« PreviousContinue »
kind a purpose, could be fairly construed or even plausibly perverted so as to countenance the multiform, absurd, pernicious, and contradictory dogmas which have been ascribed to it or extorted from it.
We must believe that a revelation from God could not be justly obnoxious to such variety of constructions; otherwise we take from it all certainty and all value. Its grand paramount object must be something definite, unequivocal and explicit. If then the Bible does contain a revelation of the Divine will—and that it does, all the contending parties agree -it necessarily follows that its main scope and design must be clear and precise, and altogether above the misconception of any candid mind. But were we to judge of the gospel exclusively from the conduct and writings of very many Christian doctors and divines, we should be apt to conclude that it consisted of some antiquated collection of ambiguous, metaphorical, mysterious, oracular, enigmatical phrases and sentences-similar to the far famed Sibylline verses—which had been purposely contrived or accidentally arranged, to bewilder and perplex the human intellect, and to defy all rational interpretation. And yet, we feel assured, that the gospel is light; and that, like its glorious Author, in it there is no darkness at all. It unfolds to us a system of morals and a plan of salvation, which, however depraved ingenuity may misrepresent or reckless impiety assail and asperse it, cannot fail to command the reverence, and to meet the wants and fears and hopes of the humble, the ingenuous and the devout.
It becomes then a matter of some curiosity at least, to inquire whence such various and conflicting opinions have arisen with respect to its doctrines and provisions; and why these still continue to be held by honest and dishonest, learned and unlearned Christians, in every land where the light and privileges of the gospel are most abundantly diffused and enjoyed? Whence is it that the mild, benevolent, peace-speaking religion of Jesus has been, and still is, disgraced by the wranglings and disputes of those who are solemnly commanded by their common Lord to dwell together in unity and love, as the brethren of one family, and the servants of one Master? Neither the nature of this religion, nor the volume which records it, furnishes any solution of the difficulty. No reason can there be discovered for such uncharitable dissensions.
The truth is, that all these differences, and all the controversies which have agitated the Christian church, are chargeable, in some sense, to prejudice-to the study and influence of theological systems, composed by schoolmen or philosophers, or spiritual dogmatists, or zealous enthusiasts, or aspir. ing ecclesiastical demagogues, and addressed to the credulity of their disciples, either as a substitute for the Bible or as a complete exposition of its doctrines. Thus we have embodied, in the elaborate tomes of divinity designed for the training of the youthful minister, and in the numberless religious books, tracts and catechisms prepared expressly for the laity, all sorts of crude speculation, of ingenious sophistry, of mystic reveries, of monstrous hallucinations, of logical subtlelies and metaphysical refinements, which either human reason, or passion, or fancy, or ambition, or wisdom, or folly or cunning, or hypocrisy, may have been able to achieve or to inculcate.
This heterogeneous mixture of human absurdities with Divine revelation, has caused, and still nourishes, that captious persecuting spirit which has reigned for ages in the church. The gospel had scarcely appeared in the world, when it began to be adulterated by human contrivances. Among the Jews, it received much of its coloring from the Mosaic law and those traditionary institutions to which they were obstinately attached. Nor even among these did Christianity exhibit one uniform hue, but was diversely shaded according to the peculiarities of the several sects which embraced it :as Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Herodians.
The Greeks and Romans, also, very soon endeavored to incorporate their favorite philosophy with the body of the gospel. The disciples ot Pythagoras, of Zeno, of Epicurus, of Plato, of Aristotle, did not fail to discover some kind of resemblance between many of their maxims and those of the Messiah. And even where there evidently was none at all, pride and prejudice prompted them to fancy or create one. They had been long accustomed to yield implicit credence to the word of their masters; whose dogmas they frequently revered as eternal and immutable truths. They sought therefore to bend the gospel to suit their own preconceived opinions, instead of examining these before the light of revelation. The same observation may apply to the admirers of the Oriental philosophy, which gave rise to the Gnostic and Manichean heresies. And in every country where the gospel was preached, there flourished a system of opinions deeply rooted in the minds of all classes of men. These, the gospel had to encounter: and it succeeded beyond all human probability-in a degree, indeed, which no human means could have effected. The banners of the cross were unfurled in every region perhaps of the habitable earth : and multitudes submitted unreservedly to its heavenly precepts. But many, however, and those generally of the most learned and ingenious, yielded only in part. They chose to form to themselves a mixed systein-a compound of truth and error. So that, in a little space, the world presented as great a variety of Scripture glosses, or rather mongrel gospels, as there were schools of philosophy.
Some were led by comparisons instituted between Christ and the ancient sages, to treat them all with the same veneration and respect, Thus Alexander Severus paid divine honors indiscriminately to Christ and to Orpheus, lo Apollonius, and the other philosophers and heroes whose names were famous in history or in fable.
Christianity therefore was constantly fluctuating and changing its aspect, according to the caprice, or genius, or learning of the great fathers and doctors who professed to teach it ex cathedra and agreeably to the most approved systems and authorities. They seem never to have thought of regulating their studies and researches by Scripture alone. To study theology, was to study a system constructed by some celebrated bishop or divine, who had devoted his days and nights to the dialectics of Aristotle or to the more captivating morality of Plato ; and who, of course, had warped and perverted every gospel tenet to some kind of conformity to his own peculiar and more rational theory. Thus we may perceive that the gospel was not the cause of the early divisions in the church; but that these resulted solely from human devices and prejudices and anti-scriptural systems.
And when we conteniplate the rapid progress of error in the world - the innumerable forms which the gospel was made to assume—the bitter animosities and furious contests which arose about the most insignificant quibbles and conceits—the colleges of divinity converted into nurseries of mere logomachy,—where, instead of the gospel, youth were carefully disciplined to manage with adroitness the noisy
artillery of the most contemptible logic and metaphysics that ever disgraced the seats of science and religion-we may then have some faint conception of the extravagant absurdities to which a blind devotion to human systems evidently conducted nearly the whole Christian world antecedently to the Reformation.
The seminaries of learning in the middle ages, were constantly thronged with champions who eagerly sought distinction by entering the lists of public disputation; who were fired with ambitious zeal to vanquish an opponent in some notable controversy, which was oftentimes unimportant in its very nature—ambiguous in its terms—a mere play upon words—or, at best, a matter of perfect indifference whether decided in one way or another, or in no way at all. It is almost incredible that these scholastic sophists could have excited so much interest as is everywhere assigned to them in history. That men of the first rate talents and acquirements should sacrifice their time, health and comfort for the despicable pleasure of clearing up difficulties which never existed but in their own brain—of reconciling contradictions by renouncing common sense-establishing axioms by rigorous demonstration, and thereby obscuring the simplest truths, and which every tyro comprehends and believes the moment he hears them announced-is, indeed, a severe and most humiliating satire upon poor arrogant human nature. Scripture, reason, conscience, were all rejected.' And the venerable, sagacious, infallible successors of St. Peter wisely ventured to rear their proud temple of superstition, power and grandeur, upon a much more convenient and stable basis.
Whenever a sanctimonious aspiring dignitary wished to introduce any innovations in faith or ritual-to strengthen his authority or augment his revenue-nothing more was necessary than to summon to his aid the subtle schoolmen and dependent clergy, who were so thoroughly practised in the maneuvres and evolutions of monkish tactics and ghostly warfare, as easily to convince or silence all gainsayers, and to induce the besotted multitude to swallow the most palpable contradictions, and to sanction the most flagrant immoralities. The people were powerfully prepossessed in favor of the Pope and of the holy mother church. So that any lesson or mandate from such a source was generally received without the least question or scruple. Thus the gigantic great
ness of this tremendous anti-christian hierarchy grew out of the early and gradual and steadily increasing admixture of human philosophy and inventions with Divine truth, and from the final triumph of the former over the latter. Such an example, and such a result, may well incline us to distrust all systems which would either supersede the diligent study of Scripture, or which would preclude or control the free exercise of our reason in its interpretation.
Have we then amongst us none of that crafty, arrogant, secular, arbitrary, inquisitorial, furious, vindictive, systembuilding, church-glorifying spirit which characterized the darker ages of Romish fanaticism and usurpation? That there are numerous sects—all recognizing the same gospeleach believing the others wrong-each pertinaciously adhering to its own peculiarities—each regarding the rest with a suspicious and evil eye-and all striving for the mastery in some fashion or other—will hardly be denied. Nay, we know that the most illiberal and exasperating contests frequently arise among members of the same Christian denomination. And to what cause shall we, at the present day, impute the existence of misunderstandings and dissensions, which, viewed through the glass of history, appear so strange, so puerile, so utterly inconsistent with every Christian grace, and with every principle of enlightened policy or of ordinary decorum ; especially now, that the light of the Reformation, the invention of printing, the vast increase of knowledge, have dissipated so many errors, and paved the way for the detection of them all ? We are constrained to attribute these, as similar effects, to the same cause. Instead of going directly to Scripture, which alone ought to be our guide, we (i. e. the simple, honest, credulous mass of both ministers and people,) imbibe our theological prejudices and tenets from human systems and expositions ;, or from the dicta of some living village or sectarian or metropolitan de facto pope. That is, we adopt our religion before we think of examining the only authentic record of its origin and character in existence.
There is something so preposterous in this mode of procedure that we cannot divine a semblance of excuse for pursuing it. Unless, indeed, we admit, what some assert, that there is danger of being led astray by too early an acquaintance with Scripture-that we ought previously to be