Reason and revelation
Religion & Liberty Online

Reason and revelation

Here’s what Shakespeare’s Hamlet has to say: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet, 1.V).

To be sure, the immediate cause of Hamlet’s comment is the appearance of the ghost of his father. But it seems right to understand the appearance of the ghostly apparition as intended to be a kind of supernatural revelation. After all, the ghost is making itself known from the depths of Purgatory, “confined to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purged away.”

It might be a profitable exercise to examine the situation of the ghost’s appearance in Hamlet, and to find out if Hamlet was epistemically warranted in his belief that “It is an honest ghost.” But instead, I’d like to juxtapose Hamlet’s quote, applied to Christian theology, against Rodney Stark’s thesis: “While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guide to religious truth.”

And to conclude, here’s a brief quote from Thomas Aquinas on how far reasonable argument will get you in apologetics if the discussants don’t share a belief in the veracity of Scripture (which is accepted by all orthodox Christians as the fundamental vehicle of “religious truth”). In response to the question whether sacred doctrine is a matter of argument Aquinas writes in part:

the inferior sciences neither prove their principles nor dispute with those who deny them, but leave this to a higher science; whereas the highest of them, viz. metaphysics, can dispute with one who denies its principles, if only the opponent will make some concession; but if he concede nothing, it can have no dispute with him, though it can answer his objections. Hence Sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation; thus we can argue with heretics from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith, we can argue from another. If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections—if he has any—against faith. Since faith rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations, but are difficulties that can be answered.

Christianity is fundamentally about faith in revelation and any conception of a faith in reason along the lines of what Stark describes must be secondary and derivative of this foundation.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.