March 30: Franklin Pierce Ramsay [1856-1926]

This Day in Presbyterian History is not strictly limited to presenting historical events and biographies pinned to a given date on the calendar. We like to think that we can also, from time to time, expose you to some good writing that you might otherwise never come across. The Rev. Franklin Pierce Ramsay was born on this day, March 30, in 1856. He died on September 30, 1926, at the age of 70. During his long ministerial career of forty-four years, he served as pastor for more than a dozen churches, as president of three colleges and as professor at another four colleges. For our purposes, his most notable accomplishment was his Exposition of the Form of Government and the Rules of Discipline of the Presbyterian Church in the United States—in short, a commentary on the Book of Church Order (BCO), with much of his commentary still applicable to the BCO used by the PCA. We know of three other books that he authored, plus another seven articles, and we are still trying to find a photograph of Rev. Ramsay. The following was written during the time that he was serving as a professor at the Southwestern Presbyterian University, Clarksville, Tennessee. What follows is still quite remarkably applicable to our times and culture today.

The Value of Truth
by Prof. F.P. Ramsay, Ph.D., Clarksville, Tenn.

There are those who tell us that truth is impossible of attainment, and therefore conclude that wisdom lies in agnosticism. The Bible, on the other hand, builds on the principle that truth is ascertainable, even the truth concerning God. Nor is this a question for argument, for argument can not proceed at all except on the assumption of the possibility of truth; it is a question of underived faith. The healthy human mind has faith in the possibility of getting at truth in some directions; and the human mind when healthy religiously has faith in the possibility of getting at truth in religion. This is the fundamental postulate, the essential starting-point, without which advance in any region is impossible.

There are some present-day philosophers who offer us a substitute for truth. They turn from the question, What is true? To the question, What is worth while? They dissuade men from making judgments of fact, and would persuade them to confine attention to judgments of value. They are careless whether Jesus Christ actually lived and died and rose again; it is enough for them, if belief in such a Jesus does good. Some such view has come to be associated in many minds, whether justly or unjustly, with the name of [the German theologian Albrecht] Ritschl [1822-1899]. Instead of calling this lack of desire to determine whether certain statements of fact are true, and this appreciating rather of the question whether certain conceptions are uplifting, Ritschlianism, we prefer to call it agnostic pragmatism.

But this phrase implies a gnostic pragmatism, a name we may give to the philosophy which, while differing from agnosticism by asserting that we can determine what is true, yet agrees with it in denying that we can arrive at this determination by a straight line. It agrees with agnostic pragmatism in assuming that we can determine what beliefs will turn out to be useful; and it differs from it by asserting the general principle that beliefs are true or false, according as they shall turn out to be useful or to be practically unfit to uplift.

This form of pragmatism—assuming to infer the truth or the error from the utility or the inutility—is primarily concerned, not with the truth of beliefs, but with their availability as guides and motives to action. As in all other forms of pragmatism, so the pragmatic philosopher who holds this form can not tell beforehand that two contradictory beliefs may not both turn out to be useful to different persons in different conditions. Pragmatism, then, is at its root, like agnosticism, an indifference to truth.

Such indifferentism, of every form, is of course in direct contradiction to the truly scientific spirit, which believes in the possibility of ascertaining the truth; is devoted to such pursuit, however long and arduous, as is necessary to this ascertainment; and would not care for values apart from truths.

The common impatience with dogma is largely a manifestation of this prevalent indifference to truth. The age is asking for what will work, not for what has been said or taught. The demand is for methods and teachings that will promote the betterment of society, not for methods and teachings authorized by truth. There is a contempt of truth which we may call Pilatism.

This indifferentism, agnosticism, pragmatism, or Pilatism affects Biblical Criticism. Minds dominated by this spirit invent hypotheses and question beliefs, for the benefit of the intellectual gymnastic, or as a sort of sport or pastime. Being themselves indifferent to truth, they are able to conceive prophets and Jesus as being likewise indifferent, and so inventing or reporting useful beliefs without meaning thereby to affirm their truth.

This agnostic pragmatism likewise affects Biblical Interpretation. He becomes the best interpreter who gets the most preachable interpretation of a passage. To make the words of the Bible to teach that which is to-day most practically useful is far better, on this view, than a purely scientific effort to understand the exact meaning originally intended.

This condition of things shows that in our time we need martyrs to truth. Such martyrs are the illuminators of all the ages. This, which is the only scientific spirit, will bring us back to grammatical and logical and archeological fact, that we may thereby get at literary and spiritual fact.

Jesus was a witness to truth, a martyr, i.e., a witness to the death; the Roman who crucified Him was contemptuous of truth. Pilate was pragmatic; Christ was scientific.

[excerpted from The Bible Student and Teacher, Vol. IX, no. 3 (September 1908): 152-153.]

  1. Chuck Wiggins’s avatar

    A great man of God…but I am sure being named after our 14th President (Franklin Pierce) was a cross he had to bear! LOL

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