Saturday, May 01, 2010

Two Lessons from John Owen - II Reasons and Reasoning

According to Owen, the explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity (which is another thing entirely from the explanation of the Trinity), is edifying for the informing and enlightening of the mind in the knowledge of the mystery of it. (378) We must be careful that nothing be affirmed or taught by such means but what ‘must directly tend unto the ends of the revelation itself’. In this business we may (and must) make use of ‘such words and expressions , as, it may be, are not literally and formally contained in the Scripture but only are…..expository of what is so contained’. (379) Without such a liberty it is made impossible to interpret Scripture. ‘For if it is unlawful for me to speak or write what I conceive to be sense of the words of the Scripture, and the nature of the thing signified and expressed by them, it is unlawful for me, also, to think or conceive in my mind what is the sense of the words or nature of the things; which to say, is to make brutes of ourselves, and to frustrate the whole design of God in giving unto us the great privilege of his word’. (379)

According to Owen, the words of Scripture regarding the threeness and oneness of Almighty God have a sense, or, as we might say, a meaning. What is that sense? Can we say? If it is ‘unlawful’ to say what the sense of Scripture is, then it is unlawful for me to conceive in my mind the sense or the meaning of Scripture in the first place. If that is so, then Scripture may be God’s inspired revelation, but for me and for you and for anyone else it remains mute.

So , Owen concludes, ‘in the declaration of the doctrine of the Trinity, we may lawfully, nay, we must necessarily, make use of other words, phrases and expressions, than what are literally and syllabically contained in the Scripture, but teach no other things’. (379)

But he goes further. If other words than the words of Scripture may be used to convey the sense of Scripture, if what Scripture says about the nature of God may be expressed in the non-inspired sentence ‘God is one essence in three persons’ then if this follows necessarily from what Scripture says, here, and there, about God, then this new sentence is also true.

For howsoever the lines be drawn and extended, from truth nothing can follow and ensue but what is true also; and that in the same kind of truth with that which it is derived and deduced from. For if the principal assertion be a truth of divine revelation, so is also whatever is included therein, and which may be rightly from thence collected, Hence it follows, that when the Scripture revealeth the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost to be one God, seeing it necessarily and unavoidably follows thereon that they are one in essence (wherein alone it is possible they can be one), and three in their distinct substances (wherein alone it is possible they can be three), this is no less a divine revelation than the first principle from whence these things follow’. (379)

I suspect that we do not usually think like this. We do not think that if an expression captures the sense of a revelation then it itself is revelation. But remember what John Owen is saying here, and what not. He is not saying that if we utter a sentence that captures the sense of the revelation we are ourselves inspired as the original writers were, but that the content of what we say, its meaning, is as infallibly true as is the original. For (as he rightly says) truth may beget truth and in certain circumstances, when one truth follows necessarily from another, one truth must beget another truth.

I mentioned at the outset that the Puritan theological position was put in jeopardy from a pure Biblicism, on the one hand, and we have been considering Owen’s response to that. But does that response not in fact land him in the other camp? Does not Owen’s appeal to the human mind’s ability to reason from Scripture open the door to rationalism? If his response to the Biblicists encourages reasoning from Scripture, is reason not given the same status as Scripture? We must briefly consider Owen’s answer to that, before we close.

There is reason to think that Owen is not guilty to the charge of encourging rationalism. Not least because he emphasises the mystery of the revealed trinity. As we briefly noted earlier, to explain the doctrine of the Trinity in its relation to Scripture is not to explain the mystery of the Trinity. Owen preserves throughout his discussion a deep respect for what is mysterious, in that it is above our reason.

But secondly he meets the objection head on. He warns against what he calls ‘carnal reason’, that is, human reason that will not submit to the divine revelation, but instead ‘judge of these divine mysteries’(411), a version of theological rationalism. To think like this is to overturn the Creator-creature distinction.

All these reasonings [viz. carnal reasonings} are built upon this supposition, that that which is finite can perfectly comprehend that which is infinite – an assertion absurd, foolish and contradictory unto itself. Again; it is the highest reason in things of pure revelation to captivate our understandings to the authority of the Revealer; which here is rejected. So that by a loud, specious pretence of reason, these men, by a little captious sophistry, endeavour not only to countenance their unbelief, but to evert the greatest principles of reason itself.(412)

Thirdly, Owen distinguishes between reason and reasoning.

Reason in the abstract, or the just judgement of the answering of one thing to another, is of great moment: but reason – that is, what is pretended to be so, or appears to be so unto this or that man, especially in and about things of divine revelation – is of very small importance (of none at all ) where it riseth up against the express testimonies of Scripture, and these multiplied, to their mutual confirmation and explanation. (412)

Although Owen says that he accommodated his writing to the general reader, there is some obscurity here, perhaps due to the passing of the years. The answering of one thing to another – what is that? I think we might roughly translate it as: that reason is concerned with what follows from what. If q follows logically from p then q 'answers to' p. That’s of great moment. That stands behind Owen's belief that Scripture teaches the Trinity expressly; we can draw Trinitarianism from the express statements of Scripture by showing that it follows from them. The doctrine of the Trinity ‘answers' to the biblical statements about the plurality of the persons in the one Godhead. But ‘a man’s reason’, his opinion as to what or what not it is reasonable to believe about God’s revelation, that’s is another thing altogether. This is what Owen has in mind when he says, shortly before the passage I have already quoted;

So that though we will not admit of any thing that is contrary to reason, yet the least intimation of a truth by divine revelation will make me embrace it, although it should be contrary to the reason of all the Socinians in the world. (413)