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pure doctrine of the apostles was carried by them-
selves, or their immediate successors, through all the
parts of the then known world. But had it spread
with equal rapidity in the dark ages, all the absur-
dities which at that time adhered to it would have
spread also ; and so universal a disease could hardly



SOO niOPAGATION OF CHRISTIANITY,

have admitted of any remedy. It is iioav purified
from a great part of the dross. The influence of the
Reformation has extended even to Roman Catholic
countries ; and in those which are reformed, the pro-
gress of knowledge, and the application of sound cri-
ticism, are continuing to illustrate the genuine doc-
trines of Christ. The Gospel will thus be commur
nicated with less adulteration to those parts of the
world which are yet to receive the first notice of it :
and that free intercourse, which the spirit of modern
commerce is now opening between countries which
formerly regarded each other with jealousy, may be
the mean of extirpating the errors of Popery Avhich
were sown in remote regions by the zeal of Roman
Catholic missionaries. These are pleasing views,
sufficient to overpower the peevish objection suggest-
ed by the corruptions of Christianity : they lead us
to consider the Almighty as making all things work
together for the establishment of truth and righteous-.
ness upon earth ; and they teach us to rest with as^
surance in the declaration of Scripture, that " all the
kingdoms of the world shall become the kingdoms
of our Lord."

6. One part of the objection only remains. It
cannot be denied that there is much wickedness in
Christian countries, even those which hold the truth
in its primitive simplicity. It is not unnatural for
a benevolent mind, which wishes the virtue of man-
kind as the only sure foundation of their happiness,
to regret that the Gospel does not produce a more
complete reformation of the vices of the world ; and
if the most important blessing Avhich a revelation can
confer is to turn men from their iniquities, a doubt
may sometimes obtrude itself even upon a candid and



PROPAGATION OF CHRISTIANITY. 301

ilevout mind, how far the effect really produced is
proportioned to the long preparation, and the mighty
works which ushered in the Gospel. The following
observations serve to remove this doubt. It is ex-
tremely difficult to attain to any precise notion of
the sum of wickedness in ancient times ; and there
are no data upon which we can form any estimate of
what would have been the measure of wickedness in
the present circumstances of society, if the Gospel
had not appeared. The religion of Jesus has extir-
pated some horrid ju'actices of ancient times : it has
refined the manners of men in war, and in several
important articles of domestic intercourse ; and it
has produced an extension and activity of benefi-
cence unknown in the heathen world. It imposes
restraints upon those evil passions and inordinate de-
sires, which, were it not for its influence, would be
indulged by many without control ; and it cherishes
in the breasts of individuals those private virtues of
humility, patience, and resignation, which do not
receive ail the honour which is due to them, because
their excellence withdraws them from public obser-
vation. It addresses itself to every principle of ac-
tion in the human breast with greater energy than
any other system ever did : the tendency of all its
parts is to render men virtuous ; and if it fails in re-
forming the world, we cannot conceive any method
of reformation consistent with the character of free
agents, that is likely to prove effectual. It is ac-
cording to this character that God always deals with
the children of men. Religion joins its influence to
reason. But it is an inconsistency in terms to say
that religion should compel men to be virtuous, be-
cause compulsion destroys the essence of virtue.



502 PROPAGATION OF CHRISTIANITY.

These observations appear to me to be a sufficient
answer to the objection against the truth of Christ-
ianity, which has been drawn from its appearing to
have little influence upon the lives of Christians.
But I am sensible that they are not sufficient to
counteract the influence of this objection upon the
minds of men. The wickedness of those who call
themselves Christians is undoubtedly a reproach to
our religion. It is a grief to the friends of Christ-
ianity, and the most ready sarcasm in the mouths
of its enemies. It is your business, the office for
which all your studies are meant to prepare you, to
diminish the influence of this objection. If you con-
vert a sinner from the error of his ways, or bright-
en, by your example and your discourse, the graces of
the disciples of Christ, you confirm the argument aris-
ing from the propagation of our religion. And the
best service that you can render to that honourable
cause, in support of which you profess to exert
your talents, is to exhibit in your own character the
genuine spirit of Christianity, and to illustrate the
principles of that doctrine which is according to
godliness, in such a manner as may render them,
through the blessing of God, the means of improv-
ing the character of your neighbours.

The amount of the answers which I have sug-
gested may be summed up in a few v/ords. Any
objection, arising from the measure of effect pro-
duced by the Gospel, cannot overturn direct histori-
cal evidence of a divine interposition. We are not
warranted, by the course of nature, and the conduct
of divine Providence in other matters, to expect ei-
ther that the Almighty will confer the same reli-
gious advantages upon all his creatures, or that he



mOPAGATION OF CHRISTIANITY: SOS

will accomplish, in a short space of time, that publi-
cation of the Gospel which formed part of his origi-
nal purpose. A considerable measure of religious
knowledge was diffused through the world during
the preparation for the appearance of the Gospel,
and the delay of its universal publication may con-
tribute to prepare the world for receiving it. The
corruptions of Christianity, which arose unavoidably
from the human means employed in its propagation,
could not have been obviated without a continued
miracle ; and the imperfect degree in which the Gos-
pel has actually reformed the world, however much
it may be a matter of regret to Christians, yet,
when compared with the excellence and energy of
the doctrine, is only a proof that religion was given
to improve, but not to destroy, the character of rea-
sonable agents.

Besides the books mentioned in the course of this chapter, you
may read two excellent sermons of Bishop Atterbury, on the
Miraculous Propagation of the Gospel.

You will derive the most enlarged views upon this, as upon every
other subject connected with Christianity, from Butler's Ana-
logj', particularly from Part ii. chap. vi. at the beginning.

Consult also Jortin.

Law's Considerations on the Theory of Religion.

Paley's Evidences, vol. ii.

Hill's Sermons.

Shaw and Dick upon the Counsel of Gamaliel.

Macknight's Truth of the Gospel History ; a book that deserves
to be better known, and more generally read than it is. All
the authorities and arguments, which are concisely stated by
other writers, are spread out in that large work with a fulness
and clearness of illustration that is very useful, and, in many
places, with a degree of acuteness and ingenuity that is not
commonly met with. He has dealt very largely upon the ar-
gument for the truth of the Christian religion, which arises



304" PROPAGATION OF CHRISTIANITY,

from the conversion of the world to Christianity. You will
find, in this part of his work, a most complete elucidation of the
whole argument — the history of the ten persecutions before
Constantine — and a great deal of information with which it is
highly proper your minds should be furnished, and Avhich you
will not easily gather from any other single treatise.



305



BOOK II.



GENERAL VIEW OF THE SCRIPTURE SYSTEM.



CHAP. I.



INSPIRATION OF SCRIPTURE.

I HAVE stated the evidence upon which we receive
the books of the New Testament as authentic ge-
nuine records ; and I have long been employed in
examining this high claim which they advance, that
they contain a divine revelation. It appeared that
this claim was not contradicted by the general con-
tents of the books, but rather that there was a pre-
sumption arising from thence in its favour. We
found the claim directly supported by miracles re-
ceived upon clear historical evidence, by the agree-
ment of the new dispensation with a train of pro-
phecies contained in books that are certainly known
to have existed many ages before our Saviour was
born, by the striking fulfilment of his prophecies, by
his resurrection from the dead, by the miraculous
powers conferred upon his apostles after his asceu-
gion, and by the propagation of his religion.
VOL. I. x;



.306 INSPIRATION OF SCRIPTURE.

But, even after this review of the principal evi-
dences of the truth of Christianity, there remains a
very interesting question, before we are prepared to
enter upon a particular examination of the system of
truth revealed in the books of the New Testament.
The question is, whether we are to regard these
books as inspired writings ? It is possible, you will
observe, that Christ was a divine messenger, that
the persons whom he chose as his companions du-
ring his abode upon earth were endowed by him
with the power of working miracles ; and yet that,
in recording the history of his life, and publishing
the doctrines of his religion, they were left merely
to the exercise of their own recollection and under-
standing. Upon this supposition, the miracles of
our Lord and his apostles may be received as facts
established by satisfying historical evidence ; and an
inference may be drawn from them, that the person
who performed such works, and who committed to
his disciples powers similar to his own, was a teach-
er sent from God ; and yet the writings of the apos-
tles will be considered as human compositions, dis-
tinguished from the works of other men merely by
the superior advantages v/hich the authors had de-
rived from the conversation of such a person as Je-
sus, but in no respect dictated by the spirit of God.

This is the system of the modern Socinians, which
their eagerness to get rid of some of the doctrines,
that other Christians consider as clearly revealed in
Scripture, has led them of late openly to avow. I
quote the sentiments of Dr. Priestley from one of his
latest publications, the very same in which he bears
a strong testimony to the credibility of the resurrec-
tion of Jesus. " I think that the Scriptures were



INSPIRATION OF SCRIPTURE. 307

written without any particular inspiration, by men
who wrote according to the best of their knowledge,
and who, from their circumstances, could not be mis-
taken with respect to the greater facts of which they
were proper witnesses, but (like other men subject to
prejudice) might be liable to adopt a hasty and ill-
grounded opinion concerning things which did not
fall within the compass of their own knowledge, and
which had no connexion with any thing that was
so." '•' Setting aside all idea of the inspiration of
the writers, I consider Matthew and Luke as simply
historians, whose credit must be determined by the
circumstances in which they wrote, and the nature
of the facts which they relate." And again, when
he is speaking of a particular doctrine, in proof of
which some passages in the Epistles are generally
adduced. Dr. Priestley says, " It is not from a few
casual expressions in epistolary writings, which are
seldom composed with so much care as books intend-
ed for the use of posterity, that we can be authorised
to infer that such was the serious opinion of the
apostles. But if it had been their real opinion, it
would not follow that it was true, unless the teach-
ing of it should appear to be included in their gene-
ral commission."*

And thus, according to Dr. Priestley, there is no
kind of inspiration either in the Gospels or the Epis-
tles. He admits them to be writings of the apostles.
But he maintains that the measure of regard due to
any narration or assertion contained in these writ-
ings is left to be determined by the rules of criticism,

* History of Early Opinions, vol. iv, p. 5, 58 ; vol. i. p. 70.



608 INSPIRATION OF SCRIPTURE.

by human reason judging how far that assertion or
narration was included in the commission of the
apostles, i. e. how far it is essential to the Christian
religion. Different persons entertain different ap-
prehensions concerning that which is essential to re-
velation. And, according to Dr. Priestley's system,
every person being at liberty to deny any part of
Scripture that appears to him unessential, there is no
invariable standard of our religion ; but the Gospel is
to every one just what he pleases to make it. Accord-
ingly Dr. Priestley, who sometimes argues very ably
for the divine mission of Jesus, by availing himself
of that liberty which he derives from denying the
inspiration of Scripture, has successively struck out
of his creed many of those articles which appear to
us fundamental. And you may judge of the length
to which his principles lead, when one of his follow-
ers, in a publication avowedly under his protection,
has written an essay to show that our Lord was not
free from sin. Many years before Dr. Priestley's
writings appeared, the received notions of the inspi-
ration of the apostles, which had been held by Christ-
ians without much examination, were acutely can-
vassed. Dr. Conyers Middleton, author of the Life
of Cicero, has done eminent service to the Protestant
cause, by exposing the imposture of the Popish mi-
racles, and by tracing, in his Letter from Rome, the
heathen original of many ceremonies of the chui'ch
of Rome. But his attachment to Christianity itself
is very suspicious, and he is far from being a safe
guide in any questions respecting the truth of our
holy faith. In some of his miscellaneous tracts, he
infers from the dispute between Peter and Paul at



INSPIRATION OF SCRIPTURE. 309

Antioch, * from the variations in the four evange-
lists, and from other circumstances, that the inspira-
tion of the apostles was only an occasional illapse,
communicated to their minds at particular seasons,
as the power of working miracles was given them
only at those times when they had occasion to exert
it ; that they were not under the continual direction
of an unerring spirit ; and that, on ordinary occa-
sions, they were in the condition of ordinary men.
Nearly the same opinion was held by the late Gil-
bert Wakefield, who was a disciple of Priestley, but
who does not appear to advance so far as his master.
He contends, that a plenary infallible inspiration, at-
tending and controlling the evangelists in every con-
juncture, is a doctrine not warranted by Scripture,
unnecessary, and injurious to Christianity ; although
he admits that the illuminating Spirit of God had
purified their minds, and enlarged their ideas. The
system of Bishop Benson, in his essay concerning
inspiration, prefixed to his paraphrase of St. Paul's
epistles, is, that the whole scheme of the Gospel was
communicated from heaven to the minds of the apos-
tles, was faithfully retained in their memories, and
is expounded in their writings by the use of their
natural faculties. The loose notions concerning in-
spiration, entertained by the vulgar and by those
who never thought deeply of the subject, go a great
deal farther. But it is proper that you should know
distinctly what is the measure and kind of insj)ira-
tion which we are warranted to hold.

In order to establish your minds in the belief that



Gal.



310 INSPIRATION OF SCRIPTURE.

the Scriptures are given by inspiration of God, it is
necessary to begin with observing, that inspiration is
not impossible. The Father of Spirits may act up-
on the minds of his creatures, and this action may
extend to any degree which the purposes of divine
wisdom require. He may superintend the minds of
those who write, so as to prevent the possibility of
error in their writings. This is the lowest degree
of inspiration. He may enlarge their understand-
ings, and elevate their conceptions beyond the mea-
sure of ordinary men. This is a second degree. Or
he may suggest to them the thoughts which they
shall express, and the words which they shall em-
ploy, so as to render them merely the vehicles of
conveying his will to others. This is the highest
degree of inspiration. No soimd theist will deny
that all these three degrees are possible ; and it re-
mains to be inquired, what reason we have for
thinking that the Almighty did act in any such
manner upon the minds of the writers of the New
Testament. If they were really inspired, the evi-
dence of the fact will probably ascertain the mea-
sure of inspiration which was vouchsafed to them.
The evidence consists of the following parts : The
inspiration of the apostles was necessary for the
purposes of their mission — It was promised by our
Lord — It is claimed by themselves — The claim was
admitted by their disciples — And it is not contra-
dicted by any circumstance in their writings.

I. Inspiration of the apostles appears to have been
necessary for the purposes of their mission ; and,
therefore, if we admit that Jesus came from God,
and that he sent them forth to make disciples of all



ASPIRATION OF SCRIPTURE. 311

nations, we shall acknowledge that some degree of
inspiration is highly probable.

The first light in which the books of the New
Testament lead us to consider the apostles is, as
the historians of Jesus. After having been his com-
panions during his ministry, they came forth to
bear witness of him ; and as the benefit of his reli-
gion was not to be confined to the age in which he
or they lived, they left in the four Gospels a record
of what he did and taught. Two of the four were
written by the apostles Matthew and John. Mark
and Luke, whose names are prefixed to the other
two, were probably of the seventy whom our Lord
sent out in his lifetime ; and we learn from the
most ancient Christian historians, that the gospel of
Mark was revised by Peter, and the gospel of Luke
by Paul ; and that both were afterwards approved
by John, so that all the four may be considered as
transmitted to the church with the sanction of apo-
stolical authority. Now, if you recollect the condi-
tion of the apostles, and the nature of their history,
you will perceive that, even as historians, they stood
in need of some measure of inspiration. Plato
might feel himself at liberty to feign many things of
his master Socrates, because it mattered little to the
world whether the instruction that was conveyed to
them proceeded from the one philosopher or from
the other. But the servants of a divine teacher,
who appeared as his witnesses, and professed to be
the historians of his life, were bound by their oflfice
to give a true record. And their history was an
imposition upon the world, if they did not declare
exactly and literally what they had seen and heard.



312 INSPIRATION OF SCRIPTURE.

This was an office which required not only a love of
the truth, but a memory more retentive and more
accurate than it was possible for persons of the cha-
racter and education of the apostles to possess. To
relate, at the distance of twenty years, long moral
discourses, which were not originally written, and
which were not attended with any striking circum-
stances that might imprint them upon the mind ; to
preserve a variety of parables, the beavity and signi-
ficancy of which depended upon particular expres-
sions ; to record long and minute prophecies, where
the alteration of a single phrase might have produ-
ced an inconsistency between the event and the pre-
diction ; and to give a particular detail of the inter-
course which Jesus had with his friends and with
his enemies : all this is a work so very much above
the capacity of unlearned men, that, had they at-
tempted to execute it by their own natural powers,
they must have fallen into such absurdities and con-
tradictions as would have betrayed them to every
discerning eye. It was therefore highly expedient,
and even necessary for the faith of future ages, that
besides those opportunities of information which the
apostles enjoyed, and that tried integrity which they
possessed, their understanding and their memory
should be assisted by a supernatural influence, which
might prevent them from mistaking the meaning of
what they had heard, which might restrain them
from putting into the mouth of Jesus any words
which he did not utter, or from omitting what was
important, and which might thus give us perfect se-
curity, that the Gospels are as faithful a copy, as if
Jesus himself had left in writing those sayings and



INSPIRATION OF SCRIPTURE. 313

those actions which he wished posterity to remem-
ber.

But we consider the apostles in the lowest view,
when we speak of them as barely the historians of
their Master. In their epistles they assume a high-
er character, which renders inspiration still more ne-
cessary. All the benefit, which they derived from
the public and the private instructions of Jesus be-
fore his death, had not so far opened their minds as
to qualify them for receiving the whole counsel of
God. And he, who knows what is in man, declares
to them the night on which he was betrayed, " I
have yet many things to say unto you, but you can-
not bear them now." * The purpose of many of his
jiarables, the full meaning even of some of his plain
discourses, had not been attained by them. They
had marvelled when he spake to them of earthly
things. But many heavenly things of his kingdom
had not been told them : and they, who were des-
tined to carry his religion to the ends of the earth,
themselves needed, at the time of their receiving this
commission, that some one should instruct them in
the doctrine of Christ. It is true that, after his re-
surrection, Jesus opened their understandings, and
explained to them the scriptures, and he continued
upon earth forty days, speaking to them of the
things pertaining to the kingdom of God, It ap-
pears, however, from the history Avhicli they have
recorded in the book of Acts, that some furthei"
teaching was necessary for them, f Immediately
before our Lord ascended, their minds being still
full of the expectation of a temporal kingdom, they

* John XV. IC. t Acts ch. i.



314 INSPIRATION OF SCRIPTURE.

say unto him, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore
the kingdom to Israel ? It was not till some time
after they received the gift of the Holy Ghost, that
they understood that the gospel had taken away the
obligation to observe the ceremonies of the Mosaic
law : and the action of Peter in baptizing Cornelius,
a devout heathen, gave offence to some of the apos-
tles and brethren in Judea when they first heard it.*
Yet in their epistles, we find just notions of the spi-
ritual nature of the religion of Jesus as a kingdom
of righteousness, the faithful subjects of which are to
receive remission of sins, and sanctification through
his blood, and just notions of the extent of this reli-
gion as a dispensation, the spiritual blessings of
which are to be communicated to all in every land
who receive it in faith and love. These notions ap-
pear to us to be the explication both of the ancient
predictions, and of many particular expressions that
occur in the discourses of our Lord. But it is ma-
nifest that they had not been acquired by the apos-
tles during the teaching of Jesus. They are so
adverse to every thing which men educated in Jewish
prejudices had learned, and had hoped, that they
could not be the fruit of their own reflections ; and,
therefore, they imply the teaching of that Spirit who
gradually impressed them upon the mind, guiding
the apostles gently, as they were able to follow him,
into all the truth connected with the salvation of
mankind. As inspiration was necessary to give the
minds of the apostles possession of the system that
is unfolded in their epistles, so many parts of that
system are removed at such a distance from human

* Acts cli. XI,



INSPIRATION OF SCRIPTURE. 315

discoveries, and are liable to such misapprehension,
that unless we suppose a continued superintendence
of the Spirit by whom it was taught, succeeding
ages would not have a sufficient security that those,
who were employed to deliver it, had not been



Online LibraryGeorge HillLectures in divinity (Volume 1) → online text (page 22 of 32)