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Subject continued.... The knowledge of the Scriptures the most essential part
of the Study.... How far the Study of Controversy demands our attention. In my last discourse, I began with giving some hints to aid the young inquirer into religion, in forming a kind of system of christian morality, and concluded with pointing out the advantages which would redound to him, from his being frequently employed in the exercises on the scripture which we have recommended, that is, in making abstracts, first of the scriptural history, secondly of the doctrines, and thirdly of the moral precepts. Of these advantages, I particularly mentioned and illustrated on the last occasion, three. The first was, that it is one of the most effectual methods, I can conceive, of bringing the student to an intimate acquaintance with his Bible. The second was, that it suggests to him an excellent method of employing his time usefully in almost any situation wherein he can be placed. Every other method or plan of study presupposeth so many things, so much leisure, so many conveniences, and so great a variety of books, that admitting it were ever so profitable, it can scarcely ever be put in execution; whereas on the contrary, if the young divine, however situated, be not in a condition for executing this, we may say justly, that in ninety nine cases out of a hundred, he has himself to blame. The third advantage I mentioned was, that his style in religious matters, in what regards the great truths of revelation, would by this method be formed entirely on the style of holy writ, the great and only source of our information on this head, a style which in general terms is admitted by all parties of christians to be unexceptionable, a style which no sect dares directly to accuse, and yet with which no true sectary is altogether satisfied. Nor will this advantage appear inconsiderable to those, who see what it is to be confined and hampered in the trammels of a faction, and who are duly sensible of the jealousy and malignity of spirit, that have been consequent on the many discordant Babel dialects, which have been introduced into the christian world by our numerous and antichristian divisions.
The fourth and last great advantage, which in concluding I just mentioned, and now intend to illustrate, is, the preparation which by this method the student will acquire, for the understanding both of the general controversy concerning the truth of christianity, and also of the particular disputes that have arisen in the church. As to the general controversy concerning the truth of revelation, the objections of the adversaries, as was observed formerly, are mostly of two kinds. They are either intrinsic, and are levelled against the contents of scripture, the doctrine it teaches, the morals it inculcates, or the probability of the history it records; or extrinsic, and are levelled against the outward evidences which are produced in its defence, the miracles performed, and the prophecies fulfilled. Now as to the former species of attack, it is manifest we are utterly unfit for judging of the ques
tion concerning the quality of the contents of revelation, till we have previously studied what the contents are.
If we go to work the other way, which I call preposterous, we are entirely at the mercy of the antagonist for the most essential part, the very foundation of his argument, to wit, the reality of the facts and allegations, on which all his reasonings are built. If we take things for granted on his bare affirmation, which if he has a specious manner of writing we shall have a strong propensity to do, it is a thousand to one we shall become the dupes of the grossest misrepresentation. If we have the sense and caution to perceive that we ought to suspend our judgment, till we have impartially examined the allegations in point of fact, we shall at best be perplexed and puzzled, but can never be edified or improved by so premature a study. The only thing we then can do with propriety, is to betake ourselves to the study of scripture in some such method as that which has been proposed; and before we have accomplished this, 'tis a thousand to one, that all our previous controversial reading, when we were nowise prepared to enter into the argument, will be quite forgotten, so that the least bad consequence of this perversion of the natural order is the loss of so much time and labour, and the necessity we are under of beginning the controversy a second time, if we would become masters of the question. Even in a dispute, which we may happen to hear in company, how little are we qualified to judge which of the parties hath reason on his side, if we are unacquainted with the subject of dispute ? We shall possibly be capable of deciding, which is the ablest disputant; but we could not devise a more fallacious rule, though in such circumstances none is more common, by which to determine the merits of the
Let it not be pleaded in answer to this, that without such a course of study and exercises as hath been proposed, the generality of students, at least in protestant countries, have sufficient knowledge of the contents of scripture, to qualify them to judge of such controversy; for have they not had occasion, nay have they not been inured to read the sacred books themselves, and to hear them read by others, even from their infancy? But to this I reply, that as teaching in this manner has always been accompanied more or less with human explications and glosses, the learner in so early a period is extremely ill qualified to distinguish the text from the comment. Accordingly, do we not see, that with the same practice of reading scripture and hearing it read, the notions of its doctrine, imbibed by the youth, are different in different countries and in different sects? It is of importance, before the student enter on the main question, the truth of his religion, that he should be enabled to distinguish between the commandments of God, and the traditions of the elders; between the simple truth, as it is in Jesus, and the subtleties and refinements of the theorist. These are miserably blended and confounded in all the attacks that have been made on the christian religion. And what is worse, most of the answerers, having been themselves zealous partisans of some sect, have contributed to confirm and increase the confusion. The method I have proposed doth, in my opinion, bid fairest for accomplishing the end, and enabling the student, in most cases, to make the distinction. Besides, even the attacks that have been made on the external evidences, especially in re
gard to the fulfilment of prophecies, when the argument turns on the meaning of the prediction, we are by thus familiarizing ourselves to the study of the scripture idiom, language and sentiments, prepared for understanding, and consequently for deciding upon its strength or weakness.
And indeed (if we except only the abstract and metaphysical argument, that has been urged against the possibility of miraculous events as being preternatural, which is totally independent on any question of fact, and may therefore be studied at any time) the best preparation we can make, for entering into the whole controversy concerning the truth of christianity, is a critical knowledge of holy writ, together with some proficiency both in biblical and ecclesiastic history. But further, this will be found the best method, not only for enabling us to understand the controversy, but for abridging it also. We shall be in a capacity for detecting many fallacies in reasoning, and many misrepresentations of fact, which might otherwise stagger and confound us.
When thus prepared, our own penetration will, in many cases, supersede the necessity of perusing refutations.
But this method will be found not only the best preparation for understanding the general controversy concerning the truth of our religion, but also for entering properly into the particular controversies, that have arisen among christians concerning articles of faith, matters of government, worship, discipline, or morals. When the adverse parties are both protestants, the point just now affirmed may with propriety be called self-evident; because the only infallible rule of decision admitted by both parties, is the scripture. And even in the disputes which subsist between protes