Thoughts on a Revelation Part 1

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Thoughts on a Revelation.

by Samuel John Jerram.

Few persons can have observed attentively the various phases of public opinion on religious subjects during the last twenty years or more, without noticing a growing tendency to the acc.u.mulation of difficulties on the subject of Revelation. Geology, ethnology, mythical interpretation, critical investigation, and inquiries of other kinds, have raised their several difficulties; and, in consequence, infidels have rejoiced, candid inquirers have been perplexed, and even those who have held with firmness decided views on the distinctive character of the inspiration of the Bible, have sometimes found it difficult to satisfy their minds entirely, and to see clearly the grounds of their conclusions.

The writer of these pages does not propose to attempt a detailed reply to the various difficulties which have been raised. Answers to objections arising from the pursuit of particular sciences are most effectually given by those, who have made those sciences their study; nor can there be any doubt that, if the book of nature and the Bible spring from the same source, an increasing acquaintance with both will tend to show their harmony with each other, and to dispel the perplexities which have arisen from an imperfect acquaintance with either of them. It may be observed, too, that, as it requires special knowledge on the part of a writer to cope with special difficulties; so also does it demand acquirements, but rarely found, on the part of the reader, to appreciate the real value, both of the objections and answers which may be made on geological, critical, or other special grounds.

The writer thinks that there is another method of reply-a method which consists in giving as clear a view as can be had of the real character of the subject against which the objections are made; and this is the kind of answer which he proposes to attempt. The man who has a distinct and well defined knowledge of chemical, mathematical, or any other science, will not be greatly perplexed with difficulties which may be brought from other sciences, touching upon that with which he is acquainted. The knowledge which he possesses of his own particular science will enable him, in some instances, to perceive at once the weakness of the objections which are alleged; and, even when this is not the case, he will see such an harmonious proportion subsisting between the various parts of that branch of knowledge which he has been pursuing, and be so strongly convinced of the certainty of it, that he will be justly disposed to attribute to his own ignorance his inability to give satisfactory replies to those difficulties which he cannot dispose of.

_Real_ knowledge cannot of course be overthrown; and, although it is often difficult to decide what knowledge is of this description, the task of arriving at a tolerably correct conclusion with regard to such subjects as fall within the range of our faculties, must not be regarded as an hopeless one.

When clear definitions have been given, disputants have often found that there is no further room for discussion; and, even when this is not the case, the force of objections can, under such circ.u.mstances, be more accurately weighed, and the real points of attack and defence more clearly perceived. If a man were to say, in a mixed company, that there was no taste in an apple, many sensible men, unacquainted with his exact meaning, might be inclined to dispute the a.s.sertion, and to say that the statement was contrary to common experience; but, if he explained his meaning to be, that taste is a quality of a sentient being, and that there is nothing in the apple of this kind, or corresponding to it, everybody then would see the truth of his a.s.sertion, and all ground of dispute would be removed. We will take another case. Those who hold strong Protestant views frequently say, that the "religion of the Bible is the religion of Protestants." This, for most purposes, expresses their meaning forcibly and well, and the mind, in practice, usually supplies the necessary limitations. It does not, however, always happen that these limitations are consciously present to the mind, or that the person who practically receives the right impression might not be greatly puzzled by the subtle reasonings of objectors. The _dictum_, quoted above, does not mean, as might at first sight appear, that we are to make use of no other means than the Bible in the investigation of Divine truth, and that the wisdom of the present and past ages is to go for nothing. No one _could_ thus isolate himself from other influences; and, if he could, it would not be _desirable_. What is really meant is, that all truth necessary for salvation is contained in the Bible, "so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith,"

etc.; in other words, that the Bible is the ultimate and sole standard of appeal. This of course may be, and is disputed; but, when the statement is put in a clear and well defined shape, many apparent objections vanish at once, and the real points of attack and defence are made evident. If, then, we can obtain ideas, on the subject of revelation, which shall be, upon the whole, distinct, and worthy of being received as true, much will be done to remove objections, and to satisfy a reasonable mind.

The proposed investigation will necessarily be, in some degree, of an _a priori_ character; not, however, as we trust, so much so as to render it vague and without practical value. It will be _a priori_, inasmuch as it will not a.s.sume the existence of a revelation, and then proceed to examine its character. This would be to beg the question at issue. It will not be _a priori_, so far as it consists in inst.i.tuting an inquiry into the faculties of the human mind, and their capacity to receive a revelation; and into this it will be found that the investigation will mainly resolve itself.

1. We may commence our inquiry into the subject by noticing, _that a knowledge of G.o.d_, _to be obtained in some way or other_, _seems almost essential to the well-being of man_. If it be granted, that there is such a Being-and few, it is presumed, would go so far as to deny this-it must be of great importance for us to know the relationship in which that Being stands to us, and we to Him. We can hardly suppose it possible that an Infinite Being, in some sense, as we suppose will be generally allowed, the Governor of the world, should not have an important relation to _all_ other existences; much less, that the relation which He bears to _man_, the most n.o.ble existence of which we have any actual experience, should be of an insignificant character. Looking, too, upon man as a free and moral agent, accountable, as conscience declares, for his actions to his fellow-men, it seems almost certain that he must be also responsible for his acts in relation to the Deity. The general belief of mankind, in all ages and in all places, tends to the same conclusion; and, if it be admitted that there is an eternal world into which the consequences of our actions follow us, a knowledge of the relationship in which we stand to G.o.d becomes of still greater importance. But if this knowledge probably may be, and, should the general belief of the world have a foundation in fact, certainly is, of great importance, it can hardly be supposed that a G.o.d of love would allow us to remain in ignorance of it; and the question arises, _how it is to be obtained_.

It may be observed, first of all, that _the Deity does not_, _like other objects_, _come within the direct cognizance of our perceptive faculties_. We have an organization, by means of which we are enabled to perceive various objects around us; and, by travelling to other lands, we can obtain a knowledge of many things of which we had before been ignorant. We perceive also what is going on within us. The telescope and the microscope reveal to us wonders which, without their intervention, we could never have discovered. But we cannot through the instrumentality of any of our faculties perceive G.o.d. Travel where we will we cannot find Him out. No appliance of art has availed to disclose Him to us. If any philosophers conceive that they can intuitively gaze upon G.o.d, other philosophers declare their ignorance of any intuition of this kind, and a.s.suredly the common people, who most stand in need of clear notions on the subject, and who would hardly be neglected by a beneficent G.o.d, are altogether unconscious of it. The knowledge of Him, therefore, if obtained at all, must be had in some other way.

But may not an adequate knowledge of G.o.d be obtained _by the exercise of the faculties of the human mind upon external nature_, _or in some other way_? The Apostle St. Paul says something which rather favours this view, when he declares that "the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and G.o.dhead; so that they are without excuse" (Rom. i. 20): and we believe that a considerable insight into the nature of G.o.d, and the probable character of His dealings with us may be obtained in the manner to which we have referred. Still we have only to look at the ever varying and degrading notions which have, at all times, prevailed in many parts of the world respecting the Divine Being, to perceive that a more clear method of obtaining knowledge about Him would, to say the least of it, be a most valuable boon. The method under consideration has not practically issued as we might have hoped that it would; and therefore there is reason to expect, that G.o.d might make use of some more direct way of communicating to us a knowledge of Himself.

Another possible mode of communicating a knowledge of G.o.d would be, _by implanting in the mind of man_, _an idea corresponding_, _so far as might be needful_, _to the nature of G.o.d_. But a belief in the existence of anything of this kind is open to several objections. If such an idea existed, it must, to answer the required end, be sufficiently clear and well defined to give at least a tolerably accurate notion of the Deity, and must also bring with it a well-grounded conviction of its correspondence to the reality. But the variety of opinions which have been entertained on the subject forbid us to believe that any such idea as this exists. Search as far as we can into our own minds, we are unable to discover anything approaching to such a notion of the Divinity.

It appears too, that, notwithstanding some speculations as to time and s.p.a.ce, which, in the opinion of some, bear a slightly exceptional character, there is no good reason to believe that we acquire other kinds of knowledge in the manner under consideration; and, if this be so, there is a strong presumption against a knowledge of the Deity being obtained in this way.

As however some confusion of mind not uncommonly prevails on this subject, we will endeavour to explain our meaning more fully. We possess, as it appears to us, certain capacities for obtaining knowledge, and for retaining, and disposing our knowledge, when obtained, in different ways; but we are not born with the actual possession of knowledge; nor, so far as we can see, is knowledge, at any subsequent time, obtained by us, except by means of the capabilities to which we have referred. We have by nature powers of knowing objects, both external to our organization, and internal; but the objects themselves, and not the representations of them, are presented to us before we know them. We are conscious of seeing, and smelling, and tasting, and feeling, etc.; but they are the things themselves which we see, and smell, and taste, and feel, in the first instance, although afterwards we are able to contemplate the representations of them which are formed in the mind. There is within us, no doubt, a capability of apprehending, in a sufficient degree, the perfections of G.o.d, when they are declared to us; but a knowledge of these perfections does not naturally exist within us. We conclude, then, that, as the Deity is not directly perceived by us, has not in practice been adequately discerned by any process of the mind, and is not made known to us by any connate, or subsequently implanted idea, we must be indebted to revelation, in the main, for any knowledge we may obtain respecting Him. We do not consider it necessary to enter into a discussion of Pantheistic views, inasmuch as we have yet to learn that Pantheism has ever furnished any definite ideas respecting the nature of G.o.d which will bear the test of a close examination as to their reality. We think, too, that it is destructive of the personality of either G.o.d, or man, or both, and thus does away with all real relation between the two.

Before proceeding to the investigation of what we mean by a revelation, we will endeavour to answer an objection which may be raised. It may be alleged that, if a true knowledge of G.o.d is of such great consequence to man, it appears strange that such differing opinions should have been held on the subject, and that G.o.d's revelation-on the supposition that there is one-should not have been more extensively promulgated, and declared with more irresistible evidence. There is no doubt a difficulty here. It does not however attach _especially_ to the subject of a revelation; but meets us at all points, when we consider the unequal distribution of the blessings of nature. Why many persons should be dest.i.tute of the advantages which others enjoy, and why some should pa.s.s a life of suffering, while others are surrounded with every comfort, are questions which naturally arise in the minds of reflecting men, but which have hitherto remained without full and satisfactory answers. He who would give a complete reply must have clearer views, than have yet been obtained, with regard to the origin of evil. It may be observed too that, on the supposition that the Bible is a real revelation from G.o.d, and bearing in mind the vast number of the human race to whom it has already been given, and its capability of future communication, it far more nearly meets the difficulty, than abstruse speculations respecting the Deity, which can scarcely be apprehended even by philosophers, and which are to the ma.s.s wholly unintelligible.

2. Let us now examine _the conditions under which a revelation may be expected to be given to the original recipients_.

It may be observed in the first place that a revelation _must possess some distinctive character_. Even, if it should turn out that there is no such thing in reality at all, at least the notion which we form in our minds must possess such points of difference as to distinguish it from all other notions. It appears needful to bear this in mind, obvious though it is, because there are not a few, in the present day, who deprive the word, revelation, of nearly all the distinguishing features which have commonly been supposed to attach to it, and so extend the meaning of the word inspiration as "sometimes to believe it in poets, legislators, philosophers, and others gifted with high genius," (Essays and Reviews, p. 140). What this means it is hard to say. Shakespeare, Milton, Newton, and others certainly did not imagine that they had direct communication with G.o.d; that they revealed to us His nature, and the relation in which He stands to us; predicted future events, etc., in the same sense that Moses, David, Isaiah, and the other writers of the Bible are supposed to have done. If they actually did anything of this kind, they were a.s.suredly wholly unconscious of their power; nor, we may add, has common opinion held that they afforded information on the same subjects as those which the writers of the Bible handled. Admirers of our poets, and philosophers, have not considered it necessary to promulgate what they have found in their writings, as matters in which the spiritual, and, possibly, eternal interests of man are vitally concerned; although believers in the Bible, and even in Mahomet, have done so. The word inspiration, in fact, as used in the pa.s.sage above quoted, involves a confusion of ideas which we should hardly have expected to find in the writings of any one who professed to speak accurately, and appears scarcely pardonable, or even honest, in the case of so acute a thinker, as the late Mr. Baden Powell. We are not now saying that the Bible is a revelation from G.o.d, or even that there is such a thing as a distinctive revelation at all. All we a.s.sert is, that the idea of such a thing is a very common one, and that it is very different from that which is usually held with regard to the works of Newton, Milton, and other gifted sages and philosophers. We might add, in pa.s.sing, that, unless the Bible be an imposture-in which case it ought to be regarded as far inferior to the works of genuine and truthful poets and philosophers-it does correspond, as we trust will be seen, on an examination of its contents, to the idea referred to.

Still further, revelation must not only have some distinctive character; but, in order to be effectual for its purpose, _it should carry along with it_, _to the original recipients_, _a reasonable conviction of its authenticity_. The Bible speaks of several professed modes of communication, and accepting them according to the ordinary meaning of words, and not in any mythical, or ideological sense, they appear to be such as might answer for the purpose of authentication. The Lord talked with Abraham. He appeared in a burning bush to Moses, spake to him and the children of Israel on Mount Sinai, and conversed with him afterwards on the top of that mountain, during a period of forty days. He spake in the night to Samuel. He appeared in a vision to Isaiah and others. To some He made Himself known in dreams. Christ spake to His disciples.

All these are evidently ways in which G.o.d might communicate with man; and there is no difficulty in supposing that the attendant circ.u.mstances, such for instance as some of those recorded in the Bible, might be of such a kind as to authenticate the communication. It would be idle to argue that, because G.o.d does not make Himself known in any of these ways now, He has never done so; for, to omit other considerations, we may observe that, in accordance with the economy which prevails in the works of G.o.d, we have no reason to suppose that He would make special revelations to more persons than might be necessary for the purpose He had in view. If He revealed Himself to them, the promulgation of the revelation would be naturally and safely left to more ordinary instrumentality. At the present time, so far as Christians are concerned, they do not expect a special revelation to themselves, because, as they believe, G.o.d has already communicated all that He desires them to know.

But supposing a revelation to be sufficiently authenticated,-What may be reasonably expected as to the _extent_ of it? It is, we think, clear in the first place that _no perfect knowledge of G.o.d and His relation to us could be communicated_. Even if a direct presentation of the Infinite were given, the capacity of man could not grasp it, and therefore the result would be a finite conception; and, if the revelation were made by words or other signs, it is plain that these can only express the finite ideas of which they are the symbols.

Nor is there anything in this which need excite our surprise; for the limited nature of our knowledge with regard to G.o.d would be a.n.a.logous to that which we have about other things. There is nothing with regard to which our knowledge is not limited. Some may be ready to affirm that we do not know things in themselves at all, but only the effects produced upon us, or their relation to us. We are not about to maintain this proposition; but it is at any rate plain that the most familiar objects, as science advances, often disclose to us new qualities, and that we have no reason to suppose that we are fully acquainted with all the qualities of even the simplest substances. There is no reason to expect that the book of revelation should be more explicit than that of nature.

Not only, however, _must_ our knowledge, derived from revelation, be, in some degree, limited; but it is not difficult to see, why _it would be probably kept even within the range of what it is possible for us to know_. We can readily understand that the object of G.o.d in making a revelation would be to inform us about those things only, a knowledge of which might be essential to our interests; and here again the a.n.a.logy of the natural world comes in to a.s.sist us. G.o.d has given to each existence such qualities as are requisite for the position in which it is placed.

Ascending through the various cla.s.ses of animals, we find, as we advance, the capacities for knowledge increasing, and bearing a relation to their actual circ.u.mstances. The mole is not endowed with the far-seeing vision which is essential to the well-being of the eagle: nor, on the other hand, has the eagle the power of threading its way through the earth, without which the mole could not exist. Viewing man in relation to the natural world, we find that he has the power of obtaining that kind of knowledge which is necessary to his welfare here, although, in many respects, he is far surpa.s.sed by the keener perceptions of the inferior animals. G.o.d has in fact ordered and limited his knowledge with an express reference to the position which he is called upon to occupy.

This throws light upon the subject of revelation. It is reasonable to expect that G.o.d would limit the knowledge communicated in that way also, by a consideration of the state in which man is placed here, and of that which, upon the supposition of a future state, he is to occupy hereafter.

So far as we have yet gone, there does not appear to be any reason why the knowledge, although limited, should not be accurate as far as it goes. Though we do not know all the properties of particular objects, we may know some of them, and may also safely reason about those with which we are acquainted, so long as we are careful not to introduce into the reasoning anything which does not result from our actual knowledge; and so, turning from nature to a revelation, we may learn much from it about G.o.d, as for instance, that He is a G.o.d of love and holiness; that He will act towards us in a particular manner; that He will punish some actions and recompense others; and this knowledge also may be a true knowledge, so far as it goes, and one that we may safely act upon, although we may still be in ignorance of His exact nature and many points of our relationship to Him.

There is, however, a light in which revelation must be viewed, which involves considerations of a somewhat different character from those hitherto noticed, and to this we now turn. A revelation must not only be limited by the extent of the human capacity for receiving it, and by the proposed object of it, but also, in a considerable degree, by _the state of knowledge existing in the world at the time it is made_. In fact, without some such limitation, it would be unintelligible, and, consequently no revelation. As this truth has frequently been misapplied, we will endeavour to explain, as accurately as we can, our meaning. G.o.d could, perhaps, if He thought proper, give in an ignorant age a revelation, as full and explicit, as in a more enlightened period-a revelation we mean which should be understood-but it must be remembered that this could only be effected by altering the conditions under which human knowledge is acquired. For example, to have given a correct theory of the motions of the heavenly bodies, before the age of Newton, would have been impossible, without an entire change both in the existing state of knowledge, and also in the method of acquiring it. Down to the present time all history and experience testify to the fact that the acquisition of knowledge is _gradual_; but such a revelation, as that to which we have referred, would require that it should be made _per saltum_. If knowledge were given in this way the usual course would be completely changed; and not only so, but the knowledge communicated would be altogether out of proportion to that possessed on other points, and would place those who had it in a false and unsatisfactory state with regard to the world in which they lived. To see this we have only to picture to ourselves the condition of a man living in a savage, or only partially civilized state of society, with his mind preternaturally expanded to that of a Newton, and put into possession of the knowledge which he had on some of those subjects which the Bible touches on. How entirely out of harmony would he be with his fellow-men, and everything around him! and, how unable would he be even to pursue his studies for want of those instruments, books, and appliances which a more advanced state of society alone can produce! A revelation of this kind would clearly not be a boon, but an injury to him. It may be observed, moreover, that a revelation, adapted to the knowledge even of a Newton, would neither exactly correspond with facts, nor obviate all the difficulties which a more enlightened age might discover. We do not stop to dwell upon the obvious fact, that such a revelation, as that which we have been noticing, would require not only a preternatural expansion of faculties in the person to whom it was made, but also a similar expansion, or, if not, a long educational process in the case of all those who should receive it. We conclude, then, that a revelation must be adapted to, and in a great degree limited by, the state of knowledge existing in the world at the time when such revelation is made.

This leads us to a consideration of the _necessarily phenomenal character of some portions of a revelation_, respecting which objections against the Bible have been frequently raised. We will, to explain our views, take as an example, the familiar instance of the sun and earth.

According to appearance the sun moves, and the earth is stationary: but science has demonstrated that the opposite to this is the real state of the case. What line might it be expected that a revelation would take, when it had to deal with a case of this kind? Should it speak according to appearances, or realities? This, we believe, is the exact point to be considered, and we do not think, when fairly put, that it is one about which there is much difficulty. If a revelation were given to an ignorant people, in accordance with the reality, it is quite clear that they would not be in a condition to receive it, and would therefore, probably, reject it as absurd; but if the description were given according to the appearance presented, then no difficulty would be felt.

The question, however, is pressed-whether such a mode of representation is consistent with the truthfulness which may be expected in a revelation.

It might, we think, be a sufficient reply to say that, as, according to our former reasoning, it is, in many cases, the only possible mode of revelation consistent with the established order of things, we may well be content with it; but we will pursue the subject a little further, with the view of making clear how the matter stands. It may be observed that, if absolute truth on a particular subject cannot be communicated, the nearest approximation to it is, not only all that can be expected, but is in itself highly desirable. If a man is unable to receive as full an apprehension of a thing as we have ourselves, we must endeavour to give him the most perfect information which he is capable of receiving. We do not injure him by doing this, but we should injure him if we omitted to do it. If a man, who had lived all his life in the Arctic regions, and had never heard of any other country, were to be brought to England, it would not be necessary to tell him, with a view to his comfort here, the motion of the earth with regard to the sun, and the causes of the length of our days and nights, and of the variation of the seasons. To enter into these matters would confuse his mind, and the man, if he had to earn his living, would starve while he was acquiring the knowledge of them.

By such a course of proceeding we should, in reality, do him a great injustice. Instead of attempting anything of the kind, we should naturally give him such information as might be requisite for his practical guidance, in a popular manner, and leave to himself the acquisition of such scientific truth as he might be desirous of becoming acquainted with. In a word, we should describe to him things as they appear to be, and in this respect our description would be, in a certain sense, true; we should not describe them as they really are, and so far our description would not be in strict accordance with the facts of the case. We were about to say that it is a choice of difficulties; but, is there any real difficulty in the case? Does not the common sense of mankind declare that the mode of proceeding which we have described is the only proper one, and that there is no real untruthfulness in it? It may be noticed too that even scientific men continually make use of it amongst themselves, and in their intercourse with others, and this without any charge of untruthfulness being brought against them. What objection then can possibly lie against the adoption of the same method in a revelation? {17} The supposed object of a revelation is to save the soul, or, at least, to advance in a material degree our spiritual interests. Is that to be put aside till the world has learnt scientific truth, and is able to converse in scientific language? We feel no difficulty in leaving the answer to this question to the common sense of mankind in general. We conclude, then, that as phenomenal truth is in many cases the only truth which can possibly be afforded, and the imparting of it is a boon, and not an injury, there is no reason why the Deity should not, when He sees fit, make use of this mode of communication in revelation.

We will now notice, distinctly, _words as a medium of revelation_. It is plain, that in communicating knowledge, they are only effectual by calling up in the mind of the hearer ideas _already_ existing. To speak to a man who has been blind from his birth, of colours would be useless, because he has had no experience of them, and consequently no ideas corresponding to them. Words may bring up ideas in a different _combination_ from any which had previously existed in the mind of the person spoken to; but they cannot _create_ ideas. They may make the hearer acquainted with something which he has never actually perceived; may cause him to reason in a new manner; to see a familiar object in a fresh light, or, in some other way, bring the faculties of the mind into play; but still the mind, so far as instruction by words is concerned, can only act upon its previous stores, and a.n.a.lyze or combine them into new forms. This being the case, it is clear that a revelation, so far as it is made by words, must be limited by the ideas previously existing in the mind of the person to whom it is made. These ideas, too, however numerous and refined they may be, are limited by the experience which a man has had of the external world, and of himself. He cannot get beyond these. If, then, G.o.d should think fit to reveal, in words, a knowledge of Himself, or any other object which does not come within the direct cognizance of our perceptive faculties, this can only be effected by calling up in the mind, through the words, some new combination of ideas already possessed. This may not correspond precisely with the object, respecting which the revelation is made; but, as it is the only way in which a revelation by words can be effected, we have no just reason to find fault with it. All we have a right to expect, is that the words should call up in the mind those ideas which best represent the object designed to be revealed.

This may tend to throw some light upon what are called anthropomorphic ideas of G.o.d. These have sometimes been spoken of as inadequate, and degrading. Inadequate they certainly are, as every notion which we can have of the Deity must be; but we are unable to see in what way they are degrading. Almost every nation, following apparently the necessity of our nature, has clothed its G.o.ds in the objective form of some familiar animal, or other existence, and endowed them with qualities of which they had experience. What wonder then if G.o.d, seeing that He must, unless the conditions of our nature were altered, make use of ideas with which we are already familiar, should adopt an anthropomorphic representation of Himself, purified, exalted, and adapted, as far as possible, to His own infinite perfections? In fact, we know not how G.o.d could declare Himself as just, righteous, pure, and loving, or reveal our responsibility to Himself, without a reference to man, inasmuch as he is the only being, of which we have any actual experience, who possesses, even in a limited degree, qualities of such a description. a.s.suredly then it cannot be a degrading notion of the Deity to regard Him as invested with the highest attributes of which we have a conception. We are aware that some philosophers talk much of the Infinite, and the Absolute, as conveying more exalted notions of the Divine Being. What the exact meaning of those terms is philosophers find it difficult to declare, and the common people are almost wholly unable to understand. Certainly such highly abstract terms convey little distinct meaning. It will be found upon examination, that the word "Infinite," to stir in any degree the depths of our nature, must be combined with some quality with which we are familiar. Infinite love, infinite justice, infinite purity, are things which we can in some degree understand and appreciate; but the point which we understand best is not the "Infinite," but the finite,-the love,-the justice,-the purity; and these are ideas taken from what we find in some imperfect degree in ourselves. To those who believe that man was made "in the image of G.o.d," and that the Word, being G.o.d, became also man, the train of thought here indicated will come home with additional force.

What has been said with regard to a revelation, made by words, applies, in its main points, to a revelation made directly to the mind through _ideas_, without the intervention of words. To see this clearly, let us bear in mind the distinction between a perception and an idea. An idea is the result of a perception. We perceive a rose when it is presented to our senses, and we see, smell, or touch it. We have an idea of it, when, not being any longer presented, we think of it, and call to mind its qualities. We are said to have a perception of anger, or love, or any other emotion, when those feelings are present to the mind. We have ideas of them, when we think about them. It is not our object to enter upon any abstruse discussion as to the origin of ideas. What has been just advanced will be generally admitted by metaphysicians, and readily understood by others. Hoping, then, that the distinction between an idea and a perception will be carried in the mind, we will proceed with our argument. There is no difficulty in supposing-and this, we believe, corresponds very closely to an opinion commonly entertained respecting inspiration-that G.o.d could, without the intervention of words, call up in the mind such ideas as He might think fit. For instance, instead of speaking the words, "Thou shalt do no murder," He might, in a preternatural manner, excite in the mind the ideas corresponding to them.

Still, however, unless we suppose the conditions of human thought to be altered in a manner for which we have no a.n.a.logy, the ideas of a man, killing, etc., must previously exist in the mind, or the revelation would be unintelligible. Whether, then, the ideas are called up, through the instrumentality of words, or in some other way, is immaterial to our present argument. The point we insist on is that, except in the case of actual perception, the communication of knowledge, by revelation, or otherwise, _must be limited by the ideas previously existing in the mind of the person to whom the communication is made_. These ideas may be combined into new forms, and new relations may be discovered between them, or they may be a.n.a.lyzed into their const.i.tuent parts, but we cannot transcend the ideas themselves, except by new perceptions.

Let it not, however, be imagined that a revelation, conveyed through the instrumentality of ideas previously existing, must be so narrow as to convey little or no new information, or instruction. We have only to look at the works of Milton, Newton, Shakespeare, and other great men, to see the almost endless variety with which ideas, and the relations in which they stand to each other, may be so combined and disposed, as to minister to the imagination, or enrich the mind with fresh stores of knowledge. All the information which we derive from books, or conversation, is obtained in this way, and to it we must probably attribute by far the largest portion of our mental acquisitions, after the period of childhood. So far, indeed, as the promulgation of a revelation by its original recipients is concerned, it appears plain that it must be made, almost necessarily, through the instrumentality of words, inasmuch as they are the best signs which can be made use of in the communication of knowledge.

Before, however, proceeding to this portion of the subject, it appears desirable to make a few additional observations with regard to a revelation by _perception_. We have already had occasion to notice that "the Deity does not, like other objects, come within the direct cognizance of our perceptive faculties" (p. 5), and that, "even if a direct presentation of the Infinite were given . . . the result would be a finite conception" (p. 12). It may, however, be imagined that a direct presentation, even though issuing in a finite conception, or a representation either addressed _ab extra_ to our perceptive faculties, or brought before us in a vision, or a dream, or otherwise, would convey to the mind a more correct apprehension of G.o.d's nature than could be obtained in any other way. These cases, though differing in some particulars, may, for our present purpose, be regarded as identical, and treated as perceptions. Now there can be no doubt that a perception conveys a more vivid impression to the mind than a description; and we may, therefore, reasonably suppose that, in a revelation, G.o.d might use this method of communicating knowledge in those cases to which it might be specially adapted. Thus, for instance, if G.o.d designed to give an idea of some place or being which we had never seen, He might effect this, in a very perfect manner, by bringing such a place or being, either in reality, or by representation, within the range of our perceptive faculties. The appearance vouchsafed by G.o.d to Moses (Exod. x.x.xiii.

1923), the vision of Ezekiel (Ezek. x.x.xvii. 110), and the description given by St. Paul (2 Cor. xii. 14), will serve as ill.u.s.trations of our meaning.

It must not, however, be taken for granted that such a mode of revelation would, in every case, be possible; or that, if possible, it would always be the best method of communication. So far as we can see, no mere presentation, or representation of the Deity, could, in itself, give any deep insight into His moral character, or the relation in which He stands to us. Even if the Deity were constantly present, we know not how we could obtain any accurate knowledge of His attributes, except by observation of His words and acts. If we had been introduced to the philanthropist, Howard, we could not have become acquainted with his excellence by merely gazing at his countenance. We must have listened to his words, and followed him to those scenes of misery which he was in the habit of visiting, if we would obtain a clear understanding of his benevolence. So too, the holiness, love, and other moral perfections of the Deity, are not matters which can be apprehended from any mere intuition of the Divine nature. A glorious exhibition of the Divine presence, such, for instance, as that described in Exodus, as having occurred on Mount Sinai, might inspire feelings of awe, and enable those who witnessed it to apprehend more clearly, perhaps, than could have been effected in any other way, the dignity and majesty of G.o.d; but, for a revelation of His moral nature, and the relation in which He stands to man, we must look more to words-such words, for instance, as He is said to have spoken to the children of Israel at that time, and afterwards, during forty days, to Moses. While, then, we think that a revelation by perception, with regard to some things, might be expected, we do not consider that it would convey a large amount of information, unless it were combined with a revelation through words. Words are, in fact, the most natural and effectual mode of imparting most kinds of knowledge, and we may, therefore, reasonably expect that, in any revelation which the Divine Being might think fit to make to man, they would form a chief method of communication. When we thus speak of words in connection with a revelation, we do not mean only words addressed actually to the ear, but also such, as in a dream or vision, may appear to be spoken. We desire also that it should be remembered that, for the main purpose of our argument, it is not so much words as _ideas_ which we wish to keep in view. What we chiefly wish to leave on the mind is, that a revelation, except so far as a new perception may be given, _must be limited by the ideas previously existing in the mind of the person to whom it is made_.

It may be reasonably expected that G.o.d would make use of those ideas which were best adapted to His purpose, but not that He should transcend the ideas themselves. If, too, we suppose that a new perception is given, that perception could not be explained to others, except through the instrumentality of such ideas as those to which we have referred.

Our object hitherto has been to explain the conditions under which a direct revelation from G.o.d may be expected to be _given_. If we have been able to remove from the minds of our readers vague and indefinite notions on the subject, and to put, in their place, something clearer and more distinct, our object thus far will have been answered.

It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to state that, by what has been said above, we do not intend to intimate that the recipient of a direct revelation must, necessarily, always understand the exact meaning of such a revelation. It may contain a hidden meaning, to be evident at some future time. Thus, for instance, on the supposition that the first chapter of Ezekiel is a revelation from G.o.d, it is probable that the meaning of it was as unintelligible to Ezekiel, as it is generally considered to be at the present time. But the meaning of the words themselves, and their connection with each other are clear. It is in the application that the difficulty arises. So, too, as advances are made in knowledge, words, and the ideas belonging to them, acquire a more extended and fuller meaning. The ideas involved in the word, _sun_, are very different to the philosopher and the peasant; and some ideas contained in a revelation may be of such a kind as not to be fully understood till more knowledge has been acquired, than existed at the time when the revelation was made. But to suppose that the words convey no meaning to the original recipient of the revelation, is to say that no revelation is made to him at all, and it certainly hardly appears probable that the Divine Being should make a communication which could answer no end to the person to whom it was addressed.

3. We now proceed to an examination of the conditions under which _a revelation may be recorded_, _or otherwise made known by the person who has received it_. Here we see at once that, for all practical purposes, the method of communication must be _words_; for it is not necessary to take into account such visual representations as might be made to the eye by painting or otherwise. Words may be oral, or written. As the latter are more likely to be well weighed and definite than the former, and are, moreover, better calculated to hand down a truth from age to age, we shall confine our attention to them, although what we have to say is, in a great degree, applicable to spoken words also. We start with the supposition that G.o.d has already made known to some particular person, as perfectly as He has thought fit, and, it may be, as perfectly as the nature of the subject admitted, or the capability of the person to whom the communication has been made would allow, some truth which is to be recorded for the benefit of the present, and future generations. The question we have to answer is,-how this may be most effectually accomplished.

It is obvious that, in the case of a revelation, made by words, _the words might be recorded exactly as they were delivered_. The words which G.o.d is said to have spoken on Mount Sinai, and to have written afterwards, on two tables of stone, may serve as an exemplification of our meaning. In this case G.o.d is described as writing them with His own hand: but they might have been written, with equal truthfulness, by any of those who had heard them. If future generations had convincing evidence that they possessed a faithful record of what G.o.d said, and the meaning of the words had not changed during the lapse of time, the revelation would be as perfect to them as it was to the original recipients. So, too, if G.o.d, instead of speaking the words of the ten commandments, had, in some way which should authenticate the reality of the revelation, called up in the mind of Moses the ideas corresponding to the words, and he had faithfully written them down; those words would convey as full a revelation to those who read them, as that which Moses himself had experienced. Both these would be verbal revelations in the strict sense of the word. They would be, in fact, the very words of G.o.d Himself. If any book, professing to be a revelation from G.o.d, could be proved to be entirely of this description, there would be little or no room for discussion about it. The only things which could give rise to dispute would be such as attach to the interpretation of all records.

Questions might be asked as to the exact meaning of the words, and inquiries might be raised as to whether they retained the same meaning which they had when they were originally written down: but any dispute which might arise on these points would be confined within very narrow limits, and would moreover be of such a character, as could not be avoided, unless G.o.d were to make a revelation afresh in every age, and we may add, perhaps, to every individual,-a supposition which would be contrary to a.n.a.logy, and in the highest degree improbable. Thus far there is no practical difficulty.

Is it, however, necessary to the idea of a recorded revelation that the exact words, neither _more nor less_, as spoken by G.o.d, or as expressing ideas which He has called up in the mind of the person to whom He has revealed Himself, should be written down? A recorded revelation, we must remember, is designed chiefly for the benefit of future generations, and it may therefore very properly leave out much which was only of pa.s.sing interest. G.o.d might have revealed many things to Abraham, which were highly important for him to know, but in which we may have no interest.

We can easily see then that, in any record which G.o.d might authorize, such things would very probably be omitted. Thus far again there is no practical difficulty.

To proceed a step further. Is there any reason to expect that, in a record of a revelation, the original words, either as spoken by G.o.d, or as expressive of the ideas which He had called up in the mind of the recipient, might be in any decree _altered_?-and, would every alteration necessarily make the record less a revelation from G.o.d than it was before? These are questions which we shall endeavour to answer.

It may be observed, in the first place, that the same train of thought which applies to an original revelation from G.o.d, applies also, in its main points, to the record of it. Both in the one case, and the other, it appears reasonable to expect that G.o.d would not, to a greater extent than was absolutely necessary, transcend or interfere with those natural powers in man which He had Himself implanted. As the giving of a revelation would, as already shewn, be conformed in a great degree to the usual conditions under which knowledge is imparted, so also, it seems reasonable to expect that the record of a revelation would as far as possible be conformed to the usual conditions under which knowledge is recorded.

In looking at the conditions under which a revelation must be recorded, it is obvious that the difference of languages, which prevails in this world, presents an insuperable obstacle to an exact record of words being continued. It may indeed be alleged that G.o.d could cause a revelation to be recorded, in its exact words, in each distinct language. We hardly think however that such a view as this will be seriously entertained by any one. Not to mention how completely contrary this would be to what a.n.a.logy would lead us to expect, we may observe that, as languages are continually undergoing changes, such a method of recording must be continually renewed; and, moreover, as language does not convey precisely the same ideas to any two individuals, it would be almost needful that a separate record, or rather a separate revelation, should be made for each person. Such views as these require only to be stated to shew that they are untenable; but, if they are untenable, it is plain that the _continuance_ of an exact record of words cannot be expected.

But may it not be expected that, at least, _one_ exact record would be made of any revelation which G.o.d might think fit to give, and that this would afford the best guarantee which could be had for future truthfulness? In answering this question it is very important to draw a distinction. _The words of the record may be exactly such words as G.o.d approves of_, _although they may not be the precise words in which the original revelation was made_. In some particular instances G.o.d might determine that the precise words of the revelation should be used, while in others He might think fit that it should be otherwise. In either case the record would be a true one, and each method of recording might have its own peculiar advantages. Under some circ.u.mstances it might be desirable that not the slightest deviation from the precise mode of expression which G.o.d had communicated should be made; while under others, the human view-by which we here mean the view of the particular person to whom the revelation is made-might be recorded, and add to it a force which could hardly be had in any other way. So long as the record is such as G.o.d approves of, every requisite to a true record is complied with. If a minister of state were commissioned to make a communication to a foreign court, he might write down the whole or a part of it in his own words, and, if his own court approved of the words, contained in the writing, the object in view would be answered. We can even understand that, in some respects, the communication might gain force by this mode of proceeding. The ???? of the writer would be manifested, and carry with it a certain degree of weight. There would be the weight which attached to the doc.u.ment as emanating from the government, and there might be an additional weight from the character of the person who had been entrusted to write, and, perhaps, carry out, in some degree, the requirements of, the dispatch. In the case of a recorded revelation, it appears then probable that G.o.d would permit those feelings and powers which He has implanted in man, and which exert such a strong influence on others, to do their work, subject, however, to His own control and guidance. In this way there would be a Divine and a human aspect of the record; a Divine and a human power in it. All of it would be the truth of G.o.d, and it would be presented to us in a manner peculiarly adapted to our condition, and likely to ensure our acceptance of it. At the very least such a method of recording would be exactly consistent with truthfulness.

We may go a step further, and say that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to conceive any circ.u.mstances under which the record should not bear a human aspect. If the views propounded in the former part of these "Thoughts," with regard to the conditions under which a revelation must be made, and especially with respect to anthropomorphic views of G.o.d, be correct, a revelation _must_ a.s.sume, in some measure, a human aspect. But if the human aspect must exist in the presentation, it must also in the record. The only question which is really open to discussion is, whether there should be the _same_ human aspect in the record, as in the original revelation; in other words, whether it may be expected that G.o.d would always present that particular human aspect in the original revelation which He considered best adapted for the record. For the reasons already a.s.signed it does not seem probable that this would be the case.

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Thoughts on a Revelation Part 1 summary

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