Faith, Reason, and Personal Persuasion

Recently a newspaper reporter asked me to respond to two provocative questions: (1) “Is it necessary to leave reason and move to faith in order to embrace Christianity?” and (2) “If there are strong arguments in support of Christianity’s actually being true, then why aren’t more people, particularly intelligent, well-educated people, persuaded as to its truth?”

As to the first question, historic Christianity doesn’t require believers or nonbelievers to choose between faith and reason, as though the two are unalterably separate spheres. Rather, Christianity is uniquely a reasonable faith (a trustworthy and reasonable belief system). The events that form the core of Christian belief—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth—are rooted in history. For 2,000 years Christian apologists have presented diverse evidences and arguments for embracing Christian truth-claims.

While specific doctrines such as God’s triune nature and the union of Christ’s two natures certainly transcend human comprehension, Christian belief never violates reason itself. In fact, Christian philosophers have argued that the God of the Bible uniquely provides the metaphysical foundation for logic and rationality.1 The consensus throughout church history is that faith and reason are compatible and complementary.

The New Testament word for “faith” or “belief” (Greek: pisteuo, the verb; pistis, the noun) is rich in meaning. To have biblical faith in Jesus Christ for salvation includes:

  1. a genuine (factual and historical) knowledge of the gospel events, namely, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection;
  2. a personal assent to the truth and importance of those events; and
  3. a confident trust in the object of that faith (the risen Lord Jesus Christ).

Faith, in a biblical context, is therefore not separated from authentic human knowledge of truth and reality.

As to the second question, it is true that some highly educated people are not persuaded of historic Christianity’s truth. However, many of the world’s leading intellectuals from various academic and professional fields do embrace historic Christianity as a rational and viable world-and-life view.2 Early twentieth century Christian apologist and writer G. K. Chesterton makes this comment about those who reject Christianity: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”3 When it comes to the “ultimate issues of life,” personal persuasion involves more than exposure to rational arguments typically presented via the public educational system, even higher education.

Christian philosopher Ronald H. Nash argues that it is important to distinguish between arguments and personal persuasion.4 People come to their beliefs about reality and truth based upon various factors, some rational and some nonrational. A good argument provides reasonable and truthful support for its claim. Just because a person is not persuaded by a given argument doesn’t necessarily mean that the argument is somehow logically defective. Nonrational factors such as ignorance, bias, self-interest, fear, or pride may stand in the way of a person genuinely understanding and feeling the full force of a powerful argument and thus being persuaded by it. A person’s noetic (belief-forming) faculties are seldom as neutral, detached, and coolly objective as many people—especially intellectuals—would like to think. This subjective, egocentric predicament is shared by all people, regardless of educational level.

Persuasion, then, seems to be “person-relative,”5 and no single argument will likely persuade everyone—especially when it comes to the big issues. And simply because some questions are hotly contested does not mean that all positions on them are equally valid and none superior; hence, the importance of the biblical imperative to put beliefs to the test (1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 John 4:1).

It would be fair to say that few people accept or reject Christianity based purely upon rational factors. After all, human beings are far from purely rational creatures. Scripture indicates that a person’s coming to (or conversion to) faith in Christ is never a solely intellectual decision (Acts 13:48; 1 Corinthians 12:3). God’s efficient grace works in remarkable ways to draw people to Himself (John 6:44, 65).

In conversation with nonbelievers, one might ask why they reject specific Christian truth-claims. Is their unbelief based upon rational or nonrational factors? Instead of a reasonable faith, it may be that nonbelievers have, in effect, an unreasonable lack of faith.

1. Kenneth Richard Samples, Without a Doubt (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), see chapters 1 and 2.
2. See, for example, Kelly James Clark, ed. Philosophers Who Believe (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1993); and Eric C. Barrett and David Fisher, Scientists Who Believe (Chicago: Moody, 1984).
3. G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World (Charleston, SC: Forgotten Books, 2010) 39.; accessed July 14, 2004.
4. Ronald H. Nash, Faith and Reason (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 108–10.
5. Nash, 109.

This article appeared in RTB publication Connections 6, no. 3, 2004.

  One thought on “Faith, Reason, and Personal Persuasion

  1. Gary Kurtz
    July 21, 2011 at 10:00 am

    Of all the forms of pride, intellectual pride is the most pernicious and the one that hinders the most in one’s acceptance of Christ. The Cross is foolishness to the intellect of man. It has been wisely said that “the greatest distance between God and man is the twelve inches between man’s brain and heart.”

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