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YET YE SAY, THE WAY OF THE LORD IS NOT EQUAL. HEAR NOW, O HOUSE OF ISRAEL; IS NOT MY WAY EQUAL? ARE NOT YOUR WAYS UNEQUAL?-EZEKIEL XVIII. 25.
“IF I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor.”8282 Galatians ii. 18. This text might be appropriately prefixed to an examination of that system of moral and religious criticism which, at the close of the last century, succeeded for a time in giving a philosophical connection to the hitherto loose and floating theological rationalism of its age and country.(1) It was indeed a marvellous attempt to send forth from the same fountain sweet waters and bitter, to pull down and to build up by the same act and method. The result of the Critical Philosophy, as applied to the speculative side of human Reason, was to prove beyond all question the existence of certain necessary forms and laws of Intuition and thought, which impart a corresponding character to all the objects of which Consciousness, intuitive or reflective, can take cognizance. Consciousness was thus exhibited as a Relation between the human mind and its object; and this conclusion, once established, is fatal to the very conception of a Philosophy of the Absolute. But by an inconsistency scarcely to be paralleled in the history of philosophy, the author of this comprehensive criticism attempted to deduce a partial conclusion from universal premises, and to 183 exempt the speculations of moral and religious thought from the relative character with which, upon his own principles, all the products of human consciousness were necessarily invested. The Moral Law, and the ideas which it carries with it, are, according to this theory, not merely facts of human consciousness, conceived under the laws of human thought, but absolute, transcendental realities, implied in the conception of all Reasonable Beings as such, and therefore independent of the law of time, and binding, not on man as man, but on all possible intelligent beings, created or uncreated.(2) The Moral Reason is thus a source of absolute and unchangeable realities; while the Speculative Reason is concerned only with phenomena, or things modified by the constitution of the human mind.(3) As a corollary to this theory, it follows, that the law of human morality must be regarded as the measure and adequate representative of the moral nature of God;—in fact, that our knowledge of the Divine Being is identical with that of our own moral duties;—for God is made known to us, as existing at all, only in and by the moral reason: we do not look upon actions as binding because they are commanded by God; but we know them to be divine commands because we are bound by them.(4) Applying these principles to the criticism of Revealed Religion, the philosopher maintains that no code of laws claiming divine authority can have any religious value, except as approved by the moral reason;(5) that there can be no duties of faith or practice towards God, distinct from the moral obligations which reason enjoins;(6) and that, consequently, every doctrine to which this test is inapplicable is either no part of revelation at all, or at best can only be given for local and temporary purposes, of which the enlightened reason need no longer take any account.(7)184
Amid much that is true and noble in this teaching when confined within its proper limits, its fundamental weakness as an absolute criterion of religious truth is so manifest as hardly to need exposure. The fiction of a moral law binding in a particular form upon all possible intelligences, acquires this seeming universality, only because human intelligence is made the representative of all. I can conceive moral attributes only as I know them in consciousness: I can imagine other minds only by first assuming their likeness to my own. To construct a theory, whether of practical or of speculative reason, which shall be valid for other than human intelligences, it is necessary that the author should himself be emancipated from the conditions of human thought. Till this is done, the so-called Absolute is but the Relative under another name: the universal consciousness is but the human mind striving to transcend itself.
The very characteristics of Universality and Necessity, with which our moral obligations are invested, point to an origin the very reverse of that which the above theory supposes. For these characteristics are in all cases due to the presence of the formal and personal element in the phenomena of consciousness, and appear most evidently in those conceptions in which the matter as well as the manner of thinking is drawn from the laws or formal conditions of experience. Of these conditions, I have in a former Lecture enumerated three—Time, Space, and Personality; the first as the condition of human consciousness in general: the second and third as the conditions of the same consciousness in relation to the phenomena of matter and of mind respectively.(8) From these are derived three corresponding systems of necessary truths in the highest human sense of the term: the science of Numbers being connected. with 185 the condition of Time; that of Magnitudes with Space; and that of Morals with Personality. These three sciences rest on similar bases, and are confined within the same limits: all being equally necessary and valid within the legitimate bounds of human intelligence; and all equally negative and self-contradictory, when we attempt to pass beyond those bounds. The contradictions involved in the conceptions of Infinite Number and Infinite Magnitude find their parallel when we attempt to conceive the attributes of an Infinite Morality: the necessity which is manifested in the finite relations of the two former is the counterpart of that which accompanies those of the latter.(9) That Moral Obligation, conceived as a law binding upon man, must be regarded as immutable so long as man’s nature remains unchanged, is manifest from the character of the conception itself, and follows naturally from a knowledge of its origin. An act of Duty is presented to my consciousness as enjoined by a Law whose obligation upon myself is directly and intuitively discerned. It thus differs essentially from the phenomena of external nature, whose laws are not immediately perceived, but inferred from the observed recurrence of facts. The immediate consciousness of Law unavoidably carries with it the conviction of necessity and immutability in relation to the agent who is subject to it. For to suppose that a moral law can be reversed or suspended in relation to myself;—to suppose a conviction of right unaccompanied by an obligation to act, or a conviction of wrong unaccompanied by an obligation to forbear,—is to suppose a reversal of the conditions of my personal existence;—a supposition which annihilates itself; since those conditions are implied in the attempt to conceive my personal existence at all. The Moral Sense is thus, like the intuitions of Time and Space, 186 an a priori law of the human mind, not determined by experience as it is, but determining beforehand what experience ought to be. But it is not thereby elevated above the conditions of human intelligence; and the attempt so to elevate it is especially inadmissible in that philosophy which resolves Time and Space into forms of the human consciousness, and limits their operation to the field of the phenomena and the relative.
That there is an Absolute Morality, based upon, or rather identical with, the Eternal Nature of God, is indeed a conviction forced upon us by the same evidence as that on which we believe that God exists at all. But what that Absolute Morality is, we are as unable to fix in any human conception, as we are to define the other attributes of the same Divine Nature. To human conception it seems impossible that absolute morality should be manifested in the form of a law of obligation; for such a law implies relation and subjection to the authority of a lawgiver. And as all human morality is manifested in this form, the conclusion seems unavoidable, that human morality, even in its highest elevation, is not identical with, nor adequate to measure, the Absolute Morality of God.(10)
A like conclusion is forced upon us by a closer examination of human morality itself. To maintain the immutability of moral principles in the abstract is a very different thing from maintaining the immutability of the particular acts by which those principles are manifested in practice. The parallel between the mathematical and the moral sciences, as systems of necessary truth, holds good in this respect also. As principles in the abstract, the laws of morality are as unchangeable as the axioms of geometry. That duty ought in all cases to be followed in preference to inclination, is as certain a truth as that two straight lines 187 cannot enclose a space. In their concrete application, both principles are equally liable to error;—we may err in supposing a particular visible line to be perfectly straight; as we may err in supposing a particular act to be one of duty.(11) But the two errors, though equally possible, are by no means equally important. For mathematical science, as such, is complete in its merely theoretical aspect; while moral science is valuable chiefly in its application to practice. It is in their concrete form that moral principles are adopted as guides of conduct and canons of judgment; and in this form they admit of various degrees of uncertainty or of positive error. But the difference between the highest and the lowest conception of moral duty is one of degree, not of kind; the interval between them is occupied by intermediate stages, separated from each other by minute and scarcely appreciable differences; and the very conception of a gradual progress in moral enlightenment implies the possibility of a further advance, of a more exalted intellect, and a more enlightened conscience. While we repudiate, as subversive of all morality, the theory which maintains that each man is the measure of his own moral acts; we must repudiate also, as subversive of all religion, the opposite theory, which virtually maintains that man may become the measure of the absolute Nature of God.
God did not create Absolute Morality: it is coëternal with Himself; and it were blasphemy to say that there ever was a time when God was and Goodness was not. But God did create the human manifestation of morality, when He created the moral constitution of man, and placed him in those circumstances by which the eternal principles of right and wrong are modified in relation to the present life.(12) For it is manifest, to take the simplest instances, that the sixth Commandment of the Decalogue, in its literal 188 obligation, is relative to that state of things in which men are subject to death; and the seventh, to which there is marrying and giving in marriage; and the eighth, to that in which men possess temporal goods. It is manifest, to take a more general ground, that the very conception of moral obligation implies a superior authority, and an ability to transgress what that authority commands; that it implies a complex, and therefore a limited nature in the moral agent; the intellect, which apprehends the duty, being distinct from the will, which obeys or disobeys. That there is a higher and unchangeable principle embodied in these forms, we have abundant reason to believe; and yet we cannot, from our present point of view, examine the same duties apart from their human element, and separate that which is relative and peculiar to man in this life from that which is absolute and common to all moral beings. In this respect, again, our moral conceptions offer a remarkable analogy to the cognate phenomena on which other systems of necessary truth are based. Take, for example, the idea of Time, the foundation of the science of Number. We find no difficulty in conceiving that this present world was created at some definite point of time; but we are unable to conceive the same moment as the creation of Time itself. On the contrary, we are compelled to believe that there was a time before as well as after the creation of the world: that the being of God reaches back in boundless duration beyond the moment when He said, Let there be light; and there was light. But when we attempt to unite this conviction with another, necessary to the completion of the thought;—when we try to conceive God as an Infinite Being, existing in continuous duration,—the contradictions, which beset us on every side, admonish us that we have transcended the boundary within which alone human thought is 189 possible. And so, too, while we are competent to believe that the creation of man’s moral nature was not identical with the creation of morality itself;—that the great principles of all that is holy and righteous existed in God, before they assumed their finite form in the heart of man;—we still find ourselves baffled in every attempt to conceive an infinite moral nature, or its condition, an infinite personality: we find ourselves compelled to walk by faith, and not by sight;—to admit that we have knowledge enough to guide us in our moral training here; but not enough to unveil the hidden things of God.(13)
In so far, then, as Morality, in its human character, depends upon conditions not coëternal with God, but created along with man, in so far we are not justified in regarding the occasional suspension of human duties, by the same authority which enacted them, as a violation of the immutable principles of morality itself. That there are limits, indeed, within which alone this rule can be safely applied;—that there are doctrines and practices which carry on their front convincing proof that they cannot have been revealed or commanded by God;—that there are systems of religion which by this criterion may be shown to have sprung, not from divine appointment, but from human corruption,—is not for an instant denied. In my concluding Lecture, I shall endeavor to point out some of the conditions under which this kind of evidence is admissible. For the present, my argument is concerned, not with special and occasional commands, but with universal and perpetual doctrines; not with isolated facts recorded in sacred history, but with revealed truths, forming an integral portion of religious belief: In this point of view, I propose to apply the principle hitherto maintained, of the Limits of Religious Thought, to the examination of those doctrines of the Christian Faith 190 which are sometimes regarded as containing something repugnant to the Moral Reason of man.
The Atoning Sacrifice of Christ has been the mark assailed by various attacks of this kind; some of them not very consistent with each other, but all founded on some supposed incongruity between this doctrine and the moral attributes of the Divine Nature. By one critic, the doctrine is rejected because it is more consistent with the infinite mercy of God to pardon sin freely, without any atonement whatsoever.(14) By another, because, from the unchangeable nature of God’s laws, it is impossible that sin can be pardoned at all.(15) A third maintains that it is unjust that the innocent should suffer for the sins of the guilty.(16) A fourth is indignant at the supposition that God can be angry;(17) while a fifth cannot see by what moral fitness the shedding of blood can do away with sin or its punishment.(18) The principle which governs these and similar objections is, that we have a right to assume that there is, if not a perfect identity, at least an exact resemblance between the moral nature of man and that of God; that the laws and principles of infinite justice and mercy are but magnified images of those which are manifested on a finite scale;—that nothing can be compatible with the boundless goodness of God, which is incompatible with the little goodness of which man may be conscious in himself.
The value of this principle, as an absolute criterion of religious truth, may be tested by the simple experiment of applying the same reasoning to an imaginary revelation constructed on the rational principles of some one of the objectors. Let us suppose, then, that, instead of the Christian doctrine of the Atonement, the Scriptures had told us of an absolute and unconditional pardon of sin, following upon the mere repentance of the sinner. It is easy to imagine 191 how ready our reasoning theologians would be with their philosophical criticism, speculative or moral. Does it not, they might say, represent mall as influencing God,—the Finite as controlling, by the act of repentance, the unchangeable self-determinations of the Infinite? Does it not depict the Deity as acting in time, as influenced by motives and occasions, as subject to human feelings? Does it not tend to weaken our impression of the hatefulness of sin, and to encourage carelessness in the sinner, by the easy terms on which he is promised forgiveness?(19) If it is un- worthy of God to represent Him as angry and needing to be propitiated, how can philosophy tolerate the conception that He is placable, and to be softened by repentance? And what moral fitness has repentance to do away with the guilt or punishment of a past transgression? Whatever moral fitness there exists between righteousness and God’s favor, the same must exist between sin and God’s anger: in whatever degree that which deserves punishment is not punished, in that degree God’s justice is limited in its operation. A strictly moral theory requires, therefore, not free forgiveness, but an exactly graduated proportion between guilt and suffering, virtue and happiness.(20) If, on the other hand, we maintain that there is no moral fitness in either case, we virtually deny the existence of a moral Deity at all: we make God indifferent to good and evil as such: we represent Him as rewarding and punishing arbitrarily and with respect of persons. The moral objection, in truth, so far as it has any weight at all, has no special application to the Christian doctrine: it lies against the entire supposition of the remission of sins on any terms and by any means: and if it has been more strongly urged by Rationalists against the Christian representation than against others, this is merely because the former has had 192 the misfortune to provoke hostility by being found in the Bible.
It is obvious indeed, on a moment’s reflection, that the duty of man to forgive the trespasses of his neighbor, rests precisely upon those features of human nature which cannot by any analogy be regarded as representing an image of God.(21) Man is not the author of the moral law: he is not, as man, the moral governor of his fellows: he has no authority, merely as man, to punish moral transgressions as such. It is not as sin, but as injury, that vice is a transgression against man: it is not that his holiness is outraged, but that his rights or his interests are impaired. The duty of forgiveness is imposed as a check, not upon the justice, but upon the selfishness of man: it is not designed to extinguish his indignation against vice, but to restrain his tendency to exaggerate his own personal injuries.(22) The reasoner maintains, “it is a duty in man to forgive sins, therefore it must be morally fitting for God to forgive them also,” overlooks the fact that this duty is binding upon man: on account of the weakness and ignorance and sinfulness of his nature; that he is bound to forgive, as one who himself needs forgiveness; as one whose weakness renders him liable to suffering; as one whose self-love is ever ready to arouse his passions and pervert his judgment.
Nor yet would the advocates of the Moral Reason gain anything in Theology by the substitution of a rigid system of reward and punishment, in which nothing is forgiven, but every act meets with its appropriate recompense. We have only to suppose that this were the doctrine of Revelation, to imagine the outcry with which it would be assailed. “It is moral,” the objector might urge, “only in the harsher and less amiable features of human morality: it gives us a God whom we may fear, but whom we cannot love; 193 who has given us affections with which He has no sympathy, and passions for whose consequences He allows no redress: who created man liable to fall, and placed him in a world of temptations, knowing that he would fall, and purposing to take advantage of his frailty to the utmost.” Criticisms of this kind may be imagined without number;—nay, they are actually found in more than one modern work, the writers of which have erroneously imagined that they were assailing the real teaching of Scripture.(23) Verily, this vaunted Moral Reason is a “Lesbian rule.”(24) It may be applied with equal facility to the criticism of every possible scheme of Divine Providence; and therefore we may be permitted to suspect that it is not entitled to implicit confidence against any.(25)
The endless controversy concerning Predestination and Free Will, whether viewed in its speculative or in its moral aspect, is but another example of the hardihood of human ignorance. The question, as I have observed before, has its philosophical as well as its theological aspect: it has no difficulties peculiar to itself: it is but a special form of the fundamental mystery of the coëxistence of the Infinite and the Finite. Yet, with this mystery meeting and baffling human reason at every turn, theologians have not scrupled to trace in their petty channels the exact flow and course of Infinite wisdom; one school boldly maintaining that even Omniscience itself has no knowledge of contingent events; another asserting, with equal confidence, that God’s knowledge must be a restraint on man’s freedom.(26) If philosophy offers for the moment an apparent escape from the dilemma, by suggesting that God’s knowledge is not properly foreknowledge, as having no relation to time;(27) the suggestion itself is one which can neither be verified as a truth, nor even intelligibly exhibited as a thought; and the 194 Rationalist evades the solution by shifting the ground of attack, and retorts that Prophecy at least is anterior to the event which it foretells; and that a prediction of human actions is irreconcilable with freedom.(28) But the whole meaning of the difficulty vanishes, as soon as we acknowledge that the Infinite is not an object of human thought at all. There can be no consciousness of a relation, whether of agreement or of opposition, where there is not a consciousness of both the objects related. That a man, by his own power, should be able with certainty to foretell the future, implies that the laws of that future are fixed and unchangeable; for man can only foresee particular occurrences through a knowledge of the general law on which they depend. But is this relation of cause to effect, of law to its consequences, really a knowledge or an ignorance? Is the causal relation itself a law of things, or only a human mode of representing phenomena? Supposing it were possible for man, in some other state of intelligence, to foresee a future event without foreseeing it as the result of a law,—would that knowledge be a higher or a lower one than he at present possesses?—would it be the removal of some reality which he now sees, or only of some limitation under which he now sees it?(29) Man can only foresee what is certain; and from his point of view, the foreknowledge depends upon the certainty. But, apart from the human conditions of thought, in relation to a more perfect intelligence, can we venture to say, even as regards temporal succession, whether necessity is the condition of foreknowledge, or foreknowledge of necessity, or whether indeed necessity itself has any existence at all?(30) May not the whole scheme of Law and Determinism indicate a weakness, rather than a power of the human mind; and are there not facts of consciousness which give some support 195 to this conjecture?(31) Can anything be necessary to an intellect whose thought creates its own objects? Can any necessity of things determine the cognitions of the Absolute Mind, even if those cognitions take place in succession to each other? These questions admit of no certain answer; but the very inability to answer them proves that dogmatic decisions on either side are the decisions of ignorance, not of knowledge.
But the problem, be its difficulties and their origin what they may, is not peculiar to Theology, and receives no additional complication from its position in Holy Writ. The very same question may be discussed in a purely metaphysical form, by merely substituting the universal law of causation for the universal knowledge of God. What is the meaning and value of that law of the human mind which apparently compels us to think that every event whatever has its determining cause? And how is that conviction reconcilable with a liberty in the human will to choose between two alternatives? The answer is substantially the same as before. The freedom of the will is a positive fact of our consciousness: as for the principle of causality, we know not whence it is, nor what it is. We know not whether it is a law of things, or a mode of human representation; whether it denotes an impotence or a power; whether it is innate or acquired. We know not in what the causal relation itself consists; nor by what authority we are warranted in extending its significance beyond the temporal sequence which suggests it and the material phenomena in which that sequence is undisturbed.
And is not the same conviction of the ignorance of man, and of his rashness in the midst of ignorance, forced upon us by the spectacle of the arbitrary and summary decisions of human reason on the most mysterious as well as the 196 most awful of God’s revealed judgments against sin,—the sentence of Eternal Punishment? We know not what is the relation of Sin to Infinite Justice. We know not under what conditions, consistently with the freedom of man, the final restoration of the impenitent sinner is possible; nor how, without such a restoration, guilt and misery can ever cease. We know not whether the future punishment of sin will be inflicted by way of natural consequence or of supernatural visitation; whether it will be produced from within or inflicted from without. We know not how man can be rescued from sin and suffering without the coöperation of his own will; nor what means can coöperate with that will, beyond those which are offered to all of us during our state of trial.(32) It becomes us to speak cautiously and reverently on a matter of which God has revealed so little, and that little of such awful moment; but if we may be permitted to criticize the arguments of the opponents of this doctrine with the same freedom with which they have criticized the ways of God, we may re, mark that the whole apparent force of the moral objection rests upon two purely gratuitous assumptions. It is assumed, in the first place, that God’s punishment of sin in the world to come is so far analogous to man’s administration of punishment in this world, that it will take place as a special infliction, not as a natural consequence. And it is assumed, in the second place, that punishment will be inflicted solely with reference to the sins committed during the earthly life;—that the guilt will continue finite, while the misery is prolonged to infinity.(33) Are we then so sure, it may be asked, that there can be no sin beyond the grave? Can any immortal soul incur God’s wrath and condemnation, only so long as it is united to a mortal body? With as much reason might we assert that the 197 angels are incapable of obedience to God, that the devils are incapable of rebellion. What if the sin perpetuates itself,—if the prolonged misery be the offspring of the prolonged guilt?(34)
Against this it is urged that sin cannot forever be triumphant against God.(35) As if the whole mystery of iniquity were contained in the words for ever! The real riddle of existence—the problem which confounds all philosophy, aye, and all religion too, so far as religion is a thing of man’s reason—is the fact that evil exists at all; not that it exists for a longer or a shorter duration. Is not God infinitely wise and holy and powerful now? and does not sin exist along with that infinite holiness and wisdom and power? Is God to become more holy, more wise, more powerful hereafter; and must evil be annihilated to make room for His perfections to expand? Does the infinity of His eternal nature ebb and flow with every increase or diminution in the sum of human guilt and misery? Against this immovable barrier of the existence of evil, the waves of philosophy have dashed themselves unceasingly since the birthday of human thought, and have retired broken and powerless, without displacing the minutest fragment of the stubborn rock, without softening one feature of its dark and rugged surface.(36) We may be told that evil is a privation, or a negation, or a partial aspect of the universal good, or some other equally unmeaning abstraction; whilst all the while our own hearts bear testimony to its fearful reality, to its direct antagonism to every possible form of good.(37) But this mystery, vast and inscrutable as it is, is but one aspect of a more general problem; it is but the moral form of the ever-recurring secret of the Infinite. How the Infinite and the Finite, in any form of antagonism or other relation, can exist together; 198 how infinite power can coëxist with finite activity; how infinite wisdom can coëxist with finite contingency; how infinite goodness can coëxist with finite evil; how the Infinite can exist in any manner without exhausting the universe of reality;—this is the riddle which Infinite Wisdom alone can solve, the problem whose very conception belongs only to that Universal Knowing which fills and embraces the Universe of Being. When philosophy can answer this question; when she can even state intelligibly the notions which its terms involve,—then, and not till then, she may be entitled to demand a solution of the far smaller difficulties which she finds in revealed religion;—or rather, she will have solved them already; for from this they all proceed, and to this they all ultimately return.
The reflections which this great and terrible mystery of Divine Judgment have suggested, receive perhaps some further support when we contemplate it in another aspect, and one more legitimately within the province of human reason; that is to say, in its analogy to the actual constitution and course of nature. “The Divine moral government which religion teaches us,” says Bishop Butler, “implies that the consequence of vice shall be misery, in some future state, by the righteous judgment of God. That such consequent punishment shall take effect by His appointment, is necessarily implied. But, as it is not in any sort to be supposed that we are made acquainted with all the ends or reasons, for which it is fit future punishment should be inflicted, or why God has appointed such and such consequent misery should follow vice; and as we are altogether in the dark, how or in what manner it shall follow, by what immediate occasions, or by the instrumentality of what means,—there is no absurdity in supposing 199 it may follow in a way analogous to that in which many miseries follow such and such courses of action at present: poverty, sickness, infamy, untimely death from diseases, death from the hands of civil justice. There is no absurdity in supposing future punishment may follow wickedness of course, as we speak, or in the way of natural consequence from God’s original constitution of the world; from the nature He has given us, and from the condition in which He places us; or in a like manner as a person rashly trifling upon a precipice, in the way of natural consequence, falls down; in the way of natural consequence, breaks his limbs, suppose; in the way of natural consequence of this, without help perishes.”(38)
And if we may be permitted to extend the same analogy from the constitution of external nature to that of the human mind, may we not trace something not wholly unlike the irrevocable sentence of the future, in that dark and fearful, yet too certain law of our nature, by which sin and misery ever tend to perpetuate themselves; by which evil habits gather strength with every fresh indulgence, till it is no longer, humanly speaking, in the power of the sinner to shake off the burden which his own deeds have laid upon him? In that mysterious condition of the depraved will, compelled, and yet free,—the slave of sinful habit, yet responsible for every act of sin, and gathering deeper condemnation as the power of amendment grows less and less,—may we not see some possible foreshadowing of the yet deeper guilt and the yet more hopeless misery of the worm that dieth not, and the fire that is not quenched? The fact, awful as it is, is one to which our every (lay’s experience bears witness: and who shall say that the invisible things of God may not, in this as in other instances, be shadowed forth to us in the things that are seen?200
The same argument from analogy is indeed applicable to every one of the difficulties which Rationalism professes to discover in the revealed ways of God’s dealings with man. The Fall of Adam, and the inherited corruption of his posterity, find their parallel in the liability to sin which remains unextinguished throughout man’s moral progress; and in that mysterious, though certain dispensation of Providence, which ordains that not only bodily taints and infirmities, but even moral dispositions and tendencies should, in many instances, descend from father to son; and which permits the child of sinful parents to be depraved by evil example, before he knows how, by his own reason, clearly to discern between right and wrong; before lie has strength, of his own will, to refuse the evil and choose the good.(39) There is a parallel, too, in that strange, yet too familiar fact, of vice persisted in, with the clearest and strongest conviction of its viciousness and wretchedness; and the skepticism which denies that man, if created sinless, could so easily have fallen from innocence, finds its philosophical counterpart in the paradox of the ancient moralist, who maintained that conscious sin is impossible, because nothing can be stronger than knowledge.(40) Justification by faith through the merits of Christ is at least in harmony with that course of things established by Divine Providence in this world; in which so many benefits, which we cannot procure for ourselves or deserve by any merit of our own, are obtained for us by the instrumentality of others; and in which we are so often compelled, as an indispensable condition of obtaining the benefit, to trust in the power and good-will of those whom we have never tried, and to believe in the efficacy of means whose manner of working we know not.(41) The operations of Divine Grace, influencing, yet 201 not necessitating, the movements of the human soul, find their corresponding fact and their corresponding mystery in the determinations of the Will;—in that Freedom to do or leave undone, so certain in fact, so inexplicable in theory, which consists neither in absolute indifference nor in absolute subjection; which is acted upon and influenced by motives, yet in its turn acts upon and controls their influences, prevented by them, and yet working with them.(42) But it is unnecessary to pursue further an argument which, in all its essential features, has already been fully exhibited by a philosopher whose profound and searching wisdom has answered by anticipation nearly every cavil of the latest form of Rationalism, no less than those of his own day. We may add here and there a detail of application, as the exigencies of controversy may suggest; but the principle of the whole, and its most important consequences, have been established and worked out more than a century ago, in the unanswerable argument of Butler.
The warning which his great work contains against “that idle and not very innocent employment of forming imaginary models of a world, and schemes of governing it,”(43) is as necessary now as then, as applicable to moral as to speculative theories. Neither with regard to the physical nor to the moral world, is man capable of constructing a Cosmogony; and those Babels of Reason, which Philosophy has built for itself, under the names of Rational Theories of Religion, and Criticisms of every Revelation, are but the successors of those elder children of chaos and night, which, with no greater knowledge, but with less presumption, sought to describe the generation. of the visible universe. It is no disparagement of the value and authority of the Moral Reason in its regulative capacity, within its proper sphere of human action, 202 if we refuse to exalt it to the measure and standard of the Absolute and Infinite Goodness of God. The very Philosopher whose writings have most contributed to establish the supreme authority of Conscience in man, is also the one who has pointed out most clearly the existence of analogous moral difficulties in nature and in religion, and the true answer to both,—the admission that God’s Government, natural as well as spiritual, is a scheme imperfectly comprehended.
In His Moral Attributes, no less than in the rest of His Infinite Being, God’s judgments are unsearchable, and His ways past finding out.8383 Romans xi. 33. While He manifests Himself clearly as a Moral Governor and Legislator, by the witness of the Moral Law which He has established in the hearts of men, we cannot help feeling, at the same time, that that Law, grand as it is, is no measure of His Grandeur, that He Himself is beyond it, though not opposed to it, distinct, though not alien from it. We feel that He who planted in man’s conscience that stern, unyielding Imperative of Duty, must Himself be true and righteous altogether; that He from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed, must Himself be more holy, more good, more just than these. But when we try to realize in thought this sure conviction of our faith, we find that here, as everywhere, the Finite cannot fathom the Infinite; that, while in our hearts we believe, yet our thoughts at times are sore troubled. It is consonant to the whole analogy of our earthly state of trial, that, in this as in other features of God’s Providence, we should meet with things impossible to understand and difficult to believe; by which reason is baffled and faith tried;—acts whose purpose we see not; dispensations whose wisdom is 203 above us; thoughts which are not our thoughts, and ways which are not our ways. In these things we hear, as it were, the same loving voice which spoke to the wondering disciple of old: “What I do, thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.”8484 St. John xiii. 7. The luminary by whose influence the ebb and flow of man’s moral being is regulated, moves around and along with man’s little world, in a regular and bounded orbit; one side, and one side only, looks downward upon its earthly centre; the other, which we see not, is ever turned upwards to the all-surrounding Infinite. And those tides have their seasons of rise and fall, their places of strength and weakness; and that light waxes and wanes with the growth or decay of man’s mental and moral and religious culture; and its borrowed rays seem at times to shine as with their own lustre, in rivalry, even in opposition, to the source from which they emanate. Yet is that light still but a faint and partial reflection of the hidden glories of the Sun of Righteousness, waiting but the brighter illumination of His presence, to fade and be swallowed up in the full blaze of the heaven kindling around it;—not cast down indeed from its orbit, nor shorn of its true brightness and influence, but still felt and acknowledged in its real existence and power, in the memory of the past discipline, in the product of the present perfectness, though now distinct no more, but vanishing from sight to be made one with the Glory that beams from the “Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”8585 St. James i. 17.204
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