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CONVERSATIONS ON NATURAL THEOLOGY,
AND ITS TRUE RELATIONS TO
Senex. Willingly: only let us recollect what I think is the only right signification of the term. We refer it to that branch of divine science which is brought before us by nature, when properly understood.
J. From what you have already said, I suppose I may infer that for this right understanding, revelation is necessary?
S. In the present circumstances of man, it certainly does seem to be so. That there is a connexion between the work and its Maker, and his existence, and at least some of his perfections, is undeniable; and when once this is perceived, great instruction is afforded. But man, as we now find him, does never, in point of fact, so perceive it, as to be able to deduct this instruction. We have not a single instance to the contrary, not even amongst the wisest sages of antiquity. Again, using the most important phrase,-as for all just reasoning in this case it is,-in point of fact, all who have written well on natural theology, have gone to the study in the light of revelation. They may refuse to acknowledge this light. They have reasoned themselves into an obstinate Deism. But they cannot get rid of the general knowledge of their age, with which they have grown up. They know, not abstract Deity, but personal God, as declared by the onlybegotten Son; and, possessing this knowledge beforehand, they are able, when they go to nature, to arrange the materials which compose the argument, and to connect them with the right conclusion. Never forget these three perfectly established facts,—however mysterious the subject may be, facts they most undoubtedly are; and against facts there cannot possibly be any sound reasoning,-First, Only they understand natural theology who have first, directly or indirectly, been instructed in revelation. Second, They
find in nature only what revelation had taught them. There is nothing new, nothing additional. Third, There is nothing contradictory. The same perfections which revelation describes are those which nature indicates, as far as it goes.
J. You speak very positively on what you term the point of fact.
S. I do so, and I intended to do so. The Delphic Oracle declared Socrates to be the wisest of mankind; yet he, even as brought before us by his great and splendid disciple, Plato, always spake doubtfully on this subject. He could say what was not the truth; but what it positively was, that he could not say. The Moravian Missionaries to Greenland tell us a most instructive anecdote :-One of their disciples once described to them his former condition of uncertainty. He said that some time previously to their arrival, having been often exercised by inquiries and doubts, he was once seated on an elevated promontory, whence he could behold the wide-rolling waves of ocean, and his thoughts took this form : “I made my own canoe, and my oars, and my fishing-spears. Nothing makes itself. Who made all these? I wish I knew! Perhaps somewhere there are people who know. I wish they would come and tell me, that I might know too.” Here was the inward and conscious feeling of causality, anxiously put forth. He felt that things that were, must have been made. But by whom? He could not reply to that question.
J. Is nature, then, of no use to such inquirers ?
S. First : I fear that such are few. Second : the same feeling about causation would require it to be adequate ; and would thus sufficiently indicate the falsehood of the common fables respecting the gods. No thinking man could believe that Jupiter, as he was described, even with all the greater gods to aid him, (dii majores,) could make, sustain, and govern the universe. But, as to heathen responsibility, the question is not a practical one, and therefore is not answered by revelation. All we know is this, that the whole history of the world furnishes the consistent, uncontradicted comment, on the solemn declaration of Scripture, “In the wisdom of God, the world by wisdom knew not God.”
Here we must for the present leave it. The day is coming when these deep mysteries, as yet impenetrable, shall have their elucidation. « The Judge of all the earth” will most assuredly“ do right.” We must wait his own explanation of what we cannot understand, conscientiously improve our own advantages, and zealously labour to communicate them to others.
J. What, then, are our own advantages?
S. That if we apply ourselves to the study of nature, we have the knowledge of God, in his existence and character, from the very commencement. Piously employing the language of Milton, we can say to him who has “spoken to us by his Son," “ These are thy glorious works, Parent of good, Almighty !
Thine this universal frame, thus wondrous fair!” J. Might I ask, How do we know that the God of the Bible is the God of nature ?
S. I assume the truth of revelation first, by its own independent evidence. Jehovah there asserts his own essential, eternal being, his creation and sustentation of all things, and his power over all. I now come to nature. I find nothing to indicate any other such Being. Nature, complex as it is, even to bewilderment, is yet, most wonderfully, a perfect unity. And in investigating that unity, we find the same perfections that in Scripture are ascribed to God. To speak of two such beings,-let alone the metaphysical contradictions, -is to speak without evidence, and against evidence. In this respect, nature as powerfully, as admirably, corroborates and confirms revelation. Everywhere, whether our mental excursions are among the truths of revelation, or the facts of nature, do we find ourselves under the same government,--the Sovereign being Jehovah, the Lord of Hosts. Each department casts light on the other. The entire system of natural providence, for instance, in its ordinary procedure, and in many facts occasionally occurring, require for their full illustration the direct teaching of Scripture. As, on the other hand, the entire doctrine of moral providence, as taught in Scripture, is wonderfully illustrated in nature. The miracles, for instance, are thus completely proved to be such ; for every investigation of nature shows them to be undeniably supernatural.
J. One benefit, then, resulting from the enlightened and devout study of nature, is, that we shall thus be confirmed in the belief of revelation.
S. Undoubtedly; and this is no trifle. But there is a second. For revelation we shall be increasingly thankful. Till revelation furnishes the key, the book of nature will be as though written in hieroglyphics. And then, when we actually understand it, on many subjects on which information is absolutely necessary, nothing is said there. Much to strengthen our belief of our fallen condition we shall find, but for the knowledge of the remedy, we must come to Scripture. Suggestions there are, when we know how to interpret them, respecting the moral character of its Author; for the phenomena of the mind forms a portion of the works to be studied. But for a full disclosure, as well as for statements of the method of recovery, it is to revelation that we must turn.
J. For what is it, chiefly, that you would recommend the study of natural theology?
S. I mean by the phrase, the study of nature in its religious associations; and my reply to your question is, for the increase of devotion, both in its light and feeling. We are not to study the mere facts of nature, but to consider facts in their systematic connexion with each other; in their several final causes, their combined reference to great and united ends, and the manifestations of the divine perfections which they afford, especially of the power, the wisdom, and the goodness of God. In works of human art or skill, we naturally think of the author; how gifted he must be, how skilful, how knowing, how able. In what he does, we, in some measure, see what he is. Before he did the work, he had the grand idea in his mind, inclusive of all the natural facts and laws necessary both for its conception and completion. Now endeavour to raise up your mind to such contemplations as these. Take all the branches of natural science,-mechanics, chemistry, botany, astronomy, and so on. How few know more than one of them well; and how imperfect, and only as the result of long and laborious study, is the knowledge at the best! Now, the facts and laws of universal nature were all in the mind of God, before they had actual existence. A perfect chemistry, a perfect botany, and so of every other ; all contributed to constitute the essential fulness of the everlasting God. The best treatise on any branch of science is but an account of the eternal knowledge of God. Not a plant exists by chance, not a flower, not a tint. And so of every fact, however minute; of every combination, however intricate and vast. All that is, came from the divine intention, as part of the divine plan. He who studies nature rightly, studies God; and everything he sees indicates to him something of God. So that often, proceeding onwards, and finding new wonders rising at every step, we increasingly feel the adorable grandeur in the presence of which we always find ourselves; living, moving, and having our being in God, and that God how great! Heaven and earth are full of his glory. Glory be to thee, O Lord, most high! We admire great talent,—a Bacon, a Newton, a Watt, a Davy, a Cuvier, a Michael Angelo, a Raphael, a Milton. But what is human knowledge and greatness ? A little sparkling, like the star shining out of darkness, of the infinite splendour of God. Whatever science you study, recollect that science, in its fulness and perfection, is one portion of the essential furniture -let me so call it—of the infinite capacity of Godhead. Thus, wherever you go, something of God will be before you, exciting you to humble yet fervid adoration and praise.
J. If I rightly understand you, we should thus study nature for the same general reason that we study grace or providence, that we may see and acknowledge God.
S. Do we read history? If we connect it not with Providence, it does us little good; or, as seems to have been the case with Machiavelli, it may do us much harm. But let us look at a class of books, quite a favourite with many, memoirs of good people. Many read these because, being in the narrative form, they excite the usual interest of a tale. And it is a mercy that there are such true tales as will help to do even the cursory reader good. But I fear they are chosen by many because they can read them without trouble.