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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Reason

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USE OF, IN RELIGION. The sublime, incomprehensible nature of some of the Christian doctrines has so completely subdued the understanding of many pious men, as to make them think it presumptuous to apply reason in any way to the revelations of God; and the many instances in which the simplicity of truth has been corrupted by an alliance with philosophy confirm them in the belief that it is safer, as well as more respectable, to resign their minds to devout impressions, than to exercise their understandings in any speculations upon sacred subjects. Enthusiasts and fanatics of all different names and sects agree in decrying the use of reason, because it is the very essence of fanaticism to substitute, in place of the sober deductions of reason, the extravagant fancies of a disordered imagination, and to consider these fancies as the immediate illumination of the Spirit of God. Insidious writers in the deistical controversy have pretended to adopt those sentiments of humility and reverence, which are inseparable from true Christians, and even that total subjection of reason to faith which characterizes enthusiasts. A pamphlet was published about the middle of the last century that made a noise in its day, although it is now forgotten, entitled, "Christianity not founded on Argument," which, while to a careless reader it may seem to magnify the Gospel, does in reality tend to undermine our faith, by separating it from a rational assent; and Mr. Hume, in the spirit of this pamphlet, concludes his Essay on Miracles with calling those dangerous friends or disguised enemies to the Christian religion who have undertaken to defend it by the principles of human reason: "Our most. holy religion," he says, with a disingenuity very unbecoming his respectable talents, "is founded on faith, not on reason;" and, "mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity." The church of Rome, in order to subject the minds of her votaries to her authority, has reprobated the use of reason in matters of religion. She has revived an ancient position, that things may be true in theology which are false in philosophy; and she has, in some instances, made the merit of faith to consist in the absurdity of that which was believed.

The extravagance of these positions has produced, since the Reformation, an opposite extreme. While those who deny the truth of revelation consider reason as in all respects a sufficient guide, the Socinians, who admit that a revelation has been made, employ reason as the supreme judge of its doctrines, and boldly strike out of their creed every article that is not altogether conformable to those notions which may be derived from the exercise of reason. These controversies concerning the use of reason in matters of religion are disputes, not about words, but about the essence of Christianity. But a few plain observations are sufficient to ascertain where the truth lies in this subject.

The first use of reason in matters of religion is to examine the evidences of revelation. For, the more entire the submission which we consider as due to every thing that is revealed, we have the more need to be satisfied that any system which professes to be a divine revelation does really come from God.

After the exercise of reason has established in our minds a firm belief that Christianity is of divine original, the second use of reason is to learn what are the truths revealed. As these truths are not in our days communicated to any by immediate inspiration, the knowledge of them is to be acquired only from books transmitted to us with satisfying evidence that they were written above seventeen hundred years ago, in a remote country and foreign language, under the direction of the Spirit of God. In order to attain the meaning of these books we must study the language in which they were written; and we must study also the manners of the times, and the state of the countries, in which the writers lived; because these are circumstances to which an original author is often alluding, and by which his phraseology is generally affected; we must lay together different passages in which the same word or phrase occurs, because without this labour we cannot obtain its precise signification; and we must mark the difference of style and manner which characterizes different writers, because a right apprehension of their meaning often depends upon attention to this difference. All this supposes the application of grammar, history, geography, chronology, and criticism in matters of religion; that is, it supposes that the reason of man had been previously exercised in pursuing these different branches of knowledge, and that our success in attaining the true sense of Scripture depends upon the diligence with which we avail ourselves of the progress that has been made in them. It is obvious that every Christian is not capable of making this application. But this is no argument against the use of reason, of which we are now speaking. For they who use translations and commentaries rely only upon the reason of others, instead of exercising their own. The several branches of knowledge have been applied in every age by some persons for the benefit of others; and the progress in sacred criticism, which distinguishes the present times, is nothing else but the continued application, in elucidating the Scripture, of reason enlightened by every kind of subsidiary knowledge, and very much improved in this kind of exercise by the employment which the ancient classics have given it since the revival of letters.

After the two uses of reason that have been illustrated, a third comes to be mentioned, which may be considered as compounded of both. Reason is of eminent use in repelling the attacks of the adversaries of Christianity. When men of erudition, of philosophical acuteness, and of accomplished taste, direct their talents against our religion, the cause is very much hurt by an unskilful defender. He cannot unravel their sophistry; he does not see the amount and the effect of the concessions which he makes to them; he is bewildered by their quotations, and he is often led by their artifice upon dangerous ground. In all ages of the church there have been weak defenders of Christianity; and the only triumphs of the enemies of our religion have arisen from their being able to expose the defects of those methods of defending the truth which some of its advocates had unwarily chosen. A mind trained to accurate and philosophical views of the nature and the amount of evidence, enriched with historical knowledge, accustomed to throw out of a subject all that is minute and irrelative, to collect what is of importance within a short compass, and to form the comprehension of a whole, is the mind qualified to contend with the learning, the wit, and the sophistry of infidelity. Many such minds have appeared in this honourable controversy during the course of this and the last century; and the success has corresponded to the completeness of the furniture with which they engaged in the combat. The Christian doctrine has been vindicated by their masterly exposition from various misrepresentations; the arguments for its divine original have been placed in their true light; and the attempts to confound the miracles and prophecies upon which Christianity rests its claim, with the delusions of imposture, have been effectually repelled. Christianity has, in this way, received the most important advantages from the attacks of its enemies; and it is not improbable that its doctrines would never have been so thoroughly cleared from all the corruptions and subtleties which had attached to them in the progress of ages, nor the evidences of its truths have been so accurately understood, nor its peculiar character been so perfectly discriminated, had not the zeal and abilities which have been employed against it called forth in its defence some of the most distinguished masters of reason. They brought into the service of Christianity the same weapons which had been drawn for her destruction, and, wielding them with confidence and skill in a good cause, became the successful champions of the truth.

The fourth use of reason consists in judging of the truths of religion. Every thing which is revealed by God comes to his creatures from so high an authority, that it may be rested in with perfect assurance as true. Nothing can be received by us as true which is contrary to the dictates of reason, because it is impossible for us to receive at the same time the truth and the falsehood of a proposition. But many things are true which we do not fully comprehend; and many propositions, which appear incredible when they are first enunciated, are found, upon examination, such as our understandings can readily admit. These principles embrace the whole of the subject, and they mark out the steps by which reason is to proceed in judging of the truths of religion. We first examine the evidences of revelation. If these satisfy our understandings, we are certain that there can be no contradiction between the doctrines of this true religion, and the dictates of right reason. If any such contradiction appear, there must be some mistake; by not making a proper use of our reason in the interpretation of the Gospel, we suppose that it contains doctrines which it does not teach; or we give the name of right reason to some narrow prejudices which deeper reflection, and more enlarged knowledge, will dissipate; or we consider a proposition as implying a contradiction, when, in truth, it is only imperfectly understood. Here, as in every other case, mistakes are to be corrected by measuring back our steps. We must examine closely and impartially the meaning of those passages which appear to contain the doctrine; we must compare them with one another; we must endeavour to derive light from the general phraseology of Scripture and the analogy of faith; and we shall generally be able, in this way, to separate the doctrine from all those adventitious circumstances which give it the appearance of absurdity. If a doctrine which, upon the closest examination, appears unquestionably to be taught in Scripture, still does not approve itself to our understanding, we must consider carefully what it is that prevents us from receiving it. There may be preconceived notions hastily taken up which that doctrine opposes; there may be pride of understanding that does not readily submit to the views which it communicates; or reason may need to be reminded, that we must expect to find in religion many things which we are not able to comprehend. One of the most important offices of reason is to recognize her own limits. She never can be moved, by any authority, to receive as true what she perceives to be absurd. But, if she has formed a just estimate of human knowledge, she will not shelter her presumption in rejecting the truths of revelation under the pretence of contradictions that do not really exist; she will readily admit that there may be in a subject some points which she knows, and others of which she is ignorant; she will not allow her ignorance of the latter to shake the evidence of the former, but will yield a firm assent to that which she does understand, without presuming to deny what is beyond her comprehension. And thus, availing herself of all the light which she now has, she will wait in humble hope for the time when a larger measure shall be imparted.


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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Reason'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/wtd/r/reason.html. 1831-2.

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