The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 4
Lecture XIX. Religious Duties of Man
Lecture XIX. Religious Duties of Man.
Natural Theology prolific in moral precepts—Its dictates compared with those of the Ten Commandments—Answer to the objection that Natural Theology excludes prayer—Dr Barrow, Dr Heylin, and Lord Kames quoted—Worship of the Deity rational.
In my last Lecture, I mentioned that natural religion is based on the sentiments of Veneration, Wonder, and Hope, which are innate in man, and which give him the desire to discover, and the disposition to worship and obey, a supernatural Power; that it is the duty of the intellect to direct these sentiments to their proper objects; and that the intellect obtains much needful illumination from the study of Nature. I regarded the province of reason to be to unfold the character and will of God, in so far as these are discoverable in the works of creation, I observed, that, on this account, natural theology must always keep pace with natural science; science being merely a methodical unfolding of what God has done and instituted in creation. Hence I inferred that our notions of the character of God will be more correct and sublime, in proportion as we become better acquainted with his works; and that our perception of our duties will be clearer and more forcible, in proportion as we compare correctly our own constitution with his other natural institutions. I concluded the last Lecture by observing that natural theology is in reality extremely prolific in precepts, and imperative in enforcing obedience, whenever we know how to read the record. In elucidation of this remark, I shall now compare the Ten Commandments with the dictates of natural theology, and you shall judge for yourselves whether the same law is not promulgated in both. In order to see the precept, however, in natural theology, be it remembered that you must be able to read the record in which it is written; that is to say, you must understand the constitution of the external world, and that of your own nature, to such an extent as to be capable of perceiving what God intimates that a rational being, capable of comprehending both, should do, and abstain from doing, in consequence of that constitution. If you are ignorant of this natural record, then the duties which it contains will appear to you to be mere fancies, or gratuitous assumptions; and the observations which I am about to make will probably seem unfounded, if not irreverent. But with every indulgence for the ignorance of natural institutions, in which the imperfections of our education have left most of our minds, I beg to be forgiven for not bowing before the decisions of that ignorance, but to be permitted to appeal to the judgment of men possessing the most extended knowledge. If there be individuals herepage 110
who have seriously studied natural science, and also the structure and functions of the human body, and the nature and functions of the mind, as revealed by Phrenology, they have learned to read the record of natural theology, and have prepared their minds by knowledge to interpret it aright; and to them I address the following observations.
The Ten Commandments are given forth in the Book of Exodus, which narrates that they were delivered by God himself to Moses, written on tables of stone. If we find that every one of them is written clearly and indelibly also in the human constitution, and is enjoined by natural religion, this must strengthen the authority of Scripture, by shewing that nature harmonizes with its dictates.
The first commandment is—"Thou shalt have no other gods before me."
This forbids an abuse of Veneration; and all nature, when rightly understood, proclaims one God, and enforces the same commandment. The nations who are lost in superstition and given up to idolatry, are profoundly ignorant of natural science. In proportion as we become acquainted with nature, the harmony of design and unity of power displayed in the most distant portions of the universe, proclaim more and more forcibly the unity of the Designing Mind; and hence the authority of this commandment becomes stronger and stronger as science and natural religion advance in their conquests.
The second—"Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them," &c.
This is a repetition or amplification of the same precept.
Third—"Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain."
This is still directed against an abuse of Veneration. As soon as the intellect is enlightened by natural religion, in regard to the real attributes of the Deity,—reverence and obedience to him, as prescribed by these commandments, are irresistibly felt to be right, and conformable to the dictates of the natural law; while all irreverence and profanity are as clearly indicated to be wrong.
Fourth—"Remember the Sabbath-day, to keep it holy," &c.—"In it thou shalt not do any work," &c.
This enjoins giving rest to the muscular frame on the seventh day, that the brain may be able to manifest the moral and intellectual faculties with more complete success. It ordains also, that on that day the moral and intellectual faculties shall be exclusively devoted to the study and contemplation of God and his works, and to the doing of his will.
Every line of our bodily and mental constitution coincides with this precept. Phrenology, which is a branch of natural philosophy, shews that the mind depends for its powers of acting on the state of the brain, and that if constant muscular labour be endured, the brain will be inert, and all our moral, religious, and intellectual faculties will become obtuse and dull;—on the other hand, that if we indulge in ceaseless mental exertion, we shall exhaust and weary out our brains by over-activity, and become at length incapable of beneficial application to moral and religious duties. Thus the obligation to rest in due season, is written as clearly in our constitution as in the Fourth Commandment.
Indeed, our natural constitution commands not only an extent of repose from labour equal to that prescribed by the commandment, but greatly more. It imposes on us the duty of resting from labour several hours every day in our lives, and dedicating them to the study and practice of the will of God. The observance, however, which it prescribes of the seventh day, is somewhat different from that taught by human interpreters of the Fourth Commandment. On this subject, the New Testament is silent, so that the mode of observing Sunday is left to the discretion of men. Our Scottish divines, in general, forbid walking or riding, or any other form of exercise and recreation on Sundays, as a contravention of the Fourth Commandment. In our constitution, on the other hand, God proclaims that while incessant labour, through its influence on the mental organs, blunts our moral, intellectual, and religious faculties, abstinence from all bodily exertion, and the practice of incessant mental application for one entire day, even on religion, are also injurious to the welfare of both body and mind; and that on the seventh day, there is no exception to the laws which regulate our functions on other days. These require that air, exercise, and mental relaxation should alternate with moral, religious, and intellectual studies. Accordingly, natural theology teaches us to transfer a portion of the Sunday's rest and holiness to every one of the other days of the week, and to permit on the Sundays as much of air, exercise, and recreation, as will preserve the mental organs in the best condition for performing their moral, religious, and intellectual duties.
In the New Testament, no express injunction is laid on Christians to observe the first day of the week in the same manner that the Jews were commanded in the Old Testament to observe the last day of the week, or Sabbath. In point of fact, there is no explicit prescription in the New Testament of any particular mode of observing the first day of the week. "While, therefore, all Christian nations have agreed in considering themselves not bound by the Fourth Commandment to observe the seventh day, or Jewish Sabbath, they have differed in regard to the mode of observing the first day of the week; and, as the Scripture prescribes no definite rule, each nation has adopted such forms of observance as appeared to itself to be most accordant with the general spirit of Christianity. Thus, in Catholic countries, amusements are permitted on Sundays after divine service; in Scotland, amusements and labour, except works of necessity and mercy, are prohibited. In Scotland, also, Sunday commences at twelve o'clock on Saturday night, and ends at twelve o'clock on Sunday night. In Massachusetts, on the other hand, different views are entertained. While Chap. 50, Sects. 1st, 2d, and 3d, of the Revised Statutes, prohibits all persons from doing any work, and from travelling on "the Lord's day," Sect. 4th declares that day, for the purposes of these sections, "to include the time between the midnight preceding and the sun-setting of the said day." According to the Scottish law, therefore, Sunday consists of twenty-four hours, at all seasons of the year; while according to the "Revised Statutes of Massachusetts" it consists only of sixteen and a half hours on the 22d of December, and stretches out as the days lengthen, but never exceeds nineteen and a half hours at any period. Hence, in Scotland, a person would be fined or imprisoned for doing acts after sunset, on the Sunday evening, which in Massachusetts are entirely lawful. Again, in the Revised Statutes of this commonwealth, it is declared, by Sect. 5, that no person shall be present at any game, sport, play, or public diversion, except concerts of sacred music, upon the evening next preceding or following the Lord's day," under the penalty of paying a fine of five dollars. In Edinburgh, the best plays and public entertainments are brought forth on the "evening next preceding the Lord's day," or Saturday evening,—and are then most numerously attended; so that in Boston a Christian is fined in five dollars, for doing, on that evening, what a Christian in Edinburgh is permitted to do without any penalty whatever. This shews how far each of these states assumes the power to itself of determine- page 111 ing what may and may not he done on the first day of the week; a clear indication that no positive rule is laid down in Scripture for the guidance of all nations.
On the continent of Europe, both Roman Catholics and Protestants devote a considerable portion of Sunday to recreation. This may be carried, in some instances, too far; but unless the Scriptures abrogate the law written by God in our constitution, we in Scotland have erred in the opposite extreme. The force of this observation can be appreciated only by those who are acquainted with the physiology of the brain. The difference between the expounder of the Bible and him who unfolds the natural laws, is this: The former, when he departs from the natural laws, can enforce his interpretations of Scripture only by an arm of flesh. If men refuse to forego air, exercise, and recreation on the seventh day, the priest may refuse them church privileges, or call in the police to fine and imprison them; but he can do no more. He cannot change the nature of the mind and body; nor will the Creator punish the people for not acting as their teacher desires them, in opposition to the natural laws. The interpreter of the Book of Nature, on the other hand, may wield no arm of flesh; but he is enabled to point to the power of God enforcing the divine laws, and to demonstrate that punishment is inseparably connected with infringement, and reward with obedience. The expounder of Scripture, who, without inquiring what God has commanded in his natural laws, goes to Parliament, and prays for authority to enforce his own interpretation of the Fourth Commandment on his country, is met by opposition, ridicule, and aversion;*—he is astonished at what he regards as the perverse and irreligious character of legislators, and ascribes their conduct to the corruption of human nature. It is the arm of, the Deity that opposes him. His scheme, in so far as it prohibits wholesome recreation, is in opposition to the divine laws written in the nature of man; nature speaks with a thousand tongues; and his object is baffled by a might which he neither sees nor comprehends.
This appears to me to be the real cause of the bad success in parliament of the Sabbath-observance bills. They clearly conform to nature in so far as they prohibit compulsory labour on that day; but they certainly depart from the laws written by God in our constitution, when they tend to discourage and prohibit that extent of recreation on Sundays, which a corporeal frame like ours demands, and without which the mind, while dependent on the brain for its energy, cannot put forth its full vigour either in morals, religion, or science. I fear that these ideas may appear startling to some of my present audience, who have not studied the connection of the brain with the mind; but believing them to be correct interpretations of the divine will, I should feel myself guilty of moral cowardice, if I forbore to bring them under your notice.
When, on the other hand, the expounder of Scripture interprets according to God's law as revealed in nature, he is backed and supported by the whole weight of the Divine power and authority in creation, and his precepts become irresistible. He needs no act of parliament and no police to enforce his edicts. The Lord of heaven and earth, who proclaimed the law, carries it into execution.
The Fifth Commandment is—"Honour thy father and thy mother,"&c.
This enjoins an exercise of Veneration towards parents. Natural theology enforces this precept in the most direct and efficacious manner. There is an organ of Veneration prompting us to respect virtue, wisdom, and experience, and our parents are among its natural objects. There is, however, one modification of it which natural theology points out, not expressed, although implied, in the Fifth Commandment:—Parents must render themselves legitimate objects of veneration, by manifesting superior moral, intellectual, and religious qualities and attainments, before they are authorized to expect the sentiment to be directed towards them by their offspring. Both Scripture and reason require them to do so, and they have no warrant from either to exact reverence while they neglect their own duties.
The Sixth Commandment is—"Thou shaltnot kill."
This forbids an abuse of Destructiveness. In natural theology we find that the dictates of Benevolence, Veneration, and Conscientiousness, all conspire with the commandment in forbidding violence; and moreover Combativeness and Destructiveness lend their aid in enforcing the precept, because they prompt society to retaliate and slay the killer.
The Seventh Commandment is—"Thou shalt not commit adultery."
This forbids an abuse of Amativeness. In natural theology, the whole moral sentiments conjoin in the same prohibition; and they and the intellect carry the restrictions and directions greatly farther. They prohibit marriages at ages too early and too late; marriages of persons related in blood; of persons who possess imperfect or immoral developments of brain; of individuals while labouring under any great constitutional malady. In short, natural theology interdicts many abuses of Amativeness not mentioned either in the Old or New Testament, and it shews its authority in the natural laws for its requirements. The disregard with which the dictates of natural theology in this department are treated, is to be traced to profound ignorance that God has issued the prohibitions. We are not yet accustomed to regard nature as a revelation of God's will, or to direct our conduct by it; but this is either our fault or our misfortune, and it is wrong.
The Eighth Commandment is—"Thou shalt not steal."
This forbids an abuse of Acquisitiveness. In natural theology, Conscientiousness and the other moral sentiments concur in the denunciation of theft, and the intellect points out to the culprit that the individuals who are the subjects of his depredations, will visit him with a treatment which must prove painful to himself.
The Ninth Commandment is—"Thou shalt not bear false witness."
This forbids the action of the other faculties without the control of Conscientiousness; all the moral sentiments proclaim the same prohibition.
The Tenth Commandment is—"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house," &c.
This forbids an abuse of Acquisitiveness, combined with Self-Esteem, in the form of self-love, seeking gratification at the expense of others. Conscientiousness and Benevolence are directly opposed to such abuses, and condemn them.
Thus the precepts contained in the Ten Commandments are enforced in natural theology by the dictates of the whole moral sentiments, and also by the arrangements of the physical and moral worlds, which bring evil on those who contravene them.
* At the time the text was written, Sir Andrew was beseeching Parliament to pas a bill for the better observance of the Sabbath.
It has been stated as an insuperable objection to these views, that they entirely exclude the practice of prayer, praise, and devotion. If God govern by general and immutable laws, what, it is asked, is the object or advantage of offering him any homage Or service whatever? I answer this question in the words of Dr Isaac Barrow: "We do not pray to instruct or advise God; not to tell him news or inform him of our wants (he knows them, as our Saviour telleth us, before we ask): nor do we pray by dint of argument to persuade God, and bring him to our bent; nor that by fair speech we may cajole him or move his affections towards us by pathetical oration: not for any such purpose are we obliged to pray. But for that it becometh and behoveth us to do, because it is a proper instrument of bettering, ennobling, and perfecting our souls; because it breedeth most holy affections, and pure satisfactions, and worthy resolutions; because it fitteth us for the enjoyment of happiness, and leadeth us thither: for such ends devotion is prescribed."* The doctrine that God is immutable, that he governs by general laws, and that our prayers have no effect on him, has been maintained also by two eminent Scottish divines, Drs Leechman and Blair, quotations from whom you will find in the ninth chapter of the "Constitution of Man." I here add the following sentiments expressed in "Theological Lectures at Westminster Abbey," by John Heylin, D.D., Prebendary of Westminster, and Rector of St Mary-le-Strand.†
Discoursing "concerning prayer," vol. i. p. 94, he says; Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. These words are highly instructive, and may serve to give us a solid and practical knowledge of the true nature of prayer. The proper end of prayer is not to inform God of our wants, nor to persuade him to relieve them. Omniscient as he is, he cannot be informed. Merciful as he is, he need not be persuaded. The only thing wanting is a fit disposition on our part to receive his graces. And the proper use of prayer is to produce such a disposition in us as to render us proper subjects for sanctifying grace to work in, or, in other words, to remove the obstacles which we ourselves put to his goodness."
The same views were taught by the philosophers of the last century. "The Being that made the world," says Lord Kames, "governs it by laws that are inflexible, because they are the best; and to imagine that he can be moved by prayers, oblations, or sacrifices, to vary his plan of government, is an impious thought, degrading the Deity to a level with ourselves." His lordship's opinion as to the advantage of public worship, shews that he did not conceive the foregoing views of prayer to be in the least inconsistent with its reasonableness and utility. "The principle of devotion," he says, "like most of our other principles, partakes of the imperfection of our nature; yet, however faint originally, it is capable of being greatly invigorated by cultivation and exercise. Private exercise is not sufficient; nature, and consequently the God of nature, requires public exercise, or public worship: for devotion is communicative, like joy or grief; and, by mutual communication in a numerous assembly, is greatly invigorated. A regular habit of expressing publicly our gratitude and resignation never fails to purify the mind, tending to wean it from every unlawful pursuit. This is the true motive of public worship; not what is commonly inculcated—that it is required from us as a testimony to our Maker of our obedience to his laws. God, who knows the heart, needs no such testimony."*
The objection that natural theology excludes devotion and praise, is equally unfounded. It no doubt excludes both, with the object of gratifying the Creator, by expressing to him our approbation of his works and government, as we would seek to please an earthly sovereign by addresses conveying to him our favourable opinion of his measures. But if our moral and religious sentiments be deeply penetrated with a sense of our own absolute dependence on his power, and with admiration of his greatness and goodness;—if our intellects be imbued with clear perceptions of his wisdom;—if our whole faculties flow towards his laws and institutions, with the most earnest desire to know and to obey them;—and if we have been created social beings, so that our souls expand in vigour, augment in vivacity, and rise into higher sublimity, by acting in concert in the presence of each other, it appears to me that every form of worship and devotion which shall give expression to these states of mind, is not only permitted, but enjoined by natural religion. It teaches us, however, humbly to regard ourselves as enjoying a vast privilege, and reaping an unspeakable enjoyment, in being thus permitted to lift up our minds to God; and it extinguishes the thought, as impious and unwarrantable, that, by our devotions, we can render God happier or better; or pay back, by any service of ours, his boundless gifts to us. Natural theology also discountenances every conception of our pleasing God by professions of respect which we do not feel, or of propitiating his favour by praises of his laws, while we neglect and infringe them. It also teaches that the whole of human kind are equally the children of God; because it demonstrates that He has formed after one pattern all the nations of the earth, governs them by the same laws, offers them the same means of happiness, and visits them with the same punishments when they transgress his statutes. Finally—It attaches no value to opinions, faith, or belief, apart from actions; because it shews that it is only by practically doing that which God has prescribed in the record of his will, that we can reap enjoyment or avoid evil. In short, it renders the practice of our duty a test of the sincerity, and the results of that practice a criterion of the soundness of our belief. This appears to me to be also the essential character of Christianity.
* First Sermon on the Duty of Prayer.
† 1749—Tonson and Draper in the Strand, 46.
* Sketches, B. III., Sk. 3. ch. iii. § I. St Augustin states views substantially similar, in his 130th Epistle "To Proba," quoted in "The Church of the Fathers." 1840, p. 260.