Reason and Natural Theology – Analyzing the Hartford Appeal – Part 4

Blessed feast of Theophany! The winter light of the Nativity and Theophany of our Lord warms our souls, inflames our hearts, and enlivens our minds. For it is truly in the light given by the Light that we are able to behold the truth of not only our lives but the entire universe! 

The Fathers of the Church did not shy away from the claim of the Gospel that the meaning of all things is found in the pearl of great price, Jesus Christ. They proclaimed, led, and defended the teachings of our Lord to a caustic or apathetic world. They were unaware that religious statements should be removed from the “realm of reasonable discourse.”1 Instead, they engaged deeply with the world’s skepticism and opposition. In fact, the first few centuries of Christianity were witness to a great effort on the part of the Fathers to articulate the truth of Jesus Christ to an unbelieving world. As Fr. Matthew Baker argues “Christianity entered the Greco-Roman world as a religion of the incarnate Logos – word or reason – of God. With such a message and with the growth of conversions from the educated Hellenized culture, Christian theologians were compelled early on to reflect upon the “ways of knowing” – that is, questions of epistemology.” 2

The work they did on these questions of epistemology was varied. St. Justin Martyr defended the antiquity and authority of Moses. Tertullian probed the very relationship between human reason and divine revelation. St. Ireneaus grounded the tradition in the first principles of the Faith. Clement of Alexandria combed through the various Greek philosophical schools plundering their “Egyptian gold” for what he thought might help better elucidate the Gospel. “The mainstream of the Church almost from the beginning…resolved upon the presentation of Christianity as a rational faith, a “religion of the Logos.”3

The apologetic work of the first three centuries was never put aside by the Fathers. I am especially mindful of this as January in the Orthodox Church is a month full of celebrations of the ecumenical teachers of the Orthodox Church. We who embrace their inheritance and live off of their bounty need to especially hear this searching word to modern Orthodox believers from Fr. Georges Florovsky.

Three Hierarchs. St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. John Chrysostom

“We praise the Three Hierarchs, who were above all ecumenical teachers, the teachers of the right faith, but we are strangely indifferent to their perennial contribution to the life of the Church: namely – their teaching, their theology, their interpretation of the Christian truth ‘in the words of reason.’ And do we not need, as a matter of first priority, for our intellect to be illuminated by the ‘Light of Reason’ in the present days of intellectual confusion?”4

Florovsky’s attention to the “Light of Reason” emanating from Sts. Basil, Gregory, and John and which specifically shone through the “rays of their divine doctrines” may strike many modern Anglophone Orthodoxy as a little off. Anyone who was introduced to Orthodoxy in the English speaking world will note many occurrences in the literature of Orthodox of the past few decades where reason is seemingly denigrated and piety and asceticism is highly lauded. Hesychasm is praised and “scholasticism” is summarily taken to the shed out back. Reason is seemingly pitted against piety and asceticism. This degradation of reason is done, albeit in differing ways, in popular literature as much as it is in academic theological literature. Many are left wondering where reason figures in modern Orthodox theology and life. This is especially pressing as the intensity of the debates around religion and morality in the public square continue to grow in severity. Why? Because amongst the vast majority of our literati the third theme of the Hartford Appeal is considered an obvious fact.

Theme 3: Religious language refers to human experience and nothing else, God being humanity’s noblest creation.

Religion is also a set of symbols and even of human projections. We repudiate the assumption that it is nothing but that. What is here at stake is nothing less than the reality of God: We did not invent God; God invented us. 

If religion is the domain of the private then it has no weight in the public sphere. If religion language is tantamount to fantasy then it should not have any bearing on our contemporary moral quandaries. If religious language is just human experience and just a set of symbols then it is ultimately irrational and unfit for anything but individual recreation. Thankfully for us we are not condemned to silence. Rather, we turn to the example of those who filled all of creation with streams of heavenly knowledge. Who when they were pressed about the rationality or coherence of the Christian faith applied themselves to the Logos of all things in order to speak and reason in accordance with Him. 

While this issue was first really underlined for me by the work of the late Fr. Matthew Baker, whose essay “Logike Latreia and the Mind of Christ: Thoughts on Apollinarianism in Worship”5 is essential reading for this topic, I am especially heartened by the publication by the International Orthodox Theological Association entitled “Natural Theology in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition”.6 The introductory essay alone, written by Dr. David Bradshaw, is worth the investment! 

In this book from IOTA we get a broad exploration of Orthodoxy’s historic exercise and use of reason in the articulation of natural theology. What is natural theology? Natural theology is a traditional discourse used by the Church Fathers to argue for the existence of God via philosophical reasoning, reasoning which is available to theist and atheist. This was the work St. Athanasius, St. Basil, and St. John of Damascus were doing in their time. Beyond just apologetic value there is the simple need to bring reason to bear on a plethora of things related to the faith. We must apply ourselves to this in order to bolster and clarify the faith for the faithful. This will also make the claims and witness of the faith coherent and therefore plausible and even attractive to those outside of Christ. 

From where I sit, especially as a pastor, the need for a serious dive into this work and a re-calibration of the role of reason in our theology is essential. The challenges before us will absolutely require fidelity to the ascetical life of the Church. But it also requires fidelity to the reasonableness of the faith as explicated for us by the great ecumenical teachers of the Church. We need a renaissance of hearts and minds being transformed by the gospel of Christ. Articulate voices that can answer the challenging questions of our current milieu. This is especially important as the coherence of the moral dimension of the Gospel is steadily being lost in the assault of contemporary ideologies. 

  1. See Theme 2 of the Hartford Appeal from our last post
  2. Fr. Matthew Baker, ”Faith Seeking Understanding: Patristic and Early Christian Touchstones: Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian” in Faith Seeking Understanding: The Theological Witness of Fr Matthew Baker (SVS Press, 2021).
  3. Baker, “Faith Seeking Understanding”
  4. “A Criticism of the Lack of Concern for Doctrine Amongst Russian Orthodox Believers” in Florovsky, Georges, Ecumenism I: A Doctrinal Approach. Vol. XIII of the Collected Works of Georges Florovsky found in Fr. Matthew Baker’s Faith Seeking Understanding, 42
  5. Collected in Faith Seeking Understanding
  6. Be sure to watch the interviews archived on the IOTA page dedicated to this book!


  1. Fr. Daniel,

    I have recently been arguing with a few atheists that in a deterministic system, there is no room for anything like mysticism/experience of God, because in that system, there is likely no conceptual difference between you and God, or you and the world. Either way, the system would be self-contained, and any language or insight derived within that world, would only relate to something that you are basically identical with. Mysticism would be encounter or realization of self. And I think this describes much of the wonderment you sometimes hear among atheists along with New Age or pantheistic religion: they are essentially amazed at themselves in various degrees.

    So, in the effort to uphold EE distinction, and Creation Ex Nihilo, which makes a real difference between God and the world actual, makes the relation to the world sacramental, the relation to God “mystic” in the sense of participation – it seems one of the focus areas, and I’d like to know your opinion, that needs a good articulation, is defending the distinction between God and the world as it relates to the origin of the universe.

    This has all been done before, but usually by Christians who I believe do not escape a pantheistic tendency. If God and His Will are identical God has no free will and is determined and is equivalent with all that exists. And this is the imagination underlying much of Western theology.

    And I’m still sort of convinced coming from a Reformed background, now a convert, that the Presuppositional or Transcendental approach has a place. I think that showing how Christians actually have grounds for believing their sensory perception can arrive at knowledge – and again this is sort of an inconsistency to hold this for the Reformed as they have in one sense collapsed the world and God together as I said above – is crucial.

    As it relates to language, if language only describes what is going on in a self-contained system, either of God’s Will or the Universe, then all language is self-descriptive, and ultimately subjective and meaningless – or – and no one will go here, all language is truth – oh, wait, people do go here.

    Creation from Nothing needs to make a comeback it seems to me, in the Orthodox sense, with the EE. And what is different to me, if you took a presuppositional approach, is that our epistemology would start with Logos, but that Logos, would ground all other epistemological work. So, it would be something of Presuppositionalism in the Logos.

    Thanks for any input you have!

    Matthew Lyon

    1. Matthew,
      I agree with your assessment re: the solipsism of materialism. Not sure I can be specifically helpful…as much as ask more questions for the sake of clarity.

      What are you thinking needs more articulation re: ex nihilo? Specifically what more needs to be done to defend the distinction of God and the world as relating to the origin of the universe?

      I am unfamiliar with the specifics of the “presuppositional” approach – I assume this is a reference to Van Til? (I was not formed in Reformed intellectual space). From what I have heard I would be suspicious of the Kantian presuppositions in Van Til’s approach. Do we need the strictures of a Kantian inflected transcendental system in order to affirm that we can know things? My mind/gut would have me more readily fall back on Aristotle… Having not wrestled with these specific epistemological questions in some time I recall wanting to dig into some of Fr Bulgakov’s earlier work, Soloviev’s work, Florovsky’s essays on German philosophy, and then the work of Semen Frank who I have unfortunately not had a ton of time to do… Also, of possible interest, the work of Vladimir Lossky’s Father may also be instructive / helpful…I bring up these particular thinkers as they specifically wrestled with the German philosophical tradition…(not because they all had the best theology…e.g. sophiology in the case of Soloviev and Bulgakov)

      Finally, flesh out for me your claim that the West’s theological imagination has collapsed God and the world. What thinkers are you referring to that in this claim?

  2. There is a lot of Protestant baggage in the Presuppositional method, though I think it is because they do not start in the right place. As it relates to knowledge, they start with Scripture being revelatory of course. But they do not start with the vision of Christ, but more so the effect of the Holy Spirit on the Inspired writer. Total Depravity is also read into Presuppositionalism. But, while many of the Reformed agree that the Angel of the Lord is a theophany of Christ, they do not start here but this is what made a prophet a prophet in the first place, the vision. Epistemologically, the vision of Christ, the Logos, before the Incarnation and after (Paul grounds his whole ministry on this in line with the prophets), is the starting place for knowledge. I’m leaning here on Fr. Romandies a bit, but this is actually quite evident.

    Now, because of TD, the preaching of Scripture or the Gospel, with the ministry of the Holy Spirit, is self-evident to the non-believer, or to anyone for that matter. It is presupposed to be true. All methods of knowledge acquisition must presuppose something, empiricism, rationalism, etc. But those have a degree of circular reasoning that is considered to be, in short, a bad form. All argumentation is essentially circular, but what system of belief actually could ground that your sense perception is correct or reliable? This must be presupposed, but Christianity uniquely, and Eastern Christians especially, I would say only, has the necessary preconditions for believing that your sense perception, or any other perception, would be designed to arrive accurately at truth?

    Because Western Christians almost unilaterally believe that God is equivalent with His Will, all is will, all is actualized will. This I believe would happen just by believing in Original Sin and Guilt, but they deny the distinction as well, the EE distinction. First, they add a huge difficulty to knowledge being actual or possible before regeneration (actualizing Election in time) as Total Depravity has ruined the noetic faculty. Then, they have to rely on a subjective experience of the Holy Spirit to ground knowledge, which was formerly totally fallen, after regeneration. They in short, also make believing your mind arrives to accurate conclusions, very impossible, and signs of election must therefore accompany faith, and while the aim is for full assurance of salvation and heaven, and this is very much pumped into the consciousness, all the while every reason not to trust your own faculties are there.

    All this because of Original Sin and denying the EE. We have the solution, epistemologically, and for the will, in our soteriology because OS is not there (or should not be there) and with the EE distinction. In exorcism, Baptism, and Chrismation, we have the resources from a truly Christian perspective, to unbind the will, for why the epistemological problems inherent in Reformed/Catholic theology are not a barrier to salvation that includes the will: man really does know some things, man really is ignorant as well (in both moral and possibly amoral ways), that enlightenment by the Holy Spirit does affect man (I think of how John is not read until the day on which catechumens would have been Baptized, in large part anyway – the assumption is – they are not enlightened. This we share with the Reformed, that regeneration makes what was foolish, wisdom, but because they add on TD/OS, they have to take out will, take out essentially real knowledge and leave only a guilty knowledge, and ruin the meaning of Baptism in large part, though I think we would agree about the Covenantal meaning of Baptism.

    So, in short, or long, my plug for Presuppositionalism is that if we started our method with Christ, and having disregarded OS, that this would be a very Biblical methodology.

    The other thing about Van Til was that he believed God’s incommunicable attributes included freedom. Now, this is true in part, but I wonder if this is because the EE distinction was not there. If God is His Will, how could He give what is also His Essence to us?

    In terms of Creation Ex Nihilo then, it all follows that how you could you properly subscribe to this imaginatively when God is just as determined as you are? How is it really from Nothing? When God’s Will is Essence, it’s not nothing anymore. And when I start getting going on these themes, you start seeing how much corollary there is with atheism. The nothing behind the Big Bang, for atheists, well, it’s actually something. I think part of our apologetical method is to expose the reliance of atheism on Western Christianity, and that it developed primarily within that world.

    When I get into little debates with atheists, it starts to become clear that they reason along the same lines as many Western Christians, just leaving God out of the details. I’m told that St. Gregory Palamas predicted all of this.

    In some ways, the Western Christian and the atheist share so many of the same presuppositions, that the Christian at best can only suggest a sufficient cause, better than the atheist cause. But they’re both trapped in the same “snow globe”. Often the Christian arrives at deism and not Christ-crucified.

    So methodologically, we argue Christ from Scripture, as the foundation of knowledge, with the intention of, bringing them to the experience of vision, like the prophets, if at all possible. Because God has real freedom, and we have real freedom, the mind, though affected by sin, is not altogether devoid of participation, though it may take an exorcism, will take Baptism, will take the gift of the Holy Spirit, for many to function normatively.

    I think that Van Til, and others, by starting in the wrong place, left too much epistemological uncertainty due to TD. They could not ground the objective experience of Baptism as awakening the nous, or the Christian life as expanding or maintaining the noetic faculty, of any such thing like direct vision in this life and had to therefore fall back on the subjective experience of the Holy Spirit and evidence of faith.

    I do believe, tentatively, that our knowledge is analogical to God’s knowledge. And that this knowledge is self-authenticating, that we really do have to suppress knowledge to sin, to deny God, etc. But I think the transcendental approach, because it has already started with Christ first, and not the analogy, not a phenomenon, as Christ is not analogous but is the Exact Image, avoids some of the problems of Kantian influence. But on paper, Van Til, I just pulled out my copy of The Defense of the Faith, is not so sympathetic to Kant.

    So, in the end, or if we keep this up a little, it seems the role of reason, in part, is to critique itself. If I need to believe in the Holy Trinity to uphold reason, I’m stating that as a presupposition I can flesh out later, then, part of reasoning is to arrive at the foundation for trusting reason is even partially reliable. Kant tries to combine rationalism with empiricism it seems as they might complement each other. For Christians, Christ is the fullness of wisdom to those who are belng saved. For the world, He is foolishness, but, how do they know what is wise and what is foolish? Well, in part I suggest, we show them that without a grounding for their own beliefs, they ultimately sit in subjectivity, in empiricism which may as well be subjectivity, in rationalism they cannot trust, etc.

    The other question is, how did the Fathers and the NT writers, even the OT writers, address the unbelieving?

    Reason then, would be employed after, presupposing the Logos to be the Incarnate Lord of all.

    Thanks for your engagement!
    Matthew Lyon

  3. Fr. Daniel,

    I was thinking about this more yesterday, how in a pantheistic world, the Law of Non-Contradiction doesn’t really work. And while I know that Muslims, Western Christians, etc. reject the idea that they border on pantheism, what conceptually can you say about a belief system where God and His Will are identical but that it looks a little pantheistic. And if this is the imagination, in part, or the constant conundrum, then reason would not truly be an endowment with free will or something like that.

    Second, if I think I am someone other than I am, it’s likely because I cannot differentiate myself from that person or identity. And if I could fluidly change it’s more like being a chameleon as it relates to identity. Just a couple thoughts about the effects of not really believing Creation Ex Nihilo. If God is determined by HIs Will, if the universe is determined by fate/laws/etc., then I am equivalent with the world and not truly distinct from it. Instead of having some solidarity with man or the earth, which is Christian, while also being distinct, I would be indistinguishable. I could be this and that at the same time.

    Matthew Lyon

  4. Fr. Daniel,

    Last comment, more of a short summary.

    Since Orthodoxy can truly distinguish God’s Will and His Essence (not divorcing the two of course) then Creation Ex Nihilo is really real, not just a statement or a dogma. God is really different from Creation; His will is really different from Creation, is not practically equivalent with it. My suggestion is that because the EE distinction has never been upheld by Western theologians Creation Ex Nihilo never has been either, not without a ton of difficulty where will and what exists collapses eventually into one thing. This will have so many repercussions that are negative and detrimental to faith. Theodicy will become mystery, not in the Orthodox sense, but in that what else can you say? But the role of reason will be reduced to an operation within a “one story universe” and I think it will lead to empiricism which cannot touch/feel outside itself. It’s a rigged game I think. So, combining the Presuppositional method, with reason, with origins, contra the random or the determined, where man can really “feel his way toward God” (Acts 17:27) who is near (same verse), but not identical with whatever exists or is happening, I think as to persuasion (Acts 17:3-4), it’s persuasive. Interestingly, I had to look up those verses, I had no idea they were all in the same place off the top of my head. Fr. Patrick Reardon, whom I love, suggests Paul failed in this preaching attempt at the Areopagus and later ditched the method only preaching Christ crucified. I fully disagree/digress.

    That’s it!

    Matthew Lyon

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