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To the Puritan.
Sir, I observe in one of your numbers, that you advance the proposition, that the end of every analysis respecting religious duty, must end in reference to the law of God. Obedience to his will, you seem to consider as the best reason which can be assigned, why any action is right. In this observation, you seem to be guided by a very curious observation of Calvin, in which he designs to carry the sheet anchor of his system, a great ways to the windward; or, in other words, he lays his foundation deep; and, however paradoxical or absurd his conclusions may be, his whole arch, from bottom to keystone, is well compacted and consistent. He says, when we assign the will of God as the proof of any truth, or the foundation of any duty, we assign a combination of the best of all possible reasons, even all that were present to an omniscient mind, when that truth was revealed, or that duty enjoined. Mark the object! It was to place human reason infinitely lower than the Scriptures, and prepare the way for the reception of some of his doctrines, against which, simple reason would otherwise reluctate. In a fine writer* of our own time, (and one whom I believe to be an excellent man,) I find a sentence of the following import, which I also believe to be an anchor to the windward. "That subjection to the Deity, which, we fear, is too common, in
* Dr. Channing.
which the mind surrenders itself to mere power and WILL, is anything but virtue." Now, Sir, I do not pretend to decide when doctors disagree. But do you not go too far, when you make all virtue consist in obedience to law, or in other words revealed will? May we not ask the reasons of that will? Cannot we sometimes see them? It seems to me, in your anxiety to cast off the jargon of a mass of metaphysics, you would preclude the inquiring mind from one of its noblest exercises. If God has a reason for his will, why may we not seek it, and thus join in the wise employment of justifying the ways of God to man. Please to Yours,
The questions of my correspondent are natural, and I had anticipated them when I penned the remarks. I think I shall satisfy him when I am understood. Be it known, then, that it is not the design of that paper to debar minds, qualified for the work, and conscious of their own weakness, from modestly inquiring into the reasons of the divine commands. This is an office favorable to piety, and to which we are prompted by the curiosity of true wisdom. But then, let a man be conscious what he is doing. As my correspondent says, he is justifying the ways of God to man, and not finding out the foundations of virtue. These lie too deep for any mortal to be sure he has seen them. Obligation rests not upon such
uncertain speculations. Such stars, are suns too distant to warm us. Obligation rests on the authority of our infinite King, and in our confidence in his unerring wisdom. For as Calvin has hinted, all the reasons which can be present to an infinite mind, must be more satisfactory than the few which occur
to our own.
We might illustrate this subject by a comparison. Suppose I am walking in the field, and pick up a little flower, whose colors are new to me, and whose fragrance I have never smelt before. I ask myself, what is the use of this flower? The first thing which occurs, is its beauty and scent, and I pronounce, without hesitation, that it was made to gratify the two senses, to which it yields so much delight. But there comes along a companion, and tells me of some medical property of the plant; and if we are asked why God made it, we answer, it is probably for all the three purposes which we have discovered. It was to regale the eye, exhilarate the nostrils, and restore the body languishing with disease. But surely no man, with the least insight into nature, would venture to say that these were all the reasons the Creator of the world had in view, when he called into being that kind of plant. These are some of the probable reasons which lie on the surface; but millions and millions may lie concealed, to be known to other beings according to their elevation, and fully known to Him alone, who created and comprehends all. Now if
this is true of a flower, how much more of the supermaterial, all-binding, and all-embracing law of God. Whilst it excites our modest inquiries, it bows our intellectual presumption to the dust.
Perhaps it will be said, that law, being a moral subject, and addressed to the moral faculties of the soul, is more comprehensible than even a flower. It may be so as to some of its first suggested causes; but will any one pretend he has sounded all the depths of the reasons by which an infinite intelligence governs an unbounded universe?
It seems to me, that we do not make all the inferences we ought to, from the admitted fact, that there exists a divine revelation. Some sects, in profession at least, are more distinguished for their reverence for the Bible, than others; but I know no sect that reverences it enough. For only suppose that book to be an emanation from an infinite mind, and to be backed by all the reasons which can be presented to such a mind, and what a wide gulf must separate that book from all others! How deep the wisdom! how vast the views! from which its principles are drawn. Accordingly, we find that system after system has existed and passed away. Some of these systems were false, and ought to vanish. But even when they were true, they have scarcely been more permanent ;—and why? Because the foundation was one superficial particle lying on the surface; it was unequal to the vast amplitude of nature. It was
setting up only one light on the long bridge, when hundreds of such would be inferior to daylight, and hardly adequate to guide our way.
For this reason, the PURITAN's system is-and he thinks it gives a death-blow to dark-metaphysics on one side, and an idle latitudinarianism on the otherthat obligation arises from bringing two quantities in comparison, the Creator on one side, and the creature on the other. For the most satisfactory account of virtue, you are not to look in the direction in which speculatists have been looking-you are not to derive it from qualities in man, or qualities in things, or qualities in virtue itself, separately speaking; but you are to see a God; a law; a dependent creature, with moral faculties; and obligation and virtue are the result of the comparison. This is an adequate foundation; there our duties will rest for ever.
At the same time, this does not preclude, for a subordinate purpose, our inquiring into some of the reasons of duty; into the nature of man, or virtue, or any other thing, where we can find these reasons. But then let us know what we are doing. We are picking pebbles on the shore, when a boundless ocean rolls beyond our sight.
This system, I know, strikes a death-blow to some of our popular writers, and popular systems; to Jonathan Edwards, and to Dr. Paley; to the soul of latitudinarianism, and to some of the cherished limbs of more complex creeds. As my correspondent says,