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SUBJECT OF PREDESTINATION.
A READER of Paradise Lost, if versed in divinity, must perceive, that Milton was not less a divine, than a poet. This is every where apparent throughout that most exalted work of genius, and sacred erudition ; but I think, not more remarkably in any part of it, than where he introduces a group of speculative devils in the infernal regions, reasoning deep, and bewildering themselves on the subjects of fate, freewill, &c. They, saith the poet,
Sat apart, and reason'd high
And found no end, in wandering mazes lost. He then represents these evil spirits as proceeding, from these naturally mysterious subjects, to reason on the nature of good and evil, as if beings, so lately in heaven, and now in hell, could not sufficiently feel the distinction, but must make these also the subjects of refinement.
This is no panegyric on the labours of those too inquisitive divines, who have stirred up a number of endless, and even shocking disputes, on topics, fitter by far for the exercise of so many metaphysical fiends. For my own part, ever since I arrived at any tolerable knowledge of the Scriptures, and of human nature, I have wondered how it came to pass, that so great a number of men, many of them too seemingly of some abilities, should have so miserably lost their way, and indeed I think, their very understandings, on the topics of predestination and freewill. Surely these topics, so far as they lie open to the human capacity, are as intelligible as any other whatsoever; and so far as they are incomprehensible, every mortal of common sense and modesty must perceive it. It is true one man can penetrate farther into an abstruse subject than another; but there are certain subjects, to the bottom of which, it is quickly perceived, no human penetration can dive. Predestination and freewill are evidently among these. That God, or man, should predetermine, and freely choose, in certain cases, we clearly conceive, and perfectly well know. But how, or by what internal powers, it is, that man does this, or God does that, no man, and I will venture to say, no finite being, can possibly conceive.
If from this impossibility of conception, another equally great should arise, namely, how to account for the consistency of the divine foreknowledge, whereon the predestination depends, and from whence it must, in the order of our ideas, necessarily result; with the human freedom of will, in regard to the same event, are we to be surprised ? No. In other branches of knowledge, we soon find the shortness of our line, and stop contented, when we have once stretched it to its full length. How is it then, that, in relation to God, and divine things, that is, in relation to points, universally confessed to be incomprehensible, we never find the end of our line, as is evident by our never finding the end of our refinements ? No man attempts to fathom the sea, nor touch the moon, with his finger. Infinitely shorter still is his understanding in regard to the attributes of wisdom and power in God, and of freedom and volition in himself, and to the exercise of the one, as well as the other, in particular acts, especially when God and the human will interfere. Who can tell, for instance, how God, with certainty foresees that action of a man, which that man is perfectly free to do, or abstain from, as he pleases ? And again, who can tell, how a man acts freely under the influence of a prepollent motive? He deifies himself, who attempts either; for none but God can comprehend God; and none but God can make a man, or consequently, so understand the nature of a man, as to want nothing but the power, to make a man.
There is a difference (indeed it-is but a small one) between the capacities of different men, not idiots, whereon vanity, content with narrow grounds to build on, rather than not build at all, may erect its inch of superiority over a head more grovelling. These may go different lengths in small and easy articles of knowledge, but find a number of higher and more inaccessible truths, at which they are both obliged to stop short, and assent, or dissent without a possibility of saying, why, without a possibility, I mean, in either, to assign a reason from the real nature of the thing. One man too can leap a little farther or higher, than another; but if they come to a wall of forty feet in height, or to a river of a hundred feet in breadth, they are equally unable to pass beyond. There is no greater blockhead than he, who having arrived at the years of discretion, hath not found the extent, or rather shortness of his own understanding. Nor is there in the world so despicable a class of reptiles, as they, who, finding it extremely difficult to creep over a molehill, are for flying over a mountain. The acquisition of knowledge hath not been so unhappily retarded, nor so miserably pestered, with any kind of vermin, as with that race of literary prigs, who set up to dictate on subjects they do not understand, and even to dictate farther, than men of ten times their capacity, can possibly understand.
How impudent! How petulant! Yet how pitiful and ridiculous in the eye of sounder reason !
Of all subjects, the mysteries of religion (that petulance may swell itself into impiety) are the most apt to be singled out for the speculations of these goodly refiners. The dwarf must pull the fruit that hangs too high for the giant to reach. One silly mortal sits down to explain an account for a religious mystery. Another attempts to shew its absurdity. Vanity is equally the motive, and futility the success, of both. Other success had been impossible, supposing their talents of the first magnitude. The truth is, no man of great abilities could ever have busied himself on either side, because a man of great abilities must quickly have seen, that the subject was above him. It is from the little divines only, that we have the huge volumes on mystical theology, one setting up an absurdity, and another pulling it down, and a new bone of contention every now and then thrown in from heads, barren of every thing but trash, till the shelf bends with accumulated folios, wherein the real mystery under debate, is no way concerned, nor indeed the combatants, considered as either Christians or divines. They fight for a victory only, not an article of religion, though that is always the pretence.
To put an end to this impious trifling, if possible, and to satisfy the tender, but modest inquirer (many such there are) who is apt to lose himself on the subjects of foreknowledge and predestination in God, of moral freedom in man, and of the interfering between that foreknowledge and this freedom; give me leave, reader, to state the right ideas of that foreknowledge, predestination, and freedom; then to prove the reality of each; and lastly, so to touch on the interference, as to shew how far it may be reconciled to human conception, and how far it ought to be acquiesced in as a mystery, on the same footing with those natural mysteries, which we do, and must acquiesce in, every moment of our lives.
In the first place, the foreknowledge of God is absolute, perfect, certain. It is not, in any the smallest degree, precarious, which it must be, if it is at all conditional, or hypothetical. He foresees or foreknows, what we call accidents, and the free elections of all intelligent creatures, not because he knows the effects of all causes, and the natural dispositions of all rational beings, which undoubtedly he does, but because he hath in himself a faculty, power, or attribute, to which all things, past, present, or future, as they are called in the language of creatures, are ever open and apparent. As the eye of man perceives a large and visible object, placed directly before it, and in a strong and clear light, so, but with an infinitely higher perfection, does the eye of God perceive, the future, if I may so call it, as well as the past and present. To him nothing is, properly speaking, past, or future. All is present. But, to speak as men must speak, he knew every thing perfectly and certainly, from all eternity, and will know to all eternity. He knew for instance, from the beginning, not only, that if John will be good, he must be happy, but knew certainly, that John should exist, and whether he should be good and happy, or wicked and miserable. Thus ought we to think of the divine prescience.
And therefore, in the second place, we conclude, that he decreed or predestinated, from the beginning, the eternal