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ESSA Y XIII.
On the Use of Reason in connection with RELIGION.
THERE is an argument'which has been often
triumphantly urged by the Roman Catholic writers, and which is, indeed, fo fpecious and imposing, so apparently just in its principle, and extenfive in its consequences, that I do not wonder it should be regarded as the pillar and ground of their faith. If, say they, the truth and necessity of a divine Revelation be admitted, it cannot be doubted but it is equally necessary that the true sense of that revelation should by some means be ascertained. Now common sense and daily experience fully evince, that the majority of mankind are wholly incompetent to enter into any such discussions; and also, that the opinions of private Individuals, who may be fupposed best qualified to form a right judgment, are so opposite and discordant, that there is not the most distant probability that the genuine doctrines of christianity should ever be established on a firm and solid foundation, except there exists some common standard of religious truth, to which it may be lawful for all men to appeal, in cases of doubt and difficulty, and to
which they shall be indispensably obliged to submit: and where shall we find that standard but in the decisions of the Universal Church! which is under the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit which is founded upon a rock, against which the gates of Hell shall never prevail! whose voice is the voice of God, against which it is folly, presumption, and impiety for any particular member of that holy and mystical body to oppofe his own fallible reasonings and un. authorized opinions. This is the faint outline of that grand argument upon which the Romanists always profess their readiness to rest the whole controversy between them and the Protestants
; and this is the argument which the advocates for Protestantism in general practice every artifice to evade, and of which they seem to be often staggered and confounded by the force ; and I do not in the least wonder that this Thould be the case. For many successive centuries this maxim had been regarded as sacred and incontrovertible; and when the Protestants, therefore, first found themselves under the necessity of calling it in question, they avoided giving any greater shock to their own prejudices, as well as those of their antagonists, than they were by the pressure of the occasion led, or rather driven to do; and therefore they contented them selves with denying the infallibility of the Church but they still admitted that the Church migh juftly claim authority in controversies of faith ; R
and that what the Church taught was to be received as true, unless it could be proved con. trary to the tenor of Scripture. But in the prosecution of the controversy, the Protestants quickly found themselves involved in new perplexities : for either every private Christian had a right to judge whether the doctrines taught by the Church were agreeable to Scripture, in which case the authority of the Church was an empty sound, without any real meaning; or if the Church was allowed to judge of the conformity of its own doctrines to the declarations of Scripture, then the authority of the Church was plainly cquivalent to the infallibility claimed by the Romanists: The only difference, according to the observation of a witty writer, consisting in this that in the one case, the Church never could err ;-and in the other, that it never did err, For a long time, however, the learned and re. verend champions of Protestantism contented themselves with insisting upon, and making the most they could of this curious distinction : and it was not, perhaps, till the Bangorian Controverfy took place, at the beginning of the pre. sent century, that this absurd and ridiculous suba terfuge was compleatly abandoned; and that the right of individuals to appeal from the authority of the Church to the authority of the Sacred Scriptures, was admitted in its full extent, with an ex plicit avowal and approbation of all its consequences
It is well known how great a clamour that memorable Controverfy excited: the Church did not want for able and valiant defenders of the faith ; but, alas! the fatal blow was given, and Church-authority, that mighty Dagon, was at length thrown prostrate upon the ground! Notwithstanding, however, that we who live in this enlightened age are able clearly to discern the fallacy of this boasted argument in behalf of Church-authority, it required a force of mind and an acuteness of penetration, which perhaps no one man ever possessed, conpleatly and at once to detect this dangerous and delusive fophism. Many generations passed away after the Reformation had taken place before the most rational, liberal, and intelligent persons of the Protestant communion could prevail upon themselves to acknowledge that every private Christian was under an indispensable obligation to exercise his own Reason and judgment, in forming his opinions in Religion; and that the authority of the Church, and the decisions of Fathers and Councils, as such, ought not in the smallest degree to bias his determinations. These maxims, which to us appear so just and obvious, were universally reprobated, as fraught with the most mischievous consequences;--as lifting up the doors that herefy and fchism might enter in. The utmost wildness and extravagance of sentiment leading to a general state of intellectual anarchy, they imagined must be the inevitable result of such an unbounded freedom of discussion. It requires
indeed at present no extraordinary fagacity to see the weakness and futility of these apprehenfions; nay, it really requires great strength of mind to feel the full force of an argument, however subtle and plausible, which we have always been accustomed to consider as confuted; and we cannot therefore without difficulty conceive the prodigious weight of the impression which it must have made on the minds of those who had from their earliest years been taught to regard it as facred for its truth, and venerable for its antiquity. Yet it appears to me, that though human authority has been compleatly discarded, the province and ju. risdiction of Reason have never been so accurately defined as to preclude all further discussion upon the subject. It is even impossible perhaps to fix such precise boundaries to her dominion as to en. able any man upon just grounds to pronounce “ hitherto shalt thou come and no farther;" and as pa precise line of distinction can be drawn, or at least can be clearly discerned in this case, some will be apt to attribute more to human Reason as a judge of divine truths than she is entitled to claim; and others will be inclined to depreciate and to degrade that noble faculty of the mind below its just value. Notwithstanding this remediless difference of sentiment, I hope I may be permitted to offer a few observations upon this subject, without justly, incurring the charge of presumption ; for as matter widely diffused may be condensed though it can