Page images
PDF
EPUB

pleasures of the flesh, finds all the precepts of religion, not only not grievous, but exceedingly pleasant and extremely delightful. So that, upon the whole, the saying of Hermes is very consistent with the nature of things, “ There is one, and but one good thing among men, and that is religion.” Even the vulgar could not bear the degenerate expression of the player who called out upon the stage,

Money is the chief good among mankind.” But, should any one say, “Religion is the principal good of mankind,” no objection could be made against it; for, without doubt, it is the only object the beauties whereof engage the love both of God and man.

But the principal things in religion, as I have frequently observed, are just conceptions of God. Now concerning this ivfinite Being, some things are known by the light of nature and reason, others only by the revelation which he hath been pleased to make of himself from heaven. That there is a God, is the distinct voice of every man, and of every thing without him. How much more then shall we 'be confirmed in the belief of this truth, if we attentively view the whole creation, and the wonderful order and harmony that subsists between all the parts of the whole system! It is quite unnecessary to show, that so great a fabric could never have been brought into being without an all-wise and powerful Creator; nor could it now subsist without the same almighty Being to support and preserve it. “Let men therefore make this their constant study,” says Lactantius, “even to know their common Parent and Lord, whose power can never be perfectly known, whose greatness cannot be fathomed, nor his eternity comprehended.” When the mind of man, with its facul. ties, comes to be once intensely fixed upon him, all other objects disappearing and being, as it were, removed quite out of sight, it is entirely at a stand and overpowered, nor can it possibly proceed further. But concerning the doctrine of this vast volume of the works of God, and that still brighter light which shines forth in the scriptures, we shall speak more fully hereafter.

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

53

LECTURE X.

Of the Decrees of God. As the glory and brightness of the divine Majesty is so great, that the strongest human eye cannot bear the direct rays of it, he has exhibited himself to be viewed in the glass of those works which he created at first, and, by his unwearied band, continually supports and governs.

Nor are we allowed to view his eternal counsels and purposes through any other medium than this. So that in our catechisms, especially the shorter one desigued for the instruction of the ignorant, it might perhaps have been full as proper to have passed over the awful speculation concerning the divine decrees, and to have proceeded directly to the consideration of the works of God: but the thoughts you find in it on the subject are few, sober, clear, and certain ; and, in explaining them, I think it most reasonable and most safe to confine ourselves within these limits in any audience whatever, but especially in this congregation, consisting of youths, not to say, in a great measure, of boys. Seeing, therefore, the decrees of God are mentioned in our catechism, and it would not be proper to pass over in silence a matter of so great moment, I shall accordingly lay before you some few thoughts upon this arduous subject.

And here, if any where, we ought, according to the common saying, to reason but in few words. I should indeed think it very improper to do otherwise; for such theories ought to be cautiously touched, rather than be spun out to a great length. One thing we may coufidently assert, that all those things which the great Creator produces in different periods of time, were perfectly known to him, and, as it were, present with him, from eternity; and that every thing that happens, throughout the several ages of the world, proceeds in the same order and same precise manner, as the eteri nd at first intended it should; that none of his counsels can be disappointed or rendered ineffectual, or in the least changed or altered by any event whatsoever. Known to God are all his works, says the apostle in the council of Jerusalem; and the son

of Sirach says, God sees from everlasting to everlasting, and nothing is wonderful in His sight. Nothing is new or unexpected to him; nothing can come to pass that he has not foreseen. And his first thoughts are so wise, that they admit no second ones that can be supposed wiser. And this stability and immutability of the divine decrees is asserted even by the Roman philosopher. “It is necessary,” says he," that the same things be always pleasing to him, who can never be pleased but with what is best.”

Every artist, to be sure, as you also well know, works according to some pattern, which is the immediate object of his mind; and this pattern, in the all-wise Creator, must necessarily be entirely perfect, and every way complete. And if this is what Plato intended by his ideas, which not a few, and these by no means unlearned, think very likely, his own scholar, the great Stagyrite, and your favourite philosopher, had surely no reason so often and so bitterly to inveigh against them. Be this as it may, all who acknowledge God to be the author of this wonderful fabric, and all these things in it which succeed one another in their turns, cannot possibly doubt, that he has brought and continues to bring them all about, according to that most perfect pattern subsisting in his eternal councils; and that ihese things that we call casual are all unalterably fixed and determined to him; for, according to that saying of the philosopher, “ Where there is most wisdom, there is least chance," and therefore surely where there is infinite wisdom, there is nothing left to chance at all.

This maxim, concerning the eternal councils of the supreme Sovereign of the world, besides that it every where shines clearly in the books of the sacred scriptures, is also in itself so evident and consistent with reason, that we meet with it in almost all the works of the philosophers, and often also in those of the poets. Nor does it appear, that they mean any thing else, at least, for the most part, by the term fate: though you may meet with some things in their works, which, I owo, sound a little harsh, and can scarcely be sufficiently softened by any, even the most favourable interpretation.

But whatever else may seem to be comprehended under the term fate, whether taken in the mathematical or physical sense, as some are pleased to distinguish, it must

at last of necessity be resolved into the appointment and good pleasure of the supreme Governor of the world. If even the blundering astrologers and fortune-tellers acknowledge, that the wise man has dominion over the stars, how much more evident is it, that all these things, and all their power and influence, are subject and subservient to the decrees of the all-wise God! Whence the saying of the Hebrews, “ There is no planet to Israel.”

And according as all these things in the heavens above and the earth beneath are daily regulated and directed by the eternal King, in the same precise manner were they all from eternity ordered and disposed by him, who worketh all things according to the counsel of his own will, who is more ancient than the sea and the mountains, or even the heavens themselves.

These things we are warranted and it is safe to believe; but what perverseness or rather madness is it to endeavour to break into the sacred repositories of heaven, and pretend to accommodate the secrets of the divine kingdom to the measures and methods of our weak capacities ! To say the truth, I acknowledge that I am astonished and greatly at a loss, when I hear learned men and professors of theology talking presumptuously about the order of the divine decrees, and when I read such things in their works. “ Paul,” says St. Chrysostom, “ considering this awful subject as an immense sea, was astonished at it, and viewing the vast abyss, started back, and cried out with a loud voice, O the depth!Nor is there much more sobriety or moderation in the many notions that are entertained, and the disputes that are commonly raised, about reconciling these divine decrees with the liberty and free-will of man.

It is indeed true, that neither religion nor right reason will suffer the actions and designs of men, and consequently even the very motion of the will, to be exempted from the empire of the counsel and good pleasure of God. Even the books of the heathens are filled with most express testimonies of the most absolute sovereignty of God, even with regard to these. The sentiments of Homer are well known, and with him agrees the tragic poet Euripides. “O Jupiter," says he, "why are we wretched mortals called wise? For we depend entirely upon thee,

[ocr errors]

and we do whatever thou intendest we should.” And it would be easy to bring together a vast collection of such sayings, but these are sufficient for our present purpose.

They always seemed to me to act a very ridiculous part, who contend, that the effect of the divine decrees is absolutely irreconcilable with human liberty, because the natural and necessary liberty of a rational creature is, to act or choose from a rational motive, or spontaneousiy, and of purpose. But who sees not, that, on the supposition of the most absolute decree, this liberty is not taken away, but rather established and confirmed ? For the decree is, that such a one shall make choice of or do some particular thing freely; and whoever pretends to deny that whatever is done or chosen, whether good or indifferent, is so done or chosen, or, at least, may be so, espouses an absurdity. But, in a word, the great difficulty in all this dispute is, that with regard to the origin of evil. Some distinguish, and justly, the substance of the action, as you call it, or that which is physical in the action, from the morality of it. This is of some weight, but whether it takes away the whole difficulty, I will not pretend to say. Believe me, it is an abyss; it is an abyss never to be perfectly sounded by any plummet of human understanding. Should any one say, “ I am not to be blamed, but Jove and Fate,” he will not get off so, but may be nonplused by turning his own wit against him. The servant of Zeno, the Stoic philosopher, being caught in an act of theft, either with a design to ridicule his master's doctrine, or to avail himself of it in order to evade punishment, said, It was my fate to be a thief.” " And to be punished for it,” said Ženo. Wherefore, if you will take my advice, withdraw your minds from a curious search into this mystery, and turn them directly to the study of piety, and a due reverence to the awful majesty of God. Think and speak of God and his secrets with fear and trembling, but dispute very little about them; and if you would not undo yourselves, beware of disputing with him. If you transgress in any thing, blame yourselves: if you do any good, or repeut of evil, offer thanksgiving to God. This is what I earnestly recommend to you; in this ! acquiesce myself; and to this, when much tossed and distressed with doubt and difficulties, I had recourse, as

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »