- Bryn Blake
Illuminating mind and soul
A review of Kirsten Birkett's, 'And The Light Shineth In Darkness: Faith, Reason and Knowledge in the Reformation.'
The late Dr. R.C. Sproul once lamented that one of the chief evils besetting the professing church in our age is a fundamental lack of understanding both the ineffable holiness of God and of our own radical fallenness as humans. These twin truths were foundational to for Reformers, the Puritans and, refreshingly, also for Dr. Kirsten Birkett in her brief survey for the Latimer Trust of the epistemologies found in the works of Martin Luther and John Calvin. In her introduction, Birkett perspicaciously identifies the fundamental problem which confronts any attempt to construct a Biblically faithful theory of knowledge: “[t]he Bible describes a fallen world and a fallen humanity in which minds are darkened” by sin and depravity. “If minds are fallen, how can we expect to know anything accurately?” Does taking seriously the Bible’s testimony about the extent of the human race’s depravity necessarily entail throwing oneself into a kind of epistemological limbo, wherein a heart “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9) cannot even be trusted to give an accurate impression of the world around us, or of factual knowledge recorded about it? Indeed, the re-emergence of a clear doctrine of total depravity at the start of the Reformation could only sharpen the contours of this problem.
It must be said at this stage that Birkett’s ability to communicate weighty concepts clearly in relatively few words is much to be prized, particularly given the unfortunate post-Barthian tendency in academic theology to bury even fairly simple thoughts beneath page after page of self-important word salad. Certainly, this volume’s achievement in distilling coherent epistemologies from Calvin’s Institutes and Luther’s broader published corpus and in presenting them in a digestible form, along with a concise introductory summary of Classical and Medieval Scholastic theories of knowledge, is considerable.
Birkett’s discussion of Luther begins with the astute observation that he is perceived by many as not so much sceptical of the powers of the human mind and its capacity to reach sound conclusions as crudely dismissive of them, a “boorish” irrationalist. Birkett demonstrates that, to the contrary, Luther was perfectly happy to concede that many forms of genuine knowledge were within reach of the natural mind: the past could be understood by reading history, and the workings of nature through empirical observation. His hostility was instead reserved for the idea that religious truth could be deduced by human reason. The mind of a sinful man, darkened by the Fall, could only reach false conclusions about God and the universe. Conversely, however, if through conversion a man’s mind was “illuminated by the Holy Spirit”, reason could prove an “excellent instrument” to aid his understanding of the Scriptures and the world around him. Birkett is thus able to discredit the straw Luther often smugly presented on atheistic blogs across the web, establishing through proper contextualisation of his statements on noetic matters that he was hostile to rationalism, not reason, to fetishised scientism, not empirical enquiry, and to attempts to derive a theology from philosophical considerations, rather than to the discipline of philosophy itself. This achievement alone would make the volume worthwhile.
A different tack is employed in setting out Calvin’s epistemology, with Birkett choosing to emphasise the strong Augustinian roots of his thought in this department. In common with Luther, both Augustine and Calvin were very much concerned with the limitations placed upon the human intellect by the Fall, these being such that even the most intelligent of men could never reason his way to a satisfactory knowledge of God and religion, but at the same time did not denigrate reason itself as a faculty. Indeed, Calvin contended that it was perfectly possible for the human mind to excel in the “manual and liberal arts”, and to know many fine truths regarding these “inferior things” thanks to God’s great goodness and beneficence to all of His creation. Birkett does well in her presentation of these accounts to avoid giving the impression that either divine addressed the matter of epistemology more systematically than they actually did, and likewise adroitly draws out the differences between their two approaches, rather than collapsing them into one description. Nevertheless, the picture which emerges by the end of the study is one of similarity: both Luther and Calvin’s epistemologies are profoundly theocentric. In Birkett’s own words: “God speaks, and so we can know”.
Of course, all this is not to say that there is no room for improvement. While Birkett’s opening pages do introduce the epistemologies of Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas, an opportunity is missed to indicate to the reader the degree to which the scholastic philosophy which derived from Aristotle, and of which Aquinas was history’s most significant advocate held hegemony over Europe’s intellectual life before the Reformation. Similarly, when addressing Augustine and Calvin’s responses to the challenges of the ancient sceptics, it would have been useful to note the modern revival in scepticism which took place roughly contemporaneously to Calvin’s ministry, particularly among the French ‘New Pyrhonnians’, although I readily accept that space for such discussion is limited in a publication of this nature. There are also a handful of typographical errors scattered through the text. Nevertheless, these are quibbles, and on the whole Dr. Birkett’s study here is admirably informative about a heretofore neglected area of Reformation thought, while remaining very much digestible for the average reader. Displaying the author’s multifarious competencies, this is work of clear value, and as a result, is heartily recommended.