The Elements of Moral Science (1835, 1856 ed.)

Francis Wayland


Relations Between Natural and Revealed Religion

IF what we have said be true, the defects of natural religion would lead us to expect, that some other means of moral instruction would be afforded us. And, indeed, this is the conclusion at which some of the wisest of the heathen philosophers arrived, from a consideration of that utter ignorance of futurity in which they were of necessity plunged, by the most attentive study of natural religion. They felt convinced, that the Deity would not have constructed a system of moral teaching, which led to impervious darkness, unless He intended, out of that very darkness, at some period or other, to manifest light.

But still more, I think that an attentive observation of what natural religion teaches, and of its necessary and inherent defects, would afford us some grounds of expectation, respecting the nature of that revelation which should be made. If we can discover the moral necessities of our race, and can also discover in what respects, and for what reason, the means thus far employed have failed to relieve them, we may with certainty predict some of the characteristics which must mark any system, which should be devised to accomplish a decided remedy.

For example:

1. It is granted that natural religion does teach us some unquestionable truths. Now, no truth can be inconsistent with itself. And hence it might be expected, that whenever natural and revealed religion treated upon the same subjects, they would teach in perfect harmony. The second instructor may teach more than the first; but so far as they gave instruction on the same subjects, if both teach the truth, they must both teach the same lesson.

2. It is natural to expect that a revelation would give us much information upon the subject of duty, which could not be learned by the light of nature. Thus, it might be expected to make known more clearly to us, than we could otherwise learn them, the obligations by which we are bound to our fellow-men, and to God; and also the manner in which those obligations are to be discharged.

3. That it would present us with motives to virtue, in addition to those made known by the light of nature. We have seen that the motives of natural religion are derived from this world, and are in their nature insufficient. We should expect that those in a revelation would be drawn from some other source. And still more, as natural religion may be considered to have exhausted the motives of this world, it is surely not unreasonable to expect, that a revelation, leaving this world, would draw its motives principally, if not entirely, from another, if it revealed to us the fact that another world existed.

4. We should not expect that the Deity would employ a second and additional means, to accomplish what could be done by any modification of the means first employed. Hence, if a revelation were made to men, we might reason ably expect, that it would make known to us such truths as could not, in the nature of the case, be communicated by natural religion.

These are, I think, just anticipations. At any rate, I think it must be admitted, that if a system of religion, purporting to be a revelation from heaven, met all these expectations, its relations to natural religion not only would present no argument against its truth, but would create a strong à priori presumption in its favor.

Now these expectations are all fully realized in the system of religion contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

1. The truths of revealed religion harmonize perfectly with those of natural religion. The difference between them consists in this, that the one teaches plainly, what the other teaches by inference; the one takes up the lesson when the other leaves it, and adds to it other and vitally important precepts. Nay, so perfect is the harmony between them, that it may safely be asserted that not a single precept of natural religion exists, which is not also found in the Bible, and still more, that the Bible is every day directing us to new lessons, taught us by nature, which, but for its information, would never have been discovered. So complete is this coincidence, as to afford irrefragable proof that the Bible contains the moral laws of the universe; and, hence, that the Author of the universe — that is, of natural religion — is also the Author of the Scriptures.

2. The Holy Scriptures, as has just been intimated, give us much information on questions of duty, which could not be obtained by the light of nature. Under this remark may be classed the scriptural precepts respecting the domestic relations; respecting our duties to enemies, aid to men in general; and especially respecting our obligations to God, and the manner in which He may most acceptably be worshiped.

3. The Scriptures present motives to the practice of virtue, additional, generically different from those of natural religion, and of infinitely greater power.

1. The motives to virtue, from consequences in this world, are strengthened by a clearer development of the indissoluble connection between moral cause and effect, than is made known by natural religion.

2. In addition to these motives, we are assured of our existence after death; and eternal happiness and eternal misery are set forth as the desert of virtue and vice.

3. The Scriptures reveal to us the Deity as assuming new relations to us, and devising a most merciful way for our redemption: by virtue of this new relation, establishing a new ground of moral obligation between the race of man and himself, and thus adding a power to the impulsion of conscience, of which natural religion must, in the nature of the case, be destitute.

4. It is manifest, that much of the above knowledge, which the Scriptures reveal, is of the nature of fact; and, therefore, could not be communicated to us by experience. or in the way of general laws, but must be made known by language, that is, by revelation.

Thus, the existence of a state of being after death, the doctrine of the resurrection, of a universal and impartial judgment, of an endless state of rewards and punishments, of a remedial dispensation, by which the connection between guilt and punishment may be conditionally severed; the doctrine of the atonement, and the way in which a man may avail himself of the benefits of this remedial dispensation; all these are manifestly of great practical importance in a scheme of moral reformation; and yet, all of them being of the nature of facts, they could be made known to man in no other way than by language.

Now, as these seem clearly to be just anticipations respecting any system which should be designed to supply the evident defects of natural religion, and as all these anticipations are realized in the system of religion contained min the Scriptures, each one of these anticipations thus realized furnishes a distinct à priori presumption in favor of the truth of revealed religion. We do not pretend that any, or that all of these considerations, prove the Scriptures to be a revelation from God. This proof is derived from other sources. What we would say, is this: that, from what we know of God’s moral government by the light of nature, it is manifestly probable that he would give us some additional instruction, and that that instruction would be, in various important respects, analogous to that contained in the Holy Scriptures. And we hence conclude, that although it were granted — which, however, need not be granted — that, were there no antecedent facts in the case, it might seem unlikely that God would condescend to make a special revelation of his will to men; yet, when the antecedent facts are properly considered, this presumption, if it ever could be maintained, is now precisely reversed, and that there now exists a fair presumption that such a revelation would actually be made. And hence we conclude, that a revelation of the will of God by language is not, as many persons suppose, an event so unlikely, that no evidence can be conceived sufficiently strong to render it credible; but, that it is, on the contrary, an event, from all that we know of God already, essentially probable; and that it is, to say the least of it, as fairly within the limits of evidence as any other event, and when proved, on the ordinary principles of evidence, is as much entitled to belief as any other event. And hence we conceive that when men demand, in support of the truth of revealed religion, evidence unlike to that which is demanded in support of any other event, — that is, evidence of which they themselves cannot define the nature — they demand what is manifestly unreasonable, and proceed upon a presumption wholly at variance with all the known facts in the case.