Reason, Intellect, Religion, & Belief

I feel the need to clarify a few things. In general — but in this post especially — when I say belief, I refer specifically to the belief that God exists as described in the Bible. When I say believer or saint, I refer specifically to those who have believed and known God, and henceforth accepted the provision of the Gospel: Jesus Christ. Unless in the pre-stated context of Roman Catholicism, when I say the church, I refer to the body of believers and saints spread across the world.

The biblical definition of a believer is one whose spirit has been regenerated by God. Does this mean that any person who utters with their mouth "I believe" is regenerated thusly? Certainly not. Although the church is the body of believers, not every person who attends church believes. In fact, the Bible grimly suggests the opposite, and such is borne out by the testimonies of former Christians everywhere. The difference between being a member of the church and simply attending church is precisely this matter of regeneration. Again, belief refers to something that actually happens to the subject in the spiritual realm. Anything less than this is a mere puffing up of the religious mind.

I prefer these words to the generic Christian or Christianity because they tend to provoke less emotional activity and confusion. I further believe that denominations are error, and please take caution not to interpret that statement as an expression of smugness: I'm not saying that all denominations are false and that I myself am privy to some special revelation besides that which God is freely willing to give to whomever He pleases. Rather, I mean that the existence of denominations is itself an error of division within the body of believers. In the interest of promoting unity, I will tend not to categorize believers as Baptists or Calvinists or Methodists or what have you.

That being said, I would like to make it clear that belief cannot be effected by reason, intellect or religion. The reason simply stated is that only God can regenerate a dead spirit. Only God can enable our belief (John 6:65). We will expound on these points in much greater detail in weeks to come, as they tie directly to the tripartite model of consciousness we'll discuss later this week.

In my short life, I've spent a decent amount of time engaged in various arguments for God and/or things supernatural. Inevitably in our discussions of (a)theism, the matters of evidence or proof arise. Atheists and skeptics want to know how to test for God's existence before they're willing to believe that God or any related claims are true. Such people state that without evidence, they refuse to believe in God or their own spirit — but if the premises are true — neither God nor their spirit needs their permission to exist. 

Here's the catch: belief is purported to be a spiritual phenomenon that flows from God to the believer. This means that no amount of anything we initiate can effect belief. Because it is their nature to "permit" their beliefs with evidence beforehand — which is an exercise of one's own intellect and reason — atheists and skeptics naturally assume belief is also best apprehended via one's own intellect and reason. Woe to us believers who also mistakenly believe thusly!

Speaking on these distinctions, Watchman Nee explains,

God does not explain Himself via man's reasoning; never does man come to know God through rationalization. No matter how clever man's mind is nor how much it understands about God, his knowledge of God remains veiled. All he can do is rationalize what is behind the veil, because he has not penetrated the reality hidden from view. Since he has not yet "seen," man can "understand," but he can never "know." If there is no revelation, personal revelation, Christianity is worth nothing. Everyone who believes in God must have His revelation in his spirit, or else what he believes is not God but mere human wisdom, ideals  or words. Such a faith cannot endure the test.
Watchman Nee, The Spiritual Man V.II

To think of it in Boolean terms, let A represent all the intellect and reason a person can summon, and let B represent God's regeneration of that person's spirit. The Bible tells us in plain language that A cannot effect B. Literally — if these premises are true — then nothing a person can initiate can ever restore themselves or another to a right relationship with God. No amount of science or evidence or philosophy or argumentation can suffice, and every fruitless intellectual discussion with an atheist belabors this point. In the same vein, every religion is revealed to be mere vainglory: no amount of dogma or sacraments or confessions or services can regenerate a spirit that is dead unto God.

Nee continues along these lines,

People shall never enter the kingdom of God through our encouragement, persuasion, argument, inducement, excitement, or attraction; entrance can be gained only by new birth, by nothing less than the resurrection of the spirit.
-Ibid.

We might be tempted to say, "That's not so, after all, I came to believe because of such-and-such evidence or so-and-so's argument." If that's the case, our spirits may not have ever been regenerated at all. If you fancy yourself a believer, do you feel an emptiness despite that fact? Religiosity and biblical knowledge mean nothing; they become but mere Christian drapery without their proper spiritual foundation.

Many atheists and skeptics claim they will believe in God if they can just see the evidence. Yet, in so doing, they draft the entire contract on their own terms by beginning with the assumption that the epistemological device they're most comfortable with is the right one for this particular job. And this with no less than their own Creator! Do children set terms for their parents? I cannot but express the very hopelessness and foolishness of that assumption: hopeless, because only God can enable belief, and that by nothing less than a spiritual act; foolish, because Satan and his minions are often more than willing to jump through hoops in order to gain converts. This is why Jesus often rebuked those who demanded miraculous signs: they're a cheap form of flattery easily employable by any supernatural agent who's gained a foothold. We must rely on faith to interpret all supernatural experiences. As such, those who hanker thusly put themselves at risk of being deceived. They may end up believing in the supernatural — but this does not make them believers or saints — hence belief in the supernatural remains as useless as anything else that's not God's regeneration.

Again, belief cannot be effected by our reason, intellect, science, religion, evidence or rational abilities. Then, does this make belief ultimately an irrational matter of whim? Does this mean that these things are mutually exclusive with belief? Most certainly not, and we will expound on this later. The point for now is that our powers of reason and intellect are the faculties we use to understand and explain belief, not to effect it. If it is true that belief cannot be effected by our reason, intellect, science, religion, evidence or rational abilities, the onus is on the skeptic to either humbly ask God to help them accept this limitation, or risk perishing in their stubbornness.

19 Comments

  1. MS says:

    Amen, cl. Great, great post. One of the better that I’ve read anywhere, and what a powerful closing. God bless.
    You’re right, belief is not effected by the intellect or argumentation. As you’d guess, I’d argue that regeneration precedes faith. However, though the intellect does not effect belief, it is a necessary component of faith. Generally, true faith is thought to have the correct notitia, true knowledge, as one part of the classic components of true faith: notitia, assensus, & fiducia. Just a distinction not a disagreement that I think you’re anticipating here: “Does this mean that these things are mutually exclusive with belief?”
    “Rather, I mean that the existence of denominations is itself an error of division within the body of believers.”
    Brought about by sin, no doubt…
    “Although the church is the body of believers, not every person who attends church believes.”
    A useful concept, though not an exact parallel to what you’re saying here, is the invisible and visible church.

  2. Another excellent post!
    You could sum up much of this by saying we are justified by faith and not by works. Anything we do is a “work”. Including reason and logical processing.

  3. Dominic Saltarelli says:

    Calvinism in a nutshell. God saves who he will, you’ve got no say in the matter.

  4. cl says:

    MS,
    I’m glad you were able to walk away with something useful. Thanks for the good words.
    Ned,
    Ephesians 2:8 certainly works nicely as a one-line treatment of this post. Yet, the typical exegesis of that verse focuses on “good deeds.” Because of that, many people simply hear something like, “Okay, faith saves us, not good works.” Which we believe is true, of course, but because many people interpret the verse solely in the context of good deeds, many might miss the larger point: it’s not just that good deeds can’t effect the regeneration of a dead spirit; it’s that nothing which flows from us can. People can easily understand the insufficiency of good works; the problem is, many of these same people don’t realize the insufficiency of all which emanates from man’s flesh.
    Thanks for the good words.
    Dominic,

    God saves who he will, you’ve got no say in the matter.

    Hmmm…. that’s definitely not the message I intended to communicate here, nor do I believe that position is consistent with Scripture. In fact, every single conversion requires active participation on behalf of the subject.
    Of curiosity, how do you get from the insufficiency of reason, intellect and religion to “having no say in the matter?”

  5. Dominic Saltarelli says:

    Hmmm…. that’s definitely not the message I intended to communicate here, nor do I believe that position is consistent with Scripture. In fact, every single conversion requires active participation on behalf of the subject.

    Book of Acts, Chapter 9. The conversion of Saul.

    Of curiosity, how do you get from the insufficiency of reason, intellect and religion to “having no say in the matter?”

    Well, you said:

    If you fancy yourself a believer, do you feel an emptiness despite that fact? Religiosity and biblical knowledge mean nothing; they become but mere Christian drapery without their proper spiritual foundation.

    So there are people who choose to believe but still don’t get belief as you put it. Thus, even opening yourself up to the possibility, having faith, as it were, still isn’t enough.

  6. cl says:

    Specifically, note v.6: “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
    Human beings can either obey or violate commands. Do you mean to imply that God completely usurped Paul’s willpower and body, such that he was physically forced to obey this command?

  7. Dominic Saltarelli says:

    Yes

  8. Sorry cl, but I must lean toward Dominic here…
    We have no power to save ourselves, and our decisions have no influence on God’s decision to save us (Paul had no desire to be saved, yet God saved him).
    I must take up part of Dominic’s statement, though:
    “God saves who he will, you’ve got no say in the matter.”
    You have no say, that does not mean you have no hope. If you cry out to God for mercy, He will grant it (“For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Rom 10:13). You have God’s promise on that.

  9. cl says:

    I’m saying the Bible teaches that, although nothing from ourselves can save ourselves, and the entire thing can only happen by the power of God, we still have a say in the matter: we have to accept what God has enabled. God doesn’t just clobber non-believers over the head one day and turn them into believers against their free will, which is what you seem to be arguing.
    Ned,

    Sorry cl, but I must lean toward Dominic here… We have no power to save ourselves,

    I am not saying that we have power to save ourselves; I’m saying we have a say in the matter, and your last paragraph seems to concur with that idea. If Romans 10:13 is true, we do in fact have a say in the matter. God enables, we accept.

    Paul had no desire to be saved, yet God saved him

    I would certainly agree that Paul didn’t call upon the name of the Lord, but Paul was a believer whose heart was clearly set on pleasing God before his conversion – however misguided he was. He had no desire to become a Christian, but he clearly possessed a desire to know the one true God, wouldn’t you say? He had a say in the matter; he chose to believe and to serve God before he became a Christian, however misguided he was, and he also chose to comply with the commands God gave him.
    Dominic is arguing that God literally superseded Paul’s free will and use of his body, and forced Paul to go into the city and be baptized. Do you agree with that?

  10. “Paul was a believer whose heart was clearly set on pleasing God”
    That is an interesting question. I’m not so certain. How would you interpret Romans 3:11 in this light?
    “forced Paul to go into the city and be baptized” I wouldn’t go so far. I would have to disagree with Dominic, if he is making that strong a point.
    But to play Devil’s advocate, after conversion, it was no longer Paul who lived but Christ. So, it was not Paul who obeyed, but Christ… ;)

  11. cl says:

    Paul was a believer whose heart was clearly set on pleasing God (cl)
    That is an interesting question. I’m not so certain. (Ned)

    Philippians 3:

    “..beware of the false circumcision… If any other man thinks that he has confidence in the flesh, I yet more: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the assembly; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless.”

    In the specific context of debating whether salvation is effected by grace or observance of the law, does not Paul in Philippians 3 describe himself as having more reason to put stock in observance of the law, than grace? If yes, what do you think he was alluding to, that he imagined his observance of the law was sufficient for attaining?

    How would you interpret Romans 3:11 in this light?

    In Romans 3 Paul argues that “..all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” Verse 11 is actually a citation of Psalm 14, the context of which is essentially the same: that at some point we’ve all missed the mark. I don’t see that either verse precludes one from natural religious zeal such as that which comes from the flesh.
    Do you?

    “forced Paul to go into the city and be baptized” I wouldn’t go so far. I would have to disagree with Dominic, if he is making that strong a point.

    Dominic gave a direct reply of “yes” when I asked, “Do you mean to imply that God completely usurped Paul’s willpower and body, such that he was physically forced to obey this command?”
    Does that change your position at all?

    ..after conversion, it was no longer Paul who lived but Christ. So, it was not Paul who obeyed, but Christ…

    This assumes the actual conversion occurred when Paul met the Lord on the road, yet Paul’s baptism and subsequent indwelling of the Holy Spirit is recorded as happening after Ananias prayed and the scales fell from his eyes, three days after Paul had already arrived at the house of Judas. In fact, this is more strong evidence against Dominic’s argument: if conversion didn’t occur on the road, Paul’s actions were Paul’s – not the Lord’s within him.
    Would you say that sufficiently answers the “devil’s advocate” objection?

  12. Well said.
    I think my main point was actually a nitpick on “Paul was a believer … before his conversion”. I don’t think anyone can be a believer before conversion. As Paul would say, all his “righteousness” in observance of the law was dung.
    In effect, his prior zeal was zeal in the service of Satan. Without orthodoxy (right thinking), it is impossible to have right doing (orthopraxy). Saul’s misconception of God/Jesus led him to murdering Christians. And lesser sins than murder can be driven by wrong motives or understanding (look at
    the zeal expressed by JW’s or Mormons).
    Re. Dominic, I would like to hear him clarify…
    Re. “Paul’s baptism and subsequent indwelling of the Holy Spirit is recorded as happening after Ananias prayed”
    This is most insightful! I had not considered that before. I think you are right.

  13. cl says:

    Ned,

    Re. Dominic, I would like to hear him clarify…

    Yeah, me too!

    I think my main point was actually a nitpick on “Paul was a believer … before his conversion”.

    That’s not a “nit-pick” in my book, Ned. Rather, it shows you value precise language, and though atheists will often criticize us for that, it’s a virtue, not a vice. You were correct to “nit-pick” that, because that one instance of “believer” is actually used contrary to the definitions given in the OP. Paul wasn’t a believer before conversion; he was religious. Still, that can get confusing, because he did “believe in God” before his conversion.
    Either way, the whole point is that God didn’t physically force Paul to go to Judas’ house and get baptized. Like you, I’d like for Dominic to come back and either justify his claim, or retract it.

  14. Dominic Saltarelli says:

    Without all this additional speculation on how Paul was thinking about things, just go back to the bible itself. Acts 9:15.
    “But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.”
    God chose Paul’s path. Paul did not. It was a forced conversion.
    More broadly, look at all the defenses given as far as why God doesn’t similarly ‘force’ himself upon all of us (that is, reveal himself in an unambiguous manner). They can all be summarized in that doing so would take away our free will, so God leaves us alone and expects faith. But here in Acts, you have a crystal clear example of just that very thing happening.

  15. cl says:

    Dominic,

    It was a forced conversion.

    So then, do you mean to imply [again] that God completely usurped Paul’s willpower and body, such that he was physically forced to obey this command?

  16. (to be clear: I am a supralapsarian, I’m not entirely sure where cl falls)
    I’m curious Dominic, are you saying God is unjust to save Paul? Or that He is unjust in not saving others?
    In other words, so what if it is a forced conversion? And so what if God chooses not to reveal Himself in an unambiguous manner?

  17. Dominic Saltarelli says:

    @cl

    So then, do you mean to imply [again] that God completely usurped Paul’s willpower and body, such that he was physically forced to obey this command?

    Unambiguously.
    @ned

    I’m curious Dominic, are you saying God is unjust to save Paul? Or that He is unjust in not saving others?
    In other words, so what if it is a forced conversion? And so what if God chooses not to reveal Himself in an unambiguous manner?

    Whether or not I feel its just is irrelevant. I’m not judging God. The “so what” parts however, are there to show how there is a contradiction in what the bible says and what cl (and others) argue in their apologetics.

  18. cl says:

    Dominic,
    Well, then you’ll never be able to believe in the God I believe in. The God I believe in respects man’s freedom and does not participate in forced conversions.
    Of curiosity, why is it okay for you to just assert whatever you feel like in this regard? This is just like your claim that my precognitive experience was a memory. Even though every dictionary describes memory as recollection of a past event. I’m not averse to bold claims though, Dominic. Thing is, if you want to make bold claims, there’s actual work you need to do to support them.

    ..there is a contradiction in what the bible says and what cl (and others) argue in their apologetics.

    Totally false. There is a contradiction between WHAT YOU SAY the Bible says, and what I argue in my exegesis. You’ll never be able to apprehend the truth if you just make it say what you want it to say. Read Acts 9 again, if you haven’t already.
    If God physically forced Paul to go to Judas’, why was there need for the people with him to “[lead] him by the hand into Damascus?”
    OTOH, if you can support your claim that God physically usurped Paul’s body and forced him to go to Judas’ house, I might have to change my position.
    Ned,

    ..so what if it is a forced conversion?

    I’m still unclear on your position: do you believe that God completely usurped Paul’s willpower and body, such that he was physically forced to obey this command? Yes? Or no?

  19. Hello all,
    I would be intrigued to hear Dominic’s objection to Calvinism (which I infer from his shortness @3). He seems to have a clear grasp of our inability and God’s authority…
    Re. “who cares”, Dominic also shows remarkable understanding of justice (we cannot judge God).
    I must disagree in the use of “physically forced”.
    Perhaps I should shed some light on what I understand “will” to mean.
    You can think about it in terms of there being two wills: our will, and God’s will.
    Our will is “free” only in regard to the direction of our sin. That is, it is never “free” to do “good” (aka God’s will, they are interchangeable to me).
    After repentance, we become capable of doing good. In effect, when we conform our thinking to God’s thinking, and have received Biblical counsel, our will is God’s will.

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