Thursday, December 25, 2008

Does the Triune God Transcend Reason?

A goodly number of Trinitarians have contended that the Trinity doctrine cannot be conclusively demonstrated by rational thought because it is above reason or transrational. Now assuming that God is triune and God as such transcends reason, then it would seem to follow logically that the triune God (if he exists) would also transcend reason (i.e. the law of transitivity). Therefore, one question that seemingly needs to be addressed is whether God in se is transrational or "metarational."

To briefly address some of these issues, I will admit from the outset that there has long been a tension concerning the proper relationship between faith and reason. Certain thinkers have contended that God or his dealings with humanity are not amenable to reason. There is also the famous axiom in theology that God may be apprehended, but he cannot be comprehended. And even a rigorous theologian like Duns Scotus ultimately argues that when reason leads us to a place where faith does not, we should let faith take precedence over reason.

However, it cannot be the case that God utterly transcends reason. This suggestion is nonsensical and patently false in the light of church history and Scripture. For example, Tertullian writes:

Reason, in fact, is a thing [property] of God, inasmuch as there is nothing which God the Maker of all has not provided, disposed, ordained by reason-nothing which He has not willed should be handled and understood by reason (De Paen 1).

The Latin text reads:
Ceterum a ratione eius tantum absunt quantum ab ipso rationis auctore. Quippe res dei ratio quia deus omnium conditor nihil non ratione providit disposuit ordinavit nihilque non ratione tractari intellegique voluit.

And Origen of Alexandria (in opposition to Celsus) maintains that humans are able to comprehend or describe God in the sense that familiarity with divine attributes may conceivably guide one who heeds God's truth toward a partial knowledge and understanding of the deity:
But if you take the phrase to mean that it is possible to represent by words something of God's attributes, in order to lead the hearer by the hand, as it were, and so enable him to comprehend something of God, so far as attainable by human nature, then there is no absurdity in saying that 'He can be described by name.'

See Contra Celsum 6.65ff.

Origen affirms that there is a sense in which rational creatures are able to describe or comprehend God. Such comprehension is not exhaustive but relative (i.e. to a degree). Therefore, the often heard maxim "God may be apprehended, but not comprehended" probably needs to be qualified. Origen indicates that rational creatures are able to describe or comprehend God—to an extent.

Finally, from the ecclesiastical history perspective, it seems that Richard of St. Victor (a Medieval theologian) makes a critical distinction between a doctrine being "above reason" and a doctrine being "beyond reason." He seems to apply both distinctions to the Trinity doctrine, even implying that the doctrine of God's triunity seems contrary to reason. However, Richard of St. Victor qualifies his remarks by writing that "almost all the things that we are commanded to believe about the Trinity of persons" are above or seem contrary to reason. The qualifier "almost" is not without importance since Richard himself posits a natural proof for God's triunity on the basis of love, a rational demonstration which resembles Augustine's attempt to show the reasonableness of the Trinity doctrine. But Richard's rational proof continued to be tethered to the Church. That is, it probably cannot be sustained rationally apart from that Trinitarian legacy which has been handed down by various and sundry ecclesiastics. See,M1

The point of the preceding data has been to show that it is untenable to hold that God in se completely transcends reason. And I believe that this point is not only sustained by examining church history, but Scripture also indicates that God does not utterly transcend reason. See 1 John 5:20. For comments on the potential meaning of dianoia in 1 John 5:20, see,M1

In closing this blog entry, I leave my readers with a thought from John Locke:
Nothing that is contrary to, and inconsistent with, the clear and self-evident dictates of reason, has a right to be urged or assented to as a matter of faith.


Memra said...

"But the wisdom from above is...reasonable." (Jas. 3:17, NASB, ect.)

Likewise, any truly divine teaching should be open to reason. If the doctrine of the Trinity is irrational, its divine origin is called into question.

Edgar Foster said...

I appreciate you bringing James 3:17 into the discussion. That is an excellent point. Here is something I also researched some time ago:

The NWT translates EPIEIKHS in James 3:17 as "reasonable." The RSV has "gentle."

(1) But Ralph Earle writes:

"This is not the usual word for 'gentle.' It is EPIEIKHS. J.B. Mayor says that Thucydides used it of men 'who would listen to reason' (p. 131). So it may be translated 'reasonable,' or 'considerate' (NIV)."

See Word Meanings in the NT, page 434-435.

(2) Moreover, we read:

"EPIEIKHS . . . not insisting on every right of letter
of law or custom, yielding, gentle, kind, courteous,
tolerant . . ." (BDAG, page 371).

(3) From Abbott-Smith's Manual Greek Lexicon of the
New Testament (page 169):

"EPIEIKHS, ES . . . 1. seemly, fitting (Hom.). 2. equitable, fair, moderate: 1 Ti 3:3, Tit 3:2, 1 Pe 2:18, Ja 3:17; TO E. (Thuc., 1.76), Phil 4:5 (cf. Mayor, Ja, 1.c, and v.s. EPIEIKIA).

Anonymous said...

I agree with the thoughts from Memra. I don't see any need for God to be unreasonable in explain himself. When he stated that we cannot see his face, he reasonably said " and live ". Humans were not designed by him to look at him,it is not unreasonable for him to tell us that.
Really it is the unreasonableness of men that make it so that we continually have to put up with the doctrine of the trinity.