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what is written, carry their inquiries into the man-
ner of these facts, they «et out from different points,
they wander without a guide in a boundless field of
conjecture, and, having assumed their premises at
pleasure, they arrive at opposite conclusions.

Even in the days of the apostles, " the form of
sound words" which they delivered was complicated,
and disguised by the prejudices of those who em-
braced it. The Jewish converts, retaining an im-
plicit veneration for the teachers of the law, wished
to incorporate with the Christian faith all the fables

VOL. I. 2 F


which they found in the writings of their Rabbins ;
and many of the heathen converts proceeded to can-
vass the subjects of revelation, with the presump-
tuous and inquisitive spirit of the philosophy which
they had learned. Hence you read in the Epistles
of Paul of " foolish and unlearned questions which
gender strife ;" of teachers " who, concerning the
truth had erred, and overthrew the faith of some ;"
of " fables and endless genealogies ;" and of " opposi-
tions of science, falsely so called." We learn from
Peter that the unlearned and unstable wrested some
things in Paul's Epistles that are hard to be under-
stood, and the other Scriptures also, to their own
destruction : and it is a tradition from the earliest
Christian writers, that John wrote both his first
Epistle and his Gospel with a view to combat a
heresy concerning our Lord's person, which attach-
ment to the oriental philosophy had introduced
amongst the first Christians. If controversy thus
found a place in the church even under the eye of
the apostles, and was not effectually repressed by
their explanation of their own words, and by their
authority, you may expect that it would multiply
fast after their departure, when the only standard of
faith was the written word, and no person was en-
jsv titled to impose his interpretation of that word as
the true mind of the apostles. The same presump-
tuous curiosity, which had appeared in the earliest
times, continued to extend to all the parts of Chris-
tian doctrine. Men speculated concerning the man-
ner in which the Son and the Spirit exist with the
Father. Instead of judging of the evidences of the
divine mission of Jesus, they proceeded to scan the
reasons of that dispensation which they were requir-


ed to believe. They investigated the principles
upon which the several parts of the dispensation
combine in producing the end, and they pretended
to ascertain the nature and the manner of their ope-
ration. They spread out the scanty information
which Scripture affords upon all these subjects into
large systems. But the original materials being
very few, and the rest being supplied by imagina-
tion and false philosophy, the systems differed wide-
ly from one another, and it was impossible to find
any method of reconciling the difference.

You will not suppose that these discussions pro-
ceeded in every instance purely from a desire of at-
taining the truth, or that they were conducted with
the calm disinterested spirit which becomes a lover
of knowledge. Any person, who has that acquaint-
ance with human nature which history and expe-
rience afford, will not be surprised to find that other
passions often mingled their influence with the pride
of reason. Jealousy of a rival produced opposition
to his opinions, so that some systems of theology
grew out of a private quarrel. The vices of an in-
dividual needed some shelter, and he tried to find it
in the zeal and ingenuity with which he brought
forward speculations upon some of the points that
were then universally interesting. The love of
power induced some to stand forth as the leaders in
theological controversy, whilst meaner desires dic-
tated to others the station which they Avere to as-
sume, and the humble offices by which they were to
maintain the combat. Matters of order, ceremonies
of worship, and all those usages in Christian socie-
ties, which the word of God has left as matters of
indifference to be regulated by human prudence, were


laid hold of by artful men who knew that they were
of no essential importance, and placed in such a light
as to be the most effectual means of inflaming the
minds of the multitude. Some of the earliest and
most violent controversies respected the time of cele-
brating Easter ; and the history of the church
abounds with others equally insignificant. By this
mixture of more ignoble principles with the pre-
sumptuous curiosity that pried into those " secret
things which belong to the Lord," theological sub-
jects became one field for exhibiting the angry pas-
sions, which from the beginning of the world have
disturbed the peace of society. Had that field been
wanting, men would have found other pretexts for
acting, from jealousy, ambition, and avarice ; and
many of the controversies of the Christian Church
are, in one respect, a proof of that depravity of hu-
man nature, which, notwithstanding the remedy
brought by the Gospel, continued to operate in the
breasts of those who professed to receive that reli-

The number and intricacy of theological contro-
versies were very much increased by the philosophy
of the times. In the second century the philosophy
of Plato was held in the highest admiration, and some
of the learned Christians, having been educated in
the schools of the later Platonists, retained the sen-
timents, and even the dress of philosophers, after
they became the disciples of Christ. In the third
century, Origen, who by the extent of his erudition,
the intenseness of his application, and the vigour of
his genius, was qualified to lead the minds not of his
contemporaries only, but of succeeding ages, was a


professed Platonist. In his theological system, he
accommodates the whole scheme of Christian doc-
trine to the leading principles of Platonism ; and in
his interpretation of the Scriptures, he adopts that
allegorical and mystical method of exposition, to
which the luxuriant fancy, and the suhlime imagery
of the Athenian philosopher had given occasion, and
the Platonic father was thus able to bring out of the
simplicity of the Scriptures all the profound specu-
lations which he wished to find there. Origen is
generally regarded as the father of scholastic theolo-
gy, which derives its name from applying the terms
and distinctions of human science to the truths of
revelation. Scholastic theology assumed different
forms, corresponding to the succession of particular
systems of philosophy. But during the whole period
of its existence, it maintained this general character,
that it altered and corrupted the divine simplicity of
the Gospel, and that by affecting metaphysical pre-
cision upon subjects which the Scriptures have left un-
defined, it was productive of endless controversies
The progress of these controversies, which rendered it
necessary for the opposite parties to entrench their
opinions behind definitions, divisions, and terms of
art, recommended to theologians the philosophy of
Aristotle. The subtile distinguishing genius of Aris-
totle had invented a language peculiarly fitted to
convey the discriminating tenets of their systems,
and his authority had introduced and established
the syllogistical mode of reasoning, a mode of no
avail in making discovery, but of singular use in dis-
putation, because it furnishes a kind of defensive
weapons, which, by keeping an opponent at a dis-
tance, may, when skilfully managed, render it im-


possible for him to gain a victory. For these rea-
sons, as well as for others, which it is not my pro-
vince to explain, the Platonic philosophy yielded
after a few centuries to the Peripatetic. The autho-
rity of Aristotle became as complete in the schools
of theology as in those of logic or metaphysics ; and
all theological systems abounded so much with the
barbarous jargon then in use, that we cannot at this
day understand the opinions which were held upon
intricate points of divinity without attempting to
learn it. Upon all subjects this language served to
conceal ignorance under an ostentatious parade of
words. But when it is applied to those subjects
which the wisdom of God hath seen meet to reveal
in very imperfect measure, the number of clear ideas
bears so very small a proportion to the multitude of
words, that the study of it forms a very unprofita-
ble waste of time ; for it requires much labour to
apprehend the meaning, and, unless your mind be so
unhappily constituted, as to remember words better
than things, the meaning escapes almost as soon as
it is attained.

Since the era of the Reformation, the Aristote-
lian philosophy has been gradually sinking in the
public esteem ; and the human mind, having broken
the fetters in which she had long been bound, has
freely canvassed all subjects connected with religion.
While the ablest writers have appeared during the
two last centuries in the deistical controversy, all
the other controversies relating both to the doctrine,
and to the rites or discipline of the Christian church,
have called forth men of profound erudition and of
philosophical minds. The same causes which we
formerly mentioned, have produced in modern times


a difference of opinion, both with regard to those in-
tricate questions in natural theology which the Gos-
pel has not solved, and with regard to those new
points, concerning which the information given in
Scripture is by no means satisfying to the curiosity
of man. A more rational criticism, than that used
in ancient times, has been applied to the interpreta-
tion of Scripture. A more enlightened philosophy,
a sounder logic, and a language less technical, but
not deficient in precision, have been employed in
supporting the different theological opinions which
former habits of thinking, or the interpretation of
Scripture, have led men to adopt. The most contro-
verted points have been the subject of public national
disputes, as well as of private inquiry. Churches
are discriminated from one another by the system
upon those points which enters into their creed ; and
individual members of every church, with that bold-
ness of inquiry of which the Reformation set the ex-
ample, have carried their researches into many
points which most creeds had left undefined. The
consequence of this thorough examination of the
Scripture system has been, not that all the parts of
it are understood, but that the measure in which
they can be understood is known ; every unnecessary
degree of obscurity which had been attached to them
is removed, and the limits of reason in judging of
religion, together with the proper method of its be-
ing applied to that subject, are ascertained. The
opponents in these controversies have corrected the
errors of one another. The appeals which have
been constantly made to Scripture, the diligence with
which all the passages relating to every subject have
been collected, and the ingenuity with which they


have been applied in support of different systems,
enable an impartial inquirer to attain the true mean-
ing : and a student of divinity must be very much
wanting to himself, if, after all the labours of those
who have gone before him, he does not acquire a
distinct notion of the various opinions that have
been entertained concerning the several parts of the
Scripture system, and an apprehension of the train
of argument by which every one of them is sup-

A review of the controversies forms a principal
part of a course of theological lectures. We do not
bring forward to the people all the variety of opi-
nions which have been held by presumptuous in-
quirers, or superficial reasoners. To men who have
not leisure to speculate upon religion, and who re-
quire the united force of all its doctrines to promote
those practical purposes, which are of more essential
importance than any other, it is much better to pre-
sent " the form of sound words," as it was *' once
delivered to the saints," unembarrassed by human
distinctions and oppositions of science, and to im-
print upon their minds the consolation and " in-
struction in righteousness," which, when thus stat-
ed, it is well fitted to administer. This is the busi-
ness of preaching. But this is not the only business
of students in divinity. You are not masters of
your profession, you are not qualified to defend the
truth against the multiplicity of error, and your con-
ceptions of the system of theology have not that en-
largement and accuracy which they might have, un-
less you study the controverted points of divinity.
It is true that there have been many disputes mere-
ly verbal ; that there have been others that cannot


be called verbal, the matter of which is wholly un-
important ; and that perhaps all have been conduct-
ed with a degree of acrimony which the principles of
Christian toleration, when thoroughly understood,
will enable you to avoid. These general remarks
will find their proper place, after reviewing the par-
ticular controversies. But in that review you will
meet with many which turn upon points so essential
to the Christian faith, where the arguments upon
both sides appear to have so much force, and have
been urged in a manner so able, and so well fitted to
enlighten the mind, that you will think it childish to
affect to despise theological controversies in general,
because there has been some impropriety in the man-
ner of their being conducted, or because some of
them are insignificant.

The time was when the decision of all theological
controversies turned upon a kind of traditional au-
thority. The writers in the first four centuries of
the Christian church were supposed to be much bet-
ter acquainted with the mind of the apostles, and to
have been in a more favourable situation for know-
ing the truth upon all difiicult questions, than those
who apply to the study of theology in later times.
They were dignified with the name of the fathers.
Their opinions were resorted to with a kind of re-
verence, which is not due to any human composi-
tions. They were considered as the only sure inter-
preters of Scripture ; and such confidence was re-
posed in their interpretation, that their works were
sometimes placed very nearly upon a level with the
inspired writings. The charm of human authority
was dispelled by the Reformation. An accurate en-
lightened criticism has appreciated the merit of the


Christian fathers. We alloAV then;i all the credit,
which is due to honest men attesting facts that came
within their own knowledge. We venerate their
antiquity ; we prize that knowledge of the early-
rites of the Christian church, and of the tradition of
doctrine from the days of the apostles, which can be
derived only from them. Above all, we consider
their writings as an inestimable treasure upon this
account, that by their mention of the books of the
New Testament, and by the quotations from Scrip-
ture with which they abound, they are to us the
vouchers of the authenticity of the sacred books, and
of the manner in which the canon of Scripture was
completed. But our sense of their merit, and of
their importance to the Christian faith in the char-
acter of historians, does not induce us to submit to
them as teachers. Without any invidious detraction,
with every indulgence which the manners of the
times and the imperfection of other early writers
demand for the Christian fathers, Protestants adhere
to their leading principle, which is this, to consider
the Scriptures as the only infallible rule of faith.
They have learned to call no man their master, be-
cause one is their Master, even Christ : and in inter-
preting the words of Christ and his apostles, they
consider themselves as no less entitled to judge for
themselves, and as, in some respects, no less quali-
fied to form a sound judgment, than those who, liv-
ing in earlier times, had prejudices and disadvantages
from which we may be exempt. I cannot express
this principle better than in the words of our Con-
fession of Faith : " The Supreme Judge, by which
all controversies of religion are to be determined, and
all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers,


doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be ex-
aniined, and in wliose sentence we are to rest, can
be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the

This is the principle to be followed in that review
of the great controversies of religion, which forms a
prominent subject of my lectures. I may often give
you, from ancient writers, the history of opinions,
and may occasionally combat those misrepresenta-
tions of that history which are found in modern au-
thors, eager to call in every aid to support their par-
ticular systems. But I shall quote the Christian fa-
thers as historians, not as authorities. I know no
authority upon which you ought to rest in judging
of the truth of any doctrine but the Scriptures, and
therefore I consider sacred criticism as the most
important branch of the study of theology. We are
to avail ourselves of an intimate acquaintance with
the language of the New Testament, /. e. with the
meaning of single words, with the usual acceptation
of phrases, and with the real amount of figurative
expression. We are to study the general customs
of the people amongst whom that language was
used, and the habits of thinking which might dic-
tate a particular phraseology to some writers. We
are to investigate the mind of an author, by compar-
ing his language in one place with that which occurs
in another, and we are to endeavour to attain a full
and precise conception of the whole doctrine of Scrip-
ture upon every point, by laying together those pas-
sages of Scripture in which it is stated under differ-
ent views.

It is by this patient exercise of reason and criti-
cism that a student of divinity is emancipated from


all subjection to the opinions of men, and led most
certainly into the truth as it is in Christ Jesus. It
is the great object of my lectures, to assist you in
this exercise, and I may hope, after having bestowed
much pains in going before you, to be of some use
in abridging your labour, by pointing out the short-
est and most successful method of arriving at the con-
clusion. I shall not decline giving my opinion upon
the passages which I quote, and the comparison of
Scripture which I shall often make. But I do not
desire you to pay more regard to my opinions than
to those of any other writer, unless in so far as they
appear to you upon examination to be well founded.
You will derive more benefit from canvassing what
I say than from imbibing all that I can teach ; and
the most useful lessons which you can learn from
me are a habit of attention, a love of truth, and a
spirit of inquiry.




Our Shorter Catechism, and our Confession of Faith,
are formed upon the course in which systems of di-
vinity commonly proceed, and both of them are clear
and well digested. You will find another excellent
abridgment of the ordinary course in Marckii Me-
dulla Theologise, a duodecimo of 300 pages, which
used to be the text book in St. Mary's College, and
which, in my opinion, ought to be read by every
student of divinity, not early, but before he finishes
his studies. You will see in this little book all the
controversies that have been agitated. But you will
see them in the order of the system, and the order
is this. After a general account of the nature of
theology, and of the Scriptures as the principle of
theology, the following subjects succeed one another.
God and the Trinity — the decrees of God — the exe-
cution of these decrees in the works of Creation — a
view of the visible and invisible world — the Provi-
dence and government which God exercises over his
works — man — the state of innocence — the fall — the
consequences of sin — the covenant of grace — the per-
son, offices, and state of the Mediator of the cove-

H6 arrangement of the course.

nant — the benefits of the covenant — the duties of
those who partake of the benefits — the sacraments —
the Church — the final condition of mankind.

Upon all these subjects, the orthodox doctrine is
stated, and the objections that have been made to
the several parts of the doctrine are answered, so
that every chapter contains an account of the several
opinions, that have been held upon all the points
that occur in the chapter. I was afraid to entangle
myself in this course, partly from an apprehension,
proceeding both upon the number of subjects which
it embraces, and upon the experience of other pro-
fessors of divinity who have engaged in it, that it
was likely to stretch out to such a length, as to leave
me no hope of finishing my lectures during the long-
est term of attendance which the law prescribes to
students ; and partly from an opinion that the ar-
rangement adopted in the ordinary course is not the
most perfect. You will not think this opinion ill
founded, when you come to read Marckii Medulla ;
for there, and I believe, in every other of the com-
mon systems, there is so close an alliance between
the subjects treated under the different heads, that
the same principles are frequently resorted to in or-
der to illustrate the orthodox doctrine ; objections,
the same in substance with those that had been an-
swered in a former chapter, recur under a different
form, and the same answers are repeated v^ith only
a little variation in the manner of applying them.
i am very faf from condemning this arrangement
as in all respects improper. It was adopted by very
able men ; it is most useful for giving a thorough
acquaintance with all the parts of the Scripture sys-
tem ; and there is one book in which it appears to


such advantage, that what I account its imperfec-
tion is ahnost forgotten, I mean Calvin's Institutes
of the Christian religion ; a book written in Latin,
that is not only perspicuous, but elegant, and giving
a most masterly comprehensive view of the great
points in theology. It consists of four books. The
first is entitled, De Cognitione Dei Creatoris. The
second, De Cognitione Dei Redemptoris. The third,
De Modo Percipiendae Christi gratiae, et qui fructus
inde nobis proveniant, et qui effectus consequantur.
The fourth, De Externis Mediis ad Salutem. It re-
quires much time to read this book carefully ; but
when a student has leisure to make it his business,
he will find his labour abundantly recompensed ; and
I do not know a more useful book for a clergyman
in the country. It may be purchased for a trifle,
and it is the best body of divinity. But excellent
and profitable as this book is, the imperfection which
I mentioned adheres to the plan upon which it is
composed ; and although the order of Calvin's In-
stitutes appears to me simpler and more natural
than that of any other system which I have read,
yet I think that, if I were to attempt to follow it, I
should be reminded by frequent repetitions, that a
more perfect arrangement might have rendered the
coui*se shorter and less fatiguing.
i This impression led me to attend to another ar-
rangement of the controversies, which has been exe-
cuted with much ability by some theological writers.
Every controversy is stated by itself; /. e. all the
distinguishing opinions of those, who derive a parti-
cular name from the peculiarity of their tenets, are
brought into one view, and are referred to one gen-
eral principle, so that you see the system of their


creed, and can mark the connexion between the sev-
eral parts. To give an example : Socinianism is the
system of those who hold the opinions of Socinus.
The principle of Socinianism is, that man may be
saved by that religion, which is founded upon the
relation between God the Creator, and man his crea-
ture. From this principle flow their opinions with
regard to the intention of Christ's death as a witness
to the truth, and an example to his followers, but
not as an atonement for sin ; their exclusion of mys-
teries from religion ; and all those tenets by which
they transform the Christian religion into the most

Online LibraryGeorge HillLectures in divinity (Volume 1) → online text (page 31 of 32)