Scripture tells us that since Adam our human inclination has been to deny God as King and Judge of our lives and instead enthrone ourselves and other things that by nature are not gods. Putting our hope in Christ, then, entails submitting ourselves to Him as the unchallenged, absolute King.
But what implications does this have for how we reason? Specifically, if we reason for God, are we committing a sin of presumption in presuming to judge the Judge? By reasoning for God, are we ironically dethroning the God we seek to defend and instituting another standard above or at least beside God, by which we seek to vindicate Him?
This is an important issue for anyone with any connection to the Christian faith, because it reaches to the very heart of our epistemology (how we know what we know), our witness, and our morality.
1. Our Epistemology
If it is disrespectful to apply classical linear reasoning (if A, therefore B) to the argument for God, all that remains is to use circular reasoning (B is, therefore B is). Indeed, there are branches of the Church whose apologetics consist largely or almost entirely of emphatically circular thought. A particularly memorable example I encountered in a respected publication went something like this: the Bible describes creation, but only God was present at creation; thus the Bible must be the Word of God, and therefore it is credible. This argument is a classic circle: it assumes the very thing it seeks to establish, namely, the credibility of the Bible.
Let’s be clear that there is a lot at stake in using this kind of circular reasoning. First, it gives us no way of reassuring our hearts of the credibility of our faith except to say that it is credible because it is credible. Second, such reasoning has (to say the least) no credibility in the eyes of the world. Therefore, on account of both our own faith and our witness to others, we must be very sure that our reason for using such circular “logic” is sound, or else we risk severely compromising our Christian calling.
But is the foundation for using such reasoning really sound? I will address the question of morality below, but first let’s consider the purely epistemological argument made in favor of reasoning for God only with circles.
The epistemological argument for circular reasoning
According to the so-called Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God, God Himself is the only foundation for all knowledge, logic, ethics, morals, etc. If reason thus depends on the existence of the God, then reasoning for the existence of God can only be circular, since it depends on the very thing (God’s existence) that it seeks to prove.
This argument initially sounds compelling, but it has a fatal flaw: it confuses existence (objective) with perception (subjective).
Here’s what I mean. Reasoning operates within the sphere of perception (subjective). Therefore, by definition, circular reasoning must contain a circle within this subjective sphere. However, the argument that “God is the foundation of reason” is saying that God is the objective foundation of reason—whether we (subjectively) acknowledge Him as such or not. Therefore reasoning for God is not inherently circular, because the step that supposedly begins the circle concerns objective existence, and as such is outside the (subjective) realm of our reasoning.
It is therefore an error to assume that this alleged circle (which turns out to be no circle at all) validates our use of circular reasoning.
2. Our Witness
Two models of argument
The classical apologetic method (using classical reasoning that says, “If A, therefore B”) operates by finding common ground with the skeptic and building logically upon that common ground to point the skeptic toward Christ.
Using circular reasoning, by contrast, does not find (or seek) this common ground. It already assumes what it seeks to establish, and as such it gives the skeptic nothing to latch onto or identify with: it essentially calls the skeptic to a blind leap.
No common ground?
But those who advocate circular reasoning will argue that the classical method is misguided in seeking common ground with the skeptic because, they say, there is no common ground: the question of the existence of God leaves no neutral ground—the implications of God’s existence are comprehensive and utterly incompatible with the implications of his non-existence—therefore, it is alleged, there can be no common ground between one who believes in the true God and one who does not.
This argument correctly observes that there can be no common ground between a worldview that accepts the Lord and one that does not—provided that the worldviews are consistently adhered to. But it overlooks the fact that people (believers and non-believers alike) are typically not consistent in their beliefs and lives. Those who do not believe in the Bible may nonetheless assume a kind of hope, ultimate meaning, morality, etc. that come from God alone—inconsistently with their own professed non-belief in God.
Functionally, therefore, non-believers and believers do share common ground whenever a non-believer assumes a meaning, hope, or morality that can come only from God. And it is an important job of the apologist to seek out this common ground—not because it is neutral, but because it is Christ’s!—and use it show the skeptic how his own assumptions point toward the God he disavows.
3. Our Morality
Is it disrespectful to reason for God?
I remember hearing the following argument: “God is God whether we acknowledge Him or not: the reason God is God is simply because He is, not because we have reasoned him to be. Therefore the only fitting argument for the existence of the Lord is that He is because He is.”
But once again, this is to confuse objectivity and subjectivity, existence and perception. The observation that ‘God is God because He is’ applies to existence in itself; but that does not explain how that objective fact becomes mediated to our (subjective) perception. For that, two things are needed: a) the information must be disclosed to us; and, crucially, b) because in our fallen world we are often presented with information that is false yet claims to be true, we must discern the credibility of the message being brought to us, even if it claims to be from God Himself (cf. I Kings 13:1-32, Matthew 24:24, Romans 12:2, I John 4:1, etc.).
But who are we to scrutinize God in this way? Doesn’t that make us the judge of God, with reason as the bar against which He must measure up? Isn’t that idolatry?
Is it idolatrous to reason for God?
The argument that reasoning for God is idolatrous hinges on the assumption that doing so entails a) subjecting God to an external standard (an idol) or at least b) placing the creation above the Creator, as well as c) making one’s belief in God conditional.
An external standard?
Interestingly, those who allege that using reason to argue for God’s existence is idolatrous typically hold (with Van Til) that the God of the Bible is the only possible foundation for reason. However, this is to imply that reason is not merely a creation of God but something that flows necessarily from his being. Seeking God with an appeal to reason, then, is not requiring God to conform to an external standard; rather, it is seeing whether an alleged revelation of God corresponds to that which must be of God to begin with; it is seeing whether the one claiming to be God matches the fingerprint of God.
Placing the creation above the Creator?
The telltale sign of placing creation above the Creator is when we cling to something, (perhaps something created good by God) in such a way that it will not bow the knee at the voice of its Creator. This seems very different to me than a use of reasoning that knows it is not an end in itself but is seeking the One to whom it necessarily points and is prepared to bow the knee to Him.
The irony, of course, is that, if reason is truly of (and not merely from) God, then its consistent, free, and un-coerced exercise upon all the evidence God has provided will necessarily point back to God himself: reason, in its fullness and purity, could not consistently be placed above its Master.
Conversely, using “reason” to enthrone an idol that we were already committed to enthroning isn’t true reason but its imposter, cleverness. And the Enlightenment is one of the most ironic examples of this, because the idol it enthroned was “Reason.” But reason didn’t lead the Enlightenment to reject God. Rather, the clever but ultimately untenable assumption that true reason rejects (rather than examines) anything not deriving from itself (such as a document claiming to be a revelation of God) was used to reject God in order to enthrone the very “Reason” that was not given a chance to vindicate him. Which seems to suggest that what was truly being worshiped was not reason but rather the humans who wielded the power of reasoning.
Again, this is very different than reasoning that is in search of its Lord. As far as I can see, then, the only remaining objection to reasoning for the credibility of the Bible and its God could be that it makes belief in the LORD conditional.
On conditional belief in the LORD
In some sense, our belief in the LORD is always conditional. At the most elementary level, it is conditional on our having heard him proclaimed (cf. Romans 10:14ff). But how are we to know whether this proclamation is true? We must discern. Supporting this, Paul argues in Romans 1 that God has given enough evidence in general revelation (i.e. what can be discerned of God apart from Scripture) for us to be prepared to accept the gospel when we hear it. In other words, God does not expect us to accept the proclamation of him in a vacuum.
And just as sight is a faculty by which we perceive the works of God (which are His doing and not ours), so our process of reasoning is the faculty by which we perceive the reason that flows from God’s being (which is His doing, not ours). Refusing to discern the reason of God is much like closing our eyes to his works. If belief in God is conditional upon our perception of his message and his generally-revealed works that support the proclamation of his message, then exercising our faculty of reasoning toward belief in God seems no more idolatrous than exercising our other faculties of sight and hearing toward the same end.
What this does, though, is to point out just how radical it is that God should submit himself to our senses at all. Who are we that the God of the universe should speak to us, should be seen by us, should be accepted and believed in by us? The idea is actually shocking when you think about it. But that is the glory of the gospel: that the God who is high, holy, self-sufficient and utterly free should come to us and submit himself not only to our senses but even to our vain and violent clamoring for godlike supremacy and self-sufficiency, allowing Himself (God!) to be crucified by us, so that the powers of darkness should be disarmed in scorn and the wrath of God against our rebellious race satisfied through the ironic triumph of the crucified King.
So the next time we reason for God, let’s remember that the very act of doing so is itself a testimony to the radical humility and grace of the God, and may that remind and inspire us to approach it with an attitude not of cleverness but prayer.