REASON AND REVELATION.
HAVING considered the proofs of the existence of God, we should discuss the ways in which he has made himself known, before we study his nature, and attributes, and relations to us. These constitute the sources of our knowledge of Theology, which are two, Reason and Revelation.
Reason is that power in man, which enables him to have mental perceptions, to exercise thought, and reflection, to know facts, to inquire into their mutual relations, and to deduce, logically, the conclusions which may be drawn from them.
Reason may be used either with reference to the natural or supernatural means of knowledge conferred by God.
When we refer to reason as a source of knowledge distinct from revelation, we mean the information attained, by the use of this faculty, in connection only with the natural, as distinguished from the supernatural.
By revelation, we mean the knowledge which God conveys by direct supernatural instruction, pre-eminently that given in the book known as the Bible.
Reason involves all the cognitive powers of man, which are the faculties through which the mind attains knowledge. These faculties are not separate, and independent, but are merely the instruments of the mind.
The mind is not itself an original source of knowledge, like the Scriptures, but is merely an instrument by which the man attains knowledge through the exercise of its appropriate faculties. There are no such things as innate ideas. These arrive only through the exercise of proper thought and reflection, in connection with some perceived facts.
The means by which the mind attains knowledge in the exercise of its faculties, are five.
1. Consciousness, by which we learn our own existence, and the fact that we think, and are personal beings, possessing personal identity during the term of our natural life.
2. Observation, and experience of the world about us, through the senses.
3. Through intuitive conceptions, by which, upon the suggestion through some external object, of some principle, we find ourselves at once convinced of its correctness.
4. The dispositions, instincts and tendencies of our natures.
5. The curse of events in nature, as tending to good or evil, to what is desirable or disastrous.
It is manifest that the knowledge obtained from these various sources must be abundant to teach man the simple facts upon which rests his duty to God; namely, that there is a God to whom he owes existence, and consequent reverence, service and love, and whose greatness and goodness enforce this obligation; also to show him that that duty has not been discharged, and that he has not the disposition to discharge it; and consequently to render him uneasy in his relations to God, and anxious to appease him, and secure some assurance of his pardon and approval. It has also been thought by many, that through reason alone man attains the conviction of immortality and of a future state of rewards and punishments.
However abundant may be the information thus conveyed to man, it is nevertheless clear that his knowledge in these directions must still remain very imperfect.
This must have been true of man even in a state of innocence. His finite nature and the finite conditions which surrounded him must still have left him ignorant upon many desirable matters. It is natural, therefore, to believe that, in that condition, he received direct communications from God, which are properly esteemed revelations.
But this imperfection must have been greatly increased by an subsequent, fall from innocence. By this the Perceptions of right and wrong would be dimmed, the power of conscience to enforce the right would be impaired, the desire to do the right would be diminished, prejudices against the right would be created, an affection for God would be greatly decreased, if not entirely obliterated.
Upon these grounds we may infer the necessity of some further source of knowledge of God, and of his will with respect to man.
We may also argue a priori as to the nature of this revelation.
1. It must come from God, the source of all our other knowledge. No other could give it, and it is fit that no other should do so.
2. It must be suited to our present condition, confirming the truth already known, and teaching what is practically useful to man as sinner before God.
3. It must be secured from all possibility of error, so that its teachings may be relied on with equal, if not greater, confidence than those of reason.
4. It must come with authority, claiming and proving its claim to be the word of God, who has the right to command, and to punish those who disobey his commands; with authority also, that man may with confidence believe and trust the promises and hopes pardon and peace it may hold out.
5. That it will be accompanied by difficulties and mysteries what may be expected, since these are found frequently attending the knowledge derived from reason.
The gift of such a revelation must of course depend absolutely upon the will of God. It is not for man to say, before it is given, whether it certainly will, or will not, be bestowed.
That it is not improbable may be inferred from the fact that God has already made himself known to us in various ways in ourselves and in nature. If we need further revelation we my hope for it.
The only reason to the contrary is that we have sinned against God, and he may have chosen to abandon us to our fate. But this is not so truly understood until revelation has confirmed our conviction of our sinful estate. On the other hand, the favors which God still bestows, and the means of continued knowledge of him which he affords, indicate that he has not yet consigned us to our deserved fate, and that he may have purposes of mercy towards us.
That which renders it highly probable is the expectation seen in man, in the conceptions he has formed of God, as one to be propitiated by sacrifices and approached with prayer.
If the expectations thus formed are to he verified, the important question arises, in what way can God make known to us the new truth he wills to teach.
They manifestly speak unadvisedly who assert that this can in nowise be done.
If he should so choose, he could impress it on each one in like manner as we attain intuitive conceptions. He might reveal it to individuals in dreams and visions, so as to make each one feel and know that the vision is from God. Those through whom he has revealed himself have in some such way attained absolute conviction that God has spoken to and through them, and with God there is neither impossibility nor difficulty in producing like certainty in the mind of each individual of the race.
But as God usually acts through means, so he has revealed himself to a few, and through them to mankind in general.
The only question then is, how can he give evidence to the race at large that the men he has inspired are indeed his messengers?
This also might be done in various ways, but he has chosen to do it by attesting their mission by miracles wrought through them.
As to the measure of authority to be ascribed to these miracles, men differ in opinion.
Some teach that any miracle wrought is of itself sufficient attestation of the messenger and of the truth which he teaches.
Others, that miracles are only proofs to those who behold them, and dubious proofs even then, and that the true purpose of them is not to set the seal of God’s authority, but simply to awaken attention and excite awe, and thus prepare the way for a proper hearing of the divine message. These assert that the revelation comes to us with the authority only of the self-convincing nature of the truth made known.
It is necessary, in this difference of opinions, to seek carefully after the true theory. From no source can we better obtain it than from the revelation itself, the teaching of which will be seen to be fully corroborated otherwise.
The Scripture theory seems to be this, that in any new revelation the prophet of God must present a doctrine perfectly consistent with ever past revelation and with the knowledge conveyed by nature, and must, at the same time, confirm by miracles his authority as a teacher from God. Without the miracle the new truth has no evidence that it is not simply the product of human reason or imagination. The coincidence in doctrine is necessary to protect against pretended miracles and the tricks of unprincipled men. Besides, the new truth can have no higher authority than the old, and therefore cannot supersede it, for the old also has come from God. No truth ever taught by God can be opposed by any new truth from him. What with God is truth is eternal truth. Like himself, it is the same “yesterday, to-day and forever.” It may be more abundantly or clearly revealed. We may learn to comprehend it better and to correct our own misapprehensions of it, but whatever God has once given as truth must so remain forever, as changeless as his own life.
1. The Scriptural authority for this theory is conclusive.
Moses announced the law, which shows the miracle alone not to be conclusive. See Deut. 13:1, 2, 3. “If there arise in the midst of thee a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and he give thee a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he shake unto thee, saying, let us go after other gods which thou hast not known, and let us serve them; thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or unto that dreamer of dreams: for the Lord your God proveth you to know whether ye love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” This passage shows that even a miracle, wrought by one teaching doctrine not in accordance with that already received, should not tempt to belief in the divine authority of him who should work it.
The Apostle Paul gives similar instruction to the Galatians, Gal. 1:8: ” Though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach unto you any gospel other than that which we preached unto you, let him be anathema.” Whatever might be the accredited authority of the messenger, his teachings were not to be received.
Yet, with all this, the Scriptures do not disparage the miracle. The miracles of Mosaic times are constantly referred to as indubitably marking it as divine. Nicodemus recognized the high position assigned to miracles by the Jews, John 3:2: “No man can do these signs that thou doest, except God be with him.” Christ himself says, John 10:25: “The works that I do in my Father’s name, these bear witness of me.”
This theory of the Scriptures is not necessarily based upon the idea that real miracles can be wrought otherwise than by divine power. Still the language sometimes used is liable to this construction. And much depends upon the definition of a miracle. If a miracle be a suspension of the fixed laws which God has established for the world, that suspension can only occur through his special permission. Taking this as the true meaning of the word, we can understand why such stress is laid in the Scriptures upon the Mosaic miracles and those of Christ, since many of them are such as nothing but divine power could accomplish. But the word miracle in the Scriptures has not this restricted meaning, but is applied likewise to any marked supernatural event. Because men are apt to put these upon a level with the miracles which God alone can work, they are warned not to follow after what is thus supernaturally done, if it be accompanied by such teaching as is contrary to truth already received.
See the apparent reality of such miracles in connection with the magicians of Egypt, Ex. 7:11; Chap. 8:7, and compare with it the conviction expressed by the magicians, Ex. 8:19, when they failed to produce lice from the dust, “This is the finger of God.”
Notice also what Christ says, Mark 13:22: “For there shall arise false Christs and false prophets, and shall shew signs and wonders, that they may lead astray, if possible, the elect.”
See also Rev. 16:13, 14: “And I saw coming out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits, as it were frogs, for they are spirits of devils, working signs; which go forth unto the kings of the whole world, to gather them together unto the war of the great day of God the Almighty.”
It is because of this liability to be deceived, that the Scriptures require the miracle and the concurrent doctrine as both essential to the reception of a new revelation.
2. This theory alone concurs with the course to which nature necessarily impels us.
To the extent that we are fully convinced of the truth of a doctrine, no subsequent revelation could change our belief. It is true that this does not apply when we have doubts; but when our knowledge is fixed, we cannot be moved. No amount of miracle could convince a Christian that the nature of God is otherwise than pure and holy, or that he delights in worship not of the heart, or that he is not infinite in justice and holiness, in goodness, mercy and truth, or that be will pardon sin without due satisfaction to his law.
3. This theory accords with the progressive character of divine revelation.
The earliest revelation came to those who had heretofore been guided only by reason. This was true even down to the beginnings of the Old Testament Scriptures, and, in that economy, only preparation was made for the future glory of the New Testament revelation. Hence the truths taught were, for the most part, only those which come within the compass of discovery by reason, or acceptance by it upon due suggestion, namely,—the existence of one God, the fact of creation, the law of moral obligation to God and man, the punishment of sinners, the duty of repentance, the pardoning mercy of God, and the law of sacrifices, with substitution and satisfaction.
The new economy goes further in its clear instructions: it teaches the vicarious atonement of Christ, involving representation in him and also in Adam, the doctrine of the Trinity in the Godhead, the mysterious union in the person of Christ, and many other truths heretofore only very indistinctly revealed.
These could not have been presented to those only taught heretofore by reason. But the revelation which stood between fore-shadowed them in different ways. From it alone originally they would not have been discovered. But now that they are made known, that former revelation is seen to concur with the new statements, and the conformity of the clearly expressed doctrine to the mere outlines of them in the past sustains the fact that they have a common author, and that the divine revealer is the same. It is like the presence in animals of the same genus in earlier days of germs which find their development in species which come later.
4. This accords with our means of judging what course of action infinite wisdom would have devised.
The conviction we have of past truth renders it impossible that we should throw it aside. We must, therefore, still hold it fast. That conviction has come from God, and we can have no higher evidence.
Yet, other statements and doctrines very probably or even certainly true, may be taught by men, as revealed to them, when they are either self-deceived, or attempting to deceive others. Hence, we must have the attesting miracle.
On the other hand, we are liable to be deceived as to what is supernatural, and especially, in the supernatural, as to what is within the limits of created power. Hence, we may be misled by the craft of men, or by the superhuman power of wicked spirits. Therefore, no doctrine must be accepted contrary to a truth already received.
A revelation, such as we have described, having been given and proved, another question arises: what is the relation which reason bears towards it?
We may lay down the following facts:
1. That reason is the first revelation, and is consequently presupposed in any other.
2. That the facts of reason cannot be denied by any subsequent revelation. No truth can destroy other truth.
A limitation must, however, be put on the province of reason. The doctrines of which it may judge, are those only which come within its sphere. Upon the presentation of a new doctrine reason may decide whether it agrees with former knowledge. If agreeable thereto, it must be accepted, if opposed, it must be rejected. But, if it be above reason, it must stand or fall with the rest of the revelation. God may, in his mercy, refrain from trying faith by a revelation of supernatural doctrine, but, if he reveals it, it must be no barrier to the reception of that doctrine itself, or of the revelation which accompanies it. In an able article in the Southern Presbyterian Review, Vol. I, pp. 1–34, on “Reason and Revelation,” Dr. Thornwell puts this limitation upon reason, that it is sole arbiter within its own bounds, but no judge beyond them. He thinks that in this way only can it be applied as a test of doctrine. The theory is undoubtedly correct. It fails only in not recognizing the precise manner in which Scripture brings it in as an arbiter, not as the judge of truth as disconnected from the past, but as related to the various times and forms in which God has taught it. Reason should judge a new revelation, not by the truths taught by reason alone, but also by those which have been made known in any previous revelation.
The office of reason with respect to revelation, is therefore seen to be:
1. To examine the evidence of the miracles upon which it rests.
2. To compare its doctrines with the teaching of the past, and recognize their correspondence with or opposition to that teaching.
3. To adopt or reject the revelation according to the evidence afforded that it is God’s truth.
4. To interpret its contents, according to the best light which learning affords.