Theological Institutes

Part First - Evidences of The Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures

By Richard Watson

Chapter 2

THE RULE, which determines the Quality of MORAL ACTIONS, must be presumed to be matter of REVELATION FROM GOD.

IT is well observed by a judicious writer, that "all the distinctions of good and evil refer to some principle above ourselves; for, were there no Supreme Governor and Judge to reward and punish, the very notions of good and evil would vanish away: they could not exist in time minds of men, if there were not a Supreme Director to give laws for the measure thereof." (Ellis's Knowledge of Divine Things, &c.)

If we deny the existence of a Divine law obligatory upon man, we must deny that the world is under Divine government, for government without rule or law is a solecism; and to deny time Divine government, would leave it impossible for us to account for that peculiar nature which has been given to man, and those relations among human concerns and interests to which we have adverted, and which are so powerfully affected by our conduct :-certain actions and habits which almost all mankind have agreed to call good, being connected with the happiness of the individual, and the well being of society; and so on the contrary. This too has been matter of uniform and constant experience from the earliest ages, and warrants therefore the conclusion that the effect arises from original principles and a constitution of things which the Creator has established. Nor can any reason be offered why such a nature should be given to man, and such a law impressed on the circumstances and beings with which he is surrounded, except that both had an intended relation to certain courses of action as the sources of order and happiness, as truly as there was an intended relation between the light and the eye which is formed to receive its rays.

But as man is not carried to this course of action by physical impulse or necessity; as moral conduct supposes choice and therefore instruc­tion, and the persuasion of motives arising out of it; the benevolent intention of the Creator as to our happiness could not be accomplished without instruction, warning, reward, and punishment; all of which necessarily imply superintendence and control, or, in other words, a moral government. The creation therefore of a being of such a nature as man, implies Divine government, and that government a Divine law.

Such a law must be the subject of REVELATION. Law is the will of a superior power; but the will of a superior visible power cannot be known without some indication by words or signs, in other terms, with­out a revelation; and much less the will of an invisible power, of an order superior to our own, and confessedly mysterious in his mode of existence, and the attributes of his nature.

Again, the will of a Superior is not in justice binding until, in some mode, it is sufficiently declared; and the presumption, therefore, that God wills the practice of any particular course of action, on the part of his creatures, establishes the farther presumption, that of that will there has been a manifestation; and the more so if there is reason to suppose that any penalty of a serious nature has been attached to disobedience.

The revelation of this will or law of God may be made either by action, from which it is to be inferred; or by direct communication in language. Any indication of the moral perfections of God, or of his design in forming moral beings, which the visible creation presents to the mind; or any instance of his favour or displeasure toward his crea­tures clearly and frequently connected in his administration with any particular course of conduct, may be considered as a revelation of his will by action; and is not at all inconsistent with a farther revelation by the direct means of language. .-

The Theist admits that a revelation of the will of God has been made by significant actions, from which the duty of creatures is to be inferred and contends that this is sufficient. "They who never heard of any external revelation, yet if they knew from the nature of things what is fit for them to do, they know all that God will or can require of them."[1]

They who believe that the Holy Scriptures contain a revelation of God's will, do not deny that indications of his will have been made by action; but they contend that they are in themselves imperfect and in. sufficient, and that they were not designed to supersede a direct reve­lation. They hold also, that a direct communication of the Divine will was made to the progenitors of the human race, which received additions at subsequent periods, and that the whole was at length embodied in time book called, by way of eminence, "The Bible."

The question immediately before us is, on which side there is the strongest presumption of truth. Are there, in the natural works of God, or in his manner of governing the world, such indications of the will of God concerning us, as can afford sufficient direction in forming a per­fectly virtuous character, and sufficient information as to the means by which it is to be effected? We may try this question by a few obvious instances.

The Theist will himself acknowledge, that temperance, justice, and benevolence, are essential to moral virtue. With respect to the first, nothing appears in the constitution of nature, or in the proceedings of the Divine administration, to indicate it to be the will of God that the appetites of the body should be restrained within the rules of sobriety, except that, by a connection which has been established by him, the excessive indulgence of those appetites usually impairs health. If therefore we suppose this to amount to a tacit prohibition of excess, it still leaves those free from time rule whose firm constitutions do not suffer from intemperate gratifications ; it gives one rule for the man of vigor­ous, and another for the man of feeble health and it is no guard against that occasional insobriety which may be indulged in without obvious danger to health, but which nevertheless may be excessive in degree though occasional in recurrence. The rule is therefore imperfect.

Nor are the obligations of justice in this way indicated with adequate clearness. Acts of injustice are not like acts of excessive intemperance, punishable in the ordinary course of providence by pain and disease and premature death, as their natural general consequences; nor, in most instances, by any other marked infliction of the Divine displeasure in the present life. From their injurious effects upon society at large, indications of the will of God respecting them may doubtless be inferred, but such effects arise out of the grosser acts of fraud and rapine; those only affect the movements of society, (which goes on without being visibly disturbed by the violations of the nicer distinctions of equity which form an essential part of virtue,) and never fail to degrade and corrupt individual character. Rules of justice, therefore, thus indicated, would, like those of temperance, be very imperfect.

The third branch of virtue is benevolence, the disposition and the habit of doing good to others. But in what manner except by revelation are the extent and the obligation of this virtue to be explained? If it be said, that "the goodness of God himself as manifested in creation and providence presents so striking an example of beneficence to his creatures, that his will, as to the cultivation of this virtue, may be unequivocally inferred from it," we cannot but perceive, that this example itself is imperfect, unless other parts of the Divine conduct be explained to us, as the Scriptures explain them. For if we have manifestations of his goodness, we see also fearful proofs of his severity.) Such are the per­mission of pestilence, earthquakes, inundations: and the infliction of pain and death upon all men, even upon infants and unsinning animals. If the will of God in favour of beneficent actions is to be inferred from the pleasure which is afforded to those who perform them, it is only indicated to those to whom a beneficent act gives pleasure, and its non­performance pain; and it cannot therefore be at all apprehended by those who by constitution are obdurate, or by habit selfish. The rule would therefore be uncertain and dark, and entirely silent as to the extent to which beneficence is to be carried, and whether there may not be exceptions to its exercise as to individuals, such as enemies, vicious persons, and strangers.

Whatever general indications there may be in time acts of God, in the constitution of human nature, or in the relations of society, that some actions are according to the will of God, and therefore good, and that others are opposed to his will, and therefore evil; it follows then, that they form a rule too vague in itself; and too liable to different interpretations, to place time conduct of men under adequate regulation, even in respect of temperance, justice, and beneficence. But if these and other virtues, in their nicest shades, were indicated by tire types of nature, and the manifestations of tire will of God in his moral government, these types and this moral government either entirely silent, or speak equivocally as to subjects of vital importance to the right conduct and effectual moral control, as well as to the hopes and the happiness of man.

There is no indication, for instance, in either nature or providence, that it is the will of God that his creatures should worship him; and the moral effects of adoration, homage, and praise, on this system, would be lost. There is no indication that God will be approached in prayer, and this hope and solace of man is unprovided for. Nor is there a sufficient indication of a future state of rewards and punishment; because there is no indubitable declaration of man's immortality, nor any facts and principles so obvious as to enable us confidently to infer it. All observa­tion lies directly against the doctrine of the immortality of man. flee dies, and the probabilities of a future life which have been established Upon time unequal distribution of rewards and punishments in this life, and the capacities of the human soul, are a presumptive evidence which has been adduced, as we shall afterward show, only by those to whom the doctrine had been transmitted by tradition, and who were therefore in Possession of the idea; and, even then, to have any effectual force of persuasion, they must be built upon antecedent principles furnished only by the revelations contained in Holy Scripture. Hence some of the wisest heathens, who were not wholly unaided in their speculations on these subjects by the reflected light of those revelations, confessed them selves unable to come to any satisfactory conclusion. The doubts of Socrates, who expressed himself the most hopefully of any on the subject of a future life, are well known; and Cicero, who occasionally expatiates with so much eloquence on this topic, shows by the skeptical expressions which he throws in, that his belief was by no means confirmed.[2] If, therefore, without any help from direct or traditional instruction, we could go as far as they, it is plain that our religious system would be deficient in all those motives to virtue which arise from the doctrines of man's accountability and a future life, and in that moral control which such doctrines exert: the necessity of which for the moral government of the world is sufficiently proved, by the wickedness which prevails even where these doctrines are fully taught.

Still farther, there is nothing in those manifestations of God and of his will, -which the most attentive contemplatist can be supposed to collect from his natural works and from his sovereign rule, to afford the hope of pardon to any one who is conscious of having offended him, to any assurance of felicity in a future state, should one exist.

Some consciousness of offence is felt by every man; and though he should not know the precise nature or extent of the penalty attached to trangression he has no reason to conclude that he is under a mild and fondly merciful government, and that therefore his offences will in course be forgiven All observation and experience lie against this; and the case is the more alarming to a considerate mind, that so little of the sad inference that the human race is under a rigorous administration, depend upon reasoning and opinion: it is fact of common and daily observation. The minds of men are in general a prey to discontent and care, and are agitated by various evil passions. The race itself is doomed to wasting labours of the body or the mind, in order to obtain subsistence. The -employments are for the most part low and grovelling, in comparison

the capacity of the soul for intellectual pleasure and attainments. The mental powers, though distributed with great equality among the various classes of men, are only in the case of a few individuals ever awakened The pleasures most strenuously sought are therefore sensual, degrading, and transient. Life itself, too is precarious: infants suffer and die, youth is blighted, and thus by far the greater part of mankind is swept away before the prime of life is attained. Casualties, plagues, famines, floods, and war, carry on the work of destruction. In the majority of states the poor are oppressed, the rich are insecure, private wrong is added to public opression, widows are wronged, orphans are deprived of bread, and the sick and aged are neglected.) The very re­ligions of the world have completed human wretchedness by obdurating the heart, by giving birth to sanguinary superstitions, and by introducing a corruption of morals destructive of the very elements of well-ordered society. Part of these evils are permitted by the Supreme Governor, and part inflicted, either by connecting them as consequents to certain actions, or to time constitution of the natural world more immediately; but, whether permitted or inflicted, they are punitive acts of his admi­nistration, and present him before us, notwithstanding innumerable instances of his benevolence, as a Being of "terrible majesty."[3]

To remove in part the awful mystery which overhangs such an ad­ministration, the most sober Theists of former times, differing from the horde of vulgar blasphemers and metaphysical Atheists who have arisen in our own day, have been ready to suppose another state of being, to which the present has respect, and which may discover some means of connecting this permission of evil, and this infliction of misery, (often on the apparently innocent,) with the character of a Governor of perfect wisdom, equity, and goodness. But in proportion as any one feels himself obliged to admit and to expect a state of future existence, he must feel the necessity of being assured, that it will be a felicitous one. (Yet should he be conscious of frequent transgressions of the Divine law; and at the same time see it demonstrated by facts occurring daily, that in the present life the government of God is thus rigorous-the only fair conclusion to which he can come is, that the Divine government will be conducted on precisely time same principles in another, for an infinitely perfect being changes not. Farther discoveries may then be made; but they may go only to establish this point, that the apparent severity of his dispensations in the present life are quite con­sistent with justice, and even the continued infliction of punishment with goodness itself, because other moral agents may be benefited by the example. The idea of a future life does not therefore relieve the case. If it be just that man should be punished here, it may be re­quired by the same just regard to the principles of a strictly moral government, that he should be punished hereafter.

If then we are offenders against the Majesty of so dread a being, as the actual administration of the world shows its Governor to be, it is in the highest degree necessary, if there he in him a disposition to for­give our offences, that we should be made acquainted with it, and with the means and conditions upon which his placability can become available to us.(If he is not disposed to forgive, we have the greatest cause for alarm; if an inclination to forgive does exist in the Divine Mind, there is as strong a reason to presume that it is indicated to us some­where, as that the law under which we are placed should have been expressly promulgated; and especially if such a scheme of bestowing pardon has been adopted as will secure the ends of moral government, and lead to our future obedience-the only one which we can con­ceive to be worthy of God.)

Now it is not necessary to prove at length, what is so obvious, that if we had no method of knowing the will and purposes of God, but by inferring them from his works and his government, we could have no information as to any purpose in the Divine Mind to forgive his sinning creatures. (The Theist, in order to support this hope, dwells upon the proofs of the goodness of God with which this world abounds, but shuts his eyes upon the demonstrations of his severity; yet these surround him as well as the other, and the argument from the severity of God is as forcible against pardon, as the argument from his goodness is in its favour. At the best, it is left entirely uncertain; a ground is laid for heart-rending doubts, and fearful anticipations; and, for any thing he can show to the contrary, the goodness which God has displayed in nature and providence may only render the offence of man more aggravated, and serve to strengthen the presumption against the forgiveness of a wilful offender, rather than afford him any reason for hope.

The whole of this argument is designed to prove, that had we been left, for the regulation of our conduct, to infer the will and purposes of the Supreme Being from his natural works, and his administration of the affairs of the world, our knowledge of both would have been essentially deficient; and it establishes a strong presumption in favour of a direct revelation from God to his creatures, that neither his will concerning us, nor the hope of forgiveness, might be left to dark and uncertain inference, but be the subjects of an express declaration.


[1] Christianity as Old as the Creation, p. 233.--" By employing our reason to collect the will of God from the fund of our nature, physical and moral, we may acquire not only a particular knowledge of those laws which are deducible from them, but a general knowledge of the manner in which Goal is pleased to exercise his supreme powers in this system." (BOLINGBR0KE's Works, vol. v, p. 100.)


[2] So in his Tusc. Quest. 1, he says, " Expone igitur, nisi molestum est, pri mum animos, 8i p0/es, remanere post mortem; turn si minus id obtinebis (est enim arduum,) docebis carere omni malo mortem. Show me first, if you can, and if be not too troublesome, that souls remain after death; or if you cannot prove that, (for it is difficult,) declare how there is no evil in death."


[3] "Some men seem to think the only character of the Author of nature to be that of simple absolute benevolence. There may possibly be in the creation, beings, to whom he manifests himself under this most amiable of all characters, for it is the most amiable, supposing it not, as perhaps it is not, incompatible with justice; but he manifests himself to us as a righteous Governor, He may consistently with this be simply and absolutely benevolent; but he is, for he has given us a proof in the constitution and conduct of the world that he is, a Governor over servants, as he rewards and punishes us for our actions." (BUTLER'S Analogy.)