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[RICHARD BAXTER is generally considered the most eminent of the nonconformist divines of the seventeenth century. The remark of one of his biographers, that the works of this industrious author are sufficient to form a library of themselves, is hardly overcharged, for not fewer than one hundred and sixty-eight publications are named in the catalogue of his works. Their contents, which include bodies of practical and theoretical divinity, are of course very various; none of them are now much read, except the practical pieces, especially those entitled The Saint's Everlasting Rest, and A Call to the Unconverted. The latter was so popular when published, that 20,000 copies are said to have been sold in a single year. Baxter wrote a candid and rational Narrative of the most Memorable Passages of his Life and Times, which appeared in 1696, a few years after his death. It is highly instructive, and, like Baxter's writings generally, is said to have been a favourite book of Dr. Johnson. The follor. ing extracts are from this work.]
Fruits of Experience of Human Character. I now see more good and more evil in all men than heretofore I did. I see that good men are not so good as I once thought they were, but have more imperfections; and that nearer approach and fuller trial doth make the best appear more weak and faulty than their admirers at a distance think. And I find that few are so bad as either malicious enemies or censorious separating professors do imagine. In some, indeed, I find that human nature is corrupted into a greater likeness to devils than I once thought any on earth had been. But even in the wicked, usually there is more
for grace to make advantage 01, and more to testify for God and holiness, than I once believed there had been.
I less admire gifts of utterance, and bare profession of religion, than I once did; and have much more charity for many who, by the want of gifts, do make an obscurer profession than they. I once thought that almost all that could pray movingly and fluently, and talk well of religion, had been saints. But experience hath opened to me what odious crimes may consist with high profession; and I have met with divers obscure persons, not noted for any extraordinary profession, or forwardness in religion, but only to live a quiet blameless life, whom I have after found to have long lived, as far as I could discern, a truly godly and sanctified life; only, their prayers and duties were by accident kept secret from other men's observation. Yet he that upon this pretence would confound the godly and the ungodly, may as well go about to lay heaven and hell together.
Baxter's Judgment of his own Writings. Concerning almost all my writings, I must confess that my own judgment is, that fewer, well studied and polished, had been better ; but the reader who can safely censure the books, is not fit to censure the author, unless he had been upon the place, and acquainted with all the occasions and circumstances. Indeed, for the “ Saint's Rest,” I had four months' vacancy to write it, but in the midst of continual languishing and medicine ; but, for the rest, I wrote them
in the crowd of all my other employments, which would allow me no great leisure for polishing and exactness, or any ornament; so that I scarce ever wrote one sheet twice over, nor stayed to make any blots or interlinings, but was fain to let it go as it was first conceived ; and when my own desire was rather to stay upon one thing long than run over many, some sudden occasions or other extorted almost all my writings from me; and the apprehensions of present usefulness or necessity prevailed against all other motives; so that the divines which were at hand with me still put me on, and approved of what I did, because they were moved by present necessities as well as I; but those that were far off, and felt not those nearer motives, did rather wish that I had taken the other way, and published a few elaborate writings; and I am ready myself to be of their mind, when I forget the case that I then stood in, and have lost the sense of former motives.
And this token of my weakness so accompanied those my younger studies, that I was very apt to start up controversies in the way of my practical writings, and also more desirous to acquaint the world with all that I took to be the truth, and to assault those books by name which I thought did tend to deceive them, and did contain unsound and dangerous doctrine; and the reason of all this was, that I was then in the vigour of my youthful apprehensions, and the new appearance of any sacred truth, it was more apt to affect me, and be more highly valued, than afterwards, when commonness had dulled my delight; and I did not sufficiently discern then how much, in most of our controversies, is verbal, and upon mutual mistakes.
And withal, I knew not how impatient divines were of being contradicted, nor how it would stir up all their powers to defend what they have once said, and to rise up against the truth which is thus thrust upon them, as the mortal enemy of their honour; and I knew not how hardly men's minds are changed from their former apprehensions, be the evidence never so plain. And I have perceived that nothing so much hinders the reception of the truth as urging it on men with too harsh importunity, and falling too heavily on their errors; for hereby you engage their honour in the business, and they defend their errors as themselves, and stir up all their wit and ability to oppose you.
In controversies, it is fierce opposition which is the bellows to kindle a resisting zeal; when, if they be neglected, and their opinions lie a while despised, they usually cool, and come again to themselves. Men are so loath to be drenched with the truth, that I am no more for going that way to work; and, to confess the truth, I am lately much prone to the contrary extreme, to be too indifferent what men hold, and to keep my judgment to myself, and never to mention anything wherein I differ from another on anything which I think I know more than he; or, at least, if he receive it not presently, to silence it, and leave him to his own opinion.
Change in Baxter's Estimate of his own and other
Men's Knowledge. Heretofore I knew much less than now, and yet was not half so much acquainted with my ignorance. I had a great delight in the daily new discoveries which I made, and of the light which shined in upon me (like a man that cometh into a country where he never was before); but I little knew either how imperfectly I understood those very points whose discovery so much delighted me, nor how much might be said against them, nor how many things I was yet a stranger to: but now I find far greater darkness upon all things, and perceive how very little it is that we know, in comparison of that which we are ignorant of, and have far meaner thoughts of my own understanding, though I must needs know that it is better furnished than it was then.
Accordingly, I had then a far higher opinion of learned persons and books than I have now; for what I wanted myself, I thought every reverend divine had attained and was familiarly acquainted with ; and what books I understood not, by reason of the strangeness of the terms or matter, I the more admired, and thought that others understood their worth. But now experience hath constrained me against my will to know, that reverend learned men are imperfect, and know but little as well as I, especially those that think themselves the wisest; and the better I am acquainted with them, the more I perceive that we are all yet in the dark: and the more I am acquainted with holy men, that are all for heaven, and pretend not much to subtilties, the more I value and honour them. And when I have studied hard to understand some abstruse admired book, I have but attained the knowledge of human imperfection, and to see that the author is but a man as well as I.
And at first I took more upon my author's credit