Knowledge of our Christian Faith covers at least four basic topics:
- Reason – the use of our mind to think about God and other spiritual matters
- Revelation - God showing Himself to us
- Experience - our sensory experience of the world we live in
- Faith - our belief in God expressed through our confession in word and life
Any attempt to communicate in word or deed necessarily involves an expectation that the mind is capable of understanding what is being communicated. Our beliefs need to be understood in order to increase our faith and demonstrate its truth. We believe and our reasoning will help us to understand. We have the Scriptural exhortations to “Come now, let us reason together” (Isa. 1:18) and to “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet. 3:15).
Reason is part of God's nature and the eternal order of the universe He created. We bear the image of God and in spite of sin resultant from the Fall of Man we still have the God created human potential of reason operating in us. This is evident in the life of Jesus
Christ and the enlightenment of reason available to us through the Holy Spirit. We do not reason our way to God. Reason works together with revelation, experience and faith to assist us understand ourselves and our predicament. We can then work out our salvation in ways that are consistent with the faith we profess. Reason is seen less as a faculty of mind and more as a process to be engaged, insofar as we reason about things. The process of reasoning is basic to human existence and is an inevitable part of our working out what it means to be a follower of Christ.
Revelation is God's self-disclosure, God showing Himself to us. God speaks through word and image to communicate Himself and His truth to us. His revelation is recorded in Scripture, through His dealings with His chosen people Israel and supremely in the person and work of His Son Jesus Christ, who is both the Word and the Image of God. Knowledge of revealed truth comes through divine-human encounter, especially through the intimacy of a personal relationship with God in Jesus Christ, sealed with the Holy Spirit. God's general revelation begins with creation and continues through the special revelation of covenant and redemption, and awaits consummation. Now we “see through a glass darkly” but then we shall “see face to face” when “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”.
How do reason and revelation work together? Some believe that revelation works merely to enlighten and enliven what is already known by reason. However, if one is required to assent intellectually to faith in order for salvation to be effective, what about those who are unable to respond intellectually? Surely God's grace extends to the humble and the incapacitated. Some advocate the primacy of revelation with respect to our knowledge of God. We must accept the mystery of God and a trust that He will, in His own way and time, reveal Himself to those He has chosen to follow him.
The appeal to experience for the knowledge of God is not new. The words of the chorus of the familiar gospel song, “You ask me how I know He lives ... He lives within my heart!” reflect this sentiment. The Apostles John and Paul confessed the risen Christ through revelation but it was also the power of their experience that reinforced their commitment. Indeed, their experience was provided as guidance for their knowledge of God as that “which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched”. The revelation they received and their experience of God that changed their lives determined the way they viewed the world.
Can we interpret feelings of inspiration and need as legitimate encounters with God? The Idealists exalt reason as reflecting the mind of God. In the same way Realists say that feeling and emotion reflect the presence of God. Some would go so far as to say that such experiences represent our participation in God, who is working out his existence through encounter with us in the world. Experience may well affirm or challenge what knowledge we already possess, but it is difficult to understand experience as doing more than pointing us in particular directions; sometimes towards knowledge of God, and sometimes away from it. Experience without interpretation or understanding will not necessarily lead to divine truth. We tend to interpret our experiences subjectively, according to previously held commitments and hence it can only be offered as a personal recommendation. Experience working together with reason and revelation becomes far more useful. In reality, most people persist in faith not because their daily experience confirms it but because of the few times when experience did strike like lightning. Faith initiated by God persists, despite experiences in contemporary life that seems to be against belief.
Faith represents assent to the Christian confession and commitment to its content. It constitutes personal belief in what is held to be true about God and his dealings with humanity. It is the context of the confession we hold as Christians, bearing witness to the tradition of the church and acknowledging our assent to this tradition. In this sense, faith, though personal, is not independent. It is connected to reason, revelation and experience, insofar as those things come together to enable, empower, confirm or challenge faith. However, where faith is primary for a Christian, everything else will be measured against beliefs that are inseparable from the content of the faith professed. Though such beliefs may evolve over time, generally they form a world-view through which all other knowledge is filtered.
In practice, most Christians have a commitment to faith that brings together reason, revelation and experience to form a world-view that at least organizes their knowledge, even if it does not predetermine it. No matter how strong our faith commitments may be, we are not excused from the challenge to form a world-view that is coherent, and that responds reasonably to challenges that come either through experience or revelation. The challenge of revelation is necessary if growth and discipleship are to take place. The challenge of experience either proves faith, or encourages an adjustment to the world-view. The challenge of reason means that even though reason may not be reliable for establishing knowledge of God, such knowledge should still be reasonable, and we ought to be able to offer reasons for believing as we do. Some may not require such knowledge themselves, being contented with “by faith alone”. But if Christians hope to become all things to all people in order that some might be saved, they cannot be averse to removing obstacles to belief for others, who may yet come to confess Jesus Christ as Lord.