Friday, June 01, 2012

Wesley, Logic, & Deism

"I could not study, to any degree of perfection, either mathematics, arithmetic, or algebra, without being a Deist, if not an Atheist. And yet others may study them all their lives without sustaining any inconvenience. None therefore can here determine for another; but every man must judge for himself, and abstain from whatever he in particular finds to be hurtful to his soul." - John Wesley, Sermon L, The Use of Money

I knew I liked that guy.

I was a mathematics major in college. Still not sure how that happened. I mean, I know the path that took me to math, but I'm not sure how I actually graduated with the degree. Regardless, I am a rather logical thinker. It's been a detriment to faith. But I have often overcome it. For instance, I have no quibbles with evolution, the notion that God doesn't know the exact details of the future, and no longer need the stories of scripture to be historical to have faith in them and live as though they are true. The distinction between "fact" and "truth" has become very important to me. I don't mind living according to things that are outside of my experience and ability to "figure out," because my faith rests in truth and not in fact. (This is a good thing considering how often I've been wrong!)

I don't think that I totally divorce faith from knowledge, but they certainly aren't the same thing for me. Knowledge and empiricalness inform my faith, but they don't hold it together.

It seems to me that a great number of professing theists (those who believe in God) are actually inadvertent deists - those who believe in God, but don't live as though God makes any difference in their lives. I can't really blame them. But where I am similar, I challenge myself to believe with a hope that goes beyond figuring it all out. Otherwise - for myself - I'm not sure I could call it "faith."

I know...I'm so ignorantly idealistic.

And I'm still learning.


  1. Here is where Anselm is a great help to me. "Fides quaerens intellectum" The nature of faith is to "seek" understanding. It isn't the nature of faith to "find" understanding though that may happen. It is rather, a seeking after understanding.

    Here is where I find many have problems. I think many folks think they need to find understanding in order for to have faith rather than realizing that faith is the beginning of a quest to more deeply know the Love of God, which being infinite or unfailing, is beyond any kind of grasp, because as soon as you've grasped it, you have, by definition failed to understand that God is that than which a greater cannot be conceived.

    Of course, here I'm following Barth in interpreting Anselm to be making a theological rather than philosophical argument, but I think he makes a pretty convincing case.

  2. Jeff, can you point me more specifically to Barth's interpretation of Anselm?

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. The quote you offer from Wesley sounds as if he thinks logic, arithmetic, and other forms of rationality are barriers to his understanding. And yet in his “Address to Clergy,” Wesley instructs his ministers to examine themselves by asking a set of questions. I find the fifth line of questioning particularly interesting, and I offer it here in full, despite its length. Wesley instructs ministers to ask themselves,

    "Am I a tolerable master of the sciences? Have I gone through the very gate of them, logic? If not, I am not likely to go much farther, when I stumble at the threshold. Do I understand it so as to be ever the better for it? to have it always ready for use; so as to apply every rule of it, when occasion is, almost as naturally as I turn my hand? Do I understand it at all? Are not even the moods and figures above my comprehension? Do not I poorly endeavour to cover my ignorance, by affecting to laugh at their barbarous names? Can I even reduce an indirect mood to a direct; a hypothetic to a categorical syllogism? Rather, have not my stupid indolence and laziness made me very ready to believe what the little wits and pretty gentlemen affirm, “that logic is good for nothing?” It is good for this at least, (wherever it is understood,) to make people talk less; by showing them both what is, and what is not, to the point; and how extremely hard it is to prove anything. Do I understand metaphysics; if not the depths of the Schoolmen, the subtleties of Scotus or Aquinas, yet the first rudiments, the general principles, of that useful science? Have I conquered so much of it, as to clear my apprehension and range my ideas under proper heads; so much as enables me to read with ease and pleasure, as well as profit, Dr. Henry More’s Works, Malebranche’s “Search after Truth,” and Dr. Clarke’s “Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God?” Do I understand natural philosophy? If I have not gone deep therein, have I digested the general grounds of it? Have I mastered Gravesande, Keill, Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia, with his “Theory of Light and Colours?” In order thereto, have I laid in some stock of mathematical knowledge? Am I master of the mathematical A B C of Euclid’s Elements? If I have not gone thus far, if I am such a novice still, what have I been about ever since I came from school?"

    These rhetorical questions all seem to point to Wesley's desire that we use our reason, in all dimensions, in ministry.


  4. Thanks, Tom.

    I am hardly a Wesley historian and as has been shown countless times before, Wesley said a whole lot. It seems likely that if one finds Wesley to say something on one side of an argument, another can find him to say something on the other (on the authority of scripture, for one).

    I don't think either Wesley in the one quote I gave nor my response to it is dismissing reason: not at all. After all, it is one of the legs of the footstool.

    Yet, so much of contemporary faith discussion doesn't simply use reason; rather, it insists on sound conclusive reasoning in almost all circumstances. Mystery, conflict, doubt, and disagreement are seen as enemies to "true faith," whether in word or in practice. The modern age has crafted this kind of thinking.

    I reject it.

    This is not to say that I reject reason, but that it is a servant to faith and not a master.

    And while ministers are of faith, it might be notable if what you gave from Wesley was for ministers and not all saints. Pastors, theologians, etc. should indeed be able to stand and speak reasonably. But to put stumbling blocks of knowledge before all saints may put us on dangerous grounds. I have no desire to deconstruct the faith of the 85 year old who believes in young earth creation. I value that the CotN has space for both (at word we do). I know that Karl disagrees with this notion and wouldn't be surprised if you did too. But I think we agree that our highest goal is charity in Christ, not agreement in reason.

    What I like about Wesley's statement is 1. That it acknowledges that faith in God can't be completely ("in perfection") fulfilled by reason, despite our often borderline idolatrous efforts to do so; and 2. That it provides that the individual must take these things into account for oneself, without necessarily bashing another.

  5. I like what you say here, Jeremy. Reason alone won't work, in part because "pure reason" is probably a myth.

    One more thing, you probably know that the Wesleyan quadrilateral was something Albert Outler forwarded to capture what he thought was the heart of Wesley's method. I think it's a pretty good tool, but Wesley never put all four elements together in one sentence to argue for a Quadrilateral.

    Interestingly, however, he most often cited scripture and reason together. In fact, he appealed to the Bible and reason more often than any other pair (or trio) of elements that comprise the quadrilateral.

    For what it's worth,


  6. I did know it wasn't Wesley himself, but didn't know it was Outler (I mean to say that I knew that it wasn't prescriptive from Wesley, but descriptive of him). I also prefer the footstool description, but I'm not sure who first came up with that (I first heard it from Tom Noble, I believe).

    I wonder what Maddox would say. Maybe I should read his book. :-)

    Anyway, thanks for the dialogue!