Faith and Reason

Dr Ben Holloway, Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

One of the knottier issues for Christians is working out how faith and reason are supposed to fit together. The problem is exacerbated by varying conceptions of both faith and reason.

Faith is an ambiguous term. It might be used to talk about a capacity we have that, when developed, is considered a virtue. It might be used to talk about Christian doctrines, the content of ‘the faith.’ Sometimes it is used to mean trust in the person of Jesus Christ. Others use it to talk about a kind of belief that is in some way distinct from other kinds of beliefs.

Reason is also ambiguous. Some use it to talk about logical rules, the kind one might find in a logic book. Others use the term to talk about a set of mental powers. Some use it to refer to a kind of worldview or era in history. Still others might talk of reason as a mental activity.

Since the way one conceives of the relationship between faith and reason is largely determined by one’s concepts of faith and reason, the debate on the topic is complicated. Nonetheless, I will attempt to provide a taxonomy of views that largely encapsulate the options. Doing so will require answering two questions.

The first question is about how one acquires a belief. Consider the belief that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. How does one acquire such a belief? Ordinarily, it is through hearing the testimony of those who saw it happen. One usually first hears about such testimony by listening to someone read or explain a gospel.

The second question is about how one rationally scrutinises a belief once one has it. Once one believes something to be true, one can continue to work out what one believes about the belief. One might gain a greater knowledge of what the Bible says about the resurrection. One might also reflect on the value of the truth of the resurrection of Christ for one’s own life, both in this world and beyond.

The answers to the questions of acquisition and scrutiny yield various views on how faith fits together with the reason.


Evidentialists generally agree that both questions have the same answer: by assessing the merits of the case for a belief. If the belief is that God exists, then the evidentialist will contend that one acquires the belief by reasoning from more basic beliefs to the belief that God exists. It may be that anyone can look at the world—its apparent order and beauty—and infer that there must be a God. Alternatively, a person may come to believe that the gospels are accurate records of the life of Christ. Having believed in the resurrection of Jesus, they come to infer that all the recorded teachings of Christ are true and, consequently, believe that God exists.

Some evidentialists contend that beliefs about the existence of God are best arrived at by considering the merits of deductive arguments such as the cosmological or ontological arguments. How could there be something rather than nothing? Something can’t come from nothing, and the universe cannot have existed for eternity past. Hence, something must have caused the universe. Or one might consider the concept of God as the greatest possible being and conclude that being the greatest possible being entails existing.

Whichever species of evidentialism is in view, the common theme is attention to reasons for belief. On this view, all beliefs, no matter what the content, are arrived at in the same way: by using the intellectual capacities we have been given. We arrive at our beliefs in the Christian faith by using the same means by which we arrive at other beliefs about the world.

It is also by those same ordinary means that we scrutinise our beliefs once we possess them. We arrive at our beliefs by assessing the merits of the reasons for them and we continue to strengthen our faith over a lifetime of improving those reasons, adding to them, and replying to objections.

Evidentialism has received much criticism from several angles. In consequence, critics have offered alternatives for how one defines and relates faith and reason. To understand these views and what distinguishes them from each other and from evidentialism, I will begin with views that are closer to evidentialism and end with one almost completely at odds with it.

Reformed Epistemology

Reformed epistemologists suggest that many of our Christian beliefs are not arrived at inferentially. For example, many will suggest that we don’t have to reason from other beliefs to our belief in God. Belief in God is rational, but it isn’t necessarily acquired by going through a series of logical steps. It is a basic belief. Consider, by analogy, a perceptual belief. My belief that there is a computer in front of me isn’t arrived at by a series of inferences from one belief to another. Instead, I just get the belief from looking. Other beliefs like perceptual beliefs are beliefs from memories, or from introspection (such as believing I have an itch). None of those require making a case. We just arrive at them.

Perhaps, then, many of our Christian beliefs are arrived at in the same way as we arrive at our memory beliefs or perceptual beliefs. In order for this to be possible, we need to postulate a mechanism that would produce Christian beliefs like the ones that produce perceptual beliefs. Although one can say, “I see the computer with my eyes,” it is not easy to come up with something with which I can ‘perceive’ God.

In answer to this problem, Alvin Plantinga proposes that human beings have a special faculty called the sensus divinitatis. It is a mental mechanism like all the other mechanisms we have, but this one produces belief in God when working properly in the right environment. So, for example, one need not infer from the encounter with an orderly and beautiful world that God must have made it. Instead, one’s sensus divinitatis automatically produces the belief when one is in the world.

Hence, for reformed epistemologists, faith is a kind of belief forming faculty distinct from our ordinary belief forming mechanisms. If so, then many of our Christian beliefs are basic beliefs, requiring no arguments or inferences in their support.

How do reformed epistemologists answer the second question? How do we rationally scrutinise our faith? For reformed epistemologists, the way of scrutiny is found in how we scrutinise all our other basic beliefs.

How do I scrutinise my perceptual belief that there is a computer in front of me? In two ways. First, I could be shown that my belief is false. Someone could prove to me that there are no computers in my house, so I couldn’t possibly have seen one. Alternatively, I could question my faculties. Perhaps I tried a new breakfast cereal made from magic mushrooms. I would then conclude that my perceptual faculties are unreliable. Hence, my belief that there is a computer in front of me would be brought into question.

Analogously, those who take many of the Christian beliefs to be basic beliefs will scrutinise them in the same way. First, they will consider cases against their beliefs. Such cases have been dominant in more recent work by Christian philosophers. Among the challenges posed to faith are the problem of evil, the coherence of doctrines of the Trinity and incarnation, the challenge of religious pluralism, or the denial of the possibility of miracles. An excellent introduction to these kinds of challenges, along with Christian responses, is to be found in Reason for the Hope Within edited by Michael Murray (Eerdmans, 1999).

Second, one will also scrutinise the special faith faculties themselves. Such challenges were mounted by Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. Freud suggested that theistic beliefs are merely beliefs we have because we desire them to be true. Marx proposed that faith is a byproduct of our material conditions. Plantinga gives a stinging response to these kinds of objections in his work, Warranted Christian Belief (OUP, 2000).

In sum, reformed epistemologists consider many of our Christian beliefs to be basic beliefs, produced by a special faith producing mechanism of the mind. Scrutiny of those beliefs involves defending them from arguments that they are false or reasons one might have for thinking the mechanism isn’t working correctly.


Both reformed epistemologists and evidentialists think that acquisition and scrutiny are rational matters. Hence, to some degree, both find themselves working together. Indeed, many evidentialists suggest that belief in God can be basic for some people if not for everyone. They see the reformed epistemologist as offering an explanation for how a belief in God could be basic.

Those who reject both evidentialist and reformed epistemology’s views begin by rejecting their views about acquiring our Christian beliefs. The central complaint for all these thinkers is that Christian beliefs cannot be rationally acquired. Faith is not acquired by reason nor is it produced by any additional rational faculty. Instead, one chooses to believe. Faith is a strong psychological commitment to believe that is independent of reason.

Why hold to such a view? For some it is a matter of the fallenness of human beings. We are unable to use reason rightly because we are hostile to God. Hence, arguments appealing to natural reason won’t work even if the arguments are sound. For others, the arguments themselves are useless. There is simply no way to decide from reason who’s right and who’s wrong on matters of faith even for those who are themselves Christians. Hence, one must take a leap of faith, believing despite having no reason.

One might imagine that a person who thinks of acquiring faith this way would also think reason has no use in scrutinising a belief. There are, however, those who think that though reason is not involved in acquiring faith, it is essential for scrutinising beliefs once one has them. For example, the reformed theologian, Cornelius Van Til, suggested that the way to see that Christianity is true is to assume it and demonstrate that it made sense of all the other beliefs we have about the world, particularly those beliefs we have that make sense of our experience.

For example, we all follow the rules of logic and believe they tell us the correct way to think. When we accept that God exists, we consider our beliefs about logic and see if they ‘fit’ with our belief about God. We test our logic beliefs and our theistic beliefs for consistency. Hence, though one acquires a belief in God by choosing it, one then shows how well it makes sense of and is consistent with our other beliefs about logic, morality, science, and other domains.

One can then compare such a consistent system with other worldviews. The presuppositionalist apologetic developed by Van Til suggests that the best apologetic is to show that no other worldview fits with objective rules of logic or morality, of the possibility of scientific knowledge about the world. Hence, by default, Christianity should be accepted.

Pragmatism and Fideism

Suppose one thinks that both acquisition and scrutiny are not rational, at least in the sense we have been talking about it. Rationality is related to the truth of the belief. But suppose such a project is entirely impossible. We cannot relate faith and that kind of reason no matter how hard we try.

For those of this persuasion, faith and reason are completely separate things. Often, we are told that faith is just belief without reason. In part, the stereotype is justified. There have been some Christian thinkers who suggest just such a separation. Rationality and faith have nothing to do with one another, neither in acquiring nor in sustaining our beliefs.

There are two versions of such a view both of which agree that faith is acquired by choice but divide on how we assess faith once we possess it. Such assessment can’t be a rational assessment. Instead, one must consider the benefits or value of faith for life.

Pragmatists say that the benefit of faith can be measured in practical consequences. If one believes, then one will go to heaven, should it turn out that the Christian faith is true. That is a better outcome than if one does not believe and one ends up in hell. Hence, since the cost of being wrong is so much higher if one does not believe, one should choose faith. Other practical consequences may be more social or political. One could argue that Christian societies do better than non-Christian societies. Hence, we have practical reasons for choosing to have faith.

Fideists generally suggest that the value of faith is found subjectively. It is not merely practically beneficial. It is existentially valuable. A person without faith cannot find their meaning and purpose in life. In contrast, faith creates a feeling of ultimate purpose, a purpose worth giving one’s life to. Faith is the road to a life lived fully, infused with meaning. Hence, faith is not rationally acquired or scrutinised. Instead, its value is measured in the richness of the inner life of those who choose it.

What Way is the Right Way?

Perhaps, your question is: which way do I take? What is the right view? If you have been reading my posts so far, you will probably have a good idea of which views I do not adopt. I largely agree with the evidentialist, but, like others of that persuasion, I am open to good explanations for how a select few of our Christian beliefs, most centrally, our belief that God exists, could be basic beliefs.

There are several reasons I reject views according to which reason and faith are separate. First, for those views that suggest that faith is entirely separate to reason, it is difficult to explain how that kind of faith would count as knowledge. Once one says that faith is just belief without reason, it can’t count as a justified belief. Hence, it isn’t knowledge. One might suggest that the definition of knowledge is at fault, but then one would have to come up with a definition that rules in faith while ruling out all the other beliefs we could have without reason.

Second, I don’t see the authors of the Bible opposing reason for forming beliefs, even those beliefs paradigmatically associated with faith. Consider, for example, the author of the fourth gospel. In several places, he tells us about his purpose for writing. In one particularly clear passage describing the confirmation of the death of Christ, John writes,

“And he who has seen has borne witness, and his witness is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe” (John 19:35).

What makes John think I can believe what he says? It isn’t a leap of faith. I don’t just choose to believe him without reason. It is a belief I ought to form by listening to his eyewitness account of what occurred. I should believe what he says because he saw it happen and recorded the event accurately.

Why is this so important for John to state at this point? The answer lies in what John is attempting to do in this passage. The context is the confirmation of the death of Christ by the Roman soldiers. The soldiers verify his death by examining the body and piercing his side producing blood and water (a confirmation of death). This is vital to know about because there can only be a genuine resurrection if there is a genuine death.

In sum, John considers his testimony as an important component in his case for the resurrection and, thereby, for the divinity of the Messiah, Jesus. Such a view is more compatible with either the evidentialist or reformed epistemology point of view. An evidentialist might treat beliefs derived by testimony as beliefs we use our ordinary rules of inference to derive. Alternatively, a reformed epistemologist might suggest that the Bible’s testimony is also divine testimony, and we are instantly able to believe it. It is another basic belief. Either way, the belief is acquired and sustained rationally and not by a blind leap of faith.

Finally, I reject the latter views because I don’t think the view is well motivated. First, though I agree that fallen people are sinful and unable to please God, I don’t think that implies that we can’t arrive at belief in, for example, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, by using the ordinary reasoning methods by which we come to all our beliefs. Nor do I think that there are no good reasons to believe or disbelieve. Once one has considered the evidence for Christian beliefs, one finds there are very good reasons to think they are true. Hence, I don’t accept that reason couldn’t be related to faith in a positive way.

However, one aspect of the contribution from pragmatism and fideism should be noted. It doesn’t follow from thinking that reason can provide a means to acquire and assess one’s faith, that this is all there is to it. Fideists often criticise evidentialists (often referred to as ‘rationalists’) for having a cold calculating belief. This falls short of what we are supposed to feel about our faith. Aren’t we supposed to love the truth, worship the Lord filled with joy, and even feel so strongly about it that we would be prepared to die for it?  

The evidentialist can agree. Indeed, there are some who believe that the gospel is true but who hate God (surely the demons believe in this sense). To have faith requires not only belief that Jesus rose from the dead, but also a change of heart, one which causes us to love the truth of the gospel, one which causes us to recognise our dire need of salvation, call out to the Lord for his mercy and grace, and rejoice in all that the Lord has done in granting us eternal life. Hence, we ought to be able to assess our beliefs both for their rational status and for their practical and psychological effects. Bringing about both a rational and psychological change requires the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts. It doesn’t require that we leave reason behind to do so. The point the evidentialist makes is that the value of belief and its psychological components are pointless unless we have reason to think they are true. As a famous evidentialist once wrote,

“Christianity is not primarily a matter of feeling or even of action, but a religion of factual belief—factual belief that yields genuine religious experience and meaningful social action, only because of its objective truth” (John Warwick Montgomery, “The Place of Reason in Christian Witness,” in Faith Founded on Fact: Essays in Evidential Apologetics, 29-30).

For thinking further about the relation between faith and reason, Paul Helm’s collection of short excerpts is very good. It is called, Faith and Reason (Oxford University Press, 1999).