图书图片
PDF
ePub

threaten them in conseqnence of the deficiencies of their faith, or pretend to identify the opinions, however erroneous in our judgment, which they have formed in a sincere desire to know the truth, with the corrupt and wicked opposition made to the Gospel by the unbelievers whom our Lord condemns.

We cannot wonder that those who, on grounds of Natural Religion exclusively, believe in essentially the same truths respecting the perfections, character, and government of God, the duties and expectations of man, which we rejoice in as revealed to us through Jesus Christ, should be better satisfied with our services than with those which are founded on doctrines believed by them to be absurd and pernicious; and we have no wish to close our doors against them. They are not of us; but they are willing to be with us, we hope they will not be the worse for joining with us. It remains to be inquired whether they do us any real injury. What are the effects of the union so far as it exists? We have shewn that it is not the result of any formal agreement between the parties, but simply the consequence of the constitution of our congregations. A place is set apart for Christian worship ou Unitarian principles; there is no creed or test of any kind employed; no one claims a right to inquire into his neighbour's faith; the minister feels himself called upon to do all which circumstances will allow, publicly and privately to improve all his hearers in Christian knowledge and practice, but pretends to no authority to mark any with the sign of his approbation or censure; all may enter freely; and whoever thinks it right to contribute to the support of public worship becomes, by that act, a member of the congregation. Since, then, it is acknowledged that serious Deists must necessarily regard Unitarian Christians as teaching chiefly what is true and useful, and as much nearer to them in opinions than other Christians, it is plain why some such persons have joined Unitarian congregations; and it is evident that, though they are received in all kindness and friendship, there exists no formal or solid union between them and their fellow-worshipers; and that from their presence no conclusion can justly be drawn respecting the sentiments of any who profess themselves Unitarian Christians. By their presence we are certainly injured, inasmuch as it gives occasion for uncandid adversaries to misrepresent our opinions; but we trust that no consideration of this kind will ever induce us to change our conduct towards any of our fellow-creatures. Can they, then, cause the sentiments delivered in our pulpits to be less truly Christian sentiments ? This is only possible either by their unfavourably influencing the choice of our ministers, or by their causing them, through fear of offence, not as much as they ought to support their instructions by Christian authority, or to dwell on those affections and hopes which peculiarly belong to the Gospel. With respect to the first of these means-it is a thing perfectly understood amongst all who frequent our worship, whatever may be their own particular views, that it is Christian worship 10 which they are giving their countenance; a very great majority in every congregation would be both dissatisfied and much shocked at the thought of any other. No open attempt could be made to substitute services founded on mere natural religion, without an immediate separation of those who approved from those who disapproved of the measure; that is, without the friends of the measure meeting avowedly as Deists, which they are at liberty to do, so far as we are concerned, whenever they judge it expedient. An attempt artfully to introduce, as a Christian minister, a person not really deserving of that name, would be inconsistent with that character and those views which alone can lead men to worship God at all, and is, therefore, not likely to be made ; whilst it could hardly fail to be detected, and consequently, if made, could only end in the disgrace of its authors. All who attend on the services of religion are equally interested in the minister who is to conduct them possessing such character, attainments, and address, as will give most weight to his instructions, most dignity and usefulness to his office. In the pursuit of these objects all may join, and theory combines with experience to prove that, in the case now under our consideration, no injurious consequences are to be apprehended. As to the other supposed means of injury-if ministers are capable of modi. fying their doctrines according to the supposed taste of any of their hearers, they may just as easily niodify their moral instructions on the same principle, and the utility of their office is at an end. We think it is not without reason that better things are expected from them. We have great confidence in the effects of their peculiar studies and habits of thought, in ennobling, purifying, and strengthening the mind; we have great confidence in their knowledge, that, in a vast majority of cases, the honest and faithful performance of their duty is the way to secure the esteem and affection of the great body of their hearers, and there is abundant proof from experience that the confidence we express is justly placed. We conclude the whole subject with the observation, that it is notorious that Unitarianism has brought numbers to a joyful and grateful acknowledgement of revelation, who had been driven to reject it by the revolting character of more prevalent forms of Christianity, whilst very few pass from Unitarianism to Unbelief, and with those few it appears to be the result of peculiarities of individual character or circumstances, not of any natural current setting from the one doctrine towards the other. We are by no means sure that on this important subject we have expressed the general sentiments of the Unitarian body ; though, believing that we have expressed the dictates of justice and charity, we would hope that our brethren do not widely differ from us. Many, no doubt, regard Unbelievers with a sort of horror-probably from an opinion that none become so but from wilful obstinacy and moral corruption. That these are the causes of a great deal of unbelief is unquestionable; but a sceptical turn of mind, unfavourable impressions made at the most critical period of life, and disgust at doctrines represented as essential, cause a good deal more; and those Unbelievers who shew any disposition to come amongst us, are generally persons possessing a real respect for religion, and desire to improve by its exercises. We do not, therefore, wish to see them condemned or rejected, and we have great doubt as to the advantage of the only measure which could secure a separation between us and them- the adoption of a profession of faith and a system of church-membership. We do not question the right to adopt ihis measure, and we do not venture to decide on its expediency, but we think we have abundantly shewn that there is nothing which either party need be ashamed of in the circumstance of our societies, open as they now are, having been in some places joined by individuals not professing to believe in revelation, nothing which throws the smallest imputation on the sincerity of our own faith, or gives the least cause for exultation to our adversaries.

Passing by much matter of a merely personal character, which, though in our opinion both unjust and illiberal, can hardly be thought to require the answer which it would occupy much space to give, we shall now offer a few remarks on Dr. Smith's “ Observations on the Introduction to the Calm Inquiry.”

Mr. Belsham very judiciously reminds his readers, that since “ all Christians agree that Jesus of Nazareth was to outward appearance a man like

other men," and that his prophetic office, miracles, and resurrection, do not necessarily imply bis superiori'y of nature, “it follows, that in this inquiry the whole burden of proof lies upon those who assert the pre-existence, the original dignity, and the divinity of Jesus Christ.” The Unitarian finds Dothing more in the Scriptures than what all acknowledge to be thereothers imagine that much more is to be found—it is their business to bring forward their proofs : we establish our own doctrine, if we only shew those alleged proofs to be insufficient.

" In this controversy, therefore," continues Mr. B., “ the proper province of the Arian and Trinitarian is to propose the evidence of their respective hypotheses; that is, to state those passages of Scripture which they conceive to be conclusive in favour of their doctrines. The sole concern of the Unitarian is, to shew that these arguments are inconclusive.—(Calm Inquiry, p. 2.)

It would hardly seem possible to extract from these words any other meaning than that the Unitarian, himself fully convinced that his own is the doctrine of Scripture, will have done every thing required for convincing his opponents when he has shewn the inconclusiveness of the texts brought forward by them, since by general confession what remains, after the peculiar evidence for reputed orthodoxy is taken away, is Unitarianism. Yet upon this observation, perfectly just as a logical position, and, one might have thought, altogether inoffensive in its mode of expression, Dr. Smith has the following remarks :

“This might be proper, if controvertists had no love to truth, nor sense of its value; if they were theological prize-fighters, who cared for nothing but victory or the semblance of victory. But ill do such expressions comport with the mind and motives of a sincere and serious and calm inquirer' after an object so momentous as SACRED AND ETERNAL TRUTH. To obtain that object ought to be the sole concern of Unitarians, and of all other men ; and it solemnly behoves those who are pleased with this consequential flippancy of assertion, to examine well the state of their own hearts before him who will not be mocked.”

It is a strange misapprehension of Mr. B.'s meaning, which has given occasion to this vituperative language. We need not point out the dispositions to which the error may be traced.

Another very important caution of Mr. B., which has also excited Dr. Smith's wrath, is the following:

“Impartial and sincere inquirers after truth must be particularly upon their guard against what is called the natural signification of words and phrases. The connexion between words and ideas is perfectly arbitrary : so that the natural sense of any word to any person means nothing more than the sense in which he has been accustomed to understand it. But it is very possible that men who lived two thousand years ago might annex very differ. ent ideas to the same words and phrases, so that the sense which appears most foreign to us might be most natural to them.”

“ If,” says Dr. S., “the Calm Inquirer means only to assert that the interpretation of a language must proceed on an enlightened acquaintance with its idioins, he has said no more than a school-boy knows and practises every day. But it is doing no service to the improvement of reason or the investigation of truth to represent the phrases 'natural signification,' and 'natural sense,' as if they were properly or usually applied to the bald and blundering methods of translation, which betray those who use them to be ignorant of the principles of language. I am greatly mistaken if the established use of those expressions, with correct speakers, is not to denote that sense of a word or phrase which it would carry, at the time, and under all the circumstances, in the minds of the persons to whom it was originally addressed.”

The author goes on to shew that the connexion between words and ideas depends on the laws of association, and that we are possessed of means by which a moral certainty may be attained as to the true meaning of words and phrases in ancient writings, all which is in perfect agreement with Mr. B.'s principles : indeed, it is acknowledged in a note “ that the Calm Inquirer has, in another of his observations, recognized the principal rules of interpretation.”

Mr. B. warns the impartial inquirer against " what is called the natural signification of words and phrases."

We read the Bible daily from childhood upwards, and it may be hoped that we do not read it without attaching some meaning to the words. The sense in which we first take its various parts must either be that which is suggested by parents and instructors, or that which occurs to ourselves at a time when neither our knowledge nor judgment is much to be relied upon. This sense is by frequent perusal strongly associated with the words and phrases, and immediately occurs 10 us as belonging to them whenever we consider them; it is what is called their natural sense, and is in general, to a great degree, the sense ascribed to them by those amongst whom we live: but if we are serious inquirers after divine truth, we shall examine and correct it by a faithful application of the just principles of interpretation, which will often shew us that the sense which seemed natural to us, has little pretensions to be accounted the true one. Now, there is nothing more common than to object to the best-founded and most valuable explanations of Scripture, that they are unnatural, that they give to the words a forced and unnatural sense, when nothing is really intended but that they are not familiar to us, and are opposed to our established associations. Dr. S. must, on reflection, be well aware that feelings of this kind are among the most formidable obstacles to the right understanding of Scripture, and he will hardly say that they do not furnish the most common answers to Unitarian expositions of Scripture : he certainly will not maintain that an answer founded on them is sufficient : let him then be ashamed of his angry declamation, and acknowledge that the Calm Inquirer's remark is neither “ a mere truism," nor “a denial of all certainty in philological studies,” but a useful practical caution of which most readers who are not critical scholars, and not a few who are, stand greatly in need.

Dr. S. is greatly scandalized at the expression, “ the incarceration of the Creator of the world in the body of a helpless, puling infant,” employed by Mr. B. in describing the orthodox doctrine. We do not wish to defend any thing which needlessly hurts the feelings of others, but as Dr. S. talks of misrepresentation, we must remind him that the language is justified by that seriously used by very orthodox writers. What is to be thought of the following language from Bacon?

“ The Christian believes a Virgin to be the mother of a Son; and that very Son of hers her Maker. He believes hiin to have been shut up in a narroro cell, whoin heaven and earth could not contain. He believes him to have been - born in time, who was and is from eternity. He believes him to have been a weak child and carried in arms, who is Almighty ; and him once to have died, who alone has life and immortality."

When such is the language of orthodox piety, the Unitarian may surely be excused some little strength of expression on the subject.

Dr. S. concludes his observations on Mr. B.'s introduction, and with them the first great division of his work, in these words:

“ It would have been no disparagement to the writer of the Calm Inquiry, had he urged the duty of cherishing impartiality, sincerity, and the love of truth, by the means of assiduous PRAYER to the Author of truth, a recollection of our amenableness to his tribunal, and a holy state of our mental feelings, in reference to his presence and perfections. Without these moral cautions, can it be expected that our inquiries will be really impartial or will terminate successfully? The principles of human nature and the righteousness of the Divine government equally forbid the expectation. Happy will those be who realize the devotion and faith of him who said, “With Thee is the fountain of life; in the light we shall see light !' But on such subjects the Calm Inquiry observes the silence of death."

Mr. B. recommends impartiality, and the sincere, disinterested love of truth; he does not enter on the means of attaining and cultivating these qualities, because those means are not unknown or much disputed: he was writing a controversial, not a practical work, and he meant to confine himself to one volume of moderate size, where he could not, like Dr. S., give 200 pages to introductory considerations. Nothing can be found in his book unfavourable to habits of devotion or feelings of piety. The impartiality which he recommends - the love of truth, without regard to external advantages, sensual pleasures, or the gratification of ambition and vanity-is itself a holy state of the mental feelings, and it is hard to reproach him with the silence of death when he speaks learnedly and ably on the subject he undertakes to discuss, because he does not digress into a practical treatise on devotion and faith. Sincere devotion, and prayer, its noblest exercise and best excitement, are most valuable means of producing the dispositions which aid us in the search for truth; but it must be remembered, that there is a sort of prayer often employed in what is called religious inquiry, which is no more than a mustering of fears and prejudices against the admission of any new light, or an attempt to overpower the resistance of reason to popular opinions by an accumulation of distempered and enthusiastic feelings. There are many also who pray indeed for help from God in the understanding of his word, but, entertaining the unfounded expectation of that help being afforded in the form of immediate and supernatural assistance, instead of improving by their pious exercises in the humble and diligent application of the neans of knowledge, are puffed up with a vain conceit of their infallibility, and led to ascribe to their own crudest conceptions the authority of divine communication. As these are faults into which those who agree with Dr. S. are peculiarly apt to fall, we have at least as good reason for wondering that he did not guard against such common and dangerous abuses of what he justly recommends, as he had for reproaching Mr. B. with his silence on a subject which his plan did not oblige him to introduce.

We have been able to notice but a few of the more important passages in that portion of Dr. Smith's work which has now engaged our attention. There is hardly a page in which something does not call for animadversion, and there are some subjects of very high interest, as the Unitarian views of the perfections of God, and the inspiration of the Scriptures, which demand distinct essays to do ihem any jusiice. We hope, however, that what we base done may be sufficient to make known the true character of what is represented as a formidable attack on our opinions, to expose the treatment which Mr. Belsham has received from one who would willingly be thought a candid adversary, and to repel some charges which, though glaringly

VOL. V.

« 上一页继续 »