Rev. John Brown on the Inabilities of Natural Reason

John Brown’s Self-Interpreting Bible (1859)

The recent unpleasantness regarding Rob Bell’s rejection of orthodox thinking and teaching is sparking a concerted effort among my fellow Reformed bloggers and other online ministries to raise awareness that evangelicalism has been in decline for many years, and it is only accelerating. Bible believing Christians need to get back to the basics of what it means to believe the Bible.

To that end, I will begin a new series of excerpts from my antiquarian Self-Interpreting Bible, by the Rev. John Brown of Haddington, Scotland. One of his numerous helps in highlighting the Bible’s self-attestation to it’s inspiration as well as its self-interpretation, is an essay entitled, “An Introduction to the Right Understanding of the Oracles of God.” Chapter one of this lengthy introduction is called, “Of the Divine Authority of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament.”

In this chapter, Rev. Brown begins by demonstrating that there are some things which natural reason is unable to accomplish on its own. Such things are impossible to it without the aid of divine revelation. This fact is often something that even the most devout believer of the Bible forgets, and in such cases, the faith and practice of the church are undermined. Such is undoubtedly the case in the present controversy that has been sparked by natural reason in the form of Rob Bell’s postmodern liberalism.

No man, who is an unbiased free-thinker, can soberly hearken to the dictates of his natural reason, and seriously ponder the absurd and contradictory principles and practices which have been or are prevalent among mankind, without perceiving that the light, or even the law of nature, is altogether insufficient to direct us to true holiness, or lasting happiness, in our present lapsed condition.

It can give us no plain, distinct, convincing, pleasant, powerful, and lasting ideas of God. It cannot direct us in the right manner of worshipping him with due love, resignation, humility, self-denial, zeal, wisdom, sincerity, and fervent desire of the eternal enjoyment of him. It cannot show us our true happiness, which is suited to our highest powers, which may always be enjoyed without shame, suspicion, fear, or dread of loss or danger, and which will in every situation support and comfort us.

It can discover no true system of morality, perfect in its rules, means, and motives. It can discover no effectual incitements to virtue, drawn from the excellency and presence of God the law-giver, from the authority of his law, or from his discovering a proper regard to it in rewarding virtue and punishing vice. It cannot manifest in a striking manner the certainty, excellence, pleasure, and allurement of virtue in our heart, which will ripen us to that proper pitch of religion and virtue in our heart, which will ripen us for the full and immediate enjoyment of God. It cannot show us one perfect example of virtue, either among learned or unlearned heathens; nor give us any promise of God’s assisting us in the study of it.

It can discover no certainty that God will pardon our sins;

no proper atonement;

no actually pardoned sinner;

no happy soul, praising God for his pardoning mercy;

no spiritual worship, appointed by God for rebellious sinners;

no purpose, promise, perfection, or name of God, that his honour, or is intended in his patient bearing with sinners on earth;

nor does it afford any divine proclamation of pardon, nor even any incitement to us to forgive our injurers;

and, in fine, it cannot effectually sanctify our heart, nor produce that bent of will and affection, that inward peace with God, that sufficiency of light and strength from God, or that solid hope of eternal happiness, which is necessary to produce true holiness and virtue.

It cannot support us under heavy and bitter afflictions, by showing us God’s fatherly care of us, his promises to us, or his making all things to work together for our good; nor can it comfort us against death by certain views of his love to us, and providing everlasting life and happiness for us.


6 responses

  1. Self-interpreting Bible?! Cool! I just read through all your old John Brown posts and about how you came upon it in a used bookstore – wow! I’ve tried reading it online (Google books), but the print is too small. I really hope it gets re-printed at some point.

    It is interesting to see this quote from John Brown, by the way, as I downloaded his commentary on Galatians just yesterday and I’m anxious to dive in.

    Regarding your topic – it is disturbing. When I read about the Evangelical ‘downgrade’ it makes me want to jump from the broader movement – but to what? I’ve recently come out of Fundamentalism – it has its strengths and weaknesses. It seems there is no broad loosely organized movement for those who are Calvinistic/Reformed other than to remain in the more conservative end of the Evangelical world. As an independant, I tend to stay away from ‘movements’ as such, but the fundamentalist in me want to put everyone in the Fundamentalist, neo-Evangalical compromiser, or Liberal box – I don’t like any of those categories.

    Regardless, thanks for passing the good word from Dr. Brown. I’ll keep my eyes open for his Bible at local used bookstores. I understand Trinitarian Bible Society will print a commemorative 400th KJV with John Brown’s cross-references.

    1. I’m excited to be able to turn you on to Brown’s Bible. It is as awesome as it sounds. What I’ve posted is only the tip of the ice berg. More to follow.

      Be careful. I ordered “John Brown’s Commentary on Galatians” once, then learned that there are two John Brown’s out there being sold by Reformed booksellers. There is the Rev. John Brown OF HADDINGTON(1722-1787), then there is his grandson, and author of “An Exposition of the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians,” John Brown (1784-1858). It’s a little confusing.

      You can download a different edition of the Self-Interpreting Bible from Puritan Downloads for $19.97.

      It’s an interesting question how to deal with the labels we’ve grown up with as fundamentalists. This modern “Evangelicalism” is nothing like what our Reformed fore-fathers (whether paedo- or credo-) considered “evangelical.” All I can do is suggest another “box”: “Confessionalist.” That’s why I started a Facebook page called “Confessional Reformed (aka, “Calvinism”). There is a range of faithfulness to the confessions among those who call themselves “Reformed.” The more liberal ones have written entirely new confessions that undo the historic emphases of the Reformation, and then there’s the rest of us “conservatives” who do our best to conform to our slightly modified versions of the historic Reformed confessions, with greater and lesser success, depending on one’s approach to things like the RPW, etc.

      I don’t know. Perhaps all we can do is call ourselves a confessional Reformed evangelical, in order to distinguish ourselves from the broad coalition of American Christian traditions that self-identify as “Evangelical” (what we former fundies used to call “New Evangelicals” with a tremble of righteous indignation). It’s been interesting for me to learn, as my family has begun worshiping in an OPC church for the past year, that the OPC specifically has tended to shy away from joining the typical organizations associated with the broad American (New)Evangelicalism. They bear many of the marks of the kind of fundamentalism with which we grew up–right down to only sending missionaries who are going to plant churches specifically, as opposed to those who go to do all sorts of other types of things with missionary intentions.

      Anyway, I intend to try to continue posting Brown’s introduction on the right understanding of the oracles of God in relatively bite-size chunks each week. There may be a few exceptions. I’ve also got to get back to finishing the series on his biography from the SIB, and I’ve got plans to post on other features in the future. With this and my Bible quizzes from “The Sunday at Home” magazine, I can keep posting regularly, even when I’ve run out of my own original thoughts. If only time allowed equally well each week.

      1. Well said. I’m looking forward to reading more about John Brown.

        Too bad the John Brown commentary is not THAT John Brown.

    2. By the way, have you got a link for that Trinitarian Bible Society edition of the KJV with Brown’s cross-references?

      1. All I know is what JM posted on his blog here:

        and the same info he posted on puritanboard.

  2. Thanks for the link. I found the Puritanboard version of this post last night while Googling for something on it. I’ll be keeping an eye out myself. If they were going to discuss it at a meeting at the end of last month, then it seems it’ll be a while before it’s published.

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