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ON THE CAUSE OF THE LITTLE INFLUENCE WHICH THESE MOTIVES HAVE ON
When I reperuse the dissertation which some time ago I published, the thought strikes me that there may perhaps be some who will ridicule it as a piece of empty declamation, and say that it is to no purpose I boast of the extraordinary efficacy of the motives to virtue which are presented to Christians in the sacred Scriptures; that, as long as they do not exhibit a more diligent pursuit of virtue than is now discernible in them, experience itself refutes the statements I have made, by showing plainly that Scripture contains no very powerful incentives to virtue.
0, that all who profess Christianity could be induced to refute this objection by their conduct rather than by words! But, as a constantly increasing degeneracy does not allow us to hope that this will be the case, let us consider what must be said to prevent the pious from being stumbled by this stone of offence.
In the first place, we can oppose experience to experience—the example, namely, of the church planted by the apostles, and of the primitive Christians, among whom the preaching of the gospel was so effectual as evidently to make them other men, new creatures, and alive from the dead.* That this preaching was effectual in preserving the same virtue for a long period in the church is testified by the memorials of the early Christians, especially by what Tertullian records respecting them, when he observes that, among the criminals delated to the heathen magistrates, no Christian was detected, and that among the Christians accused and punished on account of their Christianity, no criminal was found. “ A great number of guilty persons," he says, charged with different offences, are enumerated in your registers. What assassin registered there_ what thief-what sacrilegious person, or spoiler, or plunderer of the baths—which of these has the appellation Christian added to his name? Or, when Christians are presented on the ground of that name, which of them resembles any of these numerous criminals? Of yours," he is addressing the heathen, " the prison is always full; with yours, the mines always groan; by yours, the wild beasts are always glutted; with yours, the superintendents of the games always feed their troops of noxious animals. No Christian is there, unless simply because he is a Christian; or, if on any other account, he has now ceased to be a Christian."|
But why, you ask, are there so many with whom the motives celebrated by us are wholly ineffectual? Why have they little or no influence on the * 2 Cor. v. 17; Gal. vi. 15; Eph. ii. 1, 5.
+ Tertuliani Apologia.
majority of professing Christians? It must here be kept in view that we commend them as motives to virtue-powerful, it is true, but still only motives--not as engines, properly speaking, and physical instruments. Now, moral causes, among which motives are classed by philosophers, have no power unless they are believed and pondered, and unless that to which they are designed to urge us be well understood. Where this is not the case, the most powerful motives are weak. Such is the character of this kind of causes; it is foolish, therefore, to look for the same power in them which is found in a lever or pully, or other mechanical instrument.
I affirm, then, that the little influence which so numerous and powerful motives to virtue have on the majority of Christians may be traced to one or other of the three following causes; because they do not believe them, or because they do not reflect on them with that attention which they deserve; or, lastly, because they are unacquainted with that godliness to the practice of which they are intended to excite is. Unquestionably, in many one or all of these causes combine.*
I. In the first place, these motives are inefficacious, because they are not believed. For though, as we hinted in the preceding dissertation, were they duly weighed, they would, even on the supposition that they are dubious, have no little influence in urging us to the practice of virtue; yet it is not to be wondered at if many do not reflect on this, or if this consideration exerts but little power on men who are so extremely averse to virtue. The gospel is, indeed, the power of God to salvation, but it is so only to those who believe and who are persuaded of its truth.t
If I complain of the want of this conviction in many who profess Christianity, I do not censure those only who are avowed unbelievers, or who, as they pretend, positively believe that religion is either false, or, at least, dubious and uncertain; but I look in vain for such a conviction in the greater number of those who seem to themselves and others to be believ. ceded. Hence it is that, as they have never thought of the excellence and divinity of their religion, much less are fully convinced of these, they do not love it, do not highly value it—nay, frequently make so little account of it as never to think of regulating even one of their actions by it, as to follow, during their whole life, any thing rather than it, and continually to keep before them other principles of action which are sometimes even directly opposed to it.
For they only, in my opinion, are really convinced of the truth of a doctrine, who give credit to it on account of arguments or testimonies which either are in reality, or, at least, are seriously considered by them a sufficient ground of faith.
But how many are numbered among Christians and O, that they did not constitute the majority !_who believe, or at any rate seem to believe, the truth of the religion they profess; not on account of any arguments or testimony, I do not say sufficient, but which they even seriously imagined was adapted to furnish conviction respecting a truth of such vast importance; who never felt any anxiety about the existence or character of the foundation of their faith; who, so far from being convinced of the truth of the facts by which this religion was in ancient times attested, have never, during their life, thought of deliberately examining into it; who, in a word, have never seen or felt in the religion they have embraced any thing peculiar, any thing excellent, any thing divine; nay, who do not know what is meant by that very testimony of the church which they say is the sole ground of their belief, and are altogether ignorant of the church to which they give credit, and of its authority to which their faith is con
. (Christianity, as truly as it declares its own divinity, assures us that the true faith of these motives which should render them influential, and the fixed attention Decessary to secure their efficacy, and the requisite knowledge of the godliness to which they are intended to urge, will not be attained without the supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit. This, however, we are also assured, will be vouchsared for producing all the predetermined effect.-T.)
| Rom. i. 16.
In what, then, does the faith of these men consist? As far as I can discover, it is nothing else than a sort of adherence or assent to the opi. nions they have received from their teachers, and to the sentiments of those among whom they have been born and live; not that they value so highly their authority as to think that they may safely follow them in a matter of the greatest importance—for the authority of those whom they follow is usually lightly esteemed by them—but solely on this ground, that they think it is better to embrace a received religion, that is, to adhere to it, and acquiesce in it, than to examine it, and seriously investigate its truth; either because they imagine that religion is altogether of so little importance that they disdain to undergo any labour, or to undertake a troublesome investigation on its account; or because this investigation is represented to them as unsafe and dangerous, frequently as even unlawful and prohibited; or because they are told that it surpasses their capacity, and on that ground gladly leave it to more learned men. Who can be surprised that this spurious faith has no influence in directing the actions of these men, and is ineffectual to overcome in them even a single vice, whether arising from natural depravity or from bad education and habit ?
You will say, however, this faith, such as it is, produces in many an ardent zeal for received opinions, which surely argues a not unsettled conviction respecting their truth. How, then, can the want of conviction be complained of in them?
But the zeal of these men is, and can be nothing else, than a mere eager party spirit, of the same nature evidently as the zeal with which they coniend for the civil institutions of their country, not because they are really convinced that they are better than the institutions of other nations, but because they suppose that their honour is concerned in regarding the institutions of their own country as superior to others. In the same manner, they imagine that it will redound to their honour, if the principles of the sect with which they are connected by the circumstance of birth triumph and prevail over all others. Nor are there wanting some whose zeal is nothing but a certain concealed hatred of those that, by the love of truth, and the desire of investigating it, dare to distinguish themselves from them and others of a similar stamp, who, careless about truth, acquiesce in received opinions.
From whatever cause their zeal proceeds, it is not the result of thorough conviction; and where such a conviction does not exist, it ought not to be thought surprising that its effects are not seen, and do not exert any influence on the actions of men.
II. The second reason why the motives which Christianity furnishes, have so little influence with many is, as I have stated, that they do not receive that attention which their importance demands. For it is to be borne in mind, that all motives, or impulsive causes, as the schoolmen speak, are efficacious in proportion to the frequency with which they are recalled to recollection. Hence the more closely and intensely they are pondered, the more vividly they are brought under the notice of the mind; and the longer its attention is kept fixed on them, the more deeply do they penetrate, and the more powerful is the influence which they exert. On the other hand, their efficacy is feeble, in proportion as they are less frequently and carefully considered. It is certain that, to excite men to piety and virtue, and to deter them from vice, nothing more efficacious can be supposed than if the greatest felicity which can be enjoyed by man, and that for ever, be promised to the pious, and if the most exquisite suffering, and that too for ever, be denounced against the ungodly. But these, how great spever they may be, can have no influence with those 'who do not think of them, or think of them but slightly and superficially. Accordingly the apostle, when he would describe the admirable efficacy of faith, portrays it as a conviction which is so vivid, that it exhibits things not seen, and not for a long time to be enjoyed, as if present and visible to our eyes.
But this faith cannot exist in those who are completely engrossed by the affairs of this life; whom the love of the world and of vanity claims so entirely to itself, and so fills all their mind, and, as I may say, all their capacity, that scarcely can any thought of the state of the soul after death, and of its eternal salvation or misery, and other spiritual things, find a place in it. Thus it happens, as the parable of our Saviour shows, that among such a multitude of empty cares of this life, as among so many thorns, the seed of the gospel is completely choked; so that, however productive in its own nature, it cannot bring forth fruit.* Who will wonder that the most powerful motives to piety have little influence on those who, occupied with more important cares, forsooth! have no leisure to attend to them; who either, therefore, are wholly ignorant of the bless. ings promised to piety, and of the evils that await the wicked; or have such a light, such an imperfect, such a vague and general knowledge of them, that the one cannot excite in their mind the least desire to enjoy them, nor the other the slightest effort to avoid them?
Let it also be considered, that those who are so immersed in wordly cares lose all relish for spiritual good; so that at length they become evi. dently as incapable of understanding or feeling it, as a swine from the herd of Epicurus, who has spent his life in pampering his body, is able to form an idea of the nature of that pleasure which the philosopher derives from the contemplation of truth. For it is certain that the greater number of the avaricious, the ambitious, and the voluptuous, are so depraved in taste, that the first care for nothing but gold and silver ; the second are pleased only when they are noticed by the crowd, and pointed to with the finger; and the last can conceive of no pleasure but that which is adapted to the grosser organs of sense. Offer to them good of a different description, and however excellent it may be, it is just as if you should speak of beauty of appearance to the blind, or should discourse concerning the sweetness of music to the deaf.
Let me liere introduce the corresponding statement respecting this matter of an individual, my most intimate friend. “ It cannot be that religion and virtue are loved by him whose heart is devoted to the world. No man,' says Christ, can serve two masters;' and Jolin affirms that the love of the Father is not in him who loves the world.t Spiritual things are so alien to natural men, that they are incapable of forming a conception of them, however much they may turn their atten. tion to them. For by these earthly cares they are gradually rendered so
• Matth, xiii, 7.
Matth. vi. 24
1 John ii. 15.
carnal, and, if I might say it, so gross and brutish, that like beasts they are alive to nothing but what affects their senses. Why? Because ignorance and slothfulness are thereby fostered, and the soul and all its propensities are tied down to earth. When this is the case, spiritual good is lightly esteemed, and the man becomes disqualified to form a just estimate of its excellence, and to pursue it with true desire. And who, I ask, will believe that those who think of nothing else than of the means by which they may scrape together riches, hunt after the favour of the powerful, and travel to dignities and honours—who, I say, will believe that such individuals can feel any concern about salvation? Every person sees that objects so different cannot simultaneously be pursued."*
III. But I noticed also a third reason why the numerous and powerful motives which Scripture proposes to us are not successful in exciting many who are called Christians to virtue. This is their ignorance of the nature of that godliness, to the practice of which these motives ought to excite them. For, in consequence of this, even those who are persuaded of their truth, and carefully attend to them, are urged not so much to that in which true Christianity consists, as to that in which they wrongly conceive it to be placed.
No one certainly who is affected by a love to virtue and piety will deny, that the error of those who adopt the opinion which, as we saw in the preceding dissertation,t the Fathers so severely reprehend in the heathen, is most pernicious; viz. that religion is something so totally different from virtue, that an individual may be not only religious, but religious in an eminent degree, while he is nevertheless any thing but a good and virtuous man.
I am not ignorant of the complaints of some sacred teachers, who exclaim that it is not to be endured that religion now-a-days is changed by many into a mere system of ethics complaints which are indeed just, if they mean that they would not have it changed into a heathen system of ethics, which neither proposes to us a more excellent morality than the Gentile philosophers, nor enforces it by stronger motives. But if any one, convinced, as he ought to be, of the truth of those mysteries of Christianity which were unknown to the heathen philosophers, thinks that he should not rest in the mere knowledge of them, but considers them all, whatever they are, as mysteries of godliness, that is, as so many motives to godliness and to the virtues connected with it—if he conceives that they have been revealed to him by God chiefly for this end, either I am greatly deceived, or he has certainly formed a just apprehension of Christianity. Assuredly it would be more to the advantage of the church, if all Christians would thus turn their religion into a system of ethics, than if they changed it into a mere system of metaphysics, and a fruitless contemplation of divine attributes and works. ·
“Philosophy,” says Seneca,“ teaches us to act, not to talk,”—a remark which, in my opinion, is more apposite when applied to our religion. An individual being desired to tell what parts of Christianity were especially necessary to be known in order to salvation, gave this shrewd and accurate reply, “ Those which we can, even when silent, prove that we know and believe.” This, according to his view, was to be done in the way of proving our belief of them by actions, not by words merely. The
Sources de la Corruption. Source viii. p. 249 + See p. 326 and 330.