Page images
PDF
EPUB

THE LAW OF GOD.-THE SECOND GREAT COMMANDMENT.-UTIL

ITY THE FOUNDATION OF VIRTUE.

Acts n. 35.-1 have shewed you all things, how that so labouring, ye ought to sup

port the weak; and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, it is more blessed lo give, than to receive.

IN

my

two last discourses, I endeavoured to show by a variety of arguments, that a disposition voluntarily employed in doing good, is productive of more Personal and Public happiness, than any other can be. In those discourses, and in several preceding ones, it has, if I mistake not, been sufficiently proved, that the same disposition in the Creator and his intelligent creatures is the source not only of more happiness to the Creation at large, than any other, but of all the happiness which has existed or will ever exist.

Virtue, or Moral Excellence, is an object of such high import, as to have engaged, in every enlightened country, and period, the deepest attention of mankind. It has, of course, been the sub ject of the most laborious investigations, and of very numerous discussions. Inquisitive men have asked with no small anxiety, " What is Virtue ?" 6 What is its nature ?" 6. What is its excellence ?" And, “What is the foundation, on which this excellence rests?To these questions, widely different and directly opposite answers have been given. In modern times, and in this as well as other countries, much debate has existed concerning the Foundation of Virtue. It has been said to be founded in the Nature of things ; in the Reason of things; in the Fitness of things ; in the Will of God; and in Utility. My intention in this discourse is to examine the nature of this subject.

The phrase, the foundation of Virtue, has been very differently understood by different writers. Indeed, the word, foundation, in this case seems to be a defective one; as being ambiguous; and, therefore, exposed to different interpretations. When Virtue is said to be founded in the Will of God, or in Utility, some writers appear to intend by this phraseology, that the Will of God, or Utility, is the Rule, Measure, or Directory, of virtuous conduct. Others evidently intend, that one, or the other, of these things, is what constitutes it virtue; makes it valuable, excellent, lovely, praiseworthy, and rewardable. It is, therefore, absolutely necessary for me to observe, antecedently to entering on this discussion, that I use the

phrase in the sense last mentioned; and intend, by the Foundation of Virtue, that which constitutes its value and excellence. It is necessary, also, to premise further, that by the word, Utility, I mean a Tendency to produce Happiness.

Having premised these things, I shall endeavour, in the follow ing discourse, to support this Doctrine : THAT VIRTUE IS FOUNDED IN Utility.

The Text is a general and indirect declaration of this doctrine. The word, blessed, is sometimes used to denote a state, happy in itself; and sometimes a state, made happy, or blessed, by God. To give, in the sense of the text, is voluntarily to communicate happiness; or, in other words, to be voluntarily useful. As we are in fact made happy by God, whenever we are happy; it is evident, that those moral beings, who are most happy, being made so by Him as a reward of their character and conduct, and not merely by the nature of that character and conduct, are most approved by him. That, which is most approved by God, is in itself most excellent. But the text informs us, that voluntary usefulness is most approved by God, because it is peculiarly blessed by him; and is, therefore, the highest excellence. A man may be virtuous in receiving good at the hands of his fellow-creatures. But his virtue will consist only in the disposition, with which he receives it: his gratitude ; his desire to glorify God; and his wishes to requite, whenever it shall be in his power, his created benefactors. This is being useful in the only way, which the situation, here supposed, allows; and the only thing which is virtuous, or excellent, in the mere state of receiving good.

To give, or communicate good, is a nobler, and more excellent state of being, than that of receiving good can be ; because the giver is voluntarily the originator of happiness. In this conduct he resembles God himself, the Giver of all good, in that characteristic, which is the peculiar excellence and glory of his nature. Accordingly, God loves, and for this reason blesses, him, in a preeminent degree. The proof of his superior excellence is complete in the fact, that he is peculiarly blessed: for these peculiar blessings, which he receives, are indubitable evidence of the peculiar favour of God; and the peculiar favour of God is equal evidence of peculiar excellence in him, who is thus blessed. But the only excellence, here alleged, or supposed, by Christ, is the spirit of doing good; or, in other words, the spirit of voluntary usefulness. In this spirit, then, Virtue or moral excellence consists; and the only excellence, here supposed, is of course founded in Utility.

To the evidence, furnished by the text, both Reason and Revelation add ample confirmation. This, I trust, will sufficiently appear in the course of the following Observations.

1st. Virtue is not founded in the Will of God.

Those who hold the doctrine, which I have here denied, may have been led, unwittingly, to adopt it from an apprehension, that

they could not ascribe too much to God. This apprehension is, without doubt, generally just; yet it is not just in the absolute sense. There is neither irreverence, nor mistake, in saying, that Omnipotence cannot create that, which will be self-contradictory; make two and two five ; nor recall the existence of a past event; because these things would be impossible in their own nature. In the same manner, to ascribe to God that, which is not done by him, though the ascription may flow from reverence to his character, is not yet dictated by reverence. That, which God in fact does, is more honourable to him, than any thing else can be; and no error can in its nature be reverential towards God, or required by him of his creatures.

The Doctrine, that Virtue is founded in the will of God, supposes, that that, which is now virtue, became such, became excellent, valuable, praiseworthy, and rewardable, because God willed it to be so; and, had he not willed it to be so, it would not have been virtue. Of course, if we were to suppose Intelligent beings created, and left, without

any

law, to choose their conduct; or, if we were to suppose the universe to exist, just as it now exists, and exist thus either by chance, or necessity; that, which is now virtuous, excellent, and praiseworthy, would at the utmost possess a nature merely indifferent; and, although all other beings remained just as they now are, would cease to be excellent, lovely, and deserving of approbation. According to the same scheme also, that, which is now sinful, or vicious, would cease to be of this nature; and no longer merit hatred, blame, or punishment. In plainer language, veracity and lying, honesty and fraud, justice and oppression, kindness and cruelty, although exactly the same things which they now are, and although producing exactly the same effects, would no more possess their present, opposite moral character; but would equally deserve our love and approbation, or our hatred and disesteem. If virtue and vice are such, only because God willed them to be such ; if virtue is excellent, and vice worthless, only because he willed them to be so; then vice in itself is just as excellent as virtue, and virtue just as worthless as vice. Let me ask, Can

any man believe this to be true ? Further, the supposition, that virtue is founded in the will of God, implies, that God willed virtue to be excellent without

any reason. If virtue and vice had, originally, or as they were seen by the eye of God, no moral difference in their nature; then there was plainly no reason, why God should prefer, or why he actually preferred, one of them to the other. There was, for example, no reason, why he chose, and required, that Intelligent creatures should love him, and each other, rather than that they should hate him, and hate each other. In choosing, and requiring, that they should exercise this love, God acted, therefore, without any motive whatever. Certainly, no sober man will attribute this conduct to God.

This supposition, also, is inconsistent with the Omniscience of God. Every thing which exists, or which will ever exist, was, an tecedently to its existence, or in other words, eternally and immutably, present to the divine mind. In the same manner, all other, possible things, that is, things which God could have created if he had pleased, were also present to his view. Every man knows, that a vast multitude of such things are successively present to his own imagination ; and that he can think of new worlds, new beings to inhabit them, and new furniture to replenish them. But, unquestionably, God knows all things which are known by his creatures, and infinitely more. When created things were thus present to his eye, antecedently to their existence, they were exactly the same things in his view, which they afterwards were, when they began to exist; had exactly the same natures; sustained exactly the same relations; and were just as good, indifferent, or evil, just as excellent or worthless, as amiable

or hateful, as commendable or blameworthy, as rewardable or punishable, as they afterwards were in fact. This may be illustrated by a familiar example. Most persons have read more or less of those fictitious histories, which are called novels ; and every person knows, that the several actors, exhibited in them, never had any real existence. Yet every one knows equally well, that the characters, which they severally sustain, are as really good or evil, lovely or hateful, praiseworthy or blameable, as the same characters of the same persons would be, had they all been living men and women. It is, therefore, unanswerably evident, that moral characters,when merely seen in contemplation, are, independently of their actual existence in living beings, and therefore before they have existed in such beings, as well as when they never exist at all in this manner, good or evil to the eye of the mind. Of course, they are good or evil in their own nature. Of course, they were seen to be good or evil by the Omniscience of God. It is, therefore, inconsistent with the doctrine, that God is omniscient, to say, that virtue is founded in the will of God.

Again; The scheme, which I am controverting, not only involves in it, that mankind, with all their impiety, injustice, cruelty, oppression, wars, and butcheries, are in their nature equally amiable, and excellent, as Angels, with all their truth and benevolence; but also, that the character of Fiends is in itself, and independently of the fact, that God chose it should be otherwise, just as lovely, excellent, and praiseworthy, as that of Angels. If, then, God had willed the character, which Satan adopted, and sustains, to be moral excellence, and that, which Gabriel sustains, to be moral worthlessness; these two beings, continuing in every other respect the same, would have interchanged their characters. Satan would have become entirely lovely, and Gabriel entirely detestable. Must not he, who cán believe this doctrine, as easily believe, that if God had willed it, two and two would have become five VOL. III.

20

Is it at all easier to believe, that truth and falsehood can interchange their natures, than that a square and a circle can interchange theirs ?

Finally; if virtue and vice, or sin and holiness, are founded only in the will of God; then, I ask, What is the Nature of that Will? We are accustomed to say, the Scriptures are accustomed to say, that God is holy, righteous, good, and glorious in holiness : expressions which, together with many others of the same nature, indicate that God himself, and therefore, that the will of God, is excellent, and supremely deserving of his own infinite love, and of the highest love of all intelligent creatures. Does this excellence of God depend on the fact, that he willed his moral character, and therefore his Will, to be excellent? Or is the character of God, and of consequence his will, excellent in its own nature? If the divine character be not excellent in its own nature, and independently of any act of the divine Will, determining that it should be so; then, if God had been a being infinitely malevolent, and by an act of his will had determined, that his character should be infinitely excellent, it would of course have become infinitely excellent; and he himself would have deserved to be loved, praised, and glorified, for his infinite malice, cruelty, and oppression, just as he now does for his infinite goodness, truth, faithfulness, and mercy. According to this scheme, therefore, there is no original moral difference between the characters of an infinitely malevolent being, and an infinitely benevolent one; because this difference depends on a mere arbitrary act of will, and not at all on the respective natures of the things themselves. That a malevolent being would have made this determination, there is no more reason to doubt, than that it would be made by a benevolent being: for it cannot be doubted, that a malevolent being would have entirely loved and honoured himself. The question, whether God is a benevolent, or malevolent, Being, seems, therefore, to be nugatory: for all our inquiries concerning the subject, which have any practical importance, terminate in this single question: What has God chosen?

We have of course no interest in asking what is his moral nature.

The Scriptures certainly exhibit this subject in a very different light. They every where consider moral things, that is, both mora! beings, and their actions, as differing altogether in their several natures, and independently of any act of the divine will, determining that they should thus differ. Particularly, they exhibit God himself not only as being holy, righteous, just, true, faithful, kind, and merciful, but as excellent on account of these things ; infinitely excellent; infinitely glorious; infinitely deserving of the love, that is, the Complacency, (the kind of love every where intended in this discourse) of his Intelligent creatures. Accordingly, God is often spoken of as excellent; and as excellency, in the abstract. Thus, he is styled the Excellency of Jacob. His name is said to be

« EelmineJätka »