The Relative Provinces of Reason and Revelation

By Cecil Willis

From the time when God interrupted the natural processes of history and intervened by giving a supernatural revelation, there has been an almost endless discussion concerning the potentiality and priorities of reason and revelation. We might even go further and say, not only have there been discussions, but there have been very definite ostensible tensions between reason and revelation.

Man seeks the most reliable standard by which to live. Since man has come to conceive of truth as the best standard of life, much of man’s effort is expended in seeking the proper means of arriving at truth. Every person is compelled to act in accordance with what he thinks is best. In order for a proper criterion of action to be established, the philosophical problem of epistemology must be injected into the discussion. In this article, actually our discussion will revolve around the problem of “how can we know?.” Is it possible for one to derive a pattern of life from the inductive processes of naturalistic logic alone, or should there be a proper proportion of reason and revelation, or must there be an exclusive position taken, relying solely upon revelation for one’s supply of every kind of knowledge? These are the questions we must face.

Inasmuch as this has somewhat been an age-long problem, perhaps the best way to get a general perspective of what has been done toward solving the perplexity may best be by an historical survey of the various positions that have been taken. We shall try to categorize the varying views expressed in the history of this issue.

As one approaches a problem such as this one, he is dealing with the very essence of philosophy. Philosophy is one’s search for knowledge, and knowledge will never come into one’s possession without employment of reason or revelation or both.

Priority of Faith

Virtually in every age, there has been a group of philosophers who have maintained that faith is prior to reason. Revelation has been held to be self-sufficient. In the New Testament period, and immediately following, the Gnostics claimed to have knowledge. Christians also claimed to have knowledge. Their strife was not in their claim, but in the means by which they had arrived at this knowledge. The disciples of Jesus declared that their insight to truth had come to them by revelation of Jesus Christ.1 But the Gnostics rejected divine revelation and claimed to know without God’s word. They knew by reason alone. The book of Colossians is thought to be a reply to the Gnostic heresy, showing that divine truth comes only by revelation from God.

The post-apostolic writers continued to dispute the audacious claims of reason and to assert the necessity of a prior faith. Tertullian, in the seventh chapter of his book, On Prescription Against Heretics, attempts to show the “foolishness” of philosophy. He says that all heresies are instigated by philosophy. The heretics and the philosophers continually discuss the same subject matter. And with blistering irony, Tertullian says:

“Unhappy Aristotle! who invented for these men dialectics, the art of building up and pulling down, an art so jar-fetched in its conjectures, so harsh in its arguments, so productive of contentions-embarrassing even to itself, retracting everything, and really treating of nothing!”2

Tertullian goes on to declare in oratorical style that the man who had the knowledge of the gospel needed nothing else. He was sufficient in Christ. Hear him as he says in the now famous passage:

“What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? Our instruction comes from the porch of Solomon (Acts 3:5) who had himself taught that the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart. (Wisd. 1:1). Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the Gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.”3

But the attitude of Tertullian is perhaps best, reflected in the most famous expression preserved of his writings. In speaking of the Bible teaching of the incarnation and sacrifice of Christ, he said, “It is believable, because it is absurd; it is certain because it is impossible.”4 This statement was in direct contrast with the views expressed by both Clement and Origen, both of whom were members of the church in Alexandria. They said that revelation must be reasonable. Tertullian believed that the individual’s immediate intuition of God is the surest witness to truth he could have-surer even than rational proof and even surer than revelation. For Tertullian held that revelation is to “enlarge the knowledge the soul already possesses.”5

Augustine also held that faith was prior to understanding, but his views were not as exclusive of reason as were Tertullian’s. He held, with Justin Martyr, Clement, and Origen, that there was a fundamental agreement between reason and revelation, but that reason was not capable of arriving at the truth. But reason could agree with the truth once it was declared by revelation.

Prior to Augustine’s “conversion,” he was a Manichean. He was earnestly seeking for a well-founded basis for faith, and to his surprise, found that the truth about God, the evidences for God’s existence, were not understandable by reason alone. The existence of God was not demonstrable, he concluded. Augustine concluded that adequate proof for the existence of God was to be found within each human spirit, whether the individual gave heed to it or not. He, like Tertullian, thought that truth is to be grasped, not by; sense, but by intellectual intuition. Of course, the sensationalists of his day sought to contradict this claim.

Augustine said that one must believe in order to understand. This statement was equally applicable to religious and secular truths. There were many commonly accepted secular truths that were not demonstrable. One could not demonstrate mathematical truth. By reason, one could not conclude seven plus three equal ten. Moral truths were also not demonstrable. How could one demonstrate that one ought to seek wisdom? Nor could his’ epistemological truth, “I think, therefore I am,” be demonstrated. From these instances Augustine concluded that truth is superior to human reason. Reason alone could never grasp truth. So one had to believe in order to receive truth. Augustine said: “Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore seek not to understand that thou mayest believe, but believe that thou mayest understand.”6One had to believe that there was something to be understood before he could seek its understanding. So one had to begin with faith in order to end with understanding, whether this search was for secular or religious truth. Yet in this kind of system, faith was prior.

It is difficult to classify Anselm in the categories we have set up to follow in the writing of this article. In a very real sense, he is an Augustinian. He speaks the language of Augustine. But in another sense he is a Thomist. Hence we shall refer to him under both headings. Almost repetitious of Augustine’s sentiments, Anselm said:

“I do not endeavor,’ O Lord, to penetrate thy sublimity for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree thy truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, that unless I believed; I should not `understand.”7

Augustinians may not all say the same thing, but at least they have one thing in common; they all assert the priority of faith over reason.

Revelation Supplements Reason

The next category of thinkers we are considering in the discussion of the specific provinces of reason and revelation is that of those who say revelation supplements reason. These individuals hold that there are certain spiritual truths that are capable of logical demonstration separate and apart from revelation. They are mediators between the preceding category and the succeeding one. But while holding that some truths are logically demonstrable, they also believed that there were many which were not. So in order for all truth to be given, God had to inform man by revelation of those truths which man was unable to arrive at by demonstration.

As we had just mentioned Anselm in the preceding section, it is appropriate that we begin with him in this division, as we asserted he could be classified under both headings. How Anselm would harmonize this contradiction in his position I am not sure, but we shall try accurately to state what he said. While Anselm had so plainly stated that one could not understand without first believing, he also said that without the presuppositions of faith, he could demonstrate the existence of God. In the famous “ontological proof,” he purported to give a purely logical demonstration of the existence of God. This proof would exist within the individual mind, if it is demonstrable, whether there was a divine revelation or not. Anselm was so encouraged by, the ease with which he had demonstrated God’s existence, he went on to demonstrate other Bible doctrines, or at least he thought he had. In his Monologium and Proslogium, he “proved” that God was a Trinity of Divine, Persons by “conclusive dialectical arguments.” And in his Cur Deus homo, he sets forth his rational proof necessitating the incarnation of Christ. The incarnation occurred because it was logically necessary. It could have been no other way, without disproving the validity of logic. Anselm , says he,

Aleaving Christ out of view, as if nothing had ever been known of Him, proves, by necessary reasons, the impossibility that any man should be saved without Him. Again, in the second book, likewise as if nothing were known of Christ, it is moreover shown as no less patent rational truth, that human nature` was ordained for that purpose, viz. that some time the whole man should enjoy a happy.immortality, both in body and in soul, and that it was necessary that this design for which man was made should be fulfilled;’ but that it could not be fulfilled unless God became man, so that all things which we hold with regard to Christ had necessarily to take place.”8

Others of this clan took a milder or lessened view of the capabilities of a rationalism to declare the teachings of God’s Word. Yet all considered under this heading felt that some of the teachings of the Scriptures could have been discovered by reason alone.

Should one select a classic writer as being representative of this system of thought, certainly he must choose the now official philosopher of the Roman Catholic Church, “St. Thomas” of Aquinas. He is an excellent example of one who held this empirical theological epistemology. He maintained that he began with the sum of his sense impressions and from these concepts could prove that God existed.

Thomas said: “It seems that the existence of God is selfevident. Now those things are said to be self-evident to us the knowledge of which is naturally implanted in us, as we can see in regard to first principles. But as Damascene said, the knowledge of God is naturally inplanted in all. Therefore the existence of God is self-evident.” 9 Thomas meant; by this natural knowledge that is implanted in us, that we have the inherent qualities that enable us to know Him. He stated it this way: “To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature.”l0

However, to the credit of Thomas, it should be noted that he said sense impressions and natural intuition enable man to know God only in “general and confused way.” “From effects not proportionate to the cause no perfect knowledge of that cause can be obtained. Yet from every effect the existence of the cause can be clearly demonstrated, so we can demonstrate the existence of God from His effects; though from them we cannot perfectly know God as he is in His essence.”11

Even though Thomas realized reason alone was not enough, yet he did feel that his famous five-fold proof constituted a demonstration of God’s existence, and that these proofs were not dependent upon divine revelation for their support. This approach has come to be set aside as inadequate by many modern apologists. With the insight which he had received from revelation, ;Thomas, and others set out to view nature to reach certain conclusions. But after reaching the destination, they then turn back, pleading pure empiricism. Aristotle, studied nature, and from it could only detect an impersonal Unmoved Mover. Do modern Thomists have any more insight into nature, or did they have access to more data than did the ancient Philosopher? But Aarmed with the conviction that the Trinity is the true God, Thomas had no difficulty re-introducing into the system of Aristotle such notions as divine creation, exemplarism, and providence. The very eagerness which Thomas evinced to renovate Aristotle is glaring proof that he anticipated nature with a God that he found by other than empirical means” 12 As another critic of Thomas said: “Thomas and others, coming to the universe on revelational assumptions, could find God written in every area of it; there is more significance than usually thought in the statement that only a Christian could have framed the five-fold proof.” 13 But as this article does not intend to be a critique of the various views, but merely a chronicler of them, we must proceed.

Philosophers and theologians who have held that part of God’s revealed truths could be grasped by natural reason alone have lived in almost every age. All have given way to the prominence of Thomas, so with him, we will close this category of our discussion.

Priority of Reason

Our review has been progressive. We observed the system which says revelation is the only means of arriving at truth. Next we noticed those who taught that some revealed truth could be derived by reason. Now we are ready to consider the period or class of thinkers who are pure rationalists. They attempt to live within the limits of reason alone. This is an exclusive attitude as it feels no need for revelation.

The roots of this modern philosophical disposition reach far back into history. It had its inception in Arabic philosophy. The early proponent of this movement was Averroes. He felt that absolute truth was to be derived, not from any given revelation, but from reason. And to him, reason had become personified, in the person of Aristotle. Any doctrine that could not be gained from a perusal of Aristotle’s dissertations could hardly be germane to the philosophers.

Averroes believed that all truth could be given to mankind by the exploitation of logic. But if all truth could be arrived at by this system of rationalism, why was there any need for revelation at all? To this Averroes replied by stating that different individuals have varying capabilities. Not every man is a philosopher. Not every man is capable of following logic to its end. But every man does need truth by which to pattern his life.. So to Averroes, the Scriptures are not given to be of benefit to the philosopher, for he could know all they say before they were given, but the Scriptures were given for the unphilosophically inclined beings. So that actually, there could be no conflict whatever between reason and revelation. If ever there should be a contradiction, the harmony must certainly lie in correction of an illogical process, or ruling out a pseudo-revelation. This disposition to harmonize reason and revelation is exemplified in Averroes’ book, The Agreement of Religion and Philosophy.

Every rationalistic philosopher since Averroes has essentially followed in his steps, for this is rationalism by definition. It is the conviction that one can arrive at truth without relying upon a supernatural revelation. And it can be said that genuine rationalists must believe in the essential agreement between reason and revelation. They must conclude that what is true in a revelation is in agreement with the truth deduced by reason. And Christians would agree that what truth can be logically deduced by reason would be in agreement with supernatural revelation. The issue is whether any proposition is to be accepted which is not capable of logical demonstration, but whose veracity is totally dependent upon the authenticity of revelation.

Reason Examines Revelation

No one doubts that there is a definite relation to be sustained between reason and revelation. The medieval and modern theologians and rationalists recognize there is a sphere of relation between the two. But the problem has been that of ascertaining the proper province and limitation of both.

the Bible is given is to tell man how to be saved. So one can rightfully say that the Bible has limitations in the areas of knowledge it uncovers. It is a Book of spiritual truths, and one would make a mistake to accept it as a text-book in mathematics.

At the same time, one must realize that reason has certain boundaries set for it, beyond which it cannot go on its own power. It is admitted that many of the facts of life and science can be discovered by naturalistic reason, but at the same time, one can never logically proceed to spiritual truths. If there is any truth at all in revelation, it plainly is the truth that the Scriptures furnish the Christian completely to every good work. 14 The apostle Peter goes on to state that the knowledge one receives through the revelation of Jesus Christ provides one with “all things that pertain to life and godliness.” 15 The Scriptures teach that the truths given to us by God are adequate to guide one from earth to heaven, if man will but follow them. This fact must be accepted by reason, or else reason must contradict it, by asserting that the whole of revelation may be discarded, leaving man to stumble through life and toward Judgment on what light can be shed forth by one’s immediate intuition and logic.

However, if one admits that God’s revelation to man is adequate to do that for which God gave it, namely, give man instruction as to how to obtain remission of sins, and an entrance into heaven, then he is faced with the question of declaring the utility of rationalism at all. For if rationalism is not to be used to the exclusion of revelation, and even if it should be admitted that rationalism could arrive at some spiritual truths, yet if one admits the adequacy of the Scriptures, rationalism could therefore arrive at no truth than those already expressed by divine fiat. And if rationalism simply reiterates what God has already said, it can give no additional light.

Reason must be applied to revelation. Man is not to be expected gullibly to accept every claimed supernatural revelation, else the contradictions between the “revelations” would rule out the supernatural element altogether from these revelations, leaving nothing but books of contradictions. Contradiction is not the quality of God, but of man. Man just decide upon the origin of revelation by evidence. It would be irrational to attempt to decide the origin of a given “revelation” by that revelation itself. To do so would be to argue circumlocutiously. One cannot get assent of his reasoning faculties to submit to a divine oracle, unless he is satisfied it is indeed a divine oracle. So when one investigates the Scriptures to determine whether they are the product of man or God, reason is examining the Scriptures. If the “revelation” is found to be the product of fallible man, without supernatural guidance, it should be discarded as a supernatural revelation, and should be placed in the library of human products. But if one’s investigation leads him to the conclusion that the work being investigated is the work of God, it should be read accordingly.

Revelation does not pretend to reveal all knowledge. The Scriptures do not teach there is nothing that man can learn that is not revealed in the Scriptures. There are many fields of knowledge that the Bible leaves wide open to the investigation of the scientific man. It is not the purpose of the Bible to give us a wealth of information on geography, astronomy, history, linguistics, etc., but the reason for which

A little over a century ago, Brother Robert Milligan published a book entitled, Reason and Revelation. In this work he stated some of the provinces of reason in matters pertaining to divine revelation. He said these provinces are: (1) Decide on the origin of the Bible (pp. 15-153); (2) Decide on the canon of the Scriptures (pp. 154-212); (3) Decide on the integrity of the Scriptures (pp. 213-346); (4) Decide on the Inspiration of the Holy Scriptures (p. 271); (5) Decide on the proper theory of inspiration (p. 271); (6) Decide on and apply the proper rules of exegesis (p. 286 ff.); (7) Acquiesence to whatever God has revealed.

Reason should be used to decide the origin of the Scriptures. If then, the revelation is concluded to be a divine revelation, then the fullest extent of one’s mental ability should be employed in seeking to grasp what God has said, and the whole of man’s will should be consumed in applying what God has commanded to one’s life.

A captain a battle field may receive a message claiming to have been sent by his general. The captain must decide whether it really came from the general or not. If his decision is affirmative, it therefore becomes the duty of the lesser officer to submit humbly to what his superior says. If man’s infinite Superior speaks, man must listen, and obey.


1. Galatians 1:12; 1 Corinthians 2:13.

2. Tertullian, On Prescription Against Heretics, Ch. VII.

3. Obid. Ch. VII.

4. Tertullian, De Carne Christi. 5

5. Fuller, History of Philosophy, pp. 351, 352.

6. Augustine. On the Gospel of Saint John, xxix, 6.

7. Quoted in Gilson, Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages, p. 24.

8. Anselm, Cur Deus homo, Preface.

9. Thomas, Summa, I Q.Z, A 1.

10. Loc. Cit.

11. Thomas, Op. Cit. 1. Q.Z, A. 2.

12. Carnell, An Introduction to Christian Apologetics, p. 132.

13. Henry, Remaking the Modern Mind, p. 231.

14. 2 Tim. 3:16, 17.

15. 2 Peter 1:3, 4.


Augustine, On the Gospel of Saint John, xxix, 6; in Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages. Gilson, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1938, p. 19.

Casserly; J. V. Langmead. The Christian in Philosophy, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951.

Carnell, Edward J., An Introduction to Christian Apologetics, Third Ed., Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1950.

Fuller, B. A. G., A History of Philosophy, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1959.

Gilson, Etienne, Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1938.

______ The Unity of Philosophical Experience. New York, Scribner’s Sons, 1952.

Henry, Carl F. H., Remaking the Modern Mind, Second Ed., Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1952.

Milligan, Robert, Reason and Revelation, Cincinnati, R. W. Carroll & Co., Publishers, 1868.

Anselm. Cur Deus homo. Preface, S. N. Deane’s translation, pp. 178, 179.

Tertullian, On Prescription Against Heretics, Ch. VII; in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Buffalo, 1887, vol. 3, p. 246.

Truth Magazine, XVIII:8, p. 3-7
December 20, 1973