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Scripture and Truth: Dissertations by the Late Benjamin Jowett with Introduction by Lewis Campbell.
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FROM THE ESSAY ON THE LAW AS THE STRENGTH OF SIN

‘The strength of sin is the law.’—1 Cor. xv. 56.

IN another sense than that in which the Apostle employs the words, ‘the law is dead to us, and we to the law.’ The lapse of ages has but deepened the chasm which separates Judaism from Christianity. Between us and them there is a gulf fixed, so that few are they who pass from them to us, nor do any go from us to them. The question remains, What application is it possible for us to make of that which has preceded? Is there anything in the world around standing in the same relation to us that the law did to the contemporaries of St. Paul?

One answer that might be given is, ‘the Roman Catholic Church.’ The experience of Luther seems indeed not unlike that struggle which St. Paul describes. But whatever resemblance may be found between Romanism and the ancient Jewish religion,—whether in their ceremonial or sacrificial character, or in the circumstance of their both resting on outward and visible institutions, and so limiting the worship of Spirit and truth,—it cannot be said that Romanism stands in the same relation to us individually that the law did to the Apostle St. Paul. The real parallels are more general, though less obvious. The law St. Paul describes as without us, but not in that sense in which an object of sense is without us: though without us it exercises an inward power; it drives men to despair; it paralyses human nature; it causes evil by its very justice and holiness. It is like a barrier which we cannot pass; a chain where with a nation is bound together; a rule which is not adapted to human feelings, but which guides them into subjection to itself.

It has been already remarked that a general parallel to ‘the law as the strength of sin’ is to be found in that strange blending of good and evil, of truth and error, which is the condition of our earthly existence. But there seem also to be cases in which the parallel is yet closer; in which good is not only the accidental cause of evil, but the limiting principle which prevents man from working out to the utter most his individual and spiritual nature. In some degree, for example, society may exercise the same tyranny over us, and its conventions be stumblingblocks to us of the same kind as the law to the contemporaries of St. Paul; or, in another way, the thought of self and the remembrance of our past life may ‘deceive and slay us.’ As in the description of the seventh chapter of the Romans:—‘It was I, and it was not I; and who can deliver me from the influence of education and the power of my former self?’ Or faith and reason, reason and faith may seem mutually to limit each other, and to make the same opposition in speculation that the law and the flesh did to the Apostle in practice. Or, to seek the difficulty on a lower level, while fully assured of the truths of the Gospel, we may seem to be excluded from them by our mental or bodily constitution, which no influences of the Spirit or power of habit may be capable of changing.

I. The society even of a Christian country—and the same remark applies equally to a Church—is only to a certain extent based upon Christian principle. It rests neither on the view that all mankind are evil, nor that they are all good, but on certain motives, supposed to be strong enough to bind mankind together; on institutions handed down from former generations; on tacit compacts between op posing parties and opinions. Every government must tolerate, and therefore must to a certain degree sanction, contending forms of faith. Even in reference to those more general principles of truth and justice which, in theory at least, equally belong to all religions, the government is limited by expediency, and seeks only to enforce them so far as is required for the preservation of society. Hence arises a necessary opposition between the moral principles of the individual and the political principles of a state. A good man may be sensitive for his faith, zealous for the honour of God, and for every moral and spiritual good; the statesman has to begin by considering the conditions of human society. Aristotle raises a famous question, whether the good citizen is the good man? We have rather to raise the question, whether the good man is the good citizen? If matters of state are to be determined by abstract principles of morality and religion,—if, for the want of such principles, whole nations are to be consigned to the vengeance of heaven,—if the rule is to be not ‘my kingdom is not of this world’, but, ‘we ought to obey God rather than man’—there is nothing left but to supersede civil society, and found a religious one in its stead.

It is no imaginary spectre that we are raising, but one that acts powerfully on the minds of religious men. Is it not commonly said by many, that the government is unchristian, that the legislature is unchristian, that all governments and all legislatures are the enemies of Christ and His Church? Herein to them is the fixed evil of the world; not in vice, or in war, or in injustice, or in falsehood; but simply in the fact that the constitution of their country conforms to the laws of human society. It is not necessary to suppose that they will succeed in carrying out their principles, or that a civilized nation will place its liberties in the keeping of a religious party. But, without succeeding, they do a great deal of harm to themselves and to the world. For they draw the mind away from the simple truths of the Gospel to manifestations of opinion and party spirit; they waste their own power to do good; some passing topic of theological controversy drains their life. We may not ‘do evil that good may come’, they say; and ‘what is morally wrong cannot be politically right’; and with this misapplied ‘syllogism of the conscience’ they would make it impossible, in the mixed state of human affairs, to act at all, either for good or evil. He who seriously believes that not for our actual sins, but for some legislative measure of doubtful expediency, the wrath of God is hanging over his country, is in so unreal a state of mind as to be scarcely capable of discerning the real evils by which we are surrounded. The remedies of practical ills sink into insignificance compared with some point in which the interests of religion appear to be, but are not, concerned.

But it is not only in the political world that imaginary forms of evil present themselves, and we are haunted by ideas which can never be carried out in practice; the difficulty comes nearer home to most of us in our social life. If governments and nations appear unchristian, the appearance of society itself is in a certain point of view still more unchristian. Suppose a person acquainted with the real state of the world in which we live and move, and neither morosely depreciating nor unduly exalting human nature, to turn to the image of the Christian Church in the New Testament, how great would the difference appear! How would the blessing of poverty contrast with the real, even the moral advantages of wealth! the family of love, with distinctions of ranks! the spiritual, almost supernatural, society of the first Christians, with our world of fashion, of business, of pleasure! the community of goods, with our meagre charity to others! the prohibition of going to law before the heathen, with our endless litigation before judges of all religions! the cross of Christ, with our ordinary life! How little does the world in which we live seem to be designed for the tabernacle of immortal souls! How large a portion of mankind, even in a civilized country, appears to be sacrificed to the rest, and to be without the means of moral and religious improvement! How fixed, and steadfast, and regular do dealings of money and business appear! how transient and passing are religious objects! Then, again, consider how society, sometimes in self-defence, sets a false stamp on good and evil; as in the excessive punishment of the errors of women, compared with Christ’s conduct to the woman who was a sinner. Or when men are acknowledged to be in the sight of God equal, how strange it seems that one should heap up money for another, and be dependent on him for his daily life. Susceptible minds, attaching themselves, some to one point, some to another, may carry such reflections very far, until society itself appears evil, and they desire some primitive patriarchal mode of life. They are tired of conventionalities; they want, as they say, to make the Gospel a reality; to place all men on a religious, social, and political equality. In this, as in the last case, ‘they are kicking against the pricks’; what they want is a society which has not the very elements of a social state; they do not perceive that the cause of the evil is human nature itself, which will not cohere without mixed motives and received forms and distinctions, and that Providence has been pleased to rest the world on a firmer basis than is supplied by the fleeting emotions of philanthropy, viz. self-interest. We are not, indeed, to sit with our arms folded, and acquiesce in human evil. But we must separate the accidents from the essence of this evil: questions of taste, things indifferent, or customary, or necessary, from the weightier matters of oppression, falsehood, vice. The ills of society are to be struggled against in such a manner as not to violate the conditions of society; the precepts of Scripture are to be applied, but not without distinctions of times and countries; Christian duties are to be enforced, but not identified with political principles. To see the world,—not as it ought to be, but as it is,—to be on a level with the circumstances in which God has placed them, to renounce the remote and impossible for what is possible and in their reach; above all, to begin within,—these are the limits which enthusiasts should set to their aspirations after social good. It is a weary thing to be all our life long warring against the elements, or, like the slaves of some eastern lord, using our hands in a work which can only be accomplished by levers and machines. The physician of society should aid nature instead of fighting against it; he must let the world alone as much as he can; to a certain degree, he will even accept things as they are, in the hope of bettering them.

II. Mere weakness of character will sometimes afford an illustration of the Apostle’s words. If there are some whose days are ‘bound each to each by natural piety’, there are others on whom the same continuous power is exercised for evil as well as good; they are unable to throw off their former self; the sins of their youth lie heavy on them; the influence of opinions which they have ceased to hold discolours their minds. Or it may be that their weakness takes a different form, viz. that of clinging to some favourite resolve, or of yielding to some fixed idea which gets dominion over them, and becomes the limit of all their ideas. A common instance of this may be found in the use made by many persons of conscience. Whatever they wish or fancy, whatever course of action they are led to by some influence obvious to others, though unobserved by themselves, immediately assumes the necessary and stereotyped form of the conscientious fulfilment of a duty. To every suggestion of what is right and reasonable, they reply only with the words—‘their consciences will not allow it.’ They do what they think right; they do not observe that they never seem to themselves to do otherwise. No voice of authority, no opinion of others, weighs with them when put in the scale against the dictates of what they term conscience. As they get older, their narrow ideas of right acquire a greater tenacity; the world is going on, and they are as they were. A deadening influence lies on their moral nature, the peculiarity of which is, that, like the law, it assumes the appearance of good, differing from the law only in being unconscious. Conscience, one may say, putting their own character into the form of a truth or commandment, ‘has deceived and slain them.’

Another form of conscience yet more closely resembles the principle described in the seventh chapter of the Romans. There is a state in which man is powerless to act, and is, nevertheless, clairvoyant of all the good and evil of his own nature. He places the good and evil principle before him, and is ever oscillating between them. He traces the labyrinth of conflicting principles in the world, and is yet farther perplexed and entangled. He is sensitive to every breath of feeling, and incapable of the performance of any duty. Or take another example: it sometimes happens that the remembrance of past suffering, or the consciousness of sin, may so weigh a man down as fairly to paralyse his moral power. He is distracted between what he is and what he was; old habits and vices, and the new character which is being fashioned in him. Sometimes the balance seems to hang equal; he feels the earnest wish and desire to do rightly, but cannot hope to find pleasure and satisfaction in a good life; he desires heartily to repent, but can never think it possible that God should forgive. ‘It is I, and it is not I, but sin that dwelleth in me.’ ‘I have, and have never ceased to have, the wish for better things, even amid haunts of infamy and vice.’ In such language, even now, though with less fervour than in ‘the first spiritual chaos of the affections’, does the soul cry out to God—‘O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’

III. There is some danger of speculative difficulties presenting the same hindrance and stumbling-block to our own generation, that the law is described as doing to the contemporaries of St. Paul. As the law was holy, just, and good, so many of these difficulties are true, and have real grounds: all of them, except in cases where they spring from hatred and opposition to the Gospel, are at least innocent. And yet, by undermining received opinions, by increasing vanity and egotism, instead of strengthening the will and fixing the principles, their promulgation may become a temporary source of evil; so that, in the words of the Apostle, it may be said of them that, taking occasion by the truth, they deceive and slay men. What then? is the law sin? is honest inquiry wrong? God forbid! it is we ourselves who are incapable of receiving the results of inquiry; who will not believe unless we see; who demand a proof that we cannot have; who begin with appeals to authority, and tradition, and consequences, and, when dissatisfied with these, imagine that there is no other foundation on which life can repose but the loose and sandy structure of our individual opinions. Persons often load their belief in the hope of strengthening it; they escape doubt by assuming certainty. Or they believe ‘under an hypothesis’; their worldly interests lead them to acquiesce; their higher intellectual convictions rebel. Opinions, hardly won from study and experience, are found to be at variance with early education, or natural temperament. Opposite tendencies grow together in the mind; appearing and reappearing at intervals. Life becomes a patchwork of new and old cloth, or like a garment which changes colour in the sun.

It is true that the generation to which we belong has difficulties to contend with, perhaps greater than those of any former age; and certainly different from them. Some of those difficulties arise out of the opposition of reason and faith; the critical inquiries of which the Old and New Testament have been the subject are a trouble to many; the circumstance that, while the Bible is the word of life for all men, such inquiries are open only to the few, increases the irritation. The habit of mind which has been formed in the study of Greek or Roman history may be warned off the sacred territory, but cannot really be prevented from trespassing: still more impossible is it to keep the level of knowledge at one point in Germany, at another in England. Geology, ethnology, historical and metaphysical criticism, assail in succession not the Scriptures themselves, but notions and beliefs which in the minds of many good men are bound up with them. The eternal strain to keep theology where it is while the world is going on, specious reconcilements, political or ecclesiastical exigencies, recent attempts to revive the past, and the reaction to which they have given birth, the contrast that everywhere arises of old and new, all add to the confusion. Probably no other age has been to the same extent the subject of cross and contradictory influences. What can be more unlike than the tone of sermons and of newspapers? or the ideas of men on art, politics, and religion, now, and half a generation ago? The thoughts of a few original minds, like wedges, pierce into all received and conventional opinions and are almost equally removed from either. The destruction of ‘shams,’ that is, the realization of things as they are amid all the conventions of thought and speech and action, is also an element of unsettlement. The excess of self-reflection, again, is not favourable to strength or simplicity of character. Every one seems to be employed in decomposing the world, human nature, and himself. The discovery is made that good and evil are mixed in a far more subtle way than at first sight would have appeared possible; and that even extremes of both meet in the same person. The mere analysis of moral and religious truth, the fact that we know the origin of many things which the last generation received on authority, is held by some to destroy their sacredness. Lastly, there are those who feel that all the doubts of sceptics put together fall short of that great doubt which has insinuated itself into their minds, from the contemplation of mankind—saying one thing and doing another.

It is foolish to lament over these things; it would be still more foolish to denounce them. They are the mental trials of the age and country in which God has placed us. If they seem at times to exercise a weakening or unsettling influence, may we not hope that increasing love of truth, deeper knowledge of ourselves and other men, will, in the end, simplify and not perplex the path of life? We may leave off in mature years where we began in youth, and receive not only the kingdom of God, but the world also, as ‘little children’. The analysis of moral and religious truth may correct its errors without destroying its obligations. Experience of the illusions of religious feeling at a particular time should lead us to place religion on a foundation which is independent of feeling. Because the Scripture is no longer held to be a book of geology or ethnology, or a supernatural revelation of historical facts, it will not cease to be the law of our lives, exercising an influence over us, different in kind from the ideas of philosophical systems, or the aspirations of poetry or romance. Because the world (of which we are a part) is hypocritical and deceitful, and individuals go about dissecting their neighbours 1 motives and lives, that is a reason for cherishing a simple and manly temper of mind, which does not love men the less because it knows human nature more; which pierces the secrets of the heart, not by any process of anatomy, but by the light of an eye from which the mists of selfishness are dispersed.

IV. The relation in which science stands to us may seem to bear but a remote resemblance to that in which the law stood to the Apostle St. Paul. Yet the analogy is not fanciful, but real. Traces of physical laws are discernible everywhere in the world around us; in ourselves also, whose souls are knit together with our bodies, whose bodies are a part of the material creation. It seems as if nature came so close to us as to leave no room for the motion of our will: instead of the inexhaustible grace of God enabling us to say, in the language of the Apostle, ‘I can do all things through Christ that strengtheneth me,’ we become more and more the slaves of our own physical constitution. Our state is growing like that of a person whose mind is over-sensitive to the nervous emotions of his own bodily frame. And as the self-consciousness becomes stronger and the contrast between faith and experience more vivid, there arises a conflict between the spirit and the flesh, nature and grace, not unlike that of which the Apostle speaks. No one who, instead of hanging to the past, will look forward to the future, can expect that natural science should stand in the same attitude towards revelation fifty years hence as at present. The faith of mankind varies from age to age; it is weaker, or it may be stronger, at one time than at another. But that which never varies or turns aside, which is always going on and cannot be driven back, is knowledge based on the sure ground of observation and experiment, the regular progress of which is itself matter of observation. The stage at which the few have arrived is already far in advance of the many, and if there were nothing remaining to be discovered, still the diffusion of the knowledge that we have, without new addition, would exert a great influence on religious and social life. Still greater is the indirect influence which science exercises through the medium of the arts. In one century a single invention has changed the face of Europe: three or four such inventions might produce a gulf between us and the future far greater than the interval which separates ancient from modern civilization. Doubtless God has provided a way that the thought of Him should not be banished from the hearts of men. And habit, and opinion, and prescription may ‘last our time,’ and many motives may conspire to keep our minds off the coming change. But if ever our present knowledge of geology, of languages, of the races and religions of mankind, of the human frame itself, shall be regarded as the starting-point of a goal which has been almost reached, supposing too the progress of science to be accompanied by a corresponding development of the mechanical arts, we can hardly anticipate, from what we already see, the new relation that will then arise between reason and faith. Perhaps the very opposition between them may have died away. At any rate experience shows that religion is not stationary when all other things are moving onward.

Changes of this kind pass gradually over the world; the mind of man is not suddenly thrown into a state for which it is unprepared. No one has more doubts than he can carry; the way of life is not found to stop and come to an end in the midst of a volcano, or on the edge of a precipice. Dangers occur, not from the disclosure of any new, or hitherto unobserved, facts, for which, as for all other blessings, we have reason to be thankful to God; but from our concealment or denial of them, from the belief that we can make them other than they are; from the fancy that some a priori notion, some undefined word, some intensity of personal conviction, is the weapon with which they are to be met. New facts, whether bearing on Scripture, or on religion generally, or on morality, are sure to win their way; the tide refuses to recede at any man’s bidding. And there are not wanting signs that the increase of secular knowledge is beginning to be met by a corresponding progress in religious ideas. Controversies are dying out; the lines of party are fading into one another; niceties of doctrine are laid aside. The opinions respecting the inspiration of Scripture, which are held in the present day by good and able men, are not those of fifty years ago; a change may be observed on many points, a reserve on still more. Formulas of reconciliation have sprung up: ‘the Bible is not a book of science,’ ‘the inspired writers were not taught supernaturally what they could have learned from ordinary sources,’ resting-places in the argument at which travellers are the more ready to halt, because they do not perceive that they are only temporary. For there is no real resting-place but in the entire faith, that all true knowledge is a revelation of the will of God. In the case of the poor and suffering, we often teach resignation to the accidents of life; it is not less plainly a duty of religious men, to submit to the progress of knowledge. That is a new kind of resignation, in which many Christians have to school themselves. When the difficulty may seem, in anticipation, to be greatest, they will find, with the Apostle, that there is a way out: ‘The truth has made them free.’

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