« PrécédentContinuer »
those which afford only matter of conversation, and require a share of our attention on account of the esteem of others; and which is perhaps nearly coincident, those which instruct us in permanent truths, and the actual productions of eventful time, are of a higher order, than those which entertain us only with the vague opinions and unintelligible sophisms of men. Books of the third class, or pieces of mere amusement, I throw out of the question altogether. Now as to those of the second, if every man were unconnected with and independent on his fellows, such reading (farther at least than were necessary to give us some notion of the wanderings of the human mind) it would perhaps be better to dispense with entirely. But as that is not the case, and as our own happiness in a great measure, and the very end of our being depend on our utility, it is necessary, that, in our studies, this should command a considerable share of our regard. It is not by undervaluing their sentiments, that we can ever hope to be profitable to others, and to correct what is amiss in them. It is necessary that in this respect we should even follow the wanderer into his devious tracks, that we may be in a condition to lay hold of him, and reclaim him by reconducting him into the right way.
Now to make application of these observations to the present subject, I readily admit, that when once the
young divine hath acquired the knowledge of the scriptures above recommended and illustrated, and hath added to this the history of our religion, he hath obtained all, or nearly all that is instructive, that is truly valuable on its own account, but he hath not obtained all that may be necessary to fit him for instructing
others. For this purpose, he must be prepared to enter the lists with gainsayers on their own ground, and to fight them at their own weapons. With the fund of substantial knowledge above pointed out, he will hardly run the risk of being seduced by the sophistry of others, but he may be both surprised and silenced by it. We may perceive perfectly the inconclusiveness of the argument of an adversary, the moment it is produced, to which however we may not be able on the sudden to give a pertinent and satisfactory reply. Besides, a deficiency in this secondary kind of knowledge is perhaps more apt, in the judgment of the world, to fix on a character the stain of ignorance, than a defect in the primary kind. And how much this stigma, however unjustly fixt, will, by prejudicing the minds of men, prevent the success of a teacher, those who understand any thing of human nature will easily judge.
I will just now put a case, the decision of which will be thought by several to be problematical, and by many to be extremely clear, though of these no doubt some would decide one way, and some another. With the reservation of sacred writ and sacred history, under which I include all that can serve to enlighten pagan, Jewish and christian antiquity, I will suppose that all our theological books, systems, controversies, comimentaries, on all the different sides, were to be annihilated at once; the question is, whether the christian world and the republic of letters would be a gainer or a loser by this extraordinary event. Let it not be imagined, that I mean by this supposition, to consider all such performances as being on a level in point of excellency. Nothing can be farther from my view. I know that the difference among them in respect of merit is exceeding great. Nor is it my intention to insinuate, that there would not be a real loss, when considered separately, in the suppression of many ingeni. ous and many useful observations. But as there would on the other hand be manifest gain in the extinction of so much sophistry, the destruction of so many artful snares laid for seducing, the annihilation of the materials of so much contention, I may say, of the fuel for kindling such terrible conflagrations, my question regards only the balance upon the whole, and whether the loss would not be more than compensated by the profit. Can the christian, at least can the protestant, think, that there would be a want of any thing essen. tial, whilst the word of God remained, and every thing that might be helpful, not to bias men to particular opinions, but to throw light upon its idiom and language ? Is it possible, that any man of common understanding should imagine, we could ever come to differ so widely about the sense and meaning of scripture, if we did not take such different ways of setting out, and if almost every one were not at pains to get his mind preoccupied by some human composition or teaching, before he enters on the examination of that rule? And would it be a mighty loss to christians, that the seeds (I say not of their differences in opinion, but) of such unrelenting prejudices, such implacable animosities against one another, were totally destroyed ? Shall it be regarded as a formidable danger, that all, by being thus compelled to a sort of uniformity in their method of study, should arrive at an unanimity, not so much in their tenets, as in their dispositions and affections ? For that this would be the consequence, there is the greatest reason in the world to believe; as in nine
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 contro. versies 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
simili tude 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 examination 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