LECTURE XII. - THE MORAL ATTRIBUTES OF GOD (CONTINUED).
Firmness is that quality of the benevolence of God that disposes him to abide by that which he sees to be wise and good at all events. The love of God seems to be regarded by some as what we call mere good nature. It is spoken of as if it were an emotion of fondness, a state of mind that paid comparatively little regard to moral discriminations and distinctions, or to moral principle; a disposition to gratify all classes; and a kind of tenderness that cannot endure to be severe and firm in the execution of law, even though severity and firmness be demanded by the public good. We are sometimes asked, Would a parent execute such wrath upon his children? Could a parent punish forever? And thus the love of God is supposed to be parental really in the sense of parental weakness; but it is perfectly apparent on the face of the universe that God's love is not a weakness, as that of parents often is. Who does not perceive on the face of the world's history a succession of events that show that God is anything but weak, and yielding, and undiscriminating in his love and dealings with his creatures?
Skeptics have stumbled at the Bible because of its representations of the severity with which God deals with his creatures. There is an aspect of inflexibility, firmness, and even sternness, sometimes presented in the Bible representations of God, from which they turn away. They seem disposed to represent God as all mercy. Indeed, it is plain that they so understand his love to consist in a disposition rather to pet and indulge sinners, than in a disposition thoroughly to administer a moral government for the public good. But how strikingly is the firmness of God manifested in the administration of physical government, and in the history of earthquakes, of pestilences, or shipwrecks, of storms. If physical law is violated the chariot of his providence is driven axle-deep through the blood and bones of those who have thus thrown themselves before it in the violation of the laws of the material universe. What earthly parent has firmness enough to see a ship freighted with his own children dash upon the rocks, or go to the bottom in a storm! What earthly parent could endure to see among his own offspring, or even among human beings anywhere, what God is witnessing every day and every hour! And these desolations only evince his inflexible firmness in the execution of the laws of his providential government. Skeptics who reject the Bible because of its representations of the inflexibility and severity of God, would do well to take lessons of him in the administration of his physical government. They confounded the parental with the governmental relation.
It is perfectly plain that it is the same God who rules in the material universe, that has revealed himself in the Bible. His love is not a weakness. It can endure the trial of doing what is necessary to be done to sustain his government, cost what it may. It required great firmness to support his own authority by sending his Son to make an atonement for sin. It required great firmness to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, to destroy Jerusalem, to destroy the old world with a flood; but his love is equal to it. It is not cruelty in a ruler to sustain wholesome laws and order, and secure the public good, if need be, by severe measures. It is an infirmity and a weakness in a ruler when he cannot endure to take the measures that are essential to the public weal.
From the very nature of God's benevolence and omniscience, it must be true that he will not yield a point where the public good demands action. He is a ruler; he cannot consult private feelings at the public expense. His compassion is great; his forbearance is great; he delighteth in mercy and judgment is his strange work; yet his firmness is equal to the trial of executing vengeance and carrying out the measures necessary to secure the good upon which his heart is set at any cost.
This term is used sometimes in a bad, and sometimes in a good sense. When in a bad sense it implies selfishness, when in a good sense it is an attribute of benevolence. As applied to God, severity is that quality of his benevolence that causes him to take stringent but benevolent measures in promoting the public good, where these are needed. We often see occurrences around us that to us appear to be severe. They are, however, never so in a bad sense. They are only strong and decided measures demanded by the exigencies of his moral government. It should be remembered that God's benevolence is a righteous benevolence, a holy, sacred benevolence, a sin-hating benevolence, a law-sustaining benevolence. Severity, then, in a good sense, must be one of its attributes. There is a point beyond which forbearance is no virtue in a ruler; these are occasions on which hesitance and holding back the bolt of justice were ruin.
What striking instances we sometimes see in providence. A little neglect on the part of a mother, a little ignorance or indiscretion in the nursing of her child, and the result is that it expires in agony in her arms. A slight carelessness and a habitation is burned with all its inmates. A ship is sunk freighted with missionaries, or with multitudes of souls in no way implicated in the carelessness. Nevertheless, they had committed themselves to the conduct, superintendence and providence of the captain and the crew, and they must abide the consequences. No words can adequately describe the apparent severity of some of the dispensations of providence. Now these are facts in the universe of God; and they are quite as difficult to reconcile with our ideas of benevolence and goodness as any recorded in the Bible. Why, then, should the Bible be rejected, and yet the existence and government of God in the universe be admitted?
Cases have occurred in which the radically orthodox views have been rejected because of the severe aspect in which they represent the character of God. But logical necessity forced the same persons to reject the Bible for the same reason; and then to reject the providence of God for the same reason; and ultimately of course to reject the very existence of God. Facts are facts. The world is; these facts are; God is; God is love; these facts are consistent with his love. They are accounted for only by the fact that his love is disinterested benevolence; a law-promulgating, law-sustaining, just, holy, as well as merciful love. It is often necessary for a parent to exercise wholesome severity, a benevolent severity, in the treatment of his children. It is often so with rulers of states and nations; it must be so in every government; and a good ruler must have firmness, and sometimes must exercise severity.
Severity does not imply injustice, does not imply cruelty, but the reverse. It were unjust to the public not to execute laws, and to deal sternly and severely when laws are set at naught and efforts made to upturn the foundations of society and government, and destroy all good. Sometimes Universalists appeal to the prejudices and selfishness of men by inquiring, Would you banish one of your children forever? Would you be so cruel as that? What earthly parent would do it? And do you represent God as worse than human beings? I answer, No; but he is infinitely better. Earthly parents are too weak and often too wicked to take the needed measures to control their children, even for their own good. But suppose a parent to have a large family of children, and suppose his oldest son to be exceedingly profligate, and to set himself deliberately to debauch and ruin the morals of the whole family. He persuaded the younger sons to drunkenness, the daughters to indelicacy and uncleanness, and the whole of them to rebellion against parental authority. Suppose that no entreaty or influence that the parent can use can restrain this son. Now it is no want of benevolence in the parent to banish this son from his house. It were cruelty to retain him; if he cannot be restrained he must be banished. The father has no right to indulge his parental feelings toward him to the injury and ruin of all the rest of his children. How absurd to appeal to him and ask, Are you so cruel as to banish this son from your house forever? It is more pertinent to ask, Are you so cruel as to allow this son to ruin the whole family?
Just so it is under the government of God. His government is moral, not physical and a government of force. It is a government of moral law, moral considerations and persuasions. Now if moral considerations will not restrain, then sinners must be destroyed. It is cruelty to the universe at large to let them go unpunished, when all appropriate means have been used for their reformation. In such a case, longer forbearance were a crime and not a virtue. Love that would not punish is a weakness and an infirmity, and not that which becomes a ruler.
Efficiency is that quality of the divine benevolence that disposes God to be active, energetic, and zealous in the promotion of the great interests of the universe. God's love, remember, is benevolence and not an emotion. Emotions may have no efficiency; and the same is true of passive affections and feelings of fondness. They may expend themselves in feelings, in tears, or smiles, or petting; but such is not the nature of God's love. It is the infinite will in a state of committal to the public good. It is infinite energy; and it is the energizing of this love that hung out the heavens, created the entire universe, and that rolls the wheels of his government, both natural and moral, with an almighty power and energy.
The benevolence of God is an ultimate choice, or committal to the promotion of good. The attribute of efficiency gives existence to the executive volitions that create and govern. The volitions of God that appear in time, that create, sustain, and govern the entire universe, are nothing but expressions of the efficiency of his benevolence. He is spoken of in Scripture as being clothed with zeal in the execution of his purposes as with a cloak; and when great and wonderful things have been predicated, it is said that the zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this.
By efficiency, then, as an attribute of the divine benevolence I mean, that it is the quality of his benevolence to be infinitely active and persevering in the accomplishment of his great designs. He does not say, Be ye warmed and clothed, and make no efforts; he does not pity, and exhaust himself in feeling that produces no good; but his executive volitions flash with infinite power over the entire universe; and the forked lightings are only the faintest glimmerings and expressions of the infinite energy with which he pursues his course.
Simplicity is the quality of unity. There is no mixture in the benevolence of God. He is said to be love. He has but one end to which he is devoted; thus ultimate choice and purpose are a unit, always one, always the same.
All the forms of virtue of which we speak resolve themselves, in their last analysis, into qualities or attributes of benevolence, as we have seen in these lectures on the moral attributes of God. Virtue, then is one. It consists in benevolence; and its various expressions and manifestations are but expressions and manifestations of one state of mind, to wit, goodwill. That God's benevolence is unmixed, we know by an irresistible conviction. We cannot conceive of God as being otherwise than perfect.
Immutability is one of the moral attributes. Choice is conditioned upon some object of choice. When the will has made its election and committed itself, it cannot change its position except upon the condition of some motive, or at least apparent reason for doing so; or perhaps it is more correct to say, that the will receives all the considerations and influences which are conditions of its action, either through the intellect or the sensibility. When the will has chosen, either the intellectual views must be changed, or the feelings must be changed, as a condition of the will's changing; otherwise the will would change its purpose, choice, or preference, without any conceivable or possible object. Now while it is true that no feeling, no desire, no thought, no intellectual discovery or consideration can force the will; yet some feeling, desire, thought, or intellectual apprehension or consideration is a condition of choice. In other words, the will's actions are conditioned upon some consideration presented through the sensibility or intellect as an inducement to choose. If it be a feeling, the will may act to gratify it; if it be a thought or intellectual perception, an object then is presented as a reason for its action. All creatures are finite. The intellectual perceptions and the feelings of finite beings are subject to continual change; so that immutability can be no attribute of their goodness or of their sinfulness. But it is not so with God. God, as we have seen and shall soon farther observe, is infinite in all his natural attributes and in all his moral perfections. He is naturally omniscient; and no new thought or intellectual view can ever be present as a condition of his change of choice. Being omniscient, all the considerations that make him feel are eternally present necessarily considered, and are seen with all the force with which they ever can be seen. Hence, there is infinite fullness, stability, and immutability in all his feelings. His consciousness is one.
Now, if God be absolutely infinite, his mind has from eternity been made up, and that too in view of every possible or conceivable consideration presented either through his intelligence or his sensibility, that can be conditions of his change of mind. Now as his whole being is a unit and present, his whole experience and consciousness an infinite and present fullness, change with him is a contradiction. Nor is this inconsistent with his eternal goodness. If in view of every conceivable reason for choice, he has chosen once for all, and his choice is forever immutable, his virtue is all the greater for that. He has committed himself without any variableness or shadow of turning, with a certain knowledge that he never should change, and with a solemn intention never to change.
Now to speak after the manner of men and say, that his continuing in this state is no virtue if change is impossible to him, is absurd. For the only reason why change is impossible to him is because every conceivable reason for action has been taken into the account, and his mind unalterably settled. The stability, therefore, and immutability of his goodness is one of its infinite excellencies, for the reason that it actually embraces and acts in accordance with every possible consideration that ought to influence mind.
But strictly and properly speaking, God does not live on as we do through successive periods of his own existence without change. Change in us is change in consciousness. We are aware of change only by the changes in our consciousness. Did not our consciousness change we should have no conception of the passage of time. Time to us would be only present, did our consciousness always remain the same. But for changes in consciousness, time past, present, and future would have no signification. It should be understood that the absolute omniscience of God renders it certain that his consciousness is invariable. The conception is of course beyond our comprehension, as the infinity of all his attributes is. We know that so it must be, but when we attempt to grasp it, it must be true, it is higher than heaven; we cannot attain unto it. We know it must be true, and yet we cannot conceive how it can be true.
Should it be asked, since God is a moral agent and therefore free, is not change possible to him? I answer, that the freedom of the will does not imply power to change a choice without any possible or conceivable object or reason for choice, existing either in the feelings or in the intellect. Choice is preference. The choice of a single object is preferring its existence to its non-existence. The choice of one of many things is the preference of that one to others. Choice being preference always implies comparison; the existence of a thing is compared with its non-existence, or one thing is compared with another. Now, the will's action is always conditioned upon there being some reason for preference, or change of will. And this reason may be an impulse of the sensibility, or a thought in the intellect. But where no objects are brought into comparison; where the existence of one object cannot be compared with its non-existence; where the intellectual views cannot by possibility change, as in the case of absolute omniscience; where feelings cannot by possibility change, as is also the case with absolute omniscience - in such cases freedom of will does not imply power to change when the will is committed in view of all the considerations possible or conceivable that might be the conditions of change.
I have spoken of the immutability of God as consisting in the impossibility of change. This inability to change is found in this, that there can be no conceivable reason for change. The most capricious being cannot change his choice except upon the condition of some change of thought or feeling. So that the certainty that God will not change is owing to the fact that he is committed with infinite strength and there is no conceivable or possible reason ever existing in the intellect or sensibility that can be conditions of change. Strictly speaking, God is immutably good because he fills eternity and has no time to change.
By infinity is intended that there is absolutely no limit to his benevolence. It is not partial, it is universal; it is not merely to finite creatures but to himself as the infinite; it is goodwill to universal being; it is eternal; it is the choice of his whole mind; it is the devotion of all his attributes, by the act of his will, to this end. It is therefore an ocean, having neither shore nor bound; it is as illimitable as his nature. We know that infinity, immutability, and all theses attributes, must be attributes of the divine benevolence, because he is infinite. We intuitively affirm that as his natural attributes are infinite, so his moral attributes must be infinite.
The last attribute that I shall name is holiness. Holiness is that quality of benevolence which is often represented as moral purity; the infinite opposite of all blemish, impropriety, or inconsistency. Holiness is sometimes spoken of as if it comprised the whole character of God; and it must be a quality of all and each of his other attributes. It seems to me that, strictly speaking, it is the quality of symmetry or harmony in his attributes; that quality that adjusts them to each other. For example, God's character is that of perfect moral excellence. We are so constituted that we could not recognize a character as perfect that was all justice or all mercy, all forbearance or all severity, all meekness or all firmness. Indeed, all these qualities of benevolence must be adjusted one to the other; and there must be a law of adjustment, of harmony, of proportion and symmetry pervading the whole of them, else the character would be out of balance. There would be a want; it could not to us realize our ideal of moral beauty and perfection. Should we see a man who was all justice and sternness, we might call him a just man, but should not conceive of him as a perfect character, as a holy man. Should we see a man all compassion, we should feel that he was not a perfect man. Were he all meekness, or all mercy - or take any one of the moral attributes of goodness, it would make a moral monster rather than a symmetrical goodness. We conceive of that character as holy that is symmetrical; and we can conceive of no other character as perfect in holiness except that of symmetry.
Some writer has compared holiness in character to the law of harmony in music. Musical sounds to make harmony need to be adjusted to the subjective laws of harmony that belong to our nature. These sounds must sustain certain relations to each other to be agreeable to us, and to make harmony. Throw them out of this relation, and they produce discord, dissonance, and not harmony. But when these relations are perfect in respect to their distances, and their volume and quality of sound, then the harmony is perfect; our ideal of perfect music is realized, and there is nothing left to desire. So in regard to moral character; there must be harmony; there must be a law of adjustment, proportion, and symmetry in all the moral elements or attributes that make up the character. These must be adjusted to our subjective ideal of perfect goodness. When this symmetry is seen, when this perfect adjustment of moral perfections stands revealed to the mind, our ideal of moral perfection and beauty is realized; and there is no greater joy than results from standing in the presence of unlimited holiness. In the descriptions of heaven in the Bible, it is remarkable that it is the holiness of God that excites their enthusiasm, that inspires their awe, that inspires their praises; and the cry of "Holy, holy, holy," while they veil their faces, thunders throughout the upper sanctuary.
But how do we know that God is holy? I reply, we cannot conceive of God as being other than infinite in moral goodness, and we cannot conceive of infinite moral goodness as of God as other than infinitely holy. We therefore, by the very laws of our nature, irresistibly assume the holiness of God. Our consciences ever recognize him as the perfection of moral purity; hence we are shocked at the suspicion of his being otherwise than perfectly and infinitely holy. We revolt at the conception, and cannot for a moment admit the possibility.
The foregoing are some of the moral attributes of God. These qualities of benevolence are most of them indicated either in his moral or providential government. They are clearly revealed to us in our irresistible convictions of what he must be. The progress of his kingdom will no doubt reveal to his creatures many moral attributes or qualities of his benevolence never yet suggested to finite beings. Neither his justice nor his mercy, as they are now understood, may have been so much as thought of in their appropriate signification, until the occasion of their manifestation existed in the universe. So in the progress of his dispensations occasions may arise that may develop in the thought of his intelligences qualities inherent in his benevolence never yet suggested to the mind of a finite being. Of this we may rest assure, that nothing can ever occur in the eternity to come that shall not find in the benevolence of God some quality that will cause it to meet the emergency, and adapt the dispensations to the occasions.
Thus there are many forms of beauty, yet undeveloped in action, before the minds of creatures; and there may be no end absolutely in the eternal future to the new and striking revelation of the moral attributes of God. In these consist his true glory. When Moses prayed, "Show me thy glory," he passes by and proclaimed the name of the Lord, and suggested to Moses several of his moral attributes as constituting his peculiar glory: "The Lord, the Lord God, gracious and merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty." Exod. 34:6.
From this short view taken of the natural and moral attributes of God, it is clear that his eternity and infinity are devoted to the promotion of the highest possible good. As he requires us to do, so he does. If he requires us to will and do good, he wills and does good himself; if he requires us to be self-denying, he is so himself, He leads the way in every virtue by his own example. And what inconceivable results are yet to be seen by the universe of creatures! What an infinite privilege to be under such a government! To have such a Father, possessing infinite natural attributes, with a heart unalterable to wield them for the highest good of his creatures, and the highest interests of the whole universe!
Again, it is plain that the government of the entire universe is safe in his hands. Nothing can surprise, nothing can defeat him. He will do all his pleasure, in the sense that he will accomplish all the good that he has proposed to himself, and will not be defeated. There is ground of infinite security for the righteous, and of infinite terror on the part of the ungodly who persist in wickedness.
The study of theology is the study of God and his attributes; of his laws, dealings, providential arrangements - indeed, all truth that can be known to us is but a part of theological truth, or truth respecting God and his affairs, either moral or material. A theological student will make but little progress unless he views everything in a theological light. All truth is symmetrical; all truth emanates from one common center; its relations, proportions, and beauty cannot be seen out of adjustment with the system of truth.
Our finite capacities cannot take in the whole field of truth in its symmetrical adjustment; and yet it will be the study of ages upon ages to all eternity. Its unity, simplicity, symmetry, will be more and more felt, as it is more and more perceived by the progress we shall make in study to all eternity. God the infinite and perfect, the First Cause, the Supreme Ruler, the great natural and spiritual Center of all being, is the object of our study. Every truth has a sacredness about it, every question a solemnity and meaning; every line of theological instruction has an importance and a sacredness to awe, and stimulate, and sanctify.