The Sovereignty of Reason: The Defense of Rationality in the Early English Enlightenment

The Sovereignty of Reason: The Defense of Rationality in the Early English Enlightenment

by Frederick C. Beiser


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ISBN-13: 9780691600543
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #349
Pages: 346
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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The Sovereignty of Reason

The Defense of Rationality in the Early English Enlightenment

By Frederick C. Beiser


Copyright © 1996 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03395-2



I: Reformation versus Enlightenment

If we are to have a clearer idea of the problems facing rationalism in seventeenth-century England, it is necessary to have a more precise account of the limitations placed upon reason in Protestantism. But simply to pose this task is to walk into a minefield. The problem of the relationship between rationalism and Protestantism has been much disputed ever since the publication in 1904 of Max Weber's Die protestantische Ethik una der Geist des Kapitalismus.

It is not my aim here, however, to reopen Weber's question in all its complexity and depth. I wish to consider only one specific aspect of this wider problem: the relationship between the radical criticism of the Enlightenment and early Protestantism. By 'early Protestantism' I mean primarily the theology of Luther and Calvin. I wish to exclude, however, 'later Protestantism', the theology developed in the seventeenth century by the Puritans and Arminians.

For our purposes, it is especially important to consider early Protestantism, particularly the theology of Luther and Calvin. This is for two reasons. First, as already noted, some of its central tenets were enshrined in the 39 Articles of the Church of England, so that it represents the orthodox and official position of the Church. Second, much of the theological and philosophical foundation for the early Protestant attitude toward reason—even that in spiritualism and biblicism—are especially clear in the theology of Luther and Calvin. It is not advisable, as is sometimes done, to take as our starting point the later Puritan theologians of the seventeenth century. The problem with this approach is that the work of these authors is either derivative or heterodox. In the first case, it is best to return to fundamentals; and in the second case, their heterodoxy constitutes the very problem to be explained. If we examine only later Puritan and Arminian writers, then there is the danger of anachronism, of imposing later rationalist views upon the early doctrines of Luther and Calvin. The student of early English rationalism does well to revive that old humanist battle cry: Ad Fontes!

As soon as we look at the early theology of the Reformation, it becomes clear that it posed a grave challenge to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Luther and Calvin firmly upheld doctrines that conflict with the principle of the sovereignty of reason. These doctrines include the following:

1. That all human powers have been utterly corrupted by the Fall, so that it is not possible for man to attain salvation through his own efforts, or to know God through his natural reason.

2. That the sphere of reason is possible experience alone, so that it cannot discover, explain, demonstrate, or refute any belief concerning the supernatural and spiritual realm beyond it.

3. That the true meaning of the Bible cannot be understood by reason but by the spirit alone.

4. That God completely transcends the nature of man, and is different from him not only in degree but also in kind, so that to apply rational discourse to him is only to indulge in anthropomorphisms.

If we consider all these points, then it becomes clear that the early theology of the Reformation cannot be regarded as the forerunner, still less as the foundation, of modern rationalism. Rather, it is its antithesis, indeed its nemesis, an attempt to revive the spirit and outlook of medieval Augustinianism. Luther's and Calvin's aim was to restore this Augustinian tradition—its teachings concerning faith, grace, sin, and predestination—by purging it of all its pagan and scholastic accretions. They wanted to reinstate Augustine's strict and severe dualism between the earthly and heavenly cities, which had been obscured by Aquinas's synthesis of Christianity and paganism. Early Reformation theology was essentially de-Platonized or nominalized Augustinianism. It was Augustine as he was appropriated by the strict and severe nominalist schools of the later Middle Ages, especially the Schola Augustiniana Moderna. A greater antithesis to the later rationalism of the Enlightenment can scarcely be imagined.

Luther's and Calvin's theology makes it clear, then, that the Reformation is not simply the anticipation of, or preparation for, the Enlightenment. There are indeed some respects in which this is true: the Enlightenment values of freedom and equality can trace some of their origins back to Luther's ideals of the liberty of a Christian and the priesthood of all believers. But there are also other respects in which this is false: the severe restrictions that Luther and Calvin place upon the critical use of reason. The faith in reason of the early English Enlightenment could emerge after only the most bitter and protracted struggle against these limitations.

It is easy to overlook this source of friction between the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Often it is said that Luther paved the way for Enlightenment rationalism by giving every individual freedom to believe according to the light of conscience. According to this view, there is a continuous development from the freedom of conscience of the Reformation to the freedom of thought of the Enlightenment. Such an interpretation would not seem so plausible if it were not for the fact that it had been endorsed by so many of the English freethinkers and German Aufklärer. As at least nominal Protestants, they were eager to claim Luther as their forefather because his name gave such a powerful sanction to their own thinking. Luther was their guiding light because—so they believed—he freed individuals from the yoke of ecclesiastical authority and allowed them to think for themselves.

This view of the Reformation largely rests upon an anachronistic interpretation of Luther's and Calvin's intentions. The freethinkers and Aufklärer could embrace Luther only by tendentiousiy reading their own principles into him. If we consider some of Luther's early writings, then it is indeed the case that his aim was to free the individual from the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. According to the young Luther, every individual has the right to judge the Church by the light of Scripture since it, and not the popes, Councils, or Fathers, is the ultimate arbiter of the faith. But such freedom is still very far from—and, indeed, in some respects opposed to—the principle of the sovereignty of reason so characteristic of the Enlightenment. This principle demands that we subject all beliefs to criticism, even those contained in Scripture. But the reformers, though they urged the individual to criticize all beliefs according to the Bible, forbade him to criticize the Bible itself, which was their final court of appeal. To be sure, Luther and Calvin had themselves encouraged and supported the new humanist criticism; but they also insisted that the essential message of Scripture is comprehensible to the spirit alone. All the new philological and historical techniques were only necessary, not sufficient, conditions for its proper interpretation.

If we conflate the Christian liberty of Luther and Calvin with the principle of the sovereignty of reason, then we are in danger of missing one basic problem in explaining the origins of the Enlightenment. Namely, how did the right of the individual to examine beliefs according to Scripture eventually become the right to examine beliefs according to reason? There is indeed an element of continuity; but there is also one of transformation.

This transformation essentially consisted in the formalization of the Protestant conscience, in emptying it of its material criterion of truth (Scripture) and turning it into the purely formal capacity of assessing evidence. The mechanism of the transformation was the demotion of the Bible as the sovereign standard of truth: in making it submit to the normal canons of historical and philological evidence, in examining it as if it were any other human artifact. As we have already seen (Introduction, Section IV), this demotion was a sheer necessity if the Protestant divines were to vindicate the authority of the Bible against skeptics, infidels, and Roman Catholics. We shall soon have occasion to see in more detail how this transformation took place.

II: Reason and Faith in Luther and Calvin

To understand the limitations placed upon reason in Luther's and Calvin's theology, it is first necessary to come to terms with their distinction between the realms of reason and faith. A close examination of the nature and foundation of this distinction will show that the early English rationalists faced a very serious challenge indeed. It was not simply a matter of rejecting some theological dogmas, but of overcoming a profound and powerful epistemology and logic.

Luther's and Calvin's views about reason and faith occur in the context of their more general distinction between the realms of the heavenly and the earthly, or what Luther calls the kingdom of God (Gottis reych) and the kingdom of the world (die welt reych). This distinction was originally drawn by Luther, and then appropriated by Calvin. It plays a pivotal role in all of Luther's and Calvin's thought, and their views on reason and faith are no exception.

Luther's distinction is first and foremost ontological, concerning different kinds of existence or realms of being. The earthly realm is the natural, temporal, and physical world; and the heavenly realm is the supernatural, eternal, and spiritual world. His distinction is also anthropological, dealing with different forms of human life and experience. While the earthly realm appears as our external body, the heavenly realm reveals itself as our inner spirit. The earthly realm is a sphere of necessity where we are subject to laws, whether they be the laws we impose on ourselves in society or the laws nature forces upon us for our survival; the heavenly realm is a domain of freedom where we are subject to no law but simply follow our conscience. Each of these spheres has its special aim, interest, or concern. What is at stake in the earthly realm is our physical peace and survival; but what is at stake in the heavenly realm is our eternal salvation.

With this dualism, Luther and Calvin drew their boundary lines between reason and faith. By reason, man knows the earthly realm; by faith, he knows the heavenly realm. Reason knows the natural, temporal, and physical world through sense experience; and faith grasps the supernatural, eternal, and spiritual world through revelation, which is recorded in the Bible.

The immediate consequence of such a boundary is that reason and faith are each assigned their separate domain, so that they cannot contradict one another. If they do come into conflict, then that is only because one or the other has misused its powers and gone beyond its proper limits. Accordingly, Luther and Calvin both stress that reason and faith must respect one another's domains. It would be as improper for faith to tell us how to ride a horse, govern the state, or plant crops as it would be for reason to declare that there is no such thing as sin, immortality, or the Incarnation. Conflicts between reason and faith can be resolved, Luther thinks, by showing how each makes meaningful and true judgments only within its own sphere.

Both Luther and Calvin stress that reason is perfectly legitimate and effective within the earthly sphere. As long as it remains within this domain, they have nothing but praise for it. Luther even says that reason is the most important and highest of all earthly things. It is the inventor and mentor of all the arts, medicines, and laws; and it is the source of whatever wisdom, power, virtue, and glory there is in this life. Reason could even be described as a divine light since God bestows it upon us to govern all things.

However much Luther and Calvin praise reason if it remains within the earthly sphere, they utterly condemn it if it attempts to transcend this realm and to know something about the heavenly kingdom. They think that reason has a natural tendency to trespass beyond the earthly realm and to seek explanations for what happens in the heavenly sphere. But any such attempt, Luther contends, will end only in fallacies and contradictions.

A major motivation for Luther's and Calvin's distinction between reason and faith was to protect theology from the criticism of reason. They feared that, if unchecked, reason could dissolve the very foundations of the faith. Their worries were based not upon the new natural sciences, which were still in their infancy, but upon the philosophy of Aristotle, which tried to demonstrate the eternity of the world and the mortality of the soul. This was the classic form of the conflict between reason and faith, which had dominated theology ever since the Sorbonne's Condemnation of 1277.

To protect faith from the incursions of reason, and to reconcile any apparent conflict between them, Luther proposed a double-truth doctrine according to which one and the same proposition might be both philosophically true and theologically false (or conversely). He attacked the Sorbonne, "the father of all errors," for its decree that what is true in philosophy is also true in theology. In issuing this edict, the Sorbonne wanted faith to have authority over reason; but it had also unwittingly given reason the right to criticize faith. If we are to prevent reason from infringing upon the realm of faith, then it is necessary to distinguish between two spheres of discourse, one theological and the other philosophical, where what is meaningful and true in one sphere might be meaningless and false in the other. We make such distinctions in many other disciplines and activities: for example, in measuring things we do not ask for the weight of a line, and in weighing things we do not ask for the length of a pound; and so, a fortiori, we should have the right to make such distinctions between philosophy and theology where the differences between method and terminology are so much more important and palpable. The need to make them becomes especially clear as soon as we recognize what happens to reason in the sphere of theology: it draws valid inferences from true premises, though its conclusions are theologically false. Thus reason argues that if God is a man, and if man is an animal, then God is an animal; or if the word is made flesh, and if flesh decays and perishes, then the word decays and perishes. Here the premises are true, and the conclusions do follow from them; nonetheless, they are heretical. The only way to prevent such conclusions is to hold that such propositions as 'God has become man' are true in different senses from Tom, Dick, or Harry are men'. To interpret the theological proposition 'God has become man' as if it were a philosophical position would be to say something like 'man has become an ass'.

It is important to distinguish Luther's double-truth doctrine from the more traditional doctrine of that name, which was advanced by the Averroists and condemned by the Sorbonne. In attacking the Sorbonne, Luther seems to be defending the Averroists. But his position is radically different from theirs. According to the Averroists, one and the same truth can be understood scientifically in philosophy and allegorically in theology; both philosophy and theology deal with the same subject matter, though in different ways. Luther maintains, however, not that they are different kinds of discourse about the same subject matter, but that they are different kinds of discourse about different subject matters. In other words, Luther's distinction is between not only forms of discourse but also kinds of object or subject matter. His double-truth doctrine therefore has to be read in the light of his broader ontological distinction between the two kingdoms.

It is important to see that Luther's and Calvin's distinction between reason and faith is not the same as the common modern one between reason and belief. According to the modern distinction, reason is a faculty that demands sufficient evidence for all our beliefs, whereas faith is the acceptance of a belief on trust without sufficient evidence for it. This is a more modern form of that distinction between reason and faith that Sebastian Castellio first advanced in his De arte dubitandi, and which Locke later canonized in his Essay concerning human Understanding. We must not read this later distinction into Luther and Calvin, though, for the simple reason that it is a reaction against them. According to Castellio and Locke, it is misleading to consider faith as a form of knowledge or certainty because we cannot provide any demonstration for it; instead, we should understand it simply as belief on trust. According to Luther and Calvin, however, reason and faith oppose one another not as knowledge and belief, but as two very different forms of knowledge. While the knowledge of reason is discursive, expressible in propositions and demonstrable by syllogisms, the knowledge of faith is immediate and intuitive, inexpressible in propositions and indemonstrable by syllogisms. Thus Luther calls the knowledge of faith intelligere, an act of sensing or perceiving the supernatural; and Calvin maintains that faith consists in a form of perception or the illumination of the spirit. Luther and Calvin would have emphatically rejected Castellio's and Locke's concept of faith, since they regarded all faith upon trust as surrender to the Roman Catholic hierarchy.


Excerpted from The Sovereignty of Reason by Frederick C. Beiser. Copyright © 1996 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: The Problem of the English Enlightenment

Ch. 1 The Protestant Challenge

Ch. 2 Hooker's Defense of Reason

Ch. 3 The Great Tew Circle

Ch. 4 Cambridge Platonism

Ch. 5 Enthusiasmus Triumphatus

Ch. 6 Toland and the Deism Controversy

Ch. 7 Ethical Rationalism

Conclusion: Faith in Reason


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