It is very surprising that Christians who are conservatives do not generally espouse a great admiration for David Hume (1711-1776). It’s true he was a critic of the religious apologetics of his time. But in its context, the natural theology of Hume’s time was rationalist. And if there is one thing which conservativism is against, it is surely rationalism. So it’s a mystery why Christians mostly do not unite in admiration of Hume’s onslaught on the rationalism of his time. There are great exceptions: the great Presbyterian theologian T.F. Torrance observed that Hume’s criticisms of the arguments to God’s existence of his contemporaries are useless. But most Catholics fall in with Elizabeth Anscombe’s misjudgement that Hume was simply a bad man. If he was a bad man, and unlike Anscombe I don’t profess to know, he has done a great deal of good for this Catholic. Hume has done more for my faith than many of the theologians who have starred in the 52 Authors series. Even though our starring theologians have all been ‘greats,’ I have to confess that Hume has done more for me, in freeing me from my own spiritual sluggishness. What follows is a lightly disguised excerpt from the chapter on Hume in the book on ‘Illuminating Faith’ which I co-authored last year. I wrote this chapter.
Back to the Middle Ages proponents of ‘faith’ and of ‘reason’ jousted in fair weather.. What happened between 1690 and 1740 was epic: a whole society experienced contradiction between faith and reason. Dismissal of faith and adherence to rationalism became commonplace. The turn to rationalism was engineered not by atheists or Deists but by Anglican ministers and pillars of the established Church of England. Bible Miracles were taken as evidence that the Bible is God’s revelation; Locke argued that we may infer from his miracles that Jesus was sent to us from God.
In the 1618-1648 ‘Wars of Religion,” European Catholics and Protestants butchered one another, and savaged the credibility of faith. The English Civil War made soldiers of fanatical charismatics, who believed themselves agents of the Holy Spirit. The Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 deflated enthusiasm. The great Dr. Johnson professed himself ‘no friend to enthusiasm.’ Was that because, at the time, enthusiasm was a greater enemy to Christian faith than scepticism?
The 1662 Press Act opened English printing presses to publishing satirical tracts, including religion in the mockery. Writers used irony to mock religion, just as in the former USSR and its colonies, ironic jokes circulated. Irony is invisible, or at least deniable. What did Jonathan Swift mean when, in “An Argument against Abolishing Christianity” he argued that abolishing the Established Church would sink the Bank of England? Swift’s tract mocked the rationalist Unitarian, John Toland, but it also seems to make light of Anglicanism. Swift was a Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. In Swift’s fantasy novel, Gulliver’s Travels, the hero lives amongst purely rational horses, the Houyhnhnm, whose serfs are degraded human beings, Yahoos. ‘Houyhnhnm’ is onamatopoiec, representing an equinine neigh: it means, in their language, “the perfection of nature.” Did their author regard the Houyhnhnm as ideal creatures or monsters? Swift’s irony makes his writing two-sided and opaque.
What about Hume himself? Most people think that David Hume was on the side of the devil when he claimed in sweetly ironic tones that it takes faith to believe in miracles. They were not amused then and they still think he must have been a bad man to say those things.
The turn to rationalism started when the Polish Anabaptists Lelio Socinus and his nephew Faustus Socinus (1539-1604) assumed leadership of the Polish Brethren. The Brethren were a non-magisterial Protestant sect, who later became known as Socinians. Lelio and Faustus rejected faith in the divinity of Christ and in the Trinity on the grounds that these traditional articles of faith cannot clearly be reasoned out of Scripture. By 1601 Faustus’ ideas were enshrined in the Racovian Catechism, which states that reason ‘is …of great service, since without it we would neither perceive with certainty the authority of the sacred writings, understand their contents, …nor apply them to any practical purpose. When ... I stated that the Holy Scripture were sufficient for our salvation … I certainly assumed its presence’ [i.e., the presence of reason]. The Socinians were Protestants who took the sola Scriptura principle to a logical conclusion. They replaced faith with ‘what can be reasoned out of Scripture.’
By the way, one of my co-authors on Illuminating Faith is a Protestant, and I originally wrote that this practice is a distortion of Protestantism: Luther surely didn’t expect people to be writing to their bishop and demanding to be shown exactly where the doctrine of the Trinity can be demonstrated from Scripture? I’m ecumenical that way! But my co-author insisted that from its very origins Protestantism requires that doctrines can be demonstrated from Scripture. So I withdrew my claim that Socinianism and Deism are distortions of the Protestant sola scriptura principle.
What had hitherto been termed, variously, the rule of faith, the light of faith, and the articles of faith now for the first time was equated with ‘what a rational individual can find in the Bible, read literally.’ Socinianism was identified with ‘Unitarianism,’ that is, anti-Trinitarian theism. What it comes down to is rationalist Bible-literalism. Anglican apologists attempted to combat Unitarianism with the weapons of reason and the Bible.
So Socinianism influenced the Established Church of England. Disputing Catholic claims that one needs the faith of the Church to recognize Scripture as divine Revelation the Anglican Archbishop, William Laud (1573-1645) argued that faith is assenting to what reason can see in or deduce from the Bible. But what can be deduced from Scripture? Is the Trinity in Scripture? The divinity of Christ? The fall of Adam? Original sin? Anglicans had landed themselves with the job of demonstrating the Trinity out of Scripture read without the guidance the Holy Spirit, and without the perspectives of ecclesial faith.
In fact, though religions are not based on what their sacred texts say, but on what believers think these texts say. Unless one already believes in the Trinity by other means, say, because it is the historical faith of the church expressed in the creeds, one will not find the Scriptures to speak of Father, Son and Spirit as the three persons of one God. Anglican apologists committed themselves to a circular argument. The Bible miracles, especially the miracles Jesus performs, were thought to give the Bible rational credentials, as God’s revelation. The miracles were supposed to give Jesus a good credit rating with other people, so that we lent credence to all his claims. That is what Locke tells us.
Who was he? John Locke (1632-1704) was the most equinine philosopher of the epoch.
Locke demonstrated that faith contains nothing unreasonable by defining faith as dutifully obedient to reason. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding he defines “faith” as “nothing but a firm assent of the mind; which if it be regulated, as is our duty, cannot be afforded to anything but upon good reason”. Locke says that Reason is “the discovery of the certainty or probability of such propositions or truths, which the mind arrives at by deductions made from such ideas which it has got by the use of its natural faculties, viz. by sensation or reflection.” Reason works on ideas, which emerge from sensations. It deduces propositions from ideas which originate in sensations. Faith, by contrast, does not derive from deductions from ideas which are themselves virtual versions of sensations. Rather, says Locke, “Faith ... is the assent to any proposition ...upon the credit of the proposer, as coming from God in some extraordinary way of communication. This way of discovering truths to men we call revelation.” Rather than buying the item ‘cash down’, on the basis of ideas emerging from sensations, one buys the truths of faith on credit from God. But why is it reasonable to buy truths on credit from God? What makes it rational to believe the Bible is God’s Word? Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) claims that the ‘proposer’ is Jesus Christ, in the Gospels, and the evidence Jesus offers, making it rational for us to credit that he is God’s emissary, is his miracles and fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Jesus’ miracles are his good credit rating, making rationally credible his claim to speak on God’s behalf. Jesus showed himself to be the Messiah by his miracles and by claiming the prophesied Kingdom of God had come. Locke does not think Jesus said he was the Messiah, but he thinks the Gospel writers say so. Locke’s ‘article of faith’ is that Jesus was the Messiah. It is reasonable to have faith that the Bible is God’s Revelation because, in it, Jesus the Messiah performs miracles, acts which are evidence that he was on a mission from God.
The problem with Locke’s view is that, if we think it implausible that God’s revelation would contain any unreasonable propositions, we would have to think the doctrine that God is three persons in one substance is reasonable before we could find it in Scripture.
For Locke, Jesus is the Messiah, but is he the second person of the Trinity? If, on Locke’s account, we make an inference from Jesus to God, then Jesus is not God. The Reasonableness of Christianity does not mention the Trinity. When called on this, Locke both denied that he was a Unitarian, and sarcastically demanded to see a different Bible which refers unequovically to the Trinity: ‘My Lord, my Bible is faulty again; for I do not remember that I ever read in it either of these propositions in these precise words, ‘that there are three persons in one nature, or, there are two natures in one person’. When your Lordship shall show me a Bible wherein they are set down, I shall then think them a good instance of propositions offered me out of Scripture …. they may be drawn from the Scripture: but I deny that these very propositions are in express words in my Bible.’ Scripture exegesis becomes the test which faith must pass, and we know in advance that Scripture will not offend our reasoning minds by deciding to read it as a string of literal propositions. Faith does not, according to Locke, assent to any proposition it does not understand.
Locke’s writings proved an inspiration to such Deists as John Toland (1670-1722) and Matthew Tindal (1653-1733). A year after Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity, Toland published Christianity not Mysterious (1696). Rejecting the presence of miracle or mystery in the Scriptures, Toland claims that, “Reason is the only Foundation of all Certitude, and ... nothing reveal’d ..is more exempted from its Disquisitions, than the ordinary Phenomena of Nature. Wherefore, there is nothing in the Gospel contrary to Reason, nor above it; and that no Christian doctrine can be properly call’d a Mystery.”
Few of Jesus’ miracles make prosaic sense, so countless Deist tracts mock the sheer irrationality of Jesus’ miracles, such as cursing the fig tree for not blossoming when figs were not in season. Why take anything on credit, when we can get cash down in nature for a religion of reason? Tindal noted, with sardonic irony, that if Scripture is as reasonable as the Anglican apologists claim, *The truly illuminated books are the darkest of all.”
As moderate Anglicans saw it, reason first demonstrates, from Design, that God exists, and then reason is led to accept the Bible as this designer God’s revelation on the evidence of Jesus’ miracles. There are two stories, reason as foundational, and revelation stacked upon it. Joseph Butler declared, “Reason can, and it ought to judge, not only of the meaning, but also of the morality and the evidence of revelation.”
This is the context in which David Hume criticised religious rationalism! Hume set light to the bonfire of vanities of Bible-rationalism by asking on what evidence people believe in the Gospel miracles. Hume’s ‘Essay on Miracles’ opens by noticing the difference between the Anglican theologian Dr. Tillotson’s attitude to the ‘real presence’ and to eye-witness testimony. Dr. Tillotson rejects the absurd Catholic doctrine of the “real presence” of Christ in the consecrated Eucharist, as contrary to the evidence of the senses: no Scriptural reference can demonstrate what runs counter to the senses of every rational man. But Dr Tillotson owns eye-witness testimony as backing Bible miracles. Hume nails Tillotson to his refutation of the ‘Papist’ doctrine of transubstantion: if sensation and experience rule out the real presence, then how much more should they exclude belief in the testimony of the Gospel writers to miracles? Our concurrence in an event occurred on the say-so of others, that is, on the basis of testimony, will always be “weaker” than our concurrence in the veracity of what we experience for ourselves. The testimonies of “probable” evidence in comparison with the direct proof of our own experience. And miracles run counter to our own experience: no testimony can outweigh our direct experience that the course of nature runs smooth and straight. For miracles to authorize Scripture, the occurrence of miracles would have to be credible.
Hume notes other irrationalities in the proposal of Jesus’ miracles as authorizing the reasonableness of assent to Scripture as God’s Word. Why is this host of miracles isolated and elevated above the miracles of the Muslims and Hindus, as the sole showing of divine revelation? Why, within Christianity, are the Bible miracles isolated and elevated above the host of miracles claimed by Papists for their saints?
Hume conclude that it is a sheer miracle that anyone believes the Bible miracles: “the Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity; and whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.” With these words, Hume, speaking as a kind of Catholic atheist, restated the traditional doctrine that faith is a supernatural virtue, a gift of the Holy Spirit.
The Houyhnhnm philosophers had hung too much weight on inference. In The Dialogue Concerning Natural Religion Hume asks how one can know that a domesticated Designer stands at the end of a chain of causal inference from design in the cosmos to its producer. Mediaeval Christians who argued to the existence of God avowedly knew by faith for whom they were looking; as Hume notes, his contemporaries supposed themselves simply to know, by analogy, that the Designer of the Universe would, like the designer of a house, reside at the end of the chain of causal inference. Hume’s Cleanthes professes himself “scandalised ... with this resemblance, which is asserted between the Deity and human creatures; and must conceive it to imply such a degradation of the supreme Being as no sound theist could endure.”1 Hume’s argument shows that the two stories, of faith and reason, do not work unless they mutually reinforce each other. This is precisely what we read in John Paul II’s great encyclical Fides et Ratio.
On the English Empiricist account, sensations are also the beginning of a long line of causal inferences. For Hume, “without the authority either of the memory or of the senses our whole reasoning would be chimerical and without foundation.” Every testimony to which we give credence can be traced back to a sense impression: our belief that Julius Caesar “was kill’d in the senate house on the ides of March” traces back to our sense impressions of the history books in which we have read the eye-witness testimonies to this event.2 We cannot know for sure what causes these impressions: it could be the direct action of God (as the Occasionalists say) or physical objects, or something else. Like Locke, Hume subscribes to the representative theory of perception. He states: “....’twill readily be allow’d, that ... nothing is ever really present to the mind, besides its own perceptions”.3 Hume does not think of impressions or ideas as mediating realities to us, but, as it were, of substituting for realities in our consciousness. Unlike Locke, Hume grasps the consequences of this. Since we do not know what is the real cause of our impressions or what lies beyond them, believing in the veracity of some impressions and not others, or the reality of some external objects and not others, cannot be a matter of rationality. The first act judgement makes is to believe. Ideas are simply weak impressions, while beliefs are very strong impressions. Hume did not only eviscerate Bible-rationalism. This Yahoo struck at the foundations of rationalism, by arguing that, “all probable reasoning is nothing but a species of sensation. ‘Tis not solely in poetry and music, we must follow our taste and sentiment, but likewise in philosophy. When I am convinc’d of any principle, ‘tis only an idea, which strikes more strongly upon me.”4 It follows then that belief is the source of all of our ratiocination. All reasoning rests on belief.
1 Dialogue, p. 49.
2 Human Nature, p. 83.
3 Human Nature, 197
4 Human Nature, 103.
—Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest.