Lengthy, if you read the whole of it, but well worth the time.
Befitting a long name, a longish sermon on a most important point.
William Greenough Thayer Shedd was born in June of 1820 of a distinguished New England lineage. Sensing the call to the ministry, he attended Andover Theological Seminary, and then became a pastor in the Congregational denomination in Vermont. Even though he was Old School Reformed in his thinking, he taught briefly at the New School Presbyterian institution of Auburn Theological Seminary, from 1852-1854. Leaving Auburn, he was professor of church history at Andover from 1853-1862, and then for two years as co-pastor at the Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City. His life’s primary work occurred while teaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he was to teach for eleven years, 1874-1892. He died on November 17, 1894.
SIN IN THE HEART THE SOURCE OF ERROR IN THE HEAD
ROMANS i. 28.—”As they did not like to retain God in their knowledge,
God gave them over to a reprobate mind.”
In the opening of the most logical and systematic treatise in the New Testament, the Epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul enters upon a line of argument to demonstrate the ill-desert of every human creature without exception. In order to this, he shows that no excuse can be urged upon the ground of moral ignorance. He explicitly teaches that the pagan knows that there is one Supreme God (Rom. i. 20); that He is a spirit (Rom. i. 23); that He is holy and sin-hating (Rom. i. 18); that He is worthy to be worshipped (Rom. i. 21, 25); and that men ought to be thankful for His benefits (Rom. i. 21). He affirms that the heathen knows that an idol is a lie (Rom. i. 25); that licentiousness is a sin (Rom. i. 26, 32); that envy, malice, and deceit are wicked (Rom. i. 29, 32); and that those who practise such sins deserve eternal punishment (Rom. i. 32).
In these teachings and assertions, the apostle has attributed no small amount and degree of moral knowledge to man as man,—to man outside of Revelation, as well as under its shining light. The question very naturally arises: How comes it to pass that this knowledge which Divine inspiration postulates, and affirms to be innate and constitutional to the human mind, should become so vitiated? The majority of mankind are idolaters and polytheists, and have been for thousands of years. Can it be that the truth that there is only one God is native to the human spirit, and that the pagan “knows” this God? The majority of men are earthly and sensual, and have been for thousands of years. Can it be that there is a moral law written upon their hearts forbidding such carnality, and enjoining purity and holiness?
Some theorizers argue that because the pagan man has not obeyed the law, therefore he does not know the law; and that because he has not revered and worshipped the one Supreme Deity, therefore he does not possess the idea of any such Being. They look out upon the heathen populations and see them bowing down to stocks and stones, and witness their immersion in the abominations of heathenism, and conclude that these millions of human beings really know no better, and that therefore it is unjust to hold them responsible for their polytheism and their moral corruption. But why do they confine this species of reasoning to the pagan world? Why do they not bring it into nominal Christendom, and apply it there? Why does not this theorist go into the midst of European civilization, into the heart of London or Paris, and gauge the moral knowledge of the sensualist by the moral character of the sensualist? Why does he not tell us that because this civilized man acts no better, therefore he knows no better? Why does he not maintain that because this voluptuary breaks all the commandments in the decalogue, therefore he must be ignorant of all the commandments in the decalogue? that because he neither fears nor loves the one only God, therefore he does not know that there is any such Being?
It will never do to estimate man’s moral knowledge by man’s moral character. He knows more than he practises. And there is not so much difference in this particular between some men in nominal Christendom, and some men in Heathendom, as is sometimes imagined. The moral knowledge of those who lie in the lower strata of Christian civilization, and those who lie in the higher strata of Paganism, is probably not so very far apart. Place the imbruted outcasts of our metropolitan population beside the Indian hunter, with his belief in the Great Spirit, and his worship without images or pictorial representations; beside the stalwart Mandingo of the high table-lands of Central Africa, with his active and enterprising spirit, carrying on manufactures and trade with all the keenness of any civilized worldling; beside the native merchants and lawyers of Calcutta, who still cling to their ancestral Boodhism, or else substitute French infidelity in its place; place the lowest of the highest beside the highest of the lowest, and tell us if the difference is so very marked. Sin, like holiness, is a mighty leveler. The “dislike to retain God” in the consciousness, the aversion of the heart towards the purity of the moral law, vitiates the native perceptions alike in Christendom and Paganism.
The theory that the pagan is possessed of such an amount and degree of moral knowledge as has been specified has awakened some apprehension in the minds of some Christian theologians, and has led them, unintentionally to foster the opposite theory, which, if strictly adhered, to, would lift off all responsibility from the pagan world, would bring them in innocent at the bar of God, and would render the whole enterprise of Christian missions a superfluity and an absurdity. Their motive has been good. They have feared to attribute any degree of accurate knowledge of God and the moral law, to the pagan world, lest they should thereby conflict with the doctrine of total depravity. They have mistakenly supposed, that if they should concede to every man, by virtue of his moral constitution, some correct apprehensions of ethics and natural religion, it would follow that there is some native goodness in him. But light in the intellect is very different from life in the heart. It is one thing to know the law of God, and quite another thing to be conformed to it. Even if we should concede to the degraded pagan, or the degraded dweller in the haunts of vice in Christian lands, all the intellectual knowledge of God and the moral law that is possessed by the ruined archangel himself, we should not be adding a particle to his moral character or his moral excellence. There is nothing of a holy quality in the mere intellectual perception that there is one Supreme Deity, and that He has issued a pure and holy law for the guidance of all rational beings. The mere doctrine of the Divine Unity will save no man. “Thou believest,” says St. James, “that there is one God; thou doest well, the devils also believe and tremble.” Satan himself is a monotheist, and knows very clearly all the commandments of God; but his heart and will are in demoniacal antagonism with them. And so it is, only in a lower degree, in the instance of the pagan, and of the natural man, in every age, and in every clime. He knows more than he practises. This intellectual perception therefore, this inborn constitutional apprehension, instead of lifting up man into a higher and more favorable position before the eternal bar, casts him down to perdition. If he knew nothing at all of his Maker and his duty, he could not be held responsible, and could, not be summoned to judgment. As St. Paul affirms: “Where there is no law there is no transgression.” But if, when he knew God in some degree, he glorified him not as God to that degree; and if, when the moral law was written upon the heart he went counter to its requirements, and heard the accusing voice of his own conscience; then his mouth must be stopped, and he must become guilty before his Judge, like any and every other disobedient creature.
It is this serious and damning fact in the history of man upon the globe, that St. Paul brings to view, in the passage which we have selected as the foundation of this discourse. He accounts for all the idolatry and sensuality, all the darkness and vain imaginations of paganism, by referring to the aversion of the natural heart towards the one only holy God. “Men,” he says,—these pagan men—”did not like to retain God in their knowledge.” The primary difficulty was in their affections, and not in their understandings. They knew too much for their own comfort in sin. The contrast between the Divine purity that was mirrored in their conscience, and the sinfulness that was wrought into their heart and will, rendered this inborn constitutional idea of God a very painful one. It was a fire in the bones. If the Psalmist, a renewed man, yet not entirely free from human corruption, could say: “I thought of God and was troubled,” much more must the totally depraved man of paganism be filled with terror when, in the thoughts of his heart, in the hour when the accusing conscience was at work, he brought to mind the one great God of gods whom he did not glorify, and whom he had offended. It was no wonder, therefore, that he did not like to retain the idea of such a Being in his consciousness, and that he adopted all possible expedients to get rid of it. The apostle informs us that the pagan actually called in his imagination to his aid, in order to extirpate, if possible, all his native and rational ideas and convictions upon religious subjects. He became vain in his imaginations, and his foolish heart as a consequence was darkened, and he changed the glory of the incorruptible God, the spiritual unity of the Deity, into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things (Rom. i. 21-23). He invented idolatry, and all those “gay religions full of pomp and gold,” in order to blunt the edge of that sharp spiritual conception of God which was continually cutting and lacerating his wicked and sensual heart. Hiding himself amidst the columns of his idolatrous temples, and under the smoke of his idolatrous incense, he thought like Adam to escape from the view and inspection of that Infinite One who, from the creation of the world downward, makes known to all men his eternal power and godhead; who, as St. Paul taught the philosophers of Athens, is not far from anyone of his rational creatures (Acts xvii. 27); and who, as the same apostle taught the pagan Lycaonians, though in times past he suffered all nations to walk in their own ways, yet left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave them rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling their hearts with food and gladness. (Acts xiv. 16, 17).
The first step in the process of mutilating the original idea of God, as a unity and an unseen Spirit, is seen in those pantheistic religions which lie behind all the mythologies of the ancient world, like a nebulous vapor out of which the more distinct idols and images of paganism are struggling. Here the notion of the Divine unity is still preserved; but the Divine personality and holiness are lost. God becomes a vague impersonal Power, with no moral qualities, and no religious attributes; and it is difficult to say which is worst in its moral influence, this pantheism which while retaining the doctrine of the Divine unity yet denudes the Deity of all that renders him an object of either love or reverence, or the grosser idolatries that succeeded it. For man cannot love, with all his mind and heart and soul and strength, a vast impersonal force working blindly through infinite space and everlasting time.
And the second and last stage in this process of vitiating the true idea of God appears in that polytheism in the midst of which St. Paul lived, and labored, and preached, and died; in that seductive and beautiful paganism, that classical idolatry, which still addresses the human taste in such a fascinating manner, in the Venus de Medici, and the Apollo Belvidere. The idea of the unity of God is now mangled and cut up into the “gods many” and the “lords many,” into the thirty thousand divinities of the pagan pantheon. This completes the process. God now gives his guilty creature over to these vain imaginations of naturalism, materialism, and idolatry, and to an increasingly darkening mind, until in the lowest forms of heathenism he so distorts and suppresses the concreated idea of the Deity that some speculatists assert that it does not belong to his constitution, and that his Maker never endowed him with it. How is the gold become dim! How is the most fine gold changed!
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