Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

Sin and the Sinner

page 298

Sin and the Sinner.

What is Sill, theologically considered? Is it, as the old Divines told us, High Treason against the Majesty of Heaven; participation in the rebellion of the Chief "who led the embattled Seraphim to war"? As Adam's sin was only an act, not malum in se, but only malum prohibitum, and yet the origin of death and all our woe, is all sin primarily and mainly Disobedience? Or, again, are many modern thinkers right in speaking always of Sin as weakness, folly, ignorance, the naughtiness of a froward babe, the stumble of a child in learning to walk? The answer to these questions is obscure. We must go somewhat far back to seek it.

Half the erroneous theology in the world seems due to the arbitrary conception of "Omnipotence" as an attribute of God. Were Divines to content themselves with following out the very strong indications which He has given us of His moral attributes, and when they come to speak of His Power be satisfied to say that human imagination fails to conceive its extent, they would avoid shutting up themselves and their disciples in many an impasse of their own making. He to whom we attribute the ordering of the thousands of clusters of starry systems, the Architect of the Universe, possesses indeed such Power that it seems superfluous to hesitate at any phrase which may convey to our poor human souls even a shadow of its immensity. But having (not unnaturally) applied to it the term for absolute illimitation, men have long reversed the process of reasoning, and having induced, as they think, from creation that God is Omnipotent, they deduce back again from that metaphysical term many conclusions for which creation itself lends no war-rant. So firm are they often in holding by this wholly arbitrary term, that it continually happens, when the mysteries of evil have to be explained, that God's moral attributes, of which we really know somewhat and whereon alone rest our reverence and love, are thrust into narrowest compass and woefully abridged, to make broad the road for this "Omnipotence" of which we confessedly know next to nothing.

Among those points which we must surely hereafter come to recognise as inevitable, is the one great one, in which perhaps all our difficulties are involved : the moral imperfection of all finite free agents. It cannot be too often repeated, seeing how constantly it is ignored, that, unless God had made us without moral natures at all, without knowledge of right and wrong, or power to choose between them,—in a word, unless He had left us mere brutes in human bodies, there was no other thing we could be, save imperfect moral creatures. The dreams of impeccable Angels, of sinless spirits of the Blessed, for ever dazzle and deceive us. There can be no such beings; and if there could, this world would present an utterly insoluble problem. With reverence, but yet with certainty, it may be said: One infinite and therefore perfect Moral Being alone is possible. All below page 299 Him, not being infinite, must have more or less of weakness and ignorance, and therefore of imperfection. Only the degree of the finite moral being's imperfection is (so far as we can see) arbitrary. For this planet's moral inhabitants God has chosen to create a race, doubtless not nearly the highest, and probably not the lowest, in the ranks of free intelligences. But it must needs be that all the other myriads of races which people the stars are of the same order with ourselves; all finite, and therefore all morally imperfect.

Accepting human imperfection, then, as we believe men must sooner or later accept it, not as the result of a Fall, nor as curable by any alchemy of sacred blood, but as a necessity determined by the fact that we are finite moral beings—the consequence will follow, that the design of God in creating us will assume quite a new significance. That design will clearly appear to be our gradual elevation through higher and higher moral grades, wherein the original imperfections of our nature will become evanescent, and degrees of virtue be attained which, viewed from our present state, would doubtlessly appear transcendantly pure, but which, when attained, will disclose above and beyond them the summits of yet loftier ranges of holiness. It is almost needless to add, that the belief in such a design of the Creator includes the universality of the "great Salvation." That every created soul will attain at last the virtue for which it was made, is a proposition so shut up in the prior one that "God made it for that purpose," that we ought not to need it should be stated at all.

The different bearing of such a doctrine as this and of the old theology on the question of the nature of Sin, is obvious enough. To the disciple of the Old Creed, sin was terrible, partly no doubt in itself, but chiefly in its accessories of fiends and flames. To the disciple of the New Creed, sin is terrible too; but it is terrible for itself, and because committed against a God absolutely good.

To seek for strong words to express the abomination of Sin is a vain attempt, seeing that moral evil, being necessarily the greatest kind of evil, can have no just illustration in any other and lesser kind. Even eternal physical torture, which the deeply wrought consciences of men of old threw out as a sort of material symbol of it, would to divinely-illumined eyes bear no relation to the moral woe of Sin. It is the Sin which must constitute the Hell, not the Hell which can represent Sin. Christ nailed on Calvary for ever would be the type of eternal Torture, and the very anti-type of Sin. We cannot doubt that the greatest saints have been those who have most vividly perceived the sinfulness of sin, and have attained to a constant keenness of the moral sense which ordinary men know only in rare moments of high spiritual activity. Those seemingly limitless abysses, deep below deep, of selfishness, vanity, double-mindedness, of which page 300 we have sometimes gained one awful glimpse, peering down into the dark places of our souls (a glimpse which left us awed, bewildered and wellnigh hopeless while its clear memory remained),—those depths a true Saint must look into and daily expose to the light of God till depth after depth become purified. He is not the man who can think least of Sin, nor is any other man's opinion about it to be taken in comparison of his. The soul approaches the holiness of God through the sense of Sin, and he who has little sense that Sin is horrible can have little sense that Holiness is adorable.

I feel assured that when the New Creed of love and trust has thoroughly taken its place in the minds of men, its moral power will be higher than that which the Old Creed of fear has ever wielded. Just as a loving and saintly mother exercises over her wayward son an influence which the severity of his father or his ever-renewed threat of final disinheritance altogether fail to obtain, so the faith which allies itself with all that is in us of noble, of holy, of grateful, and of tender, will work on our hearts as no other ever did or could do. One of the wisest of living philanthropists (Matthew Davenport Hill), after a long life spent in beholding from the judicial bench the varied forms of human crime and baseness, has given as the result of his whole experience, the aggressive power of love and kindness, and the weakness of all powers beside. If this be so as regards such love and kindness as man may shew to his brother, assuredly it holds good as regards the infinite love and kindness of the all-merciful God. Let us but learn to see this love as it speaks to us in our hearts and through Providence, and its "aggressive" might must needs be felt. As in the old Greek fable, the bitter blast of the threats of perdition have but caused man to draw his cloak of selfishness still closer around him. The warm, cloudless sunshine of the Divine Love will force him to cast it behind him, and bare his breast to the beneficent rays.

Sin has also changed its aspect in some measure by having lost a certain definiteness of treasonable character given to it by its supposed embodiment in a Devil. No alteration in modern theology has yet taken place so unmistakeably as the dismissal of this Personage from the catalogue of Entities credible among cultivated persons. Other dogmas of the Churches, if silently disbelieved, are yet treated with a certain tenderness and hesitation. But the doctrine of the existence of Satan (beyond the narrow circles of professedly religious coteries) is neither put aside with respect nor attacked with seriousness. It is simply laughed at as ridiculous and childish. Very recently a distinguished man of science, lecturing to a crowded audience in London, mentioned casually, that certain obscure mental phenomena had, by some persons, been attributed to the influence of the Devil. Immediately the whole company joined in a hearty peal of merriment. Why? Not because the Devil (if he page 301 existed) might not have had the influence in question. By all accounts, the case lay entirely within his proper field of action. But the notion of a Devil doing anything whatever, was manifestly, in the opinion of the audience, altogether laughable and absurd. Surely this little incident (to be paralleled frequently in every theatre) was significant enough? The persons who laughed at the mere mention of the Devil were, no doubt, nine-tenths of them members of orthodox Churches, yet publicly and without any effort at concealment they shewed their entire contempt for the notion of the Devil pur et simple. When such are the spontaneous feelings of some hundreds of people, culled by chance from the most cultivated and refined classes of the community, it is hardly too much to assume that at last and truly, "Great Pan is dead."

The consequence to theology generally of the disappearance of so prominent an actor from the stage, can hardly fail to be serious. The tragedy of the Fall, for example, would without him (according to the well-worn jest) resemble Shakespeare's Hamlet with the part of Hamlet left out. But the Fall, again, is only the first part of that dread Trilogy, whose second part is the Atonement, and whose conclusion is the Last Judgment; and if Original Sin, the primal Curse of death, and the promise that "the seed of the woman should bruise the Serpent's head," be all discarded, the rest of the story becomes well-nigh unintelligible. If we cease to believe that "in Adam all die," it will become difficult to believe that "in Christ shall all be made alive." The theory of the early Fathers concerning the Atonement, that it was a ransom paid by Christ to the Devil, has long been exploded; and since Anselm's days the supposed rights of the Evil One have been strangely transferred to the blessed Father of all. But it is yet impossible to eliminate from the history, the Serpent of Paradise, the Tempter of Christ, the Devil to whom Jesus and his apostles every instant refer, and yet preserve the plot in any condition of unity and completeness. If Devils be absurd delusions, it follows but too clearly that all the writers of the New Testament were absurdly deluded.

But the moral and practical results of the disappearance of Lucifer under the horizon, are more our concern than the theological, and they are hardly less important.

Moral Evil may be regarded either as a Positive or a Negative thing. It may be, as the 9th Article affirms, an infection of nature,—a virus like that of the plague, or the fungus of the vine and potatoe blight,—a real moral entity, propagating its kind. Or, on the other hand, it may be merely the absence of good, the lack of moral light and strength, which leaves room for the prevalence of the blind and brutish appetite. In other words, we may study moral dynamics, on the hypothesis of the old philosophers, that there exist in Nature both Weight and Levity, both Heat and Cold, both Light and Darkness; or, on the contrary, page 302 we may proceed on the modern system, and admit Weight, Heat, and Light to be positives, and Levity, Cold and Darkness to be simply their negations. It is obvious enough that the belief that God, the Moral Sun of the universe, has an Antitype in a Sun whose rays are darkness and frost, is a considerable aid to the perpetuation of the theory that Evil is a Positive thing. In fact, if there exist an Incarnate Sin, then Evil must be a positive thing; for, if Evil be merely negative, then alsolute Sin would be absolute Nothingness; and instead of being the most active and powerful of spirits, Evil, as the old Chaldean Oracle averred, would be "more frail than non-entity." The abolition of a Bad God, then, is the first step towards the healthy faith, that Good alone is real and Evil is unreal; and that Virtue consists not in mere abstinence from vice, but in a heart and life filled to the brim with love to God and love to man.—Frances P. Cobbe.