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that we can ascend no further as to any practical results: that we learn nothing more than (as they term it) a “quiescent intelligence:” that we can deduce nothing as to active superintendence of the world and the affairs of men: that (in a word) natural theology teaches us nothing of a moral governor of accountable moral agents: nothing of our own nature or destinies: nothing of incorporeal existence, or a future state. For all information on these subjects, they contend we must refer exclusively to revelation.
These are undoubtedly questions not only most fairly and legitimately open to discussion, but of great moment and importance in a satisfactory analysis of the grounds of religious belief. Certainly great diversity of opinion has prevailed with respect to them: and, it must be allowed, may very reasonably prevail.
I will merely offer one remark as to the entire spirit and character of such inquiry. I conceive it is an equally. mistaken view, to prosecute it as supposing it to involve the credit either of natural theology on the one hand, or revelation on the other. It neither at all affects the truth or value of natural theology, to admit that it may be deficient in some points, or that they may not properly belong to its province: nor is it any disparagement to the just estimate of our reasoning powers, to confess that they may find their limit when we arrive at certain parts of this vast subject.
On the other side, it does not appear to me at all essential to support the credit, or enhance the perfections of Divine revelation, to make out that it is the only source of information on topics of this nature: or to allow that reason may supply some first rudiments of religious knowledge, on which it is the province of revelation to shed a full and abundant illumination.
Natural Theology necessary as the Basis of Revelation.
Opposite Views considered.
WHATEVER difference of opinion may prevail as to the extent to which the inferences of natural theology may reach, or the limits by which they must be circumscribed, all rational inquirers on these topics, I should conceive, would agree in admitting at least some first elements of belief in a Deity, however imperfect and insufficient, as established by natural reason. And it appears equally clear, that, not only any notion whatever of a revelation, but even any statement or proposition of further religious truths beyond the primary doctrines of the existence and perfections of the Deity, must, from the nature of the case, presuppose the truth of those primary doctrines, and be actually based upon the evidence of their truth.
If, again, we look to the establishment of the Evidences of revelation, we must consider the essential bearing which our notions of the Divine attributes have upon them. This is not the place to enter upon the discussion of those evidences. But in general it will be apparent, on a moment's consideration, that the most material part of the argument for revealed religion, (if it is to be supported on the ground of miraculous testimony,) essentially turns upon our previous admissions with regard to the Divine attributes. From these alone do we obtain those preliminary ideas, which confer sufficient probability on the notion of a disclosure of the Divine will by supernatural interposition, to render the question fairly susceptible of an appeal to evidence and testimony: a portion of the reasoning at once most essentially important, yet very commonly overlooked: and thus left open and defenceless, to the attacks of scepticism. Thus it becomes peculiarly important to scrutinize the extent to which natural theology can legitimately supply those considerations of antecedent probability, which are absolutely necessary before we can entertain the question of testimony.
These considerations seem to me so plain, from the mere nature and reason of the thing, that it would be hardly necessary to dwell upon them, were it not that there are those (as we have already, in some manner, noticed,) who, in the strongest professions of a desire to support religion, have systemati, cally disparaged the claims of natural theology, and decried the use of human reason in the investigation of Divine truth.
It is singular to notice the inconsistency of the objections entertained against natural theology by different parties. Some complain of it as going too far; others, as not going far enough. One party object to it as presumptuously usurping the place of revelation, encouraging the self-sufficiency of intellect, and setting its followers above the instruction of the Word of God: as tending to lower the value of the mysterious truths of revelation, and to favour the rationalizing system of interpretation. Another party affect to despise natural theology and its physical proofs, as grovelling among mere objects of sense, and as restricting our contemplations to material things: as defective in its doctrines, leading us to no moral governor of the world, inculcating no moral responsibility, nor future state, and thus practically differing little from no religion.
It is decried, at one time, as vain and weak; at another, as arrogant and dangerous: held in contempt by those who are ignorant of its nature, and dreaded by those who tremble at the dawn of truth and free inquiry, for their own dogmas, whether of atheism, fanaticism, or orthodoxy. Thus are parties so discordant, unconsciously leagued in a common cause; and we hear the language of objection and disparagement so precisely the same in the mouths of the orthodox and the infidel, of the enthusiast and of the atheist, that it is often impossible to distinguish to which class the objector belongs.
Among the several opinions entertained in oppo
sition to the claims of natural theology to be the indispensable basis of revelation, the only one which I have seen supported even by the show of argument, or recognising in any degree the necessity of rational evidence, is, in substance, as follows* :
Suppose a set of men who had arrived at no belief in the truths of natural theology: suppose a person claiming to be a teacher of revelation to appear among them working miracles: would not, it is asked, those miracles prove rationally to such persons that the individual was commissioned from some superior power or being, and thus when his system was unfolded, and when it exhibited to them the doctrines commonly included in what is called natural theology, they would then, on rational evidence, believe those truths along with the others revealed.
It must be recollected that the question is wholly one of evidence. The case supposed is imagined only to represent more forcibly, not what is or would be, but what ought to be, the correct course of reasoning. It may be entirely admitted that the parties in question might embrace the truths propounded to them; this they might do on the mere strength of the teacher's character, authority, and influence over their minds, without any miracles, or even evidences, at all. The question at issue is, whether the miracles,
* See Irons On Final Causes, p. 162. This point, in fact, constitutes the whole strength of the author's argument.