Page images
PDF
EPUB

is, in that case, to give way. One must be the supreme,—must be the ' master.'

'Either he will love the one and hate the other.' This seems to refer to cases in which a radical opposition between the two does exist: 'or else he will cleave to the one, and despise (i.e. disregard and neglect) the other.' This latter seems to be the description of those cases in which there is no such necessary opposition; only, that cases will sometimes arise, in which the one or the other must be disregarded.

'When Atheist* and profane persons do hear of so many and contrary opinions in religion, it doth avert them from tlie Church.1

One may meet with persons, not a few, who represent religious differences as, properly speaking, designed by the Most High, and acceptable to Him. (See the extract from the tragedy of Tamerlane in the Annotations on Essay XVI.)

Thus, in a very popular children's book (and such books often make an impression which is, unconsciously, retained through life), there is a short tale of a father exhibiting to his son the diversities of worship among Christians of different denominations, and afterwards their uniting to aid a distressed neighbour. The one, he tells the child, is 'a thing in which men are born to differ; and the other, one in which they are born to agree.' Now it is true that persons of different persuasions may, and often do, agree in practising the duties of humanity. But that they do not often differ, and differ very widely, not only in their actual conduct, but in their principles of conduct, is notoriously untrue. .The writer of the tale must have overlooked (or else meant his readers to overlook) the cruel abominations of Paganism, ancient and modern,—the human sacrifices offered by some Pagans—the widow-burning and other atrocities of the Hindus; and (to come to the case of professed Christians) the 'holy wars' against the Huguenots and the Vaudois, the Inquisition, and all the other instances of persecution practised as a point of christian duty. Certainly, in whatever sense it is true that men are 'born to differ' in religion, in the same sense it is true that they are 'born to differ' in their moral practice as enjoined by their religion.

Somewhat to the same purpose writes the author of an able article in the Edinburgh Jleview, and also of an article on this volume, in the North British (Aug. 1857, p. 6), with whom I partly agree and partly not.

This writer maintains (1) that all, or nearly all, the divisions that have existed among Christians relate to points of a profoundly mysterious, and purely speculative character..

(2.) That on these points the language of Scripture is so obscure or ambiguous, that we must infer the Author of the revelation to have designed that it should receive different interpretations; while on all matters of practical morality, the language is too plain to admit of doubt or difference of opinion.

(3.) That the dissent and schisms arising from diversity of interpretations of Scripture are on the whole beneficial; because the union of great masses of men in one community does not tend to their improvement, but the contrary.

(4.) That the inexpediency of persecution may be demonstrated by an argument of universal application,—one to which a Mahometan or a Pagan must yield, as well as a Roman Catholic or a Protestant; namely, the impossibility of demonstrating that what is persecuted is really error.

With all this, as I have said, I partly concur, and partly not.

(I.) It is very true, and is a truth which I have most earnestly dwelt on in many publications, that what is practical in the christian revelation is clearly, and fully, and frequently set forth, and that, on matters more of a speculative character, we find in Scripture only slight and obscure hints.1

But nevertheless it cannot be admitted that no passages of a practical character have been variously interpreted; or that all, or nearly all, or all the most important, of the differences that have divided Christians, relate to questions purely speculative. Take, as one instance, that very early and very widespread heresy, of the Gnostics; most of whom were rank Antinomians, teaching that they, as 'knowing the Gospel'— (whence their name),—were exempt from all moral duty, and would be accounted righteous by imputation, without 'doing righteousness.'1

* Thia circumstance is pointed out ns chnrncteristic of our religion, in the Essay Cist Series; on the 'Practical Character of Revelation,' and also in the Lectures on a Future State.

These, John in his Epistles manifestly had in view; and no doubt Peter also, when he speaks of those who 'wrest the Scriptures,' especially Paul's Epistles, 'to their own destruction.' They, doubtless, as well as their successors (for, under various names Antinomians have always arisen from time to time, down to this day2), interpreted in their own way Paul's doctrine that we are 'justified by faith, without the works of the law.' Considering how earnestly that Apostle dwells on the necessity of' denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, and living soberly and righteously,' it may seem very strange that his language should have been thus 'wrested;' and that he should have been thought to be speaking of himself individually, in his then-state, as being 'carnal, sold under sin,' when bo had just before been congratulating his hearers on being 'made free from sin,' and just after, speaks of his walking 'not after the flesh, but after the spirit.'3

But the fact, however strange, cannot be denied. And it is as to the matter of fact that the question now is. For if it be said that such and such passages are not'susceptible of various interpretations' according to reasonable principles, this is what most of the contending parties will be disposed to say, each, of the texts they appeal to. They usually maintain, that to a fair and intelligent judge they do not admit of any interpretation but that which they themselves adopt . We can only reply, that, in point of fact, they have been variously interpreted. It is probable, indeed, that, in very many instances, the various interpretations of Scripture have been not the cause, but the effect of men's differences; and that, having framed certain theories according to their own inclinations or fancies, they have then sought to force Scripture into a support of these. But still the fact remains, that men have differed in their interpretations of Scripture, on the most important practical questions.

Again, those Anabaptists who taught community of goods, and who were thus striking at the root of all civil society, made their appeal to Scripture.1 So also do those who teach the doctrine of complete non-resistance; the consequence of which, if adopted by any one nation, would be to give up the peaceable as a prey to their unscrupulous neighbours. And so again do those who advocate vows of celibacy.*

1 Sec John, Epis. i. » See Cautions for Vie Times, No. 26.

* Bom, viii.

The same may be said of the very principle itself of persecution. The supposed duty (above alluded to) of putting down false doctrine by the sword, or of excluding men from civil rights on the ground of their religious opinions, has been inculcated on Scripture-authority, not only by Romanists but by Protestants also. Now this is surely a matter which 'comes home to men's business and bosoms:' so that the very question the lieviewer is occupied on—that of toleration or non-toleration—turns out to be a religious question, most emphatically of a practical character, and on which men have disagreed.

Far from correct therefore is the observation made in a very able Article (I believe by the same Writer) on Charles the Fifth, in the Edinburgh Review for January, 1855 (p. 91), that 'purely speculative questions are precisely those which have been most furiously debated. They have created more hatred, more bloodshed, more wars, and more persecution than all practical questions put together.' The Writer forgets that one of the chief 'practical questions' is, the very one, whether religious wars and persecutions are acceptable or odious in God's sight.

Again, the Scripture-exbortations to ' unity' have been interpreted by some as requiring all Christians to live under a single ecclesiastical government; and the passages relating to the Church,3 and to the powers conferred on the Apostles, as obliging us to renounce all private judgment, and submit implicitly to whatever is decreed by the (supposed) Catholic Church. Now this is most emphatically a practical question, since it involves, not this or that particular point of practice, but an indefinite number. Those who adopt the above interpretations must be prepared to acquiesce, at the bidding of their ecclesiastical rulers, in any the most gross superstitions and the most revolting moral corruptions, however disapproved by their own judgment, rather than exclude themselves (as they think) altogether from the Gospel-covenant.

1 Acts iv.# xix., Matt, xxiv., and Mark x. 21. - Matt. six. 12, and 1 Cor. vii.

s Matt. xvi. 18, and xviii. 17.

And the difference between Christians as to this point, which for so many ages has divided so many millions, may be considered as not only the most important of all the divisions that have ever existed, but even greater than all the rest put together.

It cannot, therefore, be admitted that the practical precepts of Scripture have never admitted of various interpretations; or that the questions of doctrine on which Christians have been opposed are of a purely speculative character.

The difference, again, between the Christians and the unbelieving Jews, which is, emphatically, on a practical point, turns on the interpretations of the Scripture-prophecies; which the Jews of old (as at this day also) interpreted as relating to a Messiah who should be a great temporal prince and deliverer. And it was on that ground that they put to death the Lord Jesus as a blasphemous impostor. Indeed, a modern writer (speaking, we may presume, in bitter irony, and meaning a scoff at Christians) represents that murder as 'no erime,' because by the sacrifice of Christ mankind were redeemed.

However clear to us may be the prophecies of a suffering Messiah, it cannot be said, looking to the fact, that 'they admit of no differences of interpretation.' And it is conceivable that they might have been so expressed as to force all men into the reception of Jesus; if, at least, there had been also such 'signs from Heaven ' as they looked for;—if, that is, He had been seen descending from the clouds, accompanied by Moses and Elias, in the splendour which He displayed to three Apostles at the Transfiguration;—and if He had always appeared surrounded by a supernatural light (called a Glory) as painters are accustomed to represent Him, and as He appeared to John tho Baptist.

But as it is, 'because they knew Him not, nor yet the voices of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath day, they fulfilled them in condemning him.'1

(II.) I most fully admit that, in things confessedly beyond human reason, we ought to acquiesce in the scanty and obscure

1 Ada xiii, 17.

« PreviousContinue »