Of the Insufficiency of the Law

by John Brown of Haddington

Of the Insufficiency of the Law, and especially of the Light of Nature, to conduct Men to true and lasting felicity.

The Law of Nature, which hath been imperfectly exhibited in the preceding chapter, ought never to be confounded with the light of nature as now enjoyed. The law of nature is comprehensively known to God alone, to whom the whole number and forms of relations between himself and men are naked and open, [Heb 4:13] it is stable, permanent, uniform, and every where binding. The light of nature is that knowledge of the nature of God and of themselves, and of the duties resulting from the connections between them, which men actually possess. It is exceedingly diversified in its extent and degree, according to the different capacities, opportunities, and inclinations of men;—so that, in some parts of Tartary, Africa, America, and the Isles, where it receives no assistance or improvement from Divine Revelation, it appears little superior to the sagacity of some brutes.

Nevertheless, multitudes of our high pretenders to knowledge have extolled it as sufficient, nay, the only guide of mankind to true virtue and happiness. Having had their understandings informed and enlarged by means of revelation, and often pretending the highest regard to Christianity, they, in the most uncandid manner, endeavour to undermine its authority, and render it an object of ridicule;—or even to attack the fundamental principles of natural religion, because of their subserviency to it. None of these deistical, or more properly infidel, and often atheistical writers, that I know of, except Lord Herbert, and Blount his plagiary, have so much as pretended to exhibit a system of their law or religion of nature; but have contented themselves with rambling, crafty, or insolent attempts to render the oracles of God ridiculous in their matter or manner.

To ramble after them in all their manifold absurdities and whims, would be very impertinent here. We shall only review their principal or more common pretences, extracted from Tindal's Christianity as old as the creation, viz. 1. That the light of nature is absolutely sufficient to conduct men to all that virtue and happiness which is suited to their nature. 2. That the light of nature, proceeding from an infinitely wise, perfect, and unchangeable God, must be absolutely perfect and unchangeable, and that therefore all revelations from God must be unnecessary, except perhaps to remove prejudices. 3. That by the light of nature, we perceive God to be just, wise, good, and merciful,—happy in himself,—making and upholding nothing for his own honour, nor requiring any service from any creature for that end,—but doing all, chiefly in order to render them happy. 4. That God, influenced by his own infinite natural goodness, takes care to have this law of nature, which regulates the fitness of human deportments, implanted in, and sufficiently known to every man, as his circumstances require. 5. That the obligations of this law of nature are enforced with no sanction of future rewards or punishments, but merely with that pleasure or pain which attends human actions or the reflection on them, in this life. This creed of their long famous chief is a mixture of infidelity and atheism. But,

I. Our infidels never plainly or self-consistently inform us what their law of nature is, but represent it as reason, sentiment, or moral sense, by which men discern good from evil, virtue from vice, in much the same manner as our taste discerns sweet from bitter, or our sight black from white, beauty from deformity. Now, 1. This cannot be a law at all. If both God and men, as they pretend, be under it, from whence doth it derive its authority?—If it hath no authority from an enacter, how can it be either obeyed or transgressed? If it could be transgressed, there is no proper penalty enforcing it, to seize on the disobedient subject. If God himself be a subject of this law of nature, conscience, as his deputy, cannot punish men for breaking it. And, unless every man, at once, have two, and not one person, his own nature cannot at once punish, as the principal judge, and be punished as the guilty criminal.—Besides, the more any man is accustomed to any vice, his inward remorse, on committing it, becomes less, and perhaps his pleasure the greater.—If then the pleasure or pain attending actions in this life, be all the possible sanction of rewards or punishments annexed to this law of nature, then the more multiplied and aggravated the transgressions of it become, they will be the less punished, if not the more largely rewarded.—No human laws can supply this defect. They reach but to a few more gross and public transgressions,—and often, at least as executed, bear more hard upon the virtuous, than upon the most notoriously vicious.—Even in polite and learned Athens, how few distinguished themselves in excellency, real or apparent, without hazarding their own banishment, imprisonment, or death? 2. If it should be insisted, that this moral sense, sentiment, or reason, as in every man's heart, is a law, men's diversified conduct, where they have been no way biassed by revelation, would manifest it to be either not self-consistent, or very obscure and unknown to men. The ancient Germans and the Siberians, almost to our own times, cast their newly born infants into rivers, lakes, or ponds, that by their swimming or sinking, it might be determined which should be brought up, or suffered to perish. The ancient Ammonites, and others, burnt their children in sacrifice to Moloch and other idols. The African Giagas murdered most of their babes, and one of their queens pounded her only son in a mortar, and then anointed her body with his substance. The Caffres still expose their infants in woods,—while multitudes of other parents have been, and are, inwardly disposed to love, protect, and provide for their children:—While many nations of ancient Celts or Gauls were exceedingly kind to strangers. Some Scythian nations murdered their guests,—admitted none to marriage or to their solemn festivals, who had not killed one or more of a different tribe; and at their solemn banquets drank out of the skulls of the persons whom they had murdered.—In ancient times, the Gauls, Greeks, Spaniards, Egyptians, Carthaginians, and many others, offered human sacrifices to their idols. Not many ages ago, the Mexicans are said to have sacrificed 64,000 persons at the dedication of one temple. Many of the ancient Goths, Saxons, etc. thought that violent death by their own or some other hand, was absolutely necessary to introduce then to future happiness, at least of the higher kind. The ancient Gauls and others founded property on strength of hand, and pretended that every person had a just right to that which he could force from his neighbour, especially of another tribe. The Spartans held theft to be innocent, if it was but shrewdly committed. The enlightened Romans battered down the temples of their gods, to punish them for not preserving the life of their beloved prince and general, Germanicus. When the wise Chinese cannot obtain the favours which they have requested from their idols, they prosecute them at law, in order to recover the presents with which they had courted their kindness. Notwithstanding all their high reputation for wisdom, the ancient Egyptians worshipped plants, cats, dogs, crocodiles, pyed bulls, and the like; and many of the Africans do much the same to this day. The learned Greeks had about 30,000 gods, and the Romans, who knows how many.—Had all these in their breast a law of nature, moral sense, sentiment, or reason, altogether different from, and opposite to that which is in the breast of men otherwise minded? Or, have the wild Arabs, who will hazard their life to protect strangers and guests by night, whom they would have willingly murdered in their fields by day, one law of nature for the day, and another for the night?—Nor was it the mere vulgar, for and from whom nevertheless, as most numerous, the standard law of nature ought to be drawn, that discovered such strange reason, sentiment, or moral sense. No: It is recorded that Lycurgus, the famed lawgiver of Sparta, authorised sodomy and artful or bold theft;—that Socrates abounded in profane swearing, practised sodomy, and for gain prostituted his wife to his lecherous friends; and, notwithstanding his belief of one God, professed before his judges his acknowledgment of the gods of his country, and in his last moments, ordered a cock to be sacrificed to them;—that Plato practised sodomy, and was a notorious liar;—that one of the famed Catos principally promoted the Romans' villanous destruction of Carthage; another of them villanously robbed of his kingdom the rightful, but young King of Cyprus, whom the Romans were in honour bound to protect,—was dupe to the profligate Clodius, and at last killed himself;—that Cicero, the famed philosopher, when his daughter died, cried out, in a rage, I hate the gods;—that on losing the battle of Philippi, the virtuous Brutus exclaimed, that he had been long following virtue, and had at last found it to be a mere empty name;—that Seneca, with all his famed morality, was exceedingly covetous, encouraged Nero to murder his mother, and believed good men, and no doubt himself, to be better than the gods, these being good by nature, those by their own care and labour;—that the sagacious Blount murdered himself.—Nay, notwithstanding all their pretences to superlative wisdom and knowledge, our modern infidel doctors do not appear to know what the law of nature requires,—whether virtue consists in acting according to some moral instinct, leading men to practise it themselves, and approve it in others, without any regard to its reasonableness or advantages,—or in acting according to the reason and truth, or real circumstances of things; or, in acting according to some inward feeling,—or, in acting that which is beautiful.—Hume, the great modern pillar of infidelity, who perhaps neither believed a God, a heaven, or a hell, places virtue in that which is useful and agreeable to natural inclinations, as in broad shoulders, well-shaped legs, if not also in pride, adultery, etc. 3. This pretended law of nature can make no proper impression on men's minds.—From the above, and a thousand like instances, it is plain, that multitudes, instead of being deeply awed and affected by its all-determining power, seem to find pleasure in doing that which is most vile, horrid, hurtful, and unnatural. The most of the conduct of the enlightened Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, in their worship and wars, amounted to almost nothing else.—Now, if human nature be still good and uncorrupted, how extremely weak must the determining influence of this perfect law of nature be, as engraved on every man's heart, if, when assisted by so very many extrinsic inducements, it cannot excite one of a thousand to the actual study of virtue. If human nature be morally vitiated, men's moral sense, sentiment, or reason, must proportionally be corrupted with ignorance and vicious inclination: And if so, how can it be a proper and unerring guide to true virtue and lasting felicity?—In vain it is pretended, that our Reason will sufficiently assist our moral sense or sentiment; for, as Lord Shaftesbury, an Infidel doctor, observes, "Few men can think, and of those who do, few can guide their thoughts."—None act more plainly contrary to Reason, than our high pretenders to free and deep thinking. While Reason strongly inculcates temperance as a salutary virtue, how many of them adventure on the intoxicating glass,—or risk their honour, their wealth, their health, and even their life, with an abominable harlot?—While Reason suggests it to be more virtuous, honourable, and profitable to converse with their Maker, listening to his word, and pouring forth their hearts to him in prayer and praise,—how many of them prefer grunting like swine over the stupifying or inebriating bowl, or to lie wallowing in their vomit!—While Reason dictates the propriety of candour and decency,—how many of them abandon themselves to the basest villany, grossest falsehood, most glaring self-contradiction, or most scurrilous abuse, in their attacks upon the sacred oracles, or the professed ministers of Christ? Nay, how inconsistent with common sense, is their attempting to diminish the motives to virtue or determents from vice, in taking off men the chain of divine authority with the apprehensions of future rewards and punishments,—thus sounding an alarm to all around, that they may safely fall on themselves, their friends, or their property, without any danger of the eternal vengeance of God?—In vain it is pretended, that human laws and instructions may assist men's moral sense or sentiment, in directing them to virtue; for, if human nature itself be corrupted, human laws and instructions bid fair to be tainted with this corruption; and if, as infidels pretend, God be subject to the law of nature, they can have no proper authority.—Besides, human laws reach only to externals, in which neither the principal substance nor parts of virtue, nor the rewards of it, nor the punishments of vice, consist.—And, notwithstanding all these laws and instructions, as well as all the external providences of God, and their tendency to promote virtue, the far greater part of men continue notoriously vicious.—In vain it is retorted, That neither doth the Christian law restrain its professed subjects from vice;—for, according to God's own revealed declaration, it is but written on the hearts of a few of those called Christians, and that but very imperfectly, while they live in this world.—No wonder then that many who bear that name, are a reproach to their profession,—especially as our infidel doctors, and their numerous friends, in order to disgrace and undermine the Christian religion, basely pretend to profess it, and presume to partake of its sealing ordinances. 4. This infidel-law of nature provides no proper method, nay leaves no possibility, of rooting out the wrong prejudices of education or custom. For, though my moral sense, sentiment, or Reason, should be really corrupted, how can that be documented? If the law of nature be implanted in my heart, as well as in that of my neighbour, how can he prove that my moral sense is not as pure and as much to be trusted as his own? Or, if I should grant that mine is corrupted, what authority has either God or man to correct my mistakes, if they be under the same Law of nature? Or, if, on account of God's superior goodness and wisdom, I allow him a power to correct my errors, yet what assurance have I, that he will rectify my judgment and vicious inclinations, after I have willingly, if not wilfully, corrupted myself? If he should graciously offer me this favour, how can I believe either him or his messengers, without sufficient credentials of divine wisdom, goodness, power, and authority? If such credentials be produced, I have already slipt off from the mere law of nature, and am entered into the Revelation scheme.—To avoid these embarrassing difficulties, it is pretended, That God can require no more of men, than what they see to be their duty, and are able to perform. But, how absurdly! Must men, by indulging in sloth or vice, procure for themselves a right to diminish their duty to God or men, as they please?—and yet God be obliged to accept of their conduct as a perfect obedience to his law,—and of themselves on account of it?—Must men have power to abridge or alter the absolutely perfect law of nature, as they please, and God be obliged to accept of unnatural lust, theft, murder, worshipping of leeks, onions, bulls, serpents, cats, dogs, etc. as virtue, because some men have thought them lawful and good?

II. After the evidence which has been given of the obscurity, weakness, imperfection, or inconsistency of the light or infidel-law of nature, it is highly absurd to pretend, that it either must be, or is absolutely perfect, because it originates from an absolutely perfect author.—Why must all effects produced by perfect causes be absolutely perfect? Must Clodius, Catiline, Tiberius, Nero, Heliogabalus, necessarily be as virtuous and perfect as Socrates, Epictetus, and Antoninus,—because the same infinitely wise and perfect God made them all? Must all creatures, or even all men, be infinitely, or even equally perfect, because God, their common parent, is so? Are unborn infants as perfect men and women as their parents? Are thieves and murderers, whores and whoremongers, absolutely perfect, because an infinitely perfect God formed them?—Nay, might not a law be absolutely perfect in itself, and yet not calculated to promote men's happiness, in some particular circumstances?—Nay, though the circumstances of mankind were unchangeable, as well as the nature of God, yet what natural obligation can lie upon God, to reveal the whole of his mind and will to them at the very first, more than lies upon a master to give his whole possible directions to a servant, that moment he enters on his service?—Though the relations between God and men should remain unaltered, yet might not men be imperfectly acquainted with some of these relations, or through mistake or prejudice neglect or too slightly perform the duties of them? In such a case, might not God reveal to them some new hints, which might more fully instruct, excite, or enable them, to the right performance of such duties? If he did, might he not require their attention to these intimations of his will, and mark his displeasure with such as contemned them?—If men's circumstances be changed from what they were at first, why may not new duties, suited thereto, be necessary;—even as many things relative to eating and drinking, etc., are necessary to sick persons, which are not to those that are in health?—If new relations take place between God and men, why may not some new duties, or new forms of duty, be enjoined on them by him?—If, notwithstanding all the innumerable changes of his creatures, God still continue the same, absolutely perfect and unchangeable, why may not he continue such, notwithstanding he institute some temporary laws suited to the circumstances of mankind?—Must he be an arbitrary tyrant, if, as a wise Governor, he issue forth some new laws or instructions to his subjects, or at least, in a new manner, when he observes, that their altered circumstances require it?

III. It is readily granted, and hath been formerly proved, that the uncorrupted light of nature manifests the wisdom, power, goodness, equity, and some other perfections of God. But it is irrefragably evident, that the light of nature, as possessed by every man in his present corrupted state, amidst so many powerful vicious inclinations and customs, doth not afford proper views of them.—Who knoweth not, how fearfully the wise Egyptians, the learned Chaldeans, the intelligent Greeks, and the enlightened Romans, became vain in their imaginations? [Rom 1:21]—and that, at least the vulgar, who, being most numerous, ought to have had the law of nature peculiarly adapted to them, and who certainly had it in their breasts as well as others, looked on their gods as exceedingly numerous, and many of them as absolute monsters of cruelty, unchastity, theft, low revenge, and other abominations, in which they themselves delighted.—If all the notions of the modern Siberians, Kamchatkans, Hottentots, and Patagonians, which are very little corrupted by Revelation,—or even of the ancient Sabians, Magians, and Hellenists, relative to religion, were collected, What a fine system of theology should we have?—How many thousand gods?—How many antic ceremonies, more resembling the ridiculous ape, the cruel tiger, or the nasty sow, than a rational creature worshipping his God?—Meanwhile, how could ever men's inward law of nature infallibly assure them of the infinite power, wisdom, goodness, or equity of the sun, moon, and stars,—or of pyed bulls, serpents, dogs, cats, leeks, onions, stones, stocks, etc. which it is certain they worshipped as gods, and instead of the true God.—Nay, had our infidel doctors been nothing indebted to that Revelation which they so uncandidly abuse, it is not probable, that their knowledge would have much transcended that of some brutes.

It hath never been proved that the light of nature manifests God never as merciful to the transgressors of his law.—In his common providence, there are manifold instances of his patience. But who knows but he may be enduring with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction? [Rom 9:22]—If men be still in their original state, they cannot be miserable, and so not proper objects of mercy.—If they have fallen from it, they must have done so, by their deviation from the law of their infinite Sovereign, and from attention to the infinitely important end of his honour, and the general good of his creatures,—and hence their crime must be infinitely heinous.—Now, what certain proof doth the Light of nature afford us, that God will forgive an infinite crime, without full satisfaction to his justice; or that he will render men happy to the uttermost, if, for the time to come, they do the best, that their corrupt nature, which is enmity against him, deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, [Jer 17:9] is capable of?—Must God trample on his own infinite majesty and honour, or on his own infinite equity to himself and his creatures, that his mercy may be exercised on treacherous rebels?—Can even a magistrate, consistent with wisdom, goodness, and equity, save murderers from punishment, and promote them to honour, providing they become penitent?—Doth not the almost universal oblation of sacrifices among heathens clearly prove, that their consciences dictated to them, That God cannot be merciful and kind to transgressors, even though penitent, without receiving a proper atonement to his justice for their crimes.

Meanwhile, if it be considered that, in those countries where men have had least access to Revelation, they have been, and still are, little better than a kind of sagacious, but savage brutes; and that men's knowledge hath increased in proportion to their immediate access to, and improvement of it; it appears probable, that every proper sentiment concerning the nature of God or of man, and concerning moral virtue, among the Chaldeans, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Celts, Chinese, Indians, or others, owed its rise or revival to the diffused sparks of revelation.

Neither the law nor the light of nature teacheth that God proposeth the highest happiness of his creatures as his sole or principal end in making and managing them, without ever intending his own glory; or that, in consequence of this, rational creatures are under no obligation to aim at his honour as their chief end, in all their conduct; and that he cannot be offended with them if they act according to their own inclinations.—If the advancing men's happiness to the highest were God's sole, or even chief end, in his creating, upholding, and governing them, why, notwithstanding all his infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, is this end so much defeated, and men for the most part miserable?—Why are not all of them in Africa, Tartary, Greenland, and America, and Britain, equally happy, honoured, healthy, intelligent, and useful, being equally the work of his hands?—Hath he formed in them a free will, which he cannot govern to promote their own welfare? Or, have the villanous priests been capable to defeat his kind intentions, wise purposes, and almighty influences?—In vain it is pretended that the salutary corrections of a future state may rectify the miseries into which men bring themselves, by their mistakes in this. For, what if God should reckon it folly to lavish his favours, in a future state, upon such as obstinately die in their crimes?—Or, what if he should have determined to be favourable no more to them?—Or, if men, or any thing else, can defeat all his endeavours to promote his chief, his sole end, in this life, why may they not be capable to do it for ever?—Nay, if rendering men happy to the uttermost was his principal or sole end, how can he, consistent with his infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, permit them ever to be, in the least, miserable?—Not therefore the advancing their happiness to the highest, but the manifesting the glory of his own perfections, must have been his chief end, in making and managing of men, and of every other creature.—If so, every attempt to defeat or deviate from that important end, must be infinitely criminal.—Is it then to be supposed, that men ought never to regard this end or their own eternal welfare, as dependent on it?—Or, that God will sit unconcerned at their pouring contempt on it, and their thus attempting to murder himself, the infinite Maker, Upholder, and Governor of the world; and to ruin the welfare, the existence of all his creatures, which depend on him for every thing?—Nay, though we could suppose that God's own honour had not been his chief end in making and managing the world, it might be our duty to make it our chief end in our whole conduct.—Though a benevolent friend should not chiefly, or even not at all, have in view his own honour in freely supplying our wants, it might be our duty to regard chiefly his honour, in testifying our thankfulness.

IV. It is readily admitted, that God's infinite goodness determines him to make his law of nature sufficiently known to his innocent rational creatures. But it hath been sufficiently proved, that he neither doth, nor is obliged to make it perfectly and clearly known to mankind in their present state. And, if he were obliged to render it sufficiently known to them, why might he not restore the knowledge of it by revelation, if its natural impressions be lost?

V. We readily grant that future rewards of virtue, which depend not on any natural relation betwixt God and men, but on federal agreements, cannot be proved to be an enforcement of the law of nature. But we can never admit, that future punishments of vice are not a penal, nay the principal penal sanction of the law of nature.—How can God, in justice to himself or to his creatures, forbear to point his indignation against the man who attempts to be their common destroyer?—If he duly regard his own infinite excellencies, how can he mark the horrid blasphemer, the bloody murderer, and the rapacious thief, as no less his favourites, than the most virtuous and devout persons?—If he be infinitely displeased with sin, why may not he punish it, when, where, and how he pleaseth?—By what right or power can any limit his patient longsuffering towards the guilty?—If they persist in their sin till their death, why may they not be punished in a future state?—If they sin as long as they can, why may not God punish their sin as long as he can?—If sin, as committed against infinite perfection and authority, in opposition to an infinitely important end, and as an attempt to dishonour, to destroy an infinitely precious God, be infinitely criminal, how can any punishment of it less than infinite be adequate?—And, how can it be executed on a finite person, but in his eternal damnation?—If the justice of God require the infliction of such punishment, it is needless to inquire how it can be useful to other creatures. And yet, who knows how the future punishment of sinners may enhance the everlasting happiness of the virtuous;—how much it may impress their minds with a delightful sense of God's goodness to them;—or with a complacent acquiescence in the eternal vindication of his own infinite excellencies, in the punishment of those impious wretches that on earth contemned them?—Moreover, though we should suppose future troubles to be no more than salutary corrections, no more than probable, or even possible, the law of nature which directs men to provide food, raiment, houses, and the like, for a future period, which they will perhaps never enjoy, must also direct them to use every known and proper means of preventing or escaping them.


From The Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington

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