Mather - "A Man of Reason" / Edwards - "A Supernatural Light"

Mather - "A Man of Reason" / Edwards - "A Supernatural Light"

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Cotton Mather (1663-1728) and Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) were prominent New England ministers whose shared religious background helps illuminate the tension between reason and inspiration or ‘enthusiasm’ that would eventually lead to the Great Awakening. In these two sermons preached less than twenty years apart, we see a subtle shift in emphasis on the subject of human reason and its role in religion, and, subsequently, on the relationship of the church to the broader society.

Mather is responding to what he sees as the “host of unreasonable things” threatening to undermine the good order of society; he thus begins by arguing that reason is the innate—and unique—capacity of mankind to recognize certain universal truths, whether in science or morality. From this initial proposition, he argues both that reason can provide man with certain basic religious insights, and that since to be unreasonable is to be unhuman, all men have a duty to act in accordance with reason, both in civil and religious matters. Although Mather is careful to assert that there are things that must be taken on faith as “above reason,” he nevertheless seems fully confident that his listeners can reason their way toward faith, as the final paragraph makes clear.

Edwards, on the other hand, puts much less confidence in human reason. Although he recognizes and respects man’s natural capacity for reason as both a divine gift and a means by which men can acquire knowledge of God’s nature and God’s purposes for mankind (note the subtitle, with its appeal to reason), he argues strenuously that this alone is insufficient. In much the same way that we cannot fully appreciate the sweetness of honey until we taste it, he asserts that men cannot truly experience faith until they receive the “divine light” of inspiration. Since this is an entirely internal and individual experience, it is unsurprising that Edwards only vaguely addresses the outward manifestations of faith.

A Man of Reason

A Brief ESSAY to Demonstrate That all MEN should hearken to REASON and What a World of EVIL would be prevented of the World, if Men would once come so REASONABLE (Boston: 1718)

Cotton Mather

Hear now my REASONING.

— Job 13:6

They were wise men, and they were good men, whom the afflicted Job has to do withal; and they were men of reason too. But it was a very sensible part of his affliction that they dealt unreasonably with him. He does accordingly take pains to convince them of their unreasonableness. His discourse is introduced with this preface; “Hear now my Reasoning.” The word signifies a reasonable demonstration; such a demonstration as ought to be brought by a man, that would hope[fully] convince another man; an irrefragable, an unanswerable argument. . . . I conclude, every man, will pay so much homage to reason, as to grant me my doctrine, with which I do now again come upon you;

That he that would approve himself a Reasonable Man, must hearken to Reason.

That we may prosecute this doctrine to some effect, we may first settle the matter, in two self-evident propositions.

  1. There is a reasonable spirit in man, and the inspiration of the Almighty has given him an understanding; and there are certain principles of reason, which every man does naturally and ordinarily bring with him into the world.

There is in every man an admirable spirit. In that spirit, there is a faculty called reason. ’Tis that faculty which is called the Spirit of Man, which is the Candle of the Lord (Prov. 20:27). By the light of this precious and wondrous candle it is, that we discern the connection and relation of things to one another. There are certain ideas imprinted on the Spirit of Man, by the GOD, who Forms the Spirit of Man within him. It is an Irrational, as well as an unscriptural opinion, that we have no ideas in our minds, but what are introduced from abroad, by observation. There are a rich clutter of ideas which we are born withal, and which are only awakened, and brought into exercise by observation. The ideas which I mean, are those, which we call, the principles of reason. According to these principles, the reason of men, does pronounce on things that are plainly brought unto it. Reason proceeds according to these common and innate principles, in passing a judgment on what is plainly laid before it. Reason judges of what is mathematically true or false. But this is not all; it judges as often, and as clearly, what is morally good, or what is morally evil; what is right and what is wrong, in morality too. Indeed, there are very many, who do not actually discern, what is morally good or evil, right or wrong; but so there are many, who do not actually discern mathematical truth from falsehood.

There is a foolish and cursed opinion, which has taken root, in a debauched generation of men; who pretend indeed that they magnify reason…but they go really to extinguish reason, and chase it out of the world. The opinion is, that nothing is good or evil, right or wrong, antecedent unto the compact of humane society upon it: That all the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, lies in the agreement of humane society thereupon. These wicked Sons of the Leviathan do confute themselves. For they themselves must own, that antecedently unto all compact, it is good and right, that a compact should be kept; it is evil and wrong to break a compact, else they say nothing…. In brief; there is an eternal difference between good and evil; between right and wrong. ’Tis constituted by GOD: GOD has inwrought those principles in the reasonable spirit of man, which will necessitate him to acknowledge this difference, when it is evidently set before him.

  1. There is all possible reason (excuse the pleonasm of the expression) why every man should hearken to reason, or do nothing against the principles of reason. There are many principles of reason; But, I take this to be the very first of them; that a man ought to act according to them….

First; The man who does not hearken to reason, does rebel against the glorious GOD, which has placed man under the guidance of reason…. We have to do with GOD, as often as we have right reason calling upon us…. And I will now say, we never transgress any law of reason, but we do at the same time, transgress the law of GOD…. The voice of reason, is the voice of GOD. GOD speaks, as often as reason and wisdom utters its voice. GOD who has furnished us with reason, has required us, to be obedient unto the dictates of reason. To man, He says, Let reason be thy Guide; never go against thy well-enlightened reason. We have received this order from GOD our maker: Show your selves men (Isaiah 46:8). That is to say, act reasonably; do like reasonable men….

Secondly. The man who does not hearken to reason, is very unthankful to GOD, for endowing, enriching, ennobling of him with reason…. Reason, ’tis a noble thing; It makes man a noble creature. It is the glory of man; it is the glorious Image of GOD upon him. Reason, ’tis that wherein we excel the beasts of the field. Thou, reason, dwellest with prudence; and thou findest out the knowledge of witty inventions; counsel is thine, and sound wisdom and strength. By thee, man is able to rule over other men, as well as over the beasts of the earth: Thou art the sword in the hand of all the judges of the Earth… . To do unreasonably is to do most unthankfully. When a Man will not hearken to reason, he despises the particular advantage of mankind….

Thirdly. The Man who does not hearken to Reason, does the part of a brute, yea, he does worse than a brute, that is destitute of Reason. We read of brutish men; and of those who are as brute beasts (Jude 10): Men, who are far as they can, quite the order of men, and rank themselves with brutes[1]….

Fourthly, There is a conscience in the case. The man that will not hearken to reason, goes against the light of his conscience. There is a conscience in man, which commends unto him, what is reasonable; which condemns him to suffer the vengeance of GOD, if he do that which is not reasonable. We read, Rom. 2:15: There is the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness. What is conscience, but, reason submitting to the judgment of GOD? When a man will not hearken to reason, he is one of those, who (Job 24:13) rebel against the light. The conscience of man, forewarns him, and assures him, of a punishment reserved in another world….

The reason of my speaking these things is, that I may come out the better armed for the expedition which I am now to make, against a host of unreasonable things, which are every day doing among us…. There are certain maxims of reason, which I am now to set before you. But they shall be every one of them, glorious maxims of religion….

First. Hear now my reasoning: We are to distinguish between what is against reason and what is above reason. We must not call a thing unreasonable, merely because unto us, it is incomprehensible. We must not so hearken to reason, as to make an idol of reason: or to admit nothing at a revelation from GOD, but what we can fathom, with our little reason.…read, “Canst thou by searching find out GOD? Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection?” (Job. 11:7). Even so; canst thou by searching find out the mysteries in the religion of GOD? Canst thou find out the great mysteries of godliness unto perfection? It must not be pretended unto!

This reason will do. It will demonstrate it unto us, that the Scriptures are the Word of GOD, & the Book of Truth. If you will hearken to reason, you must confess, that writings full of such holiness, and wisdom, and grandeur, and exquisite contrivance and Heavenly Intention, as compose our Bible, must needs be of divine original. But there are many things in the Scriptures which are, above reason. Our shallow reason must not be set up, as the measure of what is to be received, as a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation. Faith, faith is here to interpose. Reason, stand thou by, with an humble reverence, an awful silence. In the Scriptures, there is nothing against reason, tho’ there be some things above reason.

It must also be remembered, that by our fall from GOD, the strength of reason is much impaired in us; the eye of reason is darkened, is depraved, is miserably wounded. We are prone to take some things, as according to reason, which are not so. If then there be any thing prescribed in the Sacred Scriptures, which our carnal reason, may be ready to cavil at, say not, I can’t see reason for this…. But if there be Scripture for any thing, lay this down for a maxim, there is reason for it. Perhaps we can’t see the reason: but reason says, the Scripture is a revelation from GOD: And reason says, what GOD has revealed must be reasonable. But then also, vain man, do not imagine, that thy light within, or the light of reason, is a sufficient guide without the Scripture, to bring thee unto salvation: much more, to make a Christ, and a God of that light, it is a dangerous idolatry. We must hearken to right reason: but beware, lest we ascribe too much, to our own broken faculties.

Secondly. Hear now my reasoning, there is a Golden Rule of reason, which well-applied, would wonderfully rectify the conversation of mankind: Even that rule, for a man to do unto others, as he would own it reasonable for others to do unto him…. Yea; but it is a rule engraved by the hand of GOD, upon the reason of mankind. There is no reasonable man, but what will fall down before this rule, and say, ’tis an excellent rule! Happy, happy would the world be, if this rule might bear rule in the world. You may as easily bring a man to own this rule, as to own that three and four make seven. And the man that will say, ’tis unjust for another man to do so and so unto me, but it is not unjust…to do the same unto him,… prove himself as great a sot, as he that shall say, three and four make seven, but four and three won’t do so….

Thirdly, Hear now my reasoning. It stands to reason, that…. If a thing be decried as a folly, or a baseness, in a man of another party, ’tis but reason, that it should be decried in one of our own party too…. If sinners of an inferior quality must be punished for their misdemeanors, ’tis but reason, that the bigger sort of sinners also should not pass unpunished. There is no reason, for laws to be cobwebs, only to catch the little flies, and let the greater birds break through them.

Fourthly. Hear now my reasoning. It is but reason, that a man should not be condemned, without any hearing of what may be pleaded for him…. It is not the manner of the reasonable, to condemn a man as a criminal, without first hearing, or knowing, what may be said in his defense. If this one demand of reason might be hearkened unto, what would become of the defamations, with which we commonly keep wounding one another!

Fifthly. Hear now my reasoning: Methinks, ’tis no more than reason that men should curb their passion, and not let that usurp the place of reason. If men are of a boisterous, raging, raving (I will not say, temper, but rather) distemper, there is little of reason to be expected in their doings. The bridle of reason is cast off, and passion, headstrong passion, will precipitate them, into very unreasonable exorbitances and enormities….

Lastly. Behold, an engine, to batter all impiety! Hear now my reasoning. It is from a prodigious hardness of heart, if men will not be reasoned out of all impiety. Of all ungodly men, we read, Psalm 14:4: They have no knowledge; they act, as if they had no reason in them. We may strike all impiety, with the lightning of reason as well as with the thunder of Scripture…. There are certain principles of religion, which must be acknowledged by the reason of all men, as much as any principles of the Mathematics. A reasonable creature, you may compel him to acknowledge, that two and two make four; or, that a square is double to a triangle, of equal base and height. The proportions in Arithmetic and Geometry, he must needs acknowledge them. You may as easily compel him, to acknowledge, that there is a GOD, who must be adored and obeyed: you may compel him, to acknowledge, that he ought not to offer unto his neighbor, anything which if he himself were in the state of that neighbor, he would count an injury. Now, upon transgressions on these two points, there turns all the wickedness of the world.

I must then arraign all wickedness before the bar of reason…. My hearers; you are dying; you are dying; you will die speedily; you may die suddenly…. You make ready for death, by repenting of all sin, and renouncing all your sinful vanities; by embracing of the Great GOD, for your GOD, His CHRIST for your complete and only Redeemer; by resolving upon a life of serious PIETY. Till you are thus made ready, you are every day in a danger, wherein a reasonable man would not sleep a night, for a thousand worlds! Awake, O Reason, awake! And Oh! That men would reasonably consider, that they are a dying, and what they would choose and wish, when they come to die…. Hear now my reasoning. Something should be done about the matter, effectually done, and immediately done. I beseech you, delay not the doing of it….

  1. 1. Mather is not quoting Jude 10 exactly in this reference, but rather giving an interpretive gloss on the text for the purposes of illustrating his own point.
  2. 2. An application of the doctrine of the sermon to the practical circumstances of life.
  3. 3. See footnote 2.