Christianity and Autonomous Reason: Drawing an Important Distinction

by Sarah Geis

The secular philosophy textbook I use for Introduction to Philosophy classes proclaims that philosophy exercises one’s rational autonomy. Nascent philosophers are told to think critically by thinking for themselves. Some think that this embrace of philosophical autonomy conflicts with Christianity. Christians believe that we are created by and fully dependent upon God, redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus, and we now belong to him. We are not our own; we were bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20). Is Christian faith not then the very antithesis of autonomous reason? If philosophy is, in essence, an exercise in autonomous reason, but the Christian worldview proclaims that we are not autonomous, then how could Christians, in good conscience, be philosophers?

When reading Christian theology, philosophy, and apologetics literature, it is common to see warnings against or critiques of autonomous reason. Some of the most well-known minds in recent years caution against such independent cognition. For example, in his relatively new and brilliant The Doctrine of God, John Frame argues:

And in fact nothing at all can be validated from autonomous reason…such reasoning leads to a rationalist-irrationalist dialectic, which destroys all knowledge. For that pottage, much of the church has forsaken its birthright, God’s personal word (20).***

Although he draws a radically different conclusion than Frame, James K.A. Smith also warns against the idolatry of autonomous reason (Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, 65).

In these sorts of warnings, autonomous reason is usually understood to mean that the reasoner is operating without depending on or acknowledging God. Rationally autonomous individuals believe that human reason is capable of functioning just fine without appealing to God or to his Word. According to many Christians, this sort of thinker places human reason above, or metaphysically prior, to God. In other words, the rationally autonomous individual assumes that he or she is more important, or central, than God. We are alleged to make this mistake each time we place confidence in our ability to reason to the conclusion of or truths about God.

To help clarify this concept of metaphysical priority, we can think of the relationship between a ship and a ship-builder…

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Christianity and Autonomous Reason: Drawing an Important Distinction | Dr. Douglas Groothuis