How Thomas Reid Saved My Sanity

The World Was Made To Be Known And You Were Made To Know It

In 2007, I returned home after a few years at seminary thinking I knew the basics of apologetics and theology, so I decided to put my knowledge to use.  What I soon found out, however, was that I had bought into the narrative of postmodernity without realizing it.  No one denies that people operate with presuppositions, but because I had been reading texts in the “postmodern/Radical Orthodoxy” school, I unwittingly assumed that presuppositions = relativism.  To be sure, this did not mean “everything is relative.”  It was far more subtle than that. These authors were saying that our thoughts are always conditioned by some prior historical or cultural perspective.  That is true enough. What was unclear, and what I certainly failed to realize at the time, was whether I could trust my own rational faculties (i.e., the mind and the ability to reason and make inferences).

Postmodernism

With those foundations sufficiently eroded, or at the very least questioned, I began to experience attacks from two different flanks: high church claims to tradition and authority on one hand, and postmodernism on the other. The apparent problem, as pointed out by James K. A. Smith and others, is that knowledge is always conditioned by the knower.  We can never obtain a “God’s-eye perspective” on things. Rather, our knowledge is always knowledge within a specific community. The community conditions and shapes this knowledge. Because of this, we are told, we should trust the community’s wisdom on matters of faith. The questions I should have asked, and would only ask some years later, were: “Who exactly is claiming we need a God’s-eye perspective on things in order to have true knowledge?” and, “What is it about the community that guarantees its knowledge will be more reliable than mine?”

Communities Of Interpretation

I was then assailed by those belonging to high church traditions like Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.  On one level, their argument was the standard issued against sola scriptura: how do you know that your interpretation holds up against the weight of the church’s interpretation?  There was an even more radical version of that claim: without the Pope (or magisterium or liturgical tradition) to guide you, how can you be sure of what the Bible is saying? The response to this question illustrates why Thomas Reid’s “Common Sense Realism” is important for today. This essay will focus mainly on skepticism in general, but the main points could also apply to those in the religious world: we can trust how we read the Bible for the same reason we can trust our rational faculties.

Thomas Reid (1710–1796)

It is my contention that the epistemology (the theory of knowledge) of the 18th century Scottish philosopher, Thomas Reid, which is commonly called “Common Sense Realism,” (hereafter CSR) offers a foundation upon which the Reformed Christian may successfully defend truth claims and present the gospel in a clear manner. CSR is the belief that we are created by God in such a way that we can think and communicate rationally. We can trust our rational faculties. We can state the case even more forcefully: we cannot consistently live while mistrusting our rational faculties.

To prevent some misunderstanding, “common sense” does not refer to “that which everyone already believes.” It has more to do with how beliefs are formed than the content of said beliefs.  There are some beliefs, the knowledge of which carry with them a moral or intellectual commitment.  These beliefs are non-inferential.  In other words, we do not form these beliefs based on other beliefs.  They are already there. Justice is one example.  Although justice might be difficult to define, everyone has an immediate understanding of justice whenever they are treated unfairly.

A Dialogue

Reid explains it this way: all reasoning begins from first principles.  He notes, “For first principles no other reason can be given but this, that, by the constitution of our nature we are under a necessity of assenting to them.” The best way to illustrate this is by asserting the contrary.  Anyone who acts like their rational faculties are not trustworthy is themself using, indeed trusting, these faculties to make that assertion.  Another way to illustrate it is by the dialogue below between the Reformed Christian (R) and the Interpretive Community (I). Those who advocate communal interpretation have historically been Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. In recent years, Christians who have been influenced by certain forms of postmodernity have made similar claims.  The dialogue below can apply to either situation with minimal adjustment.

I: Unless you interpret the Bible within the framework of one’s community, in this case the church, you cannot make sense of your reading of Scripture.

R: It seems clear to me.

I: How can you be sure you are correct?

R: I do not have any reason to think I am not correct.

I: That seems kind of arrogant.

R: I do not think it is arrogant to say that unless someone can show flaws in my reasoning, I do not have any cause to think I am mistaken.

I: You are reducing God to reason?

R: No, I am approaching language, reason, and the Bible in the same way that you and I approach everyday life.  We are doing the same thing in this conversation.  We both assume that we can understand each other and that the laws of logic apply to our conversation.  If they did not, and if we could not trust our reason, then this conversation would be impossible.

I: Okay, but if you are correct, why do you need the church? 

R: While I assume that words have meaning and that reason is reliable, I still recognize that I am fallible and could be wrong.  Paul said the Holy Spirit gave His gifts to the whole church to aid and edify the body of Christ (Eph. 4).  He did not take gifts like reason away.  Unless you can show me where I have made a mistake in reason and language, I must presume that my way is reliable.  In fact, community or no, everyone thinks this way.

I: Everyone thinks like you?

R: No.  Everyone assumes, at least in ordinary situations, that words have meaning and that we can trust that meaning to inform our understanding.

I: Does this mean you are throwing tradition out of the window?

R: Even if I were to rely upon tradition, I would still have to use the same rational faculties and make the same assumptions that I do when reading the Bible myself.  Either way, it is a choice based on trusting my rational faculties.

In other words, as our fictional dialogue demonstrates, even if we were to make the community the interpretive grid through which we understand Scripture, we would still have to use the same tools we would otherwise use in interpreting Scripture ourselves.  We still must trust that our minds have access to reason and that we can make reliable inferences about what we read.  Moreover, and this is particularly damaging to the “interpretive community” approach, what is it about a community’s interpretation that guarantees it is the correct one?  It is not entirely clear.  For example, if community A has one interpretation and community B another, how are we to evaluate these claims? Yet again, any such evaluation will employ reason and private judgment, the latter being the very thing Protestants are attacked for using.

Conclusion

Standing on its own two feet, postmodern philosophy, at least in its purported Christian guise, is not that impressive.  Even by secular standards, those advocating various postmodern strategies are a few decades behind the times. Furthermore, Protestants have been confident in responding to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox claims to authority. When the two are combined, however, a new creature emerges. What I should have asked, and had I read Reid sooner I would have asked, is, why a community’s reading changes how my rational faculties approach the text.  In fact, I cannot even reject Reid’s approach if I do not trust my faculties. I came to this realization in 2012 after years of struggling through the fog of skepticism. It was like taking a stroll in the country on a spring morning. It might be going a bit too far to say that Thomas Reid reinforced my assurance of salvation, but he did strengthen it. And he certainly saved my sanity.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

  • Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology 3 volumes. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, reprint 2011. See especially volume 1.
  • Reid, Thomas. Inquiry and Essays, eds. Ronald E. Beanblossom and Keith Lehrer. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983.

Secondary Sources

©Jacob Aitken. All Rights Reserved.

RESOURCES

    Post authored by:

  • Jacob Aitken
    Author Image

    Jacob Aitken teaches junior high English in Monroe, LA. He is an elder-elect in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. He studied at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS and earned his M.A. at Louisiana College.

    More by Jacob Aitken ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


5 comments

  1. Not a ton “new”, but all arranged in a simple and easily tracked manner. Agree with the author that this tends to pull the rug out from under the interpretive crowd’s sola scriptura attacks. Thx.

    • Thanks, Reed. That is exactly where Thomas Reid helped me. There is some advanced material out there on Reid’s epistemology and how Alvin Plantinga used it, but that was a bit beyond the scale.

      I read Thomas Reid in conjunction with volume 1 of Charles Hodge, and that is where everything clicked for me.

    • Another example of this in the academic literature is reliabilism. Alvin Plantinga states the issue this way: Is it true that our perceptions (or rational faculties) are often misleading? But we should first ask, “How do we know that sense perception/reason sometimes deceives us?” Plantinga: “The conclusion that we were misled by our senses at t1 clearly involves several faculties: memory, induction…and sense perception itself” (Warrant and Proper Function 101).

  2. Sounds like we can throw out Hume’s “ought-is” distinction then. We can derive ought from is in alignment with nature and biblical ethics.

Comments are closed.