Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

23 May 2024

Reasons vs. Rationalizations

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I’ve found it helpful to distinguish between reasons and rationalizations. Reasons are facts, arguments, principles, etc., that lead you to a particular conclusion. Reasons are the explanation for why you started holding a position or taking an action. It is what a faithful judge offers to support the verdict he reached after the court proceedings ended. Think of Sherlock Holmes laying out how he discovered how the crime was committed—carefully showing how each piece of evidence and deduction forced him to his conclusion.

Rationalizations are facts, arguments, principles, etc., that you offer to justify a conclusion you have already reached. Rationalizations are often offered as an attempt to explain why you hold your current position or action but are only really in your mind after you settle on your stance. It is what a biased judge offers to defend the verdict he reached before the court proceedings ever began. Think of the College Football Playoff Committee laying out the criteria for the teams included in any given year—pointing to various facts and data that support the teams they wanted in the playoffs.

I was reminded of this distinction recently while watching a video where Mark Ward addressed some new arguments for a KJV-only position (i.e., the King James Version is the only acceptable English translation). Here are two of the arguments he addressed:

  1. There are several words in the original Hebrew and Greek that only appear once in the Bible, which [at times] makes it challenging to know the meaning of the word. Therefore, God does not always intend for us to easily know what the words of the Bible mean. Thus, it is biblical/good for us to have words in the KJV that are challenging for us to understand.
  2. The Jews, toward the end of the Old Testament era, did not update the Hebrew from the Pentateuch, even though hundreds of years of language evolution occurred during that time period. Therefore, God does not have a problem with archaic or outdated language. Thus, it is biblical/good for the KJV to have archaic or outdated language.

In addressing these arguments, Ward helpfully points out that these arguments fail to distinguish between the original writings (Hebrew and Greek writings) and a translation (KJV). Additionally, these arguments actually lead to the conclusion that the church should not have originally used the KJV, since the original translators of the KJV did not intentionally include words that people would not understand or archaic and outdated language.

These two arguments are good examples of rationalizations. No one thought of these two facts in order to develop a translation philosophy that led them to decide that the KJV is the best English translation. Instead, they started with a conclusion (i.e., the KJV is the only acceptable English translation) and then tried to find justification for continuing to hold that position in spite of the fact that the KJV is increasingly unable to be understood by English readers today.

When you are working to defend a position you already hold, you may often discover good and valid arguments that did not originally lead you to your position but instead are proper justifications for the position you already hold. For example, if I offer rational support for belief in God or the inspiration of the Bible, I am often going to offer facts and arguments that played no role in my coming to believe those truths, even though they are rational arguments. There is nothing wrong with presenting a good argument for your position, even if that argument played no role in your embrace of that position.

The problem arises because we often find ourselves grasping at straws in an attempt to justify a position that has no good support, or we overlook how bad an argument is because it supposedly supports our position. We find ourselves drawn to the conclusion of the argument, not the argument itself. This is how proof-texting works: we go to the Bible to find support for something we already believe, rather than forming our beliefs from carefully looking at what the Bible says.

We can allow our confirmation bias to dismiss any arguments or facts that push back against our position while blindly latching on to anything that could bolster our belief. A related problem is when we are drawn to a position more because of who holds it and not because we are convinced it is true.

Why is it helpful to distinguish reasons and rationalizations? There are at least two benefits.

  1. When we are aware of this distinction, we can be more careful and thoughtful in evaluating our positions and beliefs. If I’m asked to explain or defend my belief, am I offering reasons or rationalizations? And if I did not reach my position because of careful and biblical reasoning, is my position one that can actually be reached through careful and biblical reasoning?
  2. When we are aware of this distinction, we can better evaluate our arguments. Does this argument appear strong to me simply because it seems to support my conclusion, or because it is a good and valid argument? How would this argument sound to a skeptic? While not every argument needs to be convincing to everyone who does not hold your position, you at least need to consider whether it would have any weight with anyone not already convinced. Otherwise, you are only preaching to the choir.

1 Response

  1. Bill Murphy

    First, thank you for taking time to write. I always look forward to reading the blog posts.
    Secondly, thank you for this great post! The KJV issue was an excellent example of the differences between rationalization and reasoning. The old adage of: How do you know what you know; and how do you know what you know is right, still stands.

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