« PreviousContinue »
serve to you, what was certainly the fact, that, when matters came to be thus balanced between faith and unbelief, outward miracles and prodigies were not judged by the supreme disposer of all events, to be any longer necessary for silencing gainsayers, and for reaching conviction to the understanding.
That the power of working miracles did at first accoinpany the publication of the gospel by the apostles, we have at this day the strongest evidence, as from other sources, so especially from the success of their preaching, which, without this help, would be utterly unaccountable, and in direct contradiction to all the laws of probability hitherto known in the world. For not to mention the inveterate prejudices arising from immemorial opinions and practices, as well as from mistaken interest, which the first preachers of christianity had to encoun. ter, not to mention the universal contempt and detestation wherein the nation to which they belonged was holden, both by the Greeks and by the Romans, not to mention the appa. rent ridicule and absurdity there was in exhibiting to the world, as a saviour and mediator with God, a Jew, who had been ignominiously crucified as a malefactor by a Roman procurator, how inconceivably unequal must have been the combat, when on the one side were power, rank, opulence, birth, learning, and art; and on the other side, weakness, depend. ance, poverty, obscurity, and illiterate simplicity. The success of the last in a warfare so disproportionately matched, is an irrefragable demonstration, that the work was not of man, but of God. But as the conviction we have of the reality of those events, and of the means by which they were effected, is derived to us through the channel of testimony, it behoves us to be as careful as possible, in order that the evidence may have its full effect upon us, that we be right informed, both as to the nature of the testimony itself, and as to the character and capacity of the witnesses. This is one consideration, which immediately affects the evidence of the christian reve. lation.
Again, as the last mentioned dispensation is erected on the mosaical, the divine origin of which it every where pre-supposeth; whatever affects the credibility of the latter, will un. questionably affect the credibility of the former; whatever tends to subvert the basis, tends of necessity to overturn the superstructure; and, on the contrary, when once the connex. ion between the two establishments, the mosaick and the christian, is thoroughly understood, whatever tends to confirm the one, tends also, though more indirectly, to confirm the other. This reflection naturally leads us to carry our researches farther back, and endeavour, as much as possible, to
get acquainted with all those circumstances and events, which can throw any light upon the scripture history.
But it may be objected, that if all this were necessary to confirm our faith in the gospel, what would be the case of the bulk of mankind, who, by reason of the time they must employ in earning a subsistence, have no leisure for such inquiries; and, by reason of the education they have received, are not in a capacity of making them? To this objection a twofold answer may be returned: first, such inquiries are not neces. sary to the man, who, through want of education and of time, is incapacitated for prosecuting them. Those very wants, which unfit him for the study, are his great security that he shall have no occasion for it. The man of letters, on the contrary, whose time is much at his own disposal, is daily exposed, especially in this age and country, both from reading and from conversation, to meet with objections against revealed religion, which the other has no probability of ever hearing; and which, if he should by any accident come to hear, it is a thousand to one he does not understand. As our resources, there. fore, ought to be in proportion to our needs, and as our means and methods of defence ought to be adapted to the particular ways wherein we are liable to be attacked, there is a peculiar reason which men of letters have for entering so far at least into these inquiries, as to be acquainted with both sides of the question, and to be equitable judges between the friends and the enemies of the Gospel. There is also another reason, which ought to determine those in particular who have the holy ministry in view. It is their business, and therefore in a special manner their duty, to be furnished, as much as possible, for removing not only their own doubts, but the doubts of other peo, ple. It is their province to support the weak, to confirm the doubting, and to reclaim the strayed. In spiritual matters, especially, they ought to serve as eyes to the blind, and feet to, the lame.
But further, the knowledge of the sacred history is not only of importance for illustrating the truths of our religion, and for strengthening the evidences of its divinity, but also in the way of ornament and recommendation to the ministerial character. Nor let it be imagined that this is a matter of little moment. It will not require an uncommon share of penetration to discover, that this, on the contrary, is a matter of the greatest consequence. Whatever tends to adorn the character of a pastor, and render him respectable, is sure of procur. ing him in general a more favourable reception with mankind. When he speaks, he commands a closer attention, which gives double weight to every thing he says. It is this respect to sų. periority in knowledge and discernment, which makes, as Job poetically expresseth it, even princes refrain talking, and the nobles lay their hand upon their mouth. The utility of every such qualification, as serves to attract this veneration, will be readily acknowledged by all who are duly sensible how great a point in instructing is carried, when the people to be instruct. ed are induced seriously to attend, to think, to feel.
Thus much shall suffice for what regards the propriety of the study, and the several purposes of illustrating, confirming, and recommending our religion, which it is fitted to serve. Let us next inquire into the manner in which we may hope success, fully to prosecute it. And here I beg leave to take notice by the way, that it is not my intention, either on this, or any other branch of the theological science, or on what more im. mediately regards the pastoral care, to recommend to your perusal a multitude of books. Nothing could be easier, for one who has the honour to give lessons in theology, than to present the students with a long catalogue of authors, who have, with some reputation, treated the various topics to be studied. You might get in one half hour the titles of more volumes, than a whole life-time would suffice you to read over, There are several reasons which induce me to be rather spar. ing on this article. In the first place there is, in the practice of accumulating the names of books and authors, adding vo. lume to volume, and folio to folio, something very forbidding, which tends greatly to dishearten the young learner. The la. bour appears immense, and the difficulties insuperable. The toils he hath to undergo, and the obstacles he hath to sur. mount, are all set full in his view; and that before he is made so sensible of the charms of the pursuit, as to be heartily en. gaged in it, and animated to persist in defiance of every thing that might discourage or oppose him. The conduct of nature, in this respect, is more worthy of imitation. She commonly renders the first difficulty a screen, by which the second is concealed from sight; the second answers the same purpose to the third, and so forwards. In travelling over a ridge of mountains, like the Alps or Pyrenees, every summit the tra, veller approaches he imagines to be the highest; and it is not till he has reached it, that he is sensible he must climb still. higher. And this is what will happen to him for several suc. cessive times. Now there is this advantage in this gradual opening of the scene, that the time he has already spent, and the difficulties he hath already overcome, prove the most cogent arguments with him, not to lose his past time and labour by giving over the pursuit. The farther he advances, these arguments have the greater weight. And thus, by the help,
of a growing zeal and perseverance, a man will, with honour and advantage, come off victorious in an enterprise, which, had he seen from the beginning all its difficulty, he had never undertaken, i
A second reason for using this method is, the great variety of studies in which the divine, as you have seen, must necessa, rily be conversant. None of them can, without hurt both to his reputation and usefulness, be entirely neglected. Now the greater diversity there is of subjects in this study, the more the inquiry into each ought to be simplified, that the young student may neither be perplex. ! ind, as it were, lose himself in a cumbersome multiplicity ; nor so attach himself to one part of the study, as to swallow up all the time that should be employed on the other parts. He ought to be in troduced into every province of this extensive country, the most patent roads should be pointed out to him: a perfect acquaintance with each must be the work of time, and the fruit of his own assiduity and labour. Or dropping the metaphor : of every separate article of this study, he ought, in the schools of divinity, to acquire some general notions; but to attain a thorough proficiency in them all, is rather the business of a life-time, than the effect of a few years application. It is indeed in this, as in every other art or science, the foundation only is laid at school, the manner of building is indicated ; the scholar may afterwards rear the superstructure as high as his disposition and opportunities shall enable him. Now it is my design here, rather to lay a wide foundation, on which a goodly edifice may in time be erected; though I should make but little or no progress in raising the walls, than on a narrow bottom, to advance farther in the building; because, in this case, the fabrick, though it be raised ever so high, must, by reason of the straitened limits to which its foundation does necessari. ly confine it, be both mean and incommodious.
I shall assign a third reason for not harassing my hearers, by recommending a great variety of books. Young people are but too apt to imagine, that learning and reading are synony, mous terms, and that a man is always, the more learned the more he has read. Nothing can be a more egregious mistake. Food is necessary for the support of the body, and without a competency of it, we could not enjoy either vigour or health; but we should not suspect him to be overstocked with wisdom, who should conclude from this concession, that the more a man eats, the more healthy and vigorous he must be. We know from experience, that when a certain proportion is exceeded, those corporeal endowments, health and strength, are impaired by the very means, which, if used in moderation, would have increased them. The same thing exactly holds with reading, which is the food of the mind. The memory may be loaded and encumbered in the one case, as the stomach is in the other. And in either case, if we take more than we can digest, it can never turn to good account. There have been instances of such helluones librorum, such book-gluttons, as very much resembled the lean kine in Pharaoh's vision, which, when they had devoured the fat and well-favoured kine, were themselves as lean and ill-favoured as before. It is indeed necessary that we accustom ourselves to read : but it is likewise necessary, and much more difficult, that we accus. tom ourselves to reflect. There ought to be stated times for both exercises; but to the last, particularly, our best endea. vours ought frequently to be directed. And for this purpose, I know no better helps, than to be obliged, sometimes by conversation, sometimes by composing, to express our sentiments on the subjects of which we read. The use which the student makes of the food of the mind, bears the closest analogy to the use which the ruminating animals make of their pasture. They recall it and enjoy it a second time to much greater ad. vantage than the first. Resemble them in this particular, on whatever you find instructive often ruminate.
The fourth and last reason I shall mention is, when a num. ber of books' on every topick are recommended, the student finds it, I say not difficult, but impossible, to get them all, or even the greater part of them. Fruitless endeavours, often repeated, will in time extinguish the greatest ardour ; and from finding part of our task impracticable, we are but too apt to grow careless about the whole. A few directions exactly followed are more conducive to our improvement, than a much greater number little minded..
But to return from this, which will possibly be looked on as a digression; the first thing I would earnestly recommend, in order to your acquiring the knowledge of the Old Testa ment history, is the frequent and attentive perusal of the Old Testament itself. Let not this recommendation, far the most important I can give, be the more lightly esteemed by any of you, because it is a book so common, a book which all men, learned and unlearned, have access to. Are not the greatest blessings always the commonest? Such is the sun, that glori. ous luminary which enlightens us, the earth which we inha. bit, and the air which we breathe. Or are these invaluable benefits the less regarded by the pious and judicious, because of their commonness? Indeed it may be thought, that ever so great proficiency in the knowledge of a book, which is in every body's hands, can never procure a man the envied character