The Image of God and Reason

God and reason
Of all the creatures in the physical world, only human beings share with God the ability to reason. It is not surprising, then, that when theologians discuss elements of the image of God, reason almost always tops the list. From the perspective of our calling as stewards of the world, reason is one of the most important tools we have been given. So as we explore the implications of our creation in God’s image, we must take a closer look at human rationality. Before we do that, however, we should first back up a step and look at reason as an attribute of God.

Scripture over and over again recognizes that God is rational. We see this first in God’s work of creation. In Genesis, we are told that God looked at what He has made and assessed it as “good” (Gen. 1:10, 12, etc.), “not good” (Gen. 2:18), or “very good” (Gen. 1:31). The Scriptures frequently extol God’s wisdom, which can be defined as the practical application of divine knowledge. Proverbs tells us that God created the world through wisdom (e.g. Prov. 3:19-20), and the Psalms celebrate God’s wisdom displayed in creation (e.g. Ps. 104:24).

The supreme example in Scripture of God’s rationality is found in John 1:1-3: “In the beginning was the Word (Gk. logos), and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”

Logos, the Greek word translated here as “Word,” is a far richer term than “word” is in English. In Platonic thought, the logos was the creative principle through which the world came into existence. In Stoicism, it was the rational principle which governed the universe. In common use, it is the root word for “logic,” and pointed to both knowledge and thinking.

So Christ as the Logos of God is the sum total of all that can be known (cf. Col. 2:3), the ultimate example of divine reason and wisdom (1 Cor. 1:24).

Reasoning with us
Not surprisingly, then, God sometimes appeals to reason to try to get through to us. For example, in Is. 44:9-20, God offers a devastating critique of idolatry, appealing to common sense to show how foolish it is. And in Is. 1:18-20, He invites Judah to reason with Him: repentance and obedience produces forgiveness and blessing; rebellion brings destruction; which course makes more sense?

Of course, God’s rationality is far beyond our own. In Is. 55:8-9, God tells us, “… my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” So human reason can only take us so far when it comes to knowing and understanding God and why He governs the world as He does. For that, we need revelation, which comes to us both through the natural world and Scripture. This is why Prov. 3:5 exhorts us to “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding.” Reason has is limits, especially when it comes to understanding God and His ways.

What is reason?
So God is rational—super-rational, but rational nonetheless. What does God’s rationality tell us about human reason? And what exactly is reason?

As is frequently the case with terms like this, reason is not easy to define simply. On a human level, reason is the ability to reach conclusions based on premises. The premises can be abstract ideas, such as the ones used in mathematics, or they can be based on personal experience and observation, such as “if you put your hand in a fire, you will get burned,” or some combination of the two, as is frequently the case in the sciences.[1]

Although a fairly simple concept, reason is a deceptively powerful tool which we use constantly in exercising our mandate to be stewards of the world. Reason enables us to do everything from figuring out cause and effect, to learning that planting seeds leads to growing plants, to understanding the importance of water in the natural world, to figuring out irrigation systems, to learning what works and what doesn’t in putting up buildings, to developing mathematics and then applying it to real world situations, and more. The same ability that led our ancient ancestors to fashion stone tools enabled us to develop iPhones and space probes. They all come from reason based on observation, experience, and sometimes abstract premises.

The importance of reason
Reason is thus critically important for our work with the physical world: without it, we cannot exercise our proper dominion under God. But reason extends beyond just understanding the laws of nature. For example, we can engage in moral reasoning, thinking through the ethical implications of actions, ideas and policies based on principles of right and wrong. We can use reason to try to understand the people around us—what motivates them, why do they do or say the things they do, etc. And through both principles and experience, we can learn how to interact effectively with others.

In all of these cases, reason is an effective tool because it deals with our experiences as physical creatures. We interact with the natural world and with other people on a daily basis, and so we can study, experiment, observe, and think through our experiences. This is even true of ethical matters, since they too deal with life in this world. Things get more complex, however, when it comes to spiritual matters.

Many philosophers argue that spirituality is a matter of faith, and faith is completely divorced from reason. They reject any connection between reason and authority, mystical experience, intuition or faith. There is an element of truth in this: if you follow a New Age teacher’s techniques and enter an altered state of consciousness, it does not logically follow that the teacher’s explanation of that experience is automatically correct. Neither the authority of the teacher nor the experience itself provides enough to evaluate what happened rationally.

At the same time, however, the argument against authority and faith is clearly overdrawn. For example, in practice those who make this argument against authority frequently themselves rely on authority. How many of them can prove that the Earth goes around the Sun, as opposed to accepting it as true because of the authority of scientists? If they can prove it, do they do so relying on their own observations, or are they accepting someone else’s as authoritative? Or how many of them rely on experts (authorities) for medical care, or any of the thousands of other areas of life where we look to experts to explain things for us?

Beyond this inconsistency, however, lies the underlying problem that all reason is ultimately based on unproven assumptions that must be taken on faith. We cannot prove that our observations are accurate, that our minds are capable of understanding the world, that cause and effect are really linked, that other minds exist. All knowledge is ultimately based on faith—on accepting unproven and unprovable assumptions as true.

To argue that faith and reason are separate, incompatible spheres is thus simply false. Reason relies on faith as its starting point.

As a result, despite the fact that God is infinite and we are not, we can even reason about Him. In fact, Christianity more or less demands the development of theology, which Rodney Stark defines as “formal reasoning about God.”[2] As Stark points out, “…unlike Muhammad or Moses, whose texts were accepted as divine transmissions and therefore have encouraged literalism, Jesus wrote nothing, and from the very start the church fathers were forced to reason as to the implications of a collection of his remembered sayings—the New Testament is not a unified scripture but an anthology. Consequently, the precedent for deduction and inference and for the idea of theological progress began with Paul: ‘For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect.’”[3]

Christianity thus requires the use of human reason to draw a coherent picture of God and His dealings with humanity from the biblical texts. This study of the texts leads to greater and greater insight into the Bible as each generation builds on the work of previous scholars. And according to Stark, this idea of theological progress led to a more general idea of intellectual progress, ultimately resulting in the use of reason in science, economics, and politics, creating much of the modern Western world.[4]

Far from being in opposition, reason and faith are thus deeply intertwined with each other. Both are necessary and important tools that God has given us to understand the world, each other, and Him, and to fulfill our purpose as His stewards in the world.

For more insight to this topic, order Glenn’s book,
Why You Think the Way You Do, from our online store. Or read the article, “The Inadequacy of Reason,” by T. M. Moore.

[1] Scientific theories are supposed to be supported by observations though in practice particularly powerful theories become paradigms through which all subsequent observations and evidence are interpreted. At that point the governing theory becomes a form of abstract premise. The reigning paradigms in science are considered foundational and for all practical purposes certain, until enough counter-evidence develops, leading to the emergence of a new theory which overturns the old paradigm.
[2] The Victory of Reason, 5.
[3] Ibid., 9.
[4] Ibid., 12.



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