« Prev Lecture VIII. Next »



TO construct a complete Criticism of any Revelation, it is necessary that the Critic should be in possession of a perfect Philosophy of the Infinite. For, except on the supposition that we possess an exact knowledge of the whole Nature of God, such as only that Philosophy can furnish, we cannot know for certain what are the purposes which God intends to accomplish by means of Revelation, and what are the instruments by which those purposes may be best carried out. If then it can be shown, as I have attempted to show in the previous Lectures, that the attainment of a Philosophy of the Infinite is utterly impossible under the existing laws of human thought, it follows that it is not by means of philosophical criticism that the claims of a supposed Revelation can be adequately tested. We are thus compelled to seek another field for the right use of Reason in religious questions; and what that field is, it will not be difficult to determine. To Reason, rightly employed, within its proper limits and on its proper objects, our Lord himself and his Apostles openly appealed in proof of their divine mission; and the same proof has been unhesitatingly claimed by the defenders of Christianity in all subsequent ages. In other words, the legitimate object of 205 a rational criticism of revealed religion, is not to be found in the contents of that religion, but in its evidences.

At first sight it may appear as if this distinction involved no real difference; for the contents of a revelation, it might be objected, are included among its evidences. In one sense, no doubt they are; but that very inclusion gives them a totally different significance and weight from that to which they lay claim when considered as the basis of a philosophical criticism. In the one case, they are judged by their conformity to the supposed nature and purposes of God; in the other, by their adaptation to the actual circumstances and wants of man. In the one case they are regarded as furnishing a single and a certain criterion; for on the supposition that our reason is competent to determine, from our knowledge of the Divine Nature, what the characteristics of a true Revelation ought to be, we are entitled, by virtue of that criterion alone, to reject without hesitation whatever does not satisfy its requirements. In the other case, they are regarded as furnishing only one probable presumption out of many;—a presumption which may confirm and be confirmed by coinciding testimony from other sources, or, on the contrary, may be outweighed, when we come to balance probabilities, by conflicting evidence on the other side.

The practical conclusion, which may be deduced from the whole previous survey of the Limits of Religious Thought, is this: that if no one faculty of the human mind is competent to convey a direct knowledge of the Absolute and the Infinite, no one faculty is entitled to claim preëminence over the rest, as furnishing especially the criterion of the truth or falsehood of a supposed Revelation. There are presumptions to be drawn from the internal character of the doctrines which the revelation contains: 206 there are presumptions to be drawn from the facts connected with its first promulgation: there are presumptions to be drawn from its subsequent history and the effects which it has produced among mankind. But the true evidence, for or against the religion, is not to be found in any one of these taken singly and exclusively; but in the resultant of all, fairly examined and compared together; the apparently conflicting evidences being balanced against each other, and the apparently concurring evidences estimated by their united efficacy.

A truth so obvious as this may be thought hardly worth announcing as the result of an elaborate inquiry. But the whole history of religious controversy bears witness that, however evident in theory, there is no truth m6re liable to be neglected in practice. The defenders of Christianity are not altogether free from the charge of insisting exclusively or preëminently upon some one alone of its evidences: the assailants, under the influence of a still more exclusive reäction, have assumed that a method which fails to accomplish everything has succeeded in accomplishing nothing; and, flying at once to the opposite extreme, have in their turn appealed to some one infallible criterion, as constituting a royal road to philosophical unbelief.

In the present day we are feeling the pernicious effects of a reaction of this kind. Because the writings of Paley and his followers in the last generation laid a principal stress on the direct historical evidences of Christianity, we meet now with an antagonist school of writers, who perpetually assure us that history has nothing whatever to do with religion;(1) that an external revelation of religious truth is impossible;(2) that we may learn all that is essential to the Gospel by inward and spiritual evidence only.(3) In the spirit of the Pharisees of old, who said, “This man 207 is not of God, because he keepeth not the Sabbath day,”8686   St. John ix. 16. we are now told that the doctrine must in all cases prove the miracles, and not the miracles the doctrine;(4) that the external evidence of miracles is entirely useless for the support of the religious philosophy of Christ;(5) that man no more needs a miraculous revelation of things pertaining to religion than of things pertaining to agriculture or manufactures.(6) And, as is usually the case in such reactions, the last state has become worse than the first;—a slight comparative neglect of the internal evidence on the one side has been replaced by an utter repudiation of all external evidence on the other; a trifling disproportion in the edifice of the Christian Faith has been remedied by the entire removal of some of its main pillars of support. The crying evil of the present day in religious controversy is the neglect or contempt of the external evidences of Christianity: the first step towards the establishment of a sound religious philosophy must consist in the restoration of those evidences to their true place in the Theological system.

The evidence derived from the internal character of a religion, whatever may be its value within its proper limits, is, as regards the divine origin of the religion, purely negative. It may prove in certain cases (though even here the argument requires much caution in its employment) that a religion has not come from God; but it is in no case sufficient to prove that it has come from Him.(7) For the doctrines revealed must either be such as are within the power of man's natural reason to verify, or such as are beyond it. In the former case, the reason which is competent to verify may also be competent to discover: the doctrine is tested by its conformity to the conclusions of 208 human philosophy; and the wisdom which sits in judgment on the truth of a doctrine must itself be presumed to have an equal power of discerning the truth. In the latter case, where the doctrine is beyond the power of human reason to discover, it can be accepted only as resting on the authority of the teacher who proclaims it; and that authority itself must then be guaranteed by the external evidence of a superhuman mission. To advance a step beyond the merely negative argument, it is necessary that the evidence contained in the character of the doctrine itself should be combined with that derived from the exterior history. When, for example, the Divine Origin of Christianity is maintained, on the ground of its vast moral superiority to all Heathen systems of Ethics; or on that of the improbability that such a system could have been conceived by a Galilean peasant among the influences of the contemporary Judaism; the argument is legitimate and powerful: but its positive force depends not merely on the internal character of the doctrine, but principally on its relation to certain external facts.(8)

And even the negative argument, which concludes from the character of the contents of a religion that it cannot have come from God, however legitimate within its proper limits, is one which requires considerable caution in the application. The lesson to be learnt from an examination of the Limits of Religious Thought, is not that man’s judgments are worthless in relation to divine things, but that they are fallible; and the probability of error in any particular case can never be fairly estimated, without giving their full weight to all collateral considerations. We are indeed bound to believe that a Revelation given by God can never contain anything that is really unwise or unrighteous; but we are not always capable of estimating 209 exactly the wisdom or righteousness of particular doctrines or precepts. And we are bound to bear in mind that exactly in proportion to the strength of the remaining evidence for the divine origin of a religion, is the probability that we may be mistaken in supposing this or that portion of its contents to be unworthy of God. Taken in conjunction, the two arguments may confirm or correct each other: taken singly and absolutely, each may vitiate the result which should follow from their joint application. We do not certainly know the exact nature and operation of the moral attributes of God; we can but infer and conjecture from what we know of the moral attributes of man: and the analogy between the Finite and the Infinite can never be so perfect as to preclude all possibility of error in the process. But the possibility becomes almost a certainty, when any one human faculty is elevated by itself into an authoritative criterion of religious truth, without regard to those collateral evidences by which its decisions may be modified and corrected.

“The human mind,” says a writer of the present day, “is competent to sit in moral and spiritual judgment on a professed revelation; and to decide, if the case seems to require it, in the following tone: This doctrine attributes to God, that which we should all call harsh, cruel, or unjust in man: it is therefore intrinsically inadmissible.” . . . “In fact,” he continues, “all Christian apostles and missionaries, like the Hebrew prophets, have always refuted Paganism by direct attacks on its immoral and unspiritual doctrines; and have appealed to the consciences of heathens, as competent to decide in the controversy.”(9) Now, an appeal of this kind may be legitimate or not, according to the purpose for which it is made, and the manner in which it is applied. The primary and proper employment of 210 man’s moral sense, as of his other faculties, is not speculative, but regulative. It is not designed to tell us what are the absolute and immutable principles of Right, as existing in the eternal nature of God; but to discern those relative and temporary manifestations of them, which are necessary for human training in this present life. But if morality, in its human manifestation, contains a relative and temporary, as well as an absolute and eternal element, an occasional suspension of the human Law is by no means to be confounded with a violation of the divine Principle. We can only partially judge of the Moral government of God, on the assumption that there is an analogy between the divine nature and the human: and in proportion as the analogy recedes from perfect likeness, the decisions of the human reason necessarily become more and more doubtful. The primary and direct inquiry, which human reason is entitled to make concerning a professed revelation is,—how far does it tend to promote or to hinder the moral discipline of man. It is but a secondary and indirect question, and one very liable to mislead, to ask how far it is compatible with the Infinite Goodness of God.

Thus, for example, it is one thing to condemn a religion on account of the habitual observance of licentious or inhuman rites of worship, and another to pronounce judgment on isolated acts, historically recorded as having been done by divine command, but not perpetuated in precepts for the imitation of posterity. The former are condemned for their regulative character, as contributing to the perpetual corruption of mankind; the latter are condemned on speculative grounds, as inconsistent with our preconceived notions of the character of God. “There are some particular precepts in Scripture,” says Bishop Butler, “given to particular persons, requiring actions, which would be 211 immoral and vicious, were it not for such precepts. But it is easy to see, that all these are of such a kind, as that the precept changes the whole nature of the case and of the action; and both constitutes and shows that not to be unjust or immoral, which, prior to the precept, must have appeared, and really have been so: which may well be, since none of these precepts are contrary to immutable morality. If it were commanded to cultivate the principles and act from the spirit of treachery, ingratitude, cruelty; the command would not alter the nature of the case or of the action, in any of these instances. But it is quite otherwise in precepts which require only the doing an external action; for instance, taking away the property or life of any. For men have no right to either life or property, but what arises solely from the grant of God: when this grant is revoked, they cease to have any right at all in either: and when this revocation is made known, as surely it is possible it may be, it must cease to be unjust to deprive them of either. And though a course of external acts, which without command would be immoral, must make an immoral habit; yet a few detached commands have no such natural tendency. . . . There seems no difficulty at all in these precepts, but what arises from their being offences: i. e. from their being liable to be perverted, as indeed they are, by wicked designing men, to serve the most horrid purposes; and, perhaps, to mislead the weak and enthusiastic. And objections from this head are not objections against revelation; but against the whole notion of religion, as a trial; and against the general constitution of nature.”(10)

There is indeed an obvious analogy between these temporary suspensions of the laws of moral obligation and that corresponding suspension of the laws of natural phenomena 212 which constitutes our ordinary conception of a Miracle. So much so, indeed, that the former might without impropriety be designated as Moral Miracles. In both, the Almighty is regarded as suspending, for special purposes, not the eternal laws which constitute His own absolute Nature, but the created laws, which he imposed at a certain time upon a particular portion of his creatures. Both are isolated and rare in their occurrence; and apparently, from the nature of the case, must be so, in order to unite harmoniously with the normal manifestations of God’s government of the world. A perpetual series of physical miracles would destroy that confidence in the regularity of the course of nature, which is indispensable to the cultivation of man’s intellectual and productive energies: a permanent suspension of practical duties would be similarly prejudicial to the cultivation of his moral character. But the isolated character of both classes of phenomena removes the objection which might otherwise be brought against them on this account: and this objection is the only one which can legitimately be urged, on philosophical grounds, against the conception of such cases as possible; as distinguished from the historical evidence, which may be adduced for or against their actual occurrence.

Even within its own legitimate province, an argument of this kind may have more or less weight, varying from the lowest presumption to the highest moral certainty, according to the nature of the offence which we believe ourselves to have detected, and the means which we possess of estimating its character or consequences. It is certain that we are not competent judges of the Absolute Nature of God: it is not certain that we are competent judges, in all cases, of what is best fitted for the moral discipline of man. But granting to the above argument 213 its full value in this relation, it is still important to remember that we are dealing, not with demonstrative but with probable evidence; not with a single line of reasoning, but with a common focus, to which many and various rays converge; that we have not solved the entire problem, but only obtained one of the elements contributing to its solution. And the combined result of all these elements is by no means identical with the sum of their separate effects. The image, hitherto employed, of a balance of probabilities, is, in one respect at least, very inadequate to express the character of Christian evidence. It may be used with some propriety to express the provisional stage of the inquiry, while we are still uncertain to which side the evidence inclines; but it becomes inapplicable as soon as our decision is made. For the objections urged against a religion are not like the weights in a scale, which retain their full value, even when outweighed on the other side;—on the contrary, they become absolutely worthless, as soon as we are convinced that there is superior evidence to prove that the religion is true. We may not say, for example, that certain parts of the Christian scheme are unwise or unrighteous, though outweighed by greater acts of righteousness and wisdom;—we are bound to believe that we were mistaken from the first in supposing them to be unwise or unrighteous at all. In a matter of which we are so ignorant and so liable to be deceived, the objection which fails to prove everything proves nothing: from him that hath not, is taken away even that which he seemeth to have. And on the other hand, the objection which really proves anything proves everything. If the teaching of Christ is in any one thing not the teaching of God, it is in all things the teaching of man: its doctrines are subject to all the imperfections inseparable from man’s sinfulness 214 and ignorance: its effects must be such as can fully be accounted for as the results of man’s wisdom, with all its weakness and all its error.

Here then is the issue, which the wavering disciple is bound seriously to consider. Taking into account the various questions whose answers, on the one side or the other, form the sum total of Evidences for or against the claims of the Christian Faith;—the genuineness and authenticity of the documents; the judgment and good faith of the writers; the testimony to the actual occurrence of prophecies and miracles, and their relation to the religious teaching with which they are connected; the character of the Teacher Himself, that one protrait, which, in its perfect purity and holiness and beauty, stands alone and unapproached in human history or human fiction; those rites and ceremonies of the elder Law, so significant as typical of Christ, so strange and meaningless without Him; those predictions of the promised Messiah, whose obvious meaning is rendered still more manifest by the futile ingenuity which strives to pervert them;(11) the history of the rise and progress of Christianity, and its comparison with that of other religions; the ability or inability of human means to bring about the results which it actually accomplished; its antagonism to the current ideas of the age and country of its origin; its effects as a system on the moral and social condition of subsequent generations of mankind; its fitness to satisfy the wants and console the sufferings of human nature; the character of those by whom it was first promulgated and received; the sufferings which attested the sincerity of their convictions; the comparative trustworthiness of ancient testimony and modern conjecture; the mutual contradictions of conflicting theories of unbelief, and the inadequacy of all of them to explain the facts for which they are bound to account;—215taking all these and similar questions into full consideration, are you prepared to affirm, as the result of the whole inquiry, that Jesus of Nazareth was an impostor, or an enthusiast, or a mythical figment; and his disciples crafty and designing, or well-meaning, but deluded men? For be assured, that nothing short of this is the conclusion which you must maintain, if you reject one jot or one tittle of the whole doctrine of Christ. Either He was what He proclaimed Himself to be,—the incarnate Son of God, the Divine Saviour of a fallen world—and if so, we may not divide God’s Revelation, and dare to put asunder what He has joined together,—or the civilized world for eighteen centuries has been deluded by a cunningly devised fable; and He from whom that fable came has turned that world from darkness to light, from Satan to God, with a lie in His right hand.

Many who would shrink with horror from the idea of rejecting Christ altogether, will yet speak and act as if they were at liberty to set up for themselves an eclectic Christianity; separating the essential from the superfluous portions of Christ’s teaching; deciding for themselves how much is permanent and necessary for all men, and how much is temporary and designed only for a particular age and people.(12) Yet if Christ is indeed God manifest in the flesh, it is surely scarcely less impious to attempt to improve His teaching, than to reject it altogether. Nay, in one respect it is more so; for it is to acknowledge a doctrine as the revelation of God, and at the same time to proclaim that it is interior to the wisdom of man. That it may indeed come, and has come, within the purposes of God’s Providence, to give to mankind a Revelation partly at least designed for a temporary purpose, and for a limited portion of mankind;—a Law in which something was permitted 216 to the hardness of men’s hearts,8787   St. Matthew xix. 8. and much was designed but as a shadow of things to come;8888   Hebrews x. 1.—this we know, to whom a more perfect Revelation has been given. But to admit that God may make His own Revelation more perfect from time to time, is very different from admitting that human reason, by its own knowledge, is competent to separate the perfect from the imperfect, and to construct for itself an absolute religion out of the fragments of an incomplete Revelation. The experiment has been tried under the elder and less perfect dispensation; but the result can hardly be considered so successful as to encourage a repetition of the attempt. The philosophical improvement of the Hebrew Scriptures produced, not the Sermon on the Mount, but the Creed of the Sadducee. The ripened intelligence of the Jewish people, instructed, as modern critics would assure us, by the enlightening influence of time, and by intercourse with foreign nations, bore fruit in a conclusion singularly coinciding with that of modern rationalism: “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit.”8989   Acts xxiii. 8. (13) And doubtless there were many then, as now, to applaud this wonderful discovery, as a proof that “religious truth is necessarily progressive, because our powers are progressive;”(14) and to find a mythical or critical theory, to explain or to set aside those passages of Scripture which appeared to inculcate a contrary doctrine. Unfortunately for human wisdom, Prometheus himself needs a Prometheus. The lapse of time, as all history bears witness, is at least as fruitful in corruption as in enlightenment; and reason, when it has done its best, still needs a higher reason to decide between its conflicting theories, and to tell us which is the advanced, which the retrograde Theology.(15)


In one respect, indeed, this semi-rationalism, which admits the authority of Revelation up to a certain point and no further, rests on a far less reasonable basis than the firm belief which accepts the whole, or the complete unbelief which accepts nothing. For whatever may be the antecedent improbability which attaches to a miraculous narrative, as cornpared with one of ordinary events, it can affect only the narrative taken as a whole, and the entire series of miracles from the greatest to the least. If a single miracle is once admitted as supported by competent evidence, the entire history is at once removed from the ordinary calculations of more or less probability. One miracle is sufficient to show that the series of events, with which it is connected, is one which the Almighty has seen fit to mark by exceptions to the ordinary course of His Providence: and this being once granted, we have no a priori grounds to warrant us in asserting that the number of such exceptions ought to be larger or smaller. If any one miracle recorded in the Gospels—the Resurrection of Christ, for example—be once admitted as true, the remainder cease to have any antecedent improbability at all, and require no greater evidence to prove them than is needed for the most ordinary events of any other history. For the improbability, such as it is, reaches no further than to show that it is unlikely that God should work miracles at all; not that it is unlikely that He should work more than a certain number.

Our right to criticize at all depends upon this one question: “What think ye of Christ? whose Son is He?”9090   St. Matthew xxii. 42. What is it that constitutes our need of Christ? Is it a conviction of guilt and wretchedness, or a taste for Philosophy? Do we want a Redeemer to save us from our sins, 218 or a moral Teacher to give us a plausible theory of human duties? Christ can be our Redeemer only if He is what He proclaims himself to be, the Son of God, sent into the world, that the world through Him might be saved.9191   St. John iii. 17. If He is not this, His moral teaching began with falsehood, and was propagated by delusion. And if He is this, what but contempt and insult can be found in that half-allegiance which criticizes while it bows; which sifts and selects while it submits; which approves or rejects as its reason or its feelings or its nervous sensibilities may dictate; which condescends to acknowledge Him as the teacher of a dark age and an ignorant people; bowing the knee before Him, half in reverence, half in mockery, and crying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” If Christ is a mere human teacher, we of this nineteenth century can no more be Christians than we can be Platonists or Aristotelians. He belongs to that past which cannot repeat itself; His modes of thought are not ours; His difficulties are not ours; His needs are not ours. He may be our Teacher, but not our Master; for no man is master over the free thoughts of his fellow-men: we may learn from him, but we sit in judgment while we learn; we modify his teaching by the wisdom of later ages; we refuse the evil and choose the good. But remember that we can do this, only if Christ is a mere human teacher, or if we of these latter days have received a newer and a better revelation. If now, as of old, He speaks as never man spake;9292   St. John vii. 46.—if God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son,9393   Hebrews i. 1, 2.—what remains for us to do but to cast down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and to bring into 219 captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ?9494   2 Corinthians x. 5. The witness which Christ offers of Himself either proves every thing or it proves nothing. No man has a right to say, “I will accept Christ as I like, and reject him as I like; I will follow the holy Example; I will turn away from the atoning Sacrifice; I will listen to His teaching; I will have nothing to do with His mediation; I will believe Him when lie tells me that He came from the Father, because I feel that His doctrine has a divine beauty and fitness; but I will not believe Him when He tells me that He is one with the Father, because I cannot conceive how this unity is possible.” This is not philosophy, which thus mutilates man; this is not Christianity, which thus divides Christ.(16) If Christ is no more than one of us, let us honestly renounce the shadow of allegiance to an usurped authority, and boldly proclaim that every man is his own Redeemer. If Christ is God, no less than man, let us beware, lest haply we be found even to fight against God.9595   Acts v. 39.

Beyond question, every doubt which our reason may suggest in matters of religion is entitled to its due place in the examination of the evidences of religion; if we will treat it as a part only and not the whole; if we will not insist on a positive solution of that which, it may be, is given us for another purpose than to be solved. It is reasonable to believe that, in matters of belief as well as of practice, God has not thought fit to annihilate the free will of man; but has permitted speculative difficulties to exist as the trial and the discipline of sharp and subtle intellects, as he has permitted moral temptations to form the trial and the discipline of strong and eager passions.(17) Our passions are not annihilated when we resist the temptation to sin: why should we expect that our 220 doubts must be annihilated if we are to resist the temptation to unbelief? This correspondence of difficulties is so far from throwing doubt on the divine origin of Revelation, that it rather strengthens the proof that it has emanated from that Giver whose other gifts are subject to like conditions. We do not doubt that the conditions of our moral trial tend towards good and not towards evil; that human nature, even in its fallen state, bears traces of the image of its Maker, and is fitted to be an instrument in His moral government. And we believe this, notwithstanding the existence of passions and appetites which, isolated and uncontrolled, appear to lead in an opposite direction. Is it then more reasonable to deny that a system of revealed religion, whose unquestionable tendency as a whole is to promote the glory of God and the welfare of mankind, can have proceeded from the same Author, merely because we may be unable to detect the same character in some of its minuter features, viewed apart from the system to which they belong?

It would of course be impossible now to enter upon any detailed examination of the positive Evidences of Christianity. The purpose of the foregoing Lectures will have been answered; if they can only succeed in clearing the way for a candid and impartial inquiry; by showing what are the limits within which it must be confined, and what kind of reasoning is inadmissible, as transgressing those limits. The conclusion, which an examination of the conditions of human thought unavoidably forces upon us, is this: There can be no such thing as a positive science of Speculative Theology; for such a science must necessarily be based on an apprehension of the Infinite; and the Infinite, though we are compelled to believe in its existence, cannot be positively apprehended in any mode of 221 the human Consciousness. The same impediment which prevents the formation of Theology as a science, is also manifestly fatal to the theory which asserts its progressive development. We can test the progress of knowledge, only by comparing its successive representations with the objects which they profess to represent: and as the object in this case is inaccessible to human faculties, we have no criterion by which to distinguish between progress and mere fluctuation. The so-called progress in Theology is in truth only an advance in those conceptions of man’s moral and religious duties which form the basis of natural religion;—an advance which is regulative and not speculative; which is primarily and properly a knowledge, not of God’s nature, but of man’s obligations; and which is the result, not of an immediate intuition of the Nature of the Infinite, but of a closer study of the Laws of the Finite. A progress of this kind can obviously have no place in relation to those truths, if such there be, which human reason is incapable of discovering for itself: and to assert its applicability to the criticism of Revealed Religion, is to beg the entire question in dispute, by assuming, without the slightest authority, that Revelation cannot be anything more than a republication of Natural Religion.(18)

But, on the other hand, there is an opposite caution no less needed, in making use of the counter-theory, which regards the doctrines of Revelation as truths accommodated to the finite capacities of man; as serving for regulative, not for speculative knowledge; and as not amenable to any criticism based on human representations of the Infinite. This theory is useful, not as explaining the difficulties involved in religious thought, but as showing why we must leave them unexplained; not as removing the mysteries of revelation, but as showing why such mysteries 222 must exist. This caution has not always been sufficiently observed, even by those theologians who have shown the most just appreciation of the limits of man’s faculties in the comprehension of divine things. Thus, to mention an example of an ancient method of interpretation which has been revived with considerable ability and effect in modern times,—the rule, that the Attributes ascribed to God in Scripture must be understood as denoting correspondence in Effects, but not similarity of Causes, is one which is liable to considerable misapplication: it contains indeed a portion of truth, but a portion which is sometimes treated as if it were the whole. “Affectus in Deo,” says Aquinas, “denotat effectum:”(19) and the canon has been applied by a distinguished Prelate of our own Church, in language probably familiar to many of us. “The meaning,” says Archbishop King, “confessedly is, that He will as certainly punish the wicked as if He were inflamed with the passion of anger against them; that He will as infallibly reward the good, as we will those for whom we have a particular and affectionate love; that when men turn from their wickedness, and do what is agreeable to the divine command, He will as surely change His dispensations towards them, as if He really repented, and had changed His mind.”(20)

This is no doubt a portion of the meaning; but is it the whole? Does Scripture intend merely to assert a resemblance in the effects and none at all in the causes? If so, it is difficult to see why the natural rule of accommodation should have been reversed; why a plain and intelligible statement concerning the Divine Acts should have been veiled under an obscure and mysterious image of the Divine Attributes. If God’s Anger means no more than His infliction of punishments; if His Love means no more 223 than His bestowal of rewards; it would surely have been sufficient to have told us that God punishes sin and rewards obedience, without the interposition of a fictitious feeling as the basis of the relation. The conception of a God who acts, is at least as human as that of a God who feels; and though both are but imperfect representations of the Infinite under finite images, yet, while both rest upon the same authority of Scripture, it is surely going beyond the limits of a just reserve in speaking of divine mysteries, to assume that the one is merely the symbol, and the other the interpretation. It is surely more reasonable, as well as more reverent, to believe that these partial representations of the Divine Consciousness, though, as finite, they are unable speculatively to represent the Absolute Nature of God, have yet each of them a regulative purpose to fulfil in the training of the mind of man: that there is a religious influence to be imparted to us by the thought of God’s Anger, no less than by that of His Punishments; by the thought of His Love, no less than by that of His Benefits: that both, inadequate and human as they are, yet dimly indicate some corresponding reality in the Divine Nature; and that to merge one in the other is not to gain a purer representation of God as He is, but only to mutilate that under which He has been pleased to reveal Himself.(21)

It is obvious indeed that the theory of an adaptation of divine truths to human faculties, entirely changes its significance, as soon as we attempt to give a further adaptation to the adapted symbol itself; to modify into a still lower truth that which is itself a modification of a higher. The instant we undertake to say that this or that speculative or practical interpretation is the only real meaning of that which Scripture represents to us under a different 224 image, we abandon at once the supposition of an accommodation to the necessary limits of human thought, and virtually admit that the ulterior significance of the representation falls as much within those limits as the representation itself.(22) Thus interpreted, the principle no longer offers the slightest safeguard against Rationalism;—nay, it becomes identified with the fundamental vice of Rationalism itself,—that of explaining away what we are unable to comprehend.

The adaptation for which I contend is one which admits of no such explanation. It is not an adaptation to the ignorance of one man, to be seen through by the superior knowledge of another; but one which exists in relation to the whole human race, as men, bound by the laws of man’s thought; as creatures of time, instructed in the things of eternity; as finite beings, placed in relation to and communication with the Infinite. I believe that Scripture teaches, to each and all of us, the lesson which it was designed to teach, so long as we are men upon earth, and not as the angels in heaven.(23) I believe that “now we see through a glass darkly,”—in an enigma;—but that now is one which encompasses the whole race of mankind, from the cradle to the grave, from the creation to the day of judgment: that dark enigma is one which no human wisdom can solve; which Reason is unable to penetrate; and which Faith can only rest content with here, in hope of a clearer vision to be granted hereafter. If there be any who think that the Laws of Thought themselves may change with the changing knowledge of man; that the limitations of Subject and Object, of Duration and Succession, of Space and Time, belong to the vulgar only, and not to the philosopher;—if there be any who believe that they can think without the consciousness 225 of themselves as thinking, or of anything about which they think; that they can be in such or such a mental state, and yet for no period of duration; that they can remember this state and make subsequent use of it, without conceiving it as antecedent, or as standing in any order of time to their present consciousness; that they can reflect upon God without their reflections following each other, without their succeeding to any earlier or being succeeded by any later state of mind;—if there be any who maintain that they can conceive Justice and Mercy and Wisdom, as neither existing in a merciful and just and wise Being, nor in any way distinguishable from each other,—if there be any who imagine that they can be conscious without variety, or discern without differences;—these, and these alone, may aspire to correct Revelation by the aid of Philosophy; for such alone are the conditions under which Philosophy can attain to a rational knowledge of the Infinite God.

The intellectual difficulties which Rationalism discovers in the contents of Revelation (I do not now speak of those which belong to its external evidences) are such as no system of Rational Theology can hope to remove; for they are inherent in the constitution of Reason itself. Our mental laws, like our moral passions, are designed to serve the purposes of our earthly culture and discipline; both have their part to perform in moulding the intellect and the will of man through the slow stages of that training here, whose completion is to be looked for hereafter. Without the possibility of temptation, where would be the merit of obedience? Without room for doubt, where would be the righteousness of faith?(24) But there is no temptation which taketh us, as Christians, but such as is 226 common to man;9696   Corinthians x. 13. and there is no doubt that taketh us but such as is common to man also. It is the province of Philosophy to teach us this; and it is the province of Religion to turn the lesson to account. The proud definition of ancient sages, which bade the philosopher, as a lover of wisdom, strive after the knowledge of things divine and human, would speak more soberly and more truly by enjoining a Knowledge of things human, as subservient and auxiliary to Faith in things divine.(25) Of the Nature and Attributes of God in His Infinite Being, Philosophy can tell us nothing: of man’s inability to apprehend that Nature, and why he is thus unable, she tells us all that we can know, and all that we need to know. “Know thyself,” was the precept inscribed in the Delphic Temple, as the best lesson of Heathen wisdom.(26) “Know thyself,” was the exhortation of the Christian Teacher to his disciple, adding, “if any man know himself, he will also know God.”(27) He will at least be content to know so much of God’s nature as God Himself has been pleased to reveal; and, where Revelation is silent, to worship without seeking to know more.

Know thyself in the various elements of thy intellectual and moral being: all alike will point reverently upward to the throne of the Invisible; but none will scale that throne itself, or pierce through the glory which conceals Him that sitteth thereon. Know thyself in thy powers of Thought, which, cramped and confined on every side, yet bear witness, in their very limits, to the Illimitable beyond. Know thyself in the energies of thy Will, which, free and yet bound, the master at once and the servant of Law, bows itself under the imperfect consciousness of a higher Lawgiver, and asserts its freedom but by the permission of the 227 Almighty. Know thyself in the yearnings of thy Affections, which, marvellously adapted as they are to their several finite ends, yet testify in their restlessness to the deep need of something better.(28) Know thyself in that fearful and wonderful system of Human Nature as a whole, which is composed of all these, and yet not one with any nor with all of them;—that system to whose inmost centre and utmost circumference the whole system of Christian Faith so strangely yet so fully adapts itself. It is to the whole Man that Christianity appeals: it is as a Whole and in relation to the whole Man that it must be judged.(29) It is not an object for the thought alone, nor for the will alone, nor for the feelings alone. It may not be judged by reference to this petty cavil or that minute scruple: it may not be cut down to the dimensions and wants of any single ruling principle or passion. We have no right to say that we will be Christians as far as pleases us, and no further; that we will accept or reject, according as our understanding is satisfied or perplexed.(30) The tree is not then most flourishing, when its branches are lopped, and its trunk peeled, and its whole body cut down to one hard, unyielding mass; but when one principle of life pervades it throughout; when the trunk and the branches claim brotherhood and fellowship with the leaf that quivers, and the twig that bends to the breeze, and the bark that is delicate and easily wounded, and the root that lies lowly and unnoticed in the earth. And man is never so weak as when he seems to be strongest, standing alone in the confidence of an isolated and self-sufficing Intellect: he is never so strong as when he seems to be weakest, with every thought and resolve, and passion and affection, from the highest to the lowest, bound together in one by the common tie of a frail and feeble Humanity. He is 228 never so weak as when he casts off his burdens, and stands upright and unincumbered in the strength of his own will; he is never so strong as when, bowed down in his feebleness, and tottering under the whole load that God has laid upon him, he comes humbly before the throne of grace, to cast his care upon the God who careth for him.9797   1 St. Peter v. 7. The life of man is one, and the system of Christian Faith is one; each part supplying something that another lacks; each element making good some missing link in the evidence furnished by the rest. But we may avail ourselves of that which satisfies our own peculiar needs, only by accepting it as part and parcel of the one indivisible Whole. Thus only shall we grow in our Christian Life in just proportion of every part; the intellect instructed, the will controlled, the affections purified, “till we all come, in the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into Him in all things, which is the Head, even Christ; from whom the whole body, fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.”9898   Ephesians iv. 13-16.

« Prev Lecture VIII. Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection