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Letter and Spirit: a Discourse on Modern Philosophical Spiritualism, in its Relation to Christianity. Robert Vaughan, D.D. London: 1849.


THIS discourse was delivered before the ministers and delegates of the Congregational Union. The audience was choice; the subject, great; the preacher, eminent: and the hearer,-still more, the reader,-might reasonably expect a thoughtful contribution towards the settlement of a deep and intricate question. He will be disappointed. Should he already be in Dr. Vaughan's state of mind,-alarmed at the freedom with which the outward authority of Scripture is often treated, and startled by the tones of a Christian piety apart from the reputed essentials of Christian dogma,-he will find vigorous expression here given to his own disturbed feelings and offended attachments. Should he, on the other hand, be in any sympathy with Theodore Parker or Francis Newman, or even J. D. Morell, he will experience the peculiar style of cruel candour distinctive of pulpit polemics; being first mildly coaxed into the preacher's hands, and then sharply beaten. But should he be an earnest thinker, needing real guidance between these two directions, he will receive no help, unless he can extract it from this riddle, which contains the substance of the sermon, that he must take both paths, and for that end never quit the preacher's one. "You must believe nothing against the spirit: you must believe everything according to the letter: which may be easily done, by just accepting the letter as the rule for the spirit."

The object of Dr. Vaughan is to counteract the influence of the writers just named, by assailing a position common to them all, viz. that we are "to subject everything religion may be supposed to include, to the test of an intuitive susceptibility or power of the mind, which, quite apart from the ordinary lights of the understanding, is held to be our great denominator in respect to all religious truth, and all certainty in relation to it." This "dreamy theory" (the "Religion of the Spirit") he reCHRISTIAN TEACHER.-No. 48.


gards as an extravagant reaction against the "Religion of the Letter,"-the "superstition which looks more to documents, institutions, observances, than to any of those realities which are among the necessary elements of an inward and spiritual life." He undertakes to weigh the good and evil of both these opposite tendencies, and to find the point of equilibrium where they combine in a partnership of wisdom.

If Dr. Vaughan had fulfilled this promise; if he had adjusted the claims of the inward Soul and the outward Book; if he had shown how the one is to be the judge without ceasing to be the disciple of the other,—to impose on it conditions and yet be ruled by it as a law; he would have relieved the religion of the age from one of its most oppressive embarrassments. The problem is in truth the ecclesiastical form of the great struggle between Idealism and Realism,-between the rights of subjective consciousness and those of objective tuition. As, in the doctrine of Perception, the question is raised, whether the mind spontaneously provides Space as a condition for apprehending Body, or from experience of Body learns the lessons of Space; as, in the logic of the natural Sciences, it is doubted, whether our thought throws out the law of Causation upon phenomena, or gathers it from them; as, in ethical Philosophy, there is a controversy, whether the sense of Obligation indigenously springs from reflection on Our own acts, or is imported into us by observation of the acts of others :-so, in Religion it is asked, how far the native faiths of our purer mind are to bear authority, and how far we are dependent on the historical testimony of physical miracle, and the propositions of a verbal revelation. This last question cannot be discussed, any more than the others, without carrying the research pretty deep into the constitution of human nature, so as to determine the precise relation of the faculties to one another and of all to their outward opportunities. Whoever contends for intuitive apprehensions of divine truth supposes the mind spontaneously active; whoever denies them, conceives of it as merely receptive. He who never doubts a faith to be true which he feels to be holy, places his understanding at the disposal of moral sentiment and affection: while he who cannot own

it as holy till witnesses have proved it to be true, postpones the suggestions of conscience to the intellectual estimate of probabilities. A different conception of the mind's action, and a different ranking of its several powers, evidently lie at the bases of these contrasted theories; and a discussion which does not sink to these foundations must remain without result; superficially exhibiting an antipathy which it cannot radically resolve. Our author's unconsciousness of this renders his whole treatment of his subject loose and unsatisfactory.

The very problem on which he is engaged is so unsteadily conceived as to fluctuate with almost every statement. The antithesis of "letter and spirit" is employed chiefly to contrast intuitive with testimonial authority in matters of religion; and the rivalry between these two sources or antecedents of faith is the main topic of discussion. But on one page (p. 1) "the letter" is defined to mean "the truth which our Lord taught," and "the spirit" to be "that condition of our spiritual nature which is the natural result of Christian truth." On another (p. 5), "the letter" becomes "the Church system to which a man has given his adhesion;""the spirit,"-"the character he has realized." On a third (p. 6) the opposition lies between "the form of godliness" and "the power of it." On a fourth (p. 10)" the state of a man's soul towards the object of religion" is given as the true definition of the word "spirit:" "this," we are told, “is our Lord's meaning in the text" (John vi. 63); yet is not "its strictly evangelical signification!" In short, the preacher's ideas, directed only by the metaphor of his text, visit irregularly anything to which that metaphor applies; contrasting now the Pharisee and the Mystic; and now opposing orthodoxy to deism. Habitually he employs the word "spirit" to denote the moral affections produced by faith; and not, as his argument requires, the moral affections producing it. A thesis thus inconstant forbids all durable result.

And even where the question under consideration is rightly presented, the method adopted for its determination can produce no conviction. Recourse is had exclusively to the argument of promise and threat: the reader is to be frightened or enticed into his conclusions

by a picture of what must become of him, if he will not believe according to the approved pattern. "Beware how you trust to any moral and spiritual evidence, or you will find yourself a Deist! Let nothing slip from the authenticity and infallibility of Scripture, or your Christianity is gone!" It may be so: but how does this help me to any new light, or resolve any devout scruple? As well, and with injury scarcely more coarse, might you urge; "Take heed how you believe about the Atonement, or you will lose your salary! Think discreetly on the matter of religious education, or your party will disown you!" The sanctified and conscious effrontery with which the Tractarians have pressed this meanest of arguments can surprise no one who knows the contempt with which they regard human nature, and their despair of attaining objective truth. But such a weapon is too vulgar for such a hand as Dr. Vaughan's; and we are astonished that he condescends to touch it. Is our faith then without positive grounds, that we must be hunted into it as a mere refuge from worse evils? Are there no first truths in religion, to which our schemes may be referred for legitimation, and our errors for detection? Or are we to determine our position by shrinking and avoidance, to believe by repulsion, to worship by fear? We confess to an abhorrence,-instinctive or otherwise,of this argument from consequences: we believe the resort to it to be an infallible mark of a sceptical age: and no conservative airs can beguile us from the persuasion that, where it is used, the orthodoxy which it defends has become an empty habitude, and the root of genuine faith been cut. Whoever applies to us such an instrument of conversion not only fails to convince us, but makes us aware that he is unconvinced himself. This may easily be without any moral insincerity. The stages through which an age or an individual mind passes in a change of faith are gradual, and many of them unconscious of their tendency; and the appeal to consequences, so habitual in the present day, is one of the last struggles of a yet possible sincerity.

This impression is not removed, when we attempt to define from this Discourse Dr. Vaughan's own theological position, in relation to the question of internal and ex

ternal authority in religion. He appears to us not to know clearly where he stands; but to say and unsay, to concede and retract; to attack opponents for propositions indistinguishable from his own; and applaud doctrines at variance with the data he supplies. For instance: he says,—

"We readily admit that there are certain religious ideas and sentiments that may be said to be common to the race, and that will perish only as man shall perish. These ideas, and the impulses natural to them, have their place at the root of all religion

In a word, it is not more clear that man was born to see the light and breathe the air, than that he was born to be religious. But if this be true, it cannot belong to revealed religion_to_contravene these tendencies, or to act independently of them. It may be a part of its office to correct and elevate them, but it must be itself in substantial agreement with them-must, in fact, be founded upon them. We go one step further, as consequent on this admission. It is not enough that documents, regarded as containing a revelation, should be to all appearance genuine; the contents of the supposed revelation must not be at variance with the moral nature of man, rightly interpreted, nor with the known facts of the divine government. This distinction between the external and the internal proofs of Christianity is old as the literature of Christian evidence; and we are not disposed to attempt any vindication of the language employed by some eminent orthodox disputants in which they seem wholly to overlook this fact. It is not true, in our humble judgment, that the authority of the documents being once settled, in so far as the moral evidence derivable from history may be expected to settle it, we have henceforth nothing to do but to receive the contents of the documents unhesitatingly, however much at issue they may seem to be with what may be known of the Divine nature through other channels, or with what we feel to be the unalterable laws of our own nature. On the contrary, we have to do, as responsible agents, with the matter of which a supposed revelation may consist, as certainly as with the evidence by which may be attested."-P. 10-12.


Now if this concession means anything, it surely allows that the moral sentiments are to be used upon the contents of a supposed revelation, in the same way as the understanding upon the sources of its documents; and that as the latter is competent to test the extrinsic evidence, the former is no less "certainly" competent to

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