Remarks on the Standard of Divine Truth

Isaac Newton in old age in 1712. Portrait by S...
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Remarks on the Standard of Divine Truth, by the Irish Baptist pastor and theologian Alexander Carson (1776-1844), was originally collected in The Works of Alexander Carson, Volume 1.

Before any important advances can be made in any science, the foundations of it must be ascertained and accurately discerned by those employed in rearing the superstructure. Whatever rests on any other grounds, though it may add to the apparent size of the building, diminishes its strength and beauty. For more than two thousand years, the inquiries of philosophers concerning the works of God, were carried on by hypotheses invented by ingenious men, for explaining the phenomena of nature, and during all that time, few real discoveries were made with respect either to matter or mind. Lord Bacon was the first who clearly pointed out the proper method of philosophising; Sir Isaac Newton on natural philosophy, and Doctor Reid on the science of the mind, were the first to put it in practice. In both of these departments of knowledge, one theory succeeded another till the time of these illustrious philosophers; but since that period, their respective sciences rest upon a foundation from which they can never be moved. And what has produced this remarkable difference between their systems, and those of all preceding philosophers? It is solely to the standard of truth which they ascertained, and to which in all their enquiries they appealed. Had he invented a theory, and proceeded by conjecture, Newton, with all his vast abilities, would have reared only a temporary fabric, to be blown away by the next innovator. The philosophy of Aristotle reigned in the schools without a rival, till the time of Descartes. That great man completely overturned the theories of the Stagyrite, but instead of building on more stable ground, he set himself to invent a theory of his own. By the contrivance of an immense whirlpool of subtle matter, he carried round the heavenly bodies in their evolutions, like straws and chaff in a tub of water; and this wild conjecture satisfied a great part of the learned of Europe for a considerable time, and with many, prevented the reception, even of the discoveries of Newton, for half a century. Despising vain conjectures, and being guided in his experiments and observations by those self-evident rules of philosophising which he had laid down, Newton ascertained those laws of nature that must for ever give satisfaction to the mind of man.

The revolution effected by Doctor Reid in the philosophy of the mind, is not less wonderful than that effected by Sir Isaac Newton, in that of matter. By taking for granted principles that are false, and rejecting the authority of others that are self-evident, philosophy, till his time, had established the most monstrous and incredible absurdities. The principles adopted by philosophers had rejected the testimony of the senses, and left no evidence even that there is an external world. By the most conclusive reasoning from these principles, Berkley had proved that there is no matter in the universe, and with equal validity Hume advanced a step farther, and boldly annihilated both matter and mind. According to this great philosopher, there is neither matter nor mind, neither God nor devil, nor angel nor spirit, nothing in the universe but impressions and ideas. And all these monstrous absurdities flowed regularly from the principles acknowledged by all philosophers till the time of Doctor Reid. And how did Reid restore us the world, from the united grasp of all the wise men of the world? By settling the standard of philosophical truth, by vindicating the authority of the testimony of our senses, and rejecting that of the figments of philosophers. In ascertaining the powers and faculties of the human mind, he admitted no appeal but to the mind itself by observation and experiment; and every fair result of such an appeal he received with avidity, however opposite to the established sentiments of philosophers. By this process he has done more to ascertain the principles of the human constitution, than all the philosophers who preceded him; and it is only by following in his track, that this science can be perfected.

It would not be without interest for a Christian to read the observations of this philosopher on hypotheses, as almost without exception, they apply to the theories of men with respect to the contents of the Scriptures. If hypotheses have led men to misinterpret the works of God, hypotheses have led them to misinterpret his word. The analogy is singularly striking.

And if human conjecture has ever failed with respect to the works of creation, shall it succeed with respect to the depths of the divine counsels in the redemption of sinners? Vain theologians, will ye not learn from this, that the way to discover the mind of God, is not to form hypotheses, but to examine the Scriptures? What is it produces your infinite diversities? How is it ye deduce from Scripture your innumerable errors? Ye form theories, and then wrest the Scriptures to agree with these. With the arrogance of Satan, ye determine, by your own views, what must be the divine conduct and plans, and with satanic ingenuity and effrontery, ye torture his word to speak your sentiments. While in words ye acknowledge the Scriptures to be a standard, ye take the liberty of erecting a standard of paramount authority in your own understandings, and of interpreting the oracles of God, by the delusions of your own fancies. Though ye call the Scriptures a standard, ye do not allow them to be the sole standard of divine truth. Some things, ye say, God has left to be planned by the wisdom of man. How, then, can ye escape error? How can ye agree with each other? Christians, have ye no errors, have ye no differences? Believe it, they are mostly owing to the same cause. Strange as on first view it may appear, Christians do not all agree in the source of religious sentiments. Do not some, even till this moment, contend that some things are left to human institution? What common principle have we then to reason with such? With them the Scriptures are not the sole standard. Others by distinctions and difference of times, and various inventions, have considerably abridged this standard, so that almost the half of its testimony is not heard in evidence, but rejected as irrelevant. The testimony of the Holy Spirit is treated like that of an old honest but doting man, who speaks now and then to the purpose, but is perpetually subject to mental wanderings. Even among those who acknowledge the Scriptures as the sole standard, I find there are vain controvertists, who steadily and uniformly act up to their avowed principles. When the interest of a favorite dogma is at stake, every artifice is employed to make the witness prevaricate. With all their deference for the authority of the divine word, how do they grapple with it, when it seems to enjoin any disagreeable practice? Christians, in ascertaining the mind of God, let us banish all the prejudices and prepossessions of our own minds. Let us listen to the Scriptures as the rule, as the perfect standard. Let nothing be received, because it commends itself to our wisdom; let nothing be rejected for want of this sanction. Let us remember that, in all things, the wisdom of God is not like the wisdom of man.

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