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hundred and ninety nine instances out of a thousand, all the differences among christians are the manifest fruit of the different biasses previously given to their minds.
Those who are profoundly read in theological controversy, before they enter on the critical examination of the divine oracles, if they have the discernment to discover the right path, which their former studies have done much to prevent, and if they have the fortitude to persevere in keeping that path, will quickly be sensible, that they have more to unlearn than to learn; and that the acquisition of truth is not near so difficult a task, as to attain a superiority over rooted errors and old prejudices. Let it not be imagined from this, that I condemn all controversial writing. There are certain circumstances, I am sensible, which render it necessary. Were it indeed possible, that all controversies in divinity were buried in one grave without the hope of resurrection, I should think it incomparably better for christendom; but it would be extremely hard if error were allowed to attack, and truth not permitted to defend herself. If there must be debates, let them be fair and open, let both sides be heard with candour and impartiality. This is the only sure way of giving all possible advantage to the truth. It were certainly better for mankind that no deadly weapons whatever were used or known among men; but if villains will use them for the purposes of mischief, it would be very hard, that honest men should be denied the use of them in self defence.
I would not by this be thought to insinuate, that these two cases are in all respects parallel, or that the patrons of error were always actuated by villainous
designs. God forbid that I were so uncharitable. Our Lord himself hath assured us that those who would raise the most cruel persecutions against his disciples, would seriously think, that in so doing they did God service. He hath little knowledge of mankind who doth not perceive that men are often just as sincere in their intentions in the defence of erroneous, as of true, opinions. The only purpose of my similitude was to signify, that if honesty must be allowed to wage at least a defensive war against villainy, the same privilege should be allowed to truth against falsehood. Here indeed it may be justly said, that the greater freedom ought to be permitted to both parties, as the distinction is not so easily made in the latter case, as in the former. To distinguish the just from the unjust in a quarrel is commonly a matter of much greater facility, than to distinguish the true from the false in a debate. But as it may be justly said, that errors in religion have generally more or less, directly or indirectly, a bad influence on practice, they ought always to be guarded against with all the precaution of which we are capable. Nor is there another way of guarding against them, that I know of, but by an unprejudiced and impartial scrutiny into all matters really questionable.
I have observed already, that after such an exami nation as hath been recommended of the sacred oracles, and of the histories to which they relate, and with which they are connected, both Jewish and christian, the attentive and judicious student will not probably find much occasion, for his own sake, to canvass the works of controvertists. It may however be of considerable consequence for the sake of others, that one who is to
be vested with a public character in the church, should not be entirely unacquainted with their writings. The first controversy that claims our attention is the deistical, as this strikes directly at the foundation of all. Could one have an opportunity of studying this at his leisure, in what order he pleased, and had all the necessary books at his command, I should advise him to begin with those which relate to the intrinsic evidence of our religion, then to proceed to what regards the extrinsic evidence, first prophecy, because most nearly related to the former branch, then miracles, and lastly every collateral confirmation that may be brought from history. But as it rarely happens, that one can prosecute a plan of this kind in the order or manner in which it is proposed, there is no great matter, though you take occasion of perusing the books of greatest name on the one side or the other as they fall in your way. The only thing I insist on, is that this study ought to be posterior altogether to the study of sacred writ and sacred history, if you would enter into it with understanding, if you would not expose yourselves to be misled and imposed on, mistaking the specious for the solid, not enough enlightened to distinguish the plausible from the true. As to the particular questions that have arisen among christians, those which claim our first attention are, doubtless, such as subsist between protestants and papists. Next to these the several distinguishing tenets which characterize the various tribes or sects, that come under the common name of protestant, Lutherans, Socinians, Arminians, Calvinists, Antinomians; and to these we may add those questions, which, have been for some time hotly agitated in this island;
for though several of them are in themselves apparently of little moment, yet they have been productive of momentous consequences. Such are the questions in relation to the externals of worship and forms of government, about ceremonies, sacraments, and ordination, and which constitute the principal matters in dispute between the church of England and Dissenters, and by which several of our sects, such as Anabaptists, Nonjurors and Quakers, are chiefly discriminated. As to the numerous controversies which have in former ages made a noise in the church, and are now extinct, or which are still agitated in distant regions, Greece or Asia for example, it is enough with regard to these, to know what church history hath recorded concerning their rise, progress and decline, concerning the quibbles and phrases (for we can rarely call them principles) which have afforded the chief matter of their altercation. I do not speak in this manner, as if all our controversies in the West were of themselves of greater importance than the eastern disputes, or as if the modern were superior to the ancient. I am far from thinking, that the cavils and logomachies of our Supralapsarians and Sublapsarians, Remonstrants, Antiremonstrants, and Universalists of the last age, or of our Seceders both burgesses and antiburgesses, Reliefmen, Cameronians, Moravians, and Sandemanians, are one jot more intelligible or more edifying, than those of the Sebellians, Eutychians and Nestorians and Monothelites and Monophysites, and a thousand other ancient and oriental distinctions. The only thing that can give superior consequence to the former with us, is their vicinity in time and place, and the propriety there is, that for the sake of others, the
christian pastor should be prepared for warding the blows of those adversaries, to whom his people may be exposed. I say for the sake of others, for we may venture to affirm, that no man of common understanding, who hath candidly and assiduously studied holy writ in the manner we have recommended, can find the smallest occasion for his own sake of entering into such labyrinths of words, such extravagant ravings, as would disgrace even the name of sophistry; for even that term, bad as it is, implies art and ingenuity, and at least an appearance of reason, which their wild declamation can very rarely boast. I am not of the mind, that the student should think it necessary to inquire into the several grounds and pleas of all the above mentioned sects and parties. Some of them, as the principal heads of our disputes with the Romanists, and the chief questions that have been started concerning the divinity of Christ, his expiation of sin by the sacrifice of himself, and concerning the operation of the spirit, it will be proper to canvass more thoroughly. As to those of less note, since it is chiefly for the sake of others our theologian studies such questions, he must judge how far it is needful by the situation in which he finds himself.