« AnteriorContinuar »
Thus have we seen then, in the example of these Samaritans, what is the proper use of authority and experience in matters of religion. But of such infinite importance is this argument to each of us, that it will be necessary to insist more largely upon it. We will now therefore, detaching ourselves from the text, enter particularly into an examination of these two principles, on one or other of which all religion, whether notional or real, is built. We begin then,
FIRST, With authority; by which is meant the opinion or testimony of uninspired and fallible men. Every one hath his connections with persons to whom he is naturally disposed to pay a deference, especially in matters of religion, either on account of his relation to them, or his friendship for them, or his prejudices in favour of their superior knowledge and piety. Now the being influenced or governed in our faith and profession by the judgment and decision of any such persons, is what we here intend by believing or acting upon authority. We will suppose then that a parent, a friend, a minister, or any wise and good man, affirms to us such important points as these that the soul is immortal; that we are all in a guilty and depraved state; that Jesus the Son of God is the only Saviour of sinners; that his obedience and death are the considerations on which God and men are reconciled; that in order to the enjoyment of heaven our natures must be renewed by the influence of the blessed Spirit; and that repentance and faith are necessary to salvation. We will suppose, I say, these or any other points in religion affirmed to us by such persons as undeniable truths. The question is, what influence should their judgment have upon our minds? It will be readily answered in general, that as it should not on the one hand be considered as the rule or ground of our faith, so neither on the other should it be rejected as wholly vain and useless. Extremes either way are dangerous. It may not therefore be improper here to point out,
1. The important uses to which this kind of authority may and ought to be applied; and,
II. The infinite mischiefs which result from the abuse of it, that is, from an implicit faith, or a profession of
religion which owes its existence to any such undue influence.
I. As to the proper use of human authority.
1. One important purpose to which it may and ought to be applied, is to preclude an absolute disbelief or contempt of those things wherein we are instructed, till such time as we are capable of inquiring into them, or are possessed of any real experience of their influence on our hearts. Pride is one of the prevailing passions of human nature: whence it happens that many persons, because they would not be thought to take up their opinions on trust, make as it were a point of it, to fly in the faces of those whom they ought most to esteem and reverence. They will think, I should rather say talk, differently from their parents; lest they should endure the ignominious reflection of believing as they believe. They will declare themselves of a contrary judgment to this or the other wise and good man; that they may not seem to be overawed by his authority. And they will quarrel with all about them; in order to get the reputation of thinking freely. Whereas it may be, they have at the same time no fixed sentiments at all, and are void both of judgment and inclination to determine properly on any point whatever. Now such a conduct is equally absurd and sinful. It is an affront to common decency and common sense. Is religion less likely to be true, because it is the profession of my parents, or of this or that worthy person with whom I happen to be connected? Or may I reasonably hope to raise my character in the opinion of sensible men, by insulting those whom all are agreed I ought to reverence? No certainly it is rather the direct way to expose me to their contempt. On the other hand it is an argument of good understanding, and I am sure it is a dictate of nature, to lean to the judgment of those whom Providence has made the guide of our youth, until such time however as we can give a reason for thinking and acting otherwise. If Abraham was worthy of commendation, for commanding his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord a; his children and household were also worthy of commendation, for paying a due
a Gen. xviii. 19.
deference to his authority. Authority then is a sufficient consideration to withhold persons from an absolute denial and an insolent abuse of the religion they are taught, until their judgments and consciences are arrived to a maturity, which may lawfully give them a superiority to such restraints. And indeed be the man who he may, that proposes any matter to our consideration which has the appearance of importance on it, he may reasonably demand so much respect from us, as to suspend all censure and contempt, until we have inquired into it. The woman of Samaria, as we have seen, was not insulted by her neighbours for the extraordinary report she brought them; nor did they at once reject it, even though it clashed with their national prejudices, and they knew not how at first to give credit to it.
2. Another use of authority in religion is to awaken our serious concern about it, and to put us upon a diligent examination of it. When such matters as were just now mentioned are affirmed to us; the very face of importance that is upon them, the possibility of their being true, the probability of it arising from the judgment and practice of those we esteem, and the very manner in which we are addressed, are all of them just and powerful motives to set us a thinking, and to put us upon reading and prayer. The Samaritans felt the force of this reasoning; and why not we? Is there nothing serious and solemn in the supposition that the soul is immortal, that it is ruined by sin, that Christ alone can restore it to the favour of God, and his Spirit alone form it for a better world; that there is a future judgment, a heaven and a hell, and that without holiness no man shall see the Lord? It is not impossible but these things may be true. Their being firmly believed and publicly professed by many wise and good men, and their having a correspondent influence on their hearts and lives, are all circumstances which render them at least in some degree probable. The earnestness likewise and affection with which they are urged upon us, are an argument both of the sincerity and good-will of those who wish us to believe. Now though none of these considerations are to determine our faith; yet right reason, our own interest, and the
common obligations of humanity, affection and gratitude, teach us that they are full of argument to persuade us to attention and reflection. And as the circumstances attending the testimony of others increase in their variety, weight, and importance; so do our obligations to consideration increase likewise. If he be a parent, a wise man, and a good man, and a dying man, who presses these truths upon us; if many such persons are agreed in doing so; if they do it in the most serious and affectionate manner; and if they repeat their admonitions again and again; surely such authorities ought not to be rejected because they are authorities there is at least some reason in them, and it is but fit they should have their weight with us. To which it must be added, that though they infer nothing with certainty as to the doctrine itself; yet if we believe a Providence, it seems natural to conclude that by these means Providence is calling upon us to consider. And it is a fact, that God is often pleased to make use of this kind of influence to awaken the consciences of men, and so to open the way for the communication of spiritual and heavenly blessings. Nor is such a conduct at all unworthy of the divine wisdom, or inconsistent with those measures of government he commonly pursues. Once more, 3. Authority is of considerable use, when we have ourselves made trial of religion, to confirm our faith in it. That it is of itself an insufficient and unwarrantable ground of faith is readily admitted; nay it is not to be disputed, that a high opinion of the wisdom and piety of those with whom we are intimately connected, has too often an undue influence on our inquiries after the truth. But still, to him who has entered into the spirit of religion, and felt the mighty power of it upon his heart, it is a very strong collateral evidence of the divinity of it. And such an one will find himself at liberty to dwell frequently on this kind of testimony, and to derive the most agreeable satisfaction to himself from a contemplation of it, without suffering the least injury thereby. If upon serious examination, and from what hath passed in my own heart, it has clearly appeared to me, that the Lord Jesus Christ is the appointed Saviour of sinners, and so I have been induced to commit my immortal interests into his hands, and to form my
expectations of eternal life and happiness through his mediation and grace; it surely cannot but afford me a sensible pleasure to find this and the other wise and good man think and act as I have done. It must add firmness to my faith, and joy to my heart, to stand by the dying bed of a Christian friend, and to hear him, in that trying hour, express his lively hope of a blessed immortality upon the generous and animating constitution of the everlasting gospel. There is something in this kind of evidence peculiarly cheerful and pleasing, and which can hardly fail, and that upon the soundest principles of reason, to insinuate itself into the mind and conscience of a good man with the happiest success. Nor is there the least danger of its misleading the judgment, or giving an improper bias to the mind of him, who has upon sufficient evidence believed already,
Such then are the uses to which human testimony reasonably may, and most certainly ought to be applied. Let us now on the other hand,
II. Consider the evils that arise out of an implicit faith, or the resting our opinion and profession absolutely and entirely upon the sentence and decision of other men.
That the generality of mankind are prone to such a temper and conduct, no one who has made any observation on the world can at all question. What vast numbers are there, who can give no reason why they are of this or that religion, except that it was derived to them from their ancestors; or to say the best of it, that it is what wise and good men haye assured them is true! Though they have neither been at the pains to think seriously about it themselves, nor hath it had any salutary influence upon their hearts and lives; yet they are abundantly confident of the divinity of it, and know not how to admit a doubt to the contrary. And here it were an easy matter to point out the immediate causes of this fatal credulity, such as ignorance, sloth, and a slight apprehension of the importance of divine things; all which are the deplorable effects of the apostacy of human nature. But it is rather our present business to represent the great evil and danger of it. And,
1. It must be acknowledged, that a faith thus wholly taught by the precept of men is most absurd, unsafe, and groundless, It is possible indeed that what the unhappy man receives and