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In what Manner the Branches of Theology above mentioned ought to be
In the two preceding lectures, I showed at some length what an extensive field of study the theological student has to cultivate. I distributed the whole into two principal parts, the theoretical and the practical. The first I subdivided into three, biblical criticism, sacred history, and polemic divinity; the second also into three, pulpit-eloquence, propriety of conduct in private life, propriety also in the public character, or the judi. cial capacity, which a minister in this country, and church, is called to act in.
It was reserved as the subject of this discourse, to consider in what manner it will be most conducive to the edification of the students to treat from this place the several topics above mentioned. I acknowledge that, for my own part, I have found this a very puzzling question. A regular attendance for four winters is the utmost that we are entitled to expect from the same set of students. How few are there, comparatively, from whom we can obtain so much ? Part, you know, are coming, and part are going, I say not, every year, but every month, and every week, and every day. I might justly be charged with a faulty insensibility, if I did not acknowledge, that for some years past, there has been a considerable change to the bet. ter in this respect, and that the endeavors, which have been used for effecting this end, have not been entirely lost labour. But after all, it must be allowed, there is still room for further improvements. Besides, our sessions are short, and though I have endeavoured to make the most of them, and have doubled the number of meetings for my own lectures, the time is, after all, but little, compared with the work. The prelections I am to give shall not be long; for I would fain, if possible, avoid being tedious. I have always con. sidered it, as a good rule, to prefer frequency to length in the instructions that are given to youth. Attention in the earlier part of life, especially to articles of science, which afford not so much entertainment to the fancy, as matter of reflection to the understanding, is soon cloyed; but then, after a little respite, it is soon recruited. It is no better than talking to the deaf, to discourse to hearers whose stock of attention, and consequently of patience, is exhausted. For this reason, as I find it no easy task, so to enliven these topics as to secure a patient and attentive hearing, beyond the time of an ordinary sermon, I intend that these lectures shall not often fall short of half an hour, or exceed three quarters. And this, I am hopeful, will not be thought immoderate on either side. But to return to the particular branches of my subject, or points to be discussed.
Were we in lecturing to confine ourselves entirely to the third branch of the first general head, polemic divinity, or the examination of the several parts of the christian system, together with the controversies, to
which every one of these has given occasion; would it be possible, considering the shortness of our sessions, a great part of which must be employed in hearing the exercises of the students, to finish, even in thrice the time that our canons require the students to attend us (and it is well known that these canons have grown into disuse) such a course in a way that would be accounted satisfactory? What then can be done, when so much more than the discussion of that branch is necessary, absolutely necessary, for answering the end of this profession? Who sees not, that the end is not so much to make an acute disputant in theology, as to make a useful minister? I would not be under. stood to treat contemptuously a talent that is necessary for the defence of truth; but I must say, that in common life, where there is one occasion of exerting that talent, there are twenty occasions of employing the other talents necessary for the right discharge of the pastoral function.
As then the consideration of the other branches must occupy a part of our time, what profitable purpose, it may be asked, will be answered by some detached discourses on a very few particular articles of divinity, the most that the same students will ever have occasion to hear? Can this give so much as an idea, not to say the knowledge, of the harmony, connection, and mutual dependance of the several parts ? Could a student in architecture, for instance, ever acquire, I say not skill, but what would be necessary to form a taste in that noble and useful art, by having occasion to hear a few detached prelections, at one time per. haps on the Ionic scroll, and the manner of forming it, at another on the Doric triglyphs, at another on the foliage of the Corinthian capital ? Many such learned and elaborate discourses might he hear on the beauty and effect of particular ornaments and little parts of an edifice, without ever attaining an ability of judging of the symmetry of the whole, and of the proportions which, in order to produce the best effect in respect both of elegance and of use, the great and constituent members ought to bear to one another. Yet without this he would remain totally ignorant of the art all the while. Now it is certain, that all the knowledge ne. cessary for the attainment of that art, may, when compared with the christian theology, be comprised in a very small compass.
Is then so important a branch as controversial theology to be overlooked altogether? If not, in what manner is it to be treated, that the end may best be answered ? It is not to be overlooked; but in what manner it ought to be conducted with us, (all circumstances considered) is a question, which it is much more difficult to answer. In the digest that might be made of the articles of the christian system, of the disputes that have arisen out of these articles, and of the arguments that have been or might be produced in support of controverted truths and in confutation of pernicious and plausible errors, if it were possible, as it is not, to give such a digest in the time to which we are limited; hardly any thing very new or deserv. ing the pains on the one part, or the attention on the other, which it would certainly cost, could be offered by us. We should be laid under the necessity of giving at best but a very indistinct compilation (because far too much abridged) from the topics and arguments which have been, over and over, fully treated by con
troversial writers. In so ample a field, therefore, I say not the best thing we can do, but the only thing we can do to any purpose, is to give some directions, first, as to the order in which the student ought to proceed in his inquiries, and secondly, as to the books and assistances which he ought to use.
If these directions are properly attended to and followed, it might be hoped, by the right improvement of his leisure hours (and without this improvement the lectures of divinity schools will be of no significance) that a competent knowledge might in a little time be attained ; and that, both of all the essential articles of the christian system, and of all the principal controversies that have arisen concerning them.
The same observations nearly might be made in relation to the second branch of the same general head, the sacred history. Indeed in some other universities, this is made a separate profession. When that is the case, the professor of divinity hath scope doubtless, for making greater progress in the other branches of the theological studies. But for my part, I am not of opinion, that attending what are commonly called historical lectures, that is, an abridgment of history distributed into lectures, whether the subject be sacred or civil, is the best way of acquiring a sufficiency of knowledge in this branch. I see many disadvantages it has, when compared with reading well written histories, but know not one advantage. Were such a method however more advantageous, when sufficient time is given for prosecuting it, than in my judgment it is, it would not answer with us.
Your whole attendance here would not be sufficient for attaining a competency of knowledge on this article ; though it