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Systematic Theology - Volume I
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§ 6. Relation of Philosophy and Revelation.

Cicero1313De Officiis, lib. ii. c. 2. defines philosophy as “Rerum divinarum et humanarum, causarumque quibus hæ res continentur, scientia.” Peemans1414Introd. ad Philosophiam, sect. 107. says, “Philosophia est scientia rerum per causas primas, recto rationis usu comparata.” Or, as Ferrier1515Inst. of Metaphys. p. 2. more concisely expresses it, “Philosophy is the attainment of truth by the way of reason.” These and other definitions are to be found in Fleming’s “Vocabulary of Philosophy.”

There is, however, a philosophia prima, or first philosophy, which is concerned not so much with what is to be known, as with the faculty of knowledge, which examines the cognitive faculty, determines its laws and its limits. It is the philosophy of philosophy.

Whether we take the word to mean the knowledge of God and nature attained by reason, or the principles which should guide all efforts for the attainment of knowledge, the word is intended to cover the whole domain of human intelligence. Popularly, we distinguish between philosophy and science; the former having for its sphere the spiritual, the latter, the material. Commonly, philosophy is understood as comprising both departments. Hence we speak of natural philosophy as well as of the philosophy of mind. Such being the compass of the domain which philosophers claim as their own, the proper relation between philosophy and theology becomes a question of vital importance. This is, indeed, the great question at issue in the Rationalistic controversy; and therefore, at the conclusion of this chapter, all that remains to be done is to give a concise statement of familiar principles.

Philosophy and Theology occupy Common Ground.

1. Philosophy and Theology occupy common ground. Both assume to teach what is true concerning God, man, the world, and the relation in which God stands to his creatures.

2. While their objects are so far identical, both striving to attain a knowledge of the same truths, their methods are essentially different. Philosophy seeks to attain knowledge by speculation and induction, or by the exercise of our own intellectual faculties. Theology relies upon authority, receiving as truth whatever God in his Word has revealed.

3. Both these methods are legitimate. Christians do not deny that our senses and reason are reliable informants; that they enable us to arrive at certainty as to what lies within their sphere.

4. God is the author of our nature and the maker of heaven and earth, therefore nothing which the laws of our nature or the facts of the external world prove to be true, can contradict the teaching of God’s Word. Neither can the Scriptures contradict the truths of philosophy or science.

Philosophers and Theologians should Strive after Unity.

5. As these two great sources of knowledge must be consistent in their valid teachings, it is the duty of all parties to endeavor to exhibit that consistency. Philosophers should not ignore the teachings of the Bible, and theologians should not ignore the teachings of science. Much less should either class needlessly come into collision with the other. It is unreasonable and irreligious for philosophers to adopt and promulgate theories inconsistent with the facts of the Bible, when those theories are sustained by only plausible evidence, which does not command the assent even of the body of scientific men themselves. On the other hand, it is unwise for theologians to insist on an interpretation of Scripture which brings it into collision with the facts of science. Both of these mistakes are often made. The Bible, for example, clearly teaches the unity of the existing races of men, both as to origin and species. Many Naturalists, however, insist that they are diverse, some say, both in origin and kind, and others, in origin if not in species. This is done not only on merely plausible evidence, being one of several possible ways of accounting for acknowledged diversities, but in opposition to the most decisive proof to the contrary. This proof, so far as it is historical and philological, does not fall within the sphere of natural science, and therefore the mere Naturalist disregards it. Comparative philologists hold up their hands at the obtuseness of men of science, who maintain that races have had different origins, whose languages render it clear to demonstration that they have been derived from a common stock. Considering the overwhelming weight of evidence of the divine authority of the Scriptures, and the unspeakable importance of that authority being maintained over the minds and hearts of men, it evinces fearful recklessness on the part of those who wantonly impugn its teachings. On the other hand, it is unwise in theologians to array themselves needlessly against the teachings of science. Romanists and Protestants vainly resisted the adoption of the Copernican theory of our solar system. They interpreted the Bible in a sense contradictory to that theory. So far as in them lay, they staked the authority of the Bible on the correctness of their interpretation. The theory proved to be true, and the received interpretation had to be given up. The Bible, however, has received no injury, although theologians have been taught an important lesson; that is, to let science take its course, assured that the Scriptures will accommodate themselves to all well-authenticated scientific facts in time to come, as they have in time past.

The Authority of Facts.

6. The relation between Revelation and Philosophy (taking the word in its restricted sense) is different from that between Revelation and Science. Or, to express the same idea in different words, the relation between revelation and facts is one thing; and the relation between revelation and theories another thing. Facts do not admit of denial. They are determined by the wisdom and will of God. To deny facts, is to deny what God affirms to be true. This the Bible cannot do. It cannot contradict God. The theologian, therefore, acknowledges that the Scriptures must be interpreted in accordance with established facts. He has a right, however, to demand that those facts should be verified beyond the possibility of doubt. Scientific men in one age or country affirm the truth of facts, which others deny or disprove. It would be a lamentable spectacle to see the Church changing its doctrines, or its interpretation of Scripture, to suit the constantly changing representations of scientific men as to matters of fact.

While acknowledging their obligation to admit undeniable facts, theologians are at liberty to receive or reject the theories deduced from those facts. Such theories are human speculations, and can have no higher authority than their own inherent probability. The facts of light, electricity, magnetism, are permanent. The theories concerning them are constantly changing. The facts of geology are to be admitted; the theories of geologists have no coercive authority. The facts of physiology and comparative anatomy may be received; but no man is bound to receive any of the various conflicting theories of development. Obvious as this distinction between facts and theories is, it is nevertheless often disregarded. Scientific men are disposed to demand for their theories, the authority due only to established facts. And theologians, because at liberty to reject theories, are sometimes led to assert their independence of facts.

The Authority of the Bible higher than that of Philosophy.

7. Philosophy, in its widest sense, being the conclusions of the human intelligence as to what is true, and the Bible being the declaration of God, as to what is true, it is plain that where the two contradict each other, philosophy must yield to revelation; man must yield to God. It has been admitted that revelation cannot contradict facts; that the Bible must be interpreted in accordance with what God has clearly made known in the constitution of our nature and in the outward world. But the great body of what passes for philosophy or science, is merely human speculation. What is the philosophy of the Orientals, of Brahmins and Buddhists, of the early Gnostics, of the Platonists, of the Scotists in the Middle Ages; of Leibnitz with his monads and preëstablished harmony; of Des Cartes and his vortices; of Kant and his categories; of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, with their different theories of idealistic pantheism? The answer to that question is, that these systems of philosophy are so many forms of human speculation; and consequently that so far as these speculations agree with the Bible they are true; and so far as they differ from it, they are false and worthless. This is the ground which every believer, learned or unlearned, is authorized and bound to take. If the Bible teaches that God is a person, the philosophy that teaches that an infinite being cannot be a person, is false. If the Bible teaches that God creates, controls, regenerates, the philosophy that forbids the assumption that He acts in time, is to be rejected. If the Bible teaches that the soul exists after the dissolution of the body, the philosophy which teaches that man is only the ephemeral manifestation of a generic life in connection with a given corporeal organization, is to be dismissed without further examination. In short, the Bible teaches certain doctrines concerning the nature of God and his relation to the world; concerning the origin, nature, and destiny of man; concerning the nature of virtue, the ground of moral obligation, human liberty and responsibility; what is the rule of duty, what is right and what is wrong in all our relations to God and to our fellow creatures. These are subjects on which philosophy undertakes to speculate and dogmatize; if in any case these speculations come into conflict with what is taught or necessarily implied in the Bible, they are thereby refuted, as by a reductio ad absurdum. And the disposition which refuses to give up these speculations in obedience to the teaching of the Bible, is inconsistent with Christianity. It is the indispensable condition of salvation through the gospel, that we receive as true whatever God has revealed in his Word. We must make our choice between the wisdom of men and the wisdom of God. The wisdom of men is foolishness with God; and the wisdom of God is foolishness to the wise of this world.

The relation, therefore, between philosophy and revelation, as determined by the Scriptures themselves, is what every right-minded man must approve. Everything is conceded to philosophy and science, which they can rightfully demand. It is admitted that they have a large and important sphere of investigation. It is admitted that within that sphere they are entitled to the greatest deference. It is cheerfully conceded that they have accomplished much, not only as means of mental discipline, but in the enlargement of the sphere of human knowledge, and in promoting the refinement and well-being of men. It is admitted that theologians are not infallible, in the interpretation of Scripture. It may, therefore, happen in the future, as it has in the past, that interpretations of the Bible, long confidently received, must be modified or abandoned, to bring revelation into harmony with what God teaches in his works. This change of view as to the true meaning of the Bible may be a painful trial to the Church, but it does not in the least impair the authority of the Scriptures. They remain infallible; we are merely convicted of having mistaken their meaning.


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