Senses, Intellect and Spirit
By Paul Helm–
In response to the charge that Christian theology, indeed the Christian religion, is nothing other than words about words about words, we have seen that our minds and our senses are to be used in a quite natural way in coming to understand our faith. The Christian message is in this sense not at all discontinuous from ‘the natural,’ even though our natural powers are fallen. We take this for granted, I suspect, and only notice the fact when it is drawn to our attention. Our senses are fallen but not obliterated. Christianity is not gnosticism, which requires its disciples to be initiated into a special ‘language of heaven,’ one that is discontinuous from the natural languages we all speak. At Pentecost those present heard in their own languages the account of the mighty works of God. Nor does it require special non-natural or supernatural access to the basic factual claims of the faith, even though, because of our fallenness, the enlightening and reviving work of he Spirit is needed to enable us to understand the significance of what we learn, and to apply it to our lives.
The senses and the Apostles
The Apostles themselves ‘saw with their eyes; they ‘looked upon and touched with their hands’, concerning the word of life, the life which was ‘made manifest and [which] we have seen and heard’. They saw, they heard, and they touched the Incarnate one of God, and these facts provided John with an argument against Gnosticism. That which their senses told them about ‘we proclaim also to you’ (I John 1. 1-3) What John and the others had seen and heard formed the basis of his declaration of the gospel and of the fellowship which all believers have with the father and his Son. The exercise of senses and intellect provided the Apostle Peter with some reason, a good reason, for thinking that he and the other apostles have not followed cleverly devised myths…….’. Why? Because ‘we were eye witnesses of his majesty, for when he received honour and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him in the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”, we ourselves heard this very voice, for we were with him on the holy mountain.’ (2 Peter. 1.16) When Paul met with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus he saw a light from heaven, and heard a voice and was then deprived of his sight. The men who were with him also heard the voice. (Acts 9 Cf. John 12.29) Similarly, the Saviour said to doubting Thomas: ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands, and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve. But believe’. Seeing, hearing, touching – these were all involved in learning of Christ, confirming the character of God’s revelation, and it seems that the Apostles went out of their way to stress their importance.
What did their senses tell them? First, that their faith was not a case of private or collective hallucination or delusion. They were not following myths, magical events in which the senses are tricked and deceived, but that the Saviour, being God made flesh, himself had that sort of objectivity which our senses convey to us, and the absence of which–‘cleverly devised myths’ – the senses are also able to detect. We are tricked and puzzled by the cleverness of a magician for some time, but not for all the time. We do not actually believe that the woman has been sawn in half, or that the rabbits were all in the hat. The Saviour did not seem to be magically ‘present’ on the Mount of Transfiguration, but he was present, physically, palpably present, for the one transfigured was a physical person, and the glory that surrounded him was visible to the human eye. Even the voice from heaven was not a purely interior voice of the sort we refer to when we talk of the voice of conscience, but ‘we ourselves heard this very voice’, not physically produced by means of human lungs and larynx, but nevertheless a voice objectively identifiable through hearing.
This account of identification by means of the senses is not the whole story, of course, but it is part of the story, and an essential part. Grace builds upon nature. Peter himself goes on to refer to a ‘more sure’ word of prophecy. (2 Pet. 1. 19) He recognizes degrees of certainty. Their experience on the holy mountain provided some degree of certainty, God’s word, the product of the inspiring activity of the Holy Spirit, provided a surer ground of belief and hope than what they witnessed, considered as a series of events. Peter speaks of these data as if they were on a sliding scale, with the matters witnessed by the eye being less sure than the word of prophecy revealed to them, which is, by comparison, like a ‘lamp shining in a dark place’.
So grace builds upon nature. Not in the sense that grace simply grows out of nature, for that would give us a wholly naturalistic religion; but in the sense that it presupposes nature and is not fundamentally at odds with it, overturning it and negating it. In particular, it presupposes the sort of objectivity that nature routinely conveys to us. The word of prophecy is ‘more sure’ when measured against the sureness and certainty of our sensory experience. It has an objectivity that goes beyond the objectivity conveyed by the reports of two or three witnesses as to what they saw and heard.
Here I pause to say a word or two about ‘presuppositionalism’. There are those who say that the purely biblical way to convey the faith to others is to presuppose, as a kind of axiom, Scripture and all that it tells us. But it seems to me that the biblical data that we have briefly considered (there are other data too, I think) point in the other direction. That we do not, and cannot presuppose Scripture, but that we first trust our senses, and then trust Scripture, as a more sure word of prophecy. We cannot, without vicious circularity, derive our epistemology from presupposing Scripture.
For a moment, consider that phrase ‘presupposing Scripture’. What is Scripture? At its most basic, it is a library of sixty-six books, in various languages, mostly Hebrew and Greek. We have it in English translation, which for the most part serves us very nicely. It is a material object, a book, which we need to distinguish from other books, with individual books, chapters and verses, whose words we need to read and understand (if the words are in our own language) or to translate (if they are in their original languages). In order to even get to the text of Scripture we need to use our senses, what we can see and touch, and to rely on these senses, as we generally rely on them in distinguishing, say, an apple from an avocado, or a peach from a pear. What entitles us to trust our senses at this point? We cannot be warranted in trusting our senses by presupposing Scripture (as the presuppositonalists aver) because we need our senses to identify and understand the words, clauses and sentences of Scripture to begin with. To rely on Scripture to warrant our use of our senses, while at the same time using our senses to understand what the Bible warrants, is viciously circular.
The disciples at the Transfiguration, and Thomas in the Upper Room, did not rely upon Jesus to verify the reliability of their senses, but they trusted their senses implicitly in the way that they trusted them when they counted the loaves and the fishes. It was by such a use of their senses and judgment that they witnessed the transfigured Christ, and the resurrected Christ.
There is no other recourse at this point than to recognize the working of learning processes the function prior to meeting Christ (in the case of the disciples) or to reading Scripture (in our case). There must therefore be an epistemology, however primitive that is distinct from and prior to Scripture, though consistent with what it teaches us about our condition as a fallen race. It is at this point that (for some) the panic seems to set in. But there is no need to panic, any epistemology which, consistent with what Scripture teaches generally about fallen human nature, warrants our uses of our senses and intellect, and the account of which is not at odds with reliance upon the sense and intellect, will do.
It is impossible to set up a ‘Scriptural epistemology’ without vicious circularity, the procedure of appealing to Scripture to justify the use of our senses etc. using our senses in making that appeal. The best we can hope for – and all we need reason to hope for – is an epistemology which is not at odds with Scripture. So, for example, an epistemology which delivered to us a general scepticism with regard to the use of our senses would be at odds with Scripture, and there are of course several such epistemologies which have been appealed to in the history of Christian theology. The ‘Reformed’ epistemology of Plantinga and Wolterstorff is the latest of these, and currently prominent, but it is not the only candidate.
The grace that builds on nature
So grace builds on nature, it does not supplant it. We have already identified one way in which this happens. First, the gospel is not a trick of magic, which though the senses are involved, deceives them, but events to which the senses of those who saw and heard bore reliable witness. There are degrees of certainty. There is a more sure word of prophecy than even the Transfiguration and its divinely-prophetic commentary. The testimony of eyes and ears, may sometimes deceive us, as in tricks of magic, but it was not deceived in the case of the Transfiguration. Even here, the testimony of eyes and ears is not to be gainsaid.
So for the Apostles at least, their teaching was not words about words about words, but words which identified and described realities which they learned of with their eyes and ears and fingers. To be sure, there is more to the revelation of God’s mercy and grace in Jesus Christ than this, but not less. Grace builds upon nature, it does not ignore it, or destroy it. This places the Gospel in the realm of objective realities, not purely subjective teaching or a scripturalism which has a kind of Platonic, non-sensory character. (I suspect that in the case of at least some versions of ‘presuppositionalism’ there is a confusion between the order of being (how things are from the standpoint of the divine decree) and the order of knowing (the processes by which we come to learn of what God has decreed).
Paul Helm was educated at Worcester College, Oxford, and was for many years a member of the Philosophy Department of the University of Liverpool. From 1993-2000 he was the Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King’s College, London. In 2001 he was appointed J.I. Packer Chair of Philosophical Theology at Regent College, Vancouver. He is presently a Teaching Fellow there. Helm is the author of numerous journal articles and books. Some of his most well-know books include Calvin and the Calvinists, Faith and Reason, The Trustworthiness of God, The Providence of God, Eternal God, The Secret Providence of God, The Trustworthiness of God (with Carl Trueman), John Calvin’s Ideas, Calvin at the Centre, and Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed.