Sense? Or Nonsense?
She was just a little girl in the second grade. It was my first teaching assignment in a little Christian school, and she came to school with red spots all over her face and arms. I looked at my health sheet. "You have chicken pox, honey," I said. "I will have to call your mother to come to take you home."
"Oh, no," she said. "I had the chicken-pox, but daddy prayed for me last night, and I was healed."
I was in a spot. I did not want to cause her to doubt her faith, but it was against the law for her to come to school. She obviously had the chicken-pox. I called her parents, and everything got worse. "How dare you doubt God," was the response of her mother. Her father: "We do not judge things by what we see. Jesus said that we can ask what we will, and he will hear us and answer us. Do you trust God's word, or do you trust your eyes?" I was pretty naive theologically, but I did not think that God's word and the testimony of our senses should be in conflict. I have not seen any reason to change my mind. I sent her home then, and I would send her home now.
Colossians 2:8 warns us to "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit." We are not to allow vain, deceitful words to empty us of our treasures, and carry them away captive. God does not deceive us either by the Scriptures or by our senses; only vain and deceitful men would teach us otherwise.
Jesus did not tell his disciples, "Now I promise you that I will rise from the dead. You will not see me, but you must believe even though it will appear that I have remained in the grave." Instead, Jesus told Thomas, "Look, and behold my hands. Put your hand into my side." The witness of John the Apostle: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the word of life; ... That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you...." (I John 1:1,3)
Francis Turretin teaches us that there are three kinds of knowledge: those known by faith; by the senses, and by the intellect. It is certainly true that the things of faith are beyond the reach of the senses, yet in their proper area, and given their proper functioning, the testimony of senses is ignored by us at our peril. According to Turretin, this is proved:
(1) By the example of Christ: "Handle me and see" (Luke 24:39). His resurrection was subject to the verification of the physical senses of the witnesses. To deny this is to overthrow the Christian faith.
(2) By the angel at the tomb: "He is not here; for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay" (Matt. 28:6). The angel didn't rebuke the disciples for not believing the bare word. If Christ has risen, he will not be in the grave, and His absence can be verified by the senses.
(3) By the Apostles in Acts 1:11: "This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven." Against the Jehovah's Witnesses, we affirm that when Christ returns every eye shall see him--literally and physically; not by some eye of "faith."
(4) By the Apostle in I John 1:1-3, cited above.
(5) By the Apostle in 2 Peter 1:17 "For he received from God the Father honor and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount." It is well worth noting that in the last place, Peter goes on to say that there is a more excellent testimony, a "more sure word of prophecy," and goes on to commend the absolute authority of Scripture, but he affirms that he heard what he heard in the holy mountain, and there was no contradiction.
(6) By the nature of faith: which comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of God. Men cannot call on him of whom they have not heard (Rom. 10). God has appointed preaching as the ordinary means whereby men receive the gospel and come to Christ. God certainly has not limited Himself to the physical preaching and the physical hearing and physical reading of the Scriptures, but neither are we to deny the testimony of our senses, if we read that Jesus is born of a Virgin. We see the words as we see the words. I know that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary because I saw and read it in the Bible. I wasn't drunk, the words didn't shift on me, the translation is correct, and others have confirmed it with the use of their senses. There is no philosopher that will take this from me. I know why faithless philosophy would take this witness from me. After all, even the heavens declare the glory of the God and the firmament shows His handiwork.
Those who are familiar with the history of Helen Keller knows how terribly difficult it is to impart any knowledge at all without the use of the senses. She lost both sight and hearing from a disease early in her life. It was only through the use of the sense of touch that "Crazy Annie" was able finally to connect with Helen, and teach her the meaning of the word "water," which Helen could only discern by touching Annie's mouth with her hand.
(7) By the description of the Holy Spirit who uses the senses as illustrations of the operations of the soul: "Taste and see that the Lord is good." "Hear and your soul shall live." "Feel after the Lord." Our offerings are a "sweet odor" to the Lord. How could these be illustrations of the operations of the soul if their testimony is slippery and uncertain, as Turretin says. (See Vol. 1: First Topic, Q. XI of Turretin's Institutes of Elenctic Theology)
This does not mean that we can start with the senses and obtain truth independently of Scripture. The history of philosophy shows the dead end where all empiricism ends. In rejecting Scripture, the natural man loses not only the witness of his reason, but even the testimony of his senses. The believer comes to Christ and finds both his reason and his senses. I do not want to be wiser than Christ: if He tells Thomas to look at His hands and His feet, then the witness of the senses is valid.
(8). By the Faithfulness of God. He will not suffer us to believe that He wishes to "trifle with men by referring them to a testimony which could deceive and be false." (Turretin)
This is the reason that God has given us the sacraments. They are a "visible preaching of the Gospel," (Calvin) and testify to our senses what the Scripture witnesses verbally. As the Heidelberg Catechism so eloquently puts it:
Q. 75. How is it signified and sealed unto thee in the Holy Supper, that thou dost partake of the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross and all His benefits?
A. Thus: that Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat of this broken bread and to drink of this cup in remembrance of Him, and has joined therewith these promises: First that His body was offered and broken on the cross for men and His blood shed for me, as certainly as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup communicated to me; and further, that with His crucified body and shed blood He Himself feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life, as certainly as I receive from the hand of the minister and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, which are given me as certain tokens of the body and blood of Christ. [Emphasis mine].
The wise man of Proverbs tells us, "The ear that heareth the reproof of life abideth among the wise." (Prov. 15:31). Certainly, the Scriptures are profitable for reproof, and they are ignored at our peril; but there is also the reproof of our senses, and these are also ignored at our peril. This was the error of the parents of the little girl with the chicken-pox those many years ago. Their senses should have warned them of the error of their theology. They are to be commended for believing the Bible. They are to be commended for praying. They are to be commended for putting the authority of the Bible above that of their senses. They are to be commended for believing that God can work miracles in the world. They are to be commended for acting on their faith. Their mistake: if God works a miracle in the world of sense, then that miracle will be discerned by the senses. The fact that their little girl still had spots should have been a huge rebuke to them and stirred them to return to the Bible for better instruction. They would have learned that God does not jump through our hoops, but keeps his miracle-working power for His own purposes and for His own glory. He is not some sort of cosmic vending machine, to spew out miracles for our own pleasure and purposes.
To ignore the testimony of our senses is to lapse into gnosticism. Christ really did become man. He really did come into our world and into our real history, not the Geschichte of Karl Barth's imagination. Biblical faith does not call me to place my faith in my imagination, but in the real Christ who lived among us, walked among us, spoke to us, really died, and really rose from the dead, and will really come back again. This reality will often rebuke me when I fall into religious enthusiasm, fanaticism, or wishful thinking. The Scriptures are infallible and authoritative, and sense can never correct them, for they are perfect. But sense CAN correct my understanding and my foolishness and my ignorance. Ignoring the witness of my sense is non-sense.
But this reality will also confirm the certain words of Scripture and give me a certain hope, not only in this world but also for the world to come. As David said, "I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord." (Psalm 27:13,14) We do not bear witness of dreams and vain imaginations, but reality both in this world, and in the world to come.