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OF THE WANT OF UNIVERSALITY IN REVELATION, AND OF THE SUPPOSED DEFICIENCY IN THE PROOF OF IT.
I. The next Objections to be considered are, 1. That Revelation is left upon doubtful evidence, and, therefore, it can not be true. 2. Revelation is not Universal, and, therefore, can not be true. These Objections are answered by full Analogies in the Constitution of Nature.
II. Admitting Revelation to be uncertain in its evidence, the three following practical reflections will tend to remove all causes of complaint: 1. The evidence of Religion not appearing obvious, may constitute one particular part of some men’s Trial, in the religious sense. 2. Doubting implies some degree of evidence, and puts men into a general state of Probation, in the moral and religious sense; and consequently, 3. These difficulties are no more to be complained of than external circumstances of temptation.
III. But this uncertainty may partly arise from our own neglect.
IV. An apparent Analogy against the fitness of doubtful evidence answered.
I. IT has been objected, 1st, that if the evidence of revelation appears doubtful, this itself turns into a positive argument against it; because it can not 173 be supposed that, if it were really true, it would be left to subsist upon doubtful evidence; 2d, that revelation can not be true from its want of Universality.
Now the weakness of these objections may be shown by observing the suppositions upon which they are founded, which are really such as these: 1. It can not be thought that God would bestow ally favor at all upon us unless in the degree we imagine might be most to our particular advantage; and, 2, that it can not be thought he would bestow a favor upon any, unless he bestowed the same upon all.
General Answer to the 1st Objection. Let the objectors to revelation, on account of its supposed doubtfulness, consider what that evidence is which they act upon with regard to their temporal interests. There are various circumstances which render it uncertain and doubtful; such as the difficulty and almost impossibility of balancing pleasure and pain, to see on which side the overplus lies—of making allowances for the difference of feeling which we may have, when we have obtained the object in view—and of the casualties which may prevent our obtaining it, e. g., sudden death—the danger of our being deceived by the appearances of things, especially if we are inclined to favor deceit. Yet all this is considered to be justly disregarded, upon account of there appearing 174 greater advantages in case of success, though there be but little probability of it; and even when the probability is greatly against success, if there be only a possibility that we may succeed.
General Answer to the 2d Objection. These objectors should observe that the Author of nature, in numberless instances, bestows upon some what he does not upon others who seem equally in need of it; for instance, health and strength, capacities of prudence and of knowledge, riches, and all external advantages; and, notwithstanding these varieties and uncertainties, God exercises a natural government over the world; and there is such a thing as a prudent and imprudent institution of life, with regard to our health and our affairs under this government.
Now, let us more particularly consider what is to be found in the evidence and reception of revelation analogous to the preceding, and we will see farther the futility of these objections. As neither the Jewish nor Christian revelation has been universal, and, as they have been afforded to a greater or less part of the world at different times, so likewise at different times, both revelations have had different degrees of evidence. The Jews who lived during the succession of prophets, that is, from Moses till after the captivity, had higher evidence of the truth of their religion than those had who lived in the interval between the captivity and the 175 coming of Christ. And the first Christians had higher evidence of the miracles wrought in attestation of Christianity than we have now. They had also a strong presumptive proof of the truth of it, of which we have little remaining—the presumptive proof from the influence which it had upon the lives of the generality of its professors. And we, or future ages, may possibly have a proof of it, which they could not have, from the conformity between the prophetic history, and the state of the world and of Christianity. And, farther, if we were to suppose the evidence which some have of religion to amount to little more than seeing that it may be true; others to have a full conviction of its truth; and others severally to have all the intermediate degrees of evidence between these two; if we put the case that revelation, for the present, was only intended to be a small light in the midst of a world greatly overspread with darkness, so that some at a remote distance might receive some glimmerings of it, and yet not be able to discern its origin; and others, in a nearer situation, should have its light obscured in different ways and degrees; and others within its clearer influence, enlivened and directed by it, and yet, even to these, that it should be no more than a light shining in a dark place; all this would be perfectly uniform with the conduct of Providence in the distribution of His other blessings. If the fact of the case really 176 were, that some have received no light at all from Scripture, as many heathen nations; that others have had, by this means, natural religion enforced upon them, but never had Scripture revelation, with its real evidence, proposed to them, like, perhaps, the ancient Persians and modern Mohammedans; that others have had revelation proposed to them, but with such interpolations in its system, and with its evidence so blended with false miracles, &c., as to produce doubt and uncertainty, which may be the case with some thoughtful men in most Christian nations; and, lastly, that others have Christianity proposed to them in its proper light, but yet not light sufficient to satisfy curiosity. Now, if this be a true account of the degrees of moral and religious light and evidence, there is nothing in it but may be paralleled by manifest analogies in the present natural dispensations of Providence.
But does not this unequal distribution appear harsh and unjust? By no means; for every one shall be equitably dealt with: no more shall be required of any one than what might have been equitably expected of him, from the circumstances in which he was placed: i. e., every man shall be accepted according to what he had, not according to what he had not. This, however, doth not imply that all persons’ condition here is equally advantageous with respect to futurity; and their being placed in darkness is no more a reason why persons 177 should not endeavor to get out of it, and why others should not endeavor to bring them out of it, than it is a reason why ignorant people should not endeavor to learn, or should not be instructed.
II. What, in general, may be the account or reason of these things? It is not unreasonable to suppose that the same wise and good principle, whatever it was, which disposed the Author of nature to make different kinds and orders of creatures, disposed Him also to place creatures of the like kinds in different situations: and that the same principle which disposed Him to make creatures of different moral capacities, disposed Him to place creatures of like moral capacities, in different religious situations, and even the same creatures, at different periods of their being. And the account, or reason of this, is also, most probably, the account why the constitution of things is such, that creatures of moral capacities, for a considerable part of their life, are not all subjects of morality and religion.
But can we not give a more particular account of these things. Here we must be greatly in the dark,6969To expect a distinct, comprehensive view of the whole subject, clear of difficulties and objections, is to forget our nature and condition, neither of which admit of such knowledge with respect to any science whatever: and to inquire with this expectation, is not to inquire as a man, but as one of another order of creatures.—Butler’s Sermon on the ignorance of Man. were it only that we know so very little, even 178 of our own case. We are in the midst of a system; our present state probably connected with the past, as it is with the future. A system in its very notion implies variety, so that were revelation universal, yet from men’s different capacities of understanding, from the different lengths of their lives, from their difference of education, temper, and bodily constitution, their religious situations would be widely different, and the disadvantages of some in comparison to others would be altogether as much as at present; and the true account of our being placed here must be supposed also to be the true account of our ignorance of the reasons of it. But the following practical reflections may deserve the consideration of those persons who think the circumstances of mankind, or their own, in the fore-mentioned respects, a subject of complaint. 1st. The evidence of religion not appearing obvious, may constitute one particular part of some men’s trial, in the religious sense, as it gives scope for a virtuous exercise, or vicious neglect of their understanding, in examining, or not examining, into that evidence. There seems no possible reason to be given why we may not be in a state of moral probation with regard to the exercise of our understanding upon the subject of religion, as we are with regard to our behavior in common affairs. For religion is not intuitively true, but a matter of deduction and inference; a conviction of its truth is not forced 179 upon every one, but left to be by some collected by heedful attention to premises. The careful and solicitous examination of the evidence of religion before conviction, is an exercise of the same inward principle that renders a person obedient to its precepts after conviction; and neglect is as much real depravity in the one case as in the other.
2d. Even if the evidence of religion were, in the highest degree, doubtful, it would put men into a general state of probation, in the moral and religious sense. For, suppose a man to be really in doubt whether such a person had not done him the greatest favor, or whether his whole temporal interest was not depending on that person, he could not consider himself (if he had any sense of gratitude or of prudence) in the same situation as if he had no such doubt; or as if he were certain he had received no favor from such a person, or that he no way depended upon him. So that, considering the infinite importance of religion, there is not so great a difference as is generally imagined between what ought in reason to be the rule of life to those who really doubt and those who are fully convinced of the truth of religion.7070For would it not be madness for a man to forsake a safe road, and prefer to it one in which he acknowledges there is an even chance he should lose his life, though there were an even chance, likewise, of his going safe through it? Yet there are people absurd enough to take the supposed doubtfulness of religion for the same thing as a proof of its falsehood, after they have concluded it doubtful, from hearing it often called in question. This shows how infinitely unreasonable skeptical men are with regard to religion, and that they really lay aside their reason, upon this subject, as much as the most extravagant enthusiast.—Butler’s Charge. Their hopes, and fears, and 180 obligations will be in various degrees; but as the subject-matter of their hopes and fears is the same, so the subject-matter of their obligations is not so very unlike. For doubting gives occasion and motives to consider farther the important subject; to preserve a sense that they may be under the Divine moral government, and an awful solicitude about religion, so as to bind them to refrain from all immorality and profaneness; and such conduct will tend to improve in them that character which the practice of religion would in those fully convinced of its truth. And they are farther accountable for their example, if with a character for understanding, or in a situation of influence in the world, they disregard all religion, though doubtful to them; and very accountable, as they may do more injury this way, or might do more good by the opposite, than by acting ill or well, in the common intercourse among mankind.
The ground of these observations is, that doubting necessarily implies some degree of evidence for that of which we doubt: for no person would be in doubt concerning the truth of a number of facts, accidentally entering his mind, and of which he had 181 no evidence at all. In the case of an even chance, we should commonly say we had no evidence at all for either side; yet this case is equivalent to all others, where there is such evidence on both sides of a question as leaves the mind in doubt concerning the truth: and in all these cases, although there is no more evidence on the one side than on the other, there is much more for either than for the truth of a number of random thoughts. And thus, it will appear that there are as many degrees between no evidence at all, and that degree of it which affords ground for doubt, as there are between that degree. which is the ground of doubt, and demonstration. And it is as real an imperfection in the moral character, not to be influenced by a lower degree of evidence, when discerned, as it is in the understanding not to discern it. The lower degrees of evidence will be discerned or overlooked, according to the fairness and honesty of men, as in speculative matters, according to their capacity of understanding.
3dly. The speculative difficulties in which the evidence of religion is involved, are no more a just ground of complaint than external circumstances of temptation, or than difficulties in the practice of it, after a full conviction of its truth. (And there is no ground for objection here, for temptations render our state a more improving state of discipline, by giving occasion to a more attentive and continued exercise 182of the virtuous principle.) Now, it will appear, that the same account may be given of the doubtful evidence of religion, as of temptation and difficulties, with regard to practice; for they belong to a state of probation. (1st.) As implying trial and difficulties. The doubtfulness of its evidence affords opportunities to an unfair mind of explaining away and deceitfully hiding from itself that evidence which it might see, and of being flattered with the hopes of escaping the consequences of vice; though it is clearly seen that these hopes are, at least, uncertain, in the same way as the common temptation to many instances of folly, which end in temporal infamy and ruin, is the ground for hope of not being detected, and of escaping with impunity, i. e., the doubtfulness of the proof beforehand that such foolish behavior will thus end in infamy and ruin. The examination of this evidence requires an attentive, solicitous, and, perhaps, painful exercise of the understanding. And there are circumstances in men’s situations, in their temporal capacities, analogous to those concerning religion. In some situations the chief difficulty, with regard to conduct, is not the doing what is prudent when it is known, but the principal exercise is recollection, and being guarded against deceit. In other situations, the principal exercise is attention, in order to discover what is the prudent part to act.
(2d.) This, and, indeed, temptation in general, as 183 it calls forth some virtuous efforts additional to what would otherwise have been wanting, can not but be an additional discipline and improvement of virtue, nay, may form the principal part of some persons’ trial; for as the chief temptations of the generality of the world are the ordinary motives to injustice or pleasure, or to live in the neglect of religion, from a frame of mind almost insensible to any thing distant, so there are others, without this shallowness of temper, of a deeper sense as to what is invisible and future, who, from their natural constitution and external condition, may have small temptations and difficulties in the common course of life. Now, when these latter persons have a full conviction of the truth of religion, its practice is to them almost unavoidable; yet these persons may need discipline and exercise in a higher degree than they would have by such an easy practice of religion.
(3d.) This may be necessary for their probation in the third sense of the word,7171Vide Chap. IV., Part I. for a farther manifestation of their moral character to the creation of God, than such a practice of it would be.
III. But all the preceding reflections suppose that men’s dissatisfaction with the evidence of religion, does not arise from their neglect or prejudices; but may it not be owing to their own fault? Levity, carelessness, passion, and prejudice do hinder 184 us from being rightly informed with respect to common things, and they may in like manner (and perhaps in some farther providential manner) hinder us with respect to moral and religious subjects. But does not the Scripture declare that every one shall not understand?7272Daniel, xii., 10. See also Is., xxix., 13, 14; Mat., vi., 23, and xi., 25, and xiii., 11, 12; John, iii., 19, and v., 44; 1 Cor., ii., 14; 2 Cor., iv., 4; 2 Tim., iii., 13; and that affectionate, as well as authoritative admonition, so very many times inculcated, He that hath ears to hear let him hear. Grotius saw no plainly the thing intended in these and other passages of Scripture of the like sense, as to say that the proof given of Christianity was less than it might have been for this very purpose. “Ut ita sermo Evangelii tanquam lapis esset Lydius ad quem ingenia sanabilia explorarentur.”—Butler. Certainly. Bult it does not determine how this shall be effected; and it makes no difference whether it be effected by the evidence of Christianity being originally and with design so ordered, as that those who are desirous of evading moral obligations should not see it, and that honest-minded persons should;7373The internal evidence of religion seems chiefly to have been intended as a means of moral probation. Vide John, vii., 17. or whether it come to pass by any other means. Farther, the general proof of natural religion lies level to the meanest capacity; for all men, however employed in the world, are capable of being convinced that there is a God who governs the world; and they feel themselves to be of a moral nature and accountable creatures. And as Christianity entirely falls in 185 with this natural sense of things, so they may be persuaded and made to see that there is evidence of miracles wrought in attestation of it, and many appearing completions of prophecy. But though this general proof be liable to objections, and run up into difficulties which can not be answered so as to satisfy curiosity, yet we can see that the proof is not lost in these difficulties, or destroyed by these objections. It is true, this requires knowledge, time, and attention, and therefore can not be the business of every man; but it ought to be considered by such as have picked up objections from others, and take for granted upon their authority that they arc of weight against revelation, or by often retailing them, fancy they see that they are of weight. In this, as in all other matters, doubtfulness, ignorance, or error must attend the neglect of the necessary means of information.
IV. Analogy objected against the fitness of the evidence of Revelation. “If a prince or common master were to send directions to a servant, he would take care that they should always bear the certain marks of him from whom they came, and that their sense should always be plain; so that there should be no possible doubt, concerning their authority or meaning.”
ANSWER. The proper answer to all this kind of objections is, that wherever the fallacy lies, it is even certain we can not argue thus with respect to 186 Him who is the Governor of the World, and particularly that he does not afford us such information, with respect to our temporal affairs and interests. However, there is a full answer to this objection, from the very nature of religion—for they are not parallel cases. The prince regards only the external event—the thing’s being done; religion regards the inward motive—and exercise by action. Of the prince regarded the same, if he wished to prove the understanding or loyalty of a servant, he would not always give his orders in such a plain manner. It may be added, the Divine Will respecting morality and religion may be considered either absolute or conditional; it can not be absolute in any other way than that we should act virtuously in such given circumstances, and not by His changing of our circumstances; so that it is still in our power to do or contradict His will. But the whole constitution of nature affords certain instances of its being conditional, that if we act so or so, we shall be rewarded; if otherwise, punished.
Several of these observations may well seem strange, perhaps unintelligible, to many good men; but if the persons for whose sake they are made, think so—persons who object as above, and throw off all regard to religion under pretence of want of evidence, they are desired to consider whether their thinking so be owing to any thing unintelligible 187 in these observations, or to their not having such a sense of religion, as even their state of skepticism does in all reason require? It ought to be forced upon the reflection of these persons, that our nature and condition require us, in the daily course of life, to act upon evidence much lower than probable, and to engage in pursuits when the probability is greatly against success, if it be credible that possibly we may succeed in them.188
1. Upon what supposition is the weak objection founded that “because revelation is left upon doubtful evidence it can not be true?” Give a general answer to it.
2. Explain in like manner the foundation of the 2d objection that “Revelation can not be true from its want of universality;” and answer it generally.
3. Give a particular application of the subject to the evidence of revealed religion in different ages, and the degrees of religious light enjoyed by various parts of mankind.
4. What considerations may tend to reconcile us to the apparently unequal dispensations of the Creator in regard to religion?
5. Admitting revelation to be uncertain in its evidence, there are three practical reflections which will tend to remove all causes of complaint. Name them.
6. How does Butler prove that there is not a great difference between what might in reason be the rule of life to those who really doubt, and those who are fully convinced of the truth of religion?
7. How does Butler prove that doubting necessarily implies some degree of evidence for that for which we doubt?
8. Show that the same account may be given of doubts in the evidence of religion as of temptation and difficulties in practice.
9. Give a summary of the argument in which it is explained, that uncertainty in religious truths may partly arise from our own neglect.
10. Answer the apparent analogy, by which an objection is raised against the fitness of revelation being left upon doubtful evidence.189
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