St Augustine: Faith Versus Reason

Kirk Straughen

(Investigator 140, 2011 September)

In Investigator 136 page 48 I made reference to St Augustine and, in a brief manner, mentioned his influence on my ideas relating to the nature of faith. Having thought about things 1 have decided to develop this statement into an article.

I will not go into any great details concerning St Augustine's life except to say that he was strongly influenced by the Greek philosopher, Plato, whose ideas he adapted and used in defence of Christianity.

It is important to keep in mind that although St Augustine was a philosopher, first and foremost he was a theologian, and as a consequence all truth for him is ultimately derived from God:
There can only be reasoning from faith. Only from the rightly oriented will, the mind already turned toward the redeeming God, can man discover Truth. The keystone of Augustinianism is this "I believe in order to understand," or even better, theology is "faith seeking understanding." (1)
For St Augustine, Ultimate Truth must depend on something more reliable than the fallible human mind, and for him the solution to the problem is found in his Doctrine of Illumination, which may be summarised as follows:
The doctrine of illumination [is], the thesis that God plays an active role in human cognition by somehow illuminating the individual's mind so that it can perceive the intelligible realities which God simultaneously presents to it. (2)
Considering St Augustine was a Neo-Platonist in his philosophic outlook (Neo-Platonism is, broadly speaking, the idea that reality is ultimately derived from a transcendental power) it is not surprising that he reached the conclusions that he did.

Of course St Augustine, being a learned man, wished to reconcile Christianity as much as possible with reason as exemplified by classical philosophy, and he attempted to do so in the following way:
St Augustine ruled out a priori any real contradiction between the data of revelation, true by definition in the light of their source, and the equally true data of observation and conclusions of true reasoning. When there was an apparent contradiction, this must arise from our misunderstanding of the true meaning of the conflicting statements, and those, he said, may not be the literal meanings, whether in Scripture or in science. (3)
This view is set out in his De Genesi ad Litteram (Latin for "The Literal Meaning of Genesis"). Although St Augustine was all for using reason to confirm Scripture, in the final analysis faith must come first, for in chapter 21 of De Genesi ad Litteram he makes it clear that any teaching contrary to revelation is to be rejected as false:
But when they [the philosophers] produce from any of their books a theory contrary to Scripture, and therefore contrary to the Catholic faith, either we shall have some ability to demonstrate that it is absolutely false, or at least we ourselves will hold it so without any shadow of a doubt. And we will so cling to our Mediator, "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." (4)
Ultimately, an appeal is made to authority — the Catholic faith — rather than facts derived from observation and experiment. St Augustine's philosophical and theological speculations had a profound influence on Western thought up until the final stages of the Scholasticism of the Middle Ages:
St Augustine, although not strictly a Scholastic, nevertheless as early as the fifth century showed the trend of this belief [of the primacy of faith]... This conception marks Scholastic development at its peak. But such a situation could not last long. Later we find the doctrine of the twofold truth; according to this, reason and faith occupy positions of equality. When you engage in theological thought, faith necessarily is the guiding principle; on the other hand, in all scientific and secular activities, reason is the only principle to follow. The artificiality of such a theory shows its weakness. As a result, in the final stages of Scholasticism, reason was considered as superior to faith. (5)
St Augustine's Doctrine of Illumination has partially shaped my own views concerning religious faith verses reason as exemplified by science. It seems to me that the essence of religion is the idea of transcendence — that there exists something external to nature which is the ultimate source of reality (call this God if you so choose).

If there is such a thing, and this thing wishes to interact with material intelligences, then it seems to me the only way it might be able to do so is through the medium of the mind (for the sake of argument I will speculate that mind is immaterial, and that interaction might be possible between humans and God if the mind can form a bridge between disparate modes of being) God being immaterial and transcendental may not be able to have any direct interaction with material objects.

If this is so, then in my opinion faith is best based on the subjective experience of the divine through mysticism rather than empirical evidence for three reasons, of which the first has already been mentioned. The second reason is that science (which looks for natural explanations) cannot prove the supernatural as it resides outside the province of Nature; and thirdly, the provisional nature of science negates all attempts to derive statements of ultimate truth from its theorems.

Indeed, the only instances where science can investigate the supernatural is when it is claimed that the supernatural has had some effect upon the natural world which, of course, includes religious experiences that occur in physical brains.

In any event, an examination of significant religious figures such as the Buddha, St Paul and Mohammed reveals that religious or mystical experiences — the antithesis of empiricism played a major role in developing their faith rather than scientific proof. The way I see it: each person's religion is a 'truth' unto themselves that is best validated by the personal experience of whatever God or gods they believe in.

As for myself: I prefer the provisional nature of science, and can happily live with the uncertainty of human knowledge. In the end all we can do is speak in terms of probability based on what is currently known, and what is currently known indicates that the existence of nature is more probable than the existence of the supernatural.


1 Magill, F. (Ed) page 259 in Masterpieces of World Philosophy in Summary Form, publisher not listed in English, 1969
3 Crombie, A.C. page 59 in Augustine to Galileo, Mercury Books, London, 1964

4 e-Genesisl.pdf
5 Alphern, H. page 7 to 8 in An outline History of Philosophy, Forum House, London, 1969

Further Reading

Some of St Augustine's most influential works such as Confessions and The City of God can be found at: