William Ellery Channing.

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

. (page 81 of 169)
Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 81 of 169)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

little refined and elaborate reasoning, but

L appeals to the great moral principles of
hsman nature, and to the general strain of
the Scriptures. It expresses strongly and
without circumlocution the abhorrence with

^ which every mind, uncorrupted by lalse theo-
logy, must look on Calvinism ; and although
some of its delineatit^as may be overcharged,
yet .they are substantially correct, and their
strength is their excellence. The truth is,
that nothing is so necessary on this subject aa
to awaken moral feeling in men's breasts.
Calvinism owes its perpetuity to the influence
of fear in palsying the moral nattire* Men's
minds and consciences are subdued by terror,
so that they dare not confess, even to them-
selves, the shrinking which they feel from the
unworthy views which this system gives of
Ood; and« by thus smothering their just ab-
horrence, they gradually extinguish It, and
even come to vindicate in God what would
disgrace his creatures. A voice of power
ted solemti warning is needed to rouse them
ttem this lethargy, to give them a new and a
Jgllim dread, the dread of incurring God's
SiplaBture, by making Him odious, and ex«
•JfMDg religion to insult and aversion. — In
tbe present article we intend to treat this
sidiject vrith great freedom. But we beg that
It lanr be understood that by Calvinism we
iMtnd only the peculiarities ^r disdnguishlng
s 0f that system. We would also
it remeipbeftd that these peculiarities

form a small part of the religlouJi faith of a
Calvinist. He joins with them the geneml,
fundamental, and most important truths of
Christianity, by which they are always
neutralized in a greater or less degree, and
in some cases nullified. Accordingly it has
been our happiness to See in the numerous
body by which they are professed, some of
the brightest examples of Christian virtue.
Our hostility to the doctrine does not extend
to its advocates. In bearing our stronffestf
testimony against error, we do not the less
honour the moral and religious worth with
which it is often connected.

The book under review will probably be
objected to by theologians, because it takes no
notice of a distbictlon, invented by Calvinlstifl
metaphysicians, for rescuing their doctrines
from the charge of aspersmg God's equity
and goodness. We refer to the distJtffction
between natural and moral inability, a
subtlety which may be thought to deserve
some attention, because it makes such a show
in some of the principal books of this sesct.
But, with due defeiwice to its defenders, it
seems to us groundless and idle, a distinction
without a difference. An inability to do our
duty, which is bom with us, is to all intents,
and according to the established meaning of
the word, natural. Call It moral, or what
you please, it is still a part of the nature
which our Creator gave us, and to suppose
that He punishes us for it, because it is att
inability seated in the will, is just as absurd
as to suppose Him to punish us fot ft weak-
ness of sight or of a limb. Common people
cannot understand this distinction, cdnnot
split this hair ; and it is no sttiall objection
to Calvinism that, according to its ablest
defenders, it can only be reconciled to God's
peHections by a ttietaphysical subtlety ^hich
the mass of people cannot comprehend.

If we were fo speak as critics of the ^ttle
of this book, we should say that, whilst
generally clear, and sometimes striking, it
Has the fttults of the style Which was very
current not many years ago in this country,
and which, we fwfjoice to say, is giving place
to a htXitt. The style to which We refer, and
which threatened to supplant good Writing in
this country, intended to be elegant, but fell
into jejuneness and in^pidity. It delighted
in words and arrangements of words which
were little soiled by common use, and mistook
a spruce neatness for grace. We had a Pro-
crustes' bed for sentences, and there seemed
to be a settled war between the style of
writing and the free sfvie of Conversation.
Times, we think, have cnartged. Men have
learned more to write as they speak, and are
ashamed to dress up fkmiliar thoughts as i(
they were just arrived from a fdr country and
could not appear in public without a foreign

Digitized by VaOOQlC




and studied attire. They have learned that
common words are common, precisely be-
cause most fitted to express real fBcliog and
strong conception, and that the dreuitous,
measured phraseology, which was called ele-
gance, was but the parade of weakness.
They have learned that words are the signs
of thought, and worthless counterfeits with-
out it, and that style is good when, instead
of being anxiously cast into a mould, it seems
a free and natural expression of thought, and
gives to us with power the workings of the
author's mind.

We have been led to make these remarks
on the style which in a degree marks the
book before us, from a persuasion that this
mode of writing has been (Kulicularly in-
jurious to religion, and to rational religion.
It has crept into sermons, perhaps, more than
into any other compositions, and has imbued
them with that soporific quality which they
have sometimes been found to possess in an
eminent degree. How many hearers have
been soothed by a smooth, watery flow of
words, a regular chime of sentences, and
elegantly rocked into repose ! We are aware
that preachers, above all writers, are ex-
cusable for this style, because it is the easiest ;
and, having too much work to do, they must
do it, of course, in the eadiest way. But we
mourn the necessity, and mourn stUl more the
effect. It gives us great pleasure to say that
in this particular we think we perceive an
improvemeht taking place in this region.
Preaching is becoming more direct, aims
more at impression, and seeks the nearest
way to mens hearts and consciences. We
often hear from the pulpit strong thought in
plain and strong language. It is hoped, from
the state of society, that we shall not fiy from
one extreme to another, and degenerate into
coarseness ; but perhaps even this is a less
evil than tameness and insipidity.

To return; the principal argument against
Calvinism, in the General View of Christian
Doctrines, is the moral argument^ or that
which is drawn from the inconsistency of the
system Mrith the divine perfections. It is
plain that a doctrine which contradicts our
best ideas of goodness and justice, cannot
come from the just and p[ood God, or be a
true representation of his character. This
moral argument has always been powerful to
the pulling down of the strongholds of Cal-
vinism. Even in the dark period, when thb
system was shaped and finished at Geneva,
its advocates often writhed under the weight
of it ; and we cannot but deem it a mark of
the progress of society that Calvinists are
more and more troubled with the palpable
reptignancc of their doctrines to God's na-
♦yre. and accordingly labour to soften and

main them, until in many casos the name

only is retained. If the stern Reformer of
Geneva could lift up his head and hear the
mitigated tone in which some of his pro-
lisssed followers dispense his fearful doctrines,
we fear that he could not lie down in peace
until he had poured out his displeasure on
their cowardice and d^^neracy. He would
tell them, with a frown, that modtrate Cal-
vinism was a solecism, a contradiction in
terms, and would bid them in scorn to join
their real friend, Arminius. Such is the
power of public opinion and of an improved
state of society on creeds, that naked undis-
p;uised Calvinism is not very fond of showing
Itself, and many of consequence know imper-
fectly what it means. What, then, is the
^tem against which the View of Christian
Doctrines is directed ?

Calvinism teaches that, in consequence of
Adam's sin in eating the forbidden fruit, God
brings into life all his posterity with a nature
wholly corrupt, so that thev are utterly indis-
posed, disabled, and macie opposite to all
that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined
to all evil, and th^ continually. It teaches
that all mankind, having fallen in Adam, are
under God's wrath and curse, and so made
liable to all miseries in this life, to death
itself, and to the pains of hell for ever. It
teaches that from this ruined race God, out of
his mere good pleasure, has elected a certain
number to ht saved by Christ, not induced to
this choice by any foresight of their faith or
good woiics, but wholly by his free grace and
u>ve; and that, having thus predestinated
them to eternal life. He renews and sanctifies
them by his almighty and special agenqTi
and brings them into a state of grace from
which they cannot fall and perish. It teacb<s
that the rest of mankind He is pleased to pass
over, and to ordain them to dishonour and
wrath for their sins, to the honour of his
justice and power; in other words. He leaves
the rest to the corruption in which they were
bom. withholds the grace which is necessaiy
to their recovery, and condemns thero to
"most grievous torments in soul and bodjr
without intermission in hell-fire for ever.
Such is Calvinism, as gathered from the most
'authentic records of the doctrine. Whoever
will consult the famous Assembly's Catechisms
and Confession, will see the peculiarities of
the system in all their length and breadth of
deformity. A man of plain sense, whose
spirit has not been broken to this creed hy
education or terror, will think that it is not
necessary for us to travd to heathen countries
to learn how mournfully the human mind
may misrepresent the Deity.

The moral argument against Calrinisni. of
which we have spoken, must seem irresistibte
to common and unperverted minds, after
attending to the brief statement now given.

Digitized by VaOOQlC



It win be asked with nstonlshment, How is it
possible that men can hold these doctrines
and yet maintain God's goodness and equity ?
What principles can be more contradictory?
— ^To remove the objection to Calvinism,
whidi is drawn from its repugnance to the
Divine perfections, recourse has been had, as
before observed, to the distinction between
natural and moral inability, and to other like
subtleties. But a more common reply, we
conceive, has been drawn from the weakness
and imperfection of the human mind, and
from its incapacity of comprehending God.
Calvinists will tell us, that because a doctrine
opposes our convictions of rectitude, it is not
necessarily false; that apparent are not always
lesd. inconsistencies; that God is an infinite
and incomprehensible being, and not to be
tried hyour ideas of fitness and morality; that
we bring their sjrstem to an incompetent
tribunal when we submit it to the decision of
human reason and conscience; that we are
weak judges of what is right and wrong, ^ood
and evil, in the Deity; that the happiness
of the universe may require an administration
of human afiEiirs which is very offensive to
limited understandings ; that we must follow
revelation, not reason or moral feeling, and
must consider doctrines, which shock us in
revelation, as awful mysteries, which are dark
through our ignorance, and which time will
enlighten. How littie, it is added, can man
expkin or understand God's ways. How
inconsistent the miseries of life appear with
goodness in the Creator. How prone, too,
have men always been to confound good and
evil, to call the just unjust. How pre-
sumptuous is it in such a being to sit in
judgment upon God, and to question the
rectitude of the divine administration because
it shocks his sense of rectitude. Such we
conceive to be a fair statement of the manner
in which the Calvinist frequently meets the
objection that his system is at war with God's
attributes. Such the reasoning by which the
voice of conscience and nature is stifled, and
men are reconciled to doctrines which, if
tried by the established principles of morality,
would be rejected lith horror. On this
reasoning we purpose to offer some remarks ;
and we shall avail ourselves of the opportu-
nity to give our y\e:wsoi the confidence wfiich
is due to our rational and moral faculties in

'Hiat God is infinite, and that man often
ens, we affirm as strongly as our Calvinistic
brethren. We desire to think humbly of
ourselves and reverently of our Creator. In
the strong language of Scripture, •• We now
see through a glass darkly." "We cannot
\ff searching find out God unto perfection.
Clouds and daricness are round about him.
His judgments are a great deep." God is

great and good beyond nttenince or thought
We have no disposition to kiolize our own
powers, or to penetrate the secret counsels of
the Deity. But, on the other hand, we thmk
it im^tefiil to disparage the powers whkh ^
our Creator has given us, or to question the
certainty or importance of the knowledge
which lie has seen fit to place within our
reach. There is an affected humility, we
think, as dangerous as pride. We may rate
our faculties too meanly, as well as too boast-
ingly. The worst error in rehgion, after all,
is that of the sceptic, who records trium-
phanUy the weaknesses and wanderings of the
human intellect, and maintains that no trust
is due to the decisions of this erring reason.
We by no means conceive that man's greatest
danger springs from pride of understanding,
though we think as badly of this vice as
other Christians. The history of the church
proves that men may trust their faculties too
litUe as well as too much, and that the
timidity which shrinks from investigation
has injured the mind, and t)etrayed the in-
terests of Christianity, as much as an irre-
verent boldness of thought

It is an important truth, which we appre-
hend has not been suffidentlv developed, y
that the ultimate reliance of a htmfian being
is and must be on his own mind. To confide
in God, we must first confide in the faculties
by which He is apprehended, and bv which
the proofs of his existence are weighed. A
trust in our abilitv to distinguish between
truth and felsehood is implied in every act of
belief; for to question -this ability would of
necessity unsettle all belief. We cannot take
a step in reasoning or action without a secret
reliance on our own minds. Religion in
particular impUes that we have understand-
ings endowed and qualified for the highest
employments of intellect. In affirming the
existence and perfections of God, we suppose
and affirm the existence in ourselves of
faculties which correspond to these sublime
objects, and which are fitted to discern them.
Religion is a conviction and an act of the
human soul, so that in denying confidence to
the one, we subvert the truth and dafms of
the other. Nothing is gained to pfety by
degrading human nature, for in the com-
petency of this nature to know and judge of
God all piety has its foundation. Our prone-
ness to err instructs us, indeed, to use our
powers with great caution, but not to con-
temn and neglect them. The occasional
abuse of our faculties, be it ever so enormous,
dors not prove them unfit for their highest
end, which is to form clear and consistent
views of God. Because our eyes sometimes
fail or deceive us, would a wise man pluck
them out, or cover them with a bandage, and
choose to walk and woi^ in the dark? or.

Digitized by^VjOOQlC



iMcaiiM they eanttot dislingxiifih cllsUuit ob-
jects, can thejr discern nothing clearly in their
t>roper sphere, and is sight to be pronounced
a fidladous guide? Men who, to support a
creed, would shake our trust in the calm,
deliberate, and distinct decisions of our
rational and moral powers, endanger religion
more than its open foes, and forge the dead-
liest weapon for the infidel.

It is true that God is an infinite being, and
also true that his powers and perfections, his
purposes and opecations, his ends and means,
being unlimited, are iucomf^rihtnsibU. In
other words, their caanot be wMly iaktti in
or tmbra€td by the human mind. In the
sfTong and figurative language of Scripture,
WB " know nothing" of God's ways; that is,
we know vtry/kw of them. But this is just
as true of the most advanced archangel as of
man. In comparison with the vastness of
God's system, the range of the highest created
intellect is narrow ; and in this particular
man's lot does not differ from that of his elder
brethren in heaven. We are both confined in
our observation and e^^perience to a little spot
in the creation. But are an angel's faculties
worthy of no trust, or is bis km)wledge un-
certain, because he learns and reasons from a
small part of God's works? or are his judg-
ments respecting the Creator to be chaiged
with presumption, becaiise his views do not
spread through the whole exient of the uni-
verse ? We grant that our understandings
cannot stretch beyond a very narrow sphere.
But still the lessons which we learn within
this sphere are just as sure as if it were
indefinitely enlarged. Because much is un-
explored, we are not to suspect what we have
actually discovered. Knowledge is not the
less real because confined. The man who
has never set foot beyond his native village,
knows its scenery and inhabitants as undoubt-
ingly as if he had travelled to the poles. We
indeied see very little ; but that little is as true
as if everything else were seen; and our future
discoveries must agree with and support it.
Should the whole order and purposes of the
universe be opened to us, it is certain that
nothing would be disclosed which would in
any degree shake our persuasion that the
earth is inhabited by rational and moral
beings, who are authorized to expect from
their Creator the most benevolent and equi-
table government. No extent of observation
can unsettle those primary and fundamental
principles of moral truth which we derive
from our highest faculties operating in the
relations in whiph God has fixed hs. In every
region and period qf the universe, it will be as
true as it is now on the earth, that knowledge
and power are the measures of responsibility,
and that natural incapacity absolves from
guilt* These and other moral verities, which

are among our clearest pcFcepti9)|% would, if
possible, be strengthened, in proportion as our
power^ should be enlarged ; because har-
mony and consistency are the characters of
Gods administration, and all our researches
into the universe only serve to manifest its
unity, and to show a wider operation of the
laws whic)) we witness and experience on

We grant that God is incomfrehemibU, in
the sense already given. But He is not there-
fore unintelligibU : and this distinction we
conceive to be important. We do not pretend
to know the whole nature and properties of
God, but still we can form some cUar idtaf
of Him, and ca|i reason from these ideas as
justly as from any other. The truth is. that
we cannot be said to comprehend any being
whatever, not the simplest plant or animaL
All have hidden properties. Oiu* knowledge
of all is limited. But have we therefore no
distinct ideas of the objects around us, and
is all our reasoning about them unworthy^
trust ? Because God is infinite, his name i:
not therefore a mere sound. It is a repr«»
sentative of some distinct conceptions of our
Creator ,* and these conceptions are as sure,
and important, and as proper materials for
the reasoning faculty, as they would be if our
views were mdefinitely enlarged. We can-
not indeed trace God's goodness and recti-
tude through the whole field of his operations ;
but we know the essential nature of these
attributes, and therefore can often judge what
accords with and opposes them. God s good-
ness, because infinite, does not cease to be
goodness, or essentially differ from the same
attribute in man ; nor does justice change
its nature, so that it cannot be understood,
because it Is seated in an unbounded mind.
There have indeed been philosophers, "falsdjr
so called," who have argued, from the um-
limited nature of God, that we cannot ascribe
to Him justice and other moral attributes in
any proper or definite sense of those wwds;
and the inference is plain, that all religion or
worship, wanting an intelligible object, most
be a misplaced, wasted offering. I'his doc-
trine from the inficjel we reject with abhor-
rence ; but something, not very difierent. too
often reaches us from the mistaken Christian,
who, to save his creed, shrouds the Creator
in utter darkness. In opposition to both, we
maintain that God's attributes are intelligible,
and that we can conceive as truly of hjs good*
ness and justice as of these qualities in xqcq.
In fact, these qualities are essentially tbo
same in God apd man, though dilTcrii:^ vi
degree, in purity, and in extent of operaSq*.
We know not and we cannot conceivp of ^Kf
other justice or goodness than we learn fioptt
our own nature; and if God have not tlxilu
He is altogether imknown to us as a a^ipA

Digitized by V^OOQIC



being ; He offiers nothing for esteem and love
to rest upon ; the objection of the infidel is
just, that worship is wasted: "We worship
we know not what."

It is asked, On what authority do we ascribe
to God goodness and rectitude in the sense
in which these attributes belong to men, or
how can we judge of the nature of attributes
in the mind of the Creator? We answer
by asking, How is it that we become ac*
quainted with the mind c^ a fellow-creature ?
The last is as inrisible, as removed from im-
tneduiU inspection, as the first. Still we do
not hesitate to speak of the justice and good-
ness of a neighbour ; and how do we gain
our knowledge ? We answer, by witnessing
I tlie e/fects, operations, and expressions of
^ these attributes. It is a law of our nattu^ to
arg^ue from the effect to the cause, from the
action to the agent, from the ends proposed
and from the means of pursuing them, to the
character and disposition of the being in
whom we observe them. By these processes
we learn the invisible mind and character of
man; and by the same we ascend to the mind
of God, whose works, effects, operations, and
ends are as expressive and significant of jus-
tice and goodness as the best and most de-
cisive actions of men. If this reasoning be
sound (and all religion rests upon it), then
God's justice and goodness are intelligible
attributes, agreeing essentially with the same
qualities in ourselves. Their operation in-
deed is infinitely wider, and they are em-
l^ycd in accomplishing not only immediate
but remote and unknown ends. Of conse-

auence, we must expect that many parts of
M divine administration will be obscurt^
that is, will not produce immediate good, and
an immediate distinction between virtue and
vice. But still the unbounded operation of
these attributes does not change their nature.
They are still the same as if they acted iu the
narrowest sphere. We can still determine in
many cases what does not accord with them.
We are particularly sure that those essential
principles of justice, which enter into and
even form our conception of this attribute,
must pervade every province and every period
of the administration of a just being, and that
to suppose the Creator in any instance to
forsake them is to charge Him directly with
unrighteousness, however loudly the lips may
compliment his equity.

"But is it not presumptuous in man," it
is continually said, ** to sit in judgment on
God?" We answer, that to "sit in judg-
ment on God" is an ambiguous and offensive
phrase, conveying to common minds the ideas
of irreverence, boklness, familiarity. The
question would be better stated thus : — Is it
not presumptuous in man to judge oonceming
Goo, and concerning what agrees or disagrees

with his attributes? We answer confidently.
No ; for in many cases we are competent and
even bound to judge. And we plead first in
our defence the Scriptures. How continually
does God in his word appeal to the under-
standing and moral judgment of man. " O
inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah.
judge. I pray you, between me and my vine-
yard. What could have been done more to
my vineyard, that I have not done in it?"
We observe, in the next place, that all reli-
gion supposes and is built on judgments
passed by us on God and on his operations.
Is it not, for example, our duty and a leading
part of piety to praise God ? And what is
praising a being, but to adjudge and ascribe
to him just and generous deeds and motives?
And of what value is praise, except from those

Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 81 of 169)