2. Mr. Erskine's "Internal Evidence"

Section 1

{49} AND this is in fact pretty nearly Mr. Erskine's argument in his Internal Evidence: an author, concerning whom personally I have no wish to use one harsh word, not doubting that in his theory he is unjust to himself, and is only the organ, eloquent and ingenious, of unfolding a theory, which it has been his unhappiness to mistake for that Catholic faith which is revealed in the Gospel. Let us now turn to the Essay in question.


Mr. Erskine begins in the following words:

"There is a principle in our nature, which make us dissatisfied with unexplained and unconnected facts; which leads us to theorize all the particulars of our knowledge, or to form in our minds some system of causes sufficient to explain or produce the effects which we see; and which teaches us to believe or disbelieve in the truth of any system which may be presented to us, just as it appears adequate or inadequate to afford that explanation of which we are in pursuit."

After speaking of two processes of reasoning which the mind uses in discovering truth, viz., one, "by ascending from effects to a cause," and the other, when we "descend from a cause to effects," he observes:

"In these processes of reasoning we have examples of conviction {50} upon an evidence which is, most strictly speaking, internal—an evidence altogether independent of our confidence in the veracity of the narrator of the facts."—P. 8.

Observe, he starts with this general proposition, viz., that we naturally "believe or disbelieve in the truth of any system which may be presented to us," according as it contains in it, or not, a satisfactory adjustment of causes to effects, the question of testimony being altogether superseded. Accordingly, he expressly says a little further on of the Apostles: "Their system is true in the nature of things, even were they proved to be impostors," p. 17; that is, the Scripture scheme of salvation is true in the nature of things; and self-evident, so that it needs nothing besides its intrinsic verisimilitude to compel our assent to it.

He explains himself thus:

"The first faint outline of Christianity," he says, "presents to us a view of God operating on the characters of men through a manifestation of His own character, in order that by leading them to participate in some measure of His moral likeness, they may also in some measure participate of His happiness."—P. 12.

"If the actions attributed to GOD, by any system of religion, be really such objects as, when present to the mind, do not stir the affections at all, that religion cannot influence the character, and is therefore utterly useless."—P. 23.

"The object of Christianity is to bring the character of man into harmony with that of God."—P. 49.

"The reasonableness of a religion seems to me to consist in there being a direct and natural connexion between a believing the doctrines which it inculcates, and a being formed by these to the character which it recommends. If the belief of the doctrines has no tendency to train the disciple in a more exact and more willing discharge of its moral obligations, there is evidently a very strong probability against the truth of that religion … What is the history of another world to me, unless it have some intelligible relation to my duties or happiness?"—P. 59. {51}

Now in these passages there is, first, this great assumption, that the object of the Christian Revelation is ascertainable by us. It is asserted that its object is "to bring the character of man into harmony with that of God." That this is an object, is plain from Scripture, but that it is the object is nowhere told us; nowhere is it represented as the object in such sense, that we may take it as a key or rule, whereby to arrange and harmonize the various parts of the Revelation,—which is the use to which the author puts it. God's works look many ways; they have objects (to use that mere human word) innumerable; they are full of eyes before and behind, and, like the cherubim in the Prophet's vision, advance forward to diverse points at once. But it is plainly unlawful and presumptuous to make one of those points, which happen to be revealed to us, the end of ends of His providence, and to subject everything else to it. It plainly savours of that Rationalism above condemned; for what is it but to be resolved, that what is revealed to us, is and shall be a complete system; to reject everything but what is so complete; and to disallow the notion of Revelation as a collection of fragments of a great scheme, the notion under which the most profound human philosophy is accustomed to regard it?

"Christianity," says Bishop Butler, "is a scheme quite beyond our comprehension. The moral government of God is exercised by gradually conducting things so in the course of His providence, that every one at length and upon the whole shall receive according to his deserts; and neither fraud nor violence, but truth and right shall finally prevail. Christianity is a particular scheme under this general plan of Providence, and a part of it, conducive to its completion, with regard to mankind; consisting itself also of various parts and a mysterious economy, which has been carrying on from the time the world came into its present wretched state, and is still carrying on for its recovery by a divine person, the Messiah, who is {52} to 'gather together in one the children of God, that are scattered abroad,' and establish 'an everlasting kingdom, wherein dwelleth righteousness.' … Parts likewise of this economy, are the miraculous mission of the Holy Ghost, and His ordinary assistance as given to good men; the invisible government which Christ exercises over His Church ... and His future return to judge the world in righteousness, and completely re-establish the kingdom of God … Now little, surely, need be said to show, that this system or scheme of things is but imperfectly comprehended by us. The Scripture expressly asserts it to be so. And, indeed, one cannot read a passage relating to this great mystery of godliness, but what immediately runs up into something which shows us our ignorance in it, as everything in nature shows us our ignorance in the constitution of nature." [Note 1]

In this passage the great philosopher, though led by his line of argument to speak of the Dispensation entirely in its reference to man, still declares that even then its object is not identical with man's happiness, but that it is justice and truth; while viewed in itself, every part of it runs up into mystery.

Right reason, then, and faith combine to lead us, instead of measuring a divine revelation by human standards, or systematizing, except so far as it does so itself, to take what is given as we find it, to use it and be content. For instance, Scripture says that Christ died for sinners; that He rose for our justification, that He went that the Spirit might come; so far we may systematize. Such and such-like portions of a scheme are revealed, and we may use them, but no farther. On the other hand, the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity is a mere juxtaposition of separate truths, which to our minds involves inconsistency, when viewed together; nothing more being attempted by theologians, for nothing more is told us. Arrange and contrast them {53} we may and do; systematize (that is, reduce them into an intelligible dependence on each other, or harmony with each other) we may not; unless indeed any such oversight of Revelation, such right of subjecting it to our understandings, is committed to us by Revelation itself. What then must be thought of the confident assumption, without proof attempted, contained in the following sentence, already quoted?

"The first faint outline of Christianity presents to us a view of God operating on the characters of men through a manifestation of His own character, in order that, by leading them to participate in some measure in His moral likeness, they may also in some measure participate in His happiness."

That God intends us to partake in His moral likeness, that He has revealed to us His own moral character, that He has done the latter in order to accomplish the former (to speak as a man), I will grant, for it is in Scripture; but that it is the leading idea of Christianity, the chief and sovereign principle of it, this I altogether deny. I ask for proof of what seems to me an assumption, and (if an assumption) surely an unwarranted and presumptuous one.

Again: he says that "the reasonableness of a religion seems to him to consist in there being a direct and natural connexion between a believing the doctrines which it inculcates, and a being formed by these to the character which it recommends." But surely it is conceivable that reasons may exist in the vast scheme of the Dispensation (of the bearings of which we know nothing perfectly), for doctrines being revealed, which do not directly and naturally tend to influence the formation of our characters, or at least which we cannot see to do so. Here again we have the authority of Bishop Butler to support us, in considering that, {54}

"we are wholly ignorant what degree of new knowledge it were to be expected God would give mankind by Revelation, upon supposition of His affording one; or how far, or in what way, He would interpose miraculously, to qualify them to whom He should originally make the Revelation, for communicating the knowledge given by it; and to secure their doing it to the age in which they should live, and to secure its being transmitted to posterity." [Note 2]

Next, notice was above taken of the selfishness of that philosophy, which resolves to sit at home and make everything subordinate to the individual. Is not this instanced in one of the foregoing passages? "What is the history of another world to me, unless it have some intelligible relation to my duties and happiness?" Was this Moses' temper, when he turned aside to see the great sight of the fiery bush? What was the burning bush to Moses? The Almighty indeed so displayed Himself with a view to the deliverance of His people from Egypt; but Moses did not know that, when he went to see it; that was not his motive for going.

Further, be it observed, the above theory has undeniably a tendency to disparage, if not supersede, the mysteries of religion, such as the doctrine of the Trinity. It lays exclusive stress upon the character of God, as the substance of the Revelation. It considers the Scripture disclosures as a Manifestation of God's character, a formal representation of that character in an intelligible shape to our minds, and nothing more. The author says:

"These terms, 'manifestation' and 'exhibition,' suit best with the leading idea which I wish to explain, viz., that the facts of Revelation are developments of the moral principles of the Deity, and carry an influential address to the feelings of man."—P. 26.

Now, is the theological doctrine of the Trinity such a {55} development? Is it influentially addressed to our feelings? Is it "an act of the divine government," as the author elsewhere expresses himself?

The immediate and inevitable result, or rather the operation of Mr. Erskine's "leading idea," when applied to the matter of the Scripture Revelation, is surely a refutation of it. It will be found to mean nothing, or to lead pretty nearly to Socinianism. Let us take an instance: he says, that the reasonableness of a religion, and therefore its claim on our acceptance, consists in there being a direct and natural tendency in belief in its doctrines to form that moral character which it recommends. Now, I would ask,—do we never hear it asked,—have we never been tempted ourselves to ask,—"What is the harm of being, for instance, a Sabellian?" And is not the habit of thought, from which such questionings proceed, owing to the silent influence of such books as this of Mr. Erskine's? Further, do we not hear persons say, "As to the Athanasian doctrine, I do not deny there is a Mystery about the Manifestations of the Divine Nature in Scripture, but this Mystery, whatever it is, as it does not interfere with the practical view of the doctrine, so, on the other hand, it cannot subserve it. It is among the secret things of God, and must be left among them;"—as if we might unthankfully throw back again into the infinite abyss, any of the jewels which God has vouchsafed to bring us thence.


The reader may at first sight be tempted to say, "This is surely a violent handling of Mr. Erskine's words. What he does mean, is, not that the want of connexion between doctrine and precept is an objection, (though his words strictly taken may say this,) but, that {56} where such a connexion does exist, as we see it does in Christianity, there is a strong argument in behalf of the divinity of a professed Revelation." Probably this was his original meaning, and it would have been well, had he kept to it. But it is the way with men, particularly in this day, to generalize freely, to be impatient of such concrete truth as existing appointments contain, to attempt to disengage it, to hazard sweeping assertions, to lay down principles, to mount up above God's visible doings, and to subject them to tests derived from our own speculations. Doubtless He, in some cases, vouchsafes to us the knowledge of truths more general than those works of His which He has set before us; and when He does so, let us thankfully use the gift. This is not the case in the present instance. Mr. Erskine has been led on, from the plain fact, that in Christianity there is a certain general bearing of faith in doctrine upon character, and so far a proof of its consistency, which is a token of divine working,—led on, to the general proposition, that in a genuine Revelation all doctrines revealed must have a direct bearing upon the moral character enjoined by it; and next to the use of this proposition as a test for rejecting such alleged doctrines of the Gospel, for instance, the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity, as do not manifestly satisfy it.

That I am not unfair upon Mr. Erskine will appear from the following passages:

"The abstract fact that there is a plurality in the unity of the Godhead, really makes no address either to our understandings, or our feelings, or our consciences. But the obscurity of the doctrine, as far as moral purposes are concerned, is dispelled, when it comes in such a form as this 'God so loved the world,' etc.; or this, 'But the Comforter which is,' etc.—Our metaphysical ignorance of the Divine Essence is not indeed in the slightest degree removed by {57} this mode of stating the subject; but our moral ignorance of the Divine Character is enlightened, and that is the thing with which we have to do."—P. 96.

Now I do not say that such a passage as this is a denial of the doctrine of the Athanasian Creed; but I ask, should a man be disposed to deny it, how would the writer refute him? Has he not, if a Trinitarian, cut away the ground from under him? Might not a Socinian or Sabellian convince him of the truth of their doctrines, by his own arguments? Unquestionably. He has laid down the principle, that a Revelation is only so far reasonable as it exhibits a direct and natural connexion between belief in its doctrines and conformity to its precepts. He then says, that in matter of fact the doctrine of the Trinity is only influential as it exhibits the moral character of God; that is, that so far as it does not, so far as it is abstract (as he calls it) and in scientific form, that is, as it is a Catholic Dogma, it is not influential, or reasonable, or by consequence important, or even credible. He has cut out the Doctrine by its roots, and has preserved only that superficial part of it which he denominates a "Manifestation,"—only so much as bears visibly upon another part of the system, our moral character,—so much as is perceptibly connected with it,—so much as may be comprehended.

But he speaks so clearly on this subject that comment is perhaps needless.

"In the Bible," he says, "the Christian doctrines ... stand as indications of the character of God, and as the exciting motives of a corresponding character in man."

Before proceeding, there is an assumption here: often the doctrines so stand, not always, as he would imply. When St. Paul bids Timothy hold fast the form of sound words, or St. Jude exhorts his brethren to contend earnestly for {58} the faith, these Apostles are evidently anxious about the faith for its own sake, not for any ulterior reason. When St. John requires us to reject any one who brings not the true doctrine, nothing is said of that doctrine as an "exciting motive" to a certain character of mind, though viewed on one side of it, it certainly is such. St. Paul glories in the doctrine of Christ crucified, as being a strange doctrine and a stumbling-block. St. John states the doctrine of the Incarnation, in the first chapter of his Gospel, as a heavenly truth, which was too glorious for men, and believed in only by the few, and by which the Father, indeed, was manifested, but which shone in darkness. But to return to the passage which I commenced:

"In the Bible, the Christian doctrines are always stated in this connexion, they stand as indications of the character of God, and as the exciting motives of a corresponding character in man. Forming thus the connecting link between the character of the Creator and the creature, they possess a majesty which it is impossible to despise, and exhibit a form of consistency and truth which it is difficult to disbelieve. Such is Christianity in the Bible; but in creeds and Church articles it is far otherwise. These tests and summaries originated from the introduction of doctrinal errors and metaphysical speculations into religion; and in consequence of this, they are not so much intended to be the repositories of the truth, as barriers against the encroachment of erroneous opinions. The doctrines contained in them, therefore, are not stated with any reference to their great object in the Bible,—the regeneration of the human heart by the knowledge of the Divine character. They appear as detached propositions, indicating no moral cause, and pointing to no moral effect. They do not look to God on the one hand as their source; nor to man on the other as the object of their moral urgency. They appear like links severed from the chain to which they belonged; and thus they lose all that evidence which arises from their consistency, and all that dignity which is connected with their high design. I do not talk of the propriety or impropriety of having Church Articles, but the evils which spring {59} from receiving impressions of religion exclusively or chiefly from this source."—Pp. 93, 94.

It is always a point gained to be able to come to issue in controversy, as I am able to do here with the writer under consideration. He finds fault with that disjoined and isolated character of the doctrines in the old Catholic creed, that want of system, which to the more philosophical mind of Bishop Butler would seem an especial recommendation from its analogy to the course of nature. He continues:

"I may instance the ordinary statements of the doctrine of the Trinity, as an illustration of what I mean. It seems difficult to conceive that any man should read through the New Testament candidly and attentively, without being convinced that this doctrine is essential to, and implied in, every part of the system: but it is not so difficult to conceive, that although his mind is perfectly satisfied on this point, he may yet, if his religious knowledge is exclusively derived from the Bible, feel a little surprised and staggered, when he for the first time reads the terms in which it is announced in the articles and confessions of all Protestant Churches. In these summaries, the doctrine in question is stated by itself divested of all its Scriptural accompaniments, and is made to bear simply on the nature of the Divine Essence, and the Mysterious fact of the existence of Three in One. It is evident that this fact, taken by itself, cannot in the smallest degree tend to develop the Divine Character, and therefore cannot make any moral impression on our minds."—Pp. 94, 95.

Another assumption; it is as incorrect to say that dogmas do not impress and influence our minds, as to say they are not stated in Scripture as dogmas. The doctrine of the Trinity does "tend to develop the Divine Character," does "make a moral impression on our minds;" for does not the notion of a Mystery lead to awe and wonder? and are these not moral impressions? He proceeds:

"In the Bible it assumes quite a different shape; it is there subservient to the manifestation of the moral character of God. The {60} doctrine of God's combined justice and mercy, in the redemption of sinners, and of His continued spiritual watchfulness over the progress of truth through the world, and in each particular heart, could not have been communicated without it, so as to have been distinctly and vividly apprehended; but it is never mentioned, except in connexion with these objects; nor is it ever taught as a separate subject of belief. There is a great and important difference between these two modes of statement. In the first, the doctrine stands as an isolated fact of a strange and unintelligible nature, and is apt even to suggest the idea, that Christianity holds out a premium for believing improbabilities. In the other, it stands indissolubly united with an act of Divine holiness and compassion, which radiates to the heart an appeal of tenderness most intelligible in its nature and object, and most constraining in its influence."—Pp. 95, 96.

Here, at length, Rationalism stands confessed; doctrines, it seems, are not true, if they are not explicable. Again:

"The hallowed purpose of restoring men to the lost image of their Creator, is in fact the very soul and spirit of the Bible; and whenever this object does not distinctly appear, the whole system becomes dead and useless."

If so, what judgment are we to pass upon such texts as the following? "We are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish; to the one we are the savour of death unto death: and to the other, the savour of life unto life." "What if God, willing to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had afore prepared unto glory?" "He hath appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness, by that Man whom he hath ordained." "Behold, I come quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give every man according as his work shall {61} be." [Note 3] The glory of God, according to Mr. Erskine, and the maintenance of truth and righteousness, are not objects sufficient, were there no other, to prevent "the whole system" of revealed truth from "becoming dead and useless." Does not this philosophy tend to Universalism? can its upholders maintain for any long while the eternity of future punishment? Surely they speak at random, and have no notion what they are saying. He proceeds:

"In Creeds and Confessions this great purpose is not made to stand forth with its real prominency; its intimate connexion with the different articles of faith is not adverted to; the point of the whole argument is thus lost, and Christianity is misapprehended to be a mere list of mysterious facts. One who understands the Bible may read them with profit, because his own mind may fill up the deficiencies, and when their statements are correct, they may assist inquirers in certain stages, by bringing under their eye a concentrated view of all the points of Christian doctrine; and they may serve, according to their contents, either as public invitations to their communion, or as public warnings against it; ... but they are not calculated to impress on the mind of a learner a vivid and useful apprehension of Christianity."—P. 139.

It is not the design of this Paper to refute Mr. Erskine's principles, so much as to delineate and contrast them with those of the Church Catholic. Since, however, he has already, in several of these extracts, assumed that Scripture ever speaks of revealed doctrines in a directly practical way,—not as objects of faith merely, but as motives to conduct,—I would call attention to the following passage, in addition to those which have been above pointed out. "Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto Him, How can a man be born {62} when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered and said unto Him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master in Israel, and knowest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that We do know, and testify that We have seen; and ye receive not Our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man ascendeth up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven." [John iii. 3-13.]

Some persons, doubtless, are so imbued with modern glosses and the traditions of men, that they will discern in all this but a practical exhortation to conversion, change of heart, and the like; but any one who gets himself fairly to look at the passage in itself, will, I am persuaded, see nothing more or less than this,—that Christ enunciates a solemn Mystery for Nicodemus to receive in faith; that Nicodemus so understands His words, and hesitates at it; that our Lord reproves him for hesitating, tells him that there are even higher Mysteries than that He had set forth, and proceeds to instance that of the Incarnation. In what conceivable way would a supporter of Mr. Erskine's views make the last remarkable verse "subservient to the manifestation of {63} the moral character of God," or directly influential upon practice? The latter part, particularly the conclusion, of the sixth chapter of the same Gospel, would afford another instance in point.


Now let us hear what Mr. Erskine says in like manner on the doctrine of the Atonement, which he would exalt, indeed, into the substance of the Gospel, but in his account of which, as well as of the other Mysteries of Revelation, he will, I fear, be found wanting.

"The doctrine of the Atonement through Jesus Christ, which is the corner-stone of Christianity, and to which all the other doctrines of Revelation are subservient,"—

(Here is the same most gratuitous assumption,—)

—"has had to encounter the misapprehension of the understanding as well as the pride of the heart."—

(Now observe, he is going to show how the understanding of the Church Catholic has misapprehended the doctrine,—)

"This pride is natural to man, and can only be overcome by the power of truth; but the misapprehension might be removed by the simple process of reading the Bible with attention; because it has arisen from neglecting the record itself, and taking our information from the discourses or the systems of men who have engrafted the metaphysical subtilties of the schools upon the unperplexed statement of the word of God. In order to understand the facts of Revelation, we must form a system to ourselves; but if any subtilty, of which the application is unintelligible to common sense, or uninfluential on conduct, enters into our system, we may be sure that it is a wrong one."

"Systems of men!" he means by this Catholic teaching, indeed it has been fashionable of late so to speak of it; but let me ask, which teaching has the more of system {64} in it, that which regards the doctrines of Revelation as isolated truths, so far as they are not connected in Scripture itself, or that which pares away part, and forcibly deals with the rest, till they are all brought down to an end cognizable by the human mind? Let him speak for himself; he, at least, expressly sanctions the formation of a system, whatever be the case with Catholic believers. He proceeds:

"The common-sense system of religion consists in two connexions,—first, the connexion between the doctrines and the character of God which they exhibit; and secondly, the connexion between the same doctrines and the character which they are intended to impress on the mind of man. When, therefore, we are considering a religious doctrine, our questions ought to be, first, What view does this doctrine give of the character of God in relation to sinners? And secondly, What influence is the belief of it calculated to exercise on the character of man? ... There is something very striking and wonderful in this adaptation, and the deeper we search into it, the stronger reason shall we discover for admiration and gratitude, and the more thoroughly shall we be convinced that it is not a lucky coincidence," etc.—P. 97.

These last remarks are true of course in their place; so far as we think we see an adaptation, even though Scripture does not expressly mention it, let us praise God and be thankful;—but it is one thing to trace humbly and thankfully what we surmise to be God's handiwork, and so far as we think we see it, and quite another thing to propound our surmises dogmatically, not only as true, but as the substance of the Revelation, the test of what is important in it, and what is not; nay, of what is really part of it, and what not. Presently he says as follows: 

"The doctrine of the Atonement is the great subject of Revelation. God is represented as delighting in it, as being glorified by {65} it, and as being most fully manifested by it. All the other doctrines radiate from this as their centre. In subservience to it, the distinction in the unity of the Godhead has been revealed. It is described as the everlasting theme of praise and song amongst the blessed who surround the throne of God."—Pp. 101, 102.

Now that the doctrine of the Atonement is so essential a doctrine that none other is more so, (true as it is,) does not at all hinder other doctrines in their own place being so essential that they may not be moved one inch from it, or made to converge towards that doctrine ever so little, beyond the sanction of Scripture. There is surely a difference between being prominent and being paramount. To take the illustration of the human body: the brain is the noblest organ, but have not the heart and the lungs their own essential rights (so to express myself), their own independent claims upon the regard of the physician? Will not he be justly called a theorist who resolves all diseases into one, and refers general healthiness to one organ as its seat and cause?

One additional observation is to be made on Mr. Erskine's view of the Atonement. He considers, in common with many other writers of his general way of thinking, that in that most solemn and wonderful event, we have a Manifestation, not only of God's love, but of His justice. For instance:

"The distinction of persons in the Divine nature we cannot comprehend, but we can easily comprehend the high and engaging morality of that character of God, which is developed in the history of the New Testament. God gave His equal and well-beloved Son to suffer in the stead of an apostate world; and through this exhibition of awful justice, He publishes the fullest and freest pardon. He thus teaches us that it forms no part of His scheme of mercy to dissolve the eternal connexion between sin and misery. No; this connexion stands sure, and one of the chief objects of Divine Revelation is to convince men of this truth; and Justice does the work of mercy, when it alarms us to a sense of danger," etc.—P. 74. {66}

The view maintained in this and other extracts, and by others besides Mr. Erskine, is remarkable for several reasons. First, for the determination it evinces not to leave us anything in the Gospel system unknown, unaccounted for. One might have thought that here at least somewhat of awful Mystery would have been allowed to hang over it; here at least some "depth" of God's counsels would have been acknowledged and accepted on faith. For though the death of Christ manifests God's hatred of sin, as well as His love for man, (inasmuch as it was sin that made His death necessary, and the greater the sacrifice the greater must have been the evil that caused it,) yet how His death expiated our sins, and what satisfaction it was to God's justice, are surely subjects quite above us. It is in no way a great and glorious Manifestation of His justice, as men speak nowadays [Note 4]; it is an event ever mysterious on account of its necessity, while it is fearful from the hatred of sin implied in it, and most transporting and elevating from its display of God's love to man. But Rationalism would account for everything.

Next it must be observed, as to Mr. Erskine himself, {67} that he is of necessity forced by his hypothesis to speak of God's justice as if manifested to our comprehension in the Atonement, if he speaks of it at all, however extravagant it may be to do so. For unless this were the case, the Dispensation would not be a "Manifestation," the revealed scheme would be imperfect, doctrines would stand apart from those elementary ideas which we have of the Divine Character from nature and Scripture—a result which Mr. Erskine pronounces in the outset to be contrary to reason, and fatal to the claims of a professed Revelation.

Mr. Erskine attempts to explain away this remaining Mystery of the Dispensation, as others have done before him: they have suggested that the vicarious satisfaction of Christ acts as a salutary lesson, how severe God might be to those who sin, did they receive their deserts, a lesson to all races of intellectual beings, present and to come, in order to the stability of His moral government:

"The design of the Atonement was to make mercy towards this offcast race consistent with the honour and the holiness of the Divine Government. To accomplish this gracious purpose, the Eternal Word, who was God, took on Himself the nature of man, and as the elder brother and representative and champion of the guilty family, He solemnly acknowledged the justice of the sentence pronounced against sin, and submitted Himself to its full weight of woe, in the stead of His adopted kindred. God's justice found rest here; His law was magnified and made honourable," etc.—Pp. 102, 103.

Thus justice comes to be almost a modification of benevolence, or of sanctity, or the carrying out of a transcendent expediency. To such conjectures it is sufficient, as against Mr. Erskine, to answer, that a human hypothesis is not a divine manifestation.

An illustration, somewhat to the same effect, is used in the Essays of Mr. Scott, of Aston Sandford. {68}

"The story of Zaleucus, prince of the Locrians, is well known: to show his abhorrence of adultery, and his determination to execute the law he had enacted, condemning the adulterer to the loss of both his eyes, and at the same time to evince his love to his son who had committed that crime, he willingly submitted to lose one of his own eyes, and ordered at the same time one of his son's to be put out. Now what adulterer could hope to escape, when power was vested in a man whom neither self-love, nor natural affection in its greatest force, could induce to dispense with the law, or relax the rigour of its sentence?"—Essay ix.

True, this act would show intense energy of determination to uphold the existing laws, clearly enough; and so did Mucius Scævola show intense energy in burning off his hand; but what is this illustration to the question of justice? The mystery remains, that the Innocent satisfied for the guilty.


One more subject of examination, and that not the least important, is suggested by the foregoing passages. Mention has been made in them once or twice of the facts of Revelation; the doctrines are said to be facts, and such facts to be all in all. Now according to Catholic teaching, doctrines are divine truths, which are the objects of faith, not of sight; we may call them facts, if we will, so that we recollect that they are sometimes facts or realities of the unseen world, and that they are not synonymous with actions or works. But Mr. Erskine, by a remarkable assumption, rules it, that doctrines are facts of the revealed divine governance, so that a doctrine is made the same as a divine action or work. As Providence has given us a series of moral facts by nature, as in the history of nations or of the individual, from which we deduce the doctrines of natural religion, so Scripture is supposed to reveal a second series of facts, or works, in {69} the course of the three Dispensations, especially the Christian, which are the doctrines of religion, or at least, which together with the principles involved in them, are the doctrines. Thus Christ's death upon the cross is an historical fact; and the meaning of it is that which illustrates and quickens it, and adapts it for influencing the soul. Now if we ask, how on this theory the doctrine of the Trinity is a fact in the divine governance, we are answered that it must be thrown into another shape, if I may so express myself; it must be made subordinate, and separated into parts. The series of Christian facts is supposed to pass from the birth to the death of Christ, and thence to the mission of the Holy Ghost. We must view the divinity of Christ in His death, the divinity of the Spirit in His mission. That they are therein exhibited, I grant; but the theory requires us to consider this the scriptural and only mode of their exhibition.

This theory is supposed by some of its upholders to be sanctioned by Butler; for they seem to argue, that as the course of nature is a collection of manifested facts, so is the course of grace. But that great divine knew better than to infer, from what he saw, what was to be expected in a Revelation, were it to be granted. He asserts plainly the contrary; his whole argument is merely negative, defending Christianity as far as nature enables him to do so,—not limiting the course of the Revelation to the analogy of nature. Accordingly, the Church Catholic has ever taught (as in her Creeds) that there are facts revealed to us, not of this world, not of time, but of eternity, and that absolutely and independently; not merely embodied and indirectly conveyed in a certain historical course, not subordinate to the display of the Divine Character, not revealed merely relatively to us, but primary objects of our faith, and essential in themselves, {70} whatever dependence or influence they may have upon other doctrines, or upon the course of the Dispensation. In a word, it has taught the existence of Mysteries in religion, for such emphatically must truths ever be which are external to this world, and existing in eternity;—whereas this narrow-minded, jejune, officious, and presumptuous human system teaches nothing but a Manifestation, i.e. a series of historical works conveying a representation of the moral character of God; and it dishonours our holy faith by the unmeaning reproach of its being metaphysical, abstract, and the like,—a reproach, unmeaning and irreverent, just as much so as it would be on the other hand to call the historical facts earthly or carnal.

I will quote some passages from Mr. Erskine's work, to justify this account of his view, and then shall be able, at length, to take leave of him. He says:

"It may be proper to remark that the acts attributed to the Divine Government are usually termed 'doctrines,' to distinguish them from the moral precepts of a religion."—P. 25.

Thus the doctrine of the Trinity, as such, is not a doctrine of the Gospel. Again:

"It is not enough to show, in proof of its authenticity, that the facts which it affirms concerning the dealings of God with His creatures, do exhibit His moral perfections in the highest degree; it must also be shown that these facts, when present to the mind of man, do naturally, according to the constitution of his being, tend to excite and suggest that combination of feelings which constitutes his moral perfection. But when we read a history which authoritatively claims to be an exhibition of the character of God in His dealings with men, if we find in it that which fills and overflows our most dilated conceptions of moral worth, etc.; ... and if our reason farther discovers a system of powerful moral stimulants, embodied in the facts of this history; ... if we discern that the spirit of this history gives peace to the conscience, etc.; ... we may then well believe that God has been pleased in pity, etc. … to clothe the eternal laws which regulate His spiritual government, {71} in such a form as may be palpable to our conceptions, and adapted to the urgency of our necessities."—Pp. 18, 19.

"I mean to show that there is an intelligible and necessary connexion between the doctrinal facts of revelation and the character of God; ... and farther, that the belief of these doctrinal facts has an intelligible and necessary tendency to produce the Christian character," etc.—Pp. 20, 21.

"The object of this dissertation is to analyse the component parts of the Christian scheme of doctrine with reference to its bearings both on the character of God and on the character of man; and to demonstrate that its facts not only present an expressive exhibition of all the moral qualities which can be conceived to reside in the divine mind, but also contain all those objects which have a natural tendency to excite and suggest in the human mind that combination of moral feelings which has been termed moral perfection."—P. 16.

"God has been pleased to present to us a most interesting series of actions, in which His moral character, as far as we are concerned, is fully and perspicuously embodied. In this narration," etc.—P. 55.

"It [the Gospel] addresses the learned and unlearned, the savage and the civilized, the decent and the profligate; and to all it speaks precisely the same language! What then is this universal language? It cannot be the language of metaphysical discussion, or what is called abstract moral reasoning; … its argument consists in a relation of facts."—P. 55.

Now that in these passages, the doctrines of the Gospel are resolved into facts which took place in God's governance, and that its mysteries are admitted, only so far as they are qualities or illustrations of these historical facts, seems to me, not only the true but the only interpretation to be put upon their wording. If they do not mean this, let this at least be proposed, as an approximation to the real meaning; I do not see what else they can mean; however, let it be observed, that the principles which have been laid down in this discussion are not at all affected by any failing, if there be failing, in the illustration of them which I have been drawing by contrast, on this or any other point, from the work of Mr. Erskine.

Section 3

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1. Anal. ii. 4.
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2. Anal. ii. 3.
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3. 2 Cor. ii. 15, 16. Rom. x. 22, 23. Acts xvii. 31. Rev. xxii. 12.
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4. This passage has been misunderstood from the word manifestation not being taken in the sense intended by the writer. The word may either mean the making a fact evident, or making the reason of it intelligible; it is used above in the latter sense. Christ's atoning death does indeed proclaim the fact that God's justice is satisfied, but it does not contain in it an explanation how it came to be a satisfaction. In the former sense then it may properly be called a manifestation of God's justice; not in the latter, though it is often said to be so. The Atonement is a satisfaction to God's justice, in that His just anger was in matter of fact averted thereby from us sinners; but we do not know in what way it satisfied His justice to afflict Christ instead of us. This is a mystery, though many persons speak as if they saw the fitness of it. It manifests to our comprehension the love and holiness of God; it is a proof of love towards man, and of hatred of sin; it is not a proof to us that He is just; but must be taken on faith as a result of His being so. (Ed. 1838.) [On this point vide the Author's Discourse to Mixed Congregations, No. 15, init., p. 306, etc., ed. 4.]
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