Reason, Intuition, and Emotion
People who take pride in reasoning sometimes complain about others who are swayed by emotion or impulse or intuition. For example, let us say that Bob buys the latest cool gadget on impulse. Then he finds that he does not really need it. Not only that, but if he had first looked up some consumer evaluations, he would have found a better and less expensive alternative. He regrets his impulse buying. His impulses have overcome his better rational judgment.
But people may also regret decisions they have made on the basis of rational arguments. Let us say that Sue’s conscience warns her not to cheat on her income tax. Conscience is an intuitive source for decisions. But instead of listening to her conscience, she makes excuses. She produces a whole series of arguments for why the government does not deserve her loyalty, why her way of cheating on her taxes will never be found out, or why hers is an exceptional case. She is reasoning things out. Perhaps she is quite careful. She had better be careful, if she thinks she can create a scheme that will not be found out. But the whole project exemplifies a situation where reasoning is being used against the truth and against genuine moral principles rather than in support of the truth and against mere impulse.
John Frame, in his book The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God,1 points out that human knowledge involves several aspects. Certainly reason has a role. But so does our emotional life, and so do human impressions from our situation. In none of these realms is human knowledge infallible. We are fallen, sinful human beings. And sin infects all of life. All three aspects—reasoning, emotions, and our impressions of the situation—need reform. All three need redemption, we might say. In the Bible, redemption comes from God the Father, through Christ, who is the one true Redeemer (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Tim. 2:5). Strictly speaking, God redeems people, not ideas. But the people who are redeemed have their minds and their hearts renewed (Rom. 12:2): “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” So, secondarily, we can talk about the redemption of a person’s mind.2 This renewal includes a renewal of how we reason, as well as a renewal of our emotional life and our intuitions. What does a renewal of reasoning look like? We will see that it involves communion with God himself, and that it involves the proper use of analogy, as a key aspect of reasoning.
Mystery and Transparency
Let us begin by reflecting on formal logic, as a subdivision of human reasoning. It is an impressive subdivision. Can we be instructed by logic in a way that renews all human reasoning?
Aristotle’s syllogisms and modern forms of symbolic logic may seem on the surface to offer us clear, cogent, transparent ways of reasoning. Moreover, much insight into rationality can be gained by using these modes of reasoning as models or perspectives on human rationality in general. But there are difficulties underneath the surface. The appearance of transparency is achieved by crafting special environments that enable the core patterns in formal logic to possess their impressive cleanness.
In the end, the difficulty traces back to the very nature of human reasoning. Our reasoning powers reach limits when we undertake to reason about God. God is not man (Num. 23:19). God’s thoughts are not our thoughts (Isa. 55:9). Nevertheless, there is a relation between God and man. According to the Bible, man is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27). As one aspect of being in the image of God, we have abilities to appreciate truth. We can know truth. In fact, we can know God: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, . . .” (Rom. 1:21). The verse in Romans indicates that some kind of knowledge of God extends even to unbelievers.
But we do not know God in the way and to the extent that God knows himself. There is mystery. If there is mystery in our knowledge of God, there will also be mystery at a deep level in our knowledge of everything else. All our knowledge imitates God’s original knowledge. And this imitation is mysterious, because God’s knowledge is mysterious.
We find mysteries at every point in our understanding of God.3 Does that leave no room for human reasoning? No, there is room. But our human reasoning at its best merely reflects God’s own rational selfconsistency, which is the original standard. If there is room for our reasoning, what is the shape of that reasoning? In what ways should our thinking be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2)?
Renewal in Romans 12:1–2
What does Romans 12:1–2 actually say about the renewal of our minds? Here are the verses:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
All our knowledge imitates God’s original knowledge. And this imitation is mysterious, because God’s knowledge is mysterious.
The verses do not become specific about just what is involved in this transformation and renewal. Other verses indicate that when we belong to Christ, we are to be progressively conformed to his image:
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. (2 Cor. 3:18)
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, . . . (Eph. 4:15)
This conformity includes the mind as well as other aspects of our nature:
“For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Cor. 2:16)
The context of Romans 12:1–2 indicates that our renewal means discerning “the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” The next verse, verse 3, specifically exhorts us to humility in what we think about ourselves: “not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” What now does it mean to know God’s will, and what might be our limitations in knowing it? The description of God’s will as “good and acceptable and perfect” calls to mind the positive descriptions of the word of God, as a guide to God’s will.
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean,
the rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. (Ps. 19:7–10)
In addition to these words in Psalm 19, Psalm 119 is a long poem celebrating the goodness and perfection of God’s word:
Your testimonies are my delight;
they are my counselors. (Ps. 119:24)
As “counselors,” God’s testimonies show what his will is. The law of the Lord is “perfect” (Ps. 19:7; 119:96). The righteous man “meditates [on it] day and night” (Ps. 1:2).
At the heart of renewal of our minds is the knowledge of God in Christ (Matt. 11:27; John 17:3), which includes having “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). The Bible does not focus on a renewal of some technical aspect of reasoning, but on a comprehensive and deep renewal that we cannot fully explain or make self-conscious. If there are changes in some more technical way, they are subordinate to a more fundamental renewal. Renewal is not primarily renewal through self reflection, but renewal through a saving relation to God. In that saving relation, God’s word in the Bible has a central role. We are to meditate on it. The absorption of the word can be compared to “eating” it:
Yours words were found,
and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart. (Jer. 15:16)
In a similar way, Jesus tells us to abide in him, and that his words should abide in us (John 15:1–7).
- John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1987).
- Vern S. Poythress, The Lordship of Christ: Serving Our Savior All of the Time, in All of Life, with All of Our Heart (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 96–99.
- Vern S. Poythress, The Mystery of the Trinity: A Trinitarian Approach to the Attributes of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2020), esp. ch. 2.
This article is adapted from Redeeming Reason: A God-Centered Approach by Vern S. Poythress.
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