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

Francis Wayland


General Obligation to Supreme Love to God

THE scriptural precept on this subject may be found recorded in various passages. It is in these words: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.” See Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27.

In order to illustrate this precept, I shall consider, first, the relation which exists between us and the Deity; secondly, the rights and obligations which that relation imposes; and, thirdly, the facts in our constitution which show that these are manifestly the law of our being.

I. The relation which exists between God and us.

1. He is our Creator and Preserver. A few years since, and we had no existence. Within a few more years, and this whole system, of which we form a part, had no existence. Over our own existence, neither we, nor any created thing, has any more than the semblance of power. We are upheld in being by the continued act of Omnipotence. Not only we, ourselves, but every faculty which we and which all creatures enjoy, was created, and is continually upheld, by the same Creator. Nor this alone; all the circumstances by which we are surrounded, and all the modifications of external nature, of what sort soever they may be, whether physical, intellectual, social, or moral, are equally created and sustained by God and derive their powers to render us happy, or wise, or good, purely from his provident care, and from the exertion of his omnipotent and omnipresent goodness. The relation, therefore, existing between the Deity and us, is that of dependence, more profound, universal, and absolute, than we are able adequately to comprehend, upon a Being, absolutely and essentially independent, omniscient, omnipotent, and all-providing.

2. The Deity has revealed himself to us, as a Being in whom are united, by the necessity of his existence, every perfection of which the human mind can conceive, and every perfection that can possibly exist, how much soever they may transcend the powers of our conception. To Him belong, from the necessity of His being, almighty power, omniscient wisdom, unchanging veracity, inflexible justice, transcendent purity, illimitable benevolence, and universal love. Not only does He treasure up within Himself all that can be conceived of every perfection, but He is the exhaustless fountain, from which emanates all of these attributes, that exists throughout this wide creation. As every object that we see in nature, is seen only by its reflecting rays of the sun, so every exhibition of goodness which we behold in creatures, is nothing but the reflection of the perfections of Him who is the Father of Lights, with whom is neither variableness nor the shadow of a turning. The relation, therefore, in this respect, which exists between us and the Creator, is that which exists between beings whom He has formed to admire and love all these perfections, and the Uncreated Being, in whom they all exist, in a degree infinitely surpassing all that it is in our power to conceive.

3. This creative power, and this incomprehensible wisdom, have been exerted in obedience to all these transcendent moral perfections, for the production of our best good, our highest temporal and eternal happiness; nay, they have been as fully exerted in behalf of our race, as though there were no other race in existence; and in behalf of each one of us, as though each individual were the only being created, within this illimitable universe. And upon all this exertion of goodness towards us, we have not the semblance of a claim; for God was under no manner of obligation to create us, much less, to create us capable of that happiness which we enjoy. The relation, therefore in this respect, existing between us and the Deity, is that between beings who, without any claim whatever, are, at every moment, receiving the results of the exercise of every conceivable perfection, from a Being who is moved thus to conduct towards them, by nothing but His own independent goodness.

II. From these relations, existing between creatures and the Creator, there arise various rights of the Creator, and various obligations of the creature.

Every one, who will reflect upon this subject, must be convinced, that, inasmuch as these relations are entirely beyond the range of human analogies, and also manifestly beyond the grasp of finite conception, they must involve obligations, in their very nature more profound and universal, than we can adequately comprehend; and that, therefore, no conception of ours can possibly transcend their solemnity and awfulness. As, in our present state, we are so little able to understand them, or even to inquire after them, we see the need of instruction concerning them, from Him, who alone, of all beings that exist, can fathom their depth, or measure their immensity. Let us, therefore, inquire, What are the claims which, in his revealed word, God asserts over us, and what are the obligations which, in his sight, bind us to Him?

1. By virtue of his relation to us as Creator, he asserts over us the right of unlimited possession. Inasmuch as we are his creatures, we are his in the highest and most extensive sense, in which we can conceive of the idea of possession. Neither we ourselves, nor any thing which we seen to possess, are our own. Even our wills are not our own. but he claims that we shall only will precisely what lit wills. Our faculties, of what sort soever, are not our own He claims that, from the commencement of our existence, they be used precisely in the manner, for the purposes. and within the limits, that He shall direct. Not only does God assert this right in his word, but we find that he actually exercises it. Without regard to what we will, He does his pleasure, in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth. He takes from us health, possessions, friends, faculties, life, and He giveth not account of any of his matters. That is, he manifestly acts upon the principle, that He is the Sovereign and rightful Proprietor, both of ourselves, and of all that we seem to ourselves to possess.

And, thus, on the other hand, God asserts that we are all under obligations, greater and more solemn than we can possibly conceive, to render to Him that entire obedience and submission, which his essential right over us render manifestly his due.

This right, and the correspondent obligation, have respect to two classes of duties. The first class, is that which respects simply our relations to him, and which would be obligatory upon us, although each one of us were the only created being in the universe. The second class of duties respects our fellow-creatures. If we could suppose moral creatures to exist without a Creator, there would yet be duties which, from their constitution as moral creatures, they would owe to each other. But, inasmuch as every creature is the creature of God, He has made the duties which they owe to each other, a part of their duty to Him. That is to say, he requires us, who are his creatures, and who are under universal obligations to him, to treat our fellow-creatures, who are also his creatures, and under his protection, in such a manner as he shall direct. He is the Father of us all, and he requires that every one of his children conduct himself towards others, who are also his children, as he shall appoint. And, hence, the duties which are required of us to our fellow-creatures, are required of us under a twofold obligation. First, that arising from our relation to God, and, secondly, that arising from our relation to our fellows. And, hence, there is not a single act which we are under obligation to perform, which we are not also under obligation to perform from the principle of obedience to our Creator. Thus the obligation to act religiously, or piously, extends to the minutest action of our lives, and no action of any sort whatever can be, in the full acceptation of the term, virtuous, that is, be entitled to the praise of God, which does not involve in its motives the temper of filial obedience to the Deity. And still more, as this obligation is infinitely superior to any other that can be conceived, an action performed from the conviction of any other obligation, if this obligation be excluded, fails, in infinitely the most important respect; and must, by the whole amount of this deficiency, expose us to the condemnation of the law of God, whatever that condemnation may be.

And, once more, we are taught, in the Scriptures, that the relation in which we stand to the Deity, places us under such obligations, that, while our whole and uninterrupted service is thus due to God, we can, after it is all performed, in no manner bring him under any obligation to us. This I suppose to be the meaning intended by our Savior, in the parable, Luke 17:7-10: “But which of you, having a servant, (a slave,) ploughing or feeding cattle, will say unto him, by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat; and will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself and serve me, until I have eaten and drunken; and afterwards thou shalt eat and drink? Doth he thank that servant because he hath done the things that were commanded him? I suppose not. So, likewise ye, when ye have done all the things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants, we have done that which was our duty to do.” That is, the obligation of the servant is not fulfilled by doing any one thing, but only by occupying his whole time, and exerting his whole power, to its full extent, in doing whatever is commanded him. And when all this is done, such is the relation between the parties, that he has placed the Master, God, under no obligation; he has only discharged a duty; he has merely paid a debt; nor is it possible, from the nature of the relation, that he should ever do any thing more. Such, I think, every one will acknowledge, upon reflection, to be the relation existing between us and our Creator.

And, hence, we see, that a failure in duty to God. on the part of the creature, must be remediless. At every moment, he is under obligation to the full amount of his ability; and, when this whole amount of obligation is discharged, he has then simply fulfilled his duty. Hence, no act can have any retrospective effect; that is, it cannot supply the deficiencies of any other act. This would be the case, even if his moral powers were not injured by sin. But, if we add this other element, and reflect, that, by sin, our moral powers are permanently injured; that is, our capacity for virtue is diminished, according to the laws of our constitution; by how much more is it evident, that, tinder a system of mere law, a single failure in our duty to God must be of necessity fatal! What shall we then say, of a life, of which every act is, when strictly considered. by confession, a moral failure?

2. God has revealed himself to us as a Being endowed with every attribute of natural and moral excellence; and, in virtue of the relation which, on this account, he sustains to us, a new form of obligation is imposed upon as.

We are evidently formed to love whatever is beautiful, and to admire whatever is great in power, or excellent in wisdom. This is too evident to need illustration. But we are so made as to love and admire still more the cause from which all these emanate. We admire the tragedies of Shakespeare, and the epic of Milton, but how much more the minds in which these works were conceived, and by which they were executed. Now, all that we see in creation, whether of beauty, or loveliness, or grandeur, is the work of the Creator. It all existed in His conceptions, before it existed in fact. Nor this alone. The powers by which we perceive, and are affected by, these exhibitions, all proceed from Him, and both the external qualities and the internal susceptibilities are upheld by his all-sustaining energy. Thus, every feeling of love or of admiration which we exercise, involves, from the constitution of our nature, the obligation to exercise these feelings, in a higher degree towards Him who is the author of all. But, as He is the author, not only of whatever is lovely or glorious that we see, but of all that we have ever seen; not only of all that we have ever seen, but of all that has ever existed; not only of all that has ever existed, but of all that ever can exist; by how much are we under obligation to love Him better than all things else that we know! and by how much more than any individual form of excellence, with which it is possible for us ever to become acquainted.

Again, God reveals himself to us as the possessor of every moral attribute, in infinite perfection. In him are united infinitely more than we or other created beings can conceive, of justice, holiness, mercy, compassion, goodness and truth. Now we are manifestly formed to love and admire actions emanating from such attributes, as they are exhibited on earth, and specially the moral characters of those by whom such actions are performed. We are not only formed to do this, but we are specially formed to do it. We are created with an impulsion to exercise these affections, and we are conscious that it is the highest impulsion of our nature. Now, whatever we see of moral excellence on earth, springs from Him, as its first and original cause. He created the circumstances under which it exists, and created, with all its powers, the being by whom it is displayed. Nor this alone. He possesses, essentially, and in an infinite degree, and without the possibility of imperfection, every moral attribute. If, then, the highest impulsion of our nature teaches us to love and venerate these attributes, even as they are displayed in their imperfection on earth, by how much more are we under obligation to love these attributes, as they are possessed by our Father who is in heaven! If a single act of justice deserves our veneration, how much more should we venerate that justice which has governed this universe without the shadow of a spot, from eternity! If a single act of purity deserves our regard, with what awe should we adore the holiness of Him, in whose sight the heavens are unclean! If a single act of benevolence deserve our love with what affection should we bow before Him, who, from eternity, has been pouring abroad a ceaseless flood of blessedness, over the boundless universe by which He is surrounded!

And yet more, I think it is manifest that we are so constituted as to be under obligations to love such attributes as I have mentioned, entirely aside from the consideration of their connection with ourselves. We admire justice and benevolence in men who existed ages ago, and in countries with which we have no interests in common. And thus these obligations to love and adore these attributes in the Deity, would exist in full force, irrespective of the fact of our receiving any benefit from them. And our Creator might, and justly would, require of us all these affections of which I have spoken, did these moral attributes exist min some other being besides himself. The obligation is sustained upon the simple consideration, that we are constituted such moral beings as we are, and that another Being exists, endowed with attributes, in this particular manner, corresponding to our moral constitution. By how much is this obligation increased, by the consideration that He, in whom these attributes exist, stands to us in the relation of Creator!

3 As, by the constitution of our moral nature, we are under obligation to love whatever is morally excellent, irrespective of any benefit which we may derive from it ourselves, so, when this moral excellence is intentionally the source of happiness to us, we are under the additional obligation to gratitude, or a desire to do something which shall please Him, from whom our happiness has proceeded. This obligation is so manifestly recognized as one of the instinctive impulses of our nature, that, whilst we merely esteem him who acts in obedience to it, the neglect of it, without the exhibition of the positively opposite temper, is always met by the feeling of intense moral reprobation.

Now, since whatever of favor we receive from others, is derived from them merely as second causes, it all originate;, essentially, from the First and All-pervading Cause. Whatever gratitude we feel, therefore, towards creatures, is really, and in the highest possible sense, due to God, from whom it all really emanates.

But how small is that portion of the happiness which we enjoy, which is conferred by the favor of our fellows. Immeasurably the greater part is the direct gift of our Creator. The obligation to gratitude, is in proportion to the amount of benefits conferred, and the disinterestedness of the goodness from which they have proceeded. By these elements, let us estimate the amount of obligation of gratitude to God.

As the Deity is essentially independent of all his creatures, and as He has created us from nothing, and as He has created, also, all the circumstances under which we exist, He can be under no sort of obligation to us, nor can our relation to Him ever be of any other sort, than that of the recipients of favor, which we can by no possibility merit.

Under such circumstances, a sensation of happiness, for a single moment, even if it terminated with that single moment, would be a course for gratitude so long as it could be remembered. How much more, if this form of happiness continued throughout our whole extent of being! The enjoyment of one form of happiness, say of that derived from a single sense, would deserve our gratitude; how much more that derived from all our senses, and specially that derived from the combination of them all! The enjoyment of ever so transient a sensation of intellectual happiness, would deserve our gratitude; how much more that of a permanent constitution, which was a source of perpetual intellectual happiness, and specially a constitution involving a great variety of forms of intellectual happiness! Thus, also, a single emotion of moral happiness would deserve our gratitude; how much more a constitution formed for perpetual moral happiness! And yet more, if these forms of happiness, taken singly, would be each a cause of perpetual and increasing gratitude, how much more a constitution, by which the very relations which they sustain to each other, become a source of additional and increased happiness! Add to this, that the external world is itself adjusted to all these powers and susceptibilities of man, and each adjustment is manifestly intended for our best good. And add to this, that such are the conditions of being under which we are placed, that, if we only use these powers according to the will of God, and to the nature which He has given us, that is, in such a way as to promote our highest happiness here, we shall be advanced to a state of happiness more excellent and glorious than any of which we can conceive; and we shall be fixed in it unchangeably and for ever. Now, if a single act of disinterested goodness, and undeserved favor, deserve our gratitude for ever, what limits can be set to the intensity of that grateful adoration, which should, throughout our whole being, pervade our bosoms, towards Him from whom every blessing is perpetually flowing, in so exhaustless a flood of unfathomable goodness!

Such, then, are the obligations to love and gratitude, which, in addition to that of obedience, we owe to our Creator. But it deserves to be remarked, that these forms of obligation reciprocally involve each other. For if we possess that temper of entire obedience, which springs from a recognition of the universal right of the Creator over us, we shall dedicate our affections to Him, as entirely as our will; that is, we shall love only what he commands, and just as he has commanded; that is, we shall not only do his will, but we shall love to do it, not only on account of what he is in himself, but also on account of what he is and always has been to us. And, on the other hand, if we love his character and attributes as they deserve, we shall love to perform actions which are in harmony with those attributes; that is, which spring from the same dispositions in ourselves. In other words, we shall love to act in perfect accordance with the will of God. And still more, if we are penetrated with a proper conviction of the obligations of gratitude under which we are placed, we shall love to please our Supreme Benefactor; and the only way in which we can do this, is, by implicitly obeying his commands.

It was remarked, in a former part of this work, that happiness consists in the exercise of our sensitiveness upon its appropriate objects. Now, that man has moral sentiments, that is, that he is formed to derive happiness from the contemplation of moral qualities, and specially from the love of those beings in whom these moral qualities reside, is too evident to need argument. It is also evident, that this is the highest and most exalted form of happiness of which he is susceptible. But created beings, and the moral qualities of created beings, are not the objects adapted to his moral sensitiveness. This power of our being, finds its appropriate object in nothing less than in supreme, and unlimited, and infinite moral perfection. And yet more, the moral susceptibility of happiness expands by exercise and the uncreated object to which it is directed, is, by necessity, unchangeable, eternal and infinite. A provision is thus made for the happiness of man, eternal and illimitable; that is to say, not only is it evident, from the constitution of man, that he is made to love God, but also that he is made to love Him infinitely more than any thing else; to be happier from loving Him than from loving any thing else; and, also, to be more and more intensely happy, from loving Him, throughout eternity.

Thus, in general, from the relations which we sustain to God, we are under more imperative obligations than we are able. conceive, to exercise towards him that temper of heart, which is, perhaps, in the language of men, best expressed by the term, a filial disposition; that is, a disposition to universal obedience, pervaded by the spirit of supreme and grateful affection. This temper of heart is that generically denominated in the Scriptures, faith. In the New Testament, it is somewhat modified by the relations in which we stand to God, in consequence of the provisions of the remedial dispensation.

Now, all these dispositions would be required of us, if we were sinless beings, and possibly no others would be required. The same are manifestly our duty, after we have sinned; for our sin changes neither the character of God, nor His claim upon our obedience and affection. A child who has done wrong, is not under any the less imperative obligation to exercise a filial disposition towards a parent. But, suppose a creature to have sinned, it is manifest, that he would be under obligations to exercise another moral disposition. He ought to regret his fault, not on account of its consequences to himself, but on account of the violation of moral obligation, which is the essence of its guiltiness. Acknowledging its utter wrongfulness, justifying God, and taking all the blame of his act upon himself, he ought to hate his own act, and from such feelings to the act, as well as from the temper of filial obedience to God, commence a life of moral purity. Such is repentance. This is the temper of heart, which the Scriptures teach us, that God requires of us as sinners.

1.1. Such, then, is the obligation under which, by our creation, we stand to God. It would be easy to show that this is the only principle of action suited to our nature under the present constitution.

For, 1. As we live under a constitution of law, that is, tinder which every action is amenable to law, and since to every action is affixed, by omnipotent power and unsearchable wisdom, rewards or punishments, both in this life and also in the other, and, as these consequences can, by To power of ours, be severed from the action, it is manifest that we can attain to happiness, and escape from misery only by perfectly obeying the will of our Creator. An yet more, since we are creatures, endowed with will, and the power of choice, we never can be completely happy, unless we act as we choose; that is, unless we obey because we love to obey. Hence, from the elements of our constitution, it is evident, we can be happy on no other principles than those of perfect obedience to God, and obedience emanating from, and pervaded by, love.

2. The same truth is evident, from a consideration of the relations which every individual sustains to the whole race of man. It manifestly enters into the constitution under which we exist, that every individual shall have a power over society, both for good and for evil, so far as we can see, in its nature illimitable. That such is the fact will be evident to every one who will reflect for a moment upon the results emanating from the lives of St. Paul, Luther, Howard, Clarkson, or Wilberforce; and of Alexander, Julius Caesar, Voltaire, Lord Byron, or Napoleon. Now, it is only necessary to recollect, that the being, possessed of this power, is by nature utterly ignorant of the future; wholly incapable, even during life, and much more after death, of controlling and directing the consequences of his actions; and still more, that he is fallible, that is, liable not only to err from ignorance, but also from a wrong moral bias; and we must be convinced that the exercise of this power could never be safe for his fellows, unless it were under the supreme direction of a Being who knew the end from the beginning, and who was by his very nature incapable of wrong.

From what has been said, it will follow, that our duty to God forbids, —

1. Idolatry, that is, rendering divine homage to any other being than the Deity.

2. Rendering obedience to any creature, in opposition to the will of the Creator.

3. Yielding obedience to our own will, or gratifying our own desires, in opposition to His will.

4. Loving any thing which He has forbidden.

5. Loving any thing which He has allowed us to love, in a manner and to a degree that He has forbidden.

6. Loving any thing created in preference to Him.

Each of these topics is susceptible of extended illustration. As, however, they are discussed in full in works on theology, to which science they more particularly belong, we shall leave them with this simple enumeration.

In treating of the remainder of this subject, we shall, therefore, consider only the means by which the love of God, or piety, may be cultivated. These are three: 1st. A spirit of devotion. 2d. Prayer. 3d. The observance of the Sabbath.