On the use of Reason in Religion

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Lectures on The Principles of Unitarianism
Lecture 2 – (By J. S. Hyndman, 1824)

[Please note that Spirit & Truth Fellowship International does not necessarily agree with the full content of this lecture, however we think it is a very valuable and historical document that needs to be available online for all to read and study.]

1 Thessalonians 5:21
Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.

It is obvious that in order to reason with an opponent there must be some common standard of appeal, according to which the course of mutual argumentation may be determined to be either true or false. Some Trinitarians have however denied that we are warranted in rejecting what appears to be absolutely absurd, provided it be communicated to the understanding by divine revelation. That whatever is revealed by God must be true, no rational mind can deny. But that God cannot propose to the belief of his reasonable creatures any thing that is not in consistency with their rational natures, it as undeniable as the other. So that, were it true that Christianity contained in it what is at variance with the conclusions of reason, reasson would necessarily conclude Christianity to be false. Can you doubt this? Let me illustrate.

Why do you believe in the divine authority of the Christian religion? Why do you accede to its claims in preference to those of Mahomedanism, for example? You will immediately reply, that the evidence of the heavenly origin of the one is greater than that of the other; or that there is evidence for the former, while there is none whatever for the latter. But is not reason here our only judge? The proof is brought before its bar, and it pronounces sentence. Now the evidence of a religion is either external or internal; in support of Christianity there are both. The external principally consists in miracles; the internal chiefly in the agreement of the facts that are stated with what are known, by other means of information, to have really happened; and in the consistency of its statements respecting duty and God, for instance, with what we know of these by natural religion.

Now in what manner do we ascertain the evidence afforded by miracles? The reality of these depends upon the testimony of the senses; but the proof they afford of the truth of the religion which they are produced to attest depends upon a deduction of the understanding, which concludes that God would not overrule or alter the course of nature in attestation of falsehood and imposture. In what manner do we appreciate the force of the evidence arising from the revelation itself? Clearly by a comparison of the statements made as to duty and to God with the universally acknowledged principles of piety and morality and the admitted perfections of the Deity. But since a revelation must be supported by evidence, of which alone reason can judge, and on the judgment formed by which depends our belief or disbelief, it is evident that if there were any thing in the two kinds of offered evidence which was contrary to our natural judgment, we could not embrace the religion. The very circumstance of evidence being offered to substantiate the claims of the religion supposes that we are capable of judging of it, and consequently that there are certain fixed principles of reason in us which our constitution forces us to judge by, and by which our judgment on the evidence must necessarily be determined.

The very veracity of God and the divine original of Christianity, then, are conclusions of reason, and must stand or fall with it. If revelation be at war with this faculty, it subverts itself; for the great question of its truth is left by God to be decided at the bar of reason. Did the former contain any thing contrary to the principles of our intelligence, in receiving it we should be doing violence to that reason which its evidences address, and to which they appeal as their judge; which, in fact, God has given us for the very purpose of judging between right and wrong, truth and falsehood. Moreover, is not reason an emanation from the fountain of intelligence as well as revelation? Is not the former the voice of the Almighty within us, as is the latter his voice without us? The dictates of the former can never, therefore, oppose the doctrines of the latter; otherwise God would do violence to his own workmanship.

Suppose it possible, then, that miracles were performed to establish the divine authority of a religion that contradicted facts, first principles, and indisputable truths, we could not believe it. Because the evidence that miracles afford for the truth of a religion depends upon a deduction of the understanding, and could not therefore counter-balance the evidence arising against it from its opposition to the principles of the same understanding. It is worthy of remark, how nearly the bigot and the skeptic approach. Both would annihilate our confidence in our faculties; both would throw doubt and confusion over every truth. We honour revelation too highly to make it the antagonist of reason, or to believe that it calls us to renounce our highest powers.

The true inference from the almost endless errors which have darkened theology, is, not that we are to neglect and disparage our powers, but to exert them more patiently, circumspectly, and uprightly. The worst errors, after all, have sprung up in that church which proscribes reason, and demands from its members implicit faith. The most pernicious doctrines have been the growth of the darkest times, when the general credulity encouraged bad men and enthusiasts to broach their dreams and inventions, and to stifle for faint remonstrances of reason, by the menaces of everlasting perdition. Say what we may, God has given us a rational nature, and will call us to an account for it. We may let it sleep, but we do so at our peril. Revelation is addressed to us as rational beingswe may wish, in our sloth, that God had given us a system, demanding no labour of comparing, limiting, and inferring. But such a system would be at variance with the whole character of a present state; and it is the part of wisdom to take revelation as it is given to us, and to interpret it by the help of the faculties which it every where supposes and on which it is founded.

To the views now given, an objection is commonly urged from the character of God. We are told, that God being infinitely wiser than men, his discoveries will surpass human reason. In a revelation from such a teacher, we ought to expect propositions which we cannot reconcile with one another, and which may seem to contradict established truths; and it becomes us not to question or explain them away, but to believe and adore, and to submit our weak and carnal reason to the divine word. To this objection we have two short answers. We say, first, that it is impossible that a teacher of infinite wisdom should expose those whom he would teach, to infinite error. But if once we admit, that propositions which in their literal sense appear plainly repugnant to one another, or to any known truth, are still to be literally understood and received, what possible limit can we set to the belief of contradictions? What shelter have we from the wildest fanaticism, which can always quote passages, that, in their literal and apparent sense, give support to its extravagances? How can the Protestant escape from transubstantiation, a doctrine most clearly taught us, if the prostration of reason, now contended for, be a duty? How can we ever hold fast the truth of revelation? For if one obvious contradiction be true, so may another, and the proposition that Christianity is false, though involving inconsistency, may still be a verity. In fact, universal skepticism is the natural consequence of the prostration of understanding for which Trinitarians contend.

We answer again, that, if God be infinitely wise, he cannot sport with the understandings of his creatures. A wise teacher discovers his wisdom in adapting himself to the capacities of his pupils, not in perplexing them with what is unintelligible, not in filling them with a skeptical distrust of their powers. An infinitely wise teacher, who knows the precise extent of our minds, and the best method of enlightening them, will surpass all other instructors in bringing down truth to our apprehension, and in shewing its loveliness and harmony. We ought, indeed, to expect occasional obscurity in such a book as the Bible, which was written for past and future ages, as well as for the present. But God’s wisdom is a pledge, that whatever is necessary for us, and necessary for salvation, is revealed too plainly to be mistaken, and too consistently to be questioned by a sound and upright mind. It is not the mark of wisdom to use an unintelligible phraseology to communicate what is above our capacities, to confuse and unsettle the intellect by appearances of contradiction. We honour our heavenly Teacher too much to ascribe to him such a revelation. A revelation is a gift of light; it cannot thicken and multiply our perplexities. [1]

I shall here produce an instance of the false illustration that has been employed with a view of shewing the propriety of believing doctrines that are seen to be absurd. Thus speaks Lord Bacon: “As we are obliged to obey the divine law, though our will murmur at it; so we are obliged to believe the word of God, though our reason be shocked at it. For if we should believe only such things as are agreeable to our reason, we assent to the matter and not to the author, which is no more than we do to a suspected witness.” Now the few remarks I have already made are surely sufficient to shew the fallacy of such views. The word of God can contain nothing that shocks our judgment; and the reason why we do not believe in contradictions is not because we have any doubt as to God’s rectitude and veracity, but because we know that he cannot lay us under any obligation to believe what he himself has rendered it impossible for us to believe.

The grand difference between our obligation to obey the divine law, &c. and the supposed obligation we are under of believing contradictions, is this: To give obedience to the divine law, we do see to be agreeable to reason, and God has established within us a principle of conscience, which irresistibly prompts to obedience. On the other hand, to believe contradictions, we see to be in opposition to reason. God has implanted within us a principle of intelligence, by the operation of which we are led to believe that he can never contradict himself, or, which is the same thing, can never give us a mental constitution, by the laws of which we are necessarily determined to believe some things as true and reject others as false, and then do violence to his own workmanship by requiring us to believe what he himself as our Maker has rendered us incapable of believing. We are able to obey the divine will, but we are not able to believe contradictions, and we cannot suppose that the Deity can act inconsistently. In the former case, we have from ourselves, within ourselves, and as a part of ourselves, the principle which dictates to us the propriety of doing our Maker’s will. In the other case, we have from ourselves, within ourselves, and as a part of ourselves, the intuitive perception, that contradictions cannot be true. In the one case, we murmur at that which our reason and conscience should acquiesce in as right and becoming. In the other case, we are shocked at what our reason forces us to be shocked atof the falsity of which we have irresistible intuitive evidence; and which we have also as much ground to reject, as we have to believe that God is consistent with himself.

Lord Bacon thus continues the passage I have quoted: “But the faith imputed to Abraham for righteousness consisted in a particular laughed at by Sarah, who in that respect was an image of the natural reason. And therefore the more absurd and incredible any divine mystery is, the greater honour we do to God in believing it, and so much the more noble the victory of faith.” The object, you see, is to shew that we must believe what our nature necessarily teaches to be false; and to shew the propriety of this, he adduces as a parallel case that of Abraham giving credence to the express promise of God, that his power should alter the course of nature so as that he should have a son. Was Abraham’s believing, then, that God could alter the course of nature, which he himself established, and the stability of which depends on his own sovereign will, any thing like one’s admitting that which his nature teaches him to be an absurdity, and precludes the possibility of his believing? Did the subject of his faith contradict any of the principles of his understanding, or that perception of truth and error with which the Almighty, who made the promise endued him? The matter of his belief was indeed contrary to his own experience and observation, or, more properly speaking, he only wanted experience of that which he believed. But surely there is as wide a difference between giving credence to that of which one has not had experience, and believing what is opposed to the dictates of one’s intellectual nature, as there is between believing that the course of nature, which indeed is only the agency of an intelligent being, may be changed, or that God cannot falsify his word, and becoming firmly persuaded of such a proposition as this being true: “three and one are identical terms.”

And with respect to those who would seem to imply that a thing may contradict our reason and yet be true to the understandings of other intelligent beings, I would just observe, that, on this principle of reasoning, all things that we are convinced of may be false. As the Divine Being is true and immutable, in the nature of things it is impossible that any proposition within the compass of thought and evidence which God has rendered it necessary for us to esteem a contradiction can appear to other intelligent beings in any different light.

Again, whence originates the conclusion that we must believe contradictions? Certainly from reason. In admitting doctrines contrary to reason from the belief that God has revealed them, we are induced to do so by some kind of consideration which appears rational to the mind. The attempt to check ratiocination, or to destroy the authority of reason in matters of religion, can only be made by an effort of reason. Sentiments the most absurd, positions the most extravagant, can only be reconciled to any mind because in some point of view it appears rational to admit them. The man who insists most strenuously on faith to the subversion of human reason, thinks that he enforces his injunction upon rational principles. He reasons against using reasonon the propriety and the duty of doing violence to that very judgment which he himself thus uses with the express purpose of shewing that we should admit what is necessarily repugnant to it. Thus does reason beguile and destroy itself.

I wish Trinitarians would have the candour to see how ill the charge of abusing reason comes from them. Their whole system is a system of reasoning and inference. It presumptuously attempts to scan the nature and the mode of existence of the Eternal Spirit. It analyses the Deity, as it wereit enters his very essence, pointing out the distinctions in it. The origin of it was the school of Plato, and the indications of its parentage are visible enough.

A learned defender of orthodoxy [2] thus attempts to shew the propriety of defending Trinitarianism on the principles of reason and demonstration: “It is observable that the fathers of the council of Nice brought all their arguments against the Arians from reason and demonstration, and almost never appealed to Scripture; but they were not acquainted with the inductive system, and therefore argued concretely not abstractly. This proves that in the purest times of the church, reason was applied to the subject in the best manner the reasoners could, and if it was so then, may it not be so now? Upon examination it will be found that almost every one of the arguments used by Athanasius against Arius is taken from reason applied to the subject, but scarcely one from Scripture. Those who deny that reason may be applied to the subject would do well to examine the arguments of the council of Nice as they appear in the Nicene Creed, and the arguments advanced by Athanasius as they appear in the Athanasian Creed. The reader will find the proof of all this in Cudworth. Indeed, till the subject be firmly established by reason and demonstration, those who deny it will never be satisfied nor silenced. Our efforts will be the more arduous to convince them, as many of those who deny the Trinity are more learned and profound disputants; so that nothing but the swords, the arrows, and the spears of truth, together with an impregnable coat of mail composed of reason and demonstration, can ward off their powerful and impetuous assaults.”

About one hundred and fifty years ago, some of the most learned Trinitarians confessed that the doctrine of the Trinity was not founded on the Scriptures, but in the tradition of the church. The Unitarians were then obliged to maintain as a previous step to the establishment of their opinions, that the Scriptures are the only infallible rule by which to determine religious controversies. “The Socinians (said they) are of a contrary mind. Hath the Holy Spirit, that is, hath God said it? They will believe though all men and angels contradict it. They will always prefer the infinite wisdom of God before the fallible dictates of human or angelic reason.”

The fact is, that the Trinity owes its birth not to any clear passages of Scripture, but to that wild spirit of speculation, and that fondness for what is dark and overwhelming, which, not content with simple truth, must have something to amaze and confound the human intellect. In Trinitarianism do we not see the brother of transubstantiation, that darling of Catholics, for the sake of which every thing was made to look like a contradiction, and none more so than the doctrine of the personal unity of God?

It was not long after the first promulgation of Christianity that men enlarged their creeds and confessions of faith, made more and more things explicitly necessary to be believed, and under pretence of explaining infallibly, imposed articles much more intricate to be understood than the Scripture itself, became horridly uncharitable in their censures, and the further they departed from the apostolic form of sound words, the more uncertain and unintelligible their definitions grew. Their taste being characterized by the love of the marvellous and the mystical, they paid little regard to the plain and unerring dictates of inspiration, and by the exercise of a singular ingenuity under the influence of Platonic associations, they soon came to see their own illusions stamped with the sacred authority of Heaven. In their delight to astonish and amaze, they dimmed the moral glory of Christianity, made the gospel of Jesus like some of the incomprehensible systems of heathen philosophya religion unworthy of God to give or of man to receive. And now, my brethren, that we honestly wish to dismiss from Christianity every thing which has been foisted into it, we are accused of exalting reason above revelation. I wish the history of the church were better known.

[Please note that Spirit & Truth Fellowship International does not necessarily agree with the full content of this lecture, however we think it is a very valuable and historical document that needs to be available online for all to read and study.]


Endnotes:

1. See Channing’s Sermon preached at Baltimore, U.S., May, 1819. Back to top

2. Professor Kidd, of Aberdeen. Back to top