Friday, June 01, 2012

Reason and 'Right Reason'

There has been quite a bit written lately about ‘right’ reason in connection with the Princeton theology. It is less easy to say what ‘right’ treason is than it is to cite the phrase. This is an attempt to put flesh on the bones.

Various influences

There are certain matters  which are clear, and certain matters not so clear. Here’s one that is not so clear. Many of the later Reformed thinkers who appealed to right reason did so because they emphasised  the unity of the self, endorsing the biblical language about as a man is as he thinks in his heart, and that out of the heart are the issues of life. Often they coupled this with the thought that the will (say) as such is neither free nor unfree, but it is the man who is free, or not, not the will.

In this way they saw themselves as moving away from faculty psychology of the scholastics, including the Reformed Orthodox. On this view a person is composed of a set of faculties – the reason, the will and so on each of which have the ‘room’ to exercise themselves independently of the other. (I must say that apart from the will, to which was by some ascribed the liberty of indifference, I have never encountered a version of this wholesale faculty psychology in which each faculty has this sort of independence.  But that’s what the textbooks say.) Much depends I suppose on whether the faculties are thought of as departments, or as homunculi – as mini-persons constituting the person.  And of course ascribing a freedom of indifference to the will was often the only prize that certain faculty psychologists were after.

But if, in turning our backs on faculty psychology, we think that we are at the same time turning towards an outlook which is more biblical, because more holistic, and free from ‘alien’ philosophy, we would mistaken. For John Locke was an influential anti-scholastic.

For when we say the will is the commanding and superior faculty of the soul; that it is or is not free; that it determines the inferior faculties; that it follows the dictates of the understanding, etc; though these and the like expressions, by those that carefully attend to their own ideas and conduct their thoughts more by the evidence of things than the sound of words, may, be understood in a clear and distinct sense: yet I suspect, I say, that this way of speaking of faculties, has misled many into a confused notion of so many distinct agents in us, which had their several provinces and authorities and did command, obey, and perform several actions, as so many distinct beings; which has been no small occasion of wrangling , obscurity and uncertainty in questions relating to them (Essay II.21.6)

And Locke influenced Jonathan Edwards.

And therefore to talk of liberty, or the contrary, as belonging to the very will itself, is not speak good sense; if we judge of sense, and nonsense, by the original and proper signification of words. For the will itself is not an agent that has a will; the power of choosing, itself, has not a power of choosing. That which has the power of volition or choice is the man or the soul and not the power of volition itself.  And he that has the liberty of doing according to his will, is the agent or doer who is possessed of the will; and not the will which he is possessed of. (Freedom of the Will, Pt. I Sect.5)

Edwards  must in turn have been influential on what became the Princeton tradition of theologizing, and particularly the Princeton anthropology. For from time to time one finds the Princeton theology, early and late, expressing itself using the Lockean/Edwardsean terminology, to take the anti-faculty psychology line. So Machen

If we regard the will as a sort of separate somewhat inside of a man, going about its business in its own ways…We are really making of something that we call the will a little separate  personality; we are doing away with the unity of the man’s personality.’

 (One of many good things about Paul Helseth’s book is the way in which he has drawn such matters together.  The Machen passage is from 1,2, 3 in Helseth. Those interested should also look at 40-1, 52-4, 153 and no doubt other places.)

I’m not saying that the only influence upon the Princeton people was Locke via Edwards. It’s pretty certain that another influence was the Augustinian teaching, transmitted through Calvin and others, that the voluntas is the will not in the sense of choice, but as a characterization of the heart, or self. It is the way that the self is ‘set’, either in active response to the grace of God or in continued hostility and rebellion against God. As a man’s voluntas is set, so is he.

But, as if matters were not complicated enough, Scottish Common Sense (which also influenced Princeton) can also be thought of as resuscitating a form of faculty psychology, an endowment by God with a set of faculties permitting knowledge of the external world, an external sense, and of morality, a moral sense. These days these are more likely to be referred to as belief-forming mechanisms. So in the formulation of the belief in the unity of the self and how they expressed it, the Princetonians’ thought does not have a clear pedigree.

Coming to right reason

You might well ask, what has all this to do with reason, and especially with right reason?  We might try an answer to that question using the theological categories of creation, fall and redemption.


Reason is said to be at least part of that in which the imago dei consists. We could debate that, asking whether reason has the requisite degree of relationality about it. In any case there are creatures, the heavenly messengers, who have reason a plenty, but lack the image, or so it seems, though arguments from silence are not the most robust. Anyhow reason is one of several features which, if the image does not consist in them, in their combination, are at least apt for the image, that which the image fits atop. It is reason in that sense that is used in the phrase ’right reason’. No equivocation. What makes reason it right reason is not that it is a peculiar sort of reason. It is human reason, but possessed of a certain kind or orientation.

One perennial enemy of the faith, not much discussed at present, is Gnosticism, the idea that true religion consists in a certain kind of knowledge or insight, discontinuous with natural languages and senses, and what they convey, which the would-be Christian must be initiated into. In contrast to such an approach, it must be insisted Christians occupy the natural world as their Messiah did, that’s why in his first letter John was ready to emphasise that the Word of life, whom he proclaimed, was heard and seen and touched. The Word made flesh was a public figure.  


In the Fall, whatever happened reason is not lost, otherwise  humanity would have been lost. But reason was skewed, because mankind was skewed; in the Fall, and as a consequence of it. The skewing of reason is, or leads to, the loss of ‘right’ reason.


In the work of redemption and restoration, all aspects of the soul, including reason, begin the process of being restored. There is no perfection, sinless moral perfection, or complete restoration of the reason. But there is a definite beginning, a reorientation of the self, the mind, the voluntas., including its autonomy. The reasoning regenerate person recognizes the limitations of creator-creature distinction, and the limitations intrinsic to being a creature, and the presence of ineradicable mysteries of the faith. The knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are, as Calvin taught, intrinsically related.

The influence of regeneration

The influence of such regeneration upon reason can be felt far and wide, insofar as Christian influence on the wider culture becomes effective. So that while the impetus and energy for right reason is a fruit of regeneration, effects of that fruit can be felt more widely. Conversely, what we call secularism or modernism, includes the eclipse of a recognition that we have a Creator about whom it us right to recognize that many matters about him and his ways are mysterious. Instead it asserts the autonomy of reason, and eliminates creaturely dependence from public discourse. A prominent example of such autonomy is when the theory and practice of natural science is changed into scientism, the idea that scientific understanding and explanation is the only valid type of explanation.

So we are not to understand right reason as a gift that helps us to do our sums better, or to be quicker than others at drawing inferences from data, but in terms of an orientation that befits creatures made in God's image.

Next time I hope to look at right reason as considered by Francis Turretin.