Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Faith and Understanding
By William Chillingworth (16021644)
From The Religion of Protestants a Safe Way to Salvation
THE THIRD condition you require to faith is, that our assent to Divine truths should not only be unknown and unevident by any human discourse, but that absolutely also it should be obscure in itself, and, ordinarily speaking, be void even of supernatural evidence. Which words must have a very favourable construction, or they will not be sense. For who can make anything of these words, taken properly, that faith must be an unknown, unevident assent, or an assent absolutely obscure? I had always thought that known and unknown, obscure and evident, had been affections not of our assent, but the object of it; not of our belief, but the thing believed. For well may we assent to a thing unknown, obscure, or unevident; but that our assent itself should be called therefore unknown or obscure, seems to me as great an impropriety, as if I should say, your sight were green or blue, because you see something that is so. In other places, therefore, I answer your words, but here I must answer your meaning; which I conceive to be, that it is necessary to faith that the objects of it, the points which we believe, should not be so evidently certain, as to necessitate our understanding to an assent, that so there might be some merit in faith, as you love to speak (who will not receive, no, not from God himself, but a pennyworth for a penny), but as we, some obedience in it, which can hardly have place where there is no possibility of disobedience; as there is not, where the understanding does all, and the will nothing. Now, seeing the religion of Protestants, though it be much more credible than yours, yet is not pretended to have the absolute evidence of sense or demonstration; therefore I might let this doctrine pass without exception, for any prejudice that can redound to us by it. But yet I must not forbear to tell you, that your discourse proves indeed this condition requisite to the merit, but yet not to the essence of faith; without it faith were not an act of obedience, but yet faith may be faith without it; and this you must confess, unless you will say either the apostles believed not the whole Gospel which they preached, or that they were not eye-witnesses of a great part of it; unless you will question St. John for saying, That which we have seen with our eyes, and which our hands have handled, etc., declare we unto you; nay, our Saviour himself for saying, Thomas, because thou seest, thou believest; blessed are they which have not seen, and yet have believed. Yet, if you will say, that in respect of the things which they saw, the apostles assent was not pure and proper and mere faith, but somewhat more, an assent containing faith, but superadding to it, I will not contend with you, for it will be a contention about words. But then again I must crave leave to tell you, that the requiring this condition is, in my judgment a plain revocation of the former. For had you made the matter of faith either naturally or supernaturally evident, it might have been a fitly attempered and duly proportioned object for an absolute certainty natural or supernatural, but requiring as you do, that faith should be an absolute knowledge of a thing not absolutely known, an infallible certainty of a thing, which though it is in itself, yet is not made to us to appear to be, infallibly certain, to my understanding you speak impossibilities. And truly for one of your religion to do so, is but a good decorum. For the matter and object of your faith being so full of contradictions, a contradictious faith may very well become a contradictious religion. Your faith, therefore, if you please to have it so, let it be a free, necessitated, certain, uncertain, evident, obscure, prudent and foolish, natural and supernatural, unnatural assent. But they which are unwilling to believe nonsense themselves, or persuade others to do so, it is but reason they should make the faith, wherewith they believe, an intelligible, compossible, consistent thing, and not define it by repugnances. Now nothing is more repugnant, than that a man should be required to give most certain credit unto that which cannot be made to appear most certainly credible; and if it appear to him to be so, then it is not obscure that it is so. For if you speak of an acquired rational, discursive faith, certainly these reasons, which make the object seem credible, must be the cause of it; and consequently the strength and firmity of my assent must rise and fall, together with the apparent credibility of the object. If you speak of a supernatural infused faith, then you either suppose it infused by the former means, and then that which was said before must be said again; for whatsoever effect is wrought merely by means, must bear proportion to, and cannot exceed, the virtue of the means by which it is wrought. As nothing by water can be made more cold than water, nor by fire more hot than fire, nor by honey more sweet than honey, nor by gall more bitter than gall: or if you will suppose it infused without means, then that power which infuseth into the understanding assent, which bears analogy to sight in the eye, must also infuse evidence, that is, visibility into the object: and look what degree of assent is infused into the understanding, at least, the same degree of evidence must be infused into the object. And for you to require a strength of credit beyond the appearance of the objects credibility, is all one as if you should require me to go ten mile an hour upon a horse that will go but five; to discern a man certainly through a mist or cloud, that makes him not certainly discernible; to hear a sound more clearly than it is audible; to understand a thing more fully than it is intelligible: and he that doth so, I may well expect that his next injunction will be, that I must see something that is invisible, hear something inaudible, understand something that is wholly unintelligible. For he that demands ten of me, knowing I have but five, does in effect as if he demanded five, knowing that I have none: and by like reason, you requiring that I should see things further than they are visible, require I should see something invisible; and in requiring that I believe something more firmly than it is made to me evidently credible, you require in effect that I believe something which appears to me incredible, and while it does so. I deny not but that I am bound to believe the truth of many texts of Scripture, the sense whereof is to me obscure, and to human understandings incomprehensible; but then it is to be observed, that not the sense of such texts, nor the manner of these things, is that which I am bound to believe, but the truth of them. But that I should believe the truth of anything, the truth whereof cannot be made evident with an evidence proportionable to the degree of faith required of me, this I say for any man to be bound to do is unjust and unreasonable, because to do it is impossible.