On the Proper Use of Reason

There was a certain commander of an army who led his troops well. He would command the soldiers, “You go here, you do this, you take this with you, you bring this back, you say this to that person,” and so forth. He exercised his authority well, his troops obeyed him, and he had great success in whatever he did.

One day he returned to the castle to report to the king, as the king had ordered him to do. But the commander was so used to commanding that he did not mind his place. The commander stood before the throne instead of bowing the knee to the king.

He said to the king, “I’m famished, get me some supper. I’m tired, move off the throne so I can have a seat. Give account to me, what have you done today? Have you ruled well? I’ll be the judge of that.” Now, what do you suppose will happen to the commander? Charges of insubordination, removal from office, prison, death. Why? Because he overstepped his bounds. He treated the one above him as those below him. He claimed to have authority over all things simply because he had authority over some things.

So it is with human reason. Some things are subject to human reason. Should I press my face onto this hot stove burner? Reason can have the final say. Reason is a good thing. God made man a reasonable being who could understand language and name animals and serve as a steward of paradise. God “has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them” (Small Catechism, First Article of the Creed).

But reason was misused, and that led to the downfall of man. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (Gen. 3:6). So many logical reasons to do it! And in the invasion of sin that followed, human reason was so corrupted that it can’t even realize how corrupted it is. Like the commander, some things are subject to reason. And like the commander, corrupted reason thinks its authority extends to all things, including the things of God. But as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” “I believe that I cannot, by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him” (Small Catechism, Third Article of the Creed).

Now why take time to talk about the proper use of reason? Because the misuse of human reason will lead to a rejection of the faith, and we want to guard against that. We as Christians certainly don’t check reason at the door when we walk into church. Yet we do confess many things at which human reason takes offense. A great example of this is the doctrine of the Trinity, which our reason runs into like a brick wall. We confess in the Athanasian Creed, “The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God; and yet there are not three Gods, but one God.” What? How can three things be one thing? The very name – Tri (three), unity (one) – doesn’t make any sense.

Fortunately, Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus has been recorded in sacred Scripture. In John 3, Nicodemus’ fallen human reason oversteps its bounds and Jesus puts it back in its place, not only subjecting it to the higher authority, but also graciously telling the benefit of the mystery, even if the mystery remains a mystery.

So Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night and asserts something of a syllogism, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (Jn. 3:2). Major premise, no one can do these signs unless God is with him. Minor premise, you do these signs. Conclusion, God is with you. Nicodemus gets a gold star in formal logic. But before the proverbial commander gets full of himself and reason oversteps its bounds, Jesus responds with his major premise, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is begotten from above he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3). Jesus states his minor premise in verse 7, “you must be begotten from above,” with the intended conclusion that you see the kingdom of God. According to the rules of logic Jesus’ words make sense. Yet our corrupted human reason can’t help but respond: “What?!

“How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (Jn. 3:4). Bam! Human reason hits Jesus’ words head on, and no matter how many times Jesus explains it and rephrases it Nicodemus can only ask, “How can these things be?” (Jn. 3:9). Or in other words, “Until I can grasp this with my reason, I will not acknowledge that what you said is true.”

What underlies this abuse of reason? Pride; thinking that sinful human reason is more trustworthy than the Word of God. Do you remember how appalled you were when the commander commanded the king? You knew that wasn’t going to end well for him. So it is when reason dares to contradict Jesus, as if Jesus had to bend the knee to human reason instead of the other way around. And in spite of knowing it’s a sin to elevate reason above God’s Word, you do it anyway.

“I’m suffering because of some sin that I don’t know about. I have to do something good to get rid of this guilt. God helps those who help themselves. Prosperity is a sign of God’s favor, and suffering loss proves the opposite. It feels right so it must be right. God wants me to be happy. There are no foreseeable consequences, so it can’t be wrong. That wasn’t really a sin, per se. God’s Word is unclear, or doesn’t apply to this particular situation. You have to understand the circumstances. You shall not surely die. Did God really say?” And so it is that the longer fallen human reason goes unchecked the more it sounds like the devil himself.

Jesus identifies the problem: “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony” (Jn. 3:11). The problem is: not listening to the Word of God. Reason cannot perform some great feat of mental gymnastics and clamber its way into heaven through the back door apart from the revealed Scriptures and then figure out the mind of God for itself. And even if it could it would only come to the same realization as Isaiah: “Woe is me, for I am lost!” (Is. 6:5). When it comes to the kingdom of heaven, reason can have no firsthand knowledge but must listen to and learn from someone else.

Listen to whom? Well, Jesus says, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (Jn. 3:13). Jesus alone has firsthand knowledge of God. And he speaks of what he knows and bears witness to what he has seen. To put it into a nice logical syllogism for our human reason: Major premise: no one can reveal the things of God unless he is from God. Minor premise: Jesus alone is from God. Conclusion: Jesus alone can reveal the things of God. If reason will be truly reasonable then it will bow the knee to Jesus and accept what comes from his lips, not because his words align perfectly with our corrupted reason, but because he alone is qualified to speak with authority about the things of God.

You must be begotten from above. God is one God and at the same time three persons. How can these things be? Forget that question. You can’t know how. It’s not that they don’t make sense or aren’t logical. They just don’t make sense to you and aren’t logical to you. They make perfect sense to God. But ask a question that will get an answer. Say, “Ok, God is one God and at the same time three persons, because he says so. What does this mean?” There’s a good question that gets an answer from the Word of God.

What does it mean that God is Father? It means that he is the source of all things, that he created you and everything, gave you your body and soul and everything relating to them and still takes care of them. He defends and guards and protects you. And all these things he does out of his love and mercy, not because of anything we’ve done.

And because God calls himself Father in Scripture, one would be making good use of reason to conclude that he has a child – a Son, as he reveals to us – whom we hear about throughout the Scriptures. The Son of God was sent to “save his people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21), sins which you committed by taking the good gifts of the Father, like reason, and misusing them. Now typically a son comes into existence after his father, and yet Jesus is coeternal with his Father: they have both always been. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (Jn. 1:1). And this was necessary. If Jesus came after the Father he would not be eternal, but a mere created being like you, and as it says in Psalm 49, “No man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life” (Ps. 49:7).

And yet Jesus did have to be man in order to act on your behalf and in order to suffer and die. So Jesus is “the true God and eternal life,” as it says in 1 John 5:20, and at the same time “the man Christ Jesus,” as it says in 1 Timothy 2:5. God and man, not fifty-fifty, but 100% of each, fully God and fully man. Well, how can that be? Wrong question. What does this mean? Your salvation. According to his human nature, Jesus was born, kept God’s law as the perfect human being, bore the sins of your flesh in his flesh, suffered, was crucified, and died. And according to his divine nature, Jesus made his obedience available to all people, made his death your ransom, forgave your sins, conquered the devil, and destroyed death by his resurrection. We don’t know how it is, but we rejoice that it is.

The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, also eternal, hovering over the face of the waters before the creation of the world. The Holy Spirit gives you faith in Jesus through the Word, as it says in 1 Corinthians 12:3, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Moreover, the Holy Spirit dwells in each believer, as it says in 1 Corinthians 3:16, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” And it’s not that each believer has part of the Holy Spirit, but each believer has the whole Holy Spirit. How this is we do not know, but we know this: He makes you holy and keeps you mindful of Jesus’ words.

And what does all of this mean? “That whoever believes in [the Son of Man] may have eternal life” (Jn. 3:15), as Jesus said to Nicodemus. And we trust Jesus more than our reason because he alone is God, and he alone has come from heaven to earth to reveal God to us.

After talking about reason’s proper place, let’s conclude with the question, “What is the proper use of reason?” It’s useful in governing the affairs of this life, for taking care of the necessities of the body, for serving the neighbor with what’s known as “common sense.” Reasonableness is a very desirable trait for heads of house and civil authorities. Reason can understand cause and effect. It can help you learn from your past sins and recall consequences of words and actions. Reason is necessary for learning language – how to understand speech and read and write and talk – and the best use of this is in hearing the Word of God. Reason is a servant of God’s Word, helping you to hear words instead of gibberish. And this is good, as long as reason approaches God’s Word as a servant and not a master. Therefore reason acts best when it knows its limits and shuts up and listens to the one who came from heaven instead of trying to take over heaven. Reason is most reasonable when it submits to Jesus Christ, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be glory into the ages. Amen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.