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SECOND SERIES, NO. II.-WHOLE NO. XXXIV.
WHAT IS SIN?
Translation of a passage from Vitringa's OBSERVATIONES Sacrae in relation to this question, with introductory and other Remarks.
By M. Stuart, Prof. Sac. Lit. Theol. Sem. Andover.
THERE are times in every Christian country, when accurate definitions of important terms in theology are peculiarly needed. Such a time seems to have already arrived in our own. Disputes have recently arisen among our theologians, and they are so carried on as to assume a grave and somewhat threatening aspect.
There are periods, (there have been such in our country), when pastors and churches can walk together, with the full and quiet persuasion that there is no essential difference of sentiment among them, while they are still conscious that differences of opinion in regard to topics not fundamental, or modes of explanation, do actually exist. There have been times, when he that was deemed weak in the faith, was still received with cordiality by his brethren, who felt themselves, perhaps, to be more vigorous in their belief; and received, too, in such a way as "did not lead to doubtful disputations." Yet there may be different times, as we are now compelled to believe, which, like some comet portending disaster and filling the public mind with consternation, must pass over us, when every thing appears to be verging to jealousy and disputation. It would seem to matter 34
SECOND SERIES, VOL. 1. NO. II.
but little what the actual subject of jealousy and dispute may be, whether a pebble or a crown; it is enough that such a subject exists. The smallest trifle will sometimes, in certain states of the public mind, raise up a quarrel as effectually as the most important matter which can be named. The spirit of the day now and then becomes such as will lead on to a quarrel; and nothing, it would seem, will appease this spirit, short of the very thing at which it aims, i. e. contention, carried on as vigorously and as far as the nature of the case admits.
The churches of our country, in the North and the South, (I speak now of the evangelical Presbyterian and Congregational churches), have, ever since the settlement of this country, walked together, until recently, on terms of amity and peace. It was once generally thought, and to all practical purposes was fully believed by most Christians, that there were not differences between them of magnitude enough to justify any earnest dispute or active disagreement. But those happy days, as it now seems, have passed or are passing away; and what was once regarded, at the most, as being nothing more than a venial error in respect to faith, is now becoming, or has already become, in the eyes of some a dangerous, and of others perhaps even a damnable, heresy.
What can have been the cause of introducing such times as these? Is there any development of opinions which are altogether novel, or really heretical, in the North or in the South? I know of none. There may be, indeed, now and then a solitary individual who is noisy and assuming, and who throws out paradoxical opinions, more, as I apprehend, to bring himself into notice, than out of any sincere and enlightened regard to religious truth. Such may be found, here and there, both in the North and in the South. But this is nothing new. It has always been so. Enthusiasts, and ignorant, and self-sufficient, and noisy declaimers of paradoxes, are not peculiar to any age or to any country.
Yet the times have been, among us, when phenomena of this kind did not excite any special commotion. Our peaceable and quiet pastors and churches looked on the glare of such meteors for a little while, as men are wont to look upon something new and strange; and then, turning away, went quietly on with their own great business, as usual. They did not once dream of putting to the account of a whole community, what here and there an enthusiast or an extravagant man either said or did.
They considered him as living and acting in, for, and by himself; not as a federal head of a whole section of country or of a great community.
Who does not spontaneously utter a sigh for the reappearance of this feature of the past, whatever may have been the deficiencies of by-gone days in other respects? Alas! It is difficult now to foresee what may ensue from the present state of feeling, which exists even more extensively, as I apprehend, than most persons appear to be aware of. The time seems to be approaching, when those who profess to be disciples of the same Master, and to love one another as Christian brethren, will not only refuse to support and patronize theological schools in common, but will not unite even in missionary efforts either at home or abroad, or in disseminating the holy Scriptures themselves. Yea, even more; the bonds of brotherhood are not simply to be broken, but active war itself is to be waged, to the extermination, if possible, of one of the parties.
How can the impartial and considerate inquirer account for such an altered state of things? No one cause, that I can name, seems adequate to the effects that have already been produced. Many causes, therefore, would seem to have been combined in the introduction of these threatening appearances;-causes, which it may be the duty of some ecclesiastical historian hereafter to investigate and describe, but which it would be foreign to my design particularly to mention at the present time.
My object in the communication now to be made, is peace. "Blessed are the peace-makers," is a sublime and holy sentiment of the gospel-a very expressive portion of the Sermon on the Mount. It is a sentiment worthy of the Prince of Peace who uttered it. It should be engraven on the hearts of all his followers.
But although such is my definite object, yet I cannot agree in opinion with those, who think that peace is to be effectually restored and preserved, by quashing all investigation of controverted subjects, or by refraining from the expression of any opinion respecting them. Less still can I agree with such, if such there are, who cry peace! peace! to both parties, and talk and write against all public and open discussion, while in their limited and private spheres of action they shew themselves to be devoted partizans, and labour with untiring diligence not only to inculcate their own particular views, but secretly to undermine those of their opponents. I cannot but think this course
to be unfortunate, because, where any thing is done on such grounds, it becomes of course a matter of suspicion and jealousy to the public. Men of an ardent and active temperament, who are usually all energy in regard to any object in which they engage, will hardly obtain credit for being actually silent and inert with respect to the controverted topics of the day, which are deemed to be of high importance. The reason of this is, their silence is unnatural. It is therefore construed as a mere ruse de guerre; and for the most part, probably, it is right so to interpret it.
The effects, moreover, of such a suspicion may be easily conjectured. Jealousy, fear, offence, because there seems to be a want of plainness and frankness and sincerity, are the natural consequences of such a course; and one need not stop to say, how bitterly such feelings aggravate the animosity of disputants. The more honorable among contending parties are always disgusted with taciturn cunning and wily management, which strives to avoid all open responsibility. They will sooner bear with a man who is even rash, impetuous, and assuming, while they believe him to be sincere, than with one who says: "Art thou in health, my brother?" while his dagger is in readiness for a thrust under the fifth rib, so soon as this can be secretly made.
In my apprehension, men appear most magnanimous in times of dispute, who take an open part; who do not pretend to any indifference as to controverted matters, nor to consider them as unimportant; but who, notwithstanding their openly professed views and sentiments, have an elevation of feeling and an illumination of mind sufficient to make them kind, and gentle, and forbearing towards those who differ from them. What magnanimity is there in overlooking that which is wholly a matter of indifference in itself? None at all. But if a man can persuade himself to make a separation between things essential to religion, and things unessential; between the person and the dress; between the scaffolding and the building; and consequently not insist on making heresy out of secondary matters instead of primary ones; then he may very sincerely think it not by any means an affair of indifference, what kind of costume is worn, (for one kind may surely be more graceful and becoming and comfortable than another), while he still thinks, that it would be rude and even criminal in him, to treat his neighbour with coldness and severity because he did not choose such cos
tume as he himself prefers. In short, true magnanimity bears patiently and meekly with those who differ from us in opinion, in cases not regarded as altogether unimportant. But on the other hand, these causes of difference must not be of an essential or fundamental nature; for there can be no magnanimity in refusing to testify against such differences, or to oppose them in every lawful and proper manner.
Plain and open-hearted frankness is, beyond all doubt, a very important requisite, in order to heal the breaches which are made by religious disputation. The moment that any real ground is afforded for apprehension that a religious champion is 'crafty and would catch us with guile,' that moment our confidence, and in a great measure our respect, are spontaneously withdrawn. It is not in human nature to do otherwise than to withdraw it, under such circumstances. It is, moreover, a just retribution. But, on the other hand, while every man should be open and frank, this is no good reason why he should be pugnacious, or assuming, or overbearing, or passionate. There is. some medium iter, which good sense and kind feeling and a proper regard to our own infirmities bid us to choose. It is certainly very evident, that a man who rears as his only banner that which is inscribed: Contend earnestly, and folds up and lays aside that which is inscribed: The servant of the Lord must not strive, but be gentle unto all men. in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves, will fight, not the good fight of faith, but the battles of passion and prejudice and dogmatism. How often is one constrained, who looks with an attentive eye on the contests of party spirit, to ask: What difference is there between the spirit of combat on the arena of religious controversy, and that on the arena of fashion and honour? The weapons of the former are not, indeed, the pistol, or the rifle, or the sword; but they are not unfrequently the envenomed arrows of deadly tongues and of poisonous breath, which are designed to smite and to slay with secret wounds, where the open sight of blood would excite sympathies fatal to the cause which is thus defended. There may be gladiators full of the odium theologicum, who would be duellists in another position. where they sustained another and a different relation to society.
In almost all great disputes, there is, moreover, one party, if they may be so called, who are perhaps not very numerous nor prominent, and yet have some distinctive and palpable characteristics. I mean those who possess, or profess to enter