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Systematic Theology - Volume I
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§ 3. Hamilton’s Doctrine.

A. God an Object of Faith, but not of Knowledge.

The sense in which Hamilton and his followers represent God as unknowable, has been a matter of dispute. When he says that we can know that God is, but not what He is, he says only what had been said a hundred times before. Plato had said that the search after God was difficult, and that when He is found, it is impossible to declare his nature. Philo still more explicitly teaches that the divine essence is without qualities or attributes, and as we know nothing of any essence but by its distinguishing attributes. God in his own nature is altogether unknowable.353353Strauss, Dogmatik, i. p. 527. This is repeated continually by the Greek and Latin fathers; who, however, in most cases at least, meant nothing more than that God is incomprehensible. Others again, in asserting the incapacity of man to know God, refer to his spiritual blindness occasioned by sin. Therefore, while they deny that God can be known by the unregenerate, they affirm that He is known by those to whom the Son has revealed Him. In like manner although the Apostle asserts that even the heathen know God, he elsewhere speaks of a kind of knowledge due to the saving illumination of the Holy Spirit. It is in the sense that God is past finding out that the devout Pascal says,354354Pensées, partie II. art. iii. 5. “We know there is an infinite, but we are ignorant of its nature. . . . . We may well know that there is a God, without knowing what He is.” And even John Owen says, “All the rational conceptions of the minds of men are swallowed up and lost, when they would exercise themselves directly on that which is absolute, immense, eternal, and infinite. When we say it is so, we know not what we say, but only that it is not otherwise. What we deny of God we know in some measure — but what we affirm we know not; only we declare what we believe and adore.”355355Tyler’s Progress of Philosophy, second edit. p. 147. Professor Tyler adds, that while the philosophy of Hamilton “confines our knowledge to the conditioned [the finite], it leaves faith free about the unconditioned [the infinite]; indeed constrains us to believe in it by the highest law of our intelligence.”

Although Hamilton often uses the same language when speaking of God as unknowable, as that employed by others, his meaning is very different. He really teaches an ignorance of God destructive of all rational religion, because inconsistent with the possibility of faith.

Different Kinds of Ignorance.

There are different kinds of ignorance. First, there is the ignorance of the idiot, which is blank vacuity. In him the statement of a proposition awakens no mental action whatever. Secondly, there is the ignorance of a blind man, of colour. He does not know what colour is; but he knows there is something which answers to that word and which produces a certain effect on the eyes of those who see. He may even understand the laws by which the production of colour is determined. A blind man has written a treatise on optics. Thirdly, there is the ignorance under which the mind labors when it can prove contradictory propositions concerning the same object, as that the same figure is both square and round And fourthly, there is the ignorance of imperfect knowledge. Paul speaks of knowing what passes knowledge.

Our ignorance of God, according to Hamilton, is neither the ignorance of the idiot nor of imperfect knowledge, but it is analogous to the ignorance of a blind man of colours, and more definitely, the ignorance we labor under with regard to any object of which we can prove contradictions.

Proof that Hamilton Denies that we can Know God.

That this view of his doctrine is correct is proved, (1.) Because he asserts in such broad terms that God cannot be known; that He is not only inconceivable, but incogitable. (2.) Because, he says, that we know that God is not, and cannot be, what we think He is. It is not merely that we cannot determine with certainty that our idea of God is correct, but we know that it is not correct. “To think that God is, as we can think Him to be,” he says, “is blasphemy. The last and highest consecration of all true religion, must be an altar, Ἀγνῶστῳ Θεῷ, ‘To the unknown and unknowable God.’”356356Discussions, p. 22. (3.) Because both he and Mansel continually assert that the Infinite cannot be a person; cannot know; cannot be cause; cannot be conscious; cannot be the subject of any moral attributes. To think of God as infinite, and to think of Him as a person is an impossibility. (4.) The illustrations which these writers employ determine clearly their meaning. Our ignorance of God is compared to our incapacity to conceive of two straight lines inclosing a portion of space; or to think “a circular parallelogram.” It is not merely that we cannot understand such a figure, but we see that, in the nature of things, any such figure is impossible. So we not only cannot understand how God can be absolute and yet a person, but we see that an absolute person is as much a contradiction as a square circle. (5.) Accordingly Herbert Spencer and others, in carrying out Hamilton’s principles, come to the conclusion not only that we cannot know God, but that it is impossible that a personal God should exist. There can be no such being.

Hamilton’s Doctrine of God as an object of Faith.

Hamilton and Mansel, however, are not only Theists, but Christians. They believe in God, and they believe in the Scriptures as a divine revelation. They endeavor to avoid what seem to be the inevitable consequences of their doctrine, by adopting two principles: first, that the unthinkable is possible, and, therefore, may be believed. By the unthinkable is meant that which the laws of reason force us to regard as self-contradictory. On this subject Mansel says: “It is our duty to think of God as personal, and it is our duty to believe that He is infinite. It is true that we cannot reconcile these two representations with each other; as our conception of personality involves attributes apparently contradictory to the notion of infinity. But it does not follow that this contradiction exists anywhere but in our own minds: it does not follow that it implies any impossibility in the absolute nature of God. . . . . It proves that there are limits to man’s power of thought; and it proves no more.”357357Limits of Religious Thought, p. 106. The conclusion is, that as whatever is possible is credible, therefore, as it is possible that God though infinite may be a person, his personality may be rationally believed.

The Unthinkable, or Impossible, cannot be an object of Faith.

On this it may be remarked, —

1. That there is a great difference between the irreconcilable and the self-contradictory. In the one case the difficulty arises, or may arise, out of our ignorance or mental weakness; in the other, it arises out of the nature of the things themselves. Many things are irreconcilable to a child which are not so to a man. Many things are irreconcilable to one man and not to another; to men and not to angels. But the self-contradictory is impossible, and is seen to be so by all orders of mind. That two and two should make twenty, or that the same figure should be a square and a circle, is just as irreconcilable to an angel as to a child. What is self-contradictory cannot possibly be true. Now, according to Hamilton and Mansel, infinity and personality are not only irreconcilable, but contradictory. The one affirms what the other denies. According to their doctrine the Infinite cannot be a person, and a person cannot be infinite, any more than the Infinite can be finite, or the finite infinite. The one of necessity excludes the other. If you affirm the one, you deny the other. There is a great difference between not seeing how a thing is, and clearly seeing that it cannot be. Hamilton and Mansel constantly assert that an absolute person is a contradiction in terms. And so it is, if their definition of the absolute be correct; and if a contradiction, it is impossible.

2. If to our reason the personality of an infinite God be a contradiction, then it is impossible rationally to believe that He is a person. It is in vain to say that the contradiction is only in our mind. So is faith in our mind. It is impossible for one and the same mind to see a thing to be false, and believe it to be true. For the reason to see that a thing is a contradiction, is to see it to be false; and to see it to be false, and to believe it to be true, is a contradiction in terms. Even if to other and higher minds the contradiction does not exist, so long as it exists in the view of any particular mind, for that mind faith in its truth is an impossibility.

It may be said that a man’s reason may convince him that the external world does not really exist, while his senses force him to believe in its reality. So reason may pronounce the personality of God a contradiction, and conscience force us to believe that He is a person. This is to confound consecutive with contemporaneous states of mind. It is possible for a man to be an idealist in his study, and a realist out of doors. But he cannot be an idealist and a realist at one and the same time. The mind is a unit. A man’s reason is the man himself; so is his conscience, and so are all his other faculties. It is the one substantive self that thinks and believes. To assume, therefore, that by necessity he must think one way and believe another; that the laws of his reason force him to regard as false what his conscience or senses force him to regard as true, is to destroy his rationality. It is also to impugn the wisdom and goodness of our Creator, for it supposes Him to have put one part of our constitution in conflict with another; to have placed us under guides who alternately force us to move in opposite directions. It even places this contradiction in God himself. For what reason, in its legitimate exercise, says, God says; and what conscience, in its legitimate exercise, says, God says. If, therefore, reason says that God is not a person, and conscience says that He is, then — with reverence be it spoken — God contradicts Himself.

Knowledge essential to Faith.

It is one of the distinguishing doctrines of Protestants that knowledge is essential to faith. This is clearly the doctrine of Scripture. How can they believe on Him of whom they have not heard? is the pertinent and instructive query of the Apostle. Faith includes the affirmation of the mind that a thing is true and trustworthy. But it is impossible for the mind to affirm anything of that of which it knows nothing. Romanists indeed say that if a man believes that the Church teaches the truth, then he believes all the Church teaches, although ignorant of its doctrines. It might as well be said that because a child has confidence in his father, therefore he knows all his father knows. Truth must be communicated to the mind, and seen to be possible, before, on any evidence, it can be believed. If, therefore, we cannot know God, we cannot believe in Him.

B. Regulative Knowledge.

The second principle which Hamilton and Mansel adopt to save themselves from scepticism is that of regulative knowledge. We are bound to believe that God is what the Scriptures and our moral nature declare Him to be. This revelation, however, does not teach us what God really is, but merely what He wills us to believe concerning Him. Our senses, they say, tell us that things around us are, but not what they are. We can, however, safely act on the assumption that they really are what they appear to be. Our senses, therefore, give only regulative knowledge; i.e., knowledge sufficient to regulate our active life. So we do not, and cannot, know what God really is; but the representations contained in the Scriptures are sufficient to regulate our moral and religious life. We can safely act on the assumption that He really is what we are thus led to think Him to be, although we know that such is not the fact.

We must be “content,” says Mansel,358358Limits of Religious Thought, p. 132. “with those regulative ideas of the Deity, which are sufficient to guide our practice, but not to satisfy our intellect, — which tell us not what God is in Himself, but how He wills that we should think of Him.” “Though this kind of knowledge,” says Hampden,359359Bampton Lectures, 1832, p. 54. “is abundantly instructive to us in point of sentiment and action; teaches us, that is, both how to feel, and how to act towards God; — for it is the language that we understand, the language formed by our own experience and practice; — it is altogether inadequate in point of science.” Regulative knowledge, therefore, is that which is designed to regulate our character and practice. It need not be true. Nay, it may be, and is demonstrably false, for Hamilton says it is blasphemy to think that God really is what we take Him to be.

Objections to the Doctrine of Regulative Knowledge.

1. The first remark on this doctrine of regulative knowledge is, that it is self-contradictory. Regulative truth is truth designed to accomplish a given end. Design, however, is the intelligent and voluntary adaptation of means to an end; and the intelligent adaptation of means to an end, is a personal act. Unless, therefore, God be really a person, there can be no such thing as regulative knowledge. Mr. Mansel says, we cannot know what God is in Himself, “but only how He wills that we should think of Him.” Here “will” is attributed to God; and the personal pronouns are used, and must be used in the very statement of the doctrine. That is, we must assume that God is really (and not merely in our subjective apprehensions) a person, in order to believe in regulative knowledge, which form of knowledge supposes that He is not, or may not be a person. This is a contradiction.

2. Regulative knowledge is, from the nature of the case, powerless, unless its subjects regard it as well founded. Some parents educate their children in the use of fictions and fairy tales; but belief in the truth of these is essential to their effect. So long as the world believed in ghosts and witches, the belief had power. As soon as men were satisfied that there were no such real existences, their power was gone. Had the philosophers convinced the Greeks that their gods were not real persons, there would have been an end to their mythology. And if Hamilton and his disciples can convince the world that the Infinite cannot be a person, the regulative influence of Theism is gone. Men cannot be influenced by representations which they know are not conformed to the truth.

3. This theory is highly derogatory to God. It supposes Him to propose to influence his creatures by false representations; revealing Himself as Father, Governor, and Judge, when there is no objective truth to answer to these representations. And worse than this, as remarked above, it supposes Him to have so constituted our nature as to force us to believe what is not true. We are constrained by the laws of our rational and moral being to think of God as having a nature like our own, and yet we are told it is blasphemy so to regard Him. The theory supposes a conflict between reason and conscience, — between our rational and moral nature. The latter forcing us to believe that God is a person, and the former declaring personality and deity to be contradictory ideas. We do not forget that Mr. Mansel says that the incogitable may be real, that the contradiction is in our own minds, and not necessarily in the nature of things. But this amounts to nothing; for he says continually that the Absolute cannot be a person, cannot be a cause, cannot be conscious, cannot either know or be known. He says, “A thing — an object — an attribute — a person — or any other term signifying one out of many possible objects of consciousness, is by that very relation necessarily declared to be finite.”360360Limits of Religious Thought, p. 107. That is, if God be a person, He is of necessity finite. Here the personality of God is said not only to be incogitable, or inconceivable, but impossible. And this is the real doctrine of his book. It must be so. It is intuitively true that the whole cannot be a part of itself; and if the Infinite be “the All,” then it cannot be one out of many. If men adopt the principles of pantheists, they cannot consistently avoid their conclusions. Hamilton teaches not merely that God may not be what we think Him to be, but that He cannot so be; that we are ignorant what He is; that He is to us an unknown God. If God, by the laws of our reason, thus forces us to deny his personality, and by the laws of our moral nature makes it not only a duty, but a necessity to believe in his personality, then our nature is chaotic. Man, in that case, is not the noble creature that was formed in the image of God.

4. This doctrine of regulative knowledge destroys the authority of the Scriptures. If all that the Bible teaches concerning the nature of God and concerning his relation to the world, reveals no objective truth, gives us no knowledge of what God really is, then what it teaches concerning the person, offices, and work of Christ, may all be unreal, and there may be no such person and no such Saviour.

C. Objections to the whole Theory.

1. The first and most obvious fallacy in the theory of Hamilton and Mansel, as it appears to us, lies in their definition of the Absolute and Infinite, or in the language of Hamilton, the Unconditioned. By the Absolute they mean that which exists in and of itself, and out of all relation. The Infinite is that, than which nothing greater can be conceived or is possible; which includes all actual and all possible modes of being. Mansel subscribes to the dictum of Hegel that the Absolute must include all modes of being, good as well as evil. In like manner the Infinite must be All. For if any other being exists, the Infinite must of necessity be limited, and, therefore, is no longer infinite.

These definitions determine everything. If the Absolute be that which is incapable of all relation, then it must be alone; nothing but the Absolute can be actual or possible. Then it can neither know nor be known. And if the Infinite be all, then again there can be no finite. Then it is just as certain that the Absolute and Infinite cannot be cause, or conscious, or a person, as that a square cannot be a circle, or the whole a part of itself. When a definition leads to contradictions and absurdities, when it leads to conclusions which are inconsistent with the laws of our nature, and when it subverts all that consciousness, common sense, and the Bible declare to be true, the only rational inference is that the definition is wrong. This inference we have the right to draw in the present case. The very fact that the definitions of the Absolute and Infinite which Hamilton and Mansel have adopted from the transcendentalists, lead to all the fearful conclusions which they draw from them, is proof enough that they must be wrong. They are founded upon purely speculative à priori grounds. They can have no authority. For if, as these philosophers say, the Absolute and Infinite cannot be known, how can it be defined? Neither the etymology nor the usage of the words in question justifies the above given definitions of them. Absolute (ab and solvo) means, free, unrestrained, independent; as when we speak of an absolute monarch or absolute promise; or, unlimited, as when we speak of absolute space. The word is also used in the sense of finished, or perfect. An absolute being is one that is free, unlimited, independent, and perfect. God is absolute, because He is not dependent for His existence, nature, attributes, or acts, on any other being. He is unlimited, by anything out of Himself or independent of his will. But this does not imply that He is the only being; nor that in order to be absolute He must be dead, unconscious, or without thought or will. Much less does the word infinite, as applied to God, imply that He must include all forms of being. Space may be infinite without being duration, and duration may be infinite without being space. An infinite spirit does not include material forms of existence, any more than an infinite line is an infinite surface or an infinite solid. When it is said that anything is infinite, all that is properly meant is that no limit is assignable or possible to it as such. An infinite line is that to which no limit can be assigned as a line; infinite space is that to which no limit can be assigned as space; an infinite spirit is a spirit which is unlimited in all the attributes of a spirit. It is a great mistake to assume that the infinite must be all. Infinite power is not all power, but simply power to whose efficiency no limitation can be assigned; and infinite knowledge is not all knowledge, but simply knowledge to the extent of which no limit is possible. So too an infinite substance is not all substance, but a substance which is not excluded from any portion of space by other substances, or limited in the manifestation of any of its attributes or functions by anything out of itself. God, therefore, may be a Spirit infinite, eternal, and immutable in his being and perfections, without being matter, and sin, and misery.

It may be said that as infinite space must include all space, so an infinite being must of necessity include all modes of being. This, however, is a mere play on words. Infinite is sometimes inclusive of all, not from the meaning of the word, but from the nature of the subject of which infinitude is predicated. Infinite space must include all space, because space is in its nature one. But an infinite line does not include all lines, because there may be any number of lines; and an infinite being is not all being, because there may be any number of beings.

It must excite the wonder and indignation of ordinary men to see the fundamental truths of religion and morality endangered or subverted out of deference to the assumption that the Absolute must be unrelated.

Wrong Definition of Knowledge.

2. The second fallacy involved in Hamilton’s theory concerns his idea of knowledge. When it is said that God is unknowable, everything depends on what is meant by knowledge. With him to know is to understand, to have a distinct conception, or mental image. This is evident from his using interchangeably the words unthinkable, unknowable, and inconceivable. Thus on a single page361361Page 110. Mansel uses the phrases that of which “we do not and cannot think,” that “which we cannot conceive,” and “that which we are unable to comprehend,” as meaning one and the same thing. This is also proved from the manner in which other words and phrases are employed; for example, the Infinite, the Absolute, an absolute beginning, an absolute whole, an absolute part, any increase or diminution of the complement of being. The only sense, however, in which these things are unthinkable, is, that we cannot form a mental image of them. A distinguished German professor, when anything was said to which he could not assent, was accustomed to spread out his hands and close his eyes and say, “Ich kann gar keine Anschauung davon machen.I cannot see it with my minds eye, I cannot make an image of it. This seems to be a materialistic way of looking at things. The same may be said of cause, substance, and soul, of none of which can we frame a mental image; yet they are not unthinkable. A thing is unthinkable only when it is seen to be impossible, or when we can attach no meaning to the words, or proposition, in which it is stated. This impossibility of intelligent thought may arise from our weakness. The problems of the higher mathematics are unthinkable to a child. Or, the impossibility may arise from the nature of the thing itself. That a triangle should have four sides, or a circle be a square, is absolutely unthinkable. But in neither of these senses is the Infinite unthinkable. It is not impossible, for Hamilton and Mansel both admit that God is in fact infinite; nor is that proposition unintelligible. It conveys a perfectly clear and distinct idea to the mind. When the mind affirms to itself that space is infinite, i.e., that it cannot be limited, it knows what it means just as well as when it says that two and two are four. Neither is an absolute beginning unthinkable. If, indeed, by absolute beginning is meant uncaused beginning, the coming into existence of something out of nothing, and produced by nothing, then it is impossible and therefore incogitable. But the dictum is applied to a creation ex nihilo, which is declared to be unthinkable. This, however, is denied. We will to move a limb, and it moves. God said, Let there be light, and light was. The one event is just as intelligible as the other. In neither case can we comprehend the nexus between the antecedent and the consequent, between the volition and the effect; but as facts they are equally thinkable and knowable.

It is not possible to give the evidence scattered through the writings of Hamilton and Mansel, that they use the word “to know” in the sense of comprehending, or, forming a mental image of the object known. Mansel362362Page 280. quotes the following sentence from Dr. McCosh’s work on the “Method of the Divine Government,” namely, “The mind seeks in vain to embrace the infinite in a positive image, but is constrained to believe, when its efforts fail, that there is a something to which no limits can be put.” This sentence Mansel says may be accepted “by the most uncompromising adherent” of Sir W. Hamilton’s doctrine, that the infinite is unthinkable and unknowable. To know, therefore, according to Hamilton and Mansel, is to form a mental image of; and as we cannot form such an image of God, God cannot be known. Mansel is disposed to think that this reduces the controversy to a matter of words. And Dr. Tyler, in his able exposition of Hamilton’s philosophy, says,363363See Progress of Philosophy, by Samuel Tyler, LL.D., p. 207. “So it be admitted, as it must, that all our intelligence of God is by analogy, it matters but little, practically, whether the conviction be called knowledge, belief, or faith.” It is, however, very far from being a dispute about words. For Hamilton constantly asserts that God is not, and cannot be, what we think He is. Then we have no God. For what is God as infinite, if as Mansel says, “The Infinite, if it is to be conceived at all, must be conceived as potentially everything and actually nothing.”364364Limits of Religious Thought, p. 94.

What is meant by Knowledge.

Knowledge is the perception of truth. Whatever the mind perceives, whether intuitively or discursively, to be true, that it knows. We have immediate knowledge of all the facts of consciousness; and with regard to other matters, some we can demonstrate, some we can prove analogically, some we must admit or involve ourselves in contradictions and absurdities. Whatever process the mind may institute, if it arrives at a clear perception that a thing is, then that thing is an objects of knowledge. It is thus we know the object with which heaven and earth are crowded. It is thus we know our fellow men. With regard to anything without us, when our ideas, or convictions concerning it, correspond to what the thing really is, then we know it. How do we know that our nearest friend has a soul, and that that soul has intelligence, moral excellence, and power? We cannot see or feel it. We cannot form a mental image of it. It is mysterious and incomprehensible. Yet we know that it is, and what it is, just as certainly as we know that we ourselves are, and what we are. In the same way we know that God is, and what He is. We know that He is a spirit, that He has intelligence, moral excellence, and power to an infinite degree. We know that He can love, pity, and pardon; that He can hear and answer prayer. We know God in the same sense and just as certainly as we know our father or mother. And no man can take this knowledge from us, or persuade us that it is not knowledge, but a mere irrational belief.

Hamilton’s Doctrine Leads to Scepticism.

3. The principles on which Hamilton and Mansel deny that God can be known, logically lead to scepticism. Hamilton has indeed rendered invaluable service to the cause of truth by his defence of what is, perhaps, infelicitously called the “Philosophy of Common Sense.” The principles of that philosophy are: (1.) That what is given in consciousness is undoubtedly true. (2.) That whatever the laws of our nature force us to believe, must be accepted as true. (3.) That this principle applies to all the elements of our nature, to the senses, the reason, and the conscience. We cannot rationally or consistently with our allegiance to God, deny what our senses, reason, or conscience pronounce to be true. (4.) Neither the individual man, nor the cause of truth, however, is to be left to the mercy of what any one may choose to say reason or conscience teaches. Nothing is to be accepted as the authoritative judgment of either reason or conscience, which does not bear the criteria of universality and necessity.

Hamilton has drawn from the stores of his erudition, in this department perhaps unexampled, proof that these principles have been recognized by the leading philosophic minds in all ages. He himself sustains them with earnestness as the safeguards of truth. He impressively asserts that if consciousness once be convicted of falsehood, all is lost; we have then no resting place for either science or religion; that absolute scepticism follows, if it be denied that necessity and universality of belief are not decisive proof of the truth of what is thus believed. Even Stuart Mill admits that “whatever is known to us by consciousness, is known beyond possibility of question.”365365Logic, Introduction, p. 4, edit. N.Y. 1846. Mr. Mansel tells us that it is from consciousness we get our idea of substance, of personality, of cause, of right and wrong, in short of everything which lies at the foundation of knowledge and religion; and therefore if consciousness deceive us we have nothing to depend upon. Mansel thus expounds the famous aphorism of Des Cartes, “Cogito ergo sum,” i.e., “I, who see, and hear, and think, and feel, am the one continuous self, whose existence gives unity and connection to the whole. Personality comprises all that we know of that which exists; relation to personality comprises all that we know of that which seems to exist.”366366Limits of Religious Thought, p. 105. “Consciousness,” he says, “gives us the knowledge of substance. We are a substantive existence.”367367Ibid. p. 288. “I exist as I am conscious of existing; and conscious self is itself the Ding an sich, the standard by which all representations of personality must be judged, and from which our notion of reality, as distinguished from appearance, is originally derived.”368368Ibid. p. 291. Hamilton and Mansel therefore teach that the veracity of consciousness is the foundation of all knowledge, and that the denial of that veracity inevitably leads to absolute scepticism. Nevertheless they teach that our senses deceive us; that reason deceives us; that conscience deceives us; that is, that our sensuous, rational, and moral consciousness are alike deceptive and unreliable.

Our senses give us the knowledge of the external world. They teach us that things are, and what they are. It is admitted that the universal and irresistible belief of men, as that belief is determined by their sense and consciousness, is that things really are what to our senses they appear to be. Philosophers tell us this is a delusion. Kant says that they certainly are not what we take them to be. Mansel says this is going rather too far. We cannot know, indeed, what they are, but it is possible that they are in fact what they appear to be. In either case they are to us all unknown quantity, and the senses deceive us. They assume to teach more than they have a right to teach, and we are bound to believe them.

Kant teaches that our reason, that the necessary laws of thought which govern our mental operations, lead to absolute contradictions. In this Hamilton and Mansel fully agree with him. They tell us that reason teaches that the Absolute must be all things actual and possible; that there cannot be an absolute or infinite person, or cause; that being and not-being are identical; that the infinite is “potentially all things and actually nothing.” These and similar contradictions are said to be inevitable results of all attempts to know God as an Absolute and Infinite Being. “The conception of the Absolute and Infinite, from whatever side we view it, appears encompassed with contradictions. There is a contradiction in supposing such an object to exist, whether alone or in conjunction with others; and there is a contradiction in supposing it not to exist. There is a contradiction in conceiving it as one, and there is a contradiction in conceiving it as many. There is a contradiction in conceiving it as personal; and there is a contradiction in conceiving it as impersonal. It cannot without contradiction be represented as active; nor, without equal contradiction, be represented as inactive. It cannot be conceived as the sum of all existence; nor yet can it be conceived of as a part only of that sum.”369369Limits of Religious Thought, p. 85. Yet all this we are called upon to believe; for it is our duty, he says, to believe that God is infinite and absolute. That is, we are bound to believe what our rational consciousness pronounces to be contradictory and impossible.

Conscience, or our moral consciousness, is no less deceptive. Mr. Mansel admits that we are conscious of dependence and of moral obligation; that this involves what he calls “the consciousness of God,” i.e., that we stand in the relation to God of one spirit to another spirit, of one person to another person; a person so superior to us as to have rightfully supreme authority over us, and who has all the power and all the moral perfections which enter into our idea of God. But all this is a delusion. It is a delusion, because what our moral consciousness thus teaches involves all the contradictions and absurdities above mentioned; because it is said to teach not what God is, but only what it is desirable that we should think He is; and because we are told that it is blasphemy to think that He is what we take Him to be.

The theory, therefore, of Hamilton and Mansel as to the knowledge of God is suicidal. It is inconsistent with the veracity of consciousness, which is the fundamental principle of their philosophy. The theory is an incongruous combination of sceptical principles with orthodox faith, the anti-theistic principles of Kant with Theism. One or the other must be given up. We cannot believe in a personal God, if an infinite person be a contradiction and absurdity.

God has not so constituted our nature as to make it of necessity deceptive. The senses, reason, and conscience, within their appropriate spheres, and in their normal exercise, are trustworthy guides. They teach us real, and not merely apparent or regulative truth. Their combined spheres comprehend all the relations in which we, as rational creatures, stand to the external world, to our fellow-men, and to God. Were it not for the disturbing element of sin, we know not that man, in full communion with his Maker, whose Favour is light and life, would have needed any other guides. But man is not in his original and normal state. In apostatizing from God, man fell into a state of darkness and confusion. Reason and conscience are no longer adequate guides as to “the things of God.” Of fallen men, the Apostle says: “That when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools; and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things” (Rom. i. 21-23); or, worse yet, into an absolute and infinite being, without consciousness, intelligence, or moral character; a being which is not potentially all things, and actually nothing. It is true, therefore, as the same. Apostle tells us, that the world by wisdom knows not God. It is true in a still higher sense, as the Lord himself says, that no man “knoweth the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal Him.” (Matt. xi. 27.)

Necessity of a Supernatural Revelation.

We need, therefore, a divine supernatural revelation. Of this revelation, it is to be remarked, first, that it gives us real knowledge. It teaches us what God really is; what sin is; what the law is; what Christ and the plan of salvation through Him are; and what is to be the state of the soul after death. The knowledge thus communicated is real, in the sense that the ideas which we are thus led to form of the things revealed conform to what those things really are. God and Christ, holiness and sin, heaven and hell, really are what the Bible declares them to be. Sir William Hamilton370370Lectures on Logic. Lecture 32d. divides the objects of knowledge into two classes: those derived from within, from the intelligence; and those derived from experience. The latter are of two kinds: what we know from our own experience, and what we know from the experience of others, authenticated to us by adequate testimony. In the generally received sense of the word this is true knowledge. No man hesitates to say that he knows that there was such a man as Washington, or such an event as the American Revolution. If the testimony of men can give us clear and certain knowledge of facts beyond our experience, surely the testimony of God is greater. What He reveals is made known. We apprehend it as it truly is. The conviction that what God reveals is made known in its true nature, is the very essence of faith in the divine testimony. We are certain, therefore, that our ideas of God, founded on the testimony of his Word, correspond to what He really is, and constitute true knowledge. It is also to be remembered that while the testimony of men is to the mind, the testimony of God is not only to, but also within the mind. It illuminates and informs; so that the testimony of God is called the demonstration of the Spirit.

The second remark concerning the revelation contained in the Scriptures is, that while it makes known truths far above the reach of sense or reason, it reveals nothing which contradicts either. It harmonizes with our whole nature. It supplements all our other knowledge, and authenticates itself by harmonizing the testimony of enlightened consciousness with the testimony of God in his Word.

The conclusion, therefore, of the whole matter is, that we know God in the same sense in which we know ourselves and things out of ourselves. We have the same conviction that God is, and that He is, in Himself, and independently of our thought of Him, what we take Him to be. Our subjective idea corresponds to the objective reality. This knowledge of God is the foundation of all religion; and therefore to deny that God can be known, is really to deny that rational religion is possible. In other words, it makes religion a mere sentiment, or blind feeling, instead of its being what the Apostle declares it to be, a λογικὴ λατρεία, a rational service; the homage of the reason as well as of the heart and life. “Our knowledge of God,” says Hase, “developed and enlightened by the Scriptures, answers to what God really is, for He cannot deceive us as to his own nature.”371371See on this subject, Sir William Hamilton’s Discussions on Philosophy and Literature, Hamilton’s Lectures on Metaphysics and Logic, edited by Rev. Henry L. Mansel and John Veitch, M.A.; Philosophy of Sir William Hamilton, arranged and edited by O. W. Wight, translator of Cousin’s History of Modern Philosophy; The Limits of Religious Thought, eight lectures on the Bampton Foundation, by Henry Longueville Mansel, B. D.; Calderwood’s Philosophy of the Infinite; Dr. McCosh’s works on the Method of the Divine Government; The Intuitions of the Mind; Defence of Fundamental Truths; Princeton Review, April, 1862, Philosophy of the Absolute, an article by Dr. Charles W. Shields; October, 1861, Review of Dr. Hickok’s Rational Psychology, by Dr. Stephen Alexander; and A Philosophical Confession of Faith, by the same writer, a very able and concise statement of fundamental principles, in the number for July, 1867, of the same journal. See also Mill’s Review of Hamilton’s Philosophy, and the admirable work of Professor Noah Porter, of New Haven, on the Human Intellect, part fourth, chap. viii.


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