Reason, by Ethan Allen

Chapter v.

Section i. Argumentative Reflections on Supernatural and Mysterious Revelation in General.

There is not anything which has contributed so much to delude mankind in religious matters, as mistaken apprehensions concerning supernatural inspiration or revelation; not considering that all true religion originates from reason, and can no otherwise be understood but by the exercise and improvement of it; therefore they are apt to confuse their minds with such inconsistencies. In the subsequent reasonings on this subject, we shall argue against supernatural revelation in general, which will comprehend the doctrine of inspiration or immediate illumination of the mind. And first — we will premise, that a revelation consists of an assemblage of rational ideas, intelligibly arranged and understood by those to whom it may be supposed to be revealed, for otherwise it could not exist in their minds as such. To suppose a revelation, void of rationality or understanding, or of communicating rational intelligence to those, to whom it maybe supposed to be given, would be a contradiction; for that it could contain nothing except it were unintelligibleness which would be the same as to reveal and not to reveal; therefore, a revelation must consist of an assemblage of rational ideas, intelligibly communicated to those who are supposed to have been the partakers or receivers of it from the first supposed inspiration, down to this or any other period of time. But such a revelation as this, could be nothing more or less than a transcript of the law of nature, predicated on reason, and would be no more supernatural, than the reason of man may be supposed to be. The simple definition of supernatural is, that which is “beyond or above the powers of nature,” which never was or can be understood by mankind; the first promulgators of revelation not excepted; for such revelation, doctrine, precept or instruction only, as comes within the powers of our nature, is capable of being apprehended, contemplated or understood by us, and such as does not, is to us incomprehensible and unknown, and consequently cannot for us compose any part of revelation.

The author of human nature impressed it with certain sensitive aptitudes and mental powers, so that apprehension, reflection or understanding could no otherwise be exerted or produced in the compound nature of man, but in the order prescribed by the creator. It would therefore be a contradiction in nature, and consequently impossible for God to inspire, infuse, or communicate the apprehension, reflection or understanding of any thing whatever into human nature, out of, above, or beyond the natural aptitudes, and mental powers of that nature, which was of his own production and constitution; for it would be the same as to inspire, infuse, or reveal apprehension, reflection or understanding, to that which is not; inasmuch as out of, beyond or above the powers of nature, there could be nothing to operate upon, as a prerequisite principle to receive the inspiration or infusion of the revelation, which might therefore as well be inspired into, or revealed to nonentity, as to man. For the essence of man is that, which we denominate to be his nature, out of or above which he is as void of sensation, apprehension, reflection and understanding, as nonentity may be supposed to be; therefore such revelation as is adapted to the nature and capacity of man, and comes within his powers of perception and understanding, is the only revelation, which he is able to receive from God or man. Supernatural revelation is as applicable to beasts, birds and fishes, as it is to us; for neither we nor they are capable of being acted upon supernaturally, as all the possible exertions and operations of nature, which respect the natural or moral world, are truly natural. Nor does God deviate from his rectitude of nature in matters of inspiration, revelation or instruction to the moral world, any more than in that of his government of the natural. The infinitude of the wisdom of God’s creation, providence and moral government will eternally remain supernatural to all finite capacities, and for that very reason we can never arrive to the comprehension of it, in any state of being and improvement whatever; inasmuch as progression can never attain to that which is infinite, so that an eternal proficiency in knowledge could not be supernatural, but on the other hand would come within the limits and powers of our nature, for otherwise such proficiency would be impossible to us; nor is this infinite knowledge of God supernatural to him, for that his perfection is also infinite. But if we could break over the limits of our capacity, so as to understand any one supernatural thing, which is above or beyond the power of our natures, we might by that rule as well understand all things, and thus by breaking over the confines of finite nature and the rank of being which we hold in the universe, comprehend the knowledge of infinity. From hence we infer, that every kind and degree ef apprehension, reflection and understanding, which we can attain to in any state of improvement whatever, is no more supernatural than the nature of man, from whence perception and understanding is produced, may be supposed to be so: nor has or could God Almighty ever have revealed himself to mankind in any other way or manner, but what is truly natural.

Section ii. Containing Observations on the Providence and Agency of God, as it Respects the Natural and Moral World, With Strictures on Revelation in General.

The idea of a God we infer from our experimental dependence on something superior to ourselves in wisdom, power and goodness, which we call God; our senses discover to us the works of God which we call nature, and which is a manifest demonstration of his invisible essence. Thus it is from the works of nature that we deduce the knowledge of a God, and not because we have, or can have any immediate knowledge of, or revelation from him. But on the other hand, all our understanding of, or intelligence from God, is communicated to us by the intervention of natural causes, (which is not of the divine essence;) this we denominate to be natural revelation, for that it is mediately made known to Us by our senses, and from our sensations of external objects in general, so that all and every part of the universe, of which we have any conception, is exterior from the nature or essence of God; nor is it in the nature of things possible for us to receive, or for God to communicate any inspiration or revelation to us, but by the instrumentality of intermediate causes, as has been before observed. Therefore all our notions of the immediate interposition of divine illuminations, inspiration, or infusion of ideas or revelations into our minds, is mere enthusiasm and deception; for that neither the divine mind, nor those of any finite intelligences can make any representation to, or impression on our external senses without the assistance of some adequate, intermediate cause. The same is the case between man and man, or with mankind in general; we can no otherwise hold a correspondence but by the aptitude, and through the medium of our senses. Since this is the only possible way in nature by which we can receive any notices, perceptions, or intelligence from God or man.

Nothing can be more unreasonable than to suppose, because God is infinitely powerful, that he can therefore inspire or infuse perception, reflection or revelation into the mind of man in such a way or manner as is incompatible with the aptitudes and powers of their nature: such a revelation would be as impossible to be revealed by God, as by a mere creature. For though it is a maxim of truth, “That with God all things are possible,” yet it should be considered, that contradictions, and consequently impossibilities are not comprehended in the definition of things, but are diametrically the reverse of them, as may be seen in the definition of the word things, to wit: “whatever is.” There is no contradiction in nature or truth, which comprehends or contains all things, therefore the maxim is just, “That with God all things are possible,” viz: all things in nature are possible with God; but contradictions are falsehoods which have no positive existence, but are the negatives to things, or to nature, which comprehends, “Whatever is;” so that contradictions are opposed to nature and truth, and are no things, but the chimeras of weak, unintelligent minds who make false application of things to persons, or ascribe such powers, qualities, dispositions and aptitudes to things as nature never invested them with; such are our deluded notions of the immediate operations of the holy spirit, or of any mere spirit, on our minds independent of the intervention of some adequate, natural or intermediate cause. To make a triangle four square, or to make a variety of mountains contiguously situated, without vallies, or to give existence to a thing and not to give existence to it at the same time, or to reveal anything to us incompatible with our capacity of receiving the perception of it, pertains to those negatives to nature and truth, and are not things revealed, nor have they any positive existence as has been before argued; for they are inconsistent with themselves, and the relations and effects which they are supposed to have upon and with each other. It derogates nothing from the power and absolute perfection of God that he cannot make both parts of a contradiction to be true.

But let us reverse the position concerning revelation, and premise that it is accommodated to our capacity of receiving and understanding it, and in this case it would be natural, and therefore possible for us to receive and understand it; for the same truth which is predicated on the sufficiency of our capacity to receive and understand a revelation, affirms at the same time the possibility of our receiving and understanding it. But to suppose that God can make both parts of a contradiction to be true, to reveal and not reveal, would be the same as ascribing a falsehood to him and to call it by the name of power.

That God can do anything and everything, that is consonant to his moral perfections, and which does not imply a contradiction to the nature of the things themselves, and the essential relation which they bear to each other, none will dispute. But to suppose, that inasmuch as God is all-powerful, he can therefore do everything, which we in our ignorance of nature or of moral fitness may ascribe to him, without understanding, whether it is either consonant to moral rectitude, or to the nature of the things themselves, and the immutable relations and connections which they bear to each other, or not, is great weakness and folly. That God cannot in the exercise of his providence or moral government, counteract the perfections of his nature, or do any manner of injustice, is manifestly certain; nor is it possible for God to effect a contradiction in the natural world, any more than in the moral. The impossibility of the one results from the moral perfections of God, and the impossibility of the other from the immutable properties, qualities, relations and nature of the things themselves, as in the instances of the mountains, vallies, &c., before alluded to, and in numberless other such like cases.

Admitting a revelation to be from God, it must be allowed to be infallible, therefore those to whom it may be supposed to have been first revealed from God, must have had an infallible certainty of their inspiration: so likewise the rest of mankind, to whom it is proposed as a Divine Law, or rule of duty, should have an infallible certainty, that its first promulgators were thus truly inspired by the immediate interposition of the spirit of God, and that the revelation has been preserved through all the changes and revolutions of the world to their time, and that the copies extant present them with its original inspiration and unerring composure, or are perfectly agreeable to it. All this we must have an infallible certainty of, or we fail of an infallible certainty of revelation, and are liable to be imposed upon by impostors, or by ignorant and insidious teachers, whose interest it may be to obtrude their own systems on the world for infallible truth, as in the instance of Mahomet.

But let us consult our own constitutions and the world in which we live, and we shall find that inspiration is, in the very nature of things, impossible to be understood by us, and of consequence not in fact true. What certainty can we have of the agency of the divine mind on ours? Or how can we distinguish the supposed divine illuminations or ideas from those of our own which are natural to us? In order for us to be certain of the interposition of immediate divine inspiration in our minds we must be able to analyze, distinguish, and distinctly separate the premised divine reflections, illuminations or inspiration from our own natural cogitations, for otherwise we should be liable to mistake our reflections and reasonings for God’s inspiration, as is the case with enthusiasts, or fanatics, and thus impose on ourselves, and obtrude our romantic notions on mankind, as God’s revelation.

None will, it is presumed, pretend that the natural reflections of our minds are dictated by the immediate agency of the divine spirit; for if they were thus dictated, they would be of equal authority with any supposed inspired revelation. How then shall we be able to distinguish or understand our natural perceptions, reflections or reasonings, from any premised immediately inspired ones? Should God make known to us, or to any of us, a revelation by a voice, and that in a language which we understand, and admitting that the propositions, doctrines, or subject matter of it, should not exceed our capacity, we could understand it the same as we do in conversation with one another; but this would be an external and natural revelation, in which God is supposed to make use of language, grammar, logic and sound, alias of intermediate causes, in order to communicate or reveal it, which would differ as much from an immediately inspired revelation, as this book may be supposed to do; for the very definition of immediate inspiration precludes all natural or immediate causes. That God is eternally perfect in knowledge, and therefore knows all things, not by succession or by parts, as we understand things by degrees, has been already evinced; nevertheless all truth, which we arrive at the understanding of, accords with the divine omniscience, but we do not come at the comprehension of things by immediate infusion, or inspiration, but from reasoning; for we cannot see or hear God think or reason any more than man, nor are our senses susceptible of a mere mental communion with him, nor is it in nature possible for the human mind to receive any instantaneous or immediate illuminations or ideas from the divine spirit (as before argued,) but we must illuminate and improve our minds by a close application to the study of nature, through the series whereof God has been pleased to reveal himself to man, so that we may truly say, that the knowledge of nature is the revelation of God. In this there can be no delusion, it is natural, and could come from none other but God.

Unless we could do this, we should compound them together at a venture, and form a revelation like Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, “partly iron and partly clay,” alias partly divine and partly human. The Apostle Paul informs us, that sometimes he “spake, and not the Lord,” and at other times speaks doubtfully about the matter, saying, “and I think also that I have the spirit of God,” and if he was at a loss about his inspiration, well may we be distrustful of it. From the foregoing speculations on the subject of supernatural inspiration, it appears, that there are insuperable difficulties in a mere mental discourse with the divine spirit; it is what we are unacquainted with, and the law of our nature forbids it. Our method of conversation is vocal, or by writing, or by some sort of external symbols which are the mediate ground of it, and we are liable to errors and mistakes in this natural and external way of correspondence; but when we have the vanity to rely on dreams and visions to inform ourselves of things, or attempt to commune with invisible finite beings, or with the holy spirit, our deceptions, blunders and confusions are increased to fanaticism itself; as the diverse supposed influence of the spirit, on the respective sectaries, even among Christians, may witness, as it manifestly, in their empty conceit of it, conforms to every of their traditions. Which evinces, that the whole bustle of it is mere enthusiasm, for was it dictated by the spirit of truth and uniformity itself, it would influence all alike, however zealots persuade themselves and one another that they have supernatural communion with the Holy Ghost, from whence they tell us they derive their notions of religion, and in their frenzy are proof against reason and argument, which if we tender them, they tell us, that it is carnal and depraved reasoning, but that their teachings are immediately from God, and then proceed to vent upon us all the curses and punishments, which are written in the book of the law.

There has in the different parts and ages of the world, been a multiplicity of immediate and wonderful discoveries, said to have been made to godly men of old by the special illumination or supernatural inspiration of God, every of which have, in doctrine, precept and instruction, been essentially different from each other, which are consequently as repugnant to truth, as the diversity of the influence of the spirit on the multiplicity of sectaries has been represented to be.

These facts, together with the premises and inferences as already deduced, are too evident to be denied, and operate conclusively against immediate or supernatural revelation in general; nor will such revelation hold good in theory any more than in practice. Was a revelation to be made known to us, it must be accommodated to our external senses, and also to our reason, so that we could come at the perception and understanding of it, the same as we do to that of things in general. We must perceive by our senses, before we can reflect with the mind. Our sensorium is that essential medium between the divine and human mind, through which God reveals to man the knowledge of nature, and is our only door of correspondence with God or with man.

A premised revelation, adapted to our external senses, would enable our mental powers to reflect upon, examine into, and understand it. Always provided nevertheless, that the subject matter of such revelation, or that of the doctrines, precepts or injunctions therein contained, do not exceed our reason, but are adapted to it as well as to our external senses. To suppose that God, merely from his omnipotence, without the intervention of some adequate intermediate cause could make use of sound, or grammatical and logical language, or of writing, so as to correspond with us, or to reveal any thing to us, would run into the same sort of absurdity, which we have already confuted; for it is the same as to suppose an effect without a suitable or a proportionable cause, or an effect without a cause; whereas, effects must have adequate causes or they could not be produced. God is the self-existent and eternal cause of all things, but the eternal cause can no otherwise operate on the eternal succession of causes and effects, but by the mutual operation of those causes on each other, according to the fixed laws of nature. For as we have frequently observed before that of all possible systems, infinite wisdom comprehended the best; and infinite goodness and power must have adopted and perfected it; and being once established into an ordinance of nature, it could not be deviated from by God: for that it would necessarily imply a manifest imperfection in God, either in its eternal establishment, or in its premised subsequent alteration, which will be more particularly considered in the next chapter.

To suppose that Almighty power could produce a voice, language, grammar, or logic, so as to communicate a revelation to us, without some sort of organic or instrumentated machine or intermediate vehicle, or adequate constituted external cause, would imply a contradiction to the order of nature and consequently to the perfection of God, who established it; therefore, provided God has ever given us any particular revelation, we must suppose, that he has made use of a regular and natural constituted and mediate cause, comprehended in the external order of nature, rightly fitted and abilitated to make use of the vocal power of language, which comprises that of characters, orthography, grammar and logic, all which must have been made use of, in communicating a supposed revelation to mankind, which forecloses inspiration.

Furthermore, this heavenly dictating voice should have been accommodated to all languages, grammars and logical ways of speaking, in which a revelation may have been divulged, as it would be needful to have been continued from the beginning to every receiver, compiler, translator, printer, commentator on and teacher of such revelation, in order to have informed mankind in every instance, wherein at any time they may have been imposed upon by any spurious adulterations or interpolations, and how it was in the original. These, with the refinements of languages and translations, are a summary of the many ways, wherein we may have been deceived by giving credit to antiquated written revelation, which would need a series of miracles to promulgate and perpetuate it in the world free from mistakes and frauds of one kind or other, and which leads me to the consideration of the doctrine of miracles.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 12:59