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OF THE IMPORTANCE OF CHRISTIANITY.
I. The importance of Christianity is here considered, as it can not but be a proper introduction to a Treatise concerning the credibility of it; especially as there are some who reject revelation as in its very notion incredible; and others who think it of indifferent value, as they both consider the light of nature to be sufficient.
II. The importance of Christianity is more distinctly shown by considering it, 1st, As a republication of Natural Religion, being authoritative, with new light, and other circumstances of peculiar advantage. 2d, As containing an account of things not discoverable by reason, in consequence of which several distinct precepts are enjoined us.
III. Two deductions are added by way of illustration, stating the distinction between moral and positive precepts, and the preference due to the former.114
I. SOME persons avowedly reject all revelation, as in its very notion incredible, and necessarily fictitious, as the light of nature is considered to be fully sufficient.3636That the principles of natural religion have come to be so far understood and admitted as they are, may fairly be taken for one of the effects of the Gospel revelation; a proof of its actual influence on opinions at least, instead of a disproof of its necessity or use.—Davison on Prophecy. Indeed, if it were so, no revelation would have been given. But that it is not, appears from the state of religion in the Heathen world before revelation, and its present state in those countries which have borrowed no light from it—from the doubts of the greatest men concerning vital points, and the inattention and ignorance of mankind in general. It is not likely that any could reason out natural religion clear of superstition. Certainly the generality would want the power, or the inclination. But admitting that they did not, and so might reason it out, revelation might be required, and might afford the greatest assistance and advantage.3737Socrates, Plato, Confucius, and others, the bright and shining lights of antiquity, have given their authority to the opinion of the probability of a revelation from God.—Vide Leland on the Advantages and Necessity of the Christian Revelation. Therefore to affirm that revelation is superfluous, is not less extravagant than saying that, men being so completely happy in the present life, it implies a contradiction to suppose they could be more so.115
But, 2dly, there are other persons not to be ranked with these, who, with little regard to the evidence of revelation, or even upon the supposition of its truth, affirm that its only design must be to establish the moral system of nature, and to enforce the practice of natural piety and virtue; but that it is immaterial whether these things are believed and practiced upon the evidence and motives of nature or of revelation. Now, this opinion borders very nearly upon the former, and therefore the particular consideration of it will be a confirmation of the answer above given. At first sight it is evident, if God has given a revelation, we can not consider it an indifferent matter whether we obey or disobey the commands contained in it, unless we are certain that we know all the reasons for them, and that they are now ceased; and this is a thing impossible.
II. But the importance of Christianity will more distinctly appear, by considering it, 1st, as a republication and external institution of natural or essential religion; and, 2dly, as containing an account of a dispensation of things not discoverable by reason, in consequence of which several distinct precepts are enjoined us.
1st. It is a republication of natural religion.3838It has been admitted by Infidels, that Christianity is a republication of the law of nature; but they deny that there are any additional advantages arising out of this republication. So that if they do not themselves draw the conclusion, they leave it to be inferred, that Christianity is useless. This latter is the method and design of the author of “Christianity as Old as the Creation.” 116 It instructs mankind in the moral system of the world—that it is the work of an infinitely perfect Being, and under his government—that virtue is His law, and that there will be a future righteous judgment. This republication presents natural religion free from the superstition under which it was in a manner lost. It is authoritative, and so affords the evidence of testimony for the truth of it. For though the miracles and prophecies recorded in Scripture were intended to prove a particular dispensation of Providence, yet they prove God’s general providence as our moral Governor and Judge;3939Miracles not only contain a new demonstration of God’s existence, but strengthen the proofs it draws from the frame of the world, and clear them from the two principal objections of Atheism, viz., either that the world is eternal, or that it owed its existence to the fortuitous concourse of atoms.—Vide Farmer on Miracles. for these two are necessarily connected, and they are both alike taught by those that wrought the miracles and delivered the prophecies. While the law of Moses, then, and the Gospel of Christ, afford the only evidence of revealed religion, they afford an additional evidence, and a new practical proof of natural religion; for would not the working of miracles, and foretelling of future events, add credibility and authority to a person, 117 e. g., teaching natural religion to a nation wholly ignorant of it? or would it not be a great confirmation to a person who had never heard of a revelation, believing from principles of reason in the moral system of things, but yet wavering from perceiving in the world little or no practical sense of these things, to hear that this system was distinctly revealed, and that the revelation was proved by miracles?. Farther, this is a clear republication of the doctrine of a future state—of the danger of a course of wickedness, and especially of the efficacy of repentance. Life and immortality are eminently brought to light by the Gospel. Moreover, revelation considered only as subservient to natural religion, is important as an external institution of it. As miraculous powers were given to the first preachers of Christianity, in order to their introducing it into the world, a visible church was established, in order to continue it, and carry it on successively throughout all ages. This visible church is like a city built upon a hill, a standing memorial to the world of the duty which we owe our Maker—a repository of the oracles of God. It prevents us forgetting the reality of religion, by the form of it being ever before our eyes; and it has a further tendency to promote natural religion, as being an instituted method of education, that the body of Christ, as the Scripture speaks, should be edified. The benefit of a visible church being thus apparent, 118 it follows that positive institutions are beneficial, for the visibility of the church consists in them. The importance of Christianity in this view, then, is far from being inconsiderable. It lays every Christian practically under an obligation to contribute toward continuing and carrying it on.4040From these things appears the weakness of all pleas for neglecting the public service of the church. For though a man prays with as much devotion and less interruption at home, and reads better sermons there, yet that will by no means excuse the neglect of his appointed part of keeping up the profession of Christianity among mankind. This neglect, were it universal, must be the dissolution of the whole visible church.—Bishop Butler’s Sermon before the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. If any one will yet doubt whether there arises from Christianity any benefit to natural religion, let him consider whether the generality of mankind in the Heathen world were in as advantageous a situation with regard to natural religion, as they are now among us?
OBJECTED. Christianity has been perverted, and has had little good influence.
ANSWER. Even admitting this assertion (though the effects of Christianity have been by no means small, nor its supposed ill effects, properly speaking, any effects of it at all),4141Vide Paley’s Evidences, Part III., Chap. 7. the dispensations of Providence are not to be judged of by their perversions, but by their genuine tendencies—by what they would effect if mankind performed their duty; for 119 such an objection applies with the same force against the manifestation of the law of nature by reason, as we see that has been perverted, and thus it leads to downright Atheism.
2d. But revelation makes known to us, in addition to the general providence of God in natural religion, a particular dispensation of providence carrying on by His Son and Spirit. From this being revealed, important duties arise on our part to the Son and Holy Ghost. We are to be baptized in their name, as well as in the name of the Father. Now, the importance of these duties may be judged of by considering that they arise not merely from positive command, but also from the offices, which appear from Scripture to belong to these Divine Persons in the Gospel dispensation, or from the relations which they are declared to stand in to us. Now, considering religion as divided into internal and external, under the first notion, the essence of natural religion may be said to consist in religious regards to God the Father Almighty, and the essence of revealed religion, as distinguished from natural, to consist in religious regards to the Son and to the Holy Ghost. And the obligations we are under, of paying these religious regards to each of these Divine Persons respectively, arise from the respective relations which they each stand in to us. How these relations are made known, whether by reason, as those belonging to the first Person are, or 120 by revelation, as those belonging to the other two Persons, makes no alteration in the case, because the duties arise out of the relations themselves, not out of the manner in which we are informed of them. The Son and Spirit have each his proper office in that great dispensation of Providence—the redemption of the world—the one our Mediator, the other our Sanctifier. Before revelation, we could be under no obligations from these offices and relations, yet upon their being revealed, the duty of religious regards to both these Divine Persons, as immediately arises from them, as charity toward our fellow-creatures arises out of the common relations between us and them. But it will be asked, What are these inward religious regards? I answer, the religious regards of reverence, honor, love, trust, gratitude, fear, hope. In what external manner this inward worship is to be expressed is a matter of pure revealed command; as perhaps the external manner in which God the Father is to be worshipped, may be more so than we are ready to suppose.
The conclusion from all this is, that Christianity can never be esteemed of little consequence, till it be positively supposed false. If Christ be what Scripture declares him to be, no one can say what may follow not only the obstinate, but the careless disregard of the high relations He stands in to us as our Lord, our Saviour, and our God. If we require 121 the assistance of the Holy Ghost to renew our nature for another state (as Scripture declares—“Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he can not enter into the kingdom of God.”—John, iii., 5), is it a slight matter whether we make use of the means, expressly commanded by God for obtaining this Divine assistance, when analogy shows us that without using the appointed means we can not expect any benefit l Reason shows us nothing of the particular immediate means of obtaining either temporal or spiritual benefits. This, therefore, we must learn, either from experience or revelation. And the present case does not admit of experience.
III. The two following deductions may be proper to be added, in order to illustrate the foregoing observations, and to prevent their being mistaken.
First. Hence we may clearly see where lies the distinction between what is positive, and what is moral, in religion.
Moral Precepts, are precepts the
reasons of which we see. Positive Precepts, are precepts the reasons
of which we do not see.4242 This is the distinction between moral and
positive precepts, considered respectively as such. But yet, since
the latter have somewhat of a moral nature, we may see the reason of
them considered is this view. Moral and positive precepts are in
some respects alike, in other respects different. So far as they are
alike, we discern the reasons of both: so far as they are
different, we discern the reasons of the former, but not of the
But we are not to suppose that because we can not see the reasons for them, that God has not the wisest and best reasons for imposing them. This would not be worth remarking, if Deistical writers, who deny the possibility of such precepts, did not confound positive with arbitrary precepts.
Moral Duties, arise out of the nature of the case itself, prior to external command.
Positive Duties, do not arise out of the nature of the case itself, but from external command: nor would they be duties at all but for such command.
The manner in which the relation is made known, does not constitute a duty positive, as has been already shown in the instance of Baptism; nor does it constitute a duty moral, as has been also shown in the instance of religious regards to Christ. Hence, also, we may see that positive institutions are founded either on natural religion, as Baptism in the name of the Father (though this has also a reference to the Gospel dispensation, for it is in the name of God, as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ)—or on revealed religion, as Baptism in the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.
Secondly. From the distinction between what is moral and what is positive in religion, appears the ground of that peculiar preference which the Scripture teaches us to be due to the former. Positive institutions, in general, as distinguished from this or that particular one, have the nature of moral commands, 123 since the reasons of them appear. Thus, for instance, the external worship of God is a moral duty, though no particular mode of it be so. Care, then, is to be taken, when a comparison is made between positive and moral duties, that they be compared no farther than as they are different. This being premised, should there be a moral and positive precept enjoined by the same authority, and should it be impossible, in certain conjectures, to obey both—which is to be preferred? Undoubtedly the moral. For, 1st, there is an apparent reason for the preference, and none against it, since we see the reason of the moral, but not of the positive precept. 2d. The positive institutions enjoined by Christianity are means to a moral end: and the end must be acknowledged more excellent than the means. 3d. The observance of positive institutions is no religious obedience at all, otherwise than as it proceeds from a moral principle. This is the logical way of deciding the matter; but, in a practical and more lax way of considering it, moral law and positive institutions are both alike matter of revealed command: but the Author of nature has given an intimation which is to be preferred, by writing the moral law upon our hearts, and interweaving it with our nature. But we are not left to reason alone; for, first, Scripture, by its general tenor and particular declarations, condemns the idea to which men have been always 124 prone—that peculiar positive rites constitute religion, in place of obedience to moral precepts. Secondly, in comparing positive and moral duties together, it always puts the stress of religion upon the latter, and never upon the former; as our Lord himself, when the Pharisees censured him for eating with publicans and sinners, and also when they censured his disciples for plucking the ears of corn on the Sabbath day, answered, “I will have mercy and not sacrifice” (Mat., ix., 13, and xii., 7); and, by this manner of expression, authoritatively determined, in general, which should have the preference: for it is as applicable to any other instance of a comparison between positive and moral duties as to this upon which it was spoken. And that He intended to explain wherein the general spirit of religion consists, appears from the Pharisee, on both occasions, not understanding the meaning of it; for the literal sense of the passage (Hos., vi.) has no difficulty in it. But as it is one of the peculiar weaknesses of human nature, when, upon comparison of two things, one is found to be of greater importance than the other, to consider the other as of scarcely any importance at all,4343“A neglect of the ordinances of religion of Divine appointment is the sure system of a criminal indifference about those higher duties by which men pretend to atone for the omission. It is too often found to be the beginning of a licentious life, and for the most part, ends in the highest excess of profligacy and irreligion.”—Bishop Horsely’s Sermons on the Sabbath. we 125 ought to remember how great presumption it is to make light of any institutions of Divine appointment, and that our obligation to obey all God’s commands, of whatever kind they may be, are absolute and indispensable.
NOTE.—The account now given of Christianity enforces upon us the obligation of searching the Scriptures; and if there be found any passages therein, the apparent meaning of which is contrary to natural religion, such, we may conclude, is not the real meaning. But it is not at all a presumption against an interpretation of Scripture, that it contains a doctrine which the light of nature can not discover, or a precept which the law of nature does not oblige to.126
1. Give summarily the scheme of the second part of this book; in which the support given to revealed religion by analogy is described.
2. Show the extravagance of the assertion that Revelation is in its very notion not incredible, as being superfluous.
3. Refute the argument that “the only design of Revelation must be to enforce the practice of natural piety; and it is immaterial whether we believe and practice upon the evidence of nature, or of revealed religion.”
4. What are the two views which must be taken of Christianity, in order that we may understand its importance?
5. In what manner does the revelation of Christianity confirm and support natural religion?
6. How is it proved that this Revelation, considered only as subservient to natural religion, is important, as an external institution of it?
7. Answer the objection “that Christianity has been proved, and has had little good influence.”
8. What important duties arise on our part to God the Son, and the Holy Spirit, from Christianity revealing to us the particular dispensation of Providence, carrying on through them?
9. What are the two instances by which Butler illustrates his conclusion, “that Christianity can never be esteemed of little consequence till it be positively supposed false?”
10. Show clearly where is the distinction between what is moral and what is positive in religion.
11. Prove that the peculiar preference, which the Scripture teaches us is due to the former, is reasonable.127
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