisdom literature which illuminates and enriches the narrative. We learn of His plan for humanity, its existence since the beginnings of time, and fulfillment in the life of Jesus, the Son. We recognize that our contemplation of God causes self-contemplation, and thus that theology can only truly be defined between what God is and what we are not.

  1. Calvin, John, ed. Alister E. McGrath, “John Calvin on the Natural Knowledge of God” in The Christian Theology Reader, (Hoboken: Wiley, 2016), 91.
  2. Aquino, Fred, ed. Abraham, William J., Jason E. Vickers, and Natalie B. Van Kirk. Canonical Theism: A Proposal for Theology and the Church. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub, 2008, 178.
  3. Polkinghorne, John, ed. Alister E. McGrath, “John Polkinghorne on Motivated Belief in Theology” in The Christian Theology Reader, (Hoboken: Wiley, 2016), 63.
  4. Charles Hodge, ed. Alister E. McGrath, “Charles Hodge on the Inspiration of Scripture” in The Christian Theology Reader, (Hoboken: Wiley, 2016), 113.
  5. Vincent of Lerins, ed. Alister E. McGrath, “Vincent of Lerins on the Role of Tradition” in The Christian Theology Reader, (Hoboken: Wiley, 2016), 82.

To me, the most persuasive approach in regards to faith and reason begins with the fact that ancient humanity could perceive God through the created order (Rom 1:20). There is a natural reason, which Vatican 1 refers to, which comes to man through the ordinary aspects of life. This natural reason manifests itself as a cumulative collection of experiences and observations, as Newman observes. Without direct communication from God that his covenant people benefited from, God was perceived to these ancient peoples by his eternal power and divine nature in the creation around them. This method of discovery still exists today and is the most basic, foundational way in which we can begin to reason about God: the creation that surrounds us is evidence of his existence.

It’s no surprise to me that in all of our pursuit of the rational ordering of the world and the entire creation, and with our ever-increasing understanding of it, humans still cannot reasonably comprehend, explain, or order how the world came into being, much less even that it did so without a creator. If the pursuit of truth, as Polkinghorne says, seeks to attain the best explanation of complex phenomena to afford the basis for a rational commitment, there seems to be an undeserved amount of animus for the Christian explanation of the world.

Polkinghorne notes the apparent lack of consideration in the world that has been given to Christian belief as potentially reasonable, which he says is derived from the simple “knowing” that there can be no truth in faith since it defies everyday secular expectation. Pope Francis also references a more contemporary example of a similar observation in the modern obsession with technological truth. One of the costs of our tremendous progress in science and technology is the expectation that truth takes the form of knowable certainty, and is evidenced by the collective agreement on said truth. This ultimately puts theology at odds with culture, since theology studies and seeks a universal truth that comes from beyond man.

However, if we can naturally recognize our world as the work of a creator God from the natural evidence around us and lack of more reasonable explanation, we can reasonably know that He is more powerful than his creation and is the author of all things. Having created all things including humanity and its faculties, including reason and logic, it follows that faith cannot be in opposition to reason as both are from God.

In the course of rectifying this natural reason with the rational evidence we can find in the world around us, we do encounter tension where these two forces seem to be opposed. Humanity has proven itself quite susceptible to misunderstandings, both in issues of faith and reason. Vatican 1’s opinion is that perceived tensions between faith and reason are the result of these misunderstandings of human nature, whether the error is in the interpretation of the church’s dogma or man’s discovered truths.

By structuring the interaction when faith and reason find tension as a place where both can be examined, we give theologians proper latitude in navigating the mysteries we seek to understand but cannot prove, and can ultimately help to clarify church teaching or correct bad rationality. To that end, we should welcome reasonable inquiry and exploration of faith while still recognizing the limits that prevent faith from being probed and tested in the same ways as empirically driven subjects.

If theologians are to treat biblical text as faithful, we work from the knowledge that man was intentionally made, considered to be very good, and so we can deduce that his ability to reason is from God. The natural order of creation is our first and most primitive evidence of the reasonableness of faith. Pursuing faith through rational inquiry stands to benefit the faithful and also those who are seeking a deeper understanding worth a rational commitment.