« PreviousContinue »
ON CHARITY IN WHICH IS CONSIDERED THE CHARGE OF BIG
THE main reason why we are accused of spiritual pride, bigotry, uncharitableness, and the like, is, the importance which we ascribe to some of our sentiments. Viewing them as essential to Christianity, we cannot, properly speaking, acknowledge, as Christians, those who reject them. It is this which provokes the resentment of our opponents, and induces them to load us with opprobrious epithets. We have already touched upon this topic, in the Letter on Candour, but will now consider it more particularly.
It is allowed, that we ought not to judge of whole bodies of men, by the denomination under which they pass; because names do not always describe the real principles they embrace. It is possible, that a person who attends upon a very unsound ministry, may not understand or adopt so much of the system which he hears inculcated, as that his disposition shall be formed, or his conduct regulated, by it. I have heard, from persons who have been much conversant with Socinians, that, though, in general, they are of a loose, dissipated turn of mind, assembling in the gay circles of pleasure, and following the customs and manners of the world; yet that there are some among them who are more serious; and that these, if not in their conversation, yet, in their solemn addresses to the Almighty, incline to the doctrines of Calvinism. This perfectly accords with Mrs. Barbauld's representation of the matter, as noticed towards the close of the Sixth Letter. These people are not, properly speaking, Socinians; and, therefore, ought to be left quite out of the question. For the question is, Whether, as VOL. II.
believing in the deity and atonement of Christ, with other correspondent doctrines, we be required, by the charity inculcated in the gospel, to acknowledge, as fellow-christians, those who thoroughly and avowedly reject them?
It is no part of the business of this Letter, to prove that these doctrines are true; this, at present, I have a right to take for granted. The fair state of the objection, if delivered by a Socinian, would be to this effect: Though your sentiments should be right, yet, by refusing to acknowledge, as fellow-christians, others who differ from you, you over-rate their importance, and so violate the charity recommended by the gospel.' To the objection, as thus stated, I shall endeavour to reply.
Charity, it is allowed, will induce us to put the most favourable construction upon things, and to entertain the most favourable opinion of persons, that truth will admit. It is far from the spirit of Christianity, to indulge a censorious temper, or to take pleasure in drawing unfavourable conclusions against any person whatever; but the tenderest disposition towards mankind cannot convert truth into falsehood, or falsehood into truth. Unless, therefore, we reject the bible, and the belief of any thing as necessary to salvation; though we should stretch our good opinion of men to the greatest lengths, yet we must stop elsewhere. Charity itself does not so believe all things, as to disregard truth and evidence. We are sometimes reminded of our Lord's command, Judge not, lest ye be judged. This language is, doubtless, designed to reprove a censorious disposition, which leads people to pass unjust judgment, or, to discern a mote in a brother's eye, while they are blind to a beam in their own: but it cannot be intended to forbid all judgment whatever, even upon characters; for this would be contrary to what our Lord teaches in the same discourse, warning his disciples to beware of false prophets, who would come to them in sheep's clothing: adding, Ye shall know them by their fruits.* Few pretend, that we ought to think favourably of profligate characters; or, that it is any breach of charity to think unfavourably concerning them. But, if the words of our Lord be understood as forbid
* Matt. vii. 1-3. 15, 16.
ding all judgment whatever upon characters, it must be wrong to pass any judgment upon them. Nay, it must be wrong for a minister to declare to a drunkard, a thief, or an adulterer, that, if he die in his present condition, he must perish; because this is judging the party not to be in a state of salvation.
All the use that is commonly made of our Lord's words, is in favour of sentiments, not of actions: but the scriptures make no such distinction. Men are there represented as being under the wrath of God, who have not believed on the name of the onlybegotten Son of God; nor is there any thing intimated in our Lord's expressions, as if the judgment which he forbade his disciples to pass, were to be confined to matters of sentiment. The judgment which is there reproved, is partial or wrong judgment, whether it be on account of sentiment, or of practice. Even those who plead against judging persons on account of sentiment, (many of them at least,) allow themselves to think unfavourably of avowed Infidels, who have heard the gospel, but continue to reject it. They themselves, therefore, do judge unfavourably of men on account of their sentiments; and must do so, unless they will reject the bible, which declares unbelievers to be under condem
Dr. Priestley, however, seems to extend his favourable opinion to idolaters and Infidels, without distinction. "All differences in modes of worship," he says, "may be only the different methods by which different men (who are equally the offspring of God) are endeavouring to honour and obey their common parent."* He also inveighs against a supposition, that the mere holding of any opinions (so, it seems, the great articles of our faith must be called) should exclude men from the favour of God. It is true, what he says is guarded so much, as to give the argument he engages to support a very plausible appearance; but withal so ill directed, as not in the least to affect that of his opponents. His words are these : "Let those who maintain that the mere holding of any opinions, (without regard to the motives and state of mind through which men may have been led to form them,) will necessarily
* Considerations on Difference of Opinion, II.
exclude them from the favour of God, be particularly careful with respect to the premises from which they draw so alarming a conclusion." The counsel contained in these words is, undoubtedly, very good. Those premises ought to be well founded, from whence such a conclusion is drawn. I do not, indeed, suppose, that any ground for such a conclusion exists; and who they are that draw it I cannot tell. The mere holding of an opinion, considered abstractly from the motive, or state of mind of him that holds it, must be simply an exercise of intellect; and, I am inclined to think, has in it neither good nor evil. But the question is, Whether there be not truths, which, from the nature of them, cannot be rejected, without an evil bias of heart? And, therefore, where we see those truths rejected, Whether we have not authority to conclude, that such rejection must have arisen from an evil bias?
If a man say, There is no God, the scripture teaches us to con sider it, rather as the language of his heart than simply of his judgment, and makes no scruple of calling him a fool; which, according to the scriptural idea of the term, is equal to calling him a wicked man. And let it be seriously considered, upon what other principle our Lord could send forth his disciples to preach the gospel to every creature, and add, as he did, He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved; and he that believeth not, shall be damned. Is it not here plainly supposed, that the gospel was accompa nied with such evidence, that no intelligent creature could reject it, but from an evil bias of heart, such as would justly expose him to damnation? If it had been possible for an intelligent creature, after hearing the gospel to think Jesus an impostor, and his doctrine a lie, without any evil motive, or corrupt state of mind; I desire to know how the Lord of glory is to be acquitted of something worse than bigotry in making such a declaration.
Because the mere holding of an opinion, irrespective of the motive or state of mind in him that holds it, is neither good nor evil, it does not follow, that "all differences in modes of worship may be only the different methods by which different men are endeavouring to honour and obey their common parent." The latter includes more than the former. The performance of worship con