1st January 1837
“After that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage?” Gal. 4:9.
It is a doctrine frequently used by St. Paul, I need scarcely say, as by the other sacred writers, that the New Covenant of the Gospel has superseded the Jewish Law and all its ordinances; that by Baptism all who believed, Jews as well as Gentiles, were rescued through Christ from all elements of this world, and therefore from the Jewish Law, which henceforth had no power over them. This he expresses in the text, in which he rebukes the Galatians for wishing to return to the bondage of Judaism, after they had known the God of grace. Again, he says to the Colossians, “If ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances?” Again, to the Romans he says, “Ye are become dead to the Law by the body of Christ, that ye should be married to another, even to Him who is raised from the dead.” Again, “Now we are delivered from the Law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.” And again, “There is verily a disannulling of the commandment going before, for the weakness and unprofitableness thereof. For the Law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did … The Law maketh men high priests which have infirmity; but the word of the oath, which was since the Law, maketh the Son, who is consecrated for evermore.” (Col. 2:20. Rom. 7: 4, 6. Heb. 7:18, 19, 28.) And in token of this, when our Lord gave up the ghost upon the cross, the veil of the Temple was rent in twain; for the sanctity of that Holy Place hitherto had been, but now was no more.
Such is the great doctrine which was of especial interest when St. Paul preached, ere yet the Temple was destroyed by the Romans; viz. that though we must be children of Abraham, if we would be saved, yet it is faith that makes us children; though we must be of Israel to be elect, yet that the election follows the line of the spiritual Israel, the line of Christ, the chosen Seed, and of those who are born of the Spirit of Christ; that though we must belong to the Church of God, yet that that Church is now no longer local or at Jerusalem only, but is to be found and may be propagated in all lands; that though we are under the Law, yet it is the new, or Gospel Law, which we are under, not the Law of the Letter, the Law of Moses; and “in that He saith a new Covenant, He hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.” (Heb. 8:13.) The Law of Moses then has failed and is gone, because Christ has come.
Now when this is said, it is sometimes asked, “If all this be so, if the Jewish Law is dead, how could it ever have been alive? If the Law ever had power, it must have been a power from God, and if from God it must abide. Either it is not from God, or it could not come to an end. Either it never lived, or it never died. How can the appointments of the Law be what St. Paul calls them in the text, ‘weak and beggarly elements,’ or ‘rudiments of the world,’ or ‘dead ordinances,’ if they were divine? and that they were divine the New Testament as well as the Old assures us.”
This is a question which I shall now attempt to answer.
The case then seems to be as follows:-Almighty God, in what He has graciously done for man from the beginning, has not acted against the appointments of this world, but through them. He has made those things, which in themselves were weak and unprofitable, good by His blessing; but when He withdrew His blessing, they were weak again. The Jewish polity was an element of earth, made divine by His presence, and while His presence lasted; when He withdrew it, it was again earthly, as it had been at first. Let me explain myself.
I mean this:-When God would raise up a people to be a witness of His name, He did not send on earth a race of Angels, He did not frame a polity such as man had never seen, but He took a polity of earth, and breathed His Spirit into it, that it became a living soul. Of course the Jewish government and nation were in many respects peculiar and unlike the nations around them; but they were peculiar much more in the object aimed at, viz. the worship of the true God, than in the means of promoting it. Unbelievers have been very eager before now to make out that many parts, if not the whole, of the law and customs of Moses are to be found in other nations. Thus, for instance, the rite of circumcision, which God gave to Abraham, is found to have existed among the Egyptians and elsewhere. And this holds good of a great number of the Jewish rites and usages. Accordingly, unbelievers have said with scorn, “This, then, after all, is your singular people; this is what their claim to a divine origin ends in! No part of Judaism is original; it is taken from the Egyptians and their other neighbours: it is not divine.” And they have gone on to consider the Jews and to place their history in a mere secular light, and with a good deal of success. They have shown that the nation had its rise and fall like other nations, that the same political principles were in operation, the same events occurred. They have treated of the rise of the monarchy as a natural result of existing causes; and of the revolt of the tribes under Jeroboam, as a natural and justifiable revolution. They have spoken of the wealth of the Jews, and of their trade, and of their wars, and of their agriculture, all in the same worldly way, philosophically, as they have called it, and with no little disdain and superciliousness.
But in all this they have missed what was the real peculiarity of Judaism. Certainly it was, for the most part, moulded on the model to which other Eastern nations were conformed; but it differed from them in this, that, however much it was the same outwardly, there was a different principle within it. An invisible Divine Agency was at work there, giving it an object distinct from all other polities, and drawing it up towards God. It had an external aspect, and an inward. To men of the world it looked like a polity of this world; but to the pure in heart, and to them whose eyes were opened, it would seem to be, what it really was, a minister of God. To men like Saul and Ahab it was but an earthly kingdom. Probably they saw no kind of difference, they were not sensible of any difference, between the Temple at Jerusalem, and the heathen temple at Gaza or Ascalon, or the house of Rimmon, or of Ashtaroth, the goddess of the Sidonians, except that the latter might please their taste better; as the altar at Damascus approved itself to King Ahaz. They were not aware of any thing in the Holy Land which was not in Syria or Philistia. Miracles were not so common as we are apt to suppose. They looked at Jerusalem, and its priests, and its temple, and its ceremonies, very much as worldly men regard the Church Catholic in this day, as a mere establishment.
Further, such being God’s pleasure, the Jewish polity being, like other polities, and in itself, and apart from His presence, but an element of the world, would have a beginning and an end, a rise and a fall. All powers have come to an end, and so did the Jewish; I mean, from the natural progress of events. This is a circumstance which especially deceives the unbeliever. He thinks he sees in its mutability and mortality a mark that the Jewish nation was but like other nations, and that God did not reveal Himself in and through the Jews. He sees that natural causes did work a beginning and an end to the nation; and having what he calls accounted for its history, he thinks he need do no more: whereas, in truth, laws of operation mark the presence, not the absence, of the Divine Hand, and though the outward form of Judaism was earthly, God had secretly inspired it and used it for His purposes.
The case is the same with Christianity also. Unbelievers have been busy in assigning human causes for its rise,-such as the discipline of the Church, or the doctrine of a future life; and some of its defenders have been as eager to show that these cannot be assigned. It seems, however, to matter little whether we determine the question this way or that; or, rather, it is more likely beforehand that human causes did effect, as we familiarly use the word “effect,” what is imputed to them. Unbelievers of this day, who profess to be philosophical, speak of Christianity as a wonderful fact indeed in the history of the world, but still as being human. Now we need not deny that in one sense it is human; that is, as far as it is viewed externally. It is a divine treasure, but in earthly vessels. Its history is that of a certain principle of universal empire, repressed and thwarted by circumstances; its conquests, indeed, were achieved by moral instruments, “weapons not carnal,” as St. Paul speaks, but still they were conquests; and it may be compared to empires of this world, to the conquests of Nebuchadnezzar, or of the Romans, made with the sword; or, again, it may be spoken of as a philosophy, and compared to the philosophies of men. But if it be an empire, if it be a philosophy, as it had its rise, it will have its fall. This is what unbelievers prophesy. They look out calmly and confidently for the fall of Christianity at length, because it rose. Since they read of its beginning, they look for its end; since the world preceded it, they think the world will outlive it. Well, and were not Scripture pledged that it should continue to the end, when Christ shall come, I see nothing to startle us, though it were to fall, and other religions to succeed it. God works by human means. As He employs individual men, and inspires them, and yet they die; so, doubtless, He might employ a body or society of men, which at length, after its course of two thousand years, might come to an end. It might be withdrawn, as other gifts of God are withdrawn, when abused. Doubtless Christianity might be such; it might be destined to expire, just as an individual man expires. Nay, it may actually be destined so to expire; it may be destined to age, to decay, and at length to die;-but we know that when it dies, at least the world will die with it. The world’s duration is measured by it. If the Church dies, the world’s time is run. The world shall never exult over the Church. If the Church falls sick, the world shall utter a wail for its own sake; for, like Samson, the Church will bury all with it. But still, so it may be in very truth, that the Christian Church may come to an end, may well come to an end, as the Jewish Church did; that is, so far as it is mortal, so far as its members are mortal.
This peculiarity of God’s Providence which has now been noticed, is almost seen in the creation of man himself. Man was made rational, after he was made corporeal. “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul.” (Gen. 2:7.) Here are two acts on the part of the Creator,-the forming the dust, and the breathing the life; and they are to the point here as illustrating the principle I have been insisting on. Man is confessedly formed on the same mould as other animals; his skeleton is like theirs; he is very like some of them. And unbelievers, in consequence, have been forward to assert that he does not really differ from them; and because he is outwardly like them, and has an organized body, and can be treated by medical art, as if he were but a framework of matter, and is obliged to employ his brain as an instrument of thought, that in consequence, he has not a soul; just as in regard to Judaism they have denied it to have a heavenly spirit in it, because it had an earthly body.
And the case is the same as regards the Sacraments of the Gospel. God does not make for us new and miraculous instruments wherewith to convey His benefits, but He takes, He adopts means already existing. He takes water, which already is the means of natural health and purity, and consecrates it to convey spiritual life. He changes the use of it. Again He selects bread and wine, the chief means and symbols of bodily nourishment,-He takes them, He blesses them; He does not dispense with them, but He uses them. He leaves them in appearance what they were; but He gifts them with a Divine Presence, which before they had not. As He filled the Jewish Temple of wood and stone with glory, on its consecration; as He breathed the breath of life into the dust of the earth, and made it man; so He comes down in power on His chosen symbols, weak though they be in themselves, and makes them what they were not.
Now, from what has been said, this lesson may be learnt,-that things of this world are only valuable so far as God’s Presence is in them, so far as He has breathed on them; in themselves they are but dust and vanity; and it is as monstrous and insane, if we thought aright, to be enamoured of any thing earthly, except it be instinct with a light from heaven, as to desire to feed on ashes, or to be chained to a corpse.
This was the fault of the Jews, as regards their Law; and this is why St. Paul calls it “ordinances,” “rudiments of the world,” “weak and beggarly elements,” “carnal,” and “unprofitable.” They were indeed at all times such, compared with the Christian worship; but they were peculiarly so, when viewed in their then state, when God had left them. The Gospel restored man to the same state, or rather to a higher state than that from which he had fallen. When Adam was in paradise, he had a gift which afterwards he had not,-the gift of the Spirit; he was inhabited by a divine glory, or heavenly power, which he lost on sinning; after sinning, only his natural soul remained to him; and when he died, then that soul went away too. The Gospel then is as far above the Law, even in the best estate of the Law, as the spirit is above the mere soul, as the man of God is above the natural man. Such was the Law at best, being but a step towards restoration in those privileges in which man was first created; framed by God, but not the dwelling-place of God’s Holy Spirit; only visited by Him from time to time, and having in it a certain Presence of God which sanctified it, and made it live. But when Christ came with the recovered gift of grace and glory, then that Divine Presence, whatever it was, which once had been in the Law, left it: then it was altogether dead, it was reduced back again to the mere condition of the world from which it had been taken; it relapsed into the deadness and unprofitableness of a fallen and perishable state of being; and for Christians to concern themselves with it, or to profess it, as the Galatians and others did, was as preposterous and as perverse as to join themselves to the world in any other way,-in the service of ambition and the pursuit of wealth. Well then might the Apostle say, in the words of the text, “After ye have known God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage?”
And now, too, we are able to see how far the warning of St. Paul against subjection to ordinances applies to us. Granting that this age is in no danger of Judaism,-about which I will not here pronounce,-yet, at any rate, there are dead things besides the Law of Moses, on which we are in danger of setting our hearts. The Law became carnal when God left it; but there are things which never were otherwise than carnal, in which God never was at all: and these may be our temptations, as the Jewish Law was a temptation to the Jews. St. John says expressly, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world; for all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but of the world.” And again, “The world lieth in wickedness.” The world may be in one age somewhat better or somewhat worse than in another, but it is in substance always the same. I mean, that the whole visible course of things, nations, empires, states, polities, professions, trades, society, pursuits of all kinds, are, I do not say directly and formally sinful (of course not), but they “come of evil;” they hold of evil, and they are the instruments of evil; they have in them the nature of evil; they are the progeny of sinful Adam, they have in them the infection of Adam’s fall; they never would have been as we see them, but for Adam’s fall. All of them, every thing in the world is in itself alien from God, and at first sight must be regarded and treated as being so; and though there are (blessed be God) exceptions to the rule through the power of the Gospel, and it is our duty to aim at increasing these, yet they must be proved to be such before we can take them to be such. Satan is the god of this world. God created all things good; but when man fell, an evil spirit possessed them, and they are evil till God touches them again with His Divine Light. In Abraham, He made a new beginning and sanctified a holy household, and that spread into a nation, and that nation became holy to the Lord. And then the mass fell away, and He preserved a remnant; and from it He has spread and diffused abroad a spiritual and regenerate kingdom far and wide, and this has encroached in a blessed way upon the world. But it is only in proportion as things that be are brought into this kingdom, and made subservient to it; it is only as kings and princes, nobles and rulers, men of business and men of letters, the craftsman, and the trader, and the labourer, humble themselves to Christ’s Church, and (in the language of the prophet Isaiah) “bow down to her with their faces toward the earth, and lick up the dust of her feet,” (Is. 49:23.) that the world becomes living and spiritual, and a fit object of love and a resting-place to the Christian.
Now it is plain how little the mass of men aim at taking their standard of things, or seeking a blessing on what they do, from religion. Instead of raising the world by faith to the level of a regenerate son of God, they debase themselves to the world and its ordinances. It is plain, as any one will find who gives himself the trouble to attend to it, that men in general do not give, or feel, or seek for religious reasons for what they do. So little is religion even the profession of the world at present, that men, who do feel its claims, dare not avow their feelings,-they dare not recommend measures of whatever sort on religious grounds. If they defend a measure publicly, or use persuasion in private, they are obliged to conceal or put aside the motives which one should hope do govern them, and they allege others inferior,-nay, worldly reasons,-reasons drawn from policy, or expedience, or common-sense (as it is called), or prudence. If they neglect to do this, they are despised as ill-judging and unreasonable. Nay, they are obliged thus to act, else they will not succeed in good objects, and (what is more to the purpose) else they will be casting pearls before swine. Can we have a clearer proof than this, that the current of things at present, in spite of the boasts of men, is essentially and radically evil,-more evil indeed, because of their boasts?
Or, again, take any of the plans and systems now in fashion,-plans for the well-being of the poor, or of the young, or of the community at large; you will find, so far from their being built on religion, religion is actually in the way, it is an encumbrance. The advocates and promoters of these plans confess that they do not know what to do with religion; their plans work very well but for religion; religion suggests difficulties which cannot be got over. On a subject of this kind one cannot go into detail; but those who look about them will recognize what I mean, and, I think, will acknowledge its truth.
And so again in those efforts which are laudably made for the sake of preserving things as they are, and hindering ruin and destruction coming on the country, men are afraid to take their stand on “the old commandment which ye have heard from the beginning.” (1 John 2:7.) They are afraid to kindle their fire from the altar of God; they are afraid to acknowledge her through whom only they gain light and strength and salvation, the Mother of Saints.
When we go into the details of life, the same truth, as in every age, comes upon us forcibly and convincingly. I am not going to the question whether this age is better or worse than former ages; this is not to the present purpose. The world always “lieth in wickedness;” but we are accustomed sufficiently to confess the faults of former times, which do not concern us; we do not see what is evil in our own. Therefore, we need to be reminded of it. We need to be reminded that all our daily pursuits and doings need not be proved evil, but are certainly evil without proof, unless they can be proved to be good. Unless that holy and superhuman influence which came forth from Christ when He breathed on the Apostles, which they handed onwards, which has ever since gone through the world like a leaven, renewing it in righteousness,-which came on us first in Baptism, and reclaimed us from the service of Satan,-unless this Divine Gift has been cherished and improved within us, and is spread round about and from us, upon the objects of our aims and exertions, upon our plans and pursuits, our words and our works, surely all these are evil, without being formally proved to be so. If we engage in a trade or profession, if we make money, if we form connexions in life, if we marry and settle, if we educate our children, whatever we do, we have no right to take it for granted that this is not earthly, sensual, and of this world; it will be so without our trouble, unless we take trouble the other way, unless we aim and pray that it may not be so. Left to itself, human nature tends to death, and utter apostasy from God, however plausible it may look externally. What was it men were doing before the flood came? things very different from what men do now? No; they did the same things as we. “They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded.” (Luke 17:27, 28.) Are these things evil? Yes; they are evil unless they are good; they are evil unless they have become good; they are evil until Christ sanctifies them; and then, and not till then, are they good. They are evil in the case of every one of us, except Christ has sanctified them in us, unless they have been touched with the finger of God, and illuminated by the doctrine and the power of His Son.
In all things, then, we must spiritualize this world; and if you ask for instances how to do this, I give you the following. When a nation enters Christ’s Church, and takes her yoke upon its shoulder, then it formally joins itself to the cause of God, and separates itself from the evil world. When the civil magistrate defends the Christian faith, and sets it up in all honour in high places, as a beacon to the world, so far he gives himself to God, and sanctifies and spiritualizes that portion of it over which he has power. When men put aside a portion of their gains for God’s service, then they sanctify those gains. When the head of a household observes family prayer and other religious offices, and shows that, like Abraham, he is determined with God’s help to honour Him, then he joins himself to the kingdom of God, and rescues his household from its natural relationship with this unprofitable world. When a man hallows in his private conduct holy seasons, this is offering up of God’s gifts to God, and sanctifying all seasons by the sacrifice of some. When a man who is rich, and whose duty calls on him to be hospitable, is careful also to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, thus he sanctifies his riches. When he is in the midst of plenty, and observes self-denial; when he builds his house, but builds Churches too; when he plants and sows, but pays tithes; when he buys and sells, but withal gives largely to religion; when he does nothing in the world without being suspicious of the world, being jealous of himself, trying himself, lest he be seduced by the world, making sacrifices to prove his earnestness;-in all these ways he circumcises himself from the world by the circumcision of Christ. This is the circumcision of the heart from the world. This is deliverance from dead ordinances; and though, even if this were done perfectly, it would not be enough, for we have to separate ourselves from the flesh also, yet, at least, it is the victory over a chief and formidable enemy.
My brethren, this is no matter of words: a thing to be listened to carelessly, because we have heard it often before. The death and resurrection of Christ is ever a call upon you to die to time, and to live to eternity. Do not be satisfied with the state in which you find yourselves; do not be satisfied with nature; be satisfied only with grace. Beware of taking up with a low standard of duty, and aiming at nothing but what you can easily fulfil. Pray God to enlighten you with a knowledge of the extent of your duty, to enlighten you with a true view of this world. Beware lest the world seduce you. It will aim at persuading you that itself is rational and sensible, that religion is very well in its way, but that we are born for the world. And you will be seduced most certainly, unless you watch and pray that you enter not into temptation. You must either conquer the world, or the world will conquer you. You must be either master or slave. Take your part then, and “stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.” (Gal. 5:1.)
Bl. John Henry Newman, SSD 8,95-111.