Prevailing Views In Respect To The Ascendency Of Law (1) In The Natural; (2) In The Moral And Religious Sphere; And The Relation In Which They Stand To The Revelations Of Scripture On The Subject.
AMONG the more marked tendencies of our age, especially as represented by its scientific and literary classes, may justly be reckoned a prevailing tone of sentiment regarding the place and authority of law in the Divine administration. The sentiment is a divided one; for the tendency in question takes a twofold direction, according as it respects the natural, or the moral and religious sphere in the one exalting, we may almost say deifying law; in the other narrowing its domain, sometimes even ignoring its existence. An indissoluble chain of sequences, the fixed and immutable law of cause and effect, whether always discoverable or not, is contemplated as binding together the order of events in the natural world; but as regards the spiritual, it is the inherent right or sovereignty of the individual mind that is chiefly made account of, subject only to the claims of social order, the temporal interests of humanity, and the general enlightenment of the times. And as there can be no doubt that these divergent lines of thought have found their occasion, and to some extent also their ground, the one in the marked advancement of natural science, the other in the progress of the Divine dispensations, it will form a fitting introduction to the inquiry that lies before us to take a brief review of both, in their general relation to the great truths and principles of Scripture.
I. We naturally look first, in such a survey, to the physical territory, to the vast and complicated field of nature. Here a twofold disturbance has arisen—the one from men of science pressing, not so much ascertained facts, as plausible inferences or speculations built on them, to unfavourable conclusions against Scripture; the other from theologians themselves overstepping in their interpretations of Scripture, and finding in it revelations of law, or supposed indications of order, in the natural sphere, which it was never intended to give. As so interpreted by Patristic, Mediaeval, and even some comparatively late writers, the Bible has unquestionably had its authority imperilled by being brought into collision with indisputable scientific results. But the better it is under stood the more will it be found to have practised in this respect a studious reserve, and to have as little invaded the proper field of scientific inquiry and induction, as to have assumed, in regard to it, the false position of the nature-religions of heathenism. It is the moral and religious sphere with which the Bible takes strictly to do; and only in respect to the more fundamental things belonging to the constitution of nature and its relation to the Creator, can it be said to have committed itself to any authoritative deliverance. Written, as every book must be that is adapted to popular use, in the language of common life, it describes the natural phenomena of which it speaks according to the appearances, rather than the realities, of things. This was inevitable, and requires to be made due account of by those who would deal justly with its contents. But while freely and familiarly discoursing about much pertaining to the creation and providence of the world, the Bible does not, in respect to the merely natural frame and order of things, pronounce upon their latent powers or modes of operation, nor does it isolate events from the proper instrumental agencies. It undoubtedly presents the works and movements of nature in close connection with the will and pervasive energy of God; but then it speaks thus of them all alike—of the little as well as the great—of the ordinary not less than the extraordinary, or more striking and impressive. According to the Bible, God thunders, indeed, in the clouds; but the winds also, even the gentlest zephyrs, blow at His command, and do His bidding. If it is He who makes the sun to know his going forth, and pour light and gladness over the face of nature, it is He also who makes the rain to fall and the seeds of the earth to spring, and clothes the lilies of the field with beauty. Not even a sparrow falls to the ground without Him. And as in the nearer and more familiar of these operations everything is seen to be accomplished through means and ordinances bound up with nature’s constitution; so, it is reasonable to infer, must it be with the grander and more remote. In short, while it is the doctrine of the Bible that God is in all, and in a sense does all, nothing is authoritatively defined as to the how or by what they are done; and science is at perfect liberty to prosecute its researches with the view of discovering the individual properties of things, and how, when brought into relation, they act and react on each other, so as to produce the results which appear in the daily march of providence.
Now, let this relation of the Bible, with its true religion, to the pursuits of science, be placed alongside that of the false religions of Greek and Roman poly theism which it supplanted, and let the effect be noted—the legitimate and necessary effect of the progress of science in its clearest and best established conclusions on the one as compared with the other. Resting on an essentially pantheistic basis, those ancient religions ever tended to associate the objects and operations of nature with the immediate presence and direct agency of some particular deity—to identify the one in a manner with the other; and very specially to do this with the greater and more remarkable phenomena of nature. Thus Helios, or the Sun, was deified in Apollo, and was not poetically represented merely, but religiously believed, to mount his chariot, drawn by a team of fiery steeds, in the morning, to rise by a solid pathway to mid-heaven, and then descend toward the western horizon, that his wearied coursers might be refreshed before entering on the labours of another day. Selené, or the Moon, in like manner, though in humbler guise, was contemplated as pursuing her nocturnal course. Sun, moon, and stars, it was believed, bathed themselves every night in the waves of ocean, and got their fires replenished by partaking of the Neptunian element. Eclipses were prodigies—portentous signs of wrath in heaven—which struck fear into men’s bosoms, as on the eve of direful calamities, and sometimes so paralysing them as to become itself the occasion of the sorest disasters. Hence, the philosophy which applied itself to explore the operation of physical properties and laws in connection with natural events, was accounted impious; since, as Plutarch remarks, (Life of Nicias. ) it seemed ‘to ascribe things to insensate causes, unintelligent powers, and necessary changes, thereby jostling aside the divine.’
On this account Anaxagoras was thrown into prison by the Athenians, and narrowly escaped with his life. Socrates was less fortunate; he suffered the condemnation and penalty of death, although he had not carried his physical speculations nearly so far as Anaxagoras. At his trial, however, he was charged with impiety, on the ground of having said that the sun was a stone, and the moon earth; he himself, however, protesting that such was not his, but the doctrine of Anaxagoras; that he held both sun and moon to be divine persons, as was done by the rest of mankind. His real view seems to have been, that the common and ordinary events of Providence flowed from the operation of second causes, but that those of greater magnitude and rarer occurrence came directly from the interposition of a divine power. Yet this modified philosophy was held to be utterly inconsistent with the popular religion, and condemned as an impiety. Of necessity, therefore, as science proceeded in its investigations and discoveries, religion fell into the background; as the belief in second causes advanced, the gods, as no longer needed, vanished away. Physical science and the polytheism of Greece and Rome were in their very nature antagonistic, and every real advance of the one brought along with it a shock to the other.
It is otherwise with the religion of the Bible, when this is rightly understood, and nothing from without, nothing foreign to its teaching, is imposed on it. For it neither merges God in the works and operations of nature, nor associates Him with one department more peculiarly than another; while still it presents all—the works themselves, the changes they undergo, and every spring and agency employed in accomplishing them—in dependence on His arm and subordination to His will: He is in all, through all, and over all. So that for those who have imbibed the spirit of the Bible, there may appear the most perfect regularity and continued sequence of operations, while God is seen and adored in connection with every one of them. It is true, that the sensibilities of religious feeling, or, as we should rather say, the freshness and power of its occasional outbursts, are less likely to be experienced, and in reality are more rarely manifested, when, in accordance with the revelations of science, God’s agency is contemplated as working through material forces under the direction of established law, than if, without such an intervening medium, in specific acts of providence, and by direct interference, He should make His presence felt. The more that anything ceases to appear strange to our view, abnormal—the more it comes to be associated in our minds with the orderly domain of law—the less startling and impressive does it naturally become as an evidence of the nearness and power of God head: it no longer stands alone to our view, it is part of a system, but still a system which, if viewed aright, has been all planned by the wisdom, and is constantly sustained and directed by the providence of God.
In this, as in so many other departments of human interest and experience, there is a compensation in things. What science may appear to take with one hand, it gives—gives, one might almost say, more liberally with another. If, for example, the revelation on scientific grounds of the amazing regularity and finely-balanced movements which prevail in the constitution and order of the material universe, as connected with our planetary system,—if this, in one aspect of it, should seem to have placed God at a certain distance from the visible world, in another it has but rendered His presiding agency and vigilant oversight more palpably indispensable. For such a vast, complicated, and wondrous mechanism, how could it have originated? or, having originated, how could it be sustained in action without the infinite skill and ceaseless activity of an all-perfect Mind? There is here what is incalculably more and better than some occasional proofs of interference, or fitful displays of power, however grand and imposing. There is clear sighted, far-reaching thought, nicely planned design, mutual adaptations, infinitely varied, of part to part, the action and reaction of countless forces, working with an energy that baffles all conception, yet working with the most minute mathematical precision, and with the effect of producing both the most harmonious operation, and the most diversified, gigantic, and beneficent results. It is, too, the more marvellous, and the more certainly indicative of the originating and controlling agency of mind, that while all the planetary movements obey with perfect regularity one great principle of order, they do so by describing widely different orbits, and, in the case of some, pursuing courses that move in opposite directions to others. Whence should such things be? Not, assuredly, from any property inherent in the material orbs themselves, which know nothing of the laws they exemplify, or the interests that depend on the order they keep: no, but solely from the will and power of the infinite and eternal Being, whose workmanship they are, and whose purposes they unconsciously fulfil. So wrote Newton devoutly, as well as nobly, at the close of his incomparable work: ‘This beautiful system of sun, planets, and comets, could have its origin in no other way than by the counsel and sovereignty of an intelligent and powerful Being. He governs all things—not as the soul of the world, but as the Lord of the universe. . . . We know Him only through His qualities and attributes, and through the most wise and excellent forms and final causes, which belong to created things; and we admire Him on account of His perfections; but for His sovereign lordship, we worship and adore Him;’—thus in the true spirit of the Psalmist, and as with a solemn hallelujah, winding up the mighty demonstration. (On this point, Dr Whewell has some remarks in his ‘Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences,’ which another great authority in natural science, Sir John Herschel, has characterized as admirable (‘Essays and Addresses,’ p. 239). ‘The assertion appears to be quite unfounded, that as science advances from point to point, final causes recede before it, and disappear one after the other. The principle of design changes its mode of application indeed, but it loses none of its force. We no longer consider particular facts as produced by special inter positions, but we consider design as exhibited in the establishment and adjustment of the laws by which particular facts are produced. We do not look upon each particular cloud as brought near us that it may drop fatness on our fields; but the general adaptation of the laws of heat, and air, and moisture, to the promotion of vegetation, does not become doubtful. We are rather, by the discovery of the general laws of nature, led into a scene of wider design, of deeper contrivance, of more comprehensive adjustments. Final causes, if they appear driven farther from us by such an extension of our views, embrace us only with a vaster and more majestic circuit; instead of a few threads connecting some detached objects, they become a stupendous network which is wound round and round the universal frame of things.’ Vol. 1:p. 635.)
We are informed, in a recent publication by a noble author, (The Duke of Argyle, ‘Reign of Law,’ p. 122.) that modern science is again returning to this view of things; returning to it, I suppose, as becoming conscious of the inadequacy of the maxim of an earlier time, in respect to creation, ‘That the hypothesis of a Deity is not needed.’ Speaking of the mystery which hangs around the idea of force, even of the particular force which has its seat in our own vitality, he says, ‘If, then, we know nothing of that kind of force which is so near to us, and with which our own intelligence is in such close alliance, much less can we know the ultimate nature of force in its other forms. It is important to dwell on this, because both the aversion with which some men regard the idea of the reign of law, and the triumph with which some others hail it, are founded on a notion, that when we have traced any given phenomena to what are called natural forces, we have traced them farther than we really have. We know nothing of the ultimate nature, or of the ultimate seat of force [that is, know nothing scientifically]. Science, in the modern doctrine of the conservation of energy and the convertibility of forces, is already getting something like a firm hold of the idea, that all kinds of force are but forms or manifestations of some central force issuing from some one Fountainhead of power. Sir John Herschel has not hesitated to say, that it is but reasonable to regard the force of gravitation as the direct or indirect result of a consciousness or a will existing somewhere. And even if we cannot certainly identify force in all its forms with the direct energies of one omnipresent and all-pervading will, it is, at least, in the highest degree unphilosophical to assume the contrary; to speak or to think as if the forces of nature were either independent of, or even separate from, the Creator’s power.’ In short, natural science, in its investigations into the forces and movements of the material universe, finds a limit which it cannot overpass, and in that limit a felt want of satisfaction, as conscious of the necessity of a spontaneity, a will, a power to give impulse and direction to the whole, of which nature itself can give no information, because lying outside of its province, and which, if discovered to us at all, must be certified through a supernatural revelation.
But this is still not the whole of the argument for the pervading causal connection of God with the works of nature, and His claim in this respect to our devout recognition of His will as the source of its laws, and His power as the originator and sustainer of its movements. For, besides the admirable method and order, the simplicity in the midst of endless diversity, which are found to characterize the system of material nature, there is also to be taken into account the irrepressible impulse in the human mind to search for these, and the capacity to discern and appreciate them as marks of the highest intelligence. A pre-established harmony here discovers itself between the world of thought within, and the world of material order and scientific adjustment without, bespeaking their mutual co-ordination by the wise foresight and plastic energy of one Supreme Mind. ‘Copernicus (Max Müller, ‘Lectures on Language,’ p. 19.) (it has been remarked), in the dedication of his work to Pope Paul III., confesses that he was brought to the discovery of the sun’s central position and of the diurnal motion of the earth, not by observation or analysis, but by what he calls the feeling of a want of symmetry in the Ptolemaic system. But who had told him that there must be symmetry in all the movements of the celestial bodies, or that complication was not more sublime than simplicity? Symmetry and simplicity, before they were discovered by the observer, were postulated by the philosopher;’ and by him, we may add, truly postulated, because first existing as ideas in the Eternal Mind, whose image and reflex man’s is. So also with Newton: the principle of gravitation, as an all-embracing law of the planetary system, was postulated in his mind before he ascertained it to be the law actually in force throughout the whole, or even any considerable part of the system—mind in man thus responding to mind in God, and finding, in the things which appear, the evidence at once of His eternal power and Godhead, and of the similitude of its own understanding to that of Him by whom the world has been contrived and ordained.
There is a class of minds which such considerations cannot reach. They would take a position above them; and adventuring upon what tends to perplex and confound, rather than satisfy, the reason, they raise such questions respecting the Absolute and Infinite, as in a manner exclude the just and natural conclusions deduced from the works of creation concerning the Being and Government of the Creator. But questions of that description, pressing as they do into a region which transcends all human thought and known analogy, it is presumption in man to raise, folly to entertain; for ‘man is born,’ as Goethe well remarked, ‘not to solve the problems of the universe, but to find out where the problem for himself begins, and then restrain himself within the limits of the comprehensible.’ Considered from this point of view, the reflections which have been submitted as to the prevalence of natural law in the general economy of the world of matter, in its relation to God and its bearing on the religion of the Bible, are perfectly legitimate; and they might easily be extended by a diversified application of the principles involved in them to the arrangements in the natural world, which stand more closely related to men’s individual interests and responsibilities. But to sum up briefly what relates to this branch of our subject, there are three leading characteristics in the teaching of the Bible respecting the relation of God to the merely natural world, and which, though they can only in a qualified sense be termed a revelation of law, yet form, so to speak, the landmarks which the Bible itself sets up, and the measure of the liberty it accords to the cultivators of science.
(1.) The first of these is the strict and proper personality of God, as distinct from, and independent of, the whole or any part of the visible creation. This to its utmost limits is His workmanship—the theatre which His hands have reared, and which they still maintain, for the outgoing of His perfections and the manifestation of His glory. As such, therefore, the things belonging to it are not, and cannot possibly be, a part of His proper self. However pervaded by His essential presence and divine energy, they are not ‘the varied God,’ in the natural sense of the expression. They came into being without any diminution of His infinite greatness, and so they may be freely handled, explored, modified, made to undergo ever so many changes and transformations, without in the slightest degree trenching on the nature of Him, who is ‘without variableness or shadow of turning.’ Such is the doctrine of the Bible—differing from mere nature-worship, and from polytheism in all its forms, which, if it does not openly avow, tacitly assumes the identification of Deity with the world. The Scripture doctrine of the Creator and creation, of God and the world, as diverse though closely related factors, leaves to science its proper field of inquiry and observation untrammelled by any hindrance arising from the view there exhibited of the Divine nature.
(2.) A second distinguishing feature in the revelations of the Bible is, that they rather presuppose what belongs to the domain of natural science, than directly interfere with it. With the exception of the very earliest part of the sacred records, it is the supernatural—the supernatural with respect more immediately to moral relations and results—which may be designated their proper field; and while in this the supernatural throughout bases itself on the natural, the natural itself is little more than incidentally referred to, or very briefly indicated. Even in the account given of the formation of the world and the natural constitution of things therewith connected, it is obviously with the design of forming a suitable introduction to the place of man in the world, his moral relation to the Creator, and his special distinction as the responsible head of creation upon earth, that the narrative was framed, rather than for the purpose of affording any insight into the merely natural relations and properties of things. The physical as such, with its manifold gradations of life and being, its history and developments, its laws of attraction and repulsion, modes of operation, existing forms and possible transformations,—all this is either unnoticed in Scripture, or indicated only in its rougher outlines. Even the vexed question respecting the origin and distinctions of species in the animal creation is but partially involved here; for, while Scripture undoubtedly represents the existing families of mankind as originating in the formation of one pair by the immediate interposition of God, and also represents the production of plants, fishes, land animals, fowls, as coming at successive stages into being, and each constituted so as to bring forth after its kind; yet nothing is said as to the number of kinds, or the centres, one or more, in which they respectively originated, how far the several kinds should remain stereotyped, or how far they might be capable, through human art or climatic influences, of departing from the original type, and in process of time developing into varieties and making indefinite approaches one to another. On such points Scripture is altogether silent, even in that introductory portion which most nearly resembles a piece of natural history. Nothing depends on them for the higher interests which it has mainly in view, the things which concern the moral character and purposes of God, as connected with His crowning work in creation—Man. And it may well surely be regarded as a wonderful thing in that simple primeval record, an evidence of something more in it than a merely human authorship, that it should, while touching but incidentally on scientific ground, stand, as a whole, in such striking accord even now with the established results of science—exhibiting, by means of a few graphic lines, not merely the evolution from dark chaos of a world of light, and order, and beauty, but the gradual ascent also of being upon earth, from the lowest forms of vegetable and animal life, up to him, who holds alike of earth and heaven—at once creation’s head, and the rational image and vicegerent of the Creator. Here, substantially at least, we have the progression of modern science; but this combined, in a manner altogether peculiar, with the peerless dignity and worth of man, as of more account in God’s sight than the entire world besides of animated being, yea, than sun, and moon, and stars of light, because incomparably nearer than them all to the heart of God, and more closely associated with the moral aims, to which everything in nature was designed to be subordinate. Better than all science, it reveals alike man’s general place in nature and his singular relation to God. (See Butler, Analogy, P. I. c. 7.)
(3.) A third characteristic of Bible teaching in this connection is the free play it allows to general laws and natural agencies, or to the operation of cause and effect; and this, not merely as bearing on simply natural results, but also as connected with spiritual relations and duties. Those laws and agencies are of God; as briefly expressed by Augustine, ‘God’s will constitutes the nature of things’ (Dei voluntas rerum natura est); or more fully by Hooker, (Eccl. Polity/ B. I. c. 3, sec. 4.) ‘That law, the performance whereof we behold in things natural, is as it were an authentic or original draft written in the bosom of God himself, whose Spirit being to execute the same with every particular nature, every mere natural agent is only as an instrument created at the beginning, and ever since the beginning used, to work His own will and pleasure withal. Nature, therefore, is nothing else but God’s instrument.’ Whence the various powers and faculties of nature, whether in things animate or inanimate, her regular course and modes of procedure, are not supplanted by grace, but are recognised and acted upon to the full extent that they can be made subservient to higher purposes. Thus, when in respect to things above nature, God reveals His mind to men, He does it through men, and through men not as mere machines unconsciously obeying a supernatural impulse, but acting in discharge of their personal obligations and the free exercise of their individual powers and susceptibilities. So also the common subject of grace, the ordinary believer, obtains no warrant as such to set at nought the settled laws and ordinances of nature, no right to expect aught but mischief if he should contravene their action, or fail to adapt himself to their mode of operation; and at every step in his course toward the final goal of his calling, reason, knowledge, cultivation, wise discretion, and persevering diligence have their parts to play in securing his safety and progress, as well as the divine help and internal agency of the Spirit. It is, therefore, within the boundary-lines fixed by nature, and in accordance with the principles of her constitution, alike in the mental and the material world, that the work of grace proceeds, though bringing along with it powers, and influences, and results which are peculiarly its own. And even as regards the things done for the believer in the outer field of providence, and in answer to humble prayer, there may be no need (for aught we know to the contrary) for miraculous interference, in the ordinary sense of the term, but only for wise direction, for timely and fitting adjustment. It may even be, as Isaac Taylor has said, ‘the great miracle of providence, that no miracles are needed to accomplish its purposes;’ that ‘the materials of the machinery of providence are all of ordinary quality, while their combination displays nothing less than infinite skill;’ and, at all events, within this field alone of divine foresight and gracious interventions through natural agencies, there is in the hand of God ‘a hidden treasury of boons sufficient for the incitement of prayer and the reward of humble faith.’ (‘Natural History of Enthusiasm,’ sec. vi.)
The three principles or positions now laid down in respect to God’s operations in nature and providence, seem to comprise all that is needed for the maintenance of friendly relations between the religion of the Bible and the investigations of science; on the one side, ample scope is left to these investigations, while, on the other, nothing has been actually established by them which conflicts with the statements of the Bible interpreted by the principles we have stated. But undoubtedly there is in them what cannot be reconciled with that deification of material forces, which some would identify with strict science—as if everything that took place were the result of the action only of unconscious law—law working with such rigid, unbroken continuity of natural order, as to admit of no break or deviation whatever (such as is implied in miracles), and no special adaptation to individual cases (as a particular providence would involve). Both miracles and a particular providence, within certain limits, and as means to the attainment of important ends, are postulated and required in the revelations of the Bible. For if, as it teaches, there be a personal God, an infinite and eternal Spirit, distinct from the works of creation, and Himself the author of the laws by which they are governed—if also this God sustains the character of moral Governor in regard to the intelligent part of His creation, and subordinates everything in His administration to the principles and interests therewith connected—then the possibility, at least, of miracles and a particular providence (to say nothing at present of their evidence), can admit of no reasonable doubt. This does not imply, as the opponents of revelation not unfrequently assume, the production in certain cases of an effect without a cause, or the emerging of dissimilar consequents from the same antecedents. For, on the supposition in question, the antecedents are no longer the same; the cause which is of nature has superadded to it a cause which is above nature, in the material sense—the will and the power of a personal Deity. We reason here, as in other things, from the human to the divine. Mind in man is capable of originating a force, which within definite limits can suspend the laws of material nature, and control or modify them to its desired ends. And why, then, should it be thought incredible or strange, that the central Mind of the universe, by whom all subsists, should at certain special moments, when the purposes of His moral government require a new order of things to be originated, authoritative indications of His will to be given, or results accomplished unattainable in the ordinary course of nature, bring into play a force adequate to the end in view? It is merely supposing the great primary cause interposing to do in a higher line of things what finite beings are ever doing in a lower; and the right, and the power, and the purpose to do it, resolve themselves (as we have said) into the question, whether there really be a God, exercising a moral government over the world, capable for its higher ends of putting forth acts of supernatural agency—a question which natural science has no special mission to determine, or peculiar resources to explicate. (See MʻCosh, Method of Divine Government, B. II. cap. i. sec. 7. And for an admirable and conclusive exposure of the views of the chief opponents in the present day of all miraculous agency, even in creation and intelligent design as connected with the works of nature namely, the advocates of natural selection and progressive development—see particularly ‘The Darwinian Theory of Development examined by a Cambridge Graduate.’ It is there stated, as a remarkable thing, that this theory, which professes to be based on scientific grounds, yet expresses itself in the form of a creed: the words ‘We must believe,’ ‘I have no difficulty in believing,’ etc., are perpetually recurring, and, in fact, form the necessary links in the chain of so-called deductions. Hence, while setting out with the object of avoiding the miraculous, the end is not attained. ‘In the old method, the great physiologists take it for granted that their researches can only reach a certain point, beyond which they cannot penetrate; there they come to the inexplicable; and they believe that barrier to be the Creator’s power, which they leave at a respectful distance. This, according to the feelings of the ancients, was “the veil of nature which no mortal hand had ever withdrawn,” and, as they approached it, they felt and spoke of it with reverence. Now, the new method is to discard the belief in a Creator, to reject the omniscience and omnipotence of a Maker of all things, to charge us who believe in it with endeavouring to conceal our ignorance by an imposing form of words; and to undertake to explain the origin of all forms of life by another and a totally different hypothesis. What, then, is the result? A long list of new and doubtful assertions, some of them of surpassing novelty and wildness, and all of them unaccompanied by proof, but proposed as points of belief. The marvellous in the old method is in one point only, and that, for the most part, more implied than expressed—the belief in a paramount Intellect ordaining life and providing for its success. The marvellous in the new way is a vast assemblage of prodigies, strange and unheard-of events and circumstances that cannot be confirmed by any authentic evidence, and which, indeed, are out of the reach of evidence—a throng of aëry dreams and phantasies, evoked by the imagination, which we are called on to believe as realities, as it is impossible to prove that they are so (p. 355). A distinguished naturalist has said, ‘No one who has advanced so far in philosophy as to have thought of one thing in relation to another, will ever be satisfied with laws which had no author, works which had no maker, and co-ordinations which had no designer’ (Phillips, ‘Life on Earth’). The development school vainly try to satisfy themselves by making enormous drafts on their imagination and faith.)
The subject of a particular providence so far differs from that of miraculous action, that, to a large extent, its requirements may be met through the operation of merely instrumental causes, fitly disposed and arranged by Divine wisdom to suit the ever-varying conditions of individual man. To have respect to the individual in His method of government cannot be regarded as less consistent with the nature of an all-wise and omnipotent Being, than to restrain His working within the bounds of general laws; and nature itself is a witness to the infinite minuteness of the care and oversight of which even the smallest forms in the animated creation are the object. Besides, in a vast multitude of instances, probably in by far the greater number of what constitute special acts of providence for individuals, it is not the law of cause and effect in material nature that is interfered with, but the operations of mind that are controlled—the Eternal Spirit directly, or by some appropriate ministry, touching the springs of thought and feeling in different bosoms, so as to bring the resolves and procedure of one to bear upon the condition and circumstances of another, and work out the results which need to be accomplished. In the ordinary affairs of life, where secular ends alone are concerned, we see what a complicated network of mutual interconnection and specific influences is formed, by the movements of mind transmitted from one person to another, and the same we can readily conceive to exist in relation to spiritual ends; in this case, indeed, even more varied and far-reaching, as the ends to be secured are of a higher kind, and there is the action of minds from the heavenly places coming in aid of the movements which originate upon earth. But without dilating further, the principle of the whole matter in this, as well as the previous aspect of it, is embodied in another grand utterance of Newton’s, in which, after describing God as a being or substance, ‘one, simple, indivisible, living, and life-giving, everywhere and necessarily existing,’ etc., it is added, in these remarkable words, ‘perceiving and governing all things by His essential presence, and constantly co-operating with all things, according to fixed laws as the foundation and cause of all nature, except when it is good to act otherwise (nisi ubi aliter agere bonum est):’ the will of the great Sovereign of the universe being thus placed above every impressed law and instrumental cause of nature, and conceived free to adopt other and more peculiar lines of action as the higher ends of His government might require.
II. We turn now from the physical to the moral and religious sphere, the one with which in the present discussion we have more especially to do; and in doing so we pass into quite another region as regards the tendency of thought in the current literature and philosophy of the day. For here, undoubtedly, the disposition with many is to fall as much short of the teaching of Scripture in respect to the supremacy of law, as in the other department to go beyond it. But opinions on the subject are really so diverse, they differ so much both in respect to the forms they assume and the grounds on which they are based, that it is not quite easy in a brief space, and impossible without some detail, to give a distinct representation of them.
(1.) At the farthest remove from the Scriptural view stand the advocates of materialism—those who would merge mind and matter ultimately into one mass, who would trace all mental phenomena to sensations, and account for everything that takes place by means of the affinities, combinations, and inherent properties of matter. In such a philosophy there is room for law only in the physical sense, and for such progress or civilization as may arise from a more perfect acquaintance therewith, and a more skilful use or adaptation of it to the employments and purposes of life. The personality of God, as a living, eternal Spirit, cannot be entertained; and, of course, responsibility in the higher sense, as involving subjection to moral government, and the establishment of a Divine moral order, can have no place. For, mind is but a species of cerebral development; thought or desire but an action of the brain; man himself but the most perfectly developed form of organic being, the highest type in the scale of nature’s ascending series of productions, whose part is fulfilled in doing what is fitted to secure a healthful organization, and provide for himself the best conditions possible of social order and earthly wellbeing. But, to say nothing of the scheme in other respects, looking at it simply with reference to the religion and morality of the Bible, it plainly ignores the foundation on which these may be said to rest; namely, the moral elements in man’s constitution, or the phenomena of conscience, which are just as real as those belonging to the physical world, and in their nature immensely more important. In so doing, it gives the lie to our profoundest convictions, and loses sight of the higher, the more ennobling qualities of our nature, indeed would reduce man very much to the condition of a child and creature of fate—capable, indeed, of being influenced by sensual desires, prudential motives, and utilitarian considerations, but not called to aim at conformity to any absolute rule of right and wrong, or to recognise as binding a common standard of duty. Such an idea is strongly repudiated by writers of this school; each man, it is contended, has a right or ‘just claim to carry on his life in his own way,’ ‘his own mode of laying out his existence is the best, not because it is the best in itself, but because it is his own mode;’ hence, on the other side, Calvinism, which appears to be taken as another name for evangelical Christianity, is decried as comprising all the good of which humanity is capable in obedience, and prescribing a way of duty which shall be essentially the same for all. (J. S. Mill ‘On Liberty,’ ch. iii. In referring to Mr Mill, we certainly take one of the less extreme, as well as most respectable and able of the advocates of a materialistic philosophy—one, too, who in his work on Utilitarianism has laboured hard to make up, in a moral respect, for the inherent defects of his system. But there still is, as Dr MʻCosh has shown (‘Examination of Mill’s Philosophy,’ ch. xx.), the fundamental want of moral law, the impossibility of giving any satisfactory account of the ideas of moral desert and personal obligation, and such loose, uncertain drawing of the boundary lines between moral good and evil, as leaves each man, to a large extent, the framer of his moral standard.)
(2.) Formally antagonistic to this sensational or materialistic school—occupying, one might say, the opposite pole of thought in respect to moral law, yet not less opposed to any objective revelation of law—is the view of the idealists, or, as a portion of them at least are sometimes called, the ideal pantheists. With them, mind and God are the two great ideas that are to rule all; God first, indeed, whether as the personal or ideal centre of the vital forces that work, and the fundamental principles that should prevail throughout the moral universe; but also mind in man as the exemplar of God, the exponent of the Divine, and the medium through which it comes into realization. Man, accordingly, by the very constitution of his being, is as a God to himself; or, in the language of one who, more perhaps than any other, may be regarded as the founder of the school, ‘Man, as surely as he is a rational being, is the end of his own existence; he does not exist to the end that something else may be, but he exists absolutely for his own sake; his being is its own ultimate object.’ Consequently, ‘all should proceed from his own simple personality,’ and should be determined by what is within, not by a regard to what is external to himself, though this latter element will usually more or less prevail, and bring on a sort of contradiction, empirically or as matter of fact, to his proper self. But he should be determined by nothing foreign, and ‘the fundamental principle of morality may be expressed in such a formula as this,” So act, that thou mayest look upon the dictate of thy will as an eternal law to thyself.’” (Fichte, ‘Vocation of Man.’) Thus the Divine becomes essentially one with the human; the law for the universe is to be got at through the insight and monitions of the individual, especially of such individuals as have a higher range of thought than their fellow-men; the heroes of humanity are, in a qualified sense, its legislators. ‘What,’ asks Carlyle, (‘Latter Day Pamphlets,’ No. II.) ‘is this law of the universe, or law made by God? Men at one time read it in their Bible. In many bibles, books, and authentic symbols and monitions of nature, and the world (of fact), there are still some clear indications towards it. Most important it is, that men do, and in some way, get to see it a little. And if no man could now see it by any bible, there is written in the heart of every man an authentic copy of it, direct from Heaven itself: there, if he have learnt to decipher Heaven’s writing, and can read the sacred oracles, every born man may find some copy of it.’ An element of truth, doubtless, is in such utterances—a most important element, which Scripture also recognises—but inter mingled with what is entirely alien to the spirit and teaching of Scripture. For, it proceeds on the supposition of man being still in his normal state, and as such perfectly capable, by the insight of his own rational and moral nature, to acquaint himself with all moral truth and duty. The inner consciousness of man is entitled to create for itself a morality, and a religion (if it should deem such a thing worthy of creation); it is, in effect, deified—though itself, as every one knows, to a large extent the creature of circumstances. And thus all takes a pantheistic direction—the Divine is dragged down to a level with the human, made to coalesce with it, instead of the human (according to the Scriptural scheme) being informed by and elevated to the Divine. (See Morell, ‘Hist, of Modern Philosophy,’ Vol. II. p. 611.) And the general result, in so far as such idealism prevails, is obviously to shut men up to ‘measureless content’ with themselves, and dispose them to resist the dictation of any external authority or revelation whatever. This result is beyond doubt already reached with considerable numbers among the educated classes, and is also pressing through manifold channels of influence into the church! For it is of this that the historian of rationalism speaks when he says, (Lecky’s ‘Hist, of Rationalism,’ Vol. I. p. 384.) ‘The tendency of religious thought in the present day is all in one direction, towards the identification of the Bible and conscience. Generation after generation the power of the moral faculty becomes more absolute, the doctrines that oppose it wane and vanish, and the various elements of theology are absorbed and recast by its influence.’ The representation is plausibly made, and only when taken in its connection is its full import seen; for the meaning is, that the identification in question proceeds, not from the conscience finding its enlightenment in the Bible, but from the Bible being made to speak in accordance with the enlightenment of conscience. The intellectual and moral idealism of the age, if still holding by the Bible, reads this in its own light, and throws into the background whatever it disrelishes or repudiates.
(3.) This species of idealism—allying itself with the Bible, though sprung from philosophy, and in itself naturally tending to pantheism—has its representatives in the Christian church, especially among the class whose tastes lie more in literature than in theology. Of cultivated minds and refined moral sentiments, such persons readily acknowledge the ascendency of law in the government of God, but, in accordance with their idealism, it is law in a somewhat ethereal sense, having little to do with definite rules or external revelations, recognised merely in a kind of general obligation to exercise certain feelings, emotions, or principles of action. Hence in the same writers you will find law at once exalted and depreciated; at one time it appears to be everything, at another nothing. ‘This universe,’ says a religious idealist of the class now referred to, (Robertson of Brighton, ‘Sermons,’ 2d Series, p. 114.) ‘is governed by laws. At the bottom of everything here there is law. Things are in this way and not that; we call that a law or a condition. All departments have their own laws. By submission to them you make them your own.’ And still more strongly in another place, adopting the very style of the pantheistic idealists, (‘Life and Letters,’ Vol. I. . 292.) ‘I think a great deal of law. Law rules Deity, and its awful majesty is above individual happiness. This is what Kant calls the ‘categorical imperative;” that is, a sense of duty which commands categorically or absolutely—not saying, “It is better,” but “Thou shalt.” Why? Because “Thou shalt”—that is all. It is not best to do right, thou must do right; and the conscience that feels that, and in that way, is the nearest to divine humanity.’ But in other passages language equally decided is used in disparagement of anything in the moral or spiritual sphere carrying the form of law. Nothing now must rest, we are told, on enactment; if necessary, it is not on that account, ‘not because it is commanded; but it is commanded because it is necessary’ (‘Life,’ in a Letter, October 24, 1849.)—hence binding on the conscience only so far as it is perceived to be necessary. And again, professing to give the drift of St Paul’s admonitions to the Galatians respecting observance, it is said, (‘Sermons,’ 2d Series, p. 184.) ‘All forms and modes of particularizing the Christian life he reckoned as bondage under the elements or alphabet of the law;’ so that, though the Christian life might, if it saw fit, find a suitable expression for itself in any particular observance, this could be defended ‘on the ground of wise and Christian expediency alone, and could not be placed on the ground of a Divine statute or command.’ Professor Jowett seems to carry the idealizing a little further; he thinks that, under the Old Testament itself, the period emphatically of law, there is evidence of its adoption by the more thoughtful and intelligent of the covenant people. The term ‘law,’ he says, is ambiguous in Scripture; (‘Epistles of St Paul,’ II. p. 501.) ‘it is so in the Old Testament itself. In the prophecies and psalms, as well as in the writings of St Paul, the law is in a great measure ideal. When the Psalmist spoke of “meditating in the law of the Lord,” he was not thinking of the five books of Moses. The law which he delighted to contemplate was not written down (as well might we imagine that the Platonic idea was a treatise on philosophy); it was the will of God, the truth of God, the justice and holiness of God. In later ages the same feelings began to gather around the volume of the law itself. The law was ideal still’—though he admits that ‘with this idealism were combined the reference to its words, and the literal enforcement of its precepts.’ A strange sort of idealism, surely, which could not separate itself from the concrete or actual, and continued looking to this for the material alike of its study and its observance! But it is the view only we at present notice, the form of thought itself respecting the law, not its consistence either with itself or with the statements of Scripture. It clearly enough indicates how idealism has been influencing the minds of Christian writers in this direction, and how, along with much that is sound, pure, and sometimes elevating in the sentiments they utter, there is also a certain laxity as to particular things, an asserted superiority for the individual over law in respect to everything like explicit rules and enactments.
(4.) There is, however, a class of Christian writers, more properly theological and also of a somewhat realistic character, who so far concur with the idealists, that they maintain the freedom of the Christian from obligation to the law distinctively so called—the law in that sense is abolished by the Gospel of Christ, or, as sometimes put, dead and buried in His grave; but only that a new and higher law might come in its place, the law of Gospel life and liberty. This view is what in theological language bears the name of Neonomianism—that is, the doctrine of a new law, in some respects differing from or opposed to the old—a law of principles rather than of precepts, especially the great principles of faith and love, which it conceives to be carried now higher than before. The view is by no means of recent origin; it was formally propounded shortly after the Reformation, was adopted by the Socinians as a distinguishing part of their system, and with certain unimportant variations has often been set forth afresh in later times. (Zanchius, who belongs to the Reformation era, states expressly that we have nothing to do with the moral precepts of Moses, except in so far as they agree with the common law of nature, and are confirmed by Christ (Op. IV. I. i. c. 11). To the same effect, Musculus, ‘De Abrogatione Legis Mos.;’ and more recently, Knapp, ‘Christian Theology,’ sec. 119, ‘Bialloblotzky, De Abrog. L. Mos.,’ &c.) Dr Whately puts it thus: The law as revealed in the Old Testament bears on the face of it that the whole of its precepts, moral as well as ceremonial, ‘were intended for the Israelites exclusively;’ therefore ‘they could not by their own authority be binding on Christians,’ and are by the apostle in explicit terms denied to be binding on them, hence as regards them abolished. (Essay on the Abolition of the Law, sees. 1, 2.) ‘But, on the other hand, the natural principles of morality which (among other things) it inculcates, are from their own character of universal obligation; so that Christians are bound to the observance of those commandments which are called moral—not, however, because they are commandments of the Mosaic law, but because they are moral.’ The moral law, as written upon man’s heart, remains still, as ever, authoritative and binding, and ‘is by the Gospel placed on higher grounds. Instead of precise rules, it furnishes sublime principles of conduct, leaving the Christian to apply these, according to his own discretion, to each case that may arise.’ In a somewhat modified form, the same view has been presented after this manner: ‘Under the Christian dispensation, the law in its outward and limited form—in its form as given to Israel has passed away; but the substance, the principles, of the law remain. Would we be free from that substance, these principles must be written on our hearts. If they are not so written, we ourselves reduce them to an outward and commanding law, which, not being obeyed, brings bondage with it.’ The law, therefore, in one sense has passed away, in another not; it is improper to speak of it as dead and buried in the grave of Christ, for in its great principles it never dies; but ‘the outward, the limited, the commanding form of it may be said to be dead;’ or, as otherwise expressed, ‘that law in a particular and local form has been taken up and widened out into a higher law, in Him who not only exhibits it in its most perfect form, but gives the strength in which alone we can obey.’ (Milligan on ‘The Decalogue and the Lord’s Day,’ pp. 96, 108, 111.) The difference between this and the other mode of representation is evidently not material: in both alike the revelation of law in the Old Testament is held to be not directly, and in its letter, binding upon Christians; but its essential principles, which constitute the basis of all morality, being recognised and embraced in the Gospel, developed also to nobler results and enforced by higher motives, these are binding, and if not strictly law, at least in the stead of law, and more effectively serving its interests.
(5.) A still farther development in the same direction is what is known under the name of Antinomianism—antithesis to the law, in the sense of formal opposition to it, as from its very nature destructive of what is good for us in our present state—an occasion only and instrument of death. It is the view of men, evangelical indeed, but partial and extreme in their evangelism—who, in their zeal to magnify the grace of the Gospel, lay stress only upon a class of expressions which unfold its riches and its triumphs, as contrasted with the law’s impotence in itself, yea, with the terror and condemnation produced by it, and silently overlook, or deprive of their proper force, another class, which exhibit law in living fellowship with grace—joint factors in the accomplishment of the same blessed results. But it is right to add, the spirit and design with which this is done differ widely in the hands of different persons. Some so magnify grace in order to get their consciences at ease respecting the claims of holiness, and vindicate for themselves a liberty to sin that grace may abound—or, which is even worse, deny that anything they do can have the character of sin, because they are through grace released from the demands of law, and so cannot sin. These are Antinomians of the grosser kind, who have not particular texts merely of the Bible, but its whole tenor and spirit against them. Others, however, and these the only representatives of the idea who in present times can be regarded as having an outstanding existence, are advocates of holiness after the example and teaching of Christ. They are ready to say, ‘Conformity to the Divine will, and that as obedience to commandments, is alike the joy and the duty of the renewed mind. Some are afraid of the word obedience, as if it would weaken love and the idea of a new creation. Scripture is not. Obedience and keeping the commandments of one we love is the proof of that love, and the delight of the new creature. Did I do all right, and not do it in obedience, I should do nothing right, because my true relationship and heart-reference to God would be left out. This is love, that we keep His commandments.’ (Darby ‘On the Law,’ pp. 3, 4.) So far excellent; but then these commandments are not found in the revelation of law, distinctively so called. The law, it is held, had a specific character and aim, from which it cannot be dissociated, and which makes it for all time the minister of evil. ‘It is a principle of dealing with men which necessarily destroys and condemns them. This is the way (the writer continues) the Spirit of God uses law in contrast with Christ, and never in Christian teaching puts men under it. Nor does Scripture ever think of saying, You are not under the law in one way, but you are in another; you are not for justification, but you are for a rule of life. It declares, You are not under law, but under grace; and if you are under law, you are condemned and under a curse. How is that obligatory which a man is not under—from which he is delivered?’ (Ibid. p. 4.) Antinomianism of this description—distinguishing between the teaching or commandments of Christ and the commandments of the law, holding the one to be binding on the conscience of Christians and the other not is—plainly but partial Antinomianism; it does not, indeed, essentially differ from Neonomianism, since law only as connected with the earlier dispensation is repudiated, while it is received as embodying the principles of Christian morality, and associated with the life and power of the Spirit of Christ.
(6.) Still it is clear, from this brief review, that there is a very considerable diversity of opinion on the subject of law, in a moral or spiritual respect, even among those who are agreed in asserting our freedom from its restraints and obligations in the more imperative form; and from not a little of the philosophic, and much of the current secular literature of the age, a tendency is continually flowing into the church, which is impatient of anything in the name of moral or religious obligation, beyond the general claims of rectitude and benevolence. In respect to everything besides, the individual is held to have an absolute right to judge for himself. It cannot, therefore, appear otherwise than an important line of inquiry, and one specially called for by the present aspect of things, what place does law hold in the revelations of Scripture? How far has it varied in amount of requirement or form of obligation, at different periods of the Divine administration? What was the nature of the change effected in regard to it, or to our relation to it, by the appearance and work of Christ? It is of the more importance that such questions should receive a thoughtful and considerate examination, as the confessional position of most churches, Reformed as well as Catholic, is against the tendency now described, and on the side of law, in the stricter sense of the term, having still a commanding power on the consciences of men. At the farthest extreme in this direction stands the Roman Catholic church, which holds Christ to be a legislator in the same sense as Moses was, and deems itself entitled by Divine right to bind enactments of moral and religious duty upon the consciences of its members, similar in kind, and greatly more numerous and exacting in the things required by them, than those imposed by the legislation of Moses. There are sections also of the Protestant church, and parties of considerable extent and influence in particular churches, who have ever endeavoured to find, either by direct imposition, or by analogical reasonings and necessary implication, authority in Scripture for a large amount of positive law as well as moral precept, to be received and acted on by the Christian church. And from the opposite quarter, we may say, of the theological heavens, there has recently been given a representation of Christ, in which the strongest emphasis is laid on His legislative character. Speaking of the first formation of the Christian society, the author of ‘Ecce Homo’ says (P. 80.) ‘Those who gathered round Christ did in the first place contract an obligation of personal loyalty to Him. On the ground of this loyalty He proceeded to form a society, and to promulgate an elaborate legislation, comprising and intimately connected with certain declarations, authoritatively delivered, concerning the nature of God, the relation of man to Him, and the invisible world. In doing so He assumed the part of a second Moses;’ and he goes on to indicate the specific character of the legislation, and the sanctions under which it was established, both materially differing from the Mosaic. Yet this seems again virtually recalled by other representations, in which the New Testament is declared to be ‘not the Christian law;’ (P. 202.) not ‘the precepts of apostles,’ not even ‘the special commands of Christ.’ ‘The enthusiasm of humanity in Christianity is their only law;’ ‘what it dictates, and that alone, is law for the Christian.’ But apart from this, which can only be set down to prevailing arbitrariness and uncertainty on the subject, the Protestant churches generally stand committed to the belief of the moral law in the Old Testament as in substance the same with that in the New, and from its very nature limited to no age or country, but of perpetual and universal obligation. They have ever looked to the Decalogue as the grand summary of moral obligation, under which all duty to God and man may be comprised. Is this the true Scriptural position? or in what manner, and to what extent, should it be modified?