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Volume 7, Issue 6: Cultura

Common Sense

Roy Atwood

Common sense is one of those innocent-sounding notions that is far more subversive than its matter-of-fact folk-appeal would suggest. Ideas have consequences, and the legacy of common sense is a sad reminder that ideas originating outside a biblical frame of reference can do great harm when the church embraces them uncritically.

The idea of common sense originated as a well-meaning response by 18th century Scottish Moderates to the destructive Enlightenment philosophies of John Locke and David Hume. Locke had argued that a world of ideas existed between the real world and our experience of the real world. Ideas, or the "pictures in our heads," 1 and not the world outside, are the real objects of our thought. We cannot truly know things outside ourselves, said Locke, because we only know the impressions our experiences write upon our minds.
The Moderates, who were theologically weak-kneed, rejected Locke's radical doctrine of ideas because they recognized "that everyone believes that a real world exists beyond our minds and imaginations and that we can truly know things about the world around us." Even skeptics and relativists duck when they go through low doorways.2But the Moderates rejected Locke's doctrine of ideas and Hume's skepticism by replacing orthodox views of sin and redemption with the belief that man could achieve harmony with and direct knowledge of the world around him independent of God's law. Rather than reject the Enlightenment's false distinction between mental and physical realitiesor articulate a biblically based alternativethe Moderates pledged their troth to a new philosophy of common sense.
The leading advocate of common sense was the Moderate clergyman and professor, Thomas Reid (1710-96). 3 He argued that the ultimate validator of truth is naive consciousness or common sense. This "sixth sense," he said, was a faculty of reason, a source of principles, a capacity for certain original and intuitive judgments that may be used as foundations for deductive reasoning. 4 Reid claimed, on questionable biblical grounds, that God guaranteed these "instinctive presuppositions" and gave them a certain revelatory character by structuring them right into man's intellectual constitution. Reid thus found the ultimate source of his epistemology not in the Scriptures or the redemptive work of Christ, but in the philosophical golden calf of his own making: "Let my soul dwell with Common Sense." 5 For Reid and the Moderates, common sense was not a defense of Christian orthodoxy or a biblical response to skepticism. It was an invention of "theological revolutionaries." 6
Reid's revolt had an enormous influence on Protestants in Scotland and beyond. Evangelicals, who had diligently resisted unorthodoxy in other respects, gave their "tacit approval to the basic philosophical understanding of man, reality, and truth as expressed by [common sense philosophy]. They tried to make the latter serviceable to their own cause of propagating and defending the principles of Christianity. This attempt to harmonize two basically conflicting sets of religious principles resulted in neither simple orthodoxy or unorthodoxy, but in a subtle form of semi(un)orthodoxy." 7
Common sense replaced God's Law and Spirit as the foundations for human knowledge. Within a few generations, common sense philosophy had penetrated the very heart of American Protestantism. John Witherspoon, the president of Princeton (1747), introduced common sense philosophy to his divinity students, 8 and appealed to "certain first principles or dictates of common sense" as "the foundations of all reasoning." 9 Princeton's synthesis of biblical doctrine and common sense epistemology bore bitter fruit in the church by the early 20th century. Many of Princeton's board members, faculty, and graduates abandoned the historic Christian faith, in part, because they kept their troth to common sense, not the Word of God, as "the foundation of all reasoning." Theological liberalism was the legacy of their common sense epistemology. Common sense said the Bible, written by primitive peoples, couldn't be the inerrant or infallible Word of God; Mary couldn't be both a virgin and a mother at the same time; miracles aren't more than superstitious myths; and dead men don't rise from the grave.
Evangelicals and fundamentalists resisted the liberal implications of common sense, but failed to recognize its subtle yet tenacious grip on their theory of knowledge. Even J. Gresham Machen, one of the few Princeton scholars to challenge theological liberalism, did not abandon his trust in common sense. Machen "shared the assumptions of Scottish philosophy first introduced at Princeton by John Witherspoon" and so overestimated the role and power of rational argument. 10 And Machen, like evangelicals and Reformed Christians today, grossly underestimated the subversive power of common sense.
Reformation comes only by making every idea captive to the Lord Jesus Christ. Rather than accept the Enlightenment's false dichotomy between mental states and physical realities or accept common sense as the alternative to skepticism and relativism Christians must pledge their troth to the Sovereign who administers the whole realm of creaturely knowledge and existence by His Word and Spirit.

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