Systematic Theology - Volume I
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§ 5. Proper Office of Reason in Matters of Religion.

A. Reason Necessary for the Reception of a Revelation.

Christians, in repudiating Rationalism in all its forms, do not reject the service of reason in matters of religion. They acknowledge its high prerogatives, and the responsibility involved in their exercise.

In the first place, reason is necessarily presupposed in every revelation. Revelation is the communication of truth to the mind. But the communication of truth supposes the capacity to receive it. Revelations cannot he made to brutes or to idiots. Truths, to be received as objects of faith, must be intellectually apprehended. A proposition, to which we attach no meaning, however important the truth it may contain, cannot be an object of faith. If it be affirmed that the soul is immortal, or God is a spirit, unless we know the meaning of the words nothing is communicated to the mind, and the mind can affirm or deny nothing on the subject. In other words, knowledge is essential to faith. In believing we affirm the truth of the proposition believed. But we can affirm nothing of that of which we know nothing. The first and indispensable office of reason, therefore, in matters of faith, is the cognition, or intelligent apprehension of the truths proposed for our reception. This is what theologians are accustomed to call the usus organicus, seu, instrumentalis, rationis. About this there can be no dispute.

Difference between Knowing and Understanding.

It is important, however, to bear in mind the difference between knowing and understanding, or comprehending. A child knows what the words “God is a spirit” mean. No created being can comprehend the Almighty unto perfection. We must know the plan of salvation; but no one can comprehend its mysteries. This distinction is recognized in every department. Men know unspeakably more than they understand. We know that plants grow; that the will controls our voluntary muscles; that Jesus Christ is God and man in two distinct natures, and one person forever; but here as everywhere we are surrounded by the incomprehensible. We can rationally believe that a thing is, without knowing how or why it is. It is enough for the true dignity of man as a rational creature, that he is not called upon by his Creator to believe without knowledge, to receive as true propositions which convey no meaning to the mind. This would be not only irrational, but impossible.

B. Reason must judge of the Credibility of a Revelation.

In the second place, it is the prerogative of reason to judge of the credibility of a revelation. The word “credible” is sometimes popularly used to mean, easy of belief, i.e., probable. In its proper sense, it is antithetical to incredible. The incredible is that which cannot be believed. The credible is that which can be believed. Nothing is incredible but the impossible. What may be, may be rationally (i.e., on adequate grounds) believed.

A thing may be strange, unaccountable, unintelligible, and yet perfectly credible. What is strange or unaccountable to one mind may be perfectly familiar and plain to another. For the most limited intellect or experience to make itself the standard of the possible and true, would be as absurd as a man’s making his visible horizon the limit of space. Unless a man is willing to believe the incomprehensible, he can believe nothing, and must dwell forever in cuter darkness. The most skeptical form of modern philosophy, which reduces faith and knowledge to a minimum, teaches that the incomprehensible is all we know namely, that force is, and that it is persistent. It is most unreasonable, therefore, to urge as an objection to Christianity that it demands faith in the incomprehensible.

The Impossible cannot be believed.

While this is true and plain, it is no less true that the impossible is incredible, and therefore cannot be an object of faith. Christians concede to reason the judicium contradictionis, that is, the prerogative of deciding whether a thing is possible or impossible. If it is seen to be impossible, no authority, and no amount or kind of evidence can impose the obligation to receive it as true. Whether, however, a thing be possible or not, is not to be arbitrarily determined. Men are prone to pronounce everything impossible which contradicts their settled convictions, their preconceptions or prejudices, or which is repugnant to their feelings. Men in former times did not hesitate to say that it is impossible that the earth should turn round on its axis and move through space with incredible rapidity, and yet we not perceive it. It was pronounced absolutely impossible that information should be transmitted thousands of miles in the fraction of a second. Of course it would be folly to reject all evidence of such facts as these on the ground of their being impossible. It is no less unreasonable for men to reject the truths of revelation on the assumption that they involve the impossible, when they contradict our previous convictions, or when we cannot see how they can be. Men say that it is impossible that the same person can be both God and man; and yet they admit that man is at once material and immaterial, mortal and immortal, angel and animal. The impossible cannot be true; but reason in pronouncing a thing impossible must act rationally and not capriciously. Its judgments must be guided by principles which commend themselves to the common consciousness of men. Such principles are the following: —

What is Impossible.

(1.) That is impossible which involves a contradiction; as, that a thing is and is not; that right is wrong, and wrong right. (2.) It is impossible that God should do, approve, or command what is morally wrong. (3.) It is impossible that He should require us to believe what contradicts any of the laws of belief which He has impressed upon our nature. (4.) It is impossible that one truth should contradict another. It is impossible, therefore, that God should reveal anything as true which contradicts any well authenticated truth, whether of intuition, experience, or previous revelation.

Men may abuse this prerogative of reason, as they abuse their free agency. But the prerogative itself is not to be denied. We have a right to reject as untrue whatever it is impossible that God should require us to believe. He can no more require us to believe what is absurd than to do what is wrong.

Proof of this Prerogative of Reason.

1. That reason has the prerogative of the judicium contradictionis, is plain, in the first place, from the very nature of the case. Faith includes an affirmation of the mind that a thing is true. But it is a contradiction to say that the mind can affirm that to be true which it sees cannot by possibility be true. This would be to affirm and deny, to believe and disbelieve, at the same time. From the very constitution of our nature, therefore, we are forbidden to believe the impossible. We are, consequently, not only authorized, but required to pronounce anathema an apostle or angel from heaven, who should call upon us to receive as a revelation from God anything absurd, or wicked, or inconsistent with the intellectual or moral nature with which He has endowed us. The subjection of the human intelligence to God is indeed absolute; but it is a subjection to infinite wisdom and goodness. As it is impossible that God should contradict himself, so it is impossible that He should, by an external revelation, declare that to be true which by the laws of our nature He has rendered it impossible we should believe.

2. This prerogative of reason is constantly recognized in Scripture. The prophets called upon the people to reject the doctrines of the heathen, because they could not be true. They could not be true because they involved contradictions and absurdities; because they were in contradiction to our moral nature, and inconsistent with known truths. Moses taught that nothing was to be believed, no matter what amount of external evidence should be adduced in its support, which contradicted a previous, duly authenticated revelation from God. Paul does the same thing when he calls upon us to pronounce even an angel accursed, who should teach another gospel. He recognized the paramount authority of the intuitive judgments of the mind. He says that the damnation of any man is just who calls upon us to believe that right is wrong, or that men should do evil that good may come.

3. The ultimate ground of faith and knowledge is confidence in God. We can neither believe nor know anything unless we confide in those laws of belief which God has implanted in our nature. If we can be required to believe what contradicts those laws, then the foundations are broken up. All distinction between truth and falsehood, between right and wrong, would disappear. All our ideas of God and virtue would be confounded, and we should become the victims of every adroit deceiver, or minister of Satan, who, by lying wonders, should call upon us to believe a lie. We are to try the spirits. But how can we try them without a standard? and what other standard can there be, except the laws of our nature and the authenticated revelations of God.

C. Reason must judge of the Evidences of a Revelation.

In the third place, reason must judge of the evidence by which a revelation is supported.

On this point it may be remarked, —

1. That as faith involves assent, and assent is conviction produced by evidence, it follows that faith without evidence is either irrational or impossible.

2. This evidence must be appropriate to the nature of the truth believed. Historical truth requires historical evidence; empirical truths, the testimony of experience; mathematical truth, mathematical evidence; moral truth, moral evidence; and “the things of the Spirit,” the demonstration of the Spirit. In many cases different kinds of evidence concur in the support of the same truth. That Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, for example, is sustained by evidence, historical, moral, and spiritual, so abundant that our Lord says of those who reject it, that the wrath of God abideth on them.

3. Evidence must be not only appropriate, but adequate. That is, such as to command assent in every well-constituted mind to which it is presented.

As we cannot believe without evidence, and as that evidence must be appropriate and adequate, it is clearly a prerogative of reason to judge of these several points. This is plain.

1. From the nature of faith, which is not a blind, irrational assent, but an intelligent reception of the truth on adequate grounds.

2. The Scriptures never demand faith except on the ground of adequate evidence. “If I had not done among them,” says our Lord, “the works which none other man did, they had not had sin” (John xv. 24); clearly recognizing the principle that faith cannot be required without evidence. The Apostle Paul proves that the heathen are justly liable to condemnation for their idolatry and immorality, because such a revelation of the true God and of the moral law had been made to them, as to leave them without excuse.

3. The Bible regards unbelief as a sin, and the great sin for which men will be condemned at the bar of God. This presumes that unbelief cannot arise from the want of appropriate and adequate evidence, but is to be referred to the wicked rejection of the truth notwithstanding the proof by which it is attended. The popular misconception that men are not responsible for their faith arises from a confusion of ideas. It is true that men are not blameworthy for not believing in speculative truths, when the cause of their unbelief is ignorance of the fact or of its evidence. It is no sin not to believe that he earth moves round the sun, if one be ignorant of the fact or of the evidence of its truth. But wherever unbelief arises from an evil heart, then it involves all the guilt which belongs to the cause whence it springs. If the wicked hate the good and believe them to be as wicked as themselves, this is only a proof of their wickedness. If a man does not believe in the moral law; if he holds that might is right, that the strong may rob, murder, or oppress the weak, as some philosophers teach, or if he disbelieve in the existence of God, then it is evident to men and angels that he has been given up to a reprobate mind. There is an evidence of beauty to which nothing but want of taste can render one insensible; there is evidence of moral excellence to which nothing but an evil heart can render us blind. Why did the Jews reject Christ, notwithstanding all the evidence presented in his character, in his words, and in his works, that he was the Son of God? “He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (John iii. 18.) The fact, however, that unbelief is a great sin, and the special ground of the condemnation of men, of necessity supposes that it is inexcusable, that it does not arise from ignorance or want of evidence. “How shall they believe,” asks the Apostle, “in him of whom they have not heard.” (Rom. x. 14.) And our Lord says, “This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” (John iii. 19.)

4. Another evidence that the Scriptures recognize the necessity of evidence in order to faith, and the right of those to whom a revelation is addressed to judge of that evidence, is found in the frequent command to consider, to examine, to try the spirits, i.e., those who claim to be the organs of the Spirit of God. The duty of judging is enjoined, and the standard of judgment is given. And then men are held responsible for their decision.

Christians, therefore, concede to reason all the prerogatives it can rightfully claim. God requires nothing irrational of his rational creatures. He does not require faith without knowledge, or faith in the impossible, or faith without evidence. Christianity is equally opposed to superstition and Rationalism. The one is faith without appropriate evidence, the other refuses to believe what it does not understand, in despite of evidence which should command belief. The Christian, conscious of his imbecility as a creature, and his ignorance and blindness as a sinner, places himself before God, in the posture of a child, and receives as true everything which a God of infinite intelligence and goodness declares to be worthy of confidence. And in thus submitting to be taught, he acts on the highest principles of reason.

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