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Of the Christian System.....the Scriptures ought to be the first study...
afterwards Systems and Commentaries may be occasionally consulted.... bad consequence of beginning the study of Theology with Systems and Commentaries.
I now proceed to the consideration of the parts of the christian system, and the controversies that have been carried on concerning the explication of these by different sects of christians. As method tends both to accelerate and to facilitate our progress in every discussion, it will naturally occur to every considerate person, that some methodical digest of the tenets and precepts contained in our Bible would be at least a matter of great conveniency. That it is not of absolute necessity we may warrantably conclude from this undeniable fact, that there neither is any such digest in scripture, nor was there in the church in the earliest and purest times. But on the other hand these considerations are no arguments against its utility. God, in the economy of grace, as in the economy of nature, supplies man with all the materials necessary for his support and well being, but at the same time requires the exercise of those faculties with which he hath endowed him, for turning those materials to the best account. Thus much may be said in apology for sysdem makers of different denominations, many of whom I doubt not have intended well, whose success in this department we cannot at all admire. So it is however, that we have great plenty of systems in many things flatly contradicting one another, all pretending to be founded on, or at least conformable to the doctrine of holy writ. Amid such variety how is the young student to proceed ? Must he begin with adopting implicitly one of these pretended treasuries of christian doctrine, studying assiduously both the theoretic part and the practical as the standard of truth, as the very quintessence of our divine institution; must he learn from it and from such commentators as are coincident in their religious sentiments, to understand the scriptures, to ascertain the sense of every thing that appears ambiguous, to solve every thing that is difficult, and to enlighten every thing that is obscure ? On the other hand, what security shall our young pupil have, that the guide who has been assigned to him is equal to the office? How shall he know that he is not following the train of a mere ignis fatuus, instead of the direction of a heavenly luminary? You cannot say, he may arrive at this knowledge from scripture, for by the hypothesis, which is indeed conformable to the general practice almost every where, the young student is from this teacher to learn to understand the scripture, not from scripture to learn to judge of this teacher; for were this last to be the case, he must be previously acquainted with the mind of the spirit as manifested in the scriptures, and not take the mind of the spirit on the word of his teacher.
Ay, but the teacher we assign him, say they, is celebrated for knowledge and piety, and is of great reputation among the orthodox as an orthodox divine. As to his knowledge and piety, are we to sustain ourselves perfect judges of these accomplishments, or have not pedantry and hypocrisy sometimes imposed even upon the generality of men ? But admitting that the character you give him were in both respects perfectly just, do even these qualifications, however valuable, secure a man against error either in doctrine or practice ? Have not several, whom in charity we are bound to think both knowing and pious, maintained in many instances opposite opinions, each extremely positive as to his own, and extremely zealous in defence of it? And as to orthodox, I should be glad to know the meaning of the epithet. Nothing, you say, can be plainer. The orthodox are those who in religious matters entertain right opinions. Be it so. How then is it possible I should know who they are that entertain right opinions, before I know what opinions are right? I must therefore unquestionably know orthodoxy, before I can know or judge who are orthodox. Now to know the truths of religion, which you call orthodox, is the very end of my inquiries, and am I to begin these inquiries on the presumption, that without any inquiry I know it already? Besides, is this thing which
you call orthodoxy, a thing in which mankind are universally agreed, insomuch that it would seem to be entitled to the privilege of an axiom or first principle to be assumed without proof? Quite the reverse. There is nothing about which men have been, and still are, more divided. It has been accounted orthodox divinity in one age, which hath been branded as ridiculous fanaticism in the next. It is at this day deemed the perfection of orthodoxy in one country, which in
an adjacent country is looked upon as damnable heresy. Nay in the same country hath not every sect a stan. dard of their own? Accordingly when any person se. riously uses the word, before we can understand his meaning, we must know to what communion he belongs. When that is known, we comprehend him perfectly. By the orthodox he means always those who agree in opinion with him and his party, and by the heterodox those who differ from him. When one says then, of any teacher whatever, that all the ortho- . dox acknowledge his orthodoxy, he says neither more nor less than this, “ all who are of the same opinion with him, of which number I am one, believe him to be in the right.” And is this
And is this any thing more, than what may be asserted by some person or other, of every teacher that ever did or ever will exist ? “ Words,” it was well said by a philosopher of the last age, the counters of wise men and the money of fools.” And when they are contrived on purpose to render persons parties or opinions the objects of admiration or of abhorrence, the multitude are very susceptible of the impression intended to be conveyed by them, without entering at all, or ever inquiring into the meaning of the words. And to say the truth, we have but too many ecclesiastic terms and phrases, which savour grossly of the arts of a crafty priesthood, who meant to keep the world in ignorance, to secure an implicit faith in their own dogmas, and to intimidate men from an impartial inquiry into holy writ.
But would you then lay aside systems altogether, as useless or even dangerous ? By no means.
But I am not for beginning with them. I am even not for entering on their examination, till one has be
come in the way formerly recommended, if not a critic, at least a considerable proficient in the scripture. 'Tis only thus, we can establish to ourselves a rule by which we are to judge of the truth or falsehood of what they affirm. 'Tis only thus, that we bring systems to be tried at the bar of scripture, and not scrip. ture to be tried at their's. 'Tis only thus we can be qualified to follow the advice of the prophet in regard to all teachers without exception, “To the law and to the testimony, if they speak not according to this word, they have no truth in them.” 'Tis only thus, we can imitate the noble example set us by the wise Bereans, in exact conformity to the prophet's order, of whom we learn, that they did not admit the truth of Christ's doctrine even on the testimony of his apostles, but having candidly heard what they said,
searched the scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” 'Tis only thus, we can avoid the reproach of calling other men xadnyntat masters, leaders, dictators, to the manifest derogation of the honour due to our only master, leader and dictator, Christ. 'Tis only thus, we can avoid incurring the reproach thrown upon the Pharisees, concerning whom God says, " their fear towards me is taught by the precepts of men."
But then it will be said, if the scriptures are to be our first study, will it not be necessary, that, even in reading them, we take the aid of some able commentator? Perhaps I shall appear somewhat singular in my way of thinking, when I tell you in reply, that I would not have you at first recur to any of them. Do not mistake me, as though I meant to signify, that there is no good to be had from commentaries. I am