THE TERRIBLE TRUISM WHICH HAS NO EXCEPTION.
"All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not to death." --- 1 John v. 17.
Let us begin by detaching awhile from its context this oracular utterance: "all unrighteousness is sin." Is this true universally, or is it not?
A clear consistent answer is necessary, because a strange form of the doctrine of indulgences (long whispered in the ears) has lately been proclaimed from the housetops, with a considerable measure of apparent acceptance.
Here is the singular dispensation from St. John's rigorous canon to which we refer.
Three such indulgences have been accorded at various times to certain favoured classes or persons. (1) "The moral law does not exist for the elect." This was the doctrine of certain Gnostics in St. John's day; of certain fanatics in every age. (2) "Things absolutely forbidden to the mass of mankind, are allowable for people of commanding rank." Accommodating Prelates, and accommodating Reformers have left the burden of defending these ignoble concessions to future generations. (3) A yet baser dispensation has been freely given by very vulgar casuists. "The chosen of[Pg 261] Fortune" --- the men at whose magic touch every stock seems to rise --- may be allowed unusual forms of enjoying the unusual success which has crowned their career.
Such are, or such were, the dispensations from St. John's canon permitted to themselves, or to others, by the elect of Heaven, by the elect of station, and by the elect of fortune.
Another election has obtained the perilous exception now --- the election of genius. Those who endow the world with music, with art, with romance, with poetry, are entitled to the reversion. "All unrighteousness is sin" --- except for them. (1) The indulgence is no longer valid for those who affect intimacy with heaven (partly perhaps because it is suspected that there is no heaven to be intimate with). (2) The indulgence is not extended to the men who apparently rule over nations, since it has been discovered that nations rule over them. (3) It is not accorded to the constructors of fortunes; they are too many, and too uninteresting, though possibly figures could be conceived almost capable of buying it. But (generally speaking) men of these three classes must pace along the dust of the narrow road by the signpost of the law, if they would escape the censure of society.
For genius alone there is no such inconvenient restriction. Many men, of course, deliberately prefer the "primrose path," but they can no more avoid indignant hisses by the way than they can extinguish the "everlasting bonfire" at the awful close of their journey. With the man of genius it seems that it is otherwise. He shall "walk in the ways of his heart, and in the sight of his eyes;" but, "for all these things" the tribunals of certain schools of a delicate criticism[Pg 262] (delicate criticism can be so indelicate!) will never allow him "to be brought into judgment." Some literary oracles, biographers, or reviewers, are not content to keep a reverential silence, and to murmur a secret prayer. They will drag into light the saddest, the meanest, the most selfish doings of genius. Not the least service to his generation, and to English literature, of the true poet and critic lately taken from us, was the superb scorn, the exquisite wit, with which his indignant purity transfixed such doctrines. A strange winged thing, no doubt, genius sometimes is; alternately beating the abyss with splendid pinions, and eating dust which is the "serpent's meat." But for all that, we cannot see with the critic when he tries to prove that the reptile's crawling is part of the angel's flight; and the dust on which he grovels one with the infinite purity of the azure distances.
The arguments of the apologists for moral eccentricity of genius may be thus summed up: --- The man of genius bestows upon humanity gifts which are on a different line from any other. He enriches it on the side where it is poorest; the side of the Ideal. But the very temperament in virtue of which a man is capable of such transcendent work makes him passionate and capricious. To be imaginative is to be exceptional; and these exceptional beings live for mankind rather than for themselves. When their conduct comes to be discussed, the only question is whether that conduct was adapted to forward the superb self-development which is of such inestimable value to the world. If the gratification of any desire was necessary for that self-development, genius itself being the judge,[Pg 263] the cause is ended. In winning that gratification hearts may be broken, souls defiled, lives wrecked. The daintiest songs of the man of genius may rise to the accompaniment of domestic sobs, and the music which he seems to warble at the gates of heaven may be trilled over the white upturned face of one who has died in misery. What matter! Morality is so icy, and so intolerant; its doctrines have the ungentlemanlike rigour of the Athanasian Creed. Genius breaks hearts with such supreme gracefulness, such perfect wit, that they are arrant Philistines who refuse to smile.
We who have the text full in our mind answer all this in the words of the old man of Ephesus. For all that angel-softness which he learned from the heart of Christ, his voice is as strong as it is sweet and calm. Over all the storm of passion, over all the babble of successive sophistries, clear and eternal it rings out --- "all unrighteousness is sin." To which the apologist, little abashed, replies --- "of course we all know that --- quite true as a general rule, but then men of genius have bought a splendid dispensation by paying a splendid price, and so their inconsistencies are not sin."
There are two assumptions at the root of this apology for the aberrations of genius which should be examined. (1) The temperament of men of genius is held to constitute an excuse from which there is no appeal. Such men indeed are sometimes not slow to put forward this plea for themselves. No doubt there are trials peculiar to every temperament. Those of men of genius are probably very great. They are children of the sunshine and of the storm; the grey monotony of ordinary life is distasteful to them. Things which others find it easy to accept convulse their sensitive organisation. Many can produce their finest[Pg 264] works only on condition of being sheltered where no bills shall find their way by the post; where no sound, not even the crowing of cocks, shall break the haunted silence. If the letter comes in one case, and if the cock crows in the other, the first may possibly never be remembered, but the second is never forgotten.
For this, as for every other form of human temperament --- that of the dunce, as well as of the genius --- allowance must in truth be made. In that one of the lives of the English Poets, where the great moralist has gone nearest to making concessions to this fallacy of temperament, he utters this just warning. "No wise man will easily presume to say, had I been in Savage's condition I should have lived better than Savage." But we must not bring in the temperament of the man of genius as the standard of his conduct unless we are prepared to admit the same standard in every other case. God is no respecter of persons. For each, conscience is of the same texture, law of the same material. As all have the same cross of infinite mercy, the same judgment of perfect impartiality, so have they the same law of inexorable duty.
(2) The necessary disorder and feverishness of high literary and artistic inspiration is a second postulate of the pleas to which I refer. But, is it true that disorder creates inspiration; or is a condition of it?
All great work is ordered work; and in producing it the faculties must be exercised harmoniously and with order. True inspiration, therefore, should not be caricatured into a flushed and dishevelled thing. Labour always precedes it. It has been prepared for by education. And that education would have been painful but for the glorious efflorescence of materials collected and assimilated, which is the compensation[Pg 265] for any toil. The very dissatisfaction with its own performances, the result of the lofty ideal which is inseparable from genius, is at once a stimulus and a balm. The man of genius apparently writes, or paints, as the birds sing, or as the spring colours the flowers; but his subject has long possessed his mind, and the inspiration is the child of thought and of ordered labour. Destroying the peace of one's own family or of another's, being flushed with the preoccupation of guilty passion, will not accelerate, but retard the advent of those happy moments which are not without reason called creative. Thus, the inspiration of genius is akin to the inspiration of prophecy. The prophet tutored himself by a fitting education. He became assimilated to the noble things in the future which he foresaw. Isaiah's heart grew royal; his style wore the majesty of a king, before he sang the King of sorrow with His infinite pathos, and the King of righteousness with His infinite glory. Many prophets attuned their spirits by listening to such music as lulls, not inflames passion. Others walked where "beauty born of murmuring sound" might pass into their strain. Think of Ezekiel by the river of Chebar, with the soft sweep of waters in his ear, and their cool breath upon his cheek. Think of St. John with the shaft of light from heaven's opened door upon his upturned brow, and the boom of the Ægean upon the rocks of Patmos around him. "The note of the heathen seer" (said the greatest preacher of the Greek Church) "is to be contorted, constrained, excited, like a maniac; the note of a prophet is to be wakeful, self-possessed, nobly self-conscious." We may apply this test to the distinction[Pg 266] between genius, and the dissipated affectation of genius.
Let us then refuse our assent to a doctrine of indulgences applied to genius on the ground of temperament or of literary and artistic inspiration. "Why," we are often asked, "why force your narrow judgment upon an angry or a laughing world?" What have you to do with the conduct of gifted men? Genius means exuberance. Why "blame the Niagara River" because it will not assume the pace and manner of "a Dutch canal"? Never indeed should we force that judgment upon any, unless they force it upon us. Let us avoid as far as we may posthumous gossip over the grave of genius. It is an unwholesome curiosity which rewards the blackbird for that bubbling song of ecstasy in the thicket, by gloating upon the ugly worm which he swallows greedily after the shower. The pen or pencil has dropped from the cold fingers. After all its thought and sin, after all its toil and agony, the soul is with its Judge. Let the painter of the lovely picture, the writer of the deathless words, be for us like the priest. The washing of regeneration is no less created through the unworthy minister; the precious gift is no less conveyed when a polluted hand has broken the bread and blessed the cup. But if we are forced to speak, let us refuse to accept an ex post facto morality invented to excuse a worthless absolution. Especially so when the most sacred of all rights is concerned. It is not enough to say that a man of genius dissents from the received standard of conduct. He cannot make fugitive inclination the only principle of a connection which he promised to recognise as paramount. A passage in the Psalms, has been called "The catechism of Heaven."[Pg 267] "The catechism of Fame" differs from "the catechism of Heaven." "Who shall ascend to the hill of Fame?" "He that possesses genius." "Who shall ascend to the hill of the Lord?" "He that has clean hands, and a pure heart; He that has sworn to his neighbour and disappoints, him not" (or disappoints, her not) "though it were to his own hindrance" --- aye, to the hindrance of his self-development. Strange that the rough Hebrew should still have to teach us chivalry as well as religion! In St. John's Epistle we find the two great axioms about sin, in its two essential aspects. "Sin is the transgression of the law:" there is its aspect chiefly Godward. "All unrighteousness" (mainly injustice, denial of the rights of others) "is sin:" there is its aspect chiefly manward.
Yes, the principle of the text is rigid, inexorable, eternal. Nothing can make its way out of those terrible meshes. It is without favour, without exception. It gives no dispensation, and proclaims no indulgences, to the man of genius, or to any other. If it were otherwise, the righteous God, the Author of creation and redemption, would be dethroned. And that is a graver thing than to dethrone even the author of "Queen Mab," and of "The Epipsychidion." Here is the jurisprudence of the "great white Throne" summed up in four words: "all unrighteousness is sin."
So far, in the last discourse, and in this, we have ventured to isolate these two great principles from their context. But this process is always attended with peculiar loss in St. John's writings. And as some may think perhaps that the promise just succeeding is falsified we must here run the risk of bringing in another[Pg 268] thread of thought. Yet indeed the whole paragraph has its source in an intense faith in the efficacy of prayer, specially as exercised in intercessory prayer.
(1) The efficacy of prayer. This is the very sign of contrast with, of opposition to, the modern spirit, which is the negation of prayer.
What is the real value of prayer?
Very little, says the modern spirit. Prayer is the stimulant, the Dutch courage of the moral world. Prayer is a power, not because it is efficacious, but because it is believed to be so.
A modern Rabbi, with nothing of his Judaism left but a rabid antipathy to the Founder of the Church, guided by Spinoza and Kant, has turned fiercely upon the Lord's prayer. He takes those petitions which stand alone among the liturgies of earth in being capable of being translated into every language. He cuts off one pearl after another from the string. Let us look at two specimens. "Our Father which art in Heaven." Heaven! the very name has a breath of magic, a suggestion of beauty, of grandeur, of purity in it. It moves us as nothing else can. We instinctively lift our heads; the brow grows proud of that splendid home, and the eye is wetted with a tear and lighted with a ray, as it looks into those depths of golden sunset which are full for the young of the radiant mystery of life, for the old of the pathetic mystery of death. Yes, but for modern science Heaven means air, or atmosphere, and the address itself[Pg 269] is contradictory. "Forgive us." But surely the guilt cannot be forgiven, except by the person against whom it is committed. There is no other forgiveness. A mother (whose daughter went out upon the cruel London streets) carried into execution a thought bestowed upon her by the inexhaustible ingenuity of love. The poor woman got her own photograph taken, and a friend managed to have copies of it hung in several halls and haunts of infamy with these words clearly written below --- "come home, I forgive you." The tender subtlety of love was successful at last; and the poor haggard outcast's face was touched by her mother's lips. "But the heart of God," says this enemy of prayer, "is not as a woman's heart." (Pardon the words, O loving Father! You who hast said "Yea, she may forget, yet will I not forget you." Pardon, O pierced Human Love! who hast graven the name of every soul on the palms of Your hands with the nails of the crucifixion.) Repentance subjectively seems a reality when mother and child meet with a burst of passionate tears, and the polluted brow feels purified by their molten downfall; but repentance objectively is seen to be an absurdity by every one who grasps the conception of law. The penitential Psalms may be the lyrics of repentance, the Gospel for the third Sunday after Trinity its idyll, the cross its symbol, the wounds of Christ its theology and inspiration. But the course of Nature, the hard logic of life is its refutation --- the flames that burn, the waves that drown, the machine that crushes, the society that condemns, and that neither can, nor will forgive.
Enough, and more than enough of this. The monster of ignorance who has never learnt a prayer, has hitherto been looked upon as one of the saddest of sights. But[Pg 270] there is something sadder --- the monster of over-cultivation, the wreck of schools, the priggish fanatic of godlessness. Alas! for the nature which has become like a plant artificially trained and twisted to turn away from the light. Alas! for the heart which has hardened itself into stone until it cannot beat faster, or soar higher, even when men are saying with happy enthusiasm, or when the organ is lifting upward to the heaven of heavens the cry which is at once the creed of an everlasting dogma and the hymn of a triumphant hope --- "with You is the well of Life, and in Your light shall we see light." Now having heard the answer of the modern spirit to the question "what is the real value of prayer?" think of the answer of the spirit of the Church as given by St. John in this paragraph. That answer is not drawn out in a syllogism. St. John appeals to our consciousness of a divine life. "That you may know that you have eternal life." This knowledge issues in confidence, i.e., literally the sweet possibility of saying out all to God. And this confidence is never disappointed for any believing child of God. "If we know that He hear us, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of Him."
On the 16th verse we need only say, that the greatness of our brother's spiritual need does not cease to be a title to our sympathy. St. John is not speaking of all requests, but of the fulness of brotherly intercession.
One question and one warning in conclusion; and that question is this. Do we take part in this great ministry of love? Is our voice heard in the full music of the[Pg 271] prayers of intercession that are ever going up to the Throne, and bringing down the gift of life? Do we pray for others?
In one sense all who know true affection and the sweetness of true prayer do pray for others. We have never loved with supreme affection any for whom we have not interceded, whose names we have not baptized in the fountain of prayer. Prayer takes up a tablet from the hand of love written over with names; that tablet death itself can only break when the heart has turned Sadducee.
Jesus (we sometimes think) gives one strange proof of the love which yet passes knowledge. "Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus;" "when He had heard therefore" [O that strange therefore!] "that Lazarus was sick, He abode two days still in the same place where He was." Ah! sometimes not two days, but two years, and sometimes evermore, He seems to remain. When the income dwindles with the dwindling span of life; when the best beloved must leave us for many years, and carries away our sunshine with him; when the life of a husband is in danger --- then we pray; "O Father, for Jesu's sake spare that precious life; enable me to provide for these helpless ones; bless these children in their going out and coming in, and let me see them once again before the night comes,, and my hands are folded for the long rest." Yes, but have we prayed at our Communion "because of that Holy Sacrament in it, and with it," that He would give them the grace which they need --- the life which shall save them from sin to death? Round us, close to us in our homes, there are cold hands, hearts that beat feebly. Let us fulfil St. John's teaching, by praying to Him who is the life that He would chafe those cold hands[Pg 272] with His hand of love, and quicken those dying hearts by contact with that wounded heart which is a heart of fire.
Ch. v. 3-17.
Ver. 3. This section should begin with the words "And His commandments are not heavy" --- and should not be separated from what follows, because they give one reason of the victory of what he proceeds to speak. "His commandments are not heavy, for all that is born of God conquers, the world." What a picture of the sweetness of a life of service! What a gentle smile must have been on the old man's face as he said, "His commandments are not grievous!"
Vers. 7, 8. This passage with its apparent obscurity, and famous interpolation, demands some additional notice. As to criticism and interpretation.
(1) Critically. Since the publication of J. J. Griesbach's celebrated work (Diatribe in locum 1 John v. 7, 8, Tom. ii., N.T. Halle: 1806), first German, and latterly English, opinion has become absolutely unanimous in agreeing with Griesbach that "the words included between brackets are spurious, and should therefore be eliminated from the Sacred Text." Even the famous Roman Catholic scholar, Scholts, in his great critical edition of the New Testament, in two volumes (Bonn: 1836), boldly dropped the disputed passage from the text. The interpolated passage has certainly no support in any uncial manuscript, or ancient version, or Greek Father of the four first centuries. (2) As to interpretation, the faith has lost nothing by the honesty of her wisest defenders. The whole of the genuine passage is intensely Trinitarian. The interpolation is nothing but an exposition written into the text. The three genuine witnesses do really point to the Three Witnesses in Heaven. Bengel's saying expresses the permanent feeling of Christendom, which no criticism can do away with: "This trine array of witnesses on earth is supported by, and has above and beneath it the Trinity, which is Heavenly, archetypal, fundamental, everlasting." The whole context recognizes three special works of the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. "This is the[Pg 273] witness of God," i.e. of the Father (ver. 9); "this is He that came by water and blood," i.e. the Son (ver. 6); "it is the Spirit that witnesses,," i.e. the Holy Ghost (ibid.).
A fuller examination of this passage, from a polemical point of view, will be found in the third of the introductory discourses. It will be well, however, to indicate here the immediate controversial reference in the Spirit, the water, and the blood. There is abundant proof that the popular heretical philosophy of Asia Minor struck Christianity precisely in three vital places. It denied ---
(1) The Incarnation --- consequently
(2) The Redemption --- consequently
(3) The Sacraments.
But the mention of the water and the blood in connection with the Person of the Son Incarnate and Crucified established exactly these three points. Narrated as it was by an eye-witness, it established: ---
(1) The reality of the Incarnation --- consequently
(2) The reality of Redemption --- for the blood of Jesus cleanses from all sin (1 John i. 7) --- consequently
(3) The reality of Sacraments.
We have articulate evidence of the denial of the two sacraments by the Docetic idealists of Asia Minor. The Philosophumena tells us of the view of baptism held by one of their principal sects. "According to them the promise of the laver of regeneration is nothing more than the introduction into the 'unfading pleasure' of him that is washed (as they say) with living water, and anointed with 'chrism that speaks, not.'" The testimony of Ignatius is express as to the other sacrament. "From Eucharist and prayer they abstain on account of not confessing that the Eucharist is flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins." ["Water and blood" should be noted in Heb. ix. 19. Water is not mentioned in Exod. xxiv. 6.] --- (Ep. ad Smyrn. vii.)
From The Epistles Of St. John by WILLIAM ALEXANDER, D.D., D.C.L. Oxon., Hon. LL.D. Dublin, published by Hodder and Stoughton, 27, Paternoster Row, MDCCCXCVI Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
Insights of the past for the present
Epistles of John 2/2 - W. Alexander
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your insights be worthy.