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THE great advancement which our times have witnessed in the physical sciences, and in their application to human comfort and convenience, has excited a natural and reasonable expectation of corresponding progress in mental and moral science, and especially in theology. As every monarch is aggrandized by the growing fame and power of his ministers and commanders, so that which is the "queen of all sciences" ought to be more and more exalted, in proportion to the increasing honors of the fair and noble maidens who wait upon her will. For though mighty princes sometimes become too potent for their lords, and throw off their just allegiance, yet this cannot be expected of any true science, whose highest dignity consists in keeping its own place, and exalting that crowned mistress who rules the rebellious with a rod of iron, and guides the loyal with a golden wand.
Theology may be improved by more clear and unexceptionable statements of its great principles or doctrines. Many of the disputes which have arisen in respect to them are owing to obscure expressions; or to expressions which are capable of being misconstrued, and which, when once the misconstruction is fastened upon them, can be straightened out again by no explanation or correction. Experience, ascertaining where lies the danger of exciting prejudice and misconception, may yet lead us so to frame our forms of doctrine, that they shall take in all that is meant and no more; and like the printer's types, which uniformly make the same impression, shall convey into the mind of another the pre
cise sentiment which we would deliver from our own. The language may be so drawn up as to forestall every conceivable objection, and cut off in advance every prejudicial inference. This would be the perfection of doctrinal theology; and every approach to it will be so much positive progress.
There is much to be gained also, in the proof and illustration of the principles of Christianity. Many proofs have been relied on, at different times, and by different men, which, on examination, have turned out to be defective and delusive. Every such failure has tended to destroy confidence in the whole body of proof, and to predispose the mind to reject it all. The sifting of evidence may be expected to separate the chaff from the wheat, and to leave a sufficient amount of plain and irrefragable proof for the entire satisfaction of the mind. In addition to this, we may look for an accumulation of fresh proofs, such as had not been previously arrayed, and such as shall afford the twofold gratification of being both new and true. And still farther, we may anticipate from the results of modern science and research, much to confirm and illustrate to our hearts the divine dictates of revelation. The comparison of numerous ancient and modern tongues will improve the philosophy of speech, and make the real force and intent of language more intelligible. The recovery of long lost records, the decyphering of ancient monuments, and the researches of geographers and travellers, are all contributing to the settlement of doubts and the removal of obscurities.
It may well be hoped, too, that sound theology will derive great advantage from the means of its more rapid spread among mankind, and its more close, and kindly, and effectual application to the reformation of the world.
In these respects, and possibly in some others, there is room and occasion for immense improvement, and for most glorious and blessed progress which shall be felt in every department of human affairs. But this is only in regard to manner, and form, and circumstance, and means. Christian theology itself must remain unchanged. In the idea of it, as delivered in the Bible, it is absolutely and unalterably perfect. It could not be changed but for the worse. Every addition must be a deformity; every diminution, a maim; every substitute, a corruption.
There is a foolish notion stealing abroad, and creeping into small and unoccupied heads, that Christianity is about to present
itself in an aspect entirely new, so "broad" as to have no outside, so "comprehensive" as to include every thing but sound and scriptural orthodoxy, so "liberal" as to give away all of the gospel which is worth keeping, so "spiritual" as to contain nothing more substantial than metaphysical fog and "the stuff that dreams are made of," so "transcendental" as to get far beyond the vulgar bounds of common sense and dull reality, and so "progressive" that it will go to Beelzebub without troubling him to come after it. It is thought, by many, that some new exposition of our religion is to be made, which is to serve as a solvent for all sorts of opinions, to regenerate society as by some magic spell, and to usher in the light of the millenium as it were by the combustion in the old candlestick of some newly invented gas. In some way or other, instruction is to be drawn from the teachings of Christ, which they have never imparted before. It is an insult to the Bible to cherish such an expectation, for it implies that the multitudes to whom it was given as a guide, have been laboriously and prayerfully studying for two thousand years, without discov ering its most important meaning. In bringing about this impossible expectation, much account is to be made of the philosophy of religion, whereby men will be able so to philosophize the Assembly's Catechism, that they can at the same time subscribe it and ridicule it, with perfect consistency! It is from this propensity to tamper with and tinker the philosophy of religion, or to fit it up and rig it in some new philosophy, that all the depravings and corruptions of the gospel from the days of the apostles have originated. The "dark ages" were caused by the thick clouds of speculation and mortal invention which shrouded Christendom in gloom, and hid her radiant Sun.
It is also necessary, in order to clear the way for this new style and fashion of Christianity, to explode every "form of sound words," and to cry up a crazy crusade against creeds and dogmas. A great clamor must be raised about "creed-bondage." And the panic-stricken fugitives, fleeing from this bugbear, are ready to rush into a triple bondage of doubt, delusion and distress. To have clear views, and settled convictions, and fixed principles, involves no sacrifice of independence. He who is overcome by the force of truth, is not brought into bondage thereto; but has, for his own share, all the fruits of this victory over himself. As was said by that valiant Puritan, Thomas Hooker of Hartford:
"It is the honor of a man truly wise, to be conquered by the truth; and he hath attained the greatest liberty, that suffers himself to be led captive thereby." But our modern seekers after progress account it to be a species of slavery, if a man have attained to decision of character, and to indulgence in the luxury of moral certainty on any point whatever.
Hence they find it necessary for their purposes, to make a mock of consistency. This trait of character, which used to be proverbially" a jewel," has no beauty in their eyes. They regard it as a gilded chain, fettering the free motions of the mind, and vexatiously restraining the "largest liberty" of thought. They are for obeying the impulse of the hour, and the inspiration of the moment; and look upon it as a piece of impertinence if you expect to find them of some certain way of thinking to-day, because they professed it eloquently, poetically, and with a fine scorn of all opposers, yesterday or the day before.
But the worst of it is, that this passion for theological progress cannot be vented without perilously tampering with the Bible. It is in vain to think of educing any new Christianity out of the whole Bible, as it is. The plenary inspiration of the Holy Scriptures must be denied at the outset; for it were an intolerable grievance to the freeborn "oversoul," to be obliged to bow implicitly to the dictates even of infinite wisdom and eternal truth. There is no such thing as coming at a broad, comprehensive, and fashionable Christianity, such as is now in demand, if we must listen to the canonical books as the utterances of the infallible Arbiter of all truth, righteousness, and goodness. Accordingly it is proposed, that we regard the Bible as inspired only in part, and that it be left to our ingenuity to discriminate, as well as we can, between "the divine and the human in the sacred records." Take away from revealed religion as much as need be of its supernatural and authoritative character, and then you may invent as many patent Christianities as you please.
It is not considered at what a ruinous price we must purchase this rare privilege of going to destruction, each in our own way. All the external evidences of Christianity must be cast aside; for if these do not prove the inspiration of the whole Bible, they prove nothing. These evidences go to substantiate the claims of the entire book to an inspired origin; and hence our men of the "movement party" undervalue them, and treat them as of no
account. The fulfilled prophecies they regard either as random hits, or the forecastings of political sagacity. The miracles they either utterly deny, or ascribe them to the use of natural means. As to this, we shall be more ready to believe them, when we see them able to repeat any one of the "mighty works" of our Saviour. Let them walk upon the sea, heal the leprous, give sight to the blind, or raise the dead. There is no lack of opportunity. And if any one of them will do any one of these things after our Saviour's manner of doing them, we will consent that the successful operator shall prepare an improved edition of the Bible, with the text corrected according to his judgment, the divine part stamped in golden capitals, and the human part imprinted in the humblest minion and brevier, or better still, wholly omitted. But till some messenger comes from God, commissioned as evidently, by signs and seals from heaven, as were the prophets and apostles who spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost, we must adjure the new-theology-men to keep their profane hands from that Scripture which is "all given by inspiration of God." Till the same authority which enacted the Bible shall repeal it in whole or in part, we must submit to it in its full force and power.
Moreover the new plan of discriminating between what is to be taken as divine, and what is to be treated as human in the Bible, must cause cruel perplexity in the attempt to settle, from that volume, disputed questions in theology. A man who, after careful investigation, adopts the plenary inspiration of the Bible, has a sure and definite standard. He has only to ascertain the meaning of the text, and his faith is fixed at once. He has no occasion for further questioning, no room for distressing doubts and apprehensions; for he has enjoyed the benefit of the divine "witness" of the Spirit of God. He rests on this in grateful confidence and sweet repose. But he who pretends to discrimi nate between the divine and the human in the Bible, has the whole difficult preliminary question of authority to settle, over and over again, as often as he has occasion to use a proof-text. He must ascertain for himself, in regard to each separate passage, whether it is inspired fully, or partially, or not at all. And the man who has brains enough for this, may be excused for thinking that he can learn Christianity better without the New Testament than with it; or that he can fashion a better Christianity than that which our Saviour taught, and his disciples recorded.