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The operation of speculative error on the mind is one of the profoundest secrets in nature; and to determine the precise quantity of evil resulting from it in any given case (except the single one of its involving a denial of fundamental truth) transcends the capacity of human nature. We must, in order to form a correct judgment, be not only perfectly acquainted with the nature and tendency of the error in question, but also with the portion of attention it occupies, as well as the degree of zeal and attachment with which it is embraced. We must determine the force of the counteracting principles, and how far it bears an affinity to the predominant failings of him who maintains it; how far it coalesces with the weaker parts of his moral constitution. These particulars, however, it is next to impossible to explore when the inquiry respects ourselves; how much more to establish a scale which shall mark by just gradations the malignant influence of erroneous conceptions on others! On the supposition of a formal denial of saving, essential truth we feel no difficulty; we may determine without hesitation, on the testimony of God, that it incurs a forfeiture of the blessings of the new and everlasting covenant, among which the communion of saints holds a distinguished place. But such a supposition is foreign to the present inquiry.
Instead of losing ourselves in a labyrinth of metaphysical subtleties our only safe guide is an appeal to facts; and here we find from experience that the sentiments of the Pedobaptist may consist with the highest attainments of piety exhibited in modern times, with the most varied and elevated forms of moral grandeur, without impairing the zeal of missionaries, without impeding the march of confessors to their prisons, or of martyrs to the flames. We are willing to acknowledge these tenets have produced much mischief in communities and nations who have confounded baptism with regeneration; but the mere belief of the title of infants to that ordinance is a misconception respecting a positive institute much less injurious than if it affected the vital parts of Christianity. But be it what it may, we contend that it is impossible, without a total disregard of truth and decency, to assert that it is intrinsically and essentially more pernicious in its effects than the numerous errors and imperfections which the advocates of strict communion feel no scruple in tolerating in the best organized churches. It is but justice to add that few or none have attempted to prove that it is so; but have satisfied themselves with a certain vague and loose declamation, better adapted to inflame prejudice than to produce light or conviction.
In the government of the church there is a choice of three modes of procedure, each consistent with itself, though not equally compatible with the dictates of reason or Scripture. We may either open the doors to persons of all sentiments and persuasions who maintain the messiahship of Christ; or insist upon an absolute uniformity of belief; or limit the necessity of agreement to articles deemed fundamental, leaving subordinate points to the exercise of private judgment. The strict Baptists have feigned to themselves a fourth, of which it is not less difficult to form a clear and consistent conception, than of a fourth
dimension. They have pursued the clew by which other inquirers have been conducted till they arrived at a certain point, when they refused to proceed a step farther, without being able to assign a single reason for stopping which would not equally prove they had already proceeded too far. They have attempted an incongruous mixture of liberal principles with a particular act of intolerance; and these, like the iron and clay in the feet of Nebuchadnezzar's image, will not mix. Hence all that want of coherence and system in their mode of reasoning, which might be expected in a defence, not of a theory so properly, as of a capricious sally of prejudice.
Before I close this part of the subject I must just remark the sensible chagrin which the venerable Booth betrays at our insisting on the distinction between fundamentals and non-fundamentals in religion, and the singular manner in which he attempts to evade its force. After observing that we are wont in defence of our practice to plead that the points at issue are not fundamental-" Not fundamental !" he indignantly exclaims, "not essential ! But in what sense is submission to baptism not essential? To our justifying righteousness, our acceptance with God, or our interest in his favour? So is the Lord's Supper, and so is every part of our obedience. They (the friends of open communion) will readily allow that an interest in the Divine favour is not obtained by miserable sinners, but granted by the eternal Sovereign; and that acceptance with the high and holy God is not on conditions performed by us, but in consideration of the vicarious obedience and propitiary sufferings of the great Emanuel.”
"To the pure all things are pure." In the mind of Mr. Booth nothing was associated with this language, I am persuaded, but impressions of piety and devotion; though its unguarded texture and ambiguous tendency are too manifest. For my own part, I am at a loss to put any other construction upon it than this; either that faith and repentance are in no respect conditions of salvation, or that adult baptism is of equal necessity and importance. When it is asked, What is essential to salvation? the gospel constitution is presupposed, the great facts in Christianity assumed; and the true import of the inquiry is, What is essential to a personal interest in the blessings secured by the former, in the felicity of which the latter are the basis? in which light, to reply, The atonement and righteousness of Christ, is egregious trifling, because, being things out of ourselves, though the only preliminary basis of human hope, it is absurd to confound them with the characteristic difference between such as are saved and such as perish. When, in like manner, an inquiry arises, What is fundamental in religion? as we must be supposed by religion to intend a system of doctrines to be believed and of duties to be performed, to direct us to the vicarious obedience of Christ, not as a necessary object of belief, but as a transaction absolute and complete in itself and to pass over in silence the inherent distinction of character, the faith with its renovating influence to which the promise of life is attached, is, to speak in the mildest terms, to reply in a manner quite irrelevant; and when to this is joined even by implication a denial of the existence of such a distinction, we
are conducted to the brink of a precipice. The denial of this is the very core of antinomianism, to which it is painful to see so able a writer and so excellent a man as Mr. Booth make the slightest approach. We would seriously ask whether it be intended to deny that the belief of any doctrines, or the infusion of any principles or dispositions whatever, is essential to future happiness; if this be intended, it supersedes the use and necessity of every branch of internal religion. If it is not, we ask, Are correct views on the subject of baptism to be classed among those doctrines?
Had we been contending for an indulgence towards such as are convinced of the obligation of believers' baptism, but refuse to act up to their convictions and shrink from the Cross, some parts of the expostulation we have quoted might be considered as pertinent; but to attempt to explain away a distinction the most important in theology, the only centre of harmony, the only basis of peace and concord, and the grand bulwark opposed to the sophistry of the Church of Rome, is an humiliating instance of the temerity and imprudence incident to the best of men. The Jesuit Twiss, in that controversy with the Protestants which gave occasion to the inimitable defence of their principles by the immortal Chillingworth, betrayed the same impatience with our author at this distinction, though in perfect consistence with the doctrines of a church which pretends by an appeal to an infallible tribunal to decide every controversy and to preclude every doubt.
Nothing but an absolute despair of giving a satisfactory reply to the arguments drawn from this quarter could have tempted Mr. Booth to quarrel with a distinction so justly dear to all Protestants; and it is no small presumption of the justness of our sentiments, that the attempt to refute them is found to require that subversion of the most received axioms in theology, together with the strange paradox, that while much more than we suppose is necessary to communion, nothing is essential to salvation. In consideration, however, of the embarrassment of our opponents, we feel it easy to overlook the effusions of their discontent; but as it is not usual to consult the enemy on the choice of weapons, we shall continue to employ such as we find most efficacious, though they may not be the most pleasant to the touch.
The Impolicy of the Practice of Strict Communion considered.
In the affairs of religion and morality, where a Divine authority is interposed, the first and chief attention is due to its dictates, which we are not permitted to violate in the least instance, though we proposed by such violation to promote the interests of religion itself. She scorns to be indebted even for conquest to a foreign force: "the weapons of her warfare are not carnal." We have on this account carefully abstained from urging the imprudence of the measure we have ventured to propose, from an apprehension that we might be suspected of attempt
ing to bias the suffrage of our readers by considerations and motives disproportioned to the majesty of revealed truth. But having, as I trust, sufficiently shown that the practice of strict communion derives no support from that quarter, the way is open for the introduction of a few remarks on the natural tendency and effect of the two opposite systems. I would just premise that I hope no offence will be given to Pedobaptists, by denominating their sentiments on the subject of baptism erroneous, as though it were expected that our assertion should be accepted for proof. It is designed as a simple statement of my opinion, and is assumed as the basis of my reasoning with my stricter brethren.
Truth and error, as they are essentially opposite in their nature, so the causes to which they are indebted for their perpetuity and triumph are not less so. Whatever retards a spirit of inquiry is favourable to error; whatever promotes it, to truth. But nothing, it will be acknowledged, has a greater tendency to obstruct the exercise of free inquiry than the spirit and feeling of a party. Let a doctrine, however erroneous, become a party distinction, and it is at once intrenched in interests and attachments which make it extremely difficult for the most powerful artillery of reason to dislodge it. It becomes a point of honour in the leaders of such parties, which is from thence communicated to their followers, to defend and support their respective peculiarities to the last; and, as a natural consequence, to shut their ears against all the pleas and remonstrances by which they are assailed. Even the wisest and best of men are seldom aware how much they are susceptible of this sort of influence; and while the offer of a world would be insufficient to engage them to recant a known truth, or to subscribe an acknowledged error, they are often retained in a willing captivity to prejudices and opinions which have no other support, and which, if they could lose sight of party feelings, they would almost instantly abandon. To what other cause can we ascribe the attachment of Fenelon and of Pascal, men of exalted genius and undoubted piety, to the doctrine of transubstantiation and other innumerable absurdities of the Church of Rome? It is this alone which has ensured a sort of immortality to those hideous productions of the human mind, the shapeless abortions of night and darkness, which reason, left to itself, would have crushed in the moment of their birth.
It is observable that scientific truths make their way in the world with much more ease and rapidity than religious. No sooner is a philosophical opinion promulgated than it undergoes at first a severe and rigorous scrutiny; and if it is found to coincide with the results of experiment, it is speedily adopted, and quietly takes its place among the improvements of the age. Every acquisition of this kind is considered as a common property; as an accession to the general stores of mental opulence. Thus the knowledge of nature, the further it advances from its head, not only enlarges its channel by the accession of tributary streams, but gradually purifies itself from the mixture of error. If we search for the reason of the facility with which scientific improvements establish themselves in preference to religious, we shall find it in the absence of combination, in there being no class of men closely united
who have an interest real or imaginary in obstructing their progress. We hear, it is true, of parties in the republic of letters; but if such language is not to be considered as entirely allusive and metaphorical, the ties which unite them are so slight and feeble, compared to those which attach to religious societies, as scarcely to deserve the name. The spirit of party was much more sensibly felt in the ancient schools of philosophy than in the modern, on account of philosophical inquiries embracing a class of subjects which are now considered as no longer belonging to its province. Before revelation appeared, whatever is most deeply interesting in the contemplation of God, of man, or of a future state fell under the cognizance of philosophy; and hence it was cultivated with no inconsiderable portion of that moral sensibility, that solicitude and alternation of hope and fear respecting an invisible state, which are now absorbed by the gospel. From that time the departments of theology and philosophy have become totally distinct, and the genius of the former free and unfettered.
In religious inquiries, few feel themselves at liberty to follow without restraint the light of evidence and the guidance of truth, in consequence of some previous engagement with a party; and, though the attachment to it might originally be purely voluntary, and still continues such, the natural love of consistency, the fear of shame, together with other motives sufficiently obvious, powerfully contribute to perpetuate and confirm it. When an attachment to the fundamental truths of religion is the basis of the alliance, the steadiness, constancy, and perseverance it produces are of the utmost advantage; and hence we admire the wisdom of Christ in employing and consecrating the social nature of man in the formation of a church. It is utterly impossible to calculate the benefits of the publicity and support which Christianity derives from that source; nor will it be doubted that the intrepidity evinced in confessing the most obnoxious truths, and enduring all the indignities and sufferings which result from their promulgation, is, in a great measure, to be ascribed to the same cause. The concentration of the wills and efforts of Christians rendered the church a powerful antagonist to the world. But when the Christian profession became split and divided into separate communities, each of which, along with certain fundamental truths, retained a portion of error, its reformation became difficult, just in proportion to the strength of these combinations. Religious parties imply a tacit compact, not merely to sustain the fundamental truths of revelation (which was the original design of the constitution of a church), but also to uphold the incidental peculiarities by which they are distinguished. They are so many ramparts or fortifications erected in order to give a security and support to certain systems of doctrine and discipline, beyond what they derive from their native force and evidence.
The difficulty of reforming the corruptions of Christianity is great, in a state of things where the fear of being eclipsed, and the anxiety in each denomination to extend itself as much as possible, engage, in spite of the personal piety of its members, all the solicitude and ardour which are not immediately devoted to the most essential truths; where VOL. I.-Z