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§ 3. The Second Form of Rationalism.

A. Its Nature.

The more common form of Rationalism admits that the Scriptures contain a supernatural revelation. It teaches, however, that the 40object of that revelation is to make more generally known, and to authenticate for the masses, the truths of reason, or doctrines of natural religion. These doctrines are received by cultivated minds not on the ground of authority, but of rational evidence. The fundamental principle of this class of Rationalists is, that nothing can be rationally believed which is not understood. “Nil credi posse, quod a ratione capi et intelligi nequeat.” If asked, Why he believes in the immortality of the soul? the Rationalist answers, Because the doctrine is reasonable. To his mind, the arguments in its favor outweigh those against it. If asked, Why he does not believe the doctrine of the Trinity? he answers, Because it is unreasonable. The philosophical arguments against it outweigh the arguments from reason, in its favor. That the sacred writers teach the doctrine is not decisive. The Rationalist does not feel bound to believe all that the sacred writers teach. The Bible, he admits, contains a Divine revelation. But this revelation was made to fallible men, men under no supernatural guidance in communicating the truths revealed. They were men whose mode of thinking, and manner of arguing, and of presenting truth, were modified by their culture, and by the modes of thought prevailing during the age in which they lived. The Scriptures, therefore, abound with misapprehensions, with inconclusive arguments, and accommodations to Jewish errors, superstitions, arid popular beliefs. It is the office of reason to sift these incongruous materials, and separate the wheat from the chaff. That is wheat which reason apprehends in its own light to be true; that is to be rejected as chaff which reason cannot understand, and cannot prove to be true. That is, nothing is true to us which we do not see for ourselves to be true.

B. Refutation.

It is sufficient to remark on this form of Rationalism, —

1. That it is founded upon a false principle. It is not necessary to the rational exercise of faith that we should understand the truth believed. The unknown and the impossible cannot be believed; but every man does, and must believe the incomprehensible. Assent to truth is founded on evidence. That evidence may be external or intrinsic. Some things we believe on the testimony of our senses; other things we believe on the testimony of men. Why, then, may we not believe on the testimony of God? A man may believe that paper thrown upon fire will burn, although he does not understand the process of combustion. All men believe that plants grow, and that like begets like; but no man understands 41the mystery of reproduction. Even the Positivist who would reduce all belief to zero, is obliged to admit the incomprehensible to be true. And those who will believe neither in God nor spirit because they are invisible and intangible, say that all we know is the unknowable, — we know only force, but of force we know nothing but that it is, and that it persists. If, therefore, the incomprehensible must be believed in every other department of knowledge, no rational ground can be given why it should be banished from religion.

2. Rationalism assumes that the human intelligence is the measure of all truth. This is an insane presumption on the part of such a creature as man. If a child believes with implicit confidence what it cannot understand, on the testimony of a parent, surely man may believe what he cannot understand, on the testimony of God.

3. Rationalism destroys the distinction between faith and knowledge, which all men and all ages admit. Faith is assent to truth founded on testimony, “credo quod non video.” Knowledge is assent founded on the direct or indirect, the intuitive or discursive, apprehension of its object. If there can be no rational faith, if we are to receive as true only what we know and understand, the whole world is beggared. It loses all that sustains, beautifies, and ennobles life.

4. The poor cannot be Rationalists. If we must understand what we believe, even on the principles of the Rationalists, only philosophers can be religious. They alone can comprehend the rational grounds on which the great truths of even natural religion are to be received. Widespread, therefore, as has been the influence of a Rationalistic spirit, it has never taken hold of the people; it has never controlled the creed of any church; because all religion is founded on the incomprehensible and the infinite.

5. The protest, therefore, which our religious nature makes against the narrow, cold, and barren system of Rationalism, is a sufficient proof that it cannot be true, because it cannot meet our most urgent necessities. The object of worship must be infinite, and of necessity incomprehensible.

6. Faith implies knowledge. And if we must understand in order to know, faith and knowledge become alike impossible. The principle, therefore, on which Rationalism is founded, leads to Nihilism, or universal negation. Even the latest form of philosophy, taking the lowest possible ground as to religious faith, admits that we are surrounded on every side by the incomprehensible.


Herbert Spencer, in his “First Principles of a New Philosophy,” asserts, p. 45, “the omnipresence of something which passes comprehension.” He declares that the ultimate truth in which all forms of religion agree, and in which religion and science are in harmony, is, “That the Power which the universe manifests to us is utterly inscrutable.”1010First Principles of a New Philosophy, p. 42. The inscrutable, the incomprehensible, what we cannot understand, must therefore of necessity be rationally the object of faith. And consequently reason, rational demonstration, or philosophical proof is not the ground of faith. We may rationally believe what we cannot understand. We may be assured of truths which are encompassed with objections which we cannot satisfactorily answer.

C. History.

The modern form of Deistic Rationalism had its rise in England during the latter part of the seventeenth, and the first half of the eighteenth centuries. Lord Herbert, who died as early as 1648, in his work, “De Veritate, prout distinguitur a Revelatione,” etc., taught that all religion consists in the acknowledgment of the following truths: 1. The existence of God. 2. The dependence of man on God, and his obligation to reverence him. 3. Piety consists in the harmony of the human faculties. 4. The essential difference between good and evil. 5. A future state of rewards and punishment. These he held to be intuitive truths, needing no proof, and virtually believed by all men. This may be considered as the confession of Faith of all Deists, and even of those Rationalists who admit a supernatural revelation; for such revelation, they maintain, can only authenticate what reason itself teaches. Other writers quickly followed in the course opened by Lord Herbert; as, Toland in his “Christianity without Mystery,” 1696, a work which excited great attention, and drew out numerous refutations. Toland ended by avowing himself a Pantheist. Hobbes was a Materialist. Lord Shaftesbury, who died 1773, in his “Characteristics,” “Miscellaneous Treatises,” and “Moralist,” made ridicule the test of truth. He declared revelation and inspiration to be fanaticism. Collins (died 1729) was a more serious writer. His principal works were, “An Essay on Free-thinking,” and “The Grounds and Reasons of Christianity.” Lord Bolingbroke, Secretary of State under Queen Anne, “Letters on the Study and Utility of History.” Matthew Tindal, “Christianity as Old as the Creation.” Tindal, instead of attacking Christianity in detail, attempted 43to construct a regular system of Deism. He maintained that God could not intend that men should ever be without a religion adequate to all their necessities, and therefore that a revelation can only make known what every man has in his own reason. This internal and universal revelation contains the two truths: 1. The existence of God. 2. That God created man not for his own sake, but for man’s. By far the most able and influential of the writers of this class was David Hume. His “Essays” in four volumes contain his theological views. The most important of these are those on the Natural History of Religion, and on Miracles. His “Dialogues on Natural Religion” is regarded as the ablest work ever written in support of the Deistical, or rather, Atheistical system.

From England the spirit of infidelity extended into France. Voltaire, Rousseau, La Mettrie, Holbach, D’Alembert, Diderot, and others, succeeded for a time in overthrowing all religious faith in the governing classes of society.

Rationalism in Germany.

In Germany the Rationalistic defection began with such men as Baumgarten, Ernesti, and John David Michaelis, who did not deny the divine authority of the Scriptures, but explained away their doctrines. These were followed by such men as Semler, Morus, and Eichhorn, who were thoroughly neological. During the latter part of the last, and first part of the present century, most of the leading church historians, exegetes, and theologians of Germany, were Rationalists. The first serious blow given to their system was by Kant. The Rationalists assumed that they were able to demonstrate the truths of natural religion on the principles of reason. Kant, in his “Critic of Pure Reason,” undertook to show that reason is incompetent to prove any religious truth. The only foundation for religion he maintained was our moral consciousness. That consciousness involved or implied the three great doctrines of God, liberty, and immortality. His successors, Fichte and Schelling, carried out the principles which Kant adopted to prove that the outward world is an unknown something, to show that there was no such world; that there was no real distinction between the ego and non-ego, the subjective and objective; that both are modes of the manifestation of the absolute. Thus all things were merged into one. This idealistic Pantheism having displaced Rationalism, has already yielded the philosophic throne to a subtle form of Materialism.


Bretschneiders “Entwickelung aller in der Dogmatik vorkommenden Begriffe,” gives a list of fifty-two works on the rationalistic controversy in Germany. The English books written against the Rationalists or Deists of Great Britain, and on the proper office of reason in matters of religion, are scarcely less numerous. Some of the more important of these works are the following: “Boyle on Things above Reason,” Butler’s “Analogy of Religion and Nature,” Conybeare’s “Defence of Religion,” “Hulsean Lectures,” Jackson’s “Examination,” “Jew’s Letters to Voltaire,” Lardner’s “Credibility of the Gospel History,” Leland’s “Advantage and Necessity of Revelation,” Leslie’s “Short and Easy Method with Deists.” Warburton’s “View of Bolingbroke’s Philosophy,” and his “Divine Legation of Moses,” John Wilson’s “Dissertation on Christianity,” etc., etc. See Stäudlin’s “Geschichte des Rationalismus,” and a concise and instructive history of theology during the eighteenth century, by Dr. Tholuck in “Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review” for 1828. Leibnitz’s “Discours de la Conformité de la Foi avec la Raison,” in the Preface to his “Théodicée,” and Mansel’s “Limits of Religious Thought,” deserve the careful perusal of the theological student. The most recent works on this general subject are Lecky’s “History of Rationalism in Europe, and “History of Rationalism, embracing a survey of the present state of Protestant Theology,” by Rev. John F. Hurst, A. M. The latter is the most instructive publication in the English language on modern skepticism.

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