« VorigeDoorgaan »
about it. Curious articles of intelligence from time to time may be given to the public, and they again may publish accounts of monstrous animals, or strange adventures ; and other marvellous stories may pass current without a syllable of truth in them. They may continue uncontradicted, and being uncontradicted, will in some degree be credited ; and all for this reason, that they concern nobody, no one is interested to inquire into them. But if an event be publicly asserted, which affects individuals or the public, or trade, or taxes, or occupations, or professions, as that a law has been passed, or peace concluded, a victory obtained, a defeat suffered, or war broken out betwixt neighbouring nations, or a plague or infection, distemper or epidemic, rages in countries carrying on intercourse with our own; such events, and such narratives, if they be asserted and believed for any length of time, you may be almost certain they were true ; and the foundation of them certainly is, that having others concerned in the truth or falsehood of these articles, they would be investigated, and if false, detected; and also, that those who were from their interest able to inform themselves of the truth, would do so before they proceeded upon them as truths ; men not being accustomed to act upon slight or slender evidence, and without inquiry.
Now let us see how it stands in this respect with the gospel history. What were the miracles of Christianity ? They were of infinitely more importance to all to whom they were preached and related than any thing which affects a man's property and business can be ; for upon these facts and accounts being true, depended all their hopes of everlasting happiness.
Nor was this all; a convert to Christianity would and must reason with himself in this manner; If these accounts be true, what then? why, if they be true, I must give up the opinions and principles I have been born and brought up in. I must quit the religion in which my forefathers lived and died, and which I have all along believed and practised. I must take up with a new course of life, part with my old pleasures and gratifications, and begin a new set of rules and system of behaviour.' This is never easily done, and it is not conceivable that the first believers in Christianity should do it upon any idle, blind report, or frivolous story; or indeed without fully satisfying themselves of the truth and credibility of the history which was related to them, and upon the sole strength and credit of which they took the steps, and underwent the difficulties they did.
There are further considerations of a similar nature to those already proposed, together with some objections to the argument, which we must defer to another opportunity.
PROPAGATION OF CHRISTIANITY.
Acts V. 38, 39.
If this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought; but if it be of
God, ye cannot overthrow it.
Having observed three principal marks and tokens, by which a true history is known and distinguished from a false one; namely, that the history be published near the time in which the facts related are said to have happened, near the place which was the scene of the transactions, and that they be of a nature to interest and concern those to whom the history is addressed ; and how or in what manner these circumstances apply to the case of the gospel history ; I now proceed to describe a fourth particular, of as much weight and moment in the scale of credibility as any of the others; and that is, whether the story coincided with the prevailing opinions and prejudices, or was supported by the authority of the time and place where it was delivered.
We are all sensible that a story, which falls in with our own previous sentiments and passions, gains an easy admission. When parties run high, on the contrary, the most incredible things told against one side will go down with the other; rumors and reports will be received and repeated upon the slightest foundation, if they confirm the notion one party has taken up of the adversary, or serve to humor their resentment against them; but it is not only where faction and factious passions are concerned, which confound and prevent every rule of reason and justice, but any prevailing opinion whatever will espouse and embrace accounts which support and favor it, with very little examination into the testimony, and, consequently, often with little testimony at all. It is upon this principle that the many stories, which are banded down to us from the early parts of the last century, concerning witches and apparitions, find few people to believe them at this time of day, because we know that such stories might be a mere fabrication, or credited upon the slenderest evidence; for there was no more doubt entertained at that time of the reality of witchcraft and
apparitions than we have of our own ; and therefore accounts of them were received, not as we should receive them, with surprise and caution, or any curiosity to see into the bottom of them, but with open ears, with more greediness and less distrust than any common transactions or ordinary circumstances whatever. Of a like nature were the popular stories that were formerly told of Jewish barbarities to Christian infants. Such stories were put forth at a time when the populace were beforehand enraged against that people ; and, by their falling in with the public prejudice and hatred, disposed people to believe and repeat them against all reason and probability. The same observation holds with respect to the Popish miracles, which were pretended to be wrought in the dark ages of Christianity, They proved nothing but what was already allowed. They had the popular cry and persuasion on their side to set off with; and it is remarkable that these miracles were never pretended in Protestant countries, or amongst enemies, where one would think they were not wanting ; but the case was, that such pretences would there have been investigated and examined into more than they could brook. Whilst these miracles were only produced as vouchers for tenets and principles already professed and believed, no one was interested to inquire into them, or detect the imposition, if there was any. Every one found himself disposed to credit them himself and pass them to others; but when miracles attempt to make converts to new opinions, and are produced to overturn old and favorite opinions, they will find unbelievers enow; every man to whom they are proposed is inclined to question them; and if they are done upon the spot, they must have the opportunity, as well as the inclination, to know the truth of the matter on one side or the other.
Public authority, also, by stifling inquiry or silencing contradiction, may frequently hold up the reputation of a story that has little else to support it. This remark is also applicable to the Popish miracles nearer these times, when it was as much as a man's life was worth to question or dispute them.
On the contrary, therefore, if a story make its way in opposition to prejudice, passion, established opinion, and public authority ; if every adversary to the principle it is calculated to establish confess the truth of it, or, what is still more, be converted and drawn over, by having in their hands the means of discovering the falsehood if there be any there, then you may depend upon the truth of such a story, because nothing but the truth would force from men acknowledgment against the bent of their wills and inclinations.
Now under the impression of these remarks, let us investigate the scripture history of Christ. Was it backed or upheld by prejudice, by preconceived opinion, by passion, by any public authority? The very reverse of every particular was the case. The gospel bad to contend with all these. So far, in the first place, from falling in with the established prejudices and opinions concerning the Messiah, it directly contradicted the opinion that had almost universally been taken up of him ; that of a temporal prince. All the false Messiahs knew the importance of complying with the prejudices, and conforming their pretensions to this opinion; and they drew followers after them for a season by virtue of it. Christ, so far from humoring their prejudices, cut off the hopes they had for ages flattered themselves with ; he pulled down the dependence they placed, and the value they set, upon their ceremonies and traditions; he taught that even publicans and sinners and harlots should enter the kingdom of heaven before them, with all their pretended sanctity and strictness; he gave no encouragement to assert or claim deliverance from the Roman yoke, or to expect the independence of their nation, which was the passion of the Jews; he took away, what the Jews could never forgive him for, the superiority they supposed they had in God's favor over the Gentiles and the Samaritans; he called idolaters, with whom they would not so much as eat or drink, and told them that these should sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whilst they should be cast out. Was this the way to make friends, to root and conciliate them all to his cause, amongst whom he might pass off false and uncertain stories of miracles and wonders, whilst he gained over their good will and affection by the flattering doctrine he had held out to them? When the gospel came among the heathen, it was no very palatable lesson to them to be told that they must forthwith quit those lusts and pleasures to which they were universally addicted, and take up for the future with constant purity of manners, to be taught that idols and temples, and splendid shows and daily ceremonies, were folly and absurdity. Nor was this bistory, whether contained in books or in the preaching of the apostles, likely to fare much better with the priests and philosophers of those times, for the plain tendency of it was to ruin one profession and discredit the other.
As to the article of authority, that was all in opposition to the new religion. Pharisee and Sadducee, lawyers and Scribes, synagogues and sanhedrims, their own kings and Roman governors, princes and priests, philosophers and populace, were in
arms against it. It was full three hundred years before Christianity became the religion of the state, or at all supported by civil government; so that there is not a color for saying that it was a state contrivance, or a measure adopted by the rulers and great men of the world to keep the inferior part of mankind
Christ never courted favor of the rulers or powerful men of his own time and country. He dealt
all occasions plainly and roundly with them. The event was what might be expected, that he drew down upon himself their indignation and resentment. They put him to death, persecuted his disciples, reviled, threatened, imprisoned, beat, punished, stoned ; declared all who took a part infamous and excommunicated; yet we find the force of truth and evidence fought its way through the temper and disposition of the powers which Christ and the apostles had to contend with; and this a temper and disposition ready to make a handle and advantage of every thing which might influence the minds of the people against miracles which had no foundation. Was this any thing like the case of a credulous multitude, already disposed to the matter which is delivered, and prepared to carry away with them whatever any one may please to tell them in confirmation of it? Is it not more like one who lives amongst vigilant enemies, eager to spy out any infirmity, and ready to publish them, to go on in spite of ill grounded and idle reports, believing that any evidence short of improbability would gain credit ?
To sum up the argument in a few words. We desire no other credit or favor to the gospel history than what is due to any other history under the same circumstances. If it be found in experience that various accounts of facts published close upon, or near to, the time in which the facts are alleged to have happened ; at the very place and in the country where they are alleged to have happened ; addressed to the people among whom they happened; facts upon which much depended, or in consequence of which much was to be done and great alterations made, and in which, consequently, those to whom they were proposed were highly interested to inquire and inform themselves; facts, also, the belief of which was recommended by no previous inclination or favorable sentiments towards them, or upheld by authority and the sanction of great men; if, I say, accounts so circumstanced have been found by experience to gain credit without foundation, there might then be no foundation for the credit which was certainly given to the scripture accounts. If, on the other hand, accounts or circumstances, almost unprecedented in human life, be credited for