In my last two Letters I have given the state of the argument as it would stand between a Christian, thinking as I do, and a serious well-disposed Deist. I will now endeavour to state the argument, as between the former and the advocates for the popular belief, -- such of them, I mean, as are competent to deliver a dispassionate judgment in the cause. And again, more particularly, I mean the learned and reflecting part of them, who are influenced to the retention of the prevailing dogma by the supposed consequences of a different view, and, especially, by their dread of conceding to all alike, simple and learned, the privilege of picking and choosing the Scriptures that are to be received as binding on their consciences. Between these persons and myself the controversy may be reduced to a single question:-
Is it safer for the individual, and more conducive to the interests of the Church of Christ, in its twofold character of pastoral and militant, to conclude thus:- The Bible is the Word of God, and therefore, true, holy, and in all parts unquestionable? Or thus:- The Bible, considered in reference to its declared ends and purposes, is true and holy, and for all who seek truth with humble spirits an unquestionable guide, and therefore it is the Word of God?
In every generation, and wherever the light of Revelation has shone, men of all ranks, conditions, and states of mind have found in this volume a correspondent for every movement toward the better, felt in their own hearts, the needy soul has found supply, the feeble a help, the sorrowful a comfort; yea, be the recipiency the least that can consist with moral life, there is an answering grace ready to enter. The Bible has been found a Spiritual World, spiritual and yet at the same time outward and common to all. You in one place, I in another, all men somewhere or at some time, meet with an assurance that the hopes and fears, the thoughts and yearnings that proceed from, or tend to, a right spirit in us, are not dreams or fleeting singularities, no voices heard in sleep, or spectres which the eye suffers but not perceives. As if on some dark night a pilgrim, suddenly beholding a bright star moving before him, should stop in fear and perplexity. But lo! traveller after traveller passes by him, and each, being questioned whither he is going, makes answer, "I am following yon guiding star!" The pilgrim quickens his own steps, and presses onward in confidence. More confident still will he be, if, by the wayside, he should find, here and there, ancient monuments, each with its votive lamp, and on each the name of some former pilgrim, and a record that there he had first seen or begun to follow the benignant Star!
No otherwise is it with the varied contents of the Sacred Volume. The hungry have found food, the thirsty a living spring, the feeble a staff, and the victorious warfarer songs of welcome and strains of music; and as long as each man asks on account of his wants, and asks what he wants, no man will discover aught amiss or deficient in the vast and many-chambered storehouse. But if, instead of this, an idler or scoffer should wander through the rooms, peering and peeping, and either detects, or fancies he has detected, here a rusted sword or pointless shaft, there a tool of rude construction, and superseded by later improvements (and preserved, perhaps, to make us more grateful for them); -- which of two things will a sober-minded man, -- who, from his childhood upward had been fed, clothed, armed, and furnished with the means of instruction from this very magazine,- -think the fitter plan? Will he insist that the rust is not rust, or that it is a rust sui generis, intentionally formed on the steel for some mysterious virtue in it, and that the staff and astrolabe of a shepherd-astronomer are identical with, or equivalent to, the quadrant and telescope of Newton or Herschel? Or will he not rather give the curious inquisitor joy of his mighty discoveries, and the credit of them for his reward?
Or lastly, put the matter thus: For more than a thousand years the Bible, collectively taken, has gone hand in hand with civilisation, science, law -- in short, with the moral and intellectual cultivation of the species, always supporting, and often leading, the way. Its very presence, as a believed Book, has rendered the nations emphatically a chosen race, and this too in exact proportion as it is more or less generally known and studied. Of those nations which in the highest degree enjoy its influences it is not too much to affirm, that the differences, public and private, physical, moral and intellectual, are only less than what might be expected from a diversity in species. Good and holy men, and the best and wisest of mankind, the kingly spirits of history, enthroned in the hearts of mighty nations, have borne witness to its influences, have declared it to be beyond compare the most perfect instrument, the only adequate organ, of Humanity; the organ and instrument of all the gifts, powers, and tendencies, by which the individual is privileged to rise above himself -- to leave behind, and lose his individual phantom self, in order to find his true self in that Distinctness where no division can be -- in the Eternal I AM, the Ever-living WORD, of whom all the elect from the archangel before time throne to the poor wrestler with the Spirit UNTIL THE BREAKING OF DAY are but the fainter and still fainter echoes. And are all these testimonies and lights of experience to lose their value and efficiency because I feel no warrant of history, or Holy Writ, or of my own heart for denying, that in the framework and outward case of this instrument a few parts may be discovered of less costly materials and of meaner workmanship? Is it not a fact that the Books of the New Testament were tried by their consonance with the rule, and according to the analogy, of faith? Does not the universally admitted canon -- that each part of Scripture must be interpreted by the spirit of the whole -- lead to the same practical conclusion as that for which I am now contending -- namely, that it is the spirit of the Bible, and not the detached words and sentences, that is infallible and absolute? Practical, I say, and spiritual too; and what knowledge not practical or spiritual are we entitled to seek in our Bibles? Is the grace of God so confined -- are the evidences of the present and actuating Spirit so dim and doubtful -- that to be assured of the same we must first take for granted that all the life and co-agency of our humanity is miraculously suspended?
Whatever is spiritual, is eo nomine supernatural; but must it be always and of necessity miraculous? Miracles could open the eyes of the body; and he that was born blind beheld his Redeemer. But miracles, even those of the Redeemer himself, could not open the eyes of the self-blinded, of the Sadducean sensualist, or the self- righteous Pharisee -- while to have said, I SAW THEE UNDER THE FIG- TREE, sufficed to make a Nathanael believe.
To assert and to demand miracles without necessity was the vice of the unbelieving Jews of old; and from the Rabbis and Talmudists the infection has spread. And would I could say that the symptoms of the disease are confined to the Churches of the Apostasy! But all the miracles, which the legends of Monk or Rabbi contain, can scarcely be put in competition, on the score of complication, inexplicableness, the absence of all intelligible use or purpose, and of circuitous self-frustration, with those that must be assumed by the maintainers of this doctrine, in order to give effect to the series of miracles, by which all the nominal composers of the Hebrew nation before the time of Ezra, of whom there are any remains, were successively transformed into AUTOMATON compositors -- so that the original text should be in sentiment, image, word, syntax, and composition an exact impression of the divine copy! In common consistency the theologians, who impose this belief on their fellow Christians, ought to insist equally on the superhuman origin and authority of the Masora, and to use more respectful terms, than has been their wont of late, in speaking of the false Aristeas's legend concerning the Septuagint. And why the miracle should stop at the Greek Version, and not include the Vulgate, I can discover no ground in reason. Or if it be an objection to the latter, that this belief is actually enjoined by the Papal Church, yet the number of Christians who road the Lutheran, the Genevan, or our own authorised, Bible, and are ignorant of the dead languages, greatly exceeds the number of those who have access to the Septuagint. Why refuse the writ of consecration to these, or to the one at least appointed by the assertors' own Church? I find much more consistency in the opposition made under pretext of this doctrine to the proposals and publications of Kennicot, Mill, Bentley, and Archbishop Newcome.
But I am weary of discussing a tenet which the generality of divines and the leaders of the religious public have ceased to defend, and yet continue to assert or imply. The tendency manifested in this conduct, the spirit of this and the preceding century, on which, not indeed the tenet itself, but the obstinate adherence to it against the clearest light of reason and experience, is grounded -- this it is which, according to my conviction, gives the venom to the error, and justifies the attempt to substitute a juster view. As long as it was the common and effective belief of all the Reformed Churches (and by none was it more sedulously or more emphatically enjoined than by the great Reformers of our Church), that by the good Spirit were the spirits tried, and that the light, which beams forth from the written Word, was its own evidence for the children of light; as long as Christians considered their Bible as a plenteous entertainment, where every guest, duly called and attired, found the food needful and fitting for him, and where each -- instead of troubling himself about the covers not within his reach -- beholding all around him glad and satisfied, praised the banquet and thankfully glorified the Master of the feast -- so long did the tenet -- that the Scriptures were written under the special impulse of the Holy Ghost remain safe and profitable. Nay, in the sense, and with the feelings, in which it was asserted, it was a truth -- a truth to which every spiritual believer now and in all times will bear witness by virtue of his own experience. And if in the overflow of love and gratitude they confounded the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, working alike in weakness and in strength, in the morning mists and in the clearness of the full day; if they confounded this communion and co- agency of divine grace, attributable to the Scripture generally, with those express, and expressly recorded, communications and messages of the Most High which form so large and prominent a portion of the same Scriptures; if, in short, they did not always duly distinguish the inspiration, the imbreathment, of the predisposing and assisting SPIRIT from the revelation of the informing WORD, it was at worst a harmless hyperbole. It was holden by all, that if the power of the Spirit from without furnished the text, the grace of the same Spirit from within must supply the comment.
In the sacred Volume they saw and reverenced the bounden wheat-sheaf that STOOD UPRIGHT and had OBEISANCE from all the other sheaves (the writings, I mean, of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church), sheaves depreciated indeed, more or less, with tares,
yet sheaves of the same harvest, the sheaves of brethren! Nor did it occur to them, that, in yielding the more full and absolute honour to the sheaf of the highly favoured of their Father, they should be supposed to attribute the same worth and quality to the straw-bands which held it together. The bread of life was there. And this in an especial sense was BREAD FROM HEAVEN; for no where had the same been found wild; no soil or climate dared claim it for its natural growth. In simplicity of heart they received the Bible as the precious gift of God, providential alike in origin, preservation, and distribution, without asking the nice question whether all and every part were likewise miraculous. The distinction between the providential and the miraculous, between the Divine Will working with the agency of natural causes, and the same Will supplying their place by a special fiat -- this distinction has, I doubt not, many uses in speculative divinity. But its weightiest practical application is shown, when it is employed to free the souls of the unwary and weak in faith from the nets and snares, the insidious queries and captious objections, of the Infidel by calming the flutter of their spirits. They must be quieted, before we can commence the means necessary for their disentanglement. And in no way can this be better effected than when the frightened captives are made to see in how many points the disentangling itself is a work of expedience rather than of necessity; so easily and at so little loss might the web be cut or brushed away.
First, let their attention be fixed on the history of Christianity as learnt from universal tradition, and the writers of each successive generation. Draw their minds to the fact of the progressive and still continuing fulfilment of the assurance of a few fishermen, that both their own religion, though of Divine origin, and the religion of their conquerors, which included or recognised all other religious of the known world, should be superseded by the faith in a man recently and ignominiously executed. Then induce them to meditate on the universals of Christian Faith -- on Christianity taken as the sum of belief common to Greek and Latin, to Romanist and Protestant. Show them that this and only this is the ordo traditionis, quam tradiderunt Apostoli iis quibus committebant ecclesias, and which we should have been bound to follow, says Irenaeus, si neque Apostoli quidem Scripturas reliquissent. This is that regula fidei, that sacramentum symboli memoriae mandatum, of which St. Augustine says:- noveritis hoc esse Fidei Catholicae fundamentum super quod edificium surrexit Ecclesiae. This is the norma Catholici et Ecclesiastici sensus, determined and explicated, but not augmented, by the Nicene Fathers, as Waterland has irrefragably shown; a norm or model of Faith grounded on the solemn affirmations of the Bishops collected from all parts of the Roman Empire, that this was the essential and unalterable Gospel received by them from their predecessors in all the churches as the [Greek text which cannot be reproduced] cui, says Irenaeus, assentiunt multae gentes eorum qui in Christum credunt sine charta et atramento, scriptam habentes per Spiritum in cordibus suis salutem, et veterum traditionem diligenter custodientes. Let the attention of such as have been shaken by the assaults of infidelity be thus directed, and then tell me wherein a spiritual physician would be blameworthy, if he carried on the cure by addressing his patient in this manner:-
"All men of learning, even learned unbelievers, admit that the greater part of the objections, urged in the popular works of infidelity, to this or that verse or chapter of the Bible, prove only the ignorance or dishonesty of the objectors. But let it be supposed for a moment that a few remain hitherto unanswered -- nay, that to your judgment and feelings they appear unanswerable. What follows? That the Apostles' and Nicene Creed is not credible, the Ten Commandments not to be obeyed, the clauses of the Lord's Prayer not to be desired, or the Sermon on the Mount not to be practised? See how the logic would look. David cruelly tortured the inhabitants of Rabbah (2 Sam. xii.31; 1 Chron. xx.3), and in several of the Psalms he invokes the bitterest curses on his enemies: therefore it is not to be believed that THE LOVE OF GOD TOWARD US WAS MANIFESTED IN SENDING HIS ONLY BEGOTTEN SON INTO THE WORLD, THAT WE MIGHT LIVE THROUGH HIM (1 John iv.9). Or, Abijah is said to have collected an army of 400,000 men, and Jeroboam to have met him with an army of 800,000 men, each army consisting of chosen men (2 Chron. xiii.3), and making together a host of 1,200,000, and Abijah to have slain 500,000 out of the 800,000: therefore, the words which admonish us that IF GOD SO LOVED US, WE OUGHT ALSO TO LOVE ONE ANOTHER (1 John iv.11), even our enemies, yea, TO BLESS THEM THAT CURSE us, and to DO GOOD TO THEM THAT HATE us (Matt. v.44), cannot proceed from the Holy Spirit. Or: The first six chapters of the book of Daniel contain several words and phrases irreconcilable with the commonly received dates, and those chapters and the Book of Esther have a traditional and legendary character unlike that of the other historical books of the Old Testament; therefore those other books, by contrast with which the former appear suspicious, and the historical document (1 Cor. xv.1-8), are not to be credited!"
We assuredly believe that the Bible contains all truths necessary to salvation, and that therein is preserved the undoubted Word of God. We assert likewise that, besides these express oracles and immediate revelations, there are Scriptures which to the soul and conscience of every Christian man bear irresistible evidence of the Divine Spirit assisting and actuating the authors; and that both these and the former are such as to render it morally impossible that any passage of the small inconsiderable portion, not included in one or other of these, can supply either ground or occasion of any error in faith, practice, or affection, except to those who wickedly and wilfully seek a pretext for their unbelief. And if in that small portion of the Bible which stands in no necessary connection with the known and especial ends and purposes of the Scriptures, there should be a few apparent errors resulting from the state of knowledge then existing -- errors which the best and holiest men might entertain uninjured, and which without a miracle those men must have entertained; if I find no such miraculous prevention asserted, and see no reason for supposing it -- may I not, to ease the scruples of a perplexed inquirer, venture to say to him; "Be it so. What then? The absolute infallibility even of the inspired writers in matters altogether incidental and foreign to the objects and purposes of their inspiration is no part of my creed: and even if a professed divine should follow the doctrine of the Jewish Church so far as not to attribute to the Hagiographa, in every word and sentence, the same height and fulness of inspiration as to the Law and the Prophets, I feel no warrant to brand him as a heretic for an opinion, the admission of which disarms the infidel without endangering a single article of the Catholic Faith." -- If to an unlearned but earnest and thoughtful neighbour I give the advice; -- "Use the Old Testament to express the affections excited, and to confirm the faith and morals taught you, in the New, and leave all the rest to the students and professors of theology and Church history! You profess only to be a Christian:" -- am I misleading my brother in Christ?
This I believe by my own dear experience -- that the more tranquilly an inquirer takes up the Bible as he would any other body of ancient writings, the livelier and steadier will be his impressions of its superiority to all other books, till at length all other books and all other knowledge will be valuable in his eyes in proportion as they help him to a better understanding of his Bible. Difficulty after difficulty has been overcome from the time that I began to study the Scriptures with free and unboding spirit, under the conviction that my faith in the Incarnate Word and His Gospel was secure, whatever the result might be; -- the difficulties that still remain being so few and insignificant in my own estimation, that I have less personal interest in the question than many of those who will most dogmatically condemn me for presuming to make a question of it.
So much for scholars -- for men of like education and pursuits as myself. With respect to Christians generally, I object to the consequence drawn from the doctrine rather than to the doctrine itself; -- a consequence not only deducible from the premises, but actually and imperiously deduced; according to which every man that can but read is to sit down to the consecutive and connected perusal of the Bible under the expectation and assurance that the whole is within his comprehension, and that, unaided by note or comment, catechism or liturgical preparation, he is to find out for himself what he is bound to believe and practise, and that whatever he conscientiously understands by what he reads is to be HIS religion. For he has found it in his Bible, and the Bible is the Religion of Protestants!
Would I then withhold the Bible from the cottager and the artisan? -- Heaven forfend! The fairest flower that ever clomb up a cottage window is not so fair a sight to my eyes as the Bible gleaming through the lower panes. Let it but be read as by such men it used to be read; when they came to it as to a ground covered with manna, even the bread which the Lord had given for his people to eat; where he that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack. They gathered every man according to his eating. They came to it as to a treasure-house of Scriptures; each visitant taking what was precious and leaving as precious for others; -- Yea, more, says our worthy old Church-historian, Fuller, where "the same man at several times may in his apprehension prefer several Scriptures as best, formerly most affected with one place, for the present more delighted with another, and afterwards, conceiving comfort therein not so clear, choose other places as more pregnant and pertinent to his purpose. Thus God orders it, that divers men (and perhaps the same man at divers times), make use of all His gifts, gleaning and gathering comfort as it is scattered through the whole field of the Scripture." Farewell.