Reason a Servant, Not the Master [Commentary on Browne: Article I (2)]

In the early days of the church the doctrine of the Trinity soon became fraught with controversy, as anyone with even a basic sense of Christian history is aware. When consulting Browne’s historical survey of this controversy, one theme becomes apparent: in all times and places, perversion of the doctrine of God—and the doctrine of the Trinity in particular—has come chiefly through an inordinate confidence in the reliability of human reason.

Before the revelation of Christ, such perversion often took the form of pantheism, which “may not be directly alluded to in the Article, but is plainly opposed by it”:

Pantheism has been the prevailing Esoteric doctrine of all Paganism, and, with various modifications, the source of a great part of ancient philosophy. The Orphic Hymns have evident traces of it. Thales and the Eleatic School expressed it distinctly, and in the definite language of philosophy. There can be little doubt, that it was the great doctrine revealed in the mysteries. The Egyptian theology was plainly based upon it. It was at the root of the Polytheism of the Greeks and Romans; and their gross idolatry was probably but an outward expression of its more mystic refinements. The Brahmins and Buddhists, whose religious systems still prevail amongst nearly half the human race, though also, exoterically, gross Polytheists, are yet, in their philosophy, undisguised Pantheists. The Jewish Cabala is thought to have drunk deep of the same fountain.

Note that on Browne’s account, philosophic pantheism readily developed among many or most societies who did not have the benefit of special revelation. Even after the birth of the church, “when the Christian faith came in contact with Eastern philosophy” pantheism worked its influence via gnosticism and Manichaeism. Spinoza, too, is mentioned as an exponent of pantheism, and after him, “Some of the philosophic divines of Germany have revived it of late, and have taught it as the solution of all the Christian mysteries.”

Where pantheism is not at issue, Browne comments more broadly on the corrupting phenomenon of philosophy molding Christian thought:

After the Christian Revelation, indeed, philosophic Christians, and still more philosophic heretics, early used Platonic terms to express Christian doctrine. Hence the language of philosophy became tinged with the language of Christianity: hence, too, at a very early period, the heretics, using the language of Platonism, corrupted Christianity with Platonic philosophy.

Centuries later, the same tendency famously manifested among the Socinians, who believed that “Scripture should be received as truth, but be made to bend to reason,” and as a result taught non-trinitarianism in the form of a diminished Christology. More recently, “In Germany and Switzerland the rationalism which so generally prevails among foreign Protestants has been favourable to Unitarian views of the Godhead.”

On Browne’s presentation, then, the doctrine of God becomes compromised when it is the product of philosophical speculation that either knows nothing of special revelation or subjugates this revelation to its own standards of truth and sense. Put differently, when reason is the primary or sole determinant of truth, our theology inevitably goes awry. Thomas Aquinas says as much in the very beginning of his Summa Theologiae:

Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors.[1]

The doctrine of the Trinity, in particular, is held by Aquinas to be “impossible to attain to the knowledge of…by natural reason.”[2]

Yet none of this should be understood to mean that philosophy and reason are not to be used as a supplement to Christian revelation, nor does Browne suggest this. To the contrary, when Browne is discussing the corruption of Christian doctrine in conforming it to Greek philosophy, he points out that the Apostle John responded to this tendency by adapting Greek philosophy to Christian truth:

St. John, who wrote after the rise of such heretics, uses language which they had introduced; yet not in their sense of such language, but with the very object of correcting their errors.

Here Browne shows us, on the strength of biblical precedent, that we are justified in availing ourselves of philosophy in order to better understand and articulate our Faith, provided that the Word of God remains always the norming norm. Thus when Paul warns against the danger of “‘philosophy falsely so called’ (γνῶσις ψευδώνυμος)” (1 Tim. 6:20), this is not a rejection of philosophy per se.[3]

Moreover, to say that certain articles of the Faith are above reason is not to say they are against reason. As William Chillingworth says,

Following the Scripture I shall believe many mysteries, but no impossibilities; many things above reason, but nothing against it; many things which had they not been revealed, reason could never have discovered, but nothing which by true reason may be confuted; many things which reason cannot comprehend how they can be, but nothing which reason can comprehend that it cannot be.[4]

It is in this spirit that Anselm of Canterbury famously wrote the words Credo ut intelligam, “I believe so that I may understand,” and it is in this same spirit that Bishop Hall says, “In the School of God we must first believe, and then we shall conceive.”[5]

Let me close with the words of Archbishop Laud, who succinctly captures the proper relationship between Scripture and reason:

The principles of Divinity resolve not into the grounds of natural reason,—for then there would be no room for faith, but all would be either knowledge or vision,—but, into the maxims of Divine knowledge supernatural. And of this we have just so much light, and no more, than God hath revealed unto us in the Scripture.[6]

The lamentable history of trinitarian heresies—along with all other manner of perverted doctrines of God—serves as a cautionary tale to those who would make reason the final arbiter of truth. Far better is the approach of Browne, who says we are “called upon, in humble dependence on the Divine guidance, to use our reason, dispassionately but reverently, in order to understand what God has delivered to us.”

Notes

  1. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I.1.1 co., trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Benzinger Brothers, 1920), https://www.newadvent.org/summa/1001.htm#article1.
  2. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I.32.1 co., https://www.newadvent.org/summa/1032.htm#article1.
  3. For more on the general attitude of the early church toward philosophy, see Blake Adams, “Early Christian Apologists and Their Peers: Philosophy as Praeparatio Evangelica,” in Joseph Minich, ed., Philosophy and the Christian: The Quest for Wisdom in the Light of Christ (Davenant Press, 2018), 50‒156.
  4. William Chillingworth, The Religion of Protestants, Ed. London, 1719, in Paul Elmer More and Frank Leslie Cross, eds., Anglicanism (Cambridge, UK: James Clarke and Co., 2008), 71.
  5. Joseph Hall, Meditations and Vows, Peter Hall, ed. (1837), in More and Cross, Anglicanism, 149.
  6. William Laud, A Relation of the Conference between William Laud, Then Lord Bishop of St. David’s, Now Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, and Mr. Fisher, the Jesuit, Section XVI. Ed. C. H. Simpkinson in the “English Theological Library” (1901), in More and Cross, Anglicanism, 65.

James Clark

James Clark is the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Cranmer Theological Journal, Journal of Classical Theology, and American Reformer, as well as other publications.


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