Rationalism Is Not An Outgrowth of Protestant Scholastic Theology

The development, in rationalist systems of the eighteenth century, of a truly foundational natural theology represents a basic alteration of perspective and a loss, not an outgrowth or further refinement, of the orthodox system. We must object strenuously, therefore, to the all-too-frequent and utterly erroneous claim that orthodox or scholastic Protestant theology generally viewed natural revelation and the natural theology drawn from it as a foundation on which supernatural revelation and a supernatural theology can build…Rather supernatural revelation, identified not so much as an unnatural or preternatural way of knowing but as a graciously given way of knowing, provides the context within which all other knowledge must ultimately be understood.

Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. I, p. 310.

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Categories: Doctrine | Tags: , , , , | 15 Comments

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15 thoughts on “Rationalism Is Not An Outgrowth of Protestant Scholastic Theology

  1. OK, but this is very vague. How do we know Christianity is true and the Bible is the Word of God? We know because it matches up with reality. How do we know what “reality” is so we can see Christianity matches up with it? We use reason, the senses, observation, etc.–natural revelation and philosophy. If you try to answer the question of how we know Christianity is true in any other way, you will end up having no foundation at all.

    At the same time, once we know that Christianity and the Bible are true, they then inform everything else we know and influence our reading of natural revelation–in the sciences, for example, such as with the science of origins, evolution, etc.

    Let’s not denigrate general revelation as the foundation upon which we know that special revelation is true. If we do, we lose the foundation that God has given us to know truth.

  2. This small quotation may seem vague, but it is a concluding statement to a chapter where Muller has traced the historical development of the Reformed distinction between natural and supernatural (revealed) theology in great detail. He also describes how philosophical rationalism was inserted into theology in the Protestant churches toward the end of the 17th century, which was actually a departure from, and not a development of, Reformed orthodoxy. I highly recommend this book!

    Let me try to summarize the Reformed orthodox distinction based on Muller’s research: We know that special revelation is true based on an infused knowledge which is a part of regeneration, a gracious operation of the Spirit of God. Prior to this revelation, the Reformed orthodox would say that there are certain first principles or properties that we possess from nature which allow us to grasp and understand the supernatural (aka. special) revelation. But this special revelation alone is the foundation for building a system of revealed theology.

    There is a distinction between the natural theology of the unregenerate (which falls into the category of false theology) and the natural theology of the regenerate. The unregenerate take the signs and signature of God in nature and distort it into a false theology. But based on the statements about general revelation found in Scripture, Christians may form a true natural theology by learning what may be learned of God from nature, being corrected and aided by Scripture in that. Although this natural theology (that of the regenerate) is a form of true theology, and is useful (especially for Christians at the academy,) it is ancillary to the system of revealed theology, and not the foundation of it.

    When theologians began to make natural theology the foundation of the system of revealed theology, and to rest insights from special revelation upon the foundation of natural theology, they were beginning to descend into rationalism.

  3. OK, I think I agree with most of what you are saying. I just want to avoid an error all-too-common among Reformed people today that would say that we cannot ground our knowledge that Christianity and the Bible are truly special revelation on foundational knowledge gained from the light of nature (general revelation). We know the Bible is revelation because it matches up with reality, which we know about first of all through general revelation. This sentence concerns me a bit: “We know that special revelation is true based on an infused knowledge which is a part of regeneration, a gracious operation of the Spirit of God.” But so long as you don’t mean that it is impossible to know (in an intellectual sense) that Christianity is true (at least enough to be without excuse if it is rejected) without being regenerated, I have no problem with it.

    I think what the author is saying, judging from your summary, is that we should not base our belief in or understanding of Scripture on a natural theology which we have developed from both general and special revelation. That is true. We can’t even have a natural theology in that sense until we already know the Bible is true and have an idea of what it says.

    • The Westminster Larger Catechism reflects Reformed scholastic theology where it states,

      “A. 4. The Scriptures manifest themselves to be the Word of God, by their majesty and purity; by the consent of all the parts, and the scope of the whole, which is to give all glory to God; by their light and power to convince and convert sinners, to comfort and build up believers unto salvation: but the Spirit of God bearing witness by and with the Scriptures in the heart of man, is alone able fully to persuade it that they are the very word of God.”

      That last statement is important. It says that, although there is evidence in the Scriptures of their being from God, enough to leave man without excuse for not embracing them (when he hears or reads them), only the Holy Spirit can fully persuade anyone that they are divinely inspired. In other words the intellectual assent that might be reached by someone who is unregenerate is not saving, and it will not lead to salvation. Only the infused knowledge (termed in the WLC) “full persuasion” that comes with regeneration of God’s Spirit leads to salvation.

    • What the later rationalistic theologians were doing, which Muller condemns as an unnatural departure from orthodoxy, was to build a system of natural theology based on a rationalist interpretation of general revelation, independently of Scripture, and then try to incorporate, build, and synthesize elements from special revelation into this system to perfect it. What they ended up with was a false theology because any system of natural theology built by human reason from general revelation unaided and uncorrected by Scripture is necessarily false theology. This is due to the effects of sin.

      In fact, in order for natural theology to be true theology at all, it must be founded upon the Scriptures.

    • In regards to, “We know the Bible is revelation because it matches up with reality, which we know about first of all through general revelation.”

      The Bible does match up with reality. There are some things in the Bible that we see and are exposed to by general revelation, even in an unregenerate state, namely, those parts of the Bible that talk about what is also revealed in nature in some way. Like that there is a God, that He is just, that He is a rewarder of good and punisher of evil, and that we are under His wrath for sin. Note that we see, experience, and take in these things, but we do not truly know them without the new birth, because of the way sin distorts our knowledge and comprehension of what we are seeing. And as for those other parts of Scripture, like the promise of salvation through Jesus Christ for those who believe in Him, we don’t see that in general revelation at all. I am not willing to say that all people without exception who are regenerate of the Spirit were convinced of the truth of Bible’s message (about our sinful condition) through seeing the Bible’s message about the human condition match up with what they had learned about reality through general revelation. There is a great deal of mystery involved as to what knowledge is infused at regeneration in the act of enabling and persuading an individual to embrace God’s word. How much of it was “prepared” by knowledge of general revelation, and to what extent it was completely new, I am not prepared to say. Probably, this varies considerably in those whom He chooses to regenerate. And I am quite sure that no one embraces the Bible because they knew something of this gospel from general revelation, to which the Bible was a perceived “match.” There is no match to the gospel in general revelation! Of course, the one who comes to Christ for salvation perceives that he has a need for a Savior. But in this conviction and awakening work of God’s Spirit, I am not prepared to say how much general revelation was used, if at all, and how much special revelation was used.

  4. I do wish that Reformed authors would be more clear in pointing out exactly what they are talking about when they talk about “rationalism” in a bad sense. Can you give me an example of “bad rationalism”?

    • Here’s the part of the quotation that I excluded, ‘Otto Weber makes this mistake [i. e. he makes an untrue historical statement about orthodoxy] when he declares that orthodoxy fashioned its doctrine of special revelation into “an understanding of the knowledge of God as rational insight into supernatural truths” and thereby came to view special revelation as no more than a completion of our natural knowledge of God and to assume that “Christian knowledge” fits into “the model of rational knowledge.”‘

    • “Among the Wolffian theologians and philosophers of the eighteenth century, however, reason was viewed as principium cognoscendi theologiae and, as a result, natural theology could be viewed as the basic theology upon which a system could be built and to which certain revealed but rationally explicable data could be added. This identification of reason as a foundation of theology becomes the normative view of eighteenth-century Reformed writers like Venema, Vitringa, and Wyttenbach. Wyttenbach went so far as to argue that not only does revealed theology correct the defect of natural theology and complete its truth but also that natural theology was a necessary prolegomenon to revealed theology. Inasmuch as revealed theology presupposes but cannot prove the existence of God, natural theology with its theistic arguments is the foundation on which revealed theology rests: the denial of natural theology must lead to the denial of revealed theology. A similar movement from natural to revealed theology appears in the system of Salomon van Til.

      At one level, this development may appear to be a direct descendant of [Jean-Alphonse] Turretin’s brief comment on natural theology as a foundation and Pictet’s assertion of the value of the proofs—but at a more profound level, it marks the rise of a new philosophical perspective and of a full system of natural theology such as would never have been countenanced by Turretin or Pictet. What is even more significant is that its immediate precursors in the seventeenth century were not approaches to the problem of the natural knowledge of God such as were found among the confessional orthodox. One of these precursors appears to be the assumption of philosophical skeptics, such as Lamothe Le Vayer and Pierre Bayle, that the existence of God could not be an article of faith based on revelation but was necessarily a presuppositional truth based on the light of nature or reason.”

      Muller, 306, 307.

  5. I think I agree with all of that.

  6. You agree with Muller or with Wolff, Venema, Witringa, and Wyttenbach?

  7. It’s good to agree with the good people. 🙂

  8. thank you for this enlightening (no, not “enlightenment”) repartee.

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