A connection between Locke and Aquinas regarding the limits of human perception and understanding

Locke states, “There is not so contemptible a plant or animal that does not confound the most enlarged understanding” (Essay Concerning Human Understanding Bk III, VI, 9).  Later he says, “how, vain… it is to expect demonstration and certainty in things not capable of it, and refuse assent to very rational propositions… because they cannot be made out so evident as to surmount every… pretense of doubting” (Essay Bk IV, XI, 10). Locke then establishes belief as a way to “supply our want of knowledge.” The grounds for believing which Locke gives, especially the second being “the testimony of others…” has implications regarding the intellectual defensibility of the Christian faith.

Aquinas wrote something regarding how the limits of our powers of perception and understanding ought to not result in skepticism of anything that cannot be demonstrated, especially in relation to the Christian faith. In the Prologue of his exposition of the Apostles’ Creed (https://dhspriory.org/thomas/english/Creed.htm) he answers the question “what is faith?” Aquinas says, “But someone will say that it is foolish to believe what is not seen, and that one should not believe in things that he cannot see. I answer by saying that the imperfect nature of our intellect takes away the basis of this difficulty. For if man of himself could in a perfect manner know all things visible and invisible, it would indeed be foolish to believe what he does not see. But our manner of knowing is so weak that no philosopher could perfectly investigate the nature of even one little fly.” Given our limited experience and understanding we must often “partake” in the knowledge of a knower. This involves a humble recognition of the limits of our experience and knowledge, and a willingness to be in a relationship of trust with our fellow human beings who have experience and knowledge which we have not. Ultimately, according to Aquinas and Locke, it must direct us to trust in God and his revelation.

F.D. Maurice “Note on the Athanasian Creed”

“I dare not ask myself who has committed the fearful sin, of ‘confounding the Persons and dividing the Substance,’ which it denounces. It may not be the man who has used the most confused and heretical forms of expression; it may not be the man who has even seemed to the Church to be most self-willed and refractory; it may be the man who is resting most contentedly in his orthodoxy; it may be myself. Nay, have I not a witness within, that every wrong act which I have done, or wrong thought which I have cherished, so far as it has diminished my sense of the distinction between truth and falsehood, right and wrong, has been of the nature of that sin which I describe by the words ‘Confounding the Persons,’ and has brought me into the danger of committing it; that every self-willed, unkind, schismatical act or thought has been of the nature of that sin which I describe by the words ‘Dividing the Substance,’ and has tended to bring me into it? For this creed takes me into another region altogether from that of words and names and forms of the intellect, though it makes use of those words and names and forms, for the sake of correcting the abuses which they have produced, and as signs which may show me my way to deeper truths and principles. It is my own fault if I stay in the outer region, and do not let the Church guide me into its inner circle; it is my own fault if I do not warn others, and warn myself, of the connexion between eternal truths and principles, and that ‘doing good’ or ‘doing evil’ to which, as the creed declares in its last articles , eternal life or punishment are appended. […]

I could not give up this creed without saying, that the meaning and principle of it belonged less to this time than to former times. Whereas, I believe, that they belong more to our time than to any time. For this, it seems to me, is the question which is in debate now. Are we to behold the unity which has its deepest and most real ground in that name of God which this creed speaks of, informing all society and all nature; or are we to see everything broken, divided, unharmonised; a dark form of self-love, embodied in some visible tyranny, above us, and a gulf of utter nothingness beneath us?”

Series Preface to the Brazos (SCM) Theological Commentary on the Bible

SCM Theological Commentary on the Bible
Series Preface
by R. R. Reno

Near the beginning of his treatise against Gnostic interpretations of the Bible, Against the Heresies, Irenaeus observes that Scripture is like a great mosaic depicting a handsome king. It is as if we were owners of a villa in Gaul who had ordered a mosaic from Rome. It arrives, and the beautifully colored tiles need to be taken out of their packaging and put into proper order according to the plan of the artist. The difficulty, of course, is that Scripture provides us with the individual pieces, but the order and sequence of various elements are not obvious. The Bible does not come with instructions that would allow interpreters to simply place verses, episodes, images, and parable in order as a worker might follow a schematic drawing in assembling the pieces to depict the handsome king. the mosaic must be puzzled out. This is precisely the work of scriptural interpretation.
Origen has his own image to express the difficulty of working out the proper approach to reading the Bible. When preparing to offer a commentary on the Psalms he tells of a tradition handed down to him by his Hebrew teacher:
The Hebrews said that the whole divinely inspired Scripture may be likened, because of its obscurity, to many locked rooms in our house. By each room is placed a key, but not the one that corresponds to it, so that the keys are scattered about beside the rooms, none of them matching the room by which it is placed. it is a difficult task to find the keys and match them to the rooms that they can open. We therefore know the Scriptures that are obscure only by taking the points of departure for understanding them from another place because they have their interpretive principle scattered among them.

As is the case for Irenaeus, scriptural interpretation is not purely local. The key in Genesis may best fit the door of Isaiah, which in turn opens up the meaning of Matthew. The mosaic must be put together with an eye toward the overall plan.
Irenaeus, Origen, and the great cloud of premodern biblical interpreters assumed that puzzling out the mosaic of Scripture must be a communal project. The Bible is vast, heterogeneous, full of confusing passages and obscure words, and difficult to understand. Only a fool would imagine that he or she could work out solutions alone. The way forward must rely upon a tradition of reading that Irenaeus reports has been passed on as the rule or canon of truth that functions as a confession of faith. “Anyone,” he says, “who keeps unchangeable in himself the rule of truth received through baptism will recognize the names and says and parables of the scriptures.” Modern scholars debate the content of the rule on which Irenaeus relies and commends, not the least because the terms and formulations Irenaeus himself uses shift and slide. Nonetheless, Irenaeus assumes that there is a body of apostolic doctrine sustained by a tradition of teaching in the church. This doctrine provides the clarifying principles that guide exegetical judgment toward a coherent overall reading of Scripture as a unified witness. Doctrine, then, is the schematic drawing that will allow the reader to organize the vast heterogeneity of words, images, and stories of the Bible into a readable, coherent whole. It is the rule that guides us toward the proper matching of keys to doors.

Continue reading “Series Preface to the Brazos (SCM) Theological Commentary on the Bible”

Evelyn Underhill on the Creed

“”Lord,” said St. Thomas Aquinas, “set my life in order; making me to know what I ought to do and do it in the way that I should.” The civilized world seems now to have reached the point at which only this prayer can save it; and the answer is already given us in the Christian creed. We talk much of reconstruction; but no one has yet dared to take the Christian’s profound beliefs about Reality as the basis of a reconditioned world. We treat them as dwellers in the plain treat the mountains. We lift up our eyes to their solemn beauty with respect; but refuse to acknowledge that plain and mountain are part of the same world. Yet the Creed is no mere academic document, no mere list of “dogmas.” It is an account of that which is; and every word it contains has a meaning at once universal, practical, and spiritual within the particular experience of each soul. It irradiates and harmonizes every level of our life, not one alone. All great spiritual literature does this to some extent; but the Creed, the condensed hand-list of those deep truths from which spiritual literature is built up, does it supremely. Continue reading “Evelyn Underhill on the Creed”

“Heaven” and the Ascension

“To understand it [heaven], let us skip all approximations and go straight to the point: Heaven is the intimate reserve of holy God, that which St. Paul calls the “light inaccessible” which he inhabits, unapproachable for any creature (I Tim. 6:16). When we meet a person in the street or in a room, he stand there openly before us. We can look at him, photograph him, describe him, and can often guess a good deal of what is going on inside him. Withal, he is more or less ‘public.’ On one point, however, he remains impenetrable: his attitude towards himself, his manner of answering for himself and his acts. For the most part, man is absorbed by corporal, psychological, sociological realities; in other words, by public things. But there are certain moments when he retires into a corner of his being that is closed to others–into his most personal self. No one can violate that privacy; if it is to be opened, then only by opening itself. This is what happens in love, when a person not only permits himself to be observed, not only speaks about himself, but gives himself in vital exchange. If the other accepts him, likewise opening the way to his most intimate self, desire the other more than himself, entering into pure contemplation and exchange, the the two intimacies unite in a single community open to both participants, but closed to everyone else. The greater and deeper the person and his experience, the less accessible this inmost realm will be. But what if it is not question of a person, but of God? God, the incommensurable, infinite, simple; essence of truth and holiness? His reserve is absolute. Nothing can even approach it. God is all light because he is Truth itself; all clarity, because nothing can overshadow him; he is the Lord, free and genuine Being to whom all that is belongs–yet inaccessible in his light, mysterious in his truth, invulnerable in his kingdom. This initmate reserve of God is heaven, ‘destination’ of the risen Lord–and not only of his spirit, but of the whole resurrected Lord in all his living reality” (Romano Guardini, The Lord, p 429).

Evelyn Underhill on the creed: “Crucified”

A Christian’s belief about reality is a wonderful blend of confidence and experience. On one hand it asks great faith in the inivisible world that enfolds us. On the other hand it includes and embraces the hardest facts of the actual life we know, and gives them a creative quality. It is a religion which leaves nothing out. After the great phrases in which the Creed tries to describe or suggest the eternal Divine Nature, and the mystery of that Infinite God disclosing Himself in and through His creatures—incarnate by the action of the Holy Spirit of Charity—it goes on to a series of plain statements about the life of Christ. He was born, a baby; made man; entered completely into our human situation. He was crucified at a particular moment in the history of a particular country, suffered, was buried, and rose again to a new quality of life. This sequence of facts, deliberately picked out as specially significant moments in the revelation of Divine Charity to us, is not merely a series of symbolic or spiritual events. These things, on their surface so well known—but in their deep significance and bearing on life so carefully ignored by us—happened in time and space to a real man, a real body; of flesh and nerve and bone, accessible to all the demands of our physical nature and all the humiliations of physical pain. To the world He merely appeared a local prophet of somewhat limited appeal; yet endowed with the strange power of healing and transforming all lives given into His hand. Having roused the hostility of official religion by His generous freedom of love, He was condemned by a combination of political cowardice and ecclesiastical malice to a barbarous and degrading death; and made of that death the supreme triumph of self-abandoned Charity.

Continue reading “Evelyn Underhill on the creed: “Crucified””