Introduction: Two Quotes
Consider two quotes with me.
The first comes from philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804):
“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another” ~ Immanuel Kant
The second is from King Solomon:
“Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 26:12).
What we have here are divergent conceptions of human reason. And the more I talk with my fellow Christians, the more I think we need to give some consideration to this topic.
Lend me your ear for a few minutes as we traverse some bumpy terrain.
Kant and Scripture
According to historian W. Andrew Hoffecker, Kant believed that human reason “must not be subservient either willingly or under coercion to any authority outside itself.” For Kant, therefore, genuine freedom demands autonomous reason.
According to the Bible, however, human beings are not only creatures, but also fallen sinners, which means that 1) we are not entitled to autonomous reason, and 2) our reasoning powers have been corrupted—though not destroyed—by the fall. This is why the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 1:7; 9:10; Ps. 111:10).
Living wisely in God’s world means coming to terms with our created and dependent status and offering the entirety of our being to God—heart, soul, mind, and strength. Those wise in their own eyes are fools (Ps. 14:1) not because they lack intellectual capabilities, but because rejecting God results in constructing “a false world within which false gods play their role as securing and validating the very falsity itself.”
Deifying reason leads inexorably to divinizing our own moral standards. Such a scheme results in creating a fantasy world where our reasoning is nothing more than a self-affirming device that enslaves us to a multitude of impieties. Put differently, rejecting God’s revelation is a repudiation of our humanity: “To be a creature is to have one’s being in relation to God, for ‘to be’ is ‘to be in relation’ to the creator, and only so to have life and to act. To be a sinner is to repudiate this relation, and so absolutely to imperil one’s life by seeking to transcend creatureliness and become one’s own origin and one’s own end.”
Or, to quote St. Paul, claiming to be wise, we become fools (Rom. 1:22).
Improper Conceptions of Reason
All this brings us to why thinking properly about the role of human reason is so central to the Christian life.
As you probably know, some people reject Christianity as a whole, or certain Christian doctrines or morals in particular, because they find it/them unreasonable—by which they mean not in keeping with reason.
But construing matters this way betrays an improper conception of reason. For starters, claiming that an assertion is out of step with reason presupposes that reason is an independent source of revelation. We apply our reasoning powers as we read, study, and ponder various topics, but reason is not a source of knowledge. Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) put it memorably: “the intellect is an instrument, not a source.” Reason is the organ, not the fountain of knowledge. We are rational beings, but according to Scripture our rationality must not function autonomously.
Fellow Dutch theologian Gisbertus Voetius (1589–1676) helpfully chimes in by reminding us that human reason is “the receiving subject of faith,” but is not the “principle by which or through which, or else on the ground of which or why we believe, or the foundation, law, or norm of what must be believed.” The reason for this, according to Scripture, is obvious: Unregenerate human reason is not trustworthy because it is “sottishly blind and ignorant” (Jn. 1:5, 9; Rom. 1:21–23; 1 Cor. 1:23, 2:14, 25; Eph. 4:17–18, 5:8). True, the unregenerate can read and comprehend Scripture, but apart from a work of grace, they not only fail to embrace gospel truths but also deny the excellency of such truths and fail to “feed upon them with intense satisfaction.”
Secondly, our thinking is rooted in our being. There is no disembodied reason. We do not have a neutral vantage point by which to contemplate God, life, and morality. And as already indicated, we are sinful creatures who must be cured of “the tumor of pride.” Conclusion? Our innate ideas of God and morality are not neutral. By (fallen) human nature we are “disinclined to the true, the good, and the beautiful.”
Here’s what I’m getting at: Since God is the source and end of all things (Rom. 11:36), we can only properly interpret life and reality through the spectacles of his revelation: “Just as the physical eye cannot see anything unless the sun sheds its rays over it, so neither can we see any truth except in the light of God, which is the sun of our knowledge. God is the light of reason in which, by which, and through which all things shine so as to be intelligible, shine.”
In light of this, we can say that corrupt reasoning manifests itself when it summons God into its court, judges him, finds his revelation wanting, and throws it aside. Additionally, we can also say that God has acted to overthrow our intellectual hostility to his authoritative revelation through his Word and Spirit, and thus heal it by grace.
So, what does this mean for us? I think it means that Christian thinking and living is an ascetical practice. By ascetical I mean that it will involve intellectual repentance and cleansing. Since regeneration does not bring us into a state of perfection, idolatry will remain an ever-present threat in every area of our lives, including our thoughts about God.
Embracing Ascetical Christian Thinking and Living
In Romans 12:2 Paul exhorts Christians: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Central to Christian living is the mind renewal enterprise—the slow and steady process of expunging idolatrous notions of God and replacing them with God honoring thoughts.
Practically, this means we must embrace ascetical Christian thinking and living because the old Adam is in a constant bid for “freedom”—a perverse vision of liberation that amounts to enslavement to that “merciless tyrant” we call Satan. A large part of the Christian life, then, will involve learning that we cannot absolutize our own interpretive criteria and stand in judgment of God’s revelation. As Francis Turretin (1623–1687) wisely observed: “Reason is to be brought into captivity (2 Cor. 10:5) when it exalts itself against Christ and his gospel, but it can be heard when it is obedient and judges from it.”
Embracing Holy Listening and Dependent Prayer
Here’s a glorious but neglected dimension to the good news: God’s redemptive work centers on reordering our loves and healing our ignorance!
The abundant life that Christ came to give us involves acknowledging him as our Creator, humbling receiving his Word, and placing ourselves at his disposal, which entails bringing our lives—including our thought lives!—into accordance with his revealed will.
Carrying out this task faithfully involves the following: We must adopt the disposition of beggars who humbly receive God’s authoritative revelation. Our posture must be prayerful. The location must be the communion of saints—the local church. The ultimate end is the praise of our Triune God.
“Your whole nature must be re-born; your passions, and your affections, and your aims, and your conscience, and your will, must all be bathed in a new element, and reconsecrated to your Maker—and the last not the least, your intellect” ~ John Henry Newman (1801–1890)
 Immanuel Kant, “What Is Enlightenment?” cited in Marcia Baron, “Moral Paragons and the Metaphysics of Morals,” in A Companion to Kant, ed. Graham Bird, Blackwell Companions to Philosophy (Chichester, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 346.
 W. Andrew Hoffecker, “Enlightenments and Awakenings: The Beginning of Modern Culture Wars,” in Revolutions in Worldview: Understanding the Flow of Western Thought, ed. W. Andrew Hoffecker (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R), 265.
 Robin Scroggs, “New Being: Renewed Mind: New Perception,” in The Texts and the Times: New Testament Essays for Today (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1977), 177.
 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1, Prolegomena, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 217.
 Gisbertus Voetius, “The Use of Reason in Matters of Faith,” in Willem van Asselt et. al., Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Heritage Books, 2011), 228, 230.
 Jonathan Edwards, “Natural Men in a Dreadful Condition,” Natural Men in a Dreadful Condition — Jonathan Edwards (biblebb.com) (accessed 14 March 2020).
 Charles Spurgeon, “Natural or Spiritual!” The Spurgeon Library | Natural or Spiritual! (accessed 14 March 2020).
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 367.
 Augustine, The Trinity, trans. Edmund Hill, ed. John E. Rotelle (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2015), 8. 5. 11.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 232.
 Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1992), 1. 9. 14.
 Turretin, Institutes, 1. 10. 7.
 John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, ed. David DeLaura (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968), 191.