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THE EVIDENCES OF CHRISTIANITY BRIEFLY STATED, AND THE NEW TESTAMENT PROVED TO BE GENUINE.
—WE HAVE NOT FOLLOWED CUNNINGLY DEVISED FABLES.—
IT is undoubtedly a glory to our age and country, that the nature of moral virtue has been so clearly stated, and the practice of it so strongly enforced, by the views of its native beauty and beneficial consequences, both to private persons and societies. Perhaps, in this respect, hardly any nation or time has equalled, certainly few, if any, have exceeded, our own. Yet I fear I might add, there have been few ages or countries, where vice has more generally triumphed, in its most audacious and, is other respects, most odious forms.4
This may well appear a surprising case; and it will surely be worth our while to inquire into the causes of so strange a circumstance. I cannot now enter into a particular detail of them. But I am persuaded, none is more considerable than that unhappy disregard, either to the Gospel in general, or to its most peculiar and essential truths, which is so visible amongst us, and which appears to be continually growing. It is plain, that, like some of old, who thought and professed themselves the wisest of mankind, or, in other words, the freest thinkers of their age, multitudes among us have not liked to retain God and his truths in their knowledge: and it is therefore the less to be wondered at, if God has given them up to a reprobate mind 11 Rom. i. 28.; to the most infamous lusts and enormities; and to a depth of a degeneracy, which, while it is in part the natural consequence, is in part also the just, but dreadful, punishment of their apostasy from the faith. And I am persuaded, that those who do indeed wish well to the cause of public virtue, as every true Christian most certainly does, cannot serve it more effectually, than by endeavouring to establish men in the belief of the Gospel in general, and to affect their hearts with its most distinguishing truths.
The latter of these is our frequent employment, and is what I have, particularly been attempting in the preceding discourses on the power and grace of the Redeemer: the former I shall now, by the divine assistance, apply myself to, in those that follow. And I have chosen the words now before us, as a proper introduction to such a design.
They do indeed peculiarly refer to the coming of our Lord, which the apostle represents as attested by that glory, of which he was an eye-witness on the mount of transfiguration, and by that voice from heaven which he heard there: but the truth of these 5facts is evidently connected with that of the Gospel in general. I am persuaded, therefore, you will think they are properly prefixed to a discourse on the general evidences of Christianity. And I hope, by the divine assistance, to propose them at this time in such a manner, as shall convince you, that the apostles had reason to say, and that we also have reason to repeat it, we have not followed cunningly devised fables22 2 Pet. i. 16, 17, 18..
I have often touched on this subject occasionally, but I think it my duty at present to insist something more largely upon it. You easily apprehend, that it is a matter of the highest importance, being indeed no other than the great foundation of all our eternal hopes. While so many are daily attempting to destroy this foundation, it is possible, that those of you, especially, who are but entering on the world, may he called out to give a reason of the hope that is in you33 1 Pet. iii. 15.. I would therefore, with the apostle, be concerned, that you may be ready to do it. It may fortify you against the artifices, by which the unwary are often deceived and ensnared, and may possibly enable you to put to silence their foolishness44 1 Pet. ii. 15.. At least it will be for the satisfaction of your own minds, to have considered the matter seriously, and to be conscious to yourselves, that you are not Christians merely by education, or example, as (had you been born elsewhere) you might have been Pagans or Mahometans; but that you are so upon rational evidence, and because (as the sacred historian expresses it) you know the certainty of those things in which you have been instructed55 Luke, i. 4..
To open and vindicate the proof of Christianity in all its extent would be the employment of many discourses; nor would it, on the whole, be proper to attempt it here. All that I now intend here is, 6to give you a summary view of the most considerable arguments, in that which seems to me their most proper and natural connexion; that so you may be able to judge of them better than you could possibly do by a few scattered remarks, or by the most copious enlargement on any single branch of them alone. I shall endeavour to dispose these hints so, as that they may be some guide to those, whose leisure and abilities may lead them to a more ample and curious inquiry; that they may not be entangled in so complex an argument, but may proceed in an orderly manner. And if any of you, my friends, desire a more particular information on any of those heads, which I now but briefly suggest, you may depend upon it, that faithful ministers of every denomination will think it an important part of their duty, to give you all the private assistance they can. It is my hearty prayer, that God would enable me to plead his cause with success; that he would open your understandings to receive there things, and strengthen your memories to retain them; that you may not be like children; tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and the cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive66 Eph. iv. 24.; but may be strong in faith, giving glory to God77 Rom. iv. 20.; that, your faith being more and more established, it may appear, that the tree is watered at the roots; and all your other graces may grow and flourish in an equal proportion.
But, before I proceed, I must desire you to observe, that there is no proof in the world so satisfactory to the true Christian, as to have felt the transforming power of the Gospel on his own soul. As that illiterate man whose eyes were miraculously opened by Christ, when he was questioned by the Jewish Sanhedrin, who endeavoured with all their sophistry to prove Christ an impostor, answered with 7great steadiness and constancy, and with a great deal of reason too, this one thing I know, that whereas I was blind, now I see88 John ix. 25.: so the most unlearned of the disciples of Jesus, having found his soul enlightened and sanctified, and felt his heart so effectually wrought upon, as to bring him home to his duty, his God, and his happiness, by the constraining power of the Gospel, will despise a thousand subtle objections which may be urged against it: and, though the cross of Christ be to the Jews a stumbling block, and to the Greeks foolishness, yet with this experience of its saving energy, he will honour it in the midst of all their contempt and ridicule, as the power of God and the wisdom of God99 1 Cor. i. 23, 24.. In this sense, though the miraculous communication of the Spirit be ceased, he that believes hath still the witness in himself1010 1 John, v. 10.; and while the Spirit beareth witness with his spirit, that he is a child of God1111 Rom. viii. 16., he cannot doubt, but that the word, by which he was, as it were, begotten unto him, is indeed a divine and incorruptible seed1212 James, i. 18. 1 Pet. i. 23.. And, perhaps, there are certain seasons of pressing temptation, in which the most learned as well as the most illiterate Christian will find this the surest anchor of his hope.
Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged, that this glorious kind of evidence is like the white stone, mentioned in the Revelation, in which there was a new name written, which no man knew, but he who received it1313 Rev. ii. 17.. God has therefore made other provision for the honour and support of his Gospel, by furnishing it with a variety of proof, which may, with undiminished, and indeed with growing, conviction, be communicated from one to another. And we should be greatly wanting in gratitude to him, in zeal for a Redeemer’s kingdom, and in charitable concern for the conversion of those who reject the 8Gospel, as well as for the edification of those who embrace it, should we wholly overlook these arguments, or neglect to acquaint ourselves with them. This is the evidence, which I am now to propose; and I desire you would hear it with a becoming attention. I speak to you, as to rational creatures: judge ye of the reasonableness of what I shall say.
In the prosecution of this great design, I shall endeavour more particularly to shew you,— that, if we take the matter on a general survey, it will appear highly probable, that such a scheme of doctrines and precepts, as we find Christianity to be, should indeed have been a divine revelation;— and then, that, if we examine into the external evidence of it, we shall find it certain, in fact, that it was so, and that it had its original from above.
First, Let me shew, “that, taking the matter merely in theory, it will appear highly probable, that such a system as the Gospel should be indeed a divine revelation.”
To evidence this, I would more particularly prove,—that the state of mankind was such, as greatly to need a revelation;—that there seems from the light of nature, encouragement to hope that God should grant one;— that it is reasonable to believe, if any were made, it should be so introduced and transmitted, as we are told Christianity was; and that its general nature and substance should be such, as we find that of the Gospel is. If these particulars are made out, here will be a strong presumptive evidence, that the Gospel is from God; and we shall have opened a fair way toward that more direct proof, which I principally intend.
1. “The case of mankind is naturally such, as greatly to need a divine revelation.”9
I speak not here of man in his original state; though even then, as many have largely shewn, some instruction from above seemed necessary to inform him of many particulars, which it was highly expedient that he should immediately know: but I speak of him in the degenerate condition in which he now so evidently lies, by whatever means he was brought into it. It is an easy thing to make florid encomiums on the perfection of natural light, and to deceive unwary readers with an ambiguous term1414 This Dr. Tindal has done in so gross and palpable a manner, that, it is surprising that fallacy alone should not have exposed his Christianity, as old as the creation, to the immediate contempt of every intelligent reader. (which shall sometimes signify all that appears even to the divine understanding, and sometimes no more than the meanest of the human race may, or than they. actually do, attain); but let fact speak, and the controversy will soon be determined. I appeal to all, that are acquainted with the records of antiquity, or that have any knowledge of the most credible accounts of the present state of those countries where Christianity is unknown, whether it is not too obvious a truth, that the whole heathen world has lain, and still lies, in wickedness1515 1 John, v. 19.. Have not incomparably the greater part of them been perpetually bewildered in their religious notions and practices, vastly differing from each, and almost equally differing on all sides from the probable appearances of truth and reason? Is any thing so wild as not to have been believed, any thing so infamous as not to have been practised by them, while they have not only pretended to justify it by reason, but have consecrated it as a part of their religion? To this very day, what are the discoveries of new nations in the American or African world, but, generally speaking, the opening of new scenes of enormity? Rapine, lust, cruelty, human sacrifices, and the most stupid idolatries, are, and, 10for ought I can find, always have been, the morality and religion of almost all the Pagan nations under heaven: and to say, that there have still been some smothered sparks of reason within, which, if cherished, might have led them to truth and happiness, is only saying, that they have been so much the more criminal, and therefore so much the more miserable.
But you live at home, and hear these things only by uncertain report. Look then around you within the sphere of your own observation, and see the temper; and character of the generality of those, who have been educated in a Christian, and even in a Protestant, country. Observe their ignorance and forgetfulness of the Divine Being, their impieties, their debaucheries, their fraud, their oppression, their pride, their avarice, their ambition; their unnatural insensibility of the wants, and sorrows, and interests, of each other; and, when you see how bad they generally are in the midst of so many advantages, judge by that of the probable fate of those that want them. Judge, upon these views, whether a revelation be an unnecessary thing.
2. “There is, from the light of nature, considerable encouragement to hope, that God would favour his creatures with so needful a blessing as a revelation appears.”
That a revelation is in itself a possible thing, is evident beyond all shadow of a doubt. Shall not he that made man’s mouth1616 Exod. iv. 11., who has given us this wonderful faculty of discovering our sentiments and communicating our ideas to each other, shall not he be able to converse with his rational creatures, and by sensible manifestations, or by inward impressions, to convey the knowledge of things, which lie beyond, the ken of their natural faculties, and yet may be 11highly conducive to their advantage? To own a God, and to deny him such a power, will he a notorious contradiction.— But it may appear much more dubious, whether he will please to confer such a favour on sinful creatures.
Now I acknowledge, that we could not certainly conclude he would ever do it; considering, on the one hand, how justly they stood exposed to his final displeasure; and, on the other, what provision he had made by the frame of the human mind, and of nature around us, for giving us such notices of himself, as would leave us inexcusable, if we either failed to know him, or to glorify him as God, as the apostle argues at large1717 Rom. i. 20, & seq.. Nevertheless methinks we should have had something of this kind to hope, from considering God as the indulgent Father of his creatures; from observing the tender care which he takes of us, and the liberal supply which he grants for the support of the animal life, especially, from the provision which he has made for man, considered as a guilty and calamitous creature, by the medicinal and healing virtue which he has given to many of the productions of nature, which, in a state of perfect rectitude and happiness, man would never have needed. This is a circumstance, which seemed strongly to intimate, that he would some time or another graciously provide some remedy to heal men’s minds; and that he would interpose to instruct them, in his own nature, in the manner in which he is to be served, and in the final treatment which they may expect from him. And I think such an apprehension seems very congruous to the sentiments of the generality of mankind; as appears from the many pretences to divine revelation which have often been made, and the readiness of multitudes to receive them on very slender proofs. This shews how naturally men expect some such kind interposition of the Deity: a 12thought which might farther be confirmed by some remarkable passages of heathen writers, which I have not now time particularly to mention.
3. We may easily conclude, “that, if a revelation were given, it would be introduced and transmitted in such a manner, as Christianity is said to have been.”
It is exceeding probable, for instance, that it should be taught, either by some illustrious person sent down from a superior world, or at least by a man of eminent wisdom and piety, who should himself have been, not only a teacher, but an example, of universal goodness. In order to this it seems probable, that he would be led through a series of calamity and distresses; since otherwise he would not have been a pattern of the virtues, which adorn adversity, and are peculiar to it. And it might also have been expected, that in the extremity of his distresses, the blessed God, whose messenger he was, should, in some extraordinary manner, have interposed, either to preserve or to recover him from death.
It is moreover exceedingly probable that such a person, and perhaps also they who were at first employed as his messengers to the world, should be endowed with a power of working miracles; both to awaken men’s attention, and to prove a divine mission, and the consequent truth of their doctrines; some of which might, perhaps, not be capable of any other kind of proof; or, if they were, it is certain that no method of arguing is so short, so plain, and so forcible, and, on the whole, so well suited to the conviction, and probably the reformation, of mankind, as a course of evident, repeated, and uncontrolled miracles. And such a method of proof is especially adapted to the populace, who are incomparably the greater part of mankind, 13and for whole benefit, we may assure ourselves, a revelation would chiefly be designed.—I might add, it was no way improbable, though not in itself certain, that a dispensation should open gradually on the world; and that the most illustrious messenger of God to men should be ushered in by some predictions, which should raise a great expectation of his appearance, and have an evident accomplishment in him.
As for the propagation of a religion so introduced, it seems no way improbable, that, having been thus established in its first age, it should be transmitted to future generations by credible testimony, as other important facts are. It is certain, that affairs of the utmost moment, which are transacted amongst men, depend on testimony; on this, voyages are undertaken, settlements made, and controversies decided; controversies, on which not only the estates, but the lives, of men depend. And though it must be owned, that such an historical evidence is not equally convincing with miracles which are wrought before our own eyes; yet it is certain, it may rise to such a degree as to exclude all reasonable doubt. And I know not why we should expect, that the evidence of a revelation should be such, as universally to compel the immediate assistance of all to whom it is offered. To me it seems much more likely, that it should be so adjusted, as to be a kind of touchstone to the tempers and characters of men; capable indeed of giving ample satisfaction to the diligent and candid inquirer, yet attended with some circumstances, whence the captious and perverse might take occasion to cavil and object. Such might we suppose the evidence of the revelation would be, and such it is maintained that of Christianity is. The teachers of it say, and undertake to prove, that it was thus introduced, thus established, and thus transmitted; and we trust, that this is a 14strong presumption in its favour: especially as we can add,
4. “That the main doctrines contained in the Gospel are of such a nature, as we might in general suppose those of a divine revelation would be, rational, practical, and sublime.”
One would imagine, that, in a revelation of a religion from God, the great principles of natural religion should be clearly asserted and strongly maintained: such I mean, as the existence1818 Heb. xi. 6., the unity1919 Mark xii. 29. 1 Tim. ii. 5., the perfection2020 Matt. v. 48., and the providence, of God2121 Matt. x. 29, 30.; the essential and immutable difference between moral good and evil2222 Isa. v. 20.; the obligation we are under to the various branches of virtue, whether human, social, or divine2323 Matt. xxii. 37, 39.; the value and immortality of the soul2424 Matt. x. 28. xvi. 26.; and the rewards and punishments of a future state2525 Rom. ii. 6-10. Matt. xxv. 46.. One would easily conclude, that all these particulars must be contained in it; and that, upon the whole, it should appear calculated to form men’s minds to a proper temper, rather than to amuse them with curious speculations.
It might indeed be farther supposed, and probably concluded, that such a revelation would contain some things, which could not have been learnt from the highest improvements of natural light: and, considering the infinite and unfathomable nature of the blessed God, it would be more than probable, that many things might be hinted at, and referred to, which our feeble faculties should not be able fully to comprehend. Yet we should expect, to find these introduced in a practical view, as directing us to duties before unknown, or suggesting powerful motives 15to make us resolute and constant in the discharge of the rest2626 Particularly on what terms, and to what degree, pardon and happiness might be expected by sinful creatures.. As for ceremonial and positive institutions, we should imagine, at least in the most perfect state of the revelation, that they should be but few, and those few plainly subservient to the great purposes of practical religion.
I shall only add, that, forasmuch as pride appears to be the most reigning corruption of the human mind, and the source of numberless irregularities, it is exceeding probable, that a divide revelation should be calculated to humble the fallen creature, and bring it to a sense of its guilt and weakness; and the more evidently that tendency appears, other things being equal, the greater reason there is to believe, that the original of such a scheme is from above.
Your own thoughts have undoubtedly prevented me in the application of these characters to the Christian revelation. The justice of that application I must not now illustrate at large. But 1 must beg leave to advance one remark, which will conclude what I have to say on this general head: which is, that, as the Christian system is undoubtedly worthy of God, so, considering the manner in which it is said to have been introduced, (separate from the evidence of the facts, which is afterwards to be considered,) it is extremely difficult to imagine, from whom else it could have proceeded.
I will readily allow, that neither the reasonableness of its doctrines, nor the purity of its morals, will alone prove its divine original; since it is possible, the reason of one man may discover that which the. reason of another approves, as being, in itself considered, either true in theory or useful in practice. But this is not all; for, in the present case, it is evident, that the first teachers of Christianity professed that they were taught it by divine revelation, and 16that they were empowered by God with miraculous endowments for the confirmation of it. Now, if it were not indeed so as they professed, how can we account for so strange a phænomenon, as such a doctrine introduced with such pretences? If it were not from God, whence was it? From good or from evil angels, or men? Wicked creatures, as our Lord strongly intimates2727 Matt. xii. 25-29., would never contrive and propagate so excellent a scheme; nor can we imagine, that holy angels or righteous men would thus be found false witnesses of God2828 1 Cor. xv. 15., or have attempted to support the cause of religion and truth by such impious and notorious falsehoods, as their pretensions must have been, if they were falsehoods at all.
And thus much for the first branch of the argument: if you consider the Christian scheme only in theory, it appears highly probable; since a revelation was so much needed, might so reasonably be expected, and, if it were ever given, would, so far as we can judge, be thus introduced, and be in the main attended with such internal chara6ters. And though we have not as yet expressly proved, that the Gospel was introduced in such a manner as the defenders of it assert; yet it would be strangely unaccountable, that so admirable a system of truth and duty should be advanced by the prince of darkness and the children of wickedness; as it must have been, if the persons first employed in the propagation of it were not endowed with power from on high2929 Luke, xxiv. 49..
To embrace the Gospel is so safe and, on the whole, so comfortable a thing, that I think a wife man would deliberately and resolutely venture his all upon it, though nothing more could be offered for its confirmation. But, blessed be God, we have a great 17deal more to offer in this important cause; and can add, with still greater confidence, that is not only in theory thus probable, but,
Secondly, “that it is in fact certain, that Christianity is indeed a divine revelation.”
Here I confers the chief stress is to be laid; and therefore I shall insist more largely on this branch of the argument, and endeavour, by the divine assistance, to prove the certainty of this great fact. You will naturally apprehend, that I speak only of what is commonly called a moral certainty3030 Which, though it amount not to strict demonstration, is such kind of evidence as suits past matters of fact, and is sufficient to make a candid and rational inquirer easy in his assent.: but I need speak of no more; for, in many cases, such kind of evidence gives the mind as ample and as rational a satisfaction, as it may find even in some supposed mathematical demonstration; since there it is possible, at least in a long deduction of particulars, for the most sagacious of mankind to fall into a mistake.
Now, in order to settle this grand point as clearly as I can, I think it may be proper to prove,
I. That the books of the New Testament, as they are now in your hands, may be depended upon as written by the first preachers and publishers of Christianity. And,
II. That hence it will certainly follow, that what they assert is true, and that the religion they teach brings along with it such evidences of a divine authority, as may most justly recommend it to our acceptance.
Each of these heads might furnish out matter for many volumes; but it is my business to hint at the 18most obvious and important thoughts, by which they may briefly be illustrated and confirmed.
I. I am to prove to you, “that the books of the New Testament, now in your hands, were written by the first preachers and publishers of Christianity.”
You see I confine the present proof to the books of the New Testament. Not that I think the authority of the Old to be suspected, or the use of it by any means to be despised. God forbid! it is an invaluable treasure, which demands our daily delightful and thankful perusal, and is capable of being defended in a manner, which, I am persuaded, its subtilest enemies will never be able to answer. But the nature of my present argument, and the limits of my time, oblige me at present to wave the proof it, any farther than as it is implied in, and dependent upon, what I have more immediately in view.
In the process of the discourse, though I shall studiously avoid any ostentation of learning, yet it will be absolutely necessary to assert some things, which cannot certainly be known, without some little acquaintance with ancient writers. You cannot, most of you, be supposed to have formed such an acquaintance; but 1 take it for granted you will readily believe, that I will not lie for God, nor talk deceitfully for him3131 Job, xiii. 7.. I shall say nothing of this kind, but what I know to be contained in those writings; and you may assure yourselves, that no man of common sense, whatever his moral or religious character were, would venture, in such an age as this, publicly to cite passages as from authors in every one’s hands, which he cannot prove to be contained. in them.
Having premised these things, I go on to the argument, and shall advance in it by the following 19degrees. I shall prove,—that Christianity is an ancient religion;—that there was such a person as Jesus of Nazareth, crucified at Jerusalem above seventeen hundred years ago;—that the first preachers of his religion wrote books, which went by the name of those, that now make up the volume of our New Testament;—that they are preserved in the original to the present times;—and that the translation of them, which you have, is in the main such, as may be depended upon, as faithful. And then I shall have clearly made out what 1 proposed in this first part.
I. It is certain, “that Christianity is not a new religion, but that it was maintained by great multitudes, quickly after the time in which Jesus is said to have appeared.”
That there was, considerably more than sixteen hundred years ago, a body of men, who went by the name of Christians, is almost as evident, as that a race of men was then existing in the world; nor do I know, that any have ever been wild and confident enough to dispute it. If any should for argument-sake question it, they might quickly be convinced by a considerable number of Christian writers, who lived in the same or the next age3232 Such as Clement Romanus, Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenæus, Tatian, Athenagoras, and Theophilus Antiochenus, who all wrote before the year 200, and some in the first century: not to urge Barnabas, and Hermas; nor to mention any of those cited by Eusebius; whose books are all lost except some fragments, preserved chiefly by that excellent writer., and mention it as a thing notoriously certain, that Christianity was then of some standing in the world; some of them giving directions and exhortations to their brethren, and others forming apologies to their enemies, for which there could not other wise have been the least foundation. We might have acquiesced in their testimony, 20had it been alone; but it is confirmed by that of Jews and heathens, who, by their early invectives against the Christians, do most evidently prove, that there was such a body of men in the world.—The most considerable Roman historians, who lived in this age, and wrote of it, are Tacitus and Suetonius, who both published their writings above sixteen hundred years ago, and they are always and very justly appealed to, as pregnant witnesses upon this occasion.— For, Tacitus assures us, “that, in Nero’s days,” who began his reign about twenty years after the death of Christ, “there was a vast multitude of Christians, not only in Judæa, but at Rome took against whom Nero raised a persecution, attended with such circumstances of ignominy and cruelty, as moved the compassion even of their enemies;” of which number this historian evidently was3333 Nero quæsitissimis pœnis affecit, quos, per flagitia iuvisos, vulgus Christianos appellabat.—Repressa in prætens exitiabilis superstitio, rursus erumpebat, non modo per Judæam, originem ejus sed per urbem etiam, &c.—Multitudo ingens, odio humani generis, convicti sunt; & pereuntibus addita— unde miseratio oriebatur, &c. Tacit. Annal. lib. xv. c. 44.. Nay he plainly intimates, that this was not the first attempt which had been made to crush them; though this attempt was so early as we have heard.—His contemporary Suetonius, in his more concise manner, attests the same3434 Afflicti suppliciis Christiani, genus hominum superstitionis novæ ac maleficæ. Sueton. Ner. cap. xvi..—And Pliny, the intimate friend and correspondent of both, being employed in Trajan’s time to persecute the Christians, writes an account of them to that emperor, which, though commonly known, must be mentioned as it is so highly important. After having spoken very favourably of their moral character, he adds, “that many of both sexes, and of every age and rank, were infected with this superstition,” as he thinks fit to express it; “that it was gone into the villages, as well as the cities; and that, till he began to put the 21laws in execution against them, the temples of the heathen deities were almost deserted, and hardly any could be found who would buy victims for them3535 Multi omnis ætatis, omnis ordinis, utriusque sexus, etiam vocantur in periculum. Neque civitates tantum, sed vicos etiam atquæ agros, superstitionis istius contagio-pervagata est;—prope jam desolata templa,—& sacra solemnia diu intermissa:—victimas quarum adhuc rarissimus emptor inveniebatur. Plin. Epist. lib. x. epist. 97..”—It might be added, that Marcus Antoninus3636 Ετοιμος απολυθηναι του σωματος μη κατα ψιλην παραταξιν. ως οι Χριστιcονοι. Marc. Antonin. lib. xi. §. 3. [See also this emperor’s constitution to the community of Asia, (as inserted by Eusebius in his ecclesiastical history, lib. iv. cap. 13,) in which he mentions their persecuting the Christians to death; τους Χριστιανους διωκετε εως δανατου· and speaks of these persecutions as having continued a considerable time.] N. B. This was inserted in Melito’s Apology for the Christians, which he wrote in that emperor’s reign, so that there cannot be the least doubt of its being genuine., who wrote a few years after Pliny, mentions the Christians “as examples of a resolute and obstinate contempt of death:” and it is generally supposed, they are the Galileans, whom Epictetus speaks of3737 Υπο μανιας μεν δυναται τις ουτο διατεθηναι πξος ταυτ (δο?υφοξους scil. η μαχαιξας) και υπο εθους ος Γαλιλαοι. Arrian. Epictet. lib. iv. cap. 7, pag. 400., “as those whom practice had taught to despise the rage of their armed enemies3838 [This would be the proper place to mention the passage said to be in Philo Judæus, (who was contemporary with the apostles,) relating to the Christians in his days, and the methods taken by an embassy from Jerusalem to prevent the progress of their religion: but, though I verily believe the fact to have been true, I omit it, for reasons which the reader will find in a note under head three of the next sermon.—Some other passages of ancient writers, which might be very pertinent here, I reserve to mention under some following heads, and particularly where I shall speak of the miraculous propagation of the Gospel, in Serm. III.].”
I shall dismiss this head with observing, that it tends greatly to the confirmation of Christianity, that each of these celebrated and ancient pagan writers, 22at the same time they attest the existence of such a body of men professing it, inform us of those extreme persecutions which they underwent in the very infancy of their religion; a fact also farther apparent from the apologies addressed by the Christians to their persecutors, which, whatever imperfections may attend the manner in which some of them are written, appear to me some of the most valuable remains of antiquity, (the sacred records only excepted,) especially those of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Minutius Fælix.—This fundamental point is then abundantly made out; that there were vast numbers of men, very quickly after the time when Jesus is said to have appeared upon earth, who professed his religion, and chose to endure the greatest extremities rather than they would abandon it. Hence it will be easy to shew,
2. “That there was certainly such a person as Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified at Jerusalem, when Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor there.”
It can never be imagined, that multitudes of people should take their name from Christ, and sacrifice their lives for their adherence to him, even in the same age in which he is said to have lived, if they had not been well assured there was such a person. Now several of the authors I have mentioned plainly assert, that the Christians were denominated from Christ: nay, Tacitus expressly adds, “that he was put to death under Pontius Pilate, who was procurator of Judæa, in the reign of Tiberius3939 Auctor nominis ejus Christus, qui Tiberio imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio affectus erat. Tacit. ubi supra..” And it is well known, that the primitive Christian apologists often appeal to the acts of Pilate4040 Vid. Justin Mart. Apolog. Oper. pag. 76. & Tertul. Apolog. op. xxi., or the 23memoirs of his government, (which he, according to the custom of other procurators, transmitted to Rome,) as containing an account of these transactions; and, as the appeal was made to those who had the command of the public records, we may assure ourselves such testimonies were then extant. But it is a fact which our enemies never denied; they owned it, they even gloried in it, and upbraided the Christians with it. The Jews, therefore, in some of their earliest writings since those times, call Jesus by the ignominious name of “the man who was hanged or crucified,” and his followers, “the servants of the crucified person4141 Buxtorf. Lexic. Talmud. in voce תלוי.” And Lucian rallies them for deserting the pompous train of the heathen deities, to worship one whom he impiously calls “a crucified impostor4242 Τον δε ανεσκολοπισμενον εκεινον σοφιστην αυτον προσκυνωσι· Lucian de Morte Peregrini, Oper. tom. ii. pag. 568.—[I might here introduce a great many other remarkable particulars from this writer, which relate to “the fortitude of the Christians in bearing sufferings, their entire submission to the authority of Jesus, their unparalleled charity to each other; the prophets and messengers of their churches, and the great progress of their religion.” All these things are mentioned in the Pseudomantis, and the Death of Peregrinus, which are undoubtedly Lucian’s: not to mention those very memorable passages in the Philopatris, which is of a much later date. But a particular detail of these things would swell this note to a very improper bulk.].” — [Spartian also assures us, that the emperor Alexander Severus entertained such high thoughts of Christ, “that he would have admitted him into the number of his deities, and have built a temple to him, had not his pagan subjects vigorously opposed it4343 Spartian. de Vita Severi, cap. xxix. & xliii..” And Porphyry, though an inveterate enemy to Christianity, not only allowed there was such a person, but honoured him “as a most wise and pious man, approved by the gods, and taken up into heaven for his 24 distinguished virtues4444 Euseb. Demonstr. Evang. lib. iii. pag. 134..”]—I might add a great deal more on this head4545 I say nothing of the celebrated passage in Josephus, (Antiq. lib. xviii. cap. 4,) because it has been disputed; though I know no considerable objection against it, but its being so honourable to Christianity, that one would hardly imagine a Jew could write it.; but it already appears as certain as ancient history can make it, and incomparably more certain than most of the facts which it has transmitted to us, that there was at the time commonly supposed such a person as Christ, who professed himself a divine teacher, and who gathered many disciples, by whom his religion was afterwards published in the world.
3. It is also certain, “that the first publishers of this religion wrote books, which contained an account of the life and doctrine of Jesus their Master, and which went by the name of those that now make up our New Testament.”
It was in the nature of things exceeding probable, that what they had seen and heard, they would declare and publish to the world in writing4646 1 John, i. 3.; considering how common books were in the age and countries in which they taught; and of how great importance an acquaintance with the history and doctrine of Christ was, to the purposes which they so strenuously pursued: but we have much more than such a presumptive evidence.
The greatest adversaries of Christianity must grant, that we have books of great antiquity, written some fourteen, others fifteen, and some sixteen, hundred years ago4747 Such as Tatian, Irenæus, Tertullian, Clement Alexandrinus, Origen, Eusebius, and many others: See Jones of the Canon, Part iv. Introduct. Justin Martyr’s Controversy with Trypho, and Origen’s with Celsus, prove that Jews and heathens allowed, not only that there were such books, but that they contained the religion of Christians.; in which mention is made of the life of 25Christ, as written by many, and especially by four of his disciples, who by way of eminence are called the Evangelists. Great pains indeed have been taken to prove, that some spurious pieces were published under the names of the apostles, containing the history of these things: but surely this must imply, that it was a thing known and allowed, that the apostles did write some narrations of this kind; as counterfeit coin implies some true money, which it is designed to represent. And I am sure, he must be very little acquainted with the ancient ecclesiastical writers, who does not know, that the primitive Christians made a very great difference between those writings, which we call the canonical books of the New Testament, and others; which plainly shews, that they did not judge of writings merely by the names of their pretended authors, but inquired with an accuracy becoming the importance of those pretences. The result of this inquiry was, that the four Gospels, the Acts, thirteen Epistles of Paul, one of Peter, and one of John, were received upon such evidence, that Eusebius, a most accurate and early critic in these things, could not learn that they had ever been disputed4848 Euseb. Eccles. Hist. lib. vi. cap. 25.: and afterwards the remaining books of the New Testament, Hebrews, James, the Second of Peter, the Second and Third of John, Jude, and the Revelation, were admitted as genuine, and added to the rest; though some circumstances attending them rendered their authority for a while a little dubious. On the whole, it is plain, the primitive Christians were so satisfied in the authority of these sacred books, that they speak of them, not only as credible and authentic, but as equal to the oracles of the Old Testament, as divinely inspired as the words of the Spirit, as the law and organ of God, and as the rule of faith, which cannot be contradicted without great guilt; with many other expressions of 26the like kind, which often occur in their discourses. To which I may add, that, in some of their councils, the New Testament was placed on a throne, to signify their concern, that all their controversies and actions might be determined and regulated by it.
On the whole, then, you see, that the primitive church did receive certain pieces, which bore the same titles with the books of our New Testament. Now I think it is evident, they were as capable of judging whether a book was written by Matthew, John, or Paul, as an ancient Roman could be of determining whether Horace, Tully, or Livy, wrote those which go under their names. And I am sure, the interest of the former was so much more concerned in the writings of the apostles, than that of the latter in the compositions of the poets, orators, or even their historians, that there is reason to believe, they would take much greater care to inform themselves fully in the merits of the cause, and to avoid being imposed upon by artifice and fiction. Let me now shew,
4. “That the books of the New Testament have been preserved in the main uncorrupted, to the present time, in the original language in which they were written.”
This is a matter of vast importance, and, blessed be God, it is attended with proportionable evidence; an evidence, in which the hand of Providence has indeed been remarkably seen; for I am confident, that there is no other ancient book in the world, which may so certainly and so easily be proved to be authentic.
And, here, I will not argue merely from the piety of the primitive Christians, and the heroic resolution with which they chose to endure the greatest extremities, rather than they would deliver up their Bibles, (though that be a consideration of some evident 27weight;) but shall entreat you to consider the utter impossibility of corrupting them. From the first ages they were received and read in the churches, as a part of their public worship, just as Moses and the Prophets were in the Jewish synagogues; they were presently spread far and wide, as the boundaries of the church were increased; they were early translated into other languages, of which translations some remain to this day. Now, when this was the case, how could they possibly be adulterated? Is it a thing to be supposed or imagined, that thousands and millions of people should come together from distant countries; and that, with all their diversities of language, and customs, and, I may add, of sentiments too, they should have agreed on corrupting a book, which they all acknowledged to be the rule of their faith, and their manners, and the great charter by which they held their eternal hopes. It were madness to believe it: especially, when we consider what numbers of heretics appeared in the very infancy of the church, who all pretended to build their notions on Scripture, and most of them appealed to it as the final judge of controversies: now, it is certain, that these differing parties of professing Christians were a perpetual guard upon each other, and rendered it impossible for one party to practise grossly on the sacred books, without the discovery and the clamour of the rest.
Nor must I omit to remind you, that in every age, from the apostles time to our own, there have been numberless quotations made from the books of the New Testament; and a multitude of commentaries in various languages, and some of very ancient date, have been written upon them: so that, if the books themselves were lost, I believe they might, in a great measure, if not entirely, be recovered from the writings of others. And one might venture to say, the quotations, which have ever been made from all the ancient writings now remaining 28in Europe, were to be massed together, the bulk of them would be by no means comparable to that of the quotations taken from the New Testament alone. So that a man might, with a much better face, dispute, whether the writings ascribed to Homer, Demosthenes, Virgil, or Cæsar, be, in the main, such as they left them, than he could question it concerning those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, James, and Paul, whether they are in the main so.
I say, in the main, because we readily allow, that the hand of a printer, or of a transcriber, might chance, in some places, to insert one letter or word for another, and the various readings of this, as well as of all other ancient books, prove, that this has sometimes been the case. Nevertheless, those various readings are generally of so little importance, that he, who can urge them as an objection against the assertion we are now maintaining, must have little judgement or little integrity; and indeed after those excellent things which have been laid on the subject by many defenders of Christianity, if he have read their writings, he must have little modesty too. .
Since then it appears, that the books of the New Testament, as they now stand in the original, are, without any material alteration, such as they were, when they came from the hands of the persons whose names they bear, nothing remains to complete this part of the argument, but to shew,
5. “That the translation of them, now in your hands, may be depended upon, as in all things most material, agreeable to the original.”
This is a fact of which the generality of you are not capable of judging immediately. yet it is a matter of great importance: it is, therefore, a very great pleasure to me to think, what ample evidence you may find another way, to make your minds as easy on this head as you could reasonably wish them: I 29mean, by the concurrent testimony of others, in circumstances in which you cannot imagine they would unite to deceive you.
There are, to be sure, very few of us, whose office it is publicly to preach the Gospel, who have not examined this matter with care, and who are not capable of judging in so easy a case. I believe you have seen few in the place where I now stand, that could not have told you, as I now solemnly do, that, on a diligent comparison of our translation with the original, we find that of the New Testament, (and, I might also add, that of the Old,) in the main, faithful and judicious. You know, indeed, that we do not scruple on some occasions to animadvert upon it; but you also know, that these remarks affect not the fundamentals of religion, and seldom reach any farther than the beauty of a figure, or, at most, the connexion of an argument. Nay, I can confidently say, that, to the best, of my knowledge and remembrance, as there is no copy of the Greek, so neither is there any translation of the New Testament, which I have seen, whether ancient or modern, how defective and faulty soever, from which all the principal facts and doctrines of Christianity might not be learnt, so far as the knowledge of them is necessary to salvation, or even to some considerable degrees of edification in piety. Nor do I except from this remark, even that most erroneous and corrupt version, published by the English Jesuits at Rheims, which is, undoubtedly, one of the worst that ever appeared in our language.
But I desire not, that, with respect to our own translation of the New Testament, a matter of so great moment as the fidelity of it should rest on my testimony alone, or, entirely, on that of any of my brethren, for whose integrity and learning you may have the greatest and justest esteem. I rejoice to say, that this is a head, on which we cannot possibly deceive you, if we were ever so desirous to do it. 30And, indeed, in this respect, that is our advantage, which, in others, is our great calamity, I mean the diversity of our religious opinions. It is certain, that, wheresoever there is a body of dissenters from the public establishment, who do yet agree with their brethren of that establishment in the use of the same translation, though they are capable of examining it, and judging of it; there is as great evidence as could reasonably be desired, that such a translation is, in the main, right; for, if it were in any considerable argument corrupted, most of the other debates would quickly lose themselves in this: and, though such dissenters had all that candor, tenderness, and respect for their fellow Christians, which, I hope, we shall always endeavour to maintain, yet they would, no doubt, think themselves obliged in conscience to bear a warm and loud testimony against so crying an abomination, as they would another day appear free from the guilt of a confederacy to poison the public fountains, and destroy the souls of men. But we make no complaint on this subject; we all unite in bearing our testimony to the oracles of God, as delivered in our own language. Oh that we were equally united in regulating our doctrines and our discipline, our worship and our practice, by them!
You see then, on the whole, how much reason there is to believe, “that the books of the New Testament, as they are now in your hands, were written by those whole names they bear, even the first preachers and publishers of Christianity.”
This is the grand point; and hence it will follow, by a train of easy and natural consequences, that the Gospel is most certainly true: but that is a topic of argument abundantly sufficient to furnish out matter for another discourse. May God command this blessing on what has already been laid before us, that, through the operation of his Spirit, it may be useful for establishing our regard to the 31Scripture, and for confirming our faith in that Almighty Redeemer, who is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last4949 Rev. i. 8, 17.; whom to know is life everlasting5050 John xvii. 3., and in whom to believe is the great security of our eternal salvation! Amen.
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