Part of the False Dichotomies in the Church series
‘Revelation’: Another Name for How God Reasons with Us
If you asked the average North American Christian whether they consider reason and revelation compatible, chances are they’d say no. They may support their position by saying that receiving revelation and using reason are two entirely different activities that never overlap. They might even claim that faith requires us to set aside our reason entirely, that using reason in matters related to God disobeys the very commandment to have faith. A non-Christian might add that revelation from God requires us to accept ideas or commands blindly, which seems irrational or dangerous.
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But what if, according to scriptural logic, reason and revelation are not opposed to or antithetical to each other? In fact, I argue that biblical revelation presupposes reason because revelation directly involves a kind of reasoning. Revelation is reason at its most powerful and productive.
The overwhelmingly most common form of divine revelation occurs when God speaks to biblical characters. The defining characteristic of the Lord in the Hebrew scriptures is that He speaks, and when He speaks there is no doubt as to who is speaking and what He is saying. The biblical characters to whom God speaks understand Him because His speech is inherently logical; speech possesses its own kind of logic, which requires the use of a person’s rational faculties. In other words, purely by speaking with us (i.e., revelation), God reasons with us as humans.
God’s Intelligible Speech
Contrast this understanding of a God who is intelligible, engaging, and engageable through His speech with the presentation of idols in Scripture. The Psalmist observes that the idols of the nations “have mouths, but cannot speak” (Ps. 115:5, cf. 135:16)—there is no revelation from an idol, and as a result they do not communicate in any discernible or rational way. They don’t speak with humans or engage with them whatsoever. The astrologers of Nebuchadnezzar state this in response to his demand that they tell him what he dreamed and interpret it. They complain that only the gods can fulfill the king’s request, but “they do not live among humans” (Daniel 2:11). In the ancient near east, it was understood that the gods didn’t speak to or reason with humans at all, and instead the meanings of oracles and omens needed to be guessed. Daniel’s God, on the other hand, is one who reveals mysteries through speech that humans can understand. The Lord is never interpreted—instead, He is heard and understood.
And this reality about God’s revelation of Himself through His comprehensible speech also reveals a key truth about what it means to be human. In speaking to us, God enables us to (and expects us to) respond to Him with speech of our own, which reveals that we are created as reasonable and rational creatures. He made us to speak, reason, and engage with Him as creatures made in His own image.
But in the wake of the Fall, God’s speech acquires even greater importance for us. Now, when we reason about God, ourselves, and our fellow humans, we often arrive at the wrong conclusions and, even worse, we actively self-delude by rationalizing away the horror of our sin. In our fallenness, we convince ourselves that the horror of our rebellion against God, our delight in doing evil for the sake of evil, is not a horror at all, and are content to destroy ourselves and each other.
Revelation That Reorders Human Reasoning
And so, this is the crucial point: when God reasons with a person through speaking with them, His speech reorders that person’s reasoning about themselves, their relation to Him, and His true character as Redeemer. It reveals fallen humankind’s questions and answers to be the wrong questions and answers, and poses the right questions and answers in turn.
Consider a few biblical episodes which illustrate these dynamics. When Isaiah receives his commissioning vision in Isaiah 6, the key point of this revelation is God’s sheer holiness—it fills not only the temple but also the entire earth. The seraphim’s call that the Lord Almighty is “holy, holy, holy” here can be read as an argumentative claim. Confronted with this reality, Isaiah can only cry, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Whatever he may have thought of himself and the people around him prior to this vision, he now possesses an accurate understanding of himself and his people as unholy. In other words, Isaiah has drawn a rational conclusion that he needs to be redeemed in response to God’s own revelation.
Likewise, in the narrative of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel, God’s speech reorients how the hearer understands themselves and their actions. Before God’s prophet Nathan confronts David, David’s cruel behavior could be viewed as hyper-rational—he tries using rhetoric and rational justifications to persuade Uriah to sleep with Bathsheba to conceal the fact that he is the one who impregnated her. And when that fails, David conspires with Joab his commander to use an entire military engagement to kill Uriah. Crucially, all this reasoning serves David’s lust, and he seems to have chosen to ignore the evil of his actions. But when Nathan reveals through a parable from the Lord that David himself is the wicked rich man who takes and eats the poor man’s ewe, David’s rationalizations are shown to be completely groundless. Nathan’s parable completely reorders how David understands himself and his relations to Bathsheba, Uriah, and God: “I have sinned against the Lord.” God’s revelation to David takes the form of a narrative argument, and David’s response is the logical conclusion of that argument. Nathan’s parable reasons with David, engaging with the justifications of his behavior and deconstructing them.
Finally, Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus and his subsequent reflections on that conversion in his epistles is an example par excellence of the way in which God’s address enables and facilitates true reasoning. Paul himself describes how he had reasoned that his violent persecution of the early Church was a kind of piety according to the traditions he had inherited and a logic of righteousness based on the law. After Christ spoke to him, however, Paul could see that righteousness before God comes through faith in Christ and His perfect fulfillment of the law. Christ’s question “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” anticipates an answer, and is thus an invitation to reason together. It deconstructs and then reconstructs all of Paul’s rational categories, thereby enabling him to understand Christ as his Savior and himself reconciled to God— he has been put into his “right mind” (2 Cor. 5: 15).
Paul’s reconciliation with God emphasizes the crucial fact that in Scripture, revelation is redemption. God’s revelation transforms and recalibrates our reasoning, enabling us to accurately understand Him and ourselves. Thus, we understand Him as Redeemer and ourselves as redeemed. In his encounter with the glory and holiness of God’s presence, Isaiah understands himself to be as sinner, but he also sees how God is merciful in all His glory. Immediately after Isaiah’s cry, the seraphim who touches a coal to his lips declares, “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Similarly, David realizes that he deserves death, but Nathan’s response to David’s radical new understanding of himself is that “the Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.” This communication of redemption through revelation is epitomized in the Red Sea and Sinai episodes and in the Crucifixion. The revelation of the Decalogue reorders the Israelites’ reasoning about themselves and God, so that they now know they are already redeemed; likewise, upon hearing the gospel, Christians apprehend that they have been saved through the Cross after Christ’s sacrifice has achieved its purpose of reconciling us to God.
Rather than being antithetical to or incompatible with true reasoning, God’s speech as revelation to us is inherently rational. God reasons with us that we might understand Him and ourselves accurately, repent, and be redeemed from our sin. As Isaiah himself records, “Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD.” And why? “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” The Christian need not abandon their reason; instead, they can remember that God’s reasoning with us is always done in the service of our redemption, that He will continue to reveal Himself to them, and in doing so will restore their wholeness and holiness.
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