There are certain perfections which all who acknowledge a God agree in attributing to him; such are those of wisdom, power, immutability, &c. These, by Christian divines, are usually termed his natural perfections. There are others which no less evidently belong to Deity, such as goodness, justice, veracity, &c., all which may be expressed in one word—holiness; and these are usually termed his moral perfections. Both natural and moral attributes tend to display the glory of the Divine character, but especially the latter. Wisdom and power, in the Supreme Being, render him a proper object of admiration; but justice, veracity, and goodness attract our love. No being is beloved for his greatness, but for his goodness. Moral excellence is the highest glory of any intelligent being, created or uncreated. Without this, wisdom would be subtlety, power tyranny, and immutability the same thing as being unchangeably wicked.
We account it the glory of revelation that, while it displays the natural perfections of God in a way superior to any thing that has been called religion, it exhibits his moral excellence in a manner peculiar to itself. It was with good reason that Moses affirmed, in behalf of Israel, “Their rock is not as our Rock, our enemies themselves being judges.” The God, or Rock, of Israel is constantly described as a Being “glorious in holiness,” and as requiring pure and holy worship: “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and in truth.” “The Lord our God is holy.” “Holy and reverend is his name.” “Glory ye in his holy name.” “And one cried to another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.” “He is of purer eyes than to behold evil; and cannot look on iniquity.” “A God of truth, and without iniquity; just and right is he.” Is any thing like this to be found in the writings of the ancient heathens? No. The generality of their deities were the patrons of vice, and their worship was accompanied with the foulest abominations that could disgrace the nature of man. Justice, benevolence, and veracity were not considered as necessary in any part of their religion; and a large proportion of it consisted in drunkenness, lewdness, and the offering up of human sacrifices.
The object of Christian adoration is Jehovah, the God of Israel; whose character for holiness, justice, and goodness, is displayed in the doctrines and precepts of the gospel in a more affecting light than by any of the preceding dispensations, But who or what is the god of deists? It is true they have been shamed out of the polytheism of the heathens. They have reduced their thirty thousand deities into one; but what is his character? What attributes do they ascribe to him? For any thing that appears in their writings, he is far from the holy, the just, and the good, as those of their heathen predecessors. They enjoy a pleasure, it is allowed, in contemplating the productions of wisdom and power; but, as to holiness, it is foreign from their inquiries: a holy God does not appear to be suited to their wishes.
Lord Bolingbroke acknowledges a God, but is for reducing all his attributes to wisdom and power; blaming divines for distinguishing between his physical and moral attributes; asserting that “we cannot ascribe goodness and justice to God, according to our ideas of them, nor argue with any certainty about them; and that it is absurd to deduce moral obligations from the moral attributes of God, or to pretend to imitate him in those attributes.”*
Voltaire admits “a supreme, eternal, incomprehensible Intelligence,” but passes over his moral character.†
Mr. Paine says, “I believe in one God, and no more;”‡ and in the course of his work ascribes to him the natural perfections of wisdom and power; but is very sparing in what he says of his moral excellence, of his being the moral Governor of the world, and of man’s being an accountable creature. He affects, indeed, to be shocked at the impurity of the ideas and expressions of the Bible, and to feel for “the honour of his Creator, in having such a book called after his name.”§ This is the only passage, that I recollect, in which he expresses any concern for the moral character of God, and whether this would have appeared, but for the sake of giving an edge to reproach, let the reader judge.
How are we to account for these writers thus denying or overlooking the moral character of the Deity, but by supposing that a holy God is not suited to their inclinations? If we bear a sincere regard to moral excellence, we shall regard every being in proportion as he appears to possess it; and if we consider the Divine Being as possessing it supremely, and as the source of it to all other beings, it will be natural for us to love him supremely, and all other beings in subserviency to him. And if we love him supremely on account of his moral character, it will be no less natural to take pleasure in contemplating him under that character.
On the other hand, if we be enemies to moral excellence, it will render every being who possesses it unlovely in our eyes. Virtuous or holy characters may indeed command our respect, and even admiration; but will not attract our affection. Whatever regard we may bear to them, it will not be on account of their virtue, but of other qualities of which they may be possessed. Virtuous characters may be also wise and mighty; and we may admire their ingenuity, be delighted with their splendour, and take pleasure in visiting them, that we may inspect their curiosities; but, in such cases, the more things of a moral nature are kept at a distance, the more agreeable will be our visit. Much the same may be said of the Supreme Being. If we be enemies to moral excellence, God, as a holy Being, will possess no loveliness in our eyes. We may admire him with that kind of admiration which is paid to a great genius, and may feel a pleasure in tracing the grandeur and ingenuity of his operations; but the further his moral character is kept out of sight, the more agreeable it will be to us.
Lord Shaftesbury, not contented with overlooking, attempts to satirize the Scripture representations of the Divine character. “One would think,” he says, “it were easy to understand that provocation and offence, anger, revenge, jealousy in point of honour or power, love of fame, glory, and the like, belong only to limited beings, and are necessarily excluded a Being which is perfect and universal.”|| That many things are attributed to the Divine Being in a figurative style, speaking merely after the manner of men, and that they are so understood by Christians, Lord Shaftesbury must have well known. We do not think it lawful, however, so to explain away these expressions as to consider the Great Supreme as incapable of being offended with sin and sinners, as destitute of pleasure or displeasure, or as unconcerned about his own glory, the exercise of which involves the general good of the universe. A being of this description would be neither loved nor feared, but would become the object of universal contempt.
It is no part of the imperfection of our nature that we are susceptible of provocation and offence, of anger, of jealousy, and of a just regard to our own honour. Lord Shaftesbury himself would have ridiculed the man, and still more the magistrate, that should have been incapable of these properties on certain occasions. They are planted in our nature by the Divine Being, and are adapted to answer valuable purposes. If they be perverted and abused to sordid ends, which is too frequently the case, this does not alter their nature, nor lessen their utility. What would Lord Shaftesbury have thought of a magistrate who should have witnessed a train of assassinations and murders, without being in the least offended at them, or angry with the perpetrators, or inclined to take vengeance on them, for the public good? What would he think of a British House of Commons which should exercise no jealousy over the encroachments of a minister; or of a king of Great Britain who should suffer, with perfect indifference, his just authority to be contemned?
“But we are limited beings, and are therefore in danger of having our just rights invaded.” True; and though God be unlimited, and so in no danger of being deprived of his essential glory, yet he may lose his just authority in the esteem of creatures; and were this to take place universally, the whole creation would be a scene of anarchy and misery. But we understand Lord Shaftesbury. He wishes to compliment his Maker out of all his moral excellences. He has no objection to a god, provided he be one after his own heart, one who shall pay no such regard to human affairs as to call men to account for their ungodly deeds. If he thought the Creator of the world to bear such a character, it is no wonder that he should speak of him with what he calls “good humour, or pleasantry.”* In speaking of such a Being, he can, as Mr. Hume expresses it, “feel more at ease” than if he conceived of God as he is characterized in the Holy Scriptures. But let men beware how they play with such subjects. Their conceptions do not alter the nature of God; and however they suffer themselves to trifle now, they may find in the end that there is not only a God, but a God that judgeth in the earth.
Excerpt from: chapter one of The Gospel Its Own Witness.
Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Controversial Publications. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 2, pp. 9–11). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.