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authority, may know the criminality of lying and stealing, and feel their moral obligation to refrain from these and other moral evils. Accordingly we find, that both those, who never heard of the Bible, and those, who never read it, are as capable of discerning the difference between moral good and evil, as even those, who make it their business to study and explain the sacred Oracles. And this is a clear evidence, that the essential difference between virtue and vice results, not from the will of God, but from the nature of things.
2. Men are capable of judging what is right or wrong,
respect to the divine character and conduct. This God implicitly allows, by appealing to their own judgment, whether he has not treated them according to perfect rectitude. In the context, he solemnly calls upon his people to judge of the propriety and benig. nity of his conduct towards them. “And now, O 0 inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I
pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard. What could have been done more to my vineyard that I have not done in it? Wherefore when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?” He makes a similar appeal to the same people, by the prophet Jeremiah. “Thus saith the Lord, What iniquity have your fathers found in me, that they are gone far from me, and have walked after vanity, and are become vain?” He says by the prophet Ezekiel, “Hear now, O house of Israel, is pot my way equal? are not your ways unequal?" And he repeats the question, to give it a greater em. phasis. “O house of Israel, are not my ways equal?
. are not your ways unequal?” By the prophet Micah, he appeals not only to Israel, but to all the world, whether he had not treated them with the greatest propriety and tenderness. “Hear now what the Lord saith: Arise, contend before the mountains, and let the hills hear thy voice. Hear ye, O mountains, the Lord's controversy, and ye strong foundations of the earth: for the Lord hath a controversy with his people, and he will plead with Israel. O my people, what have I done unto thee? and wherein have I wearied thee? testify against me. For I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of servants; and I sent before thee Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what Balak king of Moab consulted; and what Balaam the son of Beor'answered him from Shittim unto Gilgal; that ye may know the righteousness of the Lord.”
In these solemn appeals to the consciences of men, God does not require them to believe, that his character is good, because it is his character; nor that his laws are good, because they are his laws; nor that his conduct is good, because it is his conduct. But he allows them to judge of his character, his laws, and his conduct, according to the immutable difference between right and wrong, in the nature of things; which is the infallible rule, by which to judge of the moral conduct of all moral beings. In every instance, therefore, in which God refers his conduct to the judgment of men, he gives the strongest attestation to the immutable difference between right and wrong in the nature of things.
3. God cannot destroy this difference without distroying the nature of things. If he should make a law, on purpose, to destroy the distinction between virtue and vice, it would have no tendency to destroy it, Or if he should make a law, which should forbid us to loye him with all our hearts, and our neighbors 29 ourselves, it would not destroy the obligation of his first and great command. As no positive precepts can destroy the nature of things; so no positive precepts can destroy our obligations to do what is right, and to avoid what is wrong. While God remains what he is, it will be our duty to obey him, and not his duty to obey us. While we remain what we are, it will be our duty to do unto others as we would that they should do unto us. And while all moral beings remain what they are, it will be criminal in them, to exercise cruelty, injustice, or malevolence towards one another. Hence it is evident, that even Omnipotence cannot destroy the essential distinction between virtue and vice, without destroying the nature of things. And this clearly proves, that virtue and vice are immutably different in the nature of things, independently of the will or pleasure of the Supreme Being. I may add,
· 4. That the Deity cannot alter the nature of things, $0 as to destroy the essential distinction between virtue and vice. We can conceive, that God should make great alterations in us, and in the objects about us; but we cannot conceive that he should make any alterations in us, and in the objects about us, which should transform virtue into vice, or vice into virtue, or which should destroy their essential difference. No possible alteration in the nature of things, can make it our duty to lie, or steal, or murder, or exercise the least malevolence towards our fellow creatures. This must always be sinful in our world, and in any other world of moral agents. Suppose God should create a new world, and fill it with a new race of moral beings. We cannot conceive, that he should so frame the new world, and so constitute the minds of the new race of moral agents, as that they should feel themselves under
moral obligation to lie, and steal, and murder, and to avoid every exercise and expression of real benevo. lence. But if God cannot destroy the essential differe ence between virtue and vice, either by an act of his power, or, by an act of his authority, then it is absolutely certain, that this difference depends not on his will, but on the nature of things, and must remain as long as moral beings exist.
I might now proceed to improve the subject, were it not proper to take notice of one or two objections, which may be made against what has been said.
Object. 1. To suppose the difference between virtue and vice results from the nature of things, is derogatory and injurious to the character of God. For, on this supposition, there is a standard of right and wrong superior to the will of the Deity, to which he is abso lutely bound to submit.
To say, that the difference between right and wrong does not depend upon the will of God, but upon thre nature of things, is no more injurious to his character, than to say, that it does not depend upon his will whether two and two shall be equal to four; whether a circle and square shall be different figures; whether the whole shall be greater than a part; or whether a thing shall exist and not exist at the same time. These things do not depend upon the will of God, because they cannot depend upon his will. So the difference between virtue and vice does not depend upon the will of God, because his will cannot make nor destroy this immutable difference. And it is more to the honor of God, to suppose, that he cannot, than that he can, perform impossibilities. But if the eternal rule of right must necessarily result from the nature of things, then it is no reproach to the Deity to suppose, that he is morally obliged to conform to it. To set God above the law of rectitude, is not to exalt, but to debase his character. It is the glory of any moral agent to conform to moral obligation. The supreme excellency of the Deity consists, not in always doing what he pleases, but in always pleasing to do what is fit and proper in the nature of things.
Object. 2. There is no other difference between virtue and vice, than what arises from custom, education, or caprice. Different nations judge differently upon moral subjects. What one nation esteems a vice, another nation esteems a virtue. We esteem stealing a moral evil; but the Spartans taught their children to steal, and approved and rewarded them for it.
We esteem murder a great and heinous crime; but the Chinese put their aged and useless parents to death, and destroy their weak, sickly, or deformed children, without the least remorse. Such contrariety in the opinions and practices of different nations, refutes the notion of an immutable standard of right and wrong in the nature of things.
This objection is more specious than solid. For, in the first place, it is certain, that all nations do feel and acknowledge the essential distinction between virtue and vice. They all have words to express this distinction between right and wrong. And since words are framed for use, we may presume, that no nation would frame words to express ideas or feelings, which never entered their minds. Besides, all nations have some penal laws, which are made to punish those who are guilty of criminal actions. It is, therefore, impossible to account for some words, and some laws, which are to be found among all nations, without supposing, that they feel and regard the essential distinction be tween virtuous and vicious conduct.