Sermon 2. The Influence of Natural and Revealed Religion Respectively Seasons - Easter

"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the Life was manifested, and we have seen It, and bear witness, and show unto you that Eternal Life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us." 1 John i. 1-3.

{16} THE main purpose of our Saviour's incarnation, as far as we are permitted to know it, was that of reconciling us to God, and purchasing for us eternal life by His sufferings and death. This purpose was accomplished when He said, "It is finished," and gave up the ghost.

2. But on His rising from the dead, He extended to us two additional acts of grace, as preparatory to the future blessing, and of which, as well as of our resurrection, that miracle itself was made the evidence. "Go ye, teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." In this commission to His disciples was intimated, on {17} the one hand, His merciful design of "gathering together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad," by the gracious operation of the Holy Spirit; and on the other hand, His intended grant of a system of religious truth, grounded on that mysterious economy of Divine Providence in which His own incarnation occupies the principal place.

3. It is proposed, in the following discourse, to treat of a subject connected with the latter of these two great Christian blessings—viz. to attempt to determine the relation which this revealed system of doctrine and precept bears to that of Natural Religion, and to compare the two together in point of practical efficacy. The other and still greater mercies of the Christian Covenant have been mentioned only, lest, in discussing the subject of religious knowledge, any disregard should be implied of those fundamental doctrines of our faith, the Atonement, and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

4. Now, in investigating the connexion between Natural and Revealed Religion, it is necessary to explain in what sense religious doctrines of any kind can with propriety be called natural. For from the abuse of the term "Natural Religion," many persons will not allow the use of it at all.

5. When, then, religion of some sort is said to be natural, it is not here meant that any religious system has been actually traced out by unaided Reason. We know of no such system, because we know of no time or country in which human Reason was unaided. {18} Scripture informs us that revelations were granted to the first fathers of our race, concerning the nature of God and man's duty to Him; and scarcely a people can be named, among whom there are not traditions, not only of the existence of powers exterior to this visible world, but also of their actual interference with the course of nature, followed up by religious communications to mankind from them. The Creator has never left Himself without such witness as might anticipate the conclusions of Reason, and support a wavering conscience and perplexed faith. No people (to speak in general terms) has been denied a revelation from God, though but a portion of the world has enjoyed an authenticated revelation.

6. Admitting this fully, let us speak of the fact; of the actual state of religious belief of pious men in the heathen world, as attested by their writings still extant; and let us call this attainable creed Natural Religion.

7. Now, in the first place, it is obvious that Conscience is the essential principle and sanction of Religion in the mind. Conscience implies a relation between the soul and a something exterior, and that, moreover, superior to itself; a relation to an excellence which it does not possess, and to a tribunal over which it has no power. And since the more closely this inward monitor is respected and followed, the clearer, the more exalted, and the more varied its dictates become, and the standard of excellence is ever outstripping, while it guides, our obedience, a moral conviction is thus at length obtained of the unapproachable nature {19} as well as the supreme authority of That, whatever it is, which is the object of the mind's contemplation. Here, then, at once, we have the elements of a religious system; for what is Religion but the system of relations existing between us and a Supreme Power, claiming our habitual obedience: "the blessed and only Potentate, who only hath immortality, dwelling in light unapproachable, whom no man hath seen or can see"?

8. Further, Conscience implies a difference in the nature of actions, the power of acting in this way or that as we please, and an obligation of acting in one particular way in preference to all others; and since the more our moral nature is improved, the greater inward power of improvement it seems to possess, a view is laid open to us both of the capabilities and prospects of man, and the awful importance of that work which the law of his being lays upon him. And thus the presentiment of a future life, and of a judgment to be passed upon present conduct, with rewards and punishments annexed, forms an article, more or less distinct, in the creed of Natural Religion.

9. Moreover, since the inward law of Conscience brings with it no proof of its truth, and commands attention to it on its own authority, all obedience to it is of the nature of Faith; and habitual obedience implies the direct exercise of a clear and vigorous faith in the truth of its suggestions, triumphing over opposition both from within and without; quieting the murmurs of Reason, perplexed with the disorders of the present scheme of things, and subduing the appetites, {20} clamorous for good which promises an immediate and keen gratification.

10. While Conscience is thus ever the sanction of Natural Religion, it is, when improved, the rule of Morals also. But here is a difference: it is, as such, essentially religious; but in Morals it is not necessarily a guide, only in proportion as it happens to be refined and strengthened in individuals. And here is a solution of objections which have been made to the existence of the moral sense, on the ground of the discordancy which exists among men as to the excellence or demerit of particular actions. These objections only go to prove the uncertain character (if so be) of the inward law of right and wrong; but are not, even in their form, directed against the certainty of that general religious sense, which is implied in the remorse and vague apprehension of evil which the transgression of Conscience occasions.

11. Still, unformed and incomplete as is this law by nature, it is quite certain that obedience to it is attended by a continually growing expertness in the science of Morals. A mind, habitually and honestly conforming itself to its own full sense of duty, will at length enjoin or forbid with an authority second only to an inspired oracle. Moreover, in a heathen country, it will be able to discriminate with precision between the right and wrong in traditionary superstitions, and will thus elicit confirmation of its faith even out of corruptions of the truth. And further, it will of course realize in its degree those peculiar rewards of virtue which appetite cannot comprehend; and will detect in {21} this world's events, which are but perplexities to mere unaided Reason, a general connexion existing between right moral conduct and happiness, in corroboration of those convictions which the experience of its own private history has created.

12. Such is the large and practical religious creed attainable (as appears from the extant works of heathen writers) by a vigorous mind which rightly works upon itself under (what may be called) the Dispensation of Paganism. It may be even questioned whether there be any essential character of Scripture doctrine which is without its place in this moral revelation. For here is the belief in a principle exterior to the mind to which it is instinctively drawn, infinitely exalted, perfect, incomprehensible; here is the surmise of a judgment to come; the knowledge of unbounded benevolence, wisdom, and power, as traced in the visible creation, and of moral laws unlimited in their operation; further, there is even something of hope respecting the availableness of repentance, so far (that is) as suffices for religious support; lastly, there is an insight into the rule of duty, increasing with the earnestness with which obedience to that rule is cultivated.

13. This sketch of the religious knowledge not impossible to Heathen Philosophy, will be borne out by its writings, yet will be only obtained by a selection of the best portions of them. Hence we derive two conclusions: that the knowledge was attainable—for what one man may attain is open to another; on the other hand, that, in general, it was not actually attained—for else there would be no need of so confined a {22} selection of them. And thus we are carried on to the inquiry already proposed—viz. where it was that Natural Religion failed in practical effect, and how Revealed Religion supplies the deficiency. Out of the many answers which might be given to this question, let us confine ourselves to that which is suggested by the text.

14. Natural Religion teaches, it is true, the infinite power and majesty, the wisdom and goodness, the presence, the moral governance, and, in one sense, the unity of the Deity; but it gives little or no information [Note 1] respecting what may be called His Personality. It follows that, though Heathen Philosophy knew so much of the moral system of the world, as to see the duties and prospects of man in the same direction in which Revelation places them, this knowledge did not preclude a belief in fatalism, which might, of course, consist in unchangeable moral laws, as well as physical. And though Philosophy acknowledged an intelligent, wise, and beneficent Principle of nature, still this too was, in fact, only equivalent to the belief in a pervading Soul of the Universe, which consulted for its own good, and directed its own movements, by instincts similar to those by which the animal world is guided; but which, strictly speaking, was not an object of worship, inasmuch as each intelligent being was, in a certain sense, himself a portion of it. Much less would a conviction of the Infinitude and Eternity of the Divine Nature lead to any just idea of His {23} Personality, since there can be no circumscribing lineaments nor configuration of the Immeasurable, no external condition or fortune to that Being who is all in all. Lastly, though Conscience seemed to point in a certain direction as a witness for the real moral locality (so to speak,) of the unseen God, yet, as it cannot prove its own authority, it afforded no argument for a Governor and Judge, distinct from the moral system itself, to those who disputed its informations.

15. While, then, Natural Religion was not without provision for all the deepest and truest religious feelings, yet presenting no tangible history of the Deity, no points of His personal character [Note 2] (if we may so speak without irreverence), it wanted that most efficient incentive to all action, a starting or rallying point,—an object on which the affections could be placed, and the energies concentrated. Common experience in life shows how the most popular and interesting cause languishes, if its head be removed; and how political power is often vested in individuals, merely for the sake of the definiteness of the practical impression which a personal presence produces. How, then, should the beauty of virtue move the heart, while it was an abstraction? "Forma quidem honestatis, si oculis cerneretur, admirabiles amores excitaret sapientić;" but, till "seen and heard and handled," It did but witness against those who disobeyed, while {24} they acknowledged It; and who, seemingly conscious where their need lay, made every effort to embody It in the attributes of individuality, embellishing their "Logos," as they called It, with figurative actions, and worshipping It as the personal development of the infinite Unknown.

16. But, it may be asked, was Heathen Religion of no service here? It testified, without supplying the need;—it bore testimony to it, by attempting to attribute a personal character and a history to the Divinity; but it failed, as degrading His invisible majesty by unworthy, multiplied and inconsistent images, and as shattering the moral scheme of the world into partial and discordant systems, in which appetite and expedience received the sanction due only to virtue. And thus refined philosophy and rude natural feeling each attempted separately to enforce obedience to a religious rule, and each failed on its own side. The God of philosophy was infinitely great, but an abstraction; the God of paganism was intelligible, but degraded by human conceptions. Science and nature could produce no joint-work; it was left for an express Revelation to propose the Object in which they should both be reconciled, and to satisfy the desires of both in a real and manifested incarnation of the Deity.

17. When St. Paul came to Athens, and found the altar dedicated to the Unknown God, he professed his purpose of declaring to the Heathen world Him "whom they ignorantly worshipped." He proceeded to condemn their polytheistic and anthropomorphic {25} errors, to disengage the notion of a Deity from the base earthly attributes in which Heathen religion had enveloped it, and to appeal to their own literature in behalf of the true nature of Him in whom "we live, and move, and have our being." But, after thus acknowledging the abstract correctness of the philosophical system, as far as it went, he preaches unto them Jesus and the Resurrection; that is, he embodies the moral character of the Deity in those historical notices of it which have been made the medium of the Christian manifestation of His attributes.

18. It is hardly necessary to enter into any formal proof that this is one principal object, as of all revelation, so especially of the Christian; viz. to relate some course of action, some conduct, a life (to speak in human terms) of the One Supreme God. Indeed, so evidently is this the case, that one very common, though superficial objection to the Scriptures, is founded on their continually ascribing to Almighty God human passions, words, and actions. The first chapter of the book of Job is one instance which may suggest many more; and those marks of character are especially prominent in Scripture, which imply an extreme opposition to an eternal and fated system, inherent freedom of will, power of change, long-suffering, placability, repentance, delight in the praises and thanksgivings of His creatures, failure of purpose, and the prerogative of dispensing His mercies according to His good pleasure. Above all, in the New Testament, the Divine character is exhibited to us, not merely as love, or mercy, or holiness (attributes which have a {26} vagueness in our conceptions of them from their immensity), but these and others as seen in an act of self-denial—a mysterious quality when ascribed to Him, who is all things in Himself, but especially calculated (from the mere meaning of the term) to impress upon our minds the personal character of the Object of our worship. "God so loved the world," that He gave up His only Son: and the Son of God "pleased not Himself." In His life we are allowed to discern the attributes of the invisible God, drawn out into action in accommodation to our weakness. The passages are too many to quote, in which this object of His incarnation is openly declared. "In Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily." "He that hath seen Him, hath seen the Father." He is a second Creator of the world, I mean, as condescending to repeat (as it were) for our contemplation, in human form, that distinct personal work, which made "the morning stars sing together, and all the sons of God shout for joy." In a word, the impression upon the religious mind thence made is appositely illustrated in the words of the text, "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of Life; (For the Life was manifested, and we have seen It, and bear witness, and show unto you that Eternal Life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us."

19. No thought is more likely to come across and {27} haunt the mind, and slacken its efforts under Natural Religion, than that after all we may be following a vain shadow, and disquieting ourselves without cause, while we are giving up our hearts to the noblest instincts and aspirations of our nature. The Roman Stoic, as he committed suicide, complained he had worshipped virtue, and found it but an empty name. It is even now the way of the world to look upon the religious principle as a mere peculiarity of temper, a weakness, or an enthusiasm, or refined feeling (as the case may be), characteristic of a timid and narrow, or of a heated or a highly-gifted mind. Here, then, Revelation meets us with simple and distinct facts and actions, not with painful inductions from existing phenomena, not with generalized laws or metaphysical conjectures, but with Jesus and the Resurrection; and "if Christ be not risen" (it confesses plainly), "then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain." Facts such as this are not simply evidence of the truth of the revelation, but the media of its impressiveness. The life of Christ brings together and concentrates truths concerning the chief good and the laws of our being, which wander idle and forlorn over the surface of the moral world, and often appear to diverge from each other. It collects the scattered rays of light, which, in the first days of creation, were poured over the whole face of nature, into certain intelligible centres, in the firmament of the heaven, to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness. Our Saviour has in Scripture all those abstract titles of moral excellence bestowed upon Him which philosophers {28} have invented. He is the Word, the Light, the Life, the Truth, Wisdom, the Divine Glory. St. John announces in the text, "The Life was manifested, and we have seen It."

20. And hence will follow an important difference in the moral character formed in the Christian school, from that which Natural Religion has a tendency to create. The philosopher aspires towards a divine principle; the Christian, towards a Divine Agent. Now, dedication of our energies to the service of a person is the occasion of the highest and most noble virtues, disinterested attachment, self-devotion, loyalty; habitual humility, moreover, from the knowledge that there must ever be one that is above us. On the other hand, in whatever degree we approximate towards a mere standard of excellence, we do not really advance towards it, but bring it to us; the excellence we venerate becomes part of ourselves—we become a god to ourselves. This was one especial consequence of the pantheistic system of the Stoics, the later Pythagoreans, and other philosophers; in proportion as they drank into the spirit of eternal purity, they became divine in their own estimation; they contrasted themselves with those who were below them, knowing no being above them by whom they could measure their proficiency. Thus they began by being humble, and, as they advanced, humility and faith wore away from their character. This is strikingly illustrated in Aristotle's description of a perfectly virtuous man. An incidental and unstudied greatness of mind is said by him to mark the highest moral excel1ence, and truly; but the genuine nobleness of the {29} virtuous mind, as shown in a superiority to common temptations, forbearance, generosity, self-respect, calm high-minded composure, is deformed by an arrogant contempt of others, a disregard of their feelings, and a harshness and repulsiveness of external manner. That is, the philosopher saw clearly the tendencies of the moral system, the constitution of the human soul, and the ways leading to the perfection of our nature; but when he attempted to delineate the ultimate complete consistent image of the virtuous man, how could he be expected to do this great thing, who had never seen Angel or Prophet, much less the Son of God manifested in the flesh?

21. At such pains is Scripture, on the other hand, to repress the proud self-complacency just spoken of, that not only is all moral excellence expressly referred to the Supreme God, but even the principle of good, when implanted and progressively realized in our hearts, is still continually revealed to us as a Person, as if to mark strongly that it is not our own, and must lead us to no preposterous self-adoration. For instance, we read of Christ being formed in us—dwelling in the heart—of the Holy Spirit making us His temple; particularly remarkable is our Saviour's own promise: "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."

22. It may be observed, that this method of personation (so to call it) is carried throughout the revealed system. The doctrine of the Personality of the Holy Spirit has just been referred to. Again, the doctrine {30} of original sin is centred in the person of Adam, and in this way is made impressive and intelligible to the mass of mankind. The Evil Principle is revealed to us in the person of its author, Satan. Nay, not only thus, in the case of really existing beings, as the first man and the Evil Spirit, but even when a figure must be used, is the same system continued. The body of faithful men, or Church, considered as the dwelling-place of the One Holy Spirit, is invested with a metaphorical personality, and is bound to act as one, in order to those practical ends of influencing and directing human conduct in which the entire system may be considered as originating. And, again, for the same purpose of concentrating the energies of the Christian body, and binding its members into close union, it was found expedient, even in Apostolic times, to consign each particular church to the care of one pastor, or bishop, who was thus made a personal type of Christ mystical, the new and spiritual man; a centre of action and a living witness against all heretical or disorderly proceedings.

23. Such, then, is the Revealed system compared with the Natural—teaching religious truths historically, not by investigation; revealing the Divine Nature, not in works, but in action; not in His moral laws, but in His spoken commands; training us to be subjects of a kingdom, not citizens of a Stoic republic; and enforcing obedience, not on Reason so much as on Faith.

24. And now that we are in possession of this great gift of God, Natural Religion has a use and importance {31} which it before could hardly possess. For as Revealed Religion enforces doctrine, so Natural Religion recommends it. It is hardly necessary to observe, that the whole revealed scheme rests on nature for the validity of its evidence. The claim of miraculous power or knowledge assumes the existence of a Being capable of exerting it; and the matter of the Revelation itself is evidenced and interpreted by those awful, far-reaching analogies of mediation and vicarious suffering, which we discern in the visible course of the world. There is, perhaps, no greater satisfaction to the Christian than that which arises from his perceiving that the Revealed system is rooted deep in the natural course of things, of which it is merely the result and completion; that his Saviour has interpreted for him the faint or broken accents of Nature; and that in them, so interpreted, he has, as if in some old prophecy, at once the evidence and the lasting memorial of the truths of the Gospel.

25. It remains to suggest some of the conclusions which follow from this view, thus taken, of the relation of Revealed to Natural Religion.

(1.) First, much might be said on the evidence thence deducible for the truth of the Christian system. It is one point of evidence that the two systems coincide in declaring the same substantial doctrines: viz., as being two independent witnesses in one and the same question; an argument contained by implication, though not formally drawn out, in Bishop Butler's Analogy. It is a further point of evidence to find that Scripture completes {32} the very deficiency of nature; and, while its doctrines of Atonement and Mediation are paralleled by phenomena in the visible course of things, to discern in it one solitary doctrine, which from its nature has no parallel in this world, an Incarnation of the Divine Essence, an intrinsic evidence of its truth in the benefit thus conferred on religion.

26. (2.) Next, light is thus thrown upon the vast practical importance of the doctrines of the Divinity of our Lord, and of the Personality of the Holy Spirit. It is the impiety, indeed, involved in the denial of these, which is the great guilt of anti-Trinitarians; but, over and above this, such persons go far to destroy the very advantages which the Revealed system possesses over the Natural; and throw back the science of morals and of human happiness into that state of vagueness and inefficiency from which Christianity has extricated it. On the other hand, we learn besides, the shallowness of the objection to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, grounded on its involving a plurality of Persons in the Godhead; since, if it be inconceivable, as it surely is, how Personality can in any way be an attribute of the infinite, incommunicable Essence of the Deity, or in what particular sense it is ascribed to Him, Unitarians, so called (to be consistent), should find a difficulty in the doctrine of an Unity of Person, as well as of a Trinity; and, having ceased to be Athanasians, should not stop till they become Pantheists.

27. (3.) Further, the same view suggests to us the peculiar perverseness of schism, which tends to undo the very arrangement which our Lord has made, for {33} arresting the attention of mankind, and leading them to seek their true moral good; and which (if followed to its legitimate results) would reduce the world to the very state in which it existed in the age of the heathen moralist, so familiar to us in this place, who, in opening his treatise, bears witness to the importance of a visible Church, by consulting the opinions of mankind as to the means of obtaining happiness; and not till disappointed in sage and statesman, the many and the educated, undertakes himself an examination of man's nature, as if the only remaining means of satisfying the inquiry.

28. (4.) And hence, at the same time, may be learned the real religious position of the heathen, who, we have reason to trust, are not in danger of perishing, except so far as all are in such danger, whether in heathen or Christian countries, who do not follow the secret voice of conscience, leading them on by faith to their true though unseen good. For the prerogative of Christians consists in the possession, not of exclusive knowledge and spiritual aid, but of gifts high and peculiar; and though the manifestation of the Divine character in the Incarnation is a singular and inestimable benefit, yet its absence is supplied in a degree, not only in the inspired record of Moses, but even, with more or less strength, as the case may be, in those various traditions concerning Divine Providences and Dispensations which are scattered through the heathen mythologies.

29. (5.) Further, a comment is hence afforded us on the meaning of a phrase perplexed by controversy—that {34} of "preaching Christ." By which is properly meant, not the putting Natural Religion out of sight, nor the separating one doctrine of the Gospel from the rest, as having an exclusive claim to the name of Gospel; but the displaying all that Nature and Scripture teach concerning Divine Providence (for they teach the same great truths), whether of His majesty, or His love, or His mercy, or His holiness, or His fearful anger, through the medium of the life and death of His Son Jesus Christ. A mere moral strain of teaching duty and enforcing obedience fails in persuading us to practice, not because it appeals to conscience, and commands and threatens (as is sometimes supposed), but because it does not urge and illustrate virtue in the Name and by the example of our blessed Lord. It is not that natural teaching gives merely the Law, and Christian teaching gives the tidings of pardon, and that a command chills or formalizes the mind, and that a free forgiveness converts it (for nature speaks of God's goodness as well as of His severity, and Christ surely of His severity as well as of His goodness); but that in the Christian scheme we find all the Divine Attributes (not mercy only, though mercy pre-eminently) brought out and urged upon us, which were but latent in the visible course of things.

30. (6.) Hence it appears that the Gospels are the great instruments (under God's blessing) of fixing and instructing our minds in a religious course, the Epistles being rather comments on them than intended to supersede them, as is sometimes maintained. Surely it argues a temper of mind but partially moulded {35} to the worship and love of Christ, to make this distinction between His teaching and that of His Apostles, when the very promised office of the Comforter in His absence was, not to make a new revelation, but expressly "to bring all things to their remembrance" which "He had said to them;" not to "speak of Himself," but "to receive of Christ's, and show it unto them." The Holy Spirit came "to glorify Christ," to declare openly to all the world that He had come on earth, suffered, and died, who was also the Creator and Governor of the world, the Saviour, the final Judge of men. It is the Incarnation of the Son of God rather than any doctrine drawn from a partial view of Scripture (however true and momentous it may be) which is the article of a standing or a falling Church. "Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is not of God; ... this is that spirit of anti-Christ;" for, not to mention other more direct considerations, it reverses, as far as in it lies, all that the revealed character of Christ has done for our faith and virtue. And hence the Apostles' speeches in the book of Acts and the primitive Creeds insist almost exclusively upon the history, not the doctrines, of Christianity; it being designed that, by means of our Lord's Economy, the great doctrines of theology should be taught, the facts of that Economy giving its peculiarity and force to the Revelation.

31. May it ever be our aim thus profitably to use that last and complete manifestation of the Divine Attributes and Will contained in the New Testament, {36} setting the pattern of the Son of God ever before us, and studying so to act as if He were sensibly present, by look, voice, and gesture, to approve or blame us in our private thoughts and all our intercourse with the world!

(Preached on Easter Tuesday morning, April 13, 1830, in the Author's own preaching turn.)

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1. [This seems to me too strongly said, and inconsistent with what is said infra, vi. 10. Vide Essay on Assent, v. i.]
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2. The author was not acquainted, at the time this was written, with Mr. Coleridge's Works, and a remarkable passage in his Biographia Literaria, in which several portions of this Sermon are anticipated. It has been pointed out to him since by the kindness of a friend, [Mr. Thomas D. Acland.]—Vide Biogr. Lit. vol. i. p. 199.
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