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§ 1. The Knowledge of God is Innate.
A. What is meant by Innate Knowledge.
By innate knowledge is meant that which is due to our constitution, as sentient, rational, and moral beings. It is opposed to knowledge founded on experience; to that obtained by ab extra instruction; and to that acquired by a process of research and reasoning.
It cannot be doubted that there is such knowledge, i.e., that the soul is so constituted that it sees certain things to be true immediately in their own light. They need no proof. Men need not be told or taught that the things thus perceived are true. These immediate perceptions are called intuitions, primary truths, laws of belief, innate knowledge, or ideas. Provided we understand what is meant, the designation is of minor importance. The doctrine of innate knowledge, or intuitive truths, does not imply that the child is born with knowledge in conscious exercise in the mind. As knowledge is a form or state of the intelligence, and as that is a state of consciousness, knowledge, in the sense of the act of knowing, must be a matter of consciousness; and, therefore, it is said, cannot be innate. The new-born child has no conscious conviction of the existence of God. But the word knowledge is sometimes used in a passive sense. A man knows what lies dormant in his mind. Most of our knowledge is in that state. All the facts 192of history stored in the memory, are out of the domain of consciousness, until the mind is turned to them. It is not inconceivable, therefore, that the soul as it comes into the world may be stored with these primary truths which lie dormant in the mind, until roused by the due occasion. This, however, is not what is meant by innate knowledge. The word innate simply indicates the source of the knowledge. That source is our nature; that which is born with us. Nor does the doctrine of innate knowledge imply that the mind is born with ideas, in the sense of “patterns, phantasms, or notions,” as Locke calls them; nor that it is furnished by nature with a set of abstract principles, or general truths. All that is meant is, that the mind is so constituted that it perceives certain things to be true without proof and without instruction.
These intuitive truths belong to the several departments of the senses, the understanding, and our moral nature. In the first place, all our sense perceptions are intuitions. We apprehend their objects immediately, and have an irresistible conviction of their reality and truth. We may draw erroneous conclusions from our sensations; but our sensations, as far as they go, tell us the truth. When a man feels pain, he may refer it to the wrong place, or to a wrong cause; but he knows that it is pain. If he sees an object, he may be mistaken as to its nature; but he knows that he sees, and that what he sees is the cause of the sensation which he experiences. These are intuitions, because they are immediate perceptions of what is true. The conviction which attends our sensations is due not to instruction but to the constitution of our nature.
In the second place, there are intuitions of the intellect. That is, there are certain truths which the mind perceives to be true immediately, without proof or testimony. Such are the axioms of geometry. No man needs to have it proved to him that the part of a thing is less than the whole; or that a straight line is the shortest distance between two given points. It is an intuitive truth that “nothing” cannot be a cause; that every effect must have a cause. This conviction is not founded on experience, because experience is of necessity limited. And the conviction is not merely that every effect which we or other men have observed has had a cause; but that in the nature of things there can be no effect without an adequate cause. This conviction is said to be an innate truth, not because the child is born with it so that it is included in its infant consciousness, nor because the abstract principle is laid up in the mind, but simply because such is the nature of the mind, 193that it cannot but see these things to be true. As we are born with the sense of touch and sight, and take cognizance of their appropriate objects as soon as they are presented; so we are born with the intellectual faculty of perceiving these primary truths as soon as they are presented.
In the third place, there are moral truths which the mind intuitively recognizes as true. The essential distinction between right and wrong; the obligation of virtue; responsibility for character and conduct; that sin deserves punishment; are examples of this class of truths. No man needs to be taught them. No one seeks for further evidence of their being truths than that which is found in their nature.
There is another remark to be made in reference to the intuitions of the mind. The power of intuitional perception is capable of being increased. It is in fact greater in one man than in other men. The senses of some persons are far more acute than those of others. The senses of hearing and touch are greatly exalted in the case of the blind. It is the same with the intellect. What is self-evident to one man, has to be proved to another. It is said that all the propositions of the First Book of Euclid were as plain at first sight to Newton as the axioms. The same is true in our moral and religious nature. The more that nature is purified and exalted, the clearer is its vision, and the wider the scope of its intuitions. It is not easy to see, therefore, why Sir William Hamilton should make simplicity a characteristic of intuitive truths. If a proposition be capable of resolution into simpler factors, it may still to a powerful intellect be seen as self-evidently true. What is seen immediately, without the intervention of proof, to be true, is, according to the common mode of expression, said to be seen intuitively.
It is, however, only of the lower exercises of this power that we can avail ourselves in our arguments with our fellow men. Because a truth may be self-evident to one mind, it does not follow that it must be so to all other minds. But there is a class of truths so plain that they never fail to reveal themselves to the human mind, and to which the mind cannot refuse its assent. Hence the criteria of those truths which are accepted as axioms, and which are assumed in all reasoning, and the denial of which renders all faith and all knowledge impossible, are universality and necessity. What all believe, and what all men must believe, is to be assumed as undeniably true. These criteria indeed include each other. If a truth be universally admitted, it must be because no man can 194rationally call it to question. And if it be a matter of necessary belief it must be accepted by all who possess the nature out of the constitution of which the necessity arises.
B. Proof that the Knowledge of God is Innate.
The question now is, Whether the existence of God is an intuitive truth? Is it given in the very constitution of our nature? Is it one of those truths which reveal themselves to every human mind, and to which the mind is forced to assent? In other words, has it the characteristics of universality and necessity? It should be remarked that when universality is made a criterion of intuitive truths, it is intended to apply to those truths only which have their foundation or evidence in the constitution of our nature. As to the external world, if ignorance be universal, error may be universal. All men, for example, for ages believed that the sun moves round the earth; but the universality of that belief was no evidence of its truth.
When it is asked, Whether the existence of God is an intuitive truth, the question is equivalent to asking, Whether the belief in his existence is universal and necessary? If it be true that all men do believe there is a God, and that no man can possibly disbelieve his existence, then his existence is an intuitive truth. It is one of those given in the constitution of our nature; or which, our nature being what it is, no man can fail to know and to acknowledge.
Such has been the common opinion in all ages. Cicero130130De Natura Deorum, i. 17. says: “Esse Deos, quoniam insitas eorum, vel potius innatas cognitiones habemus.” Tertullian131131Testimonium Animæ. says of the heathen of his day, that the common people had a more correct idea of God than the phtilosophers. Calvin132132Institutio, 1. iii. 3. says “Hoc quidem recte judicantibus semper constabit, insculptum mentibus humanis esse divinitatis sensum, qui deleri nunquam potest.” The whole tendency in our day is, to make the existence of God so entirely a matter of intuition as to lead to the disparagement of all argument in proof of it. This extreme, however, does not justify the denial of a truth so important as that God has not left any human being without a knowledge of his existence and authority.
The word God, however, is used in a very wide sense. In the Christian sense of the word, “God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” This sublime idea of God no human mind ever 195attained either intuitively or discursively, except under the light of a supernatural revelation. On the other hand, some philosophers dignify motion, force, or the vague idea of the infinite, with the name of God. In neither of these senses of the word is the knowledge of God said to be innate, or a matter of intuition. It is in the general sense of a Being on whom we are dependent, and to whom we are responsible, that the idea is asserted to exist universally, and of necessity, in every human mind. It is true that if this idea is analyzed, it will be found to embrace the conviction that God is a person, and that He possesses moral attributes, and acts as a moral governor. Nothing is asserted as to how far this analysis is made by uneducated and uncivilized men. All that is maintained is that this sense of dependence and accountability to a being higher than themselves exists in the minds of all men.
The Knowledge of God is Universal.
In proof of this doctrine, reference may be made —
1. To the testimony of Scripture. The Bible asserts that the knowledge of God is thus universal. This it does both directly and by necessary implication. The Apostle directly asserts in regard to the heathen as such without limitation, that they have the knowledge of God, and such knowledge as to render their impiety and immorality inexcusable. “Because that when they knew God,” he says, “they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful.” (Rom. i. 19-21.) He says of the most depraved of men, that they know the righteous judgment of God, that those who commit sin are worthy of death. (Rom. i. 32.) The Scripture everywhere addresses men as sinners; it calls upon them to repent; it threatens them with punishment in case of disobedience: or promises pardon to those who turn from their sins. All this is done without any preliminary demonstration of the being of God. It assumes that men know that there is a God, and that they are subject to his moral government. It is true that the Bible at times speaks of the heathen as not knowing God, and says that they are without God. But this, as explained by the context in which such declarations appear, and by the general teaching of the Scriptures, only means that the heathen are without correct, or saving knowledge of God; that they are without his favour, do not belong to the number of his people, and of course are not partakers of the blessedness of those whose God is the Lord. In teaching the universal sinfulness and condemnation of men: their inexcusableness for idolatry and immorality, and 196in asserting that even the most degraded are conscious of guilt and just exposure to the divine judgment, the Bible takes for granted that the knowledge of God is universal, that it is written on the heart of every man.
This is still more apparent from what the Bible teaches of the law as written on the heart. The Apostle tells us that those who have a written revelation, shall be judged by that revelation; that those who have no externally revealed law, shall be judged by the law written on the heart. That the heathen have such a law, he proves first, from the fact that “they do by nature the things contained in the law,” i. e., they do under the control of their nature the things which the law prescribes; and secondly, from the operations of conscience. When it condemns, it pronounces something done, to be contrary to the moral law; and when it approves, it pronounces something to be conformed to that law. (Rom. ii. 12-16.) The recognition of God, therefore, that is, of a being to whom we are responsible, is involved in the very idea of accountability. Hence every man carries in the very constitution of his being as a moral agent, the evidence of the existence of God. And as this sense of sin and responsibility is absolutely universal, so must also, according to the Bible, be the knowledge of God.
2. The second argument in favor of the universality of this knowledge, is the historical one. History shows that the religious element of our nature is just as universal as the rational or social one. Wherever men exist, in all ages and in all parts of the world, they have some form of religion. The idea of God is impressed on every human language. And as language is the product and revelation of human consciousness, if all languages have some name for God, it proves that the idea of God, in some form, belongs to every human being.
Objections to the Assumption that the Knowledge of God is Universal.
There are two objections often urged against the doctrine that the knowledge of God results from the very constitution of our nature, and is therefore universal. The one is, that travellers and missionaries report the existence of some tribes so degraded that they could discover in them no traces of this knowledge. Even if the fact be admitted that such tribes have no idea of God, it would not be conclusive. Should a tribe of idiots be discovered, it would not prove that reason is not an attribute of our nature. If any community should come to light in which infanticide was universal, it 197would not prove that parental love was not one of the instincts of humanity. But the probability is that the fact is not as reported. It is very difficult for foreigners to get acquainted with the interior life of those who differ from themselves so much in their intellectual and moral condition. And besides, Christians attach such an exalted meaning to the word God, that when they see no evidence of the presence of that exalted conception in the minds of the heathen, they are apt to conclude that all knowledge of God is wanting. Unless such people show that they have no sense of right and wrong, no consciousness of responsibility for character and conduct, there is no evidence that they have no knowledge of such a being as God.
The other objection is drawn from the case of the deaf and dumb, who sometimes say that previous to instruction, the idea of God never entered their minds. To this the same answer may be given. The knowledge obtained by Christian instruction so much surpasses that given by intuition, that the latter seems as nothing. It is hardly conceivable that a human soul should exist in any state of development, without a sense of responsibility, and this involves the idea of God. For the responsibility is felt to be not to self, nor to men, but to an invisible Being, higher than self, and higher than man.
The Belief in God Necessary.
But if it be admitted that the knowledge of God is universal among men, is it also a necessary belief? Is it impossible for the mind to dispossess itself of the conviction that there is a God? Necessity, as remarked above, may be considered as involved in universality, at least in such a case as this. There is no satisfactory way of accounting for the universal belief in the existence of God, except that such belief is founded on the very constitution of our nature. Nevertheless, these two criteria of intuitive truths are generally distinguished, and are in some aspects distinct.
The question then is, Is it possible for a sane man to disbelieve in the existence of God? This question is commonly answered in the negative. It is objected, however, that facts prove the contrary. No man has ever been found, who denies that two and two make four, whereas atheists abound in every age and in every part of the world.
There, are, however, different kinds of necessary truths.
1. Those the opposite of which is absolutely unthinkable. That every effect must have a cause, that a part of a given thing is less than the whole, are propositions the opposites of which cannot have 198any meaning. When a man says that something is nothing, he expresses no thought. He denies what he affirms, and therefore says nothing.
2. There are truths concerning external or material things, which have a power to constrain belief different from that power which pertains to truths concerning the mind. A man cannot deny that he has a body; and he cannot rationally deny that he has a will. The impossibility in both cases may be equal, but they are of different kinds, and affect the mind differently.
3. Again, there are truths which cannot be denied without doing violence to the laws of our nature. In such cases the denial is forced, and can only be temporary. The laws of our nature are sure sooner or later to assert themselves, and constrain an opposite belief. A pendulum when at rest hangs perpendicularly to the horizon. It may by extraneous force be made to hang at any degree of inclination. But as soon as such force is removed, it is sure to swing back to its normal position. Under the control of a metaphysical theory, a man may deny the existence of the external world, or the obligation of the moral law; and his disbelief may be sincere, and for a time persistent; but the moment the speculative reasons for his disbelief are absent from his mind, it of necessity reverts to its original and natural convictions. It is also possible that a man's hand may be so hardened or cauterized as to lose the sense of touch. But that would not prove that the hand in man is not normally the great organ of touch. So it is possible that the moral nature of a man may be so disorganized by vice or by a false philosophy as to have its testimony for the existence of God effectually silenced. This, however, would prove nothing as to what that testimony really is. Besides this, insensibility and the consequent unbelief cannot last. Whatever rouses the moral nature, whether it be danger, or suffering, or the approach of death, banishes unbelief in a moment. Men pass from skepticism to faith, in many cases, instantaneously; not of course by a process of argument, but by the existence of a state of consciousness with which skepticism is irreconcilable, and in the presence of which it cannot exist. This fact is illustrated continually, not only in the case of the uneducated and superstitious, but even in the case of men of the highest culture. The simple fact of Scripture and experience is, that the moral law as written upon the heart is indelible; and the moral law in its nature implies a lawgiver, one from whom that law emanates, and by whom it will be enforced. And, therefore, so long as men are moral creatures, they will and must believe 199in the existence of a Being on whom they are dependent, and to whom they are responsible for their character and their conduct. To this extent, and in this sense, therefore, it is to be admitted that the knowledge of God is innate and intuitive; that men no more need to be taught that there is a God, than they need to be taught there is such a thing as sin. But as men are ignorant of the nature and extent of sin, while aware of its existence, until instructed by the Word of God, and enlightened by his Spirit; so they greatly need the same sources of instruction to give them any adequate knowledge of the nature of God, and of their relations to him.
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