Does Reason Mirror Divine Attributes?

In his recent and quite informative book Logic (2013), Vern Sheridan Poythress observed that God’s attributes were also attributes of reason. For instance, universality, immutability, truth, transcendence, and infinity are characteristics of reason, so are they of God. In Epistemic of Divine Reality (Doctoral dissertation, 2007), it was argued that rational approaches ultimately can only land one, at the most, on such an understanding of God. Stretched a bit further, this will lead to monism or non-dualism as the rational categories are in conflict with the empirical ones of plurality, change, immanence, and so on. The latter, as we know, are the characteristics of empirical theologies such as polytheism, pantheism, and panentheism.

Poythress admits the uniqueness of Christian theology that sees God as both transcendent and immanent and thinks that this is true of reason as well. He looks at our participation in logic as an imitation of God’s nature. For instance, speaking of transcendence, he observes:

We can always consider the option of stepping back from what we were doing a moment earlier. We can reflect on what we were doing, and then reflect on our act of reflection, and then reflect on that. We can go on until we become confused!

This standing back already exists when we mention a word rather than merely using it. We are, as it were, standing back to look at the word rather than unself-consciously using the word to look at something else. This standing back is a kind of human form of transcendence. We can transcend our immediate situation by reflecting on it. And we can transcend our reflections by reflecting on them. We can take a kind of God’s-eye view, viewing ourselves from above, as another human being might see us or as God might see us.

This transcendence is then one way in which we think God’s thoughts after him. God is transcendent in an absolute sense. He is infinite. We are creatures. But we do have a kind of imitative, creaturely ability to transcend our immediate environment or our immediate thoughts or our immediate speeches. And we use this transcendence when we investigate logic. Every time we think, we imitate God’s thinking. Every time we think about logic, we also imitate God’s transcendence over the immediate.1

There is substance in this argument. The rational necessity of conceptual infinity (which we can’t conceive of and yet cannot not conceive of) is an amazing ability in man. Solomon wrote that God “has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”(Eccl.3:11) Augustine talked of our hearts being restless until they find rest in God. God gave humans the capacity for awe, wonder, and amazement, the ability to glorify and worship God; and this is spiritual. However, if it were not for divine revelation given to us in the verbal testimony of Scriptures, this quest would either have nothing but the rational ideas or the empirical concepts. Revelation gives us a glimpse of God as the Eternal One and yet the One who Works in Time, as the One who is beyond the universe and yet in the universe. Yet, one must be careful to not conclude that the characteristics of reason are the very and only characteristics of God, though in concrete.

In all classical formulations of theology, the rational characteristics have been admitted as attributes of God; the only difference: reason is noetic tool, but God is that He is (The I AM THAT I AM). However, how can one be sure if we are not just imposing the limits of our mind onto theological understanding? Certainly, understanding can’t be had beyond the characteristic capacities of reason.

Where reason fails to make sense of things, especially when experience cannot supply it with content, then it stands in need of revelation knowledge. Theology is more an attempt to rationally understand revelation. But, faith makes living by revelation possible. The just shall live by faith; we walk by faith. Faith is able to understand and perceive what reason cannot accept; for instance, by faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God and that the universe was created out of nothing (Heb.11:3). Both the ideas of concrete creation by verbal speaking and something being created out of nothing are not ideas that can be rationally understood or explained. But, by faith we understand, says the writer of Hebrews.

The Bible doesn’t begin with a systematic presentation of theology. However, it does tell us who God is and what His nature is. For believers, reason can help to practically understand who God is and  is like or is not like. Experience provides concrete categories, but reason also insists that God is not like this world; so does Scripture warn us to not create idols of our vain imaginations.

The recognition of this fact is crucial to any theological reasoning.

The importance of systematic theology lies in its putting together of divinely revealed facts in an orderly manner. The New Testament presents examples of this when, for instance, Paul gives a systematic biblical argument for justification by faith in Romans and the writer of Hebrews brings to light facts of the Law to speak of the superiority of Jesus. 

The value of reason lies in ensuring consistency and unity of faith, correction of errors, and clarity of understanding.


1Logic, p.78

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