Last time, we saw that it is not reason that destroys a paradox; it is when we put reason in God’s place by allowing it to overrule God’s promises. And so paradox is not protected by rejecting reason, but by embracing it rightly. In the example of the theology of the cross, we should not claim to be utterly unable to discern good from evil with our reason, but rather admit to not knowing how God redeems evil into good in most day-to-day cases. This is why our reason must be tempered by virtue with the humility to say “I don’t know” and by God with the faith to say “God has told me what I need.”
But why is approaching this paradox rightly a big deal? As we observed last time, even the Lutherans who stray too far into a rejection of reason do not really confess what they sometimes seem to say: that evil is really good—that the goods of sickness and death will follow us into heaven or that we shouldn’t thank God for His earthly gifts to us because we cannot know that they are good. What is more, heresy typically has its root in a preacher wanting something which orthodoxy will not allow; who would want to teach such things? But as we noted in part 2 with respect to predestination, erring in one point often leads to errors in many others.
Consider some of the implications of a reasonless version of the theology of the cross. What happens when you try to read Scripture while rejecting any ability to discern good and evil? Take Jesus healing sickness. This healing, of course, implies that sickness is a bad thing. After all, one only “heals” something that has gone wrong. It restores something to what it is supposed to be. But what if you come to these texts denying that we can in any way recognize “gone wrong” or “supposed to”? If the reader rejects meaning inasmuch as such meaning is discerned by reason, then the word “healing” can mean nothing more than changing—anything else exists only in the hidden will of God and beyond the reach of reason. He cannot use Scripture to interpret Scripture in such a case, for “heal” is not a word that is explicitly defined within it—like any book, it relies on the reader to reasonably understand the words of the language it uses. As usual, one can even find Scriptural support for such a view if he looks for it and twists it the right way. After all, when the disciples assume a man was born blind because of either his or his parents’ sin, Jesus tells them “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:1-7). Rather than the traditional reading of Jesus denying that the blindness was specific punishment for something he or his parents did (those most directly harmed by the blindness), why not read it as saying blindness has nothing to do with actual or original sin, but is just the good way God made this man?
One can say that Jesus changing sickness into non-sickness was good in those cases because God’s will was briefly revealed in Christ, but without reason, those cases can tell us nothing at all about the rest of the world. Famous skeptic David Hume once asserted that our consistent observations that a billiard ball transfers its motion to the ball it strikes tell us nothing about any “laws” of physics—our brains just imagine such connections for the sake of consistent living. In the same way, one can approach Scripture in such a reasonless way so that no connections are allowed to be seen between God’s words or actions and any transcendent objective meaning. As happened to Hume, one can mangle his own reason until he is unable to recognize any connections at all between the way things are and the way they are supposed to be (between is and ought.) Maybe people will be blind in heaven, for we can discern nothing about sight being the purpose of an eye. Maybe people will have cancer in heaven because there is no specific way cells are supposed to reproduce. This is all absurd, of course, but that ceases to be a complaint for one who has made a habit of rejecting reason.
But again, who would want to teach such things? The better question is this: for what purpose would one be willing to tolerate such things? Consider something Luther taught: “[W]ere it not naturally written in the heart, one would have to teach and preach the law for a long time before it became the concern of conscience. The heart must also find and feel the law in itself. Otherwise, it would not become a matter of conscience for anyone.” The law written on the heart is a part of our reason—precisely the part which informs its discernment of right from wrong. If Luther is right (and I absolutely believe that he is) denying our reason would make it extremely difficult for the law taught in Scripture to become a matter of conscience. Here we finally have an understandable motivation. People commonly want to keep their distance from the accusation of God’s law, for our Old Adam cannot stand it.
Removing our reason from discernment of right and wrong provides considerable leeway for precisely this. Consider, for example, the Christian doctrine that our good works are done to help our neighbor rather than to earn us merit before God. What if you take that doctrine and remove any accessible concept of goodness? The word “good” is ignored altogether and “help” is deprived of any transcendent meaning. Rather than shifting the purpose of good works away from earning salvation and towards loving others, one shifts the nature of good works away from divine goodness and towards something that can be simply seen: our neighbor’s preference. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” becomes “do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” A work is then “good” based solely on whether or not our neighbor likes it. Any sin becomes not merely permissible, but encouraged as long as one has an accomplice.
Consider, for example, an application of this rejection of reason to the sin of fornication. There can be no discernible way humans are supposed to be sexually. All that matters is whether one is doing something which his neighbor reports to be pleasurable. What then happens to the Scriptural condemnations of sex outside of marriage? Well, they could only be talking about various sexual acts which don’t please your neighbor. After all, Scripture cannot possibly be referring to the nature of certain sex acts because for all practical purposes, these acts have no nature. And so admonishments that sex be reserved for spouses turns into admonishments that sex belong in committed relationships, and committed relationships simply mean relationships that all parties want to continue. Jesus’ condemnations of lust no longer refer to anything one is indulging in because one wants to indulge and it therefore cannot be lust—whatever that is. I bring up fornication because it is currently a big issue in the church and culture, but one could apply this reasoning to remove virtually any law one wants. Oppressing the poor, murder, gossip… anything at all can be permitted so long as it pleases somebody else.
As far fetched as this scenario seems, I’ve seen people embrace this line of reasoning for the sake of their preferred sins. I would simply dismiss those people as crazies and ignore it, but I’ve watched them dress up the foundational thought in confessional Lutheran language (without mentioning their ultimate conclusions) and get any number of naive and prideful Lutherans to fall in line praising such thinking because they do not see where it is going. If this seems acceptable to adults, how much more so will it appear to our youth as they grow up with a tilted foundation in the faith? How much will we leave them defenseless against? Too many Lutherans are simply happy for an opportunity to publicly reject troublesome reason—and absentmindedly embrace reason of a different kind, for that is precisely what this is.
And so we come full circle, and like conscience, reason has its revenge. Because one went overboard in condemning reason and did not distinguish between properly using it to discover what Scripture says and improperly using it to predetermine what Scripture is allowed to say, one has acquired any number of prejudices on what scripture is allowed to say. What is more, these came about through reason, for jettisoning it entirely was just a pretense. Humans are reasonable creatures—we cannot reject reasoning anymore than we can reject breathing. God created a place for it in our lives. We most certainly sin when we move reason from that place and make it a substitute for God. Nevertheless, If we try to prevent this by giving it no place at all, we’ve merely shifted it somewhere else where it will continue to do damage. Our only recourse is to learn to use it rightly.
How then should we reason? In the upcoming finale, we will consider how a Christian should rightly handle both reason and paradox together.