Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
The Limits of Moral Reason
By Henry Longueville Mansel (1820–1871)
From The Limits of Religious Thought Examined

THE SAME argument from analogy is indeed applicable to every one of the difficulties which rationalism professes to discover in the revealed ways of God’s dealings with man. The fall of Adam and the inherited corruption of his posterity find their parallel in the liability to sin which remains unextinguished throughout man’s moral progress; and in that mysterious, though certain dispensation of Providence, which ordains that not only bodily taints and infirmities, but even moral dispositions and tendencies, should in many instances descend from father to son; and which permits the child of sinful parents to be depraved by evil example, before he knows how, by his own reason, clearly to discern between right and wrong; before he has strength of his own will, to refuse the evil and choose the good. There is a parallel too in that strange yet too familiar fact, of vice persisted in, with the clearest and strongest conviction of its viciousness and wretchedness: and the scepticism which denies that man, if created sinless, could so easily have fallen from innocence, finds its philosophical counterpart in the paradox of the ancient moralist, who maintained that conscious sin is impossible, because nothing can be stronger than knowledge. Justification by faith through the merits of Christ is at least in harmony with that course of things established by Divine Providence in this world, in which so many benefits which we cannot procure for ourselves or deserve by any merit of our own are obtained for us by the instrumentality of others; and in which we are so often compelled, as an indispensable condition of obtaining the benefit, to trust in the power and goodwill of those whom we have never tried, and to believe in the efficacy of means whose manner of working we know not. The operations of Divine grace, influencing, yet not necessitating, the movements of the human soul, find their corresponding fact and their corresponding mystery in the determinations of the will;—in that freedom to do or leave undone, so certain in fact, so inexplicable in theory, which consists neither in absolute indifference nor in absolute subjection; which is acted upon and influenced by motives, yet in its turn acts upon and controls their influences, prevented by them, and yet working with them. But it is unnecessary to pursue further an argument which, in all its essential features, has already been fully exhibited by a philosopher whose profound and searching wisdom has answered by anticipation nearly every cavil of the latest form of rationalism, no less than those of his own day. We may add here and there a detail of application, as the exigencies of controversy may suggest; but the principle of the whole, and its most important consequences, have been established and worked out more than a century ago, in the unanswerable argument of Butler.
  The warning which his great work contains against “that idle and not very innocent employment of forming imaginary models of a world, and schemes of governing it,” is as necessary now as then, as applicable to moral as to speculative theories. Neither with regard to the physical nor to the moral world, is man capable of constructing a cosmogony; and those Babels of reason which philosophy has built for itself, under the names of rational theories of religion, and criticisms of every revelation, are but the successors of those elder children of chaos and night, which, with no greater knowledge, but with less presumption, sought to describe the generation of the visible universe. It is no disparagement of the value and authority of the moral reason in its regulative capacity, within its proper sphere of human action, if we refuse to exalt it to the measure and standard of the absolute and infinite goodness of God. The very philosopher whose writings have most contributed to establish the supreme authority of conscience in man, is also the one who has pointed out most clearly the existence of analogous moral difficulties in nature and in religion, and the true answer to both,—the admission that God’s government, natural as well as spiritual, is a scheme imperfectly comprehended.  2
  In His moral attributes, no less than in the rest of His infinite Being, God’s judgments are unsearchable, and His ways past finding out. While He manifests Himself clearly as a moral governor and legislator, by the witness of the moral law which He has established in the hearts of men, we cannot help feeling, at the same time, that that law, grand as it is, is no measure of His grandeur, that He Himself is beyond it, though not opposed to it, distinct, though not alien from it. We feel that He who planted in man’s conscience that stern unyielding imperative of duty, must Himself be true and righteous altogether; that He from Whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed, must Himself be more holy, more good, more just than these. But when we try to realise in thought this sure conviction of our faith, we find that here, as everywhere, the finite cannot fathom the infinite, that, while in our hearts we believe, yet our thoughts at times are sore troubled. It is consonant to the whole analogy of our earthly state of trial, that, in this as in other features of God’s providence, we should meet with things impossible to understand and difficult to believe; by which reason is baffled and faith tried;—acts whose purpose we see not; dispensations whose wisdom is above us; thoughts which are not our thoughts, and ways which are not our ways. In these things we hear, as it were, the same loving voice which spoke to the wondering disciple of old: “What I do, thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.” The luminary by whose influence the ebb and flow of man’s moral being is regulated, moves around and along with man’s little world, in a regular and bounded orbit: one side, and one side only, looks downwards upon its earthly centre; the other, which we see not, is ever turned upwards to the all-surrounding Infinite. And those tides have their seasons of rise and fall, their places of strength and weakness; and that light waxes and wanes with the growth or decay of man’s mental and moral and religious culture; and its borrowed rays seem at times to shine as with their own lustre, in rivalry, even in opposition, to the source from which they emanate. Yet is that light still but a faint and partial reflection of the hidden glories of the Sun of Righteousness, waiting but the brighter illumination of His presence, to fade and be swallowed up in the full blaze of the heaven kindling around it;—not cast down indeed from its orbit, nor shorn of its true brightness and influence, but still felt and acknowledged in its real existence and power, in the memory of the past discipline, in the product of the present perfectness,—though now distinct no more, but vanishing from sight, to be made one with the glory that beams from the “Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”  3

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