William Ellery Channing.

The complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction online

. (page 52 of 169)
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as it came from its Founder. Go, then, to
its original records; place yourselves near
Jesus, and tell me if you ever found your-
selv^ in the presence of so calm a teacher.
We indeed discern in Jesus great earnestness,
but joined with entire self-control. SensibiUty
breathes through his wliole teaching and hfe,
but always tempered with wisdom. Amidst
his boldest thoughts and expressions, we
discover no marks of uii^ovemed feeling or a
diseased imagination. Take, as an example,
his longest discourse, the sermon on the
Mount. How weighty the thoughts I How
grave and dignified the style I You recollect
that the multitude were astonished, not at the
passionate vehemence, but at the authority,
with which he spoke. Read next the last
discourse of Jesus to his disciples in St. John's
Gospel. W hat a deep yet mild and subdued
tenderness mingles with conscious greatness
in that wonderful address I Take what is
called the Lord's Prayer, which Jesus gave
as the model of all prayer to God. Does
that countenance fanatical fervour or violent
appeals to oiu" Creator? Let me further ask,
Does Jesus anywhere place religion in tumul-
tuous, ungovemed emotion? Does be not
teach us that obedience, not feeling, marks
and constitutes true piety, and that the most
acceptable offering to God is to exercise mercy
to our fellow-creatures? When I compare
the clamorous preaching and p:issionate
declamation too common in the Christian
world, with the composed dignity, tlie deli-
berate wisdom, the freedom from all extra-
vagance, which characterized Jesus, I can
imagine no greater contrast ; and I am sure
that the fiery zealot is no representative of

I have done with the first objection ; but
another class of objections is often urged
against the reasonable character of our reli-
gion. It has been strenuously maintained
that Christianity contains particular doctrines
which arc irrational, and which involve the
whole religion to which they are essential in
their own condemnation. To this class of
objections 1 have a short reply. I insist that
these offensive doctrines do not belong to
Christianity, but arc human additions, and
therefore do not derogate from its reason-
ableness and truth. What is tlie doctrine
most frpf|uently adduced to fix the charge
of irrationality on the Gosi^cl? It is the
Trinity. This is pronounced by the uuIm;-
liever a gross oftence to reason. It teaches
that there is one Ood, and yet that there are
three dj\ ioc uorsons. According to the doc-
trine these three persons perform different
olhceb and sustain ditterent relations to t;i'-li

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other. One is Father, another his Son. One
sends, another is sent. They love each other,
converse with each other, and make a cove-
nant with each other; and yet, with all these
distinctions, they are, according to the doctrine,
not different beings, but one being, one and
the same God. "Is this a rational doc-
trine?" has often been the question of the
objector to Christianity. I answer. No. I
can as easily believe that the whole human
race are one man, as that three infinite per-
sons, performing such different offices, are
one God. But I maintain that, because the
Trinity is irrational, it does not follow that
the same reproach belongs to Christianity;
for this doctrine is no part of the Christian
religion. I know there are passages which
are continually quoted in its defence; but
allow me to prove doctrines in the same way
— that is, by detaching texts from their con-
nection and interpreting them without refer-
ence to the general current of Scripture — and
I can prove anything and everything from
the Bible. I can prove that God has human
passions. I can prove transubstantiation,
which is taught much more explicitly than
the Trinity. Detached texts prove nothing.
Christ is called God ; the same title is given
to Moses and to rulers. Christ has said, " I
and my Father are one ; " so he prayed that
all his disciples might be one, meaning not
one and the same being, but one in affection
and purpose. I ask you, before you judge
on this point, to read the Scriptiu^s as a
whole, and to inquire into their general strain
and teaching in regard to Christ. I find him
uniformly distinguishing between himself
and God, calling himself, not God the Son,
but the Son of God— <x>ntinually speaking of
himself as sent by God, continually referring
his power and miracles to God. I hear him
saying that of himself he can do nothing,
and praying to his B'ather under the character
of the only true God. Such I affirm to be
the tenor, the current, the general strain of
the New Testament ; and the scattered pas-
sages on which a different doctrine is built
should have no weight against this host of
witnesses. Do not rest your faith on a few
texts. Sometimes these favourite texts are
no part of Scripture. For example, the
famous passage on which the Trinity mainly
rests, "There are three that bear record in
Heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy
Ghost, and these three are one," — this text,
I say, though found at present in John's
Epistle, and read in our churches, has been
pronounced by the ablest critics a forgery;
and a vast majority of the educated ministers
of this country are satisfied that it is not a
part of Scripture. Suffer no man, then, to
select texts for you as decisive of religious
controversies. Read the whole record for

yourselves, and possess yourselves of its
general import. I am very desirous to sepa-
rate the doctrine in question from Christianity,
because it fastens the charge of irrationality
on the whole religion. It is one of the great
obstacles to the propagation of the Gospel.
The Jews will not hear of a Trinity. I have
seen in the countenance, and heard in the
tones of the voice, the horror with which
that people shrink from the doctrine that God
died on the cross. Mahometans, too, \vhen
they hear this opinion from Christian mis-
sionaries, repeat the first article of their faith,
" There is one God ; " and look with pity or
scorn on the disciples of Jesus as deserters of
the plainest and greatest truth of religion.
Even the Indian of our wilderness, who wor-
ships the Great Spirit, has charged absurdity
on the teacher who has gone to indoctrinate
him in a trinity. How many, too, in Chris-
tian countries, have suspected the whole reli-
gion for this one error. Believing, then, as I
do, that it forms no part of Christianity, my
allegiance to Jesus Christ calls me openly to
withstand it. In so doing I would wound no
man's feelings. I doubt not, that they who
adopt this doctrine intend, equally with those
who oppose it, to render homage to the truth
and service to Christianity. They think that
their peculiar faith gives new interest to the
character and new authority to the teaching
of Jesus. But they grievously err. The
views by which they hope to build up love
towards Christ detract from the perfection of
his Father; and I fear that the kind of piety
which prevails now in the Christian world
bears witness to the sad influence of this
obscuration of the true glory of God. We
need not desert reason or corrupt Chris-
tianity to insure the purest, deepest love
towards the only true God, or towards Jesus
Christ, whom He has sent for our redemption.
I have named one doctrine which is often
urged against Christianity as irrational. There
is one more on which I would offer a few re-
marks. Christianity has often been reproached
with teaching that God brings men into life
totally depraved, and condemns immense
multitudes to everlasting misery for sins to
which their nature has irresistibly impelled
them. This is said to be irrational, and con-
sequently such must be the religion which
teaches it. I certainly shall not attempt to
vindicate this theological fiction. A more
irrational doctrine could not, I think, be con-
trived; and it is something worse — it is as
immoral in its tendency as it is unreasonable.
It is suited to alienate men from God and
from t)ne another. Were it really believed
(which it cannot be), men would look up
with dread and detestation to the Author of
their being, and look round with horror on
their fellow-creatures. It would dissolve so-

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dety. Were men to see in one another
wholly corrupt beings — incarnate fiends,
without one genuine virtue — society would
become as repulsive as a den of lions or a
nest of vipers. All confidence, esteem, love,
wouUl die; and without these the interest.
Charm, and worth of existence would expire.
What a pang would shoot through a parent's
heart if he were to see in the smUing infant a
moral being- continually and wholly prepense
to sin, in whose mind were thickly sown the
seeds of hatred to 'God and goodness, and
who had commenced his existence under the
curse of his Creator ! What good man could
consent to be a parent if his oflfepring were to
be bom to this ii\finitely wretched inheritance ?
I say the doctrine is of immoral tendency;
but I do not say that they who profess it are
immond. The truth is that none do or can
bold it in its full and proper import. I have
seen its advocates smile as benignantly on the
child whom their creed has i^ade a demon as
if it were an angel ; and I have seen them
mingling with their fellow-creatures as cor-
dially and confidingly as if the doctrine of
total depravity had never entered their ears.
Perhaps the most mischievous effect of the
doctrine is the dishonour which it has thrown
on Christianity. This dishonour I would wipe
away. Christianity teaches no such doctrine.
Where do you find it in the New Testament ?
Did Jesus teach it when he took little children
in his arras and blessed them, and said, " Of
such is the kingdom of God?" Did Paul
teach it when he spoke of the Gentiles, who
have not the law or a written revelation, but
who do by nature the things contained in the
law ? Christianity indeed speaks strongly of
human guilt, but alwap treats men as beings
who have the power of doing right, and who
have come into existence under the smile of
their Creator.

I have now completed my vindication of the
claim of the Gospel to the character of a
rational religion ; and my aim has been, not
to serve a party, but the cause of our com-
mon Christianity. At the present day, one of
the most urgent duties of its friends is, to
rescue it from the reproach of waging war
with reason. The character of our age de-
mands this. There have been times when
Christianity, though loaded with unreason-
able doctrines, retained its hold on men's
ikith ; for men had not learned to think.
They received their religion as children learn
the catechism ; they substituted the priest for
their own understandings, and cared neither
what nor why they believed. Hut that day is
gone by; and the spirit of freedom which has
succeeded it is subjecting Christianity to a
scrutiny more and more severe ; and if this
religion cannot vindicate itself to the reflect-

ing, the calm, the wise, as a reasonable ser-
vice, it cannot stand. Fanatical sects may,
for a time, spread an intolerant excitement
through a community, and impose silence on
tlie objections of the sceptical. But fanaticism
is the epidemic of a season ; it wastes itself
by its own violence. Sooner or later the voice
of reflection will be heard. Men will ask,
What are the claims of Christianity? Does
it bear the marks of truth ? And if it be found
to war with nature and reason, it will be, and
it ought to be, abandoned. On this ground,
I am anxious that Christianity should be
cleared from all human additions and ccrrup-
tions. If indeed irrational doctrines belong
to it, then I have no desire to separate them
from it. I have no desire, for the sake of up-
holding the Gospel, to wrap up and conceal,
much less to deny, any of its real principles.
Did I think that it was burdened with one
irrational doctrine, I would say so, and I
would leave it, as I found it, with this mill-
stone round its neck. But I know nonesuch.
I meet, indeed, some difficulties in the narra-
tive part of the New Testament ; and there
are arguments in the Epistles which, however
suited to the Jews, to whom they were first
addressed, are not apparently adapted to men
at large; but I see not a principle of the
religion which my reason, calmly and im-
partially exercised, pronounces inconsistent
with any great truth. 1 have the strongest
conviction that Christianity is reason in its
most perfect form, and therefore I plead for
its disengagement from the irrational addi-
tions with which it has been clogged for ages.
With these views of Christianity, I do and
I must hold it fast. I cannot surrender it to
the cavils or scof& of infidelity. I do not
blush to own it, for it is a rational religion.
It satisfies the wants of the intellect as well as
those of the heart. I know that men of strong
minds have opposed it. But, as if Providence
intended that their sophistry should carry a
refutation on its own front, they have gene-
rally fallen into errors so gross and degrading
as to prove them to be anything rather than
the apostles of reason. When 1 go from the
study of Christianity to their writings, I feel as
if I were passing from the warm bright sun
into a chilling twilight which too often deepens
into utter darkness. I am not, then, ashamed
of the Gospel. I see it glorified by the hostile
systems which are reared for its destruction.
I follow Jesus, because he is eminently "the
Light;" and I doubt not that, to his true
disciples, he will be a guide to that world
where the obscurities of our present state will
be dispersed, and where reason as well as
virtue will be unfolded under the quickening
influence and in the more manifest presence of

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Discourse at the Ordination of tJie Rev. F, A. Farley, Providmce,

R. /., 1828.

EPHBSIANS r.-x : " B* ye therefor* followers of God, as
dear children '*

To promote true religion is the purpose of
the Christian ministry. For this it was or-
dained. On the present occasion, therefore,
when a new teacher is to be given to the
church, a discourse on the character of true
religion uill not be inappropriate. I do not
mean that I shall attempt, in the limits to
which I am now confined, to set before you
all its properties, signs, and operations ; for
in so doing I should burden your memories
with divisions and vague generalities as unin-
teresting as they would be unprofitable. My
purpose is to select one view of the subject
which seems to me of primary dignity and
importance ; and I select this because it is
greatly neglected, and because I attribute to
this neglect much of the inefficacy and many
of the corruptions of religion.

The text calls us to follow or imitate God,
to seek accordance with or likeness to Him ;
and to do this not fearfully and faintly, but
with the spirit and hope of beloved children.
The doctrine which I propose to illustrate is
derived immediately from these words, and
is incorporated with the whole New Testa-
ment. I at!irm, and would maintain, that
true religion consii»ts in proposing as our
great end a growing likeness to the Supreme
Being. Its noblest influence consists in
making us more and more partakers of the
Divinity. For this it is to be preached.
Religious instruction should aim chiefly to
turn men's aspirations and efforts to that
perfection of the soul which constitutes it a
bright image of God. Sucli is the topic now
to be discussed; and I implore Him whose
glory I seek to aid me in unfolding and en-
forcing it with simplicity and clearness, with
a calm and pure zeal, and with imfeigned

I begin with observing, what all indeed will
understand, that the likeness to God of which
I propose to speak belongs to man's higher
or spiritual nature. It has its foundation in
the original and essential capacities of the
mind. In proportion as these are unfolded
by right and vigorous exertion, it is extended
and brightened. In proportion as these lie
dormant, it is obscured. In proportion as
they are perverted and overpowered by the
appetites and passions, it is blotted out. In
truth, moral evil, if unresisted and habitual,
may so blight and lay waste these capacities,

that the image of God in roan may seem to
be wholly destroyed.

The importance of this assimilation to our
Creator is a topic which needs no laboured
discussion. All men, of whatever name, or
sect, or opinion, will meet me on this ground.
All, I presume, will allow that no good in tlie
compaiss of the imiverse, or within the gift of
omnipotence, can be compared to a resem-
blance of God, or to a partkipation of his
attributes. I fear no contradiction here.
Likeness to God is the supreme gift. He can
communicate nothing so precious, glorious,
blessed as Himself. To hold intellectual and
moral affinity with the Supreme Being, to
partake his spirit, to be his children by deri-
vations of kindred excellence, to bear a grow-
ing conformity to the perfection which we
adore — ^this is a felicity which obscures and
annihilates all other good.

It is only in proportion to this likeness tljat
we can enjoy either God or the imiverse. That
God can be known and enjoyed only through
sympathy or kindred attributes, is a doctrine
which even Gentile philosc^hy discerned.
That the pure in heart can alone see and com-
mune with the pure Divinity, was thesubhme
instruction of ancient sages as well as of in-
spired prophets. It is indeed the lesson of
daily experience. To understand a great and
good being, we must have the seeds of the
same excellence. How quickly, by what an
instinct, do accordant minds recognize one
another 1 No attraction is so powerful as that
which subsists between the truly wise and
good ; whilst the brightest excellence is lost
on those who have nothing congenial in their
own breasts. God becomes a real being to
us in proportion as his own nature is unfolded
within us. To a man who is growing in the
likeness of God, faith begins even here to
change into vision. He carries within him-
self a proof of a Deity which can only be
understood by experience. He more than
believes, he fe«ls the Divine presence; and
gradually rises to an intercourse with his
Maker to which it is not irreverent to apply
the name of friendship and intimacy. The
Apostle John intended to express this truth,
when he tells us that he in whom a principle
of divine charity or benevolence has become a
habit and life " dwells in God and God in him."

It is plain, too, that likeness to God is the
true and only preparation for the enjoyment
of the universe. In proportion as we ^-

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proach and rr';cmblc the mind of GckI, we are
brought into harmony with the creation ; for
in that proportion wc possess the principles
from which the unrverse sprang; we carry
within ourselves the perfections of which its
beauty, magnificence, order, benevolent adap-
tations, and boundless purposes are the results
and manifestations. God unfolds Himself in
his works to a kindred mind. It is possible
that the brevity of these hints may expose to
the charge of mysticism what seems to me
the calmest and clearest truth. I think, how-
ever, that every reflecting man will feel that
likeness to God must be a principle of sym-
pathy or accordance with his creation; for
the creation is a birth and shining forth of
the Divine Mind, a work through which his
spirit breathes. In proportion as we receive
this spirit we possess within ourselves the ex-
planation of what we see. We discern more
and more of God in everything, from the
frail flower to the everlasting stars. Even in
evil, that dark cloud which hangs over the
creation, we discern rays of light and hope,
and gradually come to see in suffering and
temptation proofs and instruments of the sub-
limest purposes of Wisdom and Love.

I have offered these very imperfect views
that I may show the great importance of the
doctrine which I am solicitous to enforce.
I would teach that likeness to God is a good
so unutterably surpassing all other good, that
whoever admits it as attainable must acknow-
ledge it to be the chief aim of life. I would
show that the highest and happiest office of
religion is to bring the mind into growing
accordance with God; and that by the ten-
dency of religious systems to this end their
truth and worth are to be chiefly tried.

I am aware that it may be said that the
Scriptures, in speaking of man as made in
the image of God, and in calling us to imitate
Him, use bold and figurative language. It
may be said that there is danger from too
literal an interpretation ; that God is an un-
approachable being ; that I am not warranted
in ascribing to man a like nature to the
Divine ; that we and all things illustrate the
Creator by contrast, not by resemblance ; that
religion manifests itself chiefly in convictions
and acknowledgments of utter worthlcssness;
and that to talk of the greatness and divinity
of the human soul is to inflate that pride
through which Satan fell, and through which
man involves himself in that fallen spirit's

I answer that, to r.%e, Scripture and reason
hold a different language. In Christianity
particularly I meet perpetual testimonies to
the divinity of human nature. This whole
religion expresses an infinite concern of God
for the human soul, and teaches that I Ic deems
no methods too expensive for its recovery and

exaltation. Christianity with one voice calls
me to turn my regards and care to the spirit
within me, as of more worth than the whole
outward world. It calls us to ** be perfect as
our Father in heaven is perfect ; " and every-
where, in the sublimity of its precepts, it
implies and recognizes the sublime capacities
of the being to whom they are addressed. It
assures us that human virtue is "in the sight
of God of great price,',' and speaks of the
return of a human being to virtue as an event
which increases the joy of heaven. In the
New Testament Jesus Christ, the Son of God,
the brightness of his glory, the express and
imsullied image of the Divinity, is seen
mingling with men as a friend and brother.
oflFering himself as their example, and pro-
mising to his true followers a share in all his
splendours and joys. In the New Testament
God is said to communicate his own spirit
and all his fulness to the human soul. In
the New Testament man is exhorted to aspire
after "honour, glory, and immortality ;" and
Heaven, a word expressing the nearest
approach to God and a divine happiness, is
everywhere proposed as the end of his being.
In truth, the very essence of Christian faith
is that we trust in God's mercv as revealed in
Jesus Christ, for a state of celestial purity in
which we shall grow for ever in the likeness,
and knowledge, and enjoyment of the Infinite
Father. Lofty views of the nature of man
are bound up and interwoven with the whole
Christian system. Say not that these are at
war with humility; for who was ever humbler
than Jesus, and yet who ever possessed such
a consciousness of greatness and divinity?
Say not that man's business is to think of his
sin and not of his dignity; for great sin
implies a great capacity ; it is the abuse of a
noble nature ; and no man can be deeply and
rationally contrite, but he who feels that In
wrong-doing he has resisted a divine voice,
and warred against a divine principle in his
own soul.— I need not, I trust, pursue the
argument from revelation. There is an argu-
ment from nature and reason which seems to
me so convincing, and is at the same time so
fitted to explain what I mean by man's pos-
session of a like nature to God, that I shall
pass at once to its exposition.

That man has a kindred natim; with God,
and may bear most important and ennobling
relations to Him, seems to me to be estab-
lished by a striking proof. This proof you
will understand by considering, for a moment,
how we obtain our ideas of God. Whence
come the conceptions which we include under
that august name? Whence do we derive
our knowledge of the attributes and perfec-
tions which constitute the Supreme Being?
I answer, we derive them from our own souls.
The divine attributes are first developed in

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ourselves, and thence transferred to our
Creator. The idea of God, sublime and
awful as it is, is the idea of our own spiritual

Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 52 of 169)