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Review of "The Latest Form of Infidelity"

Andrew Preston Peabody

In the controversy surrounding Andrews Norton's discourse, "The Latest Form of Infidelity" (July 1839), this conservative review by Peabody appeared in The Christian Examiner and General Review 27.2 (Nov 1839), pp. 221-235, defending Norton's claim that Christianity necessarily requires belief in miracles.  

A Discourse on The Latest Form of Infidelity; delivered at the Request of the "Association of the Alumni of the Cambridge Theological School,” on the 19th of July, 1839. With Notes. By andrews norton. Cambridge: John Owen. 1839. 8vo. pp. 64.

We doubt whether a sufficient distinction is commonly made between the facts and the truths of the gospel. By the facts we mean the external events connected with the life and ministry of Jesus—his birth, miracles, death, and resurrection. These are mere history—local and temporary. By the truths we denote those great eternal principles which Jesus revealed—the love, providence, and laws of God, the tendencies of human conduct, the worth of the soul, the doctrines of regeneration, pardon, and immortality. For our own part, we believe that these truths could not have been promulgated and established among men had they not been connected with the most stupendous series of facts in the world's history; and we therefore can yield to none in hearty reverence for what in current phrase is termed historical Christianity. But the conservative party in the church have always claimed for these facts a kind of reverence and faith, of which they are not susceptible—a concurrent jurisdiction with great truths over the heart and life—a sanctifying efficacy. To take a single example of this, great stress has always been laid on the mere blood of our Savior's cross, as if this material fluid were possessed of an inherent spiritual efficacy, so that it has not been deemed sufficient for the disciple to believe in Jesus as all love and all self-sacrifice, unless he could concentrate all his ideas of self-sacrificing love on the purple current of Calvary. The radical party in theology, perceiving the absurdity of thus substituting the phenomenal for the spiritual in matters of faith, have passed to the opposite extreme of undervaluing or rejecting all that is merely external and local in the records of our religion. This tendency has long characterized the more liberal school of German theology, and has recently manifested itself in various ways in our own country.

We cannot dissemble our belief that much of the Rationalism of Germany deserves no better name than "the latest form of infidelity," and that it would claim no other name, were it not that the profession of Christianity is there essential to the enjoyment of certain ecclesiastical and literary preferments, as well as of a certain modicum of respectability. It is, we apprehend, this trans-Atlantic pseudo-theology, and not any mode of belief or class of speculatists in our own borders, that Mr. Norton designs to attack in his Address. We cannot regard him as having entered into the arena of personal controversy with any portion of the "Association of the Alumni," before which he uttered himself, but as having discussed a theme in theological literature, with which he and many of his hearers had been long and familiarly conversant. There is not a sentence in the Address which would have seemed out of place on a similar occasion ten years ago, before Alumni, whose alma mater had fed them on German fare. Yet we have no doubt that Mr. Norton was led to the choice of his subject by certain novel speculations, which, grouped together as they have been inaccurately enough under the name of Transcendentalism, have been recently rife among us. Several popular writers, agreeing in nothing else, have concurred in attacking the generally received notions with regard to the miracles of the New Testament. One author has denied their validity and worth as evidences of a religious system; another has attempted to reduce them to the level of natural phenomena; while a third cannot receive them in the form in which they have been transmitted to us, because they are monstrous—fall not in with the analogy of nature. The blended braying of their trumpets has given too uncertain a sound for one to gird himself to the battle with them. The highly spiritual characters of these authors themselves have indeed kept their pages pure from the impious absurdities which have been issued from the German press under the name of biblical criticism. But the common tendency of their writings upon the unspiritual and groveling is to bring about a skepticism with regard to miracles and historical Christianity. This skepticism on the continent of Europe was the joint result of mysticism and naturalism—the fruit of bold, anatomizing theories and hypotheses started by men of a sincere and devout spirit. It is this result, among us yet in embryo—it is Rationalism full grown, and not its various constituent elements—against which Mr. Norton has directed his course of reasoning. He has fought no new battle—has grappled with no unfamiliar foe—has wielded weapons already thoroughly proved and often victorious. He sought not the award of originality, but merits the far higher praise of a most lucid, cogent, and impressive reiteration of arguments, which are only the more precious because they have come down to us from former times unanswered, and which he has so recoined in adaptation to the present times as to leave upon them the manifest stamp of his own vigorous and discriminating mind.

In the following article we propose, first, to discuss very briefly the worth and the peculiar province of the gospel miracles, and then to follow Mr. Norton in his train of argument with such extracts as our limits may permit.

And at the outset, we agree entirely with those who profess a more spiritual philosophy, that a belief in miracles constitutes no part of a sanctifying faith in Christ. It is the truth as it is in Jesus that makes a man a Christian. Whosoever is of the truth is his disciple. To be a Christian is to have a perpetual consciousness of the truths which Jesus revealed—to feel our spiritual relations and condition as constantly and as vividly as we feel our earthly estate and our temporal wants.    It is not by what lies without the mind and is contemplated at a distance and historically, but by truths that lie deep within the mind and are regarded as a part of itself, that piety must have its birth and growth. It is not an outward Christ, a cross far away upon Mount Calvary, a sacrifice once made and never to be repeated, that is to save us, but a Christ, formed within, is our hope of glory—a cross, taken up and borne, is our pledge of eternal life—an inward sacrifice of sin alone can make the sacrifice of the Lamb of God availing. What we call the outward means of salvation are not means of salvation, till they become inward, till the heart adopts and fosters them, and then they are spirit, and they are life.

What then is the province of mere marvelous facts? What relation do they bear to the truths of religion? What can a belief in them conduce to a true Christian faith? Had mankind been always perfectly pure and spiritual, they would never have needed the apparatus of miracle and revelation to have guided them to the truth. They would have recognised and embraced it, in whatever form it came to them, because it commended itself to their spiritual discernment, because it touched answering chords in their hearts. Had it been uttered by common men, or written in anonymous books, or breathed upon the soul as the zephyr breathes upon the Aeolian harp, it would have been all the same as if uttered in a voice from heaven and attested by the right arm of Omnipotence. The heart attuned to the truth would know it by a feeling of kindred and a sense of fitness and reality. But such is not our condition. We have lost the signature of native innocence. We are carnally minded. The eyes of our understanding are darkened. The oracle within utters false responses. The chords of our moral nature are unstrung or misstrung, so that their quick vibrations are no longer an infallible test of truth. Hence without special revelation we should be the prey of ceaseless doubt or of mistaken confidence—tossed on an ocean of skepticism and error, without chart or pilot, sun or star. Such was the condition of the whole heathen world before Christ. Such would be our condition, were the marvelous facts of the gospel stricken out of knowledge. The truths of Christianity would still remain, for they are the same yesterday, today, and forever; and a few pure and gifted spirits might attain to the consciousness of them, walk in their light, and rejoice in their salvation. But not so the vast majority of the ignorant, the unspiritual, the sinning. They would be shut out forever from the temple of truth. Its torch light would have gone out in their hearts, and there would be no vestal flame at which it could be rekindled. The light within would have become darkness.

The worth of the gospel miracles lies in their adaptation to the erring and groveling, in their exciting and fixing the attention, and opening the heart, where worldliness or guilt had stupified and closed it. They are a ladder from earth to heaven, from carnal-mindedness to spiritual-mindedness. They address the unspiritual and the guilty in that language of outward phenomena to which they are accustomed and which they can understand. They employ material signs, and appeal to men's senses and everyday laws of belief in behalf of things, which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor the groveling heart conceived. Take the case of a heathen, bound down by the degrading superstitions and vices of idolatry. We go to preach the gospel to him. What can we do for him without the miraculous history of the gospel? We might proclaim in thrilling tones its sublime doctrines and promises, and the very stones might cry out before he would be moved. For his soul would be dead within him. Its strings would have been so often swept by harsh and unholy hands that they would no longer answer to the gentle touch of truth. How then could he believe when we told him of heavenly things? But we might tell him of earthly things—of the music that floated over the hilltops, of the star that stood over the manger when Jesus was born, of his walking on the sea and healing the sick, of the widow's son given back alive, and Lazarus walking forth from his four days' slumber in the tomb, of the darkened sun and rent rocks of the crucifixion day, of the Saviour's forsaken shroud and deserted grave. With these narratives we could chain his attention and inspire a readiness to receive truths thus confirmed by the mightiest signs and wonders the world ever saw. He might then be led to test the efficacy of these truths upon his own heart and life, to make experiment of their power. And thus they would work their way step by step from the region of the intellect to that of the affections, till at length there had grown up within him a heart-faith so sincere and fervent as to be able to sustain itself, even were its scaffolding of facts knocked away. It is thus, stepwise, from fact to truth, from the head to the heart, that the great majority of men must be led to a living and operative faith.

Let us not, then, think slightly of Christianity, considered as a system resting on testimony and authority. What if we feel that outward evidences are not essential to ourselves, that no voice of attestation, no visible authority is needed to make us believe the truth of Christ? So ought it to be with us. We are not mature and confirmed Christians till we are able to say each for himself: "I need not that God or man should testify to these truths—their testimony is in my own heart. I know that they are true, because they meet my wants, my holiest feelings, my best desires. I have lived by them, and practised upon them, and proved them true by my own happy experience." But if we are able to say this, it is the facts of the gospel that have enabled us to say it. While we were putting these truths to the test of experience, and building up this independent and self-sustaining heart-faith, we leaned upon authority—we relied upon the testimony of miracle and inspiration—we were thrown back upon this testimony in every period of doubt or trial—this was our point of support, without which our embryo faith would have passed from us, and the gulf of skepticism would have swallowed us up. And now, to hold in vile esteem the very means by which our faith grew to be what it is, to throw down the ladder on which we mounted, and which is the only way in which thousands more can mount, so far from betraying the spirit of Christian liberality, indicates narrowness of mind, exclusiveness, and a lack of sympathy with the great human brotherhood.

But it is an error into which some of the purest and best of Christians have fallen, solely because, in the retirement of their studies, they have forgotten that all men were not as spiritual as themselves—because they have overlooked the broad contrast between their condition and that of the thousands, whose pursuits and habits are all unspiritual. A religion of authority must always be the religion of the great body. And we cherish the most sincere regret at the growing disposition, in receiving the great truths of the gospel, to set aside, or to push out of sight, all that is external and authoritative in Christianity. But while we deprecate the error, we feel that the individuals who have fallen into it proffer a strong claim, we should say, upon our toleration and kindness, did not some of them, by their lofty spirituality and heavenly-mindedness, challenge our heartfelt reverence and love. So highly essential to the great mass of mankind do we deem the facts, the miracles, the history of the gospel, that we should distrust, as a public teacher of piety, one who undervalued this wonted medium of faith. But so long as the kingdom of God consists not in words or facts, not in meats or drinks, but in righteousness, peace, and joy in the holy spirit, we will own, and embrace, and defend as a Christian brother, the man who, through faith in the everlasting truths of the gospel, does justly, and loves mercy, and walks humbly with his God.

Nevertheless, believing as we do, that miracles are the foundation on which Jesus built his church, and that it is only as they stand firm that the church can thrive, we welcome most heartily the able defence of this branch of Christian evidence now before us. "The latest form of infidelity," we are told, "is distinguished by assuming the Christian name, while it strikes directly at the root of faith in Christianity, and indirectly of all religion, by denying the miracles attesting the divine mission of Christ." The intrinsic impossibility of miracles was first maintained by Spinoza, subsequently by Hume, and has been since their day assumed as an axiom by numerous professedly Christian and theological writers. This idea, as Mr. Norton clearly demonstrates, is consistent only with Atheism, for, if there be a God, the laws of nature must be laws of his appointment, and it is absurd and self-contradictory to maintain that the Being, who has the right and power to make such laws, has neither the power nor the right to suspend them. On the contrary, if there be a God, miracles are intrinsically probablethe only ground on which it is conceivable that the Deity should have imposed upon himself in general uniform laws of manifestation would lead us to expect the occasional setting aside of those laws, for

"A religious philosopher may regard the uniformity of the manifestations of God's power in the course of nature as solely intended by him to afford a stable ground for calculation and action to his rational creatures, which could not exist if the antecedents that we call causes were not, in all ordinary cases, the signs of consequent effects. This uniformity is necessary to enable created beings to be rational agents. The Deity has imposed upon himself no arbitrary and mechanical laws. It is solely, so far as we can perceive, for the sake of his creatures that he preserves the uniformity of action that exists in his works. Beyond the sphere of their observation, where this cause ceases, we have no ground for the belief of its continuance. There is nothing to warrant the opinion that the Deity still restrains his power by an adherence to laws, the observance of which his creatures cannot recognise. We have strong reasons for believing that such an apparently causeless uniformity of operation would produce, not good, but evil. We have no ground for supposing that the operation of the laws of nature, with which we are acquainted, extends beyond the ken of human observation, or that these laws are anything more than a superficial manifestation of God's power, the mere exterior phenomena of the universe. We have no reason to doubt that the creation may be full of hidden miracles.

"But, if the uniformity of the laws of nature, so far as they fall within our cognizance, is ordained by God for the good of his creatures, then, should a case occur in which a great blessing is to be bestowed upon them, the dispensing of which requires that he should act in other modes, no presumption would exist against his so acting. So far as we are able to discern, there would be no reason to doubt that he would so act. A miracle is improbable when we can perceive no sufficient cause, in reference to his creatures, why the Deity should vary his modes of operation; it ceases to be so, when such a cause is assigned. But Christianity claims to reveal facts, a knowledge of which is essential to the moral and spiritual regeneration of men, and to offer, in attestation of the truth of those facts, the only satisfactory proof, the authority of God, evidenced by miraculous displays of his power. The supposed interposition of God corresponds to the weighty purpose which it is represented as effecting. If Christianity professes to teach truths of infinite moment, if we perceive that such is the character of its teachings, if indeed they are true, and if we are satisfied, from the exercise of our own reason and the history of the world, that they relate to facts concerning our relations and destiny, of which we could otherwise obtain no assurance, then this character of our religion removes all presumption against its claims to a miraculous origin." —pp. 16-18.

But incredulity on the subject of miracles, with very many, has its origin less "in any process of reasoning," than in the vague feeling that spiritual truth cannot be conveyed to the mind by outward phenomena, but must be perceived intuitively. It has become fashionable in some quarters to sneer at miracles, because they are wrought upon matter and are discerned by the organs of sense. We are at a loss to know why, on the same ground, the whole material universe is not to be stricken from the list of man's spiritual teachers, nature proclaimed voiceless to the human soul, and the creation, with its glories and its harmonies, regarded as a system of machinery devised for carnal convenience only. But is it so? Have the wise and good of all ages been deceived in believing that "the heavens declare the glory of God" [Ps. 19:1]—that "the invisible things of Him, even his eternal power and Godhead, are understood by the things that are made?" [Rom. 1:20]. Do the mountains rise, and the billows break, and the thunders roll, without any message from God to the soul of man? Has not creation been defined, with equal truth and beauty, by mystagogues of the inmost initiation, "the time-vesture of the Eternal,"—"the garment we see him by?" But if the ordinary phenomena of nature are fraught with lessons of spiritual truth, why may not extraordinary phenomena be charged with a like ministry? If the everyday course of creation be the exponent of certain items of religious knowledge, why may not deviations from that course let us into a higher cycle of truth? If the established order of the universe manifests the all-powerful and beneficent Creator and Governor, why may not an occasional interlude in that order show us the Father, unveil his upholding arm and reveal his unslumbering Providence?

Indeed, without any reference to their use as the criteria of a revelation, it seems to us that miracles were needed to complete the demonstration of the truths of natural religion—that they are the best interpreters of that order of nature which they seem to supersede. Suppose that what we call the order of nature had never been interrupted; we might have imagined it something more than a name—something real and constraining. We might have looked upon nature as a vast machine, rolling on its revolutions with no reference to human weal or woe. We should have yearned for miracles to show us that the world was not governed by chance or fate, or the combinations of brute matter. Now our Saviour's miracles have laid bare the springs of nature and uncovered her foundations. Her kingdom has been shaken once, that it may be established forever. He who then arrested, must ever have governed her course. God has thus shown us that what we call the established order of events is only a means, not an end. He then can never permit the means to supersede the end—can never so reverence the subaltern course of nature as to set aside, for the sake of it, the ultimate and real good of any of his children. But the same Providence, which once in infinite mercy visibly arrested the common course of events, will still in equal mercy, by the invisible shaping of remoter causes, adapt that course to the varying wants of his whole family. The only difference, as we conceive, between a miracle and what we call a common event is that, in the miracle, God interposes his visible agency between the last cause and the final effect, while in a common event the divine agency buries itself too far back in the chain of remote causes for man to detect it. Thus God through Christ raised up, without apparent means, the paralytic from his couch of chronic debility. The same work he now performs on many a sick bed, by directing attention to appropriate means of cure, and then crowning those means with his blessing. And now that through Jesus the heavens have been parted, and the fiat of the Omnipotent has swept over the scenes of human conflict and sorrow, over the couch of suffering and the valley of the dead, we can lean with unfaltering faith, in every trial and grief, on an all-wise and an all-merciful arm.

We therefore value the miracles of the gospel for what they would teach, did they stand forth as insulated facts, without having ever been appealed to as credentials. But Jesus appealed to them as the credentials of his mission. And they are the only possible badge of authority from God. They are the only incontrovertible sign of inspiration. Without them Christianity may be true, but it has lost its distinctive character. It stands on the same footing with Platonism or any other system of philosophy. If true, or so far as it is true, it is of God, and so is all truth, through whatever source imparted. We are told, indeed, that all truth coming from the inspiration of God, the popular distinction between revealed and uninspired truth is absurd. This we grant. We contend for no such distinction. We believe that, so far as Socrates thought rightly, he was as truly the subject of divine inspiration as were our Saviour and his apostles. But the distinction, for which we contend, is between inspiration with and without the seal of infallibilitybetween the inspiration of the honest learner and the accredited teacher. The true question between the Deist and the Christian is not that of inspiration, but of authority—not whether Jesus taught the truth, but whether God attached his own seal and sign manual to the truth he taught, so that men are under a peculiar obligation to submit their own judgments to his, to bow their wills to his law, and to believe what he says, because he has said it. To other teachers we yield assent, so far as they convince us by argument or accord with our preconceived opinions. Is there that in the position of Jesus with regard to us which demands that, when we come to him, we should leave our prepossessions behind us and take his word for truths beyond the province of our reason? If there is, it must be miracles that give him his peculiar position. They only can hold him forth as the object of the world's implicit faith. Now God has so constituted us that we all lean on authority, take truth on trust, and can acquire it in no other way, for the first years of our lives. Moreover, he has so arranged the outward lot of the vast majority of our race that, surrounded by groveling cares and with little intellectual culture, they can never attain the table land of clear spiritual intuition, but must always rely on authority and receive truth on the testimony of the few who have investigated, and seen, and reasoned. He has also so constituted the human mind that it has faith in man—faith in the workings of other minds, so that what one man learns, or discovers, becomes the property of the race. Now the idea of a religious teacher, authorized by a supernatural commission, is in close analogy with these acknowledged features of the order of providence, and is therefore supported by a strong a priori probability.

After having shown that, "if the miraculous character of Christianity be denied, its essence is gone, its evidence is annihilated," Mr. Norton remarks:

"It is indeed difficult to conjecture what anyone can fancy himself to believe of the history of Christ, who rejects the belief of his divine commission and miraculous powers. What conception can such a one form of his character? His whole history, as recorded in the Gospels, is miraculous. It is vain to attempt to strike out what relates directly or indirectly to his miraculous authority and works, with the expectation that anything consistent or coherent will remain. It is as if one were to undertake to cut out from a precious agate the figure which nature has inwrought, and to pretend that, by the removal of this accidental blemish, the stone might he left in its original form. If the accounts of Christ's miracles arc mere fictions, then no credit can be due to works so fabulous as the pretended histories of his life. But these supposed miracles, it has been contended, may be explained consistently with the veracity of the reporters as natural events, the character of which was mistaken by the beholders." —p. 23.

"Let us suppose that the account of some one or more of the miracles of Christ, especially if detached from its connection, and from all that determines its meaning, admits of being explained as having its origin in some natural event. Take any case one will, however, it must be admitted that the explanation is not obvious, that it is conjectural; and in a great majority of cases, it must be allowed that it is merely possible, and that to render it deserving of notice, the principle is to be assumed that whatever is supernatural must be expunged from his history. We will suppose ourselves, then, to have tried this mode of interpretation on one narrative, and to have found it improbable. But, suspending our opinion, let us pass on to another solution of a similar character. A new improbability arises, and after that a new one. These improbabilities consequently multiply upon us in a geometrical ratio, and very soon become altogether overwhelming."—pp. 24,25.

Mr. Norton next illustrates the position that the miracles of Jesus form an essential element of that internal evidence, which, we are often told, is the sufficient and only valid proof of the truth of Christianity. The marvelous facts of the gospel, when we contemplate them closely, start forth from the canvass of history as life-giving truths. They are exhibitions of everlasting principles, glimpses of what always has been and will be, leaves from the book of heaven and eternity. They themselves are natural in their place, belong to the person of Jesus, cohere with his teachings, accord with the purity and power of his spirit. Unless we suppose that he actually wrought miracles, we destroy the coherency of the gospel record and leave the godlike teachings of Jesus backed only by inflated, bombastic assumptions of authority, by gross imposture, or at best by successful jugglery and necromancy. The whole style of the evangelic history is inexplicable on any other supposition than that the writers believed him to have been accredited of God "by miracles, and wonders, and signs, which God did by him;" still more do the words of Jesus, on any other theory, present an insoluble enigma.

"They are accordant only with the conception of him as speaking with authority from God. They would be altogether unsuitable to n merely human teacher of religious truth, so considered, if not the language of an impostor, they become the language of the most daring and crazy fanaticism. I speak of the general character of his discourses, a character of the most striking peculiarity. In ascribing them to one not miraculously commissioned by God, they must be utterly changed and degraded. What is most solemn and sublime must either be rejected as never having been spoken by him, or its meaning must be thoroughly perverted ; it must be diluted into folly, that it may not be blasphemy." —pp. 26, 27.

These remarks Mr. Norton forcibly illustrates by citations from the reported sayings of our Saviour, particularly by his words at the grave of Lazarus, and then states as follows the alternative, to which the candid inquirer must find himself reduced:

"We must, then, believe that Jesus Christ was sent by God, commissioned to speak in his name, or we cannot reasonably pretend to know anything concerning him. We may think it probable that he was a reformer of the religion of his nation, who preached for some short time, principally in Galilee, but, having very soon made himself an object of general odium, was put to death as a malefactor amid the execrations of his countrymen, who then strove, though ineffectually, to suppress his followers. Or we may fancy him an untaught but enlightened philosopher, whose character, words, and deeds, whatever they were, have been absurdly and fraudulently misrepresented by his disciples. Or, as the Gospels cannot be regarded as true histories, we may go on to the conclusion at which infidelity, in its folly and ignorance, arrived within the memory of some of us, that no such individual existed and that Christ is but an allegorical personage. But to whatever conclusion we may come, if the representation of him in the Gospels be not conformed to his real character and office, no foundation is left on which anyone can with reason pretend to regard him as an object of veneration, or to consider his teachings, whatever effect they may have had upon the world, as of any importance to himself." — pp. 28, 29.

The remainder of the Address is occupied in meeting the objection that the evidence of historical Christianity "consists only of probabilities." To this the answer is obvious: that there is for a finite being "no absolute certainty beyond the limit of momentary consciousness, a certainty that vanishes the instant it exists, and is lost in the region of metaphysical doubt." Moreover, "in all things of practical import, in the exercise of all our affections, in the whole formation of our characters, we are acting, and must act, on probabilities alone." The evidences, on which the faith of almost the entire Christian world has reposed for eighteen centuries, amount to as high a probability as we usually seek to base our conduct upon in the most important affairs of life—amount indeed to what in popular language we denominate moral certainty, and therefore lay us, as reasonable and self-consistent men, under inalienable obligations to make the teachings and example of Jesus the guide of our lives.

Of the notes appended to this address, the first consists of "Some further Remarks on the Characteristics of the Modern German School of Infidelity." The second is "On the Objection to Faith in Christianity, as resting on Historical Facts and Critical Learning." The objection is that, as religion is a universal want, its proofs should lie at every man's door, whereas the weighing of historical and critical evidence demands an amount of time, learning, and mental acumen, which few are able to bestow. This objection, however, if valid, applies not only to historical Christianity, but to religion in general. The independent attainment of any kind of religious knowledge demands the highest effort of a well-trained mind and a well-purged heart. During the first forty centuries of the world's history, we can hardly count that number of individuals out of Judea who had attained clear and satisfying religious ideas. If we may judge from the thousands of thousands who have arrived at an intimate acquaintance with God and duty, since religion clothed itself in a historical form in the gospel, this form has tended greatly to diminish the difficulty—to render the temple of truth easy of access. Moreover, if the weighing of the evidences of religion be an arduous work and within the province of but few, so is the weighing of evidence in all the higher departments of knowledge. But we are so constituted that, in all these departments of knowledge, we rely on the testimony of others, make other minds do the work of investigation for us, and judge of the accuracy with which they have wrought it by a certain infallible instinct. And in this way is a firm faith in religion and its historical evidences acquired by the unreasoning multitude, on the testimony of those capable of investigating. We close our article by extracting from this second note a few remarks of the gravest moment on the all-important subject of the publication of opinions.

"This view of human belief, as resting in so great a degree upon what may be called testimony, serves to show strongly the responsibility that lies on all those who undertake to influence the opinions of their fellow men, on any subject, by their belief concerning which their moral principles or their happiness may be affected. Whoever may do so should have natural capacity for the office; he should have the requisite knowledge of which extensive learning commonly makes a part, and he should be influenced by no motives inconsistent with a love of truth and goodness, by no craving for notoriety, no restless desire to be the talk of the day, no party spirit, and no selfish purpose of maintaining doctrines, the profession of which he cannot renounce without the loss of some worldly advantage. Before he inculcates any peculiar opinions, he should have thoroughly studied them, have clearly defined them to his own mind, have traced out their relations, and have become persuaded that future investigation will not lead him to change them. And further, he should believe himself to see clearly that their promulgation will tend to good, since, if there be a God who rules all things in infinite wisdom and goodness, no general law or fact in the universe can ultimately tend to evil, and consequently no general truth, or affirmation of such law or fact, can be ultimately mischievous. In proportion therefore, as the beneficial effect of any doctrine is doubtful, so far is its truth doubtful on the supposition that there is a God. And if there be not a God, on which supposition truth might be mischievous, the moral offence of publishing a mischievous truth would still remain.

"Judging from the practice of the day, the responsibility of which I speak is not greatly regarded; and we may conclude from the language which is freely used that it is not generally understood. Men throw out their opinions rashly, reserving to themselves the liberty of correcting them if they are wrong; if you would know for what doctrines they hold themselves responsible, you must look to their last publication. It deserves praise, we are told, for one to confess himself to have been in error. It does, without doubt, as it also deserves praise for one to repent of a crime and to make reparation; but a wise and good man, as he will avoid committing crimes, so according to his ability, he will avoid promulgating errors on important, or unimportant, subjects. Another loose notion is that there should be no discouragement, by the expression of moral disapprobation, to the promulgation of any doctrine, whatever may be its character, or whatever may be the moral or intellectual qualifications of the teacher, for that this would be putting a check upon freedom of discussion. The doctrine may be confuted, it is said, if it is erroneous. But it should be recollected that many errors are in alliance with men's passions, vices, and follies, and that, when plausibly affirmed, they may be readily admitted by those who will not listen to, or perhaps could not comprehend, a series of explanations and arguments. It should likewise be recollected that a writer careless of facts, bold in his assertions, and confused and illogical in his conceptions, may commit more errors in a page than an able man can confute in twenty, that these errors may be gross, that one conversant with the subject may regard the task of exposing them as unworthy of him, and that it is hard to condemn such as are capable of informing others to the poor employment of rooting out errors, the growth of which is encouraged by those who assign them the task. But it is only necessary to attend to the general principle that, dependent as we all are upon the information and the opinions of others, no one has a right to assume the office of our instructor, who has not labored to qualify himself morally and intellectually for its proper performance." —pp. 60-62.

 A. P.  P.

Read Theodore Parker's contribution to the debate:

"The Previous Question"

 


 


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