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4. Dogmatism, or the Third Form of Rationalism.

A. Meaning of the Term.

It was a common objection made in the early age of the Church against Christianity, by the philosophical Greeks, that its doctrines were received upon authority, and not upon rational evidence. Many of the Fathers, specially those of the Alexandrian school, answered that this was true only of the common people. They could not be expected to understand philosophy. They could receive the high spiritual truths of religion only on the ground of authority. But the educated classes were able and were bound to search after the philosophical or rational evidence of the doctrines taught in the Bible, and to receive those doctrines on the ground of that evidence. They made a distinction, therefore, between πίστις and γνῶσις, faith and knowledge. The former was for the common people, the latter for the cultivated. The objects of faith 45were the doctrinal statements of the Bible in the form in which they are there presented. The ground of faith is simply the testimony of the Scriptures as the Word of God. The objects of knowledge were the speculative or philosophical ideas which underlie the doctrines of the Bible, and the ground on which those ideas or truths are received and incorporated in our system of knowledge, is their own inherent evidence. They are seen to be true by the light of reason. Faith is thus elevated into knowledge, and Christianity exalted into a philosophy. This method was carried out by the Platonizing fathers, and continued to prevail to a great extent among the schoolmen. During the Middle Ages the authority of the Church was paramount, and the freest thinkers did not venture openly to impugn the doctrines which the Church had sanctioned. For the most part they contented themselves with philosophizing about those doctrines, and endeavoring to show that they admitted of a philosophical explanation and proof.


As remarked in the preceding chapter, this method was revived and extensively propagated by Wolf (1679-1754, Professor at Halle and Marburg). His principal works were “Theologia Naturalis,” 1736, “Philos. Practicalis Universalis,” 1738, “Philos. Moralis s. Ethica,” 1750, “Vernünftige Gedanken von Gott, der Welt und der Seele des Menschen, auch allen Dingen überhaupt,” 1720. Wolf unduly exalted the importance of natural religion. Although he admitted that the Scriptures revealed doctrines undiscoverable by the unassisted reason of man, he yet insisted that all doctrines, in order to be rationally received as true, should be capable of demonstration on the principles of reason. “He maintained,” says Mr. Rose (in his “State of Protestantisin in Germany,” p. 39), “that philosophy was indispensable to religion, and that, together with Biblical proofs, a mathematical or strictly demonstrative dogmatical system, according to the principles of reason, was absolutely necessary. His own works carried this theory into practice, and after the first clamors had subsided, his opinions gained more attention, and it was not long before he had a school of vehement admirers, who far outstripped him in the use of his own principles. We find some of them not content with applying demonstration to the truth of the system, but endeavoring to establish each separate dogma, the Trinity, the nature of the Redeemer, the Incarnation, the eternity of punishment, on philosophical, and strange as it may appear, some of these truths on mathematical 46grounds.” The language of Wolf himself on this subject has already been quoted on page 5. He expressly states that the office of revelation is to supplement natural religion, and to present propositions which the philosopher is bound to demonstrate. By demonstration is not meant the adduction of proof that the proposition is sustained the Scriptures, but that the doctrine must be admitted as true on the principles of reason. It is philosophical demonstration that is intended. “Theological Dogmatism,” says Mansel,1111Limits of Religious Thought, p. 47. “is an application of reason to the support and defense of preëxisting statements of Scripture. . . . . Its end is to produce a coincidence between what we believe and what we think; to remove the boundary which separates the comprehensible from the incomprehensible.”1212Ibid. p. 50. It attempts, for example, to demonstrate the doctrine of the Trinity from the nature of an infinite being; the doctrine of the Incarnation from the nature of man and his relation to God, etc. Its grand design is to transmute faith into knowledge, to elevate Christianity as a system of revealed truth into a system of Philosophy.

B. Refutation.

The objections to Dogmatism, as thus understood, are, —

That it is essentially Rationalistic. The Rationalist demands philosophical proof of the doctrines which he receives. He is not willing to believe on the simple authority of Scripture. He requires his reason to be satisfied by a demonstration of the truth independent of the Bible. This demand the Dogmatist admits to be reasonable, and he undertakes to furnish the required proof. In this essential point, therefore, in making the reception of Christian doctrine to rest on reason and not on authority, the Dogmatist and the Rationalist are on common ground. For although the former admits a supernatural revelation, and acknowledges that for the common people faith must rest on authority, yet he maintains that the mysteries of religion admit of rational or philosophical demonstration, and that such demonstration cultivated minds have a right to demand.

2. In thus shifting faith from the foundation of divine testimony, and making it rest on rational demonstration, it is removed from the Rock of Ages to a quicksand. There is all the difference between a conviction founded on the well-authenticated testimony of God, and that founded on so-called philosophical demonstration, that there is between God and man, the divine and human. Let 47any man read the pretended philosophical demonstrations of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the resurrection of the body, or any other of the great truths of the Bible, and he will feel at liberty to receive or to reject it at pleasure. It has no authority or certainty. It is the product of a mind like his own, and therefore can have no more power than belongs to the fallible human intellect.

3. Dogmatism is, therefore, in its practical effect, destructive of faith. In transmuting Christianity into a philosophy, its whole nature is changed and its power is lost. It takes its place as one of the numberless phases of human speculation, which in the history of human thought succeed each other as the waves of the sea, — no one ever abides.

4. It proceeds on an essentially false principle. It assumes the competency of reason to judge of things entirely beyond its sphere. God has so constituted our nature, that we are authorized and necessitated to confide in the well-authenticated testimony of our senses, within their appropriate sphere. And in like manner, we are constrained to confide in the operation of our minds and in the conclusions to which they lead, within the sphere which God has assigned to human reason. But the senses cannot sit in judgment on rational truths. We cannot study logic with the microscope or scalpel. It is no less irrational to depend upon reason, or demand rational or philosophical demonstration for truths which become the objects of knowledge only as they are revealed. From the nature of the case the truths concerning the creation, the probation, and apostasy of man, the purpose and plan of redemption, the person of Christ, the state of the soul in the future world, the relation of God to his creatures, etc., not depending on general principles of reason, but in great measure on the purposes of an intelligent, personal Being, can be known only so far as He chooses to reveal them, and must be received simply on his authority.

The Testimony of the Scriptures against Dogmatism.

5. The testimony of the Scriptures is decisive on this subject. From the beginning to the end of the Bible the sacred writers present themselves in the character of witnesses. They demand faith in their teachings and obedience to their commands not on the ground of their own superiority in wisdom or excellence; not on the ground of rational demonstration of the truth of what they taught, but simply as the organs of God, as men appointed by Him to reveal his will. Their first and last, and sufficient reason for faith is, “Thus saith the Lord.” The New Testament writers, especially, 48repudiate all claim to the character of philosophers. They taught that the Gospel was not a system of truth derived from reason or sustained by its authority, but by the testimony of God. They expressly assert that its doctrines were matters of revelation, to be received on divine testimony. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him?” (1 Cor. ii. 9-11.) Such being the nature of the Gospel, if received at all it must be received on authority. It was to be believed or taken on trust, not demonstrated as a philosophical system. Nay, the Bible goes still further. It teaches that a man must become a fool in order to be wise; he must renounce dependence upon his own reason or wisdom, in order to receive the wisdom of God. Our Lord told his disciples that unless they were converted and became as little children, they could not enter into the kingdom of God. And the Apostle Paul, in his Epistle to the Corinthians, and in those addressed to the Ephesians and Colossians, that is, when writing to those imbued with the Greek and with the oriental philosophy, made it the indispensable condition of their becoming Christians, that they should renounce philosophy as a guide in matters of religion, and receive the Gospel on the testimony of God. Nothing, therefore, can be more opposed to the whole teaching and spirit of the Bible, than this disposition to insist on philosophical proof of the articles of our faith. Our duty, privilege, and security are in believing, not in knowing; in trusting God, and not our own understanding. They are to be pitied who have no more trustworthy teacher than themselves.

6. The instructions of the Bible on this subject are abundantly confirmed by the lessons of experience. From the time of the Gnostics, and of the Platonizing fathers, the attempt has been made in every age to exalt faith into knowledge, to transmute Christianity into philosophy, by demonstrating its doctrines on the principles of reason. These attempts have always failed. They have all proved ephemeral and worthless, — each successive theorizer viewing with more or less contempt the speculations of his predecessors, yet each imagining that he has the gifts for comprehending the Almighty.

These attempts are not only abortive, they are always evil in their effects upon their authors and upon all who are influenced by 49them. So far as they succeed to the satisfaction of those who make them, they change the relation of the soul to the truth, and, of course, to God. The reception of the truth is not an act of faith or of trust in God; but of confidence in our own speculations. Self is substituted for God as the ground of confidence. The man’s whole inward state is thereby changed. History, moreover, proves that Dogmatism is the predecessor of Rationalism. The natural tendency and the actual consequences of the indulgence of a disposition to demand philosophical demonstration for articles of faith, is a state of mind which revolts at authority, and refuses to admit as true what it cannot comprehend and prove. And this state of mind, as it is incompatible with faith, is the parent of unbelief and of all its consequences. There is no safety for us, therefore, but to remain within the limits which God has assigned us. Let us rely on our senses, within the sphere of our sense perceptions; on our reason within the sphere of rational truths; and on God, and God alone, in all that relates to the things of God. He only truly knows, who consents with the docility of a child to be taught of God.

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