Theology Through a Glass Darkly

What is the relationship between faith and understanding? Yes I know Anselm’s dictum of “faith seeking understanding” (Augustine said the same before him), but how does this actually flesh itself out? And if faith is equated with ever-increasing understanding, then what might lack of understanding say about our faith and about the nature of the Christian life?Faith Lacking Understanding

These are questions not answered but nonetheless helpfully raised by Randal Rauser’s Faith Lacking Understanding: Theology through a glass darkly (with our move to Huntington behind me and my books on the office shelves, I have a bit more time to work down this stack of reviews for TF. Thank you Paternoster).

Rauser’s premise is simple: for the secular world and for many long-time Christians, the grand mysteries of the Christian confession are lost either in incredulity for the former or over-familiarity in the case of the later. So Rauser works through each doctrine of the Apostles Creed – Trinity, creation, incarnation, ascension, and final judgment – pointing out logical, moral, or plausibility issues related to each, calling them instances of faith lacking understanding:

[The doctrines of the Apostles Creed] violate the basic dictates of logic, or our moral sense, or minimal plausibility in light of our scientific understanding of the world … our attempts to understand each of these core doctrines of faith is blocked by a seemingly insurmountable cliff of mystery be it illogicality, immorality, or implausibility (p. 5).

Having raised issues for each doctrine he lays out various (broadly evangelical) options for addressing them. These are helpful and Rauser is clearly in touch with contemporary and classical scholarship, but he doesn’t do what I most anticipated: wrestle with the basic relationship between faith and understanding.

He touches on this briefly in the introduction (p. 10f), and by not giving the reader one explanation or option for each issue he makes an implicit point about multiple options for understanding, but he fails to explicitly press it. It is not that I am allergic to accounts of the Christian life that include “faith seeking understanding”, but I worry that one’s pursuit of understanding is often overplayed. Related to this, if we frame the Christian life entirely in the cognitive register then we have little resource to talk about the spiritual lives of those with limited (or no) intellectual capacity, such as those with serious brain injuries or others born with serious mental disabilities.

I understand that these were not part of Rauser’s intent writing this book. It reads like a brief introduction to Christian belief set to the music of the modern skeptic. And as such the book would be a valuable resource for Sunday school classes tired of the same old materials or could even be used as a supplementary text in an undergraduate introduction to theology course (perhaps something to generate group discussion).

But Rauser still leaves me wondering about the fundamental relationship between faith and understanding. What has been the experience in your Christian community? How are faith and understanding related to one another, and how do you find that relationship helpful or harmful?


23 thoughts on “Theology Through a Glass Darkly

  1. Love the way you have reframed this issue, Kent.

    When you say if we frame the Christian life entirely in the cognitive register then we have little resource to talk about the spiritual lives of those with limited (or no) intellectual capacity, such as those with serious brain injuries or others born with serious mental disabilities, I would say that we could extend this same concern to any scenario—whether during a given period in history or within a given tradition—in which doctrine is in some sense “deficient.”

    A case in point which at times I have brought up for discussion would be the theological environment of the late Spanish Inquisition—the period during which the spiritual contemplative Teresa of Avila lived and wrote. Though I have not studied the contemplatives much at all, I did read Teresa’s last great work, Interior Castle, almost 2 years ago as part of my D. Min. coursework; I was astounded by what I can only describe as a profoundly subversive tract apparently designed as an “end run” around the authority structure that was set in place to guarantee that all nuns would “toe the line” doctrinally.

    Let me try to explain: Each nun was assigned a male “confessor” who would essentially hold “the keys to heaven or hell” for each of these “souls.” At the same time, Teresa herself—who was responsible for the spiritual direction of the nuns in her charge—had to subject her own writings for review by male superiors assigned for that purpose. She was able to secure this “review” of Interior Castle by individuals who were already sanguine towards her writing, and indeed, by this time her reputation was well-established. She was well aware that the Word of God was often contradicted in individual cases by the dictates of such confessors, and she faced the serious dilemma of how to reassure her charges that the grace of God through Word and Spirit would “trump” the teaching of any such confessor. So Teresa buried her guidance on how to manage this dilemma within very confused-sounding, “apologetic,” and self-deprecating portions of her description of the spiritual journey through the famous “seven mansions.”

    Honestly, as I read through the first three “mansions,” my impression was: “This spiritual director-nun must have been an absolute airhead.” Then it hit me like a ton of bricks: I could imagine some censor assigned to read her work—to make sure she wasn’t a heretic—practically falling asleep during these portions of her work, lulled into false complacency by this “airhead.” By the time he got to the subversive parts, it would have gone completely over his head—musing, perhaps, like Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, that “women are irrational, their heads are filled with cotton, hay, and rags.”

    Thus, as I was lost in the seemingly convoluted descriptions of the later “mansions,” snippets would suddenly leap off the page in which Teresa would counsel her charges, for example, to “obey what your confessors bid you to do but do not believe what they teach if it is contrary to God’s Word.” In her writing she also described in detail how to validate the “consolations” they received (spiritual manifestations of grace supernaturally endowed on individuals for the purpose of spiritual encouragement on their journey through the “mansions”). One of Teresa’s most memorable cautions in validating one’s “consolations” concerned the danger of relying too much on logical reasoning, which might well seem to contradict a legitimate consolation from God.

    As I thought about how God could possibly overcome false teaching within any given tradition or period of history, it struck me as so consistent with a primarily gracious God that he would supply “more grace” in situations precisely like this environment of the Spanish Inquisition, and it ultimately brought to mind the OT allusion in James 4, “Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, ‘The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously’? But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: ‘God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.’

    Against the backdrop of my prior biblical training in a cessationist curriculum, I had always wondered about the reasoning behind this position. “The canon is closed, so we don’t need miracle-gifts any more” just didn’t seem to hack it for me, and I am even more persuaded that the very populations at greatest risk of “cognitive dissonance” in an error-ridden or doctrine-deficient environment should benefit the most by “more grace” of this kind. Who knows what “consolations” the handicapped and mentally disabled have received throughout history? Why not those equally “disabled” by doctrine? It is certainly consistent with Paul’s discussion of speaking in tongues vs. “real” words in 1 Cor 14: What if the “real” words are false or absent?

    My own theological tradition, the Free Grace Movement, is currently embroiled in a heated debate over just the kind of concern you have expressed, Kent. I find few kindred spirits who understand the danger of “framing the Christian life entirely in the cognitive register,” but I’m beginning to see progress and have some reason for encouragement. No doubt others will be alarmed at what they might feel is such a cavalier admission that grace can “do an end run around ‘doctrine’,” but what is “truth” after all? Is it not primarily a Person, who then invites us to follow him, and in following him we then “understand”?

    • Jim, there is a bunch here I would love to interact with but I am pressed for time (I leave for Aberdeen tomorrow to defend my thesis). Let me just say that I appreciate your courage to allow “Grace” – as the person of Jesus – to have enough reigns in your own theological reasoning to make things uncomfortable, messy, unpredictable.

      I would like to hear your thoughts about how to frame the Christian life in terms other than (but not excluding) the cognitive dimension of human life. Where do your instincts point on that?

      p.s. I am a big fan of Teresa myself.

      • Good question, Kent.

        Notwithstanding my appreciation for Teresa of Avila, I find myself moving away from contemplative spirituality—at least in its “classical” form. While I find the kind of “edification” provided in cloistered or “private” spirituality as exemplified by the exercise of tongues to be gracious and perhaps even necessary in instances such as those that occasioned Teresian spirituality, I don’t find it normative for NT spirituality, which is altogether Body-oriented, corporate in design.

        As I hinted toward the end of my post above, I am increasingly coming to the view of our life in Christ as one of daily invitation and response to the voice of God (vox Dei). The pattern of following Jesus’ invitation so richly illustrated in the gospels furnishes the prototype for the contemporary leading of the Spirit, ever since Jesus ascended to be with the Father. Invitation and response is certainly both individual and collective within the Body of Christ, but it is only normative when it leads to imitation (or conformity to His image) and unity of the Body (Phil 2; John 17). The telos of this “formation” or “imitation” is friendship with God and to “invite” the world to be reconciled to God and thereby to be restored to its original created nature and purpose when we display His righteousness (2 Cor 5:17-21).

        In a nutshell. Does that make sense?

    • Yes it does. I have been rolling the idea of “increasing openness to grace” as another way of talking about growth/progress/maturity in the Christian life. Invitation carries similar connotations. Thanks for this.

    • At Huntington I will be Assistant Professor of Theology starting August 25. I am thrilled and feeling more than a little overwhelmed at the moment. I have a roommate already for ETS (or else I would be happy to room together again).

  2. Hi Jim,

    Strange to see you commenting outside of the FG circles . . . but nice ;-).

    Hi Kent,

    So your question[s] really seem to flow from a question on anthropology; maybe the Thomist Intellectualist camp has made in-roads in the Western church wherein the “mind” “intellect” is the defining feature of what it means to be a man. Maybe the Affections (heart) would be a better place to start anthropologically (at least Sibbes thought so); this seems to be where Yahweh searches and looks.

    What do you think?

  3. One of the problems with going the route of affections would be that affections usually entail the mind as well, hence the highly rational Puritan understanding of formation. It seems important to draw out what ways the intellect is formed, and how that differs based on a variety of circumstances and situations. I wonder if something more apaphatic could serve the end you may be looking for – where the understanding itself is bypassed?

  4. Hey Jim,

    Yes, I understand ;-) . . .


    Yeah I was appealing to the tripartite faculty ‘thingy’ ;-); sorry. The bible’s anthropology doesn’t seem so ‘psychologized’, but this site is called “Theology” Forum, so I thought the tripartite thing might get some play ;-).


    That’s an interesting point (One of the problems with going the route of affections would be that affections usually entail the mind as well . . .). Typically as I’ve understood Puritan anthropology (and this certainly depends upon which Puritans we’re talking about) they have followed in the vien of William Perkins (the Intellectual Fathers as Janice Knight has called them) and the Thomist Intellectualist strain (per Fierings’ categorization); which in a voluntarist fashion places the mind/will together over-against the “weak” and “unreliable” affections.

    I agree on discerning what it is that is informing the intellect, and that is why I went the way of the “heart” (not emotions per se), to speak mechanistically; it seems that God is concerned with the heart (cf. II Cor. 3; Ez. 36; Jer. 17; etc.), and that until our values, our motives, our desires are His then our intellects (processing center–instrumental) and our wills (action center) will not be “His” but ours.

    I don’t think I want to go the way of apaphatism, instead I think union with Christ and the Spirit’s kataphatic work in that re. (relative to a immediate mediation) is the route I would like to take.

    I’m trying to integrate some of the Scottish/Barthian theology of T. F. Torrance with the Affective Theology of Richard Sibbes (per Ron Frost’s articulation), Bernard, Augustine, et al. But I’ll have to wait until I’m working on a PhD to actually synthesize such things ;-).

      • Kent,

        You could read all of Sibbes’ sermons (I think 7 vol. ;-), or you could read Ron Frost’s dissertation (out of King’s College University of London 1996, I believe). Or you could get a flavor of Frost’s thoughts on Sibbes as I’ve provided many quotes (directly from his diss.) and some personal commentary in these two categories at my blog:

        Ron Frost


        Richard Sibbes

        And if you’re really interested you could email Ron and ask for him to send you a copy of his dissertation via a Word file or Pdf (not sure how he has it formatted). You can email me at, and I will give you his email add. (not sure he wants that broadcasted on the sphere).

        I think if you read Sibbes’ Bruised Reed you’ll start getting a flavor for his anthropology (i.e. see his appeal to the ‘Marriage Framework’ vs. the Federal Cov. of Works/Grace as THE framework for “framing” salvation). I have two posts that specifically deal with introducing what Frost has called ‘Affective Theology’ and then the ‘Marriage Framework’:

        Marriage Framework


        Introduction to Affective Theology

        Sorry for all the links. Hope some of this info helps.

    • Bobby, yeah, that is a good point. I work with Edwards so sometimes I read a little back in the Puritans. He was not a faculty psychologist as many of them were (from what I gather), and for him, the affections were very much part of the intellect. But Edwards follows in the vein of the Spiritual Brethren, so he has a lot more in common with a Sibbes than with a Perkins or Ames.

  5. Kyle,

    And from what I know of Edwards, and I defer completely to your expertise, this is right on! This is why Frost (who was a mentor of mine — I was indoctrinated a bit ;-) really likes Edwards.

    Beyond doing analytical work, Kyle, do you adopt the spirituality that looks more like the Spiritual Brethren’s approach; or maybe lean more Intellectual Fathers? Or do you think there is some sort of via media between the two?

    And Kent,

    I just thought of one more resource, which might be better, at least in providing a synopsis of where Frost is coming from on Sibbes; you can find this in the book The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics eds. Kelly M. Kapic and Randall C. Gleason. Ron’s chapter is chapter 5 called The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes.

    • Bobby, as I understand it, the spirituality of the two groups is based upon prior theological commitments that are not compatible. Admittedly, like with Knight, I would hesitate to call these two different groups rather than two emphases, but the emphases are strong. Knight sees Shepherd as the closest thing to forging a middle ground, and I would put Edwards under Shepherd – for the most part. I think the central issue comes in theology proper. The Intellectual Fathers failed, if Knight is right, to offer a truly trinitarian account of the essence and attributes, while the brethren, with Sibbes, focused more on God’s diffusive being (in a necessarily trinitarian fashion. I think this is the fountain of both spiritualities, making them incompatible. That is my inclination at least, I haven’t really thought much about it.

  6. It may be that the Bible itself actually contrasted “faith” and … “understanding” and “knowledge.” So that blind faith in God is good … but understanding, knowledge of God, is better?

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