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Don’t Put it in Neutral!

In several recent books and articles I’ve read, I’ve noted several invocations of an apparently problematic thing called “neutral” reasoning. Presumably, “neutral” (as opposed to biblical, Christian, confessional, etc) reasoning can lead to all sorts of wrong conclusions. But let us pause for a moment to consider what this qualifier really means with respect to “reasoning.” Traditionally understood, a claim just is reasonable or it is not. An argument is cogent or it is not. From this perspective, the addition of “neutrality” as a qualifier is just a category confusion.

Rather, the object of critique seems to be the neutrality or lack thereof of reasoners (i.e. intelligent persons). The only cogent way to read this qualifier is to say that what is being criticized is a psychological posture of “neutrality” with respect to an object under consideration, presumably with the possibility that such neutrality can give way to commitment by a process of reasoning. And certainly, here, one can criticize many positions of neutrality. We ought not to be “neutral” with respect to many common-sense notions or to the Word of God in Scripture.

The object of critique might also be an implicit assumption that a position of neutrality is impossible with respect to certain (and in some views, any) objects under consideration. But in the relevant sense, this seems preposterous. Surely experience confirms that there are persons who are genuinely willing to consider the claims of the Christian faith even while they remain uncommitted to them. Inasmuch as these truths are evaluated to be good, we can infer that the Holy Spirit is at work in someone’s heart. However, it is even more relevant to note that the above anxiety tends to confuse moral and epistemic neutrality. I have known people who accepted the claims of the Christian faith and self-professedly hated them. This is also the position of the demons and of the great “unbeliever” himself, Satan. And this is not to mention the sad truth concerning Christian hypocrites, who believe certain propositions held forth to them in the gospel, but who do not (in a manner unseen to us) evaluate those truths as “good for them” in a way that constitutes Christian belief. Certainly this sort of epistemic neutrality is rare (given the darkening power of sin over human cognition), but it is not impossible for the unbelieving reasoner. The essential tension between belief and unbelief is moral, not epistemic. The latter is common, but is a more of a common effect of the real essence of sin (which is a matter of will). Indeed, it is precisely here (in the demons, for instance) that we see sin at its darkest – a persuaded mind which willfully fails to evaluate Reality as “good” and good “for me.” That latter bit, so emphasized by Luther, really is the essence of faith – the evaluation of God’s word not just as true (!) – but as good and good “for me.”

But let us imagine that one was “neutral” with respect to these things. What if someone stood at a critical distance from the voice of God and evaluated it by reason operating from a position of “neutrality.” Would reason all of the sudden become a false guide? The answer, if Christianity be true, is that reason would absolutely not be a false guide. It would not be a sufficient guide, to be sure. Many essential Christian doctrines are not derivable from reason, but they are certainly not contrary to reason. Both the universal laws of reason and scandalous particularity of Christian claims simply cannot be in conflict if they participate in a singular Reality. And that, they certainly do.

Of course, qualifications need to be made. This is not to deny that one can start from false premises and come to false conclusions. But here, the failure is not a failure of reason, but a failure of premises – none of which (qua reality) are defensible according to reason. And, it is worth noting again that this does not mean that reason is omni-competent. Reason is a tool and gift, but it is limited. It cannot mislead, but it can be unfit to lead. And finally, it is important to state that there are realities which transcend our capacity to reason. This is not to say that such realities violate reason, but that they just are the sorts of objects which transcend our capacity to reason about. Once again, this is not a violation of reason, but a transcendence over reasoners and reason themselves. There are many examples of the former. Perhaps God alone is an example of the latter.

This point is important to make lest we fail to feel the pressure of reasoning carefully…lest we easily cover a multitude of “reasoning” sins with a rhetorical wave of the hand. In truth, adding adjectives to the word “reason” does not make up for a failure to reason well. And most importantly, if common rules of reasoning and the particular claims of Christianity both participate in the same Reality, then we don’t need to worry about the Boogeyman adjective as though the qualifier “neutral” would give us a sort of reasoning which might mislead. Indeed, we can reduce our opponents’ arguments to failures of reason or to unreasonable premises.The Jesus Christ who entered into our history at a particular place in time is also the one Lord of all creation – with the regularities, laws, and spontaneous symmetries that render it reasonable to the fittingly fashioned human consciousness. And so the jocular injunction is in fact an expression of Christian virtue: “Let’s be reasonable.”


1 Comment

  1. Jodie says:

    Nice article…

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The Sword and the Ploughshare

A Blog of Doctrine & Other Drugs

A Blog of Doctrine & Other Drugs


A Blog of Doctrine & Other Drugs

Justin Taylor

A Blog of Doctrine & Other Drugs

The Calvinist International

A Forum of Reformed Irenicism

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