Rationalism is that system or theory which elevates Reason above the Scriptures. Of course, the Reformation did not deny the activity of the mind, did not maintain that faith is unreasonable or irrational. But Rationalism elevates Reason above the Word of God. It does not believe because the object of its faith is set forth in the Scriptures, but because that object of its faith falls within the scope and boundaries of its ability to comprehend and understand. It accepts only that which is reasonable, humanly comprehensible. Hodge, in his Systematic Theology (Vol. I, page 34, ff.), informs us that Rationalism has appeared under different forms. There is, for example, a certain kind of Rationalism which simply denies all supernatural or Divine revelation, simply denies that there is such a thing as a Divine revelation as in the Scriptures. These rationalists are known as Deistical Rationalists. Other rationalists, however, do not disregard entirely the Scriptures. However, as far as this latter group is concerned, things are not true because they are contained in the Word of God, but they are contained in the Word of God because they are true. And, although it is undeniably true that “things are contained in the Word of God because they are true,” this statement has an altogether different meaning when uttered by the rationalist.
Rationalism does not necessarily deny the existence of God. This, we understand, would be Atheism. Deistical Rationalism denies the possibility of revelation and is therefore deistical. Deism is that system or theory which separates God from the world and the creature. God, then, according to this theory, made the world but then has nothing to do with it anymore. The world, according to this conception, can be compared to a watch which, when wound, runs of itself. God made the world, and also man, and He made the world in such a way that it is able to control and direct its own affairs. Any other conception, it is claimed by the rationalists, would be an injustice to the living God. If the Lord made this world in such a way that it would be necessary for Him to interfere constantly in its affairs, then that world would be imperfect; and if the Lord created an imperfect world this would imply imperfection on the part of the Lord. Hence, when the Lord made the heavens and the earth, He made them in such a way that they could control and direct their own affairs. This also applies to man. Man needs no revelation outside of himself to attain unto life and happiness. His mind or reason is well equipped unto this end. He is surely able to reason his way out of all his difficulties and problems and to guarantee his own peace and salvation. No revelation of God is necessary.
This Deistical Rationalism is, in the first place, surely contrary to the teachings of Holy Writ and the infallible Word of God. Now I realize that the rationalist does not care about this argument. He denies the objective revelation of the Word of God. He claims that the Lord has so created man that man, by his own reason and intellect, can realize his own peace and salvation. Nevertheless, be this as it may, I want to say in the first place that this is contradicted by the Divine Scriptures. The rationalist may not care about the inspired Word of God, but we do. We must understand that, although, for the sake of argument, we may distinguish between Deistical Rationalism and Atheism, so that, whereas the latter denies the existence of God and the former may wish to maintain that there is a God, the former is nevertheless for all practical purposes fundamentally atheistic. Deistical Rationalism is, of course, Agnosticism. Agnosticism denies the knowability of God, maintains that God cannot be known. A God who does not reveal Himself cannot be known by us. And a God Who cannot be known by us simply does not exist as far as we are concerned. What do we have to a God Whom we cannot know? However, that man can reason and think out his own salvation is surely denied by Holy Writ. Notice what we read in Isaiah 59:16-17, and we quote: “And he saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no intercessor: therefore his arm brought salvation unto him: and his righteousness, it sustained him. For he put on righteousness as a breastplate, and an helmet of salvation upon his head; and he put on the garments of vengeance for clothing, and was clad with zeal as a cloke.” This passage of Holy Writ is surely pertinent. The rationalist may claim that he is well able to reason his own way out of his difficulties and problems and attain unto peace and happiness. But here it is emphatically stated that the Lord saw that there was no man, no intercessor who could intervene in behalf of the children of men unto their salvation. The only possibility of salvation, according to this passage out of Isaiah, is that the Lord Himself brought salvation by His own right hand. Notice, too, what we read in Ps. 14:1-3, and again we quote: “The fool hath said in his heart; There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” Here we read that hone does good, all have gone aside, and that all men have become filthy and corrupt before God. Please note also, in this passage, that it is the fool who says in his heart that there is no God. And of interest in this connection is, of course, that remarkable passage of the apostle Paul, in Romans 1:20-32. O, it is true that also in Romans 8 and in Ephesians 2 the same apostle sets forth the utter hopelessness of the natural man, when we read: that the carnal mind is enmity against God, is not subject to the law of God and cannot be subject to that law, and that we are all conceived and born dead in sins and trespasses. But of particular interest is the passage in Romans 1 which we now quote in its entirety: “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into “an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves: Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was met. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, Without understanding, covenant-breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same but have pleasure in them that do them.” We do well to remember that the apostle is writing these things to the church at Rome, and that he is describing in these verses the highly civilized world of his day. We must not overlook this. The highly developed so-called culture and civilization of the old Graeco-Roman world continues to be the object of the world’s admiration even today. People still love to speak of Athens, that wonderful center of learning and culture. And what did this civilization bring to man? Romans 1 is a terrible description of it. And the apostle Paul, as learned and educated as he was, was surely well able and in the position to describe this filth and iniquity.
Secondly, this presentation in Holy Writ is surely verified by history. Of this there cannot be the slightest doubt. Indeed, one cannot very well deny that civilization had reached a high peak during, the time of the old Graeco-Roman world. One surely marvel at the accomplishments of the Romans and the Greeks of that day. Viewed from a purely natural point of view, the mind of man could well point to many imposing and remarkable accomplishments. What a development in art and what the world loves to call culture! In the field of mathematics, of philosophy, of language and of law man could boast of great things. All this, however, merely serves to make the picture so much darker: from a spiritual point of view. The natural accomplishments of mankind only serve to bring into sharper focus its complete and utter collapse and bankruptcy. Moral corruption and spiritual decay and rottenness were the order of the day. Behold proud man, exulting in his achievements and pointing with pride to his knowledge of the heavens above and of the earth beneath, yet bowing his knee before gods of wood and stone and even creeping things! Christ is born in the moment which Scriptures call the “fullness of time,” and this surely also means that the world, naturally, had reached a pinnacle of learning and culture on the one hand, but that it, spiritually, had fallen into the depths and abyss of corruption and complete bankruptcy. Indeed, if this moment of the fullness of time demonstrates anything, it surely proves, among other things, that the natural man when left by the God of heaven to walk in his own ways, can only plunge himself into greater chaos and misery. The proud rationalist may proclaim that he can reason and think his own way out of his present misery and distress; history only proves that the mind of the natural man can only gather for itself greater treasures of corruption and misery and the wrath of God. And, does this not also apply with even greater force than ever to our present day and age?! Has mankind made any progress whatever in its seeking after life, liberty, and happiness? Is it not true of our present age that fear and terror gnaw at the very heart and mind of man more than ever before? Are not crime and debauchery the order of the day? Is not our present civilization, from the viewpoint of the so-called elite, characterized by shameless corruption and immorality?! And today all mankind stands in mortal fear and dread of the end of our present civilization! One must surely come inevitably to the conclusion that the rationalist knows not whereof he speaks when he claims himself and his natural mind to be endowed with the ability to translate himself and this world out of its abyss of shame and misery into life and glory and happiness. Yet, this is the absurd claim that is made by the rationalists and the wise of this world. The Word of God and all of history surely deny this claim. The world is surely gathering for itself treasures of wrath in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.