Thursday, April 9, 2009

Just a thought on reason and revelation and Church...

One theme we read frequently here is that some/many Founders thought that "reason trumps revelation". This is, of course, prima facie absurd. Once you take it seriously, it must be false.

Think about it: you have access to real revelation, with no cause for doubt. To papaphrase an old chestnut, who you gonna believe, God or your lying reason? If God is speaking to you, and you know that it really is God, you would listen. So would the Founders.

The problem is not reason vs. revelation, the problem is epistemic: how do I know that this particular teaching is revelation? For the old-school paleo-orthodox, this is no problem: you have the authority of the Church to lean on, with their learned fathers and their deep discernment of what writings were inspired and belong in a biblical canon.

But if you are an American protestant of the revolutionary era, whether neo-orthodox or not, you have tossed the Church and its learned clergy out the window, so the epistemic probem is real for you: you are still willing to believe God over anything else, but how can you tell what is truly from God?

The enlightenment answer is that the Word of God has inherent authority. It is so wise, so sublime, so obviously true, that it is self-revelatory: the true Word of God is like a light shining in textual darkness, and your reason is the God-given faculty that gives you the power to respond to that Word.

In a nutshell, for the Founders and their generation of American protestants, reason does not trump revelation, reason discerns (and then submits to) revelation.


Jared Farley said...

In your second to last paragraph, you do not mean that the ENTIRE Word of God has inherent authority, right? Because that is where reason would come into play in decifering, as TJ says the diamonds of the Scriptures from the dughill.

What you say seems similar to what John Adams wrote to TJ on December 25, 1813: "Philosophy, which is the result of reason, is the first, the original revelation of the Creator to his creature, man. When this revelation is clear and certain, by intuition or necessary inductions, no subsequent revelation, supported by prophecies or miracles, can supersede it. Philosophy is not only the love of wisdom, but the science of the universe and its cause. There is, there was, and there will be but one master of philosophy in the universe. Portions of it, in different degrees, are revealed to creatures. Philosophy looks with an impartial eye on all terrestrial religions. I have examined all as well as my narrow sphere, my straitened means, and my busy life would allow me; and the result is, that the Bible is the best book in the world. It contains more of my little philosophy than all the libraries I have seen; and such parts of it as I cannot reconcile to my little philosophy, I postpone for future investigation."

But doesn't it seem at the end of this passage that Adams says that SOME PARTS of his reason and his "philosophy" are superior to the Word of God? Or am I misinterpreting what you mean by "Word of God" or what Adams is writing?

Jonathan Rowe said...

There is another letter of Adams' from 1813 -- I'll reproduce the exact quote later if needed -- when he confronts this very issue and says even if he were on Mt. Sinai with Moses and God revealed the doctrine of the Trinity to him there, he still wouldn't believe it because man's reason (the first revelation of God to man) proves 1+1+1 = 3.

Kristo Miettinen said...


The point is that whether the bible is or is not, in whole or in part, the Word of God, is the question to which the enlightenment person seeks the answer through reason. When I say Word of God I mean that which is undeniably from God, but whether that is the Bible or not I haven't addressed.

Jon, to your point, if I recall the Adams passage, he is making the elementary Kantian point that one equals three cannot be believed, because the mind cannot formulate it. As I recall, Adams and Jefferson in their correspondence agreed that belief is assent to that which can be grasped by the mind.

In other words, you cannot believe what you cannot coherently think. Kant made the same point in terms of triangles: even God cannot make a triangle have four sides.

This is not a claim that we, with our reason, can question God let alone disagree with or judge him; it is a point about the limitations of the faculty that God has given us.


Jonathan Rowe said...

Well, I think they believed in a "rational" God who was unitary by nature.

The passage that I recall has Adams saying even if God Himself claimed to be Triune, he wouldn't believe it.

Though, after your clarification to Jared, I think we may not be too far apart.

When I note shorthand "reason" trumps "revelation" what I meant by that was man's reason trumps what's written in the Bible as a whole. (Revelation is shorthand for the ENTIRE Bible, which they believed on parts to be inspired.) Perhaps that's sloppy wording on my part.

But you are correct that they believed they thought man's reason could determine which parts of the Bible were valid revelation and once they "found" it, they would submit to it.

Again they believed in a "rational" God; such God was incapable of giving irrational revelation. Thus if something in the Bible appeared to be irrational, it could not have been from God.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Also perhaps the problem with my terminology is that it assumes too much on behalf of orthodox Christian theology that views the Bible the infallible Word of God. Given these premises if an FF believed the Bible partially inspired and that man's reason could determine which parts were validly revealed and which parts were not, I think many of such Christians would say this is "man's reason trumping revelation."

Kristo Miettinen said...


I would call that reason trumping Church authority, not reason trumping revelation.

Reason and Church authority are comparables; each is a basis for determining authenticity of scripture as candidate revelation.

Reason and Revelation, on the other hand, are not in the same category. One is the means to judge, the other is that which judgement seeks to find.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Something else to keep in mind, I'll be posting on it within the next few days but I'm extremely busy with work now. They believed reason could determine which parts of the Bible were valid, but ALSO could find substantive truths in "nature" alone. I've heard some argue reason is just process. Well, it may in reality be, but the FFs believed reason alone could discover substantive truths. They ran into a problem with reason discovered something in nature that seemed to conflict with the Bible. This was a big issue with Romans 13. Once they decided it was "reasonable" that man had a right to revolt, they "interpreted" Romans 13 to accord with that discovery in nature. So some have invoked "right reason," the FFs would have also invoked "right revelation," which is the rational parts of the Bible or a "rational interpretation" thereof.

Jared Farley said...

Going back to some of what Jon posted, would it be your stance that even if Adams were taken to Mt. Siani with Moses, and God directly revealed to them the doctrine of the Trinity, Adams's philosphy would be that the entity addressing him could not be God, because the "revelation" it was proposing was illogical? Thus, logic would still not trump revelation b/c that was not the real deity and not a real revelation.

But on the other hand, Adams seems to suggest in the letter that this is the true God to which Moses is taking him.

Phil Johnson said...

Well, this is all interesting and I must say that I am learning as the learned ones here go along.
I have begun reading this book.

Already on the first page, good information popped up promising to give some food for thought on the subject of this article as well as this site in general.
Thanks for leading me to it.

bpabbott said...

Kristo: "Reason and Church authority are comparables; each is a basis for determining authenticity of scripture as candidate revelation."

While I agree with you, the point is can be lost once claims that the Bible is the inerrant word of God enter into the discussion.

Many (some here?) are not willing to accept that it is the authority of the Church (a human authority) that claims the Bible to be inerrant.

Objection to this perspective is to be expected as its acceptance renders the claim, "that the Bible is the words of God", a subjective opinion.

Gregg Frazer said...

In his letter (Sep. 14, 1813) to Jefferson, Adams is not making a logical or geometry argument that one cannot be three and three cannot be one because we cannot conceive of such a thing. He is making a theological argument that he would not believe in the Trinity even if it were personally directly revealed to him by the God of "the divine Shekinah" on Mt. Sinai (where God gave His revelation to Moses). The one vs. three part of his argument is his own simplistic caricature of the doctrine -- it has nothing inherently to do with the doctrine.

In the following paragraph, he challenges another fundamental doctrine (eternal punishment) with another caricature which allows him to avoid dealing with the actual doctrine honestly.

So, to get at the heart of this discussion: Adams says here that his own reason trumps -- yes, trumps -- even DIRECT revelation from God. The two are in conflict and his reason takes the trick.

In the next paragraph, he says that neither "prophecies [n]or miracles" could "convince" him of the truth of the other doctrine. Notice he doesn't deny the validity of the prophecies or the miracles -- he just says they could not convince him to believe what his reason tells him is unreasonable.

In the paragraph before the Mt. Sinai statement, he says: "The human understanding is a revelation from its Maker, which can never be disputed or doubted." To further elucidate its superiority, he says: "No prophecies, no miracles are necessary to prove this celestial communication."

Finally, IF, when one encounters that which has been affirmed to be revelation, one's response is to evaluate its legitimacy by one's reason and to reject parts of it because those parts do not square with one's reason, THEN I submit that, in the mind of that person, their reason trumps revelation.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Adams may have believed that. However, he is not "The Founders." Same goes for Jefferson. It's an error to let these two outliers [and their private writings. at that!] represent their entire generation.

The Trinity thing gets in the way, because as we've seen with unitarian controversy, the hassle was over interpretation of the Bible. One could believe the Bible inerrant and still be a non-Trinitarian, since one can argue against the Trinity solely from Bible verses. [And they did.]

We must also figure in the Bible scholarship of that time, returning to the original Greek, which may have put common interpretations of the KJV at question. Is the KJV inerrant? Many Christians, even orthodox ones, were open to its correction. Fundamentalism as we know it today was a 20th century invention.

As to Jared Farley's very good question, I think Adams simply postpones resolving the apparent conflict between his reason and revelation.

Locke says something similar, although apparently comes down for revelation. Locke's writings can safely be said to be more influential in the Founding era than John Adams':

"The holy scripture is to me, and always will be, the constant guide of my assent; and I shall always hearken to it, as containing infallible truth, relating to things of the highest concernment. And I wish I could say, there were no mysteries in it: I acknowledge there are to me, and I fear always will be. But where I want the evidence of things, there yet is ground enough for me to believe, because God has said it: and I shall presently condemn and quit any opinion of mine, as soon as I am shown that it is contrary to any revelation in the holy scripture.

Phil Johnson said...

Supposing each one of you is correct in your own right.
So what?
How does that relate to the claim that America was created as a Christian Nation?

Our Founding Truth said...

Adams may have believed that. However, he is not "The Founders." Same goes for Jefferson. It's an error to let these two outliers [and their private writings. at that!] represent their entire generation.>

I second that. As well as the quote is when he's out of the game.

Is the KJV inerrant? Many Christians, even orthodox ones, were open to its correction.>

Is the KJV based on an uncorrupted text?

bpabbott said...

OFT: "Is the KJV based on an uncorrupted text?"

ahh, ... "non sequitur"

But what is it you mean by "uncorrupted"?

Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi Jon!

I would be *very* surprised to find a FF among those we usually discuss (Adams, Jefferson, Franklin etc) who thought he knew that God was rational. The usual enlightenment stance, which I find the more cautious FFs adopting, is not that God is rational but that *we* are rational, and so whatever God is, we can only understand that aspect of him that can be grasped by the mind. This is identified with the Biblical "logos", the "word".

Men of the enlightenment were usually very careful not to put limits on God, or otherwise claim a priori knowledge of him; they instead cast everything in terms of our feeble human capacity to understand things. Kant is the logical culmination of such a view, but others were "Kantian" before Kant, the FFs among them.

I agree that the FFs believed they could find truths in nature, including truths about God. Natural theology, Paley and all that, were enlightenmnet phenomena too. But note that with only a few exceptions, even the least religious FFs thought that there were trancendent truths to be found in scripture (granted that you had to pick them out). This is, by rationalist standards, quite arresting.


As I recall the Adams quote, his point is that God *cannot* reveal the doctrine of the Trinity, because Adams, as a mere human, has only reason to work with, and reason cannot comprehend the idea that three is one. Of course Adams is thereby revealing his personal lack of understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity, but this is a point I have made before: being American protestants, the FFs were as dismissive as modern Americans of basic orthodox teachings. Adams simply did not know what the doctrine of the Trinity was, just as Jefferson did not know whose conception is supposed to be immaculate. Modern American protestants are, typically, equally clueless as the FFs.

Hi Ben!

American protestants have, via neo-orthodoxy, been able to re-appropriate the "authority of the church" for establishing scriptural inerrancy (while rejecting all else to do with Church authority), but the revolutionary generation had no similar basis for claiming that scripture was inerrant, except mainly the Presbyterians and Episcopelians (those who retained some notion of a unifying church).

Be careful about moving from Church authority to human authority; to those who think that the Church (a metaphysical entity) is authoritative, it is not a human church that they are talking about. We speak of the "visible church" as the human institution, and distinguish it from the Church of God, the metaphysical bride of Christ.

Hi Gregg!

Welcome to the discussion. I disagree with you.

Adams said "Had you and I been forty days with Moses on Mount Sinai, and admitted to behold the divine glory, and there been told that one was three and three one, we might not have had the courage to deny it, but we could not have believed it". Not that we should not, but that we could not. It is a limitation of humanity, a limitation of understanding, a limitation of reason. And, your protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, it is worded very directly in terms of one being three, and three one.

Nowhere does Adams say "I am smarter than God", or in any other way suggest that his reason is superior to a sincere Divine message. All Adams says is that we can never be so certain of anything externally testified to as we are of basic facts of reason, such as that two plus two equal four. This is not saying that reason is superior, but rather that reason is limited. There are things reason and human understanding simply cannot do, things that must always come first.

Also note, if you will, that Adams takes no credit for his reason - your own quote: "The human Understanding is a revelation from its Maker which can never be disputed or doubted... this revelation has made it certain that two and one make three; and that one is not three; nor can three be one."

But the most compact representation of enlightenment thinking is from Jefferson to Adams: "I suppose belief to be the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition." (22 Aug. 1813) This is the very letter that Adams is responding to with his letter of 14 Sept. 1813. Notice the acknowledgement of the enlightenment principle which I have been attributing to these FFs: that you cannot believe what you cannot comprehend. It's not that you shouldn't; you just can't do it.


The CN argument I have been developing elsewhere (in a different form than most). This is counterargument to Jon's "rationalist" simplifications.

Our Founding Truth said...

Kristo:One theme we read frequently here is that some/many Founders thought that "reason trumps revelation". This is, of course, prima facie absurd. Once you take it seriously, it must be false.

Think about it: you have access to real revelation, with no cause for doubt. To papaphrase an old chestnut, who you gonna believe, God or your lying reason? If God is speaking to you, and you know that it really is God, you would listen. So would the Founders

Kristo, if common sense were common...

This is what I've berated for on this blog for at least the last year, especially by Jon Rowe.

Thank God, the majority did not believe this lunacy. If Jefferson and Franklin did believe this doctrine, it's a sad testament to biblical understanding, as Jefferson had no basis for rejecting one word of the Bible.

Jonathan Rowe said...


We've already demonstrated that John Adams' was MORE heterodox and LESS "Christian" (as YOU understand the term) than Ben Franklin. That such a mainstream and conservative figure as J. Adams fit right with Jefferson and Franklin demonstrates how "mainstream" this belief was for the FFs.

Your entire "premise" here rests on the "reductio ad absurdum" logical fallacy: I don't like the implications of these ideas, so they MUST not be true.

Well, they are. Deal with it.

Our Founding Truth said...

That such a mainstream and conservative figure as J. Adams fit right with Jefferson and Franklin demonstrates how "mainstream" this belief was for the FFs.>

Then you can surely post quotes from say: Ellsworth, Mason, King, Boudinot, Jay, McHenry, Gerry, Pinckney, Cotesworth Pinckney, Sherman, Livingston, Trumbull, Johnston, Baldwin, Lee, Von Steuben, Madison, Marshall, Duvall, Chase, Wolcott, etc. Let's see them?

Our Founding Truth said...


Here is Wilson writing about what you call "grasping by the mind." Wilson ties-in what Adams was saying to Jefferson. It's not that we shouldn't believe, but that we cannot believe:

Wilson:Having thus stated the question ― what is the efficient cause of moral obligation? ― I give it this answer ― the will of God. This is the supreme law.89 His just and full right of, imposing laws, and our duty in obeying then, are the sources of our moral obligations. If I am asked ― why do you obey the will of God? I answer ― because it is my duty so to do. If I am asked again ― how do you know this to be your duty? I answer again ― because I am told so by my moral sense or conscience. If I am asked a third time ― how do you know that you ought to do that, of which your conscience enjoins the performance? I can only say, I feel that such is my duty. Here investigation must stop; reasoning can go no farther. The science of morals, as well as other sciences, is founded on truths, that cannot be discovered or proved by reasoning. Reason is confined to the investigation of unknown truths by the means of such as are known. We cannot, therefore, begin to reason, till we are furnished, otherwise than by reason, with some truths, on which we can found our arguments. Even in mathematicks, we must be provided with axioms perceived intuitively to be true, before our demonstrations can commence. Morality, like mathematicks, has its intuitive truths, without which we cannot make a single step in our reasonings upon the subject. Such an intuitive truth is that, with which we just now closed our investigation. If a person was not possessed of the feeling before mentioned; it would not be in the power of arguments, to give him any conception of the distinction between right and wrong. These terms would be to him equally unintelligible, as the term colour to one who was born and has continued blind. But that there is, in human nature, such a moral principle, has been felt and acknowledged in all ages and nations. Now that we have stated and answered the first question; let us proceed to the consideration of the second ― how shall we, in particular instances, learn the dictates of our duty, and make, with accuracy, the proper distinction between right and wrong; in other words, how shall we, in particular cases, discover the will of God? We discover it by our conscience, by our reason, and by the Holy Scriptures. The law of nature and the law of revelation are both divine: they flow, though in different channels, from the same adorable source. It is, indeed, preposterous to separate them from each other. The object of both is ― to discover the will of God ― and both are necessary for the accomplishment of that end.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I don't need to post quotes; that they selected Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin is telling enough.

Gregg Frazer said...

Re the Adams Sinai quote:
1) Adams locates his example "with Moses" on Mt. Sinai because that is where God gave direct revelation. So, this is an example of him choosing to trust his own reason over direct revelation from God.

2) Adams does not say he could not "understand" the revelation concerning the Trinity -- he says he couldn't "believe" it. That is an act of WILL, not understanding. If it is a "limitation of humanity, a limitation of understanding, a limitation of reason" -- then I could not understand it, either (nor could the millions upon millions who understood it in his day and have understood it since).

3) I did not say that Adams didn't mention one vs. three -- what I said is that Adams worded it that way as a caricature of the real issue. There is nothing in the doctrine of the Trinity which requires the one vs. three characterization -- i.e. nothing which inherently requires a dilemma based on the Kantian argument. Adams chooses to turn it into that type of argument via his caricature -- in order to advance his argument.

To say that we can never be so certain of anything as we are basic facts of reason is to put reason above revelation. Reason does not tell me that God came to earth in human flesh and died the death I should have died in order to provide salvation for me -- but revelation tells me that. I accept it by faith even though it's not particularly reasonable because it has been revealed to me by God. I understand why they thought some doctrines irrational -- such as God creating humanity only to see the vast majority of people doomed to eternal damnation. But I believe it because it has been revealed by God -- not because I find it to be rational.

The difference between Aquinas, for example, and the theistic rationalists, is that, for him, when reason conflicted with revelation, he sided with revelation. For them, when the two came in conflict, they sided with reason.

I don't see the relevance of whether Adams takes credit for it or not. What matters is that he elevates his reason above revelation.

It is not true that one cannot believe what one cannot comprehend -- if by "comprehend" you mean fully understand (which, in the context, it seems you must mean). I believe a lot of things I cannot comprehend, such as the Incarnation and the Virgin Birth and eternity and ..... I believe those things because of faith -- if I only believe things based on my reason, then I have to figure them out before I can believe. That is Adams's (and the other theistic rationalists') problem.

Kristo Miettinen said...

Gregg, you concede my point without realizing it.

Adams said he couldn't believe it. Not wouldn't believe it, but couldn't.

Per Jefferson/Admas correspondence, what are the requirements for belief? Assent of the mind, and compreshension of the proposition. Please note these are not my criteria, but theirs.

The first criterion (assent) is a matter of would or wouldn't; the second (comprehension) is a matter of could or couldn't.