God, Revelation and Authority Vol. 1, Chapter 14 Part 1 of 5

Posted: February 8, 2011 in Uncategorized

In the last Chapter, Carl F.H. Henry set forth the following thesis:

Divine revelation is the source of all truth, the truth of Christianity included; reason is the instrument for recognizing it; Scripture is its verifying principle; logical consistency is a negative test for truth and coherence a subordinate test. The task of Christian theology is to exhibit the content of biblical revelation as an orderly whole.

Henry began to unpack this statement by arguing

1. God in his revelation is the first principle of Christian theology, from which all the truths of revealed religion are derived.   

In chapter 14, Henry continues to unpack his thesis in five more subparts.  We deal with #2 today and the rest throughout the week.  Let’s look at #2 now:

2. Human reason is a divinely fashioned instrument for recognizing truth; it is not a creative source of truth.

At the time Henry was writing (roughly 1975), he was aiming at neo-orthodox theologians like Karl Barth (today he would be speaking to Peter Rollins or, to a degree, John Franke) who downplay our ability to recognize truth in a move designed to relativize all truth claims and just rely on a tolerant telling of the story of Jesus to all who might be willing to follow.  Henry rejects the move by these theologians to render God as an “ambiguous deity.”  He writes,”The Creator-Redeemer God of the Bible created man in his rational and spiritual image for intelligible relationships. The Christian faith emphasizes that one has nothing to gain and everything to lose by opposing or down-grading rationality.”

Henry also rejects the equal but opposite error of elevating reason alone to a position of the grand arbitrar of truth.  Henry argues that reason alone cannot penetrate the realm of the divine but neither can reason be ignored and replaced with a vague spiritualism.  Reason is indespensible for recognizing, systematizing and proclaiming divine revelation.

Some counter that a belief in the necessity of divine revelation as the starting point for any discussion of truth exaggerates the effects of sin on our ability to reason, denies “common ground” between believers and non-beleivers and bows to the secular demand that truth must be coherent.  Yet, Henry insistst that his thesis does not deny our ability to reason just that any attempt to do so which begins from a false starting point is doomed to failure.  Henry’s prose is eloquent here and worth quoting at great length,

The fall conditions man’s will more pervasively than his reason. Man wills not to know God in truth, and makes religious reflection serviceable to moral revolt. But he is still capable of intellectually analyzing rational evidence for the truth-value of assertions about God. If the noetic effects of the fall were totally and utterly damaging, thus making man incapable of thinking aright and immune to the rational validity of the basic categories of logic (e.g., the law of contradiction), then no rationally persuasive case could be mounted for or against anything whatever. There are but two ways of thinking—not regenerate and unregenerate, but valid and invalid. There is but one system of truth, and that system involves the right axiom and its theorems and premises derived with complete logical consistency. But the latter does not, as we shall see, require a presuppositionalist to extrapolate an entire system of theology conformably to a coherence theory of truth, nor does it necessitate a denial of all common ground between the believer and the unbeliever.

Knowledge of God is indeed wholly dependent upon divine revelation, but man was divinely made with rational and moral aptitudes for intelligible communion with his Maker and for the joyous service of God. The possibility of man’s knowledge of divine revelation rests in the created capacity of the human mind to know the truth of God, and the capacity of thought and speech that anticipates intelligible knowledge and fellowship. Man’s rationality is therefore one span of the epistemological bridge whereby he knows theological truth. That man’s reason is a divine gift for recognizing God’s truth is a main tenet of the Christian faith. Human reason was a divine endowment enabling man to have knowledge of God and his purposes in the universe. The functions of reason—whether concepts, forms of implication, deduction and induction, judgments and conclusions, and whatever else—are not simply a pragmatic evolutionary development but fulfill a divine intention and purpose for man in relation to the whole realm of knowledge.

Not even the cataclysmic moral tragedy of the fall has wholly demolished man’s capacity for knowing God and his revealed truth. Scripture emphasizes that God’s general revelation, in nature and in reason and in conscience, penetrates into the very mind of man. Man is therefore all the more guilty since he personally spurns it. All God’s revelation is intelligible revelation; his special scriptural revelation is communicated in truths and words. The prophets and apostles, and Jesus Christ no less than they, presuppose man’s rationality, and they affirm his universal guilt in view of man’s revolt against light not only in Adam as representative of the race but also in our private religious history.

The biblical doctrine of religious knowledge everywhere presupposes man’s ability to reason logically and to understand truth conveyed by God about himself and all created reality. The fact that the beleagured multitudes are offered not one message of supernatural rescue only but are besieged also by a staggering plurality of religious claims, indeed by a cacophony of supposed revelational voices, does not at all intimidate the appeal to reason as the instrument for knowing truth. Jesus carefully verbalized spiritual and moral claims and earnestly exhorted his hearers to consider the highly specific theological propositions he expounded to them. Christianity does not communicate a message sounded by heavenly harps, couched in exotic tongues, and understood only by the angels. It employs intelligible language and truths comprehensible to rational human beings. Christian claims are based on knowledge and history not epistemologically dissimilar to the kind of cognitive information and historical data on which all historical, judicial or other everyday decisions depend. As Edward John Carnell remarks, “When Christianity speaks of truth it means precisely what the man in the street means. Whether a person listens to a political speech or reads the Bible, he is called upon to judge the sufficiency of the evidences: and if he is reasonably free of prejudice, he will bring the same criteria to the one task that he does to the other” (The Case for Orthodox Theology, p. 87).

Evangelical Christianity refuses for good reason to rank as merely one option among many in the contemporary world, and seeks to convince mankind that Christ is the divine Savior. The many contradictory philosophies and rival religions Christianity considers abundant evidence not that Christianity is demonstrably true but that the question of truth in religion has been evaded or compromised. Any religion that would exert a universal truth-claim in this context of confusion and competition must adduce criteria whereby Christian and non-Christian alike can test the veracity of their claims. Paul Tillich remarks that “theology is as dependent on formal logic as any other science” (Systematic Theology, I:56).

Theological truth does not differ from other truth in respect to intelligibility; therefore, truth must be rationally cognized if it is to be meaningfully grasped and communicated. Nor does the difference lie in the fact that revelation is its source, for God is the source of all truth. The difference rather is that theological truth is divinely authorized, infallibly certain, and biblically attested; all other claims for truth are subject to correction and at most are but probable. To be sure, we cannot commit others to the truth of revelation simply by theoretical argument, but we can demote and demolish non-revelational counterclaims. Men do not appropriate the Christian revelation through conviction reached solely on the basis of rational argument. Personal faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit, but truth is God’s revelational provision, and the Spirit uses truth as a means of persuasion and conversion.

In summary, God is the revelational source of all truth; revelation is his disclosed truth and the evoking cause of knowledge. Reason is a divinely gifted instrument enabling man to recognize revelation or truth. He can do this because by creation he bears the image of God (Gen. 1:26), and is specially lighted by the divine Logos (John 1:9), so he may intelligibly know, fellowship with, and obey his Maker. The forms of reason and the laws of logic as a creation-endowment survive the fall; apart from them, no intelligible communication, divine or human, would be possible.

 In other words, the faith need not fear entering into the larger marketplace of ideas.  God has given us reason as a gift to recognize, systematize and proclaim divine truth.  Christians assume that there is a God and that the Bible is the Word of God although there are arguments for both, but all disciplines rest on a number of presuppositions including our ability to rely on our senses or the validity of the scientific method, etc. 

 We move to the third of six sections in which Henry unpacks his main thesis tomorrow


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