Radical Orthodoxy – Reason and Revelation

Milbank explicitly draws from the criticisms raised by Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) and Franz Heinrich Jacobi (1743-1819) against their contemporary philosophical trends. Both were Lutheran and Milbank sees them recovering a “knowledge by faith alone” as a counterpart of “justification by faith alone.” According to Milbank, their main project was to question the idea of a reason-revelation duality, and recover a Patristic framework of participation in the mind of God.

Milbank argues that “to reason truly one must be already illumined by God, while revelation itself is but a higher measure of such illumination . . .”[1] According to Milbank, Jacobi and Hamann “insisted that no finite thing can be known, not even to any degree, outside of its ration to the infinite” and for this reason “there can be no reason/revelation duality: true reason anticipates revelation, while revelation simply is of true reason . . .”[2] Here Milbank admits that Jacobi and Hamann allowed “even less autonomy to a universal reason than that permitted by the Church Fathers,” but he agrees with their stance.[3]

It is at this point Milbank’s argument seems to be subject to criticism. It is not entirely clear that Aquinas’ view (which Milbank proposes to follow) is that revelation is “but a higher measure of such illumination” of reason. If what can be known by reason and what can be known by revelation are on a continuum, it would seem that they are not two different modes of knowing, but only two different intensities of knowing. In this case, there is nothing that can be known apart from some revelation, and that does not seem to fit with Aquinas’ view on reason and revelation.

This is precisely what Milbank favorably ascribes to Jacobi and Hamann – the view that “no finite thing can be known, not even to any degree, outside of its ration to the infinite.”[4] If this is to be taken in the sense that whatever possible knowledge there is for creatures, it is knowledge made possible by the grace of God who endows minds with the ability to know, then this would consonant with a Thomistic framework – indeed, this would be agreeable to classical Christian theology and epistemology. On the other hand, if this is taken in the sense that there is no any possible knowledge of any finite thing apart from presuppositions of participation and transcendence, this seems to conflict both with Thomistic thought and with empirical observation.

Within a framework of analogical knowledge, there is nothing that can be known by creatures in the same mode as God’s knowledge. Whatever can be known about and said of God, it is known and said analogically. Similarly, whatever can be known about finite things, it is known according to creaturely proportion, i.e., in a finite way and in a qualitatively different way from God’s knowledge. But that does not mean that it is not known in a very real sense.

The laws of mathematics, from the most complex to the most simple, are known by persons in a way different than God knows them, and yet they are truly known; I can know that 5+4=9 in a real way, even though God knows so in a different way that I, as a creature, do. Similarly, in a very real sense I can know that there is a keyboard and a monitor in front of me, even though God knows this not only in an infinite way, but also in a different way. Science, technology, literature, philosophy, biology, arts, and so on, are known in a real sense by those who might even deny any theistic presuppositions altogether. Objects, propositions, mathematical and physical laws, etc., can be known as well by an atheist as by one who, with Milbank, rightly understands that such things do not have any reality apart from an ontology of participation.

Of course, it can be argued that all knowledge that denies any ontology of participation is simply borrowed knowledge, i.e., that one cannot really know any mathematical propositions or that he had coffee in the morning without presupposing the laws of logic, etc., which depend on metaphysical assumptions. Nevertheless, even if there is a very fundamental inconsistency in knowledge that denies ontological participation, it does not mean that it is not knowledge – it simply means that it is not properly grounded.

In this way, it seems that Milbank overstates his case to a degree that epistemology is laid on a univocal continuum, which would compromise the distinction between reason and revelation as two modes of knowing (even if not independent), and would deny the legitimacy of any knowledge whatsoever that is not exercised in faith. Aquinas certainly did not allow for independent existence and knowledge apart from God, but it would be difficult to demonstrate that he denied that reason has any power to function apart from faith.

For Aquinas, there are two theologies – first, a theology that is part of philosophy and is investigated by human reason, and second, a theology included in sacred doctrine that operates by way of revelation (cf. Summa Ia.I.1). There is therefore a mode of knowledge about God that is accessible to human reason, and another mode of knowledge inaccessible to reason, beyond man’s knowledge, and accessible only to revelation.

Aquinas’ maxim that “grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it” (Summa Ia.I.8ad2) seems to be taken by Milbank in the sense that grace perfects nature by swallowing it up, so that there is no reason apart from faith; whereas Aquinas’ point is that grace allows for the integrity of reason while also coming to its aid by way of revelation, providing knowledge which is otherwise inaccessible to reason. The difficulty seems to be in understanding precisely in what sense reason can be said to be or not be autonomous. Milbank correctly argues that reason is not a purely autonomous operation that can function entirely apart from God, but rather that it operates only on the basis of an inner divine illumination.

This is true because sight, whether physical, intellectual, or spiritual, is a gift from God in whom we live, and move, and have our being. But it does not follow from this that God’s illumination of the intellect (allowing reason to function properly within the limitations of finite knowledge and of the noetic effects of the fall) is of the same mode of the illumination God grants in revelation. Otherwise, natural theology and revelation are not really distinct, but only different intensities of the same continuum – and this would entail an identity between nature and grace that would be entirely foreign to Aquinas. One can say that Aquinas argues for the integrity of creation versus brute autonomy, or a graced autonomy versus a seized autonomy.”[5]

Therefore, rather than denying any legitimacy whatsoever of reason apart from faith, it seems a better strategy – which Milbank also adopts – to argue that apart from an ontology of realism and participation, things lose depth, knowledge becomes arbitrary, ethics lose real grounding, and evil becomes the counter-equivalent of the good. This is sufficient for a sustained critique of modernism, postmodernism, univocity, sheer relativism, difference without unity, and the illusion of the neutrality of science and secular praxis.


[1] Milbank, Radical Orthodoxy, p. 24

[2] Ibid., p. 24. Emphasis in the original.

[3] Ibid., p. 25

[4] Ibid., p. 24

[5] Smith, p. 163

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4 comments on “Radical Orthodoxy – Reason and Revelation

  1. Ben Barkley says:

    Could you break down how an ontology of of realism and participation leads to the consequences listed? And what kind of distinction do you think reason and revelation should have? Thanks

  2. […] As discussed in the other articles of this series, Milbank presses his arguments too far when challenging the autonomy of reason. There is no purely autonomous reason indeed, but there are serious difficulties in arguing that revelation is “but a higher measure of illumination.” […]

  3. […] Radical Orthodoxy – Reason and Revelation […]

  4. […] Radical Orthodoxy – Reason and Revelation […]

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