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Dr. Priestley often professes great regard for the scriptures, and, as has been observed before, is very severe on Mr. Burn for representing him as denying “ the infallibility of the apostolic testimony concerning the person of Christ. Far be it from me to wish to represent the sentiments of Dr. Priestley in an unfair manner or in such a light as he himself could justly disavow. All I mean to do, is to quote a passage or two from his own writings, and add a few remarks upon them.
Speaking in favour of reverence for the sacred writings, he says, “ Not that I consider the books of scripture as inspired, and, on that account, entitled to this high degree of respect, but as authentic records of the dispensations of God to mankind, with every particular of which we cannot be too well acquainted.”
Again ; “ If you wish to know what, in my opinion, a Christian is bound to believe with respect to the scriptures, I answer, that the books which are universally received as authentic, are to be considered as faithful records of past transactions, and, especially, the account of the intercourse which the Divine Being has kept up with mankind from the beginning of the world, to the time of our Saviour and his apostles. No Christian is answerable for more than this. The writers of the books of scripture were men, and therefore fallible; but all that we have to do with them is in the character of historians and witnesses of what they heard and saw. Of course, their credibility is to be estimated, like that of other historians ; viz. from the circumstances in which they wrote, as with respect to their opportunities of knowing the truth of what they relate, and the biases to which they might be subject. Like all other historians, they were liable to mistakes with respect to things of small moment, because they might not give sufficient attention to them; and with respect to their reasoning, we are fully at liberty to judge of it, as well as that of any other men, by a due consideration of the propositions they advance, and the arguments they allege. For it by no means follows, because a man bas had communications with the Deity for certain purposes, and he may be depended upon with respect to his account of those communi
cations, that he is in other respects, more wise and knowing than other men."*
" You say,” says he, in his Letters to Dr. Price, “ that I do not allow of scriptural authority : but, indeed, my friend, you should have expressed yourself with more caution. No man can pay a higher regard to proper scriptural authority, than I do; but neither I, nor, I presume, yourself, believe implicitly every thing that is advanced by any writer in the Old or New Testament. I believe all the writers, without exception, to have been men of the greatest probity, and to have been well informed of every thing of consequence, of which they treat ; but, at the same time I believe them to have been men, and consequently fallible, and liable to mistake with respect to things to which they had not given much attention, or concerning which they had not the means of exact information ; which I take to be the case with respect to the account that Moses has given of the creation and the fall of man." In a late performance, entitled, Letters to the Philosophers and Politicians of France, Dr. Priestley speaks much in the same strain. “ That the books of scripture” he says, “ were written by a particular divine inspiration, is a thing to which the writers themselves make no pretensions. It is a notion destitute of all proof, and that has done great injury to the evidence of Christianity.."
From this account, taken all together, you will observe, brethren, that Dr. Priestley does not believe either the Old or the New Testament to be divinely inspired ; to be so inspired as that he is “ bound implicitly to believe every thing” (and might he not have added any thing ?) " which the writers of those books advance.” He believes, that the scriptures, instead of being the rule of faith and practice, are only “faithful records of past transactions :” and that no authority attends them, except what attends the writings of any other honest and well-informed historian ; nor even that, in many cases : for he maintains, that “no Christian is bound to consider any of the books of scripture as faithful records of past transactions, unless they have been universally received as
* Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever, Part II. Preface, p. xiii. also Letter V.
Page 38. Voi. II.
authentic :” that is, if any person, at least any considerable number of persons, at any period, have thought proper to dispute the authenticity of any of these writings, that part immediately ceases to have any claim upon posterity, and may be rejected with impunity. And even those writers, whose works, upon the whole, are allowed as authentic, are supposed to have written upon subjects “ to which they had not given much attention, and concerning which they were not possessed of sufficient means of information;" and, consequently, in those cases, are not to be regarded. This is the whole of what he means by“ proper scriptural authority." This is the ground on which,while he speaks of the sacred writers as fallible, he nevertheless, maintains the infallibility of their testimony concerning the person of Christ. He does not pretend to say the apostles were inspired in that article, though not in others, but merely that this was a case in which, by the mere exercise of their senses, they were competent to decide, and even certain of deciding right. Whether these notions of proper scriptural authority will accord with the foregning professions, I leave you to judge ; also, if Dr. Priestley's views be right, whether the sacred writers, professing what they did, could be men of the “ greatest probity.”
You will observe further, that the fallibility which Dr. Priețley imputes to the sacred writers, as being men, must rest upon this principle ; That it is impossible for God himself so to inspire a man as to preserve him from error, without destroying his nature; and, as he considers Christ as a mere man, perhaps it is on this principle that he maintains him to be “ fallible and peccable.” Yet he has never been able to produce one example in which be has actually failed. But, it should seem very extraordinary, for a fallible and peccable man to go through the world in such a manner, that his worst enemies could not convict him of a single failure, nor accuse him of any sin. If this matter be capable of proof, let Dr. Priestley prove it. Though the Jews declined the
challenge, yet, it is possible that he may possess sufficient “magnanimity” to accept it.*.
Further : You will observe, that the infallibility which Dr. Priestley ascribes to the apostolic testimony concerning the person of Christ, implies, that every historian is infallible in similar circumstances. His reasoning supposes, that, if a sensible and upright historian have the proper means of inf rmation, and pay attention to his subject, he is infallible : but is this a fact? It certainly has not been usual for us to consider historians in this light. We commonly suppose, that, amidst the most ample means of information, and the greatest attention, that uninspired men (who all have their prejudices and imperfections) are ever known to pay to a subject, they are liable to mistakes. Dr. Priestley has written a treatise, in which he has declared for the doctrine of Materialism ; and, I suppose, he would be thought to have paid ttention to it, and to have possessed the means of information as far as the nature of the subject will admit ; yet, I imagine, he does not pretend, in that article, to infallibility,
If it be objected, that the nature of the subjects is different, and that the apostles were capable of arriving to a greater degree of certainty concerning the person of Christ, than Dr. Priestley could obtain on the subject of Materialism ; I answer, This appears, to me, to be more easily asserted than proved. Dr. Priestley, indeed, tells us, “ They were as capable of judging whether he was a man, as whether John the Baptist was one.” This is very true ; and if the question were, Whether he was a man ; it might be to the purpose. But at this time of day, however some of the humble followers of Dr. Priestley may amuse themselves in circulating pamphlets, proving that Jesus Christ was a man, and that with a view to convert the Trinitarians ; yet he himself cannot be insensible, that a Materialist might, with just as much propriety, gravely go about to prove that men have material bodies.f Supposing Christ to have been merely a man, this was a matter that could not be visible to the eyes of the apostles. How could they judge by his exterior appearance, whether he was merely a man, or both God and man? The august personages that appeared to Abraham, to Lot, and to Jacob, are called men ; por was there any thing, that we know of, in their exterior appearance, different from other men : yet, it does not follow from hence, that they were merely human. God, in the above instances, assumed the appearance of a man ; and how could the disciples be certain that all this might not be preparatory to his becoming really incarnate ? It is true, our Lord might have told them that he was merely a man ; and, in that case, they might have been said to be certain of it : but, if so, it was either in some private instructions, or else in the words which they have recorded in their writings. We cannot say it was impossible for the apostles to mistake respecting the person of Christ, owing to their private instructions : because that would be building upon a foundation, of which we are confessedly ignorant : neither can we affirm it on account of any of those words of Christ to his disciples which are recorded : for we have those words as well as they ; and it might as well be said of us, as of them, that it is impossible for us to be under any mistake upon the subject.” We might as well, therefore, allow what Dr. Priest. ley says to be infallible, on the question, whether men have souls, or not, as what the apostles say (if we give up their inspiration) on the question, whether Christ was divine, or not : for the one is as much an object of the senses, as the other.
* When Dr. Priestley charges the Mosaic history of the creation and fall of man, with being a lame account, it was imputed to his magnanimity.
† When Socinian writers have produced a list of texts, which prove the proper humanity of Christ, they seein to think their work is done. Our wri. ters reply ; We never questioned his humanity. If you attempt to prove any thing, prove to us, that he was merely human. Here our opponents, feeling themselves piached, it should seem, for want of evidence, have been known to lose their temper. It is on this occasion, tbat Mr. Lindsey is reduced to the necessity of abusing and insulting his opponents, instead of answering their arguments. Catechist, Inquiry VI. quoted towards the latter end of Letter VIII.