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digressions, inferences, and hints, not altogether con-
sistent with his avowed principles. But much al-
lowance ought to be made for that love of novelty
which seduces men of genius to think and speak
rashly ; and for that easiness of belief, which inclines
us to rely on the quotations and commentaries of
confident persons, without examining the authors of
whom they speak. From a review of all that he
has said, it appears that the things which Mr. Gib-
bon considered as secondary or human causes, eflRca-
ciously promoting the Christian religion, either tend-
ed to retard its progress, or were the manifest opera-p
tions of the wisdom and power of God."



As Mr. Gibbon dwells upon secondary causes, it
occurs in this place to mention the rank and charac-
ter of those who were converted to Christianity in
early times. It is obvious to observe, that although
the condition and circumstances of the first teachers
had been ever so mean, if by any accident their doc-
trine had been instantly adopted by men of sviperior
knowledge or of commanding influence, there might
have been, in this way, created a secondary cause,
sufficient, in some measure, to account for the propa-
.gation of Christianity. But the fact long continued
to correspond to the description given by the apostle
Paul, not many wise, not many mighty, not many
noble were called. But God employed the foolish to
confound the wise, and those who were despised to
confound those v/lio were highly esteemed, that no
flesh might glory in his presence, and that the excel-
lency of the power might appear to be of him.* Yet
even here a bound was set by the wisdom of God.
Had Christianity been embraced in early times only
by the ignorant vulgar, it might have been degraded
in the eyes of succeeding ages ; and the universal
indifference or imbelief of those, whose understand-
ings had received any degree of culture and enlarge-
ment, might have conveyed to careless observers an
impression that this new religion was an irrational,
mean superstition. To obviate this objection, even
the Scriptures mention the names of many persons

* 1 Cor. i. 25, 27, 28 ; 2 Cor. iv. 7.


of superior rank who embraced Christianity at its
first publication : and we know, that during tlie two
first centuries, men completely versed in all the learn-
ing of the times left the schools of the philosophers,
and employed their talents and their knowledge in
explaining and defending the doctrines of Christ.
Quadratus and Aristides were Athenian philosophers,
who flourished in the very beginning of the second
century, and who continued to wear the dress of phi-
losophers after they became Christians. Their apo-
logies for Christianity are quoted by very ancient
historians ; but the quotations made from them are
the only parts of them now extant. We still have
several works of Justin Martyr, who lived in the
second century. In his Dialogue with Trypho the
Jew, he gives an account of the time and attention
which he had bestowed upon the study of Platoiiism,
and the admiration in which he once held that doc-
trine. But now, he says, having been acquainted
with the prophets and those men who were the
friends of Jesus, I have found that this is the only
safe and useful philosophy. And thus I have be-
come a philosopher indeed. Ta-jrr,v fxovov rjgm.ov (pi}.o(So^ia.v

There was one early convert to Christianity,
whose attainments and v/hose character may well
be considered as constituting a most powerful se-
condary cause in its propagation. I mean the apos-
tle Paul, a learned Pharisee, bred at the feet of Ga-
maliel, a man of an ardent elevated mind, and of a
strong well-cultivated understanding, who laboured
more abundantly than all the ajiostles, with indefa-
tigable zeal, and with peculiar advantages. But it
is remarkable that this man, in preaching the Gos-


pel, did not avail himself of all the arts which he
had learned to employ. His knowledge of the law
was used not to support, but to overturn the system
in which he had been bred. There is not in his
writings the most distant approach to the forms of
Grecian or Asiatic eloquence ; and there is a free-
dom and a severity in his reproofs, very different
from the courtly manner which his education might
have formed. His conversion is, in itself, an illus-
trious argument of the truth of Christianity. You
will find the force of this argument well stated in a
treatise of the first Lord Lyttelton, entitled. Observa-
tions on the Conversion and Apostleship of St. Paul ;
one of those classical essays which every student of
•divinity should read. The elegant and amiable writ-
er, whose name is dear to every man of taste and vir-
tue, demonstrates the following points with a beautiful
persuasive simplicity. 1. The supposition, neither
of enthusiasm nor of imposture, is sufficient to ac-
count for the conversion of this apostle ; 2. The cha-
racter of his mind, and the history of his life, con-
spire in confirming the narration so often repeated
in the boolc of Acts ; 3. That narration involves in
it the truth of the resurrection of Jesus, the great
fact which the apostles witnessed ; 4. Paul had had no
opportunity of holding any previous concert with
the other apostles, but was completely separated
from them ; 5. liis situation gave him the most per-
fect access to know whether there was truth in the
report published by them, as '^vitnesses of the resur-
rection of Jesus ; and therefore his concurrence with
the other apostles, in publishing that report, and
preaching the doctrine founded upon it, is an acces-
sion of new evidence after the first promulgation


of Christianity. The force of this new evidence will
always remain with those who acknowledge the books
of the New Testament to be authentic. And, for the
benefit of the Christians who lived before the books
were published, it was wisely contrived that the
new evidence should arise out of the history of that
man whose labours contributed most largely to the
conversion of the world, so that in the very person
from whom they received their faith, they had a de-
monstration of its being divine.

And thus you observe, that while the humble sta-
tion of the rest of the apostles necessarily leads us to
a divine interposition, as the only mean of qualify-
ing such men for being the instructors of the world,
the condition and education of the apostle Paul,
which furnished a secondary cause that was useful
in the propagation of Christianity, do, at the same
time, render his conversion such an argument for the
truth of that religion, as is much more than suffi-
cient to counterbalance all the advantages which it
could possibly derive from his knowledge and his ta-
lents. All this you will find illustrated in a very
full life of St. Paul, which Dr. Macknight has pre-
fixed to his commentary on the epistles.


1 HAVE stated the qualifications which are necessary
in order to render the argument arising from the
propagation of Christianity sound and conclusive ; I

VOL. I. u


have suggested the manner of obviating the objec-
tions contained in Mr. Gibbon's account of the se-
condary causes which promoted the rapid growth of
the Christian church ; and I have marked the argu-
ment implied in the conversion of the apostle Paul.
All that I have hitherto said respects the means
employed in propagating the Gospel. But there is
another set of objections that will often meet you
respecting the measure of the effect which these
means have produced. " If the Gospel was really
introduced by the mighty power of God, why was it
not published much earlier ? It is as easy for the
Almighty to exert his power at one time as at an-
other, yet the world was four thousand years old
before the Gospel appeared. Why is this beneficent
religion diffused through so small a portion of the
globe ? It has been said that if our earth be divided
into thirty equal parts. Paganism is established in
nineteen of those parts, Mahometanism in six, and
Christianity only in five. Why have the evil pas-
sions of men been permitted to mingle themselves
with the work of God ? Why has the sword of the
persecutor been called in to aid the counsel of hea-
ven ? Why does the Gospel now spread so slowly,
that the triumphs of this religion seem to have ceased
not many centuries after they began ? Why has a
system, in support of which the Ruler of the uni-
verse condescended to make bare his holy arm, de-
generated, throughout a great part of the Christian
world, into a corrupt form, very far removed from
its original simplicity ? And why is its influence
over the hearts and lives of men so inconsiderable,
even in those countries where the truth is taught as
it is in Christ Jesus ? This partiality, and delay.


and imperfection in the propagation of the Gospel
resembles very much the work of man, whose limited
operations correspond to the scantiness of his power.
But all this is very unlike the word of the Almigh-
ty, which runneth swiftly throughout the whole
earth, to execute all the extent of the gracious pur-
pose formed by the Universal Father of mankind."

I have stated these objections in one view with all
their force. You will find them not only urged se-
riously in the works of deistical writers, but thrown
out lightly and scoffingly in conversation, so that it
behoves you very much to be well apprized of the
manner of answering them. It is impossible for me
to enter into any detail upon this subject ; but I shall
suggest to you, in the six following propositions, the
heads of answers to all objections of this kind, leav-
ing them to be enlarged and applied by your own

1. Observe that these questions, were they much
more pointed and unanswerable than they are, could
not have the effect to overturn historical evidence.
If there be positive satisfying testimony that the di-
vine power was exerted in support of Christianity at
its first promulgation, our being unable to account
for the particular measure of the effect which that
exertion has produced does not, by any clear con-
nection of premises with a conclusion, invalidate the
testimony, but only discovers our ignorance of the
ways of God ; and this is an ignorance which we
feel upon every other subject, which, in judging of
the works of nature, we never admit as an argument
against matter of fact, and which any person, who
has just impressions of the limited powers of man,
and the immense extent of the divine counsels, will



not consider as of v/eight when applied to the evi-
dences of religion.

2. Observe that all the questions imply an expec-
tation that God will bestow the same religious ad-
vantages upon the children of men in every age and
country. But, as no person who understands the
terms which he uses, will say that God is bound in
justice to distribute his favours equally to all his
creatures, so no person who attends to the course of
Divine Providence will be led to draw any such ex^
pectation as the questions imply, from the conduct
of the Almighty in other matters. Recollect the
diversities of the human species, the differences
amongst individuals, in vigour of constitution, in
bodily accomplishments, in the powers of under-
standing, in temper and passions, in the opportuni-
ties of improvement, and the measure of comfort
and enjoyment, or of toil and sorrow, which their
situations afford. Recollect the differences amongst
nations in climate, in government, in the amount of
natural and political advantages, and in the whole
sum of national prosperity. It is impossible for us
to conceive how the subordination of society could
be maintained, if all men had the same talents ; or
how the course of human affairs could proceed, if
every part of the globe was like every other. Being
thus accustomed to behold and to admire the varie-
ties in the natural advantages of men, we are pre-
pared, by the analogy of the works of God, to ex-
pect like varieties in their religious advantages ; and
although we may not be able to trace all the reasons
why the light of the Gospel was so long of appear-
ing, or is at present so unequally distributed, yet if
we bear in mind that this is but the beginning of


our existence, and that every man shall, in the end,
be dealt with according to that which had been
given him, we shall not for a moment annex the idea
of injustice to this part of the Divine conduct/

3. Observe that these questions imply an expecta-
tion, that, while human works admit of preparation,
the work of God will, in every case, be done instant-
ly. But it is manifest that this expectation also is
contradicted by the whole course of nature. For al-
though God may, by a word of his mouth, do all his
pleasure, yet he generally chooses, for wise reasons,
some of which we are often able to trace, to employ
means, and to allow such a gradual oi)eration of
those means, as admits of a progress, in which one
thing paves the way for another, and gives notice of
its approach. In all that process by which food for
man and beast is brought out of the ground — in the
opening of the human mind from infancy to man-
hood — and in those natural changes which affect the
bowels or the surface of the earth, we profit very
much by marking the slow advances of nature to its
end ; and therefore we need not be surprised to find
the steps of Divine Providence in the publication of
the Gospel very different from the haste, which, in
our imagination, appears desirable. As there is a
time of maturity in natural productions to which all
the preparation has tended, so the Gospel appeared
at that season which is styled in Scripture the ful-
ness of time, and which is found, upon a close atten-
tion to circumstances, to have been the fittest for
such a revelation. There is an excellent sermon
upon this subject by Principal Robertson, which
you will find in the " Scots Preacher," distinguished
by that soundness of thought, and that compass of


historical information, which his other writings may
lead you to expect. The same subject will often
meet you in the books that you read upon the deist-
ical controversy ; and when you attend to the com-
plete illustration which it has received from the
writings of many learned men, you will be satisfied
that, as the need of an extraordinary revelation was
at that time become manifest, so the improvements
of science, and the political state of the world, con-
spired to render the age in which the Gospel appear-
ed better qualified than any preceding age for exa-
mining the evidences of a revelation, for affording
many striking confirmations of its divine original,
and for conveying it with ease and advantage to fu-
ture ages. The preparation which produced this
fulness of time had been carrying forward during
4000 years ; and nearly 2000 have elapsed, while
Christianity has been spreading through a fifth part
of the globe. But this slowness, so agreeable to the
general course of nature, will not appear to you in-
consistent with the wisdom or goodness of the Al-
mighty, when you,

4. Observe that in all this there was a prepara-
tion for the universal diffusion of the Gospel. A
considerable measure of religious knowledge was dif-
fused through the world before the appearance of
the Gospel ; and the delay of its universal publica-
tion has perhaps already contributed, and may be so
disposed in future as to contribute still more, to pre-
pare the world for receiving it. The few simple
doctrines of that traditional religion which existed
before the deluge, were transmitted, by the longevity
of the patriarchs, through very few hands for the
first 1400 years of the workl. Methuselah lived


many years with Adam ; Sliem lived many years
with Methuselah ; and Abraham lived with Sliem
till he was 75. Between Adam and Abraham there
were only two intermediate links ; yet a chain of
tradition, extending through nearly 1700 years, and
embracing the creation, the fall, and the promise of a
Saviour, was preserved. The calling of Abraham,
although it conferred peculiar advantages upon his
family, was fitted, by his character and situation, to
enlighten his neighbours ; and the whole history of
the Jewish people — their sojourning in Egypt, the
place which they were destined to inhabit, their con-
quests, and the captivities by which they were after-
wards scattered over the face of the earth, rendered
them, in an eminent degree, the lights of the world,
Bryant, in his " Mythology," and men who have
applied to such investigations, have traced, with
much probability, a resemblance to the Mosaic sys-
tem in the religions of many of the neighbouring
nations ; and if we pay any attention to the force of
the instances in which this resemblance has been il-
lustrated, even although we should not give credit to
all the conjectures that have been advanced, we can
hardly entertain a doubt that the revelation with
which the Jews were favoured was a source of in-
struction to other people. During the existence of
this peculiar religion wise men were raised, by the
providence of God, in many countries, who did not,
indeed, pretend to be the messengers of heaven, but
whose discoveries exposed the growing corrujjtions
of the established systems, or whose laws imposed
some restraint upon the excesses of superstition ;
while the progress of society, and the advancement
of reason, ojiened the minds of men to a more per-»


feet instruction than they had formerly been quali-
fied to receive.

These hints suggest this enlarged view of the eco-
nomy of Divine Providence, that God in no age left
himself without a witness, and that the several dis-
pensations of religion, in ancient times, both to Jews
and heathens, were adapted to the circumstances of
the human race, so as to lead them forward by a
gradual education from times of infancy and child-
hood to the rational sublime system unfolded in the

It is following out the same view, to consider the
partial propagation of the Gospel as intended to pre-
pare the world for receiving it. Many of the hea-
then moralists, who lived after the days of our Sa-
viour, discover more refined notions of God, and more
enlarged conceptions of the duties of man, than any
of their predecessors. They profited by the Gospel,
although they did not acknowledge the obligation ;
and they disseminated some part of its instruction,
although they disdained to appear as its ministers.
The Koran inculcates the unity of God, and retains
a part of the Christian morality ; and thus the suc-
cessful accommodating religion of Mahomet may be
considered as a step, by which the providence of
God is to lead the nations that have embraced it from
the absurdities of Paganism to the true faith. When
Christianity became the established religion of the
Roman empire the other parts of the world were
very far behind in civilization, and many of the
countries that have been lately discovered are in the
rudest state of society. Bvit the conversion of sa-
vage tribes to a spiritual rational system is impracti-
cable. Much time is necessary to open their under-


standings, to give them habits of industry and or-
der, and to render them, in some measure, acquaint-
ed with ideas and manners more polished than their
own. A long intercourse with the nations of Eu-
rope, who appear fitted by their character to be the
instructors of the rest of the world, may be the mean
appointed by God for removing the prejudices of
idolatry and ignorance ; and as the enlightened dis-
coveries of modern times make us acquainted with
the manners, the views, and the interests, as well as
with the geographical situation of all the inhabit-
ants of the globe, we may, not indeed with the pre-
cipitancy of visionary reformers, but in that gradual
progress which the nature of the case requires, be
the instrument of preparing them for embracing our
religion ; and by the measure in which they adopt
our improvements in art and science, they may be-
come qualified to receive, through our communica-
tion, the knowledge of the true God, and of his son
Christ Jesus.

5. Observe, that the objection, implied in some of
the questions that I stated, necessarily arises from
the employment of human means in that partial pro-
pagation of the Gospel which has already taken place.
Any such objection might have been effectually ob-
viated by a continued miracle ; but it remains to be
inquired whether the nature of the case, or the ge-
neral analogy of Divine Providence, gives any rea-
son to expect this method of obviating the objection.
Had the outstretched arm of the Almighty, which
first introduced the Gospel, continued to be exerted
through all succeeding ages in the propagation of it,
the course of human affairs would have been unhing-
ed, and the argument from miracles would have been


weakened, because the extraordinary interposition of
the Ahnighty would, by reason of its frequent re-
turns, have been confounded with the ordinary course
of nature. The divine original of the gift, therefore,
being ascertained, the hand of him from whom it had
proceeded was wisely withdrawn, and human pas-
sions tmd interests were combined, by his all-ruling
Providence, to diffuse it in the measure which he had
ordained. The pious zeal of many Christians in ear-
ly and later times, the vanity, ambition, or avarice,
which led others to promote their private ends by
spreading the faith of Christ, the wide extent of the
Roman empire at the time when Christianity became
the established religion of the state, the subsequent
dismemberment of the empire by the invasions ancj
settlements of the barbarous nations, and the spirit
of commerce which has carried the descendants of
these nations to regions never visited by the Roman
arms, are some of the instruments employed by the
providence of God in the propagation of Christianity.
It was not to be expected, that in a propagation thus
committed to human means, the heavenly gift would
escape all contamination from the imperfect and im-
pure channels through which it was conveyed ; and
it cannot be denied that there have been many cor-
ruptions, many improper methods of converting men
to Christianity, and many gross adulterations and
perversions of " the faith once delivered to the
saints." But you will observe in general, that al-
though the gifts of God are liable to abuse through
the imperfections and vices of men, such abuse is
never considered as any argument that the gifts did
not proceed from him : and with regard to the cor-
ruptions of Christianity in particular, you will ob-


serve, that so far from their creating any presump-
tion against the evidence of our religion, there are
circumstances which render them an argument for
its divine original. They are foretold in the Scrip-
tures. They arose by the neglect of the Scriptures,
and they were in a great measure remedied at the
Reformation, by the return of a considerable part of
the Christian world to that truth which the Scrip-
tures declare. The case stands thus. The Gospel
contains a system of faith and practice, which is safe-
ly deposited in those authentic records that are re-
ceived by the whole Christian world. That system
was indeed deformed in its progress by the errors
and passions of men, but it breaks through this cloud
by its own intrinsic light. The striking manner in
which the prophecy of the corruptions of Christiani-
ty has been fulfilled forms an important branch of the
evidence of our religion. The discussions which they
occasioned have contributed very much to render the
nature of the Gospel more perfectly understood ; and
the further that the Christian world departs either
from those corrujitions to which the Reformation ap-
plied a remedy, or from any others which the Scrip-
tures condemn, the divinity of their religion will be-
come the more manifest. Hence you may perceive an
advantage arising from the slowness with which the
Gospel was propagated for many centuries. In its ra-
pid progress before the destruction of Jerusalem, the

Online LibraryGeorge HillLectures in divinity (Volume 1) → online text (page 21 of 32)