Without a doubt, Augustine of Hippo is the most significant extrabiblical theologian of the first millennium. Some even say Western theology is but a “series of footnotes to Augustine,” for medieval theologians, the Protestant Reformers, and modern thinkers have all had to reckon with the great North African bishop.
Augustine is widely known for his writings on the Trinity, grace, free will, and epistemology (the study of knowledge). Regarding epistemology, Augustine is perhaps best known for his words credo ut intelligam, a Latin phrase that may be translated “I believe in order to understand.” The meaning of this statement has been debated for centuries, with many people believing that Augustine gave faith a logical priority in the relationship between faith and reason in the Christian life. Augustine’s view, however, was more complex. He actually saw faith and reason operating in a reciprocal manner in Christian thinking.
Plato stressed the importance of reason in the acquisition of knowledge. Aristotle emphasized the role of empirical data, the information we acquire through the five senses, in human knowing. Augustine embraced both of these perspectives, but he did so under the governing biblical principle that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7). Empirical facts, said Augustine, are important, but we get true knowledge only as the mind reasons through what our senses tell us, drawing conclusions, making inferences, and so on. Because non-Christians do not fear the Lord, however, there is a limit to what they can know. The human mind begins to see the fullness of truth only when it submits to God and His law. Conversion to Christ is the prerequisite for a deep understanding of God’s world.
Paul outlines this principle in Romans 1:18–32 when he tells us that suppressing the revelation of God in nature makes us dark in our thinking. The Apostle is not saying that unbelievers have no knowledge of the truth; rather, they are unable to go deep into truth and all of its ramifications. They go only so far before they start suppressing what is plain to any honest study of creation. But when our minds submit to the Lord, we get a new and fuller understanding of reality, and we are enabled to gain an even deeper knowledge of truth.
Faith and reason work in a reciprocal manner. Believing in God, we see new vistas of truth. As we reason through these vistas, our belief in God is further confirmed. We believe in order to understand because, like Paul and Augustine, we know that without affirming the existence of God and His law, we cannot make ultimate sense of the world around us. Let us put God first in all our thinking in order that we may reason well.