Chapter III:8: Is Clear and Distinct Perception Necessary for the Knowledge of God?

The rule concerning not admitting anything before Clear and Distinct Perception, and concerning every true thing, which has been thus perceived, has a bad ring to it in Theology. This rule, understood concerning the very Theological Matters revealed in Scripture, is held both by the Socinians, see above, Chapter II, § 40; and by the Remonstrants, who, with the Most Illustrious HEIDANUS[1] attributing it to and complaining against Episcopius,[2] in Matters of faith weigh all things by one’s own perception, as a Lydian stone; they deny that things are able to be revealed by God, and hence they will all things to be rejected that sound human Reason discovers to be false, and averse to the wisdom, goodness, equity, and righteousness of God or men; and who actually make their Perception the measure of things, although it is fitting that these things be the measure of our Perception: see HEIDANUS’ de Causa Dei, book V, chapter XI, pages 774-781, in comparison with book I, chapter I. Whence these Socinianizers have a ready exception, that they do not clearly and distinctly perceive the mysteries of the faith to be thus revealed in Sacred Scripture, as they are explained by us; hence they have just cause to withhold their assent to the same.

But in the Philosophy of Descartes it is also a well-worn rule, that Everything that I clearly and distinctly perceive is true: see DESCARTES’ Meditation III, de prima Philosophia, page 15: and since this Clear and Distinct Perception is a rule for Descartes, a norm and a measure of truth, he also very regularly instructs that there is to be no judgment except of things clearly and distinctly perceived. And by these axioms, with the Most Illustrious WITTICH[3] as judge in his Theologia pacifica, chapter III, § 25, he uncovers the universal fount both of all error, and of all certainty, that by this alone are we able to obtain certain and indubitable truth, if we withhold assent from those things that we do not clearly and distinctly perceive, but on the contrary give assent to those things that have been clearly and distinctly understood by us: which thing is judged by Wittich as so great that we might never be able to give thanks sufficiently worthy of the divine providence, that it suggested these thoughts to that Man (Descartes). The axioms that were held to be of such moment in searching out truth and guarding against error had to be applied by the disciples of Descartes to Theological matters also, on account of which in the past century they soon began to be regarded poorly. In the meantime, the Most illustrious WITTICH tried to soften somewhat that crude thesis, that Clear and Distinct Perception is also the Measure of truth in matters of faith, when in Theologia pacifica, chapter III, § 29, he advises that in divine matters that rest upon Revelation alone, of which sort are the mystery of the Trinity, of the Incarnation, etc., which are impervious to the light of reason, Clear and Distinct Perception of that Matter is not required, to which we are going to give assent, just as in Philosophical matters: yet in these Theological matters no Certainty obtains either, except Clear and Distinct Perception of the Revelation precede. And so here he desires that alone, that we assent not, nor receive anything with divine faith, except what we have clearly and distinctly perceived as revealed by God. Which assertion of Wittich, also borrowed from Descartes, HEIDANUS defends in his Consideratien, etc., pages 71-74.

But Experimental Physicists, who most recently after Descartes have become more illustrious than other Philosophers, observe that a Clear and Distinct Idea is a κριτήριον/criterion of truth, not in the treatment of real Entities, but in theoretical or Ideal Mathematics/ Science: but, when we wish to conclude anything concerning the actually existing Things themselves, those very Things are for us the norm of truth, and Experience is indeed the most certain κριτήριον/criterion of truth; which, if received by others before us, also makes way for Faith here: compare NIEUWENTYT’S[4] Gronden van Zekerheid, part I, chapter VI, part II, chapters XI, XX-XXII. But in matters spiritual and Religious the Sacred Scripture, revealed by God, is for us the sole norm of truth, and we recognize by Faith that the matters revealed there are true, with spiritual Experience agreeing in many things.

But what the Most Illustrious WITTICH professes is acceptable, that Clear and Distinct Perception ought not to be extended to the very Matters that rest upon divine Revelation alone; yet as he acknowledges, that this canon in its first origin is grasped in Philosophical Matters; and as the Judgment following Perception here also is referred to the Matters; while Wittich asserts that Descartes shows that We are certainly going to obtain the truth in those Judgment that we form concerning things perceived clearly and distinctly. And indeed it is altogether certain that we in a state of grace are not able to perceive the Mysteries of Religion clearly and distinctly, on account of the present blindness of our eyes, the sublimity of divine Mysteries, and the want of such copious light.

If indeed a Clear Idea is to be said to be the Sign of Truth, a representation of the matter accommodated to capacity is not sufficient: for thus the divine Attributes, which in God are only one, we represent to ourselves as many in a manner accommodated to our capacity; but from an Idea of this sort considered in itself we are able to conclude nothing real outside of our mind. But a Clear Idea represents to the mind the matter to be understood as it is in itself in a manner accommodated to capacity in such a way that it makes a vivid impression upon it; but for this is required a symmetry between the matter to be perceived and the mind perceiving; for if the Matter to be perceived surpasses capacity, the keenness of the mind in the contemplation of it is darkened and blunted, no less than the eye, if it wishes to contemplate the sun, is darkened by the too great clarity of the solar light.

It is a Distinct Perception, which exhibits the individual predicates of a matter as they are in the thing itself, without mixture either of other things that belong not to this but to another thing, or of the very things that are in this thing. But, if Perception shall distinctly represent to us the individual predicates of a thing, it ought at the same time to be full and adequate; otherwise it will be a Distinct Perception, not of the thing, but only of some part of the thing.

Whence it is sufficiently apparent that a Clear and Distinct Perception of the most sublime Mysteries of Religion is here expected by us in vain, while in the next life also we will be compelled to admit concerning many things, The knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, and I do not have the ability for it, Psalm 139:6; while in this life additionally, ἐκ μέρους γινώσκομεν, καὶ ἐκ μέρους προφητεύομεν, we know in part, and we prophesy in part.

Moreover, if with WITTICH you should wish to apply this rule in Theological Matters to the Perception of Revelation, “so that there is no certainty in Religion, there is to be no assent to any matter, nor embrace of anything with divine faith, except what We Perceive Clearly and Distinctly to have been revealed by God:”

1. It is to be considered, whether thus sufficient attention is given to a Conscience Doubting in moral matters, which in a certain case of Conscience indeed draws a conclusion with probability, that action is to be taken in this or that manner from the revealed will of God; yet it does not Clearly and Distinctly perceive that it has thus been revealed. But what is to be done or concluded in this sort of case of an anxious Conscience, if assent is to be withheld for so long a time, until you achieve a Clear and Distinct Perception of the matter? compare MARESIUS’[5] Positiones theologicas de Conscientia, § XIII, in Sylloge Disputationum, part II, pages 304, 305.

2. The Most Illustrious SPANHEIM in his Epistola de novissimis in Belgio Dissidiis, pages 101-103, observes that “in these most recent times Maresius and the other Zelanders did not stumble over this suggestion of Wittich, concerning withholding assent from all things, even those to be received by divine faith, which one has not perceived by a clear and distinct perception as the measure of all assent, namely, that thus they were revealed by God: while by that perception they hardly think to be understood the perception of faith, and the supernatural light of the Holy Spirit.” He certainly does not want revealed Matters to be received with divine Faith, unless we have previously perceived Clearly and Distinctly that the same have been revealed: but in the case of this Clear and Distinct Perception, which ought to precede, Wittich makes no more mention there of the Illumination of the Holy Spirit as requisite for that, beyond which DESCARTES in Responsionibus ad Objectionem Secundam, makes mention of the Light of divine grace as requisite for assent in matters of faith: compare VAN MASTRICHT’S Gangrænam Novitatum Cartesianarum, section II, chapter III, § 29, 30, pages 194-198. Should divine Faith of revealed Matters be suspended then upon human Judgment, which solely follows Clear and Distinct Perception of Revelation made be God? This is certainly an amazing analysis of divine Faith, which ought to rest upon a divine foundation, not a human. Nay, it is a very slippery foundation, since I often suppose that I am understanding a matter, when with a vivid imagination I represent that to myself, which representation, nevertheless, when subsequently compared with the thing itself, is found to be completely false, and to have no other foundation except the Imagination contrived by the mind. In a word we say that human Perception is not the foundation of Faith, but the Word of God revealed in Sacred Scripture. But, that it has been revealed by God, and what is revealed by God in it, we apprehend by the perception of Faith, by the Holy Spirit as teacher illuminating our intellect and opening our heart.

3. And finally whether among the diverse followers that subtle distinction concerning Clear and Distinct Perception of a revealed Matter not being required, but of the Revelation alone, does not pass into smoke and wind, which distinction could appear so contrived to affect a sham: while those Philosophers in addition arrogate to themselves the Judgment concerning the very Matters revealed, or concerning the observation of the connection between Subject and Predicate, who, if with words taken in their proper signification it appears to fight with the Clear and Distinct Perception that they imagine for themselves, at will assign another improper sense either to the Subject or to the Predicate. That is, as that Most Beloved Grandson of the Most Illustrious RÖELLIUS[6] wrote, this stands firm, that either the Scripture is not Revelation, or it does not disagree with Reason. But who shall judge of the agreement or disagreement of Scripture with Reason? That sublime Reason of the Philosophers, who measure all things by their own Clear and Distinct Perception. He proceeds, Wherefore those Theologians that, being unprepared with Reasons, call Scripture to their aid do little justice to themselves and their craft…. For…who would be so mad that he, so that he might be a Christian, would be willing to be made a Beast, that is, to abjure all Reason? They would certainly better devote their labor in those passages of Scripture in reconciling with Reason what things appear to be at odds with it, rather in accommodating, or rather twisting, those things to their superstition and prejudices: see Judicium Ecclesiasticum laudatum, chapter II, § 5. Hence those tears! Hence BEKKER[7] from the second Cartesian principium concerning the nature and operation of Spirits, not being able Clearly and Distinctly to Perceive the operations of Devils upon men, came to the denial of the same; and he, judging according to the same Clear and Distinct Perception concerning divine Revelation, supposed that it, when it speaks of the operation of demons, ought to be understood completely improperly and figuratively, whether with respect to those demons that are mentioned, or with respect to the operations that are ascribed to them. And thus all that establish their own Perception as the measure of truth regard it as necessary to deny the power of the god of this world in blinding the sense of men, lest they should have something to fear from him, which on that account was also treated by Spinoza:[8] see LEYDEKKER’S Dissertationem contra Bekkerum, section XI, chapter XXI, pages 183, 184.

From the same principium, concerning not admitting what you have not Perceived Clearly and Distinctly, flowed RÖELLIUS’ denial of the proper, divine Generation of the Son of God, which is asserted so Clearly in Scripture, in the Mysteries of which sort Wittich affirmed that Clear and Distinct Perception was not able to have a place: see RÖELLIUS’ Dissertationem theologicam de Generatione Filii, etc., § VI, page 11, “Of this Generation, properly so called, that involved no imperfection, no one to this point either has anything himself or is able to give anything to others, much less a Clear and Distinct Concept.” Again, § XLVI, page 48, “It would be especially unjust to require from me that I believe this Generation properly so called, a concept of which no one either has himself, or is able to give to me. If other be of so ignoble a spirit that to please others they believe something by implicit faith of which they are ignorant, I am not.” See also § XXXVIII, page 38.

It is worthwhile to hear the sharp censure and just indignation, with which the Great SPANHEIM took exception against this manner of procedure in matters of Religion, Oratione de Christianismo degenere, book X, Miscellano Sacrorum Antiquorum, Oration XIII, column 1468, opera, tome 2: “For I also am at a loss,” says he, “whether there was ever, not from the recent renewal of the Church, but from the very birth of Christianity, such a wind of lasciviousness, in which we see such poor little puffed up and impudent geniuses swept along, to whom nothing is supposed to be impervious to human Reason, nothing certain in Religion, except what they invent for themselves by their own opinion, or construct with their own Ideas. Oh the times! Are the pronouncements of God then to be dragged off to the Tribunal of human perception? Is that πιστεύω, I believe, of Christians from the beginning to be pierced with taunts equal to those of Julian? Are the sublimities of the mysteries that have no commerce with nature or earth to be tested by the Lydian stone of the conceptions of each and every man? Are Divine things to be estimated according to human things, Eternal things according to changing things, Incorporeal things according to either the condition or state of matter, in these mists of ignorance and prejudices, but also in the confines of human minds? Or are those things to be beheld by the Philosophical eye, which are only taken in by the eye of faith, and of love, and of Angelic contemplation? Indeed, their reflection answers to the ignorance, but then an ignorance less obstinate, and soon overthrown by definite experiment, of those that formerly confessed to the Apostle Paul, that they did not so much as know whether there be any Holy Ghost.[9] Nevertheless, the father of the Renewed Philosophy prudently pronounced that nothing is more certain than this light, as nothing is more evident than this experience, even that by its own intrinsic sense it more thoroughly pervades hearts. Certainly there is no other than this Trumpet, that would direct the sight of the eyes higher, and bring it unto the very seat of Eternity.”

Certainly more than his disciples, even Reformed Theologians also, DESCARTES himself showed sobriety and held the Scriptures in reverence, not extending the rule concerning Clear and Distinct Perception as the North Star of Truth to revealed truths, Principiorum Philosophiæ, first part, article LXXVI, or the last: “Now, in addition to other things, it is to be fixed in our memory as the highest rule, that those things that have been revealed to us by God are to be believed as the most certain of all: And, although the light of reason might perhaps appear to suggest to us something else as the clearest and most evident, our belief is to be applied to divine authority alone, rather than to our own judgment: But in those matters concerning which divine faith teaches us nothing, it is not at all proper for the Philosophical man to assume anything as truth that he never perceived to be true, and to trust more in his feelings/senses, that is, with the opinions of his upbringing left unconsidered, than in mature reason.” The Lemma of this Article is: “Divine Authority is to be preferred to our Perception: but with Divine Authority excluded, it is not proper for the Philosopher to assent to anything other than what is perceived.” With which you will find many things consonant in the writings of Descartes: among others in his Responsione secunda, page 78, he asserts, “That because of which we embrace faith is clearer than all natural light. Since the formal reason because of which we give our assent in matters of faith consists in a certain internal light, whereby, having been supernaturally illuminated by God, we have confidence that those things that are set forth to be believed are revealed by Him, and that it is completely impossible that He should lie; which is more certain than all natural light, and often more evident also because of the light of grace.” VRIESIUS will give additional material in his Exercitatione de Officio Philosophi circa Revelata. While against this thesis of Descartes, concerning Clear and Distinct Perception as the Norm of Truth, one may see PIERRE-DANIEL HUET[10] disputing in a general way in his Censura Philosophiæ Cartesianæ, chapter II, and Auctore Itineris per Mundum Cartesii, pages 77-93, and likewise in his Novis Difficultatibus a Peripatetico propositis et priori tractatui Itineris per Mundum subjunctis, pages 69, 70: add WILLIAM IRHOVIUS’[11] Disquisitionem pneumatologicam de Intellectu Facultate vere active, § LXXIV-LXXVI, compared with § LI-LVI, in which he observes that everywhere men imagine for themselves a Clear and Distinct Idea of a thing; but the criterion is not supplied by Descartes or his followers, whereby truly Clear and Distinct Perception might be distinguished from that which only appears to be such, but is not: now, the corrupt state of nature is responsible for the fact that our Perceptions so frequently stray; but for this the blame of this matter would have been able to be assigned to our Creator God, who here also acts the part of Judge, and only negatively has to do with our errors, which we are doing privatively: hence the varying opinions, straying so from God and our own intellect, for example. Those Disquisitions of IRHOVIUS are found after the sixth edition of the Determinationum pneumatologicarum Vriesii.

So that we might make an end, we concede with our AUTHOR, 1. that nothing is to be believed that has not been perceived in some manner from Scripture; for, without a Knowledge of the Revelation of a matter made by God, from the Scriptures, our faith would not be divine, but human. 2. That it is in every case to be the goal, that we obtain from the Spirit as Teacher a Clear and Distinct Perception of the Revelation of a matter with the eyes of faith. In which sense our AUTHOR would entirely wish that this Rule be more diligently observed also by those that more than others appear to wish to inculcate it: because sometimes in the expounding of Scripture they are so twisted up that it is difficult to perceive how they are able to imagine for themselves that the sense which they attach to the Scripture has been revealed by God.

Compare with this § PETRUS VAN MASTRICHT’S Gangrænam Novitatum Cartesianarum, prior section, chapter II, § 7, 8, pages 26-33, posterior section, chapter III, pages 165-198, in which chapter he diligently inquires into the truth of this assertion, set forth in § 1, 2, That Clear and Distinct Perception is the primary and only norm of truth, and that hence no assent is to be given expect to what has been clearly and distinctly perceived. He explains the terms in § 4-6, in which he observes that what it might be to Perceive Clearly and Distinctly is not rightly discerned from the explanation of Descartes and his followers, subjoining, “Wherefore, at least in my judgment, you might more rightly and clearly say that just that is to be called Clear and Distinct Perception, whereby the mind is conscious to itself that its perception corresponds to the thing perceived, or that it has perceived the thing as it is. Whence it is additionally to be gathered that Clarity and Distinctiveness of Perception ought to be discerned from its truth or conformity with the thing perceived; but not contrariwise, that the truth of the thing, or even of perception, ought to be discerned from the clarity and distinctiveness of our Perception.” In § 7-12, there is a refutation of that axiom, that Clear and Distinct Perception is the sole Norm of Truth, from this, among other things, 1. That the truth of a thing is the norm and measure of Clear and Distinct Perception, not the other way around, unless we wish to involve ourselves in a vicious circle. 2. Because Clear and Distinct Perception is without the necessary requisites of a norm. 3. Because a falsehood is able to lie beneath this Perception according to the hypotheses of our adversaries. 4. Because in the demonstration of this rule there is a Vicious Circle, since they prove that whatever I Clearly and Distinctly Perceive is truth, because God, the author of that Perception, is not able to deceive: again, that God is not able to deceive, they prove from this, that they have in themselves a Clear and Distinct Perception of God as ἀψεύδους, free of all deceit. Then van Mastricht resolves the objections of the Cartesians sought, 1. from this, that God is the author of every Clear and Distinct Perception, § 13. 2. From this, that the rule rests upon the first principle of Philosophy, I think, therefore I am, § 14, to which then, in § 15-17, three other objections of Lambert Velthuysen[12] are added. In addition, in § 18, 19, the marks of Clear and Distinct Perception are examined, while here a threefold doubt is able to arise: first, while another is able to proffer his Clear and Distinct Perception to me, by what κριτηρίῳ/criterion would I be able to discern whether he actually Perceived Clearly and Distinctly, or he only thought that he Perceived Clearly and Distinctly? secondly, if two adversaries should vociferously claim for themselves Clear and Distinct Perception, by what note would I be able to discern whose Clear and Distinct Perception is genuine? third, since in my very self a false opinion of Clear and Distinct Perception is able to insinuate itself in the place of that which is truly such, by what judgment would I be able to differentiate the false opinion from the true? A sound opinion concerning the business of Clear and Distinct Perception is settled, § 20-22. The principal abuses of this norm at the hands of the Cartesians are noted, § 23, 24, namely, that, 1. from this they not only conclude affirmatively that whatever I Perceive Clearly and Distinctly in a matter, this is truly in it; but also negatively, that whatever I am not able to Perceive Clearly and Distinctly in a matter, this is also not truly in it. 2. That they reason from potency to act. Finally, the damage done by that rule, especially in Theology, is pointed out, § 25-30, which is the source of a great many errors; in Theological matters it yields a norm other than the Scripture; it frees various men from the necessity of divine Faith, if assent is not to be yielded except to things Clearly and Distinctly Perceived; it makes Reason and Philosophy the Interpreter of Scripture, banishing the supernatural light of the Spirit. See in addition de vyf Walcherse Artikelen, Article I,[13] and BRAHÉ’S Aanmerkingen over de vyf Walcherse Artikelen, § 6-13, pages 7-24; likewise ANTONIUS HULSIUS’[14] Specimines Theologiæ hypotheticæ, disputation XXX, § 11, part 2, page 384.

[1] Abraham Heidanus (1597-1678) was a Dutch Reformed minister and Cocceian theologian. He served as professor of theology at Leiden from 1648 to 1676, but was ultimately dismissed for his Cartesianism.


[2] Simon Episcopius (1583-1643) was a Dutch theologian. He studied at the University of Leiden under Jacobus Arminius, and embraced his teacher’s distinctive doctrines. He became a leader among the Remonstrants, playing a significant role at the Synod of Dort (1618).


[3] Christoph Wittich (1625-1687) was a Dutch Theologian and Cartesian. He served as Professor of Theology at Duisburg (1653-1654), Nijmegen (1655-1671), and Leiden (1671-1687).


[4] Bernard Nieuwentyt (1654-1718) was a Dutch Reformed theologian and Cartesian philosopher.


[5] Maresius, or Samuel Desmarets (1599-1673), was a French Huguenot minister and polemist. He held various ministerial posts, and served as Professor of Theology at Sedan (1625-1636), and at Groningen (1643-1673).


[6] Hermann Alexander Röell (1653-1718) was a Dutch Reformed philosopher (Cartesian) and theologian. He served as Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Franeker (1685-1704), and as Professor of Natural Theology at Utrecht (1704-1718).


[7] Balthasar Bekker (1634-1698) was a Dutch minister, although ultimately deposed. He was a proponent of Cartesian Rationalism, arguing that philosophy and theology must be kept in separate spheres, the former for the exploration of natural truths, and the latter for the exploration of supernatural truths of Scripture.


[8] Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a Jewish-Dutch philosopher, and one of the great Rationalists in the tradition of Descartes.


[9] Acts 19:2.


[10] Pierre-Daniel Huet (1630-1721) was a Roman Catholic churchman and a universal scholar. He was the cofounder of the Academie du Physique in Caen.


[11] Willem van Irhoven (1698-1760) was a Dutch Reformed Minister and Theologian. He served as Professor of Theology (1737-1740), and then as Professor of Church History (1740-1760) at Utrecht.


[12] Lambert van Velthuysen (1622-1685) was a Dutch Theologian and Philosopher, and a strong proponent of Cartesian philosophy.


[13] The Five Walcheren Articles (1693) were adopted by the Dutch Classes of Walcheren to resist the encroachment of the Rationalistic view of Röell and Bekker.


[14] Antonius Hulsius (1615-1685) was a Dutch Reformed philologist and theologian.

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