The Right of Private Judgment and Due Freedom of Inquiry
The following material is the work of a Scottish Presbyterian minister and theological professor whom his erstwhile student, Thomas M’Crie, eulogized in the following terms: “For solidity and perspicacity of judgment joined to a lively imagination, for the power of patient investigation, of carefully discriminating between truth and error, and of guarding against extremes on the right hand as well as the left, Mr. Bruce has been equaled by few, if any, of those who have occupied the chair of divinity, either in late or in former times.”
Archibald Bruce (1746-1816) was pastor of a single congregation, the Secession church in the hamlet of Whitburn, Linlithgowshire, Scotland from 1768 until his death. In 1786 he was elected by his peers to be Professor of Divinity for the General Associate Synod. This material composes the final three chapters of Bruce’s Introductory and Occasional Lectures, for Forming the Minds of Young Men Intending the Holy Ministry, to Theological and Useful Learning, Religion, and Good Manners, Edinburgh 1817. Bruce delivered these lectures to the students in the General Associate Synod’s theological academy at Whitburn. They were edited and published by Thomas M’Crie, after the author’s death.
To have the minds of men duly regulated in their inquiries after truth, so as to retain and exercise their proper freedom and rights, without deviating into licentiousness, is a matter of no small moment, and at the same time of no easy attainment. In like manner it has ever been found a difficult and delicate task in practice, exactly to adjust the several claims of authority and of human liberty, – the rights of the public governors and of the governed, so as not to interfere with or destroy one another. The prerogative of the few who are invested with official authority, either in ecclesiastic or civil society, may appear incompatible with the privilege of the many, and it has too often been exercised in a manner injurious to them: nor can it be denied, that the many have sometimes put in claims and performed acts which could not be consistent with the due exercise of authority and just prerogative. It must be owned, that the encroachments have most frequently been made from the side of exorbitant and abused power, as the history of the world testifies. Yet, in some particular periods and places, the free spirit of the people has been aroused, has repressed the tide of despotism and arbitrary imposition, and, in its turn, has seldom been unaccompanied with certain excesses and dangers of an opposite kind. The present period is one of those in which the ideas of power have been reduced to a lower and more moderate standard than formerly: – in which authority of every kind has fallen greatly in general opinion, and every species of liberty is asserted and cried up. In religious matters particularly, which are more immediately our province, the spirit of free inquiry has of late become more conspicuous and prevalent than in times past. Whether this be indeed a laudable or a dangerous spirit, – whether the right of private judgment be a real or usurped one, deserves to be carefully examined. As it is a question of great importance at all times to Christians, and is peculiarly interesting to those who are engaged in the study of divine truths, to teachers as well as those who are taught, in every step of their procedure, we shall therefore:
I. Offer some previous explication of the terms and import of the question.
II. Show that a freedom of inquiry, and a right of private judgment about matters of religion, belong to every man, and ought to be exercised by every Christian.
III. Remove some of the objections that have been urged against this.
IV. Notice some abuses that have arisen, or may arise from the exercise of this right; and expose the mistaken notions and the dangers that attend modern freethinking, falsely so called.
First, For explaining the proper state and import of the question, it may be observed, 1. That a free inquiry and examination of any matter, about which a judgment is to be formed, in whatever capacity men may judge, must be previously supposed in order to a true judgment, and is necessarily involved in it. 2. The words examination and judgment, as used in this question, are not to be understood according to strict logical ideas and definitions. They are not to be restricted to an inquiry after proofs, and mere deductions of reason, or of the reasoning faculty properly so called. The inquiry and examination meant must be considered as implying the use and application of the whole intelligent and reasonable powers of man, in the largest sense, and as taking in the different kinds and various sources of knowledge accessible to man, in the circumstances in which he may be placed. Nor is judgment to be confined to the act of the understanding as exercised only about what is true or false; but in reference to this subject, it denotes the whole result of a person’s apprehensions, informations, convictions, reasonings and impressions about religious matters or moral conduct, whether true or false, good or evil, an object of choice or aversion, of speculation or practice. The same thing is sometimes otherwise expressed by the words, the light, the persuasion, faith, opinion, or conscience, that a person has about such objects.
3. Freedom of inquiry and of judging is not to be restricted to things considered as unknown or doubtful, or about which there has been no previous determination of the mind. The right in question is not therefore to be viewed as referring to some things or cases only, but as extending to all in which persons are interested, about which they have a call to judge and act. It respects not merely a freedom of judging at first, or in order to embrace a religious profession or article of belief, or in first entering upon a course of action; but it is a perpetual right, always to be exercised, and competent to a person after as well as before such a choice or determination of his mind and conduct. It respects both natural and revealed religion, each of which must be tried and judged according to its proper standard, by the help of principles naturally discovered, and by all other means and aids, including those which are supernatural when they are enjoyed. It is to be considered as a natural right belonging to all men, applicable to revealed religion, and not abolished but established by it. Revelation has both extended the sphere and objects of inquiry, and furnished men with a more certain rule, and superior aids in the exercise of it. 4. This freedom and right of judging must also include in it the right of expressing and declaring in a proper manner the sentiments that may be formed, as there may be reason for it, and of acting agreeably to them. But the question has no respect to the nature of that judgment, whether true or false, or to the conduct consequential upon it, whether it be right or wrong, in a moral view.
5. The judgment in question is called private by way of distinction from that which is public, being that whereby a private person, or any individual of a body, or a minor part of a body, may judge for himself, or for themselves, in matters of religion, without resigning themselves solely to the public decisions or common doctrines of that body, or to the judgment of others, whether more general or particular; – whether the result of their judgment may be conformable or contrary to that of others. The freedom and the right are not to be understood as implying an exemption from an absolute subjection to divine authority, but merely from that which is human; and they stand opposed to an implicit faith in any men, or church, who may claim a right, and even an exclusive right, of judging for them, whether with the pretence of infallibility, as in the Church of Rome, or without it. Free inquiry is also opposed to willful ignorance, indolence, indifference, blind accommodation, and thoughtless conformity or disconformity in religious concerns, or moral conduct.
This is also called a judgment of discretion, as it is that by which a person is to discern between true and false, and to discriminate between right and wrong, in what respects his own belief or conduct; and as distinguished from a judgment of public decision and authority, which, in a certain sense, and under certain restrictions, may extend unto, and become obligatory upon others. It may be so called also because it is used at the discretion of the particular person.
6. A distinction may also be made, between a simple examination and judgment, and a judgment of discussion. The former is that which belongs to all, and for which all common Christians may in some measure be competent, whatever their capacity or the degree of their acquired knowledge may be: it is that which most generally is employed by those who are illiterate and incapable of entering into a train of elaborate reasoning, or a particular and intricate examination of proofs. The other is that which proceeds upon a discussion of subjects in the mode of argumentation, and in a more formal and controversial manner. This last, though still allowable and open for all, may be impracticable to the greater part of the people, at least to any considerable extent; and belongs more properly to teachers, and such as have made some proficiency in human learning, or who give themselves to studious researches. This kind of inquiry, therefore, is not to be deemed absolutely necessary to the exercise of the right of private judgment.
Thirdly, As the danger to which men might be exposed by resigning their own judgment, and placing implicit confidence in others, would be very great, so would it also be very probable. Such is the nature and state of man, that all are alike liable to err. No guides can be found in office or authority over them, on whom the high privilege of infallibility is conferred: if any on earth proudly arrogate it to themselves, such an unusual claim ought not surely to be allowed them merely upon their word, but deserves at least to be carefully sifted and examined; and upon examination it will soon be found to be a phantom, and a delusive lie. Scarce any individual, and no church but one, has been daring enough directly to claim it, and it is the most impudent pretension that ever was made, and most palpably and demonstrably false. Though revelation has furnished a rule more sure and certain, yet no religion has provided an absolute security or antidote against human error; and no church or set of teachers, unless they can produce their valid charter to infallibility, can justly demand the absolute dominion over men’s faith and consciences. These must be directed by a rule more sure, and an authority superior to theirs, otherwise none could ever be satisfied that what they believe is true, or that what is enjoined them is safe and warrantable: nor can the surer rule, and the superior and unerring authority, be certainly known and discerned merely through an erring or fallible medium, but must be immediately apprehended by a man himself, to the conviction of his own mind.
Whether therefore we consider the constitution and character of man, – whether we consult experience or the language of Scripture concerning him, we may find sufficient reason against such blind confidence, and ground for apprehensions. Has not error generally been more current than truth, and false religion been more extensively diffused throughout the world than the true? Has not darkness covered the earth, and gross darkness the people? The Scripture is abundant on this head. “They all have gone out of the way” – “There is no truth in their mouth” – “with their tongues they have used deceit.” “Cursed be the man who trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm:” – “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, who can know it?” “Trust ye not in a friend, put ye not confidence in a guide.” How often are church members warned against the seduction and influence of false teachers? “The leaders of this people cause them to err, and they who are led of them are destroyed.” “The prophet and the priest are out of the way: – they err in vision, they stumble in judgment.” In every book of the New Testament also, intimations are given of the approach and prevalence of danger from this quarter, – with repeated admonitions to Christians to be on their guard; “Beware of false prophets,” said our Lord, “which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves.” “Beware of the leaven of the scribes and Pharisees”; by which he meant the doctrine of the scribes and Pharisees. And again, “take heed that no man deceive you; for many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ: and shall deceive many.” – “If any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there: believe it not. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch that (if it were possible) they shall deceive the very elect. Behold I have told you before.”
And how did his apostles continue to sound the alarm! “Grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.” “I hear,” said Paul to the Corinthians, “that there are divisions among you – and there must needs be heresies also among you, that they who are approved may be made manifest.” And again, “I am jealous over you with a godly jealousy, lest by any means as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.” In the same spirit does he warn the Galatian, Philippian, and other churches, that even apostles, and those who seemed to be pillars, might neither speak nor walk uprightly. – Nay, though an angel from heaven should be deceived, and attempt to seduce them, they were not to listen to him. “Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you, than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you, than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” God alone is true, essentially and invariably true, and every man a liar. – “There were false prophets also among the people, (says Peter) even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.” The Spirit of God also spoke expressly of a general departure from the faith in the last days, throughout the Christian world, when men should give heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils; – and when the man of sin should “sit in the temple of God, showing himself in the place of God, and exalting himself above all that is called God and is worshipped; – whose coming should be after the working of Satan, with all power and signs, and lying wonders, and with all deceiveableness of unrighteousness in them that perish, because they received not the love of the truth that they might be saved – on whom God would send strong delusion, that they should believe a lie.”
Amidst the jarring sentiments and varying systems of religion that have abounded and still abound in the world; amidst the multiplicity of sects, and the opposite claims of pretending churches and teachers, one saying, Lo here, another Lo there! how shall Christians be able to make the necessary distinction, and avoid the danger, but by bringing them all to some common test to be tried? If they were not allowed this privilege, or if they failed to use it, Mahomet, a Pope, or any enthusiast, who might pretend to speak in the name of God, might be equally listened to as a true prophet sent from heaven. Without this, amidst endless divisions and contendings, they could never come to any certain decision; they must turn sceptics as to all religion, or be every “tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine.”
Fourthly, This right may be evinced from the nature of true religion, and of acceptable service to God. This requires the concurrence of the understanding and the heart, and must flow from conscience. Genuine faith must be accompanied with light, and is inseparable from knowledge; “for God taketh no pleasure in fools.” All right worship must be paid him from a sense of his divine command and will, as its reason and rule; and whatever is founded on the doctrines and commandments of men, is condemned and rejected. He reproves those who “honored him only with the lips, – and whose fear of him was taught only by the precept of men.” Whatever is not done in faith, nor accompanied with personal persuasion of the obligation or the lawfulness of it in the sight of God, is pronounced to be sin. It is not respect or conformity to an external law or the injunctions of human authority, that will make anything an act of true religion; for every accepted worshipper honors and adores him who is a Spirit, “in spirit and in truth.” Ignorance, or a doubting or condemning judgment, make even lawful things evil, and are ingredients that spoil the sweet odor of every act of devotion. When even the best system of faith, and the purest form of religion, are professed and adhered to blindly and implicitly, or from no higher principle than education, custom, prejudice, or human authority, they lose their value, and the truth itself is then detained in unrighteousness: such may “swear the Lord liveth, but not in truth, judgment, and righteousness.”
When the woman of Samaria said, “Our fathers worshipped in this mountain, and ye say that in Jerusalem men ought to worship”; our Lord replied, “Ye worship ye know not what, we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.” And to the Jewish worshippers themselves he said, “Ye hypocrites, well did Isaias prophesy of you, saying, “This people draw near to me with their mouth, and honoreth me with their lips: but their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” Though such may be right as to the matter of their profession and acts, they are right only by accident, because their human guides, or those they dwell among, may peradventure be in the right. On the same grounds they would have embraced error, and adhered to the grossest superstition and idolatry. Those who have no better reason for their faith or form of religion, cannot be said in earnest to believe, nor can they ever be cordially and steadfastly attached to it: they would be ready, upon a change of external circumstances, to adopt and conform to any other. “Proving all things, ” is therefore, in Scripture and in reason, connected with “holding fast that which is good.” The doctrine of the word in the parable, that was sown and fell on stony ground, because it had no root soon withered away. It is the apostolic injunction that Christians should be rooted and grounded in the truth; which cannot be when it is not received into the understanding, with the heart, conscience, and affection.
Fifthly, Not only does the revelation which God has given to men, from the general nature of it, and the manner in which it is proposed, presuppose the exercise of private judgment and free inquiry, but this is expressly enjoined, and repeatedly inculcated in it. Revelation presupposes the existence of the law and light of nature, and the use of the reasonable powers and principles belonging to man. In the manner in which it was proposed and confirmed, it addressed itself to the senses, the understanding, and consciences of men, and that without exception of persons; as appears evidently from the promulgation both of the Mosaic law and of the gospel. It courts attention, and demands a serious examination, as well as assent, from every man. It invites to the strictest scrutiny, and the most familiar knowledge and acquaintance with it, that is attainable by man. That which has no falsity inherent in it, nor any deceit accompanying it, can never be afraid of inquiry, nor injured by being known. It would indeed be a suspicious circumstance, if it shunned the light, and affected concealment, as spurious revelations have usually done. Were the doctrines of our religion, and the books containing them, like the pagan mysteries, wrapt up under the veil of secrecy, and confined to a few initiated, or like the sibylline oracles, carefully locked up, and committed to the custody of a college of priests, this might give occasion to charge them with fraud, or having some other design in view than public good. “He that doeth evil hateth the light.” But the revelation of God contained in the Scriptures, was published in the most open manner in the audience of all, it is laid open to all, and is adapted to the use of all.
The very act of committing the divine oracles to writing, supposes the design of their preservation and circulation, that they might be read and better known. The liberty of reading implies the right of all who do this to judge of the sense of them, without which reading would be a ridiculous and vain farce. No part of the Scriptures is delivered into the hands of priests or magistrates as their exclusive property: nor are the injunctions to read, search, and understand them, anywhere confined unto them or any other class of men. Observe how Moses spoke unto the congregation of Israel; “These words which I command thee this day shall be in thine heart, and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house. – Thou shalt bind them for a signet upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets before thine eyes; and thou shalt write them upon the posts of thine house and on thy gates.” If this was not to be literally understood, it imports at least, that they should be familiarly conversant with their law, and should have it continually in their thought, as if they saw it engraven or written in capitals before their eyes. They were told that the words of it were not concealed nor removed at an insuperable distance from them, in the height, in the deep, or beyond the sea, that they needed to say, “Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is to bring Christ down from above). Or, who shall descend into the deep? (that is to bring up Christ again from the dead). But what saith it? The word is nigh thee.” It was both accessible and intelligible by them; “For the word is nigh thee; even in thy heart and in thy mouth.” – “The things that are revealed belong to us, and to our children, that we may know them and do them.” Not only were the Priests and Levites to study it, and the king ordered to write a copy of it in a book, and read therein all the days of his life; but it was appointed at certain times to be read publicly to all the people assembled at the feast of tabernacles, that they might hear, learn, and fear the Lord their God: as it was afterwards regularly read and expounded on sabbath days in all their synagogues.
When Ezra read in the audience of all the people solemnly assembled, without exception of persons, out of the book of the law, he also took pains to make them understand the reading; and hereby they were prepared for concurring with their teachers and leaders in the religious exercises that followed: they clave unto their brethren, the nobles, the priests, and each one having knowledge and understanding entered into a covenant to observe the laws of the Lord, and to reform their errors. Did not the prophets reprove the people, as well as the priests, because they did not know and attend to the great things of this law, which he had written unto them? How often did they complain that they were foolish, sottish children; more brutish than the ox, because they did not know nor consider; less discerning than the stork in the heavens, or the turtle, the crane, or the swallow, because “they knew not the judgment of the Lord”! In a time when the priests and prophets were become corrupt, were not the people directed to go and inquire, and to “ask for the good old paths, that they might walk in them, and find rest to their souls”?
Sixthly, If this privilege be denied unto the people, very great absurdities, and a train of pernicious consequences would follow. Some of these may be briefly enumerated. – In that event, men must be acknowledged as lords of their mind and consciences, and dictators of their faith; a prerogative evidently belonging to none but the supreme Lord and Legislator: “I am the Lord, that is my name, and my glory I will not give to another.” Such a power was prohibited by Jesus Christ among his followers: “The kings of the Gentiles exercise authority over them, – but with you it shall not be so.” “Call no man Rabbi; for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.” It was disclaimed by his inspired apostles: “Not as if we were lords over your faith,” said the Apostle of the Gentiles, “but helpers of your joy.” Another, whom some have styled the prince of the Apostles, and the first supreme head of the church of earth, enjoins pastors to take the oversight of the flock – “not as lords over the heritage of God, but as ensamples to the flock.” – On this supposition it would follow, that people might resign all care about their own information and direction, and neglect every means of light and improvement not imparted to them by their human teachers, although it may be their happiness to enjoy the divine word to profit withal, and be endued also with the Spirit of wisdom and revelation “to guide them into all truth,” for which purpose he is promised to them that believe, as “the unction from the Holy One, by which they know all things”; – they must submit to be led, even though they be among the spiritual men who “judge all things, and are judged of none.”
Nay, on this supposition, knowledge would be superfluous and even dangerous. Light must be carefully suppressed, or if it arises be extinguished, when it does not accord with the judgment of superiors. The common people thus deprived of sight, would be reduced to a state of the most abject slavery, like Samson, carried away blind and bound, and compelled to grind in the prison house. Men must thus be taught to act in many cases contrary to their clearest convictions, and to disregard the dictates and remonstrances of their own consciences, however well informed, which would be to teach them to sin against God, and to do violence to themselves: for it is hard if not an impossible attempt, to set persons free altogether from the influence and government of their own minds, and to make them think or act contrary to the light and evidence wherewith objects appear to themselves. The character of integrity, and the testimony of a good and approving conscience, can never be attainable in this way; when even a disregard of doubts and scruples may be sufficient to subject a person to challenge. “He that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not in faith.” – “Beloved if our hearts condemn us not, then have we confidence towards God.” “But let every man prove his own work, and then he shall have rejoicing in himself, and not in another.”(1)
This mode of acting implicitly on the credit of others, indeed, is the effectual way to stupefy the mind, weaken the power of conscience, blunt the sense of right and wrong, and to bring mankind gradually into a state of absolute indifference about religion and moral conduct. When men are taught and accustomed to make a profession of articles of faith which they do not believe, and to conform to a worship which they see to be wrong, their religion is mere mimicry and mockery: and they are in danger, if they are persons of a little learning and reflection, or even without these, to account all religion a matter of statecraft or priestcraft, and under the cloak of conformity to established laws and predominant religions, of indulging themselves in secret atheism. The state of those nations where such enslaving principles are taught, and where the inviolable right of private judgment is proscribed, affords but too ample and indubitable proof of this. Of their priests it may well be said, “Their lives make atheists, and their doctrines slaves.”
Having premised these things, we proceed, to show that such a right of private judgment belongs to all Christians. This may appear from the following considerations. First, from the nature and excellence of the mind of man. As he is hereby far exalted above other animals, so must he be influenced in his actions, and governed in a manner very different from them; – not by blind instinct, or by external force, or arbitrary authority, but consistently with the exercise of that understanding, will, and moral faculty with which he is endued. He possesses a soul that thinks and reasons, that is capable of forming conceptions of sublime truths, and of what the senses cannot make known; that can reflect on itself and its actions, deliberate, and choose or refuse; that has a consciousness of moral obligations, arising from a higher law than the will of men; that can discern true and false, right and wrong, of themselves; that purposes its own ends, and foresees the tendency and consequences of its volitions and actions; and that cannot free itself from a sense of propriety or impropriety, of praise or blame in its conduct, which is entirely independent of the opinion of fellow men. It is not to be supposed, that the wise Author of his nature formed him with such faculties and powers to remain unoccupied; nor can it be thought that they were to be employed about sensible objects only, or the mere secular or temporal affairs of this life. Their highest end and destination must be in reference to God, and the chief interests of man. Religion furnishes him with the most suitable, the most extensive, and the noblest object of employment, as well as of enjoyment, without attention to which he would have little to boast of superior to the brutal creation. Can it be supposed that he was entitled or appointed to act with understanding in the most ordinary and lowest concerns only, and is obliged to divest himself of this prerogative in whatever respects his religious and spiritual interests? Is it of equal consequence to him that he acts with knowledge and discretion, and takes care not to be deceived and imposed upon, in reference to the former, as it is to have the privilege of choosing and pursuing ‘the better part’? – That he should claim the right of judging what may be salutary or hurtful to his animal life, what may be loss or gain in traffic, – or even what may be true or probable, or the contrary, in literary questions and philosophic speculations, and forego it altogether in matters that unspeakably more affect his present and future felicity?
Secondly, Religion is the personal business and interest of every man, and every individual must be responsible for his own actions; he must therefore have a right to think and act according to his own best judgment and convictions about it. Religion primarily and chiefly respects individuals; and hence the maxim of the wise man is verified, “He that is wise, is wise for himself, and he that scorneth,” or acteth amiss, “he alone shall bear it.” No doubt, religion is also a social concern, and requires public institutes and duties; and the opinions which persons may hold, and the practices which they may follow, may consequentially and secondarily affect others; and in so far, men’s private judgment may be the subject of cognizance or restriction by a common or public judgment. But as the concernment of others in the faith and actions of a man is not equal to that which he himself has in them; and as the guilt and punishment of his errors or misconduct cannot be transferred from himself to others, by whose judgment or discretion he may please to act, he must still preserve the right of pronouncing sentence on his own acts as unalienable. If any mortals could secure a man from error, or answer for his faults, and take all the dangerous consequences that may result from them upon themselves, they might then have a more specious pretext for assuming a right to dictate absolutely to him, and to deny him the right of examining and regulating his own conduct. But “every man shall bear his own burden,” and “the soul that sinneth shall die.” “No man can be any means pay a ransom for his brother.” “If the blind lead the blind,” it is not the erring leader alone that perishes, but “both together fall into the ditch.” “Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant, to his own master he standeth or falleth?” – “Why doest thou judge thy brother, or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; – and every one give an account of himself unto God.”
Farther, without the free exercise of private judgment, the interests of truth could not be effectually maintained nor recovered in opposition to prevailing errors, and all reformation of established corruptions would be rendered unwarrantable and impracticable, as long as those who are in authority and power see meet to support them. A voluntary relinquishment of a corrupt system by those who have been long active and interested in its support has rarely been seen, and, humanly speaking, can hardly be expected. The needful work of reform must cease for ever, or must arise from another quarter. But how can this be, if none must be so quick-sighted as to presume to discover public abuses, or having discovered them to condemn and oppose them, without the leave and concurrence of those in public office. None, in an evil time, must take upon them to instruct or admonish others, or even to withdraw themselves from the influence of a contaminating fellowship, or a communion in which they cannot abide without incurring the displeasure of God, or even the hazard of damnation.
Yet nothing is more expressly required by the authority of God, than that all, and every one for himself, should make a full and open confession of the truth, avow Christ’s words and laws in the midst of an adulterous generation, and “contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saint”; and if need be, do this in the face of power, and in spite of the abused authority of rulers civil or ecclesiastical; when true religion may be proscribed by law, and the cause of truth condemned and persecuted in royal courts, in councils, or in synagogues. When the Apostles were charged by the Jewish council to speak no more in the name of Jesus, did they desist? Did not a higher authority oblige them even to go to the temple, and speak all the words of life to the people, and warrant them to say to those who forbade them, “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye? For we cannot but speak the things which we have heard and known.” Not only did our Lord, when on earth, dissent, by his own peculiar prerogative, from the current doctrines and customs of that time, however sanctioned by the Scribes and Rabbis, and censure freely the abuses of the highest, and vouch the truth at the tribunal of judgment; but he also taught his Apostles, and even all his followers, by his word and example, to do the same. They were enjoined to try the doctrine and reject the leaven of every different sect. He admitted all his hearers to the secret of the Scriptures, and found fault with those who did not understand. “Ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky, how is it that you cannot discern this time? Are ye also without understanding?” The illiterate man, whose eyes Jesus had opened, pleaded the cause of his divine benefactor, and convicted his blinder guides of ignorance and prejudice, though he was accounted presumptuous, and exposed himself to all the effects of their resentment. They said, “Thou wast altogether born in sin, and dost thou teach us? and they cast him out.” Hereby he was openly declared and approved a confessor and disciple of Christ, who owned and encouraged him under such injurious treatment.
If Christians cannot succeed in their kind endeavors to reclaim others, if they cannot “save them with fear, plucking them out of the fire”; they ought at least to keep themselves clear of participation in their guilt and danger; – “to deliver their own souls,” and see to their own salvation. With such exhortations did the Apostles arouse and animate the zeal of the primitive disciples, saying, “Save yourselves from this untoward generation.” When the whole mass around them was become both corrupt and incorrigible, they were commanded without hesitation to separate themselves, though they should be a gazing stock by singularity. “Come ye out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; for what fellowship hath light with darkness? what concord is there between Christ and Belial? what communion hath the temple of God with idols?” How could such a summons be obeyed, in a time of almost universal degeneracy? – how could established error or idolatry be relinquished, or the broad and beaten path of destruction be evited? how could either public or personal reformation be practicable, – unless persons were to judge for themselves, and to follow the eye which is given to be the light of the body when it is itself clear and full of light? Unless this be opened and used, light and darkness must be equal to a man; true and false religions would be on a level; the most corrupt and abominable would claim regard, and be entitled to conformity, while it was publicly established or generally followed. In the religion in which persons were educated, it behooved them to continue all the days of their life: he that is once wrong must be for ever wrong; and he that is unholy must be unholy still. It must make no difference to him, whether they be the laws and institutes of Numa, or Brama, or Mahomet, that are in force; or whether they be the dictates of an eastern patriarch, or a western pope, a council of Nicea or of Trent, that are given forth.
The conversion of the pagan world to the faith of Christ in the beginning was not effected in this manner; nor could it be, but by the gospel addressing every one that had ears to hear, – opening their eyes, to turn them from darkness to light, and from dead idols to serve the living God. By the enslaving doctrine that would deny men this right, the way would be barred against the free progress of the gospel throughout the greater part of the world; and in the most corrupt churches, the rise and spread of truth and reformation would be effectually obstructed. Even Babylon the great, when become the mother of harlots, and as a cage of every unclean bird, could not have been deserted, notwithstanding the loud and repeated warning from heaven, crying, “Come out of her, my people, be not partakers of her sins, lest ye partake of her plagues.”
In fine, As it was by asserting this right, and directing men in the proper use of it, that the Apostles and primitive teachers gained proselytes in all places, and made disciples of all nations, – so in like manner did their successors, for some ages, teach and establish their flocks: by directing them through the medium of the Scriptures, to be searched and explained by themselves, and not by human writings or the fallible authority of any men. The concurring voice of fathers and writers, in the ages comparatively purer than those that followed, asserts this to be the privilege of the Christian people, of which, were it needful, abundant evidence and clear testimonies could be produced.
The question about the right of all Christians to a private judgment in matters of religion, and the proper manner of exercising it, is one of general consequence. Having stated and explained the meaning of the question, and endeavored to evince, by a variety of arguments, its warrantableness and necessity, we now go on, III. To remove some of the principal objections brought against this right.
1. It is said, “That this gives too much authority to human reason, which, in its present state, is so darkened and corrupted, that it is incompetent to judge, and incapable of understanding, the doctrines of Revealed Religion; “for the natural man knoweth not the things of the Spirit of God.” – To this we reply, that any argument drawn from the depraved state of reason against the exercise of it in private judgment, is equally applicable to every kind of human judgment, whether public or private, and therefore proves too much, and more than the adversaries will allow, unless they set up for immediate inspiration, or else give up with all pretensions to any knowledge or certainty in religion.
No undue authority is given to reason, while it is considered only as a medium or instrument of discerning the will of God and the sense of Scripture, and while the judgment of a person’s own mind is kept in entire subordination to divine authority, being allowed to have no force as an obligatory law or rule, but in so far as it is the perception of the will or law of God.
Further, Though sin has depraved the understanding of man, yet it has not destroyed its natural capacity or use in reference to his actions. It is still capable of a right as well as a wrong use, and of being so illuminated and rectified as to perceive and receive the things of God, and approve those things which are excellent; in many persons it actually is so, by the Word and Spirit of God; and it is only when thus sanctified that it can perceive or direct aright, so as to be followed with safety and innocence.
2. Against this exercise of private judgment, the passage in II Pet. 1:20, etc. has often been applied; “Knowing this first that no prophecy of the Scriptures is of any private interpretation; for the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man; but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” Some by the private interpretation here mentioned, understand the prophets’ interpretation of their own prophecies, namely, such as prophesied of that salvation, the full meaning of which, and the time of their fulfillment, was not revealed to them. This might be true of them as to those parts of Scripture, though others, even private persons under the gospel, may be able to expound them in a more distinct manner, together with other Scriptures. Others would alter the translation of the epiluseos, making it to mean private suggestions, and to intimate that the prophets were influenced and inspired by the Holy Ghost, and that their prophecies are to be considered and interpreted as his voice, and not as human, private conceptions or effusions. But taking the words as commonly rendered, they teach that no man is at liberty to give what sense he pleases unto the prophecies of Scripture, but must carefully regulate his judgment and sense of them according to the mind of the Holy Ghost, deriving from the Scripture itself, taken at large, what may be needful for understanding any particular part of it which may seem most obscure.
3. It is urged, “If every man is to judge for himself in religious matters, and if every man’s faith is true to himself, and his way right in his own eyes, this puts all religions, true and false, on a level; and gives a false judgment, when error is embraced, the same privilege and virtue as the true.” To this we reply, that the same may be urged against placing a power of judging in any class of men, provided their judgment is not infallible. It is a false assumption that the truth of any religion, or of anything in religion, depends upon our opinion or belief of it; and that whatever we believe, though destitute of proper grounds and evidence, must be true, because we believe it. Our opinions do not alter the nature of things, but they are true or false in themselves, antecedent to, and independent of, our opinions concerning them: so that, though every man’s religion may be accounted true to himself, when he is sincere in professing it, yet it does not therefore follow that it is true in itself, or can be accounted to be so by others, merely because he believes it to be so. The Apostle Paul, in the very case in which he allows every man to be fully persuaded in his own mind, and in which he supposes that Christian brethren might differ – as about the eating of meats and observing of days, yet does not allow that both had equal right and reason on their side, but positively delivers his apostolic judgment: “I know and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean in itself.” – But, while all had not attained that knowledge, the infirmity or mistake was to be borne with, without forcing him who was weak and mistaken to act against his conviction. Though the opinion of the scrupulous brother could not alter the nature of the thing, yet it had, in these circumstances, the force of a rule to him, and had he violated it, before he was better informed, his conduct would have been much the same in respect of himself, as if the thing had been unlawful, and the action criminal in itself.
4. It is farther urged, “That to decide in matters of religion, is a task far surpassing the capacity of the greater part of mankind. The unlearned vulgar want abilities for examining the many intricate controversies that are agitated; and could never come to a determination about them, if left solely to themselves, even though they should have the Scripture put into their hands. The Scripture itself is a book dark and of uncertain meaning, without the decisions of the church and of its learned doctors. We are told that it contains some ‘things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned wrest to their own destruction’; and therefore it must be the better way to trust entirely to the judgment of superiors.” This indeed would be the easier way, if it were a wise or a safe one. But where is the church, or where are the learned, whose authority is put beyond all reasonable doubt – whose determinations may be constantly relied on without examination and without fear? May not these same wise and learned either want sufficient ability themselves for such a task, or act an unfair and dishonest part, so as to be capable, through various causes, of misleading their implicit followers? – A man would, at least, need previously to examine the grounds upon which any church or its doctors lay claim to such a power, and of these he must judge for himself, and not take it on their bare word. But this supposes the right in question, and were the exercise of it confined even to this very point, it would necessarily lead to the decision of controversies, relative to the church, as intricate and complex as many in religion. But “Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength.” “It has pleased the heavenly Father to reveal these things to babes.” Who are they who thus would judge and despise their brethren in Christ for their incapacity and weakness? “Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth; yea he shall be holden up; for God is able to make him stand.”
The illiterate often see more clearly and act more wisely in religion than their learned guides. None of the rulers or of the philosophers believed on Christ, but the people, who are supposed incapable of knowing the law, followed him and heard him gladly. – Even the vulgar and illiterate have surely a capacity of learning the great outlines of their duty immediately from God’s own word, as well as from the mouths of fallible men. Are their words or writings more clear or intelligible than the Scriptures? That the Scriptures are so obscure and of uncertain meaning, so as to be unintelligible to common Christians, is a position which we had occasion formerly to consider and refute. The whole system of faith and duty is there so clearly exhibited as to make them profitable and able to make men wise unto salvation. We are here also to recall to mind, the distinction formerly made between a judgment of private examination, and of discussion. The former consisting in a close and serious application of the mind to any doctrine that is proposed, and the grounds on which it is taught, is competent to persons of ordinary capacity and moderate attainments. In order to a clear persuasion and conviction of mind, it is not needful to know languages, all sects, and all manner of objection. – “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God.” But an examination of discussion may be out of their power, and, in its highest degree, it is impracticable even by the learned; for there is none that can pretend to a full acquaintance with all controversies, or with all that may be said for or against any particular religion or its doctrines. A great and extensive acquaintance with these may be needful for some persons, but it is not necessary for all. To reject an error with judgment, it is sufficient that a person see its absurdity in any one point of view; and to induce the understanding to embrace a truth, one strong and evident argument may suffice. Many men may be satisfied, and on good grounds, that there is a God, though they cannot answer all the objections of Atheists. A plain Christian may be assured, by evident texts of Scripture, that Jesus is the true God, though incapable of carrying on a debate with Socinians or Arians. If it were necessary to conviction, that all which bears a relation to any subject be understood, and all possible difficulties clearly solved, there is no truth but a person must continue to doubt of.
5. “But there are few or none,” it is said, “who embrace or follow their religion in the free and impartial exercise of their own judgment, and who are not influenced by education, or some kind of human authority; so that, though they disclaim the jurisdiction of one church, or set of teachers, it is only to submit themselves to another jurisdiction, and another set of teachers; so that all must take their religion on trust some way or other; and therefore the principle of examination is a false and impracticable one.” – “All of them,” says Charron, “pretend that they derive their doctrines not from men but from God. But to say truth, there is nothing in such pretensions; however they may talk, they owe their religion to human means: witness the manner in which they first adopt it; the nation, country, and place where they are born and bred determine it. Are we not circumcised or baptized, made Jews or Christians, before we are men: – our religion is not the effect of choice – witness our lives and manners – witness how we act contrary to the dictates of it on the most trifling occasions.” In answer to this, it must be allowed, that the greater part neglect to use proper care and diligence to be instructed and convinced in their own minds, – they but too implicitly conform to the faith and modes of religion in which they were educated, or which were prevalent in the places in which they dwell – and there may be always danger in setting up as a rule the judgment or practice of some venerable names. But this is nothing to the point: for neither will men’s general neglect, nor yet their abuse of a right, be admitted as a proof that it belongs not to them. What men do is no rule for judging what they ought to do. Besides, it is one thing to adopt an error through inadvertence in practice, and another to maintain it as a principle: – though there may be many ignorant and implicit conformists to the Protestant religion, – yet none of them will teach, as Papists do, the advantage of ignorance, and the warrantableness of implicit obedience.
But the evil is neither universal, nor yet so common as the objection supposes. There are multitudes who have searched the Scriptures, and brought the doctrines of men, and the principles of their education, to the test of the law and the testimony – and who can give a reason to every one that asketh; “knowing in whom they have believed.” They can say, as the Samaritan converts, who were first informed by the testimony of their countrywoman, and afterwards by the instruction of Christ himself, did: “Now we believe, not because of thy saying; for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.” Nay, there is some shadow of the exercise of private judgment in those who, in principle, would deny it; and thus they give a proof of its necessity. For, as one says, “Take the proselytes of the church of Rome, even in their greatest submission of understanding; they seem to themselves to follow their reason most of all. For if you tell them Scripture and tradition are their rules to follow, they will believe you, when they know a reason for it, and if they take you upon your word, they have a reason for that too: either they believe you a learned man, or a good man, or that you can have no ends upon them; or something that is of an equal height to fit their understandings. If you tell them, they must believe the church, you must tell them why they are bound to it, and if you quote Scripture to prove it, you must give them leave to judge, whether the words alleged speak your sense or no, and therefore to dissent if they say no such thing: and although all men are not wise and proceed discreetly, yet all make their choice some way or other.”(2)
It may be added here, that it is a mistake to suppose that free inquiry, or the impartial exercise of private judgment, necessarily excludes the use or influence of education, human learning, or authority. This may afterwards come to be illustrated.
6. It is further objected, that, by permitting every one to judge of religion, all unity and harmony must be at an end: different opinions and practices in religion must increase and multiply in proportion to the number of individuals: and many pernicious errors and heresies must spring from thence, destructive of true religion. Accordingly, the numberless sects and disorders, which have prevailed since the beginning of the Reformation among those called Protestants, have been continually insisted on by the Church of Rome, as a sufficient evidence that their rule of faith, and manner of interpreting Scripture, must be essentially wrong: and it has been thought that the bare enumeration of their differences and variations demonstrates that the true church cannot be among them, which holds invariably one faith and one baptism. – But this objection, though plausible, has as little force as the preceding. Though the effect here supposed may be, in the utmost degree, allowed to be possible, and might take place, unless God by his providence, or the influence of his Spirit, prevented it, – this does not prove that men must be compelled to profess a religion without or contrary to their light and conviction. The unity and conformity that is promoted by force, and supported by ignorance or hypocrisy on the one hand, and by tyranny and superstition on the other, is not to be boasted of. To suppose that true religion would suffer by the removal of these, is to pay a sorry compliment to it, and argues that it stands on the same props with error and imposture. It may also be observed, that though diversity of sentiments and divisions have arisen from the exercise, or rather the abuse, of this liberty, yet, where it is allowed, the unity of the Christian faith, and the bonds of Christian fellowship, are not hereby dissolved. Many thousands are often found united in the same creed, and agreed in all the principal points of religion. Nor are differences in judgment, or errors and heresies, to be found only where a judgment of simple examination and of discussion is allowed, – but in spite of all the efforts of despotic authority, they spring up and multiply among the blind votaries of the Roman see, and have often divided and shaken that church, which boasts of being built impregnably on the rock of infallibility. Witness the controversies and wars between the secular and regular clergy, – and between the different fraternities; – the contests about the popedom and the power of councils; – the dissensions between the Molinists and Jansenists; – and others too tedious to mention. Divisions, errors, and heresies, are not to be charged on this principle as their only or their proper cause; nor are they peculiar to one soil, nor to be met with only among the common people. They usually arise from those who set up for guides of the judgment, and from high pretenders to learning.
But let these differences in religion be what they will, and suppose that some men by indulging their private judgment, and leaning too much to their own understandings, fall into damnable errors and heresies, yet it will not follow that they must be deprived of this liberty: for though it was possible to eradicate it, it would neither be just nor proper to do so; seeing it is their unalienable right; and the inconveniences of men being deprived of it would be as great or greater than those which can arise from the allowance of it. Abuses and inconveniences are no arguments against the lawful use of anything; nor can ever justify the total suppression or removal of that from which these abuses and inconveniences arise.
“Do not,” says Ibbot,(3) “the greatest mischiefs and inconveniences arise from men’s abusing their natural liberty as free agents? Is not this the source of all the wickedness and corruption of mankind, – the spring whence those waters flow which embitter human life, – and the true cause of all the havoc and confusion we daily see and hear of, – and of ‘every evil work done under the sun?’ But must they therefore be rendered mere brutes or machines, and subjected to the same sort of necessity as passive nature?” Though errors and heresies may proceed from men’s being allowed to judge for themselves, and though we should imagine it never so desirable, convenient, or useful to have them prevented, to bring all men to be of the same mind, and to have right opinions in every thing; yet God has not provided against this by ordering men to sacrifice their judgments to men like themselves, and take their faith from others, or by setting up any under him with the power of an infallible and universal dictator. Had this ever been done, the evil would not have been remedied; for, as was just now said, where this liberty is denied, and a pretended infallibility set up, there are as many different opinions, as much controversy and dispute, and as plentiful a crop of error and heresy, as where this liberty is freely exercised; and it is no wonder that a pretended infallibility cannot do that which even a real infallibility itself did not effect. There were many disputes and controversies in the days of the Apostles, and some even among themselves; divisions, errors, and heresies, have in all ages more or less infested the church, and will do so to the end of the world. God, who can bring light out of darkness, and good out of evil, permits these things for wise ends and purposes. Hence our Savior tells, that “it must needs be that offences come”; and Paul advertises the Corinthians, “that there must also be heresies among them, that they which are approved might be made manifest.”
7. But the chief prejudice against this doctrine is, that “it seems to sap the foundations of human authority, or at least extremely to weaken it, and narrow its sphere, by exempting from its judgment and jurisdiction all matters of faith and conscience, or whatever may be so called by men claiming this liberty. Public institutions in the church must be devoid of force, and all judicative decisions rendered of no effect, if left to the discretion of every individual.”
No doubt there may be an apparent inconsistency and repugnance between public and private judgment; and the latter has often been so employed and exercised as to defeat, in a great measure, the effect of the former, especially in late times. But when each is duly understood, and kept within its proper limits, both may have their place and exercise without encroaching upon or destroying each other; as we may afterwards see, when we come to settle the limits of this power, and point out some of the abuses of it. Suffice it at present to adopt the words of our Confession of Faith, chap. XX. “Because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another; they who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God.”
IV. We now proceed, To detect the abuses of this right, and to show how greatly it differs from free-thinking, falsely so called. 1. Free inquiry by no means consists in revoking into doubt the first principles of human knowledge, and in refusing assent to the most evident truths. It is an irrational course to avoid error by believing nothing, and to cure prejudice by universal doubt; this was the absurd method of ancient Pyrrhonists, and of modern Cartesians and sceptics, whose systems are equally pernicious in philosophy and religion. Of the absurdity and dangerous tendency of this sceptical system that has perverted philosophy, and infected theology, we have had occasion before to speak. To arrive at such a state of doubt, men must offer violence to the constitution of their nature, extinguish their common sense and feelings, and destroy the foundations of reason and truth; and he that indulges himself in such extravagance leaves no footing for reason to stand, or for knowledge to build upon. There are principles which stand in no need of proof, and are incapable of it; they must be taken for granted, or all progress is stopped, and science at an end. He that adopts this system, precipitates himself into a pit, from which he has no means left to extricate himself. There are some who would persuade themselves and others, that no credit is to be given to our clearest perceptions and intuitive convictions, that we cannot believe the testimony of our senses, external or internal, or the testimony of others, or admit first principles or axioms of any kind, without being chargeable with implicit faith. The sum of philosophy and the perfection of human reason with them is to doubt; – to doubt of what all the rest of mankind invariably hold for certain, and that from the very form and constitution of their nature; – to doubt of their own existence, and that of a material world; – to doubt of their own perceptions and convictions; – and to doubt even of their doubts – to use the language of the sceptical Hume. To go about seriously and scientifically to persuade men into such a system is the height of philosophic madness, and the grossest inconsistency. To what purpose do we institute any inquiries or investigations, if truth has no prerogative above falsehood, nor any sure criteria to distinguish it; – if certainty and error may be confounded. Such knowledge is worse than ignorance, – such pretended liberality of sentiment is worse than vulgar prejudice and bigotry.
Pertinent here are the following observations, among many others, of the author of An Essay on Truth: “While man continues in his present state, our own intellectual feelings are, and must be, the standard of truth to us. All evidence productive of belief is resolvable into the evidence of consciousness, and comes at last to this point, ‘I believe, because I believe, or because the law of my nature determines me to believe.’ This belief may be called implicit; but it is the only rational belief of which we are capable, and to say that our minds ought not to submit to it, is as absurd as to say, that our bodies ought not to be nourished with food.” He who can eradicate conviction from the human heart, may doubtless prevent all the fatal effects of enthusiasm and bigotry, and if all human bodies were thrown into a consumption, I believe there would be an end of all riot as well as of inflammatory diseases. Bigotry, enthusiasm, and a persecuting spirit, are very dangerous and destructive: universal scepticism would, I am sure, be equally so, were it to infect the generality of mankind. But what has religion and rational conviction to do with either? True religion tends to make men great and good and happy, and if so, its doctrines can never be too firmly believed, nor held in too high veneration. And if truth be at all attainable in philosophy, I cannot see how we should scruple to receive it as such when we have attained it; nor how it can promote candor, good breeding, and humanity, to pretend to doubt what we do and must believe; to profess to maintain doctrines which, we are conscious, shock our understanding; to differ in judgment from all the world except a few metaphysical pedants; and to question the evidence of those principles which all other men think the most unquestionable and the most sacred. Conviction and steadiness of principle, is that which gives dignity, uniformity, and spirit to human conduct, and without which our happiness can neither be lasting nor sincere. It constitutes, as it were, the stamina of a great and manly character; whereas scepticism betrays a weak and sickly understanding, and a levity of mind, from which nothing can be expected but inconsistence and folly.
2. Freedom of inquiry and judging is very different from an over high and presumptuous confidence in the powers of the human understanding, and of our own in particular, as if they were capable of investigating all manner of subjects; searching out all truth to perfection; unraveling all perplexities, and deciding all doubts; – in a word, as if they could grasp all knowledge, and comprehend and explain all mysteries. Man has as little cause to assume to himself such arrogant airs and pretensions, as to resign himself to universal doubt and perpetual hesitation, considering the narrowness of his capacity, and the frailty and imperfection of his reason, and the many things that prevent him from attaining a full discovery, and just and clear apprehensions of truth, especially that which is religious. In our examination of every subject there are certain limits where our inquiries are obliged to stop; – impenetrable darkness presents itself. How little is, or can be understood or satisfactorily explained by the most sagacious and penetrating! – and when they set about detecting and correcting the errors of others, how ready are they to fall into as many of their own! Scanty is the portion of human knowledge, confined the range of human reason, – and nothing can ever be fully searched out and comprehended by mortals. “Not much to comprehend, not much to know.”
In the natural world, in philosophy, and in religion, there are barriers fixed, and a mandate given, saying, “Hitherto shalt thou come, and no farther.” “Vain man would be wise, though man be born like a wild ass’s colt.” If in natural subjects, and in objects adapted to human reason, we are perpetually puzzled and convicted of insufficiency, and obliged to believe what we cannot explain or comprehend; how much more may this be expected, when we employ our thoughts and inquiries about what is more remote from our sense and apprehensions, as are all things relating to God, his free counsels and operations, and the special mysteries revealed to faith! What reason is there here to be clothed with humility, to lay aside the haughty heart and high look, and with diffidence and fear, and awful reverence, to put off our shoes when we approach to look upon them, saying, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain to it!” “O Lord, thy thoughts are very deep.” “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” In many cases, all that we have to inquire after is, Is this indeed the voice of God? hath God indeed spoken? or, what hath he wrought? And when this is sufficiently manifest, we must believe though we see not – though we cannot give others reasons for our believing; we must hold to the persuasion and demonstration of faith, in spite of manifold objections, and in the face of blind reason’s outcries, and pretended proofs or demonstrations. If this be implicit faith, it is what a weak creature owes to the all-wise God, and it is such a persuasion as men are even obliged to hold by about many other objects every day of their life.
Those who persist in asking reasons and clear explications of all that they are required to assent to as true in religion, forget what they are, and the state they are in, and they know not what they ask. “For now we see through a glass darkly, and know but in part.” Proud inquiries, and high conceit of human powers, have been the fruitful source of the most pernicious errors in religion, and have done more to destroy it than credulity has ever done. Reason should be taught to speak and proceed with modesty, and should know its bounds. “Far be it from a lover of truth,” says one, “to discourage freedom of inquiry. Man is possessed of reasoning powers, by means of which he may bring that within the sphere of common sense which was originally beyond it. Of these powers he may and ought to avail himself, for many important truths are not self-evident, and our faculties were not designed for a state of inactivity. But neither are they to be employed in fruitless or dangerous investigation. Our knowledge and capacities are limited; it is fit and natural they should be so; we need not wander into forbidden paths, or attempt to penetrate inaccessible regions in quest of employment; the cultivation of useful and practical science, the improvement of arts, and the indispensable duties of life, will furnish ample scope to all the exertions of human genius. Surely that man is my friend who dissuades me from attempting what I cannot perform, nor even attempt without danger. And is not he a friend to science and mankind who endeavors to discourage fallacious and unprofitable speculation, and to propose a criterion by which it may be known and avoided?”
3. It is not free and rational inquiry to demand other sort of evidence than the nature of the subject requires or admits of. A judicious inquirer, who is willing to discover and entertain the truth, will distinguish between the different sources of conviction, the different kinds of evidence, the different kinds and degrees of certainty, and will learn to draw the line between certainty and probability. He will be content with such proofs and evidences as the nature of the case is capable of, and such as is sufficient to produce belief, though they may not amount to absolute certainty. He will not refuse to assent to degrees of certainty, though they be not the highest or most indisputable; – nor will he reckon himself warranted to reject or contradict a probable opinion, because it is not certain: – nor will he venture to exalt opinion into an article of faith or a self-evident truth, or to pronounce a judgment concerning anything with greater confidence, than the clearness or firmness of the evidence with which it is supported, of whatever kind it be, will warrant. He must not demand the evidence of the senses, in a matter of abstract reason; nor the demonstrations of geometry, or the evidence of reason, in the matters of faith. What is perceptible by sense, or capable of sufficient proof by testimony, is not to be brought to the bar of reason as the proper judge, and determined by metaphysical investigation; – and it is licentiousness, and not freedom of thinking, that insists upon strict mathematical demonstration, where moral certainty alone, human or divine, is competent and sufficient, as in most of the ordinary concernments of life, in morality, and in religion.
In this way some modern free-thinkers have discovered their aversion to truth, and have endeavored to confound the judgment, and to perplex and render obscure the objects of their inquiry. Thus the Cartesians seek for the certainty of the existence of a material world in faith alone. “The Faith,” says Malebranche, “obliges us to believe that bodies exist; but as to the evidence of this truth, it certainly is not complete; and it is also certain, that we are not invincibly determined to believe that anything exists but God and our own mind. It is true that we have an extreme propensity to believe that we are surrounded with corporeal beings: so far I agree with M. Descartes; but this propensity, natural as it is, doth not force our belief by evidence, it only inclines us to believe by impression. Now we ought not to be determined in our free judgments by anything but light and evidence; if we suffer ourselves to be guided by the sensible impression, we shall be almost always mistaken.” – Accordingly he, and Bishop Berkeley after him, endeavored to prove, as a point of philosophy, “that the existence of matter is but a probability, to which we have it in our power to assent, or not to assent, as we please.” – But if sense and experience cannot make this sufficiently evident and certain, nothing else can.
In like manner the sceptical infidel endeavors to invalidate the doctrine of miracles, and to set aside the evidence of human testimony concerning them, by a train of metaphysical and fallacious reasoning about the nature and ground of belief, and the doctrine of changes; as if such subtleties and quibbles were the proper criteria by which to try matters of fact; – as if the evidence of these, whether ordinary or extraordinary, was not to be determined by the verdict of the senses; and as if human testimony concerning them had not convincing evidence, independent of their nature, or the conclusions of reason or the result of experience about them.
In the same weak and absurd manner Rousseau not only demands the clear conviction of his reason, as to the nature of all the contents and facts recorded in the gospel; – but insists also on the necessity of seeing all these facts with his own eyes, before he can reasonably believe them. The following are some of his foolish and impious words: “The testimony of mankind is at the bottom of my reason, and adds nothing to the natural means which God has given me for the discovery of the truth. – ‘God hath spoken!’ this is saying a great deal: but to whom hath he spoken? ‘He hath spoken to man!’ How comes it then that I heard nothing of it? ‘He hath appointed others to teach you his word.’ I understand you, there are certain men who are to tell me what God hath said. I had much rather have heard it from himself: this, had he pleased, he could easily have done; and I should have then run no risk of deception. Will it be said, I am secured from that, by his manifesting the mission of his messengers by miracles: Where are these miracles to be seen? Are they related only in books? Pray who wrote these books? Men. Who were witnesses to these miracles? Men. Always human testimony! It is always men that tell me what other men have told them.” The following discourse he thinks very reasonable in the mouth of one called to believe the gospel, in a nation distant from Judea. “Ye tell me of a God who was born and put to death near two thousand years ago, at the other end of the world, and in I know not what obscure town, assuring me that all those who do not believe in this mysterious tale shall be damned. Why hath your God brought these events to pass, of which he requires me to be instructed, at so great a distance? Is it a crime to be ignorant of what passes at the antipodes? Is it possible for me to divine that there existed in the other hemisphere, the people of the Jews, and the city of Jerusalem? It might as well be required to know what happens in the moon. Do you think, upon their testimony alone, that I can believe all these incredible things you tell me? Let me go first, I pray you, and see this distant country, where so many miracles have happened totally unknown here: let me go, and be well informed why the inhabitants of that Jerusalem presumed to treat God like a thief or a murderer? If there be but one true religion, it is necessary to spend our lives in the search of all religions, to visit the countries where they have been established, and examine and compare them with each other. No one has a right to confide in the judgment of another; all without exception must study, meditate, dispute, and travel the world over in search of truth; – the face of the earth would be covered with pilgrims, going from place to place, at great trouble and expense, to verify, examine, and compare, the different systems and modes of religion to be met with in various countries.”
At this rate must he not have refused to believe there were ever such places as Athens or Babylon, until he saw them with his own eyes? Does not this overthrow all moral certainty, and destroy the credit of all history? Does it not import that a man is to believe nothing, and can be certain of nothing, but what he sees with his eyes? How limited then would be the knowledge of man, even though all that our own reason or experience can assure us of, be included! On such principles, the edicts of a prince must be held as spurious and disregarded, till every man has heard them immediately from the prince’s own mouth. Nay, how uncertain and how wretched would mankind be every moment, and in every transaction of their life! – To such free inquirers, the truth of the birth, death, or resurrection of a Mediator can never be rendered worthy of credit, unless he were to be born, crucified, and raised from the dead every day, and before the eyes of every individual of the human race.
The philosopher of Geneva had no need to travel as far as Judea to seek out the causes, or ascertain the probability, of the Jews treating God, when manifested in the flesh among them, as a thief or a murderer. The same or similar causes that disposed his heart to such incredulity, and made him treat the same God, now glorified and preached among the Gentiles, as a liar and an impostor, can naturally enough account for such a strange and incrediblelike effect.
True liberty, in all its various kinds and branches, is a blessing highly desirable, and usually much valued among men. Of all kinds of it, that which belongs to the mind, in forming its sentiments and determining its actions in religious matters, under due regulations, is most estimable. This is a right, we have seen, which reason and Scripture equally sanction; and it is also a doctrine now generally admitted in later times, at least among Protestants. Instead of a disposition to oppose or unduly limit it, the spirit and taste of the age, among the learned and the unlearned too, have, like a strong current, been running to the other extreme. Thus, like every other good committed to the will of man, this privilege may, either by a right improvement, be productive of signal advantages, or by a perversion and abuse of it, prove the source of many and great evils. It is a doctrine that needs to be carefully explained, and guarded against mistakes, as to its nature and exercise.
We have already pointed out some of these mistakes. We have observed, that just freedom of inquiry does not consist in calling into doubt the first principles of human knowledge, or in refusing assent to evident truths; – that it is very different from an over high and presumptuous confidence in the powers of human understanding; – and that it is not discovered by demanding evidence of a different kind from what the nature of the subject requires and admits of. We go on to observe, 4. That to instill proper principles, moral and religious, into the minds of men by education and authority, while they are yet incapable of accurate judging and reasoning for themselves, is not inconsistent with free inquiry, nor destructive of the rights of private judgment.(4)
5. Again, it is not rational freedom to search after the truth in religion solely from the light of our own minds, or to attempt to form a religious creed, and a system of moral duties, from the deductions of reason, or the evidence of an internal sense. This is to attempt to strike light out of darkness, and order out of confusion. This would be to perplex ourselves in a maze of uncertainty, and to venture into a labyrinth of error, where myriads have been lost, and out of which none can clearly find his way. This terminates at best in Theism, perhaps in Atheism: it supposes that there can be no other religion than the religion of nature: – though even reason may teach men that they need a guide to direct their judgment; and a monitor and legislator superior to conscience; that God may and does impart knowledge in various ways to man; and that a complete and pure system of Natural Religion never yet was found where Revelation was unknown, nor among any of those who rejected its aid. They might at every step be convinced of the necessity of Revelation – of its possibility and its use; and might be reasonably satisfied that God has graciously afforded man this aid, and that to refuse to avail themselves of its help and direction, and submit to its authority, where made known, – is the height of pride, perverseness, and folly.
The sincere lover of truth, the candid inquirer after it, welcomes its voice wherever he hears it, – opens his eyes to its beams wherever it shines; he will disclaim none of the aids which the Author of it has been pleased to provide, nor spurn at the means whereby it may most readily, most clearly, fully, and certainly, be conveyed to his mind, and impressed upon it. If the testimony of man is to be received, he knows that the testimony of God is greater. If he will not reckon the instructions of parents – conversation – reading books of human composition, superfluous or a reproach to his judgment – surely he will not superciliously turn away from “him that speaketh from heaven” by the inspired Scriptures and the voice of his ministers: knowing this, that “when the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God, by the foolishness of preaching to save them who believe.”
By whatever names men dignify their own wisdom and discoveries, whether they call their guide Reason, Philosophy, Moral Sense, Internal Feelings, or any thing else, – it amounts nearly to the same thing; and the result will be nearly the same at last, when the wisdom that is undoubtedly from above is condemned. Thus Herberts have written books De Veritate; Woolstons delineated the Religion of Nature; and the Curate of Savoy, in Emilius, has spun out his religious creed, and sketched the outline of morality, wholly, as they pretended, out of their own proper fund, or the sufficiency of their natural powers; wherein they display both their presumption and dishonesty – their presumption in the nature of the attempt, and their dishonesty in their borrowing lights from Revelation, while they are exploding it, and attributing discoveries to the powers of their own mind, which none, left solely to the guidance of these, ever reached in such perfection, and much less the vulgar crowd of nature’s pupils.
The author of Emilius thus vaunts of the sufficiency of his internal guide: “I could see, that, instead of clearing up any unnecessary doubts, the philosophers only contributed to multiply those which most tormented me, and resolved absolutely none. I therefore applied to another guide, and said to myself; Let me consult my inmate instructor, who will deceive me less than I can be deceived by others.” – “To pursue my own method, I deduce not my rules from the sublime principles of philosophy; but find them written in indelible characters on my heart. I have only to consult myself concerning what I ought to do; all that I feel to be right is right; whatever I feel to be wrong is wrong. – All the morality of our actions lies in the judgment we ourselves form of them.” – “The most sublime ideas of the Deity are inculcated by reason alone. Take a view of the works of nature; listen to the voice within; and then tell me what God has omitted to say to your sight, your conscience, your understanding. Where are the men who can tell us more of him, than he thus tells us of himself? Their revelations only debase the Deity.”
Thus, ‘vain man who would be wise, though he is born foolish as the wild ass’s colt.’ But even this arrogant mortal, who thinks he stands in need of nothing from heaven, after his utmost efforts to attain to knowledge and certainty in religion by his own glimmering taper, and in the midst of the swellings of his pride, is made to feel his own impotence, and obliged to confess his ignorance. Even though he were not disposed to do so, it is easy, from the essential defects of his scheme, and the marks of ignorance or error discernible in others, to perceive it. Hearken to his humiliating concessions: “We have no standard with which to measure this immense machine; we cannot calculate its various relations; we neither know the first cause nor the final effect; we are ignorant even of ourselves; we neither know our own nature nor principle of action; nay, we hardly know whether man be a single or a compound being: impenetrable mysteries surround us on every side.” He doubts of the creation of the world, the unity of God, and the immortality of the soul – excludes prayer to the Deity from the system of duty – and, with regard to revelation, he says: “There are so many solid reasons both for and against its authority, that, not knowing what to conclude, I neither admit nor reject it. I reject only the obligation of submitting to it, because this pretended obligation is incompatible with the justice of God: except in this article, I remain respectfully in doubt concerning the Scriptures. – I plainly confess myself ignorant whether I am in the
right or wrong.”
Such is the fabric erected at such an expense of thought and reflection, the materials of which must be dug with such labor out of the quarry of nature. Is not vulgar philosophy, even attended with many errors and prejudices in those who believe it, far preferable to such a dubious, imperfect, and uncomfortable system? “There was a time,” says Bishop Sherlock, “when men had little else but nature to go to; and that is the proper time to look into, and see what mere and unassisted nature can do in religion; nay, there are still nations under the sun, who are, as to religion, in a mere state of nature: Here then we may hope to see Natural Religion in its full perfection. For there is no want of natural reason, nor any room to complain of prejudices or prepossession: – but yet alas! these nations are held in the chains of darkness, and grown up to the blindest superstition and idolatry. Time would fail me to tell of the corruptions and extravagances of the politest nations; their religion was their reproach, and the service they paid their gods, was a dishonor to them and to themselves. This being the case, wherever men have been left to mere reason and nature to direct them, what security have the great patrons of Natural Religion now, that were they left only to reason and nature, they should not run into the same errors and absurdities? – Would men consider this fairly, they would soon be convinced how much they are indebted to the gospel, even for that natural religion which they so fondly boast of: for how comes it to pass, that there is so much reason, and such clear natural religion in every country where the gospel is professed, and so little of both any where else? Do you think that you alone are exempt from this common, this universal blindness; and that the same reason and nature that hitherto have misguided all the world into error and idolatry, would lead you out of the common road, into truth and pure religion? Is it not the utmost presumption to think thus, – that we alone are able to surmount the difficulties which all the world before has sunk under? – Though there did appear in the heathen world some great men, who were as lights shining in a dark place, yet there was not one found able to extricate himself from all the superstition of his country, much less to reduce the people to a practice consonant to the pure principles of Natural Religion. – When once nature leaves her faithful guide, the gospel of Christ, it will be as unable to support itself against error and superstition, as it was to deliver itself from them; and it will by degrees fall back into its original blindness and corruption. Had you a view of the disputes that arise even upon the principles of Natural Religion, it would show you what the end will be: for the wanderings of human reason are infinite. Under the gospel we have the immutable word of God for the support of our faith and hope; – and how despitefully do we treat the gospel of Christ, to which we owe the clearer light even of reason and nature which we now enjoy, when we endeavor to set up reason and nature against it? Ought the withered hand which Christ hath restored and made whole to be lifted up against him? or should the dumb man’s tongue, just loosed from the bonds of silence, blaspheme the power that set it free?”
6. It is another abuse of free judgment, and inconsistent with it, when persons allow themselves to be carried from one extreme to another, and from their conviction of, and aversion to, some particular evils or errors, suspect many things to be so which are not, and thus suffer themselves hastily to be carried to errors of an opposite kind. Some men no sooner discover the errors that have crept into true religion, than they conceive such an aversion to these errors, as that they begin to suspect all the rest to be a mistake. From being enemies to superstition or enthusiasm, they become enemies to all religion. This is an unjustifiable proceeding in one who pretends to be a lover of truth. The principle upon which such persons proceed just amounts to this: Where there are errors there can be no truth; – because one extreme is evil, the other must necessarily be good; – there are errors in all communities of men, therefore there can be no truth at all in religion itself; – men have given very mistaken representations of the Deity, therefore there is no true Deity; – there have been false revelations, therefore there is none true; – the truths of revelation have been perverted and misinterpreted, therefore there is no truth or certainty in them; – Which is as much as to say, there is a wrong, therefore there can be no such thing as a right.
It displays great defect of judgment when men fly from one extreme to another. Thus many take a disgust at superstition, and know not how to distinguish what is true from what is false. They find they have not skill enough, or they do not choose to undergo the labor, to take off the disguise from religion, – to separate the appearance from the reality; and, therefore, finding they must take all or none, the hatred they have conceived against the errors which they have already detected, prompts them to quit religion entirely, as their only security against all errors. This accounts for the observation so often made, that where there is most superstition, as in Italy and other Catholic countries, Atheists and Deists are most frequent: – because the generality of people are apt to conceive so strong a prejudice against any cause, howsoever just, when they discover any fraud used in its support or embodied with it, that they immediately conclude the whole to be a cheat. Their aversion to the fraud makes them overlook all the arguments that can be given them for the support of the truth; as if it was an impossibility, in the nature of the thing, for evil men to defend the truth by a falsehood, and in connection with much error.
7. A disposition to call in question received opinions and established forms of faith, from an affectation of singularity or novelty, must not be mistaken for freedom of inquiry, or a lawful use of private judgment. As some are too much attached to what is recommended by antiquity, and sanctioned by common opinion or custom, so others incline to another extreme. They become weary of walking in an old and beaten track, and set their invention at work to seek out and recommend a new path; they represent as suspicious whatever is currently and confidently believed; and they think it a sufficient argument that any religious institution is the effect of prejudice because it is old, or that a doctrine is false and unreasonable because it is common. Being given to change, they labor to introduce it without consulting truth, or caring whether the innovation may be from better to worse. During a uniform and tranquil state of things in the religious or intellectual world, they are restless and void of enjoyment. They are always ready to assume the character of reformers, and to boast of their superior light and improvements, in opposition to those who believe and worship as their fathers did, and who go with the multitude. With some giddy and unstable souls such specious professions are apt to have great influence; as if true religion was a secret hid from all the world, till recently discovered by some few singular and conceited men. Such persons become often more zealous to oppose, than others are to maintain, the common faith. They are ever declaiming about bigotry and prejudice, and talking as if truth and improvement had been reserved for their own age, and was concentered in themselves.(5)
But it is no presumption in favor of any schemes in religion, that they are strange and new. Religion in itself is invariable, and its true principle permanent; though accidental corruptions may sometimes require reformation, and make it appear a novelty. “Be not carried about with divers and strange doctrines, for it is a good thing that the heart be established with grace.” It is otherwise with religion than with human sciences. When accidental discovery, long experience, or profound investigation, are the means of advancing a science, it is reasonable to expect that improvements in it will increase with length of time; accordingly, we find that in natural philosophy, natural history, and some parts of mathematical learning, the moderns are far superior to the ancients. But what is founded on intuitive principles, rather than on deep reasoning or mere experiment, admits not of such precarious, gradual, or late improvements. If religion means what God has though fit to reveal as true or false, good or evil, necessary or destructive; – he only can deem it capable of improvement, who imagines that man may be wiser than his Maker.
8. A spirit of free inquiry after truth is to be distinguished from a fondness for dispute, and a spirit of contention. Some think they give the best display of their liberal and impartial turn of thinking, and of an unshackled judgment, by adopting, with equal readiness, and equal earnestness, any side of a question, and especially by confuting and contradicting those opinions that are most in vogue, or that are held by the general voice to be the most sacred. Pride and self-importance often animate such disputes, and the honor of truth, on either side, is in danger to be lost and forgotten in the honor of the combatants. All truth, no doubt, is liable to opposition and attacks; it has nothing to fear from fair and candid controversy; and when it is brought into dispute, its friends may be obliged to defend it even by polemic weapons. But this is never the best and most eligible way, either for discovering and maintaining the truth, or reclaiming men from error; especially when the mind is ruffled, and the understanding disturbed by passions, and when truth is not the prize in view, but glory and victory. Truth is best seen, and most distinctly examined, in a calm. A spirit of dispute and wrangling anciently brought disgrace on philosophy, and more lately on theology, in the schools: – and to this day, the fierce contentions and rage of controversy among Christians, is one of the most obvious stumbling blocks that lie in the way of a searcher after truth.
Many, by indulging in this humor of caviling and wrangling, by treating divine doctrines, as the Sophists and Rhetoricians of old did their questions, and by exhausting their invention and their eloquence, either pro or con, without minding the decision, – have sometimes brought themselves to doubt or deny what at first they seriously believed, and have been often too successful in lessening their value or certainty, in their own estimation or in that of others. Some limits ought certainly to be set to this spirit, even where it is kept up for improvement, that persuasion be not violated, nor the majesty of truth wounded or injured.
9. It is an error to represent the exercise of public authority, civil or ecclesiastical, and decisions regularly made by it, as destructive of just freedom of thought, and impartial inquiry. Whatever authority has been appointed by God, and whatever power or jurisdiction is competent to any authority that is lawful and necessary, must have a right to be exercised independently of the private sentiments of the individuals who are placed under it. The public judgment is superior to the decisions of a private mind, and has a right to be maintained and carried into execution in preference to them. If these could legitimately control or suspend its exercise, it would have no certain foundation, and could never be rendered effectual to any purpose: it would be superseded and abolished; and every individual would be left independent and self-governed.
It is sufficient that authority do not go beyond its province, nor invade what is reserved only to the judgment of God and conscience; and that its decisions be in themselves lawful. If persons are not compelled by external force to contradict their judgments, and betray their consciences, they are not robbed of their private liberty merely by sentences which are contrary to their sense of right and wrong. Nor are they wronged by being subjected to the coercive power of civil government in the case of crimes deserving this, or by being subjected to censures in the church, to the loss of their privileges in it, for scandalous opinions and practices, though these should be maintained and committed by them in judgment and conscience. They are called to think for themselves, and to use their liberty, but not to the hurt and destruction of the constitution and authority of a society; being amenable to the jurisdiction established in it, and subject to penalties for transgressing its just laws.
The magistrate has a right to restrain and punish public disorders and trespasses against the lives, liberties, and property of the subjects, which it is the design of civil government to protect, whether these disorders and trespasses proceed, or are pretended to proceed, from conscience or not; for to judge the sincerity or insincerity of that pretense is not within the province of rulers. Nor ought the plea of individual liberty to be set up, or the rights of private judgment to be extended, so as to prevent civil rulers from maintaining those principles of morality and religion which are essential to the preservation of order and justice among mankind, or from giving public countenance and encouragement to religious institutions, in as far as these are connected with public good and the welfare of society. But to enlarge the bounds of civil power farther, by taking within its province matters purely religious, and which, consequently, do not affect the interest of society as political, and by extending its exercise to religious in the same manner as to civil interests, is to lay a foundation for oppression and persecution.
The reason is equally valid in the case of church power, as to what lies within its proper sphere; as the power of judging and deciding of errors and scandals, appointing matters of necessary order, according to the rules of Scripture and discretion, exercising discipline, etc. There is no ground therefore for the noise made by Independents and others about the necessity of asserting Christian liberty against all sorts of ecclesiastical judicatures and decisions. Neither is there any reason or sense in the rhapsody of the translator of Claude: “Grant us vox populi, vox Dei; only allow the people to be the source of power, and we have a wish equal to that of Archimedes. Farewell Popery, Prelacy, Presbytery! I have understanding as well as you. My Creator gave me ability to judge for myself. My Redeemer bought a charter from heaven to confirm my right of doing so, and gave me a rule to guide and exercise that right,” etc. Here there is a false principle assumed, and a true one misapplied; nothing, therefore, can be more fallacious than the reasoning, or more false than the conclusion. Whatever may be said of civil power, when we speak of that which is of divine institution in the church, its sources cannot be allowed to be in the people. And if an authority be lodged with certain persons in a society, from whatever source it be derived, it must have a distinct exercise, independent of the private sentiments of the people of the society at large. Both of them have their proper use and end, and the regular use of the one does not destroy nor supersede the use of the other. Private judgment respects and determines the individual’s own conduct; a public judgment is not merely exercised for the persons themselves who are invested with it, but for many, within certain known limits, and for certain necessary ends.
10. The free exercise of private judgment and inquiry does not preclude the use of creeds, confessions of faith, public directories, and formularies, in particular churches; not is it invaded or destroyed by the requisition of assent or subscription to these.
The lawfulness and utility of such summaries and formularies, not as rules of faith, but as tests of orthodoxy, as well as bonds of unity and peace, would require a large discussion, were this the proper place for it. They have been often and largely vindicated both at home and abroad, more especially of late. The popular publications on this subject in Scotland, are the Vindications of Professor Dunlop, and of Mr. Walker of Dundonald. When these formularies are compiled in an unexceptionable manner, and when they contain nothing but scriptural doctrines, and require nothing in religion but what is agreeable to the divine rule, (which, in the discussion of the general argument, must always be taken for granted) they admit of a fair and satisfactory defence, notwithstanding all the specious and sophistical reasoning, and all the clamor and vehement declamation, with which they have been attacked during the last century. They belong to the proper means of avouching, explaining, and maintaining the truth; and do not necessarily imply any unwarrantable imposition, or undue restriction of private judgment, which is the great and continued outcry against them; though dislike of their contents, and opposition to the doctrines contained in them, probably first gave rise to the complaint, and chiefly supports it, as it has gradually increased in proportion to the departure from the faith received in the Protestant churches. The sound of Christian liberty, to which the enemies of the truth have had recourse, was more engaging, and readier to fascinate and draw others to their side, than a plain declaration of their particular tenets; in consequence of which, no doubt, a number sound in the faith have been involved with them in this cause.
It is only in this particular view, as respecting the freedom of private judgment, that the question falls here to be considered. Scarce any reader can look into the writings of Protestant Dissenters, in England or Ireland, without finding them perpetually harping upon this objection; to say nothing of the opinion of the Remonstrants all along in Holland. Since the publication of the Confessional it has been introduced by the clergy of the established church in England, and made great noise there; and the tracts written on both sides in the controversy about subscription have been innumerable. It has also been carried on with great heart in Germany, more especially since the publication of the Edict of the King of Prussia, requiring all public teachers to adhere to the confessions and doctrines of their churches.
Dr. Taylor of Norwich celebrates the noble stand made for liberty at Salters Hall in 1720, when, in a full body of dissenting ministers in and about London, it was put to the vote, “Whether subscription should be required to the Assembly’s Catechism,” and carried in the negative. “This,” says he, “should always be remembered to their honor, as being the only instance, perhaps, that can be produced out of church history for many centuries, of any synod of ministers, declaring in favor of religious liberty.” Others, tenacious of the received opinions, stiffly opposed the decision; and a separation in some places ensued from the Arian party. This he represents as protesting and dissenting Popery – amounting to a claim of human infallibility, as making the judgment and writings of men the rule of Christian faith: and he asks, “To what purpose is our boasted liberty if we dare not use it? To what purpose do we enjoy the light, if we may not open our eyes to it? To what purpose the word of God, if we must not seek for its real and genuine sense, but must be tied to the dictates and sentiments of any divines that have been or now are?” – “Protestant Popery, though in some respects better than the Roman, is yet more inconsistent, when it renounceth infallibility, and yet imposeth and persecuteth as if infallible; rejecteth human authority, and yet in many places pleadeth and resteth upon it; lastly, permitteth the Scriptures to be read, but not to be understood, or which is all one, to be understood only in the sense of schemes formed and established by men. – Who were the ancient bishops and doctors? or who were the first reformers? or who were any synods or assemblies of divines – that they dared to model Christian faith into their own invented forms, and impose it on the minds of men in their own devised terms and expressions? – I conclude that the first reformers, and all councils, synods, and assemblies, who have met together to collect, determine and decide, to prescribe and impose matters pertaining to Christian faith, have acted without any warrant from Christ; and therefore have invaded the prerogative of him who is the sole prophet and lawgiver of the church. ‘Judge yet what I say,’ said the apostle. ‘But ye shall not judge what I say, you shall take it implicitly on my word. The Scriptures ye may search, but ye shall find no sense in them but mine: I make it a crime for any man to dispute what I affirm, or to be wiser than I am.’ Does not every one see how unreasonable and erroneous this is? and yet this is the real case of all creed- and confession-makers, from the council of Nice in 325, to the assembly of divines at Westminster in 1643. – According to our Protestant establishments,” adds he, “the integrity of ministers in their youth and at their entry upon the sacred work, is grievously wounded; the first step they take is prostituting their consciences to the unjust commands of men, and the sordid motive of temporal gain. Thus, so far as the greatest part of Protestant establishments have prevailed; – ministers have not been allowed freely to search the Scriptures, to examine the doctrines which men and synods have decided either before or after their entrance upon the ministry. To what purpose must he take a Bible into his hands, who must find nothing in it but what Calvin judged to be true, and is sworn to wink hard as to all the rest. – Thus prompted by the desire of popular esteem, and the shame of being cast out of congregations, ministers have been afraid of free inquiry, and displeased, if not enraged, at any that offered to convince them of any error.”
The Synod of Protestant Dissenters in Ireland, soon after their brethren in England had renounced subscription, declared against it also on similar pretexts. And the cry of free inquiry, right of private judgment, and new light, is kept up among them to this very day, while many of the most precious doctrines of Christianity are gone. They contended that no church or association whatever ought to make a particular form of confession which should be a test for others, because it seems to be an infraction of Christian liberty, an encroachment on Christ’s prerogative, and an impious reflection on the sufficiency and perspicuity of the Scriptures, as if they needed human decisions to ascertain their meaning.
Dr. Lardner, in his Credibility of the Gospel, speaking of the Council of Nice, says: “Can it be shown, that there is any ground or authority from reason or from the Scriptures, whereby you are allowed or enjoined to require your brethren to sign certain speculative articles, whether they believe them or not? Nay, is not this quite contrary to the design and example of the Lord Jesus, who never proposed to men any arguments but such as were suited to gain the judgment? The gospel teaches and enacts moderation and forbearance, and condemns all impositions on the consciences of men.”
Dr. Williams, in his Essay on the Divine Government, etc., in the section on scriptural authority, speaking of the nature and origin of pretended authorities in matters of religion, says: “The binding force of traditions, the belief of which has been long a convenient instrument of priestly domination, was renounced by the reformers; but the power of one class of men to prescribe to the faith of another was left quite undisputed. They did not indeed protest against the abuse of that dangerous prerogative, and from past experience of the manner in which it had been exercised, they wished to transfer it to other powers; but the principle itself, on which the claim was founded, was neither condemned, nor even suspected of pernicious tendency. Provided only that men were commanded to believe what was not inconsistent with Scripture, they were not disposed to inquire how fallible men could either really add to divine authority, on which all necessary truths were already enjoined, or even profess it without intolerable arrogance; nor did they consider that the belief of propositions, however true and important, when received on mere human authority, differs essentially from that faith which is required in the lively oracles, of which it is the distinguishing characteristic, that it rests on divine veracity. By allowing that there might be two authorities, the one liable to error and the other infallible, they left room for the introduction of most dangerous impositions.” The same writer argues against this assumption from the following topics: – That it is clearly impossible that these two should be always coincident in their prescriptions; – that, if they were, the very nature of moral government forbids the association of claims between which the disparity is infinite; – that the Bible is alike addressed to every man within whose reach it comes; – that to suppose that it empowers any particular set of men to judge and determine for others is unspeakably absurd; – and that, finally, if such a fact could be proved, of itself it would be sufficient to discredit the pretensions of the book to be regarded as a divine revelation.
We have quoted these passages to give you a specimen of the current language, and the strain of pretended reasoning, that you will be perpetually meeting with on this subject; and to put you on your guard against the specious sophistry by which the enemies of confessions of faith would put a fair gloss and coloring on the cause of license and disorder. However plausible these assertions are, they are unfounded and calumnious; and there is great confusion of ideas in the argument. It is false and calumnious to allege that the Protestant churches, their ministers, or synods, have compiled and adopted their confessions as a rule of faith separate from and derogatory to the Scriptures; or that, either in doctrine or in practice, they oblige any to receive their contents without examination, on mere human authority; or that they prohibit any form searching and trying the truth of every article contained in them, either before or after they have subscribed. – All are expressly prohibited from subscribing or adhering to them in any other way.
A candidate for the ministry, or any man, may freely exercise his private judgment, and is supposed to do so after serious and mature deliberation, when he comes forward of his own accord, without any compulsion, to declare his assent to a public profession of faith, supposed to be agreeable to the Scriptures. By a public subscription or vow, he does not renounce, nor is he obliged to renounce, either then or afterwards, his own judgment. He only gives such a testimony of concurrence or agreement in judgment with the church with whom he embodies himself, and with whom he may become a teacher, as she, by the authority of her Lord, and by her very constitution, has a right to expect and require, in order to show due care, by all the authority and means competent to her as a spiritual society, about the preservation of the faith and of public peace in her, and for securing the edification of her private members. It is a joining or giving in the person’s private judgment into the common stock of the society; declaring that he is then clear to profess and to act in conformity to it; which is no more a divesting a man of his right, than an individual’s casting in his subscribed proportion of money into a bank, is to rob himself of all right and property in it. He is hereby secured in the fuller enjoyment of it, and has certain privileges accruing from the social and combined exercise and nature of it, which he could not claim or enjoy as a mere individual.
That he may act without or contrary to his judgment, or be chargeable with insincerity, is possible, but it is not a necessary consequence of this order. The alleged temptations to prevarication, arising from the authority requiring subscription, general custom, or any temporal advantages attending such a profession, or the shame of being kept or cast out of such a church or congregation, can bias the judgment, and corrupt the heart of the dishonest only. A man has the finest opportunity of showing the firmness of his judgment, and his love to free inquiry, and, if he will have it, to the truth too, by withstanding these temptations; and may have the honor, if he thinks it necessary, of maintaining both in a more heroic and conspicuous manner, than otherwise he could have had. If these are not allowed to be arguments suited to gain the judgment over to the side of truth, how can authority, emoluments, etc. be supposed to be any real obstacle to its free determination on any side? Does rational freedom exclude the consideration or force of motives? – But, in whatever manner individuals may be supposed to act, the public good of society must not be sacrificed, nor measures calculated to secure it be neglected, merely because some men of corrupt minds may be ready to abuse them. “It is better,” says Dr. Bonnet, “that a few make a hypocritical profession, than that a church should suffer from her preachers bringing in damnable heresies. – A candidate for an office should be satisfied, if, with a good conscience, he can submit to the conditions annexed to it. If he cannot, and gives up pretensions to the office, the temptation ceases. If, notwithstanding, he solicits it, his own dishonesty is blamable, not those conditions.”(6)
In the case of public formularies and established confessions, a number of persons, associated together as a body, declare, by those in whom the power of public judgment is lodged as their organ, their sense of Scripture. When this is the unanimous voice of every individual of that body, have they not a right to have it declared, and to act correspondent thereto? and for that purpose have they not a right to employ all the power competent to such a society, to have it rendered effectual and perpetual? If this be denied them, then surely these bodies, or a majority of them, must have less liberty or power allowed them, than what each individual, or the minority, of the body would claim. What right have the latter, by their private dissenting judgment, to infringe and restrain that of the public, or of the major part? Surely they cannot pretend that their sentiments, and their sense of Scripture, are infallible, any more than those of the persons with whom they refuse to unite, or that they have any more right to impose them on others.
It is no reason for refusing conformity to such creeds and confessions, that they are not expressed precisely in the language of Scripture. The true sense of Scripture, and the true system of divinely revealed truth, may be certainly and exactly transferred into these, though of human composition, as well as into a translation of the Scripture, which is also a human production. Nor do the objectors confine themselves to the bare use of the words of Scripture, in declaring or teaching their doctrines and opinions about the faith; for, if they did so, they would never be quarreled by any who make the Scripture their rule of faith; and if all were to do so, there would be no error or heresy vented, nor the perverse senses of men’s private judgment discovered, to trouble the church or offend fellow Christians. But seeing the objectors still use and claim an unalienable right to entertain and express their own sense, without being tied to the very words of Scripture, is it not allowable, is it not necessary, that others who may think differently from them should do the same? Would they deprive others, – divines, synods, councils, whole churches, of a freedom which the least and most ignorant declaimer is allowed every day to challenge and exercise? How unequal and inconsistent is such a plan of liberty!
It may be observed that public formularies, and subscription to them, are necessary to secure the liberty of the many, which is always paramount to that of a few. They secure to the members of a church the privilege of being taught and edified by the religious doctrines and ordinances which they believe to be delivered in divine revelation, and the only ones that are safe and profitable for them. – They secure to them and to their children, as well as to the ministers they have chosen, the quiet enjoyment of their most valuable privileges – their faith and freedom of conscience; without being in danger of being continually intruded upon by teachers bringing in strange and dangerous doctrines. The following just observations have been made on this subject in a late publication abroad.
“Another design of confessions, is to prevent disorder in each particular religious society, and to secure laymen against the attempts of teachers to encroach on their liberty of conscience. No society can subsist without established rules, in what manner and order their affairs shall be conducted. Religious societies cannot with reason be excepted from this rule. They must be taught, and the teacher must be directed, what he shall teach, and in what manner; though a short and general directory may sometimes be sufficient. Christians who profess to found their faith on the sacred oracles, yet, in their sentiments what these teach, widely differ. Were teachers therefore allowed to explain Scripture in any way they chose, disorder would be unavoidable. By a change of sentiment, the teacher may be led to preach today the very reverse of that which two years ago he warmly inculcated. Protestant preachers have become first Arians, next Socinians, and at last Deists. Nay, we have an example, at no great distance, of a Protestant preacher, who in his public writings, has taught Atheism. What must the populace, what must men of rank and ability, who have not made divinity their chief study, do, when they hear from the pulpit such opposite doctrines? A preacher dies. What he recommended as an essential and important doctrine, his successor declaims against as absurd, or at least an unnecessary and superfluous speculation. In a church where are two preachers, one reprobates today what the other had yesterday zealously recommended. A schoolmaster teacher, a minister opposes the old doctrine; and even children observe the opposite tendency of their instructions. In all Protestant churches, the youth are instructed by catechisms. A preacher free from restraint, argues against the doctrine contained in them; and thus the minds of the people are distracted and perplexed. – And now, what must be the consequence of all this? Some adhere to the old doctrines of their catechism; others prefer the newfangled creed of a modish preacher. Some, despising or offended at the preacher, desert his ministrations. Many want inclination or ability to examine which of the contrary instructions given them are preferable, become indifferent about religion, and fall into scepticism or infidelity, which soon produces depravity of manners. Formulas, therefore, are not unnecessary, if they prevent, in a considerable degree, first, the internal divisions, and then the general decay of religion, in a particular sect of Christians.
“But they have another happy effect. They secure to the laity liberty of conscience. If ministers may preach what they please, the edification of the people is left to the mercy of every wild fanatic, or a flighty youth, who has heard something strange at an university, or has read some new notion in the immortal works of Bahrdt, or in the general German Bibliothec. Liberty of conscience is the natural right of communities, as well as of individuals. But the laity must bid adieu to this right, if teachers are allowed to force instructions upon them, which they view as false and pernicious; or to expose as absurd and ridiculous, what they regard as certainly true, and highly important. In this way, only the teacher has liberty of conscience, not the church. If men are entitled to join the religious sect which they prefer, they are entitled to demand, that he who undertakes to minister among them, shall preach the doctrines of that sect, or at least nothing opposite to them. He who accepts that office, tacitly enters into such an engagement. Without this, their peace in this life, and their happiness in the next, are left to the discretion, not of a Pope, who may be a man of age and experience; not of a general council, where many of the judges are wise and honest; but perhaps of a half-taught, though proud and presumptuous youth, who passes over in silence, or opposes, the important foundations of their faith and hope, and retails to them the cold imperfect morals of philosophy. To force on a Jewish synagogue a Christian preacher, would be tyranny and oppression; and yet, by the liberal ideas of those who condemn the edict, the rights of conscience require, that Christians shall want the benefit of churches in an establishment, or be constrained to hear Socinian or Deistical sermons. – Depriving Socinians of their power of teaching in an established church, when they act contrary to the engagements they come under at accepting their office, is no more unjust, than depriving one of a civil or military office, who does the reverse of that which he is commanded, and which he had solemnly or tacitly promised to do. Such have no right to a salary, granted under conditions which they will no longer perform.”(7)
To conclude this subject: – an impartial, disinterested love of truth for its own sake is essential to genuine freedom of inquiry. Our judgments should not be determined by any adventitious or adherent circumstances which may attend the truth, or by any consequences which may follow our believing or embracing it. We ought to seek and follow it wherever it leads, without bias from affection, resentment or party spirit, – without partiality to ourselves, our interests, or our views, – without levity or ridicule, – and with that seriousness which bespeaks a deep sense of the great importance of the object of our researches.
(1) “Conscience,” as one has observed, “is a monitor as well as a judge; it always gives sentence according to its own light, not another’s. No man ever felt any wounds of spirit for acting contrary to the decisions and judgments of other men, while he himself was not convinced by them, and while he preserved a due regard for the light of his own understanding; no man ever possessed the comfort of self-approbation, and the testimony of his conscience, by complying with the sentiments of others while he acted against his own.” Abernethy’s Tracts.
(2) Jeremy Taylor, Liberty of Prophecying, 1:10.
(3) Sermons, vol. 2, sermon 2.
(4) The illustration of this will be found in Lectures I and II.
(5) Bayle, a noted freethinker, is frank to confess that the infidelity of many people is owing more to some degree of vanity, and a desire of distinguishing themselves, than to any force of evidence: “It is plain enough,” says he, “that those who make a show of opposing the most common truths of religion, speak what they do not really think; their vanity has a greater share in their debates, than any conviction of their own minds; they please themselves with the thought that the boldness and singularity of their opinions will gain them the reputation of great geniuses, and men of a superior way of thinking to the rest of mortals. Thus they are tempted, against their consciences, to set forth the difficulties which the doctrines of providence, and those of the gospel, are subject to; so that, by degrees, they get a habit of speaking impiously: and if their vanity be attended with the love of sensuality, they go on faster in their impiety.”
(6) Treatise on Ecclesiastical Toleration.
(7) Erskine’s Sketches, vol. 1, pp. 122-27.