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Authors Eric Parker Natural Law Nota Bene

Reason is “the Candle of the Lord”

The Puritan Nathaniel Culverwell (1619-1651), like many of those who graced the walls of the various colleges at Cambridge in the mid-17th century, elegantly defends the rationality of faith. He expounds upon the relationship between faith and reason in his An Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature (1652),1 in which he affirms that reason, the “Candle of the Lord,”2 is capable of delighting in and submitting itself to the propositions revealed by a superior intellect.3

The soul ’tis tost with passion, but it anchors upon Reason. This gentlenesse and quietnesse of Reason doth never commend it self more then in its agreeing and complying with faith, in not opposing those high and transcendent mysteries that are above its own reach and capacity; nay it had alwayes so much humility and modesty, waiting and attending upon it, that it would alwayes submit and subordinate it self to all such divine revelations as were above its own sphere. Though it could not grasp them, though it could not pierce into them; yet it ever resolv’d with all gratitude to admire them, to bow its head, and to adore them. One light does not oppose another; Lumen fidei & Lumen rationis [the light of faith and the light of reason], may shine both together though with farre different brightnesse; the Candle of the Lord, ’tis not impatient of a superiour light, ‘twould both ferre parem & priorem [endure an equal and a superior]. The light of the Sun that indeed is Lumen Monarchicum, a supreme and sovereign light, that with its golden Scepter rules all created sparkles, and makes them subject and obedient to the Lord and rule of light. Created intellectuals depend upon the brightnesse of Gods beams, and are subordinate to them, Angelical Star-light is but Lumen Aristocraticum, it borrows and derives its glory from a more vast and majestical light. As they differ from one another in glory, so al of them infinitly differ from the Sun in glory.4

Culverwell acknowledges that the light of reason is insufficient when left to itself, separated from its source:

Yet ’tis far above the Lumen Democraticum, that light which appears unto the sons of men, ’tis above their lamps & Torches, poor and contemptible lights, if left to themselves; for do but imagine such a thing as this, that this external and corporeal world should be adjudg’d never to see the Sun more, never to see one Star more. If God should shut all the windows of heaven, and spread out nothing but clouds and curtains, and allow it nothing but the light of a Candle, how would the world look like a Cyclops with its eye put out? ‘Tis now but an obscure prison with a few grates to look out at; but what would it be then, but a capacious grave, but a nethermost dungeon? yet this were a more grateful shade, a pleasanter and more comely darknesse, then for a soul to be condemned to the solitary light of its own Lamp, so as not to have any supernatural irradiations from its God. Reason does not refuse any auxiliary beams, it joyes in the company of its fellow-Lamp, it delights in the presence of an intellectual Sun, which will so far favour it, as that ’twill advance it, and nourish it, and educate it; ’twill encrease it,, and inflame it, and will by no means put it out. A Candle neither can nor will put out the Sun, & an intellectual Sun, can, but will not put out the Lamp. The light of Reason doth no more prejudice the light of faith, then the light of a Candle doth extinguish the light of a Star. The same eye of a soul may look sometimes upon a Lamp, and sometimes upon a Star; one while upon a first principle, another while upon a revealed truth, as hereafter it shall alwayes look upon the Sun and see God face to face; Grace doth not come to pluck up nature as a weed, to root out the essences of men; but it comes to graft spirituals upon morals, that so by their mutual supplies and intercourse they may produce most noble and generous fruit.5

Culverwell explains in more detail what it means for faith to be “above reason.” It does not mean that faith is a mere addition to reason, as if reason supplies its own perfection, as if reason, once perfected, requires a sort of super-perfection in faith. Rather, he explains, reason and faith have a reciprocal relationship:

This holy Spirit of God creates in the soul a grace answerable to these transcendent objects, you cannot but know the name of it, ’tis called Faith, Supernaturalis forma fidet [a supernatural form of faith], as Mirandula the younger6 stiles it, which closes and complies with every word that drops from the voice or pen of a Deity, and which facilitates the soul to assent to revealed truths; So as that with a heavenly inclination, with a delightful propension it moves to them as to a centre. Reason cannot more delight in a common notion or a demonstration, then Faith does in revealed truth. As the Unity of a Godhead is demonstrable and clear to the eye of Reason, so the Trinity of persons, that is, three glorious relations in one God is as certain to an eye of Faith. ‘Tis as certain to this eye of Faith that Christ is truly God, as it was visible to an eye both of Sense and Reason that he is truly man. Faith spies out the resurrection of the body; as Reason sees the immortality of the soul.7

Lastly, Culverwell delineates the limits of reason:

I know there are some Authors of great worth and learning, that endeavour to maintain this Opinion, that revealed truths, though they could not be found by reason, yet when they are once revealed, that Reason can then evince them and demonstrate them: But I much rather incline to the determinations of Aquinas, and multitudes of others that are of the same judgement, that humane Reason when it has stretcht it self to the uttermost, is not at all proportion’d to them, but at the best can give only some faint illustrations, some weak adumbrations of them. They were never against Reason, they were alwayes above Reason. ‘Twill be employment enough, and ’twill be a noble employment too, for Reason to redeeme and vindicate them from those thornes and difficulties, with which some subtle ones have vext them and encompast them. ‘Twill be honour enough for Reason to shew that Faith does not oppose Reason; and this it may shew, it must shew this; for else οἱ ἔπί, those that are within the inclosure of the Church will never rest satisfied.8

  1. See the online version of this text here: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/culverwell-an-elegant-and-learned-discourse-of-the-light-of-nature.
  2. This metaphor derives from Proverbs 20:27, “The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord.”
  3. It is worth noting that Culverwell, like other Reformed divines, speaks of reason here in abstracto and affirms the noetic affects of sin and the necessity of grace earlier in this work.
  4. Nathanael Culverwel, An elegant and learned discourse of the light of nature, (London: T.R. and E.M. for John Rothwell, 1652), 167.
  5. Ibid., 168.
  6. The reference here is to Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola, the nephew of the famous Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.
  7. Ibid., 174.
  8. Ibid., 175.

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.