Theological Institutes

Part First - Evidences of The Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures

By Richard Watson

Chapter 4


THE opinion, that sufficient notices of the will and purposes of God with respect to man, may be collected by rational induction from his works and government, attributes too much to the power of human reason and the circumstances under which, in that case, it must ne­cessarily commence its exercise.

Human reason must be taken, as it is in fact, a weak and erring faculty, and as subject to have its operations suspended or disturbed by the influence of vicious principles and attachment to earthly things; neither of which can be denied, however differently they may he accounted for.

It is another consideration of importance that the exercise of reason is limited by our knowledge; in other words, that it must be furnished with Subjects which it may arrange, compare, and judge: for beyond what it clearly conceives its power does not extend.

It does not follow, that, because many doctrines in religion and many rules in morals carry clear and decided conviction to the judgment instantly upon their being proposed, they were discoverable, in the first instance, by rational induction; any more than that the great and simple truths of philosophy, which have been brought to light by the efforts of men of superior minds, were within the compass of ordinary understandings, because, after they were revealed by those who made the discovery, they instantly commanded the assent of almost all, to whom they were proposed. The very first principles of what is called natural religion[1] (8) are probably of this kind. The reason of man, though it should assent to them, though the demonstration of them should be now easy, may be indebted even for them to the revelation of a superior mind, and that mind the mind of God.[2]

This is rendered the more probable, inasmuch as the great principles of all religion, the existence of God, the immortality of the human soul, the accountableness of man, the good or evil quality of the most important moral actions, have, by none who have written upon them, by no legislator, poet, or sage of antiquity, however ancient, been represented as discoveries made by them in the course of rational investigation; but they are spoken of as things commonly known among men, which they propose to defend, explain, demonstrate, or deny, according to their respective opinions. If we overlook the inspiration of the writings of Moses, they command respect as the most ancient records in the world, and as embodying the religious opinions of the earliest ages ; but Moses nowhere pretends to be the author of any of these fundamental truth. The book of Genesis opens with the words," In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth ;" but here the term " God" is used familiarly, and it is taken for granted, that both the name and the idea conveyed by it were commonly received by the people for whom Moses wrote.

The same writer gives the history of ages much higher than his own, and introduces the patriarchs of the human race holding conver­sations with one another in which the leading subjects of religion and morals are often incidentally introduced; but they are never presented to us in the form of discussion ; (no patriarch, however high his antiquity, represents himself as the discoverer of these first principles though he might, as Noah, be a "preacher" of that "righteousness", which was established upon them. Moses mentions the antediluvians who were inventors of the arts of working metals, and of forming and playing upon musical instruments; but he introduces no one as the inventor of any branch of moral or religious science, though they are so much superior in importance to mankind.

In farther illustration it may be observed, that, in point of fact, those views on the subjects just mentioned which, to the reason of all sober Theists, since the Christian revelation was given, appear the most clear and satisfactory, have been found nowhere since patriarchal times, except in the Scriptures, which profess to embody the true reli­gious traditions and revelations of all ages, or among those whose reason derived principles from these revelations on which to establish. its inferences.

We generally think it a truth, easily and convincingly demonstrated that there is a God; and yet many of the philosophers of antiquity speak doubtingly on this point, and some of them denied it. At the present day, not merely a few speculative philosophers in the heathen world, but the many millions of the human race who profess the religion of Budhu, not only deny a Supreme First Cause, but dispute with subtlety and vehemence against the doctrine.

We feel that our reason rests with full satisfaction in the doctrine that all things are created by one eternal and self-existent Being; but the Greek philosophers held that matter was eternally co-existent with God) This was the opinion of Plato, who has been called the Moses of phi­losophers. Through the whole "Timaeus," Plato supposes two eternal and independent causes of all things; one, that by which all things are made, which is God: the other, that from which all things are made, which is matter. Dr. Cudworth has in vain attempted to clear Plato of this charge. The learned Dr. Thomas Burnet, who was well acquainted with the opinions of the ancients, says that "the Ionic, Pythagoric, Platonic and Stoic schools all agreed in asserting the eternity of matter; and that the doctrine, that matter was created out of nothing, seems to have been unknown to the philosophers, and is one of which they had no notion." Aristotle asserted the eternity of the world, both in matter and form too, which was but an easy deduction from the former prin­ciple, and is sufficiently in proof of its Atheistical tendency.

The same doctrine was extensively spread at a very ancient period throughout the east, and plainly takes away a great part of the founda­tion of those arguments for the existence of a Supreme Deity, on which the moderns have so confidently rested for the demonstration of the existence of God by rational induction, whether drawn from the works of nature, or from metaphysical principles; so much are those able works which have been written on this subject indebted to that revelation on which their authors too often close their eyes, for the very bases on which their most convincing arguments are built. The same Atheistical results logically followed from the ancient Magian doctrine of two eternal principles, one good and the other evil; a notion which also infected the Greek schools, as appears from the example of Plutarch, and the instances adduced by him.

No one enlightened by the Scriptures, whether he acknowledges his obligations to them or not, has ever been betrayed into so great an absurdity as to deny the individuality of the human soul; and yet where the light of revelation has not spread, absurd and destructive to morals as this notion is, it very extensively prevails. The opinion that the human soul is a part of God, enclosed for a short time in matter, but still a portion of his essence, runs through much of the Greek philosophy. It is still more ancient than that, and, at the present day, the same Opinion destroys all idea of accountability among those who in India follow the Brahminical system. "The human soul is God, and the acts of the human soul are therefore the acts of God." This is the popular argument by which their crimes are justified.

The doctrine of one supreme, all-wise, and uncontrollable Providence, commends itself to our reason as one of the noblest and most supporting of truths; but we are not to overlook the source from whence even those draw it, who think the reason of man equal to its full development. So far were pagans from being able to conceive so lofty a thought, that the wisest of them invented subordinate agents to carry on the affairs of the world; beings often divided among themselves, and subject to human passions; thereby destroying the doctrine of provi­dence, and taking away the very foundation of human trust in a Supreme Power. This invention of subordinate deities gave birth to idolatry, which is sufficiently in proof both of its extent and antiquity

The beautiful and well sustained series of arguments which have often in modern times been brought to support the presumption " that the human soul is immortal," may be read with profit ; but it is not to be accounted for, that those who profess to confine themselves to human reason in the inquiry, should argue with so much greater strength than the philosophers of ancient times, except that they have received assist­ance from a source which they are unfair enough not to acknowledge. Some fine passages on this subject may be collected from Plato, Cicero, Seneca, and others, but we must take them with others which express, sometimes doubt, and sometimes unbelief. With us this is a matter of general belief; but not so with time generality of either ancient or modern pagans. The same darkness which obscured the glory of God, proportionablv diminished the glory of man,-his true and prop! immortality. The very ancient notion of an absorption of souls, back again into the Divine Essence was with the ancients, what we know it to be now in the metaphysical system of the Hindoos, a den of individual immortality; nor have the demonstrations of reason (lone any thing to convince the other grand division of metaphysical pagans into which modern heathenism is divided, the followers of Budhu, who believe in the total annihilation of both men and gods after a series of ages,-a point of faith held probably by the majority of the race of mankind.[3]

These instances might be enlarged; but they amply show that they who speak of the sufficiency of human reason in matters of morals and religion neglect almost all the facts which the history of human opinion furnishes; and that (hey owe all their best views to that fountain of inspiration from which they so criminally turn aside. For how other­wise can the instances we have just mentioned be explained? and how is it, that those fundamental principles in morals arid religion, which modern philosophers have exhibited as demonstrable by the unassisted powers of the human mind, were either held doubtfully, or connected with some manifest absurdity, or utterly denied by time wisest moral teachers among the Gentiles, who hived before the Christian revelation was given? They had the same works of God to behold, and the same course of providence to reason from, to neither of which were they inat­tentive. They had intellectual endowments, which have been the ad­miration of all subsequent ages; and their reason was rendered acute and discriminative by the discipline of mathematical and dialectic science. They- had every thing which time moderns have except the BIBLE ; and yet on points which have been generally settled among the moral philosophers of our own age as fundamental to natural religion, they had no just views, and no settled conviction. "The various apprehensions of wise men," says Cicero, " will justify time doubtings and demurs of skeptics, and it will then be sufficient to blame them, si aut consenscrint alii, ant erit inrentus aliquis, qui quid verum sit inrcnerit, when others agree, or any one has found out the truth. We say not that nothing is true; but that sonic false timings are annexed to all that is true, tanta similitudine ut iis nulla sit certa judicandi, et assentiendi nota, and that. with so much likeness, that there is no certain note of judging what is true, or assenting to it. We deny not that something may be true; percipi posse negamus, but we deny that it can be perceived so to be; for quid habemus in rebus bonis et malis explorati, what have we certain concerning good and evil? Nor for this are WE to be blamed, but NATURE. which has hidden time truth in the deep. naturam accusa quae in profündo veritatem penitus abstruserit." (Vide Be Nat. Deorunz, lib. 1, n. 10, 11. Acads, Qu. lib. 2, n. 66, 120.)

On this subject Dr. Samuel Clarke, though so great an advocate of natural religion, concedes, that "of the philosophers, some argued them. selves out of the belief of the very being of a God; some by ascribing all things to chance, others to absolute fatality, equally subverted all true notions of religions, and made the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, and a future judgment needless and impossible. Some professed open immorality, others by subtle distinctions patronized particular vices. The better sort of them, who were most celebrated, discoursed with the greatest reason, yet with much uncertainty and doubtfulness, concerning things of the highest importance,-the providence of God in governing the world, the immortality of the soul, and a future judgments,"

If such facts prove the weakness and insufficiency of human reason, those just thoughts respecting God, his providence, his will, and a future state, which sometimes appear in the writings of the wisest heathen, are not however, on the contrary, to be attributed to its strength. Even if they were, the argument for the sufficiency of reason would not be much advanced thereby; for the case would then be, that the reason which occasionally reached the truth had not firmness enough to hold it fast, and the pinion which sometimes bore the mind into fields of light, could not maintain it in its elevations, But it cannot even be admitted, that the truth which occasionally breaks forth in their works was the discovery of their own powers. There is much evidence to show, that they were indebted to a traditional knowledge much earlier than their own day, and that moral and religious knowledge among them received occasional and important accessions from the descend­ants of Abraham, a people who possessed records which, laying aside the question of their inspiration for the present, all candid Theists themselves will acknowledge, contain noble and just views of God, and a correct morality. While it cannot be proved that human reason made a single discovery in either moral or religious truth; it may be satisfactorily established, that just notions as to both were placed within its reach, which it first obscured, and then corrupted.


[1] The term natural religion is often used equivocally. "Some understand by it every thing in religion, with regard to truth and duty, which, when once discovered, may be clearly shown to have a real foundation in the nature and relations of things, and which unprejudiced reason will approve, when fairly pro­posed and set in a proper light; and accordingly very fair and goodly schemes of natural religion leave been drawn up by Christian philosophers and divines, in which they have comprehended a considerable part of what is contained in the Scripture revelation. In this view natural religion is not so called because it was originally discovered by natural reason, but because when once known it is what time reason of mankind duly exercised approves, as founded in truth and nature. Others take natural religion to signify that religion which men discover in the sole exercise of their natural faculties, without higher assistance." (LELAND.)


[2] "When truths are once known to us, though by tradition, we are apt to be favourable to our own parts, and ascribe to our own understanding the disco­very of what, in reality, we borrowed from others; or, at least, finding we can prove what at first we learnt from others, we are forward to conclude it an obvious truth, which, if we had sought, we could not have missed. Nothing seems hard to our understandings that is once known; and because what we see, we see with our own eyes, we are apt to overlook or forget the help we had from others who showed it us, and first made us see it, as if we were not at all be­holden to them for those truths they opened the way to, and led us into; for, knowledge being only of truths that are perceived to be so, we are favourable enough to our own faculties to conclude that they, of their own strength, would have attained those discoveries without any foreign assistance, and that we know those truths by the strength and native light of our own minds, as they did from whom we received them lay theirs,-only they lead the luck to be before us. Thus the whole stock of human knowledge is claimed by every one as his private pos session, as soon as he (profiting by others' discoveries) has got it into his own mind: and so it is; but not properly by his own single industry, nor of his own acquisition. He studies, it is true, and takes pains to make a progress in what others have delivered ; lent their pains were of another sort who first brought those truths to light which lie afterward derives from them. He that travels the roads now, applauds his own strength and legs, that leave carried him so far in such a scantling of time, and ascribes all to his own vigour; little considering how much he owes to their pains who cleared the woods, drained the bogs, built the bridges, and made the ways passable, without which he might have toiled much with little progress. A great many things which we have been bred up in the belief of from our cradles and are now grown familiar, (and, as it were, natural to us under the Gospel,) we take for unquestionable obvious truths, and easily demonstrable, without considering how long we might have been in doubt or ignorance of them had revelation been silent. And many others are beholden to revelation who do not acknowledge it. It is no diminishing to revelation. that reason gives its suffrage too to the truths revelation has discovered; but it is our mistake to think, that because reason confirms them to us, we had the first certain knowledge of them from thence, and in that clear evidence we now pos­sess them." (LOCKE.)


[3] "The religion of Budhu," says Dr. Davy, "is more widely extended than any other religion. It appears to be the religion of the whole of Tartary, of China, of Japan, and their dependencies, and of all the countries between China and the Burrampooter.

"The Budhists do not believe in the existence of a Supreme Being, self existent and eternal, the creator and preserver of the universe: indeed, it is doubtful if they believe in the existence and operation of any cause beside fate and necessity to which they seem to refer all changes in the moral and physical world. They appear to be Materialists in the strictest sense of the term, and to have no notion of pure spirit or mind. Prane and hitta, life and intelligence, the most learned of thorn appear to consider identical :-seated in the heart, radiating from thence to different parts of the body, like heat from a fire ;-uncreated, without beginning at least that they know of;-capable of being modified by a variety of circum­stances, like the breath in different musical instruments ;-and like a vapour capable of passing from one body to another ;-and like a flame, liable to be extinguished and totally annihilated. Gods, demons, men, reptiles, even the minutest and most imperfect animalcules, they consider as similar beings, formed of the four elements--heat, air, water, and that which is tangible, and animated by prane and liitta. They believe that a man may become a god or a demon; or that a god may become a man or an animalcule; that ordinary death is merely a change of form; and that this change is almost infinite, and bounded only by annihilation, which they esteem the acme of happiness!" (Account of Ceylon.)