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- Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit etc. - 6/22 -


Archbishop Williams, and have seen and felt (as every reader of this latter work must see and feel) his talent, learning, acuteness, and robust good sense, you will have no difficulty in determining the quality and character of a dogma which could engraft such fruits on such a tree.

It will perhaps appear a paradox if, after all these reasons, I should avow that they weigh less in my mind against the doctrine, than the motives usually assigned for maintaining and enjoining it. Such, for instance, are the arguments drawn from the anticipated loss and damage that would result from its abandonment; as that it would deprive the Christian world of its only infallible arbiter in questions of faith and duty, suppress the only common and inappellable tribunal; that the Bible is the only religious bond of union and ground of unity among Protestants and the like. For the confutation of this whole reasoning, it might be sufficient to ask: Has it produced these effects? Would not the contrary statement be nearer to the fact? What did the Churches of the first four centuries hold on this point? To what did they attribute the rise and multiplication of heresies? Can any learned and candid Protestant affirm that there existed and exists no ground for the charges of Bossuet and other eminent Romish divines? It is no easy matter to know how to handle a party maxim, so framed, that with the exception of a single word, it expresses an important truth, but which by means of that word is made to convey a most dangerous error.

The Bible is the appointed conservatory, an indispensable criterion, and a continual source and support of true belief. But that the Bible is the sole source; that it not only contains, but constitutes, the Christian Religion; that it is, in short, a Creed, consisting wholly of articles of Faith; that consequently we need no rule, help, or guide, spiritual or historical, to teach us what parts are and what are not articles of Faith--all being such--and the difference between the Bible and the Creed being this, that the clauses of the latter are all unconditionally necessary to salvation, but those of the former conditionally so, that is, as soon as the words are known to exist in any one of the canonical books; and that, under this limitation, the belief is of the same necessity in both, and not at all affected by the greater or lesser importance of the matter to be believed;--this scheme differs widely from the preceding, though its adherents often make use of the same words in expressing their belief. And this latter scheme, I assert, was brought into currency by and in favour of those by whom the operation of grace, the aids of the Spirit, the necessity of regeneration, the corruption of our nature, in short, all the peculiar and spiritual mysteries of the Gospel were explained and diluted away.

And how have these men treated this very Bible? I, who indeed prize and reverence this sacred library, as of all outward means and conservatives of Christian faith and practice the surest and the most reflective of the inward Word; I, who hold that the Bible contains the religion of Christians, but who dare not say that whatever is contained in the Bible is the Christian religion, and who shrink from all question respecting the comparative worth and efficacy of the written Word as weighed against the preaching of the Gospel, the discipline of the Churches, the continued succession of the Ministry, and the communion of Saints, lest by comparing them I should seem to detach them; I tremble at the processes which the Grotian divines without scruple carry on in their treatment of the sacred writers, as soon as any texts declaring the peculiar tenets of our Faith are cited against them--even tenets and mysteries which the believer at his baptism receives as the title-writ and bosom-roll of his adoption; and which, according to my scheme, every Christian born in Church-membership ought to bring with him to the study of the sacred Scriptures as the master-key of interpretation. Whatever the doctrine of infallible dictation may be in itself, in THEIR hands it is to the last degree nugatory, and to be paralleled only by the Romish tenet of Infallibility--in the existence of which all agree, but where, and in whom, it exists stat adhuc sub lite. Every sentence found in a canonical Book, rightly interpreted, contains the dictum of an infallible Mind; but what the right interpretation is-- or whether the very words now extant are corrupt or genuine--must be determined by the industry and understanding of fallible, and alas! more or less prejudiced theologians.

And yet I am told that this doctrine must not be resisted or called in question, because of its fitness to preserve unity of faith, and for the prevention of schism and sectarian byways! Let the man who holds this language trace the history of Protestantism, and the growth of sectarian divisions, ending with Dr. Hawker's ultra- Calvinistic Tracts, and Mr. Belsham's New Version of the Testament. And then let him tell me that for the prevention of an evil which already exists, and which the boasted preventive itself might rather seem to have occasioned, I must submit to be silenced by the first learned infidel, who throws in my face the blessing of Deborah, or the cursings of David, or the Grecisms and heavier difficulties in the biographical chapters of the Book of Daniel, or the hydrography and natural philosophy of the Patriarchal ages. I must forego the means of silencing, and the prospect of convincing, an alienated brother, because I must not thus answer "My Brother! What has all this to do with the truth and the worth of Christianity? If you reject a priori all communion with the Holy Spirit, there is indeed a chasm between us, over which we cannot even make our voices intelligible to each other. But if--though but with the faith of a Seneca or an Antonine--you admit the co-operation of a Divine Spirit in souls desirous of good, even as the breath of heaven works variously in each several plant according to its kind, character, period of growth, and circumstance of soil, clime, and aspect; on what ground can you assume that its presence is incompatible with all imperfection in the subject--even with such imperfection as is the natural accompaniment of the unripe season? If you call your gardener or husbandman to account for the plants or crops he is raising, would you not regard the special purpose in each, and judge of each by that which it was tending to? Thorns are not flowers, nor is the husk serviceable. But it was not for its thorns, but for its sweet and medicinal flowers that the rose was cultivated; and he who cannot separate the husk from the grain, wants the power because sloth or malice has prevented the will. I demand for the Bible only the justice which you grant to other books of grave authority, and to other proved and acknowledged benefactors of mankind. Will you deny a spirit of wisdom in Lord Bacon, because in particular facts he did not possess perfect science, or an entire immunity from the positive errors which result from imperfect insight? A Davy will not so judge his great predecessor; for he recognises the spirit that is now working in himself, and which under similar defects of light and obstacles of error had been his guide and guardian in the morning twilight of his own genius. Must not the kindly warmth awaken and vivify the seed, in order that the stem may spring up and rejoice in the light? As the genial warmth to the informing light, even so is the predisposing Spirit to the revealing Word."

If I should reason thus--but why do I say IF? I have reasoned thus with more than one serious and well-disposed sceptic; and what was the answer?--"YOU speak rationally, but seem to forget the subject. I have frequently attended meetings of the British and Foreign Bible Society, where I have heard speakers of every denomination, Calvinist and Arminian, Quaker and Methodist, Dissenting Ministers and Clergymen, nay, dignitaries of the Established Church, and still have I heard the same doctrine--that the Bible was not to be regarded or reasoned about in the way that other good books are or may be--that the Bible was different in kind, and stood by itself. By some indeed this doctrine was rather implied than expressed, but yet evidently implied. But by far the greater number of the speakers it was asserted in the strongest and most unqualified words that language could supply. What is more, their principal arguments were grounded on the position, that the Bible throughout was dictated by Omniscience, and therefore in all its parts infallibly true and obligatory, and that the men whose names are prefixed to the several books or chapters were in fact but as different pens in the hand of one and the same Writer, and the words the words of God Himself: and that on this account all notes and comments were superfluous, nay, presumptuous--a profane mixing of human with divine, the notions of fallible creatures with the oracles of Infallibility--as if God's meaning could be so clearly or fitly expressed in man's as in God's own words! But how often you yourself must have heard the same language from the pulpit!"

What could I reply to this? I could neither deny the fact, nor evade the conclusion--namely, that such is at present the popular belief. Yes--I at length rejoined--I have heard this language from the pulpit, and more than once from men who in any other place would explain it away into something so very different from the literal sense of their words as closely to resemble the contrary. And this, indeed, is the peculiar character of the doctrine, that you cannot diminish or qualify but you reverse it. I have heard this language from men who knew as well as myself that the best and most orthodox divines have in effect disclaimed the doctrine, inasmuch as they confess it cannot be extended to the words of the sacred writers, or the particular import--that therefore the doctrine does not mean all that the usual wording of it expresses, though what it does mean, and why they continue to sanction this hyperbolical wording, I have sought to learn from them in vain. But let a thousand orators blazon it at public meetings, and let as many pulpits echo it, surely it behoves you to inquire whether you cannot be a Christian on your own faith; and it cannot but be beneath a wise man to be an Infidel on the score of what other men think fit to include in their Christianity!

Now suppose--and, believe me, the supposition will vary little from the fact--that in consequence of these views the sceptic's mind had gradually opened to the reception of all the truths enumerated in my first Letter. Suppose that the Scriptures themselves from this time had continued to rise in his esteem and affection--the better understood, the more dear; as in the countenance of one, whom through a cloud of prejudices we have at least learned to love and value above all others, new beauties dawn on us from day to day, till at length we wonder how we could at any time have thought it other than most beautiful. Studying the sacred volume in the light and in the freedom of a faith already secured, at every fresh meeting my sceptic friend has to tell me of some new passage, formerly viewed by him as a dry stick on a rotten branch, which has BUDDED and, like the rod of Aaron, BROUGHT FORTH BUDS AND BLOOMED BLOSSOMS, AND YIELDED ALMONDS. Let these results, I say, be supposed--and shall I still be told that my friend is nevertheless an alien in the household of Faith? Scrupulously orthodox as I know you to be, will you tell me that I ought to have left this sceptic as I found him, rather than attempt his conversion by such means; or that I was deceiving him, when I said to him:-

"Friend! The truth revealed through Christ has its evidence in itself, and the proof of its divine authority in its fitness to our nature and needs; the clearness and cogency of this proof being proportionate to the degree of self-knowledge in each individual hearer. Christianity has likewise its historical evidences, and these as strong as is compatible with the nature of history, and with the aims and objects of a religious dispensation. And to all these Christianity itself, as an existing power in the world, and Christendom as an existing fact, with the no less evident fact of a progressive expansion, give a force of moral demonstration that almost supersedes particular testimony. These proofs and evidences


Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit etc. - 6/22

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