William Law On English Mystics
PROBABLY no period of English history has been so antagonistic to all that the word mysticism stands for, as the Georgian era. "Enthusiasm" was the bugbear of the eighteenth century. The word was used as a deadly controversial missile. A Georgian bishop is praised on his tombstone, which adorns, or rather disfigures, the walls of his cathedral, for his zeal in repressing "enthusiasm." William Law, who is to be the subject of this lecture, lived in the eighteenth century, and was not ashamed to be an enthusiast. This alone would stamp him as a man of strong originality, and therefore an interesting personality. But he was, in fact, something more than this — a man of great intellectual power, of unusual force of character, and the master of a striking and attractive English style. He is perhaps the foremost of our mystical divines. I will give you first a short account of his life, and will then discuss his writings and their permanent value.
William Law was born in 1686, at the village of King's Cliffe, in Northamptonshire. His father was a tradesman of good standing, and he was brought up in a religious home. The Rules for my Future Conduct, which he drew up, it would seem, about the time when he went to Cambridge, remind us of the austere conscientiousness which characterises the Serious Call. They are worth quoting :
"I. To fix it deep in my mind that I have but one business upon my hands—to seek for eternal happiness by doing the will of God.
"II. To examine everything that relates to me in this view, as it serves or obstructs this only end of life.
"III. To think nothing great or desirable because the world thinks it so, but to form all my judgments of things from the infallible Word of God, and direct my life according to it.
" IV. To avoid all concerns with the world, or the ways of it, except where religion requires.
"V. To remember frequently, and impress it upon my mind deeply, that no condition of this life is for enjoyment, but for trial; and that every power, ability, or advantage we have, are all so many talents to be accounted for to the Judge of all the world.
"VI. That the greatness of human nature consists in nothing else but in imitating the divine nature. That therefore all the greatness of this world, which is not in good actions, is perfectly beside the point.
"VII. To remember often and seriously how much of time is inevitably thrown away, from which I can expect nothing but the charge of guilt ; and how little there may be to come, on which an eternity depends.
"VIII. To avoid all excess in eating and drinking.
"IX. To spend as little time as I possibly can among such persons as can receive no benefit from me nor I from them.
"X. To be always fearful of letting my time slip away without some fruit.
"XI. To avoid all idleness.
"XII. To call to mind the presence of God whenever I find myself under any temptation to sin, and to have immediate recourse to prayer.
" XIII. To think humbly of myself, and with great charity of all others.
"XIV. To forbear from all evil speaking.
"XV. To think often of the life of Christ, and propose it as a pattern for myself.
"XVI. To pray privately thrice a day, besides my morning and evening prayers.
"XVII. To keep from [a blank space] as much as I can without offence.
"XVIII. To spend some time in giving an account of the day, previous to evening prayer. How have I spent the day? What sin have I committed? What temptations have I withstood? Have I performed all my duty ? "
Not a bad set of rules for a young man at the outset of his university life. Law was made a Fellow of Emmanuel in 1711, and was ordained deacon in the same year. Besides the ordinary studies, he had already begun to study mysticism, in the writings of Malebranche, a seventeenth-century theologian, whose cardinal doctrine is that " We see all things in God," the opposite, it will be observed, of the equally mystical doctrine that we see God in all things. Malebranche's doctrine, if held exclusively, leads logically to the pan-nihilism of Indian philosophy ; while the other side, if unduly emphasised, tends to sentimental and non-ethical pantheism.
A man of Law's tastes might have been happy as a resident Fellow at Cambridge. But his rather obstinate conscientiousness led him to become one of the Non jurors, on the accession of George I. He announces his intention of sacrificing his fellowship to his scruples in a very manly letter addressed to his brother. "The multitude of swearers," he says, "has no influence upon me: their reasons are only to be considered ; and every one knows no good ones can be given for people swearing the direct contrary to what they believe. . . . I think I have consulted my best interest by what I have done ; and I hope, upon second thoughts, you will think so too. I have hitherto enjoyed a large share of happiness ; and if the time to come be not so pleasant, the memory of what is past shall make me thankful."
It is not certain where Law resided, or what he did, during the next ten years. The reports of his having held clerical offices are difficult to reconcile with his refusal to take the oaths, and are not made more probable by the absurd gossip, emanating from the same sources, that Law was "a gay parson, a great beau, and very sweet on the ladies." In 1717 he wrote his Three Letters to the Bishop of Bangor (Hoadly), in answer to that prelate's very anti-Catholic views of the Church ; an exceedingly vigorous and telling attack, which raised its author to the front rank of controversialists. " You have left us," he tells the Bishop, "neither priests, nor sacraments, nor church ; and what has your Lordship given us in the room of all these advantages? Why, only sincerity. This is the great universal atonement for all ; this is that which, according to your Lordship, will help us to the communion of saints hereafter, though we are in communion with anybody or nobody here." Six years later Law published a scathing denunciation of Mandeville's Fable of the Bees; or Private Vices, Public Benefits. Mandeville's essay was a clever and cynical defence of licence and selfishness. " I believe man, besides skin, flesh, bones, etc., that are obvious to the eye, to be a compound of various passions, which govern him by turns, whether he will or no." Law replies: " The definition is too general, because it seems to suit a wolf or a bear as exactly as yourself or a Grecian philosopher. . . If you would prove yourself to be no more than a brute or an animal, how much of your life you need alter I cannot tell ; but at least you must forbear writing against virtue, for no mere animal ever hated it." Law is not content with rebutting his opponent's theory of the origin of morality.
He gives his own. " In one sense, virtue had no origin—that is, there was never a time when it began to be—but it was as much without beginning as truth and goodness, which are in their natures as eternal as God. But moral virtue, if considered as the object of man's knowledge, began with the first man, and was as natural to him as it was natural to man to think and perceive or feel the difference between pleasure and pain. The reasonableness and fitness of actions themselves is a law to rational beings, nay, it is a law to which even the Divine nature is subject, for God is necessarily good and just, from the excellence of justice and goodness ; and it is the will of God that makes moral virtue our law, and obliges us to act reasonably. Here, Sir, is the noble and divine origin of moral virtue. It is founded in the immutable relations of things, in the perfection and attributes of God, not in the pride of man or the craft of cunning politicians. Away, then, with your idle and profane fancies about the origin of moral virtue ! For once, turn your eyes to heaven, and dare but own a just and good God, and then you have owned the true origin of religion and moral virtue." The transition from sarcasm to noble exhortation is characteristic of all Law's controversial writing.
But his first important contribution to positive theology was A Practical Treatise upon Christian Perfection, which he defines as "the right performance of our necessary duties." Of this austere but beautiful treatise I will say more when Law's theology is under discussion.
In 1727 Law became tutor to Edward Gibbon, father of the great historian, and accompanied his pupil to Cambridge. He also spent much time in the elder Gibbon's house at Putney, where he became a centre of an admiring circle, consisting of John Byrom, a Fellow of Trinity, Cambridge, and a sorry versifier ; John and Charles Wesley, his friendship with whom was destined to be broken by a quarrel ;; Miss Hester Gibbon, the daughter of the house ; Mr Archibald Hutcheson, M.P. for Hastings, who on his death-bed advised his wife to make Law her guide and counsellor in religious matters; and two or three others of less importance. Law, it must be confessed, made and kept friends most easily when they were his intellectual inferiors : there was something stiff and uncompromising about him which alienated some who might have met him on equal terms. As long as John Wesley was willing to consult him and follow his advice, all went well. It was in answer to some question of Wesley that Law replied in the memorable words : " You would have a philosophical religion ; but there can be no such thing. Religion is the most plain, simple thing in the world ; it is only, We love Him because He first loved us." But when Wesley began to have doubts about Law's presentation of Christianity, and wrote a letter setting out his objections, Law answered with a scathing politeness which was enough to terminate any friendship. Wesley, however, retained his admiration for much of Law's writings till the last. It would have been better for Law to associate with men of such power as Wesley, instead of with the two estimable but rather weak women who sat at his feet in the last part of his life.
The treatise entitled, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life; adapted to the State and Condition of All Orders of Christians, was written at this time. It is a tremendous indictment of lukewarmness in religion, a ruthless exposure of the sin and folly of trying to make the best of both worlds. It is especially addressed to the leisured class, among whom this type of character is perhaps most common. The book well deserves its fame. The imaginary characters which he draws to illustrate his teaching are admirably sketched, with a profusion of wit and biting satire which delights the mind of the reader while it makes his conscience ashamed. We may say, by the way, that Gibbon's statement about two of the characters—that they are meant for his two aunts, "the heathen and the Christian sister "—cannot be true. Miss Hester Gibbon may have tried to copy "Miranda," but Miranda was not copied from her, nor Flavia from her sister. The most beautiful of all the character-sketches, that of the model country parson, Ouranius, represents the ideal which Law himself tried to realise, and from all accounts he did not fall far short of it. Ouranius, " when he first entered Holy Orders, had a great contempt for all foolish and unreasonable people ; but he has prayed this spirit away. When he first came to his little village, it was as disagreeable to him as a prison ; and every day seemed too tedious to be endured in so retired a place. His parish was full of poor and mean people that were none of them fit for the conversation of a gentleman. He kept much at home, writ notes upon Homer and Plautus, and sometimes thought it hard to be called to pray by any poor body, when he was just in the midst of one of Homer's battles. But now his days are so far from being tedious, or his parish too great a retirement, that he wants only more time to do that variety of good which his soul thirsts after. ... He now thinks the poorest creature in the parish good enough, and great enough, to deserve the humblest attendances, the kindest friendships, the tenderest offices, he can possibly show them. He is so far now from wanting agreeable company, that he thinks there is no better conversation in the world, than to be talking with poor and mean people about the Kingdom of God. .. . He loves every soul in the parish as he loves himself, because he prays for them all as he prays for himself."
There is much more of the same kind. Not even George Herbert has drawn a more winning picture of what the pastoral life was meant to be and may be. The influence of the Serious Call was both immediate and lasting. John Wesley describes it as " a treatise which will hardly be excelled, if it be equalled, in the English tongue, either for beauty of expression, or for justness and depth of thought." Samuel Johnson called it "the finest piece of hortatory theology in any language," and says that his first reading of it "was the first occasion of my thinking in earnest." Gibbon says of it: "His precepts are rigid, but they are founded on the Gospel. His satire is sharp ; but it is drawn from the knowledge of human life, and many of his portraits are not unworthy of the pen of La Bruyère. If he finds a spark of piety in his reader's mind, he will soon fan it into a flame ; and a philosopher must allow that he exposes, with equal severity and truth, the strange contradiction between the faith and practice of the Christian world." Gibbon feels, as none can fail to do, the extreme severity of Law's presentment of Christianity. The book is just what its title promises, a serious call —there is not much of the joy and peace in believing to be found in its pages. For that very reason, at the present day, when divines are offering us religion without tears, salvation without self-sacrifice, Law's treatise should be studied prayerfully by all who care for their soul's health.
It was about the year 1734 when Law first became acquainted with the writings of the German mystic, sometimes called the " Teutonic philosopher," Jacob Böhme. His study of them was destined to colour all the rest of his life. I have already mentioned his early attraction to the mystics, and his study of Malebranche. The controversies in which he engaged after leaving Cambridge partially diverted his attention from the subject, though he continued to read Tauler and other mystical writers. But Böhme stirred him to the very depths. The illuminated cobbler of Gorlitz, who was born in 1575, was indeed a religious genius of no ordinary kind. His visions, which were sometimes induced by self - hypnotisation, Bohme gazing fixedly at the light shining through his door, till he lost consciousness of the external world, are incoherent enough in form, and are mixed with the wildest fantasies. But those who have patience enough will find in them, as Schlegel did, "a fulness of fancy and depth of feeling, a charm of nature, simplicity, and unsought vigour," combined with real intellectual and speculative power, which have earned for him a very honourable place in the history both of religious philosophy and of German literature. The fact that Sir Isaac Newton, as well as William Law, was a student of Bohme, should be enough to preserve his name from the contempt which some writers have lavished upon him. But before discussing Law's later theology, from the time when he fell under this new influence, I wish to complete the story of his uneventful life.
On the death of the elder Gibbon, in 1738 or 1739, the house at Putney was broken up, and at the end of 1740 Law returned to his native village of King's Cliffe, where his brother George had a house. There he was soon joined by Mrs Hutcheson, now a widow, and Miss Hester Gibbon. The three lived together in a comfortable house near the church, and endeavoured to put into practice the precepts of the Serious Call. The ladies were rich, and the united incomes of the three amounted to £3000 a year, nine-tenths of which was deliberately devoted to charity. Their manner of life was simple, but not ascetic ; Law himself lived mainly in two rooms, well furnished with books, and spent the greater part of each day in reading and writing. Their charities, unfortunately, were managed without discretion. It was an age of reckless giving, as the light literature of the Georgian age shows plainly ; and none of the three had much practical wisdom. King's Cliffe became such a hunting-ground for vagrants that the rector and other parishioners were driven to protest. A saint who could never resist the impulse to liberate imprisoned canaries from their cages, to fall a prey to the nearest cat, was not the best financial adviser for two rich and not very clear - headed women. In all other ways Law's life was most exemplary. His peaceful and happy residence at King's Cliffe was only terminated by his death, at the age of seventy-five, in 1761. The two ladies both survived him, and reached the ages of eighty-five and ninety.
It is now time to turn to Law's later theology, in virtue of which he holds a prominent place among English mystical writers. And first, a few words must be said about the opinions of Jacob Bohme, whose disciple he professed himself. Bohme was a self - taught philosopher, who, besides the Bible, was acquainted only with the older Protestant mystics, and with the eccentric genius Paracelsus who is the subject of Robert Browning's earliest great poem. The characteristic feature of the older Protestant mysticism was a revolt against forensic doctrines of the Atonement. " It is a note-worthy error of false Christians," says Valentine Weigel, " that they leave another to obey the law, to suffer, and to die ; while they desire, without repentance, to avail themselves of imputed righteousness. Nay, truly, thou canst have no help from outside ! That must come from the Christ within thee, not from one who is outside. True faith is the life of Christ in us; it is being baptized with Him, suffering, dying, and rising again with Him. Christ's death and merits are imputed to no one, unless he have Christ's death in himself, and unless he rise with Him to a new life." This deeply moral and spiritual view of salvation, combined with the fantastic speculations of Paracelsus, is the foundation of Bôhme's theology, which, however, also contains Neoplatonic elements, derived we know not whence, but presumably from the school of Eckhart. God, the Eternal Father, is described as the Abyss, as pure Will, in which all things lie unexpressed. The Son is the Eternal Good, which the Father discovers and gives birth to within Himself. The Son is the reality, the actualisation, of the Divine nature. The office of the Holy Spirit, within the bosom of the Godhead, is as a bond between the Father and Son, and the expression of their joint life. In the world of existence, nothing can become manifest to itself without contrariness. The abysmal Will in the beginning divided itself, that it might have a sphere in which to work. This is the law of all existence. In Yes and No all things consist." The " No " is a countercheck to the " Yes," without which the truth, or God, would be unknowable and inoperative. There is no day without night, no heat without cold, no joy without longing. So the Divine nature differentiates itself into love and anger, heaven and hell. The visible world is a counterpart of the spiritual, which God made out of His own substance. It is the living garment of God, as Goethe says. "When thou lookest on the firmament and the stars and the earth," says Böhme, "thou seest thy God, in whom thou also livest and hast thy being. If this whole sphere of existence be not God, thou art not God's image. If there be anywhere a God foreign to it, thou hast no part in Him." Evil is the necessary condition of the activity of good. " Love submits to the fire of wrath that it may be itself a fire of love." Good can only exist by turning sorrow into joy, by overcoming opposition and harmonising discord. Thus by a fanciful etymology he says that quality, determination (Qua) is inseparable from suffering (Quaal). The path of salvation is the conquest and renunciation of the self-will which separates us from the will of God. We desire to know nothing further about God than what God chooses to know in and through us. The whole frame-work of his religion is contained in the following account of his experiences. " I am not a master of literature or the arts, but a foolish and simple man. I have never desired learning, but from early youth I strove after the salvation of my soul, and thought how I might inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Finding within myself a powerful contrariness, namely, the desires that belong to flesh and blood, I began to fight a hard battle against my corrupted nature, and with the help of God made up my mind to over-come the inherited evil will, to break it, and to enter wholly into the love of God in Christ. I therefore resolved henceforth to regard myself as dead in my inherited form, until the Spirit of God should be formed in me, so that in and through Him I might conduct my life. This I could not accomplish, but I stood firmly by my resolution, and fought a hard battle with myself. While I was thus wrestling and battling, being aided by God, a wonderful light arose within my soul. It was a light quite unlike my unruly nature, but I recognised in it the true nature of God and man, a thing which I had never before understood or sought for."
Characteristic mystical sayings gleaned from his works are the following : ---
" If you will behold your own self and the outer world, you will find that you yourself, with regard to your external being, are that external world."
" It is not I who know these things, but God knows them in me."
"When thou canst throw thyself for a moment into that where no creature dwelleth, then thou hearest what God speaketh."
"He that findeth love findeth God; and he that findeth God findeth nothing and all things."
"The soul hath heaven and hell within itself."
"The body of a man is the visible world, and the visible world is a manifestation of the inner spiritual world ; it is a copy of eternity, wherewith eternity hath made itself visible."
These views place Böhme in the main line of development of German thought which culminated in Schelling and Hegel, and also, through his insistence on Will as the contstitutive principle of the world, make him a precursor of Schopenhauer. William Law does not adopt his system in its entirety. He is less of an intellectualist than Böhme, in spite of his much wider reading. The parts of Böhme which attracted him most were the polemic against forensic doctrines of the Atonement ; the perpetual insistence that God is love, and that wrath is foreign to His nature, the doctrine of the unio mystica brought, as with St Paul, into closest connection with Christology ; and the analogy between the visible and invisible world, the sacramental view of life. These doctrines were not borrowed from Bohme. Law believed them before. But in the Teutonic philosopher he found for the first time an illuminating exposition of his own deepest convictions ; and the result was a new note in his teaching, a note of ardent and rapturous emotion, which blends in the most striking manner with the old austerity and moralism. Law's later books contain some of the noblest and strongest writing in the literature of devotion, whether in our own language or in any other.
Students of Law's theology should give particular attention to a short essay called The Grounds and Reasons of Christian Regeneration, which the author himself referred to as containing the heads of his teaching. The following extracts are characteristic : "What is it that any thoughtful, serious man could wish for but to have a new heart and a new spirit, free from the hellish self - tormenting elements of selfishness, envy, pride, and wrath? His own experience has shown him that nothing human can do this for him; and it is so natural for him to think that God alone can do it, that he has often been tempted to accuse God for suffering it to be so with him. Therefore to have the Son of God come from heaven to redeem him, and to redeem him by way of regeneration, by a seed of His Divine nature sown into him, must be a way of salvation highly suited to his own sense, wants and experience, because he finds that his evil lies deep in the very essence and forms of his nature, and there-fore can only be removed by the arising of a new birth or life in the first essences of it. Therefore an inward Saviour, a Saviour that is God Himself, raising His own Divine birth in the human soul, has such a fitness in it as must make every sober man with open arms ready and willing to receive such a salvation.
" Some people have an idea of the Christian religion as if God was thereby declared so full of wrath against fallen man, that nothing but the blood of His only-begotten Son could satisfy his vengeance. Nay, some have gone such lengths of wickedness as to assert that God hath by immutable decrees reprobated a great part of the race of Adam to an inevitable damnation, to show forth and magnify the glory of His justice. But these are miserable mistakers of the Divine nature, and miserable reproachers of His great love and goodness in the Christian dispensation. For God is love, yea, all love, and so all love that nothing but love can come from Him ; and the Christian religion is nothing else but an open, full manifestation of His universal love to all mankind. There is no wrath that stands between God and us, but what is awakened in the dark fire of our own fallen nature ; and to quench this wrath, and not His own, God gave His only-begotten Son to be made man. The precious blood of His Son was not poured out to pacify Himself, who in Himself had no nature toward man but love ; but it was poured out to quench the wrath and fire of the fallen soul, and kindle in it a birth of light and love."
Regeneration does not signify only a moral change of our inclinations. " Tempers and inclinations are the fruits of the new-born nature, and not the nature itself. Our nature must first be made good, its root and stock must be new made, before it can bring forth good fruits of moral behaviour. . . . The whole nature of the Christian religion stands upon these two great pillars, namely, the greatness of our fall, and the greatness of our redemption. Every one is necessarily more or less of a true penitent, and more or less truly converted to God, according as he is more or less inwardly sensible of these truths."
" No son of Adam is without a Saviour, or can be lost, but by his own turning away from this Saviour within him, and giving himself up to the suggestions and workings of the evil nature that is in him."
"A bare historical and superficial faith cannot save the soul, but leaves it a slave to sin." Human reason may assent to the truth that Christ is our Saviour, while "little or nothing is done to the soul by it ; the soul is under much the same power of sin as before, because only the notion or image or history of the truth is taken in by it; and reason of itself can take in no more. But when the seed of the new birth, called the inward man, has faith awakened in it, its faith is not a notion, but a real strong hunger, which lays hold on Christ, puts on the divine nature, and effectually works out our salvation." We must beware not to "make a saint of the natural man." Persons of this stamp, Law truly observes, often overlook in themselves errors of moral behaviour such as the first beginners in religion dare not allow themselves in. " There is nothing safe in religion, but in such a course as leaves nothing for corrupt nature to feed or live upon."
How can a man know that he is in the way of regeneration ? Not by assurance that the cannot fall from the state of grace. Such :confidence may be given by God to those ?who need it, but normally what we want to mow is that we are alive and growing, tot that our salvation is secure. The characters of saints differ widely. "Every complexion of the inward man, when sanctified by humility, and suffering itself to be turned and struck and moved by the Holy Spirit of God, according to its particular frame and turn, helps mightily to increase that harmony of Divine Praise, thanksgiving, and adoration, which must arise from different instruments, sounds, and voices."
Law then attacks again the doctrine of assurance. " If I have not this gift of God, until my own feeling and assurance confirms it to me, I am self-justified, because my justification arises from what I feel and declare of myself." Strong" impressions and delightful sensations in the spiritual life are gifts of God, but they should be classed with outward blessings, such as health and prosperity. " A soul may be as fully fixed in selfishness through a fondness of sensible enjoyments in spiritual things, as by a fondness for earthly satisfactions." " These inward delights are not holiness, they are not piety, they are not perfection, but they are God'$ gracious allurements and call to seek after holiness and perfection." " They ought rather to convince us that we are as yet but babes, than that we are really men of God." " The soul is only so far cleansed from its corruption, so far delivered from the power of sin, and so far purified, as it has renounced all its own will and desire, to have nothing, receive nothing, and be nothing, but what the one will of God chooses for it, and does to it. This and this alone is the true Kingdom of God opened in the soul." " There is nothing evil, or the cause of evil to either man or devil, but his own will ; there is nothing good in itself, but the will of God." "Conversion to God is often sudden, but this suddenness is by no means of the essence of true con-version, and is neither to be demanded in ourselves, nor required of others. The purification of our souls is not a thing done in an instant, but is a certain process, a ;gradual release from our captivity and disorder, consisting of several stages and degrees, both of death and life, which the soul must go through, before it can have thoroughly put off the old man. Jesus Christ is our pattern, and what He did for us, we are also to do for ourselves." Our Saviour's greatest trials were near the end of His life : this should warn us not to be self-assured of our own salvation. To sum up : our own will is our separation from God. "All the disorder and malady of our nature lies in a certain fixedness of our own will, imagination, and desires, wherein we live to ourselves, are our own centre and circumference, act wholly from ourselves, according to our own will, imagination, and desires. There is not the smallest degree of evil in us, but what arises from this selfishness, because we are thus all in all to ourselves. . . . I t is enough for us to know that we hunger and thirst after the righteousness which is in Christ Jesus that by faith we desire and hope to be in Him new creatures ; to know that the greatest humility, the most absolute resignation of our whole selves to God, is our greatest and highest fitness to receive our greatest and highest purification from the hands of God."
I know no better summary of the theology and ethics of Christian mysticism than this short treatise. Those persons who connect mysticism with vague sentiment and luxurious emotions should reconsider their opinion in the light of this last paragraph. Those who hunger and thirst after righteousness will find consolations in mysticism ; those who think to embrace mysticism for the sake of its consolations will receive no encouragement from the great mystics. " Entbehren sollst du, sollst entbehren," is the watchword that is ever on their lips. If we would save our souls, we must first surrender them unconditionally.
I cannot refrain from quoting a magnificent outburst of moral indignation from Law's next controversial work, an answer to a discourse " On the Folly, Sin, and Danger of being Righteous Overmuch," by Dr Trapp, a typical eighteenth-century divine. Trapp had even ventured to appeal to our Blessed Lord's example in support of his thesis. "0 holy Jesus!" Law exclaims, "that Thy Divine life should, by a preacher of Thy Gospel, be made a plea for liberties of indulgence ! ..
Our Saviour, suitable to His gracious love, in coming into the world, sought the conversation of publicans and sinners, because He came to save that which was lost, and because He knew that some among such sinners were more moveable than the proud sanctity of the learned Pharisees. . . . O holy Jesus ! Thou didst nothing of Thyself, Thou soughtest only the glory of Thy Father from the beginning to the end of Thy life ; Thou spentest whole nights in prayer on mountains and desert places ; Thou hadst not where to lay Thy head ; Thy common poor fare with Thy disciples was barely bread and dried fish ; Thy miraculous power never helped Thee to any dainties of refreshment, though ever so much fatigued and fainted with labour. And yet' because this holy Jesus came into the world to save all sorts of sinners, therefore He came into all places and entered into all sorts of companies. . . . It is said that where-ever the king is, there is the court, but with much more reason may it be said, that whereever our Saviour came there was the Temple, or the Church. As He was everywhere God, so every place became holy to Him."
In an answer to an angry rejoinder by Dr Trapp, who had called Law an "enthusiast — a favourite term of vituperation in the eighteenth century — he boldy accepts the word. " Enthusiasm is as common, as universal, as essential to human nature as love is. No people are so angry with religious enthusiasts as those who are the deepest in some enthusiasm of another kind. He who travels over high mountains to salute the dear ground that Cicero walked upon, whose noble soul would be ready to break out of his body if he could see a desk from which Cicero had poured forth his thunder of words, may well be unable to bear the dullness of those who go on pilgrimages; only to visit the sepulchre whence the Saviour of the world rose from the dead, or who grow devout at the sight of a crucifix, because the Son of God hung as a sacrifice thereon. . . . Even the poor species of fops and beaux have a right to be placed among enthusiasts, though capable of no other flame than that which is kindled by tailors and peruke-makers. Enthusiasm is not blameable in religion when it is true religion that kindles it. . . . Every man, as such, has an open gate to God in his soul ; he is always in that temple, where he can worship God in spirit and in truth. Every Christian, as such, has the firstfruits of the Spirit, a seed of life, which is his call and qualification to be always in a state of inward prayer, faith, and holy intercourse with God. All the ordinances of the Gospel, the daily sacramental service of the Church, is to keep up and exercise and strengthen this faith ; to raise us to such an habitual faith and dependence upon the light and Holy Spirit of God, that by thus seeking and finding God in the institutions of the Church, we may be habituated to seek Him and find Him, to live in His light, and walk by His Spirit in all the actions of our ordinary life. This is the enthusiasm in which every good Christian ought to endeavour to live and die."
Canon Overton, in commenting on this passage, asks, " Is it possible that this man could have lived in the eighteenth century ? "
The high sacramental doctrine, the contempt for grammarians and critics, the unabashed defence of enthusiasm, seem to belong to any age rather than the generation of Warburton, Hoadly, Sherlock, and Butler. The isolation of Law as a thinker both explains the partial neglect in which he lived, and increases our admiration for his originality and courage.
The two most charming of Law's mystical works are The Spirit of Prayer and The Spirit of Love, published between 1749 and 1752. The former, however, is somewhat marred by the extreme anti - intellectualism which was part of Law's later philosophy. It was a reaction against the rationalism of the Deists and their opponents, who combated Deism with its own weapons. One of the interlocutors in the dialogue (for The Spirit of Prayer is cast in this form), whom Law calls Academicus, describes how when he began to study divinity, some advised him to learn Hebrew, others Greek ; others told him that Church history is the main matter ; "that I must begin with the lives of the first Fathers, not forgetting the lives of the Roman emperors." " Another, who is wholly bent on rational Christianity, tells me that I need go no higher than the Reformation. . . . My tutor is very liturgical ; he has some suspicion that our Sacrament of the Lord's Supper is essentially defective, for want of a little water in the wine. . . . The last friend I consulted advised me to get all the histories of the rise and progress of heresies, and to be well versed in the casuists and schoolmen. This know-ledge, he said, might be useful to me when I came to be a parish priest." Academicus, when he has found "the true way of Divine knowledge," regards all these investigations as lost labour. I must return, at the close of this Lecture, to Law's hostile attitude towards human reason.
The Spirit of Love, which in my opinion is Law's masterpiece, deals with the two objections, that Love is too ethereal a principle for practical life, and that the Bible represents God as a jealous and even a wrathful Being. He begins by saying that God, as considered in Himself, is "only an eternal Will to all goodness." " As certainly as He is the Creator, so certainly is He the Blesser, of every created thing, and can give nothing but blessing, goodness, and happiness from Himself, because He has in Himself nothing else to give." This is the ground and original of the spirit of love in the creature—it is and must be a Will to all goodness. The spirit of love, wherever it is, is its own blessing and happiness, because it is the truth and reality of God in the soul. " Oh, sir," he exclaims, " would you know the blessing of all blessings, it is this God of love dwelling in your soul, and killing every root of bitterness, which is the pain and torment of every earthly, selfish love. For all wants are satisfied, all disorders of nature are removed, no life is any longer a burden, every day is a day of peace, everything you meet becomes a help to you, because everything you see or do is all done in the sweet, gentle element of love. The spirit of love does not want to be rewarded, honoured, or esteemed ; its only desire is to propagate itself, and become the blessing and happiness of everything that wants it." It meets evil as the light meets the darkness, only to overcome it.
Christ can never be in any creature, except as the spirit of love. Whenever, therefore, we willingly indulge wrath or hatred, we are actively resisting Christ ; we do what the Jews did, when they said, "We will not have this man to reign over us."
All evil and misery are the result of man's will being turned from God ; for whatever wills and works with God must partake of this happiness and perfection. We are all fallen creatures, who crave and strive for purification, and restoration to the spirit of love.
Then follows an exposition of Bôhme's theories about body and soul, the most interesting part of which is the conclusion that "body and spirit are not two separate, independent things, but are necessary to each other, and are only the inward and outward conditions of one and the same being." Passages like this explain the charge of Spinozism " brought against Law by Warburton—an accusation which Law repudiated with unusual heat, holding that " Spinozism is nothing else but a gross confounding of God and nature." Spinozism is, of course, a great deal more than this ; but Law does not seem to have really studied Spinoza.
The rationalism of the Deists is next attacked. " Reason" can no more alter the life of the soul than the life of the body. He only who can say to the dead body of Lazarus, "Come forth," can say to the soul, " Be thou clean." Logic cannot make a man a moral philosopher. We must not put our eyes to do the work of our hands and feet. The spirit of love is a spirit of nature and life, not a creation of discovery of the intellect. I t is as surely real as health and strength, it is a form or state of life. In this paragraph Law approaches what is now called pragmatism. As against the shallow rationalism and common-sense philosophy of the Deists, he is right, but our distrust of reasons should not prejudice us against reason, with which religion has no quarrel.
The doctrine of the Cross s the necessity of dying to self, as the only way to life in God. "This is the one morality that does man any good. There are only two possible states of life : the one is nature, and the other is God manifested in nature. We must choose one or the other. We cannot stand still without deciding, for `life goes on, and is always bringing forth its realities, which way soever it goeth."' Here speaks the author of the Serious Call ; after much fantastic Behmenism, it is a relief to catch the tone of the stern English moralist once more.
The "Second Part" of The Spirit of Love is in the form of a dialogue between Theogenes, Eusebius, and Theophilus. All nature, says Theophilus, is what it is, for this only end, that the hidden riches of the unsearchable God may become manifest in and by it. God's unchangeable disposition towards His creatures is only the communication of His own love, goodness, and happiness to them, according to their capacities. He can no more become angry with His creatures, than be angry with them at first. God's pity is not the beginning of a new temper ; it is a new manifestation of His eternal will to all goodness ; but to suppose that God feels wrath and fury, because the poor creature has brought misery upon itself, is impious aid absurd. Wrath is always a corrupt and disordered state ; it is so in man, and could not be otherwise in God. Wrath, therefore, can no more be in God Himself than hell can be heaven. The creature experiences wrath and misery by losing the living presence of the Spirit of God ; for no intelligent creature can be good and happy but by partaking of a twofold life. The natural life is a life of various appetites, hungers, and wants, and cannot be anything else ; it can go no higher than a bare capacity for goodness, and cannot be a good and happy life, but by the life of God dwelling in, and in union with it. Hence the necessity for the Incarnation. The union of the Divine and human life, to make man again a partaker of the Divine nature, is the only possible salvation for man. All salvation is, and can be nothing else, but the manifestation of the life of God in the soul. All particular dispensations, whether by the law or the prophets, by the Scriptures, or ordinances of the Church, are only helps to a holiness which they cannot give. Perpetual inspiration, by the immediate indwelling, union, and operation of the Deity in the life of the creature, is not fanaticism, or enthusiasm, but a thing as necessary to a life of goodness as the perpetual respiration of the air is necessary to animal life. What a mistake it is to confine inspiration to particular times and occasions, to prophets and apostles and extraordinary messengers of God ! We are not all called to be apostles or prophets, but all are called to be holy, as He who has called us is holy. The holiness of the Christian is not an occasional thing, nor, on the other hand, is it ever his own work ; he must therefore be continually inspired.
Law then makes his own the old mystical doctrine of the spark of heaven hidden in the soul. " If Christ was to raise a new life like His own in every man, then every man must have had originally in the inmost spirit of his life, a seed of Christ, or Christ as a seed of heaven, lying there as in a state of insensibility or death, out of which it could not arise, but by the mediatorial power of Christ. Unless there was this seed of Christ, no beginning of Christ's mediatorial office could be made. For what could begin to deny self, if there was not in man something different from self ? Unless all the commandments had been really in the soul, in vain had the tables of stone been given to man. And unless Christ lay in the soul, as its unknown, hidden treasure, as a seed of life, a power of salvation, in vain had the holy Jesus lived and died for man. The redeeming work of Christ is to raise the smothered spark of heaven out of its state of death, into a powerful governing life of the whole man. And you, says Law's Theophilus, need no other deliverance, but from the power of your own earthly self. It is your own Cain that murders your own Abel. Daily and hourly see to the spirit that is within you, whether it is heaven or earth that guides you. Do not cross the seas to find a new Luther or a new Calvin, to clothe yourself with their opinions. No, the oracle is at home, that always and only speaks the truth to you. Salvation or damnation is no outward thing that is brought into you from without, but is only that which springs up within you, as the birth and state of your own life. What you are in yourself, what is doing in yourself, is all that can be either your salvation or damnation. " Your salvation precisely consists, not in any historic faith, or know-ledge of anything absent or distant from you, not in any variety of restraints, rules, and methods of practising virtues, not in any formality of opinion about faith and works, repentance, forgiveness of sins, or justification or sanctification, but wholly and solely in the life of God, or Christ of God, quickened, and born again in you."
The atonement of the Divine wrath, and the extinguishing of sin, are but two names for the same thing. The atonement made no change in the mind of God, but overcame and removed all the death and hell and wrath and darkness, which had opened itself in the nature, birth, and life of fallen man. Transactional theories of the atonement, Law argues, are not really scriptural. When the Bible says that righteousness, or justice, is satisfied by the atonement of Christ, it means that strict righteousness or justice has its absolute demands on man, which it cannot relax. Christ takes away the sins of the world by restoring to man his lost righteousness. He gave Himself for the Church, that He might sanctify and cleanse it. Man's original righteousness has become his tor-mentor, and must plague him until it is restored to him. God's chastisements are all for our good. " If the Holy Jesus had been wanting in severity, He had been wanting in true love."
" There is nothing that is supernatural," says Law, " in the whole system of our redemption. Every part of it has its ground in the workings and powers of nature, and all our redemption is only nature set right, or made to be that which it ought to be. There is nothing that is supernatural, but God alone ; everything beside Him is subject to the state of nature. There is nothing supernatural in the mystery of our redemption, but the supernatural love and wisdom which brought it forth." " The Christian religion is the only true religion of nature ; it has nothing in it supernatural."
" Nothing can be done to any creature super-naturally, or in a way that is without, or contrary to, the powers of nature." "A religion is not to be deemed natural, because it has nothing to do with revelation ; but then it is the one true religion of nature, when it has everything in it that our natural state stands in need of."
I will conclude my extracts from The Spirit of Love with these words, omitting an interesting discussion upon the source of sin and misery, in the last dialogue. It will not be necessary to comment upon the few writings which belong to the last years of Law's life. His last written words, indited a few days before his death, contain the kernel of his theology. "All that Christ was, did, suffered, dying in the flesh, and ascending into heaven, was for this sole end to purchase for all His followers a new birth, new life, and new light, in and by the Spirit of God restored to them, and living in them, as their support, comforter, and guide into all truth. And this was His, ' Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.'"
William Law expounds the principles of Christian Mysticism in a peculiarly sound and attractive form. The only defects, as it seems to me, in his later writings are his adoption of some of the more fantastic theories of Bôhme, and his extreme anti-intellectualism. He ignores Plato and the Platonists, though he has very much in common with them. It is remarkable that an Emmanuel man should show so little sympathy with Cambridge Platonism, of which his own College was the nursery. One would have supposed that in the writings of John Smith, Benjamin Whichcote, Henry More, and Cudworth, Law would have found a great deal to admire and very little to disapprove. It is true that Law was a High Churchman, while the Cambridge group were already nicknamed " Latitudinarians" and "rational theologians." But this should not have been fatal to an understanding between kindred spirits. The truth seems to be, that Law was well acquainted with More alone in this group ; and though he admired his character, he regarded him as an adversary of the "inner light," and his books as "a jumble of learned rant," which some of them 'certainly are. In John Smith he might have found a rationalism in no way antagonistic to his own mysticism—a religious philosophy more complete and not less devout than his own, based not on the dreams of an illuminated cobbler, but on the thoughts of Plato and Plotinus, Christianised by a saint who was also a scholar. A very few sentences from the discourses of this gifted young theologian will show how much affinity there was between him and Law. " Such as men themselves are, such will God Himself seem to be." " He that will find truth, must seek it with a free judgment and a sanctified mind. He that thus seeks shall find ; he shall live in truth, and that shall live in him. He shall drink of the waters of his own cistern, and be satisfied. He shall find satisfaction within, feeling himself in conjunction with truth, though all the world should dispute against him." "When men most of all fly from God, they still seek after Him." "God is not better defined to us by our understandings, than by our wills and affections." "Divinity is a Divine life rather than a Divine science—the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." The true life of the Christian "is nothing else but an infant Christ formed in his soul." " Heaven is not a thing without us, nor is happiness anything distinct from a true conjunction of the mind with God." "God does not bid us be warmed and filled, and deny us those necessities which our starving and hungry souls call for." "I doubt sometimes that we make the unspotted righteousness of Christ a covering wherein to wrap our foul deformities, and when we have done, think that we are become Heaven's darlings as much as we are our own." Most of these maxims are quite in accordance with Law's sentiments ; but Smith is superior to Law in his claim that the "Reason" must not be scouted as the source of a frigid Deism, but given its rightful place in the hierarchy of our faculties. Smith is far too much of a mystic to be a rationalist but he is also far too good a Platonist to think that mental cultivation is no help towards right belief and right living. These two noble thinkers should both be read by all who wish to know the best that Anglican theology has produced. It has not been the interest of either of our two militant parties to republish them ; but they are far more worthy to live than certain other books which have been disinterred in the cause of faction. A study of the Serious Call, The Spirit of Love, or Smith's Select Discourses, may not make the reader a better Catholic or a better Protestant, but they cannot fail to make him a better Christian and a better man.
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Studies of English Mystics:
On The Psychology Of Mysticism
The Ancren Riwle And Julian Of Norwich
Mystical Phenomena With Walter Hylton
William Law On English Mystics
The Mysticism Of Wordsworth
The Mysticism Of Robert Browning