« PreviousContinue »
In the great controversy in the time of Elijah, recourse was had to an expedient by which the question was decided. Each party built an altar, cut in pieces a bullock, and laid the victim upon the wood, but put no fire under; and the God that should answer by fire, was to be acknowledged as the TRUE God. We cannot bring our controversies to such a criterion as this : we may bring them to one, however, which, though not so suddenly, is not much less sensibly evident. The tempers and lives of mey are books for common people to read; and they will read them, even though they should read nothing else. They are, indeed, warranted by the scriptures themselves to judge of the nature of doctrines, by their holy or unholy tendency. The true gospel is to be known by its being a doctrine according to godliness ; teaching those who embrace it to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live soberly, righteously and godly in the present world Those, on the other hand, who believe not the truth, are said to have pleasure in unrighteousness. Profane and vain babblings, as the ministrations of false teachers are called, will increase unto more ungodliness ; and their word will eat as doth a canker. * To this may be added, that the parties themselves, engaged in this controversy, have virtually acknowledged the justice and importance of the above criterion ; in that both sides have incidentally endeavoured to avail themselves of it. A criterion, then, by which the common people will judge, by wbich the scripture authorises them to judge, and by which both sides, in effect, agree to be judged, cannot but be wor. thy of particular attention.
I feel, for my own part, satisfied, not only of the truth and importance of the doctrines in question, but also of their holy tendency. I am aware, however, that others think differently; and that a considerable part of what I have to advance must be on the defensive.
“ Admitting the truth,” says Dr. Priestly, “of a trinity of persons in the Godhead, original sin, arbitrary predestination, atonement by the death of Christ, and the plenary inspiration of the scriptures; their value, estimated by their influence on the morals of men, cannot be supposed, éven by the admirers of them, to be of any moment, compared to the doctrine of the resurrection of the human race to a life of retribution : and, in the opinion of those who reject them, they have a very unfavourable tendency; giving wrong impressions concerning the character and moral government of God, and such as might tend, if they have any effect, to relax the obligations of virtue.")*
* 1 Tim. vi. 3.
Titus ii. 12.
2 Thes. ii. 2.
1 Tim. ii. 16, 17.
In many instances Dr. Priestly deserves applause for his frankness and fairness as a disputant: in this passage, however, as well as in some others, the admirers of the doctrines he mentions are unfairly represented. They who embrace the other doctrives, are supposed to hold that of arbitrary predestination ; but this suppotion is not true. The term arbitrary conveys the idea of caprice; and, in this connexion denotes, that, in predestination, according to the Calvinistic notion of it, God resolves upon the fates of men, and appoints them to this or that, without any reason for so doing. But there is no justice in this representation. There is no decree in the divine mind that we consider as void of reason. Predestination to death is on account of sin; and as to predestination to life, though it be not on account of any works of righteousness which we have done, yet it does not follow that God has no reason whatever for what he does. The sovereignty of God is a wise, and not a capricious sovereignty. If he hide the glory of the gospel from the wise and prudent, and reveal it unto babes, it is because it seemeth good in his sight. But if it seem good in the sight of God, it must, all things considered, be good; for the judgment of God is according to truth.
It is asserted also, that the admirers of the forementioned doctrines cannot, and do not, consider them as of equal importance with that of the resurrection of the human race to a life of retribution. But this, I am satisfied, is not the case : for, whatever Dr. Priestly may think, they consider them, or at leist some of them, as essential to true holiness; and of such consequence, even to the doctrine of the resurrection of the human race to a life of retribution, that, without them, such a resurrection would be a curse to mankind, rather than a blessing.
*Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever Part II, p. 33. 35,
There is one thing, however, in the above passage, wherein we all unite ; and this is—that the value or importance of religious principles is to be estimated by their influence on the morals of men. By this rule let the forementioned doctrines, with their opposites, be tried. If either those or these will not abide the trial, they ought to be rejected.
Before we enter upon a particular examination of the subject, however, I would make three or four general observations.
First, Whatever Dr. Priestly or any others have said of the immoral tendency of our principles, I am persuaded that I may take it for granted, they do not mean to suggest, that we are not good members of civil society, or worthy of the most perfect toleration in the state ; nor have I any such meaning in what may be suggested concerning theirs. I do not know any religious denomination of men, who are unworthy of civil protection. So long as their practices do not disturb the peace of society, and there be nothing in their avowed principles inconsistent with their giving security for their good behavior, they, doubtless, ought to be protected in the enjoyment of every civil right to which their fellowcitizens at large are entitled.
Secondly, It is not the bad conduct of a few individuals, in any denomination of Christians, that proves any thing on either side; even though they may be zealous advocates for the peculiar tenets of the party which they espouse. It is the conduct of the general body, from which we ought to form our estimate. That there are men of bad character who attend on our preaching, is not denied ; perhaps, some of the worst : but if it be so, it proves nothing to the dishonour of our principles. Those, who, in the first ages of Christianity, were not humbled by the gospel, were generally hardened by it. Nay, were it allowed that we have a greater number of hypocrites than the Socinians, (as it has been insinuated that the hypocrisy and preciseness, of some people afford matter of just disgust to speculative Unitarians,) I do not think this supposition, any more than the other, dishonourable to our principles. The defect of hypocrites lies not so much in the thing professed, as in the sincerity of their profession. The thing professed may be excellent, and, perhaps, is the more likely
to be so, from its being counterfeited; for it is not usual to counterfeit things of no value. Those persons who entertain low and diminutive ideas of the evil of sin and the dignity of Christ, must, in order to be thought religious by us, counterfeit the contrary ; but, among Socinians, the same persons may avow those ideas, and be caressed for it. That temper of mind which we suppose common to men, as being that which they possess by nature, needs not to be disguised among them, in order to be well thought of: they have, therefore, no great temptations to hypocrisy. The question in hand, however, is not-What influence either our principles or theirs have upon persons who do not in reality adopt them! but, What influence they bave upon those who do ?*
Thirdly, It is not the good conduct of a few individuals, on either side, that will prove any thing. Some have adopted a false creed, and retain it in words, who yet never enter into the spirit of it, and consequently do not act upon it. But merely dormant opinions can hardly be called principles: those, rather, seem to be a man's principles, which lie at the foundation of his spirit and conduct. Farther: good men are found in denominations whose principles are very bad ; and good men, by whatever names they are called, are more nearly of a sentiment than they are frequently aware of. Take two of them, who differ the most in words, and bring them upon their knees in prayer, and they will be nearly agreed. Besides, A great deal of that which passes for virtue amongst men, is not so in the sight of God, who sees things as they are. It is no more than may be accounted for without bringing
*Though the Socinjans be allowed, in what is said above, to bave but few hypocrites among them ; yet this is to be understood as relating merely to one species of hypocrisy. Dr. Priestly speaking of Unitarians who still continue in the Church of England, says, “ from a just aversion to every thing that looks like hypocrisy and preciseness, they rather lean to the ex. treme of fashionable dissipation," Yet he represents the same persons, and that in the same page, as 6 continuing to countenance a mode of worship, which, if they were questioned about it, they could not deny to be according to their own principles, idolatrous and blasphemous, Discourses on Various Subjects, p. 96. The hypocrisy, then, to which these gentlemen' have so just an adversion, seems to be only of one kind.
religion or virtue into the question. There are motives and considerations which will commonly influence men, living in society to behave with decorum. Various occupations and pursuits, especially those of a mental and religious kind, are inconsistent with profligacy of manners. False apostles, the very ministers of Satan, are said to transform themselves into the apostles of Christ, and to appear as the ministers of righteousness ; even as Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.* There are certain vices, which, being inconsistent with others, may be the means of restraining them. Covetousness may be the cause of sobriety; and pride restrains thousands from base and ignoble gratifications, in which, nevertheless, their hearts take secret and supreme delight. A decent conduct has been found in Pharisees, in infidels, nay, even in Atheists. Dr. Priestly acknowledges that “ An Atheist may be temperate, good natured, honest, and, in the less-extended sense of the word, a virtuous man."| Yet Dr. Priestly would not from bence infer any thing in favour of the moral tendency of Atheism.
Lastly, Neither zeal in defence of principles, nor every kind of vlevotion springing from them, will prove those principles to be true, or worthy of God. Several gentlemen, who have gone over from the Calvinistic to the Socinian system, are said to possess greater zeal for the propagation of the latter, than thay bad used to discover for that of the former. As this, however, makes nothing to the disadvantage of their system, neither does it make any thing to its advantage. This may be owing, for any thing that can be proved to the contrary, to their having found a system more consonant to the bias of their hearts than that was which they formerly professed. And as to devotion, a species of this may exist in persons, and that to a higher degree, inconsistent enough with the worst of principles. We know that the gospel had no worse enemies than the devout and honourable amongst the Jews. Saul while an enemy to Jesus Christ, was as sincere, as zealous, and as devout in his way, as any of those persons whose sincerity, zeal,
*2 Cor. xi. 13, 15.
facts. xii. 50.