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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

‘Above Reason’: Its Meaning and Usefulness

Published Friday, April 22, 2022 By Jonathan S. Marko

I have always been interested in theological and philosophical notions that seemed to be out of reach of our current psychological and rational equipment. I, however, have always had a constant worry humming in the background whenever I thought about such things. Though rooting my thoughts in Scripture, my theologizing on the incomprehensible used to seem unruly. So, the first time I came across the categorization of propositions above, according to, and contrary to reason, I was captivated. They contained the rules for which I was looking. I soon realized that these categories were extensively in the theological and philosophical air, especially in the Enlightenment. I found that, contrary to the portrayal of this era as antagonistic to theological mysteries, it was enthralled with them. Many of its thinkers just wanted due consideration to the rules that ought to govern our discourse and thinking on these matters.[1]

Robert Boyle (1627–91), the early, noted Christian empiricist, was paradigmatic in this regard. In remarking upon the use of the term “above but not contrary to reason” to defend all sorts of theological mysteries, he says the following: “And indeed, as far as I can discern by the Authors wherein I have met with it, (for I pretend not to judge of any others,) there are divers [people] that employ this Distinction, few that have attempted to explain it, (and that I fear, not sufficiently) and none that has taken care to justifie it.”[2] Though not without its challenges, Boyle has one of the best taxonomies of propositions I have seen in my theological and philosophical explorations that attends to the important concern of Enlightenment-era theologians and philosophers in the era of High Orthodoxy—the time of Turretin, Owen, Charnock, and Van Mastricht—in the Reformed Churches.

In this brief article, I intend to do a few things. First, I want to lay out Boyle’s categorization of propositions. Second, I want to show some critiques and additions or clarifications to his taxonomy. Third, I want to index the implications and application of his taxonomy for theology.

Boyle’s Propositional Taxonomy

A proposition is simply an assertion. For instance, “The sun is yellow” and “All triangles have three sides” are propositions. They are not questions or commands. They are simply indicative statements. They can be true or false, likely or unlikely, and so on.

Boyle focuses on his above reason category and the reader is left to ponder and parse the according to reason and contrary to reason categories for him or her-self. Arguably, for Boyle, according to reason propositions are ones that we are able to discover on our own, without divine revelation. Arguably, contrary to reason propositions are comprised of ones that are simply false and logical contradictions. “God is one person and God is three persons” is a statement or statements that create a logical contradiction if one intends “person” in the same sense in both assertions. 1+1=3 (in base-10 mathematics) is contrary to reason. It equates to the illogical statement that 2 and 3 are the same. “No human knows how to read,” if intended to be taken literally, is simply false.

Above reason things or propositions are those that we would not have discovered on our own had God not revealed them to us through his special revelation. But of those, there are propositions that are (sufficiently) comprehensible and those that are incomprehensible (though not contradictions) once revealed. The idea that one-third of the angels fell is undiscoverable without God’s gift of Scripture but it is comprehensible. The doctrine of the Trinity is incomprehensible. But his distinctions do not stop there. He divides the incomprehensible propositions into three categories. First, there are propositions that are not easily picturable or conceivable in and of themselves. Divine eternity is such an example. We cannot conceive of existence without temporal succession. There are propositions where one cannot conceive of how a particular action is done. How Jesus turned water into wine is an example. One can picture the event but while having no real idea about its supernatural causation. Finally, there are multiple propositions which we know are true but cannot be represented by a stand-alone idea such that all propositions are simultaneously analogized. A great example of this would be the doctrine of the holy Trinity: there is only one God; God is three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; each person is fully God; the Father eternally generates the Son; and, the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son. All these propositions are unable to be simultaneously represented to the same degree by a single metaphor.

There are a couple of significant take-aways that warrant repeating. First, above reason does not necessarily mean incomprehensible in Boyle and others of the era. For some it does, but not for everyone. Second, incomprehensible doctrines and contrary to reason are different. One of Boyle’s critics, John Norris (1657–1712), pointed out that we should not say that contrary to reason things are incomprehensible but rather they are simply non-sense and we know them to be incorrect. For instance, 1+1=3 is contrary to reason, but we can picture how it is completely fallacious. Not so regarding the doctrine of the holy Trinity. While the doctrine of the holy Trinity is not comprehensible, it is not non-sense. One other important point, but not as important as the two just mentioned, is that there are plenty of incomprehensible things in the naturally discoverable or according to reason category. I would maintain that how an immaterial soul moves a material body is an example. Or perhaps the very notion of infinity.

Critiques and Additions

Boyle’s treatment of propositions was not the only one available. He was one of a small number of thinkers who treated the topic directly. With some intense reading and study, one can infer an implicit taxonomy of propositions in other thinkers. Norris, noted above, thought that anything not comprehensible—regardless of whether it was necessarily divinely revealed or not—should be considered as “above reason.” Thus, philosophical conundrums such as metaphysical liberty or freedom, which is, arguably, naturally and rightly concluded, would be considered as being according to reason under Boyle’s taxonomy but above reason in that of some others.

Though not responding to Boyle in particular, but perhaps the tradition of the categorization of propositions, Boyer and Hall, authors of The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable (2012), refer to revelational mysteries that are incomprehensible as “facultative mysteries.” Framing theological mysteries as being such because they are beyond our faculties is perhaps less open to confusion than asserting that they are above or beyond reason, since reason has a range of different senses depending on the thinker. Revelational facultative mysteries closely approximates, if not completely coincides with, what Boyle intended with his incomprehensible revelational doctrines group. And, as a point of clarification, Boyle meant right reason, or reason at its best, in the categories. Similarly, Boyer’s and Hall’s use of “facultative” intends human faculties at their best (assuming we lost no faculties during the fall but rather they all incurred damage).

One challenge to Boyle’s presentation of his taxonomy is that he does not give a full-blown one. For instance, according to reason would have parallel divisions to the above reason category. That is, according to reason has propositions that are comprehensible and ones that are incomprehensible. Incomprehensible according to reason propositions would have the same sub-categories as well. Infinity is not fully comprehensible. If one thinks that the body-soul distinction and metaphysical liberty in light of God’s foreordination are naturally discoverable, then the question how the soul moves the body and the seeming mental incompatibility between God’s foreordination and human agency are incomprehensible but according to reason. These three examples are incomprehensible in different fashions: singular (e.g., infinity), how something is done (e.g., immaterial soul moving the material body); and irreconcilable true statements (e.g., human liberty and God’s foreordination). These parallel the incomprehensible above reason sub-categories.

Applications

As I have remarked elsewhere, I do appreciate Boyle’s categories. First, separating “contradictions” from incomprehensible things is important. Contradictions are incomprehensible only because they are non-sense. Incomprehensible things are such because they surpass our facultative abilities. That is a huge and grave distinction. Second, I appreciate the distinctions Boyle employs since they help pinpoint the precise aspect of a doctrine that is mysterious. That is, no doctrines that we label mysteries are wholly such. If they were, we would be able to envision nothing about them. And that is clearly not the case. There are particular aspects of doctrines that are mysterious in that they cannot be mentally conceived of or reconciled with another aspect of the same doctrine.

For instance, the doctrine of the Trinity is such an important doctrine and is admitted to be mysterious or incomprehensible by all orthodox believers. God being singular is not mysterious, considered alone. God being three persons is not mysterious, considered alone. The Father being fully God is not mysterious. The Son being fully God is not mysterious. The Holy Spirit being fully God is not mysterious. Even eternal generation of the Son and eternal procession of the Holy Spirit are mysterious to our ever-modeling minds simply when it comes to the term “eternal.” But otherwise, they are fairly envisionable. The true point of mystery is the inability to reconcile the various propositions above into a singular mental model that appropriately analogizes each proposition. It cannot be done in the case of the Holy Trinity.

The advantage of training oneself to identify the precise type of mystery, whether revelational or natural is this: it keeps us, at the very least, from mental laziness. The Trinity, for instance, is not something simply to put aside as a mystery and not to think about. There are many important implications one can glean from reflecting on the various strands of the doctrine. (Even His incomprehensibility puts us in our place when we are prideful!) Utilizing the taxonomy does force us to order our thinking as well. Are we thinking in the realm of the incomprehensible or are we producing what are truly contradictions? The former is acceptable in theologizing and philosophizing, but the latter is not.

Jonathan S. Marko is Associate Professor of Philosophical and Systematic Theology and Dean of Undergraduate Education at Cornerstone University, Grand Rapids, MI. He earned his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. His primary area of research is 17th- and 18th-century philosophy and theology. His most recent book, on the theology of John Locke, will be published by Oxford University Press next year.


[1] This article contains many reflections found in: Jonathan S. Marko, “Supplementing Contemporary Treatments of Doctrinal Mysteries with Largely Forgotten Voices from the Enlightenment,” Trinity Journal 39, no. 1 (2018): 23‒42; Jonathan S. Marko, “Above Reason Propositions and Contradiction in the Religious Thought of Robert Boyle,” Forum Philosophicum 19, no. 2 (2014): 227–39; “Reason and Revelation in Early Modern Protestantism,” Encyclopedia of Early Modern Philosophy and Sciences, ed. by Dana Jalobeanu & Charles T. Wolfe (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2020), published online & forthcoming in print.

[2] Robert Boyle, Reflections upon a Theological Distinction. According to Which, ‘Tis Said, That Some Articles of Faith Are Above Reason but Not Against Reason. In a Letter to a Friend (London: printed by Edw. Jones for John Taylor, 1690), 2. This was published along with Boyle’s The Christian Virtuoso: Robert Boyle, The Christian Virtuoso: Shewing, That by Being Addicted to Experimental Philosophy, a Man Is Rather Assisted, than Indisposed, to Be a Good Christian. The First Part. (London: printed by Edw. Jones for John Taylor, 1690).


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