The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8
The Sacred Scriptures, both of the Old and New Testaments, are constructed on the hypothesis that the world we inhabit embraces the whole of the habitable creation—that God created this world and this world only. The sun and moon, it is true, achieved "honourable mention," but the dignity of even mere satellites is not conceded to them. They are two great lights, the one to rule the day, the other to rule the night. The stars, too, are set in the firmament merely to give light upon the earth.
This limited view of the matter had a tendency to produce, and it did produce, an erroneous conception of the relationship between God and man; and its effects are only too evident in the pages of the sacred narrative. The only rational creature on the only world that God had created, man was prone not only to page 293 entertain a very exaggerated notion of his own importance, but to associate therewith an equally erroneous estimate of the position and attributes of his maker; and the result of this is, that the Scriptures teem with instances of unwarrantable familiarity with the deity—witness, for example, the profane story of Jacob's wrestling—on the part of the sacred writers.
Ancient philosophy, long antecedent to Christianity, had speculated in the doctrine of a plurality of worlds; but it was reserved to modern times to convert speculation into certainty, and to make manifest with the confidence of mathematical precision that there are other worlds besides our own. The telescope has enabled us to extend our acquaintance with Heaven's vast concave, and has introduced us to other suns and other systems, and to worlds unnumbered and innumerable; whilst the astronomer captivates and overwhelms us with the magnificence of his descriptions of their magnitudes, their distances, and their orbits. The distance of the Moon from the Earth is tripled by the diameter of the Sun, whilst Sirius, the dog star, is sixteen times larger than the solar orb. And yet the empyrean in all its unfathomable depths is studded with such as these, and in numbers beyond the power of words to express or the imagination to conceive. Herschel, looking through his celebrated telescope in the direction of the Milky Way, described the fixed stars as they appeared to him, as "scattered in millions like glittering dust." Still, though in number and magnitude inconceivable, these worlds upon worlds and suns upon suns own allegiance to one universal law that pervades all space and influences alike the atom and the planet.
"That very law that moulds a tear
And bids it trickle from its source,
That law preserves the Earth a sphere
And guides the planets in their course."
It was reserved for our illustrious Newton to announce in his Principia the principle of gravitation, and thereby to give stability to the present astronomical system. This system, we need scarcely say, invests the deity with power and glory inconceivable, but it reduces the earth to a mere point, and man to something less than the shadow of a shade.
We cannot help asking, therefore, if the God of the modern astronomer, the author of ten thousand worlds, is the same being of whom the inspired penman of Genesis has the temerity to write, "Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins and clothed them." If so, then we must take the liberty to say that nothing more derogatory to the dignity of the Author of all things was ever uttered. That the deity should ever condescend to visit man in his own propria persona to hold converse with him, as scripture elsewhere has it, "face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend," is a strain upon our credulity to which it is altogether unequal. The first Napoleon was wont page 294 to say that there was but one step between the sublime and the ridiculous, but in this case the intervening step has been annihilated, for the recital in question is not only ridiculous but incredible.
But on second thoughts, we are not disposed to insist upon the incredibility of the story, for it occurs to us, from a passage in the life of the Reverend John Huntingdon, S.S.,* divine and coalheaver, who flourished at the beginning of the present century, that he, at any rate, must have credited it, and had the felicity to enjoy favors kindred to those extended to our first parents. Mr. Huntingdon was a genuine ignoramus, but he was fluent, and therefore one of the most popular preachers of the day. His was the era of leather breeches, and he used to boast as instances of divine favor, that whenever his nether garments became the worse for wear, the Lord used to provide him with a pair of unimpeachable doeskins. Doubtless he reasoned in this way : If God provided coats for Adam and Eve, why not breeches for his servant John Huntingdon; and we confess that the reasoning appears to us unexceptionable.
Recoiling, however, as we do, from all such pretensions to familiarity with the ways and attributes of the Almighty, we are, nevertheless, firm believers in inspiration, and are decidedly of opinion that from first to last, in all ages, God, in his goodness, has influenced the human mind in the discovery of truth, utile dulci, and still continues to do so, as more light is desiderated for the illumination of mankind. The achievements of Newton appear to us to place the inspiration of this eminent philosopher beyond doubt, and we half suspect that the exalted strains of Handel are also of celestial origin. Still we are much inclined to believe that never since the creation has anyone enjoyed the privilege and right and special commission to say, "Thus saith the Lord." We are aware that prophets, so-called, in any quantity have asserted their pretensions to be the oracles of the Almighty; but the questionable manner in which they have exercised their self-created functions must be our apology for disputing their claims.
"We may be wrong, but we hold the whole tribe of prophets, even of the highest order, as nothing more nor less than palpable dealers in the impossible. What, in the name of common sense, can they know of events hundreds of years, it may be, before they happen? Knowledge is the child of fact, and of fact only, nor can it exist prior to the predicted event with which it is associated. Prediction may have probability to recommend it; but after all it is only speculative, void of the gristle of truth and fact, and may be falsified by an issue the very opposite of that foretold. The fall of Jerusalem might have been safely page 295 predicted from the madness of the defenders who fought the battles of the Romans within the walls much more effectually than the Romans themselves outside; but the prediction, though fulfilled, might have been shelved; for another Maccabeus might have emerged from the intermural warriors, as Napoleon from the French Revolution, and a brave despair might have disconcerted the generalship of Titus, and opposed a successful resistance to the legions of even Imperial Rome.
We have before us, in Matthew's gospel, an account of a successful prophecy by Isaiah, who, it is said, anticipated the event predicted seven hundred years at the very least. By what extraordinary catenation did the prophet connect the event predicted with his own intelligence, so that he was enabled to foretell it with such precision and clearness as to command the acknowledgment of the evangelist that the prophecy had been fulfilled? The prophecy was made to Ahaz, and its fulfilment was in the time of Herod, so that the event predicted was gradually maturing through twenty or thirty generations. Was Isaiah master of the intervening history that bridged the time between Ahaz and Herod? Or shall we be told that the world's history is chronicled in the regions above a thousand, or, it may be, ten thousand years in advance, and communicated to the prophetic mind as circumstances may demand? Tell us rather that the prophetical office, as ordinarily understood, is a piece of absurdity from beginning to end, and we prefer that method of disposing of the difficulty to any other. The chapter that contains the prophecy is headed thus : "Ahaz is comforted by Isaiah: Christ promised." Of course any one reading the chapter will at once perceive that the allusion to Christ in the chapter heading is outrageously indefensible; and if Ahaz could be comforted by an event that was to take place some seven hundred years after he had subsided into dust and ashes, he must—taking into consideration the business that brought him into communication with the prophet—have been of much the same order of intellect as the lady mentioned in Blackwood, whose peace of mind had been destroyed by Dr. Auckland's announcement that the supply of coals would not last more than twenty thousand years. Surely both Ahaz and Mrs. O'Dowd were much too sensitive and emotional for the wear and tear of this state of existence; for one was obviously as unnecessarily depressed as the other was elated under the influence of coming events, which in their cases cast exceedingly long shadows before them. We had almost omitted to mention that Isaiah had foretold that the name of the child predicted would be Maher-shalel-hash-baz. This is so astoundingly like the name of Jesus Christ, that probably some of our orthodox friends will accept the coincidence as additional evidence of the fulfilment of the prophecy. We have only to substitute Mahershalel for Jesus, and hashbaz for Christ, and not the slightest additional alteration is required to make the name page 296 square with its prophetic requirements. It is true that we do not look upon the two names as implying a distinction without a difference; nor can we say with regard to them, "if there is any difference they are both alike;" but this perhaps arises from our unskilfulness in the interpretation of prophecy. Nor can we flatter ourselves with the prospect of improvement in this respect, for, sooth to say, we find the study of the prophets, at best, but a bootless employment. "We find repeatedly that God himself is brought upon the tapis by the prophets in association with conduct that no man, with the feelings of a man, can contemplate without abhorrence. Look at Samuel, for instance, a leading prophet, in his treatment of Agag, the unfortunate and harmless king of Amalek, a prisoner in an unjust war waged by Saul in obedience to the prophet. Agag's life had been guaranteed by his captor; but this did not prevent Samuel from hewing him in pieces in the name of Jehovah. Or turn we to another distinguished prophet—Jeremiah, by whose sanction the high priests of Baal were slaughtered by Josiah, thus countenancing the Church of Rome in her atrocious enormities in the suppression, by sword and flame, of religious opinion, when in opposition to her own. The war, too, as waged by Moses and Eleazar against Midian, in which God is made to participate, is atrocious from its barbarity, and disgusting from its indecency. The order issued by Moses to butcher the males, to massacre the married women and to debauch the single women, would have disgraced a Polynesian savage, yet was it all perpetrated in the name of the Lord. We know not whether David ranks amongst the prophets, but we do know that his conduct was, on some occasions, most atrocious in character, and we trust that no one will believe that he was a man after God's own heart; otherwise they will entertain most erroneous ideas of the deity.
Such, then, was this celebrated prophecy, and we think it may be accepted as a fair sample of similar pretensions on the part of the prophets universally. It consists of a long chain reaching through seven hundred long years; and we should only be too glad if the advocates of the prophetic would favor us with a link or two of this wonderful concatenation; although we are very confident that we should find the metal utterly unequal to bear the strain of the commonest of all common sense.
But briefly, in conclusion, we shall turn to the greatest prophet of all, namely, Jesus of Nazareth himself, and endeavour to show that in some cases it is much safer to follow the suggestions of our own reason, than even his recorded teachings. Our readers need not be told that contemporary with Jesus Christ there was a sect of Hebrews known by the title of Esseneans or Essenes, whose honest and simple style of living favorably influenced the gentle spirit of the gentle Jesus. "They held riches in great contempt, and maintained a community of goods, for not any one was found among them possessing more than others, page 297 it being a fixed rule of their sect, that every one who enters it must give up all his goods into the public stock of the society, so that among the whole number, none may be found lower than another by reason of his poverty, or any on the other side elated above the rest by his riches." Here was the influence that prompted Jesus Christ to declare that the poor were blessed and that the rich were just the contrary. Prompted by the Essenian view of the matter, he advised the wealthy young man who sought his advice on one occasion to sell all that he had and give to the poor, and follow him; but the young man proved to be wiser in is day and generation than his teacher. Will any man in his senses have the assurance to tell us that poverty is a blessing and that riches are a curse? Does any one allow the doctrine to influence his practice so far as to lead him to sell all that he has for the pleasure of aggrandising the poor? Nevertheless, should there amongst our readers be a rich man hungering and thirsting for the felicity of poverty, we can only say that we shall be most happy to favor him with the address of at least one poor man who will be very glad indeed to assist him to the best of his power in the art of sinking. But the universal practice ignores the teaching, and all the world is industrious to secure as much of the world's good things as possible, insomuch as to justify the more-candid-than-courteous tombstone which in a southern county of England informs its readers, that "Here lies John Saunders, who died fretting and sweating to got rich, much such another fool as you."
But to err is human, and as Jesus was man and man only, it were unreasonable and delusive to look for divinity as the characteristic of all his teachings. We have not, indeed, to go beyond the New Testament to find, in the weaknesses he exhibited and the misconceptions he entertained, undeniable proof of his pure humanity; his last pathetic exclamation, "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" itself indicating, we think, that Jesus, in his last moments, lost somewhat of the faith which had been the guiding inspiration of his life.
We have said that we believe in inspiration—that God "has endowed some men with brains so much larger and finer than those of ordinary men, as to enable them to see and originate truths which are hidden from the mass; and that when it is his will that mankind should make some great step forward, he calls into being some cerebral organisation of more than ordinary magnitude and power, which gives birth to new ideas, and grander conceptions of the truths vital to humanity." We believe also that there are none of his children whom he does not favor with so much intelligence as shall serve to pilot them safely through the world with all its mazes, and finally to land them in a better state of existence where religious differences are unknown, where there shall be neither hunger nor thirst, neither poverty nor distress, for God shall wipe away all tears from all eyes.
* The Reverend John Huntingdon graduated at "Christ's," and achieved an S.S., which, for the benefit of the unimitiated, we may explain was intended to indicate that he was a sinner saved.