MR. ERSKINE'S DOCTRINE OF CONSCIENCE AND REVELATION.* THE Bishop of
Argyll has shown a wise appreciation of the greatest theological want of English, no less than Scotch religious thought, in republishing in a separate and condensed form this admirable essay by one of the deepest and widest theologians of our own day. Mr. Erskine is indeed far less intimately known to English readers than he ought to be. The mere title of the book from which Dr. Ewing has made this striking and perfectly coherent and independent extract,—a book on ' Election ' which we regret to say we have never met with,—is one which would alarm most modern readers ; for the discussion on this subject has almost ceased to be one of interest to English theo- logians since true Calvinism died out from amongst us, and there are very few of us who would care to see the high doctrine on that subject even satisfactorily answered. But Mr. Erskine's book, though its title suggests technical theology, is evidently the reverse of technical. A larger, freer, deeper treatment of the subject of the relation of authority to faith in spiritual matters we have never met with than in this chapter from it. Within certain very important limits it almost exhausts the subject, and is a completer overthrow for the spirit of bibliolatry than will be ever obtained by pick- ing holes, however successfully, in the historical, or scien- tific, or even moral impressions left upon us by some portions of the Bible. For Mr. Erskine's tract might be read and even heartily accepted by those who think every word in the Bible directly revealing as well as accurately true ; and yet, if once heartily accepted, would destroy in them the spirit of bibliolatry and leave room in their minds for the subsequent admission of occasional errors of all kinds in Scripture, without undermin- ing their faith in revelation. It is the unfortunate result of beginning at the other end, and exposing the geology of Genesis and the arithmetic of Exodus, that those whose mind has never been taught the distinction between authority and revelation pass into a state of absolute collapse as regards spiritual
trust, if they are convinced at all. Mr. Erskine's essay would prepare them to make such a discovery without either panic or surprise, for it would convince them that even if the statements of Scripture were entirely free from human error, it would not be
that mere freedom from error, but the power of some of its truths to find their own witness in the human conscience, which would alone constitute their revealing power. Mr. Erskine shows most powerfully that a book, nay, a teacher, and an inward teacher, if such we could have, absolutely infallible, but whose infallibility were to us only matter of intellectual certainty, would in no sense whatever be a spiritual guide to man, though we should implicitly obey his directions every minute in the hour :—
"It may assist our conception of what true religion consists in, if (as we did in our examination of the moral principle) we bring it also into ccmparison with other changes which might take place in a man, dif- fering from it in principle, and yet somewhat similar in appearance and language.. Let us then take the case of a man much alive to the im- portance of possessing the favour and avoiding the displeasure of God as the most powerful Being in the universe, and let us suppose that to him • is granted the privilege of having continually with him an inspired person whom he may consult at all times, and who makes it his business, distinctly and definitely, to tell him at every step of his progress through life what the will of God is, thus enabling him to do everything by a special guidance, and in perfect confidence that what he does is well- pleasing to God ; and let us farther suppose that he actually makes use of his gifted guide, and follows his counsel at every step, but that he does so simply because he believes that it will please God, without the slightest sympathy with or enjoyment of the righteous character of God manifested in that counsel. Now, what shall we say of this man's religion ? At the first glance, we might be tempted to think that the man who was so placed was highly favoured in a religious point of view, and that he possessed, in the guardianship of his inspired companion, a greater gift than we as a race possess in the gift of conscience. But when we consider that the desire of God with regard to us is, that we should ourselves possess the mind of Chris; and that we should know His will and be fellow-workers with Him in it, because of the conscious approval and choice of our hearts, we cannot but see that the condition at which we have supposed is not only opposed to true religion, but is far below the high calling wherewith the meanest of the children of men is called, and that the man who walks by such a guidance, instead of being teally taught of God, is in fact only relieved, as it were, from the necessity of seeking the true teaching of God, the object of which is, not to point out particular steps, but to lead man into sympathy with the purposes of God, and to enable him to apprthend righteousness and 4`. The Internal Word, or ' Light Becoming Life.' A. short Guide to the Rule of Fill, istal of Life, being en Abridgment of the Co; el id ug portion of Mr. Erskine's vo one on "Election" Edited by the Right Rev. ti.e Bishop of Argyll. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas.
eternal life in all the will of God. Let us now vary the instance a little, and let us take the case of the inspired person himself, who has an oracle within himself, distinctly and definitely indicating to him whah things he ought to do, and what he ought to avoid, so that the business of every hour of the day is fixed for him by a supernatural direction, communicated to him in the way of an inward impression ; and let us also suppose that he, in the assurance that this oracle is really of God, obeys it, but still in such a way as that his obedience flows not from any discerned righteousness in the things ordered, or sympathy with their righteousness, bat, as in the former instance from mere submission to the authority of God : would the change of the locality of the oracle from being outside of him to being within make any real difference in the case, so that his obedience to it could now be considered as true religion : or would it not leave him in precisely the same state as before, namely, trained in submission, but untrained in righteousness, and in real participation in the mind ofGod ? In truth, such an oracle, although it appears to be an inward authority, is as much outside of the man as if it were lodged in another person, for he is not one with it."
Mr. Erskine points out that this absolute necessity for a spiritual witness in ourselves to the truth of revelation by no means im- plies or even suggests that we could have arrived at these truths without the aid of revelation.
"There are many facts in our intellectual experience analogous to this, which might be used to illustrate it. Thus, a man may be per- fectly incapable of making any advance in mathematical science by his own original and unassisted efforts, and yet if Euclid be put into his hands, he may find himself quite able to follow and appreciate the reasoning, and thus to gain a very considerable acquaintance with the subject. His mind, in consequence, is filled with a new class of ideas, which he has acquired entirely from the reading of this book. And yet, if he has really apprehended it, it is not on the authority of the book that his conviction of the truth of any one of its propositions ultimately rests, but on his own personal discernment of their truth. We should not consider him to have entered in the slightest degree into their meaning if we found him resting his belief of them on the authority of the book, or on any outward authority whatever. Nor should we indeed call such a belief a mathematical belief at all. And yet had not the book presented the truths outwardly to him, the inward intellectual types might have lain within him dormant for ever."
And we may carryout the image further. Mathematical students do. in point of fact often find in their text-books real errors of method, and blunders in the application of principles correctly laid down. And when they do so, even though notoriginalmathematicjans them- selves, they cannot but decline to accept, even on the authority of the most original mathematicians, results which are only obtained by flaws in their own reasoning or inaccurate conceptions of the true mode of stating the problem. And the same precisely is true of the human record of revelation. There are flaws in that record,—like the eulogy of Deborah, for instance, on Jael's treachery,—which are clear violations of the principles of righteous- ness which the teaching of Scripture itself has elicited from our own consciences, and we reject such attempts to override the revela- tion, even though they appear at first sight to have the same external authority as the revelation. Mr. Erskine puts this point with very great beauty and power by help of the following illus- tration :—
" The Protestant often does the same thing with regard to the doc- trines of religion that the Papist does as to his whole religion. He relieves himself from the personal obligation of apprehending truth in the light of his own conscience. He casts himself on the Bible as the, Papist does on the Church, and adopts whatever doctrines he supposes to be there, without feeling that he must actually discern their truth before he can be really entitled to call himself a believer of them. He thus substitutes outward authority for that light which is life, although he condemns the Papist for doing the very same thing. There is a very interesting story, in some part of Raynal's History of the East and West Indies, if I remember right, which I have often reflected on in connec- tion with this subject. The purport of the story is that two missionaries, one a Christian, the other a Mahometan, arrived about the same time at an island of the Indian Ocean, and propounded their respective doc- trines to the natives, who received them both with great respect and attention. After they had taken their departure, the King called the people together, and said to them, that as neither he nor they were capable of deciding which of these two religions was the true one, he wished them to join with him in desiring from God that He would deliver them from their perplexity, by so ordering circumstances that the first ship which reached the island should be to them a sign indicat- ing that the religion of the people to whom it belonged was the trim religion. He accordingly, along with his people, made this prayer ; and soon after a Mahometan vessel arrived, on which the whole island be- came Mahometan, in obedience, as they thought, to the will of God, expressed by this sign. I can scarcely believe that the story is true.; but supposing it to be true, it deserves to be considered whether the. way which these people took of getting rid of their difficulty was right or not. To me it appears that it was decidedly a wrong way, being nothing less than a culpable renunciation of their standing as spiritual beings. They had that within them by which they were able, and there- fore were bound, to have tried and compared the two religions ; and they had no right to evade this duty. God had set the duty before them, as an opportunity of receiving a blessing through it. But the great blessing which is derived from a true religion comes through appreciating anei receiving the righteousness of God revealed in it ; and therefore they, in refusing to try it by their consciences, did in fact put from them the blessing intended. And God answered this conduct by sending the Mahometan vessel first, as if to teach us who hear of it, that Mahometan'- ism and Christianity are of equal value to those who judge of moral truth by outward authority."
The last sentence in this extract seems to us one of exquisite beauty, and to condense in itself a perfect answer to those who preach Christianity as a system of external authority.
The only defect, if it be one, in Mr. Erskine's essay, is that it almost seems to assume that the testimony of the human conscience is sufficient to endorse the historical accuracy of all narratives which enlarge, illuminate, and purify its own vision. Now, the true diffi- culty of the problem of modern Scriptural criticism is to dis- tinguish between spiritual belief resting upon historical belief or at least not separable from it, and spiritual belief which does not involve any historical belief, but is purely and absolutely self- evidenced. Much doubtless which is not historically true is capable of awakening a new power of seeing in ourselves. Thus
Christ's parables,—the parable of the Prodigal Son, for instance,—
is clearly a fiction, invented to illustrate an eternal truth, and it does illustrate it just as much for those who recognize it as a parable, as it does for anybody, if there be anybody, who believes it to be an historical narrative. So, too, we think we might say that the story in Daniel of the three men walk- ing unharmed in the fiery furnace with a fourth, whose form, as we are told, "was like the Son of God,"—might be taken as full of divine teaching even by one who thought,—as we believe the most impartial criticism now thinks,—the book of Daniel his- torically unauthentic, and the product of a later age, though embodying legendary traditions of great beauty. Yet, even in such a came as this, half the moral value would be given—to what we might then call a fable cast in the mould of revealed religion, by our knowledge from other sources of the historical truth of the supernatural events which give that fable its meaning. If there were no Son of God, the beauty of this unauthentic story of Daniel's would almost disappear. And there is very much in Revelation the whole spiritual power and meaning of which depends absolutely on its being historically true. If the Incarnation, for instance,— the most astounding of all the historical assertions of the Bible,—be not historically true, it is not true spiritually, or in any sense at all. If the life of Christ be not historically true the spiritual value of the narrative for the world becomes, we shall not say nil, but almost infinitely leas than it is.
Thus even after Mr. Erskine's teaching is all heartily accepted, the difficulty remains,—the characteristic critical difficulty of the modern believer in dealing with Scripture,—to distinguish how much is historically certain on historical evidence alone, —how much, again, of historical truth is implied, involved, and included in the great spiritual miracle of a revelation in which so much external history is wrapped up,—and how much there may be in the Bible which, though not certainly involving exaggeration and error like the history of the Exodus, is still to be regarded as doubtful in detail, and rather illustrating the whole chain of divine truths from which it has taken its special form and manner, than as certainly true in itself. Still Mr. Endrine's essay,—for the pub- lication of which we heartily thank the Bishop of Argyll—puts the relation of the human conscience to the spiritual authority of God's gradually evolved Revelation in the most perfect form. It liberates us from all misreadings of the human passions and im- perfections which are necessarily imbedded in Scripture, but it seems perhaps to speak of the conscience of man as almost sup- plying a test of historical truth on the minor facts of the Scripture history which would be claiming too much for it from the intellect. It may,—we believe that in conjunction with historical evidence it does, —compel us to accept the wended ulmystery of the Word made flesh dying upon the Cross. But assuredly it supplies no test of the truth of narratives like the handwriting on the wall, or the story of the fiery furnace in the Book of Daniel