Degrees of Benevolence


the Good Samaritan

Modern liberals have basically run amok with the Christian notion of Love, turning it into a radical leveling or egalitarian creed disconnected from other salutary virtues such as Duty or Justice. The older Protestant view better joined these categories. I’ve discussed this subject in relation to John Wesley’s recommended ‘circles of reproof‘ with the second-half of the same essay touching wider Anglican divinity. Not long thereafter I came across the same in Bishop Gilbert Burnet’s Exposition of the Church Catechism, and it appears to be quite a familiar notion in England’s Long Reformation as to what it means to ‘love thy neighbor’. Below are relevant extracts from Burnet’s Exposition coupled with his late-contemporary, the Rev. Dr. White Kennett, on Christian charity. 

Generally, Anglican opinion about Benevolence occurs wherever the older catechisms discuss the Two Tablets or Summary of the Law. The second part of the Summary, of course, is our Love of Neighbor. Yet, according to Burnet there is a certain order to this Love, joining the universal to particular but by subordination:

“Where that love of God is shed abroad in any Man’s Heart, it creates in him a Love to his whole Creation, and disposes him to a universal and tender Love to all Mankind; which does increase in its measure and degree, as we see greater Characters of true Worth, and of the divine image on them, or according to the Order and Relation in which we are placed towards them. When it is laid, that we must love them as ourselves, we are not to understand this of an equal measure of Love, but of such a real Love as is of the same Nature with that which we bear to ourselves, tho’ not of the same Degree, for that were impossible.” p. 98

Though our Love is to be of the same substance as with ourselves, charity is also framed by our Relations. So, a fine example of God-given duty are those ‘under our charge’, namely, our children, spouses, or what is honor is owed to parents. Likewise, there is an affection to country men as well as those who more clearly demonstrate the Image of God. Burnet’s catechist asks,

Quest. But who is your neighbor?
Answ. Every man, of what Nation or Religion soever he may happen to be.
Quest. Must you love all these alike?
Asnw. No. I must make a difference, according to the Degree of their worth, and of the Image of God that I see in them; and according to the Relation God has placed me in to them.”

Burnet’s answer, ‘No’, would shock if not offend many people today. While much could be said on subjects like dimming of the Divine Image among the diversity of Men, or what constitutes our true Civil Obligations, we can safely, here, say Burnet dismisses an unbridled or egalitarian treatment of Love. Indeed, 18th-century views kept an idea of charity being well-ordered, joined by a certain consideration of Justice.  A main expositor of this ‘well-ordered’ outlook was Bp. Joseph Butler who was generally engaging Enlightenment ideology (with regard to natural religion– more on this in upcoming posts). Butler’s thoughts on Neighborly love (understood by its degrees as noted above) was also propagated by more popular or controversialist clergy like the Rev. Dr. White Kennett. Kennett’s attitude toward neighbor has been described by historians:

Neighbors sic. Kennett

The sermon preached at St. Lawrence-Jewry upon the election of London’s Lord Mayor answered the question in the book of Luke, put by the Lawyer, “And who is my neighbor?” After dismissing the narrow and wrong sense by which the Jews (of Christ’s day) put upon the relation to neighbor, Kennett speaks the more extensive sense of the term, of course, illustrated through the parable of the Samaritan,

“For such was the infinite or unbounded Goodness of God; He made his Sun to shine upon the Just and Unjust; He was kind to the Unthankful and Wicked; His mery was over all his Works. So would He their Messiah be the Savior and Redeemer of Mankind, and give himself a ransom for All. And so should his Doctrine and that of his Disciples be, to follow Peace with all men, to do Good unto all Men, to be patient and gentle toward all men; to receive Strangers, and even to love enemies, with such Blessing and Praying for ’em, as might the sooner reconcile ’em. Thus did the holy Jesus enlarge the sense of Neighbor, crampt and confined by the envious and mean-spirited Jews: The Christian’s Neighbor is the remotest Man in the World, to whom he can possibly do any Good.” p. 17

Yet there be some particular relations that make others more special Neighbors. Though the Jew and Infidel, according to Kennett, are certainly not excluded from our obligations to promote their welfare and, above all, their eternal salvation, “Yet however, there may be some particular Circumstances and conditions of Life, that ought more nearly unite our common interests and mutual affections”. Kennett then gives three categories: those of the same profession of faith, the same native country, and the same place of habitation (e.g., towns or cities).

Respecting common profession of faith, Kennett says, “the alliance is still greater between those who can agree in the same principles, and especially those who join in the same communion”. This is a viewpoint perhaps more obvious to a person of Erastian sentiment, say, when the church is not exhaustive of the Kingdom of God. Kennett certainly was the type given his well-known and fairly vocal approval of the King during the Convocation controversy.  So, Kennett provides a fine example of that Erastian mindset, speaking mostly of the national church (as well as kindred denominations registered by Toleration), where native birth and common Christian profession are coincident:

“As we are reformed from the intolerable Corruptions, and freed from the Yoke of Popery; We are a Protestant People, a Redeemed Nation; and as such, should know our common enemey, and unanimously consult our common Interest and Safety; we should join all, as with the Heart of one Man, in our self-defence and preservation; the Papists, I dare say, will make no distinction among us, if, what God forbid, they become Lords over us.

Again, as we are an established Church, the purest and happiest part of the Reformation; we should be joined together in the same mind and affections, as well as in the same Articles of Faith, and like rules of discipline and worship. To create distinctions without real difference, has been always a very false and foolish thing, and what is worse, may be a very fatal thing. As for those who unhappily separate from us, let us convince them, that there is no necessity, no justifying reason for it. Let us labor with truth and charity, to persuade and convince them, how much they owe to Unity and Peace. ” p. 19-20

Finally, here is Kennett’s view on Patriotism and its relation to Love. This seems a hard view to swallow, yet Kennett’s argument is quite generous with respect to the New Testament. We quote the entire section respecting nationality:

“But secondly, the same Native Country is another cement of Christian Charity. It must be some instinct in Nature, because the consent of all Mankind to love their own Nation, to value their birthright and the inheritance of their Fathers. When Moses spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew one of his Brethren, i.e., his own countrymen; in his tenderness he delivered the one,and out of too great indignation he slew the other. And when he went a second time and saw two men of the Hebrews strive together, he said to him who began the assault, ‘Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow? Is he thy brother an Israelite? This may provoke God to make you longer slaves in a strange land.’ Our Blessed Savior seems to have had a particular regard to the good estate of his own Nation, while he declared, that he was not sent, save to the ‘lost Sheep of the House of Israel’; while he wept over Jerusalem, and often visited Nazareth and Bethlehem, tho one would think, nothing could draw him thither but an impulse of natural affection; for he himself was sensible that the ‘Prophet had least Honor in his own Country’. St. Paul was another great example of inbred Love and Zeal for his Native Land, the goodly Heritage of his Ancestors. He was by Birth a true old Hebrew of the Hebrews, i.e., for many generations. He had indeed but little reason to be fond of that Birthright; for he was brought into great Perils by his own countrymen, and he had least to do with them, for his Mission was to be an Apostle to the Gentiles; yet Nature must break through all discouragements; wherefore, Act xxviii.19 tho’ plagued and oppressed by his fellow Jews, he had still a loving eye upon his dear Country, ‘I was constrained (says he) to appeal unto Ceasar, not that I had ought to accuse my Nation of’; and how much less would he have betrayed his Nation? Nay, what a rapture of zeal had he, Rom ix.3 ‘I could wish myself accursed or separated from Christ for my Brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites.'”
p. 20-21

Kennett goes so far to claim that”it impossible, that any Natural Born subjects should so far degenerate, as to be without this Natural Affection”.  So, Kennett, as well as many other divines belonging to the same era of our Long Reformation, felt a disordered Love– one that put the stranger above kinsmen (all else being equal)– was less an example of Christian charity yet more perverted. Evidently, this was a fairly common opinion for divinity until recent times. Even an Arminian would agree with this scheme (and I believe White Kennett was that as well as Wesley (see earlier link)). But, of course, we are speaking of another age when the particular was better tied to the catholic.

In the near future I’d like to post more respecting olden Benevolence, namely, the seminal sermon by Joseph Butler as well as others. These views were not eccentric, but belong to the national churches of the Reformation, and quite a bit material exists on the subject. 

5 responses to “Degrees of Benevolence

  1. Pingback: Mr. Benson on Malachi 1:2, 4 | The Anglo-Methodist

  2. From The Watchman, Winter 2018, Vol. 41, #1 p. 15

    Myth: You cannot be loyal to both God and a nation.
    Truth: This particular criticism usually comes from the far right of the political spectrum, but as a general precept, it is false. It is true that God demands our ultimate loyalty, and anything that undermines our commitment to Jesus Christ must be relegated to a lower status. This even includes our love for our family members, as Jesus stated: ‘He that loveth father and mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth that son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me’ (Matt. 10.37). Jesus is making a point using a hyperbole. It is intuitively plan that he is not saying our father and mother are not worthy of love and respect because the fifth commandment actually orders us to honor them. Nor is Jesus asking us to refrain from the powerful innate affection that every normal parent holds for a child. It is simply this: God comes first if there is a direct conflict. Often there is not, occasionally one may be forced to pick between two loyalties. This is not entirely unknown, for life has multiple layers of loyalties: God, your spouse, children, your friends, your nation, the company that employs you, your church. Indeed, every relationship in life entails a measure of loyalty, for withoout it there is no value in the relationship. To suggest that to be loyal to God first means I can possess no commitment to any other person, group, or institution is foolish. Paul gave an indication of the intense love he had for his nation, the Hebrew people, in Romans 9:2-4, ‘I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ, for my brethren, my kinsman according to the flesh: who are Israelites…’ We see that Paul’s love for his people was so great that he would consider imperiling his own salvation if he thought it would help them. So while one may be forced to pick between loyalty to God and nation, such a difficult choices will probably never arise.

    Myth: Bible believers cannot possibly love such a wicked country as the USA.
    Truth: Do you continue to love family members that are struggling and lost in sin? Did not the father of the Prodigal Son love his son while he was relishing in his sinful ways? The answer to both is yes. As long as our people, our extended tribe, our English speaking people live in America, then that portion of America we should have a certain love. By no means should we excuse anyone’s sin, yet our love and hope remains.”


  3. Pingback: Fourth Sunday after Epiphany | River Thames Beach Party

  4. Like

  5. What is a shakespearean ‘degree’ (hint– has to do w social order)


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