The Enlightenment brought with it an understanding of the role of human reason that prevailed until the rise of postmodernism. The appointment of reason as the ultimate judge in the search for truth was a rejection of any external authority, including the authority of Scripture. Reason was used to determine the extent to which the Bible was a reliable expression of true events and ideas. This understanding of the role of reason became a cardinal presupposition in the historical-critical approach to Scripture. Its role in hermeneutics—in the study of the interpretation of Scripture—was to subject the Bible to rigid and scientific scrutiny so that reason could establish the reliability and dependability of its content. Although postmodernism has established the limits and questioned the reliability of reason in the search for ultimate truth, it is still captive to reason. It cannot be any other way because reason remains with us, and we cannot function in its absence.
Reason and Scripture
Defining reason. One of the challenges we face as we approach this topic is defining the term reason. Surprisingly, philosophers have not been able to produce a generally accepted definition for it. We do find an abundance of definitions because every person who deals with the subject brings to it his or her own definition. But what reason is remains elusive to human thinking. In other words, reason cannot fully understand itself. This should have alerted us to the serious limits of human reason and to the dangers of claiming it as authority.
Some aspects of the understanding of reason, however, are generally accepted. Whatever it may be, reason certainly consists of being able to establish connections between objects or concepts or ideas to draw logical judgments or conclusions from those connections and thus increase knowledge and/or understanding. We will use this broad view of reason as our working definition.
The biblical view of reason. The Bible assumes that humans possess what we call “reason.” This is a given in the biblical understanding of human nature, and there is no need to spend much time demonstrating the obvious. A few comments will suffice. In the Old Testament, every human activity assumes the human capacity to think, to reason, and to draw conclusions (e.g., constructing buildings, defining military strategies, doing business, engaging in legal debates, and royal administration). Rationality is an intrinsic aspect of being human. In the New Testament, reasoning is fundamental in theological arguments as well as in materials relating to ethics. It is in the wisdom literature that the role of reason becomes more prominent.
The sages also observed human activities and interpreted such behavior in terms of its results. A well-known case is recorded in Proverbs 24:30 to 34. The sage passed by the field of the sluggard and observes the deteriorated condition of his vineyard (observed the phenomenon). Then, he applied his heart to what he had observed (rationally analyzed the phenomenon) and “learned a lesson” from what he saw (drew conclusions). He is now observing human behavior and drawing conclusions from it. In all of this, reason was integral.
Reason as a Hermeneutical Tool/Faculty: General Observations
As we explore this topic in the light of Christian thinking, some basic biblical assumptions must be clarified. But they are more than assumptions, being grounded on the biblical understanding of reason and its role in seeking understanding.
Epistemic ground of reason. Reason needs an epistemic ground—an understanding of the meaning of knowledge and knowing—to be activated. It does not create knowledge by itself. An epistemic ground would not be necessary if reason was considered to be fully autonomous and self-creative, as in the classic view of reason. In that case, reason would be a center for unreal, imaginary thoughts and images totally detached from the concrete realities within which the possessor of reason exists. In that scenario, reason becomes irrational. From a biblical perspective, the judgments and conclusions arrived at through rational analysis are always a response to something “given” to the thinking person. There is an objective reality to which reason is applied, and with which it interacts through analysis and logical thinking.
This thinking God, who created objective realities in a systematic and orderly way, also created human beings in His own image. The presence of that image in humans should not be circumscribed to human rationality, but it certainly includes it. Humans participated in God’s ratio. This made it possible for them to interact with the Creator in meaningful ways. They could respond to His word with their own word and rest with Him participating in His own rest. That rationality allowed for a deeper understanding of God and of themselves as they interacted with one another.
Use of Reason in Biblical Interpretation
How, then, should reason function in biblical interpretation? Where does the interpretational process begin? It should be made clear that it is the whole person who is seeking to interpret the Scripture and not just one of his or her faculties. This means that the intellectual, the emotional, and the spiritual dimensions of the person are involved in the hermeneutical task. However, it seems to be the function of reason to establish connections, to organize ideas in a logical sequence, and to draw conclusions in an effort to gain or increase understanding. There are several important elements in the task of the interpretation of Scripture.
A starting point. Our brief discussion of the biblical literature revealed that the use of reason was particularly emphasized in the wisdom literature. It would be good to begin where the sages began. Their search for knowledge led them to observe nature and human interaction, but this took place within a very particular frame of reference. They explicitly mentioned it: “‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’” (Prov. 9:10). This was their point of departure, the launching platform for rational analysis. This was not simply a fundamental assumption but an experiential grounding. Although the phrase “‘fear of the Lord’” could express different ideas, in the case of the sages the emphasis is on commitment to the Lord. The term beginning is to be understood as the point of departure. It is what “enables a man [person] to acquire wisdom; it trains him [her] for wisdom.”5
The Scripture as the epistemic ground of reason. For the sages, the Lord whose fear is the beginning of wisdom is Yahweh, the Creator and Redeemer of Israel. The New Testament is going to identify Him with the incarnated Logos. The knowledge of this particular God is not the result of natural theology or an intuitive outburst of knowledge. This is the God who revealed Himself to the patriarchs, to Moses, to the prophets of Israel, and who finally spoke to us through His Son and His apostles. This body of knowledge, preserved for us in written form, provides the epistemic ground necessary for reason to function and find healing. How should reason deal with this body of knowledge? The whole field of hermeneutics is an attempt to clarify how reason should go about the tasks of interpreting the Scripture.
This suggests that reason is subservient to revelation. The interpreter must immerse himself or herself in the Scripture. It is after gaining a substantial knowledge of the message of the Scripture that reason is able to establish conceptual connections, to logically organize them, and to arrive at conclusions that contribute to the increase of the understanding of the Scripture. It must be clarified that throughout this process, reason is in dialogue with the biblical text, but what it seeks is to understand it on its own terms. Therefore, reason is in the process open to correction (1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Tim. 3:16). The biblical epistemic ground considers reason as a gift, and reason does not have the right to alter it. Reason submits to it; and in doing this, the healing process begins.
Reason’s self-awareness of its limitations. Since the Scripture testifies to the self-corrupting nature of reason, it is important for reason to recognize its own limitations and its need for guidance as it approaches God’s self-revelation in nature and Scripture. This requires from reason a spirit of humility in that it recognizes that for it to operate as effectively as possible, it has to depend on the Lord, its Creator. It is a well-known fact that the interpreter does not approach the object of interpretation (in this case, the Bible), as a tabula rasa—free from preconceptions or preunderstandings. In the formulation of preconceptions, reason is fully involved; and therefore, there is a personal commitment to them, a sense of ownership. One of the roles of Scripture is to challenge and correct preunderstandings and assumptions that reason may have brought to the text based on a different epistemic model.
At this point in the hermeneutical task, the searcher becomes, through the work of the Spirit, the object of analysis of the text. When a person exposes himself or herself to the text, the Spirit is able to convict him or her and to lead that person to all truth (John 14:26). Paul wrote: “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).
Without the assistance of the Spirit, we could not properly understand the Bible. The teaching role of the Spirit is the continuation of the teaching ministry of Jesus (John 14:26). Through Him, the mind is illuminated and prepared to find in the Scripture God’s self-revelation, and the Word becomes the living word of God. Word and Spirit cannot be separated from each other because in the Scripture, we confront the mystery of the work of the Spirit. He revealed the Word to the prophets and inspired them to preserve it. Therefore, they cannot coexist in a state of conflict. In the hands of the Spirit, the Word becomes the sword of God that penetrates deep into our beings and frees us from our bondage and spiritual darkness, delivering us into the glorious light of the Son of God (Eph. 6:17; Heb. 4:12). When the Spirit comes to us, there is an encounter, which can produce intellectual and spiritual dissonance, thus inviting reason to re-examine its preconceptions and to surrender them. This is possible to the extent that reason is willing to acknowledge its limitations and to reject any claim to autonomy. Without this inner attitude, the role of reason in biblical interpretation will be distorted from the very beginning.
Proper methodology. How does the Spirit guide us in the interpretation of the Scripture? Does He ignore our rationality? The study of the Bible is both an intellectual experience and a spiritual one. The Spirit uses the tool we have—reason—in the interpretation of the Scripture. We are back to the question of method/hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is an attempt to establish a proper methodology for the study of the Bible. Since in the study of the Scripture, the whole person is involved as an emotional and a rational being, methodology becomes indispensable for reason to preserve objectivity. It also enables others to test the results of the methodology applied to the text.
If the epistemic ground for reason is the Scriptures, then it is important for reason to draw its methodology from the text itself. The knowledge found in the text presupposes that the writers encoded their message in a particular way and that they expected the readers to be able to decode the message through the use of certain principles suggested by the text itself. One of the tasks of reason is to find the precise principles that will make it possible for it to understand Scripture from within the Scripture itself. At every step, reason is to remain in subjection to the text and willing to refine the methodology as the understanding of the text increases. This perhaps could be also called the hermeneutical spiral, according to which there is a dynamic interaction between the understanding of the whole and the interpretation of its parts through a back-and-forth movement.
A biblical hermeneutic has to be built out of the Scripture itself. This is one of the most difficult challenges that the interpreter, as a rational entity, faces. This refers to the Protestant principle of sola scriptura. Once the Bible is accepted as the epistemic ground from which reason is expected to operate, then, sola scriptura becomes an indispensable methodological principle. This principle assumes the unity of the Scripture, which by itself witnesses to the intelligibility of the biblical text. In other words, the unity of the Bible is an expression of its inner order and rationality. Since the ultimate author is God in His self-revelation, rational human beings may interact with the Giver of rationality through a text that mediates His message in a rationally appealing way. Human reason is in dialogue with this revealed rationality, listening to it and being in subjection to it.
Reason and the self-interpretation of Scripture. Is reason the creator of meaning? Postmodernism has argued that texts do not have intrinsic meaning but that readers imbue the text with meaning. In that case, reason works on a text and creates meaning. This assumes a high view of reason and places it above the text as its master. In the case of the biblical text, Christians have always assumed that God speaks to us through it. The divine speech is meaningful in itself and through the medium of words it reaches us as rational beings. If that is the case, then the meaning of the Scripture is contained within itself and is not created by reason. Reason is confronted by it and challenged to submit to it in humility and self-dependence.
Reason as an evaluative tool. It appears to be the role of reason not only to uncover the meaning of the text but also to express its content in a logical and systematic way. In that task, the Bible will continue to provide the epistemic foundation for the interpreter. This means that the main categories of thought in the theological system that is being developed are to be provided by the text and are not to be imported from other epistemic centers. In fact, when entering into a dialogue with other systems, reason becomes an evaluative tool and assumes a critical function based on the knowledge of the content of the biblical text. The scriptural worldview is now to be employed by reason to deconstruct other alternatives (2 Cor. 10:3–5; Acts 17:16–34). Among those alternatives are found modern and postmodern approaches to science and philosophy. These are usually developed in the absence of the principle of the fear of the Lord and are independent from the Scripture. In other words, very often the epistemic ground for the study of science and philosophy is reason detached from its Creator and in a state of autonomy. The critical function of reason that we are referring to is not the one assigned to it by the Enlightenment and that assumes the self-sufficiency of reason, but the one assigned to it by the Scripture under the illumination of the Spirit and that requires humility and submission. Reason, enlightened by the Spirit and grounded in the Scripture, becomes a powerful tool in decoding the natural world.
God, as a rational being, created rational intelligent beings and an intelligible cosmos. The presence of sin and evil in the cosmos impacted reason to the point that unaided by God, it would not be able to properly interpret itself and the context within which it functions. The Bible recognizes the importance of reason and the need to use it as a God-given faculty that through observation, conceptual connections, and analysis could increase our knowledge and understanding of ourselves, nature, and God. But this is to take place on the epistemic ground provided by God’s self-revelation as preserved in the Scripture. By building on that fertile ground, reason begins its healing process in humility and commitment to its Creator—what the sages called the fear of the Lord. The interaction of reason and Scripture, under the illumination of the Spirit, acknowledges the foundational function of sola scriptura, the unity of the Bible, and the need to allow it to interpret itself. Using the Bible as its epistemic foundation, reason can function as a critical tool in seeking to understand other fields of knowledge.
Ángel Manuel Rodríguez, Th.D, is the former Director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh‑day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES