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Christianity mysterious, and the Wisdom of God in making it so:
PREACHED AT WESTMINSTER ABBEY,
APRIL 29, 1694.
But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, &c.
THE two great works which God has been pleased to signalize his infinite wisdom and power by, were the creation of the world, and the redemption of mankind; the first of them declared by Moses, and the other by Christ himself bringing life and immortality to light through the gospel. But yet so, that, as in the opening of the day, the appearance of light does not presently and totally drive away all darkness, but that some degrees remain and mingle with it: so neither has this glorious revelation of the gospel quite cleared off the obscurity of many great things revealed in it; but that, as God has hereby vouchsafed us light enough to inform and guide our faith, so he has left darkness enough to exercise it too. Upon which account the apostle here designing to set forth the transcendent worth 379of the gospel above all other doctrines whatsoever, recommends it to our esteem by these two qualifications and properties eminently belonging to it; as.
First, that it is the wisdom of God; and, secondly, that it is the wisdom of God in a mystery.
As to the first of which, namely, the gospel’s being the wisdom of God, that is to say, the grand instance and product of it; if we would take a survey of the nature of wisdom, according to the sense of the ancient philosophers, we shall find Aristotle, in the sixth of his Ethics, and the seventh chapter, defining it, νοῦς καὶ ἐπιστήμη τῶν τιμιωτάτων τῇ φύσει, that is, the understanding and knowledge of things in their nature the most excellent and valuable. Where, though it ought to be supposed that Aristotle carried his notion no higher nor farther than the things of nature, and that St. Paul pointed chiefly at things revealed and supernatural; yet I cannot see but that the terms made use of by that great philosopher in the definition, or rather description of wisdom, laid down by him, do with full propriety and fitness fall in with the account here given of this divine wisdom by our apostle in the text, and that, whether we take it for a wisdom respecting speculation, or relating to practice; the things treated of in the gospel (about which the said wisdom is employed) being certainly the noblest and most excellent that can be, upon both accounts: and though it be hard to determine whether of the two ought to have the preeminence, yet I think we may rationally enough conclude, that the wisdom here spoken of is principally of a practical import; as denoting to us God’s admirable and steady bringing about his great ends and purposes, by means most suitable and proper to 380them, and particularly his accomplishing his grand design of mercy upon the world by the promulgation of the gospel; a doctrine containing in it all the treasures of divine wisdom, so far as the same wisdom has thought fit to reveal them. And yet such has been the blindness and baseness of men’s minds, even from the apostle’s time down along to ours, (as bad as any,) that this very wisdom has not failed to meet with a sect of men, who, voting themselves the only wits and wise men of the world, (as the great est sots may easily do,) have made it their business to ridicule and reproach it as downright foolishness; but yet such a sort of foolishness, (if the testimony of an apostle may outweigh the scoffs of a buffoon,) as is infinitely wiser than all the wisdom of men. For the very wisest of men do not always compass what they design, but this certainly and effectually does, as being not only the wisdom, but,
Secondly, the power of God too; the first infallible, the other irresistible. In a word, the wisdom here spoken of is a messenger which always goes as far as sent; an instrument which never fails or lurches the great agent who employs it, either in reaching the end he directs it to, or in finishing the work he intends it for: so that, in short, there could not be an higher and a nobler elogy to express the gospel by, than by representing it to us as the wisdom of God. For as wisdom in general is the noblest and most sublime perfection of an intellectual nature, and particularly in God himself is the leading, ruling attribute, prescribing to all the rest; so a commendation drawn from thence must needs be the most glorious that can possibly pass upon any action or design proceeding from such an 381one: and the apostle seems here most peculiarly to have directed this encomium of the gospel as a defiance to the philosophers of his time, the flustering, vain-glorious Greeks, who pretended so much to magnify, and even adore the wisdom they professed, and with great modesty, no doubt, confined wholly to themselves: a wisdom, I think, little to be envied them; being such, as none who had it could be the better, nor consequently the wiser for.
And thus much for the first thing contained in the words, and proposed from them; namely, that the gospel is the wisdom of God. I proceed now to the second, which we shall chiefly insist upon, and that is, concerning the mysteriousness of it; as, that it is the wisdom of God in a mystery. For the prosecution of which we shall inquire into, and endeavour to give some account of the reasons, (so far as we may presume to judge of them,) why God should deliver to mankind a religion so full of mysteries as the Christian religion certainly is, and was ever accounted to be. Now the reasons of this in general, I conceive, may be stated upon these two grounds:
First, The nature and quality of the things treated of in the Christian religion. And,
Secondly, The ends to which all religion, both as to the general and particular nature of it, is designed, with relation to the influence which it ought to have upon the minds of men.
And, first of all, for the nature of the things themselves, which are the subject-matter of the Christian religion. There are in them these three qualifications or properties, which do and must of necessity 382render them mysterious, obscure, and of difficult apprehension. As,
First, Their surpassing greatness and inequality to the mind of man. The Christian religion, as to a great part of it, is but a kind of comment upon the divine nature; an instrument to convey right conceptions of God into the soul of man, so far as it is capable of receiving them. But now God, we know, is an infinite being, without any bounds or limitations of his essence, wonderful in his actings, inconceivable in his purposes, and inexpressible in his attributes; which yet, as great as they are, if severally taken, give us but an incomplete representation of him. He is another world in himself, too high for our speculations, and too great for our descriptions. For how can such vast and mighty things be crowded into a little, finite understanding? Heaven, I confess, enters into us, as we must into that, by a very narrow passage; but how shall the King of glory, whom the heavens themselves cannot contain, enter in by these doors? by a weak imagination, a slender notion, and a contracted intellect? How shall these poor short faculties measure the lengths of his eternity, the breadth and expansions of his immensity, the heights of his prescience, and the depths of his decrees? And, last of all, that unutterable, incomprehensible mystery of two natures united into one person, and again of one and the same nature diffused into a triple personality? All which being some of the prime, fundamental matters treated of in our religion, how can it be otherwise than a system of mysteries, and a knot of dark, inexplicable propositions, since it exhibits 383to us such things as the very condition of our nature renders us incapable of clearly understanding?
The Socinians, indeed, who would obtrude upon the world (and of late more daringly than ever) a new Christianity of their own inventing, will admit of nothing mysterious in this religion, nothing which the natural reason of man cannot have a clear and comprehensive perception of: and this not only in defiance of the express words of scripture, so frequently and fully affirming the contrary, but also of the constant, universal sense of all antiquity, unanimously confessing an incomprehensibility in many of the articles of the Christian faith. So that these bold persons stand alone by themselves, upon a new bottom, and an upstart principle, not much above an hundred years old, spitting upon all antiquity before them; and (as some who have wrote against them have well observed of them) are the only sect of men in the world who ever pretended to set up or own a religion without either a mystery or a sacrifice belonging to it. For, as we have shewn that they deny the first, so they equally explode the latter, by denying Christ to be properly a priest, or his death to have been a propitiatory oblation for the sins of the world. And now are not these blessed new lights, think we, fit to be encouraged, courted, and have panegyrics made upon their wonderful abilities, forsooth; whilst they on the other side are employing the utmost of those abilities (such as they are) in blaspheming our Saviour, and overturning our religion? But this is their hour, and the power of darkness. For it is a truth too manifest to be denied, that there have been more innovations upon 384and blasphemies against the chief articles of our faith published in this kingdom, and that after a more audacious and scandalous manner, within these several years last past, than have been known here for some centuries of years before, even those times of confusion, both in church and state, betwixt forty-one and sixty not excepted: and what this may produce and end in, God only at present knows, and I wish the whole nation may not at length feel.
Secondly. A second qualification of the chief things treated of in our religion, and which must needs render them mysterious, is their spirituality and abstraction from all sensible and corporeal matter; of which sort of things it is impossible for the understanding of man to form to itself an exact idea or representation: so that when we hear or read that God is a spirit, and that angels and the souls of men are spirits, our apprehensions are utterly at a loss how to frame any notion or resemblance of them, but are put to float and wander in an endless maze of guesses and conjectures, and know not certainly what to fix upon. For in this case we can fetch in no information or relief to our understandings from our senses; no picture or draught of these things from the reports of the eye; but we are left entirely to the uncertainties of fancy, to the flights and ventures of a bold imagination. And here to illustrate the case a little, let us imagine a man who was born blind, able upon bare hearsay to conceive in his mind all the varieties and curiosities of colour, to draw an exact scheme of Constantinople, or a map of France; to describe the towns, point out the rivers, and distinguish the situations of these and the like great and extraordinary places: and when such an one is able 385to do all this, and not before, then perhaps may we also apprehend what a spirit, an angel, or an immaterial being is. The difficulty of understanding which sufficiently appears from this one consideration: that in all the descriptions which we make of God, angels, and spirits, we still describe them by such things as we see, and when we have done, we profess that they are invisible. But then to do this argument right again on the other side: as it would be extremely sottish and irrational for a blind man to conclude and affirm positively that there neither are nor can be any such things as colours, pictures, or landscapes, because he finds that he cannot form to himself any true notion, idea, or mental perception of them; so would it be equally, or rather superlatively more unreasonable for us to deny the great articles of our Christianity, because we cannot frame in our minds any clear, explicit, and exact representation of them. And yet this is the true state of the whole matter, and of the ratiocination of some men about it, how absurd and inconsequent soever we see it is. Let this, therefore, be another and a second cause, why the Christian religion, which treats of and is conversant about such things, must of necessity be mysterious.
Thirdly. A third property of matters belonging to Christianity, and which also renders them mysterious, is their strangeness and unreducibleness to the common methods and observations of nature. I, for my part, cannot look upon any thing (whatsoever others can) as a more fundamental article of the Christian religion, than Christ’s satisfaction for sin; by which alone the lost sons of Adam are reconciled to their offended God, and so put into new capacities 386of salvation; and yet, perhaps, there is nothing more surprising, strange, and out of the road of common reason than this, if compared with the general course and way of men’s acting. For that he who was the offended person should project and provide a satisfaction to himself in the behalf of him who had offended him, and with so much zeal concern himself to solicit a reconciliation with those whom he had no need of being reconciled unto, but might with equal justice and honour have destroyed them, was a thing quite beside the common course of the world; and much more was it so, that a father should deliver up an innocent and infinitely beloved son to be sacrificed for the redemption of his justly hated and abhorred enemies; and on the other hand, that a son who loved his father as much as he could be loved by him, should lay down his life for the declared rebels and enemies of him whom he so transcendently loved, and of himself too: this, I say, was such a transaction, as we can find nothing like or analogous to in all the dealings of men, and can not but be owned as wholly beside, if not also directly contrary to all human methods. And so true is this, that several things expressly affirmed of God in scripture, relating to the prime articles of our faith, are denied or eluded by the Arians and Socinians, because they cross and contradict the notions taken up by them from what they have observed in created beings, and particularly in men; which yet is a gross fallacy and inconsequence, concluding ab imparibus tanquam paribus, and more than sufficiently confuted and blown off by that one passage of the prophet concerning Almighty God, that his thoughts are not as our thoughts, nor his ways as 387our ways, Isa. lv. 8. to which we may add, that neither is his nature as our nature, nor his divine persons as our persons. And if so, where is the Socinian logic in arguing from one to the other? And yet it is manifest, that they hardly make use of any other way of arguing concerning the main points in controversy between them and the church but this.
But there are also two other principal articles of the Christian religion, which do as much transcend the common notice and observation of mankind as the former. One of which is the conversion and change of a man’s sinful nature, commonly called the work of regeneration, or the new birth; concerning which men are apt to wonder (and deservedly too) by what strange power and efficacy it should come to pass, that ever any one should be brought to conquer and shake off those inveterate appetites and desires which are both so violent in their actings, and so early in their original, (as being born with him,) and to have other new ones, and those absolutely contrary to the former, planted in their room. So that when our Saviour, in John iii. discoursed of these things to Nicodemus, a great rabbi amongst the Jews, and told him that he must be born again, he was presently amazed, and nonplused at it, as at a great paradox and impossibility; and forthwith began to question, How can these things be? In which, indeed, he said no more than what the hearts of most men living are apt to say concerning most of the articles of our Christian religion.
But, above all, the article of the resurrection seems to lie marvellously cross to the common experience of mankind. For who ever was yet seen by 388them, after a total consumption into dust and ashes, to rise again, and to resume the same numerical body? This is a thing which, amongst all the rare occurrences of the world, all the wonders and anomalies of nature, was never yet met with in any one single instance; and consequently men must needs be apt to startle, and to be full of thought, and scruple, upon the proposal of so strange a thing to their understandings. And if any one should think that he can make this out by bare reason, (as possibly some opiniators may,) let him by all means in the next place try the strength of his doughty reason about transubstantiation, or turn knight errant in divinity, encounter giants and windmills, and adventure to explain things impossible to be explained. This, therefore, is a third cause of the unavoidable mysteriousness of the chief articles of the Christian religion; namely, that most of them fall neither within the common course of men’s actings, nor the compass of their observation.
And thus much for the first ground of the gospel’s being delivered to the world in a mystery; namely, the nature and quality of the things treated of in the gospel. I come now to the
Second ground, which is stated upon some of the principal ends and designs of religion. But before I enter upon the discussion of this, may it not be objected, that the grand design of religion is to en gage men in the practice of such things as it commands; and that this must needs be so much the more easily effected, by how much the more clearly such things are represented to men’s understandings without any mystery or obscurity in them: forasmuch as the way to obey a law is to know it; and 389the way to know it, is to have it plainly and clearly propounded to such as are concerned about it?
Now to this I answer, first, that it is as much the design of religion to oblige men to believe the credenda, as to practise the agenda of it: and, secondly, that notwithstanding the obscurity and mysteriousness of the credenda, considered in themselves, there is yet as clear a reason for the belief of these, as for the practice of the other. They exceed indeed the natural force of human reason to comprehend them scientifically, and are therefore proposed, not to our knowledge, but to our belief; forasmuch as belief supplies the want of knowledge, where knowledge is not to be had, and is properly the mind’s assent to a thing upon the credit of his testimony who shall report it to us. And thus we as sent to the great and mysterious points of our faith: for know and understand them throughly we can not; but since God has revealed and affirmed them to be true, we may with the highest reason, upon his bare word, believe and assent to them as such.
But then, as for those things that concern our practice, (upon which only the objection proceeds,) they indeed are of that clearness, that innate evidence and perspicuity, even in themselves, that they do, as it were, meet our understandings half way, and being once proposed to us, need not our study, but only our acceptance; as presenting themselves to our first, our easiest, and most early apprehensions. So that in some things it is much more difficult for a man, upon a very ordinary use of his judgment, to be ignorant of his duty than to learn it; as it would be much harder for him, while he is awake, to keep his eyes always shut, than open.390
In sum, the articles of our faith are those depths in which the elephant may swim; and the rules of our practice those shallows in which the lamb may wade. But as both light and darkness make but one natural day; so here, both the clearness of the agenda, and the obscurity or mystery of the credenda of the gospel, constitute but one entire religion. And so much in answer to this objection; which being thus removed, I come now to shew, that the mysteriousness of those parts of the gospel called the credenda, or matters of our faith, is most subservient to the great, important ends of religion; and that upon these following accounts:
First, because religion, in the prime institution of it, was designed to make impressions of awe and reverential fear upon men’s minds. The mind of man is naturally licentious, and there is nothing which it is more averse from than duty; nothing which it more abhors than restraint. It would, if let alone, lash out, and wantonize in a boundless enjoyment and gratification of all its appetites and inclinations. And therefore God, who designed man to a supernatural end, thought fit also to en gage him to a way of living above the bare course of nature; and for that purpose to oblige him to a severe abridgment and control of his mere natural desires. And this can never be done, but by imprinting upon his judgment such apprehensions of dread and terror, as may stave off an eager and luxurious appetite from its desired satisfactions, which the infinite wisdom of God has thought fit in some measure to do, by nonplusing the world with certain new and unaccountable revelations of himself and the divine methods of a mysterious religion.391
To protect which from the saucy encroachments of bold minds, he has hedged it in with a sacred and majestic obscurity, in some of the principal parts of it: which that it is the most effectual way to secure a reverence to it from such minds, is as certain as the universal experience of mankind can make it; it being .an observation too frequent and common to be at all doubted of, that familiarity breeds contempt; and it holds not more in point of converse, than in point of knowledge. For as easiness of access, frankness and openness of behaviour, does by degrees lay a man open to scorn and contempt, especially from some dispositions; so a full inspection and penetration into all the difficulties and secrets of any object is apt to make the mind insult over it, as over a conquered thing; for all knowledge is a kind of conquest over the thing we know.
Distance preserves respect, and we still imagine some transcendent worth in things above our reach. Moses was never more reverenced than when he wore his veil. Nay, the very sanctum sanctorum would not have had such a veneration from the Jews, had they been permitted to enter into it, and to gaze and stare upon it, as often as they did upon the other parts of the temple. The high priest him self, who alone was suffered to enter into it, yet was to do so but once a year; lest the frequency of the sight might insensibly lessen that adoration which so sacred a thing was still to maintain upon his thoughts.
Many men, who in their absence have been great, and admired for their fame, find a diminution of that respect upon their personal presence: even the great apostle St. Paul himself found it so; as he 392himself tells us, 2 Cor. x. 10. And upon the same account it is, that the kings of some nations, to keep up a living and a constant awe of themselves in the minds of their subjects, shew themselves to them but once a year: and even that perhaps may be something with the oftenest, considering that persons, whose greatness generally consists rather in the height of their condition than in the depth of their understanding, seldom appear freely and openly, but they expose themselves in more senses than one.
In all great respect or honour shewn, there is something of wonder; but a thing often seen, we know, be it never so excellent, yet ceasing thereby to be new, it ceases also to be wondered at. Forasmuch as it is not the worth or excellency, but the strangeness of a thing which draws the eyes and admiration of men after it; for can any thing in nature be imagined more glorious and beautiful than the sun shining in his full might, and yet how many more spectators and wonderers does the same sun find under an eclipse?
But to pursue this notion and observation yet farther, I conceive it will not be amiss to consider, how it has been the custom of all the sober and wise nations of the world still to reserve the great rites of their religion in occulto: thus, how studiously did the Egyptians, those great masters of all learning, lock up their sacred things from all access and knowledge of the vulgar! Whereupon their gods were pictured and represented with their finger upon their mouth, thereby, as it were, enjoining silence to their votaries, and forbidding all publication of their mysteries. Nor was this all, but, for the 393better concealing of the sacra arcana of their religion, they used also a peculiar character unknown to the common people, and understood only by themselves; and last of all, that they might yet the more surely keep off all others from any acquaintance with these secrets, the priesthood was made hereditary amongst them, by which means they easily secured and confined the knowledge of their sacerdotal rites wholly within their own family. The like also is reported of the Phoenicians, the Babylonians, and the Grecians, that they had their ἱερὰ γράμματα, and their ἰδίους χαρακτῆρας, their sacred and peculiar way of writing, by which they rescued the revered mysteries of their religion from the rude inspection of the rout. And lastly, that the same course of secrecy and concealment was also followed by the Romans, though in a different way, and not by the use of such peculiar characters, is sufficiently evident from that known introduction and prologue to their sacred rites, Procul este profani; by which they drove far away the profane; and such were all those accounted, who were not actually engaged in the said religious performances. And now to what purpose do these several instances serve, but to shew us, that as in the Jewish church the people were not suffered to enter into the holy of holies, nor to pry or look into the ark, no, nor so much as to touch it, and all this by the particular, express prohibition of God himself; so amongst the heathens, the most civilized, learned, and best reputed nations for wisdom, have, by the bare light and conduct of their natural reason, still taken the same way to establish in men’s minds a veneration for their religion: that is, by keeping the chief parts and mysteries of 394it shut up from the promiscuous view and notice of that sort of men, who are but too quickly brought, God knows, to slight and nauseate what they once think they understand.
Now that the several religions of the forementioned nations of the gentiles were false and idolatrous, I readily own; but that their method of preserving the reverence of them (which is all that I here insist upon) was founded upon any persuasion they had of the falsehood and idolatry of the said religions, this I absolutely deny; since it is not imaginable, that any sort of men whatsoever could heartily own and profess any sort of religion which they themselves fully believed to be false; and therefore since it could not be but that they believed their several religions true, (though really and indeed they were not so,) yet the way which they took to keep up an awful esteem of them in the hearts of such as professed them, was no doubt founded upon an excellent philosophy and knowledge of the temper of man’s mind, in relation to sacred matters. So that, although their subject was bad, yet their argumentation and discourse upon it was highly rational.
Secondly. A second ground of the mysteriousness of religion, (as it is delivered by God to mankind,) is his most wise purpose thereby to humble the pride and haughtiness of man’s reason: a quality so peculiarly odious to God, that it may be said, not so much to imprint upon men the image, as to communicate to them the very essence of Lucifer. The way by which man first fell from his original integrity and happiness was by pride, founded upon an irregular desire of knowledge; and therefore it seems to be a course most agreeable to the divine wisdom 395to contrive man’s recovery by such a method as should abase and nonplus him in that very perfection, whereof the ambitious improvement first cast him down from that glorious condition. In short, man would be like God in knowledge, and so he fell; and now if he will be like him in happiness too, God will effect it in such a way, as shall convince him to his face that he knows nothing. The whole course of his salvation shall be all riddle and mystery to him; he shall, as I may so express it, be carried up to heaven in a cloud. Instead of evidence springing from things themselves, and clear knowledge growing from such an evidence, his understanding must now be contented with the poor, dim light of faith, which, as I have shewn, guides only in the strength and light of another’s knowledge, and is properly a seeing with another’s eyes; as being otherwise wholly unable to inform us about the great things of our peace, by any immediate inspection of those things themselves.
Whereupon we find the gospel set up, as it were, in triumph over all that wisdom and philosophy which the learned and more refined parts of the world so much boasted of, and valued themselves upon; as we have it in the 1 Cor. i. from the 17th to the end of the chapter: Where is the wise, where is the scribe, and where is the disputer of this world? God is there said to have made foolish the very wisdom of it. So that when the world by wisdom knew not God; that is, by all their philosophy could not find out, either how he was to be served, OF by what means to be enjoyed, this grand disco very was made to them by the foolishness of preaching, (as the world then esteemed it;) nay, and of 396preaching the cross too; a thing utterly exploded both by Jew and Greek, as the greatest absurdity imaginable, and contrary to all their received principles and reasonings about the way of man’s attaining to true happiness. And yet, as high as they bore themselves, their strongest reasonings were to bend to this weakness of God, (as the apostle, in derision of those who thought it so, there calls it,) and their sublimest wisdom to stoop to this foolishness, if so be they were not resolved to be too strong and too wise, forsooth, to be saved. For as the primitive effect of knowledge was first to puff up, and then to throw down; so the contrary method of grace and faith is first to depress, and then to advance.
The difficulty and strangeness of some of the chief articles of our religion, such as are those of the Trinity, and of the incarnation and satisfaction of Christ, are notable instruments in the hand of God, to keep the soul low and humble, and to check those self-complacencies which it is apt to grow into by an overweening conceit of its own opinions, more than by any other thing whatsoever. For man naturally is scarce so fond of the offspring of his body, as of that of his soul. His notions are his darlings; so that neither children nor self are half so dear to him as the only-begotten of his mind. And therefore, in the dispensations of religion, God will have this only-begotten, this best-beloved, this Isaac of our souls, (above all other offerings that a man can bring him,) to be sacrificed, and given up to him.
Thirdly, God in great wisdom has been pleased to put a mysteriousness into the greatest articles of 397our religion, thereby to engage us in a closer and more diligent search into them. He would have them the objects of our study, and for that purpose has rendered them hard and difficult: for no man studies things plain and evident, and such as by their native clearness do even prevent our search, and of their own accord offer themselves to our understandings. The foundation of all inquiry is the obscurity as well as worth of the thing inquired after. And God has thought good to make the constitution and complexion of our religion such as may fit it to be our business and our task; to require and take up all our intellectual strengths, and, in a word, to try the force of our best, our noblest, and most active faculties. For if it were not so, then surely human literature could no ways promote the study of divinity, nor could skill in the liberal arts and sciences be any step to raise us to those higher speculations. But so the experience of the world (maugre all fanatic pretences, all naked truths, and naked gospels, or rather shameful nakedness, instead of either truth or gospel) has ever yet found it to be. For still the schools are and must be the standing nurseries of the church: and all the cultivation and refinement they can bestow upon the best wits, in the use of the most unwearied industry, are but a means to facilitate their advance higher, and to let them in more easily at the strait gate of those more hidden and involved propositions, which Christianity would employ and exercise the mind of man with. For suppose that we could grasp in the whole compass of nature, as to all the particulars and varieties of being and motion, yet 398we shall find it a vast, if not an impossible leap from thence to ascend to the full comprehension of any one of God’s attributes; and much more from thence to the mysterious economy of the divine persons; and lastly, to the astonishing work of the world’s redemption by the blood of the son of God himself, condescending to be a man, that he might die for us. All which were things hidden from the wise and prudent, in spite of all their wisdom and prudence; as being heights above the reach, and depths beyond the fathom of any mortal intellect.
We are commanded by Christ to search the scriptures, as the great repository of all the truths and mysteries of our religion; and whosoever shall apply himself to a through performance of this high command, shall find difficulty and abstruseness enough in the things searched into to perpetuate his search: for they are a rich mine, which the greatest wit and diligence may dig in for ever, and still find new matter to entertain the busiest contemplation with, even to the utmost period of the most extended life. For no man can outlive the reasons of inquiry, so long as he carries any thing of ignorance about him; and that every man must and shall do, while he is in this state of mortality: for he, who himself is but a part of nature, shall never compass or comprehend it all.
Truth, we are told, dwells low, and in a bottom; and the most valued things of the creation are concealed and hidden by the great Creator of them from the common view of the world. Gold and diamonds, with the most precious stones and metals, lie couched and covered in the bowels of the earth; the 399very condition of their being giving them their burial too. So that violence must be done to nature, before she will produce and bring them forth.
And then, as for what concerns the mind of man, God has, in his wise providence, cast things so as to make the business of men in this world improvement; that so the very work of their condition may still remind them of the imperfection of it. For surely, he who is still pressing forward, has not yet obtained the prize. Nor has he who is only growing in knowledge, yet arrived to the full stature of it. Growth is progress; and all progress designs and tends to the acquisition of something which the growing person is not yet possessed of.
Fourthly. The fourth and last reason which I shall allege of the mysterious dispensation of the gospel here is, that the full, entire knowledge of it may be one principal part of our felicity and blessedness hereafter. All those heights and depths which we now stand so much amazed at, and which so confound and baffle the subtlest and most piercing apprehension, shall then be made clear, open, and familiar to us. God shall then display the hidden glories of his nature, and withal fortify the eye of the soul so that it shall be able to behold and take them in, so far as the capacities of an human intellect shall enable it to do. We shall then see the mysteries of the Trinity, and of the incarnation of Christ, and of the resurrection of the dead unriddled and made plain to us; all the knots of God’s decrees and providence untied, and made fit for our understanding, as well as our admiration. We shall then be transported with a nobler kind of wonder, not the 400effect of ignorance, but the product of a clearer and more advanced knowledge. We shall admire and adore the works and attributes of the great God, because we shall see the glorious excellency of the one, and the admirable contrivances of the other, made evident to our very reason; so as to inform and satisfy that which before they could only astonish and amaze.
The happiness of heaven shall be an happiness of vision and of knowledge; and we shall there pass from the darkness of our native ignorance, from the dusk and twilight of our former notions, into the broad light of an everlasting day; a day which shall leave nothing undiscovered to us which can be fit for us to know: and therefore the apostle, comparing our present with our future condition in respect of those different measures of knowledge allotted to each of them, 1 Cor. xiii. 12, tells us, that here we see but darkly, and in a glass; and a glass, we know, often gives a false, but always a faint representation of the object: but then, says he, shall we see God face to face. And again, Here we know but in part, but there we shall know as we are known; and that which is perfect being come, then that which is in part shall be done away. Reason being then unclogged from the body, shall have its full flight, and a free, uncontrolled passage into all things intelligible. We shall then surmount these beggarly rudiments and mean helps of knowledge, which now by many little steps gradually raise us to some short speculation of the nature of things. Our knowledge shall be then intuitive, and above discourse; not proceeding by a long circuit of antecedents and consequents, 401as now in this vale of imperfection it is forced to do; but it shall then fully inform the whole mind, and take in the whole object, by one single and substantial act.
For as in that condition we shall enjoy the happiness, so we shall also imitate the perfection of an gels, who outshine the rest of the creation in nothing more than in a transcendent ability of knowing and judging, which is the very glory and crowning excellency of a created nature. Faith itself shall be then accounted too mean a thing to accompany us in that estate; for being only conversant about things not seen, it can have no admittance into that place, the peculiar privilege of which shall be to convey to us the knowledge of those things by sight, which before we took wholly upon trust. And thus I have given you some account, first of the mysteriousness of the gospel, and then of the reasons of it; and that both from the nature of the things themselves which are treated of in it, as also from those great ends and purposes which God in his infinite wisdom has designed it to.
From all which discourse several very weighty inferences might be drawn, but I shall collect and draw from thence only these three; as,
First, The high reasonableness of men’s relying upon the judgment of the whole church in general, and of their respective teachers and spiritual guides in particular, rather than upon their own private judgments, in such important and mysterious points of religion as we have been hitherto discoursing of; I say, upon the judgment of those who have made it their constant business, as well as their avowed profession, to acquaint themselves with these mysteries, 402(so far as human reason can attain to them,) and that in order to the instruction and information of others. Certain it is, that there is no other profession in the world, besides this of divinity, wherein men do not own something of a mystery, and accordingly reckon it both highly rational, and absolutely necessary in many cases, to resign and submit their own judgments to the judgments of such as profess a skill in any art or science whatsoever. For whose judgment ought in all reason to be followed about any thing, his, who has made it his whole work and calling to understand that thing; or his, who has bestowed his whole time, parts, and labour upon something else, which is wholly foreign to it, and has no cognation at all with it?
But there is not only reason to persuade, but also authority to oblige men in the present case. For see in what notable words the prophet asserts this privilege to the priesthood under the Mosaic economy, Mal. ii. 7. The priest’s lips, says he, should preserve knowledge, and the people should seek the law at his mouth; (adding this as a reason of the same,) for, says he, he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.
For which words, no doubt, this prophet would have passed for a man of heat, or high churchman, nowadays: for, in good earnest, they run very high, and look very severely upon our so much applauded, or rather doated upon liberty of conscience, and are so far from casting the least eye of favour upon it, that they are a more direct and mortal stab to it, than all the pleas, arguments, and apologies I could ever yet read or hear of, have been a defence of it.
Nor does the same privilege sink one jot lower under the Christian constitution; for as we have already 403shewn that the gospel is full of mysteries, so, 1 Cor. iv. 1, the ministers of the gospel are declared the stewards of these mysteries; and whatsoever any one dispenses as a steward, he dispenses with the authority and in the strength of an office and commission; and I believe it will be hard to prove, that a minister of the gospel can be obliged to dispense or declare any thing to the people, which the people are not upon his declaration of it equally bound to believe and assent to.
An implicit faith indeed in our spiritual guides (such as the church of Rome holds) I own to be a great absurdity; but a due deference and submission to the judgment of the said guides in the discharge of their ministry, I affirm to be as great a duty. And I state the measures of this submission, in a belief of, and an obedience to, all that a man’s spiritual guide shall in that capacity declare and enjoin, provided that a man does not certainly know, or at least upon very great and just grounds doubt, any thing to the contrary: (which two conditions, I allow, ought always to be supposed in this case:) and then, if no objection from either of these shall interpose, I affirm, that every man stands obliged, by the duty he owes to his spiritual pastor, to believe and obey whatsoever his said pastor shall by virtue of his pastoral office deliver to him. In a word, if men would but seriously and impartially consider these three things; first, that the gospel, or Christian religion, is, for the most part of it, made up of mysteries; secondly, that God has appointed a certain order of men to declare and dispense these mysteries; and thirdly and lastly, that it was his wisdom thus to order both these; certainly men would both treat the gospel itself more like 404a mystery, and the ministers of the gospel more like the dispensers of so high and sacred a mystery, than the guise and fashion of our present blessed times disposes them to do; that is, in other words, men would be less confident of their own understandings, and more apt to pay reverence and submission to the understandings of those, who are both more conversant in these matters than they can pretend to be, and whom the same wisdom of God has thought fit to appoint over them as their guides. For the contrary practice can proceed from nothing but an high self-opinion, and a man’s being wise in his own conceit, which is a sure way to be so in nobody’s else.
In fine, every one is apt to think himself able to be his own divine, his own priest, and his own teacher; and he should do well to be his own physician, and his own lawyer too: and then, as upon such a course he finds himself speed in the matters of this world, let him upon the same reckon of his success in the other.
Secondly. We learn also from the foregoing particulars, the gross unreasonableness and the manifest sophistry of men’s making whatsoever they find by themselves not intelligible, (that is to say, by human reason not comprehensible,) the measure whereby they would conclude the same also to be impossible. This, I say, is a mere fallacy, and a wretched inconsequence: and yet nothing occurs more commonly (and that as a principle taken for granted) in the late writings of some heterodox, pert, unwary men; and particularly it is the main hinge upon which all the Socinian arguments against the mysteries of our religion turn and depend; but withal so extremely remote is it from all truth, that there is not the least 405shew or shadow of reason assignable for it, but upon this one supposition, namely, that the reason or mind of man is capable of comprehending, or throughly understanding, whatsoever it is possible for an infinite divine power to do. This, I say, must be supposed; for no other foundation can support the truth of this proposition, to wit, That whatsoever is humanly not intelligible, is and ought to be reckoned upon the same account also impossible. But then every one must needs see and explode the horrible falseness of the forementioned supposition, upon which alone this assertion is built; and consequently this assertion itself must needs be altogether as false.
For who can comprehend, or throughly understand, how the soul is united to, and how it acts by and upon the body? Who can comprehend or give a full account how sensation is performed? or who can lay open to us the whole mechanism of motion in all the springs and wheels of it? Nay, who can resolve and clear off all the difficulties about the composition of a continued quantity, as whether it is compounded of parts divisible or indivisible? both of which are attended with insuperable objections. And yet all these things are not only possible, but also actually existent in nature. From all which therefore, and from a thousand more such instances, (which might easily be produced,) I conclude, that for any one to deny or reject the mysteries of our religion as impossible, because of the incomprehensibleness of them, is, upon all true principles, both of divinity and philosophy, utterly inconsequent and irrational.
Thirdly. In the third and last place, we learn also 406from what has been discoursed, the great vanity and extravagant presumption of such as pretend to clear up all mysteries, and determine all controversies in religion. The attempts of which sort of men I can liken to nothing so properly, as to those pretences to infallible cures, which we daily see posted up in every corner of the streets; and I think it is great pity, but that both these sort of pretences were posted up together. For I know no universal, infallible remedy, which certainly cures, or rather carries off all diseases, and puts an end to all disputes, but death: which yet, for all that, is a remedy not much in request. Quacks and mountebanks are doubtless a very dangerous sort of men in physic, but much more so in divinity: they are both of them always very large in pretence and promise, but short in performance, and generally fatal in their practice. For there are several depths and difficulties (as I noted before) both in philosophy and divinity, which men of parts and solid learning, after all their study, find they cannot come to the bottom of, but are forced to give them over as things unresolvable, and will by no means be brought to pronounce dogmatically on either side of the question.
Amongst which said difficulties perhaps there is hardly a greater, and more undecidable problem in natural theology, and which has not only exercised but even crucified the greatest wits of all ages, than the reconciling of the immutable certainty of God’s foreknowledge with the freedom and contingency of all human acts, both good and evil, so foreknown by him. Both parts of which problem are certainly true; but how to explain and make out the accord between them, without overthrowing one of them, 407has hitherto exceeded the force of man’s reason. And therefore Socinus very roundly, or rather indeed very profanely, denies any such prescience of future contingents to be in God at all. But as profane as he was in thus cutting asunder this knot, others have been as ridiculous in pretending to untie it. For do not some, in their discourses about the divine attributes and decrees, promise the world such a clear account, such an open explicit scheme of these great things, as should make them plain and evident even to the meanest capacities? And the truth is, if to any capacities at all, it must be to the meanest; for to those of an higher pitch, and a larger compass, these things neither are, nor will, nor ever can be made evident. And if such persons could but obtain of Heaven a continuance of life, till they made good what they so confidently undertake, they would be in a sure way to outlive, not only Methuselah, but even the world itself. But then, in come some other undertakers, and promise us the same or greater wonders in Christian theology, offering, by some new whimsical explications of their own, to make the deepest mysteries of our Christian faith as plain, easy, and intelligible, forsooth, as that two and two make four; that is, in other words, they will represent and render them such mysteries as shall have nothing at all mystical in them.
And now is not this, think we, a most profound invention, and much like the discovery of some New-found-land, some O Brazil in divinity? With so much absurd confidence do some discourse, or rather romance upon the most mysterious points of the Christian faith, that any man of sense and sobriety would be apt to think such persons not only beside 408their subject, but beside themselves too. And the like censure we may justly pass upon all other such idle pretenders; the true character of which sort of men is, that he who thinks and says he can understand all mysteries, and resolve all controversies, undeniably shews that he really understands none.
In the mean time, we may here observe the true way by which these great and adorable mysteries of our religion come first to be ridiculed and blasphemed, and at length totally laid aside by some; and that is, by their being first innovated upon, and new-modelled, by the bold, senseless, and absurd explications of others. For first of all such innovators break down those sacred mounds which antiquity had placed about these articles, and then heretics and blasphemers rush in upon them, trample them under foot, and quite throw them out of our creed. This course we have seen taken amongst us, and the church (God bless it, and those who are over it) has been hitherto profoundly silent at it; but how long God (whose honour is most concerned) will be so too, none can tell. For if some novelists may put what sense they please upon the writings of Moses, and others do the like with the articles of the Christian church also, (and the greatest encouragement attend both,) I cannot see (unless some extraordinary providence prevent it) but that both these religions are in a direct way to be run down amongst us, and that in a very short time too.
Let every sober, humble, and discreet Christian, therefore, be advised to dread all tampering with the mysteries of our faith, either by any new and unwarrantable explications of them, or descants upon them. The great apostle of the gentiles, who, I am 409sure, had as clear a knowledge of the whole mystery of the gospel as any in his time, and a greater plenty of revelations than any one could pretend to since him, treated these matters with much another kind of reverence, crying out with horror and amazement, O the depth and unsearchableness of the things of God! in Rom. xi. 33. And again, Who is sufficient for these things? in 2 Cor. ii. 16. This was his judgment, these were his thoughts of these dreadful and mysterious depths; and the same, no doubt, will be the thoughts and judgment of all others concerning them, who have any thing of depth themselves. For as the same apostle again has it in that most noted place in the 1 Tim. iii. 16. Without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, believed on in the world, and received up into glory.
To which God infinitely wise, holy, and great, be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.410
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