Sherif Gergis recently provided his perspective on “Reason and Revelation: Why Christians Need Philosophy”. In his piece he addresses the problem of national morality and social change with respect to the Christian world view. To accomplish this he asked three questions. First he addresses the nature of philosophy and “whether moral philosophizing (including natural-law reasoning) can have autonomy from religion.” Second he asks what is “the social value of philosophy, especially of natural-law arguments for traditional morals” since the momentum of the progressive changes to our society seem to go on without end. His third question becomes more practical as he inquires about “the rational case for marriage.” One must wonder, he thinks, if society is even able to understand the traditional arguments, or whether this target is the wrong target for the aim of the church.
This piece represents the first of his three articles. In this first article he wishes to show that Christianity depends upon natural law to account for marriage. By doing so he intends to show that, as important as revelation may be, revelation depends upon reason for both its application and even its substance. In the case of marriage, while employing some other matters of Biblical concern as support, he argues that reason and natural law are sufficient ground for supporting traditional marriage. In this argument revelation plays a supporting role.
While I share some of the same concerns about declining social morality I do not believe his piece is sufficient to accomplish its goal. The subjugation of revelation to reason leaves the Christian with reason as his foundation and revelation existing merely as a support system to reason.
The first question that I have is how we find truth. Do we find truth through reason or is reason a tool to help in understanding and applying revelation? Mr. Gergis sets up the relationship here:
“Revelation is inevitably and continuously thought out by being received and handed on. That is why the Church herself needs moral reasoning. Revelation certainly sheds light on moral reasoning, but there are also theological reasons to appeal to natural reason—and to think that it has its own axioms and appeal prior to revelation.”
His first point, the first two sentences, is that we gain greater understanding of revelation through reason as we seek to know the mind of God. With that there is no argument. But he takes a step too far in suggesting that “revelation … sheds light on moral reasoning.” No. The opposite is the proper relationship. Reason, as he stated initially, should open doors to help us understand revelation. By doing this Mr. Gergis sends revealed revelation to the back of the bus. Reason now “has its own axioms and appeal prior to revelation.” Reason comes first; revelation second.
This is a theological danger. What reason? To what natural reason is he appealing? Is he appealing to a natural reason from Europe that was historically influenced by Christian morality? Is this not arbitrary? Is it not just as legitimate to appeal to a reason which is decided by a dialectical or evolutionary structure? When one is arbitrary then the choices are open and we have little if any ground to criticize the emergent and postmoderns for their compromises. We might suggest that they have forsaken tradition. But if tradition holds its place because of the arbitrary decisions of the past, what foundation does it have for today?
This brings us to Mr. Gergis’ understanding of the relationship of philosophy and theology. One the one hand he is correct when he says that “to apply a commandment to new cases, we need to know its rationale.” Philosophy can be great tool to reaching application of principles. He notes, for instance that “only good moral reasoning can tell us that the manufacture of children in vitro mocks” the commands found in revelation. We would agree here that philosophy does not maintain its own morality apart from revealed truth but instead serves as a tool to help clarify and apply truth.
The difference comes when philosophy is able to establish its own “’natural’ grounds for moral principles” apart from revelation. That is a problem. It is at this point Mr. Gergis seems to have changed the scope of philosophical concerns. Philosophy as a clarifier of truth has become philosophy as the source for truth. To make this leap he appeals to the Good Samaritan parable and claims that it is the clarification of a moral truth by an appeal to reason. It takes little exegetical expertise to see that the parable was not a “thought experiment” but an application of Lev. 19:18 and Deut. 6:5. Mr. Gergis defeated his own argument.
As Mr. Gergis concludes his defense of marriage on natural ground he says that “revelation relies on marriage, of which we naturally know something, to tell us about the supernatural, of which we know less.” Again the same structure unfolds. We know from Ephesians 5 that marriage is a type of God’s relationship with humanity. Revelation shows us something that reason may not. Reason may not expose the supernatural for reason is temporal.
We now live at the end of a changing world system. Christendom is gone. The dominance of the Christian worldview has long ago passed. Christian political influence is minimal at best. Those who attempt to argue to re-establish Christian dominance in the world of public ethics and policy would do well to remember that a magisterial reformation is no change to the heart. People are moved by those things which appear most important to them. This is the fruit of evangelism; it is not the fruit of public policy.