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The Moral Law as revealed in the Bible, or the manner in which a System of Duty is therein revealed.
[By Prest. A. Mahan.]
ALL the works of God, animate and inanimate, physical and mental, are created, arranged and governed according to fundamental ideas, or laws. In the language of another, "Water falls according to the laws of gravitation, and the motion of walking is performed by animals according to rules. The fish in the water, the bird in the air, moves according to rules.” Again: "There is nowhere any want of rule. When we think we find that want, we can only say, that in this case the rules are unknown to us." Method, wise and fixed, characterizes all the works of creation and providence. To understand any of the works of God, the idea, or method, in conformity to which every thing is created and governed, must be the stand-point from which each object and movement shall be contemplated. The above remarks are applicable not only to the works and movements of creation and providence, but also to the volume of inspiration. The entire system of truth therein revealed, is developed, or revealed according to fixed method. Just in proportion as men have approached an understanding of this method, have their views of the sacred volume been expanded, luminous, distinct and impressive. We believe that the time is not distant, when the great central truth about which the entire system of doctrine and duty revealed in the scriptures revolves, will be developed, and presented in its true relations, to other departments of that system. Then shall we have a system of theology such as the world has not yet seen, "a system developed according to the real pattern shown in the mount.'
We have made the above remarks as preparatory to the elucidation of the subject of the present article. That the system of moral duty revealed in the scriptures, is therein developed according to some wise and fixed method, and that we can understand and appreciate that system, only as we approach an apprehension of that method, and assume it as our stand-point in explaining the system itself, there can be no ground of reasonable doubt. To suppose the opposite would be to impute to the Most High, where we should least of all expect it, a strange departure from a fixed and change
less principle of procedure, which obtains in all other departments of the divine administration. We shall, therefore, without farther introductory remarks, proceed in our attempted elucidation of the subject before us, to wit, the method in conformity to which duty as a system, is revealed in the scriptures. In the sacred volume, the entire duty of man in every relation, and condition in life is clearly revealed. But the question is, in what manner is it revealed? There are three methods, in many important particulars entirely distinct from each other, in conformity to which we may conceive duty to be revealed
1. The first is, the prescription of formal rules for every specific case and question of duty which may arise in the progress of our moral existence. If this were the method of revealing duty adopted in the scriptures, we should find therein a particular description of every individual relation and condition, with all its peculiar circumstantialities, and a specific and formal precept to guide us in that one relation and condition. In studying the system of duty as revealed, it would be necessary in all instances, first to study the relations described, and then to learn the precept prescribed for the individual in that relation. A system of duty revealed in conformity to such a method, can not be adapted to the condition of creatures in this, or in any other sphere of existence, for the obvious reason, that it would require absolute omniscience to comprehend and apply it in the first instance, and in the next, "the world itself could not contain," much less read the books in which such a system would be recorded. What but omniscience can comprehend the contents of a record containing a particular description of the condition of each individual of our race, at each successive moment of his existence, together with the precept binding him at that moment. Equally evident is it, that mankind, if employed upon nothing else, could not write out, or print the books requisite to contain such a system. Much less could they study and comprehend it, had they nothing else to do. Nothing also is more manifest than the fact that the bible neither reveals nor professes to reveal any such system as this. The individual, therefore, who expects to find some specific precept formally prescribing his duty in each particular relation and condition in life, will be greatly disappointed in his expectations, and thereby very probably fall into a fatal mistake in respect to what inspiration really demands of him.
2. The second method that we notice, is that in which those
universal principles are expressed which include and imply all particular and specific precepts of moral obligation, while in the light of these principles the creature is left to determine his duty in the various conditions and relations in life, in which he may be placed. Moral obligation, according to this method, would be exclusively taught in such precepts as the following: "Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God;" "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy powers, and thy neighbor as thyself;" &c. The subject would then be left, in the light of such precepts, to determine his duty in the various circumstances and relations in which he should find himself, in the successive stages of his existence. Through such a method all duty would, in reality be revealed; because the principles given would in fact include all particular and specific precepts of moral obligation. Such a method however, would render the revelation of duty so totally abstract, vague and indefinite, that it would in fact be no revelation. Before we can apply the precepts, for example, requiring us to "do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God," in determining specific duties in any of the circumstances and relations in life, we must first know distinctly and definitely what justice, mercy and humility in respect to God are. A revelation which should leave such terms, and consequently the ideas they represent indistinct and undefined, would be even worse than no revelation at all. Every one at all familiar with the scriptures is aware that this is not the method in conformity to which duty is therein revealed.
3. The third, and only remaining method, now demands our consideration, a method combining all that is comprehended in the second named above, and to some extent, and in reference to a certain end, what is embraced in the first. Our great necessity, as subjects of the moral law, is a distinct development in our minds, of those fundamental ideas or principles which comprehend and imply all practical duties, together with an understanding of the manner in which these principles are to be applied in determining the specific precepts which bind us, in each particular relation in which we find ourselves at the successive moments of our existence. A system of moral obligation the revelation of which shall accomplish this result, would fully meet the great want of humanity, as far as the sphere of duty is concerned. We may elucidate the idea under consideration by a familiar example. Questions are continually occurring in the ordinary transactions of life, requiring for their solution an application of the science of num
bers. A knowledge of the principles of that science therefore, together with an understanding of the mode of their ap plication to the solution of such questions, becomes a necessity to all who are concerned in such transactions. To meet this necessity is the object of all treatises on arithmetic. In such works those universal rules and principles are laid down which are applicable to all questions actual and conceivable the solution of which depends upon the science of numbers. Then a sufficient number of examples are given for the elucidation of each rule or principle, to enable the student not only distinctly to apprehend it, but to understand clearly the true method of applying it for the solution of any questions practical or theoretical which he may have occasion to solve. Thus he comes to understand the science of numbers. The rules and principles thus apprehended ever after dwell in the mind as internal lights always presenting a ready solution of every problem or practical question which may demand attention. The individual who looks into any such treatises expecting to find in them a formal solution of any one practical question to which he has occasion to find an answer, will no doubt look in vain. If, on the other hand, he searches in them for principles in the light of which he will himself be able to solve such questions, he will not fail to attain his object. Now what such a treatise, yea what all correct scientific treatises of every kind are to all questions and facts which fall under their respective principles, a system of moral duty revealed according to the method we are contemplating, the only true method as we suppose, would be to all particular and specific questions of practical duty presented in the wide field of moral obligation. If we look into such system for the purpose of discovering therein formal rules or precepts for the guidance of our conduct in the peculiar relations and circumstances in which from time to time, we find ourselves, we meet with nothing but disappointment. In it however we shall find clearly stated general rules and principles applicable to all particular and specific cases and the manner of applying them clearly elucidated; so that the great law of duty will not be to the mind a system of formal rules, "written in tables or books," but an indwelling light in the mind itself, clearly revealing, as the subject comes into any particular condition or relation, the line of moral obligation therein developed upon him. Thus, in accordance with representations of scripture, the law "becomes a lamp to his feet, and a light to his path," a passage which we shall hereafter consider more particularly. It becomes such, not by
prescribing before hand, a formal rule for each specific case, but as an indwelling light, revealing such rules as the particular cases involving them come before the mind.
It is only in conformity to such a method, that a full and complete system of universal moral obligation can possibly be revealed to any finite mind. None but omniscience can, as we have seen, comprehend all the specific forms of duty binding each creature in every condition in which he may be, or may be conceived to be placed, and placed not only at the present moment, but at each successive moment of the endless future before us. But when the mind is put in possession of principles which involve all specific forms of duty, actual and conceivable, and when it attains to an understanding of the true method of applying these principles to particular cases for the purpose of developing a knowledge of the forms of duty which such cases involve, then, and only then, is it or can it be put in possession of a full and complete system of moral obligation.
A system of duty also revealed according to the method we are now contemplating meets our necessities as creatures, in another and important particular not yet specified. A complete system of formal rules for all specific and particular cases, if it could be comprehended, would only burden the memory, without calling into exercise, and thereby imparting enlargement, strength and vigor to the other intellectual faculties. But when a system of duty is revealed in conformity to the method now under consideration, particular duties will always be present to the mind at the very time at which it has occasion to know and practise them, without the memory being weighed down and crushed under the superincumbent weight of an infinity of rules which the mind has no occasion to know until the cases involving them come before it. The continued application also, of great and universal principles to particular cases, for the purposes of determining in their light, the specific forms of duty which such cases involve, calls perpetually into a most vigorous and healthy exercise the moral and intellectual faculties, and thus meets effectually one of the great wants of universal humanity, mental growth and development.
Such, as we suppose, is the true and only true method, in conformity to which a revelation of a universal system of moral duty can be communicated to the mind. The question now arises, is this the method in conformity to which such system is revealed in the scriptures? They do not, as we have seen, pre