Theological Institutes

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

By Richard Watson

Chapter 11

The Use and Limitation of Reason in Religion.

HAVING pointed out the kind of evidence by which a revelation from God may be authenticated, and the circumstances under which it ought to produce conviction and enforce obedience, it appears to be a natural order of proceeding to consider the subject of the title of this chapter, inasmuch as evidence of this kind, and for this end, must be addressed to our reason, the only faculty which is capable of receiving it. But as to this office of our reason important limitations and rules must he assigned, it will be requisite to adduce and explain them.

The present argument being supposed to be with one who believes in a God, the Lord and Governor of man, and that he is a Being of infinite perfections, our observations will have the advantage of certain first principles which that belief concedes.

We have already adduced much presumptive evidence, that a revelation of the will of God is essential to his moral government, and that such a revelation has actually been made. We have also farther con­sidered time kind and degree of evidence which is necessary to ratify it.  The means by which a conviction of its truth is produced, is lime point before us.

The subject to be examined is the truth of a religious and moral system, professing to be from God, though communicated by men, who plead his authority for its promulgation. If there be any force in the preceding observations, we are not, in the first instance, to examine the doctrine, in order to determine from our own opinion of its excellence, Whether it be from God, (for to this, if we need a revelation, we are incompetent,) but we are to inquire into time credentials of the messengers, ma quest of sufficient proof that God hath spoken to mankind by them. Should a slight consideration of the doctrine, either by its apparent ex­cellence or the contrary, attract us strongly to this examination, it is well but whatever prejudices, for or against time doctrine, a report, or a hasty opinion of its nature and tendency may inspire, our final judgment can only safely rest upon the proof which may be afforded of its  Divine authority. If that be satisfactory, the case is determined, whether the doctrine be pleasing or displeasing to us. If sufficient evidence be not afforded, we are at liberty to receive or reject the whole or any part of it as it may appear to us to be worthy of our regard; for it then stands on the same ground as any other merely human opinion. We are, however, to beware that this is done upon a very solemn responsibility.

The proof of the Divine authority of a system of doctrine communicated under such circumstances, is addressed to our reason, or in other words it must be reasonable proof that in this revelation there has been a direct and special interposition of God.

On the principles therefore already laid down, that though the rational evidence of a doctrine lies in the doctrine itself, the rational proof of the Divine authority of a doctrine must be external to that doctrine; and that miracles and prophecy are appropriate and satisfactory attestations of such an authority whenever they occur, the use of human reason in this inquiry is apparent. The alleged miracles themselves are to be examined, to determine whether they are real or pretended, allowing them to have been performed; the testimony of witnesses is to be in­vestigated, to determine whether they actually occurred; and if this testimony has been put on record, we have also to determine whether the record was at first faithfully made, and whether it has been carefully and uncorruptedly preserved. With respect to prophecy we are also to examine, whether the professed prophecy be a real prediction of future events, or only an ambiguous and equivocal saying, capable of being understood in various ways; whether it relates to events which lie beyond the guess of wise and observing men; whether it was uttered so long before the events predicted, that they could not be anticipated in the usual order of things; whether it was publicly or privately uttered; and whether, if put on record, that record has been faithfully kept. To these points must our consideration be directed, and to ascertain the strength of the proof is the important province of our reason or judgement.

The second use of reason respects the interpretation of the revelation thus authenticated; and here the same rules are to be applied as in the interpretation of any other statement or record; for as our only object, after the authenticity of the revelation is established, is to discover its sense, or in other words to ascertain what is declared unto us therein b God, our reason or judgment is called to precisely the same office as when the meaning of any other document is in question. The terms of the record are to be taken in their plain and commonly received sense;­ figures of speech are to be interpreted with reference to the peculi­arities of the country in which the agents who wrote the record resided;­idioms are to be understood according to the genius of the language em­ployed '-if any allegorical or mystical discourses occur, the key to them must be sought in the book itself, and not in our own fancies ;-what is obscure must be interpreted by that which is plain ;-the scope and tenor a discourse must be regarded, and no conclusion formed on passages detached from their context, except they are complete in their sense, or evidently intended as axioms and apophthegms. These and other rules, which respect the time and place when the record was written; the circumstances of the writer and of those to whom he immediately ad­dressed himself; local customs, &c, appear in this, and all other cases, so just and reasonable as to commend themselves to every sober man: and we rightly use our reason in the interpretation of a received revelation, when we conduct our inquiries into its meaning, by those plain common-sense rules which are adopted by all mankind when the mean­ing of other writings is to be ascertained.

It has been added, as a rule of interpretation, that when a revelation is sufficiently attested, and in consequence of that admitted, nothing is to be deduced from it which is contrary to reason. As this rule is liable to be greatly misunderstood, and has sometimes been pushed to injurious consequences, we shall consider it at some length; and point out the sense in which it may be safely admitted.

Some persons, who advocate this principle of interpretation, appear to confound the reason of man, with the reason or nature of things, and the relations which subsist among them. These however can be known fully to God alone; and to use the term reason in this sense, is the same as to use it in the sense of the reason of God,-to an equality with which human reason cannot aspire. It may be the reverse of Divine reason, or a faint radiation from it, but never can it be full and perfect as the reason of a mind of perfect knowledge. It is admitted that no­thing can be revealed by God, as truth, contradictory of his knowledge, and of the nature of things themselves; but it follows not from this, that nothing should he contained in that revelation contradictory of the limit. ed and often erring reason of man.[1]

Another distinction necessary to be made in order to the right application of this rule is, that a doctrine which cannot be proved by our reason, is not on that account, contrary either to the nature of things, or even to reason itself. This is sometimes lost sight of, and that which has no evidence from our reason is hastily presumed to be against it. Now rational investigation is a process by which we inquire into the truth or falsehood of any thing by comparing it with what we intuitively, or by experience, know to be true, or with that which we have formerly demonstrated to be so. "By reason," says Cicero, "we are led from things apprehended and understood, to things not apprehended." Rational proof therefore consists in the agreement or disagreement of that which is compared with truths already supposed to be established. But there may be truths, the evidence of which can only be fully known to the Divine mind, and on which the reasoning or comparing faculty of an inferior nature cannot, from their vastness or obscurity, be employed ; and such truths there must be in any revelation which treats of the nature and perfections of God; his will as to us,-and the relations we stand in to him, and to another state of being. As facts and doctrines, they are as much capable of revelation as if the whole reason of things on which they are grounded were put into the revelation also; but they may be revealed as authoritative declarations, of which the process of proof is hidden, either because it transcends our faculties, or for other reasons, and we have therefore no rational evidence of their truth farther than we have rational evidence that they come from God, which is in fact a more powerful demonstration. That a revelation may contain truths of this transcendent nature must be allowed by all who have admitted its necessity, if they would be consistent with themselves; for its necessity rests, in great part, upon the weakness of human reason. If our natural faculties could have reached the truths thus exhibited to us, there had been no need of supernatural instruction; and if it has been vouchsafed, the degree depends upon the Divine will, and he may give a doctrine with its reasons, or without them; for surely the ground of our obligation to believe his word does not rest upon our perception of the rational evidence of the truths he requires us to believe. If doc­trines then be given without the reasons on which they rest, that is, without any apparent agreement with what is already known; because the process of proof must, in many cases, be a comparison of that which is too vast to be fully apprehended by us with something else which, because known by us, must be comparatively little, or perhaps in some of its qualities or relations of a different nature, so that no fit comparison of things so dissimilar can be instituted; this circumstance proves the absence of rational evidence to us; but it by no means follows, that the doctrine is incapable of rational proof, though probably no reason but that of God, or of a more exalted being than man in his present state may be adequate to unfold it.

It has indeed been maintained, that though our reason may be inadequate to the discovery of such truths as the kind of revelation we have supposed to be necessary must contain, yet, when aided by this revela­tion, it is raised into so perfect a condition, that what appears incongruous to it ought to be concluded contrary to the revelation itself. This, to a certain extent, is true. When a doctrine is clearly revealed to understanding as it does upon an infallible authority, no contrary doctrine can be true, whether found without the record of the revelation, or deduced from it; for this is in fact no more than saying, that human opinions must be tried by Divine authority, and that revelation must be consistent with itself. The test to which in this case, however, we subject a contradictory doctrine, so long as we adhere to the revelation, is formed of principles which our reason did not furnish, but such as were communicated to us by supernatural interposition; and the judge to which we refer is not, properly speaking; reason, but revelation.

But if by this is meant, that our reason, once enlightened by the annunciation of the great truths of revelation, can discover or complete, in all cases, the process of their rational proof, that is, their conformity to the nature and truth of things, and is thus authorized to reject whatever cannot be thus harmonized with our own deductions from the leading truths thus revealed, so great a concession cannot be made to human ability. In many of the rules of morals, and the doctrines of religion too, it may be allowed, that a course of thought is opened which may be pursued to the enlargement of the rational evidence of the doctrines taught, but not as to what concerns many of the attributes of God; his purposes concerning the human race; some of his most important pro­cedures toward us; and the future destiny of man. When once it is revealed that man is a creature, we cannot but perceive the reasonable. ness of our being governed by the law of our Creator; that this is founded in his right and our duty; and that, when we are concerned with a wise, and gracious, and just Governor, what is our duty must of necessity be promotive of our happiness. But if the revelation should contain any declarations as to the nature of the Creator himself, as that he is eternal and self existent and in every place; and that he knows all things; the thoughts thus suggested, the doctrines thus stated, nakedly and authoritatively, are too mysterious to be distinctly apprehended by us, and we are unable, by comparing them with any thing else, (for we know nothing with which we can compare them,) to acquire any clear views of the manner in which such a being exists, or why such perfections necessarily flow from his peculiar nature. If, therefore, the reve­lation itself does not state in addition to the mere facts that he is self existent, omnipresent, omniscient, &c, the manner in which the existence of such attributes harmonizes with the nature and reason of things, we cannot supply the chasm; and should we even catch some view of the rational evidence, which is not denied, we arc unable to complete it; our reason is not enlightened up to the full measure of these truths, nor on such subjects are we quite certain that some of our most rational deductions are perfectly sound, and we cannot, therefore, make use of them as standards by which to try any doctrine, beyond the degree in which they are clearly revealed, and authoritatively stated to us. Other examples might be given, but these are sufficient for illustration.

These observations being made, it will be easy to assign definite limits to the rule, "that no doctrine in an admitted revelation is to be understood in a sense contrary to reason." The only way in which such a rule can be safely received is, that nothing is to be taken as a true interpretation, when, as to the subject in question, we have sufficient knowledge to affirm, that the interpretation is contrary to the nature of things which, in this case, it is also necessary to be assured that we have been able to ascertain. Of some things we know the nature without a revelation, inasmuch as they lie within the range of our own observation and experience, as that a human body cannot be in two places at the same time. Of other things we know the nature by revelation, and by that our knowledge is enlarged. If, therefore, from some figurative passages of a revelation, any person, as the papists, should affirm, that wine is human blood, or that a human body can be in two places at the same time, it is contrary to our reason, that is, not to mere opinion, but to the nature of something which we know so well, that we arc bound to reject the interpretation as an absurdity. If, again, any were to interpret passages which speak of God as having time form of man to mean, that he has merely a local presence, our reason has been taught by revelation, that God is a spirit, and exists every where, that is, so far we have been taught the nature of things as to God, that we reject the interpretation, as contrary to what has been so clearly revealed, and resolve every anthropomorphite expression we may find in the revelation into figurative and accommodated language. In the application of this rule, when even thus limited, care is, however, to be taken, that we distin­guish what is capable of being tried by it. If we compare one thing with another, in order to determine whether it agrees with, or differs from it, it is not enough that we have sufficient knowledge of that with which we compare it, and which we have made the standard of judgment. It is also necessary that the things compared should be of the same nature; and that the comparison should be made in the same respects. We take for illustration the case just given. Of two bodies we can affirm, that they cannot be in the same place at the same time; but we cannot affirm that of a body and a spirit, for we know what relation bodies have to place and to each other, but we do not know what relation spirits have to each other, or to space. This may illustrate the first rule. The second demands, that the comparison be made in the same respect. If we affirm of two bodies, one of a round, and the other of a square figure, that their figure is the same, the comparison determines the case, and at once detects the error; but of these bodies, so different in figure, it may be affirmed without contradiction, that they are of the same specific gravity, for the difference of figure is not that in respect of which the comparison is made. We apply this to the interpretation of a revelation of God and his will. The rule which requires us to reject as a true interpretation of that revelation, whatever is con­trary to reason, may be admitted in all cases where we know the real nature of things, and conduct the comparison with the cautions just given; but it would be most delusive, and would counteract the intention of the revelation itself, by unsettling its authority, if it were applied in any other way. For,

1.                In all cases where the nature of things is not clearly and satis­factorily known, it cannot be affirmed that a doctrine contradicts them, and is therefore contrary to reason.

2.                                                      When that of which we would form a rational judgment is not itself distinctly apprehended, it cannot be satisfactorily compared with those things, the nature of which we adequately know, and therefore cannot be said to be contrary to reason.


Now in such a revelation as we have supposed necessary for man. There are many facts and doctrines which are not capable of being com­pared with any thing we adequately know, and they therefore lie wholly without the range of the rule in question. We suppose it to declare what God, the infinite First Cause, is. But it is of the nature of such a being to be, in many respects, peculiar to himself, and, as in those respects he cannot admit of comparison with any other, what may be false, if affirmed of ourselves, because contradictory to what we know of human nature, may be true of him, to whom the nature of things is his own nature, and his own nature alone. The same observation may he made as to many of his natural attributes; they are the attributes of a peculiar nature, and are therefore peculiar to themselves, either in kind or in degree; they admit of no comparison, each being like HIMSELF. sui generis: and the nature of things, as to them respectively, is their own nature. The same reasoning may, in part, be applied to the general purposes of God, in making and governing his creatures. They are not, in every respect, capable of being compared to any thing we adequately know, in order to determine their reasonableness. Creatures do not stand to each other in all the relations in which they stand to him, and no reasoning from their mutual relations can assist us in judg­ing of the plans he has formed with respect to the whole, with the extent of which, indeed, we are unacquainted, or often of a part, whose rela­tions to the whole we know not. Were we to subject what he has Commanded us to do, or to leave undone, to the test of reasonableness, we should often be at a loss how to commence the inquiry, for it may have a reason arising out of his own nature, which we either know not at all, or only in the partial and authoritative revelations he has made of himself; or out of his general plans, of which we are not judges, for the reasons just given; or its reason may lie in our own nature, which we know but partially, because we find it differently operated upon by, circumstances, and cannot know in what circumstances we may at any future time be placed.

With respect to the moral perfections of God, as they are more capable of a complete comparison with what we find in intelligent creatures, the notion of infinity being applicable to them in a different sense to that in which it is applied to his natural attributes, and adequate ideas of justice and mercy and goodness being within our reach, this rule is much more applicable in all cases which would involve interpretations consistent with or opposed to these ideas; and any deduction clearly con­trary to them is to be rejected, as grounded not upon the revelation but a false interpretation. This will be the more confirmed, if we find any thing in the revelation itself in the form of an appeal to our own, ideas of moral subjects, as for instance of justice and equity, in justification of the Divine proceedings; for then we have the authority of the Giver of the revelation himself for attaching such ideas to his justice and equity as are implied in the same terms in the language of men.[2] A doctrine which would impugn these attributes, is not therefore to be deduced from such a revelation; but here the rule can only be applied to such cases as we fully comprehend. There may be an apparent injustice in a case, which, if we knew the whole of it, would be found to harmonize with the strictest equity; and what evidence of conformity to the moral attributes of God it now wants may be manifested in a future state, either by superior information then vouchsafed to us, or, when the subject of the proceeding is an immortal being, by the different circumstances of compensation in which he may be placed.

Upon the whole then it will appear, that this rule of interpreting a revelation is necessarily but of limited application, and chiefly respects those parts of the record in which obscure passages and figurative language may occur. In most others, a revelation, if comprehensive, will be found its own interpreter by bringing every doubtful case to be determined by its own unquestionable general principles, and explicit decla­rations. The USE of reason, therefore, in matters of revelation, is to investigate the evidences on which it is founded, and' fairly and impartially to interpret it according to the ordinary rules of interpretation in other cases. Its LIMIT is the authority of God. When tie has expli­citly laid down a doctrine, that doctrine is to be humbly received, what­ever degree of rational evidence may be afforded of its truth, or with. held; and no torturing or perverting criticisms can be innocently resorted to, to bring a doctrine into a better accordance with our favourite views and systems, any more than to make a precept bend to the love and practice of our vicious indulgences. A larger scope than this cannot cer­tainly be assigned to human reason in matters of revelation, when it is elevated to the office of a judge-a judge of the evidences on which a professed revelation rests, and a judge of its meaning after the application of the established rules of interpretation in other cases.[3] But if reason be considered as a learner, it may have a much wider range in those fields of intelligence which a genuine revelation from God will open to our view. All truth, even that which to us is most abstruse mend mysterious, is capable of rational demonstration, though not to the rea­son of man, in the present state, and in some cases probably to no reason below that of the Divine nature. Truth is founded in reality, and for that reason is truth. Some truths therefore, which a revelation only could make known, will often appear to us rational, because consistent with what we already know. Meditation upon them, or experience of their reality in new circumstances in which we may be placed, may enlarge that evidence; and thus our views of the conformity of many of the doctrines revealed, with the nature and reality of things, may acquire a growing clearness and distinctness. The observations of others also may, by reading and converse, be added to our own, and often serve to carry out our minds into some new and richer vein of thought. Thus it is that reason, instead of being fettered, as some pretend, by being regulated, is enlightened by revelation, and enabled from the first principles, and by the grand landmarks which it furnishes, to pursue its inquiries into many subjects to an extent which enriches and ennobles the human intellect, and administers continual food to the strength of religious principle. This, however, is not the case with all subjects. Many, as we have already seen, are from their very nature wholly incapable of investigation. At the first step We launch into darkness, and find in religion as well as in natural philoso­phy, beyond certain limits, insurmountable barriers, which bid defiance to human penetration; and even where time rational evidence of a truth but nakedly stated in revelation, or very partially developed, can by human Powers be extended, that circumstance gives us no qualification to judge of the truth of another doctrine which is stated on the mere authority of the dispenser of the revelation, and of which there is no evidence at all to Our reason. It may belong to subjects of another and a higher class; and if it be found in the Record, is not to be explained away by principles which we may have drawn from other truths, though revealed, for those inferences have no higher an authority than the strength of our own fallible powers, and consequently cannot be put in competition with the declarations of an infallible teacher, ascertained by just rules of grammatical and literary interpretation.


"In whatever point of view," says an able living author, "the subject be placed, the same arguments which show the incapability of man, by the light of nature, to discover religious truth, will serve likewise to show, that, when it is revealed to him, lie is not warranted in judging of it merely by the notions which he had previously formed. For is it not a solecism to affirm, that man's natural reason is a fit standard for measuring the wisdom or truth of those things with which it is wholly unacquainted, except so far as they have been supernaturally revealed?"

"But what, then," (an objector will say,) "is the, province of reason? Is it altogether useless? Or are we to be precluded from using it in this most important of all concerns, for our security against error?"

Our answer is, that we do not lessen either the utility or the dignity of human reason, by thus confining the exercise of it within those natural boundaries which the Creator himself hath assigned to it. We admit, with the Deist, that "reason is the foundation of all certitude:" and we admit, therefore, that it is fully competent to judge of the credibility of any thing which is proposed to it as a Divine revelation. But we deny that it has a right to dispute (because we maintain that it has not the ability to disprove) the wisdom or the truth of those things which revelation proposes to its acceptance. Reason is to judge whether those things be indeed so revealed: and this judgment it is to form, from the evidence to that effect. In this respect it is "the foundation of certitude," because it enables us to ascertain the fact, that God hath spoken to us. But this fact once established, the credibility, nay, the certainty of the things revealed, follows as of necessary consequence; since no deduction of reason came be more indubitable than this, that whatever God reveals must be true. Here, then, the authority of reason ceases. Its judgment is finally determined by the fact of time revelation itself; and it has thenceforth nothing to do, but to believe and to obey.

"But are we to believe every doctrine, however incomprehensible, however mysterious, nay, however seemingly contradictory to sense and reason?"

We answer, that revelation is supposed to treat of subjects with which man's natural reason is not conversant. It is therefore to be expected, that it should communicate some truths not to be fully comprehended by human understandings. But these we may safely receive, upon the authority which declares them, without danger of violating truth. Real and evident contradictions, no man can, indeed, believe, whose intellects are sound and clear. But such contradictions are no more proposed for our belief, than impossibilities are enjoined for our practice: though things difficult to understand, as well as things hard to perform, may perhaps be required of us, for the trial of our faith and resolution. Seeming con­tradictions may also occur: but these may seem to be such because they are slightly or superficially considered, or because they are judged of by principles inapplicable to the subject, and without so clear a knowledge of the nature of the things revealed, as may lead us to form an adequate conception of them. These, however, afford no solid argument against the truth of what is proposed to our belief: since, unless we had really such an insight into the mysterious parts of revelation as might enable us to prove them to be contradictory and false, we have no good ground for rejecting them; and we only betray our own ignorance and perverseness in refusing to take God's word for the truth of things which pass moan's understanding.

The simple question, indeed, to be considered, is, whether it be reasonable to believe, upon competent authority, things which we can neither discover ourselves, nor, when discovered, fully and clearly comprehend? Now every person of common observation must be aware, that unless he be content to receive solely upon the testimony of others a great variety of information, much of which he may be wholly unable to account for or explain, he could scarcely obtain a com­petency of knowledge to carry him safely through the common concerns of life. And with respect to scientific truths, the greatest masters in philosophy know full well that many things are reasonably to be believed, nay, must be believed on sure and certain grounds of conviction, though they are absolutely incomprehensible by our understandings, and even so difficult to be reconciled with other truths of equal certainty, as to carry the appearance of being contradictory and impossible. This will serve to show, that it is not contrary to reason to believe, on sufficient authority, some things which cannot be comprehended, and some things which, from the narrow and circumscribed views we are able to take of them, appear to be repugnant to our notions of truth. The ground on which we believe such things, is the strength and certainty of the evidence with which they are accompanied. And this is precisely the ground on which we are re­quired to believe the truths of revealed religion. The evidence that they come from God, is, to reason itself, as incontrovertible a proof that they are true, as in matters of human science would be the evidence of sense, or of mathematical demonstration.


[1] "It is the error of those who contend that all necessary truth is discoverable or demonstrable by reason, that they affirm of human reason in particular, what is only true of reason in general, or of reason in the abstract. To say, that whatever is true, must be either discoverable or demonstrable by reason, can only be affirmed of an all perfect reason; and is therefore predicated of none but the Divine intellect. So that, unless it can be shown that human reason is the same, in degree, as well as in kind, with Divine reason; i. e. commensurate with it as to its powers, and equally incapable of error; the inference from reason in the abstract, to human reason, is manifestly inconclusive. Nothing more is necessary to show the fallacy of this mode of arguing, than to urge the indisputable truth, that God is Wiser than man, and has endued man with only a portion of that faculty which he himself, and none other beside him, possesses in absolute perfection." (VAN MILDERT'S Sermons at Boyle's Lecture.) -

[2] Thus in the Scriptures we find numerous appeals of this kind: "Judge between me and my vineyard." "Are not my ways equal ?" "Shall not the Judge of the whole earth do right 7" All of which passages suppose that equity and justice in God accord with the ideas attached to the same terms among men.

[3] See note A at the end of this chapter, in which two common objections are answered.