« AnteriorContinuar »
had seen the rewards and punishments of a future life assigned, might have been corrected, when it was shewn that the interpretations, to which he alluded, were in reality no part of the Christian doctrine. It might have happened that the prejudices, if any prejudice he had imbibed, against the notions entertained by this or that particular sect of Christians, would have at once vanished before the pure and clear light of Christianity itself.
I shall endeavour, upon the present occasion, to supply this defect in his observations; and to shew that, eloquently as he has expatiated upon the importance, and justly as he has estimated the value, of a future and a better world, assigning to every individual his exact proportion of reward or punishment; healing the disorders, and smoothing the inequalities, of this previous state ; yet in fact, the gospel of Jesus Christ does ascertain the certainty of a futurity connected with views of justice, as profound and clear, as the warmest and most enlightened disciple of natural reason could possibly desire.
In the prosecution of this design, I shall, first, shortly allude to some of those Christian sects, against whom the censure of the moral Philosopher appears to have been directed.
2dly. I shall shew in what respect, some, even candid and judicious defenders of the Christian doctrine, appear to have been more or less deficient in that precision and discrimination, which are required, in order to place it in a fair and proper light.
In the last place, I shall shew from the Scriptures what the doctrine really is.
And, first, it is scarcely necessary, in a Protestant congregation, to mark as unscriptural the position of some, perhaps the majority, of those who belong to the Catholic communion; That salvation is not to be obtained without the pale of their own Church.--I do not say this, because we are Protestants and they are Catholics ; as if it thence followed, that we must be right and they wrong; but for this plain reason. It is derogating from the justice of the Almighty to suppose, that He would assign the awful and infinite award of everlasting suffering or of everlasting happiness, according to the judgment, which such frail and ignorant creatures as we are, may form of the meaning, which should be affixed to a voluminous body of writings, composed at different intervals during fifteen hundred years; with the original language of which by far the greatest part of Christians must be utterly unacquainted, and of which very few indeed, compared with the whole, can have any critical knowledge. When we reflect too on the various circumstances, which usually determine the faith of each individual Christian;-circumstances, over which he can have no antecedent control, the mere place of his birth, the opinions and habits of his parents, the society into which he is accidentally thrown;-it must be matter of surprise as well as concern, that any body of well-informed Christians should annex the dreadful penalty of eternal misery to a multitude of their fellow-Christians, who may have erred from unintentional ignorance or from imperious necessity. With serious regret therefore do I next observe that, from the error, which infects the creed and impairs
the charity of the body of Christians to whom I just alluded, some Protestant sects are not exempt.
When the followers of Calvin lay it down as an axiom, that the Almighty, by an arbitrary and unconditional decree, has elected some of His creatures to everlasting happiness ; but predestined others to unmitigated and everlasting pain; do they not contradict all the notions we can form of the justice and mercy of the great Creator of mankind, quite as much as the haughtiest pontiff, against whose intolerance they exclaim? Others there are, who substantially adopt the errors of Calvin, though they reject his name and authority. By a partial selection of passages which they misinterpret, and by an unsparing application of terms, which they will not understand, they confine the blessings of a future world to those, whom they call regenerate; and who are visited, as they suppose, by some special manifestation of the grace of God. Others again ; if indeed they are to be distinguished from the sect last mentioned ; attribute some unwarrantable efficacy to a quality, which they call faith ;—not the faith, which Jesus required as an indispensable condition in those, who were to be converted from the prejudices and hypocrisy of the Jews, or the vices and superstitions of the heathens ;--but a delusive light, which has misled them, and in the pursuit of which they are eager to have others equally bewildered with themselves.-But let us turn from this unpleasing view of the grosser mistakes of our Christian brethren; since it is not necessary to our present subject that we enlarge upon them more fully.
I proceed, with more diffidence, yet with some satisfaction, to remark upon a want of clearness and precision, which may occasionally be noticed in the expressions of candid and judicious divines upon the very important subject of life and immortality, as it were brought to light by our Lord Jesus Christ.-I thus reason with diffidence, because, while in common with others I acknowledge the learning, the piety, and the zeal of these excellent men, it may appear presumptuous to point out even the shadow of an imperfection in their otherwise meritorious labours. Yet I enter upon the task with satisfaction, because it will be found that no censure whatsoever of intolerance, or of any substantial want of knowledge, is intended to be conveyed.-My remarks go thus far, and thus far only:-Upon this important subject, there has not been always that full analysis of the Christian doctrine; that clear exposition of every particular, which the scriptures of the New Testament (guarded as they necessarily are upon the awful subject of that world, which cannot be unveiled to mortal sight) have nevertheless permitted us to know, directly and indirectly, concerning it.
My meaning in short is this ; Christian divines, in stating the doctrine of a future state, in unfolding to their astonished hearers its unperishable glories, or alarming their fears with its dreadful and interminable torments, have appeared to me to rest too much upon general propositions.
Their language on these most awful topics is too indiscriminate. Heaven is offered to the good, hell denounced to the bad; as if there were only one class of the virtuous, one class of the wicked; one particular species of reward for all the former; one, and exactly the same, adjudication of punishment to all the latter.
No doubt Holy Writ occasionally expresses itself in general terms ;
“ The wicked shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal;”—but then the same Scripture, as I shall presently shew, has enlarged and explained this general proposition; and this is precisely what I contend should be done more frequently and more pointedly, especially in their popular discourses, by Christian divines.-More frequently and more pointedly, because it is the very office of Christian instructors, whether in discourses to their respective congregations, or in writings to the world at large, to explain fully and elaborately, what the sacred books contain ;-simply and plainly to shew the reasons and discover the extent of that information, which the inspired volume conveys in the emphatic, but concise, tone of authority. 1. Now, supposing that such loose and inadequate representations of the Christian doctrine have ever been made, would they not in some measure justify the censure, which has been passed, “
upon some of its most zealous asserters,” by the distinguished writer to whom I alluded ? Might it not be argued, that the administration of the Divine laws was conducted by rules more indefinite and unequal than any system of human laws, those of Draco perhaps alone excepted ? No one, I am persuaded, who hears me, can refrain from shuddering at the merciless and indiscriminate rigour of the Athenian lawgiver, who