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UNITY in religion has been the grand object sought in all ages of the church. It has been supposed to be of the utmost importance, and no industry or art has been spared in the attempt to secure or enforce it. Catholics have always made it their starting point in their reasonings against protestants, and protestants in their reasonings against each other. But the misfortune as regards both, has been, that they have made unity to consist in the wrong thing, and have thus looked for it where it can never be found, and endeavored to promote it by methods which have contributed effectually to weaken and destroy it. Under pretext of preserving unity, they have caused division, hatred, and strife.
Christians should be careful, before they insist on unity, to understand in what it consists, and how much of it is to be hoped or desired. There is a sense in which
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it is impossible for us to have it, and perhaps need not wish it, if it were possible.
In the first place, true christian unity does not require consent in matters of form, outward observances, and modes of ecclesiastical polity. All these have been contended for, as if the very substance of religion consisted in them. In reply to all arguments for uniformity of this kind, however, one simple observation will be all which is needed. It is this. Our Saviour has no where enjoined such uniformity. One distinguishing feature of Christianity is, that it inculcates a spirit of liberty in opposition to the bondage of forms. The use of outward observances was commanded the Jews, but these were done away by Christianity, which carefully teaches us that true goodness is not a letter, but a spirit, not a posture but a disposition.
Nor was any mode of ecclesiastical polity prescribed by the Founder of our faith and hopes. He labored to erect the throne of virtue in the heart, but to accomplish this he relied on the divine truths he taught, and the revelations he imparted to the world. His religion was designed for all nations and all times, and he wisely, therefore, avoided whatever would have served to stamp upon it a local, temporary, and exclusive character. He pointed out the substance to be sought consisting in the great principles of piety and benevolence, in love to God, in justice and mercy, but all beyond this, all that relates to ceremony and forms, if we except the simple rites of baptism and the supper, he left to be modified by human prudence, by views of expediency, by a regard to circumstances and times.
The primitive Christians for some time preserved the greatest simplicity of discipline and worship. But this simplicity was lost when ambition insinuated itself into the church, and then rites began to be multiplied, and forms and observances were ordained, and the ‘right divine,' as it was called, to decree laws and govern, was claimed, and the teachers of religion adopted the state of princes, and pompous titles were assumed, and rubrics were formed, and the liberty with which Jesus made his followers free, a liberty consisting, in part, in the right of each assembly or congregation of believers, to manage its own concerns in the manner deemed best adapted to promote the cause of real piety and virtue, was taken away. But all this was an abuse, a departure from the simplicity that was in Christ, and to be attributed to human passions and weakness, to love of power, to pride and selfishness.
Christian unity does not, in the next place, require uniformity of opinion. Christians, indeed, are sometimes said in the scriptures, to have one faith,' that is, they acknowledge one Lord and Master, Jesus, and one God and Father of All, who is above all, and through all, and in all;' or as the apostle, in another place expresses it, .There is one God and one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.' In whatever speculations they may indulge, and however they may refine and distinguish, Christians thus acknowledge a common Father, and common Saviour. They receive the same heavenly teacher and guide, who is Jesus. They agree in believing that through him God has spoken to man; that his instructions are to be regarded as expressing the will and commands of the Father; that he was sanctified and sent' by the Father to teach, to reform and bless the world ; that he is able to save to the uttermost, all who believe and obey ; that he was put to death by wicked hands;' that he rose from the grave, thus confirming our hopes of immortality, and setting open to us the gates of life; that through him the doctrine of pardon was preached, and we have assurance of God's mercy and love. They receive the same scriptures as the rule of their faith and conduct; they believe whatever these scriptures appear to teach concerning the character of God, the moral nature and accountableness of man, the necessity of repentance and virtue to pardon and favor, the reward of obedience and the punishment of sin. These doctrines are received, in all their distinguishing features, by all who call themselves Christians, and where they are admitted there is consent enough, so far as faith is concerned.
We hear it sometimes urged, that to be entitled to the name of Christians, persons must agree in receiving all the fundamental doctrines of the gospel. But here an insuperable difficulty occurs. Persons differ in their judgement about fundamental doctrines. It has never yet been decided to the satisfaction of all what are included in the number of such, and what is more, it never will, for two reasons. First, that which is fun
damental to one, is not so to another, who has different capacities, and different opportunities of information and study. That is fundamental to a person, and that only, the truth of which he perceives, or thinks he perceives. Each one is required to believe whatever he supposes has the sanction of revelation. Every doctrine, which he is convinced comes from the inspiration of God, is fundamental with regard to him, though it is not so to another, who considers it neither a doctrine of the Bible, nor of reason, but an opinion founded in ignorance and prejudice. That is, all fundamentals are relative and not absolute. No one is required to receive that which he is unable to comprehend, or of the truth of which he finds no satisfactory evidence.
By the nature of things, therefore, no catalogue of fundamental doctrines, if by fundamental doctrines be meant such as are necessary to be believed in order to salvation by all men in all ages, can ever be formed. By far the greater part of mankind, including all the populous nations of antiquity, and fourfifths of the inhabitants of the earth at the present day, never saw the Bible. Will a God of equity and compassion doom this multitude, numerous as the sands on the shores of the ocean, to everlasting and remediless wo, for not believing doctrines taught in a book they never beheld, and of which they have known, and could know nothing? that is, for not believing where it is absolutely impossible they should believe? The supposition is nothing short of the greatest impiety. It is too monstrous to be for a moment listened to.