REV. EDWARD ARTHUR LITTON, M.A.
VICE-PRINCIPAL OF ST. EDMUND HALL,
LATE FELLOW OF ORIEL COLLEGE, OXFORD.
W. GRAHAM, HIGH STREET;
T. HATCHARD, PICCADILLY, LONDON.
THE occasion which has summoned us together has frequently been devoted to pronouncing fulsome panegyrics, or indiscriminate censure, upon the chief characters which figured in the contests, political and religious, of the seventeenth century., Time, the great healer of social as well as personal differences, a more enlarged and impartial view of the history of the period referred to, and the sentiments proper to a milder age, have all combined to bring into disuse this line of discourse; and to recommend to us, in preference, to dwell upon the lessons of warning and instruction, which the errors or the virtues of our forefathers are calculated to furnish. Indeed, if these commemorative days were only made use of to re-open old wounds, to keep alive the dying embers of political and religious strife, and the memory of crimes which had best be buried in oblivion, or to laud and magnify ourselves at the expense of all other bodies of Christians, we might well desire their discontinuance; for, under such an aspect, they could hardly be said to tend to edification. Edifying they can only, and they do, become, [3/4] when they direct our attention to the gracious Providence of God, eliciting good from evil, and overruling all things to the ultimate welfare of his Church--for when the errors of a past age, errors into which we ourselves, had we lived in those times, should probably have fallen, are made beacon-lights to warn us from a course which experience has shewn to be dangerous. Approaching the subject in this spirit, we may be thankful that opportunities like the present are afforded us, and we may expect, always in dependence on Him whose gracious aid is vouchsafed in answer to prayer, a blessing on our meditations.
The causes which led to the catastrophe which we this day commemorate, were evidently of a twofold character, political, and religious; and it is hard to say which contributed most to it. For if the primary and ostensible cause of the civil war was, on the one hand, an undue stretching of the royal prerogative which naturally led to a violent reaction on the other side, both parties, in turn, transgressing the boundaries of the law; so these political differences were aggravated by others purely religious, and theological rancour lent its aid to fan the flame. The term Puritan denoted, at once, one who opposed the arbitrary measures of the Court, and one who held religious views not consonant with those of the Hierarchy; and in like manner, attachment to the cause of the King, and attachment to Episcopacy, became [4/5] almost synonymous terms. Thus, political and religious prejudices combined together to create a more determined opposition between the two parties, the compound, as sometimes happens, possessing noxious qualities of its own. The Royalist recoiled the further from the constitutional party, because it was associated in his mind with Puritanism; and the assertor of the liberties of the subject declaimed with the greater vehemence against the Crown and its adherents, because they were to him the representatives of religious tendencies which he disliked. No wonder that the final explosion was so violent, and the breach so difficult to be repaired.
On the political antecedents to the rupture between the King and his people, it is not my purpose to enlarge. The occasion seems rather to invite our attention to its religious aspect; to examine whether any, and if so what, great principles of the new dispensation were forgotten and infringed on both sides, and so disorder and division introduced amongst those who professed to hold the one Head Christ, and who, at one period at least, were members of the same visible Church. The history of the times in question seems plainly to teach us, that the error of each party, in turn, was that of substituting the letter for the spirit; of identifying the kingdom of Christ upon earth with its outward and temporary forms; of transmuting the Gospel into a new law, after the pattern of that [5/6] of Moses; and so attaching a primary importance, and a false signification, to things, which, as compared with the internal characteristics of Christ's kingdom, the presence of the Holy Spirit evidencing itself in righteousness, peace, and spiritual joy, can never occupy other than a subordinate position.
Before we point out how this error was successively fallen into by the contending parties, let us consider, for a few minutes, what the Apostle, in the chapter before us, teaches us on the subject. He is comparing the dispensation of the Law and the Gospel in their spirit and their tendency, with the view of pointing out the superiority of the latter. This superiority consists in two points: the Law, by convincing of sin, without at the same time revealing an adequate atonement, was a ministry of condemnation; it brought and it left guilt upon the conscience: the Gospel, taking up the believer where the Law leaves him, discloses an all-sufficient Saviour, by faith in whom guilt is removed and peace restored. Again, the Law, considered in itself, and without reference to the subsequent expositions of prophecy, was a system of the letter, of literal prescriptions and carnal ordinances, imperfectly at the time understood; whereas the Gospel is a system of the Spirit, a system which presupposes a rectified will, presupposes a maturity of spiritual understanding which no longer needs the artificial fences of the earlier system, [6/7] but is sufficiently guided by its own sanctified instincts, and general rules of practice. The Law therefore, not merely from its offering no sufficient atonement for sin, but from its heavy yoke of literal prescriptions and its burdensome ritual, gendered to bondage; produced an anxious, scrupulous, slavish, though not untrue or impure, cast of religion: the Gospel, besides relieving the conscience from guilty fears, and conferring the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba Father, treats the Christian as a man, and no longer a child, in spiritual discernment; appeals to the inner sentiment of religion, now supposed to be, by the indwelling of the Spirit, brought to some degree of ripeness; for literal enactments gives principles of action; reasons and expostulates, entreats and exhorts; bids us use the means at hand to discover the will of the Lord, and prove what is acceptable to him; abolishes the cumbrous ceremonial of the preparatory dispensation, and reduces the social worship of God to the simplest elements, the bare conditions under which it can be social and visible, declaring that to worship God in spirit and in truth, as distinguished from letter and symbol, is the great essential; and instead of making religion an outward framework, which encircles the man without pervading himself and his life, makes it the natural element in which he lives, the spontaneous emanation of the new creation within. "Where the Spirit of the Lord [7/8] is," under the present spiritual dispensation, "there is liberty."
Such we believe to be the import of this important passage. If we have interpreted it aright, it will be evident that the opposition intimated between the Law and the Gospel is not merely one of degree; as if Christianity only offered a larger measure of the Spirit than was vouchsafed under the Law, or the ceremonial of Christ is only less burdensome and intricate than that of Moses; but one of kind: the two systems differ in their principles, their mode of working, their ultimate object. The Law aimed at impressing upon the Jew, as the mould impresses its figure on the passive clay, certain habits of thought and of feeling, and therefore it behoved that its ceremonial should be rigidly defined, and appeal largely to sense. The material must be inflexible, incapable of expansion or contraction, so as closely and firmly to embrace the religious life. Moreover, it was but imperfectly, perhaps by the earlier Jews not at all, understood; who then could venture to omit, or change, any the minutest particular of the prescribed form, when he could not tell but that it was an essential with which he was dealing? The Gospel, on the other hand, professes not to work upon man, in this way, from without inward, but in the reverse order: assuming the existence of spiritual life, and spiritual understanding, it aims at cultivating these, and drawing them forth into [8/9] function of life and detail of practice. Its ritual is, not the forming instrument, but the expression, of the life within, and apart from the presumption of that life loses all its value. Christian believers assemble for social prayer, or celebrate the Lord's Supper, not to make themselves believers, but because they are so, and because these are the natural, though at the same time divinely appointed, vehicles of expressing, and cherishing, their faith. The few and simple ordinances of the Gospel are understood by Christians, so far as any religious mysteries can be understood: we know why we baptize, and celebrate the Communion; we know the import of these ordinances, and the great truths they symbolize and commemorate. And because Christians are supposed to be no longer children but men, because the polity and ritual of the Church is not, as was the case with the Levitical system, of its essence, therefore much is left undefined, and to be supplied according to the usages of time, country, and national character. Thus in relation to the two Sacraments, we know that Baptism and the Lord's Supper are to be administered in all Christian Churches: but whether any particular order of Ministers alone has authority to administer them; whether a Liturgical formulary is to be used or not; what the dress of the officiating Minister should be; where the font or the table should be placed; what should be the posture of the recipients; upon [9/10] these, and the like points, no law can be found in the New Testament Scriptures. Christianity, intent upon the weighty matters of repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ, treats such questions as childish; appropriate to the preparatory discipline of Moses, but out of place in a religion of spirit and of truth. So as regards polity; Apostolic precedents we have to guide us, but still no law; no covenanted connexion of grace with any particular form of ecclesiastical organization, or devolution of ministerial function; nothing which would lead us to suppose that the Church cannot exist save under one particular type of polity. Christianity, the same every where in essentials;--declaring no other name whereby men can be saved but that of Christ, calling on all men to accept the offers of salvation, evidencing itself in all by the same Christian experience, conviction of sin, faith, hope, and love, and bringing forth in all who embrace it with the heart the same fruits of the Spirit, though in different measure;--the same, I say, every where and in all ages in these essential points, possesses, as regards its outward equipments, a plastic power, which enables it, to a certain extent, to become all things to all men, to fall in with national temperament, with the changing aspects of society, with the varieties of political and social culture that exist in successive ages.
In short, we conceive the passage to express [10/11] the great principle, recovered and so emphatically enunciated at the Reformation, that "the Gospel is not a ceremonial law." "I will put my law in their hearts, and write it in their minds," is the word of prophecy in reference to the new dispensation. The religion of the New Testament is not primarily a ceremonial system, or a system of positive precepts, but a life in Christ, which, sanctifying first the inner man, issues afterwards in the fulfilling of the law in its interior and most comprehensive import.
If we may judge from the course which things have taken from the first, it is not without difficulty that this principle succeeds in obtaining full recognition. The temptation to the Church has ever been, to make her true being consist not in what is inward, and therefore alone substantial and permanent; but in what is outward, and therefore accidental and transitory. Such was the transformation of sentiment that took place soon after the last of the Apostles had been taken to his reward. Having succeeded, by force of the organizing spirit within, in producing remarkable results as regards the extension of her polity, and the development of her ritual, the Church began to confound the effect with the cause; to lose sight of the relative importance of what in her is inward and what is outward; to attach an independent value to what is comparatively valueless, unless regarded as the manifestation of the hidden presence of the [11/12] Spirit. She began to seek her essential unity, not in the unity of the Spirit, but in visible uniformity, and visible intercommunion of her several parts; she began to attribute a divine origin, and a mystical virtue to what was but ecclesiastical custom, most clearly introduced by man. Liturgies, and Constitutions, bearing the indubitable marks of a later date, were assigned to Apostles, in order to give them greater authority. A system of symbolism, incompatible with a clear recognition of the truth, that Christ has come and is present in His Church, and therefore shadow and symbol, the appropriate instruments of the Mosaic teaching, have passed away, was introduced. Thus things went on, until at length it required a mighty religious revolution, and special instruments, to disinter the buried Gospel, and to proclaim once more to the burdened Christian, that while the law "came by Moses, grace and truth have come by Jesus Christ."
The Church might, without falling into this error, have attached its due place and its due importance to her outward system. For in truth she does, and in a healthy state must, present herself under two legitimate aspects. Essentially, and before she is any thing else, she is, as on the day of Pentecost, her birth-day, a company of men filled with the Holy Ghost; there is her essential characteristic, her true specific difference, which distinguishes her from other [12/13] societies. It is only by degrees, and in the lapse of time, that she becomes visibly organized: first, deacons are appointed, then presbyters, and last bishops. So as regards public worship. The infant Church assembled in the upper chamber to pour out, in prayer and praise, the unpremeditated effusions of the sanctified heart; Christians broke bread from house to house with gladness and singleness of heart: these comprise all the notices we have of the very earliest mode of Christian worship. The Church, in these the first days of its existence, was not, primarily, a visibly organized body, whether episcopal or presbyterian; hers was not, primarily, a liturgical, ceremonial system; but, as we have said, she was simply a company of men filled with the Holy Ghost, with the Apostles at their head. But, of course, things could not remain in this rudimentary state. As the Christian society increased in numbers, it could no longer enjoy the personal superintendence of the Apostles; therefore different orders of inferior ministers were, one after another, appointed. Among the multitudes who joined themselves to the Church, there were all degrees of mental culture, and spiritual prayer; it became necessary, therefore, (in order to defend the Sacraments from profanation,) to make distinctions, to erect barriers. Catechumens appear under instruction, but are not as yet admitted to the full privileges of the Church. Heresies and errors arise; creeds therefore make their appearance. [13/14] The public devotions of the Christian body can no longer be safely trusted to unpremeditated efforts, therefore liturgies are framed. Besides this, the first extraordinary, animating, uniting influence of the Spirit, subsides into His more ordinary mode of operation; the Christian body itself loses somewhat of its primitive warmth and purity; and it becomes necessary to supply, as far as is possible, the failure, by embodying the inner sentiment in an outward framework of protection. When the mass begins to cool, chrystallization naturally commences. All this was a perfectly natural, nay inevitable, course of things; the results were legitimate, and in many points praiseworthy: where then, it may be asked, was the error, the fatal error? Not in the things themselves, but in the place they were made to assume in the Christian economy. The Church of the fifth century might well point with pride to her episcopal system, by which all local Churches were brought into union; it was in truth a marvellous proof of the power of Christianity, even when enfeebled by adverse influences, to produce visible combinations; but she went further, she made Episcopacy essential to her being, and she cut off from spiritual influences those who were not in communion with the Catholic Bishop. Her liturgies and her ceremonies were, in many instances, if not founded on scriptural precedent, yet edifying and imposing; but she transformed them into divine ordinances, [14/15] and attached a covenanted virtue to them. And so on throughout. What the law of order naturally gave birth to was made an express divine appointment, and the Gospel became a spiritualized Judaism.
What took place in the Church at her first establishment, was repeated on a smaller scale, and with slightly varying circumstances, at the Reformation. Here too the inward movement preceded the outward, and the doctrines of the Reformation were widely disseminated, and eagerly received, before any visible rupture took place between the Romanists and Protestants. Justification by faith, preached by Luther long before he entertained any doubts of the Pope's being the vicar of Christ, awakened, where any susceptibility of spiritual influences existed, feelings akin to his own; pious men of all sorts and ages were attracted by the great talisman, for Christ, where He is lifted up, will draw all men unto Him; and Christians began to recognise the truth, that fellowship with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, is the first and the indispensable step to fellowship with each other. Minor differences were, for a time, merged in the joy of a recovered Gospel, and in the common dread of the great adversary. The right hand of fellowship was cheerfully offered, and cheerfully accepted, by all the reformed Churches. But this unity of the spirit, the fruit of a second [15/16] Pentecostal effusion, was of brief continuance. It is remarked by secular historians, that Protestantism, having made her first conquests with unexampled rapidity, suddenly stopped short in her course, and in the next century actually lost a portion of the ground which she had occupied; as if the quickening influence from above which had produced such remarkable results had suffered, if not an extinction, yet a great abatement of power. And no doubt it had. Protestantism could not spread, because its professors had become formalists, had begun, once more, to substitute the mint and cummin of religion for religion itself. The form which this declension assumed was different at home and abroad. In Germany it exhibited itself in the formation of a barren system of Lutheran orthodoxy, from which all life and feeling had vanished. The symbolical formularies of the Church completely took the place of Scripture; fierce contests were carried on respecting the proper term of a phrase, fierce denunciations launched against all who varied from the stereotyped standard. Practical religion became lamentably neglected. In vain such men as Spener and Franke deplored the existing state of things, and recalled men to the realities of religion; they were derided as pietists and enthusiasts. At length, the human mind, impatient of such fetters as these, burst from their control; but the reaction issued, [16/17] not in a return to scriptural piety, but in a desolating rationalism, which overran the Church, and from which she is now slowly recovering.
With ourselves the disease took a more external form; disputes arose respecting clerical vestments, respecting certain ancient practices retained in our Ritual, and finally respecting Church government. It was melancholy to see those between whom no difference of doctrine existed, and who together had borne the burden and heat of the day of persecution, divided on such points as these; to see bitter controversy carried on concerning the use of the surplice, of the cross in baptism, of the ring in marriage, and the proper posture to be adopted in receiving the Eucharist. If the temper of the Puritans was narrow, that of the Church was intolerant. The scruples of the former instead of being tenderly dealt with, on the very ground afterwards taken up by Whitgift, that the whole dispute related to things not essential, were visited with civil penalties, and instantly what had been but scruples were transformed into principles, to be maintained at whatever cost. There can be little doubt that had some indulgence been shewn to the first objectors to the Ritual of the Church, the next generation would have spontaneously confirmed; for it is the tendency of mere scruples to wear themselves out, it is persecution that makes them inveterate. The temper of the monarch, and the temper of too many of the [17/18] hierarchy, dictated an opposite course, and now episcopal government was added to the list of things proscribed by the Puritans. The principle laid down by Cartwright, the foremost name amongst them, was, that u the constitution of the Christian Church was traced out, and the duties of its several offices assigned in Scripture, with as much if not more clearness than the instructions for building the tabernacle, and regulating the daily service of the temple. If the Jew had an exact directory from God in all that concerned his mode of worship, much more the Christian; the Christian dispensation was in this, as in all points, clearer than the Jewish. Whence it followed, that to introduce an office into the Church unknown in Scripture was a grievous sin. It was only to be compared to the effrontery of Uzziah, who touched the ark and died." [Marsden's History of Puritans, p. 87.] At this time the moderation and good sense were all on the side of the Church. Against Cartwright it was maintained, first by Whitgift and afterwards by Hooker, that each Church has a right to determine and to practise its own ceremonies, provided nothing be introduced contrary to the Word of God; that these things are in themselves indifferent; that therefore the sin of division lay "on those who refused to conform to the common order of the Church, not on those who imposed it. " We are well assured," says Whitgift, "that [18/19] Christ, in His Word, hath both fully and plainly comprehended all things necessary to faith and good life; yet hath He left certain orders of ceremonies and kind of government to the disposition of His Church; the general rules given in His Word being generally observed; and nothing being done contrary to His will and commandment." [Marsden's History of Puritans, p. 87.] Unhappily these wise maxims were neither recognised by the Puritans, nor carried out into practice by the Church. The former, embittered by persecution, refused any compromise; the latter, against her own principles, insisted on uniformity. It is a great mistake to suppose that the early Puritans were labouring to establish Christian liberty in things indifferent; on the contrary, none more peremptory than they in exacting submission to their peculiar views, none more intolerant of differences of opinion. Meanwhile the Church herself was moving forwards from the position taken up by the Elizabethan divines, to another which rendered the healing of the breach still less probable. A School of Theology began to make its appearance at the beginning of the 17th century, the teaching of which seriously deviated from that which had hitherto prevailed. Episcopacy, which Whitgift and Hooker had defended as an Apostolic appointment, proved to be beneficial in its tendency, was made essential to the being of a Church, and the channel of covenanted [19/20] graces, which could not be otherwise enjoyed. The ceremonial of public worship was not only loaded with observances manifestly tending in the direction of Rome, but a significance began to be attached to it from which the Fathers of the Reformation would have shrunk as impiety. The Eucharist being converted into a real sacrifice, and the Lord's table into an altar, a sacrificing priest was necessary to complete the idea; and when engaged in his peculiar function he must be habited in sacrificial vestments. Thus the surplice became a necessary adjunct of divine worship. Symbolism, the sure sign of a decaying Christianity, was applied to the whole of the Anglican Ritual, which thus became invested with an importance never before claimed for it. It is needless to pursue the painful picture farther. Suffice it to say, that when to these sources of religious division, were added ecclesiastical and secular tyranny, and an indignant nation was roused to assert its rights, the Church was involved in the temporary overthrow which befel the Monarchy, and was herself made to experience the same measure of persecution which, in the day of her power, she had inflicted on her opponents.
Our application must be brief. The history of this eventful period will be lost upon us, if it teach us not the inveterate proneness of the human mind to lose sight of the spiritual character of true religion, and to transform the Gospel into a system more [20/21] suited to man's fallen state. For a system which is chiefly external and ceremonial in character is, however laborious and wearisome its services may be, incomparably more to the taste of man as he is, than a religion which, while it frowns upon voluntary will-worship, bids him crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts, claims the whole heart, aims at purifying the inner man first, and pronounces the love of the world incompatible with the love of God. Let us, brethren, beware of this tendency; and while we assign to the external acts of religion their due importance, never forget, that unless they emanate from a new heart and a right spirit, they are of no value in His sight, who is a Spirit, and desires spiritual worshippers. Mark too the fatal facility with which religious division fastens upon, not great points, but the more insignificant, the noxious humours flying ever to the weakest point. I am far from intending to insinuate, that the differences between the doctrinal Puritans and the theologians of Laud's school were of little moment; on the contrary, here vital matters were at stake; but in the Elizabethan period, there were no doctrinal Puritans as distinguished from the Church party, for all professed the same doctrines, and the contest turned on confessedly minor points. Oh that the Puritans, besides being, as they were, men of earnest piety, had possessed somewhat more of largeness of mind and largeness of heart! Oh that the Church had acted on her own principle, of [21/22] keeping the mean between too much stiffness in refusing, and too great easiness in admitting, variations from her Liturgy! The course of things might have been very different. Let us, brethren, in our day, be on our guard against vain jangling on insignificant points of controversy. Weighty differences have always existed, and probably always will exist; these cannot be avoided; and moreover, weighty differences do not debase the Christian mind nearly so much as puerile controversies. If we must have controversy, let it not be touching vestments, postures, or trivial ceremonies. In such an age of the Church vital religion languishes; the duty of missions is lost sight of; our fellow-countrymen are suffered to live and die without the means of grace. The remedy for such a temper is to cultivate that spiritual-mindedness which is life and peace. Spirituality of mind, the fruit of much prayer and devout study of the Scriptures, imparts an instinctive perception of the relative importance of things, and creates a distaste for idle disputes. Holding the Head by a vital union, we may expect to approximate more and more, "in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ."