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

Francis Wayland


In What Manner Are We to Ascertain Our Duty by the Holy Scriptures?

Taking it for granted that the Bible contains a revelation of the will of God, such as is stated in the preceding section, it will still be of importance for us to decide how we may ascertain, from the study of it, what God really requires of us. Much of it is mere history, containing an unvarnished narration of the actions of good and of bad men. Much of it has reference to a less enlightened age, and to a particular people, set apart from other people, for a special and peculiar purpose. Much of it consists of exhortations and reproofs, addressed to this people, in reference to the laws then existing, but which have been since abrogated. Now, amidst this variety of instructions, given to men at different times, and of different nations, it is desirable that the principles be settled, by which we may decide what portion of this mass of instruction is binding upon the conscience, at the present moment. My object, in the present section, is to ascertain, as far as possible, the principles by which we are to be guided in such a decision.

When a revelation is made to us by language, it is taken for granted, that whatever is our duty, will be signified to us by a command; and hence, what is not commanded, is not to be considered by us as obligatory. Did we not establish this limitation, every thing recorded, as, for instance, all the actions both of good and of bad men, might be regarded as authority; and thus a revelation, given for the purpose of teaching us our duty, might be used as an instrument to confound all distinction between right and wrong.

The ground of moral obligation, as derived from a revelation, must, therefore, be a command of God.

Now, a command seems to involve three ideas:

1. That an act be designated. This may be, by the designation of the act itself, as, for instance, giving bread to the hungry; or else by the designation of a temper of mind, as that of universal love, under which the above act, and various other acts, are clearly comprehended. That it be somehow signified to be the will of God, that this act be performed. Without this intimation, every act that is described, or even held up for our reprobation, might be quoted as obligatory.

3. That it be signified, that we are included within the number to whom the command is addressed. Otherwise, all the commandments, to the patriarchs and prophets, whether ceremonial, symbolical, or individual, would be binding upon every one who might read them. And hence, in general, whosoever urges upon us any duty, as the command of God, revealed in the Bible, must show that God has, somewhere, commanded that action to be done, and that he has commanded us to do it.

This principle will exclude, 1. Every thing which is merely history. Much of the Bible contains a mere narrative of facts. For the truth of this narrative, the veracity of the Deity is pledged. We may derive from the account of God’s dealings, lessons of instruction to guide us in particular cases; and, from the evil conduct of men, matter of warning. But the mere fact, that any thing has been done, and recorded in the Scripture, by no means places us under obligation to do it.

2. It excludes from being obligatory upon all, what has been commanded, but which can be shown to have been intended only for individuals, or for nations, and not for the whole human race. Thus many commands are recorded in the Scriptures, as having been given to individuals. Such was the command to Abraham, to offer up his son; to Moses, to stand before Pharaoh; to Samuel, to anoint Saul and David; and a thousand others. Here, evidently, the Divine direction was exclusively intended for the individual to whom it was given. No one can pretend that he is commanded to offer up his son, because Abraham was so commanded.

Thus, also, many of the commands of God in the Old Testament were addressed to nations. Such were the directions to the Israelites to take possession of Canaan; to make war upon the surrounding nations; to keep the ceremonial law; and so of various other instances. Now of such precepts, it is to be observed, 1. They are to be obeyed only at the time and in the manner in which they were commanded. Thus, the Jews, at present, would have no right, in virtue of the original command, to expel the Mahometans from Palestine; though the command to Joshua was a sufficient warrant for expelling the Canaanites, at the time in which it was given. 2. They are of force only to those to whom they were given. Thus, supposing the ceremonial law was not abolished; as it was given specially to Jews, and to no one else, it would bind no one but Jews now. Supposing it to be abolished, it of course now binds no one. For if, when in force, it was obligatory on no one but the Jews, and was nothing to anyone else; when it is abolished, as to them, it is nothing to anyone. Such is the teaching of St. Paul on this subject.

3. It would exclude whatever was done by inspired men, if it was done without the addition of being somehow commanded. Thus, the New Testament was manifestly intended for the whole human race, and at all times; and it was written by men who were inspired by God to teach us His will. But still, their example is not binding per se; that is, we are not under obligation to perform an act, simply because they have done it. Thus, Paul and the other apostles kept the Feast of Pentecost; but this imposes no such obligation upon us. Paul circumcised Timothy; but this imposes no obligation upon us to do likewise: for upon another occasion he did not circumcise Titus. The examples of inspired men in the New Testament would, unless exception be made, prove the lawfulness of an act; but it could by no means establish its obligatoriness.

This principle will include as obligatory, 1. Whatever has been enjoined as the will of God upon man as man, min distinction from what has been enjoined upon men as individuals or as nations. The command may be given us, 1. By God himself, as when he proclaimed his law from Mount Sinai; or, 2. By the Mediator Christ Jesus; or, 3. By any persons divinely commissioned to instruct us in the will of God; as prophets, apostles, or evangelists. This includes, as obligatory on the conscience, simply what is proved to be intended, according to the established principles of interpretation. But it by no means includes any thing which man may infer from what is thus intended. Any idea which man adds to the idea given in the Scriptures, is the idea of man, and has no more obligation on the conscience of his fellow men, than any other idea of man.

But it may be asked, granting that nothing but a Divine command is obligatory on the conscience, yet, as general and particular commandments in the Scriptures are frequently, in a considerable degree, blended together, how may we learn to distinguish that part which is obligatory upon us, from that which is in its nature local and peculiar? In attempting to answer this question, I would suggest, —

That the distinction of nations or individuals is nowhere adverted to in the New Testament. Its instructions are clearly intended for men of all ages and nations; and hence they never involve any thing either local or peculiar, but are universally binding upon all. The question must therefore refer to the Old Testament.

If we confine ourselves, then, to the Old Testament, this question may be decided on the following principles:

1. In by far the greater number of cases, we shall be able to decide, by reference to the nature of the Jewish commonwealth; a temporary or preparatory dispensation, which was to cease when that to which it was preparatory had appeared.

2. The New Testament, being thus intended for the whole human race, and being a final revelation of the will of God to man, may be supposed to contain all the moral precepts, both of natural religion and of the Old Testament, together with whatever else it was important to our salvation that we should know. If, then, a revelation has been made in the Old Testament, which is repeated in the New Testament, we shall be safe in making the later revelation the criterion, by which we shall judge respecting the precepts of the earlier. That is to say, no precept of the Old Testament, which is not either given to man as man, or which is not either repeated, or its obligations acknowledged, under the new dispensation, is binding upon us al the present day. This principle is, I think, avowed, in substance, by the Apostle Paul, in various places in his Epistles. While he repeatedly urges the moral precepts of the Old Testament, as of unchanging obligation, he speaks of every thing else, so far as moral obligation is concerned, as utterly annihilated.

Such, then, are the means afforded to us by our Creator, for acquiring a knowledge of our duty. They are, first, natural religion; second, the Old Testament or a dispensation of law; third, the Gospel, a remedial dispensation, or a dispensation of grace.

The relation existing between our moral power, and these means of moral cultivation, may, I suppose, be stated somewhat as follows:

1. By conscience, we attain a feeling of moral obligation towards the various beings to whom we are related. The elements of this feeling are developed as soon as we come to the knowledge of the existence and attributes of those beings, and the relation in which we stand to them. Such elements are, the feeling of obligation of reciprocity to man, and of universal love and obedience to our Creator.

2. In order to illustrate the relations in which we stand to other beings, created and uncreated, as well as to teach us His character and His will concerning us, God has given us other means of instruction.

1. He has so arranged and governed all the events of this world, as to illustrate His character by His dealings with men; and He has given us powers, by which we may, if we will, acquire the knowledge thus set before us The fact that we may acquire this knowledge of the will of God, and that we are so constituted as to feel that we ought to do the will of God, renders us responsible for obedience to all the light which we may acquire.

2. In the utter failure of this mode of instruction to reclaim men, God has seen fit to reveal His will to us by language. Here the truth is spread before us, without the necessity of induction from a long and previous train of reasoning. This knowledge of the will of God, thus obtained, renders man responsible for the additional light thus communicated.

In the same manner, when this means failed to produce any important moral result, a revelation has been made, instructing us still farther concerning our duties to God, His character and will; and, above all, informing us of a new relation in which the Deity stands to us, and of those new conditions of being under which we are placed And we are, in consequence of our moral constitution, rendered responsible for a conduct corresponding to all this additional moral light, and consequent moral obligation.

Now, if it be remembered that we are under obligations, greater than we call estimate, to obey the will of God, by what manner soever signified, and that we are under obligation, therefore, to obey Him, if he had given us no other intimation of His will, than merely the monition of conscience, unassisted by natural or revealed religion, how greatly must that obligation be increased, when these additional means of information are taken into the account! And, if the guilt of our disobedience be in proportion to the Knowledge of our duty, and if that knowledge of our duty ne so great that we cannot readily conceive how, consistently with the conditions of our being, it could have been greater, we may judge how utterly inexcusable must be every one of our transgressions. Such does the Bible represent to be the actual condition of man; and hence it every where treats him as under a just and awful condemnation; a condemnation from which there is no hope of escape, but by means of the special provisions of a remedial dispensation.

It belongs to theology to treat of the nature of this remedial dispensation. We shall, therefore, attempt no exhibition, either of its character or its provisions, beyond a simple passing remark, to show its connections with our present subject.

The law of God, as revealed in the Scriptures, represents our eternal happiness as attainable upon the simple ground of perfect obedience, and perfect obedience upon the principles already explained. But this, in our present state, is manifestly unattainable. A single sin, both on the ground of its violation of the conditions on which our future happiness was suspended, as well as by the effects which it produces upon our whole subsequent moral character, and our capacity for virtue, renders our loss of happiness inevitable. Even after reformation, our moral attainment must fall short of the requirements of the law of God, and thus present no claim to the Divine favor. For this reason, our salvation is made to depend upon the obedience and merits of another. But we are entitled to hope for salvation upon the ground of the merit of Christ, solely upon the condition of yielding ourselves up in entire obedience to the whole law of God. “He that saith, I know Him, and keepeth not His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” John 2:4. And hence a knowledge of the law of God is of just as great importance to us under a remedial dispensation, as under a dispensation of law; not on the ground that we are to be saved by keeping it without sin; but on the ground that, unless the will of Go be the habitually controlling motive of all our conduct, we are destitute of the elements of that character, to which the blessings of the remedial dispensation are promised. Hence, under the one dispensation, as well as under the other, though on different grounds, the knowledge of the law of God is necessary to our happiness both here and hereafter.