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ment under infallible authority is not a less grave, a less winning hypothesis, than the chance and coincidence of events, or the Oriental Philosophy, or the working of Antichrist, to account for the rise of Christianity and the formation of its theology.
ON THE NATURE OF THE ARGUMENT IN BEHALF OF
THE EXISTING DEVELOPMENTS OF CHRISTIANITY.
PRESUMPTIVE CHARACTER OF THE PROOF.
In proceeding to the consideration of the character of the argument adducible in behalf of the truth of the existing developments of Christianity, we must first direct our attention to the preponderating force of antecedent probability in all practical matters, where it exists. If this probability is great, it almost supersedes evidence altogether. This is instanced in every day's experience: whether the particular conclusion, in this or that case, be true or not is not here the question; the correctness of the process itself is shown by its general adoption. “Trifles light as air," the poet tells us, “are to the jealous, confirmations strong, As proofs of Holy Writ.” Did a stranger tell us in a crowd to mind our purses, we should believe him, though in the sequel he turned out to be the thief, and gave us warning in order to gain them. A single text is sufficient to prove a doctrine to the well-.disposed or the prejudiced. “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together" is sufficient to lead the Christian mind to observe the duty of social worship; and “Forbidding to marry” is sufficient proof that Rome is Antichrist to those who
adopt: 98 of thot is
have been educated in that doctrine. Again, to take an instance in a different matter, when we are fully convinced that an important step which another proposes is in itself right, we insist but generally on self-examination, waiting, and other preparation in his particular case; but in proportion as we are doubtful of its religiousness and happiness do we make much of these, lengthening his probation and putting obstacles in the way of his moving. Again, it is plain that a person's after course for good or bad brings out the passing words or obscure actions of previous years. Then we make the event a presumptive interpretation of the past, of those past indications of his character which were too few and doubtful to bear insisting on at the time, and would have seemed ridiculous had we attempted to do so. And the antecedent probability is found to triumph over contrary evidence, as well as to sustain what agrees with it. Every one may know of cases in which a plausible charge against an individual was borne down at once by weight of character, though that character was incommensurate of course with the circumstances which gave rise to suspicion, and had no direct neutralizing force to destroy it. On the other hand, it is sometimes said, and even if not literally true will serve in illustration, that not a few of the culprits in our criminal courts are not legally guilty of the particular crime on which a verdict is found against them, being convicted not so much upon the particular evidence, as on the presumption arising from their want of character and the memory of former offences. But this presumptive character of belief and conviction, and especially of faith, I have pointed out in other publications.
"Faith is the reasoning of a religious mind, or of what Scripture calls a right or renewed heart, which acts upon presumptions rather than evidence, which speculates and ventures on the future when it cannot make sure of it. Thus, to take the instance of St. Paul preaching at Athens : he told his hearers that he came as a messenger from that God whom they worshipped already, though ignorantly, and of whom their poets spoke. He appealed to the conviction that was lodged within them of the spiritual nature and the unity of God; and he exhorted them to turn to Him who had appointed One to judge the whole world hereafter. This was an appeal to the antecedent probability of a Revelation, which would be estimated variously, according to the desire of it existing in each breast. Now what was the evidence he gave in order to concentrate those various antecedent presumptions, to which he referred in behalf of the message which he brought? Very slight, yet something; not a miracle, but his own word that God had raised Christ from the dead; very like the evidence given to the mass of men now, or rather not so much. No one will say it was strong evidence; yet, aided by the novelty, and what may be called originality, of the claim, its strangeness and improbability considered as a mere invention, and the personal bearing of the Apostle, and supported by the full force of the antecedent probabilities which existed, and which he stirred within them, it was enough.”1
Again: “The proofs commonly brought, whether for the truth of Christianity, or for certain doctrines from texts of Scripture, are commonly strong or slight, not in themselves, but according to the circumstances under which the doctrine professes to come to us, which they are brought to prove; and they will have a great or small effect upon our minds, according as we admit those circumstances or not. Now the admission of those circumstances involves a variety of antecedent views, presumptions, admitted analogies, and the like, many of which it is very difficult to detect and analyze.
Univ. Serm. pp. 195, 196,
for Again: "The within them
One person, for instance, is convinced by Paley's argument from the Miracles, another is not; and why? Because the former admits that there is a God, that He governs the world, that He wishes the salvation of man, that the light of nature is not sufficient for man, that there is no other way of introducing a Revelation but miracles, and that men, who were neither enthusiasts nor impostors, could not have acted as the Apostles did, unless they had seen the miracles which they attested; the other denies some one, or more, of these statements, or does not feel the force of some other principle more recondite and latent still than any of these, which is nevertheless necessary to the validity of the argument.”1
The same principle applies in the argument in behalf of the ecclesiastical miracles : “The main point to which attention must be paid is the proof of their antecedent probability. If that is established, the task is nearly accomplished. If the miracles alleged are in harmony with the course of Divine Providence in the world, and with the analogy of faith as contained in Scripture, if it is possible to account for them, if they are referrible to a known cause or system, and especially if it can be shown that they are recognised, promised, or predicted in Scripture, very little positive evidence is necessary to induce us to listen to them, or even accept them, if not individually, yet viewed as a collective body. In that case, they are but the natural effects of supernatural agency.”2
And in like manner, in proportion as there is reason for presuming the correctness of the existing developments of Christianity, shall we dispense with a formal historical argument in their favour, and content ourselves with such accidental corroborating evidences as the stream of time has washed upon our shores; and it has been shown above, that
| Univ. Serm. pp. 269, 270. 2 Essay on Miracles, p. lxxvi.