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for closing in with the contrary opinion. You are more modest; they more consistent: for indeed this controversy, managed upon the foot of mere reason, terminates at length in that single question, Whether the essence of God be above comprehension, or no. The Catholics stood up for the affirmative; the wiser, but bolder, Arians maintained the negative : and this is what, if
you understand your own principles, and will be at the pains to trace them to the last result, you will be obliged to take shelter in, or to give up your cause, so far as concerns all arguments drawn from the nature and reason of the thing. Some of our English Socinians have expressed themselves as roundly, upon this head, as any of the ancient Arians, or Eunomians; declaring the divine nature to be no more mysterious than that of his creatures. Such assertions are shocking; but there is a necessity for them, if some men will be consistent, and ingenuous enough to speak out. They would not advance such bold paradoxes, if they were not forced to it.
Before I leave this Query, it will be proper to acquaint our readers what we mean by believing mysteries. For I find that this is a matter which is apt to give great offence, and to occasion many sad and tragical complaints. h Dr. Whitby is one of the most considerable men that I have observed giving into that popular way of reasoning, which had been formerly left (as it ought to be still) to writers of a lower class. He is very much disturbed that any thing should be proposed as an article of faith, which is not to be understood: and observes, that no man in his sober senses can give his assent to what he understands not; meaning, understands not at all. He is certainly very right, I do not say pertinent, in the remark : and I may venture to add, that no man, whether sober or otherwise, can do it. For, undoubtedly, where there is no idea, there can be no assent: because assenting to nothing, is the very same with not assenting. Thus far we are per
h Disquis. Modest. Præf. p. 19.
fectly agreed. But for the clearing up of this matter, I shall endeavour to reduce what relates to it, to the following particulars, as so many distinct cases.
1. Let the first case be, where the terms of a proposition, subject and predicate, (or either of them,) are not at all understood by the Person to whom it is given. For instance; the words, Mene mene tekel upharsin, carried no idea at all with them, till the Prophet had interpreted them; before which king Belshazzar could give no assent to them. The same is the case of any proposition given in an unknown language, or in such words, of a known language, as a person understands not. Only, I would have it observed, that, in such a case, a man neither admits nor rejects the proposition; because to him it is no proposition, but merely sounds or syllables.
2. A second case is, when the proposition is given in a language well understood, and in words which ordinarily convey ideas to the mind; but words so put together, in that instance, as to furnish us with no certain determinate meaning. A late anonymous writer has hit upon a very proper example of this very case. “ A woman ought to “have power on her head, because of the angels.” The words, woman, power, head, angels, are all plain words, and carry with them obvious familiar ideas. And yet a man may
idea of what is asserted in that proposition; and therefore can give no assent to it, more than
that it is true in some sense or other, or that something should be believed, if he understood what: which is not assenting to that proposition, but to another; namely, that “ whatever Scripture asserts, is true.” The aforesaid author observes, very shrewdly, that having no certain ideas of the terms of the proposition, it is to him a mystery. I may add, that the pertinency of his observation is another such mystery; and the justice and equity of his drawing a parallel between this and the mysteries of Christianity, properly so called, must be a mystery to as many as cannot perceive either the sense or the ingenuity of doing it. But,
3. Another case may be, when the terms of a proposition are understood, but are so connected or divided, as to make a proposition manifestly repugnant. A triangle is a square, A globe is not round, or the like. Such propositions we reject; not because we do not understand them, but because we do; and understand them to be false. Sometimes indeed a contradiction lies concealed under the words it is couched in, till it be resolved into plainer. For instance: this proposition, The existence of a first cause is demonstrable, a priori : as it lies under these terms, it seems reducible to case the second; as being sound without sense. But resolve it into this; There is a cause prior to the first; and then the i repugnancy appears. So again : Necessity of existence is antecedently in order of nature) the cause or ground of that existence. These are only so many syllables. But put it thus : A property is, in order of nature, antecedent- to, and the ground and cause of the subject which supports it; and the contradiction is manifest. Once more : Necessity absolute and antecedent (in order of nature) to the existence of the first cause must operate every where alike. This proposition seems to fall under case the second. But let it be resolved into plainer words; and then it will appear that this is the proper place for it.
4. A fourth case is, when the terms of the proposition carry ideas with them, seemingly, but not plainly repugnant. For example : God certainly foreknows events depending on uncertain causes. The omnipresent substance is not extended. Propositions of this kind may be, and are assented to; because there may be a greater appearance of repugnancy on the opposite side of the question; or, because there is not reason sufficient for suspending as
5. A fifth case is, when a proposition is formed in ge
i 'Αλλ' ουδε επιστήμη λαμβάνεται τη αποδεικτική. αύτη γαρ εκ προτέρων, και γνωριμωτέρων συνίσταται, του δε αγεννήτου ουδέν προϋπάρχει. Clem. Aler. Strom.
neral terms, and reaches not to minute particulars. “ The
pure in heart shall see God.” The phrase of seeing God conveys some idea, but general only; not particular, precise, or determinate. " At God's right hand are plea
sures for evermore.” God's right hand, and pleasures, we have only general confuse ideas of: yet ideas we have; and we assent as far as our ideas reach. Having no more than a general confuse perception, our faith in such points can rise no higher, or reach no farther; nor can more be expected of us.
6. A sixth case is, when the terms of a proposition convey ideas, but ideas of pure intellect ; such as imagination can lay no hold of. Philosophers have illustrated this by the instance of a chiliagon and a triangle. We understand what is meant by á figure of a thousand sides, as clearly as we do what is meant by one of three only: but we imagine one more distinctly than the other. This instance belongs more properly to distinct and confuse imagination, than to the purpose it is brought for. Ideas of numbers, in the abstract, are properly ideas of pure intellect : and so are, or should be, our ideas of our own souls, of angels, of God: we may understand several things of them; but imagination has very little to do in such matters. However, our not being able to imagine, provided we do but understand, is no hindrance to our assent, in propositions of this kind.
7. The last and easiest case is, when the terms convey full and strong ideas to the understanding and imagination also. For instance: The man Christ Jesus ate, drank, slept, was crucified, died, and was buried, &c. Here, all is easy, clear, and plain, even to those who love not to think upon
the stretch, or to be under any pain in assenting.
Now for the application of the foregoing particulars to the point in hand. Those articles of faith, which the Church has called mysteries, belong not to case the first or second, wherein no assent can be given : or if they do, they are no articles of faith, but so many sounds or syllables. It is to be hoped, they come not under case the third : for plain contradictions are certainly no mysteries, any more than plain truths; as is justly observed by the learned k Dr. Clarke. For the same reason, they fall not under case the seventh, where every thing is supposed distinct, clear, and particular as can be desired. Whatever is plainly reducible to any of the four cases now mentioned, is either no matter of faith at all, or no mystery. There remain three cases; where the ideas are either seemingly repugnant, or such as reach not to particulars, or such as imagination has no concern with. Assent may be given in all these cases, as hath been already observed; and so, possibly, here we may find articles of faith: and, if some gentlemen will give us leave, after we have thus explained what we mean by the term, we will call such articles mysteries. For example:
The belief of three Persons, every one singly God, and all together one God, seems to fall under case the fourth : the ideas are seemingly, not really, repugnant. We know what we mean, in saying every one, as clearly as if we said any one, is God; a Person having such and such essential perfections. We see not perfectly how this is reconciled with the belief of one God, as we see not how prescience is reconciled with future contingents. Yet we believe both, not doubting but that there is a connection of the ideas, though our faculties reach not up to it.
Omnipresence, I think, is another mystery, and falls chiefly under case the fifth. We have a general confuse idea of it, and mean something by it. The particular manner how it is, we have no notion of; and therefore are not obliged to believe any particular modus. Fix upon this or that, there are appearing repugnancies and inconsistencies; and so far, this is reducible to case the fourth, as well as fifth.
The incarnation of the Son of God is another mystery, and comes under case the fourth and fifth. There are
k Reply, p. 38.