American Unitarian Conference

Promoting the American Unitarian Tradition

 

Back to the Classical Unitarian Writings page

Remarks on a Pamphlet Entitled 

"'The Latest Form of Infidelity' Examined"

Andrews Norton

George Ripley's "'The Latest Form of Infidelity' Examined" (September 1839), which heavily criticized Andrews Norton's discourse, "The Latest Form of Infidelity" (July 1839), called into question Norton's claim that Christianity necessarily requires belief in miracles. In this essay, Norton replies to Ripley (in the third person) and defends his position.  

An anonymous pamphlet, entitled "'The Latest Form of Infidelity' Examined," has lately appeared, addressed as a letter to me. It was occasioned by my Discourse delivered before the Alumni of the Theological School at Cambridge. Had the writer confined himself to an examination of my reasoning, I should not have thought that there was any call upon me to take notice of it. But it bears throughout the character of a personal attack; and a considerable portion is expressly occupied in charging me with grave errors. These charges are urged with great confidence and relate to such topics that the generality of readers cannot be supposed able to judge for themselves of the correctness of what is asserted or implied. I have thought it right, therefore, to enter into some explanations, which will enable everyone to do so. It is unpleasant to engage in a discussion that has so much of a merely personal character and is so apart from the subject to which I wished to call public attention. But it has seemed to me due to my friends and to all who may think and feel with me on the great question at issue.

The occasion being thus presented, I shall also make a few preliminary observations, I can hardly say in explanation of the reasoning of my Discourse, but observations that may serve to show how much that reasoning has been misapprehended by the writer of the pamphlet.

preliminary observations.

I have said in my Discourse (as quoted by the writer of the pamphlet[1]) "that the divine authority of him whom God commissioned to speak to us in his name was attested in the only mode in which it could be, by miraculous displays of his power," that Christianity offers, "in attestation of the truth of the facts which it reveals, the only satisfactory proof, the authority of God evidenced by miraculous displays of his power, "and that "no proof of the divine commission of Christ could be afforded but through miraculous displays of God's power."

These propositions the writer of the pamphlet controverts in a long argument, and cites many authorities in opposition, as he represents, to what I maintained.[2] He particularly contends that they imply a rejection of the internal and collateral evidences of Christianity, or, in other words, of all evidence except the historical evidence. It is unnecessary to follow him in his argument; but the subject itself is important, and the truth respecting it may be made clear in a few words.

A Christian believes that Jesus Christ claimed to be a messenger from God to men, commissioned to make known to them, by authority from God, facts of which men's reason had not given them, and apparently never could give them, assurance. His firm belief of those facts rests on his faith in Christ. But why does he believe Christ to have been commissioned by God to make them known? No one can be less entitled to credence than he who claims to be a special messenger from God without being able to authenticate his claims. He who affirms that he is such a messenger affirms that God has in him wrought a miracle, but this is a miracle of which no other human being can have cognizance, and which is not to be believed without the most decisive proof. What, then, is the proof required? Manifestly it is the attestation of God to the authority of him whom he has commissioned. A miracle of which we have no cognizance can be attested only by miracles of which we have cognizance. If the proposition be clearly stated and understood that a miraculous revelation can be authenticated only by miracles, I am unable to perceive how it can reasonably be controverted. It is but stating, in other words, the proposition that we can have no ground for believing in anything miraculous, where nothing miraculous appears.

But what the proofs are, which we have at the present day, that a divine revelation, so authenticated, was made by Christ, is a very different question. There is an obvious and perfectly intelligible distinction between the evidence necessary to authenticate the fact of a divine revelation, and essentially implied in the existence of the fact, and the evidence which we may now have that such a revelation, so stamped with the seal of God, has been actually made. Of the proofs existing at the present day, the historical is first to be considered, for, if there were no historical proof, there could be no other. Even as regards the historical proof, however, many considerations concur to give it validity, which are not connected with common historical testimony. But, beside this, there is a vast amount of internal and collateral evidence. The whole history of Jesus bears an ineffaceable character of reality. It is impossible that it should have been a human fiction. The religion in its revelations and moral teachings is throughout worthy of God. In proportion as we better understand the writings of its apostles and evangelists, new evidences of its truth are continually appearing. Its reception and diffusion can be explained only on the supposition that it was authenticated by miracles as coming from God. It has shown itself to be from God by its influence on the hearts and lives of even its imperfect disciples, and on the whole condition of civilized man. This is a most brief and imperfect enumeration, but it is unnecessary to go on. A religious philosopher can hardly make himself acquainted with any fact illustrating the first history and promulgation of our religion, its essential character, the opinions and condition of men before and after its introduction, or the constitution of human nature itself, without perceiving evidence of its truth. This evidence breaks upon us from many different sources; and we may be satisfied very long before we have exhausted it. I know not that the mere intelligent reading of the Gospels, accompanied with a common knowledge of the facts concerning them, is not amply sufficient to produce a thorough conviction of the divine origin of our religion. But all the evidence of which I have spoken, so vast in amount and so various in its character, bears upon one point alone—that a revelation from God to men, authenticated by miracles, was made through Jesus Christ.

I state these considerations on account of their intrinsic importance. It is not worthwhile particularly to point out their bearing upon the different erroneous representations given of my opinions by the writer of the pamphlet.

But I may here observe that there is a mode of speaking of the internal evidence of Christianity, which, strange as it may appear, goes to destroy the worth of all evidences of Christianity as a revelation from God.

It is said that the truths of religion are directly perceived by the mind, that they neither require, nor admit of, any additional evidence, but that these truths are the truths of Christianity, and, therefore, that there is a direct perception of the truth of Christianity. These propositions embody opinions which are the basis of some modern systems of religion.[3]

I answer that a truth is the expression of a fact. With this understanding, it is not necessary to dwell on the metaphysical absurdity of supposing the direct perception of facts existing neither in the sensible world, nor in our own minds, as the fact, for example, of man's immortality. This will be obvious to everyone accustomed to think clearly. But, taking a more popular view, we may say that the propositions laid down would seem to have been framed by one who knew nothing of men as they had been, or as they existed around him, and who was speculating on the imaginary inhabitants of some other planet. What correct and assured belief of the fundamental truths of religion existed among the great mass of mankind before Christianity? How much belief of those truths now exists which is not to be traced to the influence of Christianity? In how large a number, in any Christian country, does it exist beyond the sphere of those who rest their faith on Christianity as a revelation from God?

But it is further to be observed that this pretence of placing Christianity upon unassailable ground, upon what is called, falsely, its internal evidence—this theory that the facts which it reveals are directly perceived by the mind—is utterly inconsistent with any belief in Christianity as a revelation from God. No rational man can suppose that God has miraculously revealed facts which the very constitution of our nature enables us directly to perceive.

[At this point, Norton enters into a very lengthy discussion of his views of Spinoza, Schleiermacher, and De Wette, which came under attack in Ripley’s pamphlet. That section is not included here.]

I have now, I believe, said all that is necessary to defend myself against the charges of error brought against me; and in the Preliminary Observations, I have taken notice of everything else in the pamphlet which seemed to me to deserve consideration. It has appeared in those observations that what there is relating to the main subject of my Discourse is founded upon an entire misconception of the state of the argument. Should the writer of the pamphlet attempt a reply to what I have said, perhaps I may remark on it, for circumstances which I cannot foresee may render it proper for me to do so, but at present I think it very improbable that I shall. The expositions which I have made in these Remarks, though relating to subjects not familiar to most men's thoughts, are such, I believe, as may be fully understood by every intelligent reader. Whatever representations, therefore, the writer of the pamphlet may hereafter bring forward, or whatever confidence he may assume, every such reader can judge of the degree of credit to which he is entitled, and should I take no further notice of what he may affirm or imply, no one will suppose in consequence that I admit its correctness.

I should regret exceedingly if the irrelevant topics that occupy the greater part of these pages should become blended with the consideration of the momentous subject which I endeavoured to treat in the Discourse, on which the writer of the pamphlet remarks. In that Discourse, I wrote as a Christian, feeling the inestimable value of Christianity as a divine revelation—not in the sense of those who may quibble and say that this, or that, or every thing, is a revelation of God—but in the true sense in which a Christian uses the words. This, however, is not the place to resume the subject, and I have only to repeat my hope that attention may not be diverted from it by the incidental discussion that has arisen out of what I have written concerning it.  

Read George Ripley's response:

"Defense of 'The Latest Form of Infidelity' Examined"



[1] p. 31.

[2] Among those authorities, he quotes (p. 73) one passage written by myself, to which he might have added many more. One other he gives, as supposing it written by me; but I was not the author of the Review of Verplanck's Evidences of Revealed Religion, from which it is taken.

[3] Those, for example, of Fries and, as will hereafter appear, of his follower, De Wette.

 

 


© 2005 American Unitarian Conference