William Ellery Channing.

The complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction online

. (page 45 of 169)
Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 45 of 169)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


a distrust of Christianity with which I have Revelation is not at war with nature. Nature
no sympathy. And here I would remark that prompts us to expect it from the relation
the worst abuses of our religion have sprung which God bears to the human race. The
from this cowardly want of confidence in its relation of Creator is the most intimate which
power. Its friends have feared that it could can subsist ; and it leads us to anticipate a
not stand without a variety of artificial but- firee and affectionate intercourse with the
tresses. They have imagined that men must creature. That the Universal Father should
now be bribed into fai^ by annexing to it be bound by a parental interest to his off-
temporal privileges, now driven into it by spring, that He should watch over and assist
menaces and inquisitions, now attracted by the progress of beings whom He has enriched
gorgeous forms, now awed by mysteries and with the divine gifts of reason and con-
superstitions ; in a word, that the multitude science, is so natural a doctrine, so accordant
must be imposed upon, or the religion will with his character, that various sects, both
fall. I have no such distrust of Christianity; philosophical and religious, both anterior and
I believe in its invincible powers. It is subsequent to Christianity, have believed,
founded in our nature. It meets our deepest not only in general revelation, but that God
wants. Its proofs as well as principles are reveals Himself to every human soul. \Afn)en
adapted to the common understandings of I think of the vast capacities of the human
men, and need not to be aided by appeals to mind, of God's nearness to it and unbounded
fear or any other passion, which would dis- love towards it, I am disposed to wonder, not
courage inquiry or disturb the judgment. I that revelations have been made, but that
fear nothing for Christianity if left to speak they have not been more variously vouch-
W its own tones, to approach men with its safed to the wants of mankind.

eiled. benignant coimtenance. I do fear Revelation has a striking agreement with
\ from the weapons o^ ttoWcy andintimi* the chief method which God has instituted



Digitized by V^OOQIC



EVIDENCES OF CHRISTIANITY,



197



for carrying forward individuals and the race,
and is thus in harmony with his ordinary
operations. Whence is it that we all acquire
our chief knowledge? Not from the out-
waid universe — not from the fixed laws of
material nature — but from intelligent beings
more advanced than oursdves. The teach-
ings of the wise and good arc our chief aids.
Were our connection with superior minds
broken off, had we no teacher but nature,
\i\\h its fixed laws, its unvarying revolutions
of xught and day and seasons, we should
remain for ever in the ignorance of child-
hood. Nature is a volume which we can
read only by the help of an intelligent inter-
preter. The great law under which man is
placed is that he shall receive illumination
and impulse from beings more improved than
himself. Now revelation is only an exten-
sion of this universal method of carrying
forward noankind. In this case, God takes
on Himself the office to which all rational
beings are called. He becomes an immediate
teacher to a few, communicating to them a
higher order of truths than had before been
attained, which they in turn are to teach to
their race. Here is no new power or element
introduced into the system, but simply an
enlargement of that agency on which the
progress of man chiefly depends.

I^ me next ask you to consider why or
for what end God has ordained, as the chief
means of human improvement, the commimi-
cation of light from superior to inferior
minds ; and if it shall then appear that reve-
lation is strikingly adapted to promote a
similar though more important end, you will
have another mark of agreement between
revelation and his ordmary Providence. Why
is it that God has made men's progress depen-
dent on instruction from their feUow-bcings ?
Why are the more advanced commissioned to
teach the less informed? A great purpose, I
believe the chief piupose, is to establish
interesting relations among men, to bind
them to one another by generous sentiments,
to promote affectionate intercourse, to call
forth a purer love than could spring from a
conomunication of mere outward gifts. Now
it is rational to believe that the Creator
designs to bind his creatures to Himself as
truly as to one another, and to awaken
towards Himself even stronger gratitude,
confidence, and love ; for these sentiments
towards God are more happy and ennobling
than towards any other being ; and it is plain
that revelation, or immediate divine teaching,
serves as effectually to establish these ties
between God and man as human teaching to
attach men to one another. We see, then, in
revelation an end corresponding to what the
Supreme Being adopts in his common provi-
dence. That the eiid here affirmed is wpnby



of his interposition, who can doubt? His
benevolence can prop>ose no higher pur|>ose
than that of raising the minds and hearts o
his creatures to Himself. His parental cha-
racter is a pledge that He must intend this
ineffable happiness for his rational offspring ;
and revelation is suited to this end, not only
by imfolding new doctrines in relation to God,
but by the touching proof which it carries in
itself of the special interest which He takes
in his human family. There is plainly an
expression of deeper concern, a more affec-
tionate character, in this mode of instruction,
than in teaching us by the fixed order of
nature. Revelation is God speaking to us in
our own language, in the accents which
human friendship employs. It shows a love,
breaking through the reserve and distance,
which we all feel to belong to the method of
teaching us by his works alone. It fastens
our minds on Him. We can look on nature,
and not think of the Being whose glory it
declares; but God is indissolubly connected
with, and indeed is a part of, the idea of
revelation. How much nearer does this
direct intercourse bring Him to the mass of
mankind! On this accoimt revelation would
seem to me important, were it simply to repeat
the teachings of nature. This reiteration of
great truths in a less formal style, in kinder,
more familiar tones, is peculiarly fitted to
awaken the soul to the presence and benignity
of its heavenly Parent. I see, then, in reve-
lation a purpose corresponding with that
for which human teaching was instituted.
Both are designed to bring together the
teacher and the taught in pure affections.

Let me next ask you to consider what is
the kind of instruction which the higher
minds among men are chiefly called to impart
to the inferior. You will here see another
agreement between revelation and that ordi-
nary human teaching which is the great in-
stnmient of improving the race. What kind
of instruction is it which parents, which the
aged and experienced, are most anxious to
give to the young, and on which the safety
of this class mainly depends? It is instruc-
tion in relation to the future, to their adult
years, such as is suited to prepare them for
the life that is opening before them. It is
God's will, when He gives us birth, that we
should be forewarned of the future stages of
our bein?, of approaching manhood or woman-
hood, of the scenes, duties, labours, through
which vra are to pass; and for this end He
connects us with beings who have traversed
the paths on which we are entering, and
whose duty it is to train us for a more ad-
vanced age. Instruction in regard to futurity
is the great means of improvement. Now the
Christian revelation has for its aim to teach
us pQ tlu3 veiy subject ; to disclose the life



Digitized by VaOOQlC



198



Et^JDEXCES OF CHRISTIANITY,



which is before us, and to fit us for it. A
future state is its constant burden. That God
should f^ve us light in regard to that state, if
He designs us for it, is what we should expect
from his solicitude to teach us in regard lo
what is future in our earthly existence.
Nature thirsts for, and analogy almost pro-
mises, some illumination on the subject of
human destiny. This topic I shall insist on
more largely hereafter, I wish now simply
to show ^ou the agreement of revelation, in
this particular, with the ordinary providence
of God.

I proceed to another order of reflections,
which to my own mind is particularly suited
to meet the vague idea that revelation is at
war with nature. To judge of nature, we
should look at its highest ranks of beings.
\Vc should inquire of the human soul, which
we all feel to be a higher existence than
matter. Now I maintain that there are in
the human soul wants, deep wants, which
arc not met by the influences and teachings
which the ordinary course of things affords.
I am aware that this is a topic to provoke
distrust, if not derision, in the low-minded
and sensual ; but I speak what I do know ;
and nothing moves me so little as the scoffs oif
men who despise their own nature. One of
the most striking views of human nature is
the disproportion between what it conceives
and thirsts for, and what It finds or can
secure in the range of the present state. It is
prone to stretch beyond its present bounds.
Ideas of excellence and happiness spring up
which it cannot realize now. It carries within
itself a standard, of which it daily and hourly
falls short. This self-contradiction is the
source of many sharp pains. There is, in
most men, a dim consciousness, at least, of
being made for something higher than tliey
have gained, a feeling of internal discord, a
want of some stable good, a disappointment
in merely outward acquisitions; and in pro-
portion as these convittions and wants be-
come distinct, they break out in desires of
illumination and aids from God not foimd in
natiu-e. I am aware that the wants of which
I have spoken are but faintly developed in
the majority of men. Accustomed to give
their thoughts and strength to the outward
world, multitudes do not penetrate and cannot
inteipret their own souls. They impute to
outward causes the miseries which spring
from an internal fountain. They do not de-
tain, and are scarcely conscious of, the better
thoughts and feelings which sometimes dart
through thctr minds. Still there are few who
are not sometimes dissatisfied with themselves,
who do not feel the wrong which they have
done to themselves, and who do not desire a
purer and nobler state of mind. The sudden-
ness with which the multitudeare thrilled by the



voice of fervent eloquence, when it speaks to
them of the spiritual world in tones 01 reality,
shows the deep wants of human nature even
amidst ignorance and degradation. But all
men do not give themselves wholly to out-
ward things. There are those, and not a
few, who are more true to their nature, and
ought therefore to be regarded as its more
faithful representatives ; and in such the
wants of which 1 have spoken are unfolded
with energy. There are those who feel pain-
fully the weight of their present imperfection ;
who are fir^ by rare examples of niagnani-
mity and devotion ; who desire nothing so in-
tensely as power over temptation, as elevation
above selfish passions, as conformity of will
to the inward law of duty, as the peace of
conscious rectitude and religious trust ; who
would rejoice to lay down the present life for
that spotless, bright, disinterested virtue, of
which they have the tjrpe or germ in their
own minds. Such men can find no resource
but in God, and are prepared to welcome a
revelation olf bis merciful purposes as an un-
speakable gift I say, then, that the human
mind has wants which nature does not answer.
And these are not accidental feelings, un-
accountable caprices, but are deep, enduring,
and reproduced in all ages under one or
another form. They breathe through the
works of genius; they bum in the loftiest
souls. Here are principles implanted by God
in the highest order of his creatures on earth,
to which revelation is adapted; and I say,
then, that revelation is anything but hostility
to nature.

I will offer but one more view in illustration
of this topic. I ask you to consider, on what
principle of human nature the Christian reve-
lation is intended to bear and to exert in-
fluence, and then to inquire whether the
peculiar importance of tliis principle be not
a foundation for peculiar interposition in its
behalf. If so, reveladon may be said to be
a demand of the human soul, and its imagined
incongruity with nature will disappear. For
what principle or faculty of the mind, then,
was Christianity intend^ ? It was plainly
not given to enrich the intellect by teaching
philosophy, or to perfect the imagination and
taste by furnishing subUmc and beautiful
models of composition. It was not meant
to give sagacity in pubUc life, or skill and
invention in common aflairs. It was un-
doubtedly designed to develop all these
faculties, but secondarily, and through its
influence on a higher principle. It addresses
itself primarily, and is especially adapted, to
the moral power in roan. It r^^ds and is
designed for man as a moral being, endued
with conscience or the principle of duty, who
is capable of that peailiar form of excellence
which we call righteousness or virtue, and



Digitized by V^OOQIC



BVIDENCBS OP CHRISTIANITY,



199



exposed to that peculiar evil, guilt. Now
(he question offers itself, Why does God
employ such extraordinary means for pro-
moting virtue rather than science, for aiding
conscience rather than intellect and our other
powers ? Is there a foundation in the moral
principle for peculiar interpositions in its
bchall ? I amnn that there is. I affirm
that a broad distinction exists between our
moral nature and our other capacities.
Conscience is the supreme power within
us. Its essence, its grand characteristic,
is sovereignty. It speaks with a divine
authority. Its office is to command, to re-
buke, to reward ; and happiness and honour
depend on the reverence with which we listen
to It. All our other powers become useless,
and wOTse than useless, unless controlled by
the principle of duty. Virtue is the supreme
good, the supreme beauty, the divinest of
God's gifts, the healthy and harmonious
unfolding of the soul, and the germ of im-
jnortahty. It is worth every sacrifice, and
has power to transmute sacrifices and suffer-
ings into crowns of glory and rejoicing. Sin,
vice, is an evil of its own kind, and iK)t to be
confounded with any other. Who does not
fed at once the broad distinction between
misfortune and crime, between disease of
body and turpitude of soul ? Sin, vice, is
war with the highest power in our own
breasts, and in the universe. It makes a
being odious to himself, and arms against
him the principle of rectitude in God and
in all pure beings. It poisons or dries up
the fountains of enjoyment, and adds un-
speakable weight to the necessary pains of
life. It is not a foreign evil, but a blight
and curse in the very centre of our being.
Its natural associates arc fear, shame, and
self-torture; and, whilst it robs the present
of consolation, it leaves the futtu^ without
hope. Now I say that in this peculiar ruin
wrought by moral evil, and in this peculiar
worth of moral goodness, we see reasons for
special interpositions of God in behalf of
virtue, in resistance of sin. It becomes the
I/iiiuite Father to manifest peculiar interest
in the moral condition and wants of his
creatures. Their great and continued cor-
ruption is an occasion for peculiar methods
of relief; and a revelation given to restore
them, and carrv them forward to perfection,
has an end which justifies, if it does not
demand, this signal expression of parental
love.

The preceding views have been offered, not
as sufficient to prove that a revelation has
been given, but for the purpose of removing
the vague notion that it is at war with nature,
and cM^showing Its consistency with the spirit
and principles of the divine administration.
I proceed now to consider the direct and



positive proofs of Christianity, beginning with
some remarks on the nature and sufficiency of
the evidence on which it chiefly relies.

Christianity sprang up about eighteen hun-
dred years ago. Of course its evidences are
to be sought in history. We must go back to
the time of its birth, and understand the con-
dition in which it found the world, as well as
the drcumsiances of its origin, progress, and
establishment ; and happily, on these points,
we have all the light necessary to a just judg-
ment We must not imagine that a religion
which bears the date of so distant an age
must therefore be involved in obscurity. We
know enough of the earliest times of Chris-
tianity to place the question of its truth
within our reach. The past may be known
as truly as the present ; and I deem this prin-
ciple so important in the present discussion
that I ask yoiu* attention to it.

The past, I have said, may be known ; nor
is this all; we derive from it our most im-
portant knowledge. Former times are our
chief instructors. Our political as well as re-
ligious institutions, our laws, customs, modes
of thinking, arts of life, have come down from
earlier ages, and most of them are unintelli-
gible without a light borrowed from history.

Not only are we able to know the nearest of
past ages, or those which touch on our own
times, but those which are remote. No
educated man doubts any more of the vic-
tories of Alexander or Caesar, before Christ,
than of Napoleon's conquests in our own day.
So open is our communication with some ages
of antiquity, so many are the records which
they have transmitted, that we know them
even better than nearer times ; and a religion
which grew up eighteen hundred years ago
may be more intelligible, and accompanied
with more decisive proofs of truth or false-
hood, than one which is not separated from us
by a fourth part of that duration.

From the nature of things, we may and
must know much of the past ; for the present
has grown out of the past — is its legacy, fruit,
representative, and is deeply impressed with
it. Events do not expire at the moment of
their occurrence. Nothing takes place without
leaving traces behind it; and these are in
many cases so distinct and various as to leave
not a doubt of their cause. We all under-
stand how, in the material world, events
testify of themselves to future ages. Should
we visit an unknown region, and behold
masses of lava covered with soil of different
degrees of thickness, and surrounding a
blackened crater, we should have as firm a
persuasion of the occurrence of remote and
successive volcanic eruptions as if we had
lived through the ages in which they took
place. ITie chasms of the earth would report
how terribly it had been tihaken, and the



Digitized by V^OOQIC



EVIDENCES OF CHRISTIANITY.



awful might of long-extinguished fires would
be written in desolations which ages had
failed to efface. Now conquest, and civil
and religious revolutions, leave equally their
impressions on society, leave institutions,
manners, and a variety of monuments, which
are inexpUcable without them, and which,
taken together, admit not a doubt of their
occurrence. The past stretches into the
future, the present is crowded with it, and can
be interpreted only by the light of history.

But besides these effects and remains of
earlier times, we have other and more distinct
memorials of the past, which, when joined
with the former, place it clearly within our
knowledge. I refer to books. A book is
more thwi a monimient of a preceding age.
It is a voice coming to us over the interval of
centuries. Language, when written, as truly
conveys to us another's mind as when spoken.
It is a species of personal intercourse. By it
the wise of former times give us their minds
as really as if by some miracle they were to
rise from the dead and communicate with us
by speech.

From these remarks we learn that Chris-
tianity is not placed beyond the reach of our
investigations by the remoteness of its origin ;
and they are particularly apphcable to the
age in which the Gospel was first given to the
world. Our religion did not spring up before
the date of authentic history. Its birth is not
hidden in the obscurity of early and fabulous
times. We have abundant means of access
to its earhest stages ; and, what is very im-
portant, the deep and peculiar interest which
Chrbtianity has awakened has fixed the
earnest attention of the most learned and
sagacious men on the period of its original
publication, so that no age of antiquity is so
thoroughly understood Christianity sprang
up at a time when the literature and philo-
sophy of Greece was spread far and wide,
and had given a great impulse to the human
mind ; and when Rome by unexampled con-
quests had become a centre and bond of
union to the civilized world and to many half-
civilized regions, and had established a degree
of communication between distant countries
before unknown. We are not, then, left to
grope our way by an unsteady light. Our
means of information are various and great.
We have incontestable facts in relation to the
origin of our religion, from which its truth
may be easily deduced. A few of these facts,
which form the first steps of our reasoning on
this subject, I will now lay before you.

I. First, then, we know with certainty the
timt when Christianity was founded. As to
this fact, there is and can be no doubt.
Heathen and Christian historians speak on
this point with one voice. Christianity was
first preached in the age of Tiberius. Not a



trace of it exists before that period, and after^
wards the marks and prooK of its existence
are so obvious and acknowledged as to need
no mention. Here is one important fact
placed beyond doubt.

3. In the next place, we know the place
where Christianity sprang up. No one can
dispute the country of its binh. Its Jewish
origin is not only testified by all history, but
is stamped on its front and woven into its
frame. The language in which it is con-
veyed, carries us at once to Judea. Its name
is derived from Jewish prophecy. None but
Jews could have written the New Testament.
So natural, undesigned, and perpetual are
the references and allusions of the writers to
the opinions and manners of that people, so
accustomed are they to borrow from the safne
source the metaphors, simiUtudes, types, by
which they illustrate their doctrines, that
Christianity, as to its outward form, may be
said to be steeped in Judaism. We have,
then, another established fact. We know
where it was bom.

3. Again, we know the individual by whom
Christianity was founded. We know its Au-
thor, and from the nature of the case this fact
cannot but be known. The founder of a
religion is naturally and necessarily the object
of general inquiry. Wherever the new faith
is carried, the first and most eager questions
are, *' From whom does it come ? On whose

•authority does it rest?" Curiosity is never
more intense than in regard to the individual
who claims a divine commission and sends
forth a new religion. He is the last man to
be overlooked or mistaken. In the case of
Christianity especially, its Founder may be
said to have been forced on men's notice, for
his history forms an essential part of his
rehgion. Christianity is not an abstract doc-
trine which keeps its Author out of siglit.
He is its very soul. It rests on him, and
finds its best illustration in his life. These
reflections, however, may be spared. The
simple consideration that Christianity must
have had an author, and that it has been
always ascribed to Jesus, and to no one else,
places the great fact which I would establish
beyond doubt.

4. I next observe, that we not only know
the Founder of Christianity, but the ministers
by whom he published and spread it through
the world. A new reUgion must have propa-
gators, first teachers, and with these it must
become intimately associated. A community
can no more be ignorant as to the teachers
who converted it to a new faith, than as to
the conqueror who subjected it to a new
government ; and where the art of writing is
known and used for recording events, the
latter fact will not more certainly be trans-
mitted to posterity than the fpnper. Wo



Digitized by V^OOQIC



EVIDENCES OF CHRISTIANITY.



have the testimony of all ages that the men
called Apostles were the first propagators of
Christianity, nor have any others been named
as sustaining this office: and it is impossible



Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 45 of 169)