No right exists for the law of God to be set aside in the name of religious toleration.
(an adaptation of an essay originally written by a Reformed Presbyterian minister, James R. Willson, in 1823)
Perhaps there is no word in the English language more abused than the word tolerance. If a writer is found vigorously supporting any cause which he believes to be right, and endeavoring to show that the opposite view is wrong, he is immediately styled intolerant. This is more especially the case in matters of religion. If he is firmly persuaded that the system of doctrines to which he adheres is the system taught in the Bible, he is considered a bigot. If he endeavors to demonstrate that opposing doctrines are erroneous, he is deemed intolerant.
Now nothing should be more evident than the existence of a God. And it should be no less evident that he is the creator of all things. This being the case, it necessarily follows that he is the lawgiver to all of his creatures. Nothing is independent of him. All of his creations, even the lifeless objects, are ruled by some form of his law. Man, in contrast to the animals, was created by God with a moral nature. Obviously, a moral being must be governed by a moral law. Those who acknowledge the Bible to be the word of God, admit that it contains that moral law by which all men are to be governed. Bible believers recognize that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are their only rule of faith and practice. The Holy Scriptures then are God’s law, and the Almighty legislator wills that his rational subjects should be governed by them.
Human laws must be imperfect, because men are imperfect. Regarding moral right and wrong, they will necessarily be defective. But this is not the case with divine laws. They are predicated on the eternal and immutable principles of righteousness. Did the divine legislator intend that his laws should be put to use? Are they capable of being understood? To answer either question in the negative would be to declare his laws nullified and to impugn the sovereignty of God. A law that was never to be acted upon would not be entitled to the name of a law. And an unintelligible law would be a disgrace to its maker. Representing the laws of the ruler of the universe either as inoperative or unintelligible, would be to insult him to his face.
So bringing the aforementioned evident truths to bear on the matter of tolerance, we must ask: Is it meant by tolerance, that the divine law in every case, or in some cases, ought to be dispensed with? In effect, that there is no divine law? Or if there be a divine law, that it ought not to be acted upon? What is this thing called tolerance? And again, what is intolerance? Is intolerance a contending that God has a right to rule — that he has actually given laws — and that they ought to be obeyed? Is the man an intolerant man, who contends that God has given laws to the universe? Many men would exclude religion from having any place in the world, and it seems that the modern vocabulary of religious toleration is calculated to exclude the Almighty from having any rule in his own creation.
But some will say: No human interference ought to be permitted. If God chooses to make laws, they must not be executed by fallible men.
But what if the divine law actually contemplated, and positively required, a human executor? “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” “ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire” Is this intolerance? It will readily be granted, that there ought to be no human interference without a divine command. Had the Israelites put the Canaanites to death without the command of God, it would, no doubt, have been murder. God has given to every living man his life, and who dare take it away unbidden by the divine giver?
It will be objected: Although God has a right to give laws, yet men will differ about the meaning of these laws, and the law is as everyone understands it.
But if this be accepted as a reason to set aside the divine law, can it not be used to the destruction of all law? Isn’t it a fact that all laws are subject to the interpretation of men? Would the United States government allow their man-made laws to be set aside based on the fact that there are variations in the interpretation and application of them? Would any state in the union? Yet the executors of these laws are all fallible and imperfect men, and some of these laws have life and death consequences. No matter what the reason may be, if a law cannot be put into practice, that law is negated.
Still some will object: Nations have a right to make laws, and human laws can be understood.
This is nothing less than an implication that God has not the right to make laws, or that his laws cannot be understood. It will not do to say, (as is often said) that there are many deep, mysterious doctrines in the Bible upon which men differ widely about articles of faith, and so who can be the judge? All that sort of talk is an obvious evasion. The question is not about speculative matters of faith, but matters of clearly commanded practice. It regards the duties required, and the crimes forbidden, by the lawgiver of heaven and earth — what he commands to be done, and what he commands to be avoided.
It is presumed few would argue that God could not give laws that men ought to act upon. And yet this is the consequence of arguing that fallible and imperfect men have no right to enforce divine laws, even though God has commanded them. Did the divine Lawgiver lose his right to command man, because they are imperfect and fallible? How came they to be imperfect? Was it not by their sin and rebellion against God? And did this put it out of the power of the Almighty to give them a law? Did man sin himself into independence? Did he, by rebelling against God, put himself out of the control of his Maker? This would, indeed, be an easy way to get clear of divine authority.
It may still be alleged that it is not with respect to individual and personal responsibility that the case is argued, but with respect to society. That it is only society that is out of the reach of divine legislation, not individuals.
But why should not the Omnipotent be allowed the right to make laws for society? What attributes of God would prevent his presiding authoritatively over the social compact? Let us enquire into the nature of society. Is it a self-originating thing? Who created society? Was it not God who said, “it is not good that the man should be alone”? Did not the Creator bestow upon man a social nature? And is not social, as well as individual man, amenable to the laws of his Creator? If society be a creation of God’s, and not a creature of the creature, then God has a right to prescribe the laws by which society shall be governed. It would seem that wherever there are relations among men, the laws regulating these relations belong to divine government.
It may be yet objected, that this view of the matter will give the Bible a decided preference. And it will be asked: Are not the rights of those who deny the Bible as sacred, as those of the Bible believer?
It will be admitted that this view does indeed give the Bible a preference, while it is readily granted that the rights of Deists are to be held sacred. All rights are, or ought to be, sacred. If murderers have rights, let them be scrupulously respected. A right is a right, wherever it is found. But what the objection really contemplates is whether a Deist has the right to deny divine revelation, or deny that the Bible is divine revelation. Now it may be doubted whether any man has that right, or rather, whether it be a right at all. And to make that determination, it might be enquired: Can God give a revelation of his will to men? It is presumed that this will be acknowledged by all to be within His power. Now if God gives such a revelation, does he have any claim on the faith of those to whom it is made known? Are they bound to believe it? And if it prescribes laws for the regulation of their conduct, are they bound to obey these laws? In short, has God a right to command them? Or have men a right to reject the command? The question at issue is: Who has the paramount authority? God cannot have a right to command their acceptance of his revelation, and they have a right to reject it at the same time. The one destroys the other. Let it be admitted that the paramount authority is on the side of God Almighty, and the supposed right of the Deist will be a non-entity. There is no such right. This, in modern style, may be called persecution, and the sovereignty of God may be called tyranny. No matter, still the Supreme Being will govern, and his law must be obeyed, or men must abide the consequences.
It will, no doubt, be argued that the right of conscience is a sacred right — that whatever a man’s conscience thinks right, is right to him. No matter whether he be a Jew, a Christian, a Pagan, or a Muslim, whether he believes the Bible or the Koran, or that both are an imposition, provided he conscientiously believes what he believes. Every man, it is claimed, has an inalienable and indefeasible right to think, believe, and act, according to the dictates of his own conscience. This is one of the foundational tenets of so-called religious toleration. To call this “right” into question is tyranny, and to attempt to prevent its exercise is persecution.
In answer to this, it is necessary to settle the point: What is conscience, and what is right? Conscience may be considered as a faculty or power of the soul of man, by which, as a judge, he passes sentence, in God’s name, upon his own conduct. Conscience is the magistrate of God in the soul, which pronounces in his name, a sentence of approbation, or disapprobation, on human conduct, according as it appears to be morally right or wrong. Respect must be had, in every case, to a law. There is no possibility of knowing what is right or wrong, approvable or disapprovable, without a law. “Sin is the transgression of the law.” The judgment passed by a man’s conscience upon his action, is a moral judgment.
Then there is that faculty of the soul which we call the understanding, by which we form judgments. We compare ideas, we examine evidence, and we judge the truth or falsehood of a proposition by the understanding. In reference to a law, we examine actions, and determine their agreement or disagreement therewith, and so pronounce them good or bad, by the exercise of our understanding.
But the conscience is distinguished in its acts of judgment from the understanding, in that all of its judgments are judicial. It acts as a judge on a bench. It pronounces a sentence of acquittal or condemnation according as the understanding has discovered an agreement or disagreement between the action that occurred and the law as it applies to that action. The conscience, therefore, is not a rule or law in itself, but a judge, applying the law to the case at hand and pronouncing sentence accordingly. To identify the law with the judge who applies the law, is a compounding of distinct ideas which is calculated to destroy the precision of language and create confusion. What are the rights of conscience? The same as the rights of a judge. Just as the judge doesn’t create law but only applies it, so the rights of conscience are precisely what the law of God allows it — neither more nor less. So the law of God can never give to the conscience of man a right to act contrary to that law. This would be a sanction from the law to destroy itself. Anything, therefore, which the divine law forbids, never can be found among the rights of conscience.
In order to assist us in forming correct ideas on this subject, it might be helpful to ask: What is a right? It must be something opposite of a wrong, for the two words present contradictory ideas. A right can never be understood in an immoral sense, regardless of what kind of right may be contemplated. Every conceivable kind of right must correspond with its name. It must be moral in its nature. A right must be righteous. An immoral right, i.e., a wrong right, is a contradiction in terms and is self-destructive. And it is obvious that he who created the moral being defines what is right and wrong for that being. All the creatures’ rights are derived from God, and God delegates no right to think, speak, or act, otherwise than his law directs.
The legislative character of the Almighty is essentially connected with his divine sovereignty. It is here, in an eminent manner, that he is a jealous God. In article of supremacy, he will bear no competitor. He will not — he cannot — share his dominion. The Lord is our Lawgiver. How did it ever come to pass, that the breach of Jehovah’s law was denominated a right? That the conscience of man may err, is generally granted. But how is it that an error of the conscience has come to be called a right? The law of God, whenever it is known, is the formal rule and reason of human obedience. God commands that which is right, and we obey because we are commanded. Does God allow a breach of his law, based on the justification that such a breach is a sacred right of conscience? If God has given a well-attested revelation of his law, conscience has no right to present a negative to any part of it. To allow it to do so, is not only to allow the conscience of man to stand in judgment of God, but to allow it to find God guilty of wrongdoing. Thus is the arrogance of those who advocate for the principles of religious toleration based on an erroneous concept of the liberty of man’s conscience.
The sovereignty of God requires an acquiescence to the Bible as the law-book of his kingdom. Wherever it comes, it claims — and justly claims — a supreme and paramount authority to rule the conscience and regulate the relations of human society. “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them”