The Spirit Neglected

I’m not sure what branch of Protestantism Father Dwight belonged to before he converted, but surely you don’t need to be a speaker of tongues to know the importance of the Holy Spirit in accounting for true faith Protestant-style. Somehow, though, Father Dwight believes that faith invariably proceeds from reason (and not from the mysterious operation of the Spirit):

Like most Freemasons, Franklin had a spiritual blind spot. There was nothing wild and mystical in his life. Passion and romance in religion were alien to him. His creed was one of common sense, mild-mannered good works and human virtue. As such it was not only blind. It was bland.

I came across a quotation of his the other day which sums it up. He wrote, “The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.” It is the sort of sophomoric bromide one expects from rationalist, and it doesn’t stand up to even the mildest of objections.

It is understandable, however. Ever since the nominalists suggested that material things had no connection with the unseen world and were no more than what you call them, a divide had been growing between the physical and the metaphysical realms. The Protestant Revolution confirmed the break, and the Enlightenment hammered it home with the French and American Revolutions.

If there was a divide between the spiritual and the physical realm, then preachers could have nothing to say about science, and scientists had no concern with religion. Science and reason dealt with this world and religion with the world to come, and that was that.

Consequently, the Protestant religion became either an abstract debate about theology or a subjective, emotional experience. In other words, you could be a bookish Bible nerd or a hellfire, “come to Jesus!” weepin’-and-wailin’ preacher. Neither had much to do with the material realm, and neither had much use for science and reason. Thus Benjamin Franklin’s conclusion that to “see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.”

Fideists and fundamentalists distrust the man of reason as much as he distrusts the man of religion. Therefore, even today many Protestants take an intentionally anti-intellectual stance, agreeing with the rationalists that faith and reason are incompatible. Blind Benjamin Franklin is father to them all.

Standing in contrast to this impasse is the Catholic religion which has always contended that faith is reasonable and reason requires faith, or as Pope St. John Paul II put it, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”

Perhaps, but if you take the fall seriously (which is arguably the bottom line difference between real Protestants and Roman Catholics), reason doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. As the British divines explained (but Father Dwight apparently did not read):

5. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts. (Confession of Faith, chapter 1)

Nevertheless, Father Dwight thinks that a belief in the resurrection, for instance, is not that different from testing a cat for feline leukemia:

From that foundation of personal observation and reliance on tradition the scientific enquirer proposes a theory to explore and discover further. So does the religious enquirer. Both devise a theory to meet the facts and answer a question that has arisen. The enquirer then tests the theory with experimentation–gathering data and experiences and processing them through intuition, reasoning and further reliance on tradition. Should the experiment fail, he uses the error to refine the theory and continue his exploration until he finds a satisfactory answer.

This is precisely what the informed and intellectually engaged religious enquirer does. He has certain experiences which are analyzed and filtered through tradition and he goes on to explore further, analyze experience, test reality, reject what is false and affirm what is true, and as he continues his exploration and experimentation he uses a combination of personal experience, tradition, reason and intuition to analyze and construct a working hypothesis.

Then, for both the scientist and the religious explorer there comes a step which we can call “faith.” The homework is done, the data is collected. The experience is analyzed, the tradition is accepted, the guesswork is completed, and the theory has been tested as thoroughly as possible. The scientist or the religious enquirer then changes his actions based on the new belief which he has come to accept based on this process.

In point of fact, a much better explanation for faith comes from the side of an affirmation of total depravity and the inherent limits it puts on human reason. As J. Gresham Machen explained, the miracle of the resurrection makes a lot of sense if you consider the enormity of the human predicament post-fall:

In one sense, certainly, miracles are a hindrance to faith − but who ever thought the contrary? It may certainly be admitted that if the New Testament narrative had no miracles in it, it would be far easier to believe. The more commonplace a story is, the easier it is to accept it as true. But commonplace narratives have little value. The New Testament without the miracles would be far easier to believe. But the trouble is, it would not be worth believing. Without the miracles the New Testament would contain an account of a holy man − not a perfect man, it is true, for He was led to make lofty claims to which He had no right − but a man at least far holier than the rest of men. But of what benefit would such a man, and the death which marked His failure, be to us? The loftier be the example which Jesus set, the greater becomes our sorrow at our failure to attain to it; and the greater our hopelessness under the burden of sin. The sage of Nazareth may satisfy those who have never faced the problem of evil in their own lives; but to talk about an ideal to those who are under the thralldom of sin is a cruel mockery. Yet if Jesus was merely a man like the rest of men, then an ideal is all that we have in Him. Far more is needed by a sinful world. It is small comfort to be told that there was goodness in the world, when what we need is goodness triumphant over sin. But goodness triumphant over sin involves an entrance of the creative power of God, and that creative power of God is manifested by the miracles. Without the miracles, the New Testament might be easier to believe. But the thing that would be believed would be entirely different from that which presents itself to us now. Without the miracles we should have a teacher; with the miracles we have a Savior. (Christianity and Liberalism, 103-104)

Father Dwight may have a point about Ben Franklin’s blind spots (is shooting fish in a barrel really intellectually compelling?). But did Father Dwight miss the log creating his own blind spot?

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22 thoughts on “The Spirit Neglected

  1. “Standing in contrast to this impasse is the Catholic religion which has always contended that faith is reasonable and reason requires faith.”

    But which Catholic religion? You could put together a pretty rigorous academic program based on Catholic writings but Catholicism is also the source of gross superstition. We’re talking Jesus toast, Mary milk, and other oddities that would make Protestant snake handlers seem middle-of-the-road.

    Uniformity of name is not real unity.

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  2. Consequently, the Protestant religion became either an abstract debate about theology or a subjective, emotional experience. In other words, you could be a bookish Bible nerd or a hellfire, “come to Jesus!” weepin’-and-wailin’ preacher.

    There may be an element of truth to this. Here’s P. Tillich, for kicks and giggles:

    From Chapter 8, entited What is Truth, in Tillich’s, The New Being:

    It is the dignity and the danger of Protestantism that it exposes its adherents to the insecurity of asking the question of truth for themselves and that it throws them into the freedom and responsibility of personal decisions, of the right to choose between the ways of the sceptics, and those who are orthodox, of the indifferent masses, and Him who is the truth that liberates. For this is the greatness of Protestantism: that it points beyond the teachings of Jesus and beyond the doctrines of the Church to the being of Him whose being is the truth.

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  3. AB, what if Protestantism became a concrete debate about theology, one that Roman Catholicism lacks (since you can’t question the bishops except that everyone does)?

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  4. D. Hart,

    Oh, you know this is Fr. Dwight’s schtick. He loves to “listicle” RC and Protestant theology, making “blue block narratives” (as your esteemed colleague Richard Gamble would say) of both of them.

    But Protestantism is bad, and it lead directly to the Enlightenment and the tyranny of Reason. Never mind, say, the Small Catechism of the Lutherans, 3rd article of the Creed:

    I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.

    C’mon.

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  5. DG, that’s an excellent question.

    Around about the time I first found your blog, I was listening to American Creation by Joseph Ellis, he makes the point that the American Experiment doesn’t have it’s genius so much in the form of government in our country, but rather, our goverment allows for the forum of debate that countries in the “old world” lacked. There’s the debate about states rights vs. federal that continues to this day, there was the debate in the 18th century about the Native Americans, and what to do about their lives and how to respect them as people, and of course, there was slavery.

    So can we apply that thought to Protestantism: we created the forum by which debate over these matters might take place? I’ll stand on that platform, as a means of helping me feel better about remaining a proud and staunch protestant 🙂

    Martin Luther was one man who stood up to an entire system and 1500 years of church tradition. An amazing story, the 16th century in Christendom is, to be sure. I could go on and on, the book I’m listening to now is Going Clear about Scientology, by Lawrence Wright. L Ron was a fascinating character, I digress..thanks for the post as always!

    Fore!

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  6. FL’s analogy undermines the need for an infallible authority to provide certainty. I have certainty about quantum physics even though the textbooks I learned from and the instructors who taught the courses were decidedly not infallible (though I concede I could be wrong and may have to revisit aspects of the theory). We assume the data (bible) is infallible and the final arbiter of whether a theory (doctrine) should stand or fall.

    The problem with this analogy (which I mostly like) is that like all analogies it breaks down. Unlike religious explorers we find a great deal of consensus in science. Quantum physics looks the same in Ireland, Canada, Japan, South Africa, and Brazil. One calculates expectation values the same way in India as in Pakistan. Scientists from all of these countries agree on the geometry of the Solar System, age of the universe, and value of G. Yet people reading the same bible and looking at the same history of the church come to wildly different conclusions about all kinds of fundamental things.

    The analogy with science is useful for establishing that an infallible “teacher” is not necessary for establishing certainty. But it is clear that there are significant differences between science and religion. The splits among the Copts, Nestorians, Arians, Orthodox and RCs didn’t happen because of the nominalists and there is no analogous situation in science that comes to mind.

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  7. Maybe a bit off topic, but I thought of this reading the original article:

    The parallel between science and theology definitely helps me to understand how the Pope can support the ‘settled science’ of climate change. Since theology can be settled by the right person publishing it, I guess science can be too.

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  8. In case anyone is interested in a nice little discussion of the “nominalist” canard that Fr. Dwight so quaintly thrashes, check out this great article from Anamnesis Journal here.

    Fr. Dwight can fuss all his wants about how nominalism and Protestantism rent Christendom asunder, but, as the author of the article above shows, he may have to turn his rheumy eyes towards a certain bovine theologian (read: St. Thomas Aquinas himself) if he wishes to pursue that whole nominalism thing.

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  9. D.G. Hart:
    “Perhaps, but if you take the fall seriously (which is arguably the bottom line difference between real Protestants and Roman Catholics), reason doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. “

    Are we to assume that D.G.’s arguments do not amount to a hill of beans because they are based on reason, or that they do amount to a hill of beans because they are quite unreasonable?

    You will not find such an extreme statement anywhere in the WCF or any of the generally accepted Reformed standards.

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  10. PS my favorite part of this post (link added by your truly)(three comments on the day, i’m out, who’s next, yo?)

    5. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts. (Confession of Faith, chapter 1)
    http://opc.org/wcf.html#Chapter_01

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  11. Surely there are discussions going on about whether springing everybody from purgatory would help or hurt revenue long term. Of course the PR value has to count for something too.

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  12. One is not amused.

    But the move is not likely to be approved universally. Italian cardinal Velasio De Paolis said it could cause ‘confusion’ among the faithful. He said: ‘Regardless of this decision by the pope, the church will continue to consider abortion a sin.

    ‘I hope it does not cause confusion.’

    He told La Nazione: ‘He is the pope of mercy and wants to show the benevolence of the church towards sinners. This does not cancel the sin of abortion.’

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3070327/The-Pope-orders-Catholic-priests-bestow-pardon-women-abortion-doctors-performed-them.html

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  13. If faith and reason are incompatible then get out of the church because you’re fooling yourself and wasting your time.

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  14. “Perhaps, but if you take the fall seriously (which is arguably the bottom line difference between real Protestants and Roman Catholics), reason doesn’t amount to a hill of beans” – good distillation of the difference, at least the foundational difference. Thanks.

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  15. dj, not so much incompatible with each other as faith transcendent of reason. If you think faith proceeds from reason then maybe you should be the one making a reassessment. Otherwise, what’s it mean to live by faith and not by sight? But the way Father Dwight speaks, the Christian faith comes as a result of putting the right worldly pieces together. Charles “Pelagius” Finney on line two.

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  16. Seth, thanks for the link. Ockham has become too much of a set piece villain for my taste. I cut my eye teeth many years ago reading Richard Weaver, but I later came to realize he painted with too broad a brush, including his blame of what he considered nominalism for all that ails us. The good padre is just doing business at the same old stand

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  17. OldLife Machen-ites!

    I seem to have completely missed the ceremony during which Erik Charter handed over the no. 1 commenter baton to ‘cw, da unificator’.

    Just sayin’.

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