David Hume was born in 1711. In the same year that the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain, 1776, Hume died. He’s known as a skeptical Scottish philosopher. He’s a key figure in the Enlightenment and in the study of modern philosophy, especially epistemology, which is the study of knowledge, how we know what we know and how what we know is actually truth.
He was known as an empiricist, that is, he believed knowledge is not innate. Knowledge must come through experience, which of course we relate to or know through the senses. As I mentioned, he was ultimately a skeptic. He argued that the senses could be deceived, and if all knowledge comes through the senses, we must be skeptical. We certainly can’t be certain of our knowledge. He also argued that our experiences are not universal, and certainly not eternal, so we can’t speak of laws. For instance, he said we can’t speak of the law of cause and effect, but instead we can only speak of what Hume called customary relationships.
In terms of the field of ethics, David Hume rejected the idea of moral absolutes. He advanced what he called sentimentalism. Morality and the laws that govern societies and human relations are based on sentiment, even emotion, but certainly not on some moral absolute that is discovered or understood from the rational processes.
Hume is the progenitor of any number of twentieth-century philosophies like logical positivism, analytical philosophy, and, we could say, twentieth-century atheism. He was certainly no friend of Christianity. So all of that raises a question: Why talk about David Hume on 5 Minutes in Church History?
First, he was a historian. He wrote philosophical books, but in his own day nobody bought them, and he wanted to be a popular writer. So he wrote an eight-volume history of England. In the 1786 edition, volume 7, he writes about Charles I. On page 32 Hume writes, “In the summer of 1643, while the negotiations were carried on with Scotland, the parliament had summoned an assembly at Westminster consisting of 121 divines [that is, ministers] and 30 layman celebrated in their party for piety and learning.” This, of course, is referring to the Westminster standards, a confession of faith, the catechisms, and the Westminster divines in the 1640s. They were meeting at Westminster Abbey in London.
Hume continues, “By their advice, alterations were made in the Thirty-Nine Articles or in the metaphysical doctrines of the church.” He’s referring to the Anglican Church, the Church of England. “And what was of greater importance, the liturgy was entirely abolished and in its stead, a new directory for worship was established. By which suitably to the spirit of the Puritans, the utmost Liberty, both in praying and preaching was indulged to the public teachers.”
So Hume the philosopher was also a historian, giving us an account of what happened in the 1640s. The divines gathered in the Jerusalem Chamber inside Westminster Abbey. They gathered not only to hammer out a new way of thinking about doctrine that would be different from the Thirty-Nine Articles or the Anglican Church. But, as Hume notes, they were especially concerned with the worship service. These Puritans gave us a new way of thinking about the church service in England, one that brought prayer and preaching to the fore.