September 25, 2006

John Howe (1630–1705) Quote on Our Mental Limitations

It cannot be unobserved by them that have made themselves any part of their own study, that it is very incident to our minds, to grasp at more than they can compass; and then, through their own scantiness (like the little hand of a child) to throw away one thing that hath pleased us, to make room for another, because we cannot comprehend both together. It is not strange, that our so straitly limited understanding should not be able to lodge commodiously the immense perfections of a Deity; so as to allow them liberty to spread themselves in our thoughts in their entire proportions. And because we cannot, we complain, when we feel ourselves a little pinched, that the things will not consist; when the matter is, that we have unduly crowded and huddled them up together in our incomprehensive minds, that have not distinctly conceived them.

And though this consideration should not be used for the protection of a usurped liberty of fastening upon God, so arbitrarily and at random, what we please (as indeed what so gross absurdity might not any one give shelter to by such a misapplication of it?) we ought yet to think is seasonably applied when we find ourselves urged with difficulties on one hand and on the other, and apprehend it hard with clearness and satisfaction to ascribe to God what we also find it not easy to ascribe. Nor would it be less unfit to apply it for the patronage of that slothfulness wherein our discouraged minds are sometimes too prone to indulge themselves. To which purpose I remember somewhat very apposite in Minucius Felix, that many through the mere tediousness of finding out the truth, do rather, by a mean succumbency, yield to the first specious show of any opinion whatsoever, than be at the trouble, by a pertinacious diligence, of applying themselves to a thorough search. Though the comprehension of our minds be not infinite, it might be extended much farther than usually it is, if we would allow ourselves with patient diligence to consider things at leisure, and so as gradually to stretch and enlarge our understandings. Many things have carried the appearance of contradiction and inconsistency, to the first view of our straitened minds, which afterwards, we have, upon repeated consideration and endeavor, found room for, and been able to make fairly accord, and lodge together.

Especially we should take heed lest it be excluded by over-much conceitedness, and a self-arrogating pride, that disdains to be thought not able to see through every thing, by the first and slightest glance of a haughty eye; and peremptorily determines that to be unintelligible, that an arrogant, uninstructed mind hath only not humility enough to acknowledge difficult to be understood. When it is too possible some may be overprone to detract from God what really belongs to him, lest any thing should seem detracted from themselves; and impute imperfection to him rather than confess their own; and may be so over-ascribing to themselves, as to reckon it a disparagement not to be endured, to seem a little puzzled for the present, to be put to pause, and draw breath awhile, and look into the matter again and again; which, if their humility and patience would enable them to do, it is not likely that the Author of our faculties would be unassisting to them, in those our inquiries which concern our duty towards himself. For though, in matters of mere speculation, we may be encountered with difficulties whereof perhaps no mortal can ever be able to find out the solution, (which is no great prejudice, and may be gainful and instructive to us,) yet, as to what concerns the object of our religion, it is to be hoped we are not left in unextricable entanglements; nor should think we are, till we have made our utmost trial; the design being not to gratify our curiosity, but to relieve ourselves of uncomfortable doubtfulness in the matter of our worship, and (in a dutiful zeal towards the blessed object thereof) to vindicate it against the cavils of ill-minded men.
John Howe, "The Reconcilableness of God's Prescience of the Sins of Men, with the Wisdom and Sincerity of His Counsels, Exhortations, and Whatsoever Means He Uses to Prevent Them," in The Works of John Howe (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1990), 2:476–478.

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Some of the writings of John Howe can be found online HERE.

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