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THE MORALITY OF THE GOSPEL.
Is stating the morality of the Gospel as an argument of its truth, I am willing to admit two points; first, that the teaching of morality was not the primary design of the mission; secondly, that morality, neither in the Gospel, nor in any other book, can be a subject, properly speaking, of discovery.
If I were to describe in a very few words the scope of Christianity as a revelation,4949Great and inestimably beneficial effects may accrue from the mission of Christ, and especially from his death, which do not belong to Christianity as a revelation: that is, they might have existed, and they might have been accomplished, though we had never, in this life, been made acquainted with them. These effects may be very extensive; they may be interesting even to other orders of intelligent beings. I think it is a general opinion, and one to which I have long come, that the beneficial effects of Christ’s death extend to the whole human species. It was the redemption of the world. “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the whole world;” 1 John ii. 2. Probably the future happiness, perhaps the future existence of the species, and more gracious terms of acceptance extended to all, might depend upon it or be procured by it. Now these effects, whatever they be, do not belong to Christianity as a revelation; because they exist with respect to those to whom it is not revealed. I should say that it was to influence the conduct of human life, by establishing the proof of a future state of reward and punishment, — “to bring life and immortality to light.” The direct object, therefore, of the design is, to supply motives, and not rules; sanctions, and not precepts. And these were what mankind stood most in need of. The members of civilised society can, in all ordinary cases, judge tolerably well how they ought to act: but without a future state, or, which is the same thing, without credited evidence of that state, they want a motive to their duty; they want at least strength of motive sufficient to bear up against the force of passion, and the temptation of present advantage. Their rules want authority. The most important service that can be rendered to human life, and that consequently which one might expect beforehand would be the great end and office of a revelation from God, is to convey to the world authorised assurances of the reality of a future existence. And although in doing this, or by the ministry of the same person by whom this is done, moral precepts or examples, or illustrations of moral precepts, may be occasionally given and be highly valuable, yet still they do not form the original purpose of the mission.
Secondly; morality, neither in the Gospel nor in any other book, can be a subject of discovery, properly so called. By which proposition I mean that there cannot, in morality, be anything similar to what are called discoveries in natural philosophy, in the arts of life, and in some sciences; as the system of the universe, the circulation of the blood, the polarity of the magnet, the laws of gravitation, alphabetical writing, decimal arithmetic, and some other things of the same sort; facts, or proofs, or contrivances, before totally unknown and unthought of. Whoever, therefore, expects in reading the New Testament to be struck with discoveries in morals in the manner in which his mind was affected when he first came to the knowledge of the discoveries above mentioned: or rather in the manner in which the world was affected by them, when they were first published; expects what, as I apprehend, the nature of the subject renders it impossible that he should meet with. And the foundation of my opinion is this, that the qualities of actions depend entirely upon their effects, which effects must all along have been the subject of human experience.
When it is once settled, no matter upon what principle, that to do good is virtue, the rest is calculation. But since the calculation cannot be instituted concerning each particular action, we establish intermediate rules; by which proceeding, the business of morality is much facilitated, for then it is concerning our rules alone that we need inquire, whether in their tendency they be beneficial; concerning our actions, we have only to ask whether they be agreeable to the rules. We refer actions to rules, and rules to public happiness. Now, in the formation of these rules, there is no place for discovery, properly so called, but there is ample room for the exercise of wisdom, judgment, and prudence.
As I wish to deliver argument rather than panegyric, I shall treat of the morality of the Gospel in subjection to these observations. And after all, I think it such a morality as, considering from whom it came, is most extraordinary; and such as, without allowing some degree of reality to the character and pretensions of the religion, it is difficult to account for: or, to place the argument a little lower in the scale, it is such a morality as completely repels the supposition of its being the tradition of a barbarous age or of a barbarous people, of the religion being founded in folly, or of its being the production of craft; and it repels also, in a great degree, the supposition of its having been the effusion of an enthusiastic mind.
The division under which the subject may be most conveniently treated is that of the things taught, and the manner of teaching.
Under the first head, I should willingly, if the limits and nature of my work admitted of it, transcribe into this chapter the whole of what has been said upon the morality of the Gospel by the author of The Internal Evidence of Christianity; because it perfectly agrees with my own opinion, and because it is impossible to say the same things so well. This acute observer of human nature, and, as I believe, sincere convert to Christianity, appears to me to have made out satisfactorily the two following positions, viz. —
I. That the Gospel omits some qualifies which have usually engaged the praises and admiration of mankind, but which, in reality, and in their general effects, have been Prejudicial to human happiness.
II. That the Gospel has brought forward some virtues which possess the highest intrinsic value, but which have commonly been overlooked and contemned.
The first of these propositions he exemplifies in the instances of friendship, patriotism, active courage; in the sense in which these qualities are usually understood, and in the conduct which they often produce.
The second, in the instances of passive courage or endurance of sufferings, patience under affronts and injuries, humility, irresistance, placability.
The truth is, there are two opposite descriptions of character under which mankind may generally be classed. The one possesses rigour, firmness, resolution; is daring and active, quick in its sensibilities, jealous of its fame, eager in its attachments, inflexible in its purpose, violent in its resentments.
The other meek, yielding, complying, forgiving; not prompt to act, but willing to suffer; silent and gentle under rudeness and insult, suing for reconciliation where others would demand satisfaction, giving way to the pushes of impudence, conceding and indulgent to the prejudices, the wrong-headedness, the intractability of those with whom it has to deal.
The former of these characters is, and ever hath been, the favourite of the world. It is the character of great men. There is a dignity in it which universally commands respect.
The latter is poor-spirited, tame, and abject. Yet so it hath happened, that with the Founder of Christianity this latter is the subject of his commendation, his precepts, his example; and that the former is so in no part of its composition. This, and nothing else, is the character designed in the following remarkable passages: “Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also: and whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain: love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.” This certainly is not commonplace morality. It is very original. It shows at least (and it is for this purpose we produce it) that no two things can be more different than the Heroic and the Christian characters.
Now the author to whom I refer has not only marked this difference more strongly than any preceding writer, but has proved, in contradiction to first impressions, to popular opinion, to the encomiums of orators and poets, and even to the suffrages of historians and moralists, that the latter character possesses the most of true worth, both as being most difficult either to be acquired or sustained, and as contributing most to the happiness and tranquillity of social life. The state of his argument is as follows:
I. If this disposition were universal, the case is clear; the world would be a society of friends. Whereas, if the other disposition were universal, it would produce a scene of universal contention. The world could not hold a generation of such men.
II. If, what is the fact, the disposition be partial; if a few be actuated by it, amongst a multitude who are not; in whatever degree it does prevail, in the same proportion it prevents, allays, and terminates quarrels, the great disturbers of human happiness, and the great sources of human misery, so far as man’s happiness and misery depend upon man. Without this disposition enmities must not only be frequent, but, once begun, must be eternal: for, each retaliation being a fresh injury, and consequently requiring a fresh satisfaction, no period can be assigned to the reciprocation of affronts, and to the progress of hatred, but that which doses the lives, or at least the intercourse, of the parties.
I would only add to these observations, that although the former of the two characters above described may be occasionally useful; although, perhaps, a great general, or a great statesman, may be formed by it, and these may be instruments of important benefits to mankind, yet is this nothing more than what is true of many qualities which are acknowledged to be vicious. Envy is a quality of this sort: I know not a stronger stimulus to exertion; many a scholar, many an artist, many a soldier, has been produced by it; nevertheless, since in its general effects it is noxious, it is properly condemned, certainly is not praised, by sober moralists.
It was a portion of the same character as that we are defending, or rather of his love of the same character, which our Saviour displayed in his repeated correction of the ambition of his disciples; his frequent admonitions that greatness with them was to consist in humility; his censure of that love of distinction and greediness of superiority which the chief persons amongst his countrymen were wont, on all occasions, great and little, to betray. “They (the Scribes and Pharisees) love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi, for one is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren: and call no man your father upon the earth, for one is your father, which is in heaven; neither be ye called master, for one is your Master, even Christ; but he that is greatest among you shall be your servant; and whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased, and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” (Matt. xxiii. 6. See also Mark xii. 39; Luke xx. 46; xiv. 7.) I make no further remark upon these passages (because they are, in truth, only a repetition of the doctrine, different expressions of the principle, which we have already stated), except that some of the passages, especially our Lord’s advice to the guests at an entertainment, (Luke iv. 7.) seem to extend the rule to what we call manners; which was both regular in point of consistency, and not so much beneath the dignity of our Lord’s mission as may at first sight be supposed, for bad manners are bad morals.
It is sufficiently apparent that the precepts we have tired, or rather the disposition which these precepts inculcate, relate to personal conduct from personal motives; to cases in which men act from impulse, for themselves and from themselves. When it comes to be considered what is necessary to be done for the sake of the public, and out of a regard to the general welfare (which consideration, for the most part, ought exclusively to govern the duties of men in public stations), it comes to a case to which the rules do not belong. This distinction is plain; and if it were less so the consequence would not be much felt: for it is very seldom that in time intercourse of private life men act with public views. The personal motives from which they do act the rule regulates.
The preference of time patient to the heroic cheer, which we have here noticed, and which the reader will find explained at large in the work to which we have referred him, is a peculiarity in the Christian institution, which I propose as an argument of wisdom, very much beyond the situation and natural character of the person who delivered it.
II. A second argument, drawn from the morality of the New Testament, is the stress which is laid by our Saviour upon the regulation of the thoughts; and I place this consideration next to the other because they are connected. The other related to the malicious passions; this to the voluptuous. Together, they comprehend the whole character.
“Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications,” &c. “These are the things which defile a man.” (Matt. xv. 19.)
“Wo unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. — Ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness; even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” (Matt. xxiii. 25, 27)
And more particularly that strong expression, (Matt. v. 28.) “Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”
There can be no doubt with any reflecting mind but that the propensities of our nature must be subject to regulation; but the question is, where the check ought to be placed, upon the thought, or only upon the action? In this question our Saviour, in the texts here quoted, has pronounced a decisive judgment. He makes the control of thought essential. Internal purity with him is everything. Now I contend that this is the only discipline which can succeed; in other words, that a moral system which prohibits actions, but leaves the thoughts at liberty, will be ineffectual, and is therefore unwise. I know not how to go about the proof of a point which depends upon experience, and upon a knowledge of the human constitution, better than by citing the judgment of persons who appear to have given great attention to the subject, and to be well qualified to form a true opinion about it. Boerhaave, speaking of this very declaration of our Saviour, “Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in his heart,” and understanding it, as we do, to contain an injunction to lay the check upon the thoughts, was wont to say that “our Saviour knew mankind better than Socrates.” Hailer, who has recorded this saying of Boerhaave, adds to it the following remarks of his own: — (Letters to his Daughter.) “It did not escape the observation of our Saviour that the rejection of any evil thoughts was the best defence against vice: for when a debauched person fills his imagination with impure pictures, the licentious ideas which he recalls fail not to stimulate his desires with a degree of violence which he cannot resist. This will be followed by gratification, unless some external obstacle should prevent him from the commission of a sin which he had internally resolved on.” “Every moment of time,” says our author, “that is spent in meditations upon sin increases the power of the dangerous object which has possessed our imagination.” I suppose these reflections will be generally assented to.
III. Thirdly, had a teacher of morality been asked concerning a general principle of conduct, and for a short rule of life; and had he instructed the person who consulted him, “constantly to refer his actions to what he believed to be the will of his Creator, and constantly to have in view not his own interest and gratification alone, but the happiness and comfort of those about him,” he would have been thought, I doubt not, in any age of the world, and in any, even the most improved state of morals, to have delivered a judicious answer; because, by the first direction, he suggested the only motive which acts steadily and uniformly, in sight and out of sight, in familiar occurrences and under pressing temptations; and in the second he corrected what of all tendencies in the human character stands most in need of correction, selfishness, or a contempt of other men’s conveniency and satisfaction. In estimating the value of a moral rule, we are to have regard not only to the particular duty, but the general spirit; not only to what it directs us to do, but to the character which a compliance with its direction is likely to form in us. So, in the present instance, the rule here recited will never fail to make him who obeys it considerate not only of the rights, but of the feelings of other men, bodily and mental, in great matters and in small; of the ease, the accommodation, the self-complacency of all with whom he has any concern, especially of all who are in his power, or dependent upon his will.
Now what, in the most applauded philosopher of the most enlightened age of the world, would have been deemed worthy of his wisdom, and of his character, to say, our Saviour hath said, and upon just such an occasion as that which we have feigned.
“Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind; this is the first and great commandment: and the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. xxii. 35-40.)
The second precept occurs in St. Matthew (xix. 16), on another occasion similar to this; and both of them, on a third similar occasion, in Luke (x. 27). In these two latter instances the question proposed was, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
Upon all these occasions I consider the words of our Saviour as expressing precisely the same thing as what I have put into the mouth of the moral philosopher. Nor do I think that it detracts much from the merit of the answer, that these precepts are extant in the Mosaic code: for his laying his finger, if I may so say, upon these precepts; his drawing them out from the rest of that voluminous institution; his stating of them, not simply amongst the number, but as the greatest and the sum of all the others; in a word, his proposing of them to his hearers for their rule and principle, was our Saviour’s own.
And what our Saviour had said upon the subject appears to me to have fixed the sentiment amongst his followers.
Saint Paul has it expressly, “If there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself;” (Rom. xiii. 9.) and again, “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Gal. v. 14.)
Saint John, in like manner, “This commandment have we from him, that he who loveth God love his brother also.” (1 John iv. 21.)
Saint Peter, not very differently: “Seeing that ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit, unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently.” (I Peter i. 22.)
And it is so well known as to require no citations to verify it, that this love, or charity, or, in other words, regard to the welfare of others, runs in various forms through all the preceptive parts of the apostolic writings. It is the theme of all their exhortations, that with which their morality begins and ends, from which all their details and enumerations set out, and into which they return.
And that this temper, for some time at least, descended in its purity to succeeding Christians, is attested by one of the earliest and best of the remaining writings of the apostolical fathers, the epistle of the Roman Clement. The meekness of the Christian character reigns throughout the whole of that excellent piece. The occasion called for it. It was to compose the dissensions of the church of Corinth. And the venerable hearer of the apostles does not fall short, in the display of this principle, of the finest passages of their writings. He calls to the remembrance of the Corinthian church its former character in which “ye were all of you,” he tells them, “humble-minded, not boasting of anything, desiring rather to be subject than to govern, to give than to receive, being content with the portion God had dispensed to you and hearkening diligently to his word; ye were enlarged in your bowels, having his sufferings always before your eyes. Ye contended day and night for the whole brotherhood, that with compassion and a good conscience the number of his elect might be saved. Ye were sincere, and without offence towards each other. Ye bewailed every one his neighbour’s sins, esteeming their defects your own.” His prayer for them was for the “return of peace, long-suffering, and patience.” (Ep. Clem. Rom. c. 2 & 53; Abp. Wake’s Translation.) And his advice to those who might have been the occasion of difference in the society is conceived in the true spirit, and with a perfect knowledge of the Christian character: “Who is there among you that is generous? who that is compassionate? Who that has any charity? Let him say, If this sedition, this contention, and these schisms be upon my account, I am ready to depart, to go away whithersoever ye please, and do whatsoever ye shall command me; only let the flock of Christ be in peace with the elders who are set over it. He that shall do this shall get to himself a very great honour in the Lord; and there is no place but what will he ready to receive him; for the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. These things they who have their conversation towards God, not to be repented of, both have done, and will always be ready to do.” (Ep. Clem. Rom. c. 54; Abp. Wake’s Translation.)
This sacred principle, this earnest recommendation of forbearance, lenity, and forgiveness, mixes with all the writings of that age. There are more quotations in the apostolical fathers of texts which relate to these points than of any other. Christ’s sayings had struck them. “Not rendering,” said Polycarp, the disciple of John, “evil for evil, or railing for railing, or striking for striking, or cursing for cursing.” Again, speaking of some whose behaviour had given great offence, “Be ye moderate,” says he, “on this occasion, and look not upon such as enemies, but call them back as suffering and erring members, that ye save your whole body.” (Pol. Ep. ad Phil. c. 2 & 11.)
“Be ye mild at their anger,” saith Ignatius, the companion of Polycarp, “humble at their boastings, to their blasphemies return your prayers, to their error your firmness in the faith; when they are cruel, be ye gentle; not endeavouring to imitate their ways, let us be their brethren in all kindness and moderation: but let us be followers of the Lord; for who was ever more unjustly used, more destitute, more despised?”
IV. A fourth quality by which the morality of the Gospel is distinguished is the exclusion of regard to fame and reputation.
“Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them, otherwise ye have no reward of your father which is in heaven.” “When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” (Matt. vi. 1 & 6.)
And the rule, by parity of reason, is extended to all other virtues.
I do not think that either in these or in any other passage of the New Testament, the pursuit of fame is stated as a vice; it is only said that an action, to be virtuous, must be independent of it. I would also observe that it is not publicity, but ostentation, which is prohibited; not the mode, but the motive of the action, which is regulated. A good man will prefer that mode, as well as those objects of his beneficence, by which he can produce the greatest effect; and the view of this purpose may dictate sometimes publication, and sometimes concealment. Either the one or the other may be the mode of the action, according as the end to be promoted by it appears to require. But from the motive, the reputation of the deed, and the fruits and advantage of that reputation to ourselves, must be shut out, or, in whatever proportion they are not so, the action in that proportion fails of being virtuous.
This exclusion of regard to human opinion is a difference not so much in the duties to which the teachers of virtue would persuade mankind, as in the manner and topics of persuasion. And in this view the difference is great. When we set about to give advice, our lectures are full of the advantages of character, of the regard that is due to appearances and to opinion; of what the world, especially of what the good or great, will think and say; of the value of public esteem, and of the qualities by which men acquire it. Widely different from this was our Saviour’s instruction; and the difference was founded upon the best reasons. For, however the care of reputation, the authority of public opinion, or even of the opinion of good men, the satisfaction of being well received and well thought of, the benefit of being known and distinguished, are topics to which we are fain to have recourse in our exhortations; the true virtue is that which discards these considerations absolutely, and which retires from them all to the single internal purpose of pleasing God. This at least was the virtue which our Saviour taught. And in teaching this, he not only confined the views of his followers to the proper measure and principle of human duty, but acted in consistency with his office as a monitor from heaven.
Next to what our Saviour taught, may be considered the manner of his teaching; which was extremely peculiar, yet, I think, precisely adapted to the peculiarity of his character and situation. His lessons did not consist of disquisitions; of anything like moral essays, or like sermons, or like set treatises upon the several points which he mentioned. When he delivered a precept, it was seldom that he added any proof or argument; still more seldom that he accompanied it with what all precepts require, limitations and distinctions. His instructions were conceived in short, emphatic, sententious rules, in occasional reflections, or in round maxims. I do not think that this was a natural, or would have been a proper method for a philosopher or a moralist; or that it is a method which can be successfully imitated by us. But I contend that it was suitable to the character which Christ assumed, and to the situation in which, as a teacher, he was placed. He produced himself as a messenger from God. He put the truth of what he taught upon authority. (I say unto you, Swear not at all; I say auto you, Resist not evil; I say unto you, Love your enemies. — Matt. v. 34, 39, 44.) In the choice, therefore, of his mode of teaching, the purpose by him to be consulted was impression: because conviction, which forms the principal end of our discourses, was to arise in the minds of his followers from a different source, from their respect to his person and authority. Now, for the purpose of impression singly and exclusively, (I repeat again, that we are not here to consider the convincing of the understanding,) I know nothing which would have so great force as strong ponderous maxims, frequently urged and frequently brought back to the thoughts of the hearers. I know nothing that could in this view be said better, than “Do unto others as ye would that others should do unto you:” “The first and great commandment is, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God: and the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” It must also be remembered, that our Lord’s ministry, upon the supposition either of one year or three, compared with his work, was of short duration; that, within this time, he had many places to visit, various audiences to address; that his person was generally besieged by crowds of followers; that he was, sometimes, driven away from the place where he was teaching by persecution, and at other times thought fit to withdraw himself from the commotions of the populace. Under these circumstances, nothing appears to have been so practicable, or likely to be so efficacious, as leaving, wherever he came, concise lessons of duty. These circumstances at least show the necessity he was under of comprising what he delivered within a small compass. In particular, his sermon upon the mount ought always to be considered with a view to these observations. The question is not, whether a fuller, a more accurate, a more systematic, or a more argumentative discourse upon morals might not have been pronounced; but whether more could have been said in the same room better adapted to the exigencies of the hearers, or better calculated for the purpose of impression? Seen in this light, it has always appeared to me to be admirable. Dr. Lardner thought that this discourse was made up of what Christ had said at different times, and on different occasions, several of which occasions are noticed in St Luke’s narrative.
I can perceive no reason for this opinion. I believe that our Lord delivered this discourse at one time and place, in the manner related by Saint Matthew, and that he repeated the same rules and maxims at different times, as opportunity or occasion suggested; that they were often in his mouth, and were repeated to different audiences, and in various conversations.
It is incidental to this mode of moral instruction, which proceeds not by proof but upon authority, not by disquisition but by precept, that the rules will be conceived in absolute terms, leaving the application and the distinctions that attend it to the reason of the hearer. It is likewise to be expected that they will be delivered in terms by so much the more forcible and energetic, as they have to encounter natural or general propensities. It is further also to be remarked, that many of those strong instances which appear in our Lord’s sermon, such as, “If any man will smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also:” “If any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also:” “Whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain:” though they appear in the form of specific precepts, are intended as descriptive of disposition and character. A specific compliance with the precepts would be of little value, but the disposition which they inculcate is of the highest. He who should content himself with waiting for the occasion, and with literally observing the rule when the occasion offered, would do nothing, or worse than nothing: but he who considers the character and disposition which is hereby inculcated, and places that disposition before him as the model to which he should bring his own, takes, perhaps, the best possible method of improving the benevolence, and of calming and rectifying the vices of his temper.
If it be said that this disposition is unattainable, I answer, so is all perfection: ought therefore a moralist to recommend imperfections? One excellency, however, of our Saviour’s rules is, that they are either never mistaken, or never so mistaken as to do harm. I could feign a hundred cases in which the literal application of the rule, “of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us,” might mislead us; but I never yet met with the man who was actually misled by it. Notwithstanding that our Lord bade his followers, “not to resist evil,” and to “forgive the enemy who should trespass against them, not till seven times, but till seventy times seven,” the Christian world has hitherto suffered little by too much placability or forbearance. I would repeat once more, what has already been twice remarked, that these rules were designed to regulate personal conduct from personal motives, and for this purpose alone. I think that these observations will assist us greatly in placing our Saviour’s conduct as a moral teacher in a proper point of view; especially when it is considered, that to deliver moral disquisitions was no part of his design, — to teach morality at all was only a subordinate part of it; his great business being to supply what was much more wanting than lessons of morality, stronger moral sanctions, and clearer assurances of a future judgment.5050Some appear to require in a religious system, or in the books which profess to deliver that system, minute directions for every case and occurrence that may arise. This, say they, is necessary to render a revelation perfect, especially one which has for its object the regulation of human conduct. Now, how prolix, and yet how incomplete and unavailing, such an attempt must have been, is proved by one notable example: “The Indoo and Mussulman religions are institutes of civil law, regulating the minutest questions, both of property and of all questions which come under the cognizance of the magistrate. And to what length details of this kind are necessarily carried when once begun, may be understood from an anecdote of the Mussulman code, which we have received from the most respectable authority, that not less than seventy-five thousand traditional precepts have been promulgated.” (Hamilton’s translation of Hedays, or Guide.)
The parables of the New Testament are, many of them, such as would have done honour to any book in the world: I do not mean in style and diction, but in the choice of the subjects, in the structure of the narratives, in the aptness, propriety, and force of the circumstances woven into them; and in some, as that of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Pharisee and the Publican, in an union of pathos and simplicity, which in the best productions of human genius is the fruit only of a much exercised and well cultivated judgment.
The Lord’s Prayer, for a succession of solemn thoughts, for fixing the attention upon a few great points, for suitableness to every condition, for sufficiency, for conciseness without obscurity, for the weight and real importance of its petitions, is without an equal or a rival.
From whence did these come? Whence had this man his wisdom? Was our Saviour, in fact, a well instructed philosopher, whilst he is represented to us as an illiterate peasant? Or shall we say that some early Christians of taste and education composed these pieces and ascribed them to Christ? Beside all other incredibilities in this account, I answer, with Dr. Jortin, that they could not do it. No specimens of composition which the Christians of the first century have left us authorise us to believe that they were equal to the task. And how little qualified the Jews, the countrymen and companions of Christ, were to assist him in the undertaking, may be judged of from the traditions and writings of theirs which were the nearest to that age. The whole collection of the Talmud is one continued proof into what follies they fell whenever they left their Bible; and how little capable they were of furnishing out such lessons as Christ delivered.
But there is still another view in which our Lord’s discourses deserve to be considered; and that is, in their negative character, — not in what they did, but in what they did not, contain. Under this head the following reflections appear to me to possess some weight.
I. They exhibit no particular description of the invisible world. The future happiness of the good, and the misery of the bad, which is all we want to be assured of, is directly and positively affirmed, and is represented by metaphors and comparisons, which were plainly intended as metaphors and comparisons, and as nothing more. As to the rest, a solemn reserve is maintained. The question concerning the woman who had been married to seven brothers, “Whose shall she be on the resurrection?” was of a nature calculated to have drawn from Christ a more circumstantial account of the state of the human species in their future existence. He cuts short, however, the inquiry by an answer, which at once rebuked intruding curiosity, and was agreeable to the best apprehensions we are able to form upon the subject, viz. “That they who are accounted worthy of that resurrection, shall be as the angels of God in heaven.” I lay a stress upon this reserve, because it repels the suspicion of enthusiasm: for enthusiasm is wont to expatiate upon the condition of the departed, above all other subjects, and with a wild particularity. It is moreover a topic which is always listened to with greediness. The teacher, therefore, whose principal purpose is to draw upon himself attention, is sure to be full of it. The Koran of Mahomet is half made up of it.
II. Our Lord enjoined no austerities. He not only enjoined none as absolute duties, but he recommended none as carrying men to a higher degree of Divine favour. Place Christianity, in this respect, by the side of all institutions which have been founded in the fanaticism either of their author or of his first followers: or, rather, compare in this respect Christianity, as it came from Christ, with the same religion after it fell into other hands — with the extravagant merit very soon ascribed to celibacy, solitude, voluntary poverty; with the rigours of an ascetic, and the vows of a monastic life; the hair-shirt, the watchings, the midnight prayers, the obmutescence, the gloom and mortification of religious orders, and of those who aspired to religious perfection.
III. Our Saviour uttered no impassioned devotion. There was no heat in his piety, or in the language in which he expressed it; no vehement or rapturous ejaculations, no violent urgency, in his prayers. The Lord’s Prayer is a model of calm devotion. His words in the garden are unaffected expressions of a deep, indeed, but sober piety. He never appears to have been worked up into anything like that elation, or that emotion of spirits which is occasionally observed in most of those to whom the name of enthusiast can in any degree be applied. I feel a respect for Methodists, because I believe that there is to be found amongst them much sincere piety, and availing though not always well-informed Christianity: yet I never attended a meeting of theirs but I came away with the reflection, how different what I heard was from what I read! I do not mean in doctrine, with which at present I have no concern, but in manner how different from the calmness, the sobriety, the good sense, and I may add, the strength and authority of our Lord’s discourses!
IV. It is very usual with the human mind to substitute forwardness and fervency in a particular cause for the merit of general and regular morality; and it is natural, and politic also, in the leader of a sect or party, to encourage such a disposition in his followers. Christ did not overlook this turn of thought; yet, though avowedly placing himself at the head of a new institution, he notices it only to condemn it. “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say unto me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto you, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” (Matt. vii. 21, 22.) So far was the Author of Christianity from courting the attachment of his followers by any sacrifice of principle, or by a condescension to the errors which even zeal in his service might have inspired. This was a proof both of sincerity and judgment.
V. Nor, fifthly, did he fall in with any of the depraved fashions of his country, or with the natural bias of his own education. Bred up a Jew, under a religion extremely technical, in an age and amongst a people more tenacious of the ceremonies than of any other part of that religion, he delivered an institution containing less of ritual, and that more simple, than is to be found in any religion which ever prevailed amongst mankind. We have known, I do allow, examples of an enthusiasm which has swept away all external ordinances before it. But this spirit certainly did not dictate our Saviour’s conduct, either in his treatment of the religion of his country, or in the formation of his own institution. In both he displayed the soundness and moderation of his judgment. He censured an overstrained scrupulousness, or perhaps an affectation of scrupulousness, about the Sabbath: but how did he censure it? not by contemning or decrying the institution itself, but by declaring that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath;” that is to say, that the Sabbath was to be subordinate to its purpose, and that that purpose was the real good of those who were the subjects of the law. The same concerning the nicety of some of the Pharisees, in paying tithes of the most trifling articles, accompanied with a neglect of justice, fidelity, and mercy. He finds fault with them for misplacing their anxiety. He does not speak disrespectfully of the law of tithes, nor of their observance of it; but he assigns to each class of duties its proper station in the scale of moral importance. All this might be expected perhaps from a well-instructed, cool, and judicious philosopher, but was not to be looked for from an illiterate Jew; certainly not from an impetuous enthusiast.
VI. Nothing could be more quibbling than were the comments and expositions of the Jewish doctors at that time; nothing so puerile as their distinctions. Their evasion of the fifth commandment, their exposition of the law of oaths, are specimens of the bad taste in morals which then prevailed. Whereas, in a numerous collection of our Saviour’s apophthegms, many of them referring to sundry precepts of the Jewish law, there is not to be found one example of sophistry, or of false subtlety, or of anything approaching thereunto.
VII. The national temper of the Jews was intolerant, narrow-minded, and excluding. In Jesus, on the contrary, whether we regard his lessons or his example, we see not only benevolence, but benevolence the most enlarged and comprehensive. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the very point of the story is, that the person relieved by him was the national and religious enemy of his benefactor. Our Lord declared the equity of the Divine administration, when he told the Jews, (what, probably, they were surprised to hear,) “That many should come from the east and west, and should sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven; but that the children of the kingdom should be cast into outer darkness.” (Matt. viii. 11.) His reproof of the hasty zeal of his disciples, who would needs call down fire from heaven to revenge an affront put upon their Master, shows the lenity of his character, and of his religion: and his opinion of the manner in which the most unreasonable opponents ought to be treated, or at least of the manner in which they ought not to be treated. The terms in which his rebuke was conveyed deserve to be noticed: — “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.” (Luke ix. 55.)
VIII. Lastly, amongst the negative qualities of our religion, as it came out of the hands of its Founder and his apostles, we may reckon its complete abstraction from all views either of ecclesiastical or civil policy; or, to meet a language much in fashion with some men, from the politics either of priests or statesmen. Christ’s declaration, that “his kingdom was not of this world,” recorded by Saint John; his evasion of the question, whether it was lawful or not to give tribute unto Caesar, mentioned by the three other evangelists; his reply to an application that was made to him, to interpose his authority in a question of property; “Man, who made me a ruler or a judge over you?” ascribed to him by St. Luke; his declining to exercise the office of a criminal judge in the case of the woman taken in adultery, as related by John, are all intelligible significations of our Saviour’s sentiments upon this head. And with respect to politics, in the usual sense of that word, or discussions concerning different forms of government, Christianity declines every question upon the subject. Whilst politicians are disputing about monarchies, aristocracies, and republics, the Gospel is alike applicable, useful, and friendly to them all; inasmuch, as, 1stly, it tends to make men virtuous, and as it is easier to govern good men than bad men under any constitution; as, 2ndly, it states obedience to government, in ordinary cases, to be not merely a submission to force, but a duty of conscience; as, 3rdly, it induces dispositions favourable to public tranquillity, a Christian’s chief care being to pass quietly through this world to a better; as, 4thly, it prays for communities, and, for the governors of communities, of whatever description or denomination they be, with a solicitude and fervency proportioned to the influence which they possess upon human happiness. All which, in my opinion, is just as it should be. Had there been more to be found in Scripture of a political nature, or convertible to political purposes, the worst use would have been made of it, on whichever side it seemed to lie.
When, therefore, we consider Christ as a moral teacher (remembering that this was only a secondary part of his office; and that morality, by the nature of the subject, does not admit of discovery, properly so called) — when we consider either what he taught, or what he did not teach, either the substance or the manner of his instruction; his preference of solid to popular virtues, of a character which is commonly despised to a character which is universally extolled; his placing, in our licentious vices, the check in the right place, viz. upon the thoughts; his collecting of human duty into two well-devised rules, his repetition of these rules, the stress he laid upon them, especially in comparison with positive duties, and his fixing thereby the sentiments of his followers; his exclusion of all regard to reputation in our devotion and alms, and by parity of reason in our other virtues; — when we consider that his instructions were delivered in a form calculated for impression, the precise purpose in his situation to be consulted; and that they were illustrated by parables, the choice and structure of which would have been admired in any composition whatever; — when we observe him free from the usual symptoms of enthusiasm, heat and vehemence in devotion, austerity in institutions, and a wild particularity in the description of a future state; free also from the depravities of his age and country; without superstition amongst the most superstitious of men, yet not decrying positive distinctions or external observances, but soberly calling them to the principle of their establishment, and to their place in the scale of human duties; without sophistry or trifling, amidst teachers remarkable for nothing so much as frivolous subtleties and quibbling expositions; candid and liberal in his judgment of the rest of mankind, although belonging to a people who affected a separate claim to Divine favour, and in consequence of that opinion prone to uncharitableness, partiality, and restriction; — when we find in his religion no scheme of building up a hierarchy, or of ministering to the views of human governments; — in a word, when we compare Christianity, as it came from its Author, either with other religions, or with itself in other hands, the most reluctant understanding will be induced to acknowledge the probity, I think also the good sense, of those to whom it owes its origin; and that some regard is due to the testimony of such men, when they declare their knowledge that the religion proceeded from God; and when they appeal for the truth of their assertion, to miracles which they wrought, or which they saw.
Perhaps the qualities which we observe in the religion may be thought to prove something more. They would have been extraordinary had the religion come from any person; from the person from whom it did come, they are exceedingly so. What was Jesus in external appearance? A Jewish peasant, the son of a carpenter, living with his father and mother in a remote province of Palestine, until the time that he produced himself in his public character. He had no master to instruct or prompt him; he had read no books but the works of Moses and the prophets; he had visited no polished cities; he had received no lessons from Socrates or Plato, — nothing to form in him a taste or judgment different from that of the rest of his countrymen, and of persons of the same rank of life with himself. Supposing it to be true, which it is not, that all his points of morality might be picked out of Greek and Roman writings, they were writings which he had never seen. Supposing them to be no more than what some or other had taught in various times and places, he could not collect them together.
Who were his coadjutors in the undertaking, — the persons into whose hands the religion came after his death? A few fishermen upon the lake of Tiberias, persons just as uneducated, and, for the purpose of framing rules of morality, as unpromising as himself. Suppose the mission to be real, all this is accounted for; the unsuitableness of the authors to the production, of the characters to the undertaking, no longer surprises us: but without reality, it is very difficult to explain how such a system should proceed from such persons. Christ was not like any other carpenter; the apostles were not like any other fishermen.
But the subject is not exhausted by these observations. That portion of it which is most reducible to points of argument has been stated, and, I trust, truly. There are, however, some topics of a more diffuse nature, which yet deserve to be proposed to the reader’s attention.
The character of Christ is a part of the morality of the Gospel: one strong observation upon which is, that, neither as represented by his followers, nor as attacked by his enemies, is he charged with any personal vice. This remark is as old as Origen: “Though innumerable lies and calumnies had been forged against the venerable Jesus, none had dared to charge him with an intemperance.” (Or. Ep. Cels. 1. 3, num. 36, ed. Bened.) Not a reflection upon his moral character, not an imputation or suspicion of any offence against purity and chastity, appears for five hundred years after his birth. This faultlessness is more peculiar than we are apt to imagine. Some stain pollutes the morals or the morality of almost every other teacher, and of every other lawgiver.5151See many instances collected by Grotius, de Veritate Christianae Religionis, in the notes to his second book, p. 116. Pocock’s edition. Zeno the stoic, and Diogenes the cynic, fell into the foulest impurities; of which also Socrates himself was more than suspected. Solon forbade unnatural crimes to slaves. Lycurgus tolerated theft as a part of education. Plato recommended a community of women. Aristotle maintained the general right of making war upon barbarians. The elder Cato was remarkable for the ill usage of his slaves; the younger gave up the person of his wife. One loose principle is found in almost all the Pagan moralists; is distinctly, however, perceived in the writings of Plato, Xenophon, Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus; and that is, the allowing, and even the recommending to their disciples, a compliance with the religion, and with the religious rites, of every country into which they came. In speaking of the founders of new institutions we cannot forget Mahomet. His licentious transgressions of his own licentious rules; his abuse of the character which he assumed, and of the power which he had acquired, for the purposes of personal and privileged indulgence; his avowed claim of a special permission from heaven of unlimited sensuality, is known to every reader, as it is confessed by every writer of the Moslem story.
Secondly, in the histories which are left us of Jesus Christ, although very short, and although dealing in narrative, and not in observation or panegyric, we perceive, beside the absence of every appearance of vice, traces of devotion, humility, benignity, mildness, patience, prudence. I speak of traces of these qualities, because the qualities themselves are to be collected from incidents; inasmuch as the terms are never used of Christ in the Gospels, nor is any formal character of him drawn in any part of the New Testament.
Thus we see the devoutness of his mind in his frequent retirement to solitary prayer; (Matt. xiv. 23. Luke ix. 28. Matt. xxvi. 36.) in his habitual giving of thanks; (Matt. xi. 25. Mark viii. 6. John vi. 23. Luke xxii. 17.) in his reference of the beauties and operations of nature to the bounty of Providence; (Matt. vi. 26-28.) in his earnest addresses to his Father, more particularly that short but solemn one before the raising of Lazarus from the dead; (John xi. 41.) and in the deep piety of his behaviour in the garden on the last evening of his life:(Matt. xxvi. 36-47.) his humility in his constant reproof of contentions for superiority: (Mark ix. 33.) the benignity and affectionateness of his temper in his kindness to children; (Mark x. 16.) in the tears which he shed over his falling country, (Luke xix. 41.) and upon the death of his friend; (John xi. 35.) in his noticing of the widow’s mite; (Mark xii. 42.) in his parables of the good Samaritan, of the ungrateful servant, and of the Pharisee and publican, of which parables no one but a man of humanity could have been the author: the mildness and lenity of his character is discovered in his rebuke of the forward zeal of his disciples at the Samaritan village; (Luke ix. 55.) in his expostulation with Pilate; (John xix. 11.) in his prayer for his enemies at the moment of his suffering, (Luke xxiii. 34.) which, though it has been since very properly and frequently imitated, was then, I apprehend, new. His prudence is discerned, where prudence is most wanted, in his conduct on trying occasions, and in answers to artful questions. Of these the following are examples: — His withdrawing in various instances from the first symptoms of tumult, (Matt. xiv. 22. Luke v. 15, 16. John v. 13; vi. 15.) and with the express care, as appears from Saint Matthew, (Chap. xii. 19.) of carrying on his ministry in quietness; his declining of every species of interference with the civil affairs of the country, which disposition is manifested by his behaviour in the case of the woman caught in adultery, (John viii. 1.) and in his repulse of the application which was made to him to interpose his decision about a disputed inheritance: (Luke xii. 14.) his judicious, yet, as it should seem, unprepared answers, will be confessed in the case of the Roman tribute (Matt. xxii. 19.) in the difficulty concerning the interfering relations of a future state, as proposed to him in the instance of a woman who had married seven brethren; (Matt. xxii. 28.) and more especially in his reply to those who demanded from him an explanation of the authority by which he acted, which reply consisted in propounding a question to them, situated between the very difficulties into which they were insidiously endeavouring to draw him. (Matt. xxi. 23, et seq.)
Our Saviour’s lessons, beside what has already been remarked in them, touch, and that oftentimes by very affecting representations, upon some of the most interesting topics of human duty, and of human meditation; upon the principles by which the decisions of the last day will be regulated; (Matt. xxv. 31, et seq.) upon the superior, or rather the supreme importance of religion; (Mark viii. 35. Matt. vi. 31-33. Luke xii. 4, 5, 16-21.) upon penitence, by the most pressing calls, and the most encouraging invitations; (Luke xv.) upon self-denial, (Matt. v. 29.) watchfulhess, (Mark xiii. 37. Matt. xxiv. 42; xxv. 13.) placability, (Luke xvii. 4. Matt. xviii. 33, et seq.) confidence in God, (Matt. vi. 25-30.) the value of spiritual, that is, of mental worship, (John iv. 23, 24.) the necessity of moral obedience, and the directing of that obedience to the spirit and principle of the law, instead of seeking for evasions in a technical construction of its terms. (Matt. v. 21.)
If we extend our argument to other parts of the New Testament, we may offer, as amongst the best and shortest rules of life, or, which is the same thing, descriptions of virtue, that have ever been delivered, the following passages: —
“Pure religion, and undefiled, before God and the Father, is this; to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” (James i. 27.)
“Now the end of the commandment is charity, out of a pure heart and a good conscience, and faith unfeigned.” (I Tim. i. 5.)
“For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world.” (Tit. ii. 11, 12.)
The relative duties of husbands and wives, of parents and children, of masters and servants, of Christian teachers and their flocks, of governors and their subjects, are set forth by the same writer, (Eph. v. 33; vi. 1-5. 2 Cor. vi. 6, 7. Rom. xiii.) not indeed with the copiousness, the detail, or the distinctness of a moralist who should in these days sit down to write chapters upon the subject, but with the leading rules and principles in each; and, above all, with truth and with authority.
Lastly, the whole volume of the New Testament is replete with piety; with what were almost unknown to heathen moralists, devotional virtues, the most profound veneration of the Deity, an habitual sense of his bounty and protection, a firm confidence in the final result of his counsels and dispensations, a disposition to resort upon all occasions to his mercy for the supply of human wants, for assistance in danger, for relief from pain, for the pardon of sin.
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