The Nature and Importance of our Theology
Berry Street Lecture, 1849
Ezra S. Gannett
Delivered at the Ministerial Conference of Ministers
May 30, 1849
In selecting the subject to which I should invite your attention, brethren, I have been governed by my apprehension of the purpose of this Annual Address, as well as by personal preference. The object of the Address, I conceive, is twofold: first, to present a train of thought having connection with some of the religious aspects of the time; and secondly, to offer remarks that may provoke an amicable discussion. In both these ways may the design of our meeting, which I understand to be an increased ability of ministerial usefulness, be promoted. Your judgment will decide how far the subject I have chosen has the requisite fitness to the hour, and your candor will accept my imperfect treatment of it as a hint that the chief profit which may result from its introduction here must come through the expression it shall lead you to give to your own riper and clearer thought.
I propose to speak on the Nature and Importance of our Theology. On both these points it seems to me that unjust remarks are often made. Among us there is a depreciation of theology, for which I can hardly account; and from other quarters we hear a frequent denial of any value or substance in Unitarian theology, which does not the less grieve me because it is easily explained. Some remarks of a general character may therefore be needed to remove obstructions which lie in the way of the view I wish to take. What is the precise office, place, or value of theology? Is it a factitious or a real importance to which it will be entitled, if we allow the claim urged by many writers in its behalf? It has been called the greatest of sciences: is this a rhetorical falsehood? Of late, it is not unusual to hear men speak of it with distrust, if not with derision; as, when our modern carpenters speak contemptuously of the oaken beams with which our forefathers framed their houses, does the craftsman’s interest unconsciously warp his judgment?
What is theology? qeon lóγος, the account of God, the description which man may give of the character and government of that Being whose infinite will embraces all principles, methods, and results, — the Being of whose existence all truth is the reflection, of whose energy all life is the expression, of whose love all enjoyment and all hope are but streams continually fed from their Source. If we adopt this definition, we seem to be precluded from an attempt to undervalue that which, according to the very terms we use in our explanation, relates to the highest of subjects and extends over the widest reach of thought. It will be difficult to show the incorrectness of the definition. I doubt not that theology is often taken in a narrower sense by those who treat it with dishonor; but their restriction of its meaning affords them only the defense of needless or willful ignorance. People should learn what they are aiming at, before they deal blows. Scholastic theology, we are told, cramps the mind; and so is muddy water an unwholesome beverage. Controversial theology inflames the passions; and so does water with a mixture of alcoholic spirit inflame the blood. Speculative theology chills the heart; and so does ice chill the body. But pure water, such as God gives us to drink, is healthful and needful; and the man who should denounce its use because it could be so mixed or changed, or is often so mixed or changed, as to be injurious, would bring the sanity of his mind under question. It may be said that theology is man’s production, and not God’s gift, and therefore must always contain more or less deleterious matter. But I would reply, that, if it were so, the analogy and the argument it includes remain good; for the purest water, when examined by the microscope, is seen to contain foreign substances not usually thought agreeable to the stomach, yet we find it refreshes and strengthens us; and in a similar way I suppose our theology may contain errors imperceptible, except on a very strict examination, whose bad effect will be neutralized by the wholesome ingredients with which they are combined. And further, theology is not wholly man’s work; it is, to a certain extent, a natural product of the soul. Except in its most brutal condition, if even then, the soul cannot live without some notion of a higher Intelligence and a superior Power, and that notion is the germ of its theology.
Hence it appears to me that theology will hold its place in the world, let it be ever so much resisted or derided. Neither the world nor the individual can get along without it. Every man has a theology of his own. He may not know it; be may not know the meaning of the word; but what then? Every man has his theory of health, though he may never have heard of physiology or dietetics. He believes that he must eat and sleep and work, or that he must avoid this or that indulgence, if he would be well, and he practices accordingly; yet were you to ask him what hygienic treatment he pursued, he might stare at you in amazement. It has been said that words are things; but people often get the things without the words they are called by. "What can a poor woman,” it is asked, "who must work all the day to earn bread for her children, and at night perhaps can only with much painstaking read a chapter in her Bible, know of the science of theology? What does she need to know of it? Is she not the better without it? Of theology as a science, she knows nothing, and needs to know nothing; but of that which constitutes the substance of theology she knows a great deal. Of the principles which regulate the transmission of caloric from her scanty fire through the atmosphere to her limbs, or determine the fitness of one sort of garment rather than another to protect her against the winter's cold, she is profoundly ignorant; but with the great facts and relations that exist between the fuel she consumes, the clothing she wears, and her own physical condition, she is entirely conversant. So are the great spiritual facts and relations, which are best ascertained through experience, familiar to her, although she be a stranger to the reasonings that might explain, or the principles that underlie, those facts and relations. Take away her knowledge of these, her heart-knowledge of them, and you leave her to a destitution of which her former poverty was not even a type, a wretchedness of which she had had no conception before, because you take from her her knowledge of God's providence and her faith in God, her theology.
No, it may be said, hers is what you have called it, heart-knowledge, while theology belongs to the mind. In the first instance, certainly; and the lowly Christian of whom we have spoken received it into her heart through her mind. The difference between her and the man who has legitimated conclusions by reasoning and study is simply this, — that the ideas which she has received pass at once into her heart, and there become sentiments and habits, and as such, rather than as ideas, are entertained by her, while with him they remain long, perhaps always, among the furniture of his mind and are there examined as mental conceptions. He is a theologian, she is not; but she has a theology as well as he, and with her as well as with him its foundation is truth apprehended by the intellect. Ideas are essential to religion, — its basis, its groundwork, its fountain. There is a kind of discourse on this subject, which — I would say with all possible respect for those who use it — appears to me to be either void of meaning or full of mischief. Religion is sentiment, we are told, and not doctrine, — love, and not belief, — spiritual experience, and not intellectual discrimination. Now what sentiment is there which does not have its origin in thought, — what love, that does not flow from a belief concerning the object of the affection, — what inward experience, that can be disjoined from all intellectual activity? The instinctive love of the parent recognizes truths respecting her child which determine the character and intensity of her affection; the love of the child, the moment it passes beyond a mere animal clinging to the care that nourishes it, contemplates certain realities on which its little mind passes judgment. Our moral sentiments do not disown their dependence on the mind. That is the background on which they are formed, as truly the figures on the painter's canvas derive their life from what he puts behind them. Our aspirations after purity and bliss, after heaven and God, spring out of our ideas concerning God and heaven and holiness and happiness. The seraph's rapture is the fire of an intellectual conception. A religion of mere sentiment, like the watery appearances of the desert, will be found neither to afford refreshment nor to have any substance. A purely aesthetic piety, like the gorgeousness of the clouds neither gives warmth nor promises permanence; it is not worth talking about, in prose or in poetry. Again, we are told that religion is life, and not dogma, — obedience, and not faith; and we assent to the remark, when interpreted as common sense and experience should teach us to receive it. The life is the essential thing; but what consistency or practical worth will there be in a life which is not governed by fixed rules or proper motives? And what are rules or motives; but the conclusions at which the mind arrives in its inquiries after duty? Obedience is what God requires; but how shall we become obedient, if we remain in ignorance alike of the Being whom we should obey and the service we should render? And how can such ignorance be removed, except by implanting in the mind certain notions respecting God and his law? In the last analysis, the religious life must be reduced to a practical use of certain convictions which the mind accepts. They may be many or few, they may be correct or incorrect; but on their character and strength will- depend the growth, stability, and reality of the religious life.
Let me for a moment exhibit the picture of a man without any theological opinions. He, of course, believes nothing about God, nothing about Christ, nothing about the elements or sanctions of morality, nothing about immortality. He must not declare himself to be either a Trinitarian or a Unitarian, for then he would stray into the forbidden ground of theology. But, further, he must eschew, not deism or pantheism only, but theism also, for that lies on the other side of the prescribed line. He may have his notions about worldly affairs and political events, he may store his mind with all sorts of knowledge except religious knowledge, he may be just as good and spiritual as he can be without any faith in things Divine; but the moment he attempts to vindicate his spirituality or strengthen his goodness by recurrence to the great truths of the universe, on which angels feed and which in Christ become the bread of life to every believer, a voice of solemn admonition cries, Beware! That is the perilous domain of theology, full of briers and forests, where you will lose yourself, or become the prey of fierce sectarians; go not there, as you value either comfort or improvement.
I do not think, brethren, that there is caricature or extravagance in this picture; for I do not see how the dread of theology which is entertained by some persons, if it pay due respect to etymological or logical principles, can stop short of absolute atheism. It is bound in consistency to ignore all religious truth. That no one intends to proceed so far only shows that even wise and honest men do not examine with sufficient care the positions they are eager to defend. The very arguments on which such persons rely are deceptive. Jesus taught no theology, it is said. In one sense this is true. We cannot describe our Lord to our own minds as the head of a theological institution; nor can we imagine him as filling any other capacity, or performing any other service, than just that in which he is presented by the Evangelists. One of the strongest grounds of confidence in their narrative is the precise adaptation of the individual to the circumstances which are recorded. The living portrait could be set in no other frame. But that Jesus taught theology is just as true as that he taught morality; nay, more, of his teaching it may be said with peculiar emphasis that it was founded on theology, —on the views he presented of the Divine character and of our relations to the Heavenly Father. How constant was his reference to God! Whether the multitude, the disciples, or the captious scribes, were the persons whom he addressed, he brought into view the great doctrines which it was one purpose of his ministry to establish in the world. "I came,” said he, "to bear witness unto the truth.” The Apostles copied their Master's example. "Show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works,” are the words of James, the champion of practical religion. I will show thee — not my works without faith, but — my faith by my works, my theology by its fruits.
No, brethren; the attempt to decry theological studies and theological tenets will not bear examination. It is founded in mistake, and must lead to evil. The distinction often made between theology and religion is unsound and impracticable. They cannot be disjoined. They belong together, and must go together. To identify them is also a mistake, for this is confounding a part with the whole. But to separate them is like severing the trunk from the roots of the tree. The roots are not the tree, but the trunk will not grow without them; it will not stand without them. The roots and the trunk, with all its branches, leaves, and fruit, compose the tree; so do opinion and life, with "whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, or of good report,” make up religion. Without opinion, the life, the character, all that is excellent or beautiful, loses its support and its sustenance. Without theology there can be no faith, no church, no religion. The heathens had their theologies. Egypt, India, Greece, Rome, Scandinavia, all had their doctrines concerning the unseen world. Without them they could have had no idolatry, no priesthood and no worship. You may read pagan theology in Lucretius or in Ovid, in the Vedas the Sagas, and may feel admiration, contempt, or pity those who were satisfied with such crude conceptions of the Divinity which they enshrined, sometimes in a material emblem and sometimes in fantastic thought; but still there is, and was, their theology, which the wants and laws of human nature compelled them to form in some shape or other. Revelation has always presupposed and included theology. Adam had a theology in Paradise, and Abraham in Canaan. Moses was the greatest theologian of the ancient world. His whole system of morals, civil polity, and sacrificial worship was built upon the two fundamental tenets of all correct theology, — the unity, and self-existence of God. "Hear, 0 Israel, the Lord thy God is one Lord.” "Say unto the children of Israel, I Am hath sent me unto you.” Theology meets us on every page of the Old Testament. The Psalms are full of it; the Prophets abound in it; even the Proverbs discard it not. The New Testament is the manual of Christian theology. The Evangelists enunciate it, the Epistles expound it. Peter preached theology on the day of Pentecost, and in the house of Cornelius; Paul preached it at Athens, and in Rome. The Bible is a theological text-book, and he who reads the Bible and contemns theology might come from the study of the heavens a disbeliever in the stars.
Theology is the noblest of studies, the sublimest of sciences. It treats of infinite attributes and infinite relations; of the Supreme Intelligence, the Eternal Reason, the Omnipresent Love; of an all-embracing, all-sustaining Providence; of the moral government of the universe, whose laws are the channels through which all experience is distributed in all worlds; of the responsibilities and destinies of the soul, its glory and its shame, its ruin and its recovery; of redemption, the fruit of God’s mercy, and of retribution, the consequence of man’s freedom; of Christ, the being in whom it was no impiety to say, "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father”; of the principles and methods of that spiritual education by which we may be trained for those higher scenes of progress into which death will introduce us; of truth, excellence, life, immortality. These are the subjects that fall within the province of theology. And now I ask, in the name of all that is right in itself or worthy of man's attention, if these subjects ought to be slighted, or the science which includes and combines them to be disparaged? Theology opens to us the mysteries of our consciousness; unlocks for our use the treasures of the universe; places the soul amidst the harmonies of the creation; lifts it into communion with the Uncreated One. Loftiest and most comprehensive of studies, pathway to the fount of sempiternal light, ascent of the soul to its perfection! — what can we say of it that shall pass the bounds of sober truth?
I need not remind you, brethren, of the various uses and connections of this study. Beyond all others it is fitted to expand, enrich, and strengthen the mind; not only by furnishing it with the grandest conceptions, but by leading it into the most profound inquiries, and compelling it to use the most rigid processes of thought. Captious critics, and sour bigots, and poor reasoners, and vain pretenders we may find turning this noble science to miserable ends; but bad husbandry does not bring agriculture into disrepute, nor the follies of socialists and anarchists drive the world to disown liberty. It is impossible for one to bestow close examination on such subjects as I have indicated, or to meditate on them with the reverential delight which they are suited to inspire, and not gain intellectual force. Theological investigation is the healthiest employment of the mind. Besides, all other science should be pursued in the light which such investigation casts upon it. A man is but half taught, in physics or ethics or politics, who has not learned to connect the agency of God with all that is or should be. Which commands the more sincere admiration, which showed himself the wiser interpreter of nature, Newton or Laplace? I will not insist, however, on these general relations of theological truth. Let me say but a word of its connection with personal character and professional life.
Theology gives us some definite opinions on which to erect our purposes and habits. Without such opinions, how can you trust a man? — how can any one trust himself? Let him be "carried about with every wind of doctrine,” and all he will be good for is to show in what direction the currents of the popular belief tend. Let him be "ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth,” and the Apostle shall tell us whom lie will resemble, - "silly, women, laden with sins.” Let him, having "proved all things, hold fast that which is good,” and you may feel some confidence in his stability. I am not now contending in behalf of any one system of faith, but only for some settled, well defined religious belief. I can respect a sincere attachment to any faith, Catholic or Protestant; I can see how a man may extract spiritual nourishment out of poisonous errors, if he believe them to be God’s holy truth, for to him they become Divine and holy, and their noxious quality is neutralized by his imputation to them of a character which they do not deserve; but I cannot for the life of me understand how a man who has no fixed opinions, no creed which his own thought has written out, can have any solid basis of character. All practical religion, all personal piety, must have a doctrinal basis. There is nothing on earth so powerful, so efficacious, as a religious conviction. It may be utterly false, or wildly extravagant; only let the mind embrace it as true, and it will fill that mind with religious purpose and religious aspiration. Calvinism produces spiritual results by establishing in the soul a belief in God’s sovereignty; Universalism, by establishing a belief in God’s benevolence; but unless a man believe something, and know that he believes it, and know what it is that he believes, his penitence, his devotion, his hope, are only shadows cast upon his mind by the passing influences of life.
Look next at the effect which the want of a clearly ascertained religious belief must have on our professional life. It will deprive it of all consistency, energy, efficiency. Brethren, what have we to do in our ministry, but to unfold the mysteries of Divine truth to the ignorant, the careless, the troubled, and the sinful? But how can we unfold what we have not ourselves examined? If ours were only a perfunctory service, if all we must do to save our own souls or the souls of others were to repeat a form of worship and utter commonplaces of instruction without considering how much they import, we might not need to acquaint ourselves with theology; but if we mean to enlighten, persuade, or comfort the people, we must carry in our own minds answers to the questions they will put to us, — we must be theologians. It is sad to think how many enter the ministry without any well arranged and established doctrinal persuasions, and how many, after entering on the duties of the ministerial life, neglect the studies which are most intimately connected with the employment they have chosen. Men whose office it is to expound the highest truths of consciousness and experience achieve eminence achieve their classical attainments or their historical researches, which, if they pursue only as a relaxation from severer labors, may entitle them to such measure of gratitude or praise as we bestow on one who makes a wise use of his leisure; but when they prefer such occupation to strictly professional studies, they betray at least a singular judgment concerning the nature of the work which they have undertaken. What should we think of a civil engineer, who should spend his time in sketching landscapes? The disrepute into which dogmatic and critical theology has fallen, is in no way creditable to us. If such works as Calvin’s Institutes, and Edwards’s Treatises, and the Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum, were more read, we should be abler ministers of the New Testament. They would set us on thinking, and give to our preaching more substance. Those Bodies of Divinity, of which it has become a fashion to speak with contempt, contained learning and thought and argument, before which the superficial discussions of our day appear as might one of our modern cottages placed near a deserted castle of the feudal ages. Forsaken and neglected, of what massive materials was it constructed, by what patient industry must it have been reared! Once, a man must write a book, too hard, perhaps, for many to read, if he would gain a reputation for professional diligence; now, if he publish a discourse which has some novelty of expression, the land rings with his fame. Our theological publications pass through the pulpit in their way to the press; they may be heavy, but they cannot be very bulky.
What is it that has brought theology into such discredit? Something we may charge to the impatient and superficial character of the age. Something to the cold, technical forms of thought, the dry and abstruse argumentation, the stiff, despotic creeds, of which theology has been the parent. Something to the notion, that religion has been made by us too much an exercise of the understanding, and too little an experience of the heart. The more common justification, however, of a neglect of the clergyman’s appropriate studies is, that they either engender skepticism, or beget dogmatism and produce controversy, and in either case render his preaching less useful and his influence less valuable. Let us look a moment at this statement of the probable effects of an interest in theological studies. First, they unsettle one’s belief. Very well; there is no harm in that, for if it could be unsettled by examination, it was not held on any proper ground of confidence. But they lead the mind, it is said, into the midst of perplexities from which it cannot find its way out. That is a mistake; it can find its way out, just as it found its way in, — by going on. Let it examine farther, and it will come to some clear ground. It will get some faith of its own; and a grain of such faith has more of the virtue of the grain of mustard-seed in our Lord's parable, than the largest amount of inherited belief. But does a disuse of the methods of theological inquiry prevent a skeptical or changeful mood of mind? Who are they that — in the face of the Scriptural counsel to "leave the principles of the doctrine of Christ,” as the mathematical student leaves the elementary principles of his science, and "go on unto perfection” — are always "laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith towards God, of the doctrine of baptism and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection from the dead, and of eternal judgment,” as if nothing were settled, nothing clear; who are they that now lean in this direction, now in that, and of whom it is difficult to say what is the average amount of their faith, today they believe so much, and tomorrow so little? They are not the men who toil in the mines of theological science; they belong to another division of the Christian body.
Controversy, however, springs up on the field of doctrinal investigation. Be it so. There are worse things than controversy. Angry or unfair disputation is not an evil only, it is a sin; but men may state and defend their differences of belief without unfairness or ill-temper. Controversial preaching, we are told, is not what the people want. Perhaps not; and the pulpit, we admit, is not the place for sectarian warfare. But doctrinal preaching the people need, alike for its own sake and for its connection with their religious exercises and spiritual improvement.
Controversy may be conducted in a good spirit. A Christian may esteem his own opinions as God’s blessed truth, and yet allow to another an equal right to hold his opinions in the same regard. Candor and faith do not turn each other out of doors. The clearer the convictions an individual entertains, the more likely is he to respect the honest convictions of another mind; and the more laborious the process by which he has arrived at the results that give his own mind peace, the more able and the more disposed will he be to do justice to another’s satisfaction in the results to which similar toil has led him. Dogmatism is an offence against the rights of man and the order of society, but it is the vice of the sciolist rather than the student. It no more belongs to the theologian than pedantry to the scholar.
We need not dread the effects of distinct theological opinion. Dread rather that indolence or timidity which shuns investigation, and that vagueness of conception which beholds Christian truths only as the blind man, who, before our Lord had restored his full sight, saw "men as trees walking.” Precision and accuracy of thought should be desired by every believer. So many questions will remain in regard to which he can only approximate to a confident result, that he should endeavour to settle to his own satisfaction as many points as possible. The methods by which such satisfaction may be obtained are various. One may trust most to logical deductions, another to Scriptural authorities, and a third to prayer; while he will be wiser than them all, who to careful reasoning and Biblical study shall add earnest supplication to be guided into all truth. But let no one be content to remain without decision and without curiosity on the subjects on which, by any or all of these methods, he may reach the comfort of a clear and firm faith. Let the private Christian, for his own sake, bring his belief to the test of an explicit statement. Let the preacher arrange and rectify his own conclusions for the sake of the people whom he addresses. Instruction is the first office of the pulpit, — first in order of time, if not first in importance. The minister who will leave the deepest mark on his congregation is not he who ravishes them by his eloquence or excites in them the strongest emotion, but he who succeeds in communicating to them the ideas which they incorporate with their intellectual and moral growth. Especially is this true in New England. I believe there is no kind of preaching to which a New England audience listen with so much pleasure, as to a clear and forcible enunciation of truth. The sermons of the late Dr. Emmons, I suppose, would be styled by many persons dry, technical, unprofitable; and yet he held the attention of a large society through the Sundays of half a century by such preaching, and impressed himself indelibly on the minds of two generations. Fidelity to the work to which we have consecrated ourselves forbids us to give "an uncertain sound” when we discourse on the great themes of God’s law and man’s hope, Christ's sacrifice and the world’s redemption.
The objection sometimes brought against a systematic religious belief, that it throws a chain around the mind, and prevents its approach to the perfect truth, is founded in misapprehension. The advocates of a progressive theology need not anticipate the disappointment of their hope as a consequence of precision in the statement of opinions. If by a progressive theology be meant a loose, unstable belief, without fixed principles or definite conclusions, then all that I am saying is intended to show the evils to which it would give rise. But if by this phrase be meant a constant approximation to a complete view of spiritual truth, to an exact measurement of the circle of which, taking man as the centre, God will be the circumference,—a result to which, from the finite nature of our powers, we can only approximate, — then the admission of certain positive ideas is necessary, as the point from which we shall advance. In maintaining the importance of established opinions, I do not contend for an unchangeable belief. In ascribing to theology the character of a science, I do not claim for it, as it lies before our minds — or any but the Infinite Mind — absolute perfection. All science is progressive. The discovery of new facts calls for new generalizations; principles which were regarded as settled may need to be revised; and not only must the mistakes of former times be corrected, but the student must continually seek to rectify or justify his own conclusions by a more thorough investigation. The botany, the chemistry, the political economy of our day is in a very different state from that in which it appeared under Linnaeus, or Lavoisier, or Adam Smith; yet in their times these studies were included within the circle of the sciences. We speak of geology as a science, although its fundamental principles are still open to discussion. Yet we expect of every student of this science, and especially of every geological teacher, that he will have adopted some one or other theory by which to explain and arrange the facts that come under his notice. In like manner the student in theology, and especially the theological teacher, — and such is every Christian minister by virtue of his office, must take some fundamental truths as settled, at least to his own satisfaction, that he may establish either order or connection among the moral facts and spiritual ideas which present themselves to his mind. We do not affirm that our theology is perfect in all its parts; we hope it will gain more accuracy of definition and more breadth of view. But we should be careful to avoid that style of discourse which conveys the impression, if it do not directly teach, that the free mind must believe nothing very confidently or very long. Free inquiry finds its point of departure in humble faith. The bigot and the skeptic represent the two extremes, between which lies the true position of the Christian. He is a believer; that is the name given to him in the New Testament, — "Be thou an example of the believers.” What answer can he whose religious persuasions are undetermined give to any one "that asketh a reason of the hope that is in him?” The great facts of theological science do not lie in obscurity; its essential truths are universally admitted: these, at least, we may embrace with the strongest and heartiest faith. And beyond these, every one should have accepted certain definitions and results, which, though he may hereafter be compelled to modify them, he now regards as correct. It seems to rue that this is a true statement of the relations between faith, freedom, and progress.
That which I have now endeavoured to establish in regard to the individual, whatever capacity he may hold in the Church, is true of any denomination that would exert a direct and worthy influence. It must have a theology of its own, which can be stated in intelligible language, and be reduced to scientific propositions. There are but two methods which a sect can adopt to secure a permanent existence. One is a distinctive theology, and the other a peculiar ecclesiastical organization. The latter alone will not give it strength, for organization is only the external pressure that gives shape to a body. There must be a vital element, and that can be found only in its doctrine. Men cannot be made to care very much for a form, so long as they view it as no more than a form; but let them regard it as the symbol of a truth, and they will die for it. Any denomination that shall make itself felt in the world must have a theology which it can call its own, and by which it shall be distinguished from every other sect. Presbyterianism owes its energy, not to its book of Discipline, but to its formularies of faith. The Church of England stands not upon its Liturgy, but on its Thirty-Nine Articles. From Rome to Nauvoo, it is its doctrinal belief that has given to every church or denomination its stability. We cannot evade the force of a law to which all other religious bodies have been obliged to submit. We must have a theology of our own, or we shall perish, and ought to perish.
We have such a theology. On its importance I need not enlarge, after the length to which the previous remarks have been extended; for if they have been just, they have prepared us to acknowledge the importance of "holding fast the faithful word, as we have been taught, that we may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.” Of its nature, however, you will allow me to add something to what has been already said.
We have a theology, that is, we have certain definite and fixed opinions, — we, who belong to this Conference, — we, and the churches and the portion of the community which we represent. There is a name by which we are designated, whether we like it or not; and which, whether we use it or not, is never uttered in our hearing without reminding us of certain points of doctrinal agreement and difference, — agreement among ourselves, and difference from others,— by which we are therefore distinguished. There is a Unitarian theology. It includes our faith in God, in Christ, in man; in the moral character and the final issues of the present life; in the Father whom we worship, in the Son whom we honor, in the Holy Spirit which we receive; in our own opacity, and frailty; in the vileness and peril of sin; in the Gospel as a Divine gift; in progress as the law of man’s being, and in perfection as its end; in spiritual renovation, and spiritual experience; in love as the great principle of sanctification, and in eternal life as its consequence and reward. I would not be guilty of the presumption of forming a creed for others; but is there one of us, brethren, that would hesitate to acknowledge these as articles of his belief? They constitute the framework of our theology. They include the revealed, fundamental, vital truths of religion. Where is your Unitarian theology? it is said. In the Bible, We reply. In our hearts, again we reply. And I would briefly add, Here, in the doctrines of which 1 have now given the briefest statement. The existence, perfection, and unity of God; the universality and tenderness of his providence, the integrity of his government, the Divine authority of Jesus of Nazareth, the perpetual obligation of obedience, the efficacy of repentance, the exercise of mercy as sealed to the believer in the blood of the cross, the certainty of retribution; the promise of immortality, are these empty words, or disconnected phrases? Is there no substance nor consistency in these forms of thought? We have a theology, —a definite, compact theology. We "believe,” and therefore have we "spoken,” and by God’s grace will continue to speak, of the precious faith which unites us in a holy brotherhood.
The conditions of a sound theology, besides its reasonableness and its Scriptural origin, in both which respects we claim for our faith the superiority over other forms of belief, are, that it be positive, consistent, and efficacious. Ours is a positive theology. It consists in affirmation, not in denial. "The Unitarians have only a negative faith,” say religious journalists and Christian preachers all over the country; and the people believe them, — for who ought to be believed, if not ministers and editors of religious papers? And yet a more palpable falsehood never came from the pen or tongue of mortal man. Because the Unitarians do not believe all that other Christians believe, and moreover one of them years ago wrote a book which he entitled "A Statement of Reasons for not believing the Doctrines of Trinitarians,” therefore their faith is altogether negative! Conclusive proofs, truly! Look at the enumeration of our articles of faith; there is not one word of denial in them they are all affirmative propositions. The denial of a threefold distinction in the Divine nature, or of man's total depravity, or of a vicarious atonement, is not a part of our theology. The contents of a vessel are not what you pour out of it, but what you leave in it.
It is not only on one side that I hear the declaration, that we have no theology. Ever and anon, a lament over this want arises among ourselves, and a hope is expressed that the time will come when we shall not be all afloat on the sea of speculation. I deny that we are in this state now. Our theology at this very moment is better settled than the theology of half the Protestant sects about us. Will any one tell me what is incontrovertible doctrinal truth in the Episcopal, the Presbyterian, or the Congregational churches, -- not what are the phrases they agree to use, but what are the ideas they invariably connect with those phrases? Our theology is not so indistinct as some among us represent it to be. In regard to the attributes of the Divine character, for example, we speak with as much clearness and exactness as any body of Christians. Our views of human nature, while on some metaphysical questions we differ from one another, are not only negatively, but positively, definite. We have a theory, — be it true or false— we have what we believe to be a true and adequate theory of regeneration; and a theory, be it true or false, of retribution. We can state in explicit terms— whether right or wrong— the relation which, as we conceive, the mission and death of Christ hold to the sinner’s forgiveness and the soul’s salvation. It would lead me too far from my immediate purpose, or I might show how, on every one of the great points of religious interest, our conceptions are not less distinct, and are much more uniform, than those which we find in other denominations. A single illustration may not be improper. The doctrine of atonement is regarded by most believers as the central point of the Gospel. Now, on the one hand, let me remind you of the various theories which have been broached by zealous advocates, from the most offensive scheme of imputation to the latest resolution of the whole mystery into an objective illusion, and, on the other hand, describe our plain and Scriptural ground of "joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the atonement.” According to the ideas which enter into our faith, God freely forgives the penitent who with a true heart takes up a new life. He forgives, that is, he no longer regards him as an offender. In consequence of man’s voluntary change, the relations which existed between him and God are changed. God now accepts him as an obedient child, and he contemplates God as his tender Father. Mercy, which is the exercise of kind regards towards one who has merited rejection and condemnation, is declared by Christ to be waiting in the Divine mind to put on its fullest expression when the sinner shall humble himself in repentance and he, believing the truth of this declaration, as not only by the lips, but sealed in the blood, of the Lord Jesus, seizes on that mercy, is reconciled to God, and obtains a hope full of glory. Here is an intelligible explanation of the atonement. Other Christians require something more; they add the idea of a vicarious sacrifice, or some device by which the Heavenly Father may forgive the contrite sinner without impairing the integrity of his own character. We say that a free pardon on sincere repentance flows from the eternal perfection of God’s character, and is a necessary fact in his moral government of mankind. With the rest of the Christian world, we believe in mercy, and forgiveness, and faith, and repentance, as constituting the essential ideas that belong to the atonement, and differ from them in rejecting another idea which they have attempted to add, but which they have never yet been able to define to their mutual satisfaction. This single example is a sufficient refutation of the charge, that we have no settled or positive theology. We have theology enough, — good, true, Bible theology; and it is a shame to ignore or undervalue it.
And ours is a consistent as well as a positive theology. Its truths do not contradict one another, but have the essential characteristic of a science, — that they support and depend upon one another. The one recommendation of Calvinism is the mutual relation of its parts. Begin where you may, if you admit one point, you must admit the rest. And yet the internal harmony of Calvinism is artificial and mechanical, the correspondence to each other of the parts of a contrivance which man has made, the jointing and dovetailing of human hands, and not the natural dependence upon one another which we observe, for example, in the different portions of a plant. The singular beauty and excellence of our theology is, that its parts cohere with all the solidity, without the technical arrangement, of a system. As in the teaching of Jesus truths lie scattered about in apparent isolation, which a closer study of his life and an insight into his method of instruction show to have affinities that bring them into spiritual order, so do our doctrinal statements, beneath what seems to a superficial observer to be the independence of disconnection, maintain a union among themselves and produce a unity of impression upon the mind of the believer. A round the central fact of man’s being, the great truths of Divine beneficence, mercy, and judgment, and the associated doctrines of the Christian faith, arrange themselves by a law, I will not say, of moral crystallization, but of spiritual attraction.
And while our theology recommends itself to the scientific inquirer by its positive character and its self-consistency it has the still higher merit of adaptation to the ends for which it is needed. Its moral power is its glory. It is able to make men "wise unto salvation.” Presenting truths which the reason may approve and the intellect ponder, still this is not its highest office. It places these truths before the soul in an attitude which compels its submission. Truths are they, which quicken and invigorate the conscience, warm and cleanse the heart, at once control and sustain the will. A theology, this of ours, for the student in his closet, but not for the man who lives in the world, for the calm thinker, but not for the man of impetuous feelings and strong passions! Let him whose propensities need restraint, or who is surrounded by temptation, believe in the presence of a holy God, the majesty of the Divine law, or the claims of infinite love upon the gratitude and obedience of our race, and especially of every one to whom Christ has brought the revelation of the Father, — let him with all intelligent and cordial faith believe in the realities which we offer to his contemplation, and they will and must influence him. He will "stand in awe, and sin not.” The practical character of our belief entitles it to special regard. There is not a truth included among its articles that does not affect the dispositions or habits of the believer. There is not a want of the soul which it does not relieve.
Unitarian theology, therefore, has the three marks by which we distinguish that which is sound and true from the false. But again, if any one ask what are its truths, the answer may be, that they are the truths on which the various bodies of Christians concur. They are the common Christianity of all sects. By our positive views of doctrine, we are brought into sympathy with the universal Church. Where, then, is our peculiar theology? Why, just here. The peculiarity of our belief consists in our making the Christianity of all denominations the true exposition of the Gospel. It is painful to remark how slow men are in perceiving that our elevation of the current opinions of the Church into the place of essential truths of religion, and our refusal to allow any other opinions to share this distinction, may constitute as derisive a peculiarity as any novelty of statement or vehemence of expression. It is peculiar to us, it distinguishes us, that we make the catholic belief the true belief. If we alone maintain the sufficiency of this belief, what can more distinctly mark us than this very fact? The substantial difference between us and other Christians, I conceive, lies not so much in diversity of opinion upon certain questions of dogmatic theology as in the recognition by us of the right of every sincere follower of Jesus to the name and hope of a Christian, to whatever denomination he may belong, while others require the exercise or expression of faith in certain tenets peculiar to themselves. We of course prefer our own interpretation of Scripture, and wish that every one might see with us that it is the proper interpretation; we consider many of the errors that prevail around us pernicious. But we do not think that any one, whose heart is searched and his life controlled by the great truths which the various Christian bodies accept, can be in fatal error. The essential theology, therefore, according to us, is found in all these bodies; and this essential theology being, as I have said, that which remains after we have thrown away what gives a special character to the symbols of these several bodies, our peculiarity consists in making the common faith of the Church the essential faith of the believer. This seems to members of other communions a very meager faith, —nothing but what every Christian believes! Once concurrence with those who constituted the household of the saints was regarded as a just ground of satisfaction; but now, unless one add something to the common inheritance, he is thought to have "denied the faith” and to be "worse than an infidel.” It is made of little account to adore the incomprehensible greatness of God, unless one also believes in a certain mode of the Divine existence; to prostrate one’s self in gratitude before the cross of the Redeemer, unless he accept a particular explanation of the efficacy of his death; to tremble under the sense of moral responsibleness, and the consciousness of sin, unless he admit that, we are wholly ruined and incapable of ourselves to take a step towards a holy life! How is it possible to put greater dishonor on the fundamental truths of religion, than to pronounce them, not only logically incomplete, but morally inadequate?
I may detain you, brethren, only while, in a very few words, I remind you of the importance of this our peculiar theology. The remarks which were made in an earlier part of this address were intended to show that some fixed principles of belief are indispensable alike to an individual and to a denomination. There are some considerations that render our doctrinal exposition of Christianity worthy of our fondest regard, to which I may advert in conclusion.
First, it gives us just the unity and force as a denomination which we need. There is no other ground of unity on which we can erect the temple of concord. Attempts have been made again and again to take our love of freedom as the basis of union; but it is too broad a basis. It occupies too much ground for the superstructure. Some of us prefer the title of Liberal Christians to any other designation, because it expresses our candor and especially our attachment to the great, miscalled Protestant, principle of the right of private judgment; but it is not the name by which we may best be described. It does not define, does not limit us enough. If love of religious liberty be the ground of our denominational union, then Christians of every denomination may belong to us; for there are many in every church who prize their own freedom as dearly, and are as prompt to respect the rights of others, as we. Nay, men of no Christian denomination may belong to us; for the love of mental freedom may burn in the breasts of those who have not entered into visible connection with any body of believers. Nay, further, free-thinkers of every name and every class, men who stand in antagonism to everything but liberty, may belong to us; for they may all be actuated by a sincere regard for the rights of thought and of conscience. Now I have no objection to a union of all sorts of men on this basis. It may have its advantages and its pleasures, but the union which we need is of a different kind. Our sympathy and cooperation must have a basis of doctrinal agreement. I care little for the name we may take or be known by; perhaps it was an unwise choice which, in its result, has doomed us to be called, if we are called by any distinctive appellation, Unitarians. But that our union, our existence as a body acting together in mutual confidence and for certain great purposes, must rest on our theological persuasions, appears to me just as clear as that the union of the States which compose our republic must rest, not on the common love of civil liberty which animates the hearts of the people, nor on any circumstances of geographical position or historical association, but on the principles, the integrity, and the authority of that Constitution which the people of these United States have agreed to take as the expression and security of their political connection.
Hence I find in this basis of union the support of all lawful and laudable sectarian action. I believe that such action is right and best. I believe in sectarianism as a legitimate consequence of an earnest faith. What was told us last evening, by a layman who has looked at these subjects from a different point of observation from that which we, under professional influences, are apt to take? He told us — it was not a new thought, but it was a true one — that what a man esteems to be the gospel is his gospel; and that what he values as God’s most precious gift he should be anxious to communicate to others. This is sectarianism, — warm and practical attachment to a certain interpretation of the Christian records, in which an individual agrees with some persons, and differs from others. Of this sectarianism I wish the country and the world were full. I love to see a zealous Methodist. I love to see in a member of the Roman Catholic Church a profound reverence for that Church. Faith, zeal, labor, proselytism, — I can understand, respect, and admire them all; but I cannot reconcile lukewarmness with a well-settled belief, or with a just appreciation of God’s holy and gracious truth. There is a dread of sectarianism which bears so strong a resemblance to religious apathy or moral cowardice, that, if I did not know it belonged to some excellent men, I should mistake it for a vice. Let a man speak and act as if he prized what he receives as Divine truth. Let him desire for others a participation with himself in its comforts and hopes. Let him expend generous and vigorous effort in diffusing around him, through the land, over the world, the doctrines which he associates with the being of a God and the mediation of Christ. Let him join heart and hand with those who accept the same doctrines; and while he loves all who love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity, let his action be most strenuous, his connection most close, with those with whom he can act most freely, and yet most cordially. Such a sectarianism as this I should rejoice to see on every side. It would make us all better Christians. It would fill the earth with the knowledge of the Lord, and carry out the spirit of the prayer which we learned in our childhood, — "Thy kingdom come,” — and of that other prayer which was uttered amidst the sympathies of the last night of the Saviour’s ministry, — "I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one.”
For such a sectarianism does not produce bitterness or strife, but, on the contrary, nourishes a spirit of candor and Christian brotherhood. It may sound paradoxical, but I believe it is undeniably true, that an enlightened sectarianism is the root from which must spring a true charity: because an enlightened sectarianism, being founded on an intelligent acquaintance with both the principles and the grounds of the belief which it cherishes, and also with the principles and grounds of the various forms of belief around it, cannot be betrayed into injustice through ignorance, nor be led into a passionate defense of its own positions by a consciousness of inability to maintain them by calm and clear argument. And further still, it allows and respects in others the rights which it exercises itself, and thinks all the better of a theological opponent for his open and resolute vindication of his own faith. Bigots are generally men of narrow habits of thought, of little study, and very imperfect theological education. A man whose conclusions are the result of careful investigation will seldom be irritated by the remarks of others, and will never deny to them the privilege of independent thought.
But most of all do I value our theological tenets for the spiritual quality and efficacy which I have ascribed to them. They are "the power of God and the wisdom of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.” Beyond any other system of faith or interpretation of the sacred volume are they suited to expand and elevate the affections, to form the character to a solid and lofty excellence, to clothe the soul in the beauty of holiness, and to adorn the life with the graces of piety and philanthropy. Truth is the instrument of human regeneration and perfection. "Sanctify them,” said Jesus, "by thy truth.” This truth, if we hold it, as I believe we do more distinctly and exclusively than any other body of Christians, needs only to penetrate our hearts, and lay its mandates on our consciences, to make us children of the Highest, and partakers even now of the inheritance of the saints in light. We have seen what it can exhibit as the fruit of its influence here on earth. We have known those who were worthy to be called after the name of the Divine Teacher and perfect Model of spiritual excellence, who gratefully regarded this truth as the source of all the strength, place, goodness, or usefulness they had been able to acquire or manifest. The world has never seen examples of a nearer approach to perfection than we have beheld among hose who have gone from us. I need not name them. Their remembrance is written on our hearts. By the memories of the departed we are bound to the theology which they used for their souls’ improvement and recompense. By our duty to the present and our interest in the future are we also taught to advocate this theology, and to send it abroad for the good of others. The world waiteth in hope, that "it may be delivered from the bondage of corruption, into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” Here is the means of that deliverance. We look down the ages of coming time, not with the prophet’s inspired glance, but with the Christian’s clear vision, and we see struggle and conflict, impatience and disappointment, delay and disaster; but we see also, among the elements of confusion and suffering, one form that directs the energies of the people, subdues their restlessness, brings them out of their sorrows, and guides them to God and heaven through the knowledge of the blessed Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ; — and that form is the theology which presides over our deliberations, and animates our sympathies, and determines our efforts.
The preceding paragraph, and one or two others near the close, have been added since the delivery of the Address, as being necessary to the fair exhibition of the subject.