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abounds, are a convincing evidence that it did not
proceed from the God of light and truth. The same
word, mysteries, which generally enters into the
statement of this objection, occurs often in the writ-
ings and the discourses of many pious Christians,
who mean to speak of the Gospel with the highest
reverence. And yet, there is reason to think, that
neither the former class of writers, nor the latter,
have paid a proper attention to the Scripture use of
the word. Upon this account, before I proceed to
answer the objection by illustrating my second ob-
servation, I shall state the sense in which the Scrip-
tures use the word mystery, and in so doing shall


explain the reason why I choose to avoid that word
upon this subject.

The ceremonies of the ancient heathen worship
were of two kinds. Some were public, performed
openly in the temple, before the great body of the
people who were supposed to join in them. Others
were private, performed in a retired place, often in'
the night, far from the view of the multitude ; and
they were never divulged to the crowd, but were
communicated only to a few enlightened worship-
pers. The persons to whom these secret rites were
made known, were said to be initiated ; and the
rites themselves were called /^yor^iwa. Every god had
his secret as well as his open worship ; and hence
various mysteries are occasionally mentioned by an-
cient writers. " But," says Dr. Warburton, v/ho
has investigated this subject in his Divine Legation
of Moses, " of all the mysteries, those which bore
that name by way of eminence, the Eleusinian, ce-
lebrated at Athens in honour of Ceres, were by far
the most renowned, and, in course of time, eclipsed,
and almost swallowed up the rest. Hence Cicero,
speaking of Eleusina, says, uhi initiantur gentes
orarum ultimcBr^ I have quoted this passage from
Warburton, because it contains the reason why you
seldom read of any other than the Eleusinian mys-
teries, although the word had originally a general
acceptation. The theme of the word is (j.-m, occliido,
from whence comes i^iu, in sacris instituo^ referring
to the silence which the initiated were required to
observe ; and from iMvji comes fiverri^m, the amount of
which may be considered as equivalent to arcannm-

* Vol. ii. book ii. 4.


The writers of the New Testament have adopted
this word, which was at that time well understood ;
and it is used by them in a variety of instances to
denote that which God had purposed, but which was
not known to men till he was pleased to reveal it.
When the disciples of Jesus came to him, and said,
" Why speakest thou to the people in parables?" his
answer was. Matt. xiii. 1 1, " Because it is given
unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of
heaven, but to them it is not given," /. e. there are
circumstances respecting the nature and the history
of my religion, which I explain clearly to you my
disciples by whom it is to be published, but which
it is proper at preseirt to convey to the people under
the disguise of parables. You will not understand
however, from these words, that there were always
to continue, under the religion of Jesus, two kinds
of instruction, one for the initiated, and one for the
vulgar ; for our Lord had said to these very disci-
ples a little before, Matt. x. 26, 27, " There is no-
thing covered that shall not be revealed, and hid
that shall not be known. What I tell you in dark-
ness, that speak ye in light, and what ye hear in the
ear, that preach ye upon the house tops." Accord-
ingly, when the apostles came forth to execute their
commission, the character under which they ai)pear-
ed is thus expressed by Paul, 1 Cor. iv. 1 : " Let a
man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ,
and stewards of the mysteries of God:" dispensers
of that knowledge which was communicated to us
first, for this very j^urpose, that we might be the in-
struments of conveying it to others. Paul calls the
Gospel, Col. i. 26, — " The mystery hid from ages
and from generations^, but now made manifest to his


saints," hid from ages, because it was not investi-
gated by reason, and must have remained for ever
unknown, if it had not been declared by God in his
word. The rejection of the Jewish nation, wlio had
always considered themselves as the favourite people
of heaven, is called a mystery, Rom. xi. 25, because
it was very opposite to the opinions and expectations
of men ; and for the same reason, the calling of the
heathen by the Gospel to partake of all the privi-
leges of the people of God is in many places styled
a mystery. Ephes. iii. 3, 5, 6. I mention only
one other instance, 1 Cor. xv. 51. The resurrec-
tion of the body is called a mystery, because, al-
though many philosophers had speculated concern-
ing the immortality of the soul, it had never entered
into the minds of any that the body was to rise.

Dr. Campbell, in the first volume of his new
translation of the Gospels, has one dissertation up-
on the word mystery. He states that the leading
sense of /i-txTr^ji/oi/, in the Septuagint, the Apocrypha,
and the New Testament, is arcanum, any thing not
published to the world, though perhaps communica-
ted to a select number. With his usual accui-ate
and minute attention, he mentions another meaning-
very nearly related to the former, or more properly
only a particular application of that general mean-
ing. It is sometimes employed to denote the figura-
tive sense, which is conveyed under any fable, para-
ble, allegory, symbolical action, or dream. The rea-
son of this application is obvious. The literal mean-
ing of a fable is open to the senses ; the spiritual
meaning requires penetration and reflection, and is
known only to the intelligent. In Rev. i. 20, and
xvii. 7, John saw the figures, but he did not under-


stand the meaning intended to be conveyed by tliem,
till it was explained to him by the angel. To him
it was arcanum. There is an allusion to this im-
port of the word mystery in Mark iv. 11. " Unto
you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom
of God ; but unto them that are without, all these
things are done in parables." The Eleusinian mys-
teries being accessible only to the initiated, the early
Christians, to whom the language and the practice
of the heathen were familiar, transferred to the
Lord's Supper the word mysteries ; because from
that ordinance were excluded the catechumens, who
had not yet been baptized, and the penitents, who
had not yet been restored to the communion of the
church. It was administered only to those who had
been initiated by baptism ; and from fear of perse-
cution it was often administered in the night. On
account of this secrecy, and the select number of
communicants, strangers might apprehend a simi-
larity between the Lord's Supper and the heathen
mysteries ; and from whomsoever this vise of the word
originated, the Christians might not be unwilling to
retain it, as conveying, according to the language of
the times, an exalted conception of their distinguish-
ing rites.

It appears then, from this deduction, that there
fire three acceptations of the word f^vs-rri^m. In the New
Testament it is used to express that which God had
purposed fi'om the beginning, which was not known
till he was pleased to reveal it, but which by the re-
velation was shown and made manifest. With early
ecclesiastical writers, it means the solemn positive
rites of our religion ; and so, in the communion ser-
vice of the church of England, the elements after


consecration are called holy mysteries. In modern
theological writings, and in the objections of the de-
ists, mystery denotes that which is in its nature so
dark and incomprehensible, that it cannot be under-
stood after it is revealed. As this sense is really op-
posite to the sense in which the Scriptures use the
word mystery, it appears to me advisable, both in
discourses to the people, and in theological discus-
sions, to choose other expressions for denoting that
which cannot be comprehended.

But although, by avoiding an unscriptural use of
a Scripture word, we may guard against the abuses
and mistakes which the change of its meaning has
probably occasioned, yet we readily admit that there
are, in the Scripture system of the Gosjiel, many
points which we do not fully comprehend. And this
is so far from being a solid objection to the Gospel,
that to every wise inquirer it appears to arise from
the nature of that dispensation. In order to account
for the difficulties which are found in the revelation
made by the Gospel, we may follow the same divi-
sion which occurred when we were speaking of the
importance of Christianity, and consider the Gospel
as a republication of the religion of nature, and as a
method of saving sinners.

1. Even were the Gospel nothing more than a re-
publication of the religion of nature, we could not
expect to find every thing in it plain ; for we have
experience that many points in natural religion, con-
cerning the evidence of v/hicli we do not entertain
any doubt, are to our understanding full of difficul-
ties. We have very indistinct conceptions of the
nature of spirits, or of the manner in Avhich spirit
acts upon matter. The eternity and infinity of God


are connected with all the intricate speculations con-
cerning time and space. The origin of evil, under
the government of a Being, whose wisdom and good-
ness are not restrained by any want of power, has
perplexed the human mind ever since it began to
reason ; and liberty, the very essence of morality, ap-
pears to be affected by that dependence of a moral
agent upon the influence of a superior Being, which
is inseparable from the notion of his being a creature
of God. Reason is unable to solve all the difficulties
that have been started upon these points, yet she draws,
from premises within her reach, this conclusion, that
a Spirit who exists in all times and places exercises a
moral government over free agents. Revelation has
given assurance to this conclusion, has diffused the
knowledge of it, and inculcates with authority the
practical lessons which it implies. But revelation,
far from professing to enter into the speculations
connected with this conclusion, leaves man, with re-
gard to many metaphysical questions that have no
influence upon his virtue or happiness, in the same
darkness which all the sages of antiquity experi-
enced. A clear explication of these points, suppos-
ing it possible, might have afforded amusement to a
few inquisitive minds. To the great body of man-
kind, for whose sake the religion of nature is re-
published in the Gospel, it is insignificant, and
would have only loaded a system whose simplicity
is fitted to render it of universal use, with subtle-
ties which the generality find neither interesting nor
intelligible. Such an explication, then, would have
been of little importance. I said, supposing it pos-
sible ; for they who demand it, know not what they
ask. Difficulties in any subject are merely relative



to the understanding and opportunities of those who
consider it. As a child cannot form any conception
of the nature of the exertion which is made, or of
the object which is proposed in many of the employ-
ments of men : as a man, whose mind has been un-
tutored, or whose observation has been narrow,
wonders at the discoveries of Astronomy, or the re-
fined operations of art, and while he believes that
both exist, is incapable of apprehending the princi-
ples upon which they proceed : so it is likely that
we feel ourselves involved in an inextricable laby-
rinth upon questions, which superior orders of be-
ing can easily resolve. We inhabit a spot in the
creation of God. We are placed in a system con-
sisting of many parts, the relations and dependen-
cies of which are beyond our observation ; and our
faculties in vain attempt to explore the intimate
essence of those objects which are most familiar to
us. There are measures of knowledge to which our
condition is manifestly not suited. There is a de-
gree of mental exertion of which we may be suppos-
ed incapable. " Now we see through a glass dark-
ly ;" and it is forgetting our condition and our
character, to ask that every thing in nature should
at present be made plain to our apprehension. If
there be such a thing as Natural Religion, the com-
fort and improvement which it administers cannot
imply a kind of illumination, which man is not qua-
lified to receive. They must be compatible with
the rank which he holds in the intellectual system,
and they may leave him unacquainted with many
parts of that system, the whole extent of which he
is at present incapable of apprehending. It cannot,
therefore, be stated as an objection to the gospel,


that wliile, by republishing the religion of nature, it
restores that comfort and improvement in the most
perfect manner, it keeps his knowledge confined
within the limits suited to his condition. Other
orders of spirits may clearly apprehend the nature
of objects, and the solution of questions, to which
his faculties are inadequate ; because the knowledge
of them is not, in any degree, necessary for his en-
joyment of the portion, or his discharge of the duties,
assigned him by his Creator.

2. If difficulties belong to the Gosj^el, as it is a
republication of the religion of nature, we may ex-
pect to meet with more difficulties, when we con-
sider it in its higher character, as the religion
of sinners. By this character, the Gospel makes
provision for a new situation, which had brought
upon men evils, any remedy of which was not sug-
gested by their knowledge of nature. We found
that all those notions of the Divine character and
government, which constitute natural religion, fail
us in this new situation ; and that the assurance of
pardon rests upon an interposition of the Creator.
What parts of the universe may be affiicted by that
interposition we cannot say ; and it is presumptuous
to tliink, that all the branches and the ends of it
may be fully comprehended by our understanding,
since it is a subject confessedly farther beyond our
reach than any part of nature. But if the revela-
tion of the Gospel leaves no doubt that the interpo-
sition has been made, and that the effects of it with
regard to us are attained, this is all the knowledge
that is of real importance upon the subject. Clear
evidence of the fact is sufficient to revive our hopes ;
and although the manner in which the interposition
is calculated to produce the clFect had not been, in


any measure, revealed to us, we slioukl have been in
no worse situation with regard to this fact than with
regard to many others in nature, most important to
our being and comfort, where we know that an ef-
fect exists, but have no apprehension of the kind of
connexion between the effect and its cause. If this
interposition involv^e the agency of other beings that
are not made known to us by tlie light of nature,
and if their agency be a ground of hope, or the
princij^le of any duty, the revelation must inform
us that they exist. But the knowledge of their
existence and agency does not require an intimate
acquaintance with their nature. There are in na-
tural religion many intricate questions concerning
the manner in which the Deity exists, that do not
in the least affect the proof of his existence. The
manner in which those beings exist, who are made
known to us merely by revelation, may be still far-
ther removed beyond the reach of our faculties
At any rate, the knowledge of it is not necessary
for the purposes of the revelation ; and, therefore,
although so very little be revealed concerning them,
as to leave impenetrable darkness over all the spe-
culations by which men attempt to investigate the
manner in which they are distinguished from one
another, and the manner in which they are united,
still their existence and their agency may be placed
beyond doubt by explicit declarations, and the reli-
ance upon these declarations may establish, on the
firmest grounds, that hope which the revelation was
meant to convey.

The state of the case, then, with regard to the
difficulties of religion, is precisely this. We have,
by reason, the means of acquiring that knowledge


which the original condition of our being required,
but not that which our curiosity may desire ; and ac-
cordingly when we launch into questions and specu-
lations of mere curiosity, our pride is rebuked, and
we are reminded that " we are of yesterday, and
know nothing." The Gospel, by the provision which
it has made for the change in our original condi-
tion, has opened to us a state of things in many re-
spects new, by which we perceive how very limited
the range of our natural knowledge was. But this
state of things is intimated, only in so far as the
provision for our condition renders an intimation
necessary ; and while all the facts of real importance
to our comfort and hope are published with the most
satisfying evidence, we are checked in our specula-
tions concerning this new state of things, by the
very scanty measure of light which is afforded us to
guide them. This is a view of the extent of our
knowledge not very flattering to our pride. But it
may be favourable both to our happiness and to our
improvement ; and if we are wise enough to culti-
vate the temper of mind which such a view is pecu-
liarly calculated to form, we may derive much profit
from the bounds which are set to our inquiries, as
well as from the enlargement which is given to our
hopes. There does arise, however, from this view
of our knowledge, one most interesting and funda-
mental question, which is the subject of my third
preliminary observation, What is the use of reason
in matters of religion ?

Butler. Sherlock. Campbell.




If the Christian religion contain many points which
we do not fully comprehend, and if we be required
to believe these points, a difficulty seems to arise
with regard to the boundaries between reason and
faith. This is a subject upon which it is of very
great importance to form distinct apprehensions, be-
fore we proceed to a particular consideration of the
doctrines of Christianity. When you study church
history, you will find that this question has been
agitated in various forms from the beginning of
Christianity to this day. It is not my province to
relate the progress of this dispute, or the different
appearances which it has assumed. And, in truth,
many of the controversies to which it has given oc-
casion are insignificant, because when they are exa-
mined they appear to be purely verbal. Those, who
said that reason was of no use in matters of religion,
sometimes meant nothing more than that religion
derived no benefit from that which is really the abuse
of reason, false philosophy, and the jargon of me-
taphysics. The argument was kept up by the equi-
vocation between reason and the abuse of reason ;
and had the disputants shown themselves willing to


understand one another by defining the terms which
they used, it would have appeared that there was
very little diiference in their opinions.

But this account will not apply to all the contro-
versies that have turned upon this question. The
sublime incomprehensible nature of some of the
Christian doctrines has so completely subdued the
understanding of many pious men, as to make them
think it presumptuous to apply reason any hov/ to
the revelation of God ; and the many instances, in
which the simplicity of truth has been corrupted by
an alliance with philosophy, confirm them in the
belief that it is safer, as well as more respectful, to
resign their minds to dev^out impressions, than to
exercise their understandings in any speculations
upon sacred subjects. Enthusiasts and fanatics of
all different names and sects agree in decrying the
use of reason, because it is the very essence of fana-
ticism to substitute, in place of the sober deductions
of reason, the extravagant fancies of a disordered
imagination, and to consider these fancies as the
immediate illumination of the Spirit of God. Insi-
dious writers in the deistical controversy have pre-
tended to adopt those sentiments of humility and
reverence, which are inseparable from true Christ-
ians, and even that total subjection of reason to faith
which characterises enthusiasts. A pamphlet was
published about the middle of the last century, that
made a noise in its day, although it is now forgot-
ten, entitled, Christianity not Founded on Argu-
ment, which, while to a careless reader it may seem
to magnify the Gospel, does in reality tend to under-
mine our faith, by separating it from a rational as-
sent ; and Mr. Hume, in the spirit of this pain-


phlet, concludes his Essay on Miracles, with calling
those, dangerous friends or disguised enemies to the
Christian religion, who have undertaken to defend
it by the principles of human reason. " Our most
holy religion," he says, with a disingenuity very
unbecoming his respectable talents, " is founded on
faith, not on reason," — and " mere reason is insuffi-
cient to convince us of its veracity." The Church
of Rome, in order to subject the minds of her vota-
ries to her authority, has reprobated the use of rea-
son in matters of religion. She has revived an an-
cient position, that things may be true in theology
which are false in philosophy ; and she has, in
some instances, made the merit o£- faith to consist in
the absurdity of that which was believed.

The extravagance of these positions has produc-
ed, since the Reformation, an opposite extreme.
While those who deny the truth of revelation con-
sider reason as in all respects a sufficient guide, the
Socinians, who admit that a revelation has been
made, employ reason as the supreme judge of its
doctrines, and boldly strike out of their creed every
article that is not altogether conformable to those
notions which may be derived from the exercise of

These controversies, concerning the use of rea-
son in matters of religion, are disputes not about
words, but about the essence of Christianity. They
form a most interesting object of attention to a stu-
dent in divinity, because they affect the whole
course and direction of his studies ; and yet, it ap-
pears to me that a few plain observations are suffi-
cient to ascertain where the truth lies in this sub-

VOL. I. 2 E


1. The first use of reason in matters of religion
is to examine the evidences of revelation. For
the more entire the submission which we consider
as due to every thing that is revealed, we have the
more need to be satisfied that any system which
professes to be a divine revelation, does really
come from God. It is plain from the review which
we took of the evidences of Christianity, that very
large provision is made for affording our minds a
rational conviction, of its divine original ; and the
style of argument, which pervades the discourses
of our Lord, and the sermons and the writings of
his apostles, is a continued call upon us to exercise
our reason in judging of that provision. I need
not quote particular passages ; for that man must
have read the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles
with a very careless or a very prejudiced eye, who
does not feel the manner, in which our religion was
proposed by its divine author and his immediate
disciples, to be a clear refutation of the position
which I mentioned lately, that Christianity is not
founded on argument. You will recollect too, that
all the different branches of the evidence of Christ-
ianity are ultimately resolvable into some principle
of reason. The internal evidence of Christianity is
only then perceived, when you try the system of
the Gospel by a standard which you are supposed to
have derived from natural religion. The argument
which miracles and prophecies afford is but an in-
ference from the power, wisdom, and holiness of
God, all of which you assume as premises that are not
disputed ; and that complication of circumstances

Online LibraryGeorge HillLectures in divinity (Volume 1) → online text (page 29 of 32)