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Realizing the presence, promise, and power of the Kingdom of God.

Reason in its Place

Submissive to revelation, that is.

Who Says? (5)

“But even Moses showed in the burning bush passage that the dead are raised, when he called the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ For He is not the God of the dead but of the living, for all live to Him.” Luke 20.37, 38

Enter the Sadducees
Early in the period known as the Enlightenment, philosopher Immanuel Kant published a book which captured the intellectual temper of the times and the direction of thinking for the next 200 years. His book was entitled, Religion within the Limits of Reason. Religion is fine, Kant argued, as long as it obeys the tenets of reason.

The Sadducees of Jesus’ day would have heartily approved.

Jesus deflected the challenges of the scribes, priests, and Pharisees three times in Luke 20, leaving them chagrined and silenced. All this must have been great fun for the Sadducees, watching from the sidelines.

We’ve seen this crowd before. The Sadducees prided themselves on not believing in the spiritual world or the resurrection. They were the liberal theologians and rationalist thinkers of their day, believing in God and religion only in terms of what reason and sound thinking could support. We have explored this encounter between them and Jesus previously, but it’s worth revisiting here.

The Sadducees leaned on the authority of reason to try to embarrass Jesus. They were convinced their logic was air-tight, and that Jesus would be reduced to hemming and hawing and looking bad before everyone. Humbled by the power of reason.

Their argument proceeded along these lines: Reason dictates that a wife can only have one husband. Jesus was trapped in one of two ways: If there was such a thing as a resurrection, then this woman was going to be a lawbreaker – an adulteress – and would have to be dealt with accordingly. Further, if she was allowed to have seven husbands in the resurrection, then the resurrection is not a state to be desired, since it sets aside the Law of God.

In the mind of the Sadducees, neither of these courses was reasonable; therefore, the resurrection that Jesus taught was unreasonable and, thus, not true. And so Jesus was not to be relied on because His teaching did not conform to the dictates of reason.

The Sadducees must have whispered “Gotcha!” under their breath as they waited for Jesus’ reply.

Here’s your problem
As we saw in Matthew’s account of this challenge, Jesus began His response by stating flatly, “You are mistaken” (Matt. 22.29). He dared to tell the “most reasonable” people of His day – the paragons of rationality – that they were wrong! And as if that weren’t enough, He told them why: They didn’t know the Scriptures or the power of God.

Ouch! Jesus’ point was that their reasoning in this hypothetical situation might have been accurate except for one thing: It was not submissive to the teaching of God’s Word. Reason outside the bounds of revelation is out of its proper place and will never function as God intends.

God’s Word is a most reasonable Book. God invites us to come to Him and reason with Him over His Word, to use our minds to figure out what God is teaching, so that we can bring our thinking into line with His. But though reason is a rich tool for knowing God and His will, God is not bound by the standards or limitations of human reason, either in Himself or His will (Is. 55.8-11). God’s ways are not our ways, and His plans are not determined according to the tenets of human reason.

The Sadducees’ problem was that they started their challenge in the wrong place, leaning on the wrong authority. They sought to make the Word of God – Jesus – captive to the dictates of human reason. Jesus shrugged them off by explaining, as the Word of God, where they were wrong.

The god of reason
For many people today reason, in whatever form it’s accessible to them, is god. Or, to be more precise, they are god, and reason is their modus operandi. Whatever they need to do, decide, or want, it must “make sense” to them. They must be able to reason their way through to an answer or decision. If the can’t understand something, then it’s just not true, at least, not for them. Whatever wants their endorsement, support, and compliance better make its case in terms they can understand.

Let’s face it: The Gospel won’t comply with those demands. It’s not reasonable, as most folks see it, to think that God should be able to tell them what to do. Or that truth should be anything other than merely personal and relative; that they are sinners in need of God’s grace; that God could become a Man, die on a cross, and rise from the dead; or that He’s coming again and bringing a day of judgment. That just doesn’t make sense to most people.

As Nicholas Wolterstorff showed a few years back in his book, Reason within the Bounds of Religion, such people simply have their authorities backwards. They insist, like the Sadducees (and Kant), that faith must be subject to reason. But, following Jesus, Wolterstorff repudiated Kant and reminded us that all reasoning works within the bounds of some set of beliefs. And if the beliefs are wrong, the conclusions will be wrong as well.

As Paul says, Let God be true and every man a liar (Rom. 3.4). The Gospel does not have to meet the demands of human reason. We must present the Gospel so that reasoning people can understand its claims and demands; but that’s not the same as saying it has to comply with human reason.

So whenever someone challenges the “reasonableness” of the Gospel, or any of the teachings of Scripture, ask them, “Who says? You? On the authority of your own ability to reason things out? Or on someone else’s authority to do so? And how can you be so sure that ‘reason’ is a reliable source for knowing everything we need to know? Who says?”

The Gospel has power, through reason, to redirect reason and lead people to the true knowledge of God. But not if we don’t first challenge and expose the false god of reason who sits enthroned in their minds.

For reflection
1. Why must we submit our powers of reasoning to the revelation of God in Scripture? What does that entail?

2. What did Jesus say was the mistake the Sadducees had made? Do people today still make that mistake? How can we help them?

3. How can you keep your reasoning powers from going awry?

Next steps – Preparation: What do we do to God when we insist that He must be God only in terms of human reason – or science, or philosophy? Talk with a Christian friend about this question.

T. M. Moore

You can download this and all the studies in this series, “Let God Be True,” by clicking here.

A companion book to this study, Understanding the Times, is available at our bookstore. Learn more about this book and order a free copy by clicking here. Our booklet, The Gospel of the Kingdom, can help ready you to proclaim the Good News. Order your free copy by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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