Come, Let Us Reason

The God of Christian theism is the Source of Reason. St. John calls the Second Person of the Trinity, the Logos, a Greek term from which we get the word “logic.” Within the greatest commandment is the instruction to “love the Lord your God with all your. . .mind” (Matt 22:37-JB). St. Peter commands believers to “always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you have. But give it with courtesy and respect and with a clear conscience” (I Peter 3:15-16). St. Paul commands the Church in I Thess. 5:21 “to think before you do anything. . .”)

When explaining the Christian faith on Mars Hill, St. Paul shows a better than average knowledge of his opponents’ philosophies and beliefs. In his dispute with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, St. Paul quotes from the Greek poet Epimenides (Acts 17:28a) and from the Phainomena of Aratus (Acts 17:28b), both of which are non-Christian sources. But this was the brilliance of Paul’s apologetic. Taking the time to study and understand the philosophical systems of his intellectual adversaries, Paul sought a common ground with his non-Christian audience so that he could share the Christian story with them.

When answering the “loaded” questions addressed to him, Jesus did not hesitate to dismantle them. Consider this encounter:

Then the Pharisees went away to work out between them how to trap him in what he said. . . .[They asked Jesus:] “Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in all honesty, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you. Give us your opinion, then. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But Jesus was aware of their malice and replied, “You hypocrites! Why are you putting me to the test? Show me the money you pay the tax with.” They handed him a denarius, and he said, “Whose portrait is this? Whose title?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Very well, pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and God what belongs to God.” (Matt 22:15,17-22).

The Pharisees committed the fallacy of false dilemma, which occurs when an argument gives the false impression that either both choices cannot be true at the same time (e.g., “You must be either a student or an athlete.” Why can’t you be both?) or that there is no third option beyond the two options presented (e.g., “If you’re not a Christian, then you’re an atheist.” Why can’t you be a Muslim?).

Paul on Mars Hill

The Pharisees phrased their question in such a way that Jesus had to choose between Caesar and God, making it appear as if both could not be chosen. And, of course, if Jesus had chosen God to the exclusion of Caesar, they would have probably reported him to the Roman government as a revolutionary. And if he had chosen Caesar to the exclusion of God, Jesus would have been rejected by the Jewish people for denying the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But Jesus’ exposure of this fallacy is brilliant. He simply points out that it is not a question of choosing between God and Caesar, but rather giving to the appropriate authority what is due it. After all, a child who obeys a parent’s command to clean his room is not choosing the parent over God. If Caesar were to command his Christian citizens to worship him, however, as if he were God (which did occur later in later Church history), Christian citizens would be justified in disobeying, because such worship is not due Caesar (or any other human being) but only God.

Some Christians will cite Colossians 2:8 as evidence that Christians ought to stay completely away from philosophy and rational argument: “Make sure that no one captivates you with the empty lure of a ‘philosophy’ of the kind that human beings hand on, based on the principles of this world and not on Christ.”

But this passage is no more telling Christians to stay away from philosophy and rational argument than a command to not drink poison is telling Christians not to be pharmacists. That is to say, one cannot discern the difference between bad and good philosophy and/or reasoning without a grasp of the philosophical and logical principles needed to make such a discernment.

The practice of Paul himself on Mars Hill seems to be make this quite clear. As C.S. Lewis once wrote: “To be ignorant and simple now  not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground would be to have thrown down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if no other reasons, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”

Francis J. Beckwith

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).