The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8
We have before us a copy of the Address recently delivered by the Bishop of Nelson to the clergy and lay representatives of his diocese. It appears to us to be the composition of an amiable rather than a clever man—one who has the wish to do good rather than the knowledge how to do it—one who is, probably, as incapable of insulting a theological opponent as he is of shaking his convictions. In these days when orthodox malice has reached such a pitch that Dr. Temple's enemies try to deprive him of his office on the charge (false, as it turns out) that he was not born in wedlock, it is a fact worthy of notice that a Christian bishop should talk for some hours on the "foundations of the faith" without once forgetting that he is a gentleman.
As a contribution to the religious literature of the day the address is not of great importance, and the Biblical scholarship contained in it is decidedly obsolete. Witness a grave quotation from the Second Epistle of Peter, a work which every modern critic worthy of the name abandons as spurious. Yet it is in page 37 one respect at least, well worthy of attention. It affords, we think, a striking illustration of the fact that the spirit of free inquiry which is characteristic of the present age, is doing its work even in the very strongholds of orthodoxy. Here and there the Bishop betrays, consciously or unconsciously, a suspicion that there may be something weak in the orthodox citadel. Take the following passage, the candour of which will not, we think, commend it to his more astute brethren of Melbourne and Sydney. After expressing his full conviction that Christianity is not of man but of God, he says—"I will not sag that I conceive it impossible that I could or should regard it in any other light. All I can say is, that knowing what I do of it, knowing more of it, its claims, its history, its adversaries and the arguments for and against it—having read and re-read many a suggestion and insinuation against it, many of which I have never read any answers to, nor am I at present able to see how they can be answered; nevertheless I protest my belief that Christianity . . . . is of divine origin and universal obligation."
For such language as this, proceeding as it does from episcopal lips, we may well be thankful. How unlike the arrogance with which certain theologians of the Evangelical School affect to despise the views of some of the best and most learned men of the age as a "re-hash of the stale and oft-exposed fallacies of Gibbon and Hume," and beneath any serious notice. We were about to add, that it is the language of a man who loves Christianity much, but truth more. Unfortunately, another passage savouring far too much of priestcraft, forbids us.
"Some one will say, how can I teach my children, when I do not believe myself? First of all, teach them all you do believe, and they will know much more than they do now. Secondly, do not be afraid to wait till you can explain what you do not understand, or even what you disapprove. You may, for example, think it very difficult to receive some of the historical parts of the Scripture—they are more than you can receive. Now do not think the child is as Skeptical as you are; childhood is not sceptical, it is confiding and serious; and while you are not to take advantage of that receptive faculty to instil folly, falsehood, and fiction as truth, you need not be so anxious as some are on this subject."
Very sagacious advice. If all instructors of youth were anxious to abjure every species of folly, falsehood, and fiction, what would become of the Church and her Priests in the next generation?
"The narrative of Genesis xix, tolls of something that must always have appeared strange, in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by brimstone and fire from the Lord out of Heaven; but what shall we think when we learn that there existed then, as at the present time, in the heavens about us the very materials for bringing about this catastrophe; and that the composition of the soil about the region where the Cities of the Plain stood, is identical with that of aerolites in the train of a comet, which was so near to the earth page 38 about, the assigned period, that a vertical shower of them on the doomed cities would satisfy all the demands of locality and planetary time? It is not demonstratively proved, but the discoveries of the last three years have made it three millions to one that the Cities of the Plain were destroyed by a vertical shower of a crowded group of solid magnetic meteors, known to have been following Temple's telescopic comet of January, 1866."
How any man endowed with finite intellect can calculate to within one three-millionth the probability of an event, based on such uncertainties as the elements of an almost unknown comet's orbit, and a catastrophe of which we have no means of fixing the date, it is hard to understand. But let that pass. It has always seemed to us, that such attempts as these to verify miracles by forcing them within the domain of natural law, are worse than childish; they are suicidal from the orthodox point of view. Every such attempt is unconscious homage paid by superstition to rationalism, and it is a blow struck at belief in the supernatural. It seems to indicate, moreover, a dim uneasy perception of the truth, that miracles are the burthen, rather than the prop of Christianity. What are we here asked to believe? Virtually this, that in the original design of the universe, the iniquity and consequent punishment of the men of Sodom, were specially kept in view, and the solar system disposed accordingly! Surely this is as hard to believe as any miracle. Again, we are told in Genesis, that Abraham prevailed on the Lord to spare the city if ten righteous men could be found in it. Did it occur to his lordship, that if the requisite number had been mustered, a special providence would have been needed to get the comet out of the way?
We have to thank the Bishop for a very apt illustration of the use of Creeds and Standards of Doctrine. He compares them to fences.
"Many think that, if we were relieved from this limitation, we should have a wider range in our sympathies. Possibly so; but gain in one direction would be loss in another. The Waimea was more picturesque and better adapted for roaming in the early days before the Fencing Acts—but on the whole we have gained by fencing it. It is true, that in theology as well as in farming, some kinds of fence grow till the paddocks are all fence; but, having fences, we ought not to be found fault with as if we had none; or because in our progress we do not break them down, but are willing to use a lighter but not less effective material, with outlets at stated intervals. On the whole we prefer fences, and consider them good both for convenience and safety."
Precisely so. The pastor who owns sheep, likes good sound fences, lest peradventure his sheep should stray, and be lost, i.e., lest they should go over to another fold, and so cause him to lose wool and mutton. Excellent reasoning, from the pastor's point of view. But suppose the sheep themselves had a voice in the matter. If they knew their own interest they would, we suspect, scorn the best of fenced ground, and prefer to roam in wild pastures, where they would be safe from being shorn and grilled, and where boiling down caldrons have no terrors for them.