The James Begg Society

The James Begg Society

Publishers of Protestant, Reformed Christian Literature

Faith and Revelation

Volume Three of The Works of Thomas Halyburton

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Faith and Revelation

by Rev. Prof. Thomas Halyburton

ISBN 0-9539241-3-0
439 pages; hardback


The 4 volume set of Halyburton's Works can be purchased here.

Halyburton vol.3

Halyburton's book on the "Insufficiency of Natural Religion, and the Necessity of Revelation" (republished as this volume) was occasioned by the publication of certain treatises written by Lord Herbert of Cherbury with the avowed object of setting aside the pretensions of all "particular religions," as he termed them; and resting the claims of religion at large on the basis of nature alone. In his reply to this scheme, Halyburton sets himself largely and distinctly to show that the light of nature is extremely defective, even with respect to the discoveries of a Deity, and the worship that is to be rendered to him; with respect to the question of man's true happiness, the rule of duty, and the motives to obedience; and that it is unable to discover the means of obtaining pardon for sin, or to eradicate inclinations to sin, and subdue its power. He appeals to reason, to testimony, to matter of fact, and to the general experience of the world.


by Dr. Joel R. Beeke

W HEN Westminster Theological Seminary opened in September of 1929, J. Gresham Machen announced the purpose of the new seminary in an address to students. He declared, "We believe, first, that the Christian religion, as it is set forth in the Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church, is true; we believe, second, that the Christian religion welcomes and is capable of scholarly defence; and we believe, third, that the Christian religion should be proclaimed without fear or favour, and in clear opposition to whatever opposes it, whether within or without the church, as the only way of salvation for lost mankind" (Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen, p.458).

Those were the same convictions of Thomas Halyburton (1674-1712), minister at Ceres, Fife (1700-1710), Professor of Divinity at New College (St. Mary's), at St. Andrews (1710-1712), and one of Scotland's premier theologians. The following volume, which is his magnum opus and has long been considered a standard work of apologetics, was first published in 1714. It was published several more times in various editions over the next century. The work is Halyburton's clear affirmation of the Christian faith, set forth and defended with careful study, sound reasoning, deep scholarship and warm feeling. Its goal was to proclaim the faith "in clear opposition" to the deism of the times in which Halyburton lived. Hence he titled the work Natural Religion Insufficient, and Reveal'd [Religion] Necessary to Man's Happiness in His Present State; or, A Rational Enquiry into the Principles of the modern Deists.

Monument to a Personal Struggle

Readers of Natural Religion Insufficient would benefit by first reading about Halyburton's encounter with deism in his Memoirs [published in Vol. 4 of the Society's edition of the Works, D.V., pp. 62ff. – Publishers]. It was a shattering time for the young student of philosophy. Deism challenged his beliefs and plunged him into doubts regarding the existence of God, the justice of his dealings in providence, and the trustworthiness of scripture. Halyburton wrote, "The mystery of the gospel was particularly set upon and represented as foolishness... and oft was I put to answer, 'How can these things be?' " (Vol. 4, p.65).

In time Halyburton came to see the emptiness of deists, the shallowness of their religion, and the moral shabbiness of their lives. He also realised that their approach to Christianity was inherently self-defeating. Halyburton wrote, "The scripture tells them plainly that if they have a desire to be satisfied as to the truth of its pretensions [claims ], they must walk in the way of its precepts to find it: 'If any man will do his will, he shall know this doctrine, if it is of God, or if I speak of myself' (John 7:17). But they walk in direct contradiction to its precepts and yet complain of the want of evidence, while they refuse to try that way wherein only it is to be found.....yea, I found this sort of persons much more eager in searching after what might strengthen their doubts than what might satisfy them. This smelled rank of a hatred of light" (Vol. 4, p.68).

It is no wonder that Halyburton later felt compelled to produce this exhaustive study of the claims of deists. His book is a monument to his personal deliverance from that false system of philosophy.

Deism Defined

What is deism? The name itself is misleading. Derived from the Latin word deus, meaning "god," deism is a variant of "theism," from the Greek word theos, which also means "god." Nonetheless, the term suggests a theism very different from that of historic Christianity.

Halyburton calls deism "natural religion." Like the Westminster Assembly divines, deists believed that "the light of nature and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable" and "the light of nature sheweth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all; is good, and doth good unto all; and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might," (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chaps. I.i and XXI.i).

However, deists believed this "natural revelation" was all man needed as a rule of faith and life. Scripture was useful only to confirm the findings of natural theology. Because of this naturalism, the deists rejected and ridiculed anything that was supernatural in scripture or in Christian teaching.

As syncretists, deists tried to identify the truths of natural revelation that were universally acknowledged among mankind. Their goal was to gather the makings of a common faith for all men to embrace, and so put an end to the bitter religious strife that was widespread in their times. It mattered little to them that embracing their proposed religion meant casting away all the distinctives of the historic Christian faith.

Deists were also rationalists. As students of Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, they were confident that experience, observation and reflection could unlock the mysteries of the universe. Reason was a sure guide, and the only one needed. Thus, in the name of reason, deists rejected the authority of scripture and of the creeds and confessions that summarised the truths taught in scripture. As Michael Macdonald writes, "Deism refers to what can be called natural religion or the acceptance of a certain body of religious knowledge acquired solely by the use of reason as opposed to knowledge gained either through revelation or the teaching of a church" (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, p.304).

Finally, deists were humanists. Like the Pelagians before them and the Socinians and Arminians of their day, deists rejected the doctrine of man's total depravity. They believed that with his powers of observation and understanding, man could "by searching find out God" (cf. Job 11:7). As a morally good and free agent, man could discover the path of virtue, walk in it, and thus please God, earning happiness in this life and the next.

Some say deists denied the providence of God. While deists denied the possibility of miraculous or supernatural divine intervention, they did affirm that God works in creation according to the laws he prescribed for it, and that he punishes sin and rewards virtue. It is not surprising, then, that Benjamin Franklin assigned a large place to the providence of God in his famous Autobiography, saying, "And now I speak of thanking God, I desire with all humility to acknowledge that I owe the mentioned happiness of my past life to his kind providence, which led me to the means I used and gave them success" (The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin & Selections from His Writings, Modern Library edition, p.7).

Deism as a Movement

According to Halyburton, deism had its roots in European Roman Catholicism, which soon spread northward into various parts of Protestant Europe. In the seventeenth century, it was brought to England where it was embraced by people in the ruling classes, particularly the Cavaliers, the aristocratic partisans of the Stuart kings, and nominal members of the Church of England. These members of the cultural elite despised the Reformed faith of Puritan England and Presbyterian Scotland, and found that these new ideas from the continent were most useful in the fight against Puritanism. Like Arminianism, deism became a stylish alternative to the old-fashioned beliefs and conservative morality of Calvinism.

Deists were a mixed lot, however. Some quite seriously professed a high regard for the Christian faith, seeking only to purge it of unnecessary and irrational elements. Others were quite willing to use "contempt, buffoonery, banter, and satire" (p. 8) to attack Christianity. Halyburton allowed for various types of deists, but in the end concluded that deism was an erroneous, spiritually powerless faith at best, and, at worst, a morally bankrupt libertinism and practical atheism.

Deism became a creed in the hands of the "father of deism," Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1581-1648), who proposed five fundamental articles of faith as the universals of natural religion: the belief in a supreme being, the obligation to worship, the obligation of ethical conduct, the need for repentance, and divine rewards and punishments in this life and the next (pp. 279ff.). In the hands of Charles Blount (1654-1693), deism became a platform from which to ridicule the teachings of historic Christianity. Others took these ideas forward, vigorously attacking historic Christianity in the name of reason and human freedom. Significantly, Blount ended his life by committing suicide. Like him, deism destroyed itself by its own methods, particularly through David Hume (1711-1776), whose scepticism extended even to the findings of natural theology.

As a movement, deism flourished for a time, then vanished. It fell under its own weight, like a diseased and dying tree. It also fell because men like Thomas Halyburton rose to defend the Christian faith against deism, exposing its errors and emptiness.

The final blow to deism was the Great Awakening, a revival that swept through England and Scotland, spilled into North America, and touched various parts of continental Europe. The preaching of the gospel in "demonstration of the Spirit, and of power" (1 Cor. 2:4-5), was the ultimate weapon against deism and other forms of unbelief.

The Legacy of Deism

Halyburton achieved much in his book. Deists and their movement faded, but they left much damage in their wake. The notions that influenced them, the ideas they championed, and the questions they raised have had to be confronted time after time. Halyburton was a great help in this. John Newton recommended Halyburton's treatise to Thomas Scott, declaring, "I set a high value on this book of Halyburton's, so that, unless I could replace it with another, I know not if I would part with it for its weight in gold" (Burns, Introductory Essay, Works, 1835 edition, p. xxv).

As a belief system, deism greatly influenced such diverse groups as the Freemasons, the Unitarians, and the Society of Friends (Quakers), many of whom lapsed into Unitarianism in the early nineteenth century. A shadow of deism existed among the Moderates of the Church of Scotland, and more than a shadow affected the clergy of the Church of England who did not embrace the Great Awakening. Some of the "founding fathers" of the United States of America were deists.

Most significantly, deism affected people's view of scripture in academic circles in Germany, then in the universities and theological seminaries of Great Britain and the United States. The rejection of the divine inspiration and infallible authority of scripture was key to reviving other ideas of deism and producing the negative consequences of those ideas in the lives of nominal Christians. Today, many American Protestants are practical deists. They regard the Bible as a human artefact, a mixture of truth and fallacy, which therefore offers little authority for faith or life. Invoking "the sure results of modern scientific study," they reject the Bible's account of creation, man's origin, and his fall into sin. They deny all supernatural claims concerning Jesus of Nazareth, including his virgin birth, miracles, prophecies, resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven. Some say we cannot be sure there even was a historical Jesus.

Experience shows that when the church succumbs to "deistical rationalism" (Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, p.35), its ministers and teachers become "blind leaders of the blind" (Matt. 15:14). People are expected to keep up the forms of the Christian religion while knowing nothing of its power, which power lies in the very truths of scripture being denied. Ignorance deepens, confusion increases, and faith falls away.

In society at large, the legacy of deism shows itself today in a stress on mechanism. The tendency to explain nearly everything mechanistically is rooted in deism.

Christians like Thomas Halyburton, who love the truths of God's Word and have experienced the gospel of Christ as "the power of God unto salvation" (Rom. 1:16), have a twofold duty toward those who now sit in the darkness of latter-day deism. First, we must weep for their sad condition and pray for their salvation, as Christ viewed the people of His time: "He was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd" (Matt. 9:36). Second, we, like Halyburton, and as Machen said, must believe that "the Christian faith is capable of scholarly defence," and be willing to do the hard work needed to present such a defence. We must seize our task as evangelists to set forth the truth "in clear opposition" to the errors of men and whatever else may exalt itself against the knowledge of God (2 Cor. 10:3-6).

– Dr. Joel R. Beeke, Grand Rapids, Michigan, U.S.A., 2003.