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intended as a standing proof of the truth of the Religion of Christ, as the events thus foretold are gradually brought to pass.
Our examination of the Holy Bible being now completed, we will proceed in our next Lecture to offer some observations naturally arising from those inquiries into the Sacred Writings which have lately engaged our attention.
DIALOGUES BETWEEN EUSEBIUS AND ALCIPHRON.
Aleiphron-Since we parted last, I have thought about the Bible with more seriousness than I should have supposed myself capable of summoning upon a subject which I have never been used to consider worthy a sensible man's attention. But after all my pondering, I cannot find any reason why you should give it so much authority, except because your father and grandfather, and their ancestors further back than you can trace them, were called Christians. And I verily believe that nine-tenths of our countrymen profess Christianity on no better grounds.
* Eusebius.—Such grounds are not so bad as you seem to imagine. For those who are young, or, from any circumstances, want ability or leisure to inquire, may naturally suppose, that what their parents believe, and what is generally believed in their country, and what those who are older and wiser than themselves are anxious to instruct them in, has something in it which deserves to be believed both by them and all mankind.
Alc.I always thought that possession, or prescription, was the main support of the Gospel. Thus errors once received are handed down; and because our ancestors were deceived, we are to live under and perpetuate a system of delusion. So the Turks have their Mahomet, the Hindoos their Brama, and the ancients religiously believed in a thousand deities, all bequeathed them by their forefathers.
Euseb. You talk as if Christianity must necessarily be erroneous, because it is generally believed. The circumstance of its being the established faith of the country, and therefore maintained by our forefathers, taught by our mothers, and imbibed in our infancy,-in other words, its existence as a national religion, gives it a prejudice in your eyes, and you regard it with jealousy. But the argument lies all the other way. The instances of false religions only prove, that the idea of a Revelation is natural to mankind. If I had been born in Arabia or Hindostan, and my understanding were awakened to the subject as it is now, I should equally think that the existence of a religion in my country was primâ facie evidence of its truth, and bound me to inquire before I rejected it.
Ale. You will assert, that if the Hindoo or Mahometan does inquire, examination will lead him to reject the national religion. Why
may he not reject it at once, and spare his pains, if he is to come to the same result at last?
Euseb. The result might have proved otherwise. Inquiry confirms truth, while it detects falsehood. Bring the Christian Religion to that touchstone, and I should not fear the consequence.
Alc.-Inquiry only leads one up to distant times and obscure and imperfect annals, in which it is impossible to distinguish falsehood from truth. It is like tracing a river towards its source, when, after all your labour, you find yourself bewildered and plunged in marshes and morasses. Had God intended us to receive a Revelation, he would have given us some better proofs of its divinity than the traditions of a remote and barbarous age.
Euseb.-Your ideas concerning history seem to require correction, when you stigmatize the Augustan age with the title of barbarous. Or, if it does bear such an appearance, compared with that in which our lot has happily fallen, to what can we ascribe the difference except the prevalence of Christianity? But with regard to your argument; you object to our Religion, that its evidence depends upon historical testimony. Now ask yourself, which seems most consistent with the wisdom of God, to make constant interpositions of his power, or so to arrange his counsels, that his frequent and visible interference shall not be required? Or, since we are but inadequate judges of infinite wisdom, which is most analogous to the usual course of his Providence? He does not people the world by perpetual creation, or support its inhabitants by an annual exercise of that power which first called into being whatever the universe contains. If, therefore, you give the subject a little more attention than you have hitherto thought it worth while to bestow, you will see that in making Revelation depend on testimony, and diffuse itself by testimony, God has acted in conformity with the general plans of his providence, and therefore, I doubt not, consistently with his wisdom. For, taking as they are this world and mankind, I perceive no way in which a Revelation could be made known, except by testimony, unless it were proposed personally and severally to each individual by a miracle similar to that which effected St. Paul's conversion. Were a fresh Revelation made every year, still it must be believed on testimony by all who are not actually eye-witnesses. Were a Revelation made in every country under the sun, still it must be believed on testimony by all who do not live at the same period. So that it is not easily conceivable in what other way a Revelation can be propagated, except by testimony. To which I must add, that the peculiar nature of the Christian Revelation, made by the Son of God taking human nature upon him, and suffering the penalty of the sins of mankind, absolutely precludes any means of promulgation except historical evidence.
Alc.-Historical evidence resolves itself into the report of other men: can I credit the report of other men in a matter so extraordinary? How am I to know that they are worthy of belief? Above all, you put it entirely out of the power of by far the largest part of mankind to have any proof of their Religion, except the assurance of
their parents, or their priests. For how can the young, or the busy, or the illiterate, search into the truth of history, in order to learn the origin of their religion?
Euseb.-There is no hardship in obliging men to act on that evidence with respect to Religion, which they are accustomed to act on in all the other business of life. You have never been in America; but supposing you thought that you could mend your fortunes there, or turn your deism to better account, you would have no hesitation in taking ship and setting sail for the country. You would have no doubt of finding New Orleans or New York, after sailing a certain number of leagues, and reaching such and such a latitude.
Alc.-Certainly not, any more than I should doubt of reaching Edinburgh after travelling four hundred miles from London.
Euseb.-Yet you would find it difficult to give any better reason for your belief about America, than I could give for my belief in Christianity.
Alc.-Surely this is talking extravagantly. What better reason would any man wish, than that the country has been known, and that multitudes have been going to it and coming from it these three hundred years? If a convulsion of nature were to sink that continent in ocean, the fact would be spread all through Europe in a month. Euseb.-Very true. You have not been in America, but others have, and therefore you are convinced of the existence of such a country. And though you have not searched into the evidences of Christianity, and though nine-tenths of your neighbours cannot search them, do you suppose that nobody has searched them,-I might say experienced them? You have as much reason to believe the report which they bring back from this inquiry, as you have to believe the report of one who has sailed from America. Were it possible, on substantial grounds, to convict Christianity of imposture, the news would be disseminated as rapidly as that of the sinking of America, because it would interest, in their dearest concerns, a far greater number.
Alc.-It may be so; but I must have some better evidence of Christianity before I can believe it, than the faith of my ancestors, or your own faith, or that of the worthy curate whom you brought against me in our first conversation. It is of no use to tell me that I ought to believe the Gospel on the same grounds as I believe that there is such à country as America. There is nothing marvellous in the one, but the other is a collection of wonders. If I was told that such things had happened in New York as your Scriptures assert to have happened in Jerusalem, I should be as slow to credit them. If the Christian writers had merely spoken of Jesus as a wise and excellent moralist, who went about teaching his countrymen to fear God and love their neighbours, and was at length put to death through the jealousy of those countrymen, like the heathen philosopher, no one would doubt their story, or hesitate to take them at their word. But they do not say this alone. They are constantly relating miracles which he performed;-curing the sick, healing the maimed and infirm, commanding the elements,
subduing evil spirits, restoring the dead to life; and crowning these exertions of Divine power by raising himself from the tomb, after his crucifixion and burial. "If we say that we believe these extravagant accounts, we contradict the testimony of our own senses; we abandon the instructive guide, our own experience, and affirm that the testimony of a few men has more weight than our own positive knowledge.” *
Euseb. It will not be denied you, that in proportion as the fact is extraordinary, the evidence should be strong. But it would be very unreasonable to say, that nothing could induce you to give credit to a fact which was not in itself impossible. That would be setting up your own experience as an impassable limit-an infallible tribunal.
Alc.Not mine, but other men's experience.
Euseb. The first preachers of Christianity are among those other men; and they assert that the miracles which you reject as idle tales happened within their experience.
Alc." Will any Christian believer say that he has as much evidence that Nature's laws have been violated, or that miracles have been wrought, as he has that the laws of nature have not been violated, and that no miracles have been wrought? Certainly the testimony of a few men bears no proportion to the universal experience and general observation of the human species."+
Euseb.-I think you acknowledged in our former conversation, that there is nothing incredible in the idea of a Revelation; and if you call to mind the state of the world before Christianity reformed it, you must certainly allow that a Revelation was not unnecessary or superfluous. But I own it does not appear how a Revelation could be proved to come from God, unless he who proposed it were evidently endued with more than human power. The question was natural, "What sign showest thou?" We reject Mahomet, because he brought no such testimony of the commission to which he pretended. You reject Jesus, because he did. And while you allow it to be credible that God might give the light of Revelation to those who even with that advantage are certainly prone enough to error, you are going on to make it impossible that he should. For if Revelation is to be set at nought, first, because it is handed down from age to age by human testimony, and next because it is proved by the exercise of divine power, I do not see what mode of revealing himself you leave open even to infinite wisdom.
But to say the truth, I fear that there is something of an atheistical tendency in this objection to miracles. You talk of the order of nature, and the laws of nature, till you forget that according to your own creed, if it is the creed of a deist, the laws of nature mean nothing more than those laws by which God, when he created the world, determined to govern it. Does God retain no power over his own laws?
Alc." To suppose that God can alter the settled laws of nature, which he himself formed, is to suppose his will and wisdom mutable,
* Principles of Nature, p. 69.
and that they are not the best lays of the most perfect being; for if he is the author of them, they must be immutable, as he is; so that he cannot alter them to make them better, and will not alter them to make them worse. Neither of these can be agreeable to his attributes.” *
Euseb.-I was not wrong in suspecting that atheism lurked at the bottom of these jealous feelings for the honour of God. By the same process of reasoning it appears, that God could not have created the world. For either the world was eternal, and therefore uncreated, or there was something where our system now is, before that system was formed. Either there was vacant space, or there was matter existing in a state of confusion. And as God was supreme before no less than after the creation of the world, whatever existed before, whether vacancy or chaos, was according to his will. But his will is immutable. Therefore we cannot believe, without discredit to his attributes, that he interposed either to bring a regular system into void space, or to arrange one out of unformed matter. To assert that he either introduced a visible world into vacancy, or life into inactivity, is virtually to assert, that all things were not in the best possible state before, which is to cast a reflection on the wisdom of the Supreme Being.
Depend upon it, in these cavils of your party against miracles, there is more of a desire to keep God out of sight, than to maintain his honour. But these are not your principles. You acknowledge a Creator, the Preserver of the Universe; therefore you acknowledge that he interfered once at least to change the existing order of nature. The proof of this is everywhere about us. The meanest insect which has the power of spontaneous motion, and of supporting itself on its appointed food, and of reproducing its kind, contains a proof of divine interference; for how many thousand years, or thousand centuries soever you go back, the first parent of that insect was formed by the hand of God, and received its various faculties, its power of locomotion, &c. contrary to the state of things previously existing.
Alc.-I cannot imagine that God, in arranging the system to which we belong, should establish laws which stand in need of revision or alteration.
Euseb.-Nor can I, on the other hand, find any thing inconsistent with the wisdom of the Deity in supposing that God, for a great moral purpose, should occasionally see fit to suspend the operation of his own laws. You lose sight of the moral Governor, and think only of the omnipotent Creator. But with this in view, I will go further, and will affirm, that to me it seems much easier to believe that he has thus interfered with the world which he had made, than that he has taken no notice of his creatures-much more probable that he should devise means for bestowing on a portion of mankind eternal happiness, than that he should allow them to ruin themselves by sin, and remain immersed for ever in that ignorance and idolatry which the Christian Religion was intended to dispel.
Alc.-Here again, as it happened the other day, your argument is
Principles of Nature.