Part I. From the Example of Our Lord
1. General allusions to this mode of concealment.
THE object of the present inquiry is to ascertain, whether there is not in GOD’s dealings with mankind, a very remarkable holding back of sacred and important truths, as if the knowledge of them were injurious to persons unworthy of them. And if this be the case, it will lead to some important practical reflections.
It is not intended to speak of it as a mark of judicial punishment, nor as denoting the anger of the Almighty, nor as connected in any way with intellectual acuteness: but, if I may so speak with reverence, I would say, that there appears in God’s manifestations of Himself to mankind, in conjunction with an exceeding desire to communicate that knowledge, a tendency to conceal, and throw a veil over it, as if it were injurious to us, unless we were of a certain disposition to receive it.
And though this cannot explain the speculative difficulty, why the truth is not set before mankind so strongly and clearly that they cannot fall; yet it may tend to satisfy a fair mind, to see that we have symptoms of such a thing being not good, or perhaps possible in morals; and such we may assuredly gather from what we see of GOD’s dealing with us in all His moral government, both natural and scriptural, so as to show us that as we are to be thankful for what is revealed, we have also to be thankful for what is not revealed.
At the first view, we have the remarkable fact of the many generations of the heathen world, in a state of great ignorance of many things which we know to be of the very highest importance to our well-being. In the next place, we may notice the silence [3/4] observed respecting a future and eternal life in the books of Moses, as one of "the secret things which belonged unto GOD." The fact that the Patriarchs were supported by an indefinite, but full assurance of GOD’s unfailing goodness, which could not cease with this life, will be a confirmation of this point; for it shows that it was in some measure revealed unto them, as they could bear it. In the next place, the numerous rites and types are instances of a veil thrown remarkably over moral and spiritual truth; for it is very evident that to David and others, they conveyed all the "secrets of wisdom," and spoke of "the hands washed in innocency," and "the sacrifice of a broken heart," and "the circumcision of the heart"—but it was through a veil. The expression "I am a stranger upon earth, hide not thy commandments from me," seems to imply, that the commandments being hid from him was the thing which the Psalmist apprehended from unworthiness; and the verse preceding, "open thou mine eyes, that I may behold the wondrous things of thy law," and indeed the whole of the 119th Psalm, indicates something great and wonderful, contained in the commandments beyond the letter. Origen says (contr. Cels. p. 197.) "if the law of Moses had not any thing of a more latent meaning, the prophet would not have said, ’open mine eyes, that I may behold the wonderful things of thy law.’ The descriptions of the Messiah’s kingdom in the prophets were exactly of this kind, such as a carnal mind would take literally; a good man would see that GOD had something better for those that waited for HIM.
2. The general Historic Narrative of our Saviour’s Life and Resurrection.
The whole of the Gospel History may be seen to be remarkably in harmony with this view of GOD’s dealings in the Old Testament. The circumstances attending our LORD’s birth, and the important transactions at the early period of His life, we might have expected beforehand would have been more known to the Jewish nation1, [4/5] instead of being concealed, like the actions of apparently obscure persons, (as for instance the LORD’s appearing in His temple as foretold by Malachi.) The account of all these things is so familiar to us, that we are perhaps scarce able to judge clearly of the wonderful and mysterious economy of GOD, in these circumstances. There is something in the thought of our SAVIOUR’s being for thirty years among men, not known and not believed on, even by those about Him, and the witnesses of His early life, very remarkable and awful. And the great pledge and seal of the truth of the Gospel, the Resurrection itself, seems in such a striking manner to have been kept back, if I may so speak, from the gaze of the multitude, from the broad light of the common day. Its great manifestations break forth, as if indistinctly, and according to the great need of certain persons, the watchful and weeping Mary, then the penitent Peter, then (the perhaps aged) Cleopas. And we find the obscure Galilee marked out so repeatedly2 and pointedly to be the chosen scene of these manifestations more than the crowded Jerusalem. Surely, in all this there is something of mysterious wisdom, which it is good for us humbly to consider.
3. Some particular expressions of this kind.
We may reasonably expect some more distinct intimations of this, in our blessed LORD’s own teaching and mode of disclosing Himself. And do we not find the same SPIRIT, "who spake by the Prophets" with type and figure, in things of this kind?
In the use, for instance, of figurative expressions to persons who did not understand the meaning of them. To this we cannot but apply the remark of Bishop Butler, where he observes the vast difference between Holy Scripture, and any human composition in this respect, that in the latter our object is by words to convey most fitly our meaning to others; we cannot say this of GOD’s written word. It may have other objects quite of another kind, which its very obscurity serves, better than its distinct meaning would do.
Thus, when our SAVIOUR told His disciples, that it was now time that he who had not a sword should sell his garment and buy one, it is evident that they took the meaning literally, nor does our LORD appear to have done away with their misconception; although their erroneous impression was of a practical nature, and perhaps led to a subsequent action, wrong in itself, but overruled by His mercy for good. The expression of "the living Water" to the Samaritan woman, "the leaven of the Pharisees," and "the Bread from Heaven," with perhaps many others, seem not to have been understood, and were spoken in such a manner as to bear a striking analogy to the figurative expressions of the Old Testament and their reception.
Such, it may be added, is the expression of rebuilding the Temple in three days, which was not comprehended. And at twelve years of age, it is said, His parents understood not the saying that He spake unto them, but Mary "kept all these sayings in her heart." (Luke ii. 51.)
And are not the numerous expressions in the New Testament, which are taken from the Old, and are either brought forward in a new sense, or in a light which opens and expands their fuller meaning, of the same kind? for they are made to convey a lesson different from what is at first sight perceptible to a careless hearer, such as that of taking the lowest place in order that we may gain honor in the presence of those who sit at meat; and that of the Apostle, to do good to our enemy in order to "heap coals of fire on his head?" And in the Old Testament itself are there not passages that refer to this reserve of wisdom? what is the meaning of that expression, (in Proverbs xxv. 2.) "It is the glory of God to conceal a matter?" Does it not allude to this?
But what is much to be observed with regard to those expressions of our LORD is, that the not understanding of them was considered as matter of reproof, as implying something morally deficient, not intellectually. This would, I think, appear to be the case, as for instance, when He spoke of the "leaven of [6/7] the Pharisees," "He saith unto them, Why reason ye because ye have no bread? perceive ye not yet, neither understand? have ye your heart yet hardened?" (Mark viii. 17.)
In St. Matthew the same expression of complaint or rebuke is repeated, "do ye not yet understand?" (ch. xvi. ver. 9.) and "how is it ye do not understand?" (Mark viii. 21.) And in the explanation of the parable of the sower, "the understanding" or "not understanding" is spoken of in some higher sense, evidently, than that of the mere reception or barren acknowledgement of a Truth; "when any one heareth the word and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart," where, of course, it cannot be the mere intellectual apprehension, for without that it could not be received at all. And again, "but he that received the seed into the good ground, is he that heareth the word and understandeth it." (St. Matt. xiii. 23.)
In the Gospel of St. John (c.vi.), when the Jews murmured at the literal expression, and said it was "a hard saying," it seems to be implied that it was the teaching of GOD only that could bring them to a better mind, so as that they should understand the full meaning of such typical expressions, "JESUS answered and said, Murmur not among yourselves, no man can come to Me, except the Father which hath sent Me, draw him." "It is written in the prophets, And they shall all be taught of GOD; every man therefore that hath heard and hath learned of the Father cometh unto me."
Again, of the coming of Elijah in the person of of John, our SAVIOR says, "If ye will receive it, this is Elias who was for to come." "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." From which it is evident that it was a certain state of the heart which could alone receive it in the sense implied. The Baptist had before declared that he was not Elias in the manner that the Jews conceived.
Add to this that the Disciples are reproved, for not understanding the parables (Matt. xv. 15.) "Then answered Peter and said unto Him, Declare unto us this parable. And JESUS said, Are ye also yet without understanding? Do not ye yet understand?"
Again, does not the expression of the Disciples in St. John, (xvi. 29.) "Lo, now speakest thou plainly, and speakest no [7/8] proverb," seem to imply that in our LORD’s usual discourse there had been proverbs which they did not understand?
All of which instances are examples in various degrees of persons "who hear the word of the kingdom and understand it not;" and which I would adduce as showing that the want of comprehension was indeed a fault in the moral understanding of the hearer; on which supposition alone is grounded the argument of the Truth not being fully manifested by our LORD.
There is another circumstance that will bear upon this subject, that which must be observed on many occasions, and perhaps it would lead us to a better comprehension of other points, if it was observed in more, viz., our LORD’s custom of answering, not the words of the inquirer, but the thoughts in his mind, which had prevented his discerning the truth, or of directing His answer to the sentiments which the circumstance suggested to others. This must necessarily have rendered His expressions difficult of comprehension to some, while at the same time they were beneficial to all, according to the need of each. Like the rains from Heaven, or the seasons in His natural providence, which are not as each wishes, or prays for, but as is best for each and for all. This may be perceived in the observations made at the feast in Levi’s house, where the company was composed of such different kinds of persons; and expressions so pregnant and full of meaning to one, must have been dark sayings to another.
4. The teaching by Parables.
I cannot but conceive that there must have been this intention of veiling truth in the Parables. It has been said indeed that they render moral truths more plain and easy, as well as more engaging; and that this was their purpose. But is this the case? They are easy to us, as all such things seem to be when explained; but were they so at the time? Was not the Crucifixion foretold nine times to the Apostles, and yet it was said distinctly that they did not understand it, although it does not appear to us, who know the circumstances, so difficult? Do not the places where the word parable occurs, often imply that this was its meaning or effect? [8/9]
Twice in the Psalms it occurs with "dark sayings," (Psalm xlix. 4.), "I will incline mine ear to a parable, I will open my dark sayings upon the harp," and (Ps. lxxviii. 2. quoted expressly to this purpose by St. Matt. ch. xiii. verse 35.) "I will open my mouth in a parable, I will utter dark sayings of old."—And in the prophet Ezekiel in the same sense, "They say of me, Doth he not speak parables?" And does not our LORD’s answer to his Disciples, when they asked him why he taught the people in Parables, prove this? "He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of Heaven, but to them it is not given." The whole of which passage at length seems to me to explain this view of the subject. And seems, with regard to the Disciples, the same as is said of Moses in Numbers (c. xii.) "If there be a Prophet among you, I the LORD will make myself known to him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream. My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all mine house. With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches."
The passage just now referred to in the Gospels is the following, "And He said to His disciples privately3, But blessed are the eyes which see the things which ye see, for I say unto you, that many prophets and kings have desired to see the things [9/10] which ye see, and have not seen them." Those glorious promises therefore of the Old Testament were now already thrown upon the world, but only seen by certain persons who had "eyes to see." So that those glowing prophetical descriptions of CHRIST’s kingdom may not imply any great change in the external appearance of the world, as is sometimes supposed, but only those high and heavenly privileges which some may value and receive. And the blessings of CHRIST’s kingdom as contained in the Beatitudes would indicate the same, as confined to persons of a certain description and character.
I think we cannot but be struck at the little direct information that our Blessed Saviour gives to the Pharisee and such inquirers; the moving and striking discourses, as they appear to us, are all more or less private, such as the prophecies and parables respecting the end of the world and the like, (Matt. xxiv. xxv.) and the discourses towards the end of St. John’s Gospel. It is in the retired Galilee, that the Gospel seems to open with blessings, couched in the half secret, though simple, forms of the Beatitudes; and it is in the crowded Temple at Jerusalem that our LORD’s public ministry ends with the opposites throughout to those Beatitudes, the woes pronounced on the Jews at Jerusalem4.
In speaking of a Parable as a veil, I would be cautious against mentioning anything as the end proposed in the operations of GOD: which, of course, to confine to one end and purpose, we may perceive would be quite impossible, as in the works of Nature; I would only say that the Parable did serve this purpose among others. Might it not be that the most spiritual and heavenly precepts were thus left to the rude and rough world, so that the veil of the figure might still be over them, though disclosing its import to any attentive and thoughtful person; performing thus by themselves through the wonderful wisdom of GOD, that which He has commanded us to observe, in not "giving that which is holy to the dogs," and not "casting pearls before swine."
This view of a parable, as a veil of the truth, seems generally [10/11] confirmed by the Fathers. A Parable is explained by Theophylact (see Schleusner) as "a dark saying." Cyril (in the Catechesis vi.) says, "Is it only the GOD of the Old Testament who hath blinded the eyes of them that believe not? Hath not JESUS Himself said, ’therefore I speak unto them in Parables, that seeing they might not perceive.’ Was it from hating them that He wished them not to see? Or was it not that they were unworthy to do so, since they had closed their eyes?" And again, the same writer says, "To those who could not hear He spoke in parables, and privately expounded them to His disciples. The brightness of glory was for these; and blindness for unbelievers."
Clement of Alexandria says (Stromata, B. vi. p. 676.) "Neither Prophecy nor our Saviour Himself promulgated the divine mysteries in such a manner that they might easily be apprehended by all persons, but discoursed in parables. Certainly the Apostles say concerning the LORD, ’that He spake all things in parables, and without a parable spake He not unto them.’" "And even in the Law and Prophets," he adds, "it was He that spake to them in parables."
And Chrysostom in like manner. "Had he not wished them to hear and to be saved, He would have been silent, and not have spoken in parables. But by this means He moveth them, by speaking things overshadowed and darkened." (Homil. on St. Matt. xiii.)
5. The manner of our Lord’s Miracles,—their concealment, &c.
The miracles of our blessed LORD were the other mode of His teaching mankind and disclosing His Divinity; and will not all that has been said forcibly apply to them also? Would it not appear (if I may so express myself with reverence) that He walked about, infinitely desirous to communicate good, without any limit or measure of His own goodness or power, but yet bound, as it were, in some very wonderful manner, by the unfitness of mankind to receive Him? For as He is revealed to us as more than willing to forgive, but as it were unable to do so unless we repent; in like manner is He also as desirous [11/12] to manifest Himself to us, but as it were unable to do so, unless we are fitly disposed for it. Is it not very observable that the miracles recorded were to the very utmost of the faith of the person seeking relief, but as it were unable to go beyond? By a word, and at a distance, if so asked, as in the case of the Centurion: by laying on His hand, if the request went to this, as in Jairus’s daughter: by a more speedy cure of another intervening by touching the hem of His garment, if such the belief5; and He is spoken of as unable to work miracles (except a few) because they believed not:—a very memorable expression, which incidentally occurs as marking the sole bounds of His power and will.
I think it may be considered without doubt as a general rule, that the benefits conferred in the Gospel are in a sort of measured proportion, according to the faith of the recipient or person engaged. This is shown by the words of St. Mark, "JESUS said to them that word of His, If thou canst believe," (το, ει δυνασαι πιστευσαι,) and there are many like sayings. There may be some instances which appear to be exceptions to this, and in the manifold and incomprehensible ways of GOD’s wisdom, there may of course be these exceptions, and some mode of accounting for them, but this would not affect the general rule. But in the second place, I doubt whether any of these exceptions can be made out to be so. Take for instance the case of the healing of Malchus; we are perfectly in the dark respecting this individual and the state of his mind, excepting so far as the service he was engaged in proves he could not have had the highest degree of faith and knowledge. The case of the ten lepers might appear an exception, but cannot be proved to be so; it was said to the one, in some especial sense probably, "Thy faith hath saved thee." It would seem from this that he had in his case some benefit conferred which the others had not; and though the nine had not the gratitude to return thanks, they might have had, under the pressure of disease, the faith to trust for help, which would only make it an ordinary case in human nature, of good thoughts departing [12/13] with restored health. And that this faith required was the result of a certain state of the heart, and not a mere effort of the feelings or imagination, would be evident from the place where the means of acquiring it are spoken of, viz. by prayer and fasting, which are means to change the temper of the heart.
The frequent instances of our LORD forbidding them to mention His miracles, is usually accounted for by His not wishing to call the attention of the Jews, and provoke persecution on the one hand, and that the people might not make Him a King on the other, for which on more than one occasion we have an Evangelist’s authority. But may we not see more in it than this? forbearing to work miracles before some persons seems to be like that of keeping from them what was already done. For might it not have been that, if such persecution on the part of the Jews were thus brought on prematurely, it would prove their more hardened state; He would therefore first of all deal with them more gently, by not showing them His full power? This will, I think, appear from the instance in St. Matt. (xii. 16,) where it is said, that "He charged them that they should not make him known," and that in His thus doing, was fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, in part of which it is said, "He shall not strive nor cry, neither shall any one hear His voice in the streets. A bruised reed shall He not break, and the smoking flax shall He not quench, until He shall send forth judgment unto victory." The application of which passage to our LORD, introduced with reference to His having charged them not to make Him known, would seem to imply, that it was from great tenderness6 towards them, that our LORD would not disclose Himself. And this will appear also from a circumstance that occurs immediately afterwards in the narration, when on our LORD’s casting out a devil, [13/14] and the people being greatly astonished, the Pharisees on "hearing" of it, attributed it to the prince of the devils. And upon this, we know, follows that most awful and earnest admonition, as if by this circumstance they had come to the edge of the precipice from which He had been endeavouring to save them, the sin against the HOLY GHOST. For they might have doubted the reality of GOD’s revelation, and have seen only the Son of Man, and still have repented; but if they allowed the miracles, which must be divine, and still continued in unbelief, they were in a state of heart that could neither repent nor be forgiven. If the manifestation of Divinity is made to them, and they still disbelieve, nothing more can be done. All sin is forgiven which is repented of: but to see GOD Himself revealed, and to deny Him is a state in which all principle is gone; there can therefore, perhaps, be no repentance; we are sure there is no forgiveness. Might it not be to prevent their falling into this sin against the HOLY GHOST, that so much was done to keep the knowledge from them, till all means might be tried gently to lead them? It may be remarked, that this twice takes place: that after our LORD charged them not to declare the miracle, on the next occasion the Pharisees bring this charge of casting out devils by the prince of the devils; the one alluded to in the xiith of St. Matt., another in the xith.
And if we take the instance of those miracles which appear to have been the most public, those, for instance, of the loaves and fishes, with 5000 persons on one occasion, and 4000 on the other partaking of them; even here it would appear as if there was somehow a sort of secret character about the miracle, for the multitudes were afterwards following our SAVIOUR, because they ate the bread, but not considering the miracle; and of the disciples themselves, of whom it is said, (by some doubtless very important coincidence of expression by the four Evangelists on both occasions,) that they distributed the bread as it grew in their hands, it is said immediately after on the sea, that they considered not the miracle. It was not, therefore, even on this public occasion like an overpowering sign from heaven, but [14/15] the Divine agency even here retiring in some degree from view, as in God’s natural providence.
One must be cautious not to appear to limit the intention of Divine Wisdom by any interpretation, and, indeed, Chrysostom on St. Matt. viii. gives another purpose to the words ορα μηδενι ειπηες, "see that thou tell no man," (and so also, I think, does he on another occasion,) which he considers as a lesson to us in all our good works to avoid the praise and even the knowledge of men. But while we thankfully acknowledge this lesson, this does not prevent our seeing other purposes also. For it is evident that another, a deeper and higher meaning, was sometimes (if not always) contained in it, as when our LORD told His disciples not to declare who He was. And at another time, when the devils were commanded not to make Him known. And on these occasions it is much to be observed, that it is the Divinity of our Lord, or any thing that would indicate Divine power, such as the Transfiguration, which they were commanded not to divulge7.
All these things tend to confirm the supposition that our LORD’s manifesting Himself was accompanied with very great and singular danger, and this is borne out by expressions such as these, "If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin;" and, "If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin8;" and we know that the places of our LORD’s peculiar abode, and the scene of His mighty works, Capernaum and Bethsaida, were brought into a condition so fearful, that as to the former it will be more tolerable for Sodom in the day of judgment. If, therefore, such great guilt was incurred by witnessing our SAVIOUR’s miracles and preaching, may we not reasonably suppose that the withholding the full evidence of His power was in mercy intended to keep them back from so awful a state? It may also be observed, that [15/16] persons who come before us as most accepted, are those who have had least advantages, the Centurion, the Canaanitish woman, the good Samaritan, the returning leper, (also a Samaritan,) the thief on the cross; on the contrary, the Levite in the parable, is only not so bad as the priest; out of those admitted nearest to our LORD the Judas is found.
In accordance to all this, viz., that withholding the sign or greater manifestation was out of great tenderness to them, is that circumstance which is mentioned, when they asked a sign of Him, "He sighed deeply in spirit." And on another occasion our SAVIOUR pointed out the manner in which they should have arrived at the truth, in the same way of probable evidence by which they judged of things in Nature, that they knew the signs of the weather, whether it would be fine or cloudy. And, indeed, their continual asking for a sign, when such wonderful miracles were being abundantly performed, seems extraordinary, for it cannot but occur to one, What greater sign could they have? And the circumstance of their thus asking seems to prove that the miracles, or the greatness of them was rather out of their sight. And what is much to be noticed is, that although our LORD’s divinity was thus, as it were, concealed from the indifferent and careless observer, yet from any serious attention to the miracles, even in the accounts we have, the fulness of divine power is clearly discernible, as in the expression, Θελω καθαρισθητι, "I will, be thou clean," and many others, and in that power which is the attribute of GOD alone, so frequently exerted, reading the thoughts, ατε ε&chai;ων οφθαλμουσ καρδισμουσ Βλεποντασ, "as having eyes which behold the thoughts of the heart," as Origen says of the words, ιδων διαλογισμουσ, "seeing their thoughts." Indeed it has been well shown in some cases9, and in many others it may clearly be noticed, so as to carry the fullest conviction to any one desirous to know the truth, that by an attention to our LORD’s actions and the manner of His speaking, we may perceive strong and lively indications of His divinity. Observe, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount: "Think not [16/17] that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets, I am not come to destroy;" and that expression frequently repeated, "For I say unto you," which, considering they were spoken with reference to the law of Moses, it seems almost blasphemous to suppose could be spoken by one less than Divine.
On the occasion of their requiring a sign, though they are told with such sorrow and earnestness, that no sign should be given to that generation, yet St. Matthew twice inserts an exception, "excepting the sign of the prophet Jonas." This intimation of the only sign which they should receive, namely "the sign of Jonas," which was thus promised them, cannot but convey to us, who know to what it applied, something very awful; for it was, that they should have no sign such as they wanted, but should have one which they themselves would bring about in condemning Him, a sign which would show the enormity of their guilt,—that they had done no less than put to death the SON of GOD.
And will not the solemn answer of Abraham to the rich man bear much on this point? We are inclined to say they will repent if they have this or that warning; but this mournful prophecy has declared otherwise, for one can scarce help thinking of it as conveying a prophetic intimation of the Resurrection and its reception. It was a mercy, therefore, that no one was sent to them from the dead, for otherwise they would have been worse. May not this be said also of the Jews, to whom the manifestation of the Resurrection publicly was not vouchsafed? And it is to be observed, that the very commencement of the plot against our SAVIOUR’s life, was the report of his raising Lazarus from the dead. (St. John xi. 45.) "But some of them went their way to the Pharisees, and told them what things JESUS had done. Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council;" and the object of this council was to put Him to death. Certainly a most astonishing fact, as leading to the development of this fearful phenomena in the human mind, that the circumstance, which of all conceivable should have been most to their wealth, was to them an occasion of falling. I would speak with caution on such a subject, but if, on other occasions, our LORD’s being troubled was from causes of this kind, may not this explain our LORD’s [17/18] personal deportment (so to speak,) on that occasion, as proceeding from the very fearful nature of such a miracle to those who should witness it. (v. 38.) "JESUS therefore again groaning in himself cometh to the grave." We naturally watch for some expression to give us some clue to the cause of this distress, and in the next verse but one, we read, "JESUS saith unto her, (Martha) Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of GOD?" And, indeed, one cannot but remark, that the preparation, as it were, for this miracle, was a gentle leading or drawing on of Martha, the weaker sister, to this fulness of belief which was necessary: first of all a confession of our SAVIOR’S power is elicited from her, great indeed, but inadequate, "I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of GOD, GOD will give it Thee." But our LORD proceeds afterwards to declare to her His own inherent Divinity, "I am the Resurrection and the Life," and a full confession is required, "Believest thou this?"
In addition to these two circumstances, viz. the performing of miracles, only in proportion to men’s faith, and the withholding the knowledge of them, there is another point, which requires to be considered, that of certain persons only being admitted on some occasions, and others excluded. We do not of course suppose that it was from any partiality to the three disciples thus favoured, but, in divine love and wisdom, alike for their good and that of all. We are reasonably led to inquire, why, in one instance recorded, that of Jairus’s daughter, He put them all out but those three disciples, and the father, (who had asked and worshipped Him) and the mother? We shall find one thing mentioned in all these accounts, that may explain it, viz. it is said, "they laughed Him to scorn." It seems probable from this, that our LORD knew they were not of a temper of heart fitted to witness such a miracle without injury to themselves10.
On the other occasion, that of the Transfiguration, we are naturally inclined to ask, why it is stated, in all three accounts, so particularly in connexion with a certain conversation, which [18/19] took place about a week before? The "six days" of St. Matthew and St. Mark, and the "eight days" of St. Luke, perhaps imply that it was on the same day in the following week: whether it was on our Sunday11, or there was any other circumstance that rendered the day, on which these two great events occurred, remarkable. That discourse, so noticed as preceding this event, was the confession of St. Peter; from which it would appear that it was this testimony so blessed of our LORD, that rendered them now meet to be, as St. Peter expresses it in his second Epistle, "eye-witnesses of His majesty."
And may there not be something more in it, than what we should call a mere accidental circumstance, that, on our LORD’s appearing to the assembled disciples on the evening of the Resurrection, that one of them who was most slow of belief was not present? I trust also it will not be considered fanciful, to apply to this view of the subject the remarkable difference in the tone (if I may so speak reverently) of our LORD’s conversation, after the departure of Judas at the last supper: and also the high and divine subjects of the discourse which ensues, independently of its free and affectionate character.
Again, in that most interesting narrative, in St. Luke, of the circumstances which occurred to two of them as they were going to Emmaus, we shall be supplied with another instance of this caution, in not revealing the truth, excepting so far as there was a heart disposed to seek out and embrace it: "And they approached to the village whither they went, and He made as though He would have gone farther, and they constrained Him," on which, we read, He went in to abide with them, and revealed Himself to them. From which it would appear, that He would have gone away, and left them, if they had not evinced this desire to retain Him.
There is another incident, in which there might be something of the same kind; it is in one of those interesting incidental observations in which St. Mark abounds, where, in describing the [19/20] account of our SAVIOUR’s walking on the sea, and their alarm at seeing Him, he adds, και ηθελε παρελθειν αυτουσ, "and He would have passed by them," but when in their fear they cried out, then He immediately talked with them.
To which may be applied the remark of St. Chrysostom on another occasion, when they besought Him to depart from their coasts: we read, "He entered into a ship and passed over;" to which St. Chrysostom adds, ακοντασ γαρ ου σωφρονιζει, "for the unwilling He does not instruct;" and εκβληθεισ ουκ αντετεινε, αλλ ανεχωρησε, and "when cast out He resisted not, but retired." There are examples, or perhaps typical intimations, of the same mode of acting, which might be pointed out in the Old Testament, in which it would appear that GOD was "waiting to be gracious," but waiting till something should be done on the part of man, to accept His deliverance. Thus, when the angel appeared unto Moses in the bush, we read, "and Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the Lord saw that he turned aside, GOD called unto him." (Exod. iii. 3, 4.) It is also to be observed, that even those miracles in the Old Testament, which we might suppose most public and open, were not entirely of this character; thus in the striking of the rock it is said, "The LORD said unto Moses, Go on before the people, and take with thee the elders of Israel," (Exod. xvii. 5.) which might be compared with the miracle of the loaves dispensed by the disciples, as referred to above.
6. The same secret mode of teaching, observable in some actions and incidents.
In addition to the parables and miracles, are there not events in the Gospel, which are similar in their effect to those difficult expressions before alluded to, such as convey a high and heavenly meaning beyond the letter? I do not allude to any mere fanciful interpretations, but to events such as to a plain attentive reader would suggest immediate moral and spiritual intentions and instructions; as perhaps that of St. Peter walking on the sea, which seems in many points typical or prophetical of his fall; and the miraculous draught of fishes, recorded in the 5th of St. Luke, when [20/21] the disciples, as it appears, had been previously called, and were now again at their worldly employments; by which action they seem to be significantly taught, that, though they had to relinquish their means of livelihood to follow our SAVIOUR, they need not fear to do so, and that, as fishers of men, they need not despair, though their efforts might long seem unavailing. Such also was the withering of the fig tree, and the bearing of the cross after Him. These evidently contained hidden wisdom, not palpable, nor seen or acknowledged at the time, if at all. They seem to be quite of the nature and character of dark and difficult sayings, conveying instruction by a kind of metaphor, or similitude, in the same way. And in both, the full meaning was a secret to those to whom it was first spoken. Such are remarkably in unison with events in the Old Testament, as, e.g., the offering up of Isaac. The instances mentioned appear obvious ones—they may be but glimpses, which we perceive, of a great system. Add to these the Sabbath day being selected by our LORD for His miracles of mercy. How much is signified in this, to a thoughtful observer! Indeed, no less than all the Gospel, as contained within, and rising out of the law, and the latter departing away12.
7. Our LORD spoken of by others, and speaking of Himself.
May we not also, from the expressions of others respecting our SAVIOUR, see allusions to this awful and mysterious wisdom, and which indicate that He was in the habit of concealing, in a remarkable manner, His divine power and majesty, excepting so far as persons might be found capable of receiving it? Such is the expostulation of His brethren; "no man doeth any thing in secret, and he himself seeketh to be known openly; if thou do these things, show thyself to the world." And not His unbelieving brethren only, but the unbelieving Jews at Jerusalem also say, "How long makest thou us to doubt? if thou be the CHRIST, tell us plainly." All of which cannot but forcibly remind us of passages in the Old Testament, such as where the angel (or, as it would appear, more than an angel) says to Manoah, "Why askest thou [21/22] my name, seeing it is secret?" (or wonderful;) and to Israel, "Why askest thou my name?" and in Isaiah, (xlv. 15.) "Verily thou art a GOD that hidest thyself, O GOD of Israel, the SAVIOUR." And, though GOD hath appeared out of Sion in perfect beauty, yet "clouds and darkness are round about Him." So that, although the beloved disciple could say, "we have seen His glory," yet to the world He hath "no form nor comeliness." (Origen.)
Origen has, I think, observed, that, although false Christs should arise, saying, "I am CHRIST, and, I am CHRIST," yet that our LORD does not openly profess, or proclaim Himself as such. And the constant open designation of Himself as "the Son of Man," is to be noticed, for it might be thought, here is the common admission which those, who wish to deny the Godhead of CHRIST, might most desire. And will it not be seen, by examining the passages where our LORD most fully declared His Divinity, that it was, as it were, (so to speak) forced from Him by others, and followed by violence? And when indeed the most full declaration was at last extorted from Him, by the adjuration of the high priest, the consequences which ensued were, we know, dreadful beyond example, for it was the beginning of the great crime. But on the other hand, any thing approaching to an acknowledgment of divine power in our SAVIOUR seems to be followed by some signal blessing, as in the case of the Centurion, &c. and the full confession still more so in the case of St. Peter; no one else seems to have made this, others acknowledged our SAVIOUR as the Son of David, or as the CHRIST, not knowing what it imported. It is worthy of attentive observation, that the acknowledgement is from the devils, (see Mark iii. ) when He strictly charged them not to divulge it. As if to see, and acknowledge, without suitable reverence, was a state utterly hopeless.
From all which it may be gathered, that it was indeed of infinite importance, that they should see and believe that He was the CHRIST; but, that it was of no less infinite importance, that He should not Himself declare it to them. If, when they required the sign, the stronger miraculous attestation, He groaned deeply in spirit; so, on the contrary, when Peter acknowledged Him to be the CHRIST, the SON of GOD, (from which conversation it would appear that He had never Himself told them that He was,) then came [22/23] down that blessing, which ceases not, and never shall cease. And it has been observed, (by Origen) that, as St. Matthew is the only one of the three Evangelists, who records the expression, "Thou art the SON of GOD," in addition to "Thou art the CHRIST," so he is the only one of the three who records the blessing, and that this was revealed to Peter "not of flesh and blood, but of GOD," as if this latter expression of our SAVIOUR’s, had a reference to that declaration of His Divinity on the part of St. Peter.
The only mode, therefore, of arriving at the truth was by means of that moral inference, under the influence of GOD’s good SPIRIT, which arises from that probable evidence, which He has given us as the guide of life: in the same way that we gain natural truths. This was the mode pointed out to the Jews13, and such appears to have been the case with the Virgin herself, of whom it is said, Μαριαμ συτα ταυτα συμβαλλουσα εν τηι καρδιαι αυτησ, "Mary kept to herself these things, pondering them together in her heart," and on another occasion, ηρ μητηρ αυτου διετηρει παντα τα ρηματα ταυτα εν τηι καρδιαι αυτησ, "His mother kept throughout all these words in her heart;" the same which St. Paul has pointed out as the way to heavenly wisdom, "e;comparing thing spiritual with spiritual," and thus arriving at what is sometimes called the πληροφορια, the gradual accumulation gathered from probable evidence to the full assurance of faith.
As if in the same manner, as in natural events or worldly matters, we gather this fulness of assurance from the recurrence or repetition of many single circumstances, so also a divinely illuminated mind, in the course of practical obedience, necessarily must accumulate numerous facts which necessarily lead to certain conclusions, or convictions of divine truth, so as to be open to the hearty and full reception of higher knowledge, when presented to it; the numerous circumstances, on which such evidence is built, being perfectly unknown to the careless and disobedient; which of course would explain how such conviction is entirely moral.
This view of the subject seems to explain, and itself to be ex[23/24]plained by, the Baptist’s sending his disciples, when he was in prison, to our SAVIOUR, and our LORD’s reply to them. As John came to bear testimony to our LORD, and some of his disciples had already followed our SAVIOUR on that testimony, the Baptist must naturally have desired, that the others should do the same, particularly now on his approaching death; and, according to this mode of divine teaching, would have been desirous to leave it to them, to see and believe according to the strong moral evidence set before them. For if John expresses no belief in His being the CHRIST, nor does our SAVIOUR on the other hand declare Himself to be so; the Baptist tells them not it is the CHRIST, but sends them to see: and our LORD declares not that He is the CHRIST, but points to His works14.
For we can hardly suppose, I think, that the Baptist, to whose testimony our LORD Himself so strongly appealed, could have had any doubts himself. That John the Baptist’s sending in that manner might have naturally occasioned such a supposition on the part of the persons present, and that our LORD intended to correct that erroneous impression, appears to me to be the meaning of what our blessed LORD says on the occasion; as if (Matt. xi.) in that passage which commences with the words "What went ye out for to see," something of this kind was implied, "Think not the Baptist’s faith is shaken; you yourselves went to see Him, you well knew his character, that it was not liable to wavering, like the reed of his own desert. But, perhaps, you think his own sufferings, or my lowly appearance, have shaken his belief. He was not, you well knew, (for you have seen him) a person like this, one who looked on personal exterior, whom a king"s court could have dazzled, or subsequent misfortune shake. Such a man as that you would not have to seek in the desert; was he not a prophet, yea, indeed, and more? Do not think, therefore, that he himself has any doubt or wavering."
And at the same time they are told that, if they could receive it, this was the foretold Elijah; which seems to prove two things; first, that, if he was that great prophet, he could be no doubtful [24/25] testimony; and secondly, that it required a certain disposition of heart to receive him as such.
And our blessed LORD Himself describes this peculiarity in His own mode of teaching, as in the parable of the new cloth added to the old, and the new wine received into the old bottles: which appears to indicate the exceeding danger of the Gospel being received into the unregenerate heart of the old man, and such fatal consequences as our LORD’s manner of teaching was calculated to avert. And even to the disciples themselves at the last, He thus speaks, "I have many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now." In all which our LORD appears as morally dealing with mankind in the same way as He supplies the necessities of all His creatures in His natural providence, ministering to all their meat in due season, and also according to the wants of each, and as they were able to bear it.
There is a tradition, mentioned I think by Origen, (in Matt. 100), highly interesting from the moral reflections it suggests, that our LORD was in the habit of appearing to different beholders in a different personal form. Whether there is any evidence for the truth of such a statement or not, it is clear, that the very different feelings with which He would be looked upon, from those of the deepest adoration and love, to those of Pharisaical contempt, would, in fact, in the eyes of mankind have invested Him with the greatest imaginable difference of exterior, which might have given rise to such a report. Indeed the same writer makes this application of it, "The Word," he says, "hath different forms, appearing unto each beholder in the way beneficial to him, and being manifested unto no one, beyond what he that beholdeth Him can receive." (Origen, Comment. St. Matt. tom. xii. 36.)
8. The instructions to the Disciples, and their conduct illustrating the same.
Again, do not our LORD’s instructions to His disciples, when they were sent forth to
preach, convey throughout something of the same impression, that they were not to press
the truth beyond what men were willing to receive; while they also imply the awful state of those,
to whom it had been spoken, as may be seen at length in St. Luke (ch. x.)?
Again, the word
These remarks derive additional force from something of this kind observable in their conduct, as when St. Peter, in raising Tabitha, "put them all forth." Athanasius speaks of them as observing the same reserve which is here noticed in our LORD respecting His Divinity. In his answer to the Arians, who urge that the apostles spoke of our SAVIOUR, as of a man, as when St. Paul says at Athens, "by the Man whom He hath ordained," and St. Stephen, "I see the Son of Man standing." To this says Athanasius, "Because the apostles used these words, did they consider that CHRIST was only a man and nothing more? GOD forbid! Let such a thought never enter the mind. But this they did as wise master-builders and dispensers of the mysteries of GOD; not without a good reason for doing so."—"With much wisdom the blessed Apostles first declared to the Jews what concerned the human nature only of our LORD: in order that, when they had thoroughly persuaded them, from the manifest miracles that had taken place, that CHRIST had come, they might afterwards lead them on to faith in His Divine nature, showing that the works which had taken place were not those of a man, but of GOD." [Athanasius de Senten. Dionys. 8.]
9. The same system in the Epistles.
And now, if this view of the subject be correct, with respect to the Old Testament and the Gospels, may we not reasonably expect to find the same Spirit dealing with us in the same manner in the Epistles? And if we find what we might consider obscurities in the former, which had the effect of misleading the inconsiderate, as the prophecy of Elijah, descriptions which seemed to speak of a temporal kingdom, and perhaps the expression of the sword, misunderstood by St. Peter: we know also from the authority of an apostle, that there are things hard to be understood in the Epistles of St. Paul, which are "wrested to their [26/27] own destruction by the unwary." May we not suppose that the difficulties in the Epistles were intended to answer the same purpose as the figures of the Old Testament, and the parables of the New? Such was the opinion of Origen, who on the Epistle to the Romans thus writes:
"It must be observed, as a general truth, that, where it is the purpose to throw a veil over, and not openly to set forth the sentiments of truth, whether it be by the Spirit of CHRIST speaking in the prophets, or by His word in the apostles, there is often a confusion (or obscurity) in the diction, and the order of the sentiments is not clear and unbroken: to prevent those who are unworthy from discovering, to the condemnation of their souls, things which it is for their good should be concealed from them. And hence it is oftentimes the case that there appears a want of order and connexion in different parts of Scripture, especially, as we said before, in the Prophetical and Apostolical parts. And in the latter, especially in the Epistle to the Romans, in which things concerning the law are spoken of, and in such different ways, and under such different circumstances, that it might have appeared, as if St. Paul had not the object of that Epistle distinctly before his mind in writing it."
But with regard to the Epistles, as confirming these opinions, the subject would be too long to enter upon further than just to notice the many passages in them, in which the Apostle speaks of his care not to impart divine knowledge to those, who are not worthy to receive it.
A full and adequate reason for this withdrawing, and withholding of divine truth, might be shown in passages which speak of the great danger of a revelation of GOD to man, as a savour of death, as well as a savour unto life. If fire is the figure under which the HOLY GHOST is spoken of, it is alluded to under both its properties, to cheer and give life, and also to consume. The Baptist, who foretold our SAVIOUR’s manifestation as baptizing with fire, spoke also of the fire unquenchable, which should burn the chaff; and the pillar of fire, which was the strength of the Israelite, was the destruction of the Egyptian. Is it not said of Tophet, "the breath of the LORD like a stream of brimstone doth kindle it?" In all His moral dealings, therefore, it is the same [27/28] mercy which said to Moses, "Go down, charge the people, lest they break through unto the LORD to gaze, and many of them perish." (Exod. xix. 21.) "For our GOD is a consuming fire." (Heb. xii. 29.)
10. Passages in Scripture on the other side explained.
There is one passage in Holy Scriptures, which has occurred to me as at first sight appearing contrary to the whole of this argument, where in the Book of Proverbs it is said, "Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets, she crieth in the chief place of concourse, in the openings of the gates, in the city she uttereth her words, saying." But, on a little consideration, it will be seen to fall in with, and confirm the view we have taken. For of this whole description in the Book of Proverbs, Bishop Butler15 has remarked, that it may be questioned, whether it was most intended as applicable to prudence in our temporal affairs, or to that wisdom, which is purely religious and heavenly. To him, therefore, who was a beginner, or who had not yet entered into the school of CHRIST, it would speak of this temporal wisdom; the higher sense would be to him a secret, concealed under the other, as by the veil; but to the heavenly-minded it would open the higher meaning, the deeper treasures of divine Wisdom. So that it would really appear the same as that Wisdom, of which it is said in another place, that she walks at first in difficult and trying ways, and not showing her secrets, but to those whom she hath proved and found worthy. "She goeth about seeking such as are worthy of her, showing herself favourably unto them in the ways, and meeting them in every thought." (Wisdom xi.) And of course the passage from the Book of Proverbs means, that there is no one living but to whom Wisdom speaks, a voice that tells him of something better, which he ought to do, than what he does, which the very nature of probation implies; but until he follows this first voice, the higher and better Wisdom is hid from him. But, however this may be, we know it was said of Him who was Wisdom itself, and "the light that lighteth every one that cometh into the world," "that He should not cry nor lift up His voice in the street." [28/29]
Another passage has been suggested to the writer, as appearing to militate against some of the foregoing inferences,—the expression of our LORD’s "compel them to come in, that my house may be full." But the meaning of that parable seems to be that, on the Jews refusing the Gospel, the Gentiles would be forced to enter, that the Church throughout the world might be full. And it rather therefore seems to imply the mode of GOD’s dealing with the world at present (which will be noticed afterwards), contrary to all His former dispensations, when all men are as it were forced to come in. While, at the same time, of the spiritual kingdom, it may be always "that the violent take it by force."
Another expression is also to be explained; the Jews say, (John vii. 27.) "We know this man whence he is, but when CHRIST cometh, no man knoweth whence He is. Then cried JESUS in the Temple, as He taught, saying, Ye know me, and ye know whence I am." This might seem at first contrary to the view here taken. But in reconciling this passage with that in the following chapter, where our LORD says, (chap. viii. 19.) "Ye neither know me, nor my FATHER; if ye had known me, ye should have known my FATHER" Origen shows in his Commentary, that the former alludes to our LORD’s human nature, to which the Jews were referring, but the latter to His Divinity.
11. Confirmed by the analogy of God’s present dealings with mankind.
The whole history of this, the ALMIGHTY’S mode of revealing Himself, is the circumstance which has been matter of offence to the unbeliever, asking for a sign. And perhaps it is different to preconceived expectations, such as we might have been led to form of ourselves: for instance, we might have thought, that the evidence of the Resurrection would have been more public, and the like. It is therefore, as in solving all other difficulties in the history of revelation, very satisfactory to show, how remarkably consistent all this is with what we see in the analogy of GOD’s Providence, in our own experience of His dealing with us in His moral government, which we discern, as now going on. [29/30]
A good man, however illiterate, has his faith established by a daily accumulating weight of evidence, which may perhaps be considered as equivalent to the testimony of the senses in the case of any of our LORD’s miracles. A weight of evidence which is perfectly unknown to the infidel and thoughtless, however intellectually superior; it is the path of the just brightening in the clearness of his faith to the perfect day.
It seems as if this kind of evidence might be considered as joined on to the former (as being in our case the substitution for it, and yet acting in a similar manner upon this point), by that singular fact, which Origen mentions, (against Celsus, p. 5.) that the traces (or steps) of those miracles were still remaining in his day among those, who lived according to the precepts of the word of GOD. So that the moral evidence, which a good man ordinarily has, arose at that time to the more sensible evidence of miracles, in the same manner as good persons were admitted to a closer and more intimate knowledge of our LORD’s works, and the manifestation of Himself.
At the same time we must not speak as if we considered that a sensible manifestation of the Divine Presence, or Power, appeared to be the highest reward, or crown and end of a good and obedient faith; but rather, perhaps, it may be a help vouchsafed to those, who are desirous to be led on to something better, and require such assistance. Indeed, where St. Peter speaks of the manifestation of our LORD’s person, and the hearing of His voice, with both of which he had been so singularly honoured, he speaks of such testimony of the senses, as something less sure than the word of Prophecy, and this latter but as the "light shining in a dark place," compared with "the day-star arising in the heart," whatever this may be explained to be. Add to which, we know that St. John himself had not the earliest sensible and direct evidence of our LORD’s Resurrection; and that he needed not this assurance, but had the more especial blessing of having believed, though he had not seen, perhaps a blessing, which was no other than that which belongs to the pure in heart, that they shall see GOD. For, surely, if this blessing of seeing GOD be one, which, in the manifold application of Scripture, refers to this life, as well [30/31] as to the next, we have abundant evidence in the writings of St. John, of its having been singularly fulfilled in him, as well in the habitual turn of his own mind, as in those higher and more divine revelations, to which he was admitted.
It may well be supposed that the disciple, who lay upon His LORD’s breast, had the fulness of His Divinity (so to speak) disclosed to him in a signal and singular degree. This is obvious throughout his Gospel and Epistles. As Chrysostom says at the commencement of the former, "He beginneth not, like the rest, from below, but from above," so may it be said does he continue throughout. We may suppose him to have remembered, and dwelt upon, in a way to have almost absorbed every other thought, those of his Master’s words, which fully showed Him to be the Son of God. And this might be traced, with much interest, to some little particulars, perhaps, in his Gospel, some manifest, but as it were incidental indications, which were such as this Evangelist might alone have noticed; and with these we might compare or contrast some observations respecting St. Peter. It gives a very peculiar interest to the Gospel of St. Mark (which is supposed to have been St. Peter’s,) that the very minute, and apparently unimportant remarks, with which it abounds, are many of them respecting our LORD’s own personal demeanour. Such as, twice that "He was angry;" that "He was moved with pity;" that "He marvelled;" that "He groaned" on two occasions; that "He loved" the young man; twice that "He took children into His arms;" that He was "asleep on a pillow." Several observations of this kind occur in a few chapters, where the substance of the account seems often taken from another Gospel; many of them such as, humanly speaking, none but one admitted to a very intimate approach to our LORD’s person, as St. Peter was, could have observed. And all this is exactly what we should have supposed of St. Peter during this period, a most earnest watchfulness respecting every shade of expression, which might have appeared on our LORD’s countenance, and the most apparently trivial of His actions observed, and remembered. For, when he speaks, in his second Epistle, of their "having been eye-witnesses of His majesty," and "having heard the voice of GOD bearing testi[31/32]mony to Him," he speaks like one, who had felt at the time the need of such confirmation, or at all events was much supported by such Divine attestation. And these casual remarks, which have been mentioned, are indications of a state of mind, in which his eyes were intensely bent on "the Son of Man," while GOD the FATHER was gradually revealing to him that, which "flesh and blood had not told." A blessed and high state of faith and acceptance; but we are supposing it to have been something less than that of St. John. The faith of St. John, needing no manifestation, may be compared to that of Abraham, who, requiring no proof of GOD’s favour, as it is more than once recorded, at the place of his sojourn "builded an altar unto the LORD, and called on His name." Whereas the faith of Jacob required some attestation of the Divine Presence with him: "If GOD will keep me, and I come again to my father’s house, then shall the LORD be my GOD." To acknowledge the indications of GOD’s presence in the proofs he gives us of His favour is acceptable to Him, but not to need such sensible proofs would appear to be more so.
But to return from this digression. In addition to all that has been said, it must be remarked, that, when our LORD was most exposed to the view of the unbelieving multitude, it was, by the Providence of GOD, at a time when His Divinity was most shrouded, as it were, by the veil of human suffering; if it be true (as I think Origen says) that His Divinity was the last truth the perfect man came to know, and CHRIST crucified the first taught. And this is according to the whole analogy of the Gospel narrative, wherein He is drawing first of all "by the cords of a man, with the bands of love," until able to disclose His Godhead. Therefore they were capable of being forgiven, because "they did it ignorantly," as St. Peter says, and our LORD could pray for them, as "not knowing what they did." Would it otherwise have been the sin against the HOLY GHOST? (I ask not curiously, but for our profit.) Certainly we cannot but be struck with the effects which ensued, when the Divine power was more manifested and acknowledged, as in the case of Ananias and Sapphira, and in that of the sorcerer. [32/33]
12. Subsequent manifestations of CHRIST’s Presence in His Church.
One ought to pursue such a subject with caution, but if we consider the manifestations which GOD has subsequently been pleased to make to mankind, it may be observed, that as a right holding of the Sacraments, and the acknowledgment of GOD’s presence in them, is the mark and sign of a healthful Church, which the history of the Church will warrant us in supposing; so it appears that, when religion has been decaying in the minds of men, GOD has either allowed His Divine presence to be hid from them, by the errors of the Roman Catholics on the one side, which would have the effect of a veil, like a type and figure, in concealing His presence under a low and carnal notion; or has left men to deny that presence altogether, (as Protestants are inclined to do,) so that a Sacrament would be to them no Sacrament, as far as the Divine power is displayed in it—but merely like a picture, or representation of our SAVIOUR’s sufferings—no more. Nor in this view are we at all considering it as if GOD was the author of evil, but rather as seeing His hand controlling the errors of men, and judicially present, as so often represented, even in their wickedness. At all events it would seem to be an instance of the same kind as those enumerated "He did not miracles because of their unbelief,"—it is precisely the same in effect. He is among us, and our eyes are holden, and we know it not, or, as St. John says, (ch. xii. 36) "These things spake JESUS, and departed, and did hide Himself from them.16" [33/34]
Part II. The Example of Our Lord Confirmed by His Moral Government
1. That all Moralists consider vice and virtue as states of Darkness and Light.
THE object of the former inquiry was, to ascertain whether, in the history of our SAVIOUR’s life, there does not appear a very remarkable reserve in the communication of Divine Truth. It is now intended to carry on the same inquiry, and to show that there are strong indications of something extremely analogous to this in His moral government.
This is so much the case, that, if it may be said of our LORD in the days of His humiliation, that He went about exceedingly desirous to disclose Himself; but that, nevertheless, He did, in a very remarkable manner, hide and conceal Himself from the view of those who were not desirous to know Him. So may it, in like manner, be stated in the same words respecting our moral nature, that there are clear indications that he is therein going about, exceedingly desirous to disclose Himself; but that, nevertheless, He does, in a very remarkable manner, hide and conceal Himself from the view of those who are not desirous to retain Him in their knowledge.
In proof of this, the first point which I would adduce is the fact,—that all the best moral writers, whether sacred or profane, speak of a state of probation, as being one of increasing moral light, or of increasing darkness; that a good life is, in some especial sense, one of advancement in knowledge, and an evil life, of growing and progressive ignorance.
Aristotle’s system is a sufficient instance of this. In the state of ignorance which is considered wrong and blameable, there are [34/35] two degrees; one, the ignorance of a general principle, such, perhaps, as may be instanced in that action of the disciples, when they were blamed in that they knew not of what spirit they were of; the other, the very proof of viciousness in character, by which men become utterly depraved, as was, perhaps, the case of the Jews. The first, like a spot on the organ of vision, increasing in the latter to a loss of sight. Whereas, on the contrary, the whole of moral improvement, in the heathen philosopher seems to be an increase in knowledge; and a preparation of the heart to a discernment ever clearer, and more clear of the highest wisdom; and a cordial embracing of, and resting in, the contemplation of truths which are thus at length disclosed to it. For he not only considers goodness to lead to, and consist in, improved moral and practical discernment (φρονησισ), but this discernment as subservient to the attainment of some higher wisdom (σοφια).
Now these acknowledgments of moral writers seem glimpses, and guesses, and sometimes distinct shadows and outlines, of great and divine truths; for it is to be observed how this description of our moral nature is confirmed by Holy Scripture, where sin is frequently spoken of by expressions which imply "the light within being darkened;" and progressive holiness is continually alluded to as progress in knowledge, and to know GOD as the end of all Christian obedience. The strength of ungoverned passion, ending in a total want of control, is emphatically called "adding drunkenness to thirst," and the want of spiritual discernment is termed "a book that is sealed." And, in like manner with the Divine Scriptures, Clement of Rome says, "On this account Righteousness and Peace is far from you, because each of you has left the fear of GOD, and in His Faith has become blind, or dull of seeing." (c. iii.)
2. That Scripture attributes these effects to the immediate agency of God.
Thus far Scripture may only seem to confirm this moral account of our nature. But now it is to be noticed, that [35/36] although this principle is often alluded to by heathen moralists, yet in Scripture there is to be observed a mode of expression very remarkably distinguished from theirs. In the first place, Scripture speaks of this Divine knowledge as, in some especial manner, the gift of GOD. As in the instance of the blessing on St. Peter, on account of his acknowledging the SON of GOD, it is said expressly, because "flesh and blood had not revealed it unto him, but GOD the FATHER, who is in heaven;" and in the thanksgiving of our SAVIOUR to His FATHER, because He had "hid these things from the wise and prudent, and revealed them unto babes;" and in the expression, "if any one be otherwise minded, GOD shall reveal even this unto you;" and, "if any one want wisdom, let him ask of GOD, from whom cometh every perfect gift;" and respecting religious comprehension it seems to be said, "no one cometh unto Me except the FATHER which hath sent Me draw him." It is very edifying to observe this. Yet it is not so striking as in the opposite case, which is so contrary to all that we should have expected beforehand, that means are constantly taken to explain it away. The fact I allude to is, that this blindness of heart and darkness which is superinduced, as the natural consequence of an evil life, is variously, yet consistently, throughout the whole of Scripture, attributed to the agency of GOD. By Moses, as where GOD is spoken of as "hardening the heart of Pharaoh;" by the Prophets, as where Ezekiel says, "If the Prophet be deceived, I the LORD have deceived the Prophet, and I will stretch out my hand upon him and destroy him:" and Isaiah, "The LORD hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes" (see Isa. xxix.); and in the Gospels these expressions are often repeated in the same form from the Prophets; as, for instance, that they could not believe because that Esaias had said, "He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart, that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them." And, after the same manner of expression, St. Paul speaks of those of the latter days, on whom GOD shall send a strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: that they all might be damned, who be[36/37]lieve not the truth. And, perhaps, the same thing, which we should consider the mere natural effect of a wicked temper, is to be found, where it is said, "that an evil spirit from GOD was upon Saul, when the good spirit had left him." Surely such an identity of statement, under such a variety of expression, and in such variety of circumstances, ought not to be explained away, as if a mere mode of speech; but, on the contrary, we should consider, that, where the meaning is wrapt up by such difficulties on the surface, it is one of a high and sacred character. When, therefore, it is asked, why did not JESUS CHRIST disclose to them, that He was not born at Nazareth, as they supposed, nor the Son of Joseph, whom they said they knew; why did He leave them in such ignorance of His wonderful power and goodness? It must be answered, that it was He of whom it is written, "He hath blinded their eyes;" and that we have no way of coming to the full meaning of His words but by obedience. But that on the wicked He shall send, not His ultimate judgments only, but, if the expression may be allowed, snares also; "Upon the ungodly He shall rain snares, fire and brimstone." (Ps. xi. 7.) But of this circumstance thus much may be observed, that a great deal which Revelation informs us of is a bringing forward to our view the presence of GOD in those things in which the world is least inclined to acknowledge it; in attributing to the immediate agency, and influence, and presence of GOD, what was otherwise ascribed to the course of nature. Thus we see in nature the sins of fathers, in a temporal point of view, visited on children: this, revelation tells us, is the denunciation of GOD. We see the innocent overwhelmed with the guilty, and infants with their parents, in wars and convulsions of nature: this, scriptural history shows us, is by the command of GOD. So, likewise, in morals, Aristotle points out fully the effects of vice in bringing on a state of blindness. But that this is the judicial punishment of GOD, as clearly acting and present in this world, amid all the confusions that abound, this revelation sets before us,—"GOD shall send upon them a strong delusion."
Instead of attempting to explain away, let us thankfully adore [37/38] and bless His holy Name, for these indications of His gracious presence, even in these awful mysteries, and "give thanks unto Him because we are fearfully and wonderfully made;" for this very mysteriousness creates a feeling of awful regard, and is a subject of thanksgiving, as bringing palpably before us, that in all things, "His is the kingdom and the power."
Thus far, therefore, we seem to have arrived at this point,—that there are in our moral nature indications of the same kind of concealment and disclosure, according to our various dispositions of heart, as we before observed to be the case in the history of our LORD’s life. But much more than this, that such light and darkness is attributed, in a very singular manner, to the immediate agency of GOD.
3. This knowledge is considered as something Infinite and Divine.
But this analogy will carry us still further: as it was our blessed LORD’s divinity, which, we have seen, He studiously concealed, but wished all men to come to the knowledge of; so the knowledge which is supposed in morals to be the result of a good life, is something which is of a nature very great and infinite. In Aristotle it is the going out of mortality, as it were, into the earnest contemplation of things that are wonderful, eternal, and divine17. Such is the shadow of that truth which Scripture [38/39] unfolds to us. For certainly those pre-eminent saints of GOD, Abraham, St. John, and St. Paul, seem to stand out, as it were, from the human race, by a kind of solitude of spirit, from their minds appearing to be conversant with things above human nature. Abraham, of whom it was said, on account of his obedience, "Shall I hide from Abraham the thing which I do?" St. Paul, who saw things that it was not lawful for man to utter; and St. John, whose character is not more strongly marked by that divine love for which he is known, than for what may be termed, but very inadequately, heavenly contemplation; so as to have been found worthy, not only to have written his divine Gospel, but to whom the book of the Revelations should have been entrusted. Add to this, that those Christians, who appear, from many circumstances, to have been the most advanced of all St. Paul’s converts, the Ephesians, are especially addressed on the subject of growing in knowledge. The Apostle’s unceasing prayer for them is, that "GOD will grant them the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him; the eyes of their understanding be enlightened, that they might know what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints."
This knowledge is always spoken of as something so vast, and, as I said, infinite, that persons seem never to be addressed as if they had attained, but rather to be urged on to the greater attainment: it does not seem spoken in terms such as Peace and even Faith, but more like Divine Charity, and perhaps as co-existent and co-extensive with it, as a part only at best of what is boundless, and will be more fully developed hereafter. It is said, "in knowledge of Whom standeth eternal life;" as eternal life cannot be defined by bounds, no more can this knowledge have any limits.
And indeed it is often thus spoken of as directly connected with the Divinity. It is called "the treasures of wisdom and knowledge hid in CHRIST." It is "the new man which is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created him." It is to "be able to comprehend what is the breadth and length and depth and height, and to know the love of CHRIST which passeth know[39/40]ledge," and by St. Peter it is "growing in the knowledge of CHRIST." It is expressly spoken of by St. John as our SAVIOUR "manifesting Himself." (John xiv.)
4. It is of a moral, and not of an intellectual nature.
The next point to be observed is that this hidden wisdom is entirely of a moral nature, and independent of any mere cultivation of the intellect. Indeed the latter of itself would appear to be a hindrance to it,—for such "knowledge puffeth up." Even Aristotle cautions us that knowledge in morals can only be gained by practice. And that heavenly knowledge, of which St. Paul speaks, he is cautious of disclosing to those who are carnally minded. "Add to virtue knowledge," says St. Peter; and this knowledge he considers as the very end of obedience. "If these things (i.e. these graces) abound in you, they will make that ye shall not be unfruitful in the knowledge of our LORD JESUS CHRIST." (2 Pet. i. 8.) It was seeing that he would command his family to keep the ordinances of GOD, which was the reason given, why GOD would not withhold from Abraham the thing which He did. And indeed the character of this knwoeldge in all its fulness, it secret and hidden,—its vast and infinite nature, and its being entirely a matter of moral attainment, is sufficiently expressed in our blessed LORD’s own words—"Judas saith unto Him, If a man love me, he will keep my words; and my FATHER will love him, and We will come unto him, and make our abode with him." It might also be considered that holiness in man is, in fact, nothing else but a sense of the Divine presence; to improve in holiness, therefore, is to grow in the consciousness of GOD’s presence. And would again bring us to the same point, i. e. our blessed SAVIOUR revealing Himself according to the state of each man’s heart.
St. John often mentions this knowledge in connexion with love, and such love as the result of obedience. And experience thus confirms it; actions of self-denial dispose the heart to prayer, [40/41] prayer to the love of GOD, and the love of GOD to the knowledge of Him. And this secret and heavenly knowledge, thus attained, seems alluded to in the expression, (Rev. xiv.) "They sang a new song, which song no man could learn, but the hundred and forty and four thousand."
Moreover, it is to such as Daniel, "the man of loves," which are divine and not earthly, that revelations are made: and it is worthy of consideration, that those who speak of the intimate connexion of CHRIST with His Church, under he type of marriage, are the Baptist, St. Paul, and St. John. As if it were to the higher, or virgin, state of life that the mysteries signified by this figure were confided.
5. That we may perceive intimations of what it may be.
Of the nature of this Divine knowledge, which GOD is pleased to reveal to His obedient children, it is of course quite impossible for us to speak adequately, "seeing that it is secret," by our very supposition. But of the manner in which this light that lighteth the path of the just may make our way clearer, and open and disclose things to us, before obscure, as we advance, may be shown in one or two instances. First of all, in morals we may see how it is that if any sincere person be otherwise minded, in any point, than what holiness of heart requires, GOD will reveal even this unto him. It may be seen that the whole system of morals is one of progressive light, as far as we can discern. Take, for example, two controverted cases in morals, and observe how the faith of Christian duty throws light upon them. First, the love of praise, a subject so debated in morals, with regard to its merit or demerit. Is it not a sign of good, and therefore praiseworthy, in the worst and most indifferent characters, that they should desire the praise of their superiors in virtue? it is an endeavouring to persuade themselves that they have some merit, which their betters approve, and therefore an intimation of some wish to attain it. It is a step, as it were, in the scale of virtue, that leads us, by human means, to the footstool of GOD. On the other hand, in the best men it is a fault to desire praise [41/42] at all—something that sullies their best actions; it is because they ought to look to the sole infallible standard of goodness. The approbation of man was only, in the former case, a weak substitute for this—for it was a looking to the erring judgment of the creature, instead of that unerring judgment and approbation of GOD, in which the life of the soul consists. True goodness of heart can only acquiesce in the judgment of GOD; therefore, says Taylor, a good man, when praised, trembles, lest the judgment of GOD should be different. And our SAVIOUR has said, "How can ye believe who receive honour of one another, and seek not the honour which cometh of GOD only." And yet we have in this case GOD calling us on, through the medium of parents and superiors and good men, to whose good opinion we naturally look, to seek for some approving judgment out of ourselves, and thus to rest in Himself alone. The circumstance, which in this case appears to involve a difficulty or a self-contradiction, does, in fact, more strongly confirm the analogy; for to state, as this instance seems to imply, that the same thing should be right, and yet that it should also be wrong and blameable, may appear extraordinary. But the case would seem to be similar to that of typical rites and offerings, which were commanded in the Old Testament, and, therefore, of course approved of, and yet the same are strongly and repeatedly condemned, i.e. with a reference to a higher standard of those great moral duties and heavenly significations, which they represented and were intended to lead to.
The same may be seen in another case, considered questionable in morals, whether emulation is consistent with Christian holiness, or to be considered as distinct from envy. The fact is, that wherever there is a desire after, and a resting in, finite good as an end, such a good, being finite, must be lessened by another obtaining the same from the very nature of the finite good: emulation cannot exist in such a case, without envy as its shadow. For objects, which are finite, we estimate merely by comparison. But, with regard to that which is infinite, as to obtain the love of GOD, which love is infinite; to do His will, which is infinite; to know Him better; all this, being of an infinite nature, can [42/43] admit of no envy, because the more another may obtain in no way diminishes, but increases our own attainment of it: here is disclosed the only legitimate course for emulation, as it is the only one in which there can be no envy. For though indeed a person may envy another doing good actions, which he himself practises; yet if he does so, this is an indication that he practises them himself from some inferior motive, that there is a want of purity in the end proposed.
Such instances will serve to show how, in morals, He, "who is the light that lighteth every one who cometh into the world," discloses Himself in the path of Christian duty, which looks to Himself as the only means and end; but reveals Himself in no other way18.
The same may be shown after another manner, in cases which would be more strictly considered as religious. Take the Ten Commandments and the LORD’s Prayer, as the subjects of devotion. That there is, in some especial manner, an infinity of wisdom and knowledge contained in these, may be concluded from their both being in an especial manner the words of GOD. And our blessed SAVIOUR has taught us to look for this secret wisdom in the Commandments, in the Sermon on the Mount, where He has opened their fuller meaning and spiritual intentions, as necessary to be observed, and by which we shall be judged at the last day. And from one petition in the LORD’s Prayer, "Give us this day our daily bread," taken in conjunction with our LORD’s explana[43/44]tion of the only "true bread," and with that of His injunction of our not seeking "the bread that perisheth," in another place, we are necessarily led on to seek for more than the letter through the whole of that Prayer. Now the manner in which the Ten Commandments open themselves to a devout mind, coming forth as a two-edged sword, and capable of discerning and trying the inmost thoughts of the heart, coming forth as "full of eyes round about them," may be seen in Bishop Andrews’ Devotions; where upon each occasion they are brought forth as having clear and distinct, but consistent, meanings and applications; but all such, that it would be difficult to say that one was, more properly or strictly the intention of the commandment, than another. The same may be seen in other practical and devotional books.
In like manner, where the LORD’s Prayer in the same book, or in Bishop Wilson’s Sacra Privata, is made the subject of devotion, and, as such, has each petition very fully and largely paraphrased, and new and different meaning given to the words on each occasion; it cannot be said that it does not bear all those meanings, and perhaps scarcely that it bears any one of those more than another.
These are instances of a kind of mysterious language addressed to a certain state of the heart; and the same may be seen in passages of Scripture which are only understood in the day of visitation; and in the new and pregnant meanings, which the most illiterate perceive in Scripture when religiously excited, and the more devout and thoughtful at all times. This depth and infinity of comprehensiveness seems thus to disclose itself by a continual new adaptation to circumstances all in a moral way; and this may give us some glimpse at the meaning of the Divine knowledge which has been alluded to, and which is the especial gift of GOD. For here we have the Divine Word opening itself according to the need of all occasions, and adapting itself to them in a wonderful manner, like Him whose manifold gifts, when He appeared in a bodily Person, whether it was to lighten the eyes, or to give feet, or health, or life, were all but varied emanations from a Presence containing infinite perfections. [44/45]
6. That GOD punishes with blindness those who approach sacred truths with a speculative mind.
If in these instances our blessed SAVIOUR appears to be disclosing Himself to those who are earnestly desirous to obtain the knowledge of Him in order to obey Him, in a manner no less remarkable does He appear to be hiding Himself from those who venture to approach Him with another mind. For, in perfect harmony or analogy to all that has been before observed, we find that we are in a striking way hedged in by ignorance respecting great truths, which we endeavour to gain the knowledge of by any way but that of practical obedience. Such have been attempts to explain the doctrine of the Trinity, which have ended in Arianism; to explain CHRIST’s presence in the Holy Communion, which have led to Transubstantiation: the mode of the new birth at Baptism, which seem, in a great measure, to have been the cause of denying it: the incompatibility of free will with Divine foreknowledge is the conclusion which speculations on such a subject have come to. All these topics contain great sacred truths of the very highest possible importance that we should know; but if we attempt to arrive at any knowledge of them by speculation, or any other mode but that of practical obedience, that knowledge is withheld, and we are punished for the attempt: in the same manner that it was of the highest importance that they should know our LORD; but unless they were sincerely and humbly seeking Him, He was hid from them. Thus it is in the question of our LORD to Pilate—"Askest thou this of thyself, or did others tell it thee of Me?" If it is of thyself, that there is this desire to know, thou shalt indeed receive this life-giving knowledge: and when it is found to be merely that ensnaring cavil and false insinuation of the Jews, enough is said to do away with such a false impression, and to lead on the inquirer to further knowledge, if he had been desirous to follow that clue. With regard to the true understanding of those high truths alluded to, it seems, (so to speak with reverence,) as if our LORD admitted some chosen few to witness the secret, but shut out the others. [45/46]
All this may be applied to the question of sins being admitted to pardon and remission after Baptism; however lightly and inconsiderately such a subject may be dealt with, still, in the humiliations and mortifications which mark the devotions of such as Bp. Andrews, Bp. Wilson, and Pascal, it may be seen that they practically felt this difficulty of obtaining forgiveness. The temper evinced seems a hearty apprehension and sense of unworthiness corresponding to such a fear.
So also with respect to the great Catholic and Primitive mode of interpreting both Scripture and nature; of seeing things the most sacred, such as the Cross and Baptism, figured and shadowed out by an infinity of types. It may be, that the coming to the knowledge of these may be, as Bp. Butler suggests, respecting other things in morals, by a certain general rule according to progressive improvement in holiness of heart. For instance, it certainly is the case that all strong feelings are prone to catch at such intimations of themselves in all things, to take up circumstances the most trivial, to dwell on the derivation of names, and the like. Abundant instances of this will occur in the Greek tragedies, and on all occasions of excitement. There seems reason to believe that the Almighty has hid this vastness of analogy and type in His word and His works; and, of course, most of all, with respect to the highest truths, such as relate to our blessed SAVIOUR’s incarnation and death, and His own attributes. It seems probable that, according to some great general principle, a fervent piety is the key to all these hidden stores of GOD, in a natural and almost necessary manner, as it might be. A tendency thus to interpret Scripture is observable in the most illiterate persons, under the influence of an unaffected piety. So that, independently of such a mode of interpretation being Scriptural, and Apostolical, and Divine, such knowledge may be also the reward of affectionate devotion, in what we might call a natural way; and the contrary tendency, in a cold, sceptical, and self-indulgent age, may be according to the same general principle, GOD hiding Himself from them. For to say that such persons as the ancient Fathers were holy, self-denying, and devout, but at the same times were weak, injudicious, and fanciful, [46/47] is to transgress the first principle in Christian morals, which is, that he who doeth the will shall know of the doctrine; for it is to say that they do the will indeed, but know not the doctrine,—that the tree is good, but not its fruits.
Now in all these cases which have been referred to, it appears as if pains were taken that, in the language of Pascal, "the understanding should not forestall the will;" as if knowledge was still the fruit of death, till the heart was prepared for it: that there is a knowledge boundless in extent and infinitely good, and, indeed, no other than that of acknowledging the Divinity of our LORD, to the attainment of which we are urged as the great end of faithful obedience; but that, unless that obedience lead us, as it were by the hand, we shall never arrive at this inner temple. And that the state of Christianity is now, and always would be such in the world, is, I think, to be gathered from the Gospel itself, more than seems usually considered. Thus after our LORD had publicly taught the people in parables, and such modes of speaking as, it is said, they did not understand, He said to His disciples "privately," (which privacy has been especially noticed) that their eyes were blessed, because they saw those glorious things which Prophets and Kings had in vain desired to see, i. e. the kingdom of heaven upon earth. Those glories of the kingdom described in such glowing language in the Old Testament, were already thrown upon the world; but still they were only known, seen, and received privately by persons who are there described as having eyes to see and ears to hear, i. e. persons of a certain disposition and character; they were things which it is said in the same passage (Luke x.), were "hid from the wise and prudent, and revealed unto babes." And the expressions which describe that kingdom as established upon earth, still speak of it as a secret—a treasure hid in a field, which a man found, and for joy thereof sold all that he had to purchase it: as the pearl of great price, found by a certain person seeking goodly pearls, i. e. giving earnest heed to religious instructions. The same may be shown in the nature of the beatitudes, which may be considered as the very opening of this kingdom foretold:—the windows of heaven opened, and the pouring down of these riches, "the heavens dropping down from above, and the pouring down [47/48] of these riches, "the heavens dropping down from above, and the skies pouring down righteousness." (Isa. xlv.)
It has been before alluded to, that these riches are all secret; given to certain dispositions—not cast loosely on the world. And the characters described as coming to this inheritance, such as the poor in spirit, and they that mourn, &c., may be considered as certain narrow and confined paths, leading to these riches of the kingdom. And it may be observed, that there is not only such distinctness and appropriateness in each, both in itself and when compared with the end designed, but likewise such a mutual connection, that the attainment of the one disposition implies the other also in some degree; and that the attainment of all these dispositions is the natural and necessary result of a hearty, honest, and earnest embracing of religion. And, perhaps, the great end in which there may be found an union of all these beatitudes as existing together, may be that which is more peculiarly attributed to one,—namely, that "they shall see GOD,"—see Him according to each of His various attributes, which their own characters most open to them. All of which implies, that they only who do the will can know the doctrine, however it may be thrown upon the world; that "the secret of the LORD is with them that fear Him, and He will show them His covenant19."
The great doctrines which of late years have divided Christians, are again of this kind very peculiarly, such as the subjects of faith and works, of the free grace of GOD, and obedience on the part of man. They seem to be left in Scripture in a way to give rise to all these disputations among (if I may so speak) the multitude who are without: I mean to say, among those who do not labour to obtain the knowledge of them by obedience, and in [48/49] practical seriousness of mind (i. e. the disciples, of whom it is written, He said, "Follow me," and "they followed Him"). For they appear to be great secrets, notwithstanding whatever may be said of them, only revealed to the faithful. What I would say is, that fully to know that we are saved by faith in CHRIST only, and not by any works of our own, and that we can do nothing, excepting by the grace of GOD, is a great secret,—the knowledge of which can only be obtained by obedience,—as the crown and end of great holiness of life. Thus St. Paul, who had always laboured to have a conscience void of offence, and of all the Apostles had laboured the most abundantly, yet felt himself the chief of sinners. And Abraham says of himself, that he was but "dust and ashes;" David, that he was but "a flea," and "a dead dog." May not all these difficulties be like those of the Jews, who knew that no good thing could be born of Nazareth, or like that with which they seem to have suggested to startle the Disciples, "that Elias must first come." For in all these things we seem to have JESUS of Nazareth going about still among us—hiding himself from the many who are engaged in factious disputations concerning Him, or busied with their worldly views; but here and there He is in secret disclosed and acknowledged.
Again, the moral government of GOD, in the light thrown upon it by Holy Scripture, illustrates the point in this way. Signal afflictions, and temporal calamities are spoken of in Scripture, as the comings and the visitations of CHRIST and of GOD. And in furtherance of this, such chastenings are spoken of as the proofs of GOD’s love to those who are thus visited, and the withdrawing of them, of His displeasure,—"Why should they be stricken any more?" implying impenitent reprobation. Now as the disclosure of our LORD’s Divine person was a very signal blessing, but not without a proportionate danger, if not worthily received, so we may observe, that nothing hardens the heart more than temporal afflictions, which are spoken of as the signs of His presence; if not received and cherished with a right spirit, they leave a person at length worse, if not improved by them. And yet it seems agreeable to Scripture to consider [49/50] them as if persons were thereby drawn into a certain nearness to GOD—a great privilege; so great that it cannot be trifled with or neglected with impunity.
7. That Christ, as seen in the conduct of good men, thus conceals Himself.
There is another mode in which we may find (I would speak with reverence) the presence of JESUS CHRIST, as still in the world, and His manner of dealing with mankind,—and that is in the usual conduct of good men, especially if such conduct is at all marked by any peculiarity, and such peculiarity increasing as they advance in strictness of life. And this I think we may find to be the case: for notwithstanding that a spirit of true charity has a natural desire to communicate itself, and is, of all things, the most expansive and extending, yet in all such cases we may still perceive the indwelling of CHRIST in them, still seeking, as it were, to hide Himself; for, I think, they are all marked by an inclination, as far as it is possible, of retiring, and shrinking from public view. We might have expected that it would have been otherwise, and that an increasing knowledge of GOD would have been accompanied with an increasing power of setting forward such knowledge to the world. In such instances, we seem to have the same impatience of feeling respecting His true Disciples, which His Brethren once expressed respecting our blessed LORD Himself; "If Thou doest these things, show Thyself to the world."
The circumstance I allude to is such as this; it is mentioned of James Bonnel, that he was of great "retiredness of spirit;" "solitariness of spirit," is mentioned of George Herbert; he seems to have felt, as it were, an unseen hand pulling him back. The same is noticed of Robert Nelson, and of Thomas à Kempis, whose book is full of this spirit; a similar sacred reserve was the characteristic of Charles the 1st. Instances of this kind might probably be adduced respecting all such characters. Pascal says, "This wonderful mystery, impenetrable to any mortal eye, under which GOD is pleased to shade His glories, may excite us powerfully to a love of solitude and silence, and of [50/51] retirement from the view of the world20" p. 264, Dr. Kennet’s translation.
The fact must doubtless be admitted, and several concurring causes would tend to produce this effect. In the first place that humility which must ever accompany increasing holiness of life seeks naturally to hide itself, is desirous not to be known, and would even seem to check, and draw back the strength and wisdom of the natural man. In such a case human nature is humbled under the mighty hand of GOD, and that self-abasement, which arises from a sense of His nearer presence, has a tendency to withdraw a person from what the world considers spheres of usefulness. Now this principle of humility is of all others the most universal in good men, and under all diversities of characters, and of gifts, and circumstances of life: there seem to be no persons held out to our imitation in Scripture, without some marks of it; and indeed degrees of acceptance and approbation are in proportion to it. We must of course conclude, that the work of GOD is somehow best done, and His strength perfected, under this apparent (worldly) weakness,—that His victory over the world is somehow best achieved by thus retiring from the contest. This is contrary to human calculation, in the same way that no one would have thought beforehand, that the coming on of night would open to us more glorious objects than the light of day. When the light of this world is withdrawn, the heavens open21. As God, in whom we live, is Himself unseen, [51/52] and His good angels, who minister to us, are unseen, so also good men, as they approach Him in any way, seem to be withdrawn from the sight of the world.
As our blessed SAVIOUR in various ways retired from the view of men, and hid His glories, so it is remarkable how little we know of the saints of GOD; of one of the most eminent of the disciples we know nothing, and next to nothing of St. John's private history and character. Indeed, what little we do know of them is but, as it were, accidental, and the exception to the general rule, as in the letters of St. Paul: and even there, casual intimations greatly tend to show our ignorance respecting them, as of the Revelations of St. Paul, of the time he spent in Arabia, and at Tarsus. Add to these, how many things are there, which more immediately respect our LORD Himself, the account of which, as St. John says, would have been more than the world could contain, yet all lost in silence. So also the things pertaining to the kingdom which were spoken for the forty days. "Verily, thou art a GOD that hidest thyself, O GOD of Israel, the SAVIOUR." (Is. xlv.)
It must have occurred to every one, with some surprise at first, how much the sacred people, having the visible presence of GOD among them, and containing, as it were, the eternal destinies of mankind, were overlooked by, and unknown to, the more polished and powerful nations of the world. Gibbon has not failed to take hold of this circumstance. And, in like manner, how little Christianity was noticed or known to heathen writers at a time when it was secretly changing the whole face of the world,—the salt of the earth, and on which the earth depended for its existence. There may be something analogous to this in cases of unknown individuals still. And all such are examples of what Aristotle says of virtuous principle, "ει γαρ και τοι ογκωι μικρον εστι δυναμει και τιμιοτητι πολυ μαλλοnu; υπερε&chai;ει παντων," [52/53] "though in external appearance it be but small, yet in power and worth, it is very far indeed superior to all things." (Ethics, b. x. c. vii. ad finem.)
In the second place, there is another circumstance, which would tend to produce the same effect, viz. that reserve, or retiring delicacy, which exists naturally in a good man, unless injured by external motives, and which is of course the teaching of GOD through him. Something of this kind always accompanies all strong and deep feeling, so much so that indications of it have been considered the characteristic of genuine poetry, as distinguishing it from that which is only fictitious of poetic feeling. It is the very protection of all sacred and virtuous principle, and which, like the bloom which indicates life and freshness, when once lost cannot be restored. Which is thus expressed in a Latin hymn;
"Se sub serenis vultibus
Austera virtus occulit,
Timens videri, ne suum,
Dum prodit, amittat decus."
Paris. Brev. Comm. Mul.
Such a reserve on other subjects of sublime or delicate feeling is only a type of the same in religion; where, of course, from the very nature of the subject, it must be much greater, inasmuch as it comprehends all feelings and all conduct which are directed to Him who is invisible, and who reads the language of the heart, and to whom silence may often best speak. Every thing which has GOD for its end gives rise to feelings which do not admit of expression. This seems to be implied in the difference which Aristotle speaks of, when he says there are objects which are worthy of higher feelings than praise can express, and such we look upon with honour and veneration22. We do, indeed, often [53/54] speak of such with words of praise, as we do of the Supreme Being, but in so doing we stand upon lower ground, and rather turn to each other than to Him, and introduce relation and comparison, which necessarily must be drawn from human and inferior objects: but we then descend from the higher, but silent impressions of awe, veneration, and wonder. Such, for instance, are those with which we first contemplate a vast religious edifice, or some grand object in nature. When these first feelings subside, we express ourselves in praise, and, necessarily, have recourse to comparison or contrast. Hence it was the case in the primitive times of Christianity, that the feelings of devotion were expressed by significant actions, which spoke, as it were, a secret language: such was the custom of turning to the East, and the use of the sign of the Cross. For "Curæ leves loquuntur, ingentes stupent," those who feel deeply are pained by the lighter expressions of others.
When that reserve is cast aside, there is a want of true and deep feeling; and this may be seen in the rejection of strong typical and figurative, and, therefore, half-secret expressions with which deep feeling is apt to clothe itself. Thus, in early periods of a nation, when their sense of the great and marvellous is strongest, they make use of those terms or modes of speech, which partake more of the infinite and divine; and their language, as they become more civilized, will partake more of the character of what is earthly and human. They adopt what they think to be more full of expressions of their meaning; but the fact is, that they are general expressions, and therefore more limited and finite, and such as indicate rather a straining after such strong feeling, which they have not, than an expression of it. An instance of this may be seen in the rejection of the Ancient Psalms for modern paraphrases of the same. In the former, an infinite meaning was opened to the eye of faith; in the latter, it is tied down to one feeble human interpretation. Instances of the same [54/55] may be seen in the New Version compared with the Old. May not one reason why Scripture, and our LORD Himself, uses figurative and proverbial expressions, be on account of their comprehensiveness, and the extent of application which they hear?
In addition to such holy reserve, and the suggestions of humility, another circumstance, which tends to produce the effect here described, are the commands of Holy Scripture, which enjoin the concealment of religious actions. Now, considering that actions teach more than words, and living examples more than maxims and admonitions, this immediately removes from the sight of men the most powerful appeals of GOD, and evidences of His presence; for all the most purely religious actions are thus withdrawn from view, done from GOD only, who is in secret, and to Him only, who seeth in secret, they begin and end in Him alone, unknown to the world. These are the signs of GOD’s presence among us, and of His withholding that presence from the gaze of the multitude, as too pure and holy for us to look on, and covering those that seek Him in the shadow of His hand. So that in the lives of those, in whom CHRIST dwells, there is ever something remarkably analogous to the retiring actions of His own life; and the state of such persons, while on earth, no words can express so emphatically as those of Scripture, their "life is hid with Christ in God."
Now, it is much to be observed, that these indications, which are found with good men, and increase with holiness of life, and by which we may learn the mode in which the HOLY SPIRIT is dealing with mankind, are not to be found in religious enthusiasm. I would mean by enthusiasm, a state of the mind when the feelings are strongly moved by religion, but the heart is not adequately purified nor humbled. Such, therefore, would be most likely to occur when the passions have been strengthened by an irregular life, and the objects that excited them are casually removed from view, and the importance of religion is in consequence seen and felt. Such a state would partake much of the nature of earthly passion, and would be such as might be called in morals, according to the view taken above, a state of ignorance. GOD is not apprehended, as He is set forth in Scrip[55/56]ture, as of infinite holiness, but a fiction of the imagination, as each man feigns the idea of GOD according to his own heart, which was shown visibly in the idols of old, and alluded to in the expression, "Thou thoughtest wickedly that GOD was such an one as thyself." In such a case men would have no reserve in expressing that which was not at all rightly apprehended, or feared, or loved. And the cause of this state of heart would be a not keeping the commandments which give this light to the eyes, or the not having kept them, and such transgressions not having been repented of. For this is set before us as the great cure for enthusiasm by St. John. It is the Apostle of Divine Love who seems to have been especially commissioned to warn us against this its counterfeit. Not only in his Epistles, but, in recording the parting consolations of our LORD, no less than eleven times in the course of two chapters does he stop, as it were, to insert these cautions, "If ye keep my commandments." So that it would be exactly the case with these, as with those heretics of whom Tertullian speaks as having none of that discipline of secret reserve which the Church maintained: "All things," he says, "are with him free, and without restraint." "They have no fear of GOD, because GOD is not among them; for where GOD is, there must be the fear of Him." (Tertullian de Præscript. Hæreticorum.) And yet, of course, the effect of this would be a strong contagious influence, after the usual manner of all earthly passion.
Religion does not, under such circumstances, produce its genuine effect of humbling the natural man. To have a knowledge of GOD, without a knowledge of our own guilt and misery, has (as Pascal mentions) the effect of puffing up. And there is a great deal in religion which the natural man may eagerly take hold of, in order to exalt himself. Here, therefore, there would not be humility drawing back into the shade, as in the former instance; nor would there be that delicacy, or modest reserve in the outward expression of feeling; because there would be rather an aiming after the persuasion, than any really deep and true sense of religion23. On the contrary, a mind in this state [56/57] by strong expressions would be endeavouring to persuade itself, and to persuade others, in order that, through their opinion, it may again in return persuade itself, of its having that sense. And this would account for that deceit which, as Bp. Butler observes, so often accompanies religious enthusiasm; first of all deceiving itself into a false apprehension, and then, in order to support this, deceiving others; and then others, without this self-delusion, as its end.
The third characteristic in holiness of life is also here wanting; i. e. a self-denying and consistent performance of religious duties in secret. For such obedience would clearly remove it; and, therefore, this would account for another circumstance which characterizes religious enthusiasm, and that is unsettledness and inconsistency,—a state of ever learning, and never coming to the knowledge of the truth; which, of course, arises from not seeking for it by obedience, which, we are told, is a sure way of arriving at it. The actions it does perform are rather the extraordinary, than the ordinary actions of religion, so as to lose that reserve before mentioned; and, for the same reason, it delights in actions of a purely religious character, more than in those, in which the religious motive is concealed in the actions of daily life.
There would, also, from a secret misgiving, or sense of insecurity, be a tendency to feel after sensible signs, as in Balaam, when he sought for GOD’s voice and warrant. Such would be seen in a craving after palpably felt evidences, in doing extraordinary and remarkable actions; in strong party affection, as taken for self-denying charity; in a looking out for miracles. (I mention this looking out for them, in distinction from a kind of credulity, and readiness to receive miracles, which is observ[57/58]able in the best men, when they come before them in the line of duty; for the former seems forbidden by our SAVIOUR,—for many shall arise, saying, "Here is CHRIST, and there," but the practical rule is given, "Go not after them24.")
As every thing in nature seems to decline and die away when it has done its work—such as the bodily faculties, natural gifts, and the like—so do animal feelings gradually subside when they have done their part in the probation of the soul, which may be seen in the circumstance of passive impressions becoming weaker by repetition. And perhaps this may be the case, as men advance in holiness of life; that a calm equability of soul is produced, (as in St. John,) and such sensible feelings exist less, as having done their part in the state of trial.
8. That the whole subject contains something analogous in each particular to the circumstances of our Lord’s life.
Now, the inference from the whole of this view of the subject is, that the HOLY SPIRIT, in every way in which His dealings with mankind may be ascertained, is ever wont to throw a veil over His presence from the eyes of the world. That, as our LORD avoided the more public places for the manifestation of His Divine power and goodness, and went into the retired and despised Galilee, and hid His Divinity under the garb of humble and common life, so does He in the persons of His disciples, producing in them a tendency to withdraw themselves from the eyes of men; so that of each of them it may be said, as it was of Him, "He doth not strive nor cry, neither is his voice heard in the streets."
That, as our LORD wrapt up the most sacred and divine truths in parables and mysterious sayings, so we find, that in good men there is a natural reserve of expression, which is apt to veil from the world holy sentiments; in both cases the end is observed, [58/59] of keeping "that which is holy from dogs." And that such reserve is apt to give vent to its own feelings, especially in such similitudes and dark sayings, as partake of the nature of what is infinite, and, therefore, to the world mysterious.
That, as our LORD concealed His divine miracles, and could not perform them because of men’s unbelief, and commanded others not to mention them; so does He now, in that He makes known to a good man a daily increasing weight of evidence, similar to the attestation of miracles, in disclosing to him those confirmations of his faith, which are opened to an obedient life, and by the harmonious language of all nature: all of which testimony He reveals not to others because of their unbelief. And, in addition to this, He has commanded His disciples not to promulgate to the world those good works which He Himself still works in, and through, and by them.
That, as our LORD left the curious and worldly-minded Jew to his own delusions, and answered him not, but left him to the difficulties which Scripture had thrown before him, in the solving of which alone, with a serious mind, could he find the truth; and did not explain to him his misconceptions concerning Himself; so is it also now with those who speculatively consider religious truth (the knowledge of which is the gift of GOD alone); they are beset with insurmountable difficulties, suggesting to them that "this is not the CHRIST," or leading to other practical errors.
That, as our LORD disclosed the greatness of His divine Power and Person to a chosen few obedient and teachable spirits, limiting even that disclosure more and more; first to twelve, then to four, then, still further, to three (as in the Garden of Gethsemane, and at the transfiguration, &c.): so does it appear that in morals, both when considered as separate from, and also when considered as including religion, there is something, which is called knowledge, which is infinitely great and good, which is concealed from all others, who are universally represented as being in a state of darkness and ignorance, and is thus disclosed to these alone.
That, as He, who spake by the law and the prophets, veiled [59/60] the Gospel therein in type and figure; and because of men’s disobedience, "gave them statutes which are not good, and judgments by which men should not live," but led them on, by laws which satisfied not, to a secret wisdom, which good men perceived beyond; so also are there in morals, things which have led to much difficulty with speculative moralists, which are good and right to the natural man, but wrong in a Christian, on account of a further knowledge disclosed to the eye of faith: these are circumstances in which all that can be said is, "this is He, if ye can receive it." For, to the natural man, it is his boast "to covet honour" of men, but to the Christian his shame. Thus also the Fifth Commandment contains the germ of all piety; and yet to the Christian it is said, he must hate father and mother.
Lastly, that as the manifestation of our LORD was seen to imply some very great and peculiar danger, when the heart was not prepared to receive it; so do we find that whenever these feelings, which are natural to a good man under the protection of the SPIRIT, are violated, as by enthusiasm, it is accompanied with dangerous consequences. Not to adduce other proofs of this, we have the memorable one in this country, when there broke in upon us an age, which has been well called one of "Light, but not of Love;" when the knowledge of divine truths was forced upon men of corrupt lives, and put forward without this sacred reserve. The consequence of this indelicate exposure of religion was, the perpetration of crimes almost unequalled in the annals of the world. [60/61]
Part III. Some Reflections on the foregoing observations
1. That the present aspect of the world is much opposed to this principle.
IT is well known that the general principle upon which the foregoing remarks are founded, pervades the whole religious system of the Ancient Church, and appears so much in various shapes throughout the works of the Fathers, that it would of itself form an entire subject of discussion to trace and exemplify it. Here, therefore, again the conduct of our blessed LORD might be traced, as illustrating the subject, viz. in the catholic consent of His Church, in which He has promised to be present always.
But, after being engaged in such contemplations, when we lift up our eyes upon the present state of the world, an extraordinary aspect of things meets our view. The knowledge of GOD, hastening to cover the earth, as the waters cover the sea; and a remarkable combination of circumstances at work, to produce effects the opposite to what has been hitherto witnessed in the world. The art of printing, bringing home this knowledge to all; the means which Providence has formerly allowed to hide it, not only from the Heathen and the Jew, but also from the Christian, (by a mysterious economy, which has been long permitted in the Church of Rome,) we see now removed; men of various creeds, opposed in principles and opposed in disciple, one might almost say Christians and unbelievers, combining together in the circulation of the Scriptures. Add to this, preachers and teachers of various parties and from various motives, all busily engaged in imparting religious instruction. Schools more[61/62]over, and many on an extensive national system. Churches and altars thrown open to all, from the loss of Church discipline; and, what is worthy of notice, Christianity acknowledged as true, by persons of the worst principles. Discoveries of science too, opening to us the boundless extent of the material world, which we cannot but suppose may have some bearing on the religious condition of mankind, as manifestations of GOD. Add moreover a new principle, unknown to former ages, prevailing throughout the world, in the shape, not only of an Article of Faith, but as the one and only Article, indeed as one so important, and requiring to be received with such authority, as to supersede the very fabric of the Church: dispensing with her Sacraments, her Creeds, her Liturgies, her Discipline; and this principle is, that the highest and most sacred of all Christian doctrines, is to be brought before, and pressed home to, all persons indiscriminately, and most especially those who are leading unchristian lives.
Such are some of the most prominent features of the case. And so much does the opinion prevail of the value of religious knowledge merely and of itself, that when public attention was lately called to the commemoration of the familiar use of the Scriptures for these last 300 years, we heard no expressions on the subject which implied any thing like that feeling of apprehension, which the foregoing remarks would have led us to attach to it. Nor was it all looked upon as that trying dispensation which the Baptist spoke of, as of the axe laid unto the root of the tree, and the coming wrath, and the sifting of the wheat. Nor was the awful import of those words considered, "be ye sure of this, that the kingdom of GOD is come nigh unto you" (John ix. 39.) Nor was our case at all alluded to in conjunction with that of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, or of them to whom our LORD said, "if I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin." There seems also an impatience at any book being held back from any person, as too high and sacred for them; it is a thing not understood. And so far from it being considered necessary to keep persons from church on account of irreligious lives, it is usually thought that every thing is done, if they can be brought [62/63] to it. There is also an inclination to put aside the Old Testament for the more exclusive use of the Gospel itself, which is contained in it. And indeed full statements of religious truth have been thought so necessary, as to have produced ways of thinking often unnatural, of which this is an instance. A writer, investigating the existence of Christian truth in the Church, has thought it necessary to find explicit declarations of the acceptance of the Atonement by the individual, as the only proof of the preservation of the faith. The effect of which becomes equivalent to this, that an affectionate and dutiful child might be condemned for undutifulness, unless it could be proved, that he had made use of expressions of strong filial attachment.
This general tendency of things cannot, I think, be considered in connexion with the former observations, without some serious thought in every reflecting mind, "waiting to see what GOD will do;" and not without some distrust of popular views, and superficial appearances, and an anxious desire for some anchor of the soul, in this new trial which seems coming upon the world. And cautious as we ought to be in speculations respecting the future, yet there is a thought which occurs, which one is almost afraid to mention, lest it should not be with sufficient seriousness. Whether when noticed in conjunction with the dangerous consequences which have been observed to follow our LORD’s disclosures of Himself, and the fact of those having been pronounced the worst to whom most knowledge was vouchsafed, and that so frequently as to mark a kind of mysterious and perhaps prophetical tendency of things which seem to point that way; whether, I say, all these circumstances may not indicate the coming of a time when "knowledge may indeed cover" the world, but "the love of the many shall have waxed cold," and faith be scarce found. There is something of prophetic admonition in the advice which St. Paul gives to persons under a similar apprehension, in the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, where the stay against Anti-CHRIST is this: "Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word or by our epistle." In looking to that Epistle for some practical guidance, the general principle on which this steadfastness must be founded [63/64] is here given, namely, an adherence to the Catholic truth written and unwritten25.
2. Practical rules afforded by it in the investigation of Truth.
And now the observations which have been made respecting GOD’s mode of revealing Himself to mankind will furnish us with some important general rules for the attainment of religious truth. If in the sacraments we have in some especial sense the present power of GOD among us, and the Episcopal and Priestly succession have in them something divine, as channels which convey, as it were, such His Presence to us; according to the analogy of what has been said, we must expect to find in them something that hideth itself, something like the Personal presence of our LORD in His Incarnation, surrounded with difficulties to the carnal mind, withdrawing itself, and leaving excuses for the Divine Power being denied; for did they come to us in a strong, unquestionable shape, with the palpable evidence by some required, they would come to us in a manner unlike all other Divine manifestations. These would lead us to expect, that they should be left in so delicate a manner, that he who wishes to ascertain the truth may find a sufficient and satisfactory evidence, so as by a fine clue to lead him into all the treasures of the Divine blessings, but yet of such a kind that he who will not afford them such affectionate attention will lose all those high privileges26. The secret of such inquiries is given us in the injunction (Proverbs xxiii. 26), "My son, give Me thine heart, and let thine eyes observe my ways." For the whole case, in the [64/65] search after GOD, is a trial of the affections, and whatever that knowledge may be, of which such great things are spoken, it implies affection combined with, and giving life to the understanding, otherwise dead, and after some heavenly manner illuminating and spiritualizing it. To require, therefore, that such subjects should come to us in a more sensible and palpable way, before we will accept them, betrays the same temper of mind as that of requiring a sign; or at best, it is but that weak belief which says, "unless I handle and feel I will not believe," and which therefore loses the highest blessing: "Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed."
If the Divine presence is among us in these things, unbelief must be met as our LORD met that of the Jews. The obstacles to their belief were, first, low conceptions of GOD’s Messiah and His promises. To obviate these our SAVIOUR drew their attention to that prophecy where David himself called Him LORD; and, secondly, their looking out for a sign, which called from our LORD such visible indications of grief. And the remedy which He pointed out for this latter was this, that they should judge of heavenly matters as they did of earthly, such as indications of the weather, by affording them such attention as a person pays to any object respecting which he is solicitous. They who best know those signs of the weather are they whose interest it is to know them.
The outset, therefore, of such inquiries is, first, that we should form high conceptions of the Divine promises and expressions, such, for instance, as "this is My Body" (the only expression, I believe, in the whole of Scripture, used, on one single occasion, which has been recorded four distinct times in precisely the same words); and the second requisite is such an interest as would open our minds to acquiesce in the proofs of probable evidence. Both of these would make the reception of the truth to depend upon natural piety. It appears that that temper of mind which is produced by obedience to the fifth commandment, as extending through the various relations of life, is the foundation of that in the character in which piety or devotion consists, producing, as it were, that habitual attitude of the soul. And this piety to [65/66] GOD gives life again in return to that piety which embraces all those lower relations, considering such superiors as invested in various ways with something of a Divine prerogative, as faint emblems or substitutes of the Supreme FATHER and GOVERNOR. Now, this highest temper of mind in natural religion, becoming spiritualized and exalted in the Christian, is rendered immediately in him the channel by which are conveyed to him all those gifts in which the kingdom of heaven consists. For first of all, by this temper of mind the Christian’s affections are carried up through all these inferior relations (by which the knowledge and power of Christianity is brought down to him) to JESUS CHRIST Himself, as the fountain of all good. And then, again, it is impossible to have a high sense of reverence for our LORD’s person, without investing all who approach Him with some portion of the same. This Nature itself shows us in the case of any strong attachment: and this would exist in all degrees according to the nearness of such persons. At first it would extend to apostles, then to apostolical men and fathers, and then to those commissioned of the same. This is so necessarily the result of affection, that it is impossible to do violence to it without impairing that affection itself. For instance, we cannot allow ourselves to think slightingly of apostolical fathers, without thinking so, in some degree, of apostles: and we cannot think slightingly of apostles, without lowering our veneration for our LORD Himself.
The question, therefore, never need be, whether an ordinance, such as that of Episcopacy, can be proved to be of Divine command, for it has been observed, that our LORD never said that He was the CHRIST. But He was not on that account the less so, nor was it the less necessary that He should be received as such. All the external evidence required would be, whether there are indications of a Divine preference given to it, for if this can be proved, it is sufficient for a dutiful spirit. In such considerations, all that can be said is, "he that can receive it, let him receive it," and that "the poor in spirit" occupy "the kingdom."
It follows, that, although such knowledge be the result of "senses exercised in the discernment of good and evil," yet that it depends not on intellectual acuteness, or subtle reasonings.[66/67] Religion being a practical matter, a disposition to argument should be discouraged, and the thoughts directed to something practically good; as GOD does not reveal Himself excepting to a certain disposition, the question is one of natural piety.
As our SAVIOUR pointed to His works, instead of declaring Himself, after the same manner, when, in the times of Origen, the secret discipline was practised in the Church, which seems to correspond to our SAVIOUR’s concealing Himself, he pointed to the lives of Christians, i. e. to the works of CHRIST shown in them, as the strongest evidence which he could offer to the world. The truth must ever be propagated by some way of this kind, and not by argument. It is perceived whether certain principles are seriously held with that consistency and constancy of endurance which attends the conviction of truth. It is to this evidence that the eye of mankind looks, and from which flow its strong persuasions, otherwise they are not held so as to become a part of the character in those that hear of them, and therefore not in reality held as moral principles of truth.
3. This principle of Reserve applied to prevailing opinions on promoting Religion.
The subject under discussion may in the next place be wisely applied as a test to the popular modes of extending Christianity, which partake of the spirit of the age. And these may be considered under three heads, that of bringing churches near to the houses of every body, cheap publications, and national schools.
With regard to the building of churches, our LORD’s testimony to the widow’s mite, and the costly ointment, and to the intention of the man after His own heart, prove such works to be in the highest degree acceptable to Him, and therefore necessarily productive of good. And the sacrifices they require are greatly beneficial to the individual, merely as religious sacrifices. It is also very important as setting up a witness, of which character alone many of the best actions must be. It is indeed one of the most natural expressions of a heart rightly disposed, as offerings made to GOD, arising in Him, and resting in Him as their end; and therefore there can be no means of promoting the cause of [67/68] religion higher and better than such. They must ever bring down a blessing, as putting the cause into His Hands, as oblations made to God, and having reference to Him alone; and which of course cannot be too costly and expensive in proportion to our own habits of life. This natural piety would teach, and it were painful to think we should bestow ornaments on our own houses, and leave the house of GOD without.
But when the utilitarian view of the subject is taken, are we not thinking that we may do by human means, and such as partake of this world, that which is the work of GOD alone, as if the mammon of the world could promote the cause of GOD? For if the erection of churches, which from commodiousness and easiness of access are to invite, and from their little cost partake more of a low contriving expediency than of a generous love of GOD, is to do the work of religion, then is it more easy to win souls than Scripture will warrant us in supposing. On the contrary, if the maxim be true, that "men despise that which courts them, and venerate that which that which complies not with them," (Thucyd.) then have we to fear lest, rather than doing good, we be breaking that holy law, which hath commanded, that we give not that which is holy to the dogs; the Church’s best gifts be trod under foot, and her enemies turn and rend her. For if churches are to be brought home to all, then are all persons to be brought into churches, and this by human means. Thus immediately connected with that view alluded to is that of eloquence and pleasing delivery, a powerful worldly engine, unlike that weak instrument which St Paul calls "the foolishness of preaching27;" and liturgies made suitable to the taste of the generality, and canonical hours relinquished for those which are more popular, and sacred things brought out of their chaste reserve, and put forth to attract. We [68/69] have not so learned of Him who is the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever. Of Him it is said, that "He spake the word unto them as they were able to hear it28;" and that our LORD’s own mode of teaching was the one prescribed to His Apostles is evident from the instructions, "unto whatsoever city ye enter, enquire who in it is worthy, and there abide29."
All acceptance of divine truth, and all religious worship, must be the spontaneous act of the individual, and the more inconvenience or self-denial such an act is accompanied with, the more does it partake of the nature of such spontaneous action. The dealings of our LORD seem intended to call out this self-denial, but in no way to force it, or to supersede the necessity of it; on the contrary, He appears to withdraw to avoid such an effect, "when cast out He resisted not, but retired," as Chrysostom says. The Church system is founded on this principle; the daily Service actually requires such a devotional habit formed by self-discipline, which no attraction or external motive can supply the place of. It has indeed been well remarked, that the tendency of the Church has ever been to prefer earlier hours of the day, the present system of the world the later hours, for religious services. The same may be applied also to the morning of life, to which the Church looks more than to a late repentance. This arises from the former requiring an effort on the part of the individual, the latter meeting him in his indolence. However this may be, all the good that can be done to others must be by calling out by some means their self-denial. "The kingdom of heaven is preached," but the "violent" alone "press into the possession of it." Παθηατα μαθηματα was an ancient proverb, and is universally extensive; there is no strength but in the Cross. It will always be true of human nature, that it cannot approach GOD without a sacrifice.
Much of what is here said may be applied to an indiscriminate distribution of Bibles and religious publications. We must not expect that the work, which occasioned our SAVIOUR and His disciples so much pains, can be done by such means. We have [69/70] rather to look with awe on these new dealings of Providence with mankind. It might perhaps be thought that, if it is a state of the heart alone which can receive the truth, to bring it forward before persons unprepared to acknowledge it does not signify. Such persons cannot receive it, and therefore the effect is merely nugatory and unavailing. But this does not follow: that they cannot receive it is the appointment of GOD, but our attempting to act contrary to His mode of acting may be productive of evil. It may arise from a want of real seriousness on the subject of religion, and it may be that for this reason we are not acting under the teaching of God, and that, in consequence, these effects are prevailing. Are we rightly estimating the consequence of a bare knowledge of the Gospel? As a proof that religious knowledge has been otherwise considered, may be mentioned one of the short practical Rules attributed to St. Basil: the question is asked "whether it be advantageous to learn many things out of Scripture?" the answer implies, that, though it be necessary for those whose office it is to instruct, yet that all should be cautious that, according to the Apostle’s injunction, "they think soberly30," earnestly learn their own duty, and do it, only caring for and bent on attaining that blessing, "well done, good servant, thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many31." The next question and answer is the following:
"Q. How ought they to receive the gift, who have been deemed worthy to learn the four Gospels?"
"A. Since the LORD hath declared that ’to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more32,’ they ought to be more exceedingly afraid, and give earnest heed, as the Apostle hath taught us, saying, 'as workers together with Him, we beseech you that ye receive not the grace of God in vain.' And this will be the case if we be persuaded by the LORD when He saith, ’if ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them33.’"
Here he evidently seems to think that the knowledge of the Gospels was a matter for the most serious apprehension, not to [70/71] be lightly coveted, but received with fear. And these occur among religious rules most sensible and practical.
Thirdly, with regard to national schools. I would be careful not to say any thing that might appear to depreciate the value of religious knowledge, but to say that such knowledge is a treasure of so transcendent a nature, that it must be handled with sacred care, is not to depreciate, but to exalt its value. As our LORD led persons gradually to the knowledge of the truth by quiet teaching, by leading them to observe His works, by drawing out their self-denial and engaging their confidence, so, in obedience to His command "to make disciples of all nations," the system of the Church is that of parental and pastoral training, and building up by practical instruction, such as catechising and the use of a constant devotional form. These not having been sufficiently carried on has given rise to two effects: the one is an undue preponderance given to preaching, in order to supply the want, as if it were able powerfully to bring to the heart that knowledge which has not been received into the character by gradual inculcation and discipline; the other effect has been the system of large national schools, the object of which is contrary to the spirit of the Church, to impart sacred knowledge without any of this training as coinciding with it, except in a very limited way, and to inculcate knowledge without adequately instilling a sense of its practical importance.
With regard to preaching, that it cannot of itself supply, the want of the other requisites, is evident. George Herbert, indeed, speaks highly of it as an instrument of good, but only as subsidiary. And what are his preacher’s qualifications? "The character of his sermons," he says, "is holiness; he is not witty, or learned, or eloquent, but holy." In another place, he says, his library, from which, of course, his stores are drawn, is "a divine life." Speech, therefore, with him is chiefly efficacious, as the means by which the all-prevailing force of example passes from one to another; and this brings the subject again to the point this treatise would inculcate, that the only way to promote good in others is to begin by self-discipline.
In addition to all this it must be observed, that the effect of [71/72] the Church as a witness, though in a manner silent and out of sight, is something very great and incalculable, of which I would adduce the following instance. Before the Reformation the Church recognized the Seven Hours of prayer. However these may have been practically neglected, or hidden in an unknown tongue, there is no estimating what influence this may have had on common people’s minds secretly, but we find strong traces of it in these circumstances; that not only were numerous books of devotion written by persons of a Catholic spirit, recognizing these appointed hours; but many others were evidently attempting to realize to their own minds some influence, or feeling of want, which this system had left on their thoughts. Thus we have Nicholas Ferrar supporting in his family an unceasing round of worship, night and day, and reading the whole of the Psalms in the twenty-four hours. We have William Law recommending every independent Christian to appoint with himself these frequent hours of prayer, making the object of each a distinct grace or virtue; and Robert Nelson advises us thus to realize each day some Christian duty. Dr. Sherlock of Winwick, in his Practical Christian, is another instance; and many others might be adduced to prove the effect which this system had produced in their minds; though the Breviary itself does not appear to have been in their thoughts. Since the former system has worn out of people’s recollections, and the two daily Services have been forgotten, practical books of devotion have been of rare occurrence, and such as have appeared have been from persons who have been comparatively more alive to the existence of such an obligation in the Church. And yet any form of religion that does not support devotional habits must be essentially wrong.
These means are of a more unobtrusive and retiring character than the age approves of, but still this is the temper of the Church, as it always has been. Indeed, the great occasions of difference on which many Separatists have left, or would leave, her bosom, have been this very temper of Reserve, which she has inherited from the beginning. It may be observed, that they have in many cases taken some single doctrine; which they have put forward in a bold and prominent way, and made the centre of a self-formed system, which the Church holds as well as [72/73] themselves, but after a certain manner of Reserve, in a certain proportion and in combination with others.
4. On the necessity of bringing forward the Doctrine of the Atonement.
We now proceed to the consideration of a subject most important—the prevailing notion that it is necessary to bring forward the Atonement explicitly and prominently on all occasions. It is evidently quite opposed to what we consider the teaching of Scripture, nor do we find any sanction for it in the Gospels. If the Epistles of St. Paul appear to favour it, it is only at first sight. The singular characteristic of St. Paul, as shown in all his Epistles and speeches, seems to have been a going out of himself to enter into the feelings and put himself in the circumstances of others. This will account for the occasions on which he brings forward this doctrine; as in the Epistles to the Romans and the Galatians. In both of these cases, the prejudices which closed up their ears against the reception of the truth were such as were essentially opposed to the Atonement. So much in the writings of St. Paul does the HOLY SPIRIT adapt His teaching to the wants of each, as our LORD did in His Incarnation, a principle which is opposed to this opinion.
There is another point which might seem to countenance it, that St. Paul speaks of himself as at all times preaching "CHRIST crucified;" and it being said by Origen that CHRIST crucified was the first doctrine taught, and that of our LORD’s divinity the last which men came to know. But this, in fact, so far from contradicting, strongly confirms the view here taken; it will be evident, on a little attention, that when St. Paul thus speaks, it is not the Atonement and Divinity of our LORD which he brings forward, although it is implied in that saying. The whole of St. Paul’s life and actions, after his conversion, and the whole of his teaching, as appears from the Epistles, may be said to have been nothing else but a setting forth of CHRIST crucified, as the one great principle which absorbed all his heart, and actuated all his conduct. It was the wood cast into the waters which entirely changed them into its own nature, and impregnated them with itself. This is intimated by expressions of this kind which are [73/74] of continual occurrence, such as, "GOD forbid that I should glory save in the Cross of our LORD JESUS CHRIST;" "I was determined not to know any thing among you but CHRIST crucified;" "But we preach CHRIST crucified." Now these words of course imply "the Atonement" as a life-giving principle contained in them; but it is a great mistake to suppose that they contain nothing more, or that, by preaching the Atonement, we are preaching what St. Paul meant by CHRIST crucified. It may be seen by an attention to the context in all the passages where these expressions occur, that it is a very different view, and in fact, the opposite to the modern notion, which St. Paul always intends by it. It is the necessity of our being crucified to the world, it is our humiliation together with Him, mortification of the flesh, being made conformable to His sufferings and His death. It was a doctrine which was "foolishness to the wise and an offence to the Jew," on account of the abasement of the natural man which it implied. Whereas, the notion now prevailing is attractive to the world, in the naked way in which it is put forth, so as rather to diminish, than increase, a sense of responsibility and consequent humiliation. The doctrine of the Atonement is conveyed in the expression of CHRIST crucified, as used by St. Paul, it is by teaching, at the same time, the necessity of our mortification, which is repugnant to opinions now received. It is expressing, in other words, our SAVIOUR’s declaration, "he that cometh after Me must take up his cross daily and follow Me." They both imply that we cannot approach GOD without a sacrifice,—a sacrifice on the part of human nature in union with that of our SAVIOUR. Both of which seem to be taught in the legal sacrifices.
The Cross of CHRIST which St. Paul preached was that by which "the world was crucified to him and he was crucified to the world," "bearing about in the body the dying of the LORD JESUS." And precisely the same was the teaching of our blessed LORD also. His own humiliation, and the necessity of our humiliation together with Him, was the doctrine signified by the Cross which He put forth and inculcated on the multitude, in distinction from that of His own divinity, and our salvation through the same, which He rather kept secret. This is remarkably shown in the 8th chapter of St. Mark; after the confession [74/75] of St. Peter, it is added, and "He charged them that they should tell no man concerning Him." And He began to teach them, as the account continues, concerning His sufferings, to which it is immediately added, "and he spake that saying openly," and the account proceeds, and "when He had called the people unto Him with His disciples also, He said unto them, Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me." We cannot but contrast the full declarations, so often repeated, concerning His sufferings, with the mysterious silence respecting His divinity; and we must observe that the mention of those sufferings is introduced in conjunction with that of the necessity of His disciples drinking of the same cup.
In all things it would appear that this doctrine, so far from its being what is supposed, is in fact the very "secret of the LORD," which Solomon says "is with the righteous," and "the covenant" not to be lightly spoken of by man, but which "He will show to them that fear Him:" That knowledge which is blessed, because flesh and blood cannot reveal it, but the FATHER only. The "hidden manna" which He will give to those who overcome the world: the white stone, with "a new name" written thereon, "which no man knoweth, saving he that receiveth it."
The cause of the extraordinary prevalence of this modern opinion, of the necessity of preaching the Atonement thus explicitly, seems to be this: The doctrine of the Atonement is secretly implied in the whole of Scripture, in the Law and the Prophets, and the New Testament. In the Gospel it is in most of the precepts, in the blessings, in most of the parables, so much so, that they would have no meaning without it as the foundation; for how is the mourner to be comforted without it, or the poor in spirit to have a kingdom? how is the prodigal to be received with such welcome, or what is the pearl of great price, and the hidden treasure? In like manner ought it to pervade the teaching of the Church under the same Spirit, as doubtless it does its Liturgies, especially the Baptismal Service. And as a more and more full reception of this truth will accompany all growth in grace in a good man, proceeding from CHRIST crucified, to a broader, and deeper, and higher sense of that Atonement and our LORD’s divinity, so will it pervade all his teaching under the same [75/76] Spirit. Since the great loss of Christian principle, which our Church sustained at the Rebellion of 1688; when she threw, as it were, out of her pale the doctrine of CHRIST crucified, (together with Ken and Kettlewell) a low tone of morals has pervaded her teaching, and not founded on the great Christian principle, and that Baptism, which implied it, has been much forgotten. The reaction which usually attends popular feeling, has brought in the present opinions, which, as might be expected, has rather caught at the shadow, than attained to the substance, of that truth, which is as much above our nature, as heaven is above earth.
The apparent paradox which we witness, of Christianity having become publicly acceptable to the world, contrary to our LORD’s express declarations, can only be accounted for by its having been put forward without its distinguishing characteristic, the humiliation of the natural man: the doctrine of the Cross having been in some manner hidden: or those truths connected with it, which are most agreeable to mankind, being brought forward alone. "Had the design of our LORD’s coming," says Pascal, "been the work of Justification only, it had been then the easiest task in the world to convince an unbeliever. But since he came, as Isaiah prophetically speaks, in sanctificationem et in scandalum, perverse Infidelity is above our strength to conquer, and our art to cure." (page 179.) The teaching alluded to has practically made a separation between these doctrines, or, at least, has led the world to do so.
Every great doctrine in Scripture secretly pervades the whole of it under different forms, and in different degrees, and we cannot calculate on the danger that may ensue, when we not only give an undue and exclusive prominence to any one truth, but bring forward that one singly and nakedly, without all that which accompanies it in Scripture. This may be seen in another instance; take the doctrine of eternal punishment: it is surrounded with speculative difficulties which might pronounce it incompatible with the goodness of GOD. The natural man is averse to receive it. But it comes to us in Scripture accompanied with so many circumstances equally mysterious and apparently connected with it, that a devout mind becomes prepared to receive it, in conjunction with many others, which it acquiesces in [76/77] though it cannot explain. As, for instance, the imprecations on the wicked, which abound in the Psalms, in which there is something incompatible with Christian feeling and the feebleness of our knowledge. But a good man, instead of explaining them away, learns from them a sense of awful acquiescence in the Divine judgments; which prepares his mind to receive the other great doctrine, in a way that he would not otherwise have done. For we cannot but conceive these expressions to be bound up in some secret manner with that incomprehensible mystery, that, at the consummation of the world, the righteous shall be so entirely resigned to the Divine will, as somehow, we know not how, to acquiesce in the destruction of the wicked. As if the Almighty, in these passages of Scripture, were taking us into His own counsels, and making us, in some mysterious manner, partakers of them. This instance may serve to show how persons may be led practically to reject the most important doctrines, on account of their impatience at other parts of Holy Scripture.
And not only is the exclusive and naked exposure of so very sacred a truth unscriptural and dangerous, but, as Bishop Wilson says, the comforts of Religion ought to be applied with great caution. And moreover to require, as is sometimes done, from both grown persons and children, an explicit declaration of a belief in the Atonement, and the full assurance of its power, appears equally untenable. For if, in the case of Abraham, and many others of the most approved faith in CHRIST, there was no such explicit knowledge, it may be the case now. If a poor woman, ignorant and superstitious, as might be supposed, was received by our LORD by so instant a blessing for touching the border of His clothes, may it not have been the case that in times, which are now considered dark and lost to Gospel truth, there might have been many such? That there might have been many a helpless person, who knelt to a crucifix in a village churchyard, who might have done so under a more true sense of that faith which is unto life, than those who are able to express the most enlightened knowledge. And therefore, though such as would be now considered in a state of darkness, had more fully arrived at those treasures of wisdom which are hid in CHRIST.
Now all these unhallowed approaches to our blessed SAVIOUR [77/78] which these principles indicate, will, from what has been said, in some manner lead to a disbelief in His Divinity, the knowledge of which, it has been observed, was that which He kept from the unworthy. Not that we are to expect a declaration of Socinianism as its immediate consequence; but there are two ways in which the effect may be perceived; first, when the system develops itself in any course of time adequate for producing its legitimate results; and, secondly, it may be seen in a subtle shape in the tendency it produces in individuals to apply familiar and irreverent expressions to our blessed LORD. For such is, in fact, a disguised shape of Socinianism. It may also be seen in a disposition to deny His Divine Presence and Power in His Sacraments,—the regenerating grace of one, and the Spiritual presence in the other. And this view of the subject derives confirmation from the Prophecies, which indicate that all corruptions tend to that apostasy which shall deny the SON. It may be that these are but accidental developments of a great necessary and essential principle, ending in the denial of "the LORD that bought them."
But these general tendencies must not of course be applied to individuals, who may acquiesce in, or not see the danger of the system they espouse; for we know there is often a great deal in the character to counteract one admitted principle; and it is often the case, by GOD’s mercy, that in particular instances wrong principles are not received into the heart and conduct, no more than in other cases good ones, which are professed.
We must observe, that in the Old Testament, all approaches to GOD were accompanied with sacrifices and ablutions; in the Gospel with the denunciation of our SAVIOUR’s, that none are to follow Him without taking up the cross daily,—and the fuller manifestation at the last is seen through the extreme humiliation of human nature in CHRIST crucified. Afterwards, it is preached by St. Paul, while bearing about in the body the marks of the LORD JESUS; and received by his converts in a participation of the same sufferings. By St. John, our LORD’s Divinity is put forth with the repeated and unceasing exhortations of keeping the Commandments. All of these are varied expositions of the expression, "now mine eye seeth Thee, wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job xlii. 6). Perhaps there [78/79] is no giving glory to GOD without this humiliation of the creature, as David to the reproaches of his wife expresses his holy determination, "I will yet be more vile than thus, and will be base in mine own sight." For "no flesh shall glory in His presence." But what is remarkable in this late moral phenomenon, is the reverse to all this,—it is accompanied with a great impatience, not only of any holding back of this Divine truth, but of the inculcation of it being accompanied with that of the necessity of mortification and obedience on the part of man.
And here it may be asked, if this necessary tendency to some subtle form of Socinianism accompanies all practical disregard to Religion when professed: how is this proved in the case of the Roman Church, which, notwithstanding its extensive corruption has served by GOD’s protection, as a safeguard for the Catholic truth? It will explain a circumstance that seems otherwise unaccountable, the extraordinary, yet powerfully prevailing, tendency to substitute the Virgin as the object of religious worship. The great Catholic doctrine of the Trinity being so strongly established among them by entering into all their devotional forms and Creeds, that it could not be shaken, human depravity has sought out an opening for itself under another shape. It is by this means the natural heart lowers the object of its worship to its own frailty, so as to approach that object in Prayer without Holiness of life. Which is in fact the object of every false or perverted religion.
5. On Reserve in speaking of Sacred Things.
In immediate connection with these topics, is that of not observing any Reserve on sacred subjects, or rather of casting aside that Reserve which is natural both in conversation and in writing.
It seems to arise from causes not unsimilar to those which have been at the bottom of most of the things alluded to, viz. an attempt to remedy certain effects and symptoms which indicate a want of Religion, instead of the want itself.
A simple and unaffected piety will fulfil the injunctions of Scripture, which says prophetically of our blessed SAVIOUR, and doubtless in Him of all His members, "I have not hid Thy [79/80] righteousness within my heart, my talk hath been of Thy truth and of Thy salvation;" and "the mouth of the righteous speaketh wisdom and his tongue talketh of judgment;" his endeavours will be to fulfil the Apostolical injunction, "that his conversation be good for the use of edifying," "seasoned with salt" of Scripture principle, and "ministering grace." Add to which that bearing testimony to GOD’s truth in common discourse is a duty of the very highest importance.
Agreeable to these commands are the practical remarks of Bishop Wilson, that "hearts truly touched with the love of GOD will minister light and warmth to each other in ordinary conversation." It is a distinct subject of his prayers that he may do so; and he observes that it was the constant practice of our blessed SAVIOUR to leave all persons better with whom he conversed.
But the force of all this arises from this, that in all these cases it is "from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh." Bishop Wilson himself gives the caution, that we should never talk of religion without thinking seriously; that such conversation should be affectionate, seasonable, and "not casting pearls before swine." And surely our blessed LORD’s example was entirely of this kind, what we might be allowed to call perfectly natural; drawing out from every passing event treasures of wisdom, and also from the secret thoughts of His hearers. But the great sacred lesson was often only implied, and which might occur afterwards on attentive recollection.
The injury produced by the habit here condemned is from what Bishop Butler mentions on the formation of moral habits, that going over the theories of religion has the effect of hardening the heart. And Aristotle had long before observed that the reason why persons did not improve in virtue was, that they have recourse to theory and words to persuade themselves that they are good, and so do not labour after internal habits. To this it may be added, that strong right feeling may find a vent in talking, which it would otherwise seek for in action. Good thoughts when exercised in action form good principles, and affect the character, not so by being expressed in words. [80/81]
The same may be said of bringing forward the name of the ever-blessed Spirit of GOD without serious attention: the effect of this is to take away the sense of reality, and to habituate the mind to irreverence. "Whenever you happen to hear the Name of GOD mentioned," says Norris, in his advice to his children, "accustom yourself to make a reverential pause, and form within yourselves an inward act of adoration; whereby you will be less apt to profane that great and venerable Name in your more solemn addresses."
6. The important practical conclusion.
But the one great practical consideration, and which contains in it all others, which is to be gained from a due regard to the whole of the subject which has been investigated, is one which is full of awe, indeed, but also full of consolation, as tending to keep the mind quiet in times of universal movement and excitement. That JESUS CHRIST is now, and has been at all times, hiding Himself from us, but at the same time exceedingly desirous to communicate Himself, and that exactly in proportion as we show ourselves worthy He will disclose Himself to us; that if we constrain Him He will come in and abide with us; that unsatisfactory as human knowledge is, and the increase of which is the increase of care, a knowledge which puffeth up; yet that there is a knowledge which humbleth, which is infinite in its nature, and is nothing else than deeper, and higher, and broader views of the mystery which is hid in CHRIST.
That Scripture does not set before us any sensible joy or satisfaction to be sought for, as the end of holiness, at it does this knowledge of God; which is attainable by nothing else but by making the study of Divinity to consist in a Divine life.
That with regard to any ways of doing good to the world, it is far too great a work for any thing of human device, or any plans that partake of this world to perform; but if in the prescribed path of duty we shall be enabled to obtain this light, it will from us be communicated to others; but perhaps only in some secret way which is known to GOD, and which the world esteems foolishness, but a power which is of GOD, and therefore must overcome the world. [81/82]
That all the means of grace faithfully cherished will lead us, as it were, step by step, into all these treasures, inexhaustible in their nature, limitless in their duration, and exceeding all conception of man, the blessing of the pure in heart, that they shall see GOD.
And to see GOD implies, even in this world, in all apparent imperfections, to discern something which is harmonious and life-giving; for even earthly passion, after the similitude of this affection which is heavenly, invests all things with itself, and makes them to speak eloquently its own language.
It is to be observed, that Holy Scripture not only speaks of it as the light within, and its being darkened as a great darkness, but introduces the natural senses as being in some manner the seats or partakers of it. The loss of it is not only the heart being hardened, but the eyes being blinded, and the ears made dull of hearing. As if, when quickened by this internal light, all the senses were made to communicate with and to convey from things without this heavenly wisdom. Such expressions are not made use of merely as figures.
Such a knowledge must include a power of setting a right value on all objects, which occupy the imagination and affections of the natural man, such as power, and wealth, and reputation, and beauty, and learning, and genius; such a light in the mind must show the right proportions of these things after some heavenly manner.
But the whole of this subject, so truly divine and holy, it is perhaps better not to dwell on, from all that has been said: not only that we may not, as we necessarily must do, speak unworthily of it, but also lest, making it a matter of words, we should please ourselves, and not be earnest enough to attain it.
Last modified 24 August 2016