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§3. Hence then arises the necessity, among disputants, of fixing on some common principles, which may be called data. Without this there can be little or no hope of bringing any disputed point to a fair issue. Without this, when closely urged, they will be for ever shifting sides, and running from the spot to which they ought to be confined, as their skill in sophistry may tempt, or the life of their cause require.
Considering the matter in this light, while occasionally attending to the motions of the controversial war in which you have been so long engaged, I have been induced to pause and put the question: What are the data of these polemic champions, on which to stand and from which to argue? Is not this the reason that they are so seldom brought to a close encounter, and are seen hectoring one another at a distance, spending so much time and breath in the fruitless (not to say impertinent) work of estimating the abilities and qualifications of each other? I have sometimes wished to know, in particular, but have yet to learn, what those common principles are on which you build your differing system. How far, for instance, you can travel in company with a Calvinist in the high road that leads to the temple of truth, and where precisely is the spot on which you must stop and say, I can go no farther, here I must leave you, our road now parts? It would gratify my curiosity much, and perhaps assist my inquiry, to meet with a candid, unequivocal solution of such difficulties. For I am hitherto of opinion, that if there be not some infallible objective certainty on which we may depend as a foundation, Christian theology is but an empty name.
$4. Though I have sought in vain for your polemical data, whether it is revelation or something else, and if the former, whether the whole of the common canon or only a part, and if a part, what it is, and where is the line of difference, though I have been unsuccessful in this inquiry, I am furnished with better means of information respecting your method of investigating the points of difference, as it is laid before the public in your various writings, and which is briefly summed 48
up by yourself in the following words: "Christians are "not agreed in the interpretation of scripture language; "but as all men are agreed with respect to the nature "of historical evidence, I thought that we might perhaps "better determine by history what was the faith of "Christians in early times, independently of any aid "from the scripture; and it appeared to be no un"natural presumption, that whatever that should appear "to be, such was the doctrine of the apostles, from "whom their faith was derived; and that by this means "we should be possessed of a pretty good guide for dis"covering the true sense of the scriptures."*
Now after having thought, dear sir, pretty deliberately, on the method here proposed, viewed it in different lights, and endeavored to trace its genuine consequences, it always, and in various respects, appears to me a "very bad guide," for several reasons. For,
1. The proposed method is not calculated to lessen the difficulty, which it pretends to remove, but rather increases it; since men will no less differ about historical evidence than the meaning of scripture. It increases the toil without improving the fruit. By avoiding a visionary Scylla we are driven on a real Charybdis.
"Christians are not agreed in the interpretation of "scripture." True; and what is there almost in the whole compass of literature, where mathematical demonstration is wanting, in the interpretation of which men are all agreed? One well observes: "So wild "and extravagant have been the notions of a great "part of philosophers, both ancient and modern, that "it is hard to determine, whether they have been more "distant in their sentiments from truth, or from one "another; or have not exceeded the fancies of the most "fabulous writers, even poets and mythologists."† And yet, notwithstanding all their jars and blunders, we cannot justly say that there is no true system of nature. But what should we say of a reformer in phi
*Defences of Unitar. for 1788 and 1789, p. 83.
losophy, who should propose to rectify our notions of the system of the universe by setting before us a train of "historical evidence," of what was the "opin"ion" of the ancients about it? While he urged their opinions, had we not a right to demand rather the principles and arguments? If it be said that the case is not parallel, because Thales, Pythagoras, Aristotle, &c. were fallible teachers, but that Matthew, John, Paul, &c. were infallible; this does not alter the case; it is sufficient for my purpose that the "opinion" formed of the one or the other is fallible. And therefore the opinion of Ebion is no more to be confided in than that of Calvin. And there were false opinions concerning Christ in the apostolic age as well as in the present. Had you taken therefore the other side of the question the impropriety would have been all one; for the fault lies in the very nature of the medium of proof.
"But all men are agreed with respect to the nature "of historical evidence." By no means; for if I mistake not fact lies directly against it. Christian Protestants, almost unanimously, echo the maxim of Chillingworth, "That the Bible alone (as opposed to "tradition and historical evidence, &c.) is the religion "of Protestants, and a safe way to salvation" and Divine truth. But let me not misunderstand the position, which is somewhat equivocal; for the words, "with respect to the nature of historical evidence," may refer either to fact or to right; either, what it is that actually constitutes the evidence, so that all are agreed about the real meaning of testimonies of the ancients, and the quantum of evidence they contain for and against, supposing their opinion to be in its own nature admissible and of moment; or what influence such evidence ought to have towards finally determining our judgment in favor of the controverted point. But it does not appear to me that the position is admissible in either sense. Not the former; for daily stubborn facts prove, that what one admits as "historical evi"dence," another does not; whom yet charity compels us to regard as intelligent, learned, pious, and impar
tial. They are as much divided in their judgments about the meaning of the ancient fathers, as about the sense of the apostles. Not to mention the incomparable disadvantage of this new method of interpreting scripture, arising from its inevitable tediousness, supposing all the necessary materials at hand. Not the latter; for the rational inquirer will deem it quite unsatisfactory to infer, that because a party of men had heard the apostles, or their immediate successors, therefore the opinions they formed in religious matters were just. This he can no more admit than if one should say, That the Unitarian hypothesis must needs be true, because the Unitarians have read the writings of the apostles: or, because all the Christian societies in England, in the year one thousand seven hundred and ninety, have in use the same version of the Bible, therefore their religious opinions must be the same. Nay, we cannot safely conclude concerning the major part of those in England this day, who may be styled sworn adherents to Calvinistic doctrines, that therefore their religious opinions are Calvinistic. In short, that all men are not agreed, "with respect to the nature of historical evidence," any how understood, is but too palpably evident in the storms of furious disputations, and the din of paper wars. Hence I conclude, that the method you propose is not calculated to lessen the difficulty, but rather to increase it.
$5. 2. The precariousness and insufficiency of it appears from experience. As a specimen of the truth of this remark, let one fact suffice instar omnium. It respects a writer of the present day; a writer of erudition, of extensive learning and knowledge, and who can boast of an intimate acquaintance with the recondite treasures of ecclesiastical antiquity, and who can also boast of being "much at home" in the learned languages. Dr. Horsley, then Archdeacon of St. Alban's, now Bishop of St. David's, took upon him (in 1786) to establish as a fact, "The decline of Calvinism "amounting almost to a total extinction of it among "our English dissenters; who no long time since, were
"generally Calvinists." He adds; "I believe however "that the truth is, and is pretty notorious, that Calvin"ism is gone among the dissenters of the present "times." And again; "I consider it as the reproach "of the dissenters of the present day, that a genuine "Calvinist is hardly to be found; except in a sect, "conspicuous only for the encouragement, which "the leaders of it seem to give to a disorderly "fanaticism." Were not the writer already known, one might be induced, on perusing this account, to exclaim, Did this extraordinary declaration proceed from some "days" of the eighteenth century? Did the writer reside in some remote corner of the world, taking his information at second hand from incompetent vouchers? Was the "religious opinion" of which he gives an account so remote from his own, that he could hardly be thought sufficiently interested in it to make a due inquiry? Nothing less. Confessedly sensible and learned, near the metropolis at the time, himself a Calvinist, and while he laments the decline of Calvinism, he utters the above declaration; nay, he undertakes professedly to establish it as a fact. You know, sir, too well the state of the real fact to need a comment; and the use I think we should make of this and similar mistakes that we so often meet with, is, That we should be peculiarly circumspect in admitting "historical evidence" for the state of religious opinions, whether in later or in earlier times. To illustrate this matter we will suppose a case; viz. that some ages hence there will appear a learned collector of the state of religious opinions in the eighteenth century; and that the ravages of time will destroy all monuments of counter-evidence to invalidate the above assertion; how could the historical collector choose but admit it for fact, though nothing in reality be less so? What might the historian say, shall I tax the veracity, or impeach the knowledge of such a writer, and a writer so
*Tracts in Controversy with Dr. Priestley, p. 386.
†Ibid. p. 397.