Some of greatest thinkers of the early Christian era applied logic, intelligence, and intellectual discipline on questions of theology. The nature of the divinity of Christ was argued for over two centuries, and early Church orthodoxy was on this and other matters attacked by advocates of Gnosticism, Apollinarism, Arianism, Docetism, and many other ‘heresies’. Most of these doctrinal disputes were resolved if not solved at the Conference of Nicaea (325) convened by Emperor Constantine who wanted to make an end to internecine religious warfare. The Christian Church, legalized by him and thus invested with his imperial and religious authority, could only prosper if unified.
Nevertheless, the doctrinal disputes did not abate. How could they diminish in intensity when such important issues such as the human-divine nature of Christ, the Trinity, the nature of the Holy Spirit, transubstantiation, logos and the pre-existence of the Word among others were at stake. Although the Emperor might have made peace, he did not settle the arguments. Many important theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas came well after Nicaea, and Martin Luther and the Reformation set Catholic interpretations of the Bible and Christian doctrine on their heels.
Most of these theologians began from a point of faith. They were not objective critics anxious to either prove or disprove the arguments made by the Apostle, but faithful Christians who wanted to present logical arguments against the heresies or later to rationally explain the precepts of the Church. They did not come lightly to their conviction about the Trinity, the divine unified essence of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They never relied only on Scriptural references, but developed highly sophisticated logical arguments to show why their conclusions were logical and right. Only a God/Man, Anselm argued, could offer salvation by suffering and taking on the suffering of the world, and by so doing offer divine redemption and salvation.
They approached the classical conundrums of Christianity with faith and reason. If Jesus was fully a man, then why was he not given to the same unattractive human nature as his mortal brothers? if he was indeed God, then why was he seemingly perplexed about his messianic role? If he knew, then why did he keep it a secret?
Thomasius suggested that Jesus gave up his relative divine attributes (omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence) so that he could accomplish the human goals of his mission.
The point is only that the early Church theologians were logicians, schooled in Greek and Hellenistic intellectual traditions. They could not do otherwise than to look at Scripture and the orthodox and heretical writings based on it, and affirm or challenge what they read using disciplined and highly astute reason.
The Catholic Church has always adhered to this tradition. There can be no faith without logic successive Popes have proclaimed. John Paul II was perhaps the most adamant about the use of logic and reason to arrive at faith and the most dismissive of Protestant fundamentalism. To be ‘born again’ without knowing why, without having fully understood the mystery of the divinity of Christ, the Holy Trinity, the doctrine of salvation and redemption, the nature of sin and repentance was a false premise.
Not only that, John Paul said, such cultish fundamentalism was detracting from the principal tenets of the faith as set down by the early Church Fathers. He was as much of a strict constructionist as any Justice of the Supreme Court. The words of Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Ignatius, Clement, Irenaeus, and Cyprian should not only be remembered but studied, parsed, understood and used to build faith.
In a conference of Latin American bishops held in Brazil in 1995, the Pope charged that protestant groups were attacking "the mystery of the Eucharist, the Holy Virgin, the ecclesiastical structure of the church, the primacy of the Pope, and the expressions of popular piety…”
While it is obvious that he was addressing political issues (the primacy of the Catholic Church and the Pope) he made it very clear that the move away from the logic and disciplined respect for and understanding of Church doctrine and theology was pernicious and dangerous.
Fundamentalists, on the other hand, respond that faith is everything. The doctrines of faith and grace as enunciated by Luther are no less relevant now as they were in the 16th century. Understanding Catholic thought has no relationship whatever with receiving God’s grace. Only faith in Jesus Christ can lead to salvation.
Fundamentalists talk of sudden epiphany, the moment that they have seen Jesus Christ and taken him as their personal savior. No poring over the works of Tertullian or Origen, nor any reflection on Apollinaran or Gnostic heresies can possibly prepare anyone for an encounter with Jesus. Logic, rationality, and intellectual discipline have no role in salvation.
The two traditions could not be more dissimilar. The Catholic Church prides itself on the scholarship of the Early Church Fathers and the unshakable tenets of the faith they concluded. Protestant fundamentalism values only the personal relationship between an individual and Jesus Christ, the bestowing of grace, and the permanent expression of faith.
Catholic and mainstream Protestant scholars alike insist that one’s faith is strengthened by understanding. If one comes to a full appreciation of the sophisticated nature of the Trinity, incarnation, and the divinity of Christ, then belief, prayer, worship, and supplication have context and special meaning.
Atheists and religious skeptics have no patience for either. Since religion is, after all, a matter of faith, then why not dispense with the intellectual fol-de-rol and start and end with illogical, passionate, and devout belief? If there is a God, he is unlikely to be persuaded on Judgment Day by those who arrive with a book of Severus of Antioch. Equally, he may be particularly dismissive of those who have slid into faith easily with no homework, who have taken his munificence for granted, who have assumed even the simplest rules apply.
Intellectualists will always lose the argument about faith and reason. As Ivan Karamazov said as The Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov religion is and always has been a matter of miracles, mystery, and authority. Challenging the returned Christ, the Inquisitor avowed that he betrayed mankind when he offered spiritual sustenance instead of bread and gave free will instead of strict obedience as the way to salvation. Men want to eat, he said, and be free from suffering, want, and penury. Few can follow your rules, the Inquisitor said, and few want to; and your impossible demands made way for a corrupt, corrupting, and venal institution – the Church.
Every religion within its popular culture is indeed a matter of mystery, miracle, and authority. Ritual, ceremony, service, liturgy, and worship have long since taken over from understanding the tenets of faith. One believes because one believes. It’s that simple, and showing faith through the breaking of bread, prayer, novenas, Stations of the Cross, baptisms, or revivals is enough.
So reason does very much exist within religion. Attendance at any seminary course on theology will prove the point. Yet few if any of these prospective priests and pastors will ever have to explain the thinking of Sextus Julius Africanus or explain a passage from Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae. At most their job will be exegesis – deconstructing and explaining Scriptural texts – performing religious ceremonies, and caring for the needy. They, men and women of belief before they entered the seminary and most certainly afterwards, will lead congregations of believers just like them. They, unlike the early Church Fathers will never have to defend the faith against heretics nor convince non-believers to join. Reason, along with Irenaeus, can stay on the shelf.
For the rest of us it is a matter of personal choice. Those who have an academic bent will approach religion through logic, reason, and the works of Augustine and those intellectual theologians who came before. Such a course of study may or may not produce faith – it has too many detours, exceptions, and conundrums to be safe – but it offers promise.
Those who by nature are easy believers can wait for their epiphany, pray devotedly, and hope that they will ultimately be chosen.
Finally, those who are skeptics can continue to be fascinated by the fantastic tale of myth, legend, and history that is Christianity; take away lessons of politics, marketing, and social strategy. Not only would life be desperately uninteresting without religion, there would be no life without it.