Brethren Archive

The Modern Apotheosis Of Doubt

by John Dickie

IF Doubting Castle ever was demolished, except in Bunyan's dream, it has recently been rebuilt; rebuilt too on a magnificent scale, furnished with every modern appliance and improvement, especially in the department of the library; but, instead of being the residence of old Giant Despair and his wife, it is now the head- quarters of a zealous school of theologians, which, self-confident and aggressive, aims to make itself a sort of nucleus to the church that is to be.

Hitherto the grand inspiration of the Church of Christ has been her simple faith. This has supplied his dauntless courage to every soldier in her "noble army of martyrs;" this has girded with super-human vigour each worker in his loving labours; this has strengthened with all might unto all patience, every unit among her myriads of sufferers. And this simple faith, receiving constant supplies of grace from the faithful God, has hitherto been amply sufficient for every want of the church or of her members. But many around us seem to be weary of this style of living, as if it were too poor for the dignity of man; and so they aim at a development into something higher. And the grand inspiration of this party of boasted progress is, not faith, but doubt. Of course, they do not avow the term, neither do they quite disown it; but practically the issue comes down to this; their grand inspiration is hesitating, joyless, enfeebling doubt.

The Old Church has hitherto believed the Bible to be all and always inspired (excepting, of course, the errors of transcribers and the mistakes of translators); and she has been contented with a "Thus saith the Lord," as a settlement of every difficulty, and an end of all strife. But faith like this is too childish for Doubting Castle; and so they have many prior questions to settle regarding degrees of inspiration here and there, nay, regarding the fact of inspiration anywhere; and there has to be so much discount taken off for Jewish prejudices and for slips of various kinds, that to all, except to the fully taught, ay, and to the fully taught themselves, the issue of the whole matter is a state of the most painful doubt.

Hitherto, the old-fashioned Christians have been glad to welcome the Bible's views of sin, and of salvation through the atoning blood of the Divine Kinsman-Redeemer. Hitherto, they have been delighted to find so plainly revealed in Scripture, a wonderful method of recovery, which, while on the one hand it gloriously reveals the perfect character of God, on the other it abundantly satisfies every longing of the sin-afflicted soul. But these old-fashioned views are being set aside by many in our day, who, instead of dealing with God about sin in the court of conscience, and coming to him with nothing but the blood of his Son, they presume to deal with him on a variety of other grounds, and yet on grounds which, because they neither provide for the glory of God's name, nor yet for the complex wants of man's soul, are felt not to meet the case at all, and therefore leave the speculating worshipper a prey to distressing doubt.

Hitherto, believers have readily found in the Bible the whole controversy between God and man reduced to a very simple issue. All are alike lost, but free salvation is offered to all, and every sinner is commanded to accept at once the gift of God. He that by faith accepts it, feels, in exact proportion to his faith, that he is actually enjoying its promised blessings; while he who, by unbelief, neglects the great salvation, is solemnly assured that, continuing to do so, there is no escape for him. But in Doubting Castle, they have got the whole matter put on a different footing. So entangled and perplexed has the question been made, that the believer can scarcely be warranted to feel assured of his salvation, neither need the unbeliever be unduly alarmed, lest he should not finally escape. The completeness of pardon, on the one hand, and the certainty of everlasting punishment on the other, have been so mystified, that the one doctrine is nearly useless for the comfort of the believer, while the other is nearly powerless for the awakening of the careless. As on other points, the finding on this one, too, comes in practice only to distressing doubt. And these disciples of Doubt are to some extent aware of their position; indeed they accept it, and almost glory in it. They are fond of repeating the couplet,—

"There dwells more faith in honest doubt;
Believe me, than in half the creeds."

And so, unlike our old-fashioned believers, they are far from being humbled to the dust, with shame and sorrow, for their unbelief. No; they live and move in it, and, as a party, it furnishes their characteristic distinction. They doubt, and profess to doubt; and, as a consequence, they assume an attitude of the most patient endurance towards every form of doubting error, reserving their dislike for the strong conviction which strongly affirms or strongly denies; especially for that doctrinal decision which simple faith in the Word of God imparts. They do not like the confidence which, David-like, makes bold to "say" what God has already solemnly "sworn" (Ps. lxxxix. 2, 3).

Now, what can be the cause of this extraordinary irruption of skepticism into the realm of professing Christianity? The fact is plain, that such an irruption has been taking place; and not a few around us have been disturbed by the unholy assailant. The line of its operations is a somewhat extensive one, beginning with those whose position, as regards doctrinal belief, is, as yet, but a single step beneath that of their godly fathers, and extending down to those who have already reached a point scarcely a step above the scoffing infidels of the last age. We have, somewhat towards the upper end of the inclined plane, men who speak, as a recent writer has done, in the following words: "It is our humble notion that every thinking man, not only in this century, but in every century on which the sun ever shone, has had his doubts and difficulties, and that every minister of the gospel discharges his duty not worse but better of these. . . .They may sadden, but they strengthen his mind. . . .Many great preachers of the gospel, and writers on gospel truth, have doubted before they believed, doubted while they believed, and doubted after they believed." And F. W. Robertson says, "Nay further, a man may be more decisively the servant of God and goodness while doubting his existence, and in the anguish of his soul crying for light, than while resting in a common creed and coldly serving him." Now, while both of these statements may, with modifications and explanations, be admitted as in some measure true, their manifest spirit is considerably different from that of New Testament faith. Again, as a sample of those who stand near the lower end of the plane, just where one is ready to topple over the edge into formal infidelity, we may quote Dr. Williams, who identifies Bible inspiration with ordinary Christian intelligence in this fashion: "If that Spirit by which holy men spake of old is forever a living and a present power, its later lessons may well transcend its earlier; and there may reside in the Church a power of bringing out of her treasury things new as well as old." In other words, the Bible is denied to be the Word of God in any peculiar sense, and denied, therefore, to be the infallible resting-place of faith; it is reduced to a level with, nay, it is set beneath, the feverish speculations of men like Dr. Williams himself; and the drowning man who had been clutching to the rope which he believed to be held at the other end by God, is coldly assured that the rope is idly floating on the waters, and that he may as well clutch the drifting sea-weed which is perplexing him with its fatal tangle. Surely, surely the locust-like regiments of Doubters, with which Diabolus has for long been investing Mansoul, have forced the wall and made a breach upon us, and are assailing us now, not only in the streets, but in our houses. Whence has this come about, for there must be a reason?

Perhaps our unusual and long-continued national prosperity has much to do with the phenomenon. Worldly ease is as little helpful to church purity as it is to the growth in grace of the individual believer. We have been long undergoing an unparalleled trial, not in the fires of adversity which only refine the gold, but in the more perilous furnace of prosperity, which threatens to consume it. And one peculiar effect of protracted prosperity is, that it fosters this spirit of unbelief. Bacon tells us that times of peace breed doubt; and the Bible assures us that they who covet after money wander from the faith (1 Tim. vi. 10). Perhaps we have it as one of our peculiar trials in the present day, to conflict with these terrible hosts of doubts; instead of struggling, as our godly fathers often did, with the strong terrors of the scaffold or the dungeon. If it be so, possibly the balance is not so much in our favour as some might hastily conclude. Certain it is, that there are Christian pilgrims now, who are more enfeebled and more afflicted by perplexing doubts, than they would have been by any form of terrible death, if only their doubts were solved. And so, after all, the path of the heavenly pilgrim lies, in every age, pretty equally through the waste and howling wilderness. But it would have been incomparably better for the Church herself, as well as for the world, if, instead of sharing the world's prosperity in selfish ease, her active love and Christ-like spirit had been all along making the world a wilderness to her. If we had been searching out the ignorant to teach them, going out after every heathen to bring him in; if we had been gathering the orphans in our homes, and lifting up every ragged Lazarus from his lair among the dogs to lay him in our own bed, it would have been as much better for us, as it would have been for them, at this day. Ah, if we had been spending our strength and employing our means in fashion like this, instead of feeding our fleshly cravings with our riches, and reserving our mental strength for the criticisms and speculations of Doubting Castle, many would have been spared the agonies of an uncertainty which weakens and torments them, but which brings no blessing.

Another cause of this increase of the skeptical spirit is the peculiar intellectual character of the day. We have made unprecedented progress in the direction of scientific discovery; and this has fostered a state of mind the most adverse to the self-mistrusting, child-like spirit which characterizes true faith in God. As Lord Macaulay, in his Essay on Bacon, says, "The true philosophic temperament may. . . .be described in four words—Much hope, little faith;" and this true philosophic spirit of little faith, that is, the spirit of the age, has been largely imported into the Church, and even into the closet. Perhaps the greatest evil in certain sections of the Church at present, is greatest because it is the fruitful mother of so many others, lies in our leaning so much to our own understanding, as to make it often impossible for us to trust in the Lord with all our hearts. We presume to use our eyes when we should seal them up, to use nothing but our ears. We are reasoning, sifting, testing, when God wants, in us, only quiet and patient listeners. The understanding heart, in God's eye, is a hearing heart. (Compare text and margin of 1 Kings iii. 9.) And what can reasoning on themes too lofty for us do to help us? In the world's politics, philosophies, and business, it has its appropriate sphere; though even there, we see its imperfection in the endless controversies which it begets; but in the sublime region of divine revelation, it is altogether out of place. Here it will only work misery if we listen to it, and ruin if we follow it. And yet, no Baal of the old idolatry ever seduced the worshippers of Jehovah more sadly, than the spirit of rationalism that is perverting those who should be the children of simple faith. Brethren, let us never forget that our name and character is, believers; that we have received the adoption of sons by faith, and live by faith, and stand by faith; that we are called to be strong in faith and steadfast in the faith, fighting the good fight of faith, that faith which has no ground for its confidence save this alone,—The God of truth has said it.

Perhaps the temper of the age too, as well as its intellectual character, is unfavourable to the deep convictions of assured faith. Such convictions are easily mistaken for, indeed, are not un-frequently accompanied by, the narrow-mindedness of the sectarian; and when it is so, they are exceedingly offensive to a people who pride themselves on their religious charitableness. Some, like John Ruskin for instance, would ascribe chiefly to the sectarianism of Christians, the fact that many of the leaders of the age's intelligence have ranged themselves along the front of the great army of Doubters, assuming attitudes of hostility which differ in degree from quiet protest up to vehement opposition. The reason assigned for this may be questioned; but it cannot be questioned that religious narrow-mindedness is peculiarly offensive to certain classes of educated minds in our day, and that such minds are morbidly jealous of anything that seems to resemble it. And yet, alas, what is the charity which they so cultivate, and on which they so plume themselves? Is it only a new phase of the restless enmity of man's fallen heart to the Holy God and the Word of his grace; or is it a genuine fruit of the Holy Spirit? We cannot think that it is the latter, else it would never be so popular in a world which cannot receive the Spirit of Truth (John xiv. 17). If it were a fruit of the Spirit, it would be most seen in those who live in the Spirit, and walk in the Spirit; while it would be least of all seen in the godless men of mere science and philosophy. And yet, is the reverse not commonly the case? Ah, this vaunted charity is often only a thing of earth; therefore the world loves it, seeing it is the world's own. It is a mere wild weed, growing by the wayside, whose flowers may have a certain measure of beauty and smell, but which are altogether unlike the fragrance and the loveliness of the true plant, which blooms in the garden of the Lord. Jesus knew it not, Paul acknowledged it not; let us seek the Spirit of the Master. And there is the more need for this, seeing that this so-called charity so much abounds. Let us therefore feel our obligation to cultivate prayerfully the highest measures possible of the true meekness of wisdom, the genuine Christian love, which, while faithful to God's truth, is also meek and gentle, kindly and compassionate to erring men. Unless we attain this, the evil of our good things may be a stumbling-block to neighbours, who are only too ready to halt.

After all, the source of the evil we lament lies at the very starting-point of Christian profession. It comes from the presumption of unhumbled man (and by this we mean nothing more offensive than man in his natural state—unbroken before God—and unconscious of having a mind wholly darkened in regard to spiritual things by the fall) trying to grasp the things of faith by the hands of reason. We cannot do it. God's righteousness, which the sinner can attain to faith-wise, is revealed only to faith, and not to carnal speculation. He has come to us, in his Word, on a happier errand than that of seeking sharp-witted philosophers to dispute with; he has come to speak with ruined men, having sin-burdened consciences, and hearts that pant for the assurance of his pardoning mercy and his Fatherly love. To such souls he speaks, with such souls he pleads; and such listeners never fail to find his meaning; while those who only carp, and test, and reason, never fail to miss it.

God speaks—man only listens and believes. This is the divine order, and we may not presume to alter it. Our faith is to be based only and always on the awful authority of the Divine Speaker. Our solitary reason for believing anything spiritual is this—God has said it. Having believed, we go on to search the Word of God, and in their due place, the works of God, for further light. To our faith we are enjoined, not forbidden, to add knowledge. Faith having led the way, sanctified reason with purged eye follows as her handmaid. But we must not attempt to reverse the order; we may not try to lay first the foundation of knowledge, and then proceed to build our faith upon it. This were to build the pyramid on its apex; and this is precisely the original mistake which is being made by the disciples of Doubting Castle. They would fain build faith on human knowledge, instead of resting it, in calm assurance, on divine testimony. They say, with all the world besides, that "seeing is believing;" but they refuse to say with God's children in every age (see Heb. xi .i), that "believing is seeing." And so they come at last, if they only travel long enough, to the very point which those had reached whom Paul spoke of, who, though "sick about questions and strife of words," yet, "know nothing" (1 Tim. vi. 4). Ever learning, they have never been able to come to the length of knowledge. Yes; they may have thought and speculated about almost everything, and may have their opinion on every question; but it is only an opinion and no more, for they really "know nothing." They never feel with good old Bishop Hall, "I were no Christian if my faith were not as sure as my sense." And this opinion, worthless as it is to give strength for conflict, has not

even the merit of being steadfast. Unbelief—and doubt is unbelief—has no firm anchorage, but is tossed about, a very wave of the sea. Like Dr. Priestley, every man of mere reasoning will have to confess, if he be candid, "that he does not know when his creed will be fixed." But—

"Faith Is the sun of life, and her countenance shines like the Hebrew's,
For she hath looked upon God."

The childlike believer has not only the sure Word of God to lean on, but he also finds God himself in his Word, and has communion with him; and his convictions are not opinions merely, but actual knowledge; for he enjoys the unction of the Holy One, which makes him know all things.

And true faith is a business that cannot be done by proxy. We must each lean on God for ourselves, not on another who, we fancy, is leaning on God. Nothing must be allowed between the soul and its everlasting Father, save the gracious Daysman who lays his hand upon both. For though, to repeat the words of Thomas Scott, "we should thankfully use the help of others to point out objects to us; yet we must at last see them with our own eyes or not at all." If our faith stand in the wisdom or in the faithfulness of men, then, as Coleridge says, "we do not believe, we only believe that we believe." And this faith of the fancy may do to talk about, and to speculate with, but it will be sure to burn up, like tinsel, in the white heat of the trial furnace. True and hearty service to Christ, under any circumstances, implies such a devotedness to his will as involves the complete surrender of our all for time and for eternity into his hands (Luke xiv. 33). What a stupendous venture! who will ever risk it, unless, like Paul, he knows well whom he is trusting? If we have doubts, we may stand for long shivering on the brink, torn asunder by conflicting feelings; but we will never have the courage to make the desperate plunge, as to nature, the self-surrender of faith must ever seem to be. "At all turns," says Thomas Carlyle, one whose word is an authority in Doubting Castle, "at all turns a man who will do faithfully needs to believe firmly;" and his witness here is true.

Is it then, my reader, as a philosophic critic, or as a sinner, that you come to read the Word of the living God? Are you a sinful man, who has known what it is to tremble beneath the eye of the Holy God, and in front of the terrible eternity, and are you seeking in the Word, light that you cannot dispense with, and food for your heart's most vehement hunger; or, are you only an easy minded speculator, at leisure to overlook the jewel, and to expend all your concern on the beauties, or the blemishes, of the casket that contains it? Remember that that book in your hand, involves you in the weightiest responsibilities which lie, this day, on any creature, in any world. It has come to you—in the same spirit in which the incarnate Word came centuries ago to Israel—to be a test, and, if you welcome it, to be your Teacher. Like him, it has no outward form or loveliness to draw the carnal eye; nay, to men who are nothing else but learned scribes, it seems illiterate, while to self-satisfied Pharisees, it is offensively familiar with the sinners. But, like him too, it is to all whose hearts the Lord has touched, the power of God, and the wisdom of God. For them, it contains all the hidden treasures of God's wisdom and knowledge. But all others are sure to modify it, to neglect it, to doubt it, to deny it, to do anything rather than receive it simply as the Word of God. Yes, my reader, the Bible is a perfect test, revealing, like its great burden, the thoughts of many a heart; and this solemn touchstone of the Word is being applied to your heart, and to mine, this day. To us all it brings a cross, which, to the humble sin-convicted soul, longing for God's friendship, and justifying God's dealings, is no cross at all; for such a soul, like the Syro-Phoenician woman, will be offended with nothing that God can say to it, not even if he should call it—a dog. The heart has more to do with the form of doctrine which we welcome than the head has, for "evil men understand not judgment, but they that seek the Lord understand all things" (Prov. xxviii. 5). Let us, then, seek to have greater simplicity and greater boldness of faith in God. Captain Incredulity was, and still is, the devil's chief general in his war upon Mansoul; and one of the most effective of the forces under his control, was, and still is, a great army of Doubters. Satan's chief instrument for mischief is unbelief;—unbelief which works with deadly effect, whether under the form of modest doubt or impudent denial. But, under all its forms, unbelief is weakness, misery, and death. Doubt, however candid-seeming, has never quickened one pulse of joy, never fired with holy zeal, never braced to a single work of love, never strengthened a man to offer decided testimony for God. Let us, brethren, flee from it, as our greatest danger; and, if we should happen to be placed, for trial, in the peculiar circumstances of darkness that are thought to warrant doubt, let us choose rather to honour God by exercising faith, even then, that faith which can as easily find God in the darkness, if he only speak, as in the clearest light of reason. Indeed, true faith in God implies the darkness, implies a total want of all other light besides his own,—a relinquishing of all other reasons for believing, save the one, that God has said it. "As I grow older," says Bishop Wilson, "my faith grows simpler."

"But there are so many difficulties," it may be said, "and when I look at the one side and then at the other, I am hopelessly perplexed." Exactly so!—and the mere reasoner will remain hopelessly perplexed to the end of life. But besides the difficulties suggested by reason, is there not also an evidence, even the overwhelming authority of the God who speaks, which, to faith, overpowers the murmurs of unhumbled reason, and completely annihilates all its difficulties for ever. So long, then, as a man complains that he "cannot see it," and continues to insist on "seeing;" so long will he be the prey of distressing uncertainty. But though we cannot see it, is it not enough for us that God sees, and that he is telling us so in words as plain as any words can be? Is not his Word a better resting-place for our faith than any seeing for ourselves could furnish! So then, the question is not—can I see it?—but, can I, without seeing it, believe that God who tells me that it is true?

And where else can we get rest but here? Christ is to us our only Prophet, as he is our only Priest and King. As we are permitted to acknowledge no regal authority but his, and are bound, by our loyalty, to resist the usurpation that would lord it over us in his stead; as we make mention of no righteousness but his righteousness, no expiation but his blood, no intercession but his own; so, too, are we to be true to him as our only Teacher. God has sent him to us as our one great Prophet. If we use him as one teacher among many teachers, and regard his Word as one authority among "many authorities, we disown him as completely as if we acknowledged his atoning blood, and perfect righteousness, to be only one among many methods of attaining peace with God. No; he is the one true light, which enlighteneth every man who is enlightened at all. In saying so, we do not contrast him with the inspired prophets of the Bible, for we include their messages in his; we contrast him only with all authorities whatever outside of the written Word of God. Now, what lower ground can we occupy than this, if we profess to be Christians at all; and, occupying this ground, how is it possible for us to be distracted with doubts about the very truths on which our solitary informant has spoken to us so plainly?

Of old, in the tabernacle in the wilderness, there was no light in the holy place but from the golden candlestick. There might be blazing round the sacred tent the bright sunshine of an Arabian noon; but all this light was carefully shut out by heavy curtains, while the golden candlestick alone illuminated the house of God. The world's light outside might suffice for doing the world's work outside; but in God's holy place, the service of God must be performed, not by the natural sunlight, but by a lamp which typified a better Sun. And does not this teach us, that while the natural light of reason may give excellent help in its own sphere, of which the man of God may avail himself so far as he is allowed; yet in spiritual things, in the region of divine truth and divine serving, we must be careful to reject all light save that which streams forth in glad abundance from the Sun of Righteousness!

If, then, we are in the darkness of doubt, I mean doubt as to vital doctrinal truth, we are not walking in the light, and having our whole bodies full of light. No; this inestimable privilege is enjoyed only by those who have the eye single, and who with the faith of childhood yield their understandings to the one great Teacher. And this doubting is not merely a misfortune, it is a sin; it comes not from uninstructed ignorance, but from partial rejection of the light. With God speaking to us so plainly, doubt implies the want of becoming reverence for his Word; and however smoothly he may affect to do it, the doubter is virtually saying No, to God. It is unbelief, under one of its most deceitful forms, unbelief which is the most deceitful of sins. However, like the most of modern things, it is the repetition of an old story after all. When the Jews pressed round about Jesus in Solomon's porch saying, "How long dost thou make us to doubt? If thou be the Christ, tell us plainly;" he very quickly took them up from the ground of doubt, on which they professed to stand, and set them down on that of positive unbelief, saying, "Ye believe not" (John x. 24-26). We do not for a moment presume to say, or to think, that there are not many of the troubled disciples of doubt who are true disciples of the Lord Jesus; we feel assured that there are many genuine believers towards the upper side of the inclined plane; but still we will make bold to affirm, that their doubt, so far as it exists, is the child of their unbelief; and, that unless the cause of it be detected, confessed, and forsaken, it is likely to grow to more distressing doubt. With Chillingsworth, whose name as an accomplished reasoner, we will venture to cast into the scale against any two of the greatest teachers in Doubting Castle, we desire to say, "Propose me anything out of this Book, and require whether I believe it or no, and deem it never so incomprehensible to human reason, I will subscribe it with hand and heart, as knowing no demonstration can be stronger than this— God hath said so, therefore it is true."                                                                                                                 J. D.

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