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this method, I have led you through the principal
evidences of the divine mission of Jesus ; I have


given a general account of the system contained in
those books, which his servants wrote by inspira-
tion ; and I now mean to deduce from that account
the importance of what the inspired books contain.

There are two views under which the importance
of Christianity may be stated. We may consider
the Gospel as a republication of the religion of na-
ture, or we may consider it as a method of saving


We may consider the religion of Jesus as a repub-
lication of the religion of nature. I have adopted
this phrase, because, from the very respectable
authority by which it has been used, as well as
from its own significancy, it has become a fashion-
able phrase ; and yet there are two capital mistakes
which the unguarded use of it may occasion. The
first is an opinion, that Christianity is merely a re-
publication of the religion of nature, containing no-
thing more than the doctrines and duties which may
be investigated by the light of reason. But it fol-
lows clearly from the general view of the Scripture
system, that this is an imperfect and false account
of Christianity ; because in that system there are
doctrines concerning the Son and the Spirit, and
their offices in the salvation of men, of which reason
did not give any intimation ; and there are duties,
resulting from the interposition recorded in the Gos-
pel, which could not possibly exist till the know-
ledge of that interposition was communicated to


man. The Gospel then, professing to be more
than a republication of the religion of nature, a
view of its importance, proceeding upon the suppo-
sition titat it is merely a republication, must be so
lame as to do injustice to the system thus misrepre-

The second mistake, which the unguarded use of
this phrase may occasion, is an opinion that the re-
ligion of nature is essentially defective either in its
constitution, or in the mode of its being promulgat-
ed, and that the imperfection originally adhering to
it called for amendment. But this is an opinion
which appears at first sight unreasonable. If the
Creator intended man to be a religious creature, it
is to be presumed that he endowed him in the be-
ginning with the faculty of attaining such a know-
ledge of the divine nature as might be the founda-
tion of religion. If he intended him to be a moral
accountable creature, it is to be presumed that he
furnished him with a rule of life. These presump-
tions are confirmed, when we proceed to examine
the subject closely ; for we cannot analyze the hu-
man mind, without discovering that an impression
of the Supreme Being is congenial to many of its
natural sentiments. There is a strain of fair rea-
soning, by which we are conducted, from principles
universally admitted, to some knowledge of the
divine attributes. There are obligations implied
in the dependence of a reasonable being upon his
Creator. There is a certain line of conduct dictat-
ed by the constitution and the circumstances of man ;
and there is a general expectation with regard to
the future conduct of the divine government, creat-
ed by that part of it which we behold, and corre-


spending to hopes and fears of which we cannot di-
vest ourselves. All this makes up what we call na-
tural religion. And it is manifestly supposed in
Scripture ; for we read there, that " that which
may be known of God is manifest among them : for
God hath shown it to them ; for the invisible things
of God are clearly seen ever since the creation of the
world, being understood by the things that are
made, even his eternal power and Godhead : so they
are without excuse, because that when they knew
God, they glorified him not as God." We read that
those who had no written law '• are a law to them-
selves, their conscience bearing witness."* And,
through the whole of Scripture, there are ajjpeals to
those notions of God which are agreeable to right
reason, and to that sense of right and wrong which
is there considered as a part of the human constitu-
tion. Although, therefore, some zealous unwise
friends of Christianity have thought of doing hon-
our to revelation by depreciating natural religion, and
although you will find that some sects of Christians
have been led by their peculiar tenets to deny that
man has naturally any knowledge of God, you will
not suppose that all who use the phrase, Republica-
tion of the religion of nature, adopt these opinions,
or even approach to them ; and you will find, that
the soundest and ablest divines consider natural re-
ligion as suited to the circumstances of man at the
time of his creation. If you take the known histo-
ry of the human race in conjunction with the prin-
ciples of human nature, you will readily perceive
that the opinion of these divines is well founded.

* See Miicknight's translation of Rom. ii. 15; i. 18, 19, '20.


There would undoubtedly be transmitted from the
first man to his descendants a tradition of his com-
ing into the world, and of his finding every thing
there new ; and if you admit the truth of the Mo-
saic account, this tradition, by the long lives of the
first inhabitants of the earth, would pass for ma-
ny centuries through very few hands. It is to be
presumed, too, even independently of the authority
of Moses, that, in the infancy of the human race,
there would be a more immediate intercourse be-
tween man and his Creator, than after the connex-
ions of society had been formed and established upon
the earth. This tradition and this revelation might
fix the attention of the posterity of the first man
upon those suggestions and deductions of reason,
which give some knowledge of the being, the attri-
butes, and the moral government of God ; and there
might be thus a foundation laid for the universal
observance of some kind of worship as the express-
sion of gratitude and trust. From a sense of depend-
ence upon the Creator, there would arise the feel-
ing of obligation to serve him, so that natural reli-
gion would come in aid of the dictates of conscience ;
and the obedience which man yielded to the law of
morality, v/hile by the constitution of his nature it
was rewarded with inward peace, would enable him,
by his apprehension of a righteous Sovereign of the
universe, to look forward with good hope to those
future scenes of the divine government under which
he might be permitted to exist. I do not say that
this complete system of pure natural religion ever
was established in any country merely by reasoning ;
but I do say, that all the parts of it may be refer-
red to princii^les of reason ; that early tradition


called and directed men to apply these principles to
the subject of religion ; and that, had they been pro-
perly followed out, man would have been possessed,
independently of any extraordinary revelation, of a
ground of religion, and a rule of life, suited to the
circumstances in which he was created.

Having guarded against the second mistake which
I mentioned, by fixing in your minds this preliminary
point, that the religion of nature was not originally
defective, you proceed to consider what importance
the Gospel derives from being a republication of
that religion.

You will begin with observing it to be very con-
ceivable that the whole system of natural religion
may admit of being proved by reason, and yet that
particular circumstances may have prevented that
continued exercise of reason, by which the know-
ledge of it might have been attained. We often
see men remaining, through their own fault or ne-
glect, ignorant of many things which they might
have known ; and the recency of many great disco-
veries is a proof how slowly the human mind ad-
vances to truth, although no one is so absurd as to
infer, from the abounding of error, that truth is not
agreeable to reason. If there was an early depart-
ure from the duties of natural religion, it is plain
that this circumstance in the history of mankind
would estrange them from that God whom they
were conscious of disobeying, would weaken the
original impression of that law which they were
breaking, and would overcast the hopes connected
with the observance of it. The universal tradition
of the creation might, for a few generations, in some
measure counterbalance this tendencv. But as men


spread over the earth, the memory of the truths re-
ceived from their first parents would become fainter;
as their passions were excited by a multiplicity of
new objects, the restraints to which they had sub-
mitted in a simpler state of society would lose their
power, and a growing corruption of religion wovdd
accompany the progress of vice. Tliis is the very
account of the matter which the apostle Paul gives
us. " When they knew God, they glorified him not
as God, nor were thankful, but became vain in their
imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened ;
and they changed the glory of the incorruptible God
into an image made like to corruptible man, and to
birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.
And even as they did not like to retain God in their
knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate
mind, to do those things which are not convenient."
These are the words of Paul in his Epistle to the
Romans ; and the best commentary upon them is
the religious history of the heathen world. You
need not look to those savage tribes, where the fa-
culties of the human mind, depressed by unfavoura-
ble circumstances, have a very limited range, and
man appears raised but a few degrees above the
beasts with whom he associates. Recollect the po-
lished and learned nations, whose philosophy we
study, and to whose writings every scholar feels and
owns his obligations ; and in their religious history
you will find abundant confirmation of the words of
St. Paul. Although reason was there highly culti-
vated ; although art and science made distinguished
progress ; although the public establishments of re-
ligion were magnificent and expensive, yet the fa-
thers of science, in respect of religious knowledge


were as children, " and the world by wisdom knew
not God." There was a darkness with regard to
the nature of God. The knowledge of one supreme
Being, the Creator and Ruler of all things, the re-
warder of those who seek him, the friend and pro-
tector of the good, and the avenger of the wicked,
this most valuable knowledge was lost in the belief
of a multiplicity of gods, who had the passions, the
vices, the contentions of men, whose character and
conduct, instead of administering comfort in distress,
and strength under temptation, sunk the afflicted in
despair, and corrupted the manners of the worship-
per. There was a darkness with regard to the
method of pleasing the gods. Multiplied sacrifices
offered with much doubt, and with the fear of giv-
ing offence, a pageantry of costly ceremonies, a
wearisome round of superstitious observances, made
up the religion of the heathen, and excluded that
worship in spirit and in truth, which it is the hon-
our of a reasonable creature to offer to the Searcher
of hearts. There was a darkness with regard to the
duties of life. The voice of conscience was not only
left without the support of true religion, but was in
many instances perverted by corrupt systems. No
scholar will deny, that the laws and the constitution
of ancient states cherished certain public virtues
which were both useful and splendid ; and the names
of many citizens will be celebrated as long as the
world lasts, for heroism, the love of their country,
disinterestedness, and generosity. But any person,
who takes a near view of the manners of the great
body of the people in ancient times, finds that the
established system of morality was loose and de-
bauched ; for, although the state often required


great exertions from the citizens for its own pre-
servation, no restraint was imposed upon the indul-
gence of many evil passions, and the grossest vices
were conceived to be consistent with pure virtue.
There was still greater darkness with regard to the
hopes of men. The impression of a future state is
so congenial to the mind of man, that it could not
be effaced. But the opinions generally entertained
with regard to the future place of both the good and
the bad were mixed with a number of childish fa-
bles, which exposed to ridicule, and even brought
into suspicion, that important truth which they only
obscured. The wise men who arose in different
ages, although they did not implicitly adopt the
vulgar errors, were not fitted to dispel this darkness.
Some were led by the absurdity of the received
creeds rashly to reject the fundamental articles of
religion ; and that they might depart as far as possi-
ble from the superstition of their countrymen, they
denied the being of a God, or they excluded him
from the government of the world. Those who did
not thus contradict the natural sentiments of the hu-
man mind were unable to divest themselves of an
attachment to prevailing opinions and universal
practice ; and while their writings contain many
traces of a rational system, they sacrificed in public
to the gods of their country. Their writings and
their discourses did enlighten the minds of their
scholars. But these scholars were few. The great
body of the people had neither leisure nor capacity
to follow their investigations. But they saw that
the practice of the philosophers did not, in any ma-
terial respect, differ from their own. The autho:'ity
of the wise, therefore, instead of correcting, confirm-



ed the popular system, and that system, founded in
ignorance of the true Gcd, took deep root in the
minds of men, and was established by law, by ex-
ample, and by custom.

I need not dwell longer upon this picture of the
religious state of the heathen world. You find it
drawn at full length in the books M'^hich are com-
monly read upon this subject, particularly in Clarke's
Evidences of Natural and Revealed Religion, in
Leland's Advantages of the Christian Revelation,
and in the first volume of Bishop Sherlock's Dis-
courses. But even from the slight sketch that has
now been given, it is manifest that there is a very
great difference between the system of natural reli-
gion, which we are able to deduce from principles of
reason, and the forms of religion which obtained in
the most enlightened nations. It is true that the
land of Judea enjoyed, from very early times, a re-
velation of one God. The Maker of heaven and
earth was worshipped in that country for many ages
without the mixture of idolatry, and a system of
i^ure morality was contained in the books that were
read in the Jewish synagogue. But the revelation
which distinguished this narrow district was not in-
tended, and was not fitted, to be the light of the
world. At the time of our Saviour's birth, it was
obscured by tradition ; and the law given to the
children of Israel, instead of being able to correct
the prevailing superstition, stood in need of a more
spiritual interpretation than it received from the
Jewish doctors. But whatever was the measure of
light which the Jews enjoyed, it extended in very
scanty uncertain portions to other nations, and they
were, as the apostle speaks, " without God, and


without hope in the world," till the pure system of
natural religion which they had lost was republish-
ed in the Gospel.

It appears, then, from the religious history of the
world, that a republication of the religion of nature
was most desirable. And v/hen you attend to the
Gospel, you will find that it not only contains the
knowledge which was lost, but is peculiarly fitted
by its character to give such a republication as the
circumstances that have been stated seem to require.
Those notions of the being, the attributes, and the
government of God, which, as soon as they are pro-
posed, appear most agreeable to right reason, are de-
livered by a teacher who was sent from heaven to
declare God to man. That law, which the Almigh-
ty wrote in the beginning upon the human heart, is
taught by authority as the will of our Creator ; and
the hope of future recompense is established by his
promise. The manifest signatures of a divine in-
terposition, which attended the introduction of the
Gospel, rouse the attention of the world to the sys-
tem there republished ; the form in which that sys-
tem is delivered renders it level to the capacities of
every one ; and the institutions of the Gospel per-
petuate the instruction which it conveys.

It is particularly to be remarked upon this sub-
ject, that the simplicity which distinguishes the
Gospel, corresponds in the most admirable manner
to its character, as a republication of the religion of
nature. The ancient philosophers were accustomed
to exercise their reason in profound and subtle dis-
quisitions, and valued any system according to the
depth and acuteness of thought which it discovered.
There are many points respecting the nature of the


soul, the manner of its existence, and its operations,
which they had investigated with much care, and
which, after all their research, they found involved
in much darkness. But such speculatioils, however
agreeable an amusement they afford to a thinking
mind, form no part of natural religion ; and accord-
ingly they do not enter into the republication of it.
There is not in the Gospel any delineation of the
nature and properties of spiritual substances, or any
solution of those questions about which the ancient
schools were divided. All abstruse points are left
just where they were ; and the important practical
truths, in which the learned and the unlearned are
equally concerned, are rested not upon long deduc-
tions of reasoning, which the great body of the peo-
ple find themselves- incapable of following, but upon
an authority which they are at no loss to appre-
hend, the simple assertion of men who bring with
them the most satisfying evidence that they speak
the truth.

The order and precision of a philosophical system
might have pleased the learned. But had the Gos-
pel condescended, in this respect, to assimilate itself
to works of hunicin genius, it would have borne on
its face this manifest inconsistency, that while it
professed to teach doctrines of equal importance to
all, it taught them in a manner which few only could
understand. That it might be of universal use, and
might truly supply what was wanting, it came at
first " not with excellency of speech, or of wisdom,"
but with great plainness of words, accompanied with
the demonstration of the Spirit. The book in which
this republication is handed down, from the historic

VOL. I. 2 c


cal form of some parts, and the familiar epistolary style
of others, imprints itself deeply upon every under-
standing, mingles itself readily with the habits and
modes of thinking of ordinary men, and is retained
in the memory, so as to be easily applied upon every
occasion. Those who are not accustomed to form
general views, to connect in their minds the parts of
a whole, or to act systematically, carry away from
the reading of this book detached sentences and pre-
cepts, which minister to their comfort and improve-
ment : and even when their quotations discover nar-
row or mistaken notions of theology, their hearts
are made better by the facility with which the quo-
tations occur.

To all this there must be added that popular and
familiar mode of instruction, which the institutions
of the Gospel furnish. The crowd of worshippers,
who assembled in a heathen temple to behold a splen-
did sacrifice, retired without any rational conceptions
of the Supreme Being. No attempt was made to
connect the ordinary services of religion with the in-
formation of the great body of the people, and les-
sons of morality were confined to the schools of the
philosophers. But all who live in a Christian
country enjoy, by the republication of natural reli-
gion, a standing kind of admonition, with which the
world was unacquainted in former ages. Those
truths and those duties which are intimately con-
nected with the happiness of society as well as with
the eternal interests of man, are placed before them
in a language which every one that is willing to
hear may understand. Persons, who feel themselves
unequal in every other respect, are admitted to re-


ceive the same benefit and consolation. The igno-
rant are enlightened, and the careless are put in re-

And thus, as we formerly found that the system
of natural religion contained in the books of the
New Testament is infinitely more perfect than any
that had been published before, as we found also
that the growing improvement of those that have
been published since cannot reasonably be ascribed
to any other cause than to the benefit which they
derived from this republication, so to the same cause
we may ascribe the universal diffusion of the princi-
ples of natural religion in every Christian country.
The public establishment of Christianity is a stand-
ing memorial, a perpetual remembrancer of the fun-
damental truths of religion, and the great duties of
life. It has given the vulgar in our days more
sound and enlarged conceptions of the nature and
government of God, of the extent of our obligations
and our hopes, than almost any philosopher in an-
cient times was able to attain ; and it is not easy to
find any words, which so perfectly express the dif-
ference between the heathen world and those coun-
tries where Christianity is professed in simplicity
and purity, as the words by which Jeremiah fore-
told the change. " After those days," saith the
Lord, " I will put my law in their inward parts,
and write it in their hearts : And they shall teach
no more every man his neighbour, and every man
his brother, saying, know the Lord ; for they shall
all know me, from the least of them to the greatest
of them."*

* Jer. xxxi. 33, 54i.


The sum of what has been said upon the first
view of the importance of Christianity is this. The
Gospel is a republication of the religion of nature,
imparting that knowledge upon this subject, which
is agreeable to the deductions of the most enlighten-
ed reason, but which unfavourable circumstances had
prevented any man from attaining by means of rea-
son, removing those errors to which no other method
of instruction had applied any effectual remedy, and
diffusing by its institutions, to men of every condi-
tion, the information, the instruction, and the com-
fort which it conveys. If knowledge be better than
ignorance, if, of all kinds of knowledge, an acquaint-
ance with the principles of true religion contribute
the largest share to the consolation and improve-
ment of human life ; and if this most valuable know-
ledge be now rendered accessible, extensive, and per-
manent, — Christianity, which has accomplished so
happy a change by republishing the religion of na-
ture, is in this view most important. It deserves
to be received with thankfulness, to be cherished
with care, to be honoured and encouraged by every
friend of mankind. He, whose discourse or example
recommends Christianity to others, contributes by so
doing to preserve and to spread the light that is in
the world. He, who employs any means to depre-
ciate the public establishment of Christianity, does
so far contribute to extinguish that light, and to
bring: back those times of heathen darkness, from
which this republication of natural religion hath res-
cued a great part of the human race.



The general account of the Scripture system pre-
sented Christianity to us as a remedy for the de-
pravity which has pervaded the human race. I am
now to illustrate its importance considered in this

Although the religion of nature be liable to be
obscured by the general practice of vice, yet if it
were fitted by its original constitution to be the re-
ligion of a sinner, nothing more than a republica-

Online LibraryGeorge HillLectures in divinity (Volume 1) → online text (page 27 of 32)