Rationalism and Its Fruit (1)

Thomas C. Miersma is pastor of the First Protestant Reformed Church, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

The philosophy of Descartes (1596-1650) which we considered in this column last time proceeded from the principle that man can by his own reason and without the need of divine revelation arrive at truth. Descartes’ starting point was that of unbelieving doubt which calls into question th’e reality and existence of everything and seeks some starting point, some fixed point, from which to arrive at truth. That starting point he found in his own process of thinking and experience and the very existence of that process itself. “I think: therefore I am.” Starting from that basis He also concluded that there existed in his thought the perception of thought and order outside of himself which impressed itself upon him and over which he had no control. He concluded that there must exist also a thinking being (god), a being, moreover, which must correspond to the idea of perfection which he also found in his thought.

This philosophical god, an idol of the human mind which has nothing to do with the God of the Scriptures, is known by human reason and not divine revelation. He is the product of man’s reason and thought and must also be subject to human reason. While Descartes’ whole system of philosophy has been criticized, developed, and abandoned by later philosophers and the development of modern philosophy, the underlying principle, the starting point of human reason or human experience as the standard or source of truth has not.

Descartes’ philosophy, which sets human reason upon the throne, found a ready home in the scientific, literary, and intellectual world of his day, as it suited well the spirit of the new scientific discoveries and inquiry. This Cartesian system of philosophy also made rapid inroads into the life of the churches of the reformation, particularly in the Netherlands, where Descartes had found a refuge. Cartesianism was viewed as a means alongside theology to demonstrate and prove Christian doctrine, particularly in its argument for the existence of God. Because of its connection with scientific study and the development of the natural sciences it began its inroads in the universities, moving from there also to the churches. It did so, not in isolation, but along with other trends and departures from the truth which were current at the time which exalted man’s reason in theology. Thus, in the Netherlands, Cartesian philosophy became caught up with the continuing influence of the Arminians or Remonstrants after the Synod of Dordt, and with the influence also of Socinian or Unitarian theology with its denial of the trinity.

The effect of this exaltation of human reason or rationalism is not difficult to discern. It sets up another standard of authority above the Word of God. By making also the doctrine contained in the Scriptures the object of proof, as something to be established and believed because of its reasonableness, independent of Scripture and divine revelation, the door was open for the abandoning of Scripture altogether. That is especially the case when the authority of Scripture itself is called into question, when the doctrine of Scripture itself becomes the object which must be vindicated before the bar of human reason. That Scripture is God’s Word of divine origin and divine authority is Scripture’s own claim. It, too, is a matter of revelation to be received by faith. It was with such a faith that the reformers proceeded in their development of the doctrine of Scripture, not from human reason, but also from Scripture itself. The rise of rationalism, the exaltation of independent human reason, however, brought with it not only direct error but also a temptation, the temptation to argue and defend the truth by means of human reasoning and argument, the temptation to fight the rise of rationalism on its own ground. The very attempt to do so, however, is a compromise which has already lost the argument. For that which is based upon human reasoning stands or falls on that basis. It was a temptation to which many succumbed, not only in the Netherlands, but in the churches of the Reformation in England and Scotland, and also among the Lutherans in Germany. It led to a weakening of Reformed principles of exegesis’ and interpretation in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands and opened the way for further departure.

The development of philosophy, however, did not stand still with Descartes. There were those who followed him who stood also outside the Christian church, who went yet further. Descartes, for all his philosophical speculation, was a Roman Catholic at least in name, and sought to remain within the boundaries of the Roman church. Not so Spinoza (1632-1677), who was born in Amsterdam to Jewish parents, and was well-educated in the emerging science and philosophy of his day. In 1663 he published a summary and discussion of part of the works of Descartes, of whom he was at first an enthusiastic disciple. Spinoza, however, was more radical in his thinking than Descartes, restless also in the strict confines of the orthodox Judaism in which he was raised and against which he rebelled. He was finally excommunicated from the synagogue, and his family and Jewish friends disowned him. He found refuge for a time in Amsterdam with Gentile friends who belonged to the Remonstrants. In 1670 he moved to The Hague where he published his own writings, which were so radical that he thought it prudent to do so under a fictitious name, though the authorship soon became known among so-called cultured and learned circles of the new philosophy. He became somewhat of a celebrity for his boldness and was even offered the chair of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg because of it, though with the restriction that he did not militate against the established religion. This appointment he declined because the restrictions were not to his liking, and that with good reason, for it was exactly against the established religion of the church, the Reformedchurch especially, that he directed his philosophical attack. He wrote with the end view of demolishing the claims of the church and religion in general, also the claims of his Jewish heritage to revealed or divine authority.

Following the rationalistic principles of Descartes, he attacked the claim of Scripture to divine inspiration, he challenged the accuracy of Scripture, its origin as ministered by the apostles and prophets, and he attacked the history of the Old Testament and the miracles of Scripture which he found inconsistent with reason. He attacked the doctrine of Christian and Jew alike. Finding weaknesses in Descartes’ system, but not departing from its essential basis in human reason, he developed his own philosophical god. Descartes had conceived of a god as in some sense a substantial thinking, spiritual being. This Spinoza denied. That which Descartes attributed to a god were only attributes of the universe, both the material universe and the realm of thought. God is not therefore a separate being, but god and the universe are one. Spinoza’s philosophical god is the creation. The term “god” merely describes the universe from the viewpoint of its infinite variety and underlying unity. Man imputes to a god merely that which he in his ignorance does not understand of the phenomena of this world, attributing it to revelation. Miracles then were simply, natural events which, not being understood, were imputed to a god and given a supernatural connotation by the superstitious and credulous. Thus Spinoza, proceeding from the principle of reason, denied the possibility of revelation and reduced it to ignorance and superstition, his reasoning leading him to pantheism and the worship of the creature as god.

Spinoza’s philosophy was a radical one, was so even for its day. His writings were vigorously opposed, banned, and suppressed, also by the Dutch government. Some were not published until after his death because of this opposition, but they well illustrate the direction in which man’s exaltation of his own reason would lead him, the course that human philosophy would continue to take.