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Having brought our Dissertations on the Historical portion of this sacred book to a close, we have still another duty to discharge in editing these Commentaries. We have already defended our Reformer from the charges of the German Neologist, and from the censures of the fanciful expounders of prophecy; We have now merely to offer a few comments on the Practical Inferences which Calvin so ably draws from the inspired narrative. While perusing this volume, the reader must often have felt the difference between the state of the world in the days of Nebuchadnezzar and his own. Those were emphatically days of visions, and marvels, and visibly divine interpositions. We, on the contrary, pass on along the even tenor of the walk of life, without expecting to behold a hand-writing on the wall, or to experience the all-devouring heat of a “burning fiery furnace.” We see no vision in the night season foretelling the wonders of an unknown future, and expect neither magician nor prophet to expound with the authority of heaven the images of our sleeping hours. Yet, with our Reformer, we see the world agitated in all quarters with unexpected revolutions. Oppression, and intrigue, and tyranny, prevail among the rulers of Europe and of Christendom, and there seems no human means adequate to the task of stemming the tide of recklessness and infidelity as it overflows the nations. If these comments on scriptural prophecy are to be useful in our day and generation, they need some connecting links of interpretation which may apply the general principles enunciated to the practical problem to be worked out. Otherwise, we either make no intelligent use of such a history as this volume contains, or else we apply it wrong. The latter error is a very common one; and as many are liable to its commission, we trust these Concluding Remarks will be found suitable and instructive. It may appear to many readers that Calvin in his Practical Exhortations overlooks this difference between a miraculous dispensation and the ordinary condition of God’s people under the New Covenant. If he be somewhat open to this charge, it is readily accounted for by the times in which he lived. Calvin, like Daniel, was an exile from his fatherland. The house of Valois and their tyrant kings were to him the exact counterparts of the Babylonian monarchs. They were absolute sovereigns, and most ferocious persecutors of the people of the Lord. The Medici, the Guises, and the Lorraines of his day were to him the very antitypes of the nobles who fawned upon Nebuchadnezzar, and of the presidents who inveigled Darius. In his Dedicatory Ephstle prefixed to this volume, the pious in France are represented as in a position exactly similar to that of the Jews during their captivity. The parallel being in each case so striking and so different to what we see and experience in these days, we need not be surprised at Calvin’s expectation of special interpositions, and at our own backwardness to appreciate the full suitability of his comments. Now there is clearly a sense in which such “special deliverance’s” are real, and a sense in which they are not. And as this is a point of some importance involving the idea of the Almighty which our Reformer has presented to us in the preceding pages, we shall comment at some length on a few passages of importance.
For instance, on Daniel 2:21, and following, we have a full reply to unbelieving objections to God’s providential government of the world. The profane are said to consider all things acted upon by a “blind impulse,” and “others affirm the human race to be a kind of sport to God, since men are tossed about like balls.” The chief cavils of the Reformation Period were those which proceeded from complete skepticism. Philosophers having thrown off the superstitions of Popery naturally doubted and disputed all things. The reasoners of Calvin’s days were something like those intelligent Hindoos who are now worshippers of neither Brahma nor Christ. They are in a transition state, and having unlearned so much, they scarcely know where to lay the foundation-stone of trustworthy belief. Throughout these Lectures, our author is constantly answering the arguments of those contemporaries who felt the hollowness of Rome, and had not yet tried the firmness of Geneva. Still to us his replies may not be convincing. This remark applies to the following passage. “If the sun always rose and set at the same period, or at least certain symmetrical changes took place yearly, without any casual change; if the days of winter were not short, and those of summer not long, we might then discover the same order of nature, and in this way God would be rejected from his dominion.” Here we must remember that in Calvin’s days most men were ignorant of those general laws and all-pervading principles by which the Author of nature governs and sustains the universe. In his day, there was scarcely any choice between the system which represented the Almighty removed in a kind of Ephcurean repose far away from the works of his hand, and a system which supposed him to interfere arbitrarily and suddenly in favor of one party, and to rim discomfiture of another. Since this period, the researches of modern science have discovered for us the numerous, the simple, and seemingly self-acting principles, according to which the days of winter are short, and those of summer long. We can contemplate humbly “the same order of nature” from year to year with undeviating regularity, and yet never be tempted “to reject God from his dominion.” Yea, the marvel is this, the more we are trained to view the comprehensive theories of physical astronomy, and chemistry, and magnetism, the more are we led to adore and to magnify the Great and the All-powerful Original. Such studies do not lead us to “erect nature into a deity,” and to reject the Creator from his own dominion. They rather lead us to detect the fallacy in the expression “nature does this or that;” they prove to us that there is no such existence as “nature,” but that the word is but an expression for a complex and comprehensive idea of external objects, in the minds of men. The Almighty is seen by the true naturalist, in all his works, not as interposing visibly and surprisingly at one time, and leaving all things to themselves at another; but rather as impressing on every created particle of matter its own condition of obedience to certain laws which we call either mechanical or chemical, vital or organic. And it is the merciful arrangement of providence that a persevering study of God’s works prepares the mind for an intelligent perusal of his word. The habit of looking for such general principles as gravitation, attraction, organization, and development, of applying these theories to practice by the process of mathematical reasoning, or anatomical dexterity, and of arriving at results indisputably true, — this habit of mind is an excellent preparative for the equally discursive pursuit of revealed theology. Thus we readily detect the fallacy of ascribing the events of life to either fortune, or chance, or nature. Calvin had to contend with them as if they were realities; we may profit by Locke’s chapter on complex ideas, and treat them as expressions comprehending many separate existence’s, so related to each other that we form “a collective idea” of the whole.
By continuing this process of thought we are enabled to explain, although not to defend certain phrases of Calvin’s respecting the prerogatives of God. On Daniel 5:11, men are said to “mingle God and angels in complete confusion,” and on Daniel 5:21, God is said to be “excluded from the government of the world,” The moment our attention is turned to the point, we perceive that the ideas only of God and angels can be mingled, and in imagination only can men exclude the Almighty from his sway over the wills of mankind. Such phrases, we must remember, are the remnants of that realism which lingered in the minds of many of the Reformers, and still clings to the writings of some of their successors. Such expressions as we meet with on Daniel 6:10, “Draw down God from heaven,” and on Daniel 6:16, “to deprive the Almighty of his sway,” are better avoided. The same thought may be expressed in language more adapted to our enlarged views of the glory of our Creator. The Hebrew Prophets, it has been said, “dramatized the particulars of their mission,” and their symbolical portraits of the Almighty were afterwards received as exact and literal descriptions of his character. The Jewish people, even in the time of Daniel, were but in the infancy of moral and intellectual growth; and to them the well-known proverb most aptly applies, “Omne ignotum, pro magnifico.” Everything marvelous was attributed at once to the direct agency of a deity, disturbing rather than controlling the occurrences of life. Thus the world, and its surprising tumults, successes, struggles, and reverses, appeared but a scene of fortuitous and capricious chance. But the more we advance from infancy to manhood, the more we gain power to methodize these moral phenomena under some fixed and intelligible arrangement.
It is possible to present from the word of God another reply to the Ephcurean suppositions of Calvin’s day, on principles in advance of those which he adopts. While he represents kings as actually contending with the Almighty, and really attempting to hurl him from his throne in heaven, we must remember that such language can only be suggestive. The foundation of all true reverence for Deity is the idea of an infinite and invisible Being, of whose wisdom and might the material universe is the product, and of whose moral nature the conscience of man is the image. When asked for rigid proof of this assertion, we are constrained to refer it to that faith which is peculiarly his gift. The double postulate of that essential existence which is spiritual, and of something in ourselves, which is his image, is the necessary rock upon which we must be placed before we can understand our origin and our destiny — our position in the universe — our moral relation to that system of providence into which we find ourselves born. And this series of providential occurrences is in many respects exactly the opposite to that described in these six chapters of Daniel. Miraculous and supernatural agency is here variously employed to counteract what are known to us as the ordinary laws of nature. The simple will of the Almighty annihilates the effect of fire in the furnace, and the ferocity of lions in their den. A sweeping act of his power converts one despot into the appearance of a beast of prey, and affrights another by the ominous appearance of a hand writing vengeance on a wall. We cannot expect such special revelations, judgments, or deliverance’s. Our study of the character of Deity is contained in the revealed record of such wonders, and in the present and past history of man and of the physical world. Moral and natural philosophy, under the guidance of revealed religion, is for us the exponent of the idea of Deity. The omnipresence of mind in outward nature is now all but visible to every student. Vast as the universe is, we know it to be pervaded by a moral purpose, and this presents that view of Deity which provides for adoration, and love, and reverence, without limit, and satisfies the longings for worship which are implanted deeply in the human soul. Thus we clothe the idea of an infinite spirit with the attributes of a human conscience; we are not satisfied with “a dynamic center of the universe,” we desire to feel our souls overflow with that mingled wonder and love which constitutes the highest and noblest worship of him who is Good. The history of nations and of families impresses upon us the idea of a personal providential Divinity, having fellow-feeling with the wants and distresses, the joys and the sorrows of mankind. Now, we also believe that there are general, harmonious, ever-acting laws of his providential government as well as of his physical. And the study of ordinary sciences disciplines the mind, and qualifies it to perceive, and arrange, and reason upon analogous laws in the moral and religious government of our immortal spirits. A firm persuasion that there is no disorder or disturbance in God’s moral sway — that he is not influenced by caprice, or swayed by favoritism, or turned aside by passionate entreaty, is necessary as the key-stone to the arch of Christian wisdom. Those very confusions of which our Reformer writes so vigorously in his Dedicatory Ephstle, ascribing them to the “red and sanguinary cohorts and horned beasts,” were all in accordance with those uniformity’s of action which we now designate general laws. So far from considering it possible for God to “sit at ease in heaven and desert and betray his own cause,” our firm reliance on the permanence of those principles which underlie and encompass all others, is thereby tested and increased. The phenomena of political government, of religious persecution, and of social outbursts of fury and fanaticism, obey laws as orderly and as undeviating as those which regulate the motion of a planet or the passage of electricity along the wire. Through and by means of this “setting up and pulling down of kings,” the Almighty speaks a language addressed alike to our reason, our conscience, and our faith. But the great guarantee of our spiritual improvement is the fundamental belief that there is harmony, and classification, and inflexible regularity throughout the whole moral government of God. The very possibility of accident, or favoritism, or isolated marvel, must be banished from our thoughts. We know, by long course of proof and experience, that they do not exist in the physical world, and we cannot allow them a single foot-print within the domain of our moral and spiritual nature. Nothing here can be an anomaly, nothing an exception. In the uncultivated mind, there is an avidity for the marvelous, and a morbid eagerness for a cheap and easy solution of the solemn mysteries concerning God and the soul; but our educated religious life is like “a star hovering on the horizon’s verge between night and morning.” Thus, by faith we stand at the parting of the two roads, imagined by Plate’s great Parmenides, between the seeming and the true. As this star shines brighter over our path, mere external ceremonies and notional expressions become more and more objects of distrust; and the ideas of God and of the soul, of sin and of conscience, of heaven and of glory, become more and more vivid and real to us. And if any are afraid that the pursuit of either scientific, or moral, or religious truth, according to the principles here laid down, will injure true religion or saving faith, the single antidote to this fear is found in the exhortation, “Have faith in God.” (Mark 11:22.) Throughout these Lectures our Reformer ever clings to this scriptural principle, and even illustrates his subject ably, practically, and improvingly; while he all along labors under the difficult task of rendering a narrative interspersed with miracle available for the improvement of modern Christians who live under a totally different dispensation.
As another illustration of this difficulty, we may turn to Daniel 6:25-27, where our commentator asserts of the profane, that they so unite minor deities with the true that “he lies hid in a crowd, although he enjoys a slight pre-eminence.” Such simple and racy language is easily intelligible, but scarcely dignified enough. It justifies the assertion that in the infancy of great truths, language is an index of our ignorance rather than of our knowledge. Truly enough all men “wander confusedly” when they attempt to render palpable to others their contemplations of a Deity. This idea is the most vague and comprehensive of all — a universal solvent of all problems in the early stage of our religious existence. The Egyptians and the Greeks saw a god everywhere — in hill, in brook, in bird and beast. They manifested no lack of faith in the existence of beings far superior to themselves; and when the priest set up the ugly idol in its gorgeous temple, he never imagined he was creating a god for either himself or the people. He only attempted, after his fashion, to give fixity and embodiment to the ideas of Deity which were floating about indefinitely in the minds of the multitude. But the interval was wide indeed between these metaphorical symbols and the simple abstract idea of one self-acting Being ruling the conscience and swaying the future destinies of all men. When the tree of knowledge was separated from the tree of life, a dark and forlorn interval succeeded, during which mankind underwent long struggles of disquietude in “feeling after” the Almighty One. And we have been permitted to find him. To believe in his permanent presence and providence, to cling to him with the trust of a child to a parent, to follow after him, with no voice but his word acting on conscience and cheering while it guides, to trust him even amid the darkest prospects, — this it is to have faith in God. And this trust is not the mere result of reason, or understanding, or sentiment, or speculation. It is woven into our deepest instincts and our noblest aspirations. It unites them all. It is completed in love. What the profane call Nature, all who sympathize in Darius’s proclamation concerning Daniel’s God, feel to be a legislation of love. A parent whose government is unerring and complete is ever setting before us the unalterable Law as an exhibition of unchanging love. The very severity and uncompromising character of this idea of Deity proves the crowning beneficence of his kingship over the powers of this world. Inflexible justice and unerring certainty become the highest proofs of all-pervading benevolence. Herein lies the perfection of constancy and truth. The conscience is thus felt to be the vicegerent of this Divinity within. Forms of thought and expression must change, and since Calvin’s time, in the course of three centuries, they have passed through many changes; and man’s religious condition must always be modified by the extension of his knowledge, his experience, and his educated capacities. Many habitual modes of thought current in the days of Oecolampadius and Willet have been set aside; the disturbance of feeling which this occasioned has subsided, and our comprehension of God’s moral sway over the affairs of men has been enlarged and purified by the change. His hand-writing is now legible to us on ten thousand walls where of old it was a blank. The wonder which has been removed from special facts has been transferred to general laws; and if “the dream and its interpretation” are not now sent as proofs of his providence, there has sprung up instead equally striking indications of it in every dewdrop and in every flower.
The Practical Improvement which is so appositely made of every occurrence throughout this historical portion of the Lectures, constitutes a large share of their value. They always plead fervently for justice; always and everywhere they place justice first. They shew us that the absolute will of the most unbending tyranny must ultimately yield to the Divine omnipotence of justice, and that all defenses which human power may raise against human rights are utterly vain. He who would be god-like must first be just, and whatever else may be avoided, there is no escape from an avenging judge and a self-torturing conscience. These Lectures encourage us to harbor no distrust that permanent evil will arise to us from doing manfully our duty; they banish all fear that religion should suffer from the withdrawing of any supports which are proved to be unsound. They stir us up to do the work assigned to us while yet it is day with affectionate fidelity and all earnestness of zeal, and are specially instructive in an age like ours, more remarkable for the variety of its creeds than the intensity of its faith. Certainly the ancient spirit of righteousness, which flourished so vigorously under the crushing despotism of the House of Valois, is not strong within us. That spirit may be characterized as moral courage and religious earnestness combined with love to Christ and readiness to peril life for his name. And while it has almost died out in these days, the practical exhortations of these Lectures may, by God’s blessing, aid in its revival.
Connected with the practical exposition of our Prophet, we find a passage in Daniel 5 which demands our notice. In commenting on Daniel 5:5, and explaining that the hand which wrote upon the wall was not real, but only a figure, it is said, “Scripture often uses this form of speech, and especially when treating external symbols.” “Est ergo haec etiam sacramentalis loquutio, ut ita loquar.” It would surprise us to find the word “sacramental” introduced here, if we were unacquainted with the modes of thought and expression in which Calvin was brought up. But when we remember the very strong hold which the phraseology of the schoolmen had upon the minds of all who were early imbued with it, we enter at once into the fullness of its meaning. We have already stated in our Dissertations On Ezekiel, that the theology of Europe was, during the middle ages, entirely moulded according to the teaching of either the Realists or the Nominalists. It was so then, and it is so now. These two classes of mental cultivation still govern the theological studies of mankind, and will probably do so till the end of our Christian dispensation. The theology of Rome is the growth of the scholastic philosophy built up by the Realists; the teaching of the Reformers springs entirely from that of the Nominalists. All leanings to Rome have in them the essence of Realism, made manifest by some Romanizing tendencies; and all Ultra-Protestantism verges towards a series of negatives based upon Nominalism. We have already alluded to the first nominalist, to whom Luther and Melancthon own their deep obligations. “The real originator of the Protestant principle,” says the author of The Vindication of Protestant Principles, “the first man who truly emancipated himself from the trammels of Popish ecclesiolatry, the first, in fact, who referred everything to Scripture, and asserted the right of private judgment in its interpretation, was our own countryman, William of Ockham, in Surrey.” He died at Munich in the year 1347, just 170 years before Luther fastened his ninety-five propositions to the church doors at Wittenberg. Leopold Ranke also asserts that the celebrated nominalist, Gabriel Biel, was chiefly an epitomizer of this favorite writer of Melancthon’s. (See Vindic. Prot. Prin.) The Zurich Letters (Ep. 23, Park. Soc.) inform us of the language of Bishop Jewel when writing to Peter Martyr, 5th November 1559, — “We have deserted the ranks of Scotus and Aquinas for those of the Occamists and Nominalists,” 1842. This sentence condenses under a short formula the very essence of the controversies which now agitate Christendom at large. We cannot dwell here on the proofs of this important statement; we can only remind the reader of these Lectures that he will find some lingering traces of the realism which once pervaded the theology of Europe, and in which Calvin was brought up. We all know how exceedingly difficult it is utterly to efface the earliest impressions made upon an earnest and deeply speculative mind. Whenever, for instance, some of the expressions with respect to the Almighty seem alien to our present modes of thinking, we are now able to trace them to their source, and to set them aside as remnants of a system which our Reformer energetically and vigorously opposed. He is always leading us to cultivate the idea of a moral mind pervading all that we know and read of now, and can know hereafter. This germinant truth shines like light within our souls; the images and visions, the trials and triumphs of Daniel and his companions, are no longer insulated atoms in chaos — a mighty maze, and all without a plan — but portions of one organic whole, in which we are personally bound up for both time and eternity. And the more we surrender ourselves to this trust in our Parent Spirit, the more shall we find our ignorance of the plans of Providence removed, and the cloud of mystery hanging over the prevalence of evil brightened and dispersed. Thus the discovery of the laws by which the universe is governed by no means excludes the Supreme Cause from our contemplation; on the contrary, he becomes more manifest to us by his pervading and perpetual presence.
Throughout these Lectures we are ever taught that we can see God only by being pure in heart. The preparation for spiritual insight into holy mysteries is purity of conscience and singleness of eye. But even these able comments do not clear up everything. Our lot on earth must be to walk more by faith than by sight. This is the chief exercise of the soul, which is essential to its vitality and growth. We must have at times our mountains of vision as well as our valleys of the shadow of death. Never let us doubt the essential permanence of justice, and righteousness, and truthfulness. By this we shall be borne up through regions of cloud into realms of light. Thus will our spirituality be strengthened and refined: thus we shall be permitted to obtain larger perceptions of God’s character and maturer judgments of his purposes.
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