|« Prev||Proposition II.||Next »|
MY second Proposition is not so simple, but, I think, not less undeniable than the former, and is this, that from this book may be extracted a system of religion intirely new, both with regard to the object and the doctrines, not only infinitely superior to, but totally unlike, every thing which had ever before entered into the mind of man; I say extracted, because all the doctrines of this religion having been delivered at various times, and on various occasions, and here only historically recorded, no uniform or regular system of theology is here to 15be found; and better perhaps it had been, if less labour had been employed by the learned, to bend and twist these divine materials into the polished forms of human systems, to which they never will submit, and for which they were never intended by their great author. Why he chose not to leave any such behind him we know not, but it might possibly be, because he knew, that the imperfection of man was incapable of receiving such a system, and that we are more properly and more safely conducted by the distant and scattered rays, than by the too powerful sunshine of Divine illumination; “If I have told you earthly things,” says he, “and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of 16heavenly things?”11 John iii. 12. that is, if my instructions, concerning your behaviour in the present, as relative to a future life, are so difficult to be understood, that you can scarcely believe me, how than you believe, if I endeavoured to explain to you the nature of celestial beings, the designs of Providence, and the mysteries of his dispensations; subjects which you have neither ideas to comprehend, nor language to express?
First then, the object of this religion is intirely new, and is this, to prepare us by a state of probation for the kingdom of heaven. This is every where professed by Christ and his apostles to be the chief end of 17the Christian’s life, the crown for which he is to contend, the goal to which he is to run, the harvest which is to pay him for all his labours; yet, previous to their preaching, no such prize was ever hung out to mankind, nor any means prescribed for the attainment of it.
It is indeed true, that some of the philosophers of antiquity entertained notions of a future state, but mixed with much doubt and uncertainty; their legislators also endeavoured to infuse into the minds of the people a belief of rewards and punishments after death; but by this they only intended to give a sanction to their laws, and to enforce the practice of virtue for the benefit of mankind in the present life; this alone seems to have been their end, and a meritorious 18end it was; but Christianity not only operates more effectually to this end, but has a nobler design in view, which is, by a proper education here, to render us fit members of a celestial society hereafter. In all former religions, the good of the present life was the first object; in the Christian, it is but the second; in those men were incited to promote that good by the hopes of a future reward; in this the practice of virtue is injoined in order to qualify them for that reward. There is great difference, I apprehend, in these two plans, that is, in adhering to virtue from its present utility in expectation of future happiness, and living in such a manner as so qualify us for the acceptance and enjoyment of that happiness; and the 19conduct and dispositions of those act on these different principles must be no less different: on the first, the constant practice of justice, temperance, and sobriety, will be sufficient; but on the latter, we must add to these an habitual piety, faith, resignation, and contempt of the world; the first may make us very good citizens, but will never produce a tolerable Christian. Hence it is, that Christianity insists more strongly than any preceding institution, religious or moral, on purity of heart and a benevolent disposition, because these are absolutely necessary to its great end; but in those, whose recommendations of virtue regard the present life only, and whose promised rewards in another were low and sensual, no preparatory 20qualifications were requisite to enable men to praise the one, or to enjoy the other: and therefore we see this object is peculiar to this religion; and with it was intirely new.
But although this object, and the principle on which it is founded were new, and perhaps undiscoverable by reason, yet when discovered, they are so consonant to it, that we cannot but readily assent to them. For the truth of this principle, that the present life is a state of probation, and education to prepare us for another, is confirmed by every thing which we see around us: It is the only key which can open to us the designs of Providence in the economy of human affairs; the only clue, which can guide us through that pathless wilderness, and the only 21plan on which this world could possibly have been formed, or on which the history of it can be comprehended or explained. It could never have been formed on a plan of happiness: because it is every where overspread with innumerable miseries; nor of misery, because it is interspersed with many enjoyments: it could not have been constituted for a scene of wisdom and virtue, because the history of mankind is little more than a detail of their follies and wickedness: nor of vice, because that is no plan at all, being destructive of all existence, and consequently of its own: But on this system all that we can here meet with may be easily accounted for; for this mixture of happiness and misery, of virtue and vice, necessarily results from 22a state of probation and education; as probation implies trials, sufferings, and a capacity of offending, and education a propriety of chastisement for those offences.
In the next place, the doctrines of this religion are equally new with the object and contain ideas of God, and of man, of the present and of a future life; and of the relations which all these bear to each other totally unheard of, and quite dissimilar from any which had ever been thought on, previous to its. publication. No other ever drew so just a portrait of the worthlessness of this world, and all its pursuits, nor exhibited such distinct, lively, and exquisite, pictures of the joys of another; of the resurrection of the dead, the last judgement, and the triumphs 23of the righteous in that tremendous day, “when this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal shall put on immortality.”22 1 Cor. xv. 53. No other has ever represented the Supreme Being in the character of three persons united in one God.33 That there subsists some such union in the divine nature, the whole tenour of the New Testament seems to express, and it was so understood in the earliest ages: but whether this union does or does not imply equality, or whether it subsists in general, or only in particular circumstances, we are not informed, and therefore on these questions it is not only unnecessary, but improper for us to decide. No other has attempted to reconcile those seeming contradictory but both true propositions, the contingency of future events, and the fore-knowledge of God, or the free will of the creature with the over-ruling 24grace of the Creator. No other has so fully declared the necessity of wickedness and punishment; yet so effectually instructed individuals to resist the one, and to escape the other: no other has ever pretended, to give any account of the depravity of man, or to point out any remedy for it: no other has ventured to declare, the unpardonable nature of sin without the influence of a mediatorial interposition, and a vicarious atonement from the sufferings of a superior Being.44 That Christ suffered and died as an atonement for the sins of mankind, is a doctrine so constantly and so strongly enforced through every part of the New Testament, that whoever will seriously peruse those writings, and deny that it is there, may, with as much reason and truth, after reading the works of Thucydides and Livy, assert, that in them no mention is made of any facts relative to the histories of Greece and Rome. Whether these wonderful 25doctrines are worthy of our belief, must depend on the opinion which we entertain of the authority of those who published them to the world; but certain it is, that they are all so far removed, from every tract of the human imagination, that it seems equally impossible, that they should ever have been derived from the knowledge or the artifice of man.
Some indeed, there are, who, by perverting the established signification of words, (which they call plaining) have ventured to expunge all these doctrines out of the Scriptures, for no other reason than that they. are not able to comprehend 26them, and argue thus:—The Scriptures are the word of God; in his: word no propositions contradictory to reason can have a place; these propositions are contradictory to reason, and therefore they are not there: but if these bold assertors would claim any regard, they should reverse their argument, and say,—These doctrines make a part, and a material part of the Scriptures, they are contradictory to reason; no propositions contradictory to reason can be a part of the word of God, and therefore neither the Scriptures, nor the pretended revelation contained in them, can be derived from him: this would be an argument worthy of rational and candid Deists, and demand a respectful attention; but when men pretend to disprove facts 27by reasoning, they have no right to expect an answer.
And here I cannot omit observing, that the personal character of the author of this religion is no less, new and extraordinary than the religion itself, who “spake as never man spake,”55 John vii. 46. and lived as never man lived: in proof of this, I do not mean to allege, that he was born of a virgin, that he fasted forty days, that he performed a variety of miracles, and after being buried three days, that he rose from the dead; because these accounts will have but little effect on the mind of unbelievers, who, if they believe not the religion, will give no credit to the relation of these facts; but I will 28prove it from facts which cannot be disputed: for instance, he is the only founder of a religion in the history of mankind, which is totally unconnected with all human policy and government, and therefore totally unconducive to any worldly purpose whatever: all others, Mahomet, Numa, and even Moses himself, blended their religious institutions with their civil, and by them obtained dominion over their respective people; but Christ never aimed at, nor would accept of, any such power; he rejected every object, which all other men pursue, and made choice of all those which others fly from, and are afraid of: he refused power, riches, honours, and pleasure; and courted poverty, ignominy, tortures, and death. Many 29have been the enthusiasts and impostors, who have endeavoured to impose on the world pretended revelations; and some of them from pride, obstinacy, or principle, have gone so far, as to lay down their lives, rather than retract; but I defy history to shew one, who ever made his own sufferings and death a necessary part of his original plan, and essential to his mission; this Christ actually did; he foresaw, foretold, declared their necessity, and voluntarily endured them. If we seriously contemplate the divine lessons, the perfect precepts, the beautiful discourses, and the consistent conduct of this wonderful person, we cannot possibly imagine, that he could have been either an idiot or a madman; and yet, if he was not what he pretended 30to be, he can be considered in no other light; and even under this character he would deserve some attention, because, of so sublime and rational an insanity, there is no other instance in the history of mankind.
If any one can doubt of the superior excellence of this religion above all which preceded it, let him but peruse with attention those unparalleled writings in which it is transmitted to the present times, and compare them with the most celebrated productions of the Pagan world; and if he is not sensible of their superior beauty, simplicity, and originality, I will venture to pronounce, that he is as deficient in taste as in faith, and that he is as bad a critic as a Christian: for in what school of ancient philosophy 31can he find a lesson of morality so perfect as Christ’s sermon on the mount? From which of them can be collect an address to the Deity so concise and yet so comprehensive, so expressive of all that we want and all that we could deprecate, as that short prayer which he formed for and recommended to his disciples? From the works of what sage of antiquity can he produce so pathetic a recommendation of benevolence to the distressed, and enforced by such assurances of a reward, as in those words of Christ? “Come, ye blessed of my Father! inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and 32ye took me in; I was naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying—Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee; or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in; or naked, and clothed thee? Or, when saw we thee sick and in prison, and came unto thee? Then shall I answer, and say unto them, Verily, I say unto you, inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”66 Matt. xxv. 34. Where is there so just and so elegant a reproof of eagerness and anxiety in worldly 33pursuits, closed with so forcible an exhortation to confidence in the goodness of our Creator, as in these words?—“Behold the fowls of the air, for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Consider the lillies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin; and yet I say unto you, that even Solomon, in all his glory, was not arrayed like one of these: wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you? O ye of little faith!”77 Matt. vi. 26, 28. By 34which of their most celebrated poets are the joys, reserved for the righteous in a future state, so sublimely described, as by this short declaration, that they are superior to all description? “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him,”88 1 Cor. ii. 9. Where, amidst the dark clouds of Pagan philosophy, can he shew us such a clear prospect of a future state, the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the dead, and the general judgement, as in St. Paul’s first epistle to Corinthians? Or, from whence can he produce such cogent exhortations to the practice of every virtue, such 35ardent incitements to piety and devotion, and such assistances to attain them, as those which are to be met with throughout every page of these inimitable writings? To quote all the passages in them, relative to these subjects, would be almost to transcribe the whole; it is sufficient to observe, that they are every where stamped with such apparent marks of supernatural assistance, as render them indisputably superior to and totally unlike all human compositions whatever; and this superiority and dissimilarity is still more strongly marked by one remarkable circumstance peculiar to themselves, which is, that whilst the moral parts (being of the most general use) are intelligible to the meanest capacities, the learned and inquisitive, throughout 36all ages, perpetually find in them inexhaustible discoveries concerning the nature, attributes, and dispensations, of Providence.
To say the truth, before the appearance of Christianity there existed nothing like religion on the face of the earth, the Jewish only excepted; all other nations were immersed in the grossest idolatry, which had little or no connection with morality, except to corrupt it by the infamous examples of their imaginary deities: they all worshipped a multiplicity of gods and dæmons, whose favour they courted by impious, obscene, and ridiculous, ceremonies, and whose anger they endeavoured to appease by the most abominable cruelties.—In the politest ages of the politest nations in the world, at a time when 37Greece and Rome had carried the arts of oratory, poetry, history, architecture, and sculpture, to the highest perfection, and made no inconsiderable advances in those of mathematics, natural and even moral philosophy, in religious knowledge they had made none at all; a strong presumption, that the noblest efforts of the mind of man, unassisted by revelation, were unequal to the task. Some few, indeed, of their philosophers were wise enough to reject these general absurdities, and dared to attempt a loftier flight. Plato introduced many sublime ideas of nature, and its first cause, and of the immortality of the soul; which, being above his own and all human discovery, he probably acquired from the books of Moses, or the conversation of some 38Jewish rabbies which he might have met with in Egypt, where he resided and studied for several years. From him, Aristotle, and, from both, Cicero, and some few others, drew most amazing stores of philosophical science, and carried their researches into divine truths as far as human genius alone could penetrate. But these were bright constellations which appeared singly in several centuries; and even these, with all this knowledge, were very deficient in true theology. From the visible works of the Creation, they traced the being and principal attributes of the Creator; but the relation which his being and attributes bear to man, they little understood. Of piety and devotion, they had scarce any sense; nor could they form any mode of 39worship worthy of the purity and perfection of the divine nature; they occasionally flung out many elegant encomiums on the native beauty and excellence of virtue, but they founded it not on the commands of God, nor connected it with a holy life, nor hung out the happiness of heaven as its reward or its object. They sometimes talked of virtue carrying men to heaven, and placing them amongst the gods, but by this virtue they meant only the invention of arts or feats of arms; for, with them, heaven was open only to legislators and conquerors, the civilizers or destroyers of mankind. This was, then, the summit of religion in the most polished nations in the world; and even this was confined to a few philosophers, prodigies of genius and literature, 40who were little attended to, and less understood, by the generality of mankind in their own countries; whilst all the rest were involved in one common cloud of ignorance and superstition.
At this time Christianity broke from the east like a rising, sun, and dispelled this universal darkness which obscured every part of the globe, and even at this day prevails in all those remoter regions to which its salutary influence has not as yet extended. From all those which it has reached, it has, notwithstanding its corruptions, banished all those enormities, and introduced a more rational devotion and purer morals; it has taught men the unity and attributes of the Supreme Being, the remission of sins, the resurrection of 41the dead, life everlasting, and the Kingdom of Heaven; doctrines as inconceivable to the wisest of mankind, antecedent to its appearance, as the Newtonian system is at this day to the most ignorant tribes of savages in the wilds of America; doctrines, which human reason never could have discovered, but which, when discovered, coincide with and are confirmed by it; and which, though beyond the reach of all the learning and penetration of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, are now clearly laid open to the eye of every peasant and mechanic with the Bible in his hand. These are all plain facts too glaring to be contradicted, and, therefore, whatever we may think of the authority of these books, the relations which they contain, or the. 42 inspiration of their authors, of these facts no man, who has eyes to read, or ears to hear, can entertain a doubt, because there are the books, and in them is this religion.43
|« Prev||Proposition II.||Next »|