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THE RISE AND EARLY PROGRESS
into the Jewish and
HISTORY records no event so interesting and important to man as Rise of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ upon earth. Considered
Christianity merely in
results on the temporal condition of mankind, neither conquest, legislation, nor philosophy, has affected society so intimately, so extensively, and so permanently, as Christianity; whilst all that concerns our heavenly connexions, seems important, chiefly in proportion as it has been subservient to, or otherwise connected with, this institution. With the former of these views the present inquiry is not concerned; it is directed to the rise and progress of Christianity, considered only so far as it has affected the relation and intercourse between God and men.
And in order to estimate the nature and extent of that change, Division which the Saviour's coming has wrought on the religious condition of mankind, as well as the fitness of the means employed for effect- Gentile ing it, it will be first necessary to take a brief survey of the state in which he found religion. It is well known, that, for
many centuries preceding the Advent, all the world, except the Jews, a small and otherwise inconsiderable people, were not only in the grossest error on the subject, but without any authentic source to supply them with more correct information. An account therefore of the religion of the Gentiles (as all other nations were termed in distinction from the one favoured people of God) will be rather an account of their ignorance than of their knowledge. But however widely removed from truth are the opinions and practices which such an account must contain, it will serve the twofold purpose, of instructing us in the sources of that ignorance, and of discovering the propriety of the Christian scheme, wherein truth was so dispensed, as to apply specially to the more important varieties of existing error.
Proceeding from the religion of the Gentiles to that of the Jews, the need of the Gospel dispensation will appear not less in the state of their knowledge, than in that of the heathen ignorance. It was
knowledge insufficient not only in quantity but in kind; partial, not because confined to a few truths, but because the truths which it embraced were each designedly incomplete, and requiring some afterpiece of revelation to render it intelligible and effective.
Besides the religion of the Gentiles and of the Jews, that of the Samaritans (narrow as was its extent and influence) will deserve some slight separate notice, owing to certain peculiarities in its origin and character, which distinguish it from the Jewish on the one hand, and still more from all the heathen creeds and modes of worship on the other.
1.-RELIGION OF THE GENTILES. All religions WERE history silent, the concurrent traditions and fables of all from one common
nations concerning a chaos, a deluge, and a re-peopling of the origin. earth from a single family, would suggest the inference, that out of
one origin proceeded the religions of all the Gentile world. But this conclusion is more directly deduced from the Bible. At the dispersion of mankind after the attempt to build Babel," the wanderers, we know, possessed a certain portion of revelation, which they must have carried with them into their respective settlements; nor is it reasonable to suppose that this knowledge, however it might be neglected, would be soon altogether effaced. Limited as the compass of sacred history becomes from that period, still it affords instances amongst the heathen of priests and worshippers of Jehovah. Such were Job, Melchisedech, and Jethro the father-inlaw of Moses. In Balaam we recognise not only a believer, but one divinely inspired.
Without denying, then, the tendency or the capacity of mankind to create a system of religion for themselves, it may be fairly assumed that no period has yet occurred, which has afforded an opportunity for the experiment. Certainly the ancient heathen creeds could not have been originally the mere invention of fancy, or the independent deductions of reason, but rather the corruption of revealed religion-extending, it may be, in most instances, so far, that in process of time the foundation should be concealed and buried under the superstructure. Nevertheless, any attempt to trace the origin and progress of false religion, or any estimate of its character, which should have no reference to its connexion with the true, would be as unreasonable as an inquiry into the formation of language, which should neglect all consideration of a portion of it being co-existent with the gift of speech.
i The building of Babel forms the first worship, Jupiter being well understood great era in the history of idolatry. The by all to be the air or the heavens. (See work is described in the Bible, literally, Prideaux's Connexion, Vol I. Part I.
a tower whose top was to the hea- Book II. ann. 570.)
," and the confusion as a confusion It was, doubtless, in reference to the of " lip.” Herodotus mentions the exist- heavens being the first and chief object ence of such a building at Babylon in his of idolatry among the ancients, that the time, (Lib. I. C. 181,) and states that it holy Scriptures open with the declarawas dedicated to the Assyrian Jupiter. tion, “In the beginning God created the Diodorus Siculus (Lib. II.) gives nearly heavens and the earth;” thus claiming the same account of it. Now, compar- for Jehovah, (what none of the heathen ing these statements—the heathen with ever ascribed to their deities, the creathe sacred-we are perhaps warranted in tion of the world, and including in the interpreting the latter, as descriptive of a work of creation all that men called tower whose top was dedicated to the gods. heavens as to an object of idolatrous
Reasoning from the scriptural account of the several lapses of the Israelites into heathenish worship, it would seem that polytheism did not originally imply a disbelief in the unity of God; neither were the objects of false worship originally substituted for, or associated with, Jehovah. In short, they were not regarded as possessing a similar nature with his. Thus, when the people, Original despairing of the return of Moses from Mount Sinai, persuaded character of Aaron to make them gods, both the occasion and the motive assigned plainly indicate, that the golden calf was not intended as a substitute for the Lord, but for Moses; not a God, in the same meaning of the term as when it was applied to Jehovah, but a medium of communication between them and the Lord. Up,” (said they to Aaron,)“make us gods which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.” And accordingly when the image was made, and the altar was built before it, still the proclamation was, “ To-morrow there is a feast unto the Lord,” meaning Jehovah.'
That the Israelites then did not consider polytheism as implying a disbelief in the unity of God, will hardly be denied. That the heathen originally adopted it under the same impression, is also highly probable. But what, it may be asked, could have suggested to the early world, possessing as they did the knowledge and belief that God is one, a system so strange, and apparently incongruous, as polytheism? Was it the mere wantonness of fancy? or was there any doctrine of revelation known to all, and thus liable to become perverted by all? Such a doctrine there is. A belief in The doctrine
of Angels angels and ministering spirits appears in the earliest records of God's dispensations; nor can there be any difficulty in fixing on ministering this article of belief as the point from which religion first began to point from diverge into error, and superstition, and impiety. Men, for instance, Religion attributing whatever blessings they received from God to the inter- diverged mediate agency of his good angels, would (if neglectful of the appointed preservatives against error) fall into an undue regard and reverence for these ministers of good. A kindly season, the rains These which caused their corn to grow, the sun which ripened it, would become associated in their effects with some invisible superintendent, heavenly the agent and the creature of God. Hence the worship of the and other heavenly bodies, and of the various parts and operations of nature. features of Again, men great and good in their generation would, as time nature : rendered their history more and more marvellous, be converted
2 Exod. xxxii. 5. In the original it is “ Jehovah.”
into false :
associated with the