Rationalism and Its Fruit

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

Modern philosophy begins as we have seen with man, man’s reason, and man’s experience. As such, in its very starting point, it has no place for divine revelation or the need of the Scriptures. The claim of the Word of God therefore to be divine revelation is one which philosophy opposes and against which it strives. Throughout the eighteenth century and the era which preceded it, the drive of worldly philosophy was to set man’s wisdom and experience upon the throne as the sole standard of authority. That which did not measure up to that standard as acceptable to human reason was ridiculed as false. The object of the attack of human reason was first of all the contents of Scripture, particularly the wonders or miracles set forth in the Word of God. Behind this attack, however, lay an attack upon Scripture itself as a work of God and as God’s Word.

This attack was given further impetus through the philosophical writings of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant himself was little concerned with Scripture or revelation. His importance lies in bringing together the threads of rationalism, evaluating them critically, and laying the foundation for the development of philosophy from the 1800’s to the present. Kant was a rather unusual individual. He was born, lived and died in Konigsberg in Prussia, Germany, though he was of Scottish descent. A homebody, he never went more than forty miles from Konigsberg during his whole life. A life-long bachelor, his personal life was one of clock-like regularity, rising at five in the morning to read, study, and write; dining at one-thirty; taking his afternoon hourly walk at four; and retiring to bed at ten o’clock. His pattern of life was so regular and consistently punctual that the town’s inhabitants are said to have been able to set their watches by his appearance at the door of his house in the afternoon for his daily walk.

At the center of Kant’s thought, and his critical approach to the rationalistic philosophy which preceded him, is the principle that human reason is finite and limited by time and space to the realm of experience as far as certainty and truth are concerned. The mind is driven to seek an underlying unity in all things which we behold and experience in the phenomena of the world about us. This attempt of our reason, or pure reason, to find in the realm of thought and ideas the absolute and ultimate unity or unifying principle of all things (god) can never be more than a projection of the mind. While this activity of the mind as it synthesizes our experience may be useful to categorize and to reduce our experience to its underlying unity, its result is nevertheless no guarantee that that unity actually exists. Fundamentally Kant’s approach leads to the denial that man can ever achieve any real knowledge of God through human reason. But by limiting truth to that which man beholds and experiences, Kant at the same time denies the possibility of any real objective revelation, of a revealed and knowable Word of God, and of revealed truth. Kant does not stop, however, with this theoretical form of agnosticism. That which cannot be discovered by the mind, he finds in the sense of moral right and wrong and justice, which we experience ought to be, though it does not appear in the real world round about us. We experience a sense of duty and obligation. This moral imperative or sense of law then becomes the basis in Kant’s thinking for the practical belief in the idea of a moral being (god) as a matter of practical reason.

Kant in effect denies any real knowledge about God or any real objective revelation of God or Word of God, but makes room for morality as a practical matter, for the role of the conscience. While it may seem as if this has little to do with the doctrine of Scripture, Kant’s influence and thought had a profound effect upon the Christian church in Europe and North America by those who brought his ideas into the church. Kant’s philosophy constitutes a denial of the Bible as in any sense God’s Word of truth. Revealed truth is an impossibility. Religion is reduced to a matter of mere morality and ethics. Take Kant’s ideas into the minister’s study as the basis from which to proceed with Scripture in making sermons, and the Bible becomes simply a source book for teaching morals, a source book of object lessons illustrating good and acceptable behavior and moral conduct. Religion has as its object the good moral life, and happiness through socially acceptable behavior. This is exactly the effect that Kant’s ideas had as they were brought into the Christian church by those who followed him or were influenced by him. Religion ceases to be the worship of God in Jesus Christ and becomes only a tool for promoting the philosophy of the so-called golden rule and good neighborliness.

Moreover, since it is man’s own inner sense of right and wrong, of duty and obligation, which is the basis of morality, man is now principally made also the standard of his own morality. There is no place either in Kant’s approach for a revealed objective standard of right and wrong, no place for the revelation of the righteous judgments of God. The Kantian god is himself subject to the same moral law or obligation which man senses in himself, and god may really be dispensed with altogether. The door is open for a functioning atheistic humanism in which man is his own standard of morality and judgment. Man’s sense of what is right and wrong, of what ought to be done and not to be done may also be imposed upon Scripture, for it is man’s own conscience which becomes the true standard of morality.

Again we also find in the philosophy of Kant the use of Christian theological language, which is separated from its actual meaning, and reduced to a tool to teach non-Christian ideas. Christianity as a religion exists, in this approach, upon a higher plain than other religions of the world only because of its higher moral development and purer achievement of the moral idea. The incarnation of the Son of God in our flesh and blood is taken up as a mere symbol of man’s moral nature. Christ becomes only a moral example who shows us what man ought to be as an ideal and what he can become. Our Savior becomes simply a good teacher of a refined morality, a better teacher than those found in other religions.

Kant opened the way for the philosophers that followed him in succeeding generations to redefine what is right and what is wrong in man’s own image and according to man’s judgment. Morality is reduced to a matter of practical expedience and is made relative. Where the conscience is seared as with a hot iron; as it is in man as sin develops in this world, morality ceases altogether.

By his approach, however, Kant also brought the development of the philosophy of human reason as the standard of truth to a new point. Pure reason according to Kant is limited to the phenomena of this world, which we see and experience. This is, in Kant, the only realm of certainty and objective truth. Religion is a matter of practical reason and morality which is not founded in objective truth, but in man’s sense of morality, of right and wrong. This approach introduces a fundamental divorce, not only between truth and the reality of good and evil, between any real standard of right and wrong and morality, but it also separates religion and theology from any contact with real truth or reality. Kant not only uses Christian terminology as a tool to teach philosophical ideas, but he opens the way to the treatment of religion and theology as a mere symbolic expression for religious feelings, which have nothing to do with truth. The way is opened to identifying faith with emotion and defining Faith as simply religious feelings. Kant’s philosophy destroys faith as a certain knowledge grounded upon the facts of our redemption in the death and resurrection of Christ. The Bible stands and functions on two levels, which have nothing whatsoever to do with one another. On the level of objective reality and truth it is simply a human document like any other, to be treated as literature. As a book of religious faith and feeling, a source book of morality, it functions quite independently of whether any of its contents are in fact historically true. It may be a collection of complete fairy tales as far as its objective reality is concerned. The philosophical system of Kant opens the way to separate completely faith and its foundation in the historicity of any events recorded in Scripture. The facts of history belong to the phenomena of this world which are subject to science and human reason. Faith and its contents belong to the realm of religious ideas and feelings which are the projection of human thought and the exercise of practical reason and the sense of moral order. Kant lays the basis for building a wall between faith and reason.