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pervert the Scripture, by sophistical constructions, or, what is more consistent with reason (since it is more likely God should never speak to us, than that he should speak falsely, or absurdly), reject it in the lump; because it does not speak as they would have it.
What then, in the second place, are the principles on which the word of God is to be read? I will mention only four, without taking up your time in proving them; because they are such as no rational Christian can dispute.
He who reads the Scriptures, in order to the ends for which they were written, must, first, firmly believe, that they are the word of God.
Secondly, He must be fully persuaded, that he himself is neither able to find out, nor perform his duty, so as to arrive at eternal happiness, without the assistance of divine revelation.
Thirdly, He must take it for granted, that God can deliver or aver nothing but the truth.
And, lastly, He must believe, that God knows how so to speak, as to be understood by those he speaks to; and, in necessary matters, could not have chosen to be obscure in what he reveals.
It is, in a great measure, for want of a due attention to these principles, that such infinite disputes and bickerings have arisen, in all ages, among Christians, concerning the very primary articles of faith, and the plainest duties or motives of Christian morality. Did every Christian reader of the Scriptures consider, that he comes ignorant, weak, and under the unhappy weight of a nature corrupt, and prone to sin, when he applies to those books for instruction and assistance; that he is therefore not to bring his preconceptions with him, like one who knows already what he is to think and do; and that he comes to a teacher, who is willing
; to direct him; who hath made provision for all his wants, and is able to help his infirmities; did he, I say, rightly consider these things, and suitably accommodate his mind to these considerations, he could have no doubts about his success; nor could there be any room for such doubts, if the Scriptures are indeed the word of God. In that case, necessary knowledge only being sought for, the instructions and the disciple are so well fitted to each other, that he
must easily find out 'the way, the truth, and the life," he seeks for. As sure as God is wise and good, so surely is the way plain and manifest in itself : and as the reader of his word hath nothing to blind him, so he cannot fail to find it.
But, unhappily, few men read this holy book, either as if they thought God had written it, or as if they took their own salvation to depend absolutely on it. They read it with a tincture of Deism, and self-dependence; and therefore do not wholly resign themselves to it; and, in their debates, they quote it, rather as an authority, to which others, more credulous, must yield, than as decisive, in respect to themselves. This is evident from their frequently shifting from one interpretation of the same text to another, when the first does not answer their ends, nor baffle the opponent; just as if they thought it not material what the text meant, provided it could be forced to vouch for their tenet..
This dealing is altogether preposterous, and subversive of itself; for if they believe the Scriptures, and argue from them as conclusive, why are they not allowed to speak for themselves? Why do these men intermix their own prejudices with the Scriptural principles, and press on us the motley consequences of premises so unnaturally conjoined ? He must be very stupid that does not see the clumsy seam, which tacks the truths of Scripture to their prejudices, nor the force put on both to make them unite. In other branches of knowledge we found all our reasonings on axioms, peculiar to the points we would prove. But, in regard to religion, we are pestered with arguments, either founded on no axioms, or drawn from other lights, than those of revelation, by disputants who pretend the utmost deference for it. From these foreign axioms they have beat out systems of their own, with which they find it infinitely difficult to reconcile that of Scripture. This is the very thing which distresses the libertine Christians of all denominations. Instead of making their principles bend to the Scriptures, they preposterously and impiously make the Scriptures veil to their principles, on a postulatum that reason (by which they mean their reason) is the dernier resort in all sciences; which is so far from being true, that the very faculty, by which we reason, is forced in every argu
ment to appeal for the grounds of its deductions, to the simple apprehensions wherein those notices are received, that admit of no dispute. Here are lodged those first principles of religion, that God is true; and that those senses which gave testimony to the miraculous proofs of our religion were not deceived. These axioms erect every plain assertion of Scripture into an axiom equally indisputable among all, who believe the Scripture to be the word of God.
If the word of God is admitted as the rule of religion, no axioms, or first principles, can be drawn from any other source, for the establishment of a theological system. The independent fancies and reasonings of men are by no means to be associated with this rule. All the disputes and errors among
Christians have arisen from this monstrous position, that revelation was given us only in aid of natural religion; whereas it was really intended for our only guide to God, while the sole office of sense and reason, in respect to religion, is 'to apprehend, and be apprehended' by, that guide; Phil. iii. 12. As to the dictates of mere nature, as it is found at present, they have all along experimentally proved themselves not only inadequate to this purpose, but rather, in the bulk of mankind, the corrupters of true religion, ever mistaking their authority for greater than it was, and confounding the truth, as often as they were suffered to prescribe, with infinite blunders and inconsistencies. If God hath given us two religious lights, they ought not, surely, to destroy each other ; but as, on the contrary, that which was last afforded, must have been given, because the first was found deficient, the first ought to yield, whenever they appear to interfere. He who believes the Scriptures, and yet abides by the dictates of his nature, when they seem to contradict their own Scriptures, pays a compliment to his own understanding, at the expense of his respect for God's wisdom and veracity; and he provides not a whit better for the preservation of that respect, who endeavours to warp the word of God to his favourite preconceptions.
The judicious see, we have had enough, and too much, of this work already; and that Christianity and Deism can never be so coupled together, as to produce any other children than monsters. We must either follow Scripture, and be Christians; or follow nature, and be Deists; or we may
indeed be Atheists, and follow nothing. There is no sense nor safety in halting between opinions and principles so irreconcilable. No two of these three can ever possibly coalesce, but in a head capable of quietly lodging contradictions together. For instance, what sort of principles are his, who, placing himself between Deism and Atheism, believes in God, and denies the retributions of another life? And what sort of principles, are theirs, who, taking their stand between Christianity and Deism, hold a morality and sanctions independent of God's animadversions ; and disbelieve every thing they cannot account for, with the one, while they maintain the truth of revelation, with the other ? May not God justly say to these men, as he did to the Babylonians and Chaldeans, 'Your wisdom and your know
, ledge, it hath perverted you ?'
It may seem amazing, that one who believes the Scriptures to be the word of God, should ever once think of suffering any thing else to dictate religious principles to him ; and still more amazing, that he should suffer his other dictator, if he must have another, to lay violent hands on the Scriptures, and, by arbitrary expositions, prescribe to God himself. Yet we see this done, by too numerous classes of men, every day. The bigots to superstition and libertinism, although they set out under infallible guides, wholly opposite, I mean Popery and self-sufficiency, follow, nevertheless, the same impious method of so expounding Scripture, as to force from it whatsoever those guides are pleased to dictate. Are the Scriptures so very pliant as to yield to these extremes? No; so far from that, they condemn both as peremptorily, as they could have done, had they been written but yesterday, purely for that purpose.
Of all the human species, not excepting thieves, robbers, and assassins, they are the vilest sort of men, who artfully labour to shelter those private opinions, which vanity or interest hath induced them to espouse, under the sanction of Scriptural authority, though they see this cannot be done without doing violence to the word of God. The Scriptures were given to instruct, reform, and save mankind; but these monsters of dissimulation and impiety use them only to pervert, corrupt, and ruin themselves. Having no concern about their own salvation, they no more care what comes of
the souls, than Cæsar did what came of the bodies, of other men, so they may obtain a victory, make a triumph, and lord it afterward over the reason and faith of a misguided multitude. As the opinions they contend for are generally the very reverse of those doctrines, on which the Scripture lays the greatest stress, so none are obliged to search it so narrowly as these men, who mean to quote it exactly, as the devil did in his polemical controversy with Christ, in direct opposition to its true import, and for the very same end, that they may be worshipped. What then? Were so many prophecies uttered, so many miracles wrought; were both the law and the gospel written; and did Christ die, merely to give these worthies (who are taught to squint from the truth by interest, as well as vanity) an opportunity of shewing the superiority of their talents, by forcing God's word to prove in one place, what it expressly denies in another ? Enormous impudence! infernal sacrilege!
Now, as to the dispositions wherewith, in the third place, the holy Scriptures ought to be perused, they may, I think, be comprehended in humility and diligence.
With what degree of humility we ought to read the word of God, we may judge by that respect we feel for the works of an eminent uninspired writer. We always compare the ideas we have of his and our own understandings together ; and read him with deference and resignation proportionable to the apprehended superiority of his abilities over our own. We dwindle in our own eyes, as an Homer, or a Newton, grows in our esteem, till the error of the one begins to assume the authority of a demonstration, and the blemish of the other passes on us for a beauty. But be our admiration of a mere man what it will, we, nevertheless, always read the works with some respect for our own judgment, and take the liberty, sometimes to doubt or disapprove of what he says, because we know he may err: whereas, when we read the works of God, all this use of our judgment is, or ought to be, as totally superseded, as if our reason were annihilated ; because we know he cannot err, because we know our reason is less than nothing to his wisdom. From this humility, which, when the Book of God is open before us, cannot be too deep, should arise modesty in respect to our own understand. ings, and veneration for the wisdom of God.