« PreviousContinue »
has the right to judge all law and hold himself absolved from allegiance to all authority which does not square with his unerring convictions. All authority is thus coinpletely and forever nullified, for when the precept is obeyed it is never to be because it was commanded, but simply because it was seen to be rational. It is not authority which is to fasten obligation upon the conscience, but the perceived conformity to the nature of things.
It cannot be denied that many theories which lead to the above conclusion are made to assume a very plausible appearance, and are supported by very specious arguments. No theory can gain footing in the world and embody aniong its advocates a large number of confessedly learned and ingenious minds, without involving much truth, and this so skilfully inwrought that it may hold the system together for a time in spite of the dangerous and perhaps fatal errors which are included within it. This is peculiarly true with the subject before us. It is a principle fundamental to all moral freedom and responsibility, which we are to yield only with life, that nothing shall be allowed to intermeddle with conscience. Its rights are sacred, and no authority from heaven or earth can release from its hallowed obligations. Nothing can bind to obedience in opposition to the clear perception of intuitive right. These immutable truths are applied in various forms to the foregoing schemes, and the efforts to sunder the bonds of all authority is made, by a perversion of the most stable principles in moral science. And truly if the claims of positive law cannot be sustained without subverting the rights of conscience, if the obligations of authority cannot be upheld but at such a sacrifice, then let every sceptre fall and every throne crumble. Sooner shall heaven and earth pass away, than one jot or tittle of this law, written upon every man's bosom by God's own finger, shall be erased. But no such sacrifice is demanded. The majesty and authority of law stands firm in perfect harmony with these immutable principles. ALL TRUTH IS ONE, and all its parts in everlasting consistency. A comprehensive view of the subject before us will most surely disclose that the same principles which have been used to nullify all authority as lording it over conscience, demand unqualified submission to legitimate authority as the rightful lord and sovereign of conscience. It is here emphatically true, that
“Shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
Two general considerations will suffice to prove the necessity of authority as a source of moral obligation.
1. There are many purposes essential to the government of society, which cannot be gained by leaving mankind to the separate decisions of each one's intuitive or reflective perception.
In some things, right is seen by intuition, and obligation at once felt. In other things, duty is found only by a patient examination of circumstances and comparison of probabilities, and thus by reflection the course of duty is seen from the best estimate of practical expediency. And now we say, that if all men be left separately to find each his own duty from either or both of the above sources, there are many purposes essential to the government of man which can never be accomplished.
Even in matters of obligation originating in an intuitive perception of right in the nature of things, it is certain that society could not be kept together, if there were no umpire higher than each man's own intuition. For admit that this is the same in kind in all men, and that so far as they see the right, they do and must see it alike, yet it is not and never will be true that all will have the power of intuition equally developed, nor kept equally pure from the perverting influence of sense. Some principles of action absolutely essential to the welfare of society will not be seen at all by multitudes others will be seen only indistinctly and of course confusedly by the great mass of common minds—and even the strongest intellects, in whom the pure reason is the most clear and calm, will be conscious that they stand only upon the shore of the great ocean of truth, which is every where casting up its treasures from depths which they cannot fathom, and over a region wider than they can explore. How then, on these subjects of intuition are we to bring the consciences of men together, and bind them harmoniously with the same obligations ? Take as an illustration one fact in the divine government, applicable to many others essential to the well being of any system of moral agents, viz., the obligation that “all men should honor the Son even as they honor the Father.” This has its ground in the nature of the divine existence in Trinity, and to the all-perfect mind is seen by intuition. But if it depended upon our intuitive perceptions, when would men recognize this obligation ? Both on man and angel the obligation rests, and can rest, upon mere authority only. It is a service which is due to the second Person in the Trinity, but no mind unable to fathom the depths of God's
mysterious existence, can bring up this truth and settle the obligation upon the foundation of its own rightness in the nature of things. God must say to man—" this is my Beloved Son, hear him”—and to the high intelligences of heaven—" when he bringeth his only begotten Son into the world, let all the angels of God worship him”—and thus the obligation is fixed upon the conscience of man and angel forever. They cannot settle the rightness of that command upon its own nature, they see only the rightness of the authority which gives it, and which guards it by the awful sanction of " Anathema Maranatha," if it be disobeyed; and this is sufficient. The authority binds the conscience. The mouth of the rebel against this authority will be as effectually sealed in the judgment, as if he had disobeyed after his reason had comprehended the whole ground of the commandment.
This is but one example in the divine government, which may apply in illustration to many cases in all governments. The conscience must often be bound where there can be no intuition of the ground and nature of the principle. Children are to be governed—ignorant adults, barely awake to the consciousness of their moral identity, are to be brought under obligationYea, men of the highest intelligence, and even angels and archangels must sometimes be commissioned on errands of duty, where authority alone is the only source from which the conscience can be reached.
And if this be true in cases where right and wrong are the objects of intuition, how much more so when the duty can be settled only by patient reflection? How much more certainly will the minds of men be divided on those subjects of obligation which grow out of general expediency and propriety? A great proportion of social duties lie altogether in this field. They depend upon circumstances. They are to be regulated by general interests, and though it be granted that one side must always have weightier reasons for its adoption than the other, yet how in the multitude of human prejudices and interests will you harmonize the action of society in relation to them? What but some legitimate source of authority can come in here, and fix the line for the regulation of human practice?
There are moreover many particulars, for which there is no definite foundation in the nature of things. They involve practical questions that must be settled in some way, and in which there must also be uniformity of practice, but they have nothing VOL. XII. No. 32.
in their own nature by which they can be precisely settled. Positive enactments—sovereign authority alone is competent to fix the rule and bind the subject to it. On this ground stand very many duties both religious and civil. What in the nature of things could Adam see for the prohibition of the fruits of one tree alone in Paradise ? What in the nature of things could be seen to fix the duties of circumcision and the Mosaic purifications? or under the present dispensation, the ordinance of baptism, and the elements of bread and wine in the sacramental supper? Grant that in their adaptation to the ends they were designed to subserve, there is a perceived propriety and fitness. Yet who can so distinguish these from all other things which might subserve the same ends, as a priori to say, from the mere nature of the things themselves, these and nothing but these ought to have been selected and observed ?
Again, what in the nature of things could have bound the conscience of Abraham to “Get him out of his country, and from his kindred, and from his father's house, unto a land that God would show him?" or more emphatically still, what in the nature of things could have fixed the obligation of obedience to “ take now thy son, thine only son Isaac whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah and offer him there for a burnt offering ?” Could the intuitions of reason find here any foundation on which to rest the claims of obligation? Over all this region reason is like the dove of the deluge, there is no place where she can rest. She can only look away to the authority which commands and which is but fleeing back to the ark she left-before she can find a place for the soul of her foot. In the rightness of the authority alone can reason see here any ground of obligation.
So in relation to human society, a great proportion of its regulations are those for which there is no exclusive reason in the nature of things. At what age precisely shall minority cease, and the youth take the place of a man in civil relations? When shall the right of suffrage be granted, and to whom? When eligible to office? What is the manner of election, and induction, and how long retain office? How shall property be transferred and inherited? How shall contracts be rendered valid, and what seals shall be applied ? What shall be the form of judicial oaths, and of all judicial and legislative proceedings? A thousand queries of this nature may be put, and what will you do? Wait till individual reason or reflection settles them, or let every man do what is right in his own eyes in regard to them? Can society exist where these questions are undecided ? No, they must be settled, and you can possibly resort to no other source but simple authority to accomplish it. And when the authority which decides here is legitimate, no man's conscience needs any thing further. The law of his nature binds him in obedience to it just as decisively as if he had all the grounds of obligation beneath his own intuition.
2. It is necessary to the preservation of society that there be additional sanctions to natural obligation. The sanctions of natural obligation are the sensations of conscience in view of past actions—complacency for doing right, and compunction for doing wrong. To this may be added the natural consequences of our conduct in the relation of cause and effect. And now even if society could commence with all the advantages of general intelligence and complete holiness, it cannot be proved that these sanctions of natural obligation alone would be sufficient thus to perpetuate it. All probability is against it. Temptation would be present a thousand occasions to sin would occur, nor is there the probability that with nothing but natural consequences to follow from the sin, it would in all cases be resisted. The increase of capacity and strength of faculties in the individual and those by whom he was surrounded, and over whom he might exert an influence and gain an ascendency would constantly augment the dangers of pride, ambition, and love of domination. And were there no other barriers than natural conscience, who can believe that they would avail to secure universal obedience? And if sin once entered, there could be no safety to the community. Speedy destruction to the system would be the inevitable issue of its own perverted action. Natural conscience was the only balance-wheel, and when that, too weak to retain its own position or regulate the movements of the different parts, is thrown from its centre, the whole machinery must be rent asunder from its own violence.
All that we can gather from facts enforces this conclusion. Man in his original innocence sinned. Holy angels also sinned even when in both cases positive punishment was added to the sanctions of natural conscience. How much more certain the existence of sin when the restraining influence of all positive authority is absent ? No one can say, that if God should lay aside all authority in heaven, and leave the angels of light to nothing but the operation of natural obligation, they would