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tants and papists, or Roman catholics as they affect to call themselves, this knowledge of the sacred volume and history must be of the utmost consequence; since, though we do not receive for scripture all that they account canonical, yet they admit as such all the books that are received by us; and though they will not acknowledge scripture to be the only rule of faith and manners, yet as they own its inspiration, they avow it to be a rule and an unerring rule too. The exact knowledge of its contents must therefore be of the greatest moment to one who would enter the lists with a Romanist, since those of that faction cannot, consistently with their own profession, admit any thing in religion, which is contradictory to the doctrine or precepts contained in that book : so that even upon their own principles, their tenets are liable to be confuted from scripture, if we can evince the contrariety. And with regard to all the particular popish controversies, next to the knowledge of scripture, a thorough acquaintance with ecclesiastic history is of the greatest importance. Uninterrupted tradition is a much boasted and very powerful plea with them. It is impossible without such an acquaintance with church history, for any one to conceive how miserably ill this plea is adapted to support their cause. The gradual introduction of their many gross corruptions, both in doctrine and practice, is so extremely apparent to the historic student, that even a person of moderate penetration will need no other proof, either of their novelty, or of the baseness of their extraction. He will thus in the most effectual manner be convinced of the falseness of all other foundations, tradition, popes and councils, and that the Bible is that alone on which the religion of
christians can rest immoveably. He will be apt to conclude in the words of the excellent Chillingworth (whose performance deserves a most serious perusal, not more because it is a clear detection of papistical sophistry, than because it is an admirable specimen of just and acute reasoning, he will be ready, I say, to conclude in the words of that author,) “Whatsoever else they believe besides the Bible, and the plain, irrefragable, indubitable, consequences of it, well may they hold it as a matter of opinion, but as a matter of faith and religion neither can they, with coherence to their own grounds, believe it themselves, nor require the belief of it of others, without most high and most schismatical presumption. I, for my part, after a long and (as I verily believe and hope) impartial search of the true way to eternal happiness, do profess plainly, that I cannot find any rest for the sole of my foot, but on this rock only. I see plainly and with my own eyes, that there are popes against popes ; councils against councils; some fathers against others; the same fathers against themselves; a consent of fathers of one age against a consent of fathers of another age; the church of one age against the church of another age. Traditive interpretations of scripture are pretended, but there are none to be found. No tradition, but only of scripture, can derive itself from the fountain, but may be plainly proved, either to have been brought in, in such an age after Christ, or that in such an age it was not in. In a word, there is no sufficient certainty, but of scripture only, for any considerate man to build upon.” Thus far that able advocate of protestantism. So just will the remark be found upon the trial, that those branches of knowledge, which we have advised the student to begin with, holy writ and sacred history, will beyond his conception, tend to shorten the study of all religious controversies both general and particular. The reason is obvious. It will supply him with a fund in himself, whereby he can discover the solidity or futility of almost every argument that can be advanced.
On the contrary, when one who is quite unprovided in this respect, enters on controversy either general or particular, what is the consequence? It is, I may say, invariably, one or other of these two. He is either fixed entirely in his sentiments by the first author he reads, so that the clearest proofs from reason or scripture can never shake him afterwards; or he is always the dupe of the last writer he has happened to peruse. The first is commonly the case, when there is ever so little of a previous bias from education to the principles, and a favourable opinion of the character of the author. The second holds more commonly when the bias from education, if any, is inconsiderable, and the authors on both sides ingenious and artful. Nor docs this wavering in the student betray, as is commonly imagined, a want of understanding. The want it betrays is of a very different nature. It is the want of such a stock of knowledge, as is necessary to qualify the mind for judging. Or to adopt an illustration from the body; it is not the badness of his eyes, but the want of light which is the cause of his mistaking. And the best eyes in the world will not distinguish colours in the dark. It must be owned further, that even this changeableness, when it arises from such a cause as we have mentioned, shows commonly a laudable candour of temper and openness to conviction. In both cases, however, the effect is a sufficient demonstration, that the study was premature. Mr. Pope, by his own acknowledgement, was an instance of the case last mentioned, as we learn from one of his letters to Dr. Atterbury. The prelate, it would appear, had been using his best endeavours with the poet to induce him to read some of the most celebrated authors on the popish controversy, in order to his conversion to the church of England. Mr. Pope, amongst other things, informed the bishop, that he had formerly, even when he was but fourteen years old, employed some time in reading the best writers on both sides the question, and that the consequence had always been, that he was protestant and papist alternately, according to the principles of the author, who had last engaged his attention. He adds very pertinently," I am afraid most seekers are in the same case; and when they stop, they are not so properly converted, as outwitted.” Mr. Pope cannot, I think, be justly accused even by his enemies of a defect of understanding. In this particular, he was considerably above the ordinary standard. But being, in all probability, at that early period, totally deficient in those materials, which could enable him to judge for himself in controversies about the sense of revelation, it was inevitable, that he should be swayed by turns by the different representations of the different champions. In other words, not having in himself those lights that were necessary, thę knowledge of scripture and the knowledge of history, to enable him to see with his own eyes, he was forced to see with those of other people ; and his impartiality itself led him to be influenced most by the nearest, by him who had made the last impression. So much for the advanta
ges which will accrue to the student from a proper prosecution of the plan I have been recommending.
But, it may be said, suppose this knowledge of which
you speak, is once attained, Must he proceed any further; and if he must, In what manner? In answer to these questions, I observe first, that when once the knowledge I mentioned is attained, he has accomplished by far the most essential part of the study of christian theology, he hath acquired that which is both in itself most valuable, and can best prepare him to enter with understanding into the other, and less essential parts of the study. Things however are rendered necessary to people in certain stations from certain accidental circumstances, which would otherwise be of little consequence in themselves. Of this sort are many things which the theologian must not altogether overlook. Some books deserve to be read on account of the uscful instruction they contain ; some again on account of the vogue they have obtained, and often merely that we may be qualified to say with greater confidence, that they contain nothing of any value; some, because they inform us of what is done, others, because they inform us of what is thought. And as the qualities of different books and the acqui. sitions we make by them are very different, so the motes that influence us are no less various : sometimes we read to obtain a supply of knowledge, oftener to obtain a supply of conversation, and not seldom to pass tolerably over a vacant hour, whick-we are at a loss how to spend. In determining the comparative merits of books, there can be no question, that those which convey useful knowledge and deserve a reading on their own account, are in a class greatly superior to