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which constitutes the historical evidence for Christ-
ianity, derives its weight from those laws of proba-


bility which experience and reflection suggest as the
guide of our judgment. It is not easy to conceive
that a creature, who is accustomed to exercise his
reason upon every other subject, should be requir-
ed to lay it aside upon a subject so interesting as
the evidences of religion ; and it is plain, that to
substitute as the ground of our faith certain im-
pressions, the liveliness of which depends very
much upon the state of the animal spirits, in place
of the various exercises of reason which this sub-
ject calls forth, is to render that precarious and in-
explicable which might rest upon sure principles,
and to disregard the provision made by the author
of our faith, who hath both commanded and en-
abled us to " be always ready to give an answer to
every one that asketh a reason of the hope that is
in us."

2. After the exercise of reason has established
in our minds a firm belief that Christianity is of
divine original, the second use of reason is to
learn what are the truths revealed. As these
truths are not in our days communicated to any
by immediate inspiration, the knowledge of thera
is to be acquired only from books transmitted to via
with satisfying evidence that they were written
above seventeen hundred years ago, in a remote
country, and a foreign language, under the direction
of the Spirit of God. In order to attain the mean-
ing of these books, we must study the language in
which they were written, and we must study also
the manners of the times, and the state of the coun-
tries in which the writers lived, because these are
circumstances to which an original author is often
alluding, and by which his phraseology is generally


affected : we must lay together different passages
in which the same word or phrase occurs, because
without this labour we cannot ascertain its precise
signification ; and we must mark the difference of
style and manner that characterizes different writ-
ers, because a right apprehension of their mean-
ing often depends upon attention to this difference.
All this supposes the application of grammar, his-
tory, geography, chronology, and criticism in mat-
ters of religion, /. e. it supposes that the reason of
man had been previously exercised in pursuing
these different branches of knowledge, and that our
success in attaining the true sense of Scripture de-
pends upon the diligence with which we avail our-
selves of the progress that has been made in them.
It is obvious that every Christian is not capable of
making this application. But this is no argument
against the use of reason of which we are now
speaking. For they, who use translations and com-
mentaries, only rely upon the reason of others, in-
stead of exercising their own. The several branches
of knowledge, which I mentioned, have been applied
in every age by some persons for the benefit of
others ; and the progress in sacred criticism, which
distinguishes the present times, is nothing else but
the continued application, in elucidating the Scrip-
tures, of reason enlightened by every kind of subsi-
diary knowledge, and very much improved in this
kind of exercise, by the employment which the
ancient classics have given it since the revival of

As the use of reason thus leads us into the mean-
ing of the single words and phrases of Scripture, so
it is equally necessary to enable us to attain a com-


prehensive view of the whole system of Scripture
doctrine. Our Lord said to his apostles a little be-
fore his death, " I have yet many things to say unto
you, but ye cannot bear them now." The Spirit
guided them into all truth after the ascension of their
master ; and their discourses and epistles are the
fruit of that perfect teaching, which they had not
been able to receive during his life. The epistles of
Paul to the different churches refer to points which
he had explained to the Christians when he was with
them, or to questions which had arisen amongst
them after his departure. They mention rather in-
cidentally than formally the great truths of the
Gospel : and there is no passage in them which
can be considered as a complete delineation of
all that we are called to believe. Yet the apos-
tles speak of " the form of sound words," of " the
truth as it is in Jesus," of " the faith once delivered
to the saints," for which Christians ought to contend.
The knowledge of this form of sound words, this
truth and faith, we are left to attain by searching
the Scriptures, by comparing the discourses of our
Lord, and the writings of his apostles, by employing
expressions which are plain to illustrate those which
are obscure, by givhig such interpretations of the
sacred writers as will preserve their consistency
with themselves and with one another, by marking
the consequences which are fairly deducible from
their explicit declaration, and by framing, out of
what is said and what is implied in their writings, a
system that shall appear to be fully warranted by
their authority. Without all this, we do not learn
the revelation which is contained in the Gospel ; and
yet this implies some of the highest exercises of rea-
son, sagacity, investigation, comparison, abstraction;


and it is the most important service which sound
philosophy can render to Christianity, that it en-
ables us by these exercises to attain a distinct and
enlarged apprehension of the Gospel scheme in all its
connexions and consequences. It is very true, that
many pious Christians derive much consolation and
improvement from the particular doctrines of Christ-
ianity, although the narrowness of their views, and
the distraction of their thoughts, render it impossible
for them to form a just and comprehensive view of
the whole. But it is the professed object of those
who propose to be teachers of Christianity to attain
such a view. It is an object for which they are
supposed to have leisure and opportunity ; and un-
less they thus know the truth, they are not qualified
to show that Christ is indeed " the power of God
and the wisdom of God," or to defend the Gospel
scheme against the objections, and rescue it from the
abuses, to which a partial consideration has often
given occasion.

3. After the two uses of reason that have been il-
lustrated, a third comes to be mentioned, which may
be considered as compounded of both. Reason is of
eminent use in repelling the attacks of the adversa-
ries of Christianity.

When men of erudition, of philosophical acuteness,
and of accomplished taste, direct their talents against
our religion, the cause is very much hurt by an un-
skilful defender. He cannot unravel their sophis^
try; he does not perceive the amount and the ef-
fect of the concessions which he makes to them ;
he is bewildered by their quotations, and he is often
led by their artifice upon dangerous ground. In all
ages of the church there have been weak defend-


ers of Christianity ; and the only triumphs of the
enemies of our religion have arisen from their being
able to expose the defects of those methods of de-
fending the truth, which some of its advocates had
unwarily chosen. A mind, trained to accurate phi-
losophical views of the nature and the amount of
evidence, enriched with historical knowledge, accus-
tomed to throw out of a subject all that is minute
and unrelated, to collect what is of importance with-
in a short compass, and to form the comprehension
of a whole, is the mind qualified to contend with the
learning, the wit, and the sophistry of infidelity.
Many such minds have appeared in this honourable
controversy during the course of this and the last
century; and the success has cori'esponded to the
completeness of the furniture with which they en-
gaged in the combat. The Christian doctrine has
been vindicated by their masterly exposition from
various misrepresentations ; the arguments for its
divine original have been placed in their true light ;
and the attempts to confound the miracles and pro-
phecies, upon which Christianity rests its claim, with
the delusions of imposture, have been effectually re-
pelled. Christianity has, in this way, received the
most important advantages from the attacks of its
enemies ; and it is not improbable tliat its doctrines
would never have been so thoroughly cleared from
all the corruptions and subtleties which had attached
to them in the progress of ages, nor the evidences of
its truths have been so accurately understood, nor
its peculiar character been so perfectly discriminated,
had not the zeal and abilities, which have been em-
ployed against it, called forth in its defence some of
the most distinguished masters of reason. They


brought into the service of Christianity the same
weapons which had been drawn for her destruction,
and, wielding them with confidence and skill in a
good cause, became the successful champions of the

I cannot speak of this third use of reason in mat-
ters of religion, without recommending to you an
excellent book, in which you will find the advantage
that Christianity has derived from it very fully il-
lustrated. I mean Dissei-tations on the genius and
evidences of Christianity, by Dr. Gerard, formerly
Professor of Divinity in King's College, Aberdeen.
All his works show Dr. Gerard to have been an
acute distinguishing man. The observations in this
book are very ingenious, and although there is in
some of them an appearance of remoteness and re-
search that is not perfectly agreeable, yet they are
spread out at such length, and placed in so many
different views, as to satisfy every reader not only
that they are just, but that they add considerable
weight to the collateral presumptive evidence of
Christianity. The first part of the book is intended
to show that the manner in which our Lord and his
apostles proposed the evidences of Christianity was
the most perfect. It is the second part which relates
more directly to our present subject. Dr. Gerard en-
titled the second part, Christianity confirmed by the
opposition of Infidels. He states the advantages
which it derived from the opposition of early infidels,
and then, with much useful reference to the present
state of theological discussions, the advantages which
it has derived from opposition in modern times, and
the argument thence arising for its truth. The
whole second part is the best illustration, that I can


point out, of the use of reason in repelling the at-
tacks of the adversaries of Christianity.

But while many of the champions of Christianity
have adorned and illustrated that truth which they
defended, you will find that others, by a licentious
use of reason, have mutilated the Christian doc-
trine, and reduced it to little more than a system of
morality. And therefore it becomes necessary to

4. Of the fourth use of reason in judging of the
truths of religion. The principles upon this subject
are so simple and clear, that I shall be able to state
them in a few words ; and, although there has been
very gross abuse of reason in judging of the truths of
religion, it will not readily occur to you, how any
person who understands the principles can fail es-
sentially in the application of them. Every thing
which is revealed by God comes to his creatures
from so high an authority, that it may be rested in
with perfect assurance as true. Nothing can be re-
ceived by us as true which is contrary to the dic-
tates of reason, because it is impossible for us to
perceive at the same time the truth and the false-
hood of a proposition. But many things are true
which we do not fully comprehend, and many propo-
sitions, which appear incredible when they are first
enunciated, are found, upon examination, such as
our understanding can readily admit. These prin-
ciples appear to me to embrace the whole of the sub-
ject, and they mark out the steps by which reason
is to proceed in judging of the truths of religion.
We first examine the evidences of revelation. If
these satisfy our understandings, we are certain that
there can be no contradiction between the doctrines


of this true religion, and the dictates of right reason.
If any such contradiction appear, there must be some
mistake : by not making a proper use of our reason
in the interpretation of the Gospel, we suppose that
it contains doctrines which it does not teach : or, we
give the name of right reason to some narrow pre-
judices which deeper reflection and more enlarged
knowledge will dissipate ; or, we consider a propo-
sition as impljang a contradiction, when, in truth, it
is only imperfectly understood. Here, as in every
other case, mistakes are to be corrected by measur-
ing back our steps. We must examine closely and
impartially the meaning of those passages which ap-
pear to contain the doctrine : we must compare them
with one another : we must endeavour to derive
light from the general phraseology of Scripture and
the analogy of faith ; and we shall generally be able,
in this way, to separate the doctrine from all those
adventitious circumstances which give it the appear-
ance of absurdity. If a doctrine, which, upon the
closest examination, appears unquestionably to be
taught in Scripture, still does not approve itself to
our understanding, we must consider carefully what
it is that prevents us from receiving it. There may
be preconceived notions hastily taken up which that
doctrine opposes ; there may be pride of understand-
ing that does not readily submit to the views which
it communicates ; or reason may need to be remind-
ed, that we must expect to find in religion many
things which we are not able to comprehend. One
of the most important offices of reason is to recog-
nise her own limits. She never can be moved by
any authority to receive as true what she perceives
to be absurd. But if she has formed a just estimate


of the measure of human knowledge, she will not
shelter her presumption in rejecting the truths of
revelation under the pretence of contradictions that
do not really exist ; she will readily admit that
there may be in a subject some points which she
knows, and others of which she is ignorant ; she
will not allow her isrnorance of the latter to shake
the evidence of the former ; but will yield a firm
assent to that which she does understand, without
presuming to deny what is beyond her comprehen-
sion. And thus availing herself of all the light
which she now has, she will wait in humble hope
for the time when a larger measure shall be impart-

The importance, and indeed the meaning, of the
principles which I have stated, would be best un-
derstood by examples. But were I to attempt to
exemplify them, I should anticipate the subjects
upon which we are to enter. These principles will
often recur in the progress of my Lectures upon the
particular doctrines of Christianity ; and therefore
I shall content myself with having stated them in
this general manner at present.

A right apprehension of this fourth use of reason
in matters of religion constitutes the defence of
Christianity against a large class of objections, that
are often urged against some of its peculiar doctrines.
You will find it therefore occasionally stated in all
the writers who treat of these doctrines, and if there
is a proper selection of your reading, just views
upon this important subject will become familiar to
your minds at the same time that you are studying
the Scripture system. The best preparation for
these views is sound logic, which, in teaching the


right use of reason, ascertains its boundaries, and
guards against the abuse of it. You bring that fur-
niture with you when you enter upon the study of
divinity. You improve it during the prosecution of
that study, by reading Bacon, Locke, and Reid, and
the other writers who treat of the intellectual
powers, and by all those exercises, which render
your own intellectual powers more sound and more
acute, which increase their vigour, while they check
their presumption. I would recommend to you par-
ticularly to read and study upon this subject, Reid's
Essay on the Intellectual Powers, and five chapters
of the 4th book of Locke's Essay on the Human
Understanding, which treat of assent, reason, faith
and reason, enthusiasm, wrong assent and error.
They contain a most rational, and I think, when
properly understood, a just view of reason in judg-
ing of the truths of religion ; and every student
ought to be well acquainted with them.

Potter, Prselectiones Theologicae, vol. iii.




The last preliminary observation arising out of the
general view of the Scripture system respects the
controversies, to which that system has given occa-
sion. Even those, who agreed as to the divine au-
thority of the Christian religion, have differed very
widely in their interpretation of its doctrines. These
differences have not been confined to trifling matters,
but have often touched upon points which are said
to concern the very essence of the religion, and they,
who held the opposite opinions, have discovered a
mutual contempt and bitterness, very inconsistent
with the spirit which might be supposed to animate
the disciples of the same Master.

When we endeavour to account for the controver-
sies in religion, we must begin with recollecting that
there is hardly any subject of speculation, upon
which those by whom it has been thoroughly can-
vassed have not differed in opinion. The degrees
of understanding, and the opportunities of improve-
ment are so various, and there is such variety in the
circumstances and connexions which direct men to


their first opinions, and which insensibly warp their
judgment, that the same subject is seldom viev^ed by
two persons exactly in the same light. Minuter
shades of difference are generally overlooked by
those who agree in important points. But there
are opinions so far removed from one another, that
no explication of terms, no concessions which either
side can make in consistency with their own princi-
ple, are sufficient to reconcile them. Hence the dif-
ferent systems which have been framed, and zealous-
ly maintained with regard to several branches of na-
tural theology and pneumatics, with regard to the
principles of morality, with regard to politics, I
do not mean the politics of the day, but the general
science of politics, and with regard to various ques-
tions in natural philosophy. Any person, who is
conversant with the writings of the ancient and mo-
dern philosophers, knows that without opposition
of interest, merely from a difference in the mode of
exercising the understanding upon subjects which
appear to be within the reach of the human powers,
controversies have been agitated ever since men be-
gan to speculate, and, after receiving the fullest dis-
cussion, have revived in a new form with fresh vi-

But, notwithstanding this multiplicity of contro-
versies, which the love of disputation has produced
upon all other subjects, it may occur to you, that
the authority, with which a messenger of heaven
speaks, should put an end to all dispute with regard
to the subjects of his mission, amongst those who
acknowledge that he comes from God. You con-
sider it as essential to a divine revelation, that all
which is necessary to be known should there be deliv-




ered in explicit terms, and you think it impossible
that any Christian should deny those propositions
which are clearly contained in Scripture. A little
attention, however, to the circumstances of the case,
will enable you to reconcile the existence of theolo-
gical controversy with these principles.

The different parts of my discourse upon this sub-
ject are, from their nature, so blended together, that
I shall not attempt to keep them asunder by separ-
ate heads. But the points to which I am to call
your attention, as serving to account for the multi-
plicity of theological controversies, are these — the
manner in which the truths of the Gospel are to be
learned, — the nature and importance of these truths
— the sentiments and passions, which, from the
weakness of humanity, frequently operated in the
breasts of persons who speculated concerning them
— and the genius of that philosophy in which many
of those persons were educated.

The truths of the Gospel must be deduced from
an interpretation of the words of Scripture ; and this
interpretation admits of variety, according to the
measure in which those who profess to interpret are
acquainted with the language, the manners, and the
phraseology of the writers, according to the atten-
tion which they bestow, and the honesty of mind
with which they receive the truth. In the plainest
language that can be used, there are metaphorical
expressions which some may stretch too far, and
others may consider as not admitting of any direct
application to the subject. In every discourse ex-
tending to a considerable length, there are limita-
tions of general expressions arising out of the occa-
sion upon which they are used, that may be over-


looked, or that may be perverted ; and with regard
to the Gospel in particular, there are pre- conceived
opinions, which, by bending every proposition to a
conformity with themselves, may lead men far from
the truth, without their being conscious of showing
any contempt to the authority of the revelation.
These causes have operated even with regard to the
meaning of the precepts of the Gospel, and have
produced that casuistical morality, which, while it
acknowledges Scripture as the standard of practice,
has abounded in controversies concerning the appli-
cation of that standard to particular cases.

But the controversies, with which you are chiefly
concerned, respect not so much the practical parts of
our religion as its doctrines ; and you will not be
surprised at the multiplicity of these, when you re-
collect the imperfect measure in which the Gospel
has opened to the human mind new, interesting,
and profound subjects of speculation. We found
formerly, that, while the Gospel brings the most
convincing evidence of the great facts in natural
theology, it leaves all the intricate questions which
have occurred concerning these facts just where they
were ; and that, while by revealing a new dispensa-
tion of Providence it necessarily mentioned the ex-
istence of persons not known by the religion of na-
ture, their relation to us, and the conduct of that
scheme in which they are engaged for our benefit, it
has communicated only such information, with re-
gard to this new set of facts that are to be received
upon the authority of revelation, as is of real im-
portance, leaving many points in darkness. Here
is the most fruitful subject of controversy that can
be conceived. The propositions revealed in Scrip-


ture are so few and simple, that it is hardly possi-
ble for those who rest in Scripture to disagree. But
the pride of human wisdom does not readily submit
to be confined within bounds so narrow. Those,
who have been accustomed to speculate upon other
subjects, continue their speculations upon religion,
and, forgetting the proper province of reason with
regard to truths that are revealed, which is to re-
ceive with humility what does not appear upon ex-
amination to be absurd, they reject as unimportant
every thing that reason did not investigate ; or they
endeavour, by means of reason, to carry their ex-
planations l^and discoveries far beyond the measure
of light contained in the Scripture ; or they embar-
rass, by the terms and distinctions of human science,
subjects so imperfectly revealed as not to admit of
them. It cannot be expected that there should be
uniformity in employments such as these, which do
not proceed upon certain principles, and do not ad-
mit of being reduced to any fixed rule. When men
of different modes of education, and different habits
of thinking, undervaluing the simplicity of the facts
revealed in Scripture, and desirous to be wise above

Online LibraryGeorge HillLectures in divinity (Volume 1) → online text (page 30 of 32)