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§ 5 Excursus. Concerning the Use of Reason in Theology

By the term Reason, we may understand either, the capacity of intellectual apprehension in general — and this is essential to man, for it is only by means of this capacity, which distinguishes him from irrational animals, that he can comprehend the truths of religion; [1] or, the capacity of acquiring knowledge and appropriating truths. [2] The knowledge, however, which one thus acquires is, even if true, still defective and unsatisfactory, [3] and therefore Reason is by no means the source from which man can draw the knowledge of saving truths, [4] but for these the revelation contained in Holy Scripture remains ever the only source.

The question now arises, How is Reason related to this revelation, and what use can Theology make of Reason?

Inasmuch as Reason also derives its knowledge from God, Reason and Revelation are, of course, not opposed to each other. [5] This hold true, however, only of Reason considered per se, of Reason as it was before the fall of man. This would have remained conscious of the limits of its sphere; would not have sought to measure divine things by the rule of natural knowledge; would have subordinated itself to Revelation, [6] and would have known that there are truths which, although not in antagonism with it, are yet far beyond its reach. [7]

But the case if very different with Reason as it dwells now in fallen man; for we must concede that, by man’s fall, such a change has occurred that Reason now often assumes a position of antagonism to revealed truth. [8] It still, indeed, possesses some knowledge of divine things, but this knowledge is obscured in proportion to the moral depravity of man, and it now, more easily than before, transcends the assigned limits. If now Reason, even before the fall of man, had to keep within modest limits, with respect to the truths of Revelation, much less dare it now, in the fallen condition of man, assume to judge in regard to divine things, or subject the truths of Revelation to its tests; still less dare it reject that which does 30not seem to agree with its knowledge: its duty rather is to subject itself to Revelation and learn therefrom. If this be done, however, much will again become intelligible that previously appeared contradictory, and Reason will again approach the condition occupied before the Fall. But this will be only an approach to that condition; for just as man, even through regeneration, never again becomes entirely sinless, so the Reason of the regenerate never attains its original power. [9] We may therefore say of Reason, even when enlightened, that it can have no decisive judgment in regard to matters of faith, and possesses in such matters no normative authority, all the more since this was true of Reason before the Fall. [10]

As to the use, then, that is to be made of Reason in Theology, it follows, from what has been said, that Reason stands in the relation merely of a handmaid to the latter. [11] In so far as it is the capacity for intellectual apprehension in general, the use that is to be made of it will consist in this, that man, by its help, intellectually apprehends the truths of Theology, and accepts from it the means of refuting opponents. In so far, however, as it also conveys knowledge, one may also employ it in the demonstration of a divine truth; in such a case, Reason would contribute whatever of natural knowledge it has acquired. And just in the same proportion as Reason has suffered itself to be enlightened by divine Revelation, will it be able to demonstrate the harmony of divine truth with natural knowledge. [12]

[1] Cal. (I, 358): “Human Reason denotes two things. On the one hand, it designates the intellect of man, that faculty of the rational soul that must be exercised in every kind of knowledge, since it is only by the reason or intellect that man can understand.” . . . HOLL. (69): “Without the use of reason we cannot understand or prove theological doctrines, or defend them against the artful objections of opponents. Surely not to brutes, but to men using their sound reason, has God revealed the knowledge of eternal salvation in His Word, and upon them He has imposed the earnest injunction to read, hear, and meditate upon His Word. The intellect is therefore required, as the receiving subject or apprehending instrument. As we can see nothing without eyes, and hear nothing without ears, so we understand nothing without reason.”


[2] CAL. (ibid.): “On the other hand, Reason, denotes Philosophy itself, or the principles known from nature, and the discussion or ratiocination based upon these known principles.” These principles are divided “into organic and philosophical (strictly so called). The former (organic) relate to the mediate disciplines, grammar, rhetoric, and logic.” — (QUEN. (I, 39): “These are to be employed in Theology, as the means of becoming acquainted with Theology, since without them, neither the sense nor significance of the words can be derived, nor the figures and modes of speech be properly weighed, nor the connection and consequences be perceived, nor discussions be instituted”). The latter (the philosophical) are again divided into “philosophical principles absolutely and unrestrictedly universal (general or transcendental), which consist of a combination of terms essential and simply necessary, so that they cannot be overthrown by any argument, not even by the Scripture; e.g., ‘It is impossible for anything to be and not to be at the same time;’” and “philosophical principles restrictedly universal (special or particular), which are indeed true, to a certain extent, hypothetically, or so far as mere natural knowledge extends, but which, nevertheless, admit of limitation, and which may be invalidated by counter evidence drawn from revelation, if not from nature; e.g., ‘As many as are the persons, so many are the essences,’ etc.” HOLL (68). Through these philosophical sources we can also gain a knowledge of God, for there is a natural knowledge of God, described elsewhere by the Theologians under the heads of the innate, and the acquired knowledge of God.

[3] CAL. (II, 47): “Of the natural knowledge of God there is predicated, as to those things that are revealed in nature, imperfection; and as to the supernatural mysteries of faith, entire worthlessness [nullitas].

[4] HOLL. (69): “Meanwhile, nevertheless, human reason is not a fountain, or primordial element, from which the peculiar and fundamental principles of faith are derived.”

[5] FLACIUS, with his assertion, that “the knowledge of God, naturally implanted, is a light full of error, fallacious and deceptive,” and subsequently, Daniel Hofmann (“Philosophy is hostile to Theology; what is true in Philosophy is false in Theology”), gave especial occasion to dispute the antagonism between Reason and Revelation.

CAL. (I, 68): “That Philosophy is not opposed to Theology and is by no means to be rejected as brutish, terrene, impure, diabolical, we thus demonstrate: 1. Because the true agrees with the true, and does not antagonize it. But what is known by the 32light of nature is no less true than what is revealed in Scripture; 2. Because natural and philosophical knowledge has its origin from God; 3. Because Philosophy leads us to the knowledge of God.”

As the antagonism was still asserted, the Theologians endeavored to prove it to be only apparent. CAL. (I, 74): “We must distinguish between a real and an apparent contradiction. The maxims of Philosophy and the conclusions of Theology do not really contradict each other, but only appear to do so; for they either do not discuss the same subject, or they do not describe the same condition, mode, or relation to it; as when the philosopher says that the essence is multiplied with the multiplication of persons, he declares this of finite and created persons, not of divine, of which he knows nothing; concerning the latter, the theologian teaches that this is not true. When the philosopher says, ‘Of nothing, nothing comes,’ i.e., by way of generation, he does not contradict the theologian, who teaches that by the way of creation something does come from nothing. Let Philosophy remain within the limits of its own sphere, then it will not contradict Theology, for this treats of a different subject. But it is not wonderful that those who confound Philosophy and Theology should find contradictions between them, for they pervert both.” QUEN. (I, 43): “We must distinguish between contrariety and diversity. Philosophy and the principles of Reason are not indeed contrary to Theology, nor the latter to the former; but there is a very great difference between those things that are divinely revealed in Scripture and those which are known by the light of nature.” — As the Theologians here opposed those who asserted a contradiction between Reason and Revelation, they also controverted those who claimed too much for Reason, as over against Revelation, by maintaining that, because Reason came from God, that which opposes it cannot be true. This charge was brought against the Calvinists, Socinians, and Arminians. It was admitted, in opposition to them, that Reason in itself does not contradict Revelation; an inference, however, which might have become derogatory to divine truth, was obviated by explaining any seeming contradiction on the ground that Reason, in such a case, had overstepped its proper limits. To the proposition: “In nowise can that be true which is repugnant to reason,” GRH. (II, 371) replies: “Not human Reason, but divine Revelation, is the source of faith, nor are we to judge concerning the articles of faith according to the dictation of Reason, otherwise we should have no articles of faith, but only decisions of Reason. The cogitations and utterances of Reason are to be restricted and restrained within the sphere of those things 33which are subject to the decisions of Reason, and not to be extended to the sphere of those things which are placed entirely beyond the reach of Reason; otherwise, if they should be received as absolutely universal, and are found opposed to the mysteries of the faith, there arise oppositions of science falsely so called. To the objection: “As a smaller light to a greater, so Reason is not contrary to Scripture,” GRH. (II, 372) answers: “This contrariety is not necessary, but accidental. Reason restricted to its proper sphere is not contrary to Scripture, but when it attempts to overleap and surpass this, and to pass judgment upon the highest mysteries of the faith by the aid of its own principles, then, by accident, it comes in conflict with Scripture which informs us in regard to the mysteries of faith. Just as the stronger light often reveals those things which were hidden in the weaker, so the light of grace, enkindled for us in the Word, makes manifest those things which were hidden in the light of nature. Just as any one, therefore, who would deny those things which are visible in the greater light because he had not seen them in the smaller, would fail to appreciate the design and benefit of the smaller, so also he who denies or impugns the mysteries of faith revealed in the light of grace, on the ground that they are incongruous with Reason and the light of nature, fails, at the same time, to make a proper use of the office and benefits of Reason and the light of nature.” To the proposition: “What is true theologically cannot be false philosophically, for truth is one,” GRH. (ibid.) answers: “In themselves considered, there is no contrariety, no contradiction between Philosophy and Theology, because whatever things concerning the deepest mystery of the faith Theology propounds from Revelation, these a wiser and sincere Philosophy knows are not to be discussed and estimated according to the principles of Reason, lest there be a confusion of what pertains to entirely distinct departments. So when Theology teaches that Mary brought forth and yet remained a virgin, a truly sensible Philosophy does not say this assertion is contrary to its conclusion, that it is impossible for a virgin to bear a child, because it knows that that conclusion must necessarily be received with this limitation, that for a virgin to bring forth a child naturally and yet remain a virgin, is impossible. Nor does Theology assert the contrary of this, for it says, by supernatural and divine power it came to pass that a virgin brought forth a child. But when some philosophizer attempts to make his axioms and assertions so general that the highest mysteries of the faith are to be adjudged by them, and so invades other spheres, then it comes to pass, by way of accident, that what is true theologically 34is pronounced false philosophically; i.e., not according to the proper use of a sound Philosophy, but according to the miserable abuse of it. Thus, justice and the nature of law is everywhere the same, i.e., in its general conception, while, nevertheless, the law of this province is not the same as that of other provinces, but each government lives under its own special laws. So truth is one in its general conception, while each branch has its own axioms which are not to be dragged before another tribunal, but to be left in their own sphere.”

[6] GRH. (II, 372): “Sound reason is not opposed to the faith, if we accept as such that which is truly and properly so-called, namely that which does not transcend the limits of its sphere, and does not arrogate to itself decisions in regard to the mysteries of faith; or which, enlightened by the Word, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit, does not follow its own principles in the investigation of the mysteries of faith, but the light of the Word and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”

[7] GRH. (II, 372): “The articles of faith are not in and of themselves contrary to Reason, but only above Reason. It may happen, by accident, that they be contrary to Reason, namely, when Reason assumes to decide concerning them upon its own principles, and does not follow the light of the Word, but denies and assails them. Hence the articles of faith are not contrary to, but merely above Reason, since Reason before the Fall was not yet corrupt and depraved; but since the Fall they are not only above but also contrary to corrupt Reason, for this, in so far as it is thus corrupt, cannot control itself, much less should it wish to judge articles of faith by its own principles.”

[8] GRH. (II, 371): “We must distinguish between Reason in man before and since the Fall. The former, as such, was never opposed to divine Revelation; the latter was very frequently thus opposed through the influence of corruption.” GRH. (II, 362): “Natural human Reason since the Fall (1) is blind, darkened by the mist of error, inwrapped in the shades of ignorance, exposed to vanity and error, Rom. 1:21; 1 Cor. 3:1; Gal. 4:8; Eph. 4:17; (2) unskilled in perceiving divine mysteries and judging concerning them, Matt. 11.27; 16:17; 1 Cor. 2:14 sq; (3) opposed to them, Rom. 8:6; 1 Cor. 2:11 sq; 3:18 sq.; hence to be brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, 2 Cor. 10:4,5; (4) and we are commanded to beware of its seduction, Col. 2:8. Therefore natural human Reason cannot be a rule for judging in matters of faith, and any one pronouncing according to its dictation cannot be a judge in theological controversies.” QUEN. (I, 43): 35“We must distinguish between Philosophy (i.e., Reason) considered abstractly and in view of its essence, and Philosophy considered concretely and in view of its existence in a subject corrupted by sin: viewed in the former light, it is never opposed to divine truth (for the truth is ever presented as uniform and in harmony with the nature of the objects successively subordinated to it), but viewed in the latter light, in consequence of the ignorance of the intellect and the perversion of the will, it is often preposterously applied by the philosopher to the purposes of perversion and hollow deception. Col. 2:8.”

[9] GRH. (II, 371): “We are to make a distinction between the reason of man unregenerate and regenerate. The former counts the mysteries of faith foolishness, but the latter, in so far as it is such, does not object to them. Then only, and only so long, is it regenerate as it follows the light of the Word, and judges concerning the mysteries of the faith, not by its own principles, but by the Scriptures. We do not reject Reason when regenerated, renewed, illuminated by the Word of God, restrained and brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ; this does not draw its opinions, in matters of faith, from its own sources, but from Scripture; this does not impugn the articles of belief as does Reason when corrupt, left to itself, etc. We must distinguish also between Reason partially rectified in this life, and that which is fully rectified in the life to come. The former is not yet so completely renewed, illuminated, and rectified that it would be impossible for it to oppose the articles of faith and impugn them, if it should follow its own guidance. Just as there remains in the regenerate a struggle between the flesh and the spirit, by which they are tempted to sin, so there remains in them a struggle between faith and Reason, in so far as it is not yet fully renewed; this, however, excludes all opposition between faith and Reason.”

[10] QUEN. (I, 43): “Reason is admissible as an instrument, but not as a rule and a judge: the formal principles of Reason no one rejects; its material principles, which constitute its rule for judging the mysteries, no wise man accepts. No material principle of Reason, as such, but only as it is at the same time a part of Revelation, produces faith theologically: that God is, we know from nature; we believe it, however, only through the Scriptures. It does not follow, because some parts of Scripture are axioms known by nature, that therefore Reason is the regulator of theological controversies.” Id. (I, 43): “Theology does not condemn the use of Reason, but its abuse and its affectation of directorship, or its magisterial use, as normative and decisive in divine things.”


[11] HOLL. (71): “Reason is not a leader, but an humble follower of Theology. Hagar serves as the handmaid of her mistress, she does not command; when she affects to command she is banished from the sacred home.”

[12] QUEN. (I, 42): “A distinction must be made between the organic or instrumental use of Reason and its principles, when they are employed as instruments for the interpretation and exposition of the Holy Scriptures, in refuting the arguments of opponents, drawn from Nature and Reason, and discussing the signification and construction of words, and rhetorical figures and modes of speech; and the normal use of philosophical principles, when they are regarded as principles by which supernatural doctrines are to be tested. The former we admit, the latter we repudiate.” The following from QUEN. explains and expands this idea: “It is one thing to employ in Theology the principles and axioms of Philosophy for the purpose of illustration, explanation, and as a secondary proof, when a matter is decided by the Scriptures; and another to employ them for the purpose of deciding and demonstrating, or to recognize philosophical principles, or the argumentation based upon them, as authoritative in Theology, or by means of them to decide matters of faith. The former we do, the latter we do not. There must be a distinction made between consequences deduced by the aid of reason from the Holy Scriptures, and conclusions collected from the sources of nature and reason. The former must not be confounded with the latter. For it is one thing to use legitimate, necessary consequences, and another to use the principles of Reason. It is one thing to draw a conclusion and deduce consequences from the declarations of Scripture, according to logical rules, and another to collect consequences from natural principles. A sort of illustration of heavenly matters can be sought for among those things which Reason supplies, but a demonstration can never be obtained from that source, since it is necessary that this should proceed from the same sphere to which the truth which is to be proved belongs, and not from a foreign one.”

This doctrine of the use of reason GRH. develops in a manner somewhat different, although substantially the same as follows, under the topic, “The Use of Reason in the Rule of Faith.” (I, 76, sq.): (1) The organic use is the following: When our reason brings with it, to the work of drawing out the treasures of divine wisdom hidden in the Scriptures, knowledge of the grammatical force of words, logical observance of order, rhetorical elucidation of figures and acquaintance with the facts of nature, derived from the philosophical branches. This use we greatly 37commend, yea, we even declare it to be necessary. (2) As to the edificative use of Reason, it is to be thus maintained: There is a certain natural knowledge of God, Rom. 1:19,20, but his should be subordinate to that which is divinely revealed in the Word; so that, where there is a disagreement, the former should yield to the latter; and where they agree, the former confirms and strengthens the latter. In short, as a servant it should, with all due reverence, minister to the latter. (3) The destructive use, when legitimate, is the following: Errors in doctrine are first to be confuted by arguments drawn from the Holy Scriptures, as the only and proper source of Theology, but afterwards philosophical reasons may be added, so that it may be shown that the false dogma is repugnant, not only to the light of grace, but also to the light of Nature. But when the truth of any doctrine has been clearly proved by unanswerable scriptural arguments, we should never allow our confidence in it to be shaken by any philosophical reasons, however specious they may be.”

Id. (II, 9): “Although some things are taught in Theology, which can be learned in some measure by the light of Nature and Reason, yet human Reason cannot undertake to become thoroughly acquainted with the mysteries of faith, properly so called, by means of its own powers; and as to such things as, already known from Nature, are taught in Theology, it need not seek for proof elsewhere than in their own proper source, the Word of God, which is abundantly able to prove them. . . . In this latter manner the Theologian becomes indebted, for some things to the philosopher; not, indeed, as though he were not able to know them without the aid of philosophical principles, from Scripture, as the proper and native source of his own science, but because, in the course of the investigation, he perceives the truth of the proposition according to the principles of philosophy.”

That to which GRH. here merely alludes, the later Theologians, such as QUEN., BR., and HOLL., develop at greater length when treating of the pure and mixed articles; by the former of which are understood those which contain truths that can be known only by Revelation, by the latter such as contain truths which may, at least in part, be otherwise known. HOLL. (68): “Mixed articles of faith may, in some measure, be known by the principles of Philosophy. But the pure articles of faith can be learned and proved only from Holy Scripture as the appropriate, fundamental, and original source.” But the remark of QUEN. is well worthy of attention, that (I, 39) “in the mixed articles we grant that philosophical principles may be employed; not, indeed, for the purpose 38of decision or demonstration, but merely for illustration, or as a sort of secondary proof of that which has already been decided by the Scriptures.” And here belongs also the statement of QUEN., concerning the formal and material principle of Reason, already quoted in the tenth note. This statement of QUEN. conveys the same idea as the last, quoted from GRH., and is designed to prevent the assignment of the right of decision in the mixed articles to Reason, although, it is to have something to do with them. Those Theologians who observe the distinction, described in note second, between organic and philosophical principles, admit also the use of the absolutely universal principles in Theology. It may be questioned, however, Whether these are so accurately distinguished from the restrictedly universal principles which are not admissible, that mistakes may not easily arise. In regard to this BR. (157) thus expresses himself: “The material principles of Reason are also with propriety employed; however, when they are particular or specific, they are subordinated to the universal principle of Theology; but the universal principles of Reason may be employed only when they are absolutely necessary, namely, when the demonstration of the opposite would imply a contradiction. For otherwise, if the principles of Reason were employed, not absolutely, but relatively, or, so to speak, universally and necessarily, it might easily happen that a conclusion would be reached repugnant to the mysteries or to the articles of faith, even to those of fundamental importance.”

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