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CONSTITUTION AND COURSE OF NATURE.
OF REVEALED RELIGION.
Of the Importance of Christianity.
SOME persons, upon pretence of the sufficiency of the light of nature, avowedly reject all revelation, as, in its very notion, incredible, and what must be fictitious. And, indeed, it is certain no revelation would have been given, had the light of nature been sufficient in such a sense as to render one not wanting and useless. But no man, in seriousness and simplicity of mind, can possibly think it so, who considers the state of religion in the heathen world before revelation, and its present state in those places which have borrowed no light from it; particularly, the doubtfulness of some of the greatest men concerning things of the utmost importance, as well as the natural inattention and ignorance of mankind in general. It is impossible to say who would have been able to have reasoned out that whole system, which we call natural religion, in its genuine simplicity, clear of superstition; but there is certainly no ground to affirm that the generality could if they could, there is no sort of probability that they would. Admitting there were, they would highly want a
standing admonition, to remind them of it, and inculcate it upon them. And, farther still, were they as much disposed to attend to religion as the better sort of men arc, yet, even upon this supposition, there would be various occasions for supernatural instruction and asistance, and the greatest ad vantages might be afforded by them. So that to say, revelation is a thing superfluous, what there was no need of, and what can be of no service, is I think, to talk quite wildly and at random. Nor would it be more extravagant to affirm, that mankind is so entirely at ease in the present state, and life so completely happy, that it is a contradiction to suppose our condition capable of being in any respect better.
There are other persons, not to be ranked with these, who seem to be getting into a way of neglecting, and, as it were, overlooking revelation as of small importance, provided natural religion to be kept to. With little regard, either to the evidence of the former, or to the objections against it, and even upon supposition of its truth, 'the only design of it,' say they, 'must be to establish a belief of the moral system of nature, and to enforce the practice of natural piety and virtue. The belief and practice of these things were, perhaps, much promoted by the first publication of Christianity; but whether they are believed and practised, upon the evidence and motives of nature or of revelation, is no great matter.'* This way of considering revelation, though it is not the same with the former, yet borders nearly upon it and very much, at length, runs up into it, and requires to be particularly considered, with regard to the persons who seem to be getting into this way. The consideration of it will, likewise, farther show the extravagance of the former opinion, and the truth of the observations in answer to it, just mentioned. And an inquiry into the Importance of christianity, cannot be an improper introduction to a treatise concerning the credibility of it.
Now, if God has given a revelation to mankind, and commanded those things which are commanded in Christianity, it is evident, at first sight, that it cannot in any wise be an indifferent matter, whether we obey or disobey those com.
* Invenis multos-propterea nolle fieri Christianos, quia quasi suff ciunt sibi de bona vita sua. Bene vivere opus est, ait. Quid mihi præ cepturus est Christus? It, bene vivam? Jam bene vivo. Quid mihi necessarius est Christus? Nullum homicidium, nullum furtum, nullam rapinam facio, res alienas non concupisco, nullo adulterio contaminor. Nam inveniatur in vita mea aliquid quod reprehendatur, et qui reprehenderit fa ciat Christianum.-Aug. in Psalm xxxi.
mands, unless we are certainly assured, that we know all the reasons for them, and that all those reasons are now ceased, with regard to mankind in general, or to ourselves in particular. And it is absolutely impossible we can be assured of this; for our ignorance of these reasons proves nothing in the case, since the whole analogy of nature shows, what is indeed in itself evident, that there may be infinite reasons for things, with which we are not acquainted.
But the importance of Christianity will more distinctly appear, by considering it more distinctly: First, As a republication, and external institution, of natural or essential religion, adapted to the present circumstances of mankind, and intended to promote natural piety and virtue; and secondly, As containing an account of a dispensation of things, not discoverable by reason, in consequence of which several distinct precepts are enjoined us. For, though natural religion is the foundation and principal part of Christianity, it is not in any sense the whole of it.
I. Christianity is a republication of natural religion. It instructs mankind in the moral system of the world; that it is the work of an infinitely perfect Being, and under his government; that virtue is his law; and that he will finally judge mankind in righteousness, and render to all according to their works, in a future state. And, which is very material, it teaches natural religion in its genuine simplicity, free from those superstitions with which it was totally corrupted, and under which it was in a manner lost.
Revelation is, farther, an authoritative publication of natural religion, and so affords the evidence of testimony for the truth of it. Indeed, the miracles and prophecies recorded in Scripture, were intended to prove a particular dispensation of Providence-the redemption of the world by the Messiah; but this does not hinder but that they may also prove God's general providence over the world, as our Moral Governor and Judge. And they evidently do prove it; bccause this character of the Author of nature is necessarily connected with and implied in that particular revealed dispensation of things; it is likewise continually taught expressly, and insisted upon, by those persons who wrought the miracles and delivered the prophecies. So that, indeed, natural religion seems as much proved by the Scripture revelation, as it would have been, had the design of revelation been nothing else than to prove it.
But it may possibly be disputed, how far miracles car
prove natural religion; and notable objections may be urged against this proof of it, considered as a matter of speculation; but, considered as a practical thing, there can be none. For, suppose a person to teach natural religion to a nation who had lived in total ignorance or forgetfulness of it, and to declare he was commissioned by God so to do; suppose him, in proof of his commission, to foretell things future, which no human foresight could have guessed at; to divide the sea with a word; feed great multitudes with bread from heaven; cure all manner of diseases; and raise the dead, even himself, to life;-would not this give additional credi bility to his teaching, a credibility beyond what that of a common man would have, and be an authoritative publication of the law of nature, i e. a new proof of it? It would be a practical one, of the strongest kind, perhaps, which human creatures are capable of having given them. The law of Moses, then, and the gospel of Christ, are authoritative publications of the religion of nature: they afford a proof of God's general providence, as moral Governor of the world, as well as of his particular dispensations of Providence towards sinful creatures, revealed in the law of the gospel. As they are the only evidence of the latter, so they are an additional evidence of the former.
To show this further, let us suppose a man of the greatest and most improved capacity, who had never heard of revelation, convinced upon the whole, notwithstanding the disorders of the world, that it was under the direction and moral government of an infinitely perfect Being, but ready to question, whether he were not got beyond the reach of his faculties; suppose him brought, by this suspicion, into great danger of being carried away by the universal bad example of almost every one around him, who appeared to have no sense, no practical sense at least, of these things; and this perhaps, would be as advantageous a situation, with regard to religion, as nature alone ever placed any man in. What a confirmation now must it be to such a person, all at once to find, that this moral system of things was revealed to mankind, in the name of that infinite Being whom he had, from principles of reason, believed in; and that the publish ers of the revelation proved their commission from him, by making it appear that he had intrusted them with a power of suspending and changing the general laws of nature!
Nor must it, by any means, be omitted; for it is a thing of the utmost importance, that life and immortality are em
inently brought to light by the gospel. The great doctrines of a future state, the danger of a course of wickedness, and the efficacy of repentance, are not only confirmed in the gospel, but are taught, especially the last is, with a degree of light; to which that of nature is but darkness.
Farther: As christianity served these ends and purposes, when it was first published, by the miraculous publication itself, so it was intended to serve the same purposes, in future ages, by means of the settlement of a visible church; of a society, distinguished from common ones, and from the rest of the world, by peculiar religious institutions; by an instituted method of instruction, and an instituted form of external religion. Miraculous powers were given to the first preachers o. Christianity, in order to their introducing it into the world : a visible church was established, in order to continue it, and carry it on successively throughout all ages. Had Moses and the Prophets, Christ and his Apostles, only taught, and by miracles proved, religion to their contemporaries the benefits of their instructions would have reached but to a small part of mankind. Christianity must have been, in a great degree, sunk and forgot in a very few ages. To prevent this appears to have been one reason why a visible church was instituted; to be, like a city upon a hill, a standing memorial to the world of the duty which we owe our Maker; to call men continually, both by example and instruction, to attend to it, and, by the form of religion ever before their eyes, remind them of the reality; to be the repository of the oracles of God; to hold up the light of revelation in aid to that of nature, and propagate it throughout all generations to the end of the world-the light of revelation, considered here in no other view, than as designed to enforce natural religion. And, in proportion as Christianity is professed and taught in the world, religion, natural or essential religion, is thus distinctly and advantageously laid before mankind, and brought again and again to their thoughts, as a matter of infinite importance. A visible church has also a farther tendency to promote natural religion, as being an instituted method of education, originally intended to be of more pecul iar advantage to those who would conform to it. For one end of the institution was, that, by admonition and reproof, as well as instruction; by a general regular discipline, and public exercises of religion, the body of Christ, as the Scripture speaks, should be edified; i. e. trained up in piety and This settlement then, virtue, for a higher and a better state.