Sunday, September 12, 2010

"Reason and Revelation"

During the course of my adventure into the 1880-1881 issues of the Gospel Advocate, I have chanced upon a number of amusing articles. I have particularly enjoyed some of the marital advice contained therein. It has, at one and the same time, a kind of amusing antiquity and a certain timelessness. I had something of the same reaction when reading an article by F. D. Srygley titled "Reason and Revelation." (I regret that I do not have the exact date for the purpose of more accurate citation.) Srygley, who was very nearly the subject of a recent term paper of mine, wrote the article to correct a misprint in his "Missionary Spirit vs. Missionary Plans" which said that "the Bible was given to supplant human judgment." Srygley clarifies:

It is far more reasonable to conclude the Bible was given to supplement, not supplant, human judgment. In fact, this is the only view of the matter which will comport with reason.

My immediate reaction to that was pronouncedly negative, given my belief about the fundamental nature of Scripture. Nevertheless, as I read on I was struck by the way he expressed this belief. His language in several places (particularly when presented out of context as I am about to do) has a ring of orthodoxy - dare I even say Orthodoxy - that appealed very directly to me.

It is the province of the Bible to supply what reason cannot furnish.

The axioms which constitute the foundation and beginning of revelation are wholly without the scope of unaided reason. To the mind enlightened by revelation these principles are clearly axiomatic, but to the mind destitute of inspired light they are darkly incomprehensible.

If the Bible does not occupy ground beyond the reach of human reason, it is not a revelation. Can it in any sense be considered a revelation to tell a man what he already knows?

In the article, Srygley develops the idea of complementary provinces of reason and revelation such that they form a mutually exclusive but "harmonious whole." He reacts to two opposite and equally dangerous extremes. Some make reason all sufficient and revelation only a marginal improvement on reason:

...they seem to consider the Bible only a better guide than reason concerning matters of which both have jurisdiction.

Others reject reason altogether in a perverse pietism:

Some seem to think a total rejection of human judgment an indication of great fidelity to God.

Srygley rejects both of these. Reason and revelation both have their root in God. They must each have their ordained purpose. To reject either outright or even to diminish either is to reject or diminish God. One can just as easily reject reason as proper to the human person as he can reject the Bible as the revelation of God. "Both sins are rebellion against things of divine origin. Both proceed from a common cause." This whole philosophy gives Srygley a very healthy view of the role of Scripture in my opinion. I certainly reject the idea that the Bible is somehow synonymous with revelation - something Srygley would undoubtedly affirm - but when it comes to questions of the Bible and science or logic, I think Srygley hits the mark:

To talk about a conflict between science and the Bible, is about as sensible as to apprehend an actual quarrel and assault between one's manhood and boyhood.

God never explained in the Bible what man by reason could find out. There can never be a conflict between the Bible and geology because the Bible proposes to give no light upon the science of geology.

In the end, however, Srygley still comes out with a position on the adequacy of reason that I cannot endorse. "Human judgment properly cultivated, like revelation correctly interpreted, is absolutely safe as guide on all matters in its jurisdiction." This sentiment was enough to make me suspicious (especially because I know that Srygley is part of a tradition that sees the "correct" interpretation of revelation as being dependent on the powers of human reason), but where he finally concludes was enough to make me recoil.

Where reason is guide at all, revelation never interferes to offer a more excellent way. In fact, I apprehend that it is absolutely impossible for God by revelation to give a light superior to reason on themes within the scope of human judgment.

I agree with Srygley that reason has its proper province. I even support that it is ultimately reliable within that province (though I would say it was functionally reliable while Srygley would say its reliability is unqualified). What I cannot agree on is that God's self-revelation is in any sense restricted by human reason. I not only affirm that God's revelation can overrule, overwhelm, and even contradict human reason, this is one of the fundamental realities of the faith as far as I'm concerned. Revelation is the light which is superior to reason, even regarding things which reason purports to have grasped.

I suppose the real difference is that Srygley has confidence that what reason apprehends is in fact reality. I am more skeptical about our ability to adequately apprehend reality by the means of reason. Reason, for me, is only competent to allow us to function within reality. Reality cannot be circumscribed by reason. After all, God is real.

1 comment:

  1. Reason is logical while logic isn't always pertinent as a means of rhetoric.