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The Personality of the Deity

Henry Ware, Jr.

A sermon preached in the Chapel of Harvard University, September 23, 1838. Published at the request of the members of the Divinity School. Boston: James Monroe and Company, 1838.

Note: The following discourse is one of a series, in the course of delivery in the Chapel of Harvard University, on the Existence, Perfections, and Government of God. This circumstance explains the allusions in the introductory paragraphs. — 9/26/1838.

 “He is the living God and an everlasting King.”—Jeremiah 10:10

In treating the doctrine respecting God, the mind is deeply impressed with a sense of its importance in its bearing on human duty and happiness. It is the doctrine of a Creator, the Governor and Father of man. The discussion relates not merely to the laws of the universe and the principles by which its affairs are directed, but to the character and dispositions of the Being who presides over those laws and by whose will those affairs are determined. It teaches, not only that there is a wise and holy order to which it is for every man's interest to conform, but that that order is ordained and upheld by an active, overruling Intelligence, and that hence virtue is not merely conformity to a rule, but allegiance to a rightful Lawgiver, and happiness not the result merely of obedience to a command, but of affectionate subjection to a Parent.

The importance of this consideration to a true and happy virtue cannot be overestimated. The difference between conformity to a statute and obedience to a father is a difference not to be measured in words, but to be realized in the experience of the soul. It is slightly represented in the difference between the condition of a little child that lives in the presence of a judicious and devoted mother, an object of perpetual affection, and of another that is placed under the charge of a public institution, which knows nothing but a set of rules. Each is alike provided for and governed, but the one enjoys the satisfactions of a trusting and loving heart, while the other, deprived of the natural objects of affection, knows nothing but a life of order and restraint. Take away the Father of the universe, and, though every ordinance remain unchanged, mankind becomes but a company of children in an orphan asylum, clothed, fed, governed, but objects of pity rather than congratulation because deprived of those resting-places for the affections without which the soul is not happy.

Our representations of the being and perfections of God are therefore incomplete until we have taken into consideration the additional view now suggested. The idea of personality must be added to that of natural and moral perfection in order to the full definition of the Deity. Without this he is but a set of principles or a code of laws. Yet by some philosophers at various times it has been speculatively denied, and by too many in common life it is practically lost sight of. It may be well, then, in connection with our preceding discussion, to consider a little particularly the doctrine of the Divine Personality, to state what it is, to show the grounds on which it is established, and to survey the evils which must result from a denial of it.

I begin with stating what is meant by the Personality of the Deity.

A person is an intelligent, conscious agent—one who thinks, perceives, understands, wills, and acts. What we assert is that God is such. It is not implied that any distinct form or shape is necessary to personality. In the case of man, the bodily form is not the person. That form remains after death, but we no longer call it a person, because consciousness and the power of will and of action are gone. The personality resided in them. So also in the case of the Deity; consciousness, and the power of will and of action, constitute him a person. Shape, form, or place make no part of the idea.

The evidence of this fact is found in the works of design with which the universe is filled.   They imply forethought, plan, wisdom, a designing mind—in other words, an Intelligent Being who devised and executed them. If we suppose that there is no conscious, intelligent person, we say that there is no plan, no purpose, no design; there is nothing but a set of abstract and unconscious principles. And, strange as it may seem to Christian ears, which have been accustomed to far other expressions of the Divinity, there have been those who maintain this idea, who hold that the principles which govern the universe constitute the Deity, that power, wisdom, veracity, justice, benevolence are God, that gravitation, light, electricity are God. Speculative men have been sometimes fond of this assertion, and in various forms have set up this opposition to the universal sentiment, sometimes with the design of removing the associations of reverence and worship, which make men religious, sometimes under the supposition that they thereby elevate the mind to a conception of the truth more worthy of its exalted subject. But it will be evident upon a little inquiry that, in either case, the speculation is inconsistent with just and wholesome doctrine.

1. For, in the first place, one of the most observable and least questionable principles, drawn from our observation of man and nature, is that the person, the conscious being, is the chief thing for the sake of which all else is, and subservient to which all principles operate. The person—the conscious, intelligent, active, enjoying, suffering being—is foremost in importance and honor; principles and laws operate for its support, guidance, and well-being, and therefore are secondary. Some of these principles and laws have their origin in the relations which exist amongst intelligent, moral agents; most of them come into action in consequence of the previous existence of those relations. If there were no such agents, there either would be no such principles, or they would have no operation.    Thus, for example, veracity, justice, love are sentiments or obligations which spring up from the relations subsisting between different beings, and can exist only where there are persons. We may say, indeed, that they exist abstractly, in the nature of things, but if there be no beings to recognise them, no agents to conform to or violate them, they would be as if they were not. They are qualities of being, and like all qualities have no actual existence independent of the substances in which they inhere. They have relation to acts—voluntary acts of truth, justice, goodness—and acts belong to persons. If there existed no persons in the universe, but only things, there could be neither the act nor the sentiment of justice, goodness, truth; these are qualities of persons, not of things, of actions, not of substances. Suppose the Deity to exist alone in the universe which he has made. Then, from the conscious enjoyment of his own perfections and the exercise of his power in the physical creation, He must dwell in bliss; but, as he has no relations to other conscious existences, he cannot exercise justice, or truth, or love. They lie in the infinite bosom as if they were not; they have only a contingent existence. But the instant he should create various tribes, they spring into actual existence. They no longer may be; they are. They rise out of the new relations which are created, and are the expression of sentiments and duties which had not before been possible.

Or make another supposition. Upon the newly created earth one man is placed alone. He knows no other conscious existence but himself. What are truth, justice, charity, to him? They are nothing to him. He cannot have ideas of them. They are sentiments that belong to certain relations between beings, which relations he does not stand in, and knows nothing of. To him, therefore, they do not exist. Now send him companions, and the relations begin, which give those sentiments birth and make their expression possible. He is in society, and those principles, which make the strength and order of society, immediately come into action. The necessities of conscious being call them forth.

Thus what is chiefest in the universe is conscious, active mind; abstract principles are but the laws of its various relations.

This may be illustrated, if necessary, from the analogies of the physical universe. Which is chief, the law of gravitation, or the universe which it sustains? The one is but means; the other is end, and the end is always greater than the means. If you say, "No, gravitation is the superior, because it is the universal power of God," then I reply, "You thereby assent to the superiority of the person over the principle, for, as his power, it is his servant; he controls and directs it." But if you take the other ground, and speak of gravitation as a power independent of any being, then you cannot deny that it exists and is active for the sake of the systems and their inhabitants. Operating for their sake, it is their servant and inferior; without them it would be inert and non-existent. Thus the analogy of the physical universe corroborates the position. If there were no material masses, there could be no gravitation; if there were no persons, there could be no truth, or justice, or love.

There is another way of considering this point. What is it that in the whole history and progress of man has proved most interesting to man? What has been the favorite study, the chief subject of contemplation and care? Has it not been men, persons? Have not their   character, fortunes, words, deeds, been the chief themes of thought, of conversation, of letters, of arts? Is it not the interest which the soul takes in persons that is the foundation of society, of its activity, its inventions, its advancement in civilization, its institutions, its laws? And what is the happiness of human life? from the moment that the conscious infant opens its eyes to the mother's smile and comes to the perception of her care and love, through all the years of filial and fraternal satisfaction, the confidence of friendship, the delights of love, the endearments of home, and the honors and toils of manhood, until the death-bed of weary age is brightened by the kindness of faithful affection—what, through the whole, is the happiness of life, but this connection with kindred beings? Where has the heart rested through all, but on the bosom of those whose personal interests were one with its own? We cannot cast this slightest glance upon life without perceiving the place which belongs to personality, for, take it away, and the whole of that beautiful scene vanishes; sympathy, friendship, love, all social enjoyment, all social life, are annihilated.

Thus the doctrine which denies personality to God is in opposition to the general economy of nature, which, as we have seen, sets peculiar honor on persons. In all the other relations of its being, the soul is concerned with nothing so much. Why should it be less so in its highest relation?

2. It also, in the next place, amounts to a virtual denial of God. Indeed, this is the only sense in which it seems possible to make that denial. No one thinks of denying the existence of principles and laws. Gravitation, order, cause and effect, truth, benevolence—no one denies that these exist; and, if these constitute the Deity, he has not been, and cannot be, denied. The only denial possible is by this exclusion of a personal existence. There can be no atheism but this; and this is atheism. If the material universe rests on the laws of attraction, affinity, heat, motion, still all of them together are no Deity; if the moral universe is founded on the principles of righteousness, truth, love, neither are these the Deity. There must be some Being to put in action these principles, to exercise these attributes. To call the principles and the attributes God is to violate the established use of language and confound the common apprehensions of mankind. It is in vain to hope by so doing to escape the charge of atheism; there is no other atheism conceivable. There is a personal God, or there is none.

We reason in this case, as in that of a man. Man was made in the image of God. But when we have described so much power, wisdom, goodness, so much beauty, justice, truth, love, we have not described a man; the very essential element is wanting. Without adding personality, we may speak of these qualities forever, and they will not make a man. So, too, we may enlarge them infinitely, but unless we add personality, they will never make up the idea of God.

3. Further, to exclude personality from the idea of God is, in effect, to destroy the object of worship, and thus to annihilate that essential duty of religion. The sentiment of reverence may, undoubtedly, be felt for a principle, for a code of laws, for an institution of government. But worship, which is the expression of that sentiment, is applicable only to a conscious being, as all the language and customs of men signify. It is praise, thanks, honor, and petition, addressed to one who can hear and reply. If there be no such one—if the government of the world be at the disposal of unconscious power and self-executing law—then there can be no such thing as worship.

Let this be seriously considered. What a desolation is wrought in society and in the soul when the foundation of worship is thus taken away. It is the suppression of a chief instinct; it is the overthrow of a system which has always made an inseparable part of the social order, and in which human character and happiness are intimately concerned. The relation of man, in his weakness and wants, to a kindred spirit infinitely ready to aid him, of the insufficient child of earth to a watchful Father in heaven, is destroyed. There remains no mind higher than my own, which is knowing to my desires; there is no Parent above, to whom my affections can rise and find peace. I am left to myself, and to men as weak as myself. If, following the impulses of my heart and the example of good men, I call on One who cares for me and will bless—I am driven back, and my heart is chilled by the reply, "The power that is over all sustains and guides, but, having no personality, it cannot appreciate affection, nor give it back in return; be satisfied to reverence and submit." And so the filial spirit is mocked—as if the little child, with its full heart, longing for the embrace of its absent mother, should be told, "That mother is but an idea, not a person; you may think of her, but you can have no intercourse with her. Be satisfied with this." And this poor substitute for the dearest of the heart's inestimable privileges is what philosophy would impose on man in the place of a sympathizing Father!

We must not consent to the injustice which is thus done to the affections. What an instinct is in them, and how they yearn for something to love and trust, is taught us in all the religious history of the race. From this cause men so multiplied their divinities that, from amid that great diversity, every variety of human soul might find its want of sympathy supplied. Hence, too, in the Catholic church, the worship of the Virgin—because, in the love for that beautiful and spotless person, was found a gratification that the heart is always seeking. And yet, in the face of this great instinct of humanity, everywhere manifested, Philosophy steps forth and insists that the soul is to be satisfied with abstractions. As if human nature were anything without its affections! As if a man were a man without his heart! As if to deny and baffle them were not to pour bitterness into the very fountain of the soul's peace! And this is done whenever man is made to believe that the altar at which he kneels is consecrated to a set of principles, and not to a "Living God."

4. In the next place, this notion removes the sense of responsibility, and so puts in jeopardy the virtue of man, as we have just seen that it trifles with his happiness. The idea of responsibility implies someone to whom we are responsible, and who has a right to treat us according to our fidelity. We indeed sometimes use the word with a little different application: we say that a man is responsible to his country, to posterity, to the cause of truth, but this is plainly employing the word in a secondary sense; it is not the original, literal signification. We hear it said, also, that a man is responsible to his own conscience, and this is sometimes spoken of as the most solemn responsibility—in one point of view, justly, since it is responsibility to that person whose disapprobation is nearest to us, and whose awards are of the highest consequence to our peace. We are not, therefore, to speak lightly of the tribunal within the breast. But why is it terrible? Because it is thought to represent and foreshadow the decisions of the higher tribunal of God. Let a man believe that it is ultimate, and he can learn to brave it; and how many accordingly have hardened themselves against it, and persevered in sin, as if it were not! Or let him think that the retributions of guilt are simply the accomplishment of natural laws, which go on mechanically to execute themselves, unattended by any sentiment of approbation or disapprobation, and he can, without great difficulty, defy them. They do not address his moral sensibility. This is the case with the improvident, the miserly, the intemperate. They are perfectly aware that grievous ill consequences will pursue their folly, yet they are not restrained thereby. If they have a mind to risk them, whose concern is it? They will judge for themselves what makes their happiness. But, if they had been made sensible to the disapprobation of a Living Father, if they had realized that the sentence against their iniquities was to be executed by Him to whom they owe everything, then they would have paused in their bad career.

And this is agreeable to what takes place under our daily observation. What could not be effected by all the experience of evils following in the natural train of events has, in thousands of instances, been at once brought about by the powerful thought of the Divine Being, who observes and judges. Many a man, long familiar with crime, who had been only exasperated and hardened by the natural consequences which plagued him in his pursuit, has been touched, alarmed, subdued, converted, by coming to the knowledge of that Gracious Sovereign, who holds all destiny in his hands, and who sent his Son to bring his wayward children home. It is idle to talk to men in general of responsibility, without directing them to the Being to whom the account is to be rendered. It is the thought of the Living Lawgiver and Judge, which affects them—of one whose displeasure they can dread, whose good opinion they can value, whose favor they perceive to be life. And herein is perceived the wisdom of the gospel of Christ; herein is found its efficacy—that, casting aside all such abstractions, it appeals wholly to the relations of conscious beings, and subdues, and reforms, and blesses by drawing the human soul to the soul of its Saviour and its God.

5. If now we pass to the declarations of the divine word, we find that the doctrine we are opposing stands in direct contradiction to the whole language and teaching of the Old and the New Testaments. Those volumes speak of God, uniformly and distinctly, as possessed of personal attributes. They so describe his perfections and his government, they so recite his words and his acts, they so assign to him the relations and titles of the Creator, King, Lawgiver, Father—that no reader could so much as dream that his name is used simply to express the principles and laws of the universe. To fancy it is to make Scripture unintelligible, and set at naught its express authority. Until language changes its meaning, and all description is falsified, the doctrine of the Divine Impersonality is a direct contradiction of the doctrine of revelation.

6. Further still, it destroys the possibility of a revelation, in any intelligible sense of the word. A revelation is a message, or a direct communication, from the Infinite mind to the human mind. But in order to this, there is required a conscious and individual action on the part of the communicator; and this implies personality. So that this doctrine virtually accuses the Scriptures of imposture, since they purport to contain a revelation from God, which in the nature of things is impossible. Nay, let us see the worst of it—it accuses the apostles of Christ, and the blessed Saviour himself, of deliberate fraud and imposition, since they and he declared, with the most solemn asseverations, that he was directly sent by God, the Father of mankind, when, if there be no such Being, but only certain principles and laws, he could not have been sent by him. Their language in that case is altogether deceptive. It seems to mean one thing, when it really means something quite the reverse. When Jesus declares again and again that he came from the Father and speaks his word, he does not intend what the words assert, but only what is equally true, in a degree, of all men. He was merely giving utterance to thoughts poured into his mind by the everlasting stream which flows into all minds. There was nothing special in his case, excepting that, as he was purer and better than other men, his thoughts were higher and purer. They were from God in the same sense in which any man's thoughts are from  God—Plato's, Mahomet's, Luther's; they have the same authority, that is, no authority beyond what lies in their own evident truth—the doctrine of Plato or Mahomet, of Luther or Confucius, is just as divine and just as authoritative, if it but recommend itself as strongly to my mind, and a holy thought of Fenelon or Swedenborg is as truly a divine revelation as the gospel of Christ. This is the result at which the doctrine arrives. It destroys the possibility of a revelation in any sense which makes it peculiar and valuable by making all truth a revelation, and all men revealers. It takes away all special divinity and authority from the Gospel, reduces it to a level with any other wisdom, and thus robs it of its power over the earth. Its pure and holy author becomes a pretender, for he professed to be sent from God and to bring his message; he worshipped him, and spoke of holding continual personal intercourse with him, and by such means he gained a hearing and an influence among men—gained them, however, only by deceiving the world, if there be, after all, no personal God.

By thus tracking this doctrine through its various bearings and observing its tendencies, we come to a clear discernment of its falseness and mischievousness. We see that it opposes what is taught in nature by all the marks of design which cover the works of creation—it sets aside the fundamental fact that conscious, intelligent being, in its various relations, is the chief interest of the universe, for the sake of which everything else is—it is a virtual denial of God, and a consequent overthrow of worship and devotion—it injures happiness by taking from the affections their highest object, and virtue by enfeebling the sense of responsibility—it contradicts the express lessons of the Bible, excludes the possibility of a revelation in any proper sense of the word, and denies to the Gospel its right to authority and power.

Of course, it will not happen that all these disastrous consequences will follow from this doctrine in the case of every individual who may receive it. To the pure all things are pure; and some men will dwell forever in the midst of abstraction and falsehood without being injuriously affected. Express infidelity is not vice, and may exist together with great integrity and purity of life. Atheism is not immorality, and may consist with an unblemished character. But, however it may be with individuals living in the midst of a believing and worshipping community, it is not to be doubted that a community unbelieving and godless would rush to evil unmitigated and hopeless. A philosopher here and there, by his science and skill, might perhaps live without the sun, but strike it out from the path of all men, and despair and death ensue.

On this subject, then, we are first to look for the truth, and then at the consequences of denying it. And those consequences, we are to remember, may flow as certainly from a practical disregard of it, as from a speculative rejection. It is possible by the mouth to profess God, and in works to deny him. The number of those who can be misled by the ingenuity of an imaginative mind is comparatively small, but the world is crowded with those who become aliens from God through the hardening influences of a worldly career, while they fancy themselves to know and acknowledge him as he is. On this account, the views of the present discourse ask the serious regard of all men. For who can doubt that, among the causes which produce in society so much moral and religious deadness, this is one—that men satisfy themselves with referring to the laws and principles of nature, and stop short of that Being in whom they reside? How much is this a habit amongst us! We talk of the "laws of our being," and of living by them, and of the consequences of violating them, as we should talk of a machine or of fate. We thus throw out of view the agency and love of the Living God, whose children we are, and claim relationship to inanimate abstractions. According to the common phrase, we stop at second causes. And in so doing, we not only wrong the truth, which is thus denied, but defraud ourselves of that exercise and enjoyment of the thinking, affectionate spirit, in which our highest action and bliss are to be found. This ought not so to be. And, until men come more to realize the presence and the authority of the Living Father, who governs them new, and who will judge them in the end, it is vain to hope for any wider prevalence of elevated piety or of happy devotion to duty.

 


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