Philosophy of This Age

May 8, 2006

For the well-read among us: Who was it who said the following:

There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion. It can be build up as an exact science by the reasoner.

Could it have been Thomas Campbell? Or his son Alexander? Or perhaps Alexander’s most famous student, J. W. McGarvey? Or Moses Lard? If you do not already know the answer, perhaps a few more quotes from the same source will trigger your memory:

One true inference invariably suggests others.

It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.

Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner.

Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.

I never guess. It is a shocking habit — destructive to the logical faculty.

It was neither of the Campbells, nor McGarvey, nor any other Restoration Movement figure who gave us those saying, but rather Arthur Conan Doyle’s pipe-smoking detective who made all of the above statements.

These sayings are ripe with the philosophy of Francis Bacon (inductive reasoning). But Bacon’s fingerprints are also found on the Restoration Movement writings of the 19th century, particularly from the segment that evolved into the churches of Christ. Those leaders had great confidence in the abilities of man, by proper reasoning based on facts, to find our way to a better place as a church. There was a presumption that logical reasoning and inference, based on the scriptures alone, could lead us to unified faith and practice in accordance with the will of God. By observing the particular facts stated in scripture, and making careful inferences, we could discern the common principles governing those facts. And those principles would unite all followers of Jesus in fulfillment of his prayer in John 17. So it was thought.

Another Enlightenment voice that echoes in the RM writings comes from John Locke. Locke wrote a paper called “The Reasonableness of Christianity” in which he attempted to discern the fundamental requirements of Christian salvation, based on a purely logical study of the scriptures. Quoting from his introduction:

The little satisfaction and consistency that is to be found, in most of the systems of divinity I have met with, made me betake myself to the sole reading of the scriptures (to which they all appeal) for the understanding the Christian Religion. What from thence, by an attentive and unbiassed search, I have received, Reader, I here deliver to thee.

Locke was a strong advocate of religious toleration. Both Thomas and Alexander Campbell were greatly influenced by Locke. Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address is very much in harmony with with Locke’s The Reasonability of Christianity. Alexander Campbell published a series of excerpts from Locke’s “Letter on Toleration” in the Millenial Harbinger in 1844 (from The Crux of the Matter, Jack Reese et al, p 85).

McGarvey and Lard even surpassed the Campbells in their zeal for the use of inductive reasoning to derive truth from the scriptures. They were perhaps the primary voices leading to the binding of inferences from scripture as mandatory doctrine. Their reasoning was brilliant and eloquent. They were speaking the language of their day, the philosophy of their age, the Age of Reason.

Today, the Age of Reason is becoming long of tooth. The bright promise of reason has not been realized. We may know more, and we may be able to do some things we couldn’t do before, but is our world really a better world? Are people more happy? Are families more healthy? Are children more respectful?

The unfulfilled promise of Reason is seen in many areas of thought, but in none more than in religion. Religion, specifically biblical interpretation, has not proven to be anything like an exact science. Rather than bringing believers to unity, the black-and-white logical approach to every biblical subject has led to innumerable divisions among believers. That is not to say that logic has been the enemy of unity. Rather, I believe intellectual pride has led us to this point. We have been far too reluctant to admit our own shortcomings. We just can’t seem to say “I don’t know.”

We would do well to have an attitude more like that of Sherlock Holmes when, at the end of a rare failure in the case of “The Yellow Face”, he said:

Watson, if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little over-confident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper “Norbury” in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.

We should be whispering “Norbury” in one anothers’ ears regularly (or maybe more appropriately, “Sand Creek“). I guess we need constant reminders of our own fallability. God knows we’ve failed often enough that we should remember.


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