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EVIDENCES OF CHRISTIANITY.
On the Principles of Historical Evidence, and their Application to the Question
of the Truth of Christianity.
WERE a verbal communication to come of that communication. We may know and to us from a person at a distance, there are appreciate the natural signs of veracity. two ways in which we might try to satisfy There is a tone, and a manner characterourselves, that this was a true communica- istic of honesty, which may be both inteltion, and that there was no imposition in ligible and convincing. There may be a the affair. We might either sit in examina- concurrence of several messengers. There tion upon the substance of the message; may be their substantial agreement. There and then from what we knew of the person may be the total want of any thing like from whom it professed to come, judge concert or collusion among them. There whether it was probable that such a mes may be their determined and unanimous sage would be sent by him; or we may sit perseverance, in spite of all the incredulity in examination upon the credibility of the and all the opposition which they meet messengers.
with. The subject of the communication It is evident, that in carrying on the first may be most unpalatable to us; and we examination, we might be subject to very may be so unreasonable, as to wreak our great uncertainty. The professed author unpleasant feeling upon the bearers of it. In of the communication in question may live this way, they may not only have no earthly at such a distance from us, that we may interest to deceive us, but have the strongest never have it in our power to verify his mes-inducement possible to abstain from insisting sage by any personal conversation with him. upon that message which they were charged We may be so far ignorant of his character to deliver. Last of all, as the conclusive seal and designs, as to be unqualified to judge of their authenticity, they may all agree in of the kind of communication that should giving us a watchword, which we previously proceed from him. To estimate aright the knew could be given by none but their masprobable authenticity of the message from ter; and which none but his messengers what we know of its author, would require could ever obtain the possession of. In this an acquaintance with his plans, and views, way, unfruitful as all our efforts may have and circumstances, of which we may not been upon the first subject of examination, be in possession. We may bring the great-we may derive from the second the most est degree of sagacity to this investigation; decisive evidence, that the message in quesbut then the highest sagacity is of no avail, tion is a real message, and was actually when there is an unsufficiency of data. Our transmitted to us by its professed author. ingenuity may be unbounded; but then we Now, this consideration applies in all its may want the materials. The principle parts to a message from God. The arguwhich we assume may be untrue in itself, ment for the truth of this message resolves and therefore may be fallacious in its appli- itself into the same two topics of examinacation.
tion. We may sit in judgment upon the Thus, we may derive very little light subject of the message; or we may sit in from our first argument. But there is still judgment upon the credibility of its bearers. a second in reserve,-the credibility of the The first forms a great part of that armessengers. We may be no judges of the gument for the truth of the Christian relikind of communication which is natural, or gion, which comes under the head of its likely to proceed from a person with whom internal evidences. The substance of the we are but imperfectly acquainted; but we message is neither more nor less, than that may be very competent judges of the degree particular scheme of the divine economy of faith that is to be reposed in the bearers / which is revealed to us in the New Testa
tament; and the point of inquiry is, whether with those to whom the message was origithis scheme be consistent with that know- nally addressed. They had personal acledge of God and his attributes which we cess to the messengers; and the evidences of are previously in possession of?
their veracity lay before them. They were It appears to many, that no effectual ar- the eye and ear-witnesses of those facts gument can be founded upon this consider which occurred at the commencement of ation, because they do not count themselves the Christian religion, and upon which its enough acquainted with the designs or cha-credibility rests. What met their observaracter of the being from whom the message tion must have been enough to satisfy them; professes to have come. Were the author but we live at the distance of nearly 2000 of the message some distant and unknown years, and is there enough to satisfy us ? individual of our own species, we would Those facts, which constitute the evidence scarcely be entitled to found an argument for Christianity, might have been credible upon any comparison of ours, betwixt the and convincing to them, if they really saw import of the message and the character of them ; but is there any way by which they the individual, even though we had our can be rendered credible and convincing to general experience of human nature to help us, who only read of them? What is the us in the speculation. Now, of the invisible expedient by which the knowledge and beGod, we have no experience whatever. We lief of the men of other times can be transare still further removed from all direct and mitted to posterity? Can we distinguish personal observation of him or of his coun-between a corrupt and a faithful transmissels. Whether we think of the eternity of sion ? Have we evidence before us, by his government, or the mighty range of its which we can ascertain what was the belief influence over the wide departments of na- of those to whom the message was first ture and providence, he stands at such a dis- communicated ? And can the belief which tance from us, as to make the management existed in their minds be derived to ours, of his empire a subject inaccessible to all by our sitting in judgment upon the reaour faculties.
sons which produced it ? It is evident, however, that this does not The surest way in which the belief and apply to the second topic of examination. knowledge of the men of former ages can The bearers of the message were beings like be transmitted to their descendants, is ourselves; and we can apply our safe and through the medium of written testimony; certain experience of man to their conduct and it is fortunate for us, that the records and testimony. We may know too little of the Christian religion are not the only of God, to found any argument upon the historical documents which have come down coincidence which we conceive to exist be- to us. A great variety of information has tween the subject of the message and our come down to us in this way; and a great previous conceptions of its author. But we part of that information is as firmly believmay know enough of man to pronounce ed, and as confidently proceeded upon, as upon the credibility of the messengers. if the thing narrated had happened withHad they the manner and physiognomy of in the limits of our eye-sight. No man honest men? Was their testimony resisted, doubts the invasion of Britain by Julius and did they persevere in it? Had they | Cæsar; and no man doubts, therefore, that any interest in fabricating the message; or a conviction of the truth of past events may did they suffer in consequence of this per- be fairly produced in the mind by the inseverance ? Did they suffer to such a de- strumentality of a written memorial. This gree, as to constitute a satisfying pledge of is the kind of evidence which is chiefly aptheir integrity ? Was there more than one pealed to for the truth of ancient history; messenger, and did they agree as to the and it is counted satisfying evidence for all substance of that communication which that part of it, which is received and dethey made to the world ? Did they exhibit pended upon. any special mark of their office as the mes- In laying before the reader, then, the evisengers of God; such a mark as none but dence for the truth of Christianity, we do God could give, and none but his approved not call his mind to any singular or unpremessengers could obtain the possession of? cedented exercises of its faculties. We call Was this mark the power of working mira- him to pronounce upon the credibility of cles; and were these miracles so obviously written documents, which profess to have addressed to the senses, as to leave no sus- been published at a certain age, and by cerpicion of deceit behind them? These are tain authors. The inquiry involves in it no questions which we feel our competency to principle which is not appealed to every day take up, and to decide upon. They lie with-I in questions of ordinary criticism. To sit in the legitimate boundaries of human obser- in judgment on the credibility of a written vation; and upon the solution of these do document, is a frequent and familiar exerwe rest the question of the truth of the cise of the understanding with literary men. Christian religion.
It is fortunate for the human mind, when This, then, is the state of the question | so interesting a question as its religious faith can be placed under the tribunal of such clusions the most painful and melancholy. evidence as it is competent to pronounce | He should train his mind to all the hardihood upon. It was fortunate for those to whom of abstract and unfeeling intelligence. He Christianity (a professed communication should give up every thing to the supremafrom heaven) was first addressed, that they cy of argument, and be able to renounce, could decide upon the genuineness of the without a sigh, all the tenderest possessions communication by such familiar and every-of infancy, the moment that truth demands day principles, as the marks of truth or false- of him the sacrifice. Let it be remembered, hood in the human bearers of that commu- however, that while one species of prejunication. And it is fortunate for us that dice operates in favour of Christianity, when, after that communication has assu another prejudice operates against it. There med the form of a historical document, we is a class of men who are repelled from the can pronounce upon the degree of credit investigation of its evidences, because in which should be attached to it, by the very | their minds Christianity is allied with the same exercise of mind which we so confi- weakness of superstition; and they feel that dently engage in, when sitting in examina- they are descending when they bring down tion upon the other historical documents their attention to a subject which engrosses that have come down to us from antiquity. so much respect and admiration from the
If two historical documents possess equal vulgar. degrees of evidence, they should produce It appears to us, that the peculiar feeling equal degrees of conviction, But if the ob- which the sacredness of the subject gives to ject of the one be to establish some fact the inquirer, is, upon the whole, unfavouraconnected with our religious faith, while the ble to the impression of the Christian arguobject of the other is to establish some fact, ment. Had the subject not been sacred, and about which we feel no other interest than had the same testimony been given to the that general curiosity which is gratified by facts that are conpected with it, we are sathe solution of any question in literature, tisfied that the history of Jesus in the New this difference in the object produces a dif- Testament would have been looked upon as ference of effect in the feelings and tenden- | the best supported by evidence of any hiscies of the mind. It is impossible for the tory that has come down to us. It would mind, while it inquires into the evidence of assist us in appreciating the evidence for a Christian document, to abstain from all the truth of the gospel history, if we could reference to the important conclusion of the conceive for a moment, that Jesus, instead inquiry. And this will necessarily mingle of being the founder of a new religion, had its influence with the arguments which en- been merely the founder of a new school of gage its attention. It may be of importance philosophy, and that the different histories to attend to the peculiar feelings which are which have come down to us had merely thus given to the investigation, and in how represented him as an extraordinary person, far they have affected the impression of the who had rendered himself illustrious among Christian argument.
his countrymen by the wisdom of his sayWe know it to be the opinion of some, ings, and the beneficence of his actions. that in this way an undue advantage has We venture to say, that had this been the been given to that argument. Instead of a case, a tenth part of the testimony which pure question of truth, it has been made a has actually been given, would have been question of sentiment; and the wishes of the enough to satisfy us. Had it been a quesheart have mingled with the exercises of tion of mere erudition, where neither a prethe understanding. There is a class of men dilection in favour of a religion, nor an anwho may feel disposed to overrate its eviden- tipathy against it, could have impressed a 003, because they are anxious to give every bias in any one direction, the testimony, support and stability to a system, which both in weight and in quantity, would have they conceive to be most intimately connec- been looked upon as quite unexampled in ted with the dearest hopes and wishes of the whole compass of ancient literature. humanity; because their imagination is To form a fair estimate of the strength carried away by the sublimity of its doc- and decisiveness of the Christian argument, trines, or their heart engaged by that amia- we should, if possible, divest ourselves of all ble morality which is so much calculated to reference to religion, and view the truth of improve and adorn the face of society. the gospel history, purely as a question of
Now we are ready to admit, that as the erudition. If at the outset of the investigaobject of the inquiry is not the character, tion we have a prejudice against the Chrisbut the truth of Christianity, the philosopher tian religion, the effect is obvious; and withishould be careful to protect his mind from out any refinement of explanation, we see the delusion of its charms. He should sepa- at once how such a prejudice must dispose rate the exercises of the understanding from us to annex suspicion and distrust to the the tendencies of the fancy or of the heart. testimony of the Christian writers. But He should be prepared to follow the light even when the prejudice is on the side of of evidence, though it may lead him to con-I Christianity, the effect is unfavotrable on a mind that is at all scrupulous about the rec- author, which he had rather been without, titude of its opinions. In these circumstan- because he finds it difficult to compute the ces, the mind gets suspicious of itself. It precise amount of its influence; and the feels a predilection, and becomes apprehen- consideration of this restrains him from that sive lest this predilection may have disposed clear and decided conclusion, which he it to cherish a particular conclusion, inde-would infallibly have landed in, had it been pendently of the evidences by which it is purely a secular investigation. supported. Were it a mere speculative. There is something in the very sacredness question, in which the interests of man, and of the subject, which intimidates the underthe attachments of his heart had no share, standing, and restrains it from making the he would feel greater confidence in the re- same firm and confident application of its sult of his investigation. But it is difficult faculties, which it would have felt itself to separate the moral impressions of piety, perfectly warranted to do, had it been a and it is no less difficult to calculate their question of ordinary history. Had the aposprecise influence on the exercises of the un- tles been the disciples of some eminent phiderstanding. In the complex sentiment of losopher, and the fathers of the church, their attachment and conviction, which he an- immediate successors in the office of presidnexes to the Christian religion, he finds it ing over the discipline and instruction of the difficult to say, how much is due to the ten- numerous schools which they had establishdencies of the heart, and how much is due ed, this would have given a secular complexto the pure and unmingled influence of ar-ion to the argument, which we think would gument. His very anxiety for the truth, have been more satisfying to the mind, and disposes him to overrate the circumstances have impressed upon it a closer and more which give a bias to his understanding, and familiar conviction of the history in question. through the whole process of the inquiry, We should have immediately brought it inhe feels a suspicion and an embarrassment, to comparison with the history of other phiwhich he would not have felt, had it been losophers, and could not have failed to rea question of ordinary erudition.
cognize, that, in minuteness of information, The same suspicion which he attaches to in weight and quantity of evidence, in the himself, he will be ready to attach to all concurrence of numerous and independent whom he conceives to be in similar circum- testimonies, and in the total absence of every stances. Now, every author who writes in circumstance that should dispose us to annex defence of Christianity, is supposed to be suspicion to the account which lay before a Christian; and this, in spite of every argu- us, it far surpassed any thing that had come ment to the contrary, has the actual effect down to us from antiquity. It so happens, of weakening the impression of his testimo- however, that, instead of being the history of ny. This suspicion effects, in a more re-l a philosopher, it is the history of a prophet. markable degree, the testimony of the first The veneration we annex to the sacredness writers on the side of Christianity. In op- of such a character, mingles with our belief position to it, you have no doubt, to allege in the truth of his history. From a question the circumstances under which the testimo- of simple truth, it becomes a question in ny was given; the tone of sincerity which which the heart is interested ; and the subruns through the performance of the author;ject from that moment assumes a certain the concurrence of other testimonies; the holiness and mystery, which veil the strength persecutions which were sustained in ad- of the argument, and takes off from that fahering to them, and which can be accounted miliar and intimate conviction which we for on no other principle, than the power annex to the far less authenticated histories of conscience and conviction; and the utter of profane authors. impossibility of imposing a false testimony It may be further observed, that every on the world, had they even been disposed part of the Christian argument has been to do it. Still there is a lurking suspicion, made to undergo a most severe scrutiny. which often survives this strength of all The same degree of evidence which in argument, and which it is difficult to get rid questions of ordinary history commands the of, even after it has been demonstrated to easy and universal acquiescence of every be completely unreasonable. He is a Chris-inquirer, has, in the subject before us, been tian. He is one of the party. Am I an in- taken most thoroughly to pieces, and purfidel? I persist in distrusting the testimony. sued, both by friends and enemies, into all Am I a Christian? I rejoice in the strength its ramifications. The effect of this is unquesof it; but this very joy becomes matter of tionable. The genuineness and authenticity suspicion to a scrupulous inquirer. He of the profane historian, are admitted upon feels something more than the concurrence much inferior evidence to what we can adof his belief in the testimony of the writer. duce for the different pieces which make up He catches the infection of his piety and his the New Testament. And why? Because moral sentiments. In addition to the acqui- the evidence has been hitherto thought sufesence of the understanding, there is a conficient, and the genuineness and authenticity amore feeling both in himself, and in his I have never been questioned. Not so with
the Gospel history. Though its evidence is tion, too, and the time of its appearance, are precisely the same in kind, and vastly supe- far better established, and by precisely that rior in degree to the evidence for the history kind of argument which is held decisive in of the profane writer, its evidence has been every other question of erudition. Besides questioned, and the very circumstance of its all this, we have the testimony of at least being questioned has annexed a suspicion to five of the Christian fathers, all of whom had it. At all points of the question, there has the same, or a greater, advantage in point of been a struggle and a controversy. Every time than Tacitus, and who had a much ignorant objection, and every rash and petu- nearer and readier access to original sources lant observation, has been taken up and of information. Now, how comes it that the commented upon by the defenders of Chris- testimony of Tacitus, a distant and later histianity. There has at last been so much said torian, should yield such delight and satisfacabout it, that a general feeling of insecurity is tion to the inquirer, while all the antecedent apt to accompany the whole investigation. testimony (which, by every principle of apThere has been so much fighting, that Chris- proved criticism, is much stronger than the tianity now is looked upon as debatable other) should produce an impression that is ground. Other books, where the evidence comparatively languid and ineffectual? It is much inferior, but which have had the ad- is owing, in a great measure, to the principle vantage of never being questioned, are re- to which we have already alluded. There ceived as of established authority. It is is a sacredness annexed to the subject, so striking to observe the perfect confidence long as it is under the pen of fathers and with which an infidel will quote a passage evangelists, and this very sacredness takes from an ancient historian. He perhaps does away from the freedom and confidence of not overrate the credit due to him. But the argument. The moment that it is taken present him with a tabellated and compara- up by a profane author, the spell which held tive view of all the evidences that can be the understanding in some degree of restraint adduced for the gospel of Matthew, and any is dissipated. We now tread on the more profane historian, which he chooses to fix familiar ground of ordinary history; and the upon, and let each distinct evidence be dis- evidence for the truth of the Gospel appears cussed upon no other principle than the more assimilated to that evidence, which ordinary and approved principles of criti- brings home to our conviction the particucism, we assure him that the sacred history | lars of the Greek and Roman story. would far outweigh the profane in the num- To say that Tacitus was upon this subject ber and value of its testimonies.
a disinterested historian, is not enough to In illustration of the above remarks, we explain the preference which you give to can refer to the experience of those who have his testimony. There is no subject in which attended to this examination. We ask them the triumph of the Christian argument is to recollect the satisfaction which they felt, more conspicuous, than the moral qualificawhen they came to those parts of the ex- tions which give credit to the testimony of amination, where the argument assumes as its witnesses. We have every possible evisecular complexion. Let us take the testi-dence, that there could be neither mistake mony of Tacitus for an example. He as- nor falsehood in their testimony: a much serts the execution of our Saviour in the greater quantity of evidence, indeed, than reign of Tiberius, and under the procurator-can actually be produced to establish the ship of Pilate; the temporary check, which credibility of any other historian. Now all this gave to his religion; its revival, and the we ask is, that where an exception to the progress it had made, not only over Judea, veracity of any historian is removed, you but to the city of Rome. Now all this is restore him to that degree of credit and inatt sted in the Annals of Tacitus. But it is fluence which he ought to have possessed, also attested in a far more direct and cir- had no such exception been made. In no cumstantial manner in the annals of another case has an exception to the credibility of an author, in a book entitled the History of the author been more triumphantly removed, Acts of the Apostles by the Evangelist than in the case of the early Christian Luke. Both of these performances carry writers; and yet, as a proof that there really on the very face of them the appearance of exists some such delusion as we have been unsuspicious and well-authenticated docu- labouring to demonstrate, though our eyes ments. But there are several circumstances, are perfectly open to the integrity of the in which the testimony of Luke possesses a Christian witnesses, there is still a disposidecided advantage over the testimony of tion to give the preference to the secular hisTacitus. He was the companion of these torian. When Tacitus is placed by the side very apostles. He was an eye witness to of the evangelist Luke, even after the demany of the events recorded by him. Hecisive argument, which establishes the credit had the advantage over the Roman historian of the latter historian has convinced the unin time and in place, and in personal know-derstanding, there remains a tendency in the ledge of many of the circumstances in his mind to annex a confidence to the account history. The genuineness of his publica-l of the Roman writer, which is altogether