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How much protestants allow to oral tradition.
§. 1. HAVING thus laid down the protestant rule of faith, with the grounds of it, all that now remains for me to do towards 250the clear and full stating of the controversy between us, is to take notice briefly, and with due limitations,
First, How much the protestants do allow to oral tradition.
Secondly, What those things are which Mr. S. thinks fit to attribute to his rule of faith, which we see no cause to attribute to ours: and when this is done, any one may easily discern how far we differ.
§. 2. First, How much protestants do allow to oral tradition.
1. We grant that oral tradition, in some circumstances, may be a sufficient way of conveying a doctrine; but withal we deny, that such circumstances are now in being. In the first ages of the world, when the credenda, or articles of religion, and the agenda, or precepts of it, were but few, and such as had the evidence of natural light; when the world was contracted into a few families in comparison, and the age of men ordinarily extended to six or seven hundred years; it is easy to imagine how such a doctrine, in such circumstances, might have been propagated by oral tradition, without any great change or alterations. Adam lived till Methuselah was above two hundred years old, Methuselah lived till Shem was near a hundred, and Shem outlived Abraham: so that this tradition need not pass through more than two hands betwixt Adam and Abraham. But though this way was sufficient to have preserved religion in the world, if men had not been wanting to themselves; yet we find it did not prove effectual: for, through the corruption and negligence of men after the flood (if not before), when the world began to multiply, and the age of 251mail was shortened, the knowledge and worship of the one true God was generally lost in the world. And so far as appears by Scripture history (the only record we have of those times) when God called out Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees, the whole world was lapsed into polytheism and idolatry. Therefore, for the greater security of religion afterwards, when the posterity of Abraham was multiplied into a great nation, the wisdom of God did not think fit to entrust the doctrine of religion any longer to the fallible and uncertain way of tradition, but committed it to writing. Now that God pitched upon this way, after the world had sadly experienced the unsuccessfulness of the other, seems to be a very good evidence that this was the better and more secure way; it being the usual method of the Divine dispensations not to go backward, but to move towards perfection, and to proceed from that which is less perfect to that which is more. And the apostle’s3838Heb. viii. 7. reasoning concerning the two covenants, is very applicable to these two methods of conveying the doctrine of religion; “if the first had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for a second.”
§. 3. So, likewise, when Christ revealed his doctrine to the world, it was not in his life-time committed to writing, because it was entertained but by a few, who were his disciples and followers, and who, so long as he continued with them, had a living oracle to teach them. After his death, the apostles, who were to publish this doctrine to the world, were assisted by an infallible Spirit, so as they were secured from error and mistake in the delivery of it. But when this extraordinary assistance failed, there was need of some other means to convey 252it to posterity, that so it might be a fixed and standing rule of faith and manners to the end of the world. To this end the providence of God took care to have it committed to writing. And that Mr. S. may see this is not a conjecture of protestants, but the sense of former times, I shall refer him to St. Chrysostom (Homil. 1. in Matt.) who tells us, “That Christ left nothing in writing to his apostles, but instead thereof did promise to bestow upon them the grace of his Holy Spirit, saying, (John xiv.) ‘He shall bring all things to your remembrance,’ &c. But because in progress of time there were many grievous miscarriages, both in matters of opinion, and also of life and manners; therefore it was requisite, that the memory of this doctrine should be preserved by writing.” So long then as the apostles lived, who were thus infallibly assisted, the way of oral tradition was secure, but no longer; nor even then, from the nature of the thing, but from that extraordinary and supernatural assistance which accompanied the deliverers.
§. 4. And therefore it is no good way of argument against the way of tradition by writing, which he lays so much weight upon,3939P. 40. “That the apostles and their successors went not with books in their hands to preach and deliver Christ’s doctrine, but words in their mouths; and that primitive antiquity learned their faith by an other method, a long time before many of those books were universally spread among the vulgar.” For what if there was no need of writing this doctrine, whilst those living oracles the apostles were present with the church; doth it therefore follow that there was no need of it afterwards when the apostles were dead, and that extraordinary and supernatural 253assistance was ceased?” If the preachers now-a-days could give us any such assurance, and confirm all they preach by such frequent, and public, and unquestionable miracles, as the apostles did; then we need not examine the doctrines they taught by any other rule, but ought to regulate our belief by what they delivered to us: but seeing this is not the case, that ought in all reason to be the rule of our faith, which hath brought down to us the doctrine of Christ with the greatest certainty; and this I shall prove the Scriptures to have done.
§. 5. So that in those circumstances I have mentioned, we allow oral tradition to have been a sufficient way of conveying a doctrine; but now considering the great increase of mankind, and the shortness of man’s life in these latter ages of the world, and the long tract of time from the apostle’s age down to us, and the innumerable accidents whereby in the space of one thousand five hundred years, oral tradition might receive insensible alterations, so as at last to become quite another thing from what it was at first, by passing through many hands; in which passage all the mistakes and corruptions which (in the several ages through which it was transmitted) did happen, either through ignorance, or forgetfulness, or out of interest and de sign, are necessarily derived into the last; so that the farther it goes, the more alteration it is liable to; because as it passeth along, more errors and corruptions are infused into it: I say, considering all this, we deny, that the doctrine of Christian religion could, with any probable security and certainty, have been conveyed down to us by the way of oral tradition; and therefore do reasonably believe, that God, foreseeing this, did in his wisdom so 254order things, that those persons who were assisted by an infallible Spirit in the delivery of this doctrine should, before they left the world, commit it to writing; which was accordingly done: and by this instrument the doctrine of faith hath been conveyed down to us.
§. 6, Secondly, We allow, that tradition, oral and written, do give us sufficient assurance that the books of Scripture which we now have, are the very books which were written by the apostles and evangelists: nay, farther, that oral tradition alone is a competent evidence in this case; but withal we deny, that oral tradition is therefore to be accounted the rule of faith.
The general assurance that we have concerning books written long ago, that they are so ancient, and were written by those whose names they bear, is a constant and uncontrolled tradition of this, transmitted from one age to another, partly orally, and partly by the testimony of other books. Thus much is common to Scripture with other books. But then the Scriptures have this peculiar advantage above other books—that, being of a greater and more universal concernment, they have been more common and in every body’s hands, more read and studied than any other books in the world whatsoever; and, consequently, they have a more universal and better-grounded attestation. Moreover, they have not only been owned universally in all ages by Christians (except three or four books of them, which for some time were questioned by some churches, but have since been generally received), but the greatest enemies of our religion, the Jews and heathens, never questioned the antiquity of them, but have always taken it for granted, that 255they were the very books which the apostles wrote. And this is as great an assurance as we can have concerning any ancient book, without a particular and immediate revelation.
§. 7. And this concession doth not, as Mr. S. supposeth, make oral tradition to be finally the rule of faith; for the meaning of this question (What is the rule of faith?”) is, What is the next and immediate means whereby the knowledge of Christ’s doctrine is conveyed to us?” So that although oral tradition be the means whereby we come to know that these are the books of Scripture, yet these books are the next and immediate means whereby we come to know what is Christ’s doctrine, and consequently what we are to believe.
§. 8. Nor doth this concession make oral tradition to be the rule of faith by a parity of reason; as if, because we acknowledge that oral tradition alone can with competent certainty transmit a book to after ages, we must therefore grant that it can with as much certainty convey a doctrine consisting of several articles of faith (nay, very many, as Mr. White acknowledges4040Rushw. Dial. 4. acct. 9.) and many laws and precepts of life: so because oral tradition sufficiently assures us that this is magna charta, and that the statute-book, in which are contained “those laws which it concerns every man to be skilful in;” therefore, by like parity of reason, it must follow, that tradition itself is better than a book, even “the best way imaginable to convey down such laws to us.” Mr. S. saith4141P. 93. expressly it is; but how truly, I appeal to experience, and the wisdom of all lawgivers, who seem to think otherwise. Tradition is already de fined to us, u a delivery down from hand to hand 256of the sense and faith of forefathers,” i. e. of the gospel or message of Christ. Now suppose any oral message, consisting of a hundred particularities, were to be delivered to a hundred several persons of different degrees of understanding and memory, by them to be conveyed to a hundred more, who were to convey it to others, and so onwards to a hundred descents; is it probable this message, with all the particularities of it, would be as truly conveyed through so many mouths, as if it were written down in so many letters, concerning which every bearer should need to say no more than this, that it was delivered to him as a letter written by him whose name was subscribed to it?” I think it not probable, though the men’s lives were concerned every one for the faithful delivery of his errand or letter: for the letter is a message which no man can mistake in, unless he will; but the errand, so difficult, and perplexed with its multitude of particulars, that it is an equal wager against every one of the messengers, that he either forgets, or mistakes something in it; it is ten thousand to one, that the first hundred do not all agree in it; it is a million to one, that the next succession do not all deliver it truly; for if any one of the first hundred mistook or forgot any thing, it is then impossible that he that received it from him should deliver it right; and so the farther it goes the greater changes it is liable to. Yet, after all this, I do not say but it may be demonstrated, in Mr. S.’s way, to have more of certainty in it than the original letter.
§. 9. Thirdly, We allow, that the doctrine of Christian religion hath in all ages been preached to the people by the pastors of the church, and taught by Christian parents to their children; but 257with great difference, by some more plainly, and truly, and perfectly; by others with less care and exactness, according to the different degrees of ability and integrity in pastors or parents; and likewise with very different success, according to the different capacities and dispositions of the learners. We allow, likewise, that there hath been a constant course of visible actions, conformable, in some mea sure, to the principles of Christianity; but then we say, that those outward acts and circumstances of religion may have undergone great variations, and received great change, by the addition to them, and defalcation from them, in several ages. That this not only is possible, but hath actually happened, I shall shew when I come to answer his demonstration. Now, that several of the main doctrines of faith contained in the Scripture, and actions therein commanded, have been taught and practised by Christians in all ages (as the articles summed up in the apostles creed, the use of the two sacraments) is a good evidence so far, that the Scriptures contain the doctrine of Christian religion. But then, if we consider how we come to know that such points of faith have been taught, and such external actions practised, in all ages, it is not enough to say, there is a present multitude of Christians that profess to have received such doctrines as ever believed and practised, and from hence to infer that they were so; the inconsequence of which argument I shall have a better occasion to shew afterwards: but he that will prove this to any man’s satisfaction, must make it evident from the best monuments and records of several ages, that is, from the most authentic books of those times, that such doctrines have in all those ages been constantly and universally taught 258and practised. But then, if, from those records of former times, it appear that other doctrines, not contained in the Scriptures, were not taught and practised universally in all ages, but have crept in by degrees, some in one age, and some in another, according as ignorance and superstition in the people, ambition and interest in the chief pastors of the church, have ministered occasion and opportunity; and that the innovators of these doctrines and practices, have all along pretended to confirm them out of Scripture as the acknowledged rule of faith; and have likewise acknowledged the books of Scripture to have descended without any material corruption or alteration (all which will sufficiently appear in the process of my discourse); then cannot the oral and practical tradition of the present church, concerning any doctrine, as ever believed and practised, which hath no real foundation in Scripture, be any argument against these books, as if they did not fully and clearly contain the Christian doctrine. And to say the Scripture is to be interpreted by oral and practical tradition, is no more reasonable than it would be to interpret the ancient books of the law by the present practice of it; which every one, that compares things fairly together, must acknowledge to be full of deviations from the ancient law.
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