II. The Historical Element In God’s Revelations Of Truth And Duty, Considered With An Especial Respect To Their Claim On Men’s Responsibilities And Obligations.
THE fact that a historical element enters deeply into God’s revelations of Himself in Scripture, and exercises a material influence as well in respect to the things presented in them, at different periods, to men’s faith and observance, as to the form or manner in which it was done, has been throughout assumed in our discussions on the law, but not made the subject of direct inquiry. The fact itself admits of no doubt. It is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of Scripture as a Divine revelation, and as such is prominently exhibited at the commencement of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in the words, ‘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.’ God’s voice has been sounding through the ages, now in this manner, now in that, and with varying degrees of perspicuity and fulness, but culminating in the appearance and mission of the Son, as that wherein it found its deepest utterance and its most perfect form of manifestation. The simple fact, however, no longer satisfies; it comes at certain points into conflict with the critical, individualizing spirit of the age. But, to have the matter distinctly before us, we must first look at the consequences necessarily growing out of the fact with regard to the character it imparts to Divine revelation, and then consider the exceptions taken against it in whole or in part.
I. First, in respect to the fact, we have to take into account the extent to which the characteristic in question prevails. There is not merely a historical element in Scripture, but this so as even to impart to the revelation itself a history. Though supernatural in its origin, it is yet perfectly natural and human in its mode of working and its course of development. It stands associated with human wants and emergencies, as the occasions which called it forth; human agencies were employed to minister it; and, for transmission to future times, it has been written in the common tongues and dialects of men, and under the diversified forms of composition with which they are otherwise familiar. So little does this revelation of God affect a merely ideal or super-earthly style—so much does it let itself down among the transactions and movements of history, that it has ever been with outstanding and important facts that it has associated its more fundamental ideas. In these, primarily, God has made Himself known to man. And hence, alike in the Old and the New Testament Scriptures, the historical books stand first; the foundation of all is there; the rest is but the structure built on it; and just as is the reality and significance of the facts recorded in them, such also is the truth of the doctrines, and the measure of the obligations and hopes growing out of them.
But since revelation thus has a history, it necessarily has also a progress; for all history, in the proper sense, has such. It is not a purposeless moving to and fro, or a wearisome iteration, a turning back again upon itself, but an advance—if at times halting, or circuitous, still an advance—toward some specific end. So, in a peculiar manner, is it with the book of God’s revelation; there is an end, because it is of Him, who never can work but for some aim worthy of Himself, and with unerring wisdom subordinates every thing to its accomplishment. That end may be variously described, according to the point of view from which it is contemplated; but, speaking generally, it may be said to include such an unfolding of the character and purposes of God in grace, as shall secure for those who accept its teachings, salvation from the ruin of sin, practical conformity to the will of God, and the bringing in of the everlasting kingdom of righteousness and peace, with which both the good of His people and the glory of His own name are identified. This is the grand theme pursued throughout; the different parts and stages of revelation are but progressive developments of it, and, to be rightly understood, must be viewed with reference to their place in the great whole. So that the revelation of God in Scripture finds, in this respect, its appropriate image in those temple-waters seen in vision by the prophet—issuing at first like a little streamlet from the seat of the Divine majesty, but growing apace, and growing, not by supplies ministered from without, but as it were by self-production, and carrying with it the more—the more it increased in volume and approached its final resting-place—the vivifying influences which shed all around them the aspect of life and beauty.
Now, this characteristic of Divine revelation, as being historically developed, and thence subject to the law of progress, has undoubtedly its dark side to our view; there are points about it which seem mysterious, and which we have no means of satisfactorily explicating. In particular, the small measures of light which for ages it furnished respecting the more peculiar things of God, the imperfect form of administration under which the affairs of His kingdom were necessarily placed till the fulness of the time had come for the manifested Saviour, and still in a measure cleaving to it—such things undoubtedly appear strange to us, and are somewhat difficult to reconcile with our abstract notions of wisdom and benevolence. Why should the world have been kept so long in comparative darkness, when some further communications from the upper Sanctuary might have relieved it? Why delay so long the forthcoming of the great realities, on which all was mainly to depend for life and blessing? Or, since the realities have come, why not take more effective means for having them brought everywhere to bear on the under standings and consciences of men? Questions of this sort not unnaturally present themselves; and though, in regard at least to the first of them, we can point to a wide-reaching analogy in the natural course of providence (as has been already noticed at p. 62), yet, in the general, we want materials for arriving at an intelligent view of the whole subject, such as might enable us to unravel the mysteries which hang around it. It behoves us to remember, that in things which touch so profoundly upon the purposes of God, and the plan of His universal government, we meanwhile know but in part; and instead of vainly agitating the questions, why it is thus and not otherwise, should rather apply our minds to the discovery of the practical aims, which we have reason to believe stand associated with the state of things as it actually exists, and as we have personally to do with it.
Looking at the matter in this spirit, and with such an object in view, we can readily perceive various advantages arising from such an introduction of the historical element as has been described into the method of God’s revelation of His mind and will to men. First of all, it serves (if we may so speak) to humanize the revelation—does, in a measure, for its teachings of truth and duty what, in a still more peculiar manner, was done by the Incarnation. The Divine word spoken from the invisible heights, out of the secret place of Godhead, and the same word uttered from the bosom of humanity, linked on every side to the relations and experience of actual life, though they might perfectly coincide in substance, yet in form how widely different! And in the one how greatly more fitted than in the other to reach the sympathies and win the homage of men! It is, indeed, at bottom, merely a recognising and acting on the truth, that man was made in the image of God, and that only by laying hold of what remains of this image, and sanctifying it for higher uses, can the Spirit of God effectually disclose Divine things, and obtain for them a proper lodgment in the soul: the rays of the eternal Sun must reach it, not by direct effulgence, but ‘through the luminous atmosphere of created minds.’ Then, as another result, let it be considered how well this method accords with and secures that fulness and variety, which is necessary to Scripture as the book which, from its very design, was to provide the seed-corn of spiritual thought and instruction for all times—a book for the sanctification of humanity, and the developing in the soul of a higher life than that of nature. An end like this could never have been served by some general announcements, systematized exhibitions of doctrine, or stereotyped prescriptions of order and duty, without respect to diversities of time, and the ever-varying evolutions of the world’s history. There was needed for its accomplishment precisely what we find in Scripture—a rich and various treasury of knowledge, with ample materials for quiet meditation, the incitement of active energy, and the soothing influences of consolation and hope—and so, resembling more the freedom and fulness of nature than the formality and precision of art. Hence, as has been well said, ‘Scripture cannot be mapped or its contents catalogued; but, after all our diligence to the end of our lives, and to the end of the church, it must be an unexplored and unsubdued land, with heights and valleys, forests and streams, on the right and left of our path, full of concealed wonders and choice treasures.’ (Quoted in Trench’s ‘Hulsean Lectures,’ p. 94.) One may readily enough master a system of doctrine, or become conversant with even a complicated scheme of religious observance; but a history, a life, especially such lives and memorable transactions as are found in Scripture, above all, what is written of our blessed Lord, His marvellous career, His Divine works and not less Divine discourses, His atoning death and glorious resurrection who can ever say he has exhausted these? Who does not rather feel if he really makes himself at home with them—that there belongs to them a kind of infinite suggestiveness, such as is fitted to yield perpetually fresh life and instruction to thoughtful minds? And this, not as in the case of human works, for a certain class merely of mankind, but for all who will be at pains to search into its manifold and pregnant meaning. Hence the Word of God stands so closely associated with study, meditation, and prayer, without which it cannot accomplish its design—cannot even make its treasures properly known. And on this account, ‘the church and theology must, while they are in the flesh, eat their bread by the sweat of their brow; which is not only not a judgment, but, for our present state, a great blessing. If the highest were indeed so easy and simple, then the flesh would soon become indolent and satisfied. God gives us the truth in His word, but He takes care that we must all win it for ourselves ever afresh. He has therefore with great wisdom arranged the Bible as it is.’ (Auberlen ‘On Divine Revelation,’ p. 237, Eng. Trans.) Still further, in the actual structure of revelation, there is an interesting exhibition of the progressive character of the Divine plan, and of the organic connection between its several parts—in this a witness of the general organism of the human family, and, for individual members thereof, a type of the progress through which the divinely educated mind must ever pass, as from childhood to youth, and from youth to the ripeness and vigour of manhood. It thus has, as it could no otherwise have done, its milk for babes and its meat for strong men. And the scheme of God for the highest wellbeing of His people, is seen to be no transient or fitful conception, but a purpose lying deep in the eternal counsel of His will—thence gradually working itself into the history of the world—proceeding onwards from age to age, rising from one stage of development to another, the same grand principles maintained, the same moral aims pursued, through all external changes of position and varying forms of administration, till the scheme reached its consummation in the appearance and kingdom of Christ. How assuring such a prearranged and progressive course to the humble heart of faith, which desires in earnest to know its God! And how instructive also to mark the organic unity pervading the external diversity, and to learn, from the earlier and simpler manifestations of the truth, the lessons of wisdom, which are equally applicable, but often more difficult of apprehension, under its higher and more spiritual revelations! So that, for those living now in the ends of the world, there is a rich heritage of instruction, counsel, and admonition laid up for them in the Word of God, associated with every period of the church’s progress: Jehovah, the unchangeable One, speaks to them in all; all has been ‘written for their learning, that through patience and comfort of the Scriptures they might have hope.’
II. If the account now given of the matter, and the conclusion just drawn as to its practical bearing—drawn in the language of Scripture—be correct, then the historical and progressive character of revelation, the circumstance of God’s mind and will being communicated, in the first instance, to particular individuals, and associated with specific times and places in the past, does not destroy its application or impair its usefulness to men of other times: we, too, are interested in the facts it records, we are bound by the law of righteousness it reveals, we have to answer for all its calls and invitations, its lessons of wisdom and its threatenings of judgment. But here exception is taken by the representatives and advocates of individualism, sometimes under a less, sometimes under a more extreme form; in the one case denying any direct claim on our faith and obedience, in respect to what is written in Old Testament Scripture, but yielding it in respect to the New; in the other, placing both substantially in the same category, and alleging, that because of the remoteness of the period to which the Gospel era belongs, and the historical circumstances of the time no longer existing, the things recorded and enjoined also in New Testament Scripture are without any binding authority on the heart and conscience. It may be the part of wisdom to accredit and observe them, but there can be no moral blame if we should feel unable to do that, if we should take up an unbelieving and independent position.
1. Persons of the former class, who claim only a partial exemption from the authoritative teaching of Scripture—from the binding power of its earlier revelations speak after this fashion: We were not yet alive, nor did the economy under which we live exist, when the things were spoken or done, through which God made revelation of Himself to men of the olden time—when Abraham, for example, at the Divine command, left his father’s house, and was taken into covenant with God, or when Israel, at a subsequent period, were redeemed from the land of Egypt, that they might occupy a certain position and calling; and however important the transactions may have been in themselves, or how ever suitable for the time being the commands given, they still can have no direct authority over us; nor can we have to do with them as grounds of moral obligation, except in so far as they have been resumed in the teaching of Christ, or are responded to in our Christian consciousness. Of late years this form of objection has been so frequently advanced, that it is unnecessary to produce quotations; and not uncommonly the reasons attached especially to the fifth command in the Decalogue, and also to the fourth as given in Deu_5:15, pointing, the one to Israel’s heritage of Canaan, and the other to their redemption from Egypt, are regarded as conclusive evidences of the merely local and temporal nature in particular of the commands imposed in the Decalogue.
The mode of contemplation on which this line of objection proceeds is far from new; in principle it is as old as Christianity. For the view it adopts of Old Testament Scripture was firmly maintained by the unbelieving Jews of apostolic times, though applied by them rather to the blessings promised than to the duties enjoined. They imagined that, because they were the descendants of those to whom the word originally came, they alone were entitled to appropriate the privileges and hopes it secured to the faithful, or if others, yet only by becoming proselytes to Judaism, and joining themselves to the favoured seed. Fierce conflicts sprung up on this very point in subsequent times. Tertullian mentions a disputation of great keenness and length, which took place in his neighbourhood, between a Christian and a Jewish proselyte, and in which the latter sought ‘to claim the law of God for himself’ (sibi vindicare dei legem instituerit). Conceiving the merits of the question to have been darkened, rather than otherwise, by words without knowledge, Tertullian took occasion from it to write his treatise against the Jews, in which he endeavoured to shew that God, as the Creator and Governor of all men, gave the law through Moses to one people, but in order that it might be imparted to all nations, and in a form which was destined, according to Old Testament Scripture itself, to undergo an important change for the better. Nearly two centuries later we find Augustine resuming the theme, and, after adducing various passages from Moses and the prophets about the redemption God had wrought for men, and the greater things still in prospect, the Jews are introduced as proudly erecting themselves and saying, ‘We are the persons; this is said of us; it was said to us; for we are Israel, God’s people.’ (‘Adv. Judæos,’ sec. 9. Both Augustine and Tertullian have sharply exhibited, in their respective treatises, the substantial identity of the calling of believers in Christian and pre-Christian times. But in respect to the general principles of duty, they both except the law of the weekly Sabbath; with them, as with the Fathers generally, this was a prominent distinction between the believing Jew and the believing Christian—the Sabbath being viewed, in common with many of the later Jews, as a day of simple rest from work—a kind of sanctimonious idleness and repose—hence, no further related to the Christian than as a prefiguration of his cessation from sin, and spiritual rest in Christ. All the precepts of the Decalogue they regarded as strictly binding but this (so expressly Aug., ‘De Spiritu et Lit.’ c. xiv.; also Tert, ‘De Idolatria,’ c. 14; ‘Adv. Jud.,’ c. 4); or this only in the sense now specified. It was a branch of the Patristic misconceptions respecting Old Testament subjects, and one of the most unfortunate of them. Had they rightly understood the law of the Sabbath, they would undoubtedly have spoken otherwise of it. Those who dispute my assertion of this will perhaps judge differently when they hear what Ewald has to say of it. In his remarks on the Decalogue, he speaks most properly of the design and tendency of the Sabbath (though wrong, as I conceive, in ascribing its origin to Moses): ‘It was necessary (he says) for the community to have had such a pause in the common lower cares and avocations of life, that they might collect their energies with the greater zeal for the life of holiness.’ He thinks ‘no institution could be devised which could so directly lead man both to supply what is lost in the tumult of life, and effectually to turn his thoughts again to the higher and the eternal. Thus the Sabbath, though the simplest and most spiritual, is at the same time the wisest and most fruitful of institutions, the true symbol of the higher religion which now entered into the world, and the most eloquent witness to the greatness of the human soul which first grasped the idea of it.’ However, Tertullian in one place, ‘Adv. Marcionem,’ iv. 12, reasons with substantial correctness as to our Lord’s treatment of the Sabbath, and His views regarding it, maintaining that it allowed certain kinds of work.) Thus the historical element in revelation, from the time it became peculiarly associated with the family of Abraham, was turned by them into an argument for claiming a kind of exclusive right to its provisions—as if Jehovah were the God of the Jews only; just as now it is applied to the purpose of fixing on the Jews an exclusive obligation to submit to its requirements of duty—except in so far as the matter therein contained may be coincident with the general principles of moral obligation. The ground of both applications is the same—namely, by reason of the historical accompaniments of certain parts of Divine revelation, to circumscribe its sphere, and confine its authoritative teaching within merely local and temporary channels.
Now, as this is a point which concerns the proper bearing and interpretation of Scripture, it is to Scripture itself that the appeal must be made. But on making such an appeal, the principle that emerges is very nearly the converse of that just mentioned: it is, that the particular features in revelation, derived from its historical accompaniments, were meant to be, not to the prejudice or the subversion, but rather for the sake, of its general interest and application. They but served to give more point to its meaning, and render more secure its preservation in the world. So that, instead of saying, in respect to one part or another of the sacred volume, I find therein a word of God to such a person, or at such a period in the past, therefore not strictly for me; I should rather, according to the method of Scripture, say, Here, at such a time and to such a party, was a revelation of the mind and will of Him who is Lord of heaven and earth, made to persons of like nature and calling with myself—made, indeed, to them, but only that it might through them be conveyed and certified to others; and coming, as it does to me, a component part of the Word, which reveals the character of the Most High, and which, as such, He delights most peculiarly to magnify, I also am bound to listen to it as the voice of God speaking to me through my brother-man, and should make conscience of observing it—in so far as it is not plainly of a local and temporary nature, and consequently unsuited to my position and circumstances.
There are, no doubt, things of this latter description in the Word of God—things which, in their direct and literal form, are in applicable to any one now; for this is a necessary consequence of the play that has been given to the historical element in Scripture. But then it is in a measure common to all Scripture—not wanting even in its later communications. Our Lord Himself spake words to His disciples, addressed to them both commands and promises, which are no longer applicable in the letter, as when He called some to leave their ordinary occupations and follow Him, or gave them assurance of an infallible direction and supernatural gifts. And how many things are there in the epistles to the churches, which had special reference to the circumstances of the time, and called for services which partook of the local and temporary? But such things create no difficulty to the commonest understanding; nor, if honestly desirous to learn the mind of God, can any one fail to derive from such portions of Scripture the lessons they were designed to teach—on the supposition of the requisite care and pains being applied to them. It is, therefore, but a difference in degree which in this respect exists between the Scriptures of the New and those of the Old Testament; there is in the Old Testament merely a larger proportion of things which, if viewed superficially, are not, in point of form, applicable to the circumstances, or binding on the consciences of believers in Christian times; while yet they are all inwrought with lines of truth, and law, and promise, which give them a significance and a value for every age of the church. Nay, such is the admirable order and connection of God’s dispensations, so closely has He knit together the end with the beginning, and so wisely adjusted the one to the other, that many things in those earlier revelations have a light and meaning to us which they could not have to those whom they more immediately concerned: the ultimate aim and object of what was done was more important than its direct use. Read from the higher vantage-ground of the Gospel, and lighted up by its Divine realities, Moses and the prophets speak more intelligibly to us of God, and the life that is from Him, than they could do to those who had only such preliminary instructions to guide them.
From the time that God began to select a particular line as the channel of His revealed will to man, He made it clear that the good of all was intended. A special honour was in this respect to be conferred on the progeny of Shem, as compared with the other branches of Noah’s posterity; but it was not doubtfully intimated that those other branches should participate in the benefit. (Gen_9:26-27.) When, however, the Divine purpose took effect, as it so early did, in the selection of Abraham and his seed, the end aimed at was from the first announced to be of the most comprehensive kind—namely, that in Abraham and his seed ‘all the families of the earth should be blessed.’ It was but giving expression in another form to. this announcement, and breathing the spirit couched in it, when Moses, pointing to the destiny of Israel, exclaimed, ‘Rejoice, O ye nations, with His people;’ (Deu_32:43.) and when the Psalmist prayed, ‘God be merciful to us and bless us, that thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving health among all nations’ (Psalms 67.)—the true prosperity of Israel being thus expressly coupled with the general diffusion of God’s knowledge and blessing, and the one sought with a view to the other. Hence also the temple, which was at once the symbol and the centre of all that God was to Israel, was designated by the prophet ‘an house of prayer for all peoples.’ (Isa_56:7.) And hence, yet again, and as the proper issue of the whole, Jesus—the Israel by way of eminence, the impersonation of all that Israel should have been, but never more than most imperfectly was—the One in whom at once the calling of Israel and the grand purpose of God for the good of men found their true realization—He, while appearing only as a Jew among Jews, yet was not less the life and light of the world revealing the Father for men of every age and country, and making reconciliation for iniquity on behalf of all who should believe on His name, to the farthest limits of the earth and to the very end of time.
Looking thus, in a general way, over the field of Divine revelation, we perceive that it bears respect to mankind at large; and that what is special in it as to person, or time, or place, was not designed to narrow the range of its application, or render it the less profitable to any one for ‘doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness.’ And when we turn to particular passages of Scripture, and see how God-inspired men under stood and used what came from Heaven, in other times and places than those in which themselves lived, the same impression is yet more deepened on our minds—for we find them personally recognising and acting on the principle in question. In the Book of Psalms, for instance, how constantly do the sacred writers, when seeking to revive and strengthen a languishing faith, throw themselves back upon the earlier manifestations of God, and recal what He had said or done in former times, as having permanent value and abiding force even for them! ‘I will remember the works of the Lord, surely I will remember thy wonders of old. Thou art the God that doest wonders: Thou has declared thy strength among the people. Thou hast with thine arm redeemed thy people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph.’ It was virtually saying, Thou didst it all, that we might know and believe what Thou canst, and what Thou wilt do still. The principle is even more strikingly exhibited in Hos_12:3-6, ‘He (namely, Jacob) took Ins brother by the heel in the womb, and by his strength he had power with God: yea, he had power over the angel, and prevailed; he wept, and made supplication unto Him: he found Him in Bethel, and there He (God) spake with us—even Jehovah, God of hosts, Jehovah is His name.’ That is, Jehovah, the I am, He who is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever, in speaking ages ago with Jacob at Bethel, and at Peniel giving him strength over the angel, did in effect do the same with us: the record of these transactions is a testimony of what He is, and what He is ready to do in our behalf. And so, the prophet adds, by way of practical application, Therefore turn thou to thy God: keep mercy and judgment, and wait on thy God continually. Passing to New Testament times, the principle under consideration is both formally vindicated, and practically carried out. Not only does our Lord generally recognise as of God whatever was written in the Law and the Prophets, and recognise it as what He had come, not to destroy, but to fulfil—not only this, but He ever appeared as one appropriating, and, in a manner, living on the word contained in them. Thus, when plied by the tempter with the plausible request to turn the stones of the desert into bread, the ready reply was, ‘It is written, Man liveth not by bread only, but by every word which proceedeth out of the mouth of God’—man does it; man, namely, as the humble, docile, confiding child of God—he lives thus; so it was written ages ago in the ever-living Word of God—written, therefore, also for Him, who is pre-eminently such a man, as much as if it had been immediately addressed to Himself. And the same course was followed in the other temptations: they were successively met and repelled by what was written aforetime, as equally valid and binding at that time as when originally penned. To say nothing of the other apostles, who freely quote Old Testament Scripture, St Paul both formally sets forth and frequently applies the same great principle:—some times in a more general manner, as when he affirms, ‘that the things written aforetime were written for our learning;’ (Rom_15:3.) or, more particularly, when speaking of the dealings of God with Israel in the wilderness, he states that ‘they happened unto them for ensamples (types), and are written for our admonition;’ (1Co_10:11.) or, again, when identifying believers under the Gospel with Abraham, he asserts that ‘they who are of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham’ (Gal_3:9.)—the blessing pronounced upon him being regarded as virtually pronounced also upon those in later times who exercise his faith. And still more striking is another exposition given of the principle, as connected with the Abrahamic blessing, in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 6.), where, referring to the promise and the oath confirming it, it is said, God thereby shewed ‘to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel,’ so that ‘by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation who have fled for refuge to the hope set before us’—not that he merely, to whom it was directly given, but that we too might have it. Therefore, the promise of blessing and its confirmatory oath were, according to the author of the epistle, designed as well for believers in Gospel times as for the father of the faithful; and why? Simply because they reveal the character and purpose of God in respect to the covenant of salvation, which, in all that essentially pertains to them, are independent of place and time, like their Divine Author changing not, but perpetually entitled to the faith and confidence of those who seek an interest in their provisions.
Such is the spirit or principle in which we are taught, on inspired authority—by Psalmists and Prophets of the Old Testament, by Christ and His apostles in the New—to regard and use that revelation of truth and duty, which comes to us bound up with the history of God’s dispensations. If any thing can be deemed certain regarding it, it is that we must look through the external accompaniments of what is revealed to its heart and substance; in other words, that we must not allow what is merely circumstantial in the Divine communications to interfere with that which is essential, and which, from the organic unity pervading those communications, is properly of no age or time. The false principle, which in various forms has from early to present times been put forth, is to invert this relation to employ the circumstantial as a lever to undermine or drive into abeyance the essential. Had such been our Lord’s method of interpreting ancient Scripture, what would it have availed Him to remember, in His hour of temptation, that man liveth not by bread only, but by every word of God, since that was written of Israel as redeemed from Egypt and fed with manna, while He was a stranger to both? Or, had it been Paul’s, how should he ever have thought of transferring such special transactions and assurances of blessing as those connected with the faith of Abraham and the offering of Isaac, to believers generally of subsequent times? In acting as they did, they looked beyond the mere form and appearances of things, and entered into the faith of God’s elect, which ever penetrates beneath the surface, and rather desires to know how much it is entitled to derive or learn from the written word of God, than to find how much it is at liberty to reject. But if there be any portion of Old Testament Scripture which more than another should be dealt with after this manner, it is surely that master-piece of legislation—the ten words proclaimed from Sinai—in which the substance is so easily distinguished from the accessories of time and place, and the substance itself is so simple, so reasonable, so perfectly accordant in all it exacts with the dictates of conscience and the truest wellbeing of mankind, that there seems to be needed only the thoughtful and earnest spirit of faith, to say, Lord, here is the manifestation of thy most just and righteous will toward me—incline my heart to keep these thy laws.
And here, indeed, lies the root of the whole matter—whether we have this spirit of faith or not. The possession and exercise of this spirit makes all, even the earliest parts of God’s revelation to men, instinct with life and power, because, connecting the whole in our minds with the ever-abiding presence and immutable verity of God, it disposes us to feel that we have to do with the evolution of an eternal purpose, which step by step has been conducting fallen man to the righteousness and blessing of Heaven. Nothing in such a case properly dies. Whatever may be the aspect of God’s word and ways we more immediately contemplate—whether the doom pronounced on the ungodliness of men, and the judgments inflicted on their impenitence and guilt—or the deliverances wrought for the children of faith in their times of danger and distress—or, finally, the fiery law issued as from the secret place of thunder, and prescribing the essential principles of a holiness which is the reflection of God’s own pure and blessed nature—whichever it may be, the more profoundly we regard it as a still living word, ‘for ever settled in the heavens,’ and apply ourselves in earnest to have its teaching realized in our experience, the more do we appreciate its true character, accord with the design for which it was given, and illustrate the wisdom and goodness of Him who gave it.
2. But there is another and more extreme class of objectors, who make no distinction in this respect between New and Old Testament Scripture—who, as regards every thing of a supernatural kind that has a place in the sacred records, disallow any strict and proper obligation either to accredit what is testified, or to comply with its calls of duty. They were not personally present when the things so marvellous, so remote from one’s every-day observation and experience, are reported to have taken place; and no evidence of a simply historical kind can give them a claim upon their conscience. A divinely inspired attestation might, indeed, carry such a claim, did we certainly possess it; but then inspiration belongs to the supernatural, and itself requires confirmation. So Mr Froude, for example: ‘Unless the Bible is infallible, there can be no moral obligation to accept the facts which it records; and though there may be intellectual error in denying them, there can be no moral sin. Facts may be better or worse authenticated; but all the proofs in the world of the genuineness and authenticity of the human handiwork, cannot establish a claim upon the conscience. It might be foolish to question Thucydides’ account of Pericles, but no one would call it sinful. Men part with all sobriety of judgment when they come on ground of this kind.’ (Essay on ‘Theological Difficulties.’)
The objection is very adroitly put, and, if the alleged parallel instance from Grecian history were a fair one, the conclusion would be inevitable, that it were the height of absurdity to think of establishing on such a basis a claim of moral responsibility. One is only disposed to wonder that so palpable an absurdity did not suggest to such a writer as Mr Froude the possibility of some hitch in his own reasoning on the subject, and that it was scarcely probable the whole race of Christian apologists (comprising many of the most thoughtful and sagacious intellects of past as well as present times) should have committed themselves to positions which bespoke an utter absence of sobriety of judgment. The argument is really one-sided and sophistical; it proceeds on the supposition of there being only one element requiring to be taken into account in the cases represented as parallel—the one, namely, that is, or might be, common to them both; while others, in which they differ, are thrown entirely into the background. The account of Pericles in Thucydides, and the evangelical narratives of Christ’s person and work on earth, could easily be conceived to be alike genuine and authentic; but it would not thence follow that they stood upon a footing as regards their claim on men’s moral responsibilities. For as men occupy no specific moral relation to the life and transactions of Pericles, they might be true, or they might be false, for any thing that concerns the conduct we have to maintain in this world, or the expectations we are warranted to cherish respecting the next; they might even remain to us a total blank, without materially affecting the course we pursue in respect either to God or to our fellow-men. Therefore, let the facts themselves be ever so certain, and the account transmitted of them beyond the slightest shade of suspicion, they still do not in the least touch our conscience; we could at most be but somewhat less intelligent, if we refused to read or to accredit what is told of them, but we should not be one whit less happy or virtuous. It is entirely otherwise, however, with the recorded life and works of Jesus Christ. These carry on the very face of them a respect to every man’s dearest interests and moral obligations; if true, they bear in the closest manner on our present condition, and are fraught with results of infinite moment on our future destinies. And, unless the accounts we have of them present such obvious and inherent marks of improbability or imposture, as ipso facto to relieve us of all need for investigation, we are bound—morally bound by the relation in which the course of providence has placed us to them, as well as by the possible results to our own wellbeing—to consider the evidence on which they claim our belief, and make up our minds either to accredit or reject them.
There are undoubtedly persons who do assume the position just noticed, who hold the supernatural character of the events of Gospel history as alone sufficient to warrant their peremptory rejection of its claims to their belief. With them the miraculous is but another name for the incredible. This, however, is not the aspect of the question we have here to deal with. Mr Froude’s exception is taken against the facts of Christianity, as connected with our moral obligations, not because they are miraculous, but simply because they are facts—reported to be such—matters of historical statement, which, as such, he alleges, however authentically related, cannot bind the conscience, or constitute, if disowned, a ground of moral blame. Is it really so in other things? Do the properly parallel instances in the transactions of human life bear out the position? Quite the reverse. A great part of men’s obligations of duty, in the actual pursuits and intercourse of life, root themselves in facts, of which they can have nothing more than probable evidence. The whole range of filial duties, and those belonging to the special claims of kindred, are of this description; they spring out of facts, for which one can have nothing more than probable evidence, and evidence which sometimes, though fortunately not often, requires to be sifted in order to get assurance of the truth. In the department of political life, what statesman, or even comparatively humble citizen, can act in accordance with the spirit of the constitution—vindicate his own or his country’s rights, provide against emergencies, devise and prosecute measures for the common good—without taking account of things near or remote, which he can only learn through the probabilities of historical testimony? And in the ordinary pursuits of business or commercial enterprise, every thing for men’s success may be said to turn on their industry and skill in ascertaining what the probabilities are of things supposed to have emerged, or in the act of emerging—yea, in threading their way often through apparently competing probabilities; duty to themselves and their families obliges them to search thus into the facts they have to deal with, and to shape their course accordingly. Is not this, indeed, the very basis of Butler’s conclusive argument in behalf of the kind of evidence on which all Christian obligation rests? ‘Probable evidence’ (he says), ‘in its very nature, affords but an imperfect kind of information, and is to be considered as relative only to beings of limited capacities. For nothing which is the possible object of knowledge, whether past, present, or future, can be probable to an infinite intelligence; since it cannot but be discerned absolutely as it is in itself, certainly true, or certainly false. But to us, probability is the very guide of life.’ (‘Analogy,’ Introduction.) And, as he elsewhere states in the application of this principle, ‘no possible reason can be given why we may not be in a state of moral probation, with regard to the exercise of our understanding upon the subject of religion, as we are with regard to our behaviour in common affairs.’ And the circumstance, ‘that religion is not intuitively true, but a matter of deduction and inference; that a conviction of its truth is not forced upon every one, but left to be, by some, collected with heedful attention to premises—this as much constitutes religious probation, as much affords sphere, scope, opportunity for right and wrong behaviour, as any thing whatever does.’ (Ibid., P. II. c. 6.)
Mr Fronde, in his ‘Short Studies on Grave Subjects,’ has too evidently not found leisure to make himself acquainted with the principles of Butler’s argument; else he could scarcely have written in the style he has done. But as we fear there are many in the same position, and others in some danger of being carried away by the false gnosis of the school to which he belongs, it may not be improper to give the subject the benefit of the sharp and characteristic exposition of Mr Rogers. ‘The absurdity, if anywhere, is in the principle affirmed, namely, that God cannot have constituted it man’s duty to act in cases of very imperfect knowledge; and yet we see that He has perpetually compelled him to do so; nay, often in a condition next door to stark ignorance. To vindicate the wisdom of such a constitution may be impossible; but the fact cannot be denied. The Christian admits the difficulty alike in relation to religion and the affairs of this world. He believes, with Butler, that probability is the guide of life; that man may have sufficient evidence in a thousand cases to warrant his action, and a, reasonable confidence in its results, though that evidence is very far removed from certitude:—that, similarly, the mass of men are justified in saying, that they know a thousand facts of history to be true, though they have never had the opportunity or capacity of thoroughly investigating them; that the statesman, the lawyer, and the physician, are justified in acting, when they yet are compelled to acknowledge that they act only on most unsatisfactory calculations of probabilities, and amidst a thousand doubts and difficulties: all which, say we Christians, is true in relation to the Christian religion, the evidence for which is plainer, after all, than that on which man, in ten thousand cases, is necessitated to hazard his fortune or his life. . . . Those whom we call profoundly versed in the more difficult matters, which depend on moral evidence, are virtually in the same condition as their humbler neighbours. When men must act, the decisive facts may be pretty equally grasped by all; and as for the rest, the enlargement of the circle of a man’s knowledge is, in still greater proportion, the enlargement of the circle of his ignorance; for the circumscribing periphery is in darkness. If, as you suppose, it cannot be our duty to act in reference to an “historical religion,” because a satisfactory investigation is impossible to the mass of mankind, the argument may be retorted on your own theory [that, namely, of F. Newman, which, as with Mr Froude, would place its chief reliance on the inner consciousness]. You assert, indeed, that in relation to religion we have an internal spiritual faculty, which evades this difficulty; yet men persist in saying, in spite of you, that it is doubtful, first, whether they have any such; second, whether, if there be one, it be not so debauched and sophisticated by other faculties, that they can no longer trust it implicitly; third, what is the amount of its genuine utterances; fourth, what that of its aberrations; fifth, whether it is not so dependent on development, education, and association, as to leave room enough for an auxiliary external revelation—on all which questions the generality of mankind are just as incapable of deciding as about any historical question whatever.’ (‘Eclipse of Faith,’ pp. 254-6.)
It is clear from such considerations, that certainty in religion cannot be attained by attempting to remove it from an historical to an internal, or .strictly spiritual foundation; and also that the kind of certainty demanded to constitute the ground of moral obligation, is different from what is universally regarded as constituting such a .ground in the common affairs and relations of life.
Besides, the principle against which we argue, were it valid, would render a general and progressive scheme of revelation impracticable—since such a thing could be possible only by the historical element entering into the dispensation of religion, and the historical developments of one age becoming the starting-point of the next. Even in the more general field of the world’s progress it would evacuate, for all essentially moral purposes, the principle, acknowledged also by the more thoughtful and observant class of theists, that ‘God is in history’—for this implies, that, as in the facts of history God reveals Himself, so it is the duty of His rational creatures both to take cognizance of the facts, and to mark in them the character of the revelation. Much more must such be man’s duty with the higher revelation which God gives of Himself in Scripture, and which man needs for the relief of his profoundest wants, and the quickening of his moral energies. For this, the history of God’s kingdom among men has an important part to play, as well as the direct teaching of truth and duty. And for the greater and more essential acts of that history, the genuineness and authenticity of the sacred records must of necessity form the more immediate evidence and the indispensable guarantee. Not, however, as if this were the whole; for the facts which constitute the substance of the Gospel, and form the ground of its distinctive hopes and obligations, are commended to our belief by many considerations, which strengthen the direct historical evidence—in particular, by a whole line of prophetic testimonies, of which they were the proper culmination; by the high moral aim of the writings which record them, and of the witnesses who perilled their lives in attestation of them; by their adaptation to the more profound convictions of the soul, and the spiritual reformation which the sincere belief of them has ever carried in its train. But the misfortune is, this varied and manifold congruity of evidence receives little patient regard from the literary, self-sufficient individualism of the age. And here also there is some ground for the complaint, which has been uttered by a late writer of superior thought and learning, in respect to the rationalistic criticism of Germany: ‘Men of mere book learning, who have never seen what the Spirit of God is working in the church, and who know little of life in general, take it upon themselves to pronounce final judgment upon the greatest revelations of spirit and life the world has ever seen; upon the greatest of men, and the greatest outward and inward conflicts; upon events which, more than all others, have moved the world; upon words and writings which, more than all others, have been productive of life. What does not occur in our days, or at least what is not seen by certain eyes, cannot (it is thought) have happened in an earlier age, the products of which yet lie before us the greatest in the world, and to which we have nothing even remotely similar.’ (Auberlen, ‘The Divine Revelation,’ p. 274. Trans.) Too manifestly, as the writer adds, there is in such things the evidence of an inward opposition to the truth, and hostility to the church of God.