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Living in Light of Two Ages



Reformed Critics of Reid (Part Seven)

The Resurgence of Reid and Common Sense

Reformed Critics of Reid -- Reid and Warfield v. Kant and Van Til (Round Two)

When I mention Thomas Reid in the course of teaching apologetics, or in connection with the philosophical influences of SCSR upon Old Princeton (and the principal theologians who taught there–Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield), many people admit that they have never heard of Reid, or know very little about him.  This is not surprising–given Reid’s unfortunate obscurity.  Others in conservative and confessional Reformed circles have a quite negative impression of Reid, describing his philosophy as “rationalistic” or as a species of Thomism.  These responses are an indication that the party is not very familiar with Reid’s philosophy, has not read Reid, nor understands him correctly–not a surprise given the bad press Reid often gets.  Reid, as we have seen, is not a rationalist, anything but.  With the recent re-discovery of Reid among Reformed Epistemologists, Roman Catholic defenders of Thomism have sought to distance themselves from Reid’s epistemology, seeing his “common sense” formulation as incompatible with the foundationalism of St. Thomas (Russman, “Reformed Epistemology,” in Thomstic Papers IV, ed., Kennedy, 200).

Much of this criticism of Reid and SCSR comes from the camp of the followers of Cornelius Van Til, who contend that Reid’s philosophy lay behind B. B. Warfield’s unwitting compromise of the defense of the faith through Old Princeton’s advocacy of an apologetic method naively grounded in Christian evidences.  Van Tilians are quite correct right to connect Warfield to Reid and SCSR (with certain modifications in the direction of Reformed orthodoxy made by Warfield).  Yet, they regard Warfield’s approach as necessarily entailing an appeal to “right reason” which, to their minds, is an impossibility in light of the damage done to humanity (and to our a priori categories and interpretive abilities) as a consequence of the fall.  Unregenerate people cannot utilize reason “rightly.”  Warfield, supposedly concedes too much to unbelieving thought–a self-defeating move.

To make the case that Van Til’s call for a correction of Old Princeton’s apologetic was necessary, Van Tilians often embrace the critical scholarly consensus (Ernest Sandeen, Jack Rogers, Donald McKim, and John C. Vander Stelt) which concludes that Warfield was a rationalist of sorts who departed from the biblicism of Calvin, even echoing the ill-founded critical observation that Warfield’s endorsement of "right reason" amounts to an implicit exaltation of human reason over divine revelation.  

But Warfield’s comments about right reason fully comport with the way in which the Reformed orthodox of prior generations (i.e., Turretin) spoke of an “ministerial use” of reason which was necessary to interpret the revelation which God gives, while at the same time rejecting a “magisterial” use of reason which determines the content of revelation (Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1:  Prolegomena to Theology, 243).  Warfield’s appeal to right reason amounts to nothing more than the proper utilization of those rational powers given us from birth by our Creator.  To use “right reason” rightly, we must operate within an epistemological framework like that set out by Reid.  Christians can make appeal to those evidences given by God through divine revelation, i.e., our Lord’s resurrection and self-attestation to be the very Son of God, because the Apostles did.  The Christian evidences marshaled by Warfield for Christ’s resurrection have their origin in God’s revelation, not in human reason.  

Reid, Old Princeton, and Warfield are also sharply criticized by American church historians Mark Noll and George Marsden, who both follow the critical and Van Tilian party lines in assuming that Reid’s SCSR has rationalist tendencies which, they contend, are incompatible with Reformed orthodoxy (Riddlebarger, Lion of Princeton, 247-253).  Marsden contends that SCSR was simply not up to the challenge raised by Darwinians regarding what it was exactly that was entailed by primitive common sense beliefs (Marsden, “The Collapse of American Evangelical Academia,” in Plantinga and Wolterstorff, eds., Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God, 244).  Because Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield failed to realized this, Marsden and Noll conclude Old Princeton’s apologetic was severely, if unintentionally, handicapped by their failure to more closely follow Calvin and his true theological heirs, Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck–both of whom B. B. Warfield highly regarded, yet openly criticized for abandoning apologetics altogether.


"The Indulgence of the Flesh" -- Colossians 2:16-23

The Sixth in a Series of Sermons on Colossians

Paul’s letters usually contain two parts.  Generally speaking, the first half of his letters deal with the gospel as grounded in the doing and dying of Jesus, the benefits of which become ours only through faith in Jesus’s person (as Messiah and Son of God) and work (his obedience, death, and resurrection).  These God-given promises (i.e., the indicative mood) are spelled out as facts which believers must understand to be true, and then in which we trust (rely upon) as the basis for our justification before God and the gift of eternal life which flows from a not guilty verdict and our union with Christ.  The second half of Paul’s letters (usually) contain a series of commands or instruction which explain how those who embrace the gospel promises through faith, as explained in the first half of his letters, are now to live in light of their faith in Jesus (the imperative mood).  

Getting this distinction between indicative and imperative right and keeping it clear enables us to understand what is commonly known as the proper distinction between law (command) and gospel (promise).  We can also speak of this as the distinction between justification (being declared righteous before God) and sanctification (in which God conforms us to the image of Christ).  The gospel indicative is exactly what we found in our study of the first half of Colossians (1:1-2:15), which ends with the declaration “and you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”  The second half of Colossians (vv. 2:16-4:19), opens with the imperative in verse 16, “therefore let no one pass judgment on you,” letting us know that a series of commands and instructions are coming to all those whose sins have been forgiven through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

When we read Paul’s letter to the Colossians, we are reading Paul’s mail to a church in the Lycus Valley in Asia Minor–a region in southwestern Turkey with several new churches (in Colossae and Laodicea), but which were facing a serious challenge from a destructive heresy sweeping through the region.  Scholars have long debated both the source and the specifics of what is commonly identified as the “Colossian Heresy.”  From what Epaphras told Paul (Epaphras was likely one of the pastors of this new church, who had made his way to Rome, when Paul was imprisoned there), the Colossian heresy was very likely a Jewish heresy which orthodox Jews would have renounced with the same vigor that Christians also opposed it.  It is highly probable (although Paul does not say so) that an unnamed charismatic figure with a new teaching had caused much controversy and attracted many followers.  We know from Epaphras’ report and Paul’s response to it that practioners of this false religion were stirring up trouble for the new churches in the area.  Paul’s letter to the Colossians contains his instructions to the Colossian Christians as to how to respond.  

As we discover in this section of the epistle (the second half of chapter 2), the “Colossian heresy” emphasized participation in Jewish feasts (new moons and Sabbath observance) but to which was added the worship of angels–something which orthodox Jews would have thought blasphemous.  The law of God condemns the worship of any creature, only YHWH who is the true and living God.  This heretical teaching probably took the form of a religious mysticism (emphasizing personal experience) since its adherents worshiped invisible creatures (angels), sought visions, and practiced rigorous forms of self-denial, which, it was thought, made one ready and/or worthy for participation in this group’s various rituals.  Difficult rules keep out the hangers-on, and folks who are not really serious about spiritual things.  Based upon what Paul does tell us in his response, the “Colossian Heresy” is probably a combination of some local pagan religion (found in the Lycus Valley) mixed with traditional Jewish teaching, and would have been condemned by both Christians and Jews.

To read the rest of this sermon, Click Here


This Week at Christ Reformed Church (August 27-September 2)

Sunday Morning, September 2:  This coming Lord's Day we take up the Prophecy of Obadiah and his warning of a coming Day of the Lord.  Our text is the twenty-one verses of Obadiah.  Our worship service begins at 10:30 a.m.

Sunday Afternoon:  We are continuing with our series on the Belgic Confession.  This week we will address the subject of Christ's two natures.  Our catechism service begins @ 1:15 p.m.

Wednesday Night Bible Study:  Resumes on September 12.  

The Academy:  Resumes on September 28.

For more information on Christ Reformed Church you can always find us here (Christ Reformed Church), or on Facebook (Christ Reformed on Facebook).


"Despising His Words and Scoffing at His Prophets" -- 2 Chronicles 36:15–23

Here's the audio from this morning's sermon on those Minor Prophets who write after the exile.  Click Here


The Resurgence of Thomas Reid and "Common Sense" (Part Six)

The Decline of Scottish Common Sense Realism

Reid’s On-Going Influence and Resurgence

Reid and SCSR may have been relegated to the philosophical backwater by Kant’s Critique, but Reid’s influence never entirely abated, especially in America, where Reid was widely read and greatly appreciated.  Thomas Jefferson was glowing in his praise for Dugald Stewart, the Scottish philosopher who did much to popularize Reid and SCSR throughout the English-speaking world.  Several early United States Supreme Court cases make appeal to the “eminent Dr. Reid” when wrestling with the nature of facts and their interpretation.  Scottish-American philosopher and president of Princeton College, James McCosh (1811-1894) and Yale professor and president Noah Porter (1811-1892) maintained strong interest in Reid and SCSR since both were concerned about the “objectivity of truth,” especially in matters of moral philosophy.

Since Kant’s and Hegel’s philosophical systems never became mainstream in America (with several notable exceptions such as Josiah Royce), it was the uniquely American school of philosophy, Pragmatism, which ultimately displaced Reid’s SCSR in America.  Charles Sanders Pierce (1839-1914), the father of American pragmatism, agreed with Reid to a point, and argued that a universal common sense (as expressed by Reid) was worth recovering as a philosophical category, although Pierce thought common sense should be tied to experimental verification and the scientific method in the evolutionary sense of unfolding truth, and not grounded in first principles.  

Following Pierce, the emerging pragmatists understood that outcomes in philosophy and the sciences were directly tied to verifiable consequences, most notably experiential “cash value.”  William James (1842-1910), perhaps America’s most notable pragmatist, gave a well-received lecture on “Pragmatism and Common Sense” (James, Pragmatism, 63-75).  James argued that common sense was compatible with pragmatism because James believed that without any prior self-reflection on such matters people naturally tended to gravitate toward ideas and systems of thought which produced concrete results.  Since pragmatism is grounded in outcomes, there was little interest in anything like Reid’s first principles among the pragmatists.  Pragmatism may make appeal to “common sense,” but such an appeal is actually a negation of common sense as understood by Reid.  Yet, it was an easy intellectual move for Americans to give up SCSR for pragmatism, the nouveau cutting edge philosophy of the day.

Reid’s common sense was popularized on the Continent by French philosopher Victor Cousin (1792-1867) and was begrudgingly praised by Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), a moral philosopher in the utilitarian tradition and the Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge.  G. E. Moore (1873-1958) one of the founders of the analytic tradition, cites Reid throughout his works.  Reid’s work also had a significant influence upon American philosopher Roderick Chisholm (1916-1999) who trained a number of leading American philosophers, and who acknowledged that his own defense of common sense was indebted to Reid.  More than one philosopher (i.e., Lehrer, Wolterstorff) has noted that in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, Wittgenstein is addressing what he calls “our shared world picture” in a manner strikingly similar to Reid’s “common sense” but without making appeal to our nature (first principles).

Perhaps those who have done the most to rescue Reid from the irrelevance of the philosophical backwater, are the so-called “Reformed Epistemologists,” Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff.  Along with philosopher William Alston, they done much to rekindle current interest in Reid and SCSR, especially within the broader Reformed tradition.  Reformed epistemologists contend that belief in God is “properly basic.”  That is, it is rational to believe in God without any evidence or proof for doing so.  According to Plantinga, religious belief is grounded in what John Calvin identified as an innate human awareness of God’s existence (the so-called sensus divinitatis).

Looking for philosophical antecedents, Reformed Epistemologists make appeal to Reid’s notion that beliefs arise in us spontaneously because we are born with them.  These basic beliefs function like “common sense”–people believe in God without any prior reflection–but such simple belief can be further cultivated through instruction and maturation through the experiences of life.  We may not be able to give a reason for God’s existence, and any reasons we might offer to prove God’s existence, presuppose the very capability of reasoning with which we have been created by God.  For the Reformed Epistemologist, belief in God as properly basic functions as a first principle.  Such belief is rational (and therefore “warranted”) every bit as much as are our belief in the existence of other minds, or our memory of past events.

Reformed Critics of Reid


This Week at Christ Reformed Church (August 20-26)

Sunday Morning, August 26:  We are resuming our series on the Minor Prophets.  This coming Lord's Day we will be considering the historical context of those prophets whom God sends to Israel after the return from exile.  What changes with these prophets (Obadiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi)?  What did they say to Israel when the people return and rebuild their temple?  What do they say to us?  Our text is 2 Chronicles 36:15-23.  Our worship service begins at 10:30 a.m.

Sunday Afternoon:  We will return to our study of the Belgic Confession and are considering article 18, dealing with the Incarnation.  Our catechism service begins @ 1:15 p.m.

Wednesday Night Bible Study:  Resumes on September 12.  

The Academy:  Resumes on September 28.

For more information on Christ Reformed Church you can always find us here (Christ Reformed Church), or on Facebook (Christ Reformed on Facebook).


The Decline of Scottish Common Sense Realism (Part Five)

Thomas Reid's tombstone

Reid on Perception

The Decline of SCSR

Although more influential during his lifetime than was Hume, one question lurking throughout this discussion is why did Reid and SCSR fall into such relative obscurity so quickly if common sense is self-evident?  The obvious reason is that Reid’s Inquiry was completely overshadowed soon after its publication by Immanuel Kant’s ground-breaking Critique of Pure Reason (1781).  Reid’s philosophy of common sense (along with the Scottish school associated with him), was openly maligned by Kant, who did not read English.  Kant curtly labeled “common sense philosophy” as mere opinion.  It did not help that the notoriously poor translation of Reid’s work Kant had read erroneously translated “common sense” as “public rumor” (Robinson, How Is Nature Possible, 120, n. 6).

Kant dismissed any attempt to establish a rigorous systematic philosophy based upon the opinions of the unlearned masses utilizing something as crude as public rumor (i.e., public opinion).  Common sense had much in common, Kant noted, with the Popularphilosophie, as it was then known and taught in Germany.  Kant, who claimed to be troubled by his personal mania for systematizing, expressed open disdain for the popular philosophy then in vogue.  Kant was a vocal champion of the so-called Schulphilosophie (the philosophy of the schools–i.e., that of professional philosophers).  Kant complained that a philosophy like SCSR could be used by any “wind-bag” to confound even the most sophisticated philosopher–a point which actually works in Reid’s favor!  Kant’s criticism of SCSR boils down to the fact that common sense is not sophisticated, too simplistic, and amounts to nothing but a “herd mentality.”  This is a charge which has been repeated often by critics of SCSR since the days of Reid.  No doubt, such a back-handed dismissal by someone as influential as Kant pushed Reid and SCSR deep into philosophical backwater.

But as recent Kant scholarship has convincingly shown (i.e., Manfred Kuehn, Karl Ameriks, Daniel Robinson), Kant’s negative assessment of SCSR widely misses the mark.  Several of Kant’s proposals were actually quite similar to those previously advocated by Reid.  Many of Kant’s German contemporaries were greatly influenced by the Scottish philosophy and Reid in particular.  When pressed to explain how it was that the a priori categories of his “transcendental idealism” were necessary to explain human sense perception, Kant defaulted to “Mutterwitz,” i.e., to “mother nature” (Kant, Critique, A133-5/B172-4)–a notion virtually identical to that of Reid, who spoke of his first principles as coming from the “mint of nature,” i.e., from God who made us with such capacities  At the end of the day, Kant, quite ironically, ends up where Reid begins–we must utilize a priori categories because we are made this way.  But Kant has no explanation for “mother wit,” while Reid does.

Reid scholars have catalogued additional reasons for the diminished impact of SCSR after Reid’s death.  These include the fact that Reid’s philosophy came under withering attack from a significant English philosopher who came to prominence two generations later, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).  Mill was the chief proponent of utilitarianism, which held that moral philosophy must give due consideration to the “greater good” for individuals and society, and as such cannot be grounded in moral first principles as Reid insisted.  Mill complained that Reid’s appeal to intuition was just another way of promoting self-interest, not the common good.

Yet, another reason suggested for SCSR’s decline is that the compiler of Reid’s Works, Sir William Hamilton, ham-fistedly attempted to merge his own Kantian affinities with Reid’s SCSR, a matter compounded by the fact that Hamilton was not anywhere near the capable spokesman for SCSR that Reid was.  Finally, some have noted the Scottish Enlightenment simply had run its course, especially when Scottish Universities began to hire non-Reidian professors more inclined to utilitarianism, or the Continental philosophies of Kant and Hegel.  Wolterstorff attributes this, in part, to the rise of Hegel’s imprint upon modern philosophical development which left Reid behind under a wave of continental rationalists, British empiricists (Wolterstorff defends the notion that Reid was neither) and the Kantian-Hegelian synthesis (Wolterstorff, Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology, x).

No doubt, the chief reason for the decline of Reid’s prior wide influence was the triumph of Kant’s “transcendental idealism” over Reid’s “common sense.”

The Resurgence of Reid and Common Sense


Reid on Perception (Part Four)

Reid on "Common Sense"

Reid on “Perception” -- Reid v. Kant and Van Til (Round One)

Kant argued that what we perceive with our senses is not “the thing in itself,” since sense data must be mediated through our a priori categories.  We all may see the same object which exists independently of our minds.  Yet, our experience of that object is mediated through our a priori categories, determining the outcome of our sensations.  If I cannot be sure that what I and others see is the same thing, even if we are looking at the same object, does this not lead to some form of skepticism despite Kant’s objections to the contrary?  

Our understanding of perception is especially important to keep in mind when thinking about the contemporary debate over apologetic method between “evidentialists” (who make appeal to “facts” of Christianity as objective and “true”) and “presuppositionalists,” (who believe that our a priori categories, in this case, belief in the God of the Bible, are all-determinative to the knowing process, so that it is something like a fool’s errand to attempt to argue for the truth of Christianity merely using facts).  According to presuppositionalists, the best way to defend the faith is assume the truth of Christianity and challenge unbelievers on grounds of inconsistency, factual error, and personal prejudices.

The founder of the modern school of presuppositionalism, Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987) of Westminster Theological Seminary was “categorical” (pun intended) in his rejection of Kant’s absolute idealism and the latter’s distinction between noumenal and phenomenal realms (Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 103-115).  But Van Til was greatly influenced by two Dutch Reformed theologians of an earlier generation, Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) and Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), both of whom utilized Kant’s a priori categories to explain how it is that we as fallen humans prejudicially (and sinfully) interpret the world around us–especially in light of the biblical data regarding the damage done to the human intellect and will by Adam’s fall into sin.  

The traditional Reformed understanding of the effects of human sinfulness (including the so-called noetic effects of sin), when set forth through a priori categories such as Kant's, provided the ground for Abraham Kuyper to contend that the Fall completely effects the knowing process–so much so that Christians and non-Christians (through differing sets of a priori categories–one regenerate and one unregenerate) can properly be described as engaging in two kinds of science (note: you can insert any other human discipline here).  There is a regenerate way of pursuing science, grounded in regenerate a priori categories, and there is an unregenerate way of doing science, grounded in sinful a priori categories.  In this scheme, the gap between the way a Christian thinks and a non-Christian thinks amounts to a chasm.  Van Til agreed and went so far as to state, “to the extent that the two systems of interpretation are self consistently expressed it will be an all-out global war between them” (Van Til, “Introduction” in Warfield, Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, 24).

This is also reflected in Van Til’s oft-repeated comments to the effect that it is useless to appeal to common ground or “common notions” upon which Christians (regenerate) and non-Christians (unregenerate) can both agree.  God tells us (through Scripture) what things truly are and what they actually mean.  In sense, this is where the discussion begins and ends for a regenerate person with regenerate a priori categories–they think God’s thoughts after him, while non-Christians cannot.  This is why, according to Van Tilians, Christians should never appeal to non-Christians on the basis of facts supposedly held in common, when there cannot be any such thing.  Instead, Christian apologetics ought to challenge non-Christian presuppositions while making the case that the world cannot make sense apart from Christian presuppositions and regenerate a priories.  Christians and non-Christians will see the facts around them very differently (i.e., those things which occur in ordinary history in the external world in which we live)  As Van Til puts it, “the only `proof’ of the Christian position is that unless its truth is presupposed there is no possibility of proving anything at all.  The actual state of affairs as preached by Christianity is the necessary foundation of `proof’ itself” (Cornelius Van Til, My Credo, 21).

If true, this would be a vindication of Kant and present a serious challenge to Reid’s notion of first principles and common sense which make appeal not to regeneration and a priori categories, but to first principles and common sense which are universally held in common by believer and unbeliever alike even after Adam's fall.  Here, we see the fundamental divide between two approaches to Christian apologetics within Reformed circles, evidentialism and presuppositionalism.  There is good reason why someone like B. B. Warfield was thoroughly perplexed by Kuyper’s instance on two kinds of science (one regenerate, one not), along with with Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s depreciation of Christian evidences, such as Jesus’ resurrection, which make appeal to knowable and verifiable events of history (Warfield, “Review” of Bavinck’s De Zekherheid des Geloofs, 117).  Warfield followed Reid, while Kuyper, Bavinck, and Van Til, followed Kant.

For Van Til, there can be no such thing as a “brute fact,” or “uninterpreted" fact.  Van Til expressed great reservation about Reid’s view of perception in relation to facts.  “In the case of Scottish Realism there is, to say the least, an undue emphasis given to the attempt to establish a realism or independence of the object over against the subject” (Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 132).  In making this comment, Van Til openly sided with Kant over Reid. 

But Van Til seems to be of two minds when it comes to Kant’s handling of "facts."  While rejecting Kant’s system, Van Til clearly embraced Kant’s understanding of how we experience and know the external world–the subjective a priori categories are all-determinative.  Van Til claims Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” provides “a fully consistent presentation of one system of interpretation over against the other.  For the first time in history the stage is set for a head-on collision” (Van Til, “Introduction” Warfield, Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, 24).  If Kant is right about the necessity of a priori categories determining the meaning of sensations coming from the external world, then facts and their interpretation are indeed one thing.  With this notion, Van Til is in full agreement.  What a Christian sees as evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, a non-Christian may see as evidence of a mythological tale invented by Jesus’ followers.

Perhaps talk show host-psychologist Dr. Phil provides a helpful illustration when he quips “perception is reality.”  Dr. Phil says this of someone who is obviously misinterpreting and distorting reality.  Exposing such is presumably the reason why such a person is a guest on his program in the first place.  Dr. Phil has every hope, it seems, of convincing the troubled person that their misguided perception is not reality.  If such perceptions are indeed ultimate, there would be no possibility of any further useful discussion.  The only remaining option to provide any relief would be the prescribing of medication.  

The very possibility of exposing ill-conceived perceptions is one hint that Van Til’s notion of facts and their interpretation being one is not so air-tight after all.  What if Reid is right about how we perceive the world and that we must assume certain things to be true to even talk about the matter of how and why common sense works?  Reality grounds perception–or ought to.  For Reid, what is presupposed is not the entire content of the Christian faith, nor even the authority of Scripture–as it is for Van Til.  What is presupposed by Reid is that all people think in a common way, and are able to do so because God made them with the ability to do so.  Reid’s focus is on epistemological method grounded in human nature, not a priori categories or prior mental content.

So what does this have to do facts and their interpretation?  To my knowledge, Reid never addressed this matter as we are doing here.  Reid is not doing Christian apologetics, rather, he’s refuting Hume and writing before Kant.  But I do think Reid would be very comfortable affirming that within the context of human life, certain things are “self-evident.”  But facts are “self-evident” because they occur in a context–not as “brute facts.”  

An analogy might be useful to flesh this point out a bit further.  Consider the matter of interpreting facts as like attending a play.  Suppose you were to walk in mid-play, say during act 7, scene 2.  You witness a character speak, and then make an insulting gesture to another character.  You then immediately walk out of the play.  Even though you heard the words spoken and witnessed the gesture, you would have no idea of what the words or gesture means, nor why they were important to the story.  No "brute facts" here. 

But things are quite different if you watch the entire play.  To get some context, before attending the play you might read several reviews, and you may even have done some research on the playwright.  You also know in advance that some play-goers will interpret the characters or the story line differently than the playwright intended.  But the play–specifically act 7, scene 2–would make much more sense to you, once you who know who the character is, and why his insult figures so prominently in the plot line of the larger story.  You understand that you cannot infallibly interpret the play by reading the playwright’s notes, nor can you possibly understand why every character was present during particular scenes, or why they were given the particular lines they were.  Yet, you would not need to do so, nor would you ever expect to do so, to enjoy the play which unfolds scene by scene, one scene building upon another.  When you watch the play in its entirely, you can figure out what was going on, because you now have the context to understand what you saw in act 7, scene 2.  So it is with facts–they always occur in a context.

This context is what Reid’s notion of common sense provides us.  Facts never occur in isolation from other facts.  There is always a context for our experience of the external world.  In the case of Christ’s resurrection–the critical fact for any discussion of Christian apologetics–the context (i.e., the story line of the play) is the Old Testament’s prediction of the resurrection of the body at the end of the age, the Psalmist’s prophecy that the coming Messiah would not see decay, that his kingdom was everlasting, followed by Jesus’ appeal to the sign of Jonah when speaking on several occasions about how he would fulfill the predictions just mentioned.  

Those Jews and the Romans who opposed Jesus’ messianic claims certainly were not regenerate (at least not yet for some of them), but they understood full well what Jesus’ resurrection meant, even if they never came to faith in Jesus and even if they denied that the resurrection ever happened.  Granted, the Jews and Romans had vastly different presuppositions and interpretations of the resurrected Jesus than did Jesus’ followers post-resurrection.  But the resurrection still stands as the supreme fact of Christianity.  Rejection of Jesus’ resurrection as confirmation of his claims does not mean his resurrection never occurred.  There was still an empty tomb, and Jesus continued to appear to his followers.  The rejection of Jesus by unbelievers stemmed from sinful and willful prejudice (whether self-conscious or not)–what Paul describes as the suppression of truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18).
In this instance, we see the critical difference between Reid and Kant and how their differing understanding of perception impacts how we interpret “facts.”  How do we perceive the world around us?  Directly and spontaneously?  Or is our perception of the world ultimately determined by our a priori mental categories?  Or even through our sinful presuppositions?  Reid, Kant, and Van Til offer quite different answers to these vexing questions.

The Decline of SCSR


Thomas Reid on "Common Sense" (Part Three)

Part Two

Reid on “Common Sense”

For Reid, first principles and common sense are closely related.  In Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, Reid writes, “first principles, principles of common sense, common notions, [or] self-evident truths” are “no sooner understood than they are believed.  The judgment follows the apprehension of them necessarily, and both are equally the work of nature, and the result of our original powers” (Reid, Intellectual Powers, in Works of, 1:452).  Previously, Reid identified common sense as “necessary to all men for their being and preservation, and therefore it is unconditionally given to all men by the Author of Nature” (Reid, Intellectual Powers, in Works of, 1:412).

More specifically, common sense refers to “the consent of ages and nations, of the learned and unlearned, [which] ought to have great authority with regard to first principles, where every man is a competent judge” (Reid, Intellectual Powers, in Works of, 1:464).  Such principles are identified as common sense because they are common to humanity and held by all people across time and cultures.  Reid grounds his belief in common sense in an empirically justified generalization that this is the necessary state of affairs for humans to know anything–especially that the external world exists.  To put it simply; this is “common sense” because it is demonstrably common to all of humanity.  If all people see an object, and then universally assign the same qualities to that object, without any prior explanation or self-reflection required before doing so, this can only because their knowledge of that object is “true.”  All people instinctively think this way, unless convinced to doubt this knowledge by teachers of the ideal theory.  

While Reid argued common sense was virtually self-evident because universal (in this regard, Reid is a foundationalist of a sort), his critics then and now, attacked him at this very point by claiming his common sense philosophy was nothing more than an appeal to majority opinion–the “wisdom of the vulgar.”  If true, this chips away at the very idea of the supposed universality of Reid’s first principles.  If common sense is really nothing but popular opinion verified by counting noses, and by observing how the uneducated rabble make decisions, then such first principles amount to nothing of value in settling truth claims.  No philosopher worthy of the name would dare make such an appeal.  

But Reid anticipated this line of criticism and as a good Newtonian, made clear that his first principles were actually empirical and psychological observations, reflecting the way people actually think and interact with the world around them.  To give this point some teeth, at several places, Reid appeals to universal elements in the structure of human language (anticipating the later work of G. E. Moore and J. L. Austin).  Reid points out that all human language is built upon a distinction between the active and passive voice, and that all languages distinguish between the qualities of things, and the things themselves.  This goes a long way toward making Reid’s point.   

To put it another way, Reid’s first principles are not true because most people accept them.  Nor are they true because this is how the common man or woman expresses themselves when asked about how they know what they know.  Rather, people think and interact with the world as they do, precisely because this is how their creator has made them to think and act.  Reid, to my knowledge does not refer to the “divine image” while discussing these common sense capabilities–although he does speak of the divine image in humanity when discussing moral liberty, and conscience (Reid, Active Powers of Man, in Works of, II.564, 585, 615).  But are not the abilities given us by our creator something akin to humans reflecting the image of their creator?  We are born with the capacity to utilize these first principles without any self-reflection, or without being able to give any reasons for doing so.  This is how God made us, and is his way of enabling and equipping his creatures to live in the world which he has made.

Part Four


Forty Years Ago Today . . .

Micki and I were married forty years ago today.  It takes a truly remarkable woman to put up with me for all these years!

God has blessed us with good health, a happy marriage, a good life, many joys and few sorrows, and with two wonderful sons, Dave and Mark.  Our most recent family photo shows Micki and me with our son Dave (he's got the beard and is with his girlfriend, Nancy Robles), and Mark and his fiance, Brianna Lynch.

I am so very thankful!

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