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Reason and Faith: Can Anything Be Believed That is Against Reason?

November 20th, 2009
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faithMore from Blessed Johann Gerhard, from an unpublished translation….in the works at a certain publishing house you know…or should know!

Whether anything should be believed against reason.
§ 252.
Up to this point we have been showing that Bellarmine’s boasting is false when he says that the Roman church teaches no error, and no shamefulness. Now concerning his third boast, that “nothing in it is taught against reason,” we respond: (1) The norm of faith and truth in the Church is not principles of reason or rules of philosophy but Holy Scripture.

(2) What Bellarmine plainly declares here is false, that “the mysteries and articles of faith are merely above reason but not contrary to reason.” Surely, if reason keeps itself within its own sphere and does not meddle in the secrets of the divine mysteries but reverently applies this rule to the highest mysteries of faith: “The things that are placed above my comprehension, concerning them I shall not presume judge on the basis of my principles;” I say, if reason behaves in this way, we admit that the articles and mysteries of faith are not contrary to reason. But if—and this happens often—reason is so presumptuous as to pass judgment on and make declarations about the mysteries of faith on the basis of its own principles and according to the rules of philosophy, if it exalts itself above its lady, theology, <P5:522> like stubborn Hagar; then surely the mysteries of faith are not only above but even contrary to reason. This is very obvious from the article on the Trinity of persons in one divine essence, on the resurrection of the dead, on the presence of Christ’s body in the Supper, etc.

(3) Therefore a distinction must be made between reason left to itself without restriction, which runs about unbridled and is carried around by its reckonings, which judges and decides on the basis of its own principles, which are common notions, perceptions, experience, etc., and reason restrained by God’s Word and kept in obedience to Christ. This judges and decides on the basis of the proper principle of theology, that is, on the basis of God’s Word, which has been set forth in the Holy Scriptures. The mysteries of faith are not contrary to reason considered in the latter respect, but they are contrary to reason considered in the former respect.

(4) Some express this in such a way a distinction is to be made between reborn and unreborn reason. But in order for this distinction to be complete, we must necessarily add that when reborn reason, on the basis of its own principles, assails the articles of faith explicitly handed down in the Scriptures, to that extent it is no longer acting as reborn reason. In the same way, when a reborn man follows the kindred corruption of his flesh and indulges in sin against his conscience, to that extent he is no more acting as a reborn man. In fact, he ceases to be reborn. We have discussed this in greater detail in our On the Interpretation of Scripture ([1610] Loci, vol. 1, [locus 2]), § 174.

(5) Therefore just as reason in the articles of faith can be considered in two ways, so also we can establish two kinds of paradoxical statements opposed to reason. One kind of paradoxical statement is opposed to the reason of an unreborn person judging on the basis of its own principles. In the mysteries of faith we do not need to pay too much attention to this, because in articles of faith one must not depart from the letter for the sake of something paradoxical to human reason. But the other kind of paradoxical statement is opposed to the reason of an unreborn person judging on the basis of the proper principle of theology, that is, on the basis of the Word. We must pay careful attention to this in the mysteries of faith since it is paradoxical with respect to both reason and faith, that is, to reason embracing the principles of faith and clinging to them tightly. The basis for this distinction is taught in the following statements of Scripture: Gen. 18:14: hayippale’ meyhowah dabar “Will anything be hard for the Lord?” as Arias Montanus translates it, or: “Will anything be hidden from the Lord?” as Vatablus renders it, or: “Is anything impossible for God?” as Luther translates it. Pala’ is “separated” and “divided” either from man’s knowledge and intelligence or from his action and strength, so that he cannot attain that by reason nor perform it by strength. Therefore the meaning of the divine oracle is this: Even if something has been placed above the comprehension of human reason and above human powers, yet that is not difficult for God, much less impossible, because God “can do more than we understand” (Eph. 3:20). The word pele’ means “strange” or “secret.” Therefore the meaning is: Even if something may seem strange and paradoxical to men, yet to God it is not strange and secret. Zech. 8:6: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: if it is strange (yipale’) or difficult, if this seems paradoxical and impossible in the eyes of the people, will it also be strange and paradoxical (yipale’) in My eyes?”

In Luke 1:34, Mary the God-bearer [θεοτόκος], full of wonder, asked: “How could a virgin, who does not know a man, become a parent?” The angel then answers her (v. 37): “With God no word will be impossible.” That is to say, although among humans it may seem impossible and incompatible with reason for a virgin to conceive and bear a child without a man’s seed; yet with God, this is not impossible or absurd.

In Matt. 19:26 Christ also makes this distinction, that “among men some things are impossible;” that is, that in their judgment many things are impossible, absurd, and paradoxical, but with God all things are possible.

In Luke 5:26, when Christ healed the paralytic with a divine miracle, the people said: “Today we have seen strange things [παράδοξα],” that is, things which were placed above the comprehension of reason. The same word is used about divine miracles in Wisdom 16:17 and Sirach 43:30. In Wisdom 5:2 the heavenly glory of the blessed is called the “paradox of salvation” [παράδοξον τῆς σωτηρίας] which “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it ascended into the heart of man” (Isa. 64:4; 1 Cor. 2:9).

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  1. Bethany Kilcrease
    November 20th, 2009 at 09:53 | #1

    Pastor McCain,

    When is the new Gerhard volume shipping? We’ve been eagerly awaiting our copy and thought it would come this week.

    Bethany Kilcrease

    McCain response: Should be in by the end of the year, or early next.

  2. jmark
    November 20th, 2009 at 11:43 | #2

    As a convert to Lutheranism (from Catholicism), I was always put off by the Roman Church’s confidence that nothing in doctrine was contrary to reason. Such certainty kept a large number of Jesuit priest-scholars busy writing books, but it didn’t give me any comfort. Either because of temperament or personal history, I could easily entertain the idea of a godless, meaningless universe–and I found that perfectly reasonable–although despair inducing. As I studied science more (I have a Masters degree), I came to learn (thanks to the insights of Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions)) of how scientific paradigms change (example: from an earth-centric to a sun-centered system, from Newtonian physics to those based on Einstein). Science presents its conclusions always based on the BAE – Best Available Evidence. As more evidence is discovered, old paradigms are revised, updated, sometimes completely junked. What appears contrary to reason one day (light travels in a curve in the universe, not a straight line; a man in a plane can go faster than the speed of sound without the plane and the man being destroyed, etc.) gets taken for granted later. Since reason bases its conclusions on the best available evidence (BAE), those conclusions are only valid to the degree that the available evidence is an accurate representation of the totality of evidence–available or unavailable. If our evidence is like a fragment of a hologram- each fragment of a holographic photograph will carry the entire image that it represents–then nothing can be contrary to our reasoning. But if our evidence is more like a few pieces of an uncompleted puzzle–the pieces we have do not tell us what the entire puzzle will eventually look like–then many things can be contrary to reason and be true. The history of science shows that our knowledge is more of the puzzle pieces type than the holographic fragment type: the paradigms, models, etc., keep changing (I can recall when dermatologists were warning us never to go out in the sun without strong sunblock. Now, we are warned to expose our skin to the sun regularly or we will suffer all types of terrible health consequences). I like a God who is counter-intuitive; I don’t have much faith in man’s reason or his goodness. I’m one of those sour pusses who think man is so bad that he needs a God to save him. For the life of me, I can’t relate to Christians who think that people are so wonderful. If they are so wonderful, why did God have to get slaughtered for them? I mean, if man is so great, God should have sent us a greeting card with the following written inside: “Keep up the good work!” That would have been all the scripture any of us needed.

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