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The subject of this treatise belongs to the office of the Holy Spirit in illuminating the minds of believers. It is the first part of what may be regarded as the sixth book in the work of our author on the dispensation and operations of the Spirit, and is occupied with an answer to the question, on what grounds, or for, what reason, we believe the Scripture to be the word of God. When it was published, the novel views of the Friends, to whom Owen frequently in his work on the Spirit alludes, had become extensively known. Barclay’s famous “Apology for the True Christian Divinity” had just appeared; in which their views received the advantage of a scientific treatment and formal exhibition. The essential principle of the system is “the inward light” ascribed to every man, consequent upon a peculiar tenet, according to which the operation of the Holy Spirit in his office of illumination is universal, — so universal that even where the facts of the gospel are utterly unknown, as in heathen countries, this light exists in every man, and by due submission to its guidance be would be saved. How far this notion was simply a mistaken recoil to an opposite extreme from the high views of ecclesiastical prerogative which certain divines of the Church of England were fond of urging, is an inquiry scarcely within our province. It is an instructive fact, however, that mysticism, in claiming a special immigration for every man, manifests no very remote affinity with the modern scepticism that admits the inspiration of Scripture, but only in such a sense as makes inspiration common to all authorship. However wide and vital may be the discrepancy in other respects between the mystic and the sceptic, in this principle they seem as one; and they are as one also to some extent in the practical tendencies it engenders, such as the disparagement of the Scriptures as an objective rule of faith and life. The Scriptures, according to the Friends, are only “a secondary rule, subordinate to the Spirit,” or, in other words, to the inward light.
In opposition to such principles, the authority, sufficiency, and infallibility, of the Scriptures, were ably proved by many writers of the Church of England; whose services in this department are freely acknowledged, in this treatise. Somewhat rationalistic in their spirit, however, and driven perhaps to a greater rationalism of tone by the fanatical excesses which they sought to rebuke, they stated the question in such terms as superceded the necessity of supernatural influence in order to the production of saving faith in the divine word; and even such a writer as Tillotson speaks vaguely about “the principles of natural religion” governing all our reasonings about the evidence and interpretation of revealed truth. If Owen, therefore, affirmed the necessity of the Spirit for the dual credence of revelation, he might be confounded with “the professors of the inward light;” and he actually was charged by divines of the class to which we have alluded with this and kindred errors. If, on the other hand, he affirmed the competency of the external evidences of revelation to produce a conviction of its divine authority, It might be insinuated or fancied that he was overlooking the work of the spirit as the source of faith. It is his object to show that, in truth, he was committed to neither extreme; that while external arguments deserve and must be allowed their proper weight, the faith by which we receive Scripture must be the same in origin and essence with the faith by which we receive the truths contained in it; that faith of this description implies the affectual illumination of the Holy Spirit; and that in this illumination there is no particular and internal testimony, equivalent to inspiration or to an immediate revelation from God, to each believer personally. The Spirit is the efficient cause by which faith is implanted; but not the objective ground on which our faith rests. The objective ground or reason of faith, according to our author, is “the authority and veracity of God revealing themselves in the Scripture and by it;” and Scripture must be received for its own sake, as the word of God, apart from external arguments and authoritative testimony. The grounds on which it is thus to be received resolve themselves into what is now known by the designation of the experimental evidence in favour of Christianity, — the renewing and sanctifying effect of divine truth on the mind. It might be objected, that if the Spirit be requisite to appreciate the force of the Christian evidence, so as to acquire true and proper faith in Scripture as the word of God, men who do not enjoy spiritual enlightenment would be free from any obligation to receive it as divine. The treatise is fitly closed by a brief but satisfactory reply to this and similar objections.
It has sometimes been questioned if Owen, with all his excellencies and gifts, has any claim to be regarded as an original thinker. This treatise of itself substantiates such a claim in his behalf. It is the first recognition of the experimental evidence of Christianity, — that great branch in the varied evidences of our faith to which the bulk of plain Christians, unable to overtake or even comprehend the voluminous authorship on the subject of the external evidences, stand indebted for the clearness and strength of their religious convictions. It could not be the first discovery of this evidence, for its nature implies that it had been in operation ever since revelation dawned on the race; but Owen has the merit of first distinctly and formally recognising its existence and value. He seems to have been himself quite aware of the freshness and importance of the line of thought on which he had entered, for, anxious to his argument clear, he has himself in the appendix supplied an abstract and analysis of it, and accompanied it with some testimonies from various authors in confirmation of the premises on which his conclusions rest. The treatise was published in 1677, without any division into chapters. We borrow, from a subsequent edition, a division of this sort, by which the steps in the reasoning are indicated. — Ed.
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