Ethics of TheismAlexander Leitch, "Summary of the Argument" in Ethics of Theism (Harvard: 1868), pp. 15-46.
It has been said by a great mind, that confusion is worse than error.1 Erroneous statements and opinions, in their naked deformity, are generally too hideous to win the regard and confidence of men even in their present depraved condition; while the manifestation of what is true, in its simple grandeur and pure light, is often too bright and fair to be agreeable to the eye and the heart of man. The great work which a lover of truth finds to do, is to separate the conglomerate mass of knowledge, or what men call knowledge, into its two component parts, the true and the false. What is false owes all its plausibility and power to its being associated and mingled with what is true. What is true, is rendered dim and uncertain and weak by being blended and confounded with the erroneous. The human mind is like a thrashing-floor. The honest inquirer will be constantly using the fan, to separate the chaff from the wheat. The difficulties which are most frequently and generally felt in the controversy about the evidences of Theism and Christianity are connected with the following points: the relation between Truth, and Error; the relation between Knowledge and Faith; the relation between Faith and Responsibility; the distinction between what is above reason, and what is opposed to reason; the distinction between Practical knowledge and Speculative knowledge; the distinction between Certainty and Probability; or, finally, with the Criterion in morals.
The whole of our appeal to the defender of the religion of the Bible may be summed up in the following questions. If you admit or assume a marked and irreconcilable antagonism between truth and error in some matters, why not in every matter? If there be sometimes a dependence of belief or faith upon knowledge, why not always? If a man be held responsible for some of his beliefs, why not for all of them? If there be a clear and valid distinction between what transcends our understanding and what is contrary to it — between a mystery and a contradiction — between ignorance and erroneous knowledge, — why is this distinction forgotten, mangled, and disregarded? If there be an obvious and important difference between practical and speculative knowledges, and a similar difference between certainties and probabilities, is it not desirable and necessary distinctly to apprehend the nature of these differences, and consistently to observe them in every question? And, lastly, if there be no criterion whatever in morality independently of the Bible, how can those who are unavoidably ignorant of the Bible be considered accountable beings? And if there be any such criterion, what is it, or where is it to be found?
As to the first of these points, the immutability and self-consistency of truth is admitted by all. The direct and perpetual opposition between truth and error, no one theoretically or in form questions or denies. All knowledge and belief, all reasoning and discussion, are avowedly based upon it. The extremest scepticism which would refuse to grant it, would in that very refusal affirm it. A favourite ruse of infidelity is to involve this point in mist and confusion by the ambiguity of words, by insinuating doubts and asking hard questions, and by referring to the actual state of human knowledge in which this fundamental antithesis is so frequently lost sight of. The Christian can triumph only by taking his stand upon the uncompromising opposition between error and truth. But we rarely meet with a stern and unflinching adherence to this principle in all the questions under discussion. If the flippancy and pertness and levity of the professed unbeliever may often be traced to the want of a clear intellectual conviction of the antithesis between truth and error, and the absence of all reverence for Truth, so also may the mental indolence, the blind faith, the indifferentism, latitudinarianism, and formalism, which, like a blight, have times without number, even to the present day, made sad havoc with the garden of the Lord, be more or less directly assigned to a lax apprehension and deficient veneration of the sacredness and majesty of Truth. There are not a few grave and urgent and momentous questions on which Christians are at the present time clearly and constantly contradicting each other, whilst comparatively few among either of the conflicting parties seem to have any adequate perception of the fact, that truth lies wounded and bleeding in the fray, far less any suitable compunction for the enormity that is perpetrated.
As respects the second topic, we know not whether it be more frequently affirmed or denied, in express terms, that belief is dependent upon knowledge. At one turn in the controversy the dependence is broadly asserted; at another turn it is flatly denied. A strong army which should as constantly and arbitrarily shift its positions, and follow a policy so vacillating, could scarcely expect to cope with an inferior foe. To admit that belief is never dependent upon knowledge, is equivalent to a total and ignominious surrender of our religion. If this dependence be conceded in some cases, common consistency demands that it be maintained in every case. To affirm that, even in a few instances, belief does not require to be based upon knowledge, is to lay a foundation for superstition, deep and strong. The severance as well as the opposition of knowledge and faith is a very common phenomenon in the Christian community. The seeds of superstition are thus extensively sown; neither do they die in the soil, and bear no fruit. And every one knows that infidelity is a reaction against superstition.
In reference to the third point, a somewhat similar confusion prevails. Man is asserted to be responsible for his belief. By and by it appears that this means, responsible for some of his beliefs, but not for all of them. An intelligent and honest hearer of the debate in favour of and against the Bible, cannot help asking, Why responsible for some beliefs, and not for others? This is a notable distinction. What are the grounds on which it rests, and what the limits to which it reaches? He vainly waits to hear the distinction explained and vindicated. He ventures to ask for information, but receives no reply. And when he presses his inquiry, by signs or silence, though perhaps seldom in words, he is desired not to be troublesome. Here, to say the least, is a case of most palpable confusion, and it occurs in a question of the utmost magnitude. For no man can entirely shake off his sense of responsibility, and every form of infidelity is an attempt to tamper with this deep and sacred feeling.
When infidelity assumes the form of Atheism, it attempts to veil the Sovereign of the Universe from the eye of conscience, and to lull to sleep man’s indestructible sense of accountability. Pantheism endeavours to amuse and distract this feeling by its airy speculations and gaudy dreams. Naturalism would stupefy and overpower our convictions of being responsible, by bringing us within the range of physical laws of unrestricted universality and adamantine stiffness. Spiritualism, by distorting the facts of consciousness and ignoring the statements of the Bible, presents to a man an untrue image of himself, more flattering than the reality. He is captivated with the deceitful beauty of this false representation, and in his admiration forgets that he must render an account. Indifferentism and Formalism are seasons of moral insanity; when a man denies or disregards what everybody else acknowledges, and what he himself recognises in his lucid intervals. The assertion of human responsibility, then, and more specifically still, of man’s responsibility for his belief, is by far the most critical ground in the whole battle-field where Christianity and Infidelity meet; it is like the Malakoff tower in the Crimea, the precise point where the victory will be lost or won — the very Thermopylae of the conflict. Is it possible that just then and there the footing of the Christian soldier should be uncertain, and the tactics of his leader undecided and vacillating? Yet so it is. The responsibility of man for his belief is asserted, retracted, explained, re-asserted, and modified. The believer inflicts upon the unbeliever no wound with this weapon, but it immediately recoils upon himself. If it be maintained that men are to be held responsible while examining, or refusing to examine, the evidences of Christianity, can it be denied that they are responsible while interpreting or misinterpreting its written record? If an individual is accountable for his interpretation of one verse of the Bible, is he not accountable for his interpretation of the verse that follows it? One child is to be blamed for not listening to his father’s message, and another exculpated for reversing its meaning!
An indistinct and languid sense of personal responsibility is often the cause of infidelity, and is certainly promoted by every infidel theory. A restricted and enervated conviction of duty is one fruitful source of the vice and indolence and crime and godlessness under which the world groans. The potent and all pervading truth, ‘ that whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap,’ is jostled from its place, its meaning mystified, its brightness dimmed, its force evaded. To accomplish this end, every wile of deception is employed, and every resource of wickedness exhausted. This evil is the cardinal stronghold of all irreligion and unrighteousness. The Christian church, even the bravest and wisest of her heroes (we shall be blamed for writing thus, but so it appears to our mind for reasons to be assigned), instead of meeting this foe foot to foot, and disputing with him every inch of ground, are not sufficiently aware of his character, and either allow themselves to be surprised by his superior vigilance, or coming to a parley, are entangled in his snares. Few will question the general fact, that in the Christian community the consciousness of individual responsibility is much limited in its sphere and relaxed in its tone; and that many serious blemishes would speedily be removed from the visible body of Christ, if every member thereof were to realize his personal accountability in its integrity, as extending to every thought and word and action of his life, and in all its intensity, as involving his own eternal welfare, the reformation of society, the satisfaction of his Redeemer, and the glory of God. Nor is it unlikely that the confused, depressed, and contracted sense of responsibility which weakens and divides the church, has some important connection with the undefined and wavering views entertained respecting it by her teachers.
In regard to the fourth article in our enumeration, there is no distinction more obvious or fundamental than the one between a mystery and a contradiction; and there is none which has perhaps been more frequently acknowledged in words, and in reality disregarded. A mystery is evolved when we have two propositions, both of which we know on independent grounds to be true, but which we are not able to harmonize or reconcile with each other. Here is something above or beyond our reason, but nothing in opposition to it. A proposition which we know to be true, but of which we do not know how or why it is true, may also be justly regarded as involving a mystery. A contradiction, on the other hand, supposes one proposition to be opposed to another in such a way that both of them cannot be true. We must therefore reject the one or the other. To accept or profess to believe both, is to be in error; that is, to think that we know what we do not know. To believe a proposition which involves a mystery, is to know in part, and in part to be in ignorance; that is, to know that we know something, and also to know that we do not know more. For example, there is a mystery connected with animal life. We can affirm with certainty of any animal whose motions we are observing, that it lives and is not dead; but we cannot show what its life is, or explain the mode and manner of existence. To affirm, however, that the motion of the blood is a chemical or mechanical motion, is to involve ourselves in a contradiction.
The distinction between a contradiction and a mystery, especially in difficult questions, may be easily lost sight of, but not without detriment to the argument. When one of the parties in a discussion asserts regarding any topic that it is mysterious, the only legitimate way in which the assertion may be met is by denying its mysteriousness, and showing that it involves a contradiction. In such a case, the burden of proof does not lie with him who maintains that what he believes involves something above our reason, but with him who contends that it is contrary to our reason. He who vindicates, for example, his faith in the doctrine of the Trinity, by asserting that it includes what is mysterious, acts entirely on the defensive. But when an opponent affirms that this doctrine is contrary to reason, he is bound to produce his arguments, and the believer is then expected to meet and refute the arguments brought forward.
Now there are several ways in which such a discussion may be mismanaged. The advocate of religion may attempt to explain what cannot be explained, or, by way of having two valid and independent pleas, he may at one time affirm of a certain matter that it is mysterious and beyond our reach, and at another time endeavour to clear away its perplexities. In this latter case, which frequently occurs, the one argument completely neutralizes the other. Instances will be pointed out, in which it is first maintained respecting some Christian truth that it cannot be fathomed by human line, and immediately after the lead is thrown with the intention of sounding its depths. This procedure is clearly illegitimate; it is confounding error with ignorance, and giving a great advantage to the infidel, one of whose most successful stratagems is to assail the mysteries of our religion, as if they were contradictions. No wonder that he should be successful, when the inconsistency just pointed out so frequently mars the defence of the Christian mysteries. Again, it is very possible that, while there are no contradictions in Christianity itself, there may be several in the arguments of the adherents of Christianity. When the infidel meets with a contradiction in the proofs urged in behalf of the Bible, he will of course make use of it as if it were a contradiction in the religion of the Bible. In such circumstances, the argument in support of Christianity will be sensibly and painfully weak. There is an actual irreconcilable contradiction, not in our religion, but, which is the same thing for the time being to those immediately concerned, in the vindication and exposition of our religion. The enemy, with keen discernment, soon fixes upon this contradiction, and works it frequently and effectually. If the Christian advocate has not penetration enough to see the error, or honesty enough to rectify his argument, he will be reduced to one or other of the following wretched shifts: he will perhaps maintain that what is a contradiction is not a contradiction, in which he will surely be baffled; or he will avail himself of the enemy’s tactics, and confounding contradictions and mysteries, preach a sermon on humility, since we cannot understand everything; or he will resort to the unfailing method of escape from every dilemma — grow eloquent upon the inconsistencies and absurdities of infidelity.
The fifth point to which our attention has been called, is the distinction between speculative and practical knowledges. This distinction, which is in everybody’s mouth, learned and unlearned, has seldom been carefully examined, or clearly stated, or consistently adhered to. If in religion the difference between speculation and practice be held to be the same as in every other branch of knowledge, as it unquestionably ought to be, then we shall have to consider Christianity as a science, and Christianity as an art. As the difference between scientific and practical astronomy, for instance, is well marked, so is there in reality a well marked difference — which has yet, however, to be developed in its various bearings — between religion as an art and as a science One important result of attending to this distinction would be, that as the mechanic, while entirely destitute of philosophical attainments, has a valid, truthful, and reasonable knowledge of the art by which he earns his livelihood, so also it may be shown that the unlettered Christian, while totally unacquainted with the literary and scientific evidences of Christianity, has, notwithstanding, a valid, and truthful, and reasonable belief in the gospel of Christ, through which he is looking for life eternal. If this be conceded, we need not be afraid to grant or suppose what is by possibility actually the fact, that the evidences of Christianity, in a scientific form, have yet to be accurately stated and adduced. It is our persuasion that the practical argument is at present the only valid, complete, and satisfactory argument; and that the scientific argument is imperfect as yet, and consequently not fully conclusive. It shall be our object to notice the confusion that is found arising from jumbling together the practical and the scientific in the Christian argument.
The distinction just adverted to, though unambiguous and undoubted in itself, is not what is most commonly intended when religious men contrast speculative or theoretic knowledge with practical knowledge. When it is said that an individual knows the gospel theoretically, but not practically, the fact referred to is this, that the individual does not act upon the knowledge which he has. It appears to us., that this fact, which is worthy of due attention, is improperly described by the language commonly applied to it, especially as this language has, as we have just.seen, another meaning of its own, both proper and important. Theoretic or scientific knowledge is knowledge not to be directly acted upon; it is knowledge apart from an immediate practical end: this is its peculiar characteristic, as it is to be distinguished from practical knowledge. Practical knowledge, on the other hand, is knowledge which may, or ought to be acted upon. To suppose that practical knowledge, taken in this sense, is always acted upon, is to overlook one of the chief phenomena of human nature, and to confound virtue and vice. And yet this fundamentally false supposition runs through many an argument.
Here, then, we have more than one source of confusion. There are two important distinctions, both replete with numerous, and varied, and momentous results — namely, the distinction between religion as an art and religion as a science, or the distinction between a scientific and a practical knowledge of Christianity; and the distinction in moral agents between acting upon our knowledge and not acting upon our knowledge. Now, it has occurred to us that neither of these two distinctions has been sufficiently developed or fairly used in the arguments in defence of the Bible; and to make the matter worse, that the one has been often confounded with the other.
Some, when the scientific argument breaks down in their management, betake themselves to the practical argument to cover their defeat. But they are ashamed to rest their cause entirely and exclusively on practical ground, which they ought not to be; and they are soon observed slipping back among the mists of speculation. This hurrying to and fro between scientific and practical considerations is repeated as often as the exigencies of the discussion demand. Others, or the same parties at another time, will be found assuming that most men have a theoretic or speculative knowledge of religious truth, and that the great cause and criminality of infidelity lie in this, that these men do not add a practical to their speculative knowledge. It is our conviction that most men have, not a speculative, or theoretic, or scientific knowledge of religious truth (which few, if any, have), but a practical knowledge of it to a greater or less extent. If this practical knowledge were calmly looked at, the evidences of Christianity, in their practical aspect, might be clearly, and satisfactorily, and shortly manifested. The chief cause, or, which is the same thing, the condemning guilt of all infidelity, irreligion, and wickedness among men, lies in nothing else but this, that they ‘ do not obey the truth,’ or, in other words, do not act upon the (practical) knowledge which they possess.
The effect of this confusion upon the argument is somewhat of the following kind: — The Christian apologist having virtually, if not formally, granted that the practical evidences are somehow inferior to the scientific, the infidel can make good his position that the belief of the mass of Christians is also inferior, or, as he affirms, blind and unintelligent. By practical evidences we mean those which are within the reach of every man, independently of learning and recondite argument. We should not like to undertake to show, that the present faith in Christianity held by multitudes is not as a matter of fact unintelligent and blind. But it is a matter of immense moment to show that it is a fact in some cases, and may be, and ought to be, a fact in all cases, that, even amongst the poorest and most illiterate, the gospel can be received as true, honestly and reasonably. This point is seldom made good by our apologists: when it is made good, it does not receive the prominence which is due to it. The argument is often so managed as to render the making of it good impossible, except by being inconsistent. If this point be made good, we can afford to wait for the proper evolution of the scientific evidences, and freely and without alarm confess our ignorance. As matters at present stand, the taunt that the belief in Christianity is generally mystic, or enthusiastic, or traditional, not intelligent and clear, is seldom fairly met or satisfactorily repelled.
The perplexity is aggravated when, in the same connection, the moral character of the infidel becomes a question. If the atheist be considered blameworthy, it can only be on the assumption that he is not acting, or has not acted, according to the knowledge he possesses; that he deals dishonestly with the facts of nature and the facts of consciousness. When any other ground is taken, the infidel can successfully defy all censure. If this ground be taken, he can retort the charge most severely upon the mass of professing Christians, that they are not acting according to their knowledge. This ground seems to us to be the only true and sure footing; though it be rarely taken in a decided manner, and as a fundamental position. When this aspect of the argument is waived altogether, or only slightly adverted to, and the value of the practical evidences overlooked, as explained previously, and the defender of our religion plunges deeply into the details of history or the thickets of speculation, however vigorous may be his thrusts against infidelity in its various forms, his defence of the truth is unsatisfactory and weak.
Another point in our enumeration refers to the distinction between certainty and probability. The discussion frequently turns upon the import of these terms, and yet the way in which they are employed baffles every effort to form precise conceptions respecting them. We have different kinds of certainty, and different degrees of certainty; and we have the higher probabilities made equal to certainties. At one time we are told that the conditions of the argument preclude the attainment of certainty; at another time this denial of certainty is transmuted into the assertion of moral certainty. At one time the whole stress of the evidence rests upon the distinction between what is certain and what is probable; and at another time this distinction grows gradually less and less, and by and by vanishes away.
It appears to us that there can be, in the nature of the case, only one kind and one degree of certainty. When we know that a proposition is true, our know ledge is certain. It matters not to what objects the proposition may refer, or by what medium we may come to the knowledge of its truth. Since truth is immutable, whenever we know any truth in the way in -which it is proper that that truth should be known, we feel assured and certain respecting it. Our knowledge that coal-gas is inflammable, or that it is wrong to tell a lie, is just as certain as that three and three make six. The certainty in each case may be reached by a different process, and receive a colouring from that process; but it is nevertheless one and the same certainty.
When we know more or less respecting a proposition, without being able to pronounce it true or erroneous, our knowledge is probable. This admits, of course, of all variety of degrees; but even between the highest probability and certainty there is a clear and appreciable difference, which may be noticed frequently in the language of common life, as when we say it is very highly probable, but not certain.
To admit that we cannot attain certainty, taking the word in an unambiguous and forcible meaning, in morals and religion, seems to us to give up the argument in favour of Christianity altogether. If the truth be of such a nature, or so far removed from us, or so covered up, that our minds cannot clearly perceive it or firmly grasp it — that we cannot legitimately feel fully assured and convinced that we have got hold of the truth — where is there any room for argument, or to what tangible or precious result can argument lead? If the whole discussion be, from beginning to end, a comparison of difficulties, a discrimination of this and the other likelihood, a mere weighing of probabilities, and nothing more, we are entangled in the worst form of scepticism; for it were better to reject truth altogether, than, believing in it, concede that man cannot find truth and certainty in religion. On this supposition, indeed, we should easily escape from our painful and unseemly contradictions; for probabilities do not annihilate each other. Moreover, every man’s opinion might now be easily admitted to be true to him; for if there be nothing but probabilities, truth is known to none. Thus the harmony and concord which so many desire — that is, the latitudinarianism which treats all opinions with similar deference — will be easily realized. The lowest development of Christianity might be shown, perhaps, to be a trifle more probable than the highest development of Deism; and on either side there might be found or fancied a graduated scale down to the abyss of Atheism, and up to the heavenly heights of true piety. But in such a series of barely perceptible steps there would be no place for a real conflict between truth and error, and every man might entertain an equal confidence of being right; for, on such a hypothesis, error would be indeed partial truth, and no man would be wrong, but men would differ only in possessing smaller and larger measures of knowledge.
To abandon the position, then, that we have certainty in our knowledge of the truth of Christianity, as good a certainty as we have in any other kind of knowledge, is to surrender our stronghold into the enemy’s hands. We admit that there is some difficulty in making out this certainty. But the labour of maintaining a position of importance is a bad argument for sounding a retreat. It has been already admitted, that the scientific argument is at present defective, and hence certainty cannot as yet be reached in that direction. The deep consciousness of this has doubtless led many to make an unwary concession. For to many the attainment of certainty seems still more hopeless on the practical side. In practical life, it will be asked, are not men guided by probabilities, and by them alone?
We are not unwilling to allow the whole discussion in which we are engaged to rest upon this one question: Have men, or have they not, certainty, that is, a perfect and unassailable confidence, in the accuracy of the knowledge on which they act in their ordinary practical affairs?
What certainty, it will be asked with a smile of triumph, has the husbandman that the coming harvest will reimburse him for all his toil and expenditure? What certainty has the physician that he will cure his patient, or succeed in his profession? What certainty has the merchant that his merchandise will not be lost in crossing the ocean? And so on in a thousand cases. None, we reply; none whatever. Probabilities, rather than certainties, enter most largely into the busy affairs of human existence.
But the question is by no means exhausted. The inquiry may be made: Are there probabilities only in the knowledge of the practical man? If his entire stock of knowledge be nothing else but a congeries of conjectures, and guesses, and probabilities, without even one stray certainty to bind them together or preside over them, he is more to be commiserated than the unhappy sailor, who has to navigate his ship over unknown seas, and through changeable stormy weather, without a compass or a chart. If the sailor has but a compass on board his vessel, he can pilot her fearlessly through buffeting waves and against adverse winds; so also, if in our practical knowledge there be even one certainty, one point which we adopt and hold with unwavering assurance, it may enable us to deal with manifold probabilities intelligently and safely. One positive undoubted assurance may be to us, in practical business, what the compass is to the navigator: it may serve to direct us unfailingly over the roughest portion of our passage across the sea of life.
Is there, then, no certainty on which men invariably fall back, when they are called to deal with any of the endless probabilities of our social state? Are there no sage maxims, which are in everybody’s mouth at one time or another, and whose certainty forms a striking contrast with the fluctuating nature of the events which it helps us to regulate and control? Do not prudent men always take the safe side? In how few cases is there a shadow of a doubt which is the safe side in steering our way through a sea of perplexities! There is as little doubt that that side should be chosen. There are few men so dull or stolid as not to know, with absolute and unconditional certainty, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred practical emergencies, where the risk lies, and how best to avoid it. Thousands are ruined not by the want of this knowledge, but by not acting upon it.
The application of this principle to Christianity is obvious and most conclusive. Allowing that the Bible has no credentials to sustain its assumption of being the word of God, except a few feeble probabilities; still the matter at stake is so momentous, and the time of action is so short and uncertain; the risk is so absolutely and completely on the side of neglect, and that risk, in all probability to say the least, is so awfully and tremendously great; that not to avoid it — not to choose the safe side of humble, hopeful obedience — is, in the estimation of common prudence, nothing better than the madness of infatuated folly.
On this conclusion, forcible and sweeping though it be, a Christian may take his stand with perfect certainty and unabashed assurance; and, having obtained this firm foothold, he may adjourn for further reflection and future decision the unsettled questions in the infidel controversy, taking them up one by one, and reserving his judgment till the full clear light of truth shall beam upon his waiting soul. Having obtained this strong position, he may, if he only be consistent with his own principles, carry conviction of guiltiness to every conscience through the numerous ranks of infidelity.
The last point calling for consideration is the criterion in morality. There are two distinct questions involved in this topic; namely, Is there some standard of morality, a knowledge of which is attainable by man, independently of any assistance from a written revelation? And if there be, what is it?
A common mode of discussing this topic is to take the last question first, and, from the admitted fact that men are not agreed in the principles or rules of morality, to draw the inference that, apart from the Bible, there is no certain knowledge attainable by man in moral questions. Although this be a very general and plausible manner of disposing of the matter, it appears to us that a consistent adherence to the principles herein implied would land us in the most complete scepticism.
The inquiry is, Are men without the Bible under an obligation, and possessed of capability, to attain some certain and accurate knowledge of morals, or are they not? To infer what ought to be from what is, is an obvious paralogism. This is precisely the argument of those who affirm that, because men disagree about moral principles, therefore there is no obligation or means of coming to an agreement. It were as reasonable to plead, that since a man has become a rogue, he could not, and cannot, be anything else.
Again, to deny that men have, or can have, any undoubted knowledge as to their duty towards God without the Holy Scriptures, seems to be equivalent to saying, that men who are ignorant of Christianity are irresponsible for their conduct. Whoever knows nothing, can never be summoned to a reckoning. Therefore, notwithstanding the painful fact that, apart from the word of God, men have not found a criterion in morals, it is an all-important position to maintain, that men might have found, and ought to have found one.
Again, admitting the Bible, inasmuch as it is a revelation from the God of truth, and the Supreme Governor of the universe, to be a criterion in moral and religious questions, yet it is to be noticed that Christians are by no means agreed in their interpretation of this book, and also that this book contains or sanctions truths of two distinct classes. The one class consists of truths which are properly speaking revealed, and which men could not have guessed or discovered without a special revelation of them; and the other class consists of truths which the Bible assumes or takes for granted as already known, or knowable by man.
To us it seems a plain inference, that if discrepancy and contradiction in morals amongst men ignorant of the Bible prove their incompetency to find a standard or attain a true knowledge of ethics to any extent, the contradiction and opposition that prevail among Christians on several momentous questions in morals and religion, will equally prove their incompetency to find a standard even with the help of revelation. If, then, there be no standard whatever apart from the Bible, the Bible itself cannot be a standard. Men have misinterpreted the word of God, as well as abused the God-given faculty within them. When the understanding and conscience, unaided by a written revelation, are cashiered, because many or most or all men have grievously perverted them, then, because these same faculties have been also grievously perverted in dealing with the word of God when known, they ought to be entirely, and in every form, rejected as invalid. This conclusion, which seems to be unanswerable, if the assumption which we are considering be granted, lands us in the bleak waste of scepticism. If men, then, can know anything certainly and truly by means of
the Bible, there is something in morals and religion which, without the Bible, they can certainly and truly know.
The Bible itself is written throughout on this supposition. It invariably speaks to men as if they knew something, with the purpose of telling them something additional. It could not have been constructed otherwise, so long as it is addressed to intelligent beings.
The inference which we draw is this, that there is a criterion in morals; that it must be found, and will be found, by men; that men will come to agree in moral principles much more extensively than they do at present, and will be able to discriminate between the moral truth which the Bible reveals or discovers, and the moral truth which the Bible assumes as knowable by man without special divine authority to sanction it, or express divine teaching to disclose it.
The criterion is certainly not yet found and accepted. Hence every honest and earnest mind will blush for human nature and for the Christian church, because of our sloth and perversity. Every ingenuous mind will also lend his best aid to elucidate and establish this criterion. This criterion would have been discovered, to some extent at least, long ago, if there had not been so many among Christians, as well as among Jews and Gentiles, who ‘do not obey the truth’ (Rom. ii. 8).
If now, instead of humbly confessing our ignorance of anything worthy of the name of a moral criterion, and earnestly doing our part to find it, we proceed to deny that there can be anything of the sort, and on this principle enter the lists with the infidel, we shall soon find ourselves discomfited, or, what is worse, be discomfited without feeling it.
The disadvantages of this mode of conducting the controversy are most conspicuous, when the assault upon Christianity is made from what is assumed to be a standard of moral truth. The only fair and successful way of repelling such an assault is, by showing that what is assumed to be moral truth is in reality not so. But this may prove a troublesome business; especially when the opponent will demand not only a refutation of his assumed criterion, but also the enunciation and vindication of the true criterion, — a demand which, on the face of it, is perfectly fair. It is a much shorter and easier way to laugh and jeer at anything that professes to be ‘a fixed moral basis;’ but this is truly to refute a moderate infidel by means of the principle of extreme scepticism. To foil the Deist by the weapons of Atheism may be successful for a time; but it will be awfully ruinous in the end.
So long as Christians are not agreed in adopting a standard of morality — not agreed as to what those ethical principles are which we may know without the assistance of the Bible, and which the Bible assumes to be known, and not agreed in the principles or truths more strictly speaking revealed — so long they must carry on the infidel controversy at a serious disadvantage. They must convert each other, before they can fully refute the unbeliever. It is vainglorious as well as futile to attempt to teach the world the truth, so far as they have yet themselves to learn the truth. Are not those who have learned the truth agreed in holding the truth? For Christians to reason with unbelievers without the assumption of a fixed basis of morality, is beating the air. To assume as fixed a basis of morality, while there is no harmony of opinion, or but little, among ourselves, as to what that basis actually is, were simply ridiculous, if the question were less important.
The evils entailed upon the Christian church in consequence of this state of matters, irrespective of the controversy with infidelity, are numerous and great. For Christians to be perpetually in conflict with each other as to the grounds of their faith, as well as in regard to the exposition of their faith, is to mar their Christian fellowship and retard their spiritual progress, even though they had no enemy to contend with. When no foe is at the gate, the direful consequences of division and schism on matters of moment are obvious and lamentable enough. How much is the evil intensified, and how truly alarming does it become, when, notwithstanding the vigorous assault of strong and subtle opponents, our schismatical contradictions and contentions are not only prolonged, but their existence justified on the plea of necessity, and their criminality palliated on the ground of their indirect and secondary advantages!
That Christians have not yet attained to a moral position, outside the Bible, and independent of it, on which as on a common vantage ground they could assail and overthrow every infidel adversary, secret or avowed, is not the worst feature of the case. It is equally mournful to behold them, with the Bible in their hands, debating and wrangling and contradicting respecting the meaning of the simplest statements, the import of the most precious truths, and the discharge of the most onerous duties. But, to our minds, it is the worst of all, and in a great measure the cause of the evils now specified, that the conscience of the Christian community is content with this condition of its affairs. There is no combined or continued or prayerful effort to effect a change for the better, for there is no belief that such a reformation is practicable. There needs no further evidence to show that we are a generation of babes in Christ: ‘Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.’
If an individual is constrained by his circumstances, or contented from his grovelling habits, to occupy himself only with ‘the first principles of the oracles of God;’ if he will take his station on the lowest practical platform of discussion; if his desire be, not to grow in grace or increase in knowledge, but simply to escape from hell, and no more, — even to such an one, whose tone of morality is so relaxed, and whose spiritual aspirations are so low, it is easy to find some current moral maxim, plain and indisputable to all, which shall expose the flimsiness of infidelity, and vindicate his acceptance of, and submission to, the Christian faith. Such practical and popular arguments must be held, and will be shown, to be as reasonable and valid in their own place, as the most laboured or recondite or scientific display of evidence is in its place.
If, on the other hand, we would rise to the possession of such evidence, we must be prepared for the toil which its acquisition implies. If the question must be probed to the bottom, and the argument assume a proper scientific form, then we must not fancy, because we are tired, that we have reached the bottom, while yet we have a depth to fathom; nor flatter ourselves that the symmetry of our argument is complete, when in fact, and to all impartial onlookers (as is manifested by prevailing contradictions), it is in a rude and undigested state.
A Believer and an Unbeliever in Christianity having agreed to hold some friendly converse upon the points of difference between them, and having requested a mutual acquaintance to act as Umpire, the following discussions are reported to have taken place. No reader, it is presumed, will suppose that, though the names Origen and Celsus are given to the disputants, the opinions which they are here represented as holding belonged to the historical personages who bore those names in the second and third centuries. The Umpire is called Theologus, inasmuch as he is expected to know something of ‘the science of God and divine things.’
If the sentiments expressed by Origen in the following dialogues seem to any individuals to be too grossly inconsistent with each other, they are referred to the notes in the margin, which prove that these contradictions have not sprung from the author’s heated imagination, but are held and published by some of the best writers of the present day. The reader is likewise requested to notice, that whenever words forming a part of quotations are found printed in italic or capital letters, they are so printed in the books whence the passage is taken.
1 Citius emergit Veritas ex errore quam ex confusione. — Bacon. Quoted by Sir W. Hamilton in his Discussions on Philosophy, etc, second odition, London 1853, p. 46.