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Give To SermonIndex : Christian Books : LECTURE XVI. MATHEW xi. 10.

The Christian Life by Thomas Arnold


MATHEW xi.10.

I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.

If it was part of God's dispensation, that there should be one to prepare the way before Christ's first coming, it may be expected much more, that there should be some to prepare the way before his second. And so it is expressed in the collect for the third Sunday in Advent: |O Lord Jesus Christ, who at thy first coming didst send thy messenger to prepare thy way before thee; grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.| NOW, in what does this preparing for him consist; and what is its object? The Scripture will inform us as to both. The object is, |Lest he come and smite the earth with a curse;| lest, when he shall come, his coming, which should be our greatest joy and happiness, should be our everlasting destruction; for there can abide before him nothing that is evil. This is the object of preparing for Christ's coming. Next, in what does the preparation consist? It consists in teaching men to live above the common notions of their age and country; to raise their standard higher; to live after what is right in God's judgment, which often casts away, as faulty and bad, what men were accustomed to think good. And as the people of Israel, although they had God's revelation among them, had yet let their standard of good and evil become low, even so it has been in the Christian Israel. We have God's will in our hands, yet our judgments are not formed upon it; and, therefore, they who would prepare us for Christ's coming, must set before us a commandment which is new, although old: in one sense old, in every generation, inasmuch as it is the same which we had from the beginning; in another sense, in every generation more new, inasmuch, as the habits opposed to it have become the more confirmed; and the longer the night has lasted, the more strange to our eyes is the burst of the returning light.

But when we thus speak of the common notions of our age and country being deficient, and thus, in effect, commend notions which would be singular, do we not hold a language inconsistent with our common language and practice? Do we not commonly regard singularity as a fault, and attach a considerable authority to the consent of men in general? Nay, do we not often appeal to this consent as to a proof which a sane mind must admit as decisive? Even in speaking of good and evil, have not the very words gained their present sense because the common consent of mankind has agreed to combine notions of self-satisfaction, of honour, and of love, with what we call good, and the contrary with what we call evil?

A short time may, perhaps, not be misapplied in endeavouring to explain this matter; in showing where, and for what reasons, the common opinion of our society is to be followed, where it is to be suspected, and where it is absolutely to be shunned or trampled under foot, as clearly and certainly evil.

I must begin with little things, in order to show the whole question plainly. Take those tastes in us which most resemble the instincts of a brute; and you will find that in these, as with instinct, common consent becomes a sure rule. When I speak of those tastes which most resemble instincts, I mean those in which nature, doing most for us at first, leaves least for us to learn for ourselves. This seems the character of instinct: it is far more complete than reason in its first stage, but it admits of no after improvement; the brute in the thousandth generation is no way advanced beyond the brute in the first. Of our tastes, even of those belonging to our bodily senses, that which belongs to what are called particularly our organs of taste is the one most resembling an instinct: we have less to do for its improvement than in any other instance. Men being here, then, upon an equality, with a faculty given to all by nature, and improved particularly by none, those who differ from the majority are likely to differ not from excellence but from defect: not because they have a more advanced reason, but because they have a less healthy instinct, than their neighbours. Thus, in those matters which relate to the sense of taste -- I am obliged to take this almost trivial instance, because it so well illustrates the principle of the whole question -- we hold the consent of men in general to be a good rule. If any one were to choose to feed upon what this common taste had pronounced to be disgusting, we should not hesitate to say that such an appetite was diseased and monstrous.

Now, let us take our senses of sight and hearing, and we shall find that just in the proportion in which these less resemble instincts than the sense of taste, so is common consent a less certain rule. Up to a certain point they are instincts: there are certain sounds which, I suppose, are naturally disagreeable to the ear; while, on the other hand, bright and rich colours are, perhaps, naturally attractive to the eye. But, then, sight and hearing are so connected with our minds that they are susceptible of very great cultivation, and thus differ greatly from instincts. As the mind opens, outward sights and sounds become connected with a great number of associations, and thus we learn to think the one or the other beautiful, for reasons which really depend very much on the range of our own ideas. Consider, for a moment, the beautiful in architecture. If the model of the leaning tower of Pisa were generally adopted in our public buildings, all men's common sense would cry out against it as a deformity, because a leaning wall would convey to every mind the notion of insecurity, and every body would feel that it was unpleasant to see a building look exactly as if it were going to fall down. Now, what I have called common sense is, in a manner, the instinct of our reason: it is that uniform level of reason which all sane persons reach to, and the wisest in matters within its province do not surpass. But go beyond this, and architecture is no longer a matter of mere common sense, but of science, and of cultivated taste. Here the standard of beauty is not fixed by common consent; but, in the first instance, devised or discovered by the few: and, so far as it is received by the many, received by them on the authority of the few, and sanctioned, so to speak, not so much from real sympathy and understanding, as from a reasonable trust and deference to those who are believed the best judges.

Here, then, we suppose that the common judgment is right; but we perceive a difference between this case and the one mentioned before, inasmuch as in the first instance the right judgment of the mass of mankind is their own; in the second instance, they have adopted it out of deference to others. Not only, then, will men's common judgment be right in matters of instinct and of common sense, but also in higher matters, where, although they could not have discovered what was right, yet they were perfectly willing to adopt it, when discovered by others. And this opens a very wide field. For in all matters which come under the dominion of fashion, where the avowed object is the convenience or gratification of society, men listen to those who profess to teach them with almost an excess of docility: they will adopt sometimes fashions which are not convenient. But yet, as men can tell well enough by experience whether they do find a thing convenient and agreeable or not, so it is most likely that fashions which continue long and generally prevalent are founded upon sound principles; because else men, being well capable of knowing what convenience is, and being also well disposed to follow it, would neither have been very long or very generally mistaken in this matter; nor would have acquiesced in their mistake contentedly.

We do perfectly right, then, to regard the common opinion as a rule in all points of dress, in our houses and furniture, in those lighter usages of society which come under the denomination of manners, as distinguished from morals. In all these, if the mass of mankind could not find out what would best suit them, yet they are quite ready to adopt it when it is found out; and so they equally arrive at truth. But take away this readiness, and the whole case is altered. If there be any point in which men are not ready to adopt what is best for them; if they are either indifferent, or still more, if they are averse to it; if they thus have neither the power of discovering it for themselves, nor the will to avail themselves of it, when discovered for them; then it is clear that, in such a point, the common judgment will be of no value, nay, there will even be a presumption that it is wrong.

Now as the common consent of mankind was most sure in matters where their sense most resembled instinct, that is, where nature had done most for them, and left them least to do for themselves; as here, therefore, they who are sound are the great majority, and the exceptions are no better than disease; so if there be any part of us which is the direct opposite to instinct, a part in which nature has done next to nothing for us, and all is to be done by ourselves; then, here the common consent of mankind will be of the least value; here the majority will be helpless and worthless; and they who are happy enough to be exceptions to this majority, will be no other than Christ's redeemed.

Now, again, if this deficient part of our nature could be seen purely distinct from every other; if it alone dictated our language, and inspired our actions, then it would follow, that language which must ever be fixed by the majority, would be, in fact, the language of the world of infinite evil; and our actions those of mere devils. Then, whoever of us would be saved, must needs begin by forswearing, altogether, both the language and the actions of his fellow-men. But this is not so; in almost every instance this deficient part of our nature acts along with others that are not so corrupted; it mars their work, undoubtedly; it often confuses and perverts our language; it always taints our actions; but it does not wholly usurp either the one or the other; and thus, by God's blessing, man's language yet affords a high witness to divine truth, and even men's judgments and actions testify, though with infinite imperfection, to the existence and excellence of goodness.

And this it is which forms one of the great perplexities of life; for as there is enough of what is right in men's judgments and conduct to forbid us from saying, that we must take the very rule of contraries, and think and do just the opposite to the opinions and practice of men in general; so, on the other hand, there is always so much wrong in them, that we may never dare to follow them as a standard, but shall find, that if trusted to as such, they will inevitably betray us. So that in points of greater moment than mere manners and fashion, it will ever be true, that if we would be prepared for Christ's coming, we must rise to a far higher standard than that of society in general; that in the greatest concerns of human life, the practice of the majority, though always containing something of good, is yet in its prevailing character, as regards God, so evil, that they who are content to follow it cannot be saved.

This is the explanation of the apparent difficulty in the general, and thus, while acknowledging that there are points in which men, by common consent, make out what is best; and others in which, although they do not make it out, nor at first appreciate it, yet they are very willing to adopt it upon trust, and so come by experience to value it; while, therefore, there are a great many things in which singularity is either a disease or a foolishness; so again there are other points in which men in general have not the power to make out what is good, nor yet the docility to adopt it; and, therefore, in these points, which relate to the great matters of life, singularity is wisdom and salvation, and he who does as others do, perishes. That is what is called the corruption of human nature. I shall attempt, on another occasion, to go into some further details, and show, by common examples, how strangely our judgment and practice contain, with much that is right, just that one taint or defect which, as a whole, spoils them. And this one defect will be found to be, as the Scripture declares, a defect in our sense of our relation towards God.

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