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What can it be which lays hold of the “strong man,” and even whilst he laughs at the supernaturalism of Scripture, and vaunts his superiority to “old wives' fables," entangles him in some complication of trickery, and makes him the dupe of the veriest juggle? The trick of spirit-rapping and the juggle of the "medium” is not the delusion of the ignorant vulgar, but of the well to do, and even of those who claim intelligence of no common order, and pretend to religion after a fashion. Not everyone will answer so bluntly as a friend of the writer, who, when asked if he believed in these manifestations by knocks and other signs, replied, punningly, “No! they aren't worth a rap.” To us, at present, however, they only suggest themselves as illustrations of that strange charm which accompanies certain wild speculations, gross errors, and daring perversions of truth, apart from all argument.
But, turning back on our thoughts a little, there is perhaps a more subtle and perilous phase of this same propensity. To some persons a doctrine, an ordinance, is nothing, unless it presents some superhuman attribute as the heart of its efficacy. There is hardly a doctrine or institution of Christianity which has not been thus perverted to suit morbid imaginations. The Roman Church understands and skilfully uses this “latent force” in rite and dogma. We have no sympathy certainly with that supercilious rationalism which will believe in nothing that our senses cannot distinguish, or is not fully cognizable by our poor imperfect reason. We feel somewhat with Keats in his “Lamia":
“Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy ?
We must needs believe that the most profound meaning in all things is that which is not revealed to mere sense and reason. But when this conviction takes the guise of an unhealthy craving which would pervert the simplest appeals to our faith and hope, and foster in all things a delusive mystery, it becomes a duty to look carefully into the nature and consequences of this influence. Take the ordinance of the Lord's Supper. Mark how it has become changed to the worshiper after the Romanist fashion into an awful mystery, surrounded by the most tremendous associations, exalted into an intrinsic ground of salvation. Thus mystified, it became an instrument of ecclesiastical tyranny of the most potent kind, and was in fact the central object round which raged the religious controversies of England during the reigns of Henry VIII., Edward VI., Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth. Thus as a grand mystery, a perpetual sacrifice, the ever present God, it took the place of Christ himself and his accomplished work, and became a snare to the people. So with almost every doctrine and institution of Christianity. Whately's “Essays on the Errors of Romanism,” in which he traces the origin of these errors to human nature itself, will furnish all who wish to pursue this subject farther with abundant illustration.
We do not pretend to argument on any of these points. We simply notice a tendency of our spiritual nature, fostered into morbid activity, fed with unwholesome stimulants, corrupting at length the whole series of religious convictions. Unwary minds, craving after strange teaching, pursue each “will-o'-thewisp” which is thus raised, and are led farther and farther from the safe path of philosophic inquiry, until the unchangeable lights of Divine Truth are lost, and the aspirations of the heart are but as a series of blazing sparks, swallowed up in darkness as soon as they are shot forth.
The special aspect of this Witchery of Error on which we next remark has many varieties and phases, but may be generaliy traced to
A vague restless sense of insufficiency in the divine means of salvation, and a desire to supplement them by something more sensuous and tangible.
Paul, in his ministry to the Galatians, had this tendency to front and overcome. He won them first to a faith centred in a person, based on a great fact, calling for repentance and faith as its condition, a life of holiness as its true manifestation; ordaining a worship simple, but all alive with meaning, whose special aim was communion with God, whose aspiration swept beyond the world and time. Such a religion laid hold of the Galatians. They cast themselves on the Gospel with a fervour characteristic of the old Celtic race. But when the first glow of rapture had cooled, and the great teacher had gone on his way, then came the restless questioning of the untrained nature under the prompting of Judaizing orators. What more then? Is this all ? All-sufficient? Do we go on continuing just this simple believing and holy living? And so in this case, and in a multitude of others since, results that craving of the restless heart which finds a spell in whatever will respond to its unhealthy yearnings. The nature in such case clings to that which is sensuous, outward. The spirit asks for "a very present help,” but in a curious
lecial doctrine tjare indeed can rest a
sense. At this inlet rush in a group of idola, which lie in wait to deceive. The further means comes as a supplement and consumination of the simpler faith, almost as a condescension to our weakness. The heart, cheated and willingly deceived, rests now on one plea, now on another. It is a figment of the Law which is to perfect. Your faith in Jesus Christ is good; but be ye circumcised, for thus ye are perfected. In this rite you can rest as a kind of material guarantee that you are indeed under the Covenant. Or it is some special doctrine through the undue fostering of imagination, or a terrible bondage to logic and system, monstrously developed, till it transgresses against the proportions of the faith, and dwarfs all other dogmas of our common Christianity. In every age some special doctrine is thus picked out of the majestic fulness of Christian verity, is held up as The Faith, is made a shibboleth of piety, and thrusts Christ aside. Or this rock of rest for the impatient spirits is some ordinance which has been exalted as the complement of faith, and clothed with a special power. Such responsive perversions of divine truth meet us in every age.
They come introduced to a halting faith by the dexterous sophistry of being useful or necessary to the completeness of Christian life. They glide into our confidence in humblest guise, and claim at first only to be helpers toward the great end. The grand fallacy is not so much in them as in the idea that anything can be wanted to the fulness of salvation beyond a true faith in Jesus Christ. How frequent is this subtle error in the history of Christianity may be gathered from the fact that there is not an institution of our faith which has not, in answer to this feverish impatience, been raised to supplement Christ's work or take his place. And each has come, thus magnified, to be the utter destruction of many souls. Perhaps the most subtle and dangerous aspect of the Roman Church is presented in the sagacity with which she has thus trafficked in the weakness of the poor troubled soul, and with a daring assumption laid hold of the wavering confidence, not for Christ, but for herself. And marvellous seems to be the power which is thus exercised. Christ instituted the Church, making it the fold of God, the communion of saints, the brotherhood of love, the forecast of the citizenship of heaven, the present Christ in his love and sympathy toward a suffering world. He associated with it all gracious promises, and appointed it for a witness to a God-forgetting world, and for the accomplishment of His great work. Man laid his hand upon it, made it a charmed circle within whose pale is salvation, and nowhere else. But the fascination in it to weak restless hearts! The spell in the thought I am safe! I am within the holy pale wherein the saving ordinances are administered by a priesthood of true apostolic strain. There is something tangible in that to many souls; more tangible than being in Christ by faith.
So God appointed a ministry for the preaching of the Word and the charge of souls. A holy and precious office. Man has taken the simple beautiful appointment of God and clothed it with a strange power, and raised it to an elevation from which any human being ought to shrink. The ministry has become a. priesthood, usurping the sovereignty of Christ, holding the keys of heaven and hell, on whose yea and nay hangs eternal life or eternal death. And yet it is in the very daring and awfuiness of this assumption that the potency of the perversion rests. The spell is in the haughty blasphemy of the usurpation. It is the supplement to the weakness of the soul. In their cowardshrinking from the life-struggle from doubt to certainty, men have demanded a voice to assure unto them that hereafter which they will not strive after by faith. Thence they have conceded to that office a fearful authority. It is easier to trust to that living voice which says to us, “Confide in me and the Church and thou art safe," than to cultivate that pure life of faith and hope in which is the noble assurance that death cannot shake. But how profound the fascination of such a perversion!
We might multiply instances, but it is not necessary. Any one who examines carefully the history of Christianity and its perversions will find our statement borne out that a vague, restless sense of insufficiency in the simple divine means of salvation, and a craving after outward and visible signs and seals as supplemental to the immortal energy of faith, prepare the heart for error, and give its charm to many a deadly corruption of truth.
As we turn to the next aspect of this witchcraft of perversion, we seem to see it clothing itself in the holiest affections of our nature, and presenting itself under the guise of the most tender love. Here the deep yearnings of sacred love give the charm to the most complete perversion.
The grand doctrine of the Resurrection formed the keystone of faith and the impulse to unquenchable endurance in the early age of Christianity. It had a wondrous vividness to the disciples of that time. Men were accustomed to see friend and relative pass away with a suddenness and in such scenes as now read like the incidents of some pathetic heroic tale. Life trembled always on the verge of eternity. But over the wavering shadows of the uncertain present arose the immortal future, all clear and serene. Immortality glowed forth to those early confessors with a steadfast splendour, and its voices and its glorious shapes seemed often to mingle in their brotherly intercourse. It required, indeed, such a mighty conviction to support them in the ordeal of those
times. They were baptized for the dead and unto death. As we trace this impetuous tide of emotion which bore along from generation to generation the sublime confidence in the future destination of the Christian, we soon begin to perceive another feeling gliding in amongst the heavenly hopes of the believer in Jesus. As the disciples saw friend after friend taken, and felt more and more the world's hostility and their own isolation, they seemed to come nearer to the departed. The memory of the holy dead became more and more precious, and upon the loved names were lavished the most touching manifestations of affection. We can trace without much difficulty the gradual change of these strong and tender feelings toward the more positive recognition of a certain connection between those who had past away and those who still remained to fight the good fight of faith. Prayers by-and-by began to be addressed to or for the dead. At first only memorial, and very harmless. In some instances the statues of the dead, in other cases the skeletons, stood at the entrance of the holy places to call to remembrance the love and faithfulness which had been swallowed up in the night of death. We can understand whither such strong emotions would lead, unless controlled by the clearest comprehension of the conditions of salvation. Our own hearts will tell us what the result would be. Have we never been stirred by the desire to know clearly the position of some beloved friend on whose closing hour rests the shadow of uncertainty? Do we not repel with a glow of indignation the thought that the love which was so intense in this earthly state must have perished with the poor clay which its heavenly fire informed ? Do we not find ourselves at times with the unconscious prayer on the lip to some name dear still, though the form has passed away from mortal vision? It will come to us even now, the profound wish that our prayers, our sacrifices, our life-long endurance could affect the condition of the dead. The mother has leant over the silent countenance of her dead boy, dying in the bloom of his years, and the bloom too of his folly and sin. She knows too much to indulge any vain suppositions as to his state in that solemn invisible world. Oh, if she could but feel that any effort or sacrifice of hers might change his destiny! If any prayer or self-denial or pain on her part could lighten the gloom which hangs over his eternal state! Anything! Anything ! if only some happy whisper from “within the veil” would tell of peace for him that is gone. It is so natural thus to feel. Thus can we readily comprehend how the great perversion of prayers for the dead and to the dead crept into the Christian Church very early, and how potent it would become in an age when the Bible was not in the hands of the people. What an instrument of spiritual tyranny, too, it would
f prayers for tberly, and how.pothands of the