The Intersection of Revelation and Reason

The relationship between human reason and divine revelation has been a perennial topic of discussion among philosophers and systematic theologians. Throughout Church history, Christians have been tempted to make revelation and reason mutually exclusive. But both are essential to a true understanding of the faith.

The inaugural Theology Connect conference—held in Sydney in July 2016—was dedicated to surveying the intersection of revelation and reason. The fruit of this conference has been drawn together in Revelation and Reason in Christian Theology.

In this excerpt from one of the essays, David Starling examines the intersection of revelation and reason in 1 Corinthians:

In this essay, I will concentrate on 1 Corinthians, and, more narrowly still, on the deliberative rhetoric and practical reasoning of 1 Corinthians 8–10. “We know,” Paul tells the Corinthians (quoting one of their own slogans), “that all of us possess knowledge” (8:1), framing the particular issue of food sacrificed to idols within the larger question of what we know about what we know.

As Paul’s response to the issue of food sacrificed to idols unfolds across chapters 8–10, it also becomes clear that the vantage point from which he encourages the Corinthians to perceive the world is the eschatological situation of the community “on whom the ends of the ages have come” (10:11), and the mind with which he urges them to think is one that has been transformed decisively by the word of the cross. Thus, as members of a community who participate together in the body and blood of Christ (10:16), they are to regard their fellow believers as brothers and sisters “for whom Christ died” (8:11), and pattern their own actions on the servant logic modeled by Paul, in imitation of Christ (9:19; 10:31–11:1; see 4:16–17; 2 Cor 5:14–15; Rom 15:1–3; Phil 2:1–11). Scripture is to be read and appropriated through a hermeneutic that understands it as having been written “for our sake” (9:10; see 10:6, 11) and permits the kind of retrospective typological correspondences that Paul draws in 10:1–4.

Paul’s quarrel, in the case of each of the slogans that he quotes in 8:1, 4, is not with the content of the Corinthian slogan but with the inferences (both theological and practical) that they draw from it and the uses to which they put it. Across the remainder of chapters 8–10, Paul’s argument continues to confirm and build on elements of the knowledge that the Corinthians lay claim to, framing its appeal in rhetorical forms that imply the legitimacy of inferential reasoning from shared premises and the capacity and responsibility of the Corinthians to render judgment on its claims. Repeatedly throughout these chapters, Paul poses rhetorical questions to the Corinthians, assuming their ability to supply the correct answer, either from the moral intuitions that they share with their pagan neighbors (e.g., the reasoning from “human authority” [κατὰ ἄνθρωπον] that informs the questions of 9:7), by extension and analogy from the Old Testament Scriptures (e.g., 9:8–14), or by reflection on the meaning embedded in the practices of the Christian community itself, interpreted against the horizon of Old Testament precedent (e.g., 10:16–18).

The rhetorical question in 9:13 (“Do you not know . . . ?”) is asked ten times within the letter (see 3:16; 5:6; 6:2, 3, 9, 15, 16, 19; 9:24). Each time, no doubt, it carries a certain rhetorical sting when addressed to an audience so proud of their knowledge, but there is no reason not to take seriously its additional function as a logical appeal to the existing knowledge Paul believes that the Corinthians do in fact possess.

Within a context of this sort, Paul’s brief comment in 10:15, “I speak as to sensible people [ὡς φρονίμοις λέγω],” must surely be given its full weight. There is no need to assume that Paul expects the Corinthians to have forgotten the sharp edge of sarcasm with which the same word was used earlier in the letter, in 4:10 (“We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ”); Paul’s aim is not to bolster the Corinthians’ delusional assurance of their own wisdom. But the function of his comment is not merely to deflate their pretensions; in choosing to frame his appeal “as to sensible people,” Paul is simultaneously summoning them to think with the true wisdom and clear-sighted reasoning that they have hitherto failed to exercise. The goal he hopes that his letter will accomplish is not only the conversion of their imaginations but also the renewal of their reasoning and the reauthorization of their judgment.

* * *

Revelation and Reason in Christian Theology is now available in all formats. Don’t miss this collection of essays that critically and constructively contribute to this important and developing aspect of theology.