and How God May Be Known (1)
Rev H M Cartwright
Thomas Halyburton was born in 1674, the son of George Halyburton, who was minister of Aberdalgie and Dupplin in Perthshire from 1657 until he was evicted from his charge in 1662 for his adherence to the Covenanted religion of Scotland. In 1676 George Halyburton was denounced by the Privy Council for keeping conventicles and was effectively silenced, and in 1682 he died. Mrs Halyburton and her two surviving children her married daughter Janet and her son Thomas fled to Rotterdam for a time, to escape the persecution of the Covenanters. In the changed circumstances brought about by the Revolution, Thomas was ordained and inducted to the ministry of the gospel at Ceres in Fife on 1 May 1700. In April 1710 he was installed as Professor of Divinity in the new college, St Andrews, and on 23 September 1712 he died. A struggle with ill health characterised most of his ministry.
Although Halyburton lived 300 years ago and his public ministry covered only 12 years in total, mostly in comparative obscurity, he has been regarded as one of the most significant of Scottish theologians. Hugh Martin described Halyburton and Cunningham as “the two greatest theologians that Scotland has ever produced” and John Duncan regarded him as “a minor John Owen”, in the same category as Hermann Witsius. One of the unresolved questions of history is what effect he might have had upon theological development in the eighteenth-century Church of Scotland had his life been prolonged beyond its 38 years and particularly how he might have influenced the controversy in the Church of Scotland which came to a head over the theology of The Marrow of Modern Divinity. But he served his own generation according to the will of God for ten years in a country parish and for two years in a theological hall, and what remains of his autobiographical, literary and pulpit work has been of much benefit to many who have had access to it throughout the centuries since.
How God may be known was the concern at the heart of Halyburtons own spiritual experience, as can be seen from the Memoirs (of which a nice edition was published by Reformation Heritage Books in 1996). This was also the concern with which he grappled as a theologian and an apologist for biblical Christianity, especially against the Deists. His main work on this subject is found in Natural Religion Insufficient and Revealed Necessary to Mans Happiness in His Present State and in An Essay Concerning the Nature of Faith; or, The Ground upon which Faith Assents to the Scriptures.2 What Archibald Alexander says of Halyburtons account of his spiritual experience in general suggests that we may find benefit in considering what he has to say on this theme in particular: it was written “when his judgment was fully matured”.
Two basic assumptions underlie what Thomas Halyburton has to say on how God, who has revealed Himself in Christ, may be known. The first is that God may be known. The second is that the knowledge of God is the heart of true religion it is life eternal. “Nothing is more plain than this”, writes Halyburton, “that religion is founded upon the knowledge of the Deity, and that our regard for Him will be answerable to the knowledge we have of Him. . . . Religion then in general may be justly said to import that veneration, respect or regard which is due from the rational creature in his whole course of life to the supreme supereminently excellent Being, his creator, preserver, lord or governor, and benefactor. . . . A blind devotion that is begotten and maintained either by profound ignorance of God, or confused notions of Him, answers neither mans nature, which is rational and requires that he proceed in all his actions, especially those of most moment, rationally that is, with knowledge and willingness nor will it obtain acceptance as that which answers his duty, whereby he is obliged to serve God with the best and in the highest way his faculties admit him. . . . To conceive of God in the general, that He is the best and greatest of beings, is not enough. . . . We may mistake in other things without sin; but to frame wrong and other conceptions of God and His excellencies than the truth of the thing requires is dangerous and sinful, for it frames an idol.”
We begin by looking at the question of how God may be known, as Halyburton wrestled with it in his own spiritual experience and as he confronted it in the writings of those who advocated a natural theology and religion. Then we consider the answer to which he was led by his study of the Bible and his own experience of the power of the truth. In conclusion we briefly suggest some implications of the answer. In each case we let Halyburton speak for himself as much as possible.
1a. The question of how God may be known as Halyburton wrestled with it in his own spiritual experience.
Halyburton was well acquainted with biblical truth from his youth. Although not converted until shortly before he was licensed to preach the gospel, he was intellectually hesitant to question the existence of God as the Bible reveals Him. Indeed, he put much effort into trying to maintain his belief in Gods existence. He tells us that the Lord suffered him not to yield but made him “dread and recoil at the terrible conclusions aimed at by those arguings” against the being of God. He went through strong temptations on the subject however, and was honest enough to refuse to seek licence to preach as long as he was uncertain of the being of God. He was convinced that it would be misery for a man to preach to others what he did not believe himself.
His temptation regarding the existence of God began almost as soon as he became concerned about spiritual things. Initially his temptation was that he did not have sufficient evidence for a truth on which so much depended. Later he was bombarded with arguments against the truth. It was his view that in his study of metaphysics and natural theology he became so intrigued with some of the “subtle notions” he met with that “Satan, in conjunction with the natural atheism of [his] heart, took occasion” to shake his belief in the being of God. Arguments over deism which he had as a young man led him to the kind of reading and reasoning which left him unsure. He was pressed between, on the one hand, an inability flatly to deny the being of God which he thought he owed to conscience, confirmed by his religious education, his hearing of the Word and perhaps some common work of the Spirit and, on the other hand, the atheism of his carnal mind which, he says, was “strengthened by Satans fiery darts”.
As his belief in the existence of God was shaken by reasoning he endeavoured by his own reasonings and by studying the reasonings of others to argue himself into belief. He bought and read books on the subject. The various “proofs” for the existence of God gave only temporary relief, for they left no satisfying impression of the God whose existence they demonstrated and were not able to overcome all the objections. Rational arguments for the being of God did not enlighten his mind with any satisfying notions and discoveries of the God whom he says they obliged him to own as existent and so his mind was not quieted. The devil tempted him that he did not need to expect confirmation of Gods existence when many more able men after all their researches had rejected it. He noted: “I hereby learned the danger and vanity of reasoning with Satan. When I began to answer him with my own reasonings, he had still great advantage”. He sometimes wished for visions and voices to persuade him. When God did not answer his prayer “for a discovery of God Himself” the devil assured him that this was evidence that God did not exist, for “surely, if there was a God, He would help one that was standing up for Him in such straits”.
The question of how God may be known was not merely theoretical to Halyburton, but a matter of life and death. He learned that the major difficulty in the way of a soul coming to know God is atheism, and that no reasoning can destroy the atheism of fallen man, who says in his heart, “No God”, whatever evidence may be presented to him, however rationally or eloquently or even biblically. Years later he was to note “that the great difficulty which the whole of divine revelation grapples with is atheism; and that its struggle is to recover man to his first impressions of God. This point comprehends the whole of mans recovery, as atheism the whole of mans apostasy”. He was convinced that “every sin has atheism in it”, and his own experience taught him the reality, power and evil of this atheism in fallen human nature.
1b. The question of how God may be known as Halyburton confronted it in the writings of those who advocated a natural theology and religion.
To some extent his interaction as a young man with those of Deist persuasion contributed to his perplexity over the being of God. His experience of that perplexity in turn contributed to his concern to expose the fallacy of the Deist position. The Deists contended that all that needs to be known of God can be discovered by human reason in the light of nature without special revelation. We are not so much concerned with the knowledge which they professed to have as with how they claimed to obtain it, but we notice in passing the five articles of natural religion which the Deists asserted were innate ideas or ascertained by human reason and common to all religions: “(1.) That there is one supreme God. (2.) That He is to be worshipped. (3.) That virtue is the principal part of his worship. (4.) That we must repent of our sins. (5.) That there are rewards and punishments both in this life and that which is to come.” These, as Colin Brown states in Christianity and Western Thought, vol 1, “served as a kind of launching pad to attack religion based on revelation. . . . The attack on revealed religion in the name of reason, morality and historical truth was the central theme of Deism.”
In effect the Deists were claiming that the God of the Bible did not exist or that His existence could not be known. The God whom they professed to discover by reason was very far removed from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. They described a God who was, in effect, nothing other than an ultimate cause. The end product of their reasoning was evidence enough of the inadequacy of reason to search out God. It was natural that the building of religion upon reason rather than revelation led to further scepticism. Men like David Hume “employed reason to demonstrate [reasons] own ineffectiveness” in providing certainty regarding the being of God3, leaving many with nothing more than the probability that some kind of supreme intelligence existed behind the design of the universe. Although Deism as a system was restricted in its support and duration, its ideas gained currency and promoted materialism and the exclusion of the supernatural.
Halyburton accepts that “all the world, in all ages, has been possessed of some notion of a God, of some power above them, on whom more or less they did depend, and to whom on this account some respect is due”. He quotes Romans 1:19,20 in support. He acknowledges that “man has a conscience that sometimes drags the greatest and most obstinate offenders to its tribunal in their own hearts”. He admits that by the light of nature men know the fundamental laws necessary for government, order and society. He puts these things down to remaining tradition amongst the heathen and some capacity to make use of the light of nature. But, with the Epistle to the Romans, he insists that, while what may be called the light of nature is “sufficient to justify God in punishing sinners”, it is not sufficient to lead them to the knowledge of the true God so as to engage them to trust Him and pray to Him and love Him and obey Him. It cannot lead to a worship of God which is assuredly according to His will and pleasure. It cannot lead to that wherein mans happiness lies. It cannot show the way to obtain pardon, or even give assurance that there is such a thing as pardon. It cannot eradicate our inclinations to sin or subdue its power. He concludes that, “after all their painful endeavours, we find them groping in the dark as to useful and necessary knowledge of God, or the way of worshipping Him; [or] of ourselves, our happiness, our sins, the way of obtaining pardon, our duty, our corruption”.
The Deists said all that could be said, and more, regarding the function of reason in bringing man to the knowledge of God and yet left the question of how God may be known without a satisfactory answer, demonstrating that man by searching cannot find out God. Indeed, Halyburton concluded that no people “are more credulous, nor have less reason on their side, than they who set up for rational religion”.
Is it by the exercise of human reason or by faith in divine revelation that one comes to know God? That, in all its various forms, is the question.