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the Nature and Causes of Theological Controversy, its mischiefs, and their remedy.
I. Nature of Theological Controversy.
There are three things pertaining to the religious life of man in this world, namely, religion, theology and ecclesiastics. Religion is the uniting of the soul to God. The word is derived from the Latin verb ligo or religo, which signifies to bind or make part; and it designates that uniting of the affections with God, that binding of the desires to him, which conform the human character to the divine, and make God the centre of human actions and the communication of human hopes. This is what is essential for each individual of the human race, without this there is no real happiness in time or in eternity, and with it there is heaven in this life, and in the life to come joy unspeakable and full of glory without interruption and without end.
Theology is the arranging of the ideas which pertain to religion according to some system of metaphysical philosophy, exhibiting the relations and the consistency of these ideas with each other, and defining and limiting the several terms which are used to convey them.
Ecclesiastics embrace the method of collecting people into religious societies, the social and official relations and duties arising out of those societies, the order of public worship, rites and ceremonies, and in general, whatever pertains to the physical and external excitements and expressions of religious emotion.
Theology and ecclesiastics are of no value except as they are helpers to religion; they are, if I may so express it, the shed under which religion shelters herself among sinful men, the two feet on which she stands and walks in this material world. Or, to use a still more familiar illustration, I would say, that religion is the food, theology the plate, and ecclesiastics the table. Now, though the table and its appropriate furniture are great conveniences and quite essential to the refinements of civilized life; yet they may be of various fashions and of very different degrees of richness and elegance, which, if the food be wholesome, our health will not be affected by the meanness or the richness, the sparseness or the abundance of the furniture. Indeed, in case of necessity, we may dispense with the furniture altogether without suffering by it; and probably there was never a more cheerful and hearty meal made than when the whole multitude, &c. of five thousand men, besides women and children, sat down upon the green grass, and our Lord took the five loaves and two fishes, without knife, plate, or table, and blessed God and brake the loaves and divided the fishes among them all, each taking his portion into his hands, and eating with a good relish to satisfy his hunger. (Maik vi. 40.) So it is with religion. We can enjoy it and live upon it,
directly as it comes from the hands of Christ, without either theology or ecclesiastics,
It is manifest that there is, and ever has been, very little difference of opinion among experimental christians as to what constitutes true religion. On this, the more essential, and we may say, indeed, the only essential point, they are very nearly, if not entirely agreed. Al their disputes, or at least all their violent, extensive, and alienating disputes, pertain either to theology or ecclesiastics.
II. The causes of theological controversy.
1. The native peculiarities of different minds, sometimes denominated idiosyncracies.
There is as great diversity in the structure of the mind as in the form and expression of the countenance; and it is as impossible for all men to view the same subject in precisely the same light as it is for them to look exactly alike. These idiosyncracies are clearly manifested by the sacred writers themselves. Paul does not make the same exposition of faith that James does, and Peter does not present the same aspects of truth that John does; but each presents the same great truths with such diversities of form as the peculiarities of each mind rendered most congenial to itself. These natural peculiarities, therefore, and the structure of the Bible cooperating with them, will produce some diversity of views among christians so long as the world stands.
2. Education; and in this term I here include all the external influences which combine to modify character.
In one age and country, some particular error is predominant, and religious instruction is so shaped as to meet and refute this error; in another age and country a different error predominates, and religious instruction is directed to meet that; and in each case the system of truth in the mind becomes differently modified. There are various other influences which tend to a similar result, such as climate, soil, customs, political institutions, intellectual habits, &c.
From these two causes, therefore, idiosyncracies and education, diversities of views will arise, and such diversities, so far from being injurious to the cause of truth, are a decided advantage to it. It is the same truth viewed on different sides. Human capacity is so limited that no one mind can take in all the aspects of a subject at once. Complete views are obtained only by a careful comparison of the impressions of many different minds. Should several artists wish to describe or to represent by painting some beautiful building or celebrated natural prospect, and one should approach it from the north and another from the south, one from the east and another from the west; they would each give a different view, each of the views
might be equally correct considered in reference to the points whence they were respectively taken, it would in every case be the same edifice or scene, and a comparison of all would be necessary to a complete representation of the whole object.
So it is with the different aspects of religious truth as viewed by different minds; and religious discussion so far as it originates from this source and is conducted with a christian spirit, is a great and very essential advantage to the cause of truth.
3. Pushing theology and ecclesiastics beyond their appropriate sphere.
Men are generally more fond of what they invent themselves than of what they receive directly from God; and a well-finished picture of some natural object is often warmly admired by many whose attention would never have been arrested for a moment by the object itself. The simple truths of religion come from God; the systematic arrangement of these truths, the comparison of them with each other, and the development of their connections, is the work of man. The Bible takes marvellously little pains. to make one truth appear to be consistent with another: it is enough that common sense teaches that real truths must always be consistent. The Bible asserts the power and sovereignty of God in terms as strong and absolute as it possibly could have done if man had no free-agency at all:—and it affirms the free-agency of man as fully as it could have done, if God exerted over him no control whatever. God has manifested no anxiety in this matter, and has left men to settle it among themselves.
Theologians, therefore, sometimes seem to think that God has not taken sufficient pains to vindicate his character; and they very anxiously undertake the work in his behalf. They invent numberless hypotheses and resort to all kinds of fictions to show how God might do this and not be unjust, or how he might do that and not be inconsistent; and become so in love with their own explanations and apologies that they quite lose sight of the truth from which they started.
Those volunteer vindications of God have seldom been successful; and one can almost imagine the Divine Being as saying in reference to them what a worthy ancient once said on a like occasion, "Deliver me from my friends, and my enemies I can take care of myself."
Each theologian has a different set of explanations and vindications of the same truths, each insists upon it that his own are the best, and they fall to wrangling about these till the truth itself is quite forgot
So when men begin to dispute about forms of church government, the rites and ceremonies of public worship, and various ecclesiastical
matters of this kind, they make them of more importance than they really are, they put them in the place of the things which they represent and which give them their only value. It is as if quarrelsome servants should spend the day in disputing about the napkins and plates for the table, and entirely forget that there was any food to be provided for the hungry guests.
4. Ignorance. Men do not always distinguish the things which differ; they do not always know what is essential divine truth and what is mere human opinion. They are also sometimes unacquainted with the progress and change of opinion in the world, and imagine that the church has always stood on the point where they now stand, when in fact the position which they have assumed may be an entirely new one. Nothing is more changeable than the meaning of language, and one who shall insist upon holding to the same form of words from age to age without any explanation, must insist upon a continued change of opinion. In our translation of the Bible (Ps. cxix. 14,) the psalmist says, "I prevented the dawning of the morning and eried." The word prevent is here used in its old sense of go before or anticipate, a meaning which it has now lost; and in this view the passage is a very significant and striking one: but insist upon taking the word prevent in its present meaning, the only one which it now has, and the text is perfect nonsense, for it makes the psalmist say that he put a stop to or put back the dawning of the morning. The same is true of many other words used in the Bible and in all writings of any considerable age.
Discussions arising from these two causes are generally pernicious; but they may be conducted in a right spirit and produce a good influence. When they tend to define the proper limits of theology and ecelesiastics, when they bring distinctly to view the boundaries between the divine truth and the human explanations of it, when they awaken the attention and enlighten the mind in respect to the changes which have taken place in theological language and theological opinion from age to age, they are highly useful:--- when they terminate in bitter wrangling, jealousy, suspicion, alienation, and confirmed prejudice, which, alas! they most frequently do, they are in the highest degree pernicious..
It seems strange that there should be any trouble from ambition in a society whose founder made it a fundamental principle of membership, that he who would be greatest must be least of all and servant out of all, and who always exemplified this principle in his own conduct. Yet so it is.. Ambition has always been a prime mover in all the troubles of the christian church. The twelve Apostles while so
journing with Christ on earth, never, so far as we can learn, had any differences about doctrine, but there were frequent strifes among them on the interesting question, who should be greatest; and Luke informs us that notwithstanding the frequent and sharp rebukes they had received from their master on this topic, the same unworthy spirit manifested itself at the very last supper of our Lord with his disciples. It was with them a direct and open conflict for superiority in rank and influence, and they seem scarcely to have thought it wrong; but in after time, when the sinfulness of ambition came to be more clearly recognized, the same spirit continued to be cherished in a more secret and covert way. In our time, instead of an open con flict with a rival for superiority, there is an attempt to undermine his influence by casting suspicion on his orthodoxy, or openly accusing him of heresy; and the workings of unholy ambition are gilded over with the specious name of zeal for truth and order. Sometimes also, ambition manifests itself in the obtrusion upon the church of novelties in speculation or practice, which serve no other purpose than to give their author a temporary celebrity, and introduce distrust, di, vision and discord among well meaning christians.
6. Envy is another fruitful source of controversy among christians.
This meanest, most ungodly, and most mischief-making of all unholy feelings, very early found its way into the church. The apostle Paul informs us, that in his day "Some indeed preached Christ even of envy and strife," Phil. i. 15; and James says in reference to the controversies of the church in his time: "Whence come wars and fightings among you come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?” iv. 1. "If ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work." iii. 14, 16. He places envy and strife together as inseparable companions, and assigns to envy the confusion and every evil work which exists among christians. So it has always been from that time to the present.
A man rises so high that he becomes an object of envy to his brethren, and they wish to reduce him to their own level. They cannot in convenience do it by a direct effort for that purpose; but they persuade themselves that there is something wrong about him; and by fixing their attention on those supposed defects, by aggravating them, by making them a constant subject of thought, they are at length brought to the deliberate conviction, that it is their solemn duty to come out publicly against him ;—whereas if there had been no envy in the outset, there would have been no such conviction of duty at the close.