Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The New and the Old Commandment
By Noah Porter (18111892)
[Fifteen Years in the Chapel of Yale College. 1888.]
CHRISTIANITY, both as a law and force, has the capacity and promise of a progressive renewal in the future. It has the capacity for constant development and progress. It can never be outgrown, because its principles are capable of being applied to every exigency of human speculation and action. It can never be dispensed with, because man can never be independent of God, the living God; and in the fierce trials which are yet before him, he may find greater need than ever of God as revealed in Christ. That such trials are to come, we do not doubt. We cannot predict what new strains are to be brought upon our individual or social life. There are signs that the bonds of faith and reverence, of order and decency, of kindliness and affection, which have so long held men together, are to be weakened, perhaps withered, by the dry-rot of confident and conceited speculation, or consumed by the fire of human passion. It is not impossible that society may be convulsed by the heaving earthquake from beneath, or the whirling tornado from the air. We cannot tell to what new forms of questioning the received truths of faith may be subjected, or how far speculation and history and criticism may lead to new interpretations of nature and Christ and human duty. But this much we do know,that every change through which Christianity has been conducted in the past has served to bring out in bolder relief and brighter radiance the great verities that from the first have been esteemed as the essentials of Christian truth and duty. Old formulas of doctrine have indeed been more or less modified, or have received new interpretations. History and criticism have thrown a glare of new light upon the Scriptures, which has been sometimes so bright as to expose strange and unexpected shadows. Science has penetrated the constitution of nature, and unrolled the mysterious pages of its history, and started many as yet unanswered questions in respect to the mutual relations of matter and spirit, of nature and of God. But man remains the same in his nature, his needs, and his duties, in his weakness and strength, in his hopes and his fears, and therefore the old religion stands.
The old commandment has been continually renewing its life by new developments and new interpretations, by new illustrations and new applications, and yet it is the same old commandment still. The newest science, the newest criticism, the newest forms of practical ethics, the newest political wisdom, in one way or other reaffirm the law originally written on the human heart, the law reaffirmed by Moses, the grace and truth that came by Jesus Christ. We believe that in the future, whether our progress is to be in sunshine or in storm, whether it is to be by discussion in the closet and the forum, or by strife on the battlefield of civil or social war, whether the new lessons are to be gently distilled as the dew, or revealed by lightning and tempest, men are continually to renew their convictions in the great truths which God upholds by his power, and Christ was revealed to enforce,the personal responsibility and freedom of man, the sacredness of human duty, the nearness of man to God, the certainty and awfulness, the reasonableness and equity, of future retribution, the excellence of the life that Christ has exemplified, and the assured triumphs of the kingdom of light.
But we also believe, that as men shall be more and more assured of these common truths, and be more concerned with their application to the lives of their fellow-men; as they are more entranced with a deepening and glowing love for the living and the loving Christ; as they become more generous, tolerant, and loving,they will enlarge their knowledge of the manifold applications of Christian truth and duty. While these, the old foundations, will remain unchanged, new structures of beauty and of state will rise, such as the world has never dreamed of, in the philosophy, the literature, the art, the manners, the politics, the trade, which Christianity shall transfigure by its enlightened and loving spirit, and employ in nobler uses, and electrify with resistless energy .
These truths are not unfamiliar to your thoughts. The questions which I have endeavored to answer spring into the minds of all thinking men at the present time. They force themselves upon the attention of all who are conversant with the course of speculation now abroad in the world. Development and progress are the watchwords of the hour. In science and letters, in every field of research and of culture, the demand is for something new, and the supply as constantly meets the demand. So many new and startling speculations have of late been accepted, and so many old and venerable theories displaced in the most solid minds, while history and criticism have as frequently defended such surprising conclusions, that it is not unnatural that the student who is introduced suddenly to this imposing array of novel speculations, and confronted with the confident asseverations of brilliant theorists, should ask in earnest and sad misgiving, Is everything old to go which men have trusted? Must theism be abandoned because it is antiquated, and Christ be denied because the time-spirit can no longer find occasion for him? Is human personality dissolved by the last analysis? Has the conscience which makes cowards of us all been itself frightened away at the last word of the comparative physiologist? Is morality only a sentiment, and this the changing product of habit and environment? Are worship and prayer and natural piety to dry up or die out of the soul under the keen and searching eyes of science and criticism? On the other hand, if we believe, must we accept a formulated tradition, or a stiff and scholastic dogma, or an unnatural morality? Did the living God speak from Sinai thousands of years ago, and has nothing new been commanded, or can nothing new be inferred as to his will? Did Christ exhaust the limits of the code of practical morality in the exact words which He uttered, leaving nothing to be inferred in respect to special duties in the broad light of the rich and manifold experiences of modern life, and the complicated structures of modern society?
To these and all questions like them, I have endeavored on this occasion to furnish a comprehensive answer. God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. This is as pertinent to living truths as to living souls. Christ declares of himself, I make all things new. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending. The darkness is past, and the true light now shineth.
Go forth into life, carrying with you the firm conviction that faith in God and duty, in Christ and his cause, is not only justified, but required by the most liberal and the profoundest philosophy. Suspect of haste and charlatanism all those conclusions which are at war with the old humanities and the venerable faiths on which Christendom has stood so solidly for centuries, and through which men have prayed and worshipped and done heroic service for these several generations. Be assured also that these faiths are not dead traditions, but living germs which are capable of growth and expansion, and of varied adaptation to every demand of human experience.