Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: April 1, 2005, p. 295.
René Descartes was born and educated in France, but he lived in the Netherlands for twenty years. He was a brilliant mathematician and philosopher, generally considered to be the father of modern philosophy. His ideas were so novel that he was cordially hated by his own church—particularly by the Jesuits, who had trained him in his early years, but also by the Calvinists in the Netherlands, who rightly, saw in his thinking a serious threat to the Reformed faith. Forced to flee France and finding the Netherlands a most uncongenial place of residence, he accepted an invitation from Christiana, Queen of Sweden, to come to Stockholm to teach and work. After four months there, he caught a cold and died of pneumonia.
In the decline of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, the philosophy of René Descartes played a major role. It is this relationship, between what became known as Cartesianism and the Reformed faith, that I intend to explore in this article.
There is a Latin expression that most people have come across at one time or another in their life. The expression is Cogito ergo sum. It means simply, “I know, therefore I am.” This was the fundamental premise of Descartes’ philosophy.
Descartes decided that the only way to come to know what is true is to begin by doubting everything, absolutely everything. Sometimes, for this reason, his fundamental principle is said to be, not Cogito ergo sum, but Dubito ergo sum: “I doubt, therefore I am.” The only way we can really be sure about anything is to doubt everything. And then, when we have begun by doubting everything, we can proceed to ask ourselves whether there is anything at all that we cannot doubt.
Having doubted everything in order to find anything he could not doubt, Descartes discovered that he could not doubt, no matter how hard he tried, that he was thinking. He could not even say “I doubt everything” without establishing the one thing that could not be doubted: He was the one doubting. So, after all, he existed, because he was the one doubting and thinking. His own existence was proved.
It was from that one certain truth, which could not be disproved that Descartes proceeded to prove everything else. He claimed to be able to prove that God existed, that the world existed, that God had created it, that mankind was created by God, and that everything else followed logically from this one fact that he existed.
I am not now very interested in how Descartes went about all that. It is more important that we understand what Descartes is doing here. He is doing things that are inimical to the Christian faith. He is, in a somewhat subtle way, undermining everything for which the believer stands. A few points will make that clear.
Descartes wanted to doubt everything but what could not be doubted. He did not find much which could not be doubted, except his own existence. Why was his own existence beyond doubt? There was only one reason in Descartes’ mind: His own existence could be proved rationally and logically! Descartes, therefore, accepted as true only that which can be proved logically with a man’s mind. That is rationalism.
In other words, we are obliged to doubt everything that belongs to the Christian faith as well; and we finally accept only that of the Christian faith which can be logically and rationally proved. We are to doubt that God exists, and that all that God does in creation and providence is true—unless we can prove it with logical argumentation. God’s existence is dependent upon our ability to prove it with our minds. All that our minds cannot prove must be rejected.
Descartes in fact accepted most if not all the truths of the faith, at least as taught in the Roman Catholic Church. But he accepted them because he thought he could prove them logically. In this he was terribly wrong. The truths of the faith cannot be proved by human logic.
Criticism of Descartes
Descartes was a rationalist, influenced by the Renaissance. He fathered all of modern rationalistic philosophy, which is at such enmity with Christian thought.
His rationalistic approach fails for many reasons. First of all, and most importantly, God Himself cannot be proved. His existence is not subject to rational argumentation. Many attempts have been made through the ages, and many proofs were tried before Descartes constructed his philosophy. But they are, without even testing them, doomed to failure. If it were possible to prove the existence of God, then God is no greater than the human mind. If the mind of man can, by logical argument, reach out and arrive at the living God, then God is no greater than the human mind. We cannot ascend to God on the ladder of our logic; if we are to know God, He must come down to us and speak in a way we can understand. Even then, God’s speech must be adapted to our feeble intellects, for He is the infinite One, and we are less than specks of dust. He must speak to us in “baby talk.”
But that is not even the whole problem. A rationalist is one who denies total depravity. Total depravity teaches that man is so corrupt that his mind is darkened so that he cannot know the truth. The human mind is darkened by hatred of God. He will not believe God, and no man is so blind as he who will not see. This hatred of God so completely blinds man’s mind that he will employ his whole intellect and all the powers of logic to repudiate God and deny His existence. Descartes did the same. The God that Descartes “proved” to exist is not the God of the Scriptures, but a God of Descartes’ invention, and, therefore, an idol.
Descartes’ Influence in the Netherlands
Strangely enough, Descartes’ influence in the Netherlands was very strong. Professors, especially in the University of Utrecht, were delighted with his philosophy and introduced it into their teaching. And, although what became known as Cartesianism was temporarily stopped in its tracks, especially due to the opposition of Voetius, in time it won out.
In 1685 a preacher in the Dutch Reformed Churches by the name of H. A. Roell, a follower of Cocceius and a Cartesian, accepted a position of professor of philosophy and theology in the University of Franeker. In keeping with the teaching of Descartes, he ascribed great powers to human intellect apart from faith. But, while professing faith in the basics of Reformed doctrine, he denied the generation of the Son within the Trinity and interpreted generation to mean nothing more than that God gave Christ a mission to redeem mankind. Eternal generation cannot be satisfactorily proved.
In 1666 a work appeared in which L. Meijer claimed that Descartes had proved that all the truths of Scripture had to be judged and could be proved by means of philosophy and had to be accepted as true on philosophical grounds. Such a position undermines completely the Reformed faith.
Another minister, B. Bekker by name, denied, on the basis of Cartesian principles, that spirits such as angels and demons had any effect on man’s life, because their existence could not be proved. From there he went on to deny the infinite value of Christ’s sacrifice, justification by faith without works, and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer. He was followed in this by others.
More and more doctrines were denied because they were contrary to reason. Some denied the Trinity; others denied the vicarious atonement of our Lord; still others denied eternal punishment.
Perhaps the extreme was reached in 1745, when a book appeared in which the author accused the Bible of confusion, its authors of dishonesty, and Christians with being mentally defective. One by one the articles of the Christian faith fell under the scrutiny of reason. It was the death of the National Church, which had won such a mighty victory at Dordt.
Although Cartesianism has long since come and gone the way of all worldly philosophy, the rationalism of it remains. I am not speaking of outright modernism and its rejection of all the truths of Scripture. I am not even speaking of those within the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition who gradually deny all biblical truth in the interests of supporting an evolutionism developed by rationalistic scientists. Even conservative scholars are prone to defend Scripture as the Word of God on the basis of rational argument.
This is serious. Today it is inductive logic that is ordinarily used to prove Scripture, not the deductive logic of Descartes. But it makes no difference. Proof for Scripture’s inspiration is based on “evidences” outside of Scripture itself, outside of Scripture’s own claims.
The same is done with various proofs of Scripture’s teaching, such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Pauline authorship of I Timothy & II Timothy, etc. Evidence in support of Scripture’s claims for itself is gleaned by logic and external proof, secular writings, the church fathers, internal consistency, etc. When, for example, Scripture claims in Galatians 1:1 that Paul wrote that epistle, such testimony of Scripture is thought to be insufficient. By other types of proof this assertion concerning authorship has to be established. Basically and fundamentally this is the same as happened in Dutch Reformed circles when Cartesianism took the church in its icy grip and squeezed the life out of it.
There is something very tempting about all those efforts of Descartes to prove religious truth by human logic. It is very tempting to try to prove biblical truth by external evidence or logical proof. Sometimes it is done because the argument is raised that this is the scholarly approach to biblical studies. In fact, so it is argued, scholars will not pay attention to the arguments raised in defense of the Scriptures unless the arguments are gleaned from sources other than Scripture itself.
Sometimes scholars are embarrassed when one does come with Scripture alone for proof of Scripture’s divine inspiration and Scripture’s other claims for itself. One is, when using Scripture to prove Scripture’s own claims, accused of arguing in a circle: using the very premise that has to be proved to prove the same premise. The argument goes something like this.
“Why do you believe that Scripture is the infallibly inspired Word of God?”
“I believe this truth because Scripture itself says that it is infallibly inspired.”
“But how can you know that what Scripture itself says is true?”
“Because what Scripture says is infallibly inspired.”
That is supposed to be arguing in a circle. And I suppose that in a sense this is true.
But consider: Even if the argument were a valid objection, it would not bother me in the least. Scripture stands on its own claims, and no amount of rational argumentation is going to change that.
But the argument happens to be as invalid as anything can be. When I pick up a copy of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, and the frontispiece says that this book was written by John Calvin, then I do not try to bolster what is plainly written at large in the book itself by all sorts of arguments that I pick up here and there. And if someone challenges what the frontispiece clearly states, then my response is: Prove that the claim of the book itself is wrong. The burden of proof lies on you.
When we follow this dreadful concession to those who want the Christian faith supported by reason, we forget one fundamental fact. Sin is so blinding that no one, absolutely no one, will ever confess anything about the truth under any circumstances and in the face of absolute iron-clad proof. He cannot and will not, because the sinner hates God and hates whatever God does. Only grace can change this. And along with grace comes faith. And only faith will accept the truth and confess it. The sole object of faith is the Holy Scriptures.
By faith the Bible becomes the source and fountain of all truth. Faith lays hold on the Bible because the Bible says of itself that it was written by God. The Authorship is not only on the frontispiece, but on every page of the Scriptures. Faith believes this.
To want rational proof is to make the defense of truth an intellectual battle to be waged by rational arguments. This is the world’s way. If we adopt the strategies of the world, we permit the enemy to choose the battlefield and we exchange our weapons of warfare, far superior to anything the world has, for their dull and broken swords, their shields made of rags, and their armor full of holes. Letting them determine the battlefield and the weapons will guarantee failure and defeat—even in earthly war—faith in the Christ of the Scriptures. A church that does not maintain this fundamental principle is a church doomed to defeat.
This is the lesson of Cartesianism.