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“ therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be re“ quired of any man, that it should be believed as an « article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to 66 salvation b.”
Whatever Scripture contains, either in express words rightly understood, or by consequence justly deduced, is Scripture doctrine, and ought to be religiously believed and obeyed; allowing only for the different degrees of importance belonging to different Scripture truths, or Scripture precepts.
II. For the right understanding of Scripture, it is of great moment to know what the most eminent writers, or teachers, ancient and modern, have thought before us on the same subject; and more especially to observe what they unanimously agreed in. For, as they had the same Scriptures before them, and the same common reason to direct them, and used as much care and diligence, and were blessed with as great integrity as any of us now can justly pretend to, their judgment is not to be slighted, nor their instructions to be despised. The responsa prudentum, the reports, precedents, and adjudged cases are allowed to be of considerable weight for determining points of law: and why should they not be of like weight, ordinarily, for the determining points of theology? Human law there, and Divine law here, is properly the authentic rule of action : but the common reason of mankind is properly the rule of interpretation in both cases : and that common reason shines out the brightest, and appears in greatest perfection, in the united verdict of the wisest and most excellent men. It is much easier for one, or for some few fallible interpreters to be deceived, than for many, other circumstances supposed equal. Nothing less than very clear Scripture, or as clear reason, ought to weigh any thing against the concurring sentiments of the Christian world: and even in such a case, some fair account ought to be given, how it came to pass, that such
Bp. Burnet ou Article VI.
clear Scripture or clear "reason had hitherto escaped the notice, or missed of the acceptance of the wisest and best
A very judicious writer of our own has observed, that
variety of judgments and opinions argueth obscurity in " those things whereabout they differ; but that which “ all parts receive for truth, that which, every one having
sifted, is by no one denied or doubted of, must needs “ be matter of infallible certainty c.” This he applies to the general doctrine of the Holy Communion, as being " instrumentally a cause of the real participation of Christ, “and of life in his body and blood d.” And it is of this that he says, " that all sides at length, for ought he could “ see, were come to a general agreement : all approve " and acknowledge to be most true, as having nothing in “ it but that which the words of Christ are on all sides " confessed to enforce; nothing but that which the Church “ of God hath always thought necessary; nothing but " that which alone is sufficient for every Christian man “to believe concerning the use and force of this Sacra“ment: finally, nothing but that wherewith the writings “ of all antiquity are consonant, and all Christian confes“sions agreeable e.” Thus wrote that excellent person in the year 1597. The Zuinglians by that time had corrected, or more clearly explained their principles : and Socinus was scarce yet known on this side the water, or had made no figure with respect to this subject, or none worth the mentioning, in opposition to a prescription of 1500 years before him, and to the united voice of all the churches in his time. It is a maxim of prudence, as in all other matters, so also in the interpreting Scripture, to consult with the wise, and to take to our assistance the most eminent lights we can any where find, either among ancients or moderns. To be a little more particular, I may here observe something distinctly of each.
• Hooker, b. v. p. 310.
d Compare p. 306.
1. As to ancients, some lived in the very infancy of the Church, had personally known our blessed Lord in the flesh, or conversed with the Apostles, and afterwards governed their respective churches, as venerable bishops, many years, often administering the Holy Communion, and at length dying martyrs.. Is it at all likely, that such men as they were should not understand the true Scripture doctrine concerning the Sacraments, or that they should affect to delude the people committed to their charge, with superstitious conceits, or fond expectations ? A man must be of a very odd turn of mind, who can deliberately entertain so unworthy a thought of the apostolical Fathers, or can presume to imagine that he sees deeper into the use or force of those sacred institutions than those holy men did. It is reasonable to conceive, that the New Testament was penned with a very particular view to the capacities of the first readers or hearers ; not only because it was natural to adapt the style to the then current language and customs, but also because much depended upon making the Gospel plain and intelligible to the first converts, above all that should come after. If the earliest Christians, after the Apostles, could not readily understand the religion then taught, how should it be handed down with advantage to others of later times? But if the Scripture doctrine should be supposed comparatively obscure to those that come after, yet so long as the earlier Christians found it perfectly clear, and left behind them useful memoirs whereby we may learn how they understood it, there will be sufficient security against any dangerous mistakes in succeeding ages, by looking back to the sense of the most early interpreters. Great regard therefore ought to be paid to the known sense and judgment of the apostolical Fathers f. The later Fathers, of the second, third, and fourth centuries, have their weight also, in proportion to their known
f Of this see more in Abp. Wake's Apostolical Fathers, Introd. chap. x.
integrity, and abilities, and fame in all the churches; and more especially in proportion to their early standing, their nearness to the fountain head 8.
2. As to moderns of best note, they agree with the ancients in the main things, and may be usefully consulted on the present subject. Some of them have been eminently skilled in Jewish antiquities, and others in ecclesiastical. Some have excelled in criticism and the learned languages : others in clearness of conception, and accuracy of judgment: all are useful in their several ways, and may suggest many things which upon due inquiry will be found to be right, and which no single writer, left to himself, and without consulting them, would ever have thought on. A man that affects to think by himself will often fancy he sees that in Scripture which is not there, and will overlook what there really is: he will run wide in his conjectures, criticize in a wrong place, and fall short in most things, for want of compass, and larger views, or for want of a due consideration of consequences here or there. Truth is of wide extent, and is all over uniform and consistent: and it may require many eyes to look out, and search round, that every position advanced may agree with all truths, natural and revealed, and that no heterogeneous mixture be admitted to deform and deface the whole system. How often does it happen, that a man pleases himself with a thought, which strikes him at first view, and which perhaps he looks upon as demonstration: and yet farther inquiries into other men's labours may at length convince him that it is mere delusion, justly exploded by the more knowing and judicious. There are numberless instances of that kind to be met with among men of letters : which should make every writer cautious how he presumes too far upon his own unassisted abilities, and how he opposes his single judgment to the united verdict of wise, great, and good men. It requires com
% This argument is considered at large in my Importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity asserted, vol. v. ch. vii. p. 253——333.
monly much pains and care to trace a notion quite through ; to run it up to its first principles, and again to traverse it to its remotest consequences, and to clear it of all just objections, in order to be at length rationally satisfied, that it is sound and good, and consistent throughout. Different churches, or parties, have their different interpretations of the same texts, and their different superstructures built upon the same principles. They have respectively their several pleas, pretences, arguments, solutions, for the maintaining a debate either in the offensive or defensive way.
A subject thus comes to be narrowly scanned, and minutely viewed on every side ; and so at length a consistent chain of truth may be wrought out, by a careful hand, from what the finest wits or ablest heads among the several contending parties have happily supplied.
But perhaps it may here be asked ; Is then every man obliged to look deep into religious controversies ? Are not the Scriptures alone sufficient for any plain and sincere Christian to conduct himself by, whether as to faith or manners? I answer : I. Common Christians must be content to understand Scripture as they may, under the help of such guides as Providence has placed over them, and in the conscientious use of such means as are proper to their circumstances : which is all that ordinarily can be required of them. 2. Those who undertake to direct and guide them are more particularly obliged to search into religious controversies, and to “prove all things” (as far as lies in their power) in order to lead others in the right way. 3. Those guides ought, in their inquiries or instructions, to pay a proper regard and deference to other guides of eminent note, ancient and modern, and not lightly to contradict them, or vary from them; remembering always, that themselves are fallille, and that new notions (in religion especially) are not comparable, generally speaking, to the old, proved, and tried. 4. If any man interpreting Scripture in a new sense, pretends that bis doctrine at least is old, being Scripture doctrine ; he