« PreviousContinue »
clear and distinct idea of the meaning of the word holiness. The original term is one of the most vague words in the Hebrew language. In general, it signifies, to prepare, to set apart, to devote. The nature of the subject to which it is applied, and not the force of the term, must direct us to determine its meaning in passages where it occurs. pointinent to offices the most noble, and the inost worthy of intelligent beings, and an appointment to offices the most mean and infamous, are alike expressed by this word. The profession of the most august office of the high priesthood, and the abominable profession of a prostitute, are both called holiness in this vague sense.
The poorest languages are those in which words are the most equivocal, and this is the character of the Hebrew language. I cannot think, with some, that it is the most ancient language in the world; the contrary opinion, I think, is supported by very sufficient evidence. However, it must be granted, it hath one grand character of antiqu ty, that is, imperfection. It seems to have been invented in the first ages of the world, when mankind could express their ideas but imperfectly, and before they had time to render language determinate, by'affixing arbitrary names to all the objects of their ideas.
This remark may appear at first useless, particularly in such a discourse as this. It is, however, of great consequence; and I make it here for the sake of young students in divinity; for as the writers of the holy scriptures frequently make use of terms, that excite several ideas, the reasons of their choosing such terms will be inquired : and on such reasons, as the fancies of students assign, some maxims, and even some doctrines will be grounded. I could mention inore mysteries than one, that have been found in scripture, only because on some occasions it usesth equivocal terms. An interpreter of scripture should indeed assidutusly urge the force of those emphatical expressions, which the holy Spirit sometimes useth to signifyif I may so speak, the ground and substance of the truth : but, at the same time, he should avoid searching after the marvellous in other expressions, that are employed only for the sake of accommodating the discourse to the genius of the Hebrew tongue.
The force of the term holiness, then, not being sufficient to determine its meaning, its meaning must be sought elsewhere. We must inquire the object, to which he devotes
himself, himself, who, in our scriptures, is called holy. For, as all those words, ye shall be holy, for I am holy, are equal to these, ye shall be set apart, or ye shall be devoted, for I am set apart, or devoted, it is plain, they cannot be well explained unless the object of the appointment or designation be determined. This object is the matter of our present inquiry, and on the investigation of this depends our knowledge of what we call holiness. Now, this subject is of such a kind, that the weakest christian may form some idea of it, whilst the ablest philosophers, and the most profound divines, are incapable of treating it with precision, and of answering all the questions that a desire of complete explication may produce.
The weakest christians may form (especially if they be willing to avail themselves of such helps as are at hand) some just notions of what we call holiness. It seems to me, that in this auditory at least, there is not one person, who is incapable of pursuing the following meditation: to which I intreat your attention.
Suppose, in a world entirely remote from you, a society, to which you have no kind of relation, and to which you never can have any. Suppose God had dispensed with an obedience to his laws in favour of this society, had permitted the members of it to live as they thought proper, and had assured them that he would neither inflict any punishment upon them for what we call vice, nor bestow any rewards on an attachment to what we call virtue. Suppose two men, in this society, making an opposite use of this independence. The one saith to hiinself, Since I am the arbiter of my own conduct, and the Supreme Being, on whom I depend, hath engaged to require no account of my actions, I will consul: no other rule of conduct than my own interest. Whenever it may be my interest to deny a trust reposed in me, I will do it without reluctance. Whenever my interest may require the destruction of my tenderest and most faithful friend, I myself will become his executioner, and will stab him. Thus reasons one of them.
The other, on the contrary saith, I am free indeed, I am responsible only to myself for my conduct, but however, I will prescribe to myself some rules of action, which I will inviolably pursue. I will never betray a trust reposed in me, but I will
, with the utmost fidelity, discharge it, whatever interest I may have to do otherwise. I will carefully preserve the life of my friend, who discovers so much fidelity
and love to me, whatever interest I may have in his destruction. We ask those of our hearers, who are the least acquainted with meditations of this kind, whether they can prevail with themselves not to make an essential difference between those two members of the supposed society? We ask, whether you can help feeling a horror at the first, and a veneration for the last of these men? Now, this conduct, or the principles of this conduct, for which we cannot help feeling veneration and respect, although the whole passeth in a world, and in a society, to which we have no relation, and to which we never can have any, these are the principles, I say, to which he is devoted, whom our scriptures call holy: these principles are what we call virtue, rectitude, order, or, as the text expresseth it, holiness. Ye shall be holy : for I the Lord your God am holy.
Let us proceed a little further in our meditation, and let us make a supposition of another kind. You have all some idea of God. You have at least this notion of him, that he is supremely independent, and that none can punish cr reward him for the use he makes of his independence. Suppose, as well as you can without blasphemy, he should lavish his favours on the faithless depositary, whom we just now mentioned, and should withhold them from the other: that he should heap benefits upon him, who would stab his tenderest and most faithful friend, and expose the other to indigence and misery. Suppose, on the contrary, that God should liberally bestow his favours on the faithful depositary, and refuse them to the other. I ask those of my bearers, who are the least acquainted with a meditation of this kind, whether they can help making an essential difference between these two uses of independence ? Can you help feeling more veneration and respect for the Supreme Being in the latter case than in the former? Now, my brethren, I repeat it again, the laws, according to which the Supreme Being acts, are the laws to which the person is appointed, or set apart, who, in the holy scriptures, is denominated holy. Conformity to these laws is what we call virtue, rectitude, order, or, as the text expresseth it, holiness. In this manner, it seems to me, the weakest christian (if he avail himself of such helps as are offered to him) may forin an adequate idea of holiness.
However, it is no less certain that the ablest philosophers, and the most consummate divines, find it difficult to speak with precision on this subject, and to answer all the questions
that have arisen about it. Perhaps its perspicuity may be one principal cause of this difficulty : for it is a rule, of which we inform those to whom we teach the art of reasoning justly, that when an idea is brought to a certain degree of evidence and simplicity, every thing added to elucidate serves only to obscure and perplex it. Hath not one part of our difficulties about the nature of right and wrong arisen from the breach of this rule?.
From what we have heard, in my opinion, we may infer, that all mankind have a clear and distinct idea of holiness, even though they have no terms to express their ideas of it with justness and precision. It seems to me that every mechanic is able to decide the following questions, although they have occasioned so many disputes in schools. On what is the difference between a just and an unjust action founded; on interest only? or, on the will of the Supreme Being only, who hath prescribed such or such a law? For, since we cannot help execrating a man who violates certain laws, though the violation doth not at all effect our interest, it is plain, we cannot help acknowledging, when we reflect on our own ideas, that the difference between a just and an unjust action is not founded on interest only. And since we cannot help venerating the Supreme Being more when he fellows certain laws than when he violates them, it is plain, we cannot help acknowledging that there is a justice independent on the supreme law which hath prescribed it.
Should any one require me to give him a clear notion of this justice, this order, or holiness, which is neither founded on the interest of him who obeys it, nor on the authority of the Supreme Being who commands it; this should be my an
By justice I understand that fitness, harmony, or propor. tion, which ought to be between the conduct of an intelligent being, and the circunstances in which he is placed, and the relations he bears to other beings. For example, there is a relation between a benefactor who bestows, and an indigent person who receives, a benefit ; from this relation results a proportion, a harmony, or a fitness, between benefit and gratitude, which makes gratitude a virtue. On the contrary, between benefit and ingratitude there is a disproportion, a dissonance, or an incongruity, which makes ingratitude injustice. In like manner, between one inan, who is under oppression, and another, who hath the power of terminating the oppression by punishing the oppressor, there is a certain
relation from which results a proportion, a harmony, or a fitness in relieving the oppressed, which makes the relief an act of generosity and justice.
All mankind have a general notion of this proportion, harmony, or fitness. If they are sometimes dubious about their duty, if they sometimes hesitate about what conduct justice requires of them on certain occasions, it is not because they doubt whether every actioni ought to have that which I call proportion, harmony, or fitness ; but it is because, in some intricate cases, they do not clearly perceive the relation of a particular action to their general notion of justice. Every man hath an idea of equality and inequality of numbers. Every man knows at once to which of these two ideas some plain and simple numbers belong. Eevry body perceives at once a relation between the number three, and the idea of inequality : and every body perceives instantly a relation between the number two and the idea of equality. But should I propose a very complex number to the most expert arithmetician, and ask him to which of the two classes this number belongs, he would require some time to consider, before he could return his answer : not because he had not very clear ideas of equality and inequality, but because he could not at first sight perceive whether the number proposed were equal or unequal. The arithmetician whom I have supposed, must study to find out the relation ; as soon as he discovers it he will readily answer, and tell me whether the number proposed be equal or unequal.
Apply this example to the subject in hand. All mankind, according to our reasoning, have a general notion of a fitness, that ought to be between the conduct of an intelligent being, and the circumstances in which he is placed, and the relations he bears to other beings. Always when a man perceives that a particular action hath such a fitness, or hath it not, he will declare, without hesitation, that the action is just or unjust. If he hesitate in some cases, it is because he' doth not perceive the relation of the action in question to this fitness. It belongs to casuists to solve difficulties of this kind. I perceive at once relation between him who receives a benefit, and him who confers it, and from this relation I conclude that there is a fitness between gratitude and the circumstances of the receiver: therefore I declare, without hesitating, that gratitude is a virtue, and that ingratitude is a vice. But should I be asked whether it were a virtue or a vice to kill a tyrant, I might hesitate ; because I might not at first per