Reason and Revelation
Off and on, I pick up my copy of James Boyce’s Abstract of Systematic Theology and read a chapter, which I did a couple weeks ago. James Petigru Boyce lived from 1827-1888 and was the founding president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The purpose of Chapter 3 in Abstract is to reflect on the ways in which God has made Himself known, namely two: Reason and Revelation. In this post, I summarize the argument of the chapter and draw a few conclusions.
Boyce defines reason as “that power in man, which enables him to have mental perceptions, to exercise thought, and reflection, to know facts, to inquire into their mutual relations, and to deduce, logically, the conclusions which may be drawn from them.” By revelation, “we mean the knowledge which God conveys by direct supernatural instruction, pre-eminently that given in the book known as the Bible.”
THE LIMITATION AND PURPOSE OF REASON
“Reason involves all the cognitive powers of man, which are the faculties through which the mind attains knowledge. These faculties are not separate, and independent, but are merely the instruments of the mind. The mind is not itself an original source of knowledge, like the Scriptures, but is merely an instrument by which the man attains knowledge through the exercise of its appropriate faculties. There are no such things as innate ideas.”
The above stated truth is essential for us to understand and apply. Man’s reason is limited and, therefore, dependent upon the revelation of God in the Scriptures. This is why, for example, we must keep the first and second parts of Psalm 19 connected and yet distinct, for one has authority over the other. Psalm 19:1-6 describes the knowledge of God that is obtained by man through observation of creation, i.e. reason. Man learns of God’s power and majesty through observing creation. Boyce says it this way, “It is manifest that the knowledge obtained from these various sources must be abundant to teach man the simple facts upon which rests his duty to God.” This is the apostle’s argument in Romans 1:20, too. The knowledge man acquires from his reasoning about what God has revealed about Himself in creation is enough to condemn him, leave him “without excuse,” but it is not enough to save him. Reason alone will never reconcile a sinner to God because it is insufficient. Boyce writes, “However abundant may be the information thus conveyed to man, it is nevertheless clear that his knowledge in these directions must still remain very imperfect.”
THE NECESSITY AND SUPERIORITY OF REVELATION
Since man’s reasoning powers are limited by his being a creature, and not the Creator, and since these finite limitations are also impaired by man’s fall into a state of sin; we need something more sure, more reliable than human reason. Boyce rightly concludes, then, “we may infer the necessity of some further source of knowledge of God, and of his will with respect to man.” This revelation:
- Must come from God, the source of all our other knowledge. No other could give it, and it is fit that no other should do so.
- Must be suited to our present condition, confirming the truth already known, and teaching what is practically useful to man as a sinner before God.
- Must be secured from all possibility of error, so that its teachings may be relied on without equal, if not greater, confidence than those of reason.
- Must come with authority, claiming and proving its claim to be the Word of God, who has the right to command, and to punish those who disobey his commands; with authority also, that man may with confidence believe and trust the promises and hopes of pardon and peace it may hold out.
- Will be accompanied by difficulties and mysteries is what may be expected, since these are found frequently attending the knowledge derived from reason.
Thankfully, Psalm 19:7-12 goes on to tell us that, in addition to the knowledge we gain from reasoning about creation, one of the chief purposes of Scripture is to “restore the soul” to God, our Creator. In other words, revelation does what reason cannot. The limits of reason are superseded by the sufficiency of revelation—the revelation of God in the Scriptures.
As believers who possess the Scriptures, which is the revelation made “more sure” than anything gained by reason and experience (2 Peter 1:19), we can be fully confident in its sufficiency and trustworthiness. Revelation is superior to reason because the Scriptures are God-breathed and useful for doctrine, spiritual life, and to equip us for a life of godliness (2 Timothy 3:16-17). This does not mean we are know-it-all’s, far from it, we have much to learn from the created world. But what we learn through reason will never supersede or replace what we possess in the inerrant Word of God. As Boyce says, “We may learn to comprehend it better and to correct our own misapprehensions of it, but whatever God has once given as truth must so remain forever, as changeless as his own life.”