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sometimes been hinted, that the scriptures must be very obscure, since SO many contradictory opinions are derived from the same source: but this controversy may shew us, that no words are so precise, as that an ingenious disputant may not attach to them a meaning different, nay, even opposite, to what they were originally intended to conyey. Their expressions might not be so accurate, nor the line of distinction so minutely defined, as after the subtile disquisitions on the Arminian point; but the sentiments of the leading reformers, on the important doctrines of the gospel, were nearly the same. At a subsequent period, not only their pious bishops, but even the House of Commons, rejected the Arminian interpretation, classing it with that of the Jesuits.
Another, and perhaps more important controversy among Protestants, was concerning the form of church government. This broke out before the close of Elizabeth's reign; and was first agitated between the Episcopalians and Presbyterians, and afterwards with the Independants. James had long laboured to introduce a species of Episcopacy into Scotland; and from the time of his ascending the English throne, his purpose was more avowed, and his attempts more open. The same course pursued by his son, with other concurring circumstances, produced those dreadful calamities, by which the middle of the 17th century was convulsed. One form of church government may be better adapted to promote the purposes of edification than another, as well as nearer to
the apostolical model, yet it is certainly carrying the matter by much too far, to make any one of them essentially necessary to the existence of a Christian church. God hath been pleased to bless the labours of Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Independants: May we not then adopt the reasoning of Peter concerning the Gentiles, that as God appears to make little dif ference among these, so to insist that any one of them should, in all cases, be submitted to, would be to tempt God, and wreath a burdensome yoke around the necks of our brethren,
The Arminian controversy may be reckoned the third, by which the Protestant church was divided. Previous to the accession of James, the doctrines of predestination, and of the perseverance of the saints, had been opposed; but it was not till after the synod of Dort, that divines began to range themselves under the banners of Calvin and Arminius. James displayed a fiery zeal against the Arminian party in Holland; but at home, as they did not oppose the arbitrary measures of the court, they were highly favoured, both by himself and his son. Towards the close of the 17th century, Arminianism, somewhat modified, was supported by Barrow and by Tillotson; and without reproach, it may safely be affirmed, that during the 18th century, the sentiments of by far the greater part of the English clergy, have been at least Arminian. The topics brought under discussion in this controversy are far more important, than those formerly mentioned, and ultimately resolve themselves into
ment of the Reformation, the divinity of Christ was questioned and opposed. During the 17th century, the opinions of Socinus were favoured by few in Britain. In the early part of the last century, several persons began to speculate on these points, who in general appear to have adopted the Arian hypothesis; but from the middle to the close of the century, Socinianism met with many open and avowed defenders; and its progress among the people, it was boasted, was rapid and extensive. As this controversy respects the object of worship, and the method of acceptance with God, all who are not wholly indifferent to redigion must admit, that it reaches to the very foundation of vital godliness.
Lord Herbert has long been accounted the father of our Ene glish deists, and though his offspring has been exceedingly numerous, few, if any of them, have excelled him in ability, or equalled him in propriety of conduct. He did not absolutely deny the possibility, or even the existence of revelation; but overlooking man's peculiar situation as a sin ner, unhappily supposed, that the light of nature could discover all that it was necessary for us to know. During the last century, a great variety of deistical publications appeared in England; and at present, it is supposed, that infidelity is pretty prevalent among the literary and philosophical part of the community,
and extensively diffused through the body of the people. One thing may with safety be affirmed, that religion has not that hold of the public mind, nor that influence over individual conduct which it once had.
From this brief review, which, though very imperfect, is, I hope, so far as it goes, just, it appears that our progress has been, from questioning things indifferent, to proceed to those of importance; from what is important, to those which are essential; till at last revelation itself is by many assailed and rejected. In every science, some first principles are necessary, on which the whole superstructure is raised. In geometry there are certain ax, ioms on which all the reasonings are founded. If, instead of pursuing the high speculations of this science, a mathematician should exert himself to overturn the axioms, he might in this display great ingenuity, but the tendency of his labours, instead of advancing, would be to involve the whole science in uncertainty. The sacred scriptures are the foundation on which divines build their systems, and they furnish the materials of which these systems are, or ought to be com posed. But, if instead of holding fast these, as our forefathers did, and of imitating their example in explaining and illustrating them, we are chiefly employed in discussions about the truth of revelation, this shews that our movements instead of progressive have been retrograde.
It is not meant that Christianity is unsupported by evidence, or that its evidence ought not to be studied; but from the language frequently used, we might be
tempted to believe, that if not absolutely to question the truth of revelation, yet to controvert its peculiar doctrines, and to treat its writers with little respect, are received by some as sure marks of the progress and improvement of theology. But does theology admit of no improvement? It certainly does; though I am afraid we are apt to be misled, by what took place at the Reformation, and by the successive theories, which have been started in moral and natural science. At the Reformation, a great and astonishing change took place in the theological systems; and we are ready to imagine, that, to carry on the progress of what the Reformers so happily commenced, it is necessary for every succeeding age to depart as widely from that which preceded it, as they did from the doctrines and practice of the Romish church. But their situation and ours is widely different. Much of the time of the first Reformers was occupied in removing the rubbish, which one age after another had heaped on religion, and in searching for its true foundation, laid in the word of God.
they obtained this, they held it fast, and so ought we; as the only way, in which progress in religion can be made, is by adhering to "the word of the Lord, which endureth forever." theories in Moral and Natural Philosophy, which have successively been started, so far from being worthy of the imitation of theologians, are proofs of the imperfect state of these sciences. These theories generally account, or seem to account for a variety of phenomena; but not comprehending the whole, they give
place to their successors, which grasp a more extensive range, or are recommended by the ingenuity of their principles, or the ele gance of their expression. Were they fixed on a solid basis, such changes would be unnecessary and hurtful. Few are now disposed to call in question the Newtonian theory, and if no such agreement is found in morals, it arises from the reluctance men have to admit the principles of scripture, and the impossibility of finding a true foundation whilst these are rejected. Truth admits not of change, and it is the glory of Christians, that it is not subject to the fluctuating fashions of society. If we have the scriptures exactly as they were left by the sacred writers, and accurate translations of these in our own language, no farther improvement is to be made upon 'them. Diligent study and fer. vent prayer must be employed in searching the word of God-its doctrines may be anew illustrated from historical fact, observation, or experience-and so far we ought to attend to the progress of society, as to bring forward scripture truth in opposition to the reigning vices and errors; and to express our sentiments in such language as may not increase the dislike, which the human heart naturally has to the holy, humbling salvation of the gospel. Still it must be remembered, that it is on us, not on revelation, that the change is to be effected; and that it is only by more clearly understanding its doctrines, by more firmly believing its promises, and by more stedfastly obeying its precepts, that we can make progress in religion, or hope to excel the ages which are
past. The scriptures are not intended to furnish us with materials for the construction of fanciful systems; they are the grand instrument employed by God in fitting men for heaven. He forms them for himself, by delivering them into the mould of the doctrine of Christ.
When once we ascertain the species of improvement of which religion admits, it will not be difficult to perceive, whether we still continue to make progress, or have long since begun to decline.
1. The number of those by whom revelation is rejected, is far greater at present, than it was at the Reformation, and for some succeeding ages. This will not be denied; and it will also be admitted, that the increase of unbelievers is a convincing proof that religion amongst us is on the decline. This increase is the more surprising, as åt no period have the evidences of revelation been more clearly and ably stated; nor the cavils of its opponents more fully refuted. Still infidelity makes rapid progress. Whence is this? Without entering far on the subject, it appears to me, that a considerable share of blame rests with the defenders of revelation. In the early part of the last century, several divines, to counteract the effects of infidelity, published systems of natural religion, which, by the unacknowledged aid of scripture, they rendered tolerably complete. In this way they expected to win over their opponents; a plan just as likely to succeed, as it would be, to hope to prevail on a sick man to call a physician, by telling him that he would recover without his aid.
In later times the defences of Christianity yield up by far too much, and from this charge even the valuable works of Paley cannot be exempted. Writers of the Socinian cast exclude from Christianity, that which constitutes it the religion of a sinner. Should we by external evidence be convinced of the truth of revelation, if we embrace their sentiments, there is little in it to interest the heart. To these may be added, a disposition which has appeared of late, to account for the infidelity of some eminent characters, without imputing to them any moral blame. Besides other circumstances, the terms and style of theologians are sufficient to disgust every scholar, and are held up as one great cause of the rejection of their doctrines. Mr. Foster, in his very valuable essays, appears on this topic to have gone too far; it is not by the wisdom of words, but by the foolishness of preaching, that God is pleased to save them that believe.
2. Many who still profess to believe the scriptures, have not that respect for them, nor that value for their doctrines, which was common among Protestants at, and for some time subsequent to the Reformation. Men who would be offended with the name of infidel, have impeached the credit of some of the sacred writers, rejected from others passages which did not accord with their peculiar system; and degraded all of them from that high station, to which, in the opinion of our forefathers, they were so justly entitled. When we are told of the difficulties to be encountered before we can ascertain their meaning, we might judge them ob
scure as the responses of the Delphic oracle; and, if for safety we put ourselves under the guidance of one of these sage interpreters, however substantial, or important the passage at our outset might have appeared, when stript of eastern hyperbole, and Jewish phraseology, it is nought but a shadow. The irreverence with which the German divines treat the sacred writers, has long been known; perhaps similar instances of disrespect might be found among ourselves; at least in our periodical publications, some of which appear to have been very successful instruments in freeing the public mind from the shackles of religion. "Nor is it to be forgotten," says a late writer in the Monthly Review, "that Paul was tinctured with the theology of the school of Gamaliel, and his epistles ought to be perused under this recollection." As the apostle mentions another instructer whom he had in theology, (Gal. i. 11, 12) and seems to lay considerable stress on this, that he received not his gospel from man; it would have been but decent in the Reviewer, before contradicting him, to have told us whence his information was derived. Besides, there are many by whom the doctrines of the gospel are admitted as true, but at the same time treated as unimportant. This appears often in biographical sketches, in which persons are exhibited, as distinguished for all that is great and good, without the least hint that they were actuated by Christian principles; and at last safely placed in the mansions of bliss, without the smallest allusion to Jesus, the only way of access to the Father. Many a sermon Vol. III. No. 4.
might be adduced, to prove that if the preacher believed the doctrines of the gospel to be true, he did not at least think them of sufficient importance to be introduced into his compositions. must have been a very careless observer, who has not often remarked that in conversation, the truths of scripture are often contradicted by those, who seem to entertain no doubt of their own Christianity. If then it is a fair criterion, to judge of the progress of religion by the respect paid to the sacred scriptures, and if the representation here given be just, no doubt can remain but that among us, religion has been, and still is, on the decline.
3. But though we may have dropt somewhat of the theory, it may be alleged, that we have made great progress in the practice of religion. Persecution, the stain of humanity, and the disgrace of our Reformers, is now abolished. The investigators of truth are marked by a liberality of mind, and freedom of inquiry, in their own speculations; and by a candour and charity to those, who differ from them, unknown till the present enlightened age. "Let another man praise thee," said Solomon, "and not thine own mouth." What is proper for an individual, might not be unsuitable to a nation; and were the age modest, as well as enlightened, posterity might be trusted with the cele bration of our praise. It is readily admitted, that the first reformers did not entirely lay aside the spirit of persecution; yet in this they acted on principle, though a mistaken one, that they, who believed not the truth of God, nor worshipped him in the way of