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the peculiar duties of men professionally devoted to learning, and especially to that kind of scriptural studies which, though absolutely necessary to the Church of Christ, have almost constantly distracted it with heresy and schism ?—shall they seek repose in servile acquiescence, or careless indifference ? -shall they, for the sake of unity, set up an oracle, and bind themselves to defend its answers ?—This would be to shun the trial, to avoid the task set before us. Our duty, on the contrary, is to investigate the true nature of that trial, and, trusting in divine assistance, boldly yet humbly to fight the good fight of Christians.
For this purpose we should consider, that though revelation does not disclose every reason why God has allowed Christianity to be the occasion of heresies, yet it clearly states one use of this trial. “There must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.” I shall only remind the learned part of my audience that the original of approved is dókiuOL ; a word which derives its moral signification from the process by which the purity of the precious metals is ascertained. One, therefore, of the reasons why heresies are permitted is, that the sincere followers of revealed religion, or, as we might say, the sterling Christians, may appear, and be distinguished from that baser sort of believers who nominally follow the Gospel, from thoughtless habit, or mixed motives.
But it will be asked, by what kind of touchstone shall we distinguish these genuine followers of Christ ?-Of various persons, equally learned, equally honest, who take the most opposite sides in religious questions, whom shall we acknowledge as the approved, and whom shall we avoid as the heretic ?
In order to answer this difficult question, we must lay it down as a principle, that no absolute certainty should be expected in that which is positively declared to be a matter of moral trial and discipline. At no period in the history of revealed Religion are we able to discover a criterion of divine truth, which doubt could not assail and obscure. But what is still more remarkable, —the definiteness of the Rule of Faith, or rather what might be called the technical means of applying it, has been gradually diminished in the progress of Revelation, leaving to the understanding and will of man a larger field of activity and trial, in proportion to the length of the previous discipline afforded by the course of nature and revelation.
It is indeed a great mistake to suppose that because the Gospel is a more advanced and perfect Revelation than that which was made through Moses, it must therefore have provided more means for leading men as it were by the hand : that it must have appointed not only one judge, but an interminable series of infallible oracles, who, like Moses, may decide every religious question, without doubt or responsibility on the part of each individual. This would be placing Christians under a discipline far inferior in character to that of the earliest periods of the Jewish people. In a word, this supposition of the Romanists is the same in character as if any one expected and demanded that the strength and confining power of the contrivances by which an infant is made to walk, should increase as the infant grows to youth and perfect manhood. The progress of Revelation, as I will endeavour to show by a few instances, has proceeded upon an exactly opposite plan.
The Israelites, when just called out of Egypt, in a rude semibarbarous state, to wander in the desert, had a leader to guide them whose communication with God is represented as that of a man talking with his friend face to face. A less plain and decisive rule of Faith and action would not have sufficed for the people whom Moses had to lead to the borders of the land of promise: a people, indeed, who, in spite of daily miracles, were constantly ready to break out into rebellion. After their establishment in Canaan, we observe that the means of consulting the divine will became more rare, and less certain; for in that state the Israelites had become a settled nation, in a progressive state of improvement, who could be left more to themselves in the application of the former Revelation. Lastly, the vehicle of divine truth, in a later age of the Jewish polity—the voice of the Prophets-demanded a great exercise of judgment and discrimination in those who were to choose between the declarations of the true and the false prophets. This period had been foreseen by Moses, and the difficult trial to which it would put God's people, may be estimated by the words in which he provided against its dangers. “ If there arise among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a won. der, and the sign or wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee saying, Let us go after other gods which thou hast not known, and let us serve them; thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the Lord your God, with all your heart and with all your soul.” In this passage, evidently written with a prospective view to a more improved state than that in which the book of Deuteronomy was composed, we find that the definitive judgment of a most difficult question on miraculous evidence is committed to the
Moral sense, with the general spirit of the previous Revelation for its guide.
A moment's reflection on the awful trial which this passage must have brought upon the Jews in regard to the miracles of our Saviour, should be enough to convince us that the Spirit of God never intended to establish such an infallible external rule of Faith as the Romanists have always contended for. The Jews of our Saviour's time might, and probably did apply the passage I have just quoted, to escape the force of Christ's mi. racles. And yet it pleased God to leave them in a degree of perplexity which in many cases must have led to the rejection of his Son. The contest, indeed, which arose on this very ground is most strikingly recorded by St. John.* “ Therefore said some of the Pharisees, This man is not of God, because he keepeth not the Sabbath-day. Others said, How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles ? And there was a division among them.” The division was on the very point to which Moses's rule applies—namely, the character of miracles when apparently in opposition with the former Revelation. We know, with certainty, that those who, following the spirit of the Old Testament, decided in favour of Christ's miracles, judged rightly. The others, however, had a plausible support from the letter of the law. Both, however, were left to stand or fall by their own decision. The one party was ruined by “their evil heart of unbelief,” the other, saved under the guidance of “an honest and good heart," assisted by divine grace.
Analogous to this plan of trial is the supernatural dispensation which, in regard to the Rule of Faith and morals, we may observe in the New Testament. As the infant Church of Israel was placed under the miraculous guidance of Moses, so the rising Church of Christ had the Apostles, and their companions, who, endowed as they were with supernatural gifts, might establish her Faith, and commit it inviolate to the primitive Christians. But when the Church had grown into confirmed strength she was left to a sure but undefined guidance of the Spirit of God, with the volume of the Scriptures for its only external aid. Miracles ceased, supernatural gifts were withdrawn, and, after a fiery trial of persecution, the moral trial of doubt, heresy, and infidelity began, never to cease till the second coming of Christ.
From this view I believe we must conclude, that in proportion to the increase of our natural powers of discrimination, and our means of weighing evidence, will our trial in regard to religious truth become more difficult and delicate. This, however, should render us the more anxious to fulfil the object of that trial. Nor should we be at a loss to ascertain the divine purpose in placing us under such discipline. As God permitted the appearance of false prophets among the Israelites, that the attachment and love of his people to him might be exercised by perplexity; so the obscurity of controversy has been given to Christians, that their love of Christ, “ in whom the fulness of the Godhead dwelleth bodily,” may be tried as gold in the fur. nace.
We, therefore, must not expect to find an infallible rule by which to remove all doubt in the interpretation of the Scriptures. What, indeed, would be the moral advantage of truth elicited by a process altogether mechanical ? The sure hope of final certainty, not in regard to every abstract religious truth, but to safety in spite of human error,-arises from the love of God in Christ, which should be the chief guide in our decisions. This is in fact a rule in strict conformity with that given by Moses to judge between the true and the false Prophets. As it happened in the time of the beloved apostle, “ many false prophets have gone out into the world.” But we cannot hope for a better rule to preserve ourselves from their snares than that which the same apostle gave to the infant Church. “Hereby know ye the spirit of God; every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh (i. e. every spirit that confesseth the work of redemption, accomplished by Christ in his true and perfect human nature) is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is not of God.” Whatever views or doctrines diminish our trust in Christ, and disparage the work of our redemption, belong, we may be sure, to that spirit of Anti-christ against which St. John cautioned the early Christians, as being already in the world.
Now the use of trial, or discipline-for all discipline consists in trials—is, by frequent experience of danger, or error, to make men familiar with, and habitually attached to that which constitutes their means of safety. In regard to the Christian doctrines, it is unquestionable that the sources of doubt and perplexity are often multiplied to inquisitive minds, especially to those who, with an unlimited, and unfettered love of truth, make theology their profession. But why should we regret the existence of this peculiar trial, if we bring to it a pure and disinterested love of Christ ? Let his love be our ultimate rule of Faith, and we need not fear. That such a rule will absolutely preserve us from abstract error, is what we cannot presume to expect; but that it will defend us from whatever might endanger our eternal happiness, it would be unchristian to doubt.
He knows little of the nature and object of revealed religion who can take offence at its want of means to produce absolute certainty in regard to doctrines. Had revelation disclosed the mysteries of the invisible world, and left them without veil or cloud, heaven would have gratified and encouraged that ambitious thirst of knowledge which was the occasion of man's first offence. Were the communication of supernatural knowledge the main object of revelation, the gospel would leave man's will as rebellious and unchanged as we inherit it from our sinful parents. Supernatural light the gospel does certainly give; but it is such a light, as by leaving us in constant apprehension of error, obliges the sincere Christian to work his own salvation in fear and trembling. It is such a light as, being sufficient to discover the right path to heaven, will not indulge our curiosity with a full view of the immeasurable extent through which it winds. It is such a light as, without totally unbinding our eyes, in regard to our God and Saviour, will yet kindle that burning of our hearts within us, which will urge us to keep in his company on our weary pilgrimage, and not let him depart from us " when it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.”*
Thus far have I endeavoured to trace the views of scripture in regard to the existence of heresies and divisions in the Church; but I cannot conclude without touching upon the relative duties which result from the preceding statements.The whole, however, of these duties may be summed up in one word—Charity. But let me not be misunderstood, as if I would hide under the loveliness of that name a careless indifference to Christian truth. It is a most sacred duty to oppose what we conceive to be unscriptural error; but, on the other hand, it is still a more Christian duty to oppose it under a humble conviction that the infallibility of the scripture does not confer a similar gift upon us. God in his wisdom has thus wonderfully provided the means of improving our minds, without injury to our hearts; of leading us to all substantial truth, without destroying our sympathy for those whom we conceive to be wrong. Want of intellectual sympathy is the very essence of bigotry, while bigotry is the most effectual hindrance to the preservation of Christian faith in the hearts of the wavering, as well as to the recovery of those who have deserted Christ for a false philosophy. We should indeed contend for “ the Faith which was once delivered to the saints :" but we should con.
* Luke xxiv, 29.