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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

Discrepancies of Biblical Doctrine

Discrepancies of Biblical Doctrine.

That champion of orthodoxy, the Rev. John Graham, while admitting in his late controversy with Rabbi Davis that he does not believe in verbal inspiration, has asserted, as a position which he is prepared stoutly to maintain, that there is no real discrepancy between any two portions of the Bible. It seems to us, however, that the term "discrepancy" may not inaptly be applied to the case of a Biblical doctrine, and that a very prominent and startling doctrine, which, being put forward in a most page 262 distinct and unqualified manner by one of the "inspired" writers, is either omitted or slurred over by the rest. For example, the seventeenth Article of the Church of England states that "Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour." This Article also speaks of the process by which this gracious decree is carried out; of the immense comfort the chosen ones must feel in knowing themselves to be the objects of such grace; and the recklessness and desperation of curious and carnal persons who, lacking the spirit of Christ, have continually before their eyes the sentence to which God has predestined them. Further, this doctrine is laid down with at least equal fulness and distinctness in the Larger Catechism of the Church of Scotland, where it is stated "that God in Christ has chosen some men to eternal life and the means thereof; and also has passed by and foreordained the rest to dishonour and wrath." What dogma could be more startling in character than this? "We attach a prodigious interest to the birth of an imperial prince, and are not slow to pay adequate, and frequently much more than adequate, respect to the holders of titles and ancestral honours; but what are our puny dignities, our paltry letters patent of nobility, compared to the overpowering glory of being enrolled among the aristocracy of Heaven itself—destined to reign for ever in bliss with angels and archangels, whilst the miserable mob of sinners that make up the mass of mankind shall be howling in agony in the darkness of an eternal pit? Small wonder is it that the Puritan soldiers of Cromwell, with this blissful assurance of being numbered among the elect, should have borne down with invincible onset the utmost efforts of the gentry and cavaliers who owned for their king such a commonplace monarch as the first Charles.

Now, for this fearful dogma what foundation is there to be found in the Scriptures? In the words of Jesus taken by themselves little or none; for although he sometimes speaks of his elect, it must be observed that the term "elect" or "chosen" may refer, and indeed generally does refer to things or persons chosen after observation and approval, whereas the dogmatic meaning of the term applies to persons chosen by God's decree antecedent even to their birth. Thus in Matthew xxv. 34 are the words: "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." But this expression does not necessarily mean "prepared for you personally," but rather "prepared for you generally as being righteous." Time and space will not allow us to discuss separately all the texts bearing upon the words "elect" and "election," but we are of opinion that any one carefully examining page 263 such passages will come to the conclusion that the doctrine of Predestination, apart from statements by the writer who may be considered the founder of it, is unsupported by Scripture. A modern author has pointed out how very large a portion of our modern dogmatic Christianity is due to the writings of the Apostle Paul, and it does not seem to us a rash assertion to say, that if the Epistle to the Romans had never come down to posterity, our Calvinistic friends would have had no scriptural foundation-stone of their theological system. In the eighth chapter of this Epistle we have all the several steps of the process of Predestination laid down with the precision of an architectural plan; foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification and glorification. Further, the principle is exemplified in the case of Esau and Jacob, of whom, before they were born, it was said, "the elder shall serve the younger;" and of Pharaoh, who was expressly raised up that God's power might be shown in that monarch's punishment. But presently, Paul, as if conscious that the promulgation of this doctrine would probably provoke objections, proceeds to argue: "Hath not the potter power over the clay to make one vessel to honour and another to dishonour of the same lump?" Undoubtedly he has, and in the case of senseless clay, right as well as power; the superb porcelain that adorns a palace being as unconscious of its position and dignity as the commonest piece of earthenware is of its degradation. But in the case of rational beings we object to the Apostle's teaching on the score of justice. Let us test the principle by one or two simple examples. Suppose some modern philosopher, having made sparrows of clay, as the infant Jesus in the Apocryphal Gospels is reported to have done, should somehow contrive to galvanise them into life; and, hanging up in his aviary all the most attractive fruits which his foreknowledge of sparrow-nature might suggest, should keep alive only those whose phlegmatic temperament was proof against temptation, and punish the rest by scorching them before a slow fire. Would not anyone cognisant of such proceedings think it his duty to call in the police? Suppose, again, that some newly-married couple should resolve to confine their care and kindness to such of their children as might be born with flaxen locks and blonde complexion, and to leave those with darker hair and skin to shift for themselves, with the gutter for a play-ground and the pig for companion! Would not an asylum or a prison be the proper destination of such parents, and the cold impartiality of the law a better guardian of the children than such unnatural caprice?

But to return to the doctrine itself, how is it that we do not find it as plainly stated in the words of Jesus or of John? Is there no discrepancy between Paul and the equally inspired James, who warns us against saying that we are tempted of God, for that God doth not tempt any man (not even Pharaoh)? page 264 We have in the New Testament, besides the Gospels, the writings of the five inspired authors, Paul, James, Peter, John and Jude; and but for the decision of certain Councils we might have had also the epistles of Barnabas and Clement. How strange, then, does it seem, at least to the carnal mind, that one of the cardinal points of modern theology should rest so largely, not to say entirely, on the authority of one of these writers, and he not a disciple of Jesus. Is there no real discrepancy, we ask, between this portentous conception of divine fore-ordination and the plain practical teaching of the Sermon on the Mount—of the Parable of the Prodigal Son—of the advice given to the rich young man—and especially of the exhortation (John vii. 17) in which Jesus so pointedly postpones doctrine to practice: "If anyone will do his (the divine) will he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God." To any impartial reader the discrepancy must be plain enough; but theological systems are like inlaid work; and the aim of those who devise them is not to get at the plain meaning of the words of the authors whom they profess to admire, but rather so to shape them, by paring off a little here and a little there, that they may fit into their appointed places in the theological pattern.

It may suit clergymen, when hard pressed by these objections, to repeat the warnings of Peter (2 iii. 16) to those unlearned and unstable persons who wrest the hard things in Paul's epistles unto their own destruction. Still, to say nothing of the doubt which (as the rev. Rabbi has remarked) rests upon the authenticity of the Second Epistle of Peter, we may question whether the sceptics are in any respect more unlearned and unstable than their opponents, and further whether it is not just possible that the Apostle might be wrong about the destruction of sceptics, as he and his fellow Apostles were undoubtedly wrong about the duration of the world. We think it impossible for anyone to read the Gospels and Epistles with an unbiassed mind, without perceiving that even the Founder of Christianity as well as the Apostles anticipated a speedy end to the world. What else can Paul mean when he says, "We which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep?" What a forced expression it would be for the Apostle to classify himself with persons living at least eighteen centuries afterwards. Gibbon has mentioned the universal prevalence of this opinion among the earlier Christians, a fact which also throws light upon and accounts for two other characteristics of the Christian disciples, the community of goods and the practice of celibacy, which Paul does not hesitate to sanction by the weight of his private judgment; a practice however which certainly could not be made generally applicable, if the world, or at least the Christian world, was to last for many centuries. Now Peter, in this same Epistle, mentions the advent of scoffers who should ask, "Where is the promise of his page 265 coming?" If, therefore, the Apostles looked forward to a speedy end of the world, and their scoffing opponents derided the notion, is it not likely that the latter, whom the irresistible logic of events has proved to have had the best of the argument, may have taken the sounder view of some other questions then under dispute.

Finally, we cannot help remarking the total change which time has wrought in the relative position of saints and sceptics. "Scoffers walking after their own lusts," says the Apostle; and as to be pure, chaste, temperate and sober in the first century in such a city as Corinth, the name of which had been a by-word for gross sensuality, involved a self-denial and a steadfastness which we can now scarcely understand, so, probably, the scoffers were men who lived according to the lines of our great modern poet, whom the hypocrisy and selfishness of the George IV. era made worse than he really was by nature,—

"Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter,

Sermons and soda-water the day after."

But all is changed now. We have no saints walking our streets in plenitude of power, ready to transform into stalwart men and useful citizens the cripples and the blind men who haunt our thoroughfares; nor, on the other hand, are our modern sceptics in any way inferior in decorum of life and in the punctual discharge of the regular duties of their callings to the saints themselves. We encounter saints and scoffers in the highways or in public meetings, but can by no external sign discern the one from the other. The ancient scoffer, in the time of Paul, at least such a one as would find a pleasure in deriding and vexing the early Christians, would probably be "a lewd fellow of the baser sort;" but a scoffer nowadays may be a philosopher (as Huxley or Lubbock), a judge (as Chief-Justice Hanson of South Australia), or even a colonial bishop (as Colenso). The chief peculiarity of such men is that when they have gone through the usual routine of their vocation they do not care to give their leisure so much to amusement, even to the princely amusement of shooting tame pigeons out of a trap, as to the composition of works of what is called a "dangerous" tendency on matters on religion. Nay, what doubtless seems most astonishing to evangelical folk, they do all this under the delusion that they are thereby advancing the cause of religion, and are helping to clear Christianity from the excrescences with which centuries of mediaeval ignorance and barbarism have encrusted its original simplicity. Our modern scoffers will even carry their self-esteem to such a height as to claim to be in reality better Christians than the saints who denounce them; not hesitating to affirm that if Jesus of Nazareth could walk this earth again he would be found among the first and foremost workers at the destruction of the dogmatic encroachments which impede the development of a rational and universal religion.