Primer on an Evangelical Classic: “The Life of God in the Soul of Man,” by Henry Scougal
Jun 13, 2017 | Justin Taylor; BETWEEN TWO WORLDS
The short classic The Life of God in the Soul of Man originated as a private letter of spiritual counsel to a friend, but author Henry Scougal (b. 1650) allowed it to be published a year before he died in 1678 at the age of 27.
Sixty-eight years later, in the spring of 1735, Charles Wesley (1707-1788), whose mother Susanna had commended it to her sons, gave a copy of this little book to his friend George Whitefield (1714-1770). Upon reading it, Whitefield was convinced he “must be born again, or be damned.” Whitefield testified that he “never knew what true religion was” until he read this book.
Who Was Henry Scougal?
Henry Scougal was a Scottish minister, theologian, and author.
Upon his graduation in 1665 from King’s College, University of Aberdeen, the 19-year-old was appointed professor of philosophy at the school.
In 1673, after a one-year pastoral stint, he became professor of divinity at King’s, where he served until he died of tuberculosis five years later, just shy of his 28th birthday.
What Scougal Means by “True Religion”
By “true religion” Scougal means something like authentic spirituality or genuine Christianity.
He is at pains to defend the term from common misconceptions among Christians. “I cannot speak of religion,” he writes, “but I must lament that, among so many pretenders to it, so few understand what it means.”
Three Places Where Religion Does Not Reside
Scougal identifies three places where religion is incorrectly located.
(1) Theological correctness. Some place religion “in the understanding, in orthodox notions and opinions; and all the account they can give of their religion is, that they are of this or the other persuasion, and have joined themselves to one of those many sects whereinto Christendom is most unhappily divided.”
(2) Moralistic reductionism. “Others place it in the outward man, in a constant course of external duties, and a model of performances: if they live peacably with their neighbors, keep a temperate diet, observe the returns of worship, frequenting the church and their closet, and sometimes extend their hands to the relief of the poor, they think they have sufficiently acquitted themselves.”
(3) Affectional emotionalism. “Others again put all religion in the affections, in rapturous heats and ecstatic devotion; and all they aim at, is, to pray with passion, and think of heaven with pleasure, and to be affected with those kind and melting expressions wherewith they court their Saviour, till they persuade themselves that they are mightily in love with him; and from thence assume a great confidence of their salvation, which they esteem the chief of Christian graces.
Where True Religion Does Reside
Scougal’s point is that none of these are sufficient by itself, and that to isolate one as the essence of true religion inherently distorts both the virtue and the reality of the whole.
Those who are acquainted with true religion “will entertain far different thoughts, and disdain all those shadows and false imitations of it. They know by experience, that true religion is an union of the soul with God, a real participation of the divine nature, the very image of God drawn upon the soul; or, in the Apostle’s phrase, it is ‘Christ formed within us.’ . . . Briefly, I know not how the nature of religion can be more fully expressed, than by calling it a divine life.” True religion is “a union of the soul with God, a real participation of the Divine nature, the very image of God drawn upon the soul, or in the apostle’s phrase, ‘it is Christ formed within us.’”
Scougal calls it a life (or vital principle) because of its permanency and stability, its freedom and unconstrainedness.
He calls it a divine life because it stands in a universal and unbounded affection, in mastery over our natural inclinations.
This means that sound doctrine and moral action and affectional engagement are necessary but not sufficient; they are the “particular exercises” of piety, but they the root or source of it. They are outflows of the divine life in the human soul.
Four Forms of the Divine Life in the Life of the Believer
This divine life, Scougal argues, is “an inward, free and self-moving principle . . . a new nature instructing and prompting.” This animating principle takes the following four forms in the life of a believer.
(1) Faith is the root of the divine life. It is “a kind of sense, or feeling persuasion of spiritual things; it extends itself unto all divine truths; but in our lapsed estate, it hath a peculiar relation to the declarations of God’s mercy and reconcilableness to sinners through a mediator. . . .” If faith is the root, then love to God and charity to man, along with purity and humility, are the branches.
(2) Love is “a delightful and affectionate sense of the divine perfections, which makes the soul resign and sacrifice itself wholly unto him, desiring above all things to please him, and delighting in nothing so much as in fellowship and communion with him, and being ready to do or suffer anything for his sake, or at his pleasure. . . . A soul thus possessed with divine love must needs be enlarged towards all mankind . . . this is . . . charity . . . under which all parts of justice, all the duties we owe to our neighbour, are eminently comprehended; for he who doth truly love all the world . . . so far from wronging or injuring any person . . . will resent any evil that befalls others, as if it happened to himself.”
(3) Purity is “a temper and disposition of mind as makes a man despise and abstain from all pleasures and delights of sense or fancy which are sinful in themselves, or tend to . . . lessen our relish of more divine and intellectual pleasures, which doth also infer a resoluteness to undergo all those hardships he may meet with in the performance of his duty: so that not only chastity and temperance, but also Christian courage and magnanimity may come under this head.”
(4) Humility is”a deep sense of our own meanness, with a hearty and affectionate acknowledgment of our owing all that we are to the divine bounty; which is always accompanied with a profound submission to the will of God, and great deadness to the glory of the world, and the applause of men.” Scougal argues that religion is better understand by actions than by words, “because actions are more lively things, and do better represent the inward principle whence they proceed.” Scougal points to the divine life of our Savior as exemplifying divine love, express in his diligence to do his Father’s will, his patience in bearing affliction, his constant devotion, his charity to men, his purity, and his humility.
The Excellence and Advantage of True Religion
In Part 2, Scougal considers the excellence and advantage of religion. The worth and excellency of a soul is measured by the object of its love, and the way to grow in holiness is to behold divine excellence. This alone can bring us true happiness. It is impossible for God to deny his love to a soul wholly devoted to him. Horizontally, nothing can be more satisfying than a heart enlarged to embrace the whole world. Impure delights are unsatisfying. Finally, contrary to the world’s expectations, there is a sweetness in being lowly and self-abased through humble service.
Having defined the root and the branches of this divine life, along with the advantages of its excellency, Scougal takes a pastoral turn in Part 3, addressing the situation of one who might agree with this understanding and its desirableness, but concludes in sadness that it is impossible to achieve since it requires a new nature instead of just attainable outward observances. Scougal counsels his reader to put aside such unreasonable and discouraging fears, encouraging him to be strong in the Lord, doing what he can and depending on divine assistance. Scougal offers numerous suggestions, both positively and negatively, to cultivate and practice these virtues and qualities. In particular, he encourages the shunning of sin and the use of the means of grace (especially prayer and the sacraments) in following Christ.
An Imperfect Classic
Scougal’s classic deserves all of its praise. It is a book whose profundity far outmatches its length. But as with all books, it must be read critically. J. I. Packer, who lauds and recommends the book highly, expresses one lament about the book, which is worth citing in closing:
One could wish, however, that his exposition had been more explicitly and emphatically Christ-centred.
Like so many seventeenth-century writers, he lets himself assume that his readers know all about Jesus and need only to be told about real religion, the life of faith and faith-full turning Godward as opposed to the orthodoxism, formalism, emotionalism, and legalism that masquerade as Christianity while being in truth a denial of it.
Had Scougal elaborated on the Christian’s union with Christ, which the New Testament sees as regeneration by the Holy Spirit;
had he explained incorporation into the Saviour’s risen life, whereby Jesus’s motivating passion to know and love and serve and please and honour and glorify the Father is implanted in sinners so that it is henceforth their own deepest desire too;
had he thus shown, in black and white, that imitating Jesus’s aims and attitudes in serving God and mankind is for the born-again the most natural, indeed the only natural, way of living, while for the unregenerate it is hard to the point of impossible;
[then] his little treatise would have been immeasurably stronger.
As it is, Scougal’s profile of divine life in human souls is much more complete than his answer to the question, how do I get into it?—or, how does it get into me? This is a limitation.
C. S. Lewis once offered advice to modern readers:
It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. . . . The only palliative [to our cultural blindspots] is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.
Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man is one such older book worth reading.