John Wilson.

Unitarian principles confirmed by Trinitarian testimonies : being selections from the works of eminent theologians belonging to orthodox churches online

. (page 17 of 55)
Online LibraryJohn WilsonUnitarian principles confirmed by Trinitarian testimonies : being selections from the works of eminent theologians belonging to orthodox churches → online text (page 17 of 55)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


when they would quench the love of truth and of investigation, natural to
honest and noble minds, by gi'ounding belief on the authority of parentage,
of the church, or of celebrated men; by misrepresenting the sentiments and
motives of those who differ from them in opinion ; by instilling the notion,
that no genuine faith, no sincere piety, no well-grounded hope of heaven,
can be found beyond the pale of their own narrow creed ; in fine, by virtually
declaring, " Inquire, — but never doubt; search the Scriptures — to find our
views; read with the understanding — that we are right; reason with the
conviction — that all else are wrong. Your interests in this world, and your
salvation in the next, depend on the unconditional surrender of your under-
standings to the faith loe prescribe, — on the unhesitating rejection of all
contrary opinions."

These and other impediments to free inquiry, and to the reception of
views of truth founded on individual conviction, will be treated of in the
following section.



IMPEDBIENTS TO THE PURSUIT OF TRUTH. 143



SECT. IV. — HINDK\NCES TO FREE ESTQUIEY, AND TO THE RECEPTION
AND SPREAD OF TRUTH.

We pray,
Above all things, Lord, that aU men be free
From bondage,

The bondage of religious bigotry

And bald antiquity, servility

Of thought or speech.

P. J. Bailey.

§ 1. Early Prejudices.

Another great cause of pretended false knowledge and confidence
is the unhappy prejudices which our minds contract even in our child-
hood, before we have time and vdt and conscience to try things by true
deHberation. Children and youth must receive much upon trust, or
else they can leam nothing ; but then they have not wit to proportion
their apprehensions to the e\idence, whether of credibility or certamty ;
and so fame and tradition and education, and the country's vote, do
become the ordinary parents of many lies; and folly maketh us to
fasten so fearlessly in our iii'st apprehensions, that they keep open the
door to abundance [of] more falsehoods ; and it must be clear teachers,
or great, impartial studies, of a self-denjing mind, with a great bless-
ing of God, that must deliver us from prejudice, and undeceive us. —
Richard Baxter: Knowledge and Love Compared; in Practical
Works, vol. XV. pp. 156-7.

It is no small work to examme the truth, when we arrive at an age
capable of discussion. The fundamental points of religion, I grant, lie
in the Scriptures clear and perspicuous, and witliin the comprehension
of all who choose to attend to them ; but Avlien we pass from infancy
to manhood, and arrive at an age in vvhich reason seems matm'e, we
find ourselves covered with a veil, which either hides objects from us, or
disfigures them. The pubhc discourses we have heard in favor of the
sect in which we were educated, the inveterate hatred we have for all
others who hold principles opposite to om-s, the fi'ightful portraits that
are dra^^Ti before our eyes of the perils we must encounter if we depart
from the way we have been brought up in, the impressions made upon
us by the examples and decisions of our parents and masters and
teachers, the bad taste of those who had the care of our eduaition,
and who prevented our acqmring that most noble disposition, without



144 IMPEDEMENTS TO THE PURSUIT OF TRUTD.

which it is impossible ever to be a tnie philosopher or a real Christian,
— I mean tLat of suspending om- judgment on subjects not sufficiently
proved, — from all tliis arise clouds that render the truth inaccessible^
and "which the world cannot dissipate. We do not say that natm^al
talents or supernatural assistance are wanting : we are fully con%-inced
that God vaW never give up to final eiTor any man who does all in his
power to understand the truth. But the world are incapable of this
•work. Why ? Because all the world, except a few, hate labor and
meditation m regard to the subjects which respect another life; be-
cause all the world would choose rather to attach themselves to what
regards their temporal interests than to the great interest of eternal
happiness ; because all the world like better to suppose the principles
imbibed in their childhood true, than to impose on themselves the
task of weighing them anew m the balance of a somid and severe
reason ; because all the world have an in\incible aversion to suppose,
that, when they are arrived at manhood, they have almost lost their
time in some respects, and that, when they leave school, they begin to
be capable of instruction. — James Saurds : Sei'mons, vol. ii. p. 29.

Many persons, not generally miinqmrmg or uncandid, or incom-
petent to reason accm^ately, have yet been so early accustomed to take-
for granted, and assent to on authority, certain particular points, that
they afterwards adhere to the behef so formed, rather from association
than on e\idence. — Archbishop Whately : Essays on Difficulties
in PauVs Writings, p. 219.

One great source of erroneous impressions on all subjects is the
power of influences exerted in early life, and which are sometimes so
strong as uttei'ly to bid defiance to all argument. . . . This influence
of early associations has more pov/er than all other causes put together,
in the formation of rehgious opinions. The children of Mahometans
become Mahometans themselves, without arguments in favor of the
Prophet ; and, in the Cliristian world, religious opinions are hereditary,
and pass down, with exceptions comparatively few and rare, from father
to son; so that Popery and Protestantism, Episcopacy and Dissent,
and Presbj^terian, Baptist, and Methodist opuiions, occupy, in the main,
the same gromid, from generation to generation. . . . Every intelli-
gent observer of the human mind, and especially of the habits and
susceptibiHties of childhood, will at once admit, that other influences
than those of argument are the efficient ones in the production of
these alm^ost universal eflects. — Jacob Abbott : The Corner-stone,
pp. 290-2.



IMPEDIMENTS TO THE PUESUIT OF TRUTH. 145

4 2. Pkostkation of the Judgment to Authority.

Is it not blameworthy in us, and a proof of carnality, ... to give up
our judgment to be wholly guided by the writings of Luther or Cahin,
or of any other mortal man whatsoever ? Worthy instruments they
were, both of them, of God's glory, and such as did excellent semce to'
the church in then' times, whereof we yet find the benefit ; and we are
unthankful if we do not bless God for it : and therefore it is an unsavory
thing for any man to gird at their names, whose memories ought to be
precious. But yet were they not men ? Had they received the Spirit
in the fulness of it, and not by measure ? Knew they otherwise than in
part, or prophesied otherwise than in part ? IMight they not in many
things, and they not in some things, mistake and err ? Howsoever,
the apostle's inteiTogatories are unanswerable. What saith he ? " Was
Paid crucified for you ? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul ? "
Even so, w^as either Luther or Calvin crucified for you ? Or were ye
baptized into the name of Luther or Calvin, or any other man, that
any one of you should say, I am of Luther ; or any other, I am of
Calvin ; and I of him, and I of him ? What is Calvin or Luther . . .
but " mmisters by whom ye beheved ; " that is to say, instruments, but
not lords, of your behef ? — Bishop Sanderson : Thirty-Jive Ser-
mons, p. 295; Lond. 1681, seventh edit.

There are many among us so strangely engaged by false principles
to an ill cause, that it is m vain to offer them the clearest arguments to
convince them. If you bring them Scripture, it is true that must be
heard ; but then, be it never so plain, they are not competent judges
of the meaning of it ; and they dm'st not trust their own mterpreteition
to tell them that Abraham begat Isaac, if the church should think
fit to exjjound it othermse. ... If you offer them reason as clear as
the plainest demonstration, why, that were well ; but still private reason
may err, and the chm-ch cannot. . . . Sense, reason, Scripture, all are
of no force against this one prejudice of then' church's authority. —
Archbishop Wake : Sermons and Discourses, pp. 18, 19.

Implicit faith has been sometimes ludicrously styled j?(/e5 carhonaria,
from the noted story of one who, on examining an ignorant collier on
his religious principles, asked him what it was that he beheved. He
answered, " I beheve Avhat the church believes." The other rejoined,
" What, then, does the church beheve ? " He repHed readily, " The
church beheves what I beheve." The other, desirous if possible to
brmg him tc particulars, once more resumefs his inquiry : " Tell me,

13



146 niPEDniENTS to the pursuit of truth.

then, I pray you, what it is which you and the church both beheye."
The only answer the coUier could give was, "Why trulj, sh, the
church and I both — believe the same thing." This is imphcit faith
in perfection, and, in the estimation of some celebrated doctors, the
sum of necessarj'- and saving loiowledge in a Christian. — Dr. George
Campbell : Lectures on Ecclesiastical History, Lect. 23.

Deference to gi'eat names is a sentiment which it would be base to
attempt to eradicate, and impossible were it attempted. But, like
other offsprings of the mind, it is at first rude and iU-shapen. It makes
no selection, no discrimination ; it retains the impress of its original
enthe, just as it was made ; it is a vague, midistinguishing admhation,
which consecrates in a mass all the errors and deformities, along with
the real excellences, of its object. Time only, the justest of all critics,
gives it correctness and projoortion, and converts what is at fii'st merely
the action of a great upon an uiferior mind into an enlightened and
impaitial estimate of distinguished worth. — Robert Hall : Reply
to the Rev. Joseph Kinghorn ; in Works, vol. i. p. 502.

Think you, my brethren, that there is no Popery among you ? Is
there no taking of yom' rehgion upon trust from another, when you
should draw it fresh and unsullied fr'om the fountain-head of inspira-
tion? Do you ever dai'e to bring yom' feivorite minister to the
tribunal of the word ? or M'ould you tremble at the presumption of
such an attempt ; so that the hearing of the word carries a greater
authority over yom- mind than the reading of the word "^ Now, this
want of darmg, this trembhng at the very idea of a dissent fi'om your
minister, this indolent acquiescence in his doctrine, is just calling
another man master; it is puttmg the authority of man over the
authority of God ; it is thi'ov/ing yourself into a prostrate attitude at
the footstool of human infaUibihty. It is not just kissing the toe of
reverence ; but it is the profounder degradation of the mind, and of aU
its faculties. It is said that Papists worship saints ; but have we no
consecrated names in the annals of Reformation, — no wortliies who
hold too commanding a place in the remembrance and affection of
Protestants ? Are there no departed theologians, whose works hold too
domineering an ascendency over the faith and practice of Christians ?
Do we not bend the understanding before the volumes of favorite
authors, and do a homage to those representations of the minds of the
men of other days which should be exclusively given to the re|)re-
Bentation of the mind of the Spirit, as put do-\vn in the book of the
Spuit's revelation ? It is right that each of us should give the Dontri-



IMPEDIMENTS TO THE PURSUIT OP TRUTH. 147

bution of his own talents and his own learning to this most interesting
cause ; but let the great drift of our argument be to prop the authority
of the Bible, and to tm-n the eye of earnestness upon its pages. — ■
Abridged fi-om Dr. Thomas Chalmers : Select Works, vol. iv.
pp. 244-5.

Since men really cannot beKeve or disbelieve without something
before the mind which it takes for evidence, the first dictate of a sound
conscience would be to examme that e\idence carefully, lest we should
be deceived ; so that following conscience, in this sense, would come
to the same thing as following reason. But what these men mean by
conscience is certain " feelings of awe and reverence and admhation,"
and blind submission to authority, which they are pleased to call by
that name; and the com'se they mean to recommend is taking for
evidence of the truth of a religious system its apparent fitness for
gratifying such feehngs. The difference, then, between them and us
is just tliis : we demand in religious matters the same sort of evidence
as the known laws of reason and the common experience of mankind
require as the only adequate proof in other matters. They substitute
for such jDroof a sort of evidence in which impartial reason can discover
no cogency, and upon which they would themselves refuse to act in the
ordinary affairs of life. For though they will tell you that natm-al
piety requires a man to abide by the creed of an ignorant or doting
parent or pastor, yet you will rarely find them ready to purchase a
blind horse, or sell out stock at a disadvantage, or exchange a good
farm for a bad one, in deference to the same venerable authority. —
Archbishop Whately : Cautions for the Times, p. 333-4.

The founders of almost every denomination have something of
attraction about them. Generally they have been men of worth and
of pubhc notoriety. They were raised up, it might be, in a dark
and declining age, and had both a great work to do, and grace given
them to do it. While they were men of signal excellence, yet still
they were men ; and every one of them had failings, and peculiarities
of manners and habits, which made them singular. They have left
their name upon their sect ; and they have stamped it, to a certain

extent, with their own features What renders the loorship —

for I can call it by no other name — of the early Reformers, and of the
heads of any rehgious party, now peculiarly unreasonable, is the fact,
that, while they were excellent men, they w-ere very lately come out
of the bosom of the chm'ch of Rome, and had then lot cast in a some-
what dark and intolerant age. To set them up as the paragons of



148 IMPEDIMENTS TO THE PURSUIT 01' TRUTH.

excellence as to every point of church order is to suppose, that the
religious "world, amid the hght and civilization of modern times, has
been standing still ; and that the dust of ages has not been mped off,
in the com-se of centm-ies, from the chm'ch of Chi'ist. As time rolls
on, and society improves, the chm*ch is maturing in experience, and
has liigher advantages for studying the mind of Christ, and perceiving
that the excellent ones of the earth are not confined to any one deno-
mmation. — Dr. Gavin Struthers : Party Spirit ; in Essays on
Chistian Union, pp. 432-5.

Even -wliilst not thus erring as to om'selves, we may err, in the like
sph'it of seh-exaltation, as to oui spuitual leaders, om* religious parties
and partisans, and our chosen models of Christian perfection, and oiu:
human standards of Chiistian truth. The second and declunng stage
in the history of every great reHgious reformation has been thus
marked. In the first and pm-er age, the true-hearted leaders forget
self, and tliink of the truth only, and of the Master, and of the due
^in(hcation and honor of these. But, in the next generation, the
leaders of the generation past have become demigods, and must have
then' funeral monuments erected as hanng become morally, to their
disciples, the new Pillars of Hercules, beyond wliich Truth may not
tmvel, nor Research dare to pass \dth. her adventurous foot. . . . We,
of this land where New England has borne so large and glorious a
share in leavening the national character, are probably in some danger
of idolatrous homage to the names of the Pmitan Fathers. It is so
easy and so common an infii-mity to let the priest gHde from the altar,
where he only serves, into the very shrine, where he may fill the
throne ; to make the spiritual guide virtually the sphitual god, and to
treat those by whom we have beheved in Clnist as if they were those
in whom we have beheved ; arid we thus extol and guard and hallow
then' names instead of God's. — "VVm. R. Williams : Lectures on the
Lord's Prayer, pp. 42-3.

§ 3. BlIKD AtTACHME^'T to EeCEIVED OPLNIOJiS.

Another error ... is a conceit, that, of former opinions or sects,
after variety and examination, the best hath still prevailed, and sup-
pressed the rest; so as, if a man should begin the labor of a new
search, he were like to hght upon somewhat formerly rejected, and by
rejection brought into obhvion : as if the multitude, or the msest, for
the multitude's sake, were not ready to give passage rather to that



IMPEDIMENTS TO THE PURSUIT OF TRUTH. 149

wMch is popular and superficial than to that which is substantial and
profound. For the truth is, that time seemeth to be of the nature of
a river or stream, which carrieth down to us that which is light and
blown up, and sinlceth and dro^Mieth that wliich is weighty and solid.
— Lord Bacon : Advancement of Learning, book i. ; in Works, vol. L
p. 173; Phn. edit. 1852.

The multitude is a bad guide to dhect our faith. We will not
introduce here the famous controversy on this question, whether a
great number form a presumption in favor of any religion, or whether
universality be a certain e\idence of the true Christian chm'ch. How
often has this question been debated and determined ! How often
have we proved against one commimity, which displays the number of
its professors with so much parade, that, if the pretence were well
founded, it would operate in favor of Paganism ! for Pagans were
always more numerous thaii Clmstians. How often have we told
them, that, in divers periods of the ancient chm'ch, idolatry and idola-
ters have been enthroned in both the kingdoms of Judah and Israel !
How often have we alleged, that, in the time of Jesus Christ, the
chm'ch was described as a " httle flock," Luke xii. 32 ; that Heathens
and Jews were all in league against Chiistianity at first, and that the
gospel had only a small number of disciples ! . . . When I say the mul-
titude is a bad guide in matters of faith, I mean that the manner in
which most men adhere to truth is not by prmciples which ought to
attach them to it, but by a spuit of negligence and prejudice. —
Ja]\ies Saurin : Sermons, vol. ii. pp. 28-9.

Though there is doubtless a certain degree of weight in this argu-
ment [the argument m fiivor of the Di\'imty of Christ founded on liis
promise that the Sphit of truth should abide for ever with his follow-
ers], yet, I think, Robinson rests too much upon it, and repeats it too
often ; for it is a fact not less certain than melancholy, that an immense
majority of Christians (ex. gr. all the Russias, all the Christians of Asia,
and of Africa, and of South America, the larger and more populous
portions of Poland and of German}', nine-tenths of France, and all
Spain, Portugal, Italy, Sicily, &c. &c.) have been given up to the most
despicable and idolatrous superstitions. When Christ comes, shall he
find faith on the earth ? I say unto you. Nay. — S. T. Coleridge ^
TJterary Remains ; in Works, vol. v. p. 535.

No man doubts that a strictly universal consent v>'ould be a very
strong argument indeed ; but then, by the very fact of its being dis-
puted, ii ceases to be universal, and general consent is a very different

13*



150 IMPEDIMENTS TO THE PURSUIT OF TRUTH.

thing from uniyersaL It becomes, then, the consent of the majority;
and we must examine the nature of the minority, and also the peculiar
natm-e of the oijinions or practices agreed in, before we can decide
whether general consent be reaUy an argument for or against the truth
of an opinion. For it has been said, " Woe mito you when all men
shall speak well of you ; " and then it would be equally true of such a
generation or generations, that it was, " "Woe to that opinion in which
all men agree." — Dr. Thomas Arxold : Letter 156 ; in Life and
Correspondence, pp. 297-8.

It is only an assumption, that universality and ubiquity are made
the tests of religious doctrine. No universahty or ubiquity can make
that divine which never was such. It is a mere prejudice of veneration
for antiquity, and the imposing aspect of an unanimous acquiescence
(if imanimous it really be) which makes us regard that as truth which
comes so recommended to us. Truth is rather the attribute of the
few than of the many. The real chm'ch of God may be the small
remnant, scarcely visible amidst the mass of sm-rounding professors.
Who, then, shall pronoimce any thing to be dinne truth, simply because
it has the marks of having been generally or imiversaUy received among
men ? — Bishop Hampden : Bampton Lectures, p. 356.



Except the prejudices imbibed in early years, there is perhaps no influ-
ence so powerfully affecting the belief of indi\dduals, as that resulting from
their intercourse with persons who hold, or who profess to hold, opinions
of an unvarying stamp, especially in matters of religion ; and who neither
by word nor action ever intimate the possibility of their being in the wrong.
These individuals may, at one period of their lives, have been led by satis-
factory evidence to take views of truth very diff"erent, as a whole, from those
received by a majority of their fellow-Christians. But unless, by the vigor
of their understandings or by a reiterated attention to the grounds of their
convictions, they can, when requisite, summon up the reasons for their faith,
they will, in all probability, insensibly and gradually yield to the counter-
acting impressions made by the unhesitating credence and dogmatism of the
majority around them. Even the docility of theh dispositions, which formed
an element in their searchings after truth, may tend to loosen their attach-
ment to opinions coming into collision with the general cun-ent. If such be
the effect sometimes produced on the minds of those who are not wholly
insensible to the demands of a faith based on personal investigation, how
potent must be the desire on the part of others, less prone to inquiry, to
adopt the opinions of the multitude !

We do not mean to imply, that the voice of the many should be de-
spised, when it is uttered from strong and earnest convictions. It may be
the echo of God's voice as expressed in the Sciiptures, and in the heart of



IMPEDIMENTS TO THE PURSUIT OF TRUTH. 151

our common Immanity. There is a presumption in its favor, when it speaks
of great and benignant principles underlying all forms of Christian belief and
worship ; when it is heard alike in the lofty church and the lowly meeting-
house ; in the meditations of the mystic, and the reasonings of the rationalist;
in the prayers of the saint, and the theories of the philosopher; in the con-
verse of the Papist and the Protestant, of the Trinitai-ian and the Unitarian.
There is a presumption in its favor, when it speaks of the absolute sove-
reignty and universal love of the infinite Father; of the impersonation of
divine power, wisdom, and goodness in the mission and character of God's
Son; of the responsibleness and immortality of man; of the slavery and
debasement of sin, the freedom and blessedness of holiness ; of profound
gratitude and submission to God, deep reverence and love for Christ, kind
words and good offices towards all men. The general acknowledgment of
such principles and docti'ines, though more or less obscured by inconsistent
views and practices, forms a presumption for their essential truth which
should not be slighted by the boldest of inquirers. But we need not say,
that the opinions which are wafted down from one age to another, — which
are strewn over the surface of society and the church, — which play around
the human brain, but do not reach the heart; or which, if principles of
action, serve only as stimuli for the display of hostile words and fanatic
doings, — afford no prima-facie evidence of having truth for the basis on
which they rest.

^ 4. Peedilections for the Mysterious.

There is, in truth, a vitiated appetite in our nature for mystery and
terror. We are disappointed by simplicit}^ ; we nauseate that which
is common, and despise every thing which we comprehend. The
languid mind must ^ze at something in the distant gi'ound, half
%'isible, half in shade ; an object half pleasing, half terrible ; fuU of
promise and full of threat, lovely and hateful, incongruous and impos-
sible. We are so desirous of involving religion in mystery, that we
are dis]3leased at finding it so clear in its nature, and so definite in its



Online LibraryJohn WilsonUnitarian principles confirmed by Trinitarian testimonies : being selections from the works of eminent theologians belonging to orthodox churches → online text (page 17 of 55)