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The role of Reason in Theology

Updated on December 16, 2017


A classical definition of theology can be borrowed from St Augustine’s explanation of an “understanding that is faith seeking”. In essence, theology relates to the exploration of the mysteries of religion for the purpose of deepening and nourishing the faith of individuals. As a result of this exposure to a deeper word of God, a believer’s intelligence is opened to new levels. As individuals seek to understand God, different ways are used to achieve this end, among them being the use of reasoning. In this perspective, debate and discussions have raged regarding whether or not reasoning should be given space within the precincts of theology. The function of reasoning within theology is a complex matter, though it is also unitary in nature. For instance, on many occasions, the church has spoken concerning the association between reason and faith. Accordingly, the use of philosophy and reason is supported for better explanation and comprehension of the church doctrine. However, at the same time, the church has also warned against the risk of rationalism, particularly when reason is allowed to supersede the limits and assumes roles that are out of boundary. Therefore, it is the focus of this paper to analyze the role of reasoning in theology.


Reppert (2012) explains that sufficient use of reasoning and its potential of supporting more understanding are essential for theologians. If used effectively, it subsequently leads to a solid and human knowledge about God and the religious doctrines under study. Moreover, this knowledge is freed from serious deformations and risks including but not limited to superstition and fideism alongside other sentimental perceptions. Pius IX (1870) explained that reason provides a critical sense to theology, as well as the meticulous arguments which make it possible for the believer to satisfy the legitimate questions and needs, as well as intelligence questions. Furthermore, it able to correct attitudes that is fideistic in nature and which have a potential of confusing the incoherent with the supernatural, the bizarre with the mysterious, and the legendary with the tradition among others.

The church’s confidence in the role of human reasoning in divine matters has been effectively elaborated in the Vatican I's Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius(1870). In this constitution, the council thought that “God, who is the origin and end of all creating can be better be known through his creations, by the power of human reasoning (Neuner and Dupuis, 2001). However, the council also articulates that revelation must be judged to be necessary since God has considered us to have a discerning power (Neuner and Dupuis, 2001). However, there are some truths about God that cannot be revealed to man such as the church mystery, the concept of the holy trinity, among others that are accepted by human beings through faith. Regardless of these truths though, a role in human reasoning in defining faith ensures as declared by Vatican 11 “Nevertheless, in the event that reason, particularly that which has been illuminated by faith opts to inquire into the pious, earnest and sober manner, it can be able to achieve through the grace of God, a specific degree of comprehension of the mysteries that are most beneficial from the relations of these mysteries with each another and for man’s benefit, as well as from the similarity of the objects related to the natural knowledge”.

The Vatican II council went on to advocate for use of more resources other than the philosophy for the purpose of theological reasoning. In discussing the engagement of God’s people in the prophetic office of Christ, the Council explains that “while adhering to their faith, the people will be able to penetrate it in a deeper sense if they use the right judgment and if they apply it more effectively in their day-to-day life (Lumen gentium, no. 12). Consequently, this leads to a greater theological reflection on the practical reflection of faith by believers. For instance, praxis is now regarded as a source of insights regarding the implications of the Christian tradition and the Gospel for teaching and application. A good example is the concept of liberation theory which while providing a theological reflection on the welfare of the poor as well as actions that can be undertaken to raise improve their welfare, it also highlights the church’s recognition of Christ’s concern for the poor and that the church need to consider a preferential option for such people (Pope John Paul II, no. 49).

There is significant evidence from the New Testament that highlights the confidence of the first Christians in applying reason in revealing God, proclaiming him and articulating his nature. For instance, the proclamation in the Gospel of John 1.14 that “the word was made flesh” directly affirming the incarnation mystery, but indirectly indicating the efficaciousness and dignity derived from human reasoning. Similarly, Apostle Paul reminds his readers that “divinity, invisible reality, and God’s everlasting power have been made to be visible, easily recognizable through the things created by him, and thus highlighting peoples knowledge of God” Rom 1.20–21). In many of his letters, Paul employs a good extent of logic in refuting the claims made by his opponents (see Galatians ch. 2), alongside analogies drawn from experience and history such as 1 Cor ch. 12 and Rom ch. 4).

Sheffer (2017) summarizes the provisions of the Lumen Gentium concerning the role and application of reason by the everyday believer to enhance faith. Consequently, he notes from the teachings of the document that the laid has a responsibility to bring order into the world. It explains that each person is expected to identify God’s will regarding his or her work. He further notes that the believers are expected to face challenges as pertaining to their way of life and faith. As such, they have an obligation to deal with such challenges through use of their God-given reasoning capacity as they develop their faith and acquire essentials of spirituality in offending off evil and addressing challenges. In other words, challenges are paramount for Christians and some of them may be within the immediate context of the believer. This thus makes it necessary for Christians to employ their reasoning capacities to identify what is good or bad or what needs to be done or said in relation to a specific challenge. According to Lumen Gentium, life is essentially about love and that reasoning will help the laity or believer to understand how, when and where to apply love, humility, mercy, and patience. Accordingly, there is a unique and distinct call for all believers to reveal and exercise love. The personal gift of reasoning which is given to each person at different levels determines in a great way how to undertake such measures. These gifts have to be accepted as holy, in faith and treasured as God’s gift. Therefore, reasoning plays a huge role in shaping a believer’s faith and also in exercising that faith in a Christian manner.

According to Dignitatis Humanae, a Catholic Council that was promulgated in December 1965 by Pope Paul VI, there is an increasing demand for human beings to act on their own judgment. Furthermore, men need to be allowed to make use and enjoy responsible freedom which is motivated by a sense of duty and not driven by coercion. According to this document, the demand for human freedom stems from the quest for the proper values that align with the human consciousness. The first place where this freedom should be exercised according to the Vatican Council is in the religious arena. Furthermore, such desires and demands are carefully noted by the Vatican Council as indicated in the Dignitatis Humanae, and thus declared to be in line with justice and truth. Towards this end, the church is encouraged to consistently come up with new things that align with the old. This is therefore, to say that as the Dignitatis Humanae, human judgment is allowed in divine aspects, evaluating what is good or bad and how faith need to be applied in the day to day life. Since God has given each person freedom to choose what is good for them, the same should be accorded to them in making decisions regarding divine matters.


Conclusively, this analysis reveals a significant and positive in understanding the relationship of man with God. Through reason, a greater understanding of God by its natural light and creation can be achieved. Therefore, the use of science, philosophical systems, dialogue and praxis within the realism of theology should be strongly encouraged by the church for a better comprehension of religion and God in general. As espoused by the Vatican Council, human beings need to be allowed to exercise their reasoning and freedom in evaluating religious matters including the basis of their faith. Consequently, this will not only solidify their faith but will also lead to a greater understanding of their religious matter.


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