Finality and Progress
Psalm 119:96
I have seen an end of all perfection: but your commandment is exceeding broad.

One of the greatest fallacies with which we have to contend in modern times is the opinion that everything of the nature of finality in religion — everything of the nature of clear and settled conviction — is opposed to the progress of the world and the liberty of the individual. It is assumed by some that progress consists in a perpetual movement from one position to another, rather than the steady upward movement of a tree from its root or of a building from its fixed foundation. They think of progress as a leaving of the past continually behind us, and an advancing towards the future; and that, consequently, whatever claims to be fixed, immovable, and determinate, whatever says to the advancing waves Of human power and ambition, "Thus far shalt thou come, but not farther," puts an arrest upon the progress of the world that ought not to be put, and fetters the legitimate action of the human spirit. Hence the outcry against creeds and dogmas of every kind as things to be entirely shaken off. It is said that they must all of them be of necessity transitional and temporary, because they are attempts to formulate a something — a something that is for ever beyond us, and is no sooner formulated than the mind has already travelled beyond its own conception. What I wish to point out is that we cannot escape finality in some shape or form if we are to think at all. We must have clear and settled convictions of some kind; but this finality of thought, when truly come to, is not in the least degree opposed to liberty or progress. It is indeed the very starting point and permanent ground of all that is true in the progress of the world. The text appears to afford a very suitable basis for such a theme. The psalmist says, "I have seen an end of all perfection." There is the finality, the fixed and determinate position; but he also says, "Thy commandment is nevertheless exceeding broad"; there is the room for growth, for progress — there we have the free and indeterminate element. There is, indeed, a certain opposition at first sight between the two clauses of the text; but there is no real opposition. In the ground of the matter they are substantially and essentially one. Take the letters of the English alphabet. Here you have from twenty to thirty absolutely fixed signs — no more than that; and we are not at liberty to add to or to alter one of them. Here we have finality surely. And yet upon that fixed and limited basis all human thought and human speech are built. The Bible and Shakespeare, with all their subtle essence of thought and wonders of expression, are reducible to twenty-six letters. Why is it that no one says, "What an absurd thing it is to chain the genius of the world to twenty or thirty little signs that can be made upon a sheet of paper! How can those signs, invented, moreover, in remote antiquity, be adequate to the wants of the world to-day? Such finality is the enemy of progress." To talk in that way about the alphabet would indicate the madman, because the mastering of those twenty-six letters is the beginning of all our progress. And yet that is precisely how many talk in regard to the doctrines and facts of Christianity. They say that to fix anything here is to make progress impossible. What I say is that the twenty-six letters of the alphabet are no more the unalterable basis of all our learning than the essential doctrines of Christianity, as clearly formulated and tabulated as they can be, are the basis of all that is true in the spiritual history and progress of the world. The same thing may be said of any other branch of learning, Bay of arithmetic or of mathematics, with its rigid formularies and absolutely fixed signs. Out of the nine units of arithmetic the whole science of numbers is evolved. Those fixed factors that lie at the foundation of the whole, and out of which the whole arises, put no arrest upon the thinking mind at all. So far from that, the mind could not take one step without them, and it would be thrown into confusion if one of them were altered. What I plead for is that in this matter of finality and progress people should apply to religious truth the common sense they apply to other subjects; and they ought not to object that finality in religion puts an end to progress when they find in every other sphere that it is the very basis and spring of all the liberty we require. The Sabbath law and the Bible, the Church and its Sacraments, with its essential creed — with regard to all these important matters a certain amount of finality has undoubtedly been reached. They represent a certain number of ultimate facts; the essential explanation of which we unquestionably have in our possession. Those ultimate facts, those fixed and determinate conclusions about God and Christ, about life and death, about sin and salvation — those great facts do not stand in the way of the liberty of man or the most perfect freedom of thought. Instead of that, they are the foundation of the world's peace, and the perennial spring of all its progress. In a word, the more finality we have truly come to, so much the more liberty and progress we also may have. When a young person goes on from one stage of learning to another, from the letters of the alphabet to numbers, and circles, and squares, and from these, again, to all the definite and fixed forms of science and art, he is coming to finality at every step, he is fixing matters permanently in his mind, from stage to stage, all along the line. Is he thereby putting fetters upon himself? You know that it is not so. You know that he is advancing in the path of liberty and power. Those clear and settled ideas which he takes into his mind, from stage to stage, are but stepping-stones in the upward and onward path of his progress. "Eternal process moving on from state to state the spirit walks." And not only may he "wear all that weight of learning lightly as a flower," but the whole burden of existence is becoming lighter and lighter to him the more clearly he sees into the heart of the whole. Every clear idea, fixed and final as it is, that takes possession of his mind, is lifting him above the fact of which it is the idea — the otherwise hard and oppressive fact. It is thus that man rises superior to time and circumstances, misfortune and chance. Those clear and settled convictions as they arise within his mind one by one, like stars coming out in the midnight sky, and as they form themselves into a harmony of lights within the being — what are they but the mighty leverage by which the man himself is lifted up out of the bondage of darkness and spiritual death into the light and liberty of perfect truth, and by which he is enabled to breath at last the very atmosphere of eternity?

(F. Ferguson, D. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: I have seen an end of all perfection: but thy commandment is exceeding broad.

WEB: I have seen a limit to all perfection, but your commands are boundless. MEM

An End of Perfection
Top of Page
Top of Page