Key Christian Thinkers on Faith and Reason

Compiled and Annotated by David Marshall

The following quotes represent a variety of traditions—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant—and vocations—philosophers, theologians, scientists, reformers, and perhaps the greatest Christian missionary after St. Paul: all of them key Christian thinkers speaking on faith and reason—for those who think that faith is disconnected from good thinking.

Justin Martyr

Reason directs those who are truly pious and philosophical to honour and love only what is true, declining to follow traditional opinions.  (The First Apology):

Justin goes on to give evidence to support his faith, implicitly confirming that faith is backed by evidence.

Clement of Alexandria: Philosophy is “a kind of preparatory training to those who attain to faith through demonstration.” (The Stromata)

Some, who think themselves naturally gifted, do not wish to touch either philosophy or logic; nay more, they do not wish to learn natural science. They demand bare faith alone, as if they wished, without bestowing any care on the vine, straightway to gather clusters from the first . . .

We must lop, dig, bind, and perform the other operations. The pruning-knife, I should think, and the pick-axe, and the other agricultural implements, are necessary for the culture of the vine, so that it may produce eatable fruit. And as in husbandry, so also in medicine . . . So also here, I call him truly learned who brings everything to bear on the truth; so that, from geometry, and music, and grammar, and philosophy itself, culling what is useful, he guards the faith against assault….

Since, therefore, truth is one (for falsehood has ten thousand by-paths); just as the Bacchantes tore asunder the limbs of Pentheus, so the sects both of barbarian and Hellenic philosophy have done with truth, and each vaults as the whole truth the portion which has fallen to its lot. But all, in my opinion, are illuminated by the dawn of Light.

Clement is here referring to Euripides’ play about the King of Thebes. The king having forbidden the worship of Dionysius, the god became angry and drove the women of Thebes mad, till they tore Pentheus to pieces.

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The Gospel is therefore a kind of metanarrative, a fuller model that embraces truth found by many methods, among many schools, in many nations. Clement then inventories the moral and scientific discoveries made by various civilizations and philosophers.

Origen, arguing Contra Celsus:

He next proceeds to recommend, that in adopting opinions we should follow reason and a rational guide, since he who assents to opinions without following this course is very liable to be deceived. And he compares inconsiderate believers to Metragytae, and soothsayers, and Mithrae, and Sabbadians, and to anything else that one may fall in with, and to the phantoms of Hecate, or any other demon or demons. For as amongst such persons are frequently to be found wicked men, who, taking advantage of the ignorance of those who are easily deceived, lead them away whither they will, so also, he says, is the case among Christians. And he asserts that certain persons who do not wish either to give or receive a reason for their belief, keep repeating, “Do not examine, but believe!: and “Your faith will save you!”

Origen replies that most people cannot (or will not) devote themselves so exclusively to the pursuit of truth as to prove faith by philosophy. (In those days, of course, most ordinary people were day-laborers, and illiterate.) Should ordinary people enjoy none of the benefits of truth, especially “amelioration of conduct” and the cure of souls, just because they are unable to establish it rationally?

We admit that we teach those men to believe without reasons, who are unable to abandon all other employments ,and give themselves to an examination of arguments; and our opponents, although they do not acknowledge it, yet practically do the same.

But implicitly, Origen seems to admit that for those who have the time, reason (and evidence) must be employed in proving Christian faith. And of course he does employ both; that is the whole point of his book. He admits that historical proof is intrinsically difficult: “the endeavor to show, with regard to almost any history, however true, that it actually occurred, and to produce an intelligent conception regarding it, is one of the most difficult undertakings that can be attempted, and is in some instances an impossibility.” Precociously, seventeen centuries before the historical Troy would be uncovered, Origen gives the Trojan war as an example: “How should we prove that such was the case, especially under the weight of the fiction attached, I know not . . . ”

However, Origen argues that several lines of evidence and argument (including archeology, miracles, history both secular and Christian, and especially prophecy) do support the historical truths of the Gospel…

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