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Review of The Rationale of Religious Enquiry: or the Question Stated of Reason, the Bible, and the Church in Six Lectures by James Martineau (London, 1836) 12 mo. 256 pp.

George Ripley

From The Christian Examiner and General Review 21.2 (Nov. 1836), pp. 225-254.

Disagreement arose among Unitarians in the 1830's over how exactly to view the Bible. On one side were the old school Unitarians, who still held to the doctrine of biblical infallibility (at least in regard to the New Testament). On the other side were the new school Unitarians (Transcendentalists), who rejected the doctrine. This article begins as a typical book review, but Ripley's remarks in the second half caused quite a stir in 1836, because they clearly reflect Transcendentalist ideas. A series of articles were published in response to it.     

It is remarked in the Preface to these Lectures that “there are systems of Christianity in abundance, as, before the time of Bacon, there were systems of natural science; but the Organon of theology yet remains to be written.” A distinction is here pointed out, the neglect of which explains in some measure the present degraded state of theological science in England, compared with other departments of intellectual research and discovery. While physical sciences, political economy, the theories of government and social institutions, the application of the useful arts to the purposes of life, and the higher branches of literature have been cultivated with singular industry and success, it has been the fate of that master science, which the author of the “Novum Organum” designates as “sacred and inspired theology, the sabbath and port of man's wanderings and labors,” to languish in utter neglect, or to be left in the hands of religious artisans, who had neither the taste to perceive its richness and beauty, nor the skill to further its progress. It seems to have been taken for granted that this was a sphere of thought on which no new light could fall, which was absolved from the great law of advancement that binds all other human affairs. The idea of infusing any fresh life into its aged veins has been deemed chimerical, so that theology alone, in the midst of scientific progress, nay, of revolution, retains the withered form and rigid features of the past. It is not true, indeed, that there has been any period of English history in which religion has failed to excite a lively interest. It has been incorporated with the most valuable institutions of our mother country; it has pervaded, in some form or other, her laws, her social habits, her domestic feelings, her language, and her literature; it has found upon her soil, that is so fruitful in all the noblest products of humanity, many of the most glorious specimens of character which it seeks to call forth; and, after all that is said of the decay of piety in modern times, we believe that it maintains a strong hold in the true, substantial English heart, from which it will not easily be dislodged.  

Still, upon looking at the condition of theology in England, merely in its relation to the present state of science in the civilized world, we must note a striking and lamentable deficiency. Theology, in that country, has not been elevated to the same plane which is now occupied by the other branches of liberal study; and the consequence is that it presents few attractions to the most scientific minds, and the spirit of philosophical investigation, which is becoming more and more the order of the day, is almost exclusively turned in a different direction. There is a great deal written on theological subjects, but scarcely anything with the precision and depth of true science. Even the reforms which have been attempted are rather the spontaneous protest of reason against absurdity, than a profound discrimination between error and truth. They have consisted principally in setting aside some traditional dogmas, which, regarded in a literal point of view, were too preposterous for reception, but without laying open the central source from which such errors proceeds. There has been no thorough discussion of the philosophy of human nature in reference to religion, of the ultimate criterion of truth, of the history, position, and value of the Scriptures as the records of revelation; and hence, with all the systems which have been presented, there is no one that has commanded universal assent or, we might almost say, that has been considered a fit subject for philosophical examination. We are not aware of a single effective endeavor to advance theology to the rank of a free intellectual pursuit, to bring it into harmony with the progress of scientific culture, and thus to secure it a permanent peace in the unity of speculation. It remains, in fact, for all scientific purposes, nearly in the condition that it was in when the wisdom of Cranmer was embodied in the articles of the church, and a code of doctrinal theories established in a form as cold, as lifeless, as petrified, as any that ever darkened the worst days of Catholic predominance. 

It was supposed that the science of theology sprang at once into perfection from the heads of the Reformers, and every attempt to modify its character was regarded as an offense, and almost as a blasphemy. In this way, it has been left encrusted with ancient errors, while the work of purification has been going on in every other department of inquiry and thought. Astronomy has been separated from astrology, chemistry from the search after the philosopher's stone, medicine from the incantations of magic; but between theology and mythology a sharp line of distinction yet remains to be drawn. It is a problem which we who speak the English tongue have hardly looked in the face, but one which we must be prepared to meet before the claims of science and religion can be reconciled, before "an open and solemn marriage between faith and reason can be celebrated." The time has come when a revision of theology is demanded, as the commencement of a reform, when no solemn mutterings can present a charm to keep away the hand of bold research, when the veil must be wholly lifted up from the face of the statue, before which men have so long bowed in darkness and dread, and a clear, piercing light be admitted into the temple of our faith and the mysteries of our worship. Systems of divinity we have, indeed, had in abundance, but how unworthy of the name! Where can we find one which has not failed in the very thing that science demands as essential to a system—a rigid method and a comprehensive unity? The science of Divinity, regarded in its true light, is the noblest that the mind can be conversant with, for it is the science of the Divine, of the Infinite, of God in Nature, in History, in Humanity, in the Heart of Man. It should be filled with the dewy freshness of the morning, it should breathe an atmosphere of unclouded light, it should move with the freedom and grace of conscious inspiration, and gather around itself all that is attractive, beautiful, and glorious in the whole compass of creation.  

But what are our prevailing systems of theology? What claim do they present, as now organized, upon the attention of the philosopher or the lover of nature? It is hard to imagine a study more dry, more repulsive, more perplexing, and more totally unsatisfactory to a scientific mind, than theology, as it is presented in the works of by far the greater part of English writers on the subject.  

It is no wonder that the heart is pulverized, that the freshness of life is exhausted, under their influence. It is no wonder that the most vigorous efforts of sacred eloquence have been made by those who have avoided, as much as possible, the hard abstractions of our technical systems, who have studied divinity in communion with their own nature and with the universe, or who have not studied it at all. We respond, with living sympathy, to the earnest voice that comes to as from beyond the sea, calling for a new organ of theology and presenting us a specimen of its scientific culture. We long to see the educated mind of England awaking to the importance of this subject, seeking for an instrument wherewith this vast and holy science may be raised to its becoming rank among other intellectual pursuits, redeemed from the petty subtleties which have planted thorns around it, and brought out of bondage and darkness into the stately light of day. 

It is a great merit of the work before us that it distantly asserts the necessity of a fundamental reform in English theology before controversy can cease to resemble a contest in the dark, or a philosophical exposition be given to the primary truths of religion. The author confines himself to a single question connected with the evidences of Christianity—but that one which involves many topics of great moment—and if he does not contribute any original discoveries in aid of the reform which he has at heart, it is but justice to him to say that this is not the design of the present volume. “The popular form,” he remarks, “required for public delivery, precluded any very systematic or philosophical treatment of the subject: and if one or two just logical principles, corrective of common and mischievous fallacies, are brought out with tolerable clearness, all the service to truth, of which the writer and his plan are capable, will be accomplished." This attempt is entirely successful; and, though we are inclined to controvert some of Mr. Martineau's positions in the spirit of frank discussion which pervades his book, we must acknowledge the uncommon pleasure we have taken in its perusal, and the admiration we feel for the independence, manliness, and wisdom, with which it is written. 

The inquiry, in which Mr. Martineau engages, has for its purpose to settle the method of investigating the character of Christianity, and to estimate the value of the materials from which a judgment on the subject may be formed. The first Lecture opens with a graphic description of Palestine at the time of our Savior's appearance. The principal events of his life are then summed up in a brief sketch of exquisite beauty:  

“In a hamlet of this country, sequestered among the hills which enclose the Galilean lake, a peasant, eighteen centuries ago, began to fill up the intervals of worldly occupation with works of mercy and efforts of public instruction. Neglected by his own villagers of Nazareth, he took up his residence in the neighbouring town of Capernaum; and there, escaped from the prejudices of his first home, and left to the natural influence of his own character, he found friends, hearers, followers. He mixed in their societies, he worshipped in their synagogues, he visited their homes, he grew familiar with their neighbourhood, he taught on the hill side, he watched their traffic on the beach, and joined in their excursions on the lake. He clothed himself in their affections, and they admitted him to their sorrows, and his presence consecrated their joys. Their Hebrew feelings became human when he was near; and their rude nationality of worship rose towards the filial devotion of a rational and responsible mind. Nor was it altogether a familiar and equal, though a profoundly confiding sympathy, which he awakened. For power more than human followed his steps; and in many a home there dwelt living memorials of his miracles: and among his most grateful disciples there were those, who remembered the bitterness of the leper's exile, or shuddered at the yet unforgotten horrors of madness. That the awe of Deity which was kindled by his acts, and the love of goodness which was excited by his life, might not be confined to one spot of his country, twelve associates were first drawn closely around him to observe and learn, and then dispersed to repeat his miracles, report, and teach. They were with him when the recurring festivals summoned him, in common with his fellow citizens, to leave awhile Capernaum for Jerusalem. They beheld how his dignity rose, when his sphere of action was thus enlarged, and the interest of his position deepened; —when the rustic audience was replaced by the crowd of the metropolis, and village cavillers gave way to priests and rulers, and the handful of neighbours in the provincial synagogue was exchanged for the strange and gaudy multitudes that thronged the vast temple at the hour of prayer. In one of these expeditions, the fears of the established authorities, and the disappointment of a once favoring multitude, whose ambition he had refused to gratify, combined to crush him. It was soon done; the Passover at Jerusalem was its assizes too: the betrayal and the trial over, the execution was part of the annual celebration, a spectacle that furnished an hour's excitement to the populace. But there were eyes that looked on with no careless or savage gaze; —of one who knew what he was in childhood; of many that had seen his recent life in Galilee. The twelve too lingered closely around the event; and they say, that he came back from death, spake to them oft for forty days, and was carried before their view beyond the precincts of this earth" (pp. 3-6). 

Mr. Martineau then asks, What was the mission assigned by Providence to these events? The answer to this question will furnish us with the true idea of Christianity. But how are we to engage in the investigation? What are our materials, and what must be our method? Our problem is to determine what was the intent of Christ's coming; our preliminary question is, What are our instruments for its solution, and what kind and degree of value must be set on each? The instruments, with which we are supplied, are: (1) The books of the New Testament; (2) The traditions of the Catholic Church; (3) The creeds of Protestantism; (4) The decisions of Reason, in the province of natural religion and in the history of civilization.  

The first question, concerning the best method of solving the problem, What is Christianity? relates to the books of the New Testament. Let us take them up, as if for the first time, with no knowledge about them, but that they are the genuine productions of the age of Christ, and of disciples who had won by bonds and death a title to be believed. We should perceive at once that the New Testament is a composite work, with no other than a purely nominal unity, of which different churches possessed different portions, and which was not entirely completed within a century, at least, from the first introduction of Christianity. We should find in it a description of the two successive periods in the original development of Christianity, namely, the personal biography of Christ, and the first planting of the Church. Our final conclusion would be that the book was a casual association of faithful records, the production of the fresh and earnest time of Christianity, born in the midst of its conflicts, and impressed with the energy of its youth. 

We should perceive, moreover, that everything in this book bore the stamp of reality. No one but a Hebrew of that age could so conduct us through the country, as it then was, any more than a German could be our guide through Rome. The truth of the narratives is confirmed by the very discrepancies which they exhibit. Amidst them all, one impression is fixed upon the mind with perfect unity. A single image of Christ is reflected from each in unclouded brightness and purity. This is the solitary universality amid all the traces of time and place, the single line of moral unity which runs through the varieties of the Christian records. We accordingly conclude that the books of the New Testament, as compositions, are perfectly human, though recording superhuman events, and that the facts which they relate are entitled to credence, on the authority of good and competent men who reported from their own memory, reasoned from their own intellect, and received impressions modified by their own imagination. This belief is evidently all that is necessary to constitute a disciple of Christ. 

Mr. Martineau then discusses the theory which has been received of the plenary inspiration of the New Testament writings. As this has generally been represented, it involves the supposition that the ideas of their authors were infallibly correct and the natural causes of error altogether excluded. But two things are at once obvious with regard to this theory: first, that it must be proved, and secondly, that its proof must be attended with great difficulty. The only adequate proof, according to Mr. Martineau, would be an audible voice, clearly supernatural, heard by a sufficient number of witnesses, and announcing a person to be infallible. If, however, the inspiration be not universal, extending to every conception of the mind, and precluding every form of error, the department to which it is restricted must be specified. This proof, Mr. Martineau argues, does not exist in the case of the Apostles. No such voice fell upon them. Such a voice did fall on Christ, and authenticated, not his universal inspiration, but the perfection of his moral character. “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased," were the words heard at his baptism and his transfiguration, and they indicate the one infallible point on which his divine mission is sustained. 

The second Lecture, on "Catholic Infallibility," commences with a masterly, though, brief delineation of the historical relations of the Roman Catholic Church:   

“No instructed man can deny, that the Roman Catholic Church presents one of the most solemn and majestic spectacles in history. The very arguments which are employed against its rites, remind us of the mighty part which it has played on the theatre of the world. For when we say, that the ceremonies of its worship, the decorations of its altars, and the evolutions of its priests are conceived in the spirit of Heathenism, —how can we forget, that it was once the witness of ancient Paganism, the victor of its decrepit superstitions, the rival, yet imitator of its mythology? When we ask the use of the lights that burn during the mass, how can we fail to think of the secret worship of the early Christians, assembled at dead of night in some vault beyond the eye of observation? When we wonder at the pantomimic character of its services, its long passages of gesticulation, are we not carried back to the time, when the quick ear of the informer and persecutor lurked near, and devotion, finding words an unsafe vehicle of thought, invented the symbolical language which could be read only by the initiated eye? Long and far was this church the sole vehicle of Christianity, that bare it on over the storms of ages, and sheltered it amid the clash of nations. It evangelized the philosophy of the East, and gave some sobriety to its wild and voluptuous dreams. It received into its bosom the savage conquerors of the North, and nursed them successively out of utter barbarism. It stood by the desert fountain, from which all modern history flows, and dropped into it the sweetening branch of Christian truth and peace. It presided at the birth of art, and literally gave its traditions into the young hands of Color and Design. Traces of its labors, and of its versathe power over the human mind, are scattered throughout the globe. It has consecrated the memory of the lost cities of Africa, and given to Carthage a Christian, as well as a classic renown. If in Italy and Spain, it has dictated the decrees of tyranny, the mountains of Switzerland have heard its vespers mingling with the cry of liberty, and its requiem sung over patriot graves. The convulsions of Asiatic history have failed to overthrow it; on the heights of Lebanon, on the plains of Armenia, in the provinces of China, either in the seclusion of the convent, or the stir of population, the names of Jesus and of Mary still ascend. It is not difficult to understand the enthusiasm which this ancient and picturesque religion kindles in its disciples. To the poor peasant, who knows no other dignity, it must be a proud thing, to feel himself the member of a vast community, that spreads from Andes to the Indus; that has bid defiance to the vicissitudes of fifteen centuries, and adorned itself with the genius and virtues of them all; that beheld the transition from ancient to modern civilization, and forms itself the connecting link between the old world in Europe and the new; the missionary of the nations, the associate of history, the patron of art, the vanquisher of the sword" (pp. 34-37).  

The Lecture then examines the claims of the Catholic Church to any peculiar and infallible sources of information, by which we may be put in possession of the Apostolic ideas. These claims are founded on Scripture and tradition, neither of which, as Mr. Martineau clearly shows, affords them any legitimate support. 

The subject of “Protestant Infallibility" is discussed in the third Lecture. We cannot refrain from quoting the following fine description of the uses of the Bible:  

“That was a noble fight which was fought by Luther and his printing-press, when they rescued the Bible from the grasp of priests, and turned it from the charter of an incorporated tyranny, into the patent of universal freedom. If the most solemn era of the world's history was that in which Christ himself walked its fields in Palestine, and refreshed its weary heart with the living spectacle of heavenly virtues, and entered death that he might illustrate life, and, as he ascended, bequeathed to all generations the dignity and responsibility of an immortal hope; the next in interest is the period, when the true record of those things was brought again beneath the eye of men, and to the ear of thought the voice of Christ was made to speak once more, and the image of his mind was sent round the homes of the people, and went about, like himself, doing good. If that book is to fulfill its appointed function, as the sinner's conscience and the mourner's friend, and the oppressor's foe, it must be accessible to all men, in all stations of life and moods of mind; —not dealt out only in the place of pulpits, and spoiled by the voice of preachers, and selected by the will of priests; but abandoned, whole and entire, warning and promise, history, parable, miracle and prophecy, to the reason and the heart of all whom it may concern. The inquirer must have it, whenever the anxiety of doubt, or the spirit of speculation, urges him to its page; and we can borrow from it the solution of some perplexity, or shed on it the illumination of fresh thought. The sorrowing must have it, whenever the waywardness of grief may make it welcome, and to the touched heart there may be gentleness in its voice of comfort, and a brilliancy, in its scenery of hope, that may make them sacred to the memory for ever. The proud must have it, that, when no eye is on him but that of God, he may hear the withering words with which Christ could blight the Pharisee, and witness how mean is every distinction, compared with that moral dignity, which could raise the outcast from the dust, and seek the friendship of the publican, and praise the virtues of the Samaritan. The penitent must have it, that, at the happy moment, the eye of Christ may look into his heart, and bid it sin no more; and when the first effort is tempted to relax, his spirit of untiring duty may put weariness to flight; and, when the self-gratulation of victory creeps in, the immense ambition of future progress may absorb the silly vanity of present attainment. The tyrant must have it, —he that tramples on happiness and life for his own vile greatness, and hews a way of guilt and woe to an eminence of praise and hate; —that he may learn of a tribunal above, which frowns while it forbears, and waits only till the last drop of his brother's blood shall have cried to it from the ground. The slave, too, must have it, —to tell him the incredible story of his origin and his end, —to whisper to him (if he can but believe so strange a thought to be a truth and not a mockery) the equal responsibility of all men; to persuade him that the end is not yet, nor this earth an image of the skies; that while here he is degraded, abandoned to an animal nature, sometimes pampered, and sometimes tortured, left without duties because without rights, he goes in the great multitude of bond and free to that world, where he will discover what he is worth in the creation of God, feel the mighty stirrings of a moral nature within him, and find in verity, that of one blood, of one law, of one destiny, has God made all nations"  (pp. 67-70). 

So far, then, as the Reformation contributed to the wider diffusion of the Scriptures, Mr. Martineau observes that it should be regarded with gratitude by all times. But, he continues, there is much delusion in the fashionable panegyrics on the Reformation. In order to produce its beneficent effects, the Bible must come in direct and living contact with the minds of men. There must be no meddling with its genuine and single impressions. Yet of this freedom we are without experience to this day. The Reformers emancipated the Bible from Catholic theology, but it was only to enslave it to their own. With all their boasting, not a book exists of which Protestants are so much afraid as the Bible. Hence, they take care to keep it surrounded with a whole atmosphere of commentary, invisible in itself, but coloring everything. The evil consequences of this procedure are exhibited by Mr. Martineau with a masculine strength of Iogic, which seems to us to leave nothing further to be said. He concludes that the pretensions both of Catholic and of Protestant infallibility are alike untenable and absurd, and that we are forced to seek some higher standard of truth before we can obtain a satisfactory solution of our problem.  

The fourth Lecture is entitled “Rationalism.'' It maintains that the Gospel encourages the unreserved application of our understandings to its records, and their various contents of history, miracle, and doctrine. In the interpretation of the Scriptures, it is the office of the understanding to abandon itself freely to the impression which they produce: 

“That the impression may have the greatest chance of being correct, two conditions are needful; that the mind be charged with ancient knowledge, and emptied of modern theories. We must become penetrated with the sentiments of the age of Christ; feel the impatient expectation of those aware were looking for the consolation of Israel; burn with hope at every new rumor of the Deliverer, and despond again as the rumor dies away. We must go forth to labor in the fields of Galilee, and overhear the peasants' talk of the new prophet of Nazareth; how some are elated by the thought that their despised district had perhaps given birth to the Messiah, while others plead against this meek claimant the splendor or the royal race of Judah; and provincial vanity gives way to national ambition. We must tremble with the superstition that turned madness into an incarnate fiend, and treated the diseases of this upper world its stray terrors escaped from the invisible abyss. We must mingle with the caravan of pilgrims to the holy city, that winds its way from the heights above Capernaum, and bears through the plains below, and to Jerusalem, the first tidings of the deeds of Christ. The localities, the passions, the controversies, the forms of social life, in that city of priests, must be familiar to us as household memories. The ravine of Kedron, and the Mount of Olivet, must be like an evening walk, and the shady rills of Siloam, like a noon-day rest: the ‘Beautiful Gate’ must be too familiar to dazzle us with its golden reflection of the dawn: the leveled rock of Moriah our feet must daily climb, and pace the cloister of Solomon in frequent meditation; and before our eyes the cloud of the morning offering must curl and kindle in the sun, and the veil of the temple wave, as if from a breath within the Holy of Holies. We must share the party feelings of the times; and listen to Jesus with eagerness to learn whether he favors the intellectual conceit of the Sadducee, or the sanctimonious ambition of the Pharisee; and see them both retire abashed from his prompt dignity or crouch before the rending invective by which he tare open the ‘whited sepulchres.' With Paul flying in rage from Jerusalem, and arriving humbled and blind at Damascus, and for three days beholding nothing but the vision that had struck him to the earth, —his conflict of emotions must become ours. Watching him at his work as a tentmaker at Corinth, or hearing him in the schoolroom at Ephesus, or restraining him from rushing into the theatre in that city of Diana, that he might confront the craftsmen of superstition assembled there; —wrecked with him on the rocks of Malta, or in audience before the Emperor at Rome; —we must adopt his experience, encounter his dangers, study with him the varieties of character and the attitudes of society, and lose the sympathies of the present in the vivid creations of the past" (pp. 107-110). 

But the more important question remains, How are we to treat the original ideas of the sacred authors, after we have ascertained them by a fair process of interpretation? Mr. Martineau replies to this that they must be judged of by their intrinsic evidence and merits. If we should discover what appears to us absurd, in the writings of a man whose inspiration we admit, we cannot receive the absurdity because it is an inspiration, but on the contrary must discard the inspiration because it is an absurdity. No apparent inspiration whatever can establish anything contrary to reason, but reason is the ultimate appeal, the supreme tribunal to the test of which even Scripture must be brought. These positions are defended by Mr. Martineau in a different train of thought, but one leading to a similar result with that set forth by President Marsh in his admirable PreIiminary Essay to Coleridge's “Aids to Reflection.” 

The fifth Lecture is on the “Relation of Natural Religion to Christianity." The universality of the religious sentiment in man is exhibited by Mr. Martineau in a series of striking illustrations, which lead us to the conclusion that revealed religion comprises the ideas of God derived from the miraculous events recorded in the Bible, while natural religion includes the ideas of God derived from every other quarter. These two great branches of religious instruction are by no means opposed to each other; a perfect harmony unites them in their direction and their results, and revealed religion, so far from interdicting the study of natural, invites to it. This intimate connection has been often forgotten. Philosophers, although in many cases imbued with a love for Christianity, have been especially attached to natural religion, while divines, for the most part, have cherished an exclusive interest in the Gospel. The extravagance, of which certain theologians have been guilty, in undervaluing the importance of natural religion is pointed out by Mr. Martineau in one of the best portions of this Lecture. It closes with the following allusion to the manifestations of God in nature, history, and humanity: 

“While I admit, and indeed earnestly maintain, that to Christianity we are indebted for the knowledge at an early period, and the diffusion by the power of its authority through myriads of minds, otherwise unreclaimed, of all the other great principles of religion; though the blessed faith in a universal providence, would not, I believe, have descended from the inaccessible heights of a few philosophical minds, had not Christ told us of Him that paints the lilies of the field, and watches the sparrow as it falls; though the inspiring anticipation of immortality would not have penetrated the heart of society, and illumined the recesses of misery, and nerved the arm of virtue, had not Christ achieved the triumph of the tomb; still, acknowledging the Gospel to be the record, the register of sacred truths, I cannot forget that creation is the scene of their exhibition, the residence of the reality. God's name is in the Bible; his presence is in the world. Inspiration speaks of his power; creation exemplifies it. Sacred men declare his wisdom; a more sacred universe displays it. In the delicate organisms of the animal world, whose variety outnumbers our computation; in the earth, which is prepared for their habitation, —its parts are no less various than they; in the relations which unite their instincts with its changes of light and darkness, and heat and cold; in that most wonderful model of sentient being, perceiving, reflecting, feeling, and prospective man; in the process by which he passes from the animal into the reasoning creature, from the selfish to the affectionate, from the mechanical to the responsible, from the earthly almost to the divine; in the knowledge which enraptures his intellect, and the ties which capture his affections, and the hopes which cheer his griefs; does that goodness of God act, of which Prophets and Apostles speak. And in the history of nations, in their birth from barbaric elements, but tendencies to progressive civilization; in the successive encroachments of arts on arms, and reason on force, and the welfare of the many on the interests of the few; in the mighty agencies by which tyranny is made to quail, and superstition beaten back in its triumph, and ignorance driven from its throne; in the raising up of gifted individual minds, and the adaptation of their genius and their characters to the wants of their generation; in the creation of a Luther to shake the sleep of corruption by the thunder of his voice; of a Washington, endowed with the imperturbable patience, and disinterested wisdom, needful to baffle the will and disappoint the arts of practised oppressors, and generate by the force of pertinacity the liberty of a new world; of a. Scott or a Wordsworth, commissioned to refresh a people's heart with the sympathies of the past and the humanities of the present, and soothe the impatience for things yet to be, by drawing forth the beauty of what has been and what is, and thus breathe the spirit of reverence over the spirit of improvement; we behold the real and living operation of that Providence, of which Christ was the proclaimer and the impersonation. And in the quenchless capacities of human nature, in the aspiring of its understanding, in the peace of virtue, in the terrors of sin that cannot stand the calm gaze of God, we see the predictions which life gives of immortality, the signatures which our Creator has impressed on our constitution, of his glorious intentions, and our eternal progress" (pp. 160-163). 

The last Lecture discusses the “Influence of Christianity on Morality and Civilization." This topic is more in accordance with the genius of the author, if we may venture to express the opinion, than those which had been previously considered. He treats it with the hand of a master, and in the course of his argument presents some specimens of eloquent prose composition, which it would be difficult to match in any theological writings of the present day.  

From the new elements which Christianity has introduced into the world, Mr. Martineau observes that we may learn what is the errand on which it is sent, and the influences which it is its essential function to exert. It is no easy task, however, to determine what our religion has really effected in the world. The influence of other causes is so closely blended with Christianity that it requires no small sagacity to decide what are its peculiar and genuine fruits. This can be done only in one way. We must apply the tests of permanence and universality. The notions and practices that have prevailed only in one age or country must be rejected as accidental, belonging not to Christianity, but to the minds that received it:  

“But those great universal peculiarities of thought and action which have either been constant companions of its spread, travelling with it from land to land, bursting forth alike in barbarism and in civilization, denizens of the East and of the West, common to the free and the enthralled, —or have never long been absent from its presence, as if incapable of separation, and waiting ever to obey its voice of recall; —these sentiments, if we can find such, may be fixed upon as the staple wealth of Christianity, —the central and indestructible ideas which God sent it forth to preach to the common heart of humanity. Conceive then the several pupils of Christianity, however various, to be collected into one spot; let a vast assembly be formed, with a representative from every school, every period, and every clime; let the voluptuous Asiatic come, whom the Gospel turned from luxury of the senses to luxury of soul, and who mused on the Invisible beneath the dreamy starlight of his native plains: let the degenerate Roman come, whose sterner qualities were kindled again by the power of the new faith, whose departed patriotism it inspired again with the love of a better country, and whose heroism it revived in the form of martyrdom; let the Northern chieftain come, in whom the peaceful Gospel is tinged with blood from his own passions, who tramples on nations in the name of Christ, and, in the wilderness he makes, uplifts his savage hands in prayer, and thinks his Christian veneration adequately proved, if, when he overwhelms the temple, he spares the church, and protects the Christian pastor, while he murders the Pagan priest: let the pilgrim come, who seeks relief from the burden of his sin in the toil of travel, and the outbreak of local veneration at the sepulchre of the crucified: let the feudal baron come, whose piety appeared chiefly in devout bequests the indolent anchorite of Egypt, with the stirring reformer of Germany: the gay Cistercian with the stern Puritan:  let all appear in one motley multitude to tell their story, and exhibit their type, of the Gospel; and when all are severely disrobed of their peculiar costume of mind, whatever common features of character and colors of sentiment remain still visible in ally must be pronounced essentially characteristic of Christianity" (pp. 168-170). 

Of these universal sentiments, which Christianity has deeply embedded in the human heart, Mr. Martineau confines his attention to two, namely, that of the natural equality of men, and that of the importance of speculative truth to the great mass of mankind. By the former phrase, he means, “not the metaphysical doctrine (which is false) that all men are born with the same intellectual and moral aptitudes; nor the economical doctrine (which is equally false) that all men should possess an equal amount of property; nor the political doctrine (which can rarely be true) that all men should be invested with the same civil privileges; but the religious doctrine that all are of one blood, children of one Father, protected by one providence, and, consciously or unconsciously, appointed to one life eternal." This sentiment has been expressed in the struggles of the injured for their own deliverance, in the spirit of universal philanthropy which characterizes the history of modern times, and in the internal morality of churches. By the sentiment of the importance of speculative truth to the great mass of men, Christianity has created the virtue of honest speech and commenced the education of the multitudes.  

We close our imperfect analysis of the contents of this volume with the following passage, which closes the last Lecture: 

“Who can cast his eye over the nations which profess, and those which reject the Gospel, without beholding in it the benignest of earthly agencies, and the divinest of Heaven's gifts? Who can compare the East which it has deserted, with the West which it pervades, —the uniform decrepitude of society in the one, with its various moral life in the other, the triumph of violence and superstition there with the gradual spread of knowledge and just government here, without recognising in it an influence preservative of the health, and conducive to the progress of the general mind? Whether or not its extension throughout the foremost communities of our world be the chief cause of their advancement, whether it be the germ or the fruit of their civilization, there is still an undeniable affinity between its spirit and the noblest tendencies of the human race. What religion ever produced so little misery in its corruptions, and so lofty a virtue by its native power? It has presided, like a creative energy, over the moral world, and constructed new types of character, and new forms of genius, and new visions of ideal good. Science, poetry, and art have given it the homage of their mingled voices; the sorrowful, the anxious, and the happy have kneeled together at its shrine: the peasant has felt its nobility, and the sage rejoiced in its illumination: and if its name has sometimes spread a shield over the persecutor, in its spirit the persecuted have found the consolation of inward dignity, and the strength of quenchless will. 

“Faith of our fathers! in the strength of whose virtue they toiled, and in the peace of whose promises they suffered; in whose hope they fell asleep in Jesus, and with whose providence they now dwell for evermore! Faith of bards and philosophers, of prophets, and martyrs, of the best friends of humanity, and foes of misery and wrong! Faith of Milton and of Howard, which inspired the muse of the one to breathe the strains of piety and liberty at once, and armed the spirit of the other to brave disease, and pierce the prison gloom, that no child of guilt might be without his solace! Faith of the people! whose generosity priests have been unable to extinguish, and with whose tendencies to freedom tyrants have grappled in vain! Not yet are all thy triumphs won; —not till the last and lowest victims of poverty, and ignorance, and sin have been redeemed and raised to the consciousness of intelligence and the sense of immortality! In meek majesty hast thou been borne over the high places of our world, like thy great author on the Mount of Olives. Descend yet deeper into the vales, where human suffering hides itself and weeps. Still behold the city of our dwelling through tears and pity, and make us worthy to join in the exulting cry, Hosannah! to the son of David! Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord!” (pp. 189-192). 

The copious extracts which we have given from this volume will enable our leaders to form some conception of the important vein of thought which it opens, while they indicate our own sense of the ability and skill with which Mr. Martineau exhibits the fruits of his labors. A higher praise than this, however, should be awarded to him as an author, for the singular freedom and frankness with which he advances his opinions and pursues them to their legitimate consequences. No one can peruse his book without feeling that he is brought into fraternal communion with a sincere and earnest mind. Every page bears the marks of an honest love of truth, a hearty attachment to her for the sake of her own exceeding beauty and intrinsic worth. He writes like a man who cherishes an unquenchable faith in the exalted destiny of humanity, and who cannot fear that it will ever be injured by the boldest exercise of its divine powers. This is united with a faith of equal vigor in the authority of religion, its spontaneous growth in the nature of man, and the illustration and support which it has received from extraordinary revelations of the Infinite Mind. Hence, he recognizes the great necessity of out times—that of making a just, philosophical discrimination between what is absolute and spiritual in religion and that which rests merely upon the outward and precarious letter. The direction which his inquiries have taken in this volume can hardly be commended too much, and we hope that the assurance of respect and sympathy, which ought not to be withheld from his labors, will encourage him to pursue it to its ultimate issues.  


We are unwilling to finish this article without noticing one or two topics on which we differ from Mr. Martineau, and which demand a more complete and scientific discussion than they have hitherto received, before the foundation can be laid for the progressive development of English theology. Of course, we cannot intend within the limits of a review to engage in the discussion of which we have here pointed out the necessity. We are compelled to restrict ourselves to a narrow space and prefer to present the remarks which we may have to make rather in the form of independent suggestions than of direct controversy with the author of this work. 

In the first Lecture, as we have seen, Mr. Martineau discusses the subject of inspiration with reference to the sacred writers and arrives at the conclusion that we are not authorized to regard them as inspired teachers, or claiming any higher office than that of faithful and competent witnesses of what they had seen and heard. The natural effects of the mission to which they were called and the position where they occupied are sufficient, he maintains, to explain their religious convictions and character, without the supposition of an extraordinary divine influence. But in the whole course of his remarks, Mr. Martineau appears to assume a particular theory of inspiration as covering the entire ground of debate, without attempting to examine the general question on broad and philosophical principles. He controverts this theory, which represents the writers of the New Testament as passive instruments under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and accordingly exempt from the possibility of error, in a strain of vigorous reasoning, and in our opinion with complete success. 

But if we have proved that the sacred writers did not possess absolute infallibility, we have by no means proved, at the same time, that they are not entitled to the claim of divine inspiration. It is one thing to demonstrate that an Apostle may fall into errors of opinion and practice, and quite a different thing to show that he was destitute of more than human sources of wisdom and light. These two points, however, are often confounded with each other. It is taken for granted, and that previously to any accurate and scientific examination of the theory of inspiration, that the claim to a supernatural divine influence involves the supposition of absolute freedom from error. This has been the mode of proceeding with the authors of the most plausible attacks upon the truth of the Christian revelation.    It has been their policy to dwell upon the inconsistencies and mistakes of the sacred writers, to expose the imperfections both of their characters and arguments, to detect the prejudices of the times and the infirmities of human nature that are exhibited upon their pages, and hence to present the conclusion that, as their boasted infallibility is a delusion, their pretensions to divine inspiration are a deception or imposture. This mode of reasoning has had the effect to disturb the faith of many an honest lover of truth. He has always heard it reiterated that the slightest shade cast upon the infallibility of the sacred writers darkens all the evidences which they can present of the enjoyment of inspiration. But he perceives that many objections can be alleged against the former, and he cannot but infer that there is too much obscurity and doubt with regard to the latter. His difficulties are increased by the usual mode in which this subject is handled by theologians. He is assured by them that inspiration and infallibility go together, and that he cannot discard the one without losing the other.  

With these convictions, we cannot go along with Mr. Martineau in his denial of inspiration to the writers of the New Testament. We think that there is a wide chasm between his promises that they were not infallible, and his conclusion that they were not inspired.  

It is essential to the success of the argument in this case to establish two points: first, that the idea of inspiration necessarily involves the collateral idea of infallibility, and secondly, that the Apostles cannot substantiate a valid title to this attribute. The latter point is discussed by Mr. Martineau and, as we have said, is clearly sustained; the former does not appear to have attracted his attention. 

It is not sufficient to say that the argument is directed merely against the popular idea of inspiration. In the present state of theological opinion, it is no easy matter to pronounce what is the popular idea on this or any kindred subject of inquiry. We know that signal revolutions have taken place in many religious theories which were once firmly seated in the very heart of Christendom; we live from day to day amid the falling ruins of “thrones and principalities and powers" in our high places of theology; and who is authorized to assert that, in overthrowing a specific view of any doctrine which has had the sanction of ages, he has destroyed the prevailing popular opinion with regard to it, or much more, that he has annihilated the massive foundations of the doctrine itself? It seems to us more consonant with the spirit of genuine science, after we have detected the unsoundness of a received theory, to establish a better one in its place, than to deny the facts upon which the discarded notions were sustained. It were better to admit the law of gravitation as illustrated by Newton, after rejecting the vortices of Descartes, than to call in question the motions of the heavenly orbs. 

We have no dispute with the reasonings which go to demonstrate that the writers of the New Testament lay no claim to universal infallibility. On the contrary, it excites our amazement, whenever we reflect upon it, that a conception so widely at variance with the letter of the Scriptures, with the obvious characteristics of the human mind, and, we are inclined to add, with a just and discriminating analysis of the demands of religion, should ever have gained such an extensive prevalence, not only in formal systems of theology, but, to a great degree, in the habitual modes of religious thought.  

But in denying the truth of this conception, we are far from according a slow or reluctant faith to the essential idea of divine inspiration. We believe that this was imparted, in a greater or less degree, according to the capacities of their nature and the exigencies of their times, to the prophets and lawgiver's of the ancient dispensation, that it was enjoyed without measure in entire and absolute completeness by the only being who could ever declare, without limitation or reserve, “I and my Father are one," and that the divine gift continued to be vouchsafed to the disciples of Christ, in proportion to the needs of their mission and the susceptibility of their souls. 

It is clear, we think, from the current phraseology of the Bible, that its writers were accustomed to regard every uncommon endowment as the immediate gift of God. This conception was carried to so great an extent that even the products of extraordinary mechanical skill were considered as the fruits of the inspiration of God. The cunning of the artificer, the valor of the warrior, the genius of the poet, the power of the musicians, the eloquence of the orator, as well as the wisdom of the sage and the authority of the prophet, were all traced to a heavenly origin. The ground on which this conception rested appears to have been the consciousness that such gifts were not the effects of the human will, but could proceed only from the Infinite Fountain of Good. Of course, a signal degree of illumination with regard to moral and religious truth was always referred to the agency of the Divine Spirit. Hence, the first teachers of Christianity, who found themselves in possession of light which was not kindled by their own efforts, whose eyes were opened to a clear perception of spiritual truth, such as they had never dreamed of before, whose hearts were charged and bursting with the flood of new and unutterable emotions which came pouring through them from the full fountain of Christ, naturally referred their condition to the influences of the promised Spirit. They could not but believe that the light which fell upon them was not from earth but from Heaven. They felt conscious of an extraordinary inspiration and they declared this inspiration to be from God.  

We do not find that they claimed to be exempt from all error in virtue of this divine gift. They stood upon the common level of humanity while the light from above was streaming into their souls. They were under the influence of a new and powerful agency; but they did not therefore cease to be men. A revelation of divine truth had been made to their minds; their understandings were opened to recognize its glory and loveliness; their hearts leaped to embrace it; but they were not therefore placed at once in possession of universal truth, endowed with an immunity from error and lifted out of the reach of all the noxious influences of their education and their times. A heavenly treasure had been imported to them, but it was a treasure in earthen vessels. We do injustice to the Apostles and vitiate their legitimate claims when we maintain either that they were all vessels of silver and gold, or that no divine treasure had been confided to their keeping. 

We believe, then, in opposition to Mr. Martineau, that the mental state of the Apostles involved, among other elements, that of divine inspiration. They professed to have received, not the gift of infallibility, but an extraordinary illumination from on high. This claim, we think, is substantiated by all that we know of their character and history. 

We will briefly indicate the process by which we arrive at this conclusion. The first step in the proof of supernatural inspiration is the admission of natural inspiration. The foundation for this is laid in the primitive elements of our being. The power of the soul, by which it gains the intuitive perception of spiritual truth, is the original inspiration that forms the common endowment of human nature. This, we maintain, is established by the testimony of the absolute and intuitive reason in man. Our own consciousness assures us that a revelation of great spiritual truths is made to the soul. There are certain primitive and fundamental ideas, which compose the substance of reason, that exist with more or less distinctness in every intelligent mind. These ideas are the intuitive perceptions on which all moral and religious truth is founded, just as the whole science of mathematics is built up on a few simple definitions and axioms, which neither require, nor are susceptible of demonstration. These ideas, by the necessity of our nature, we refer to an origin out of ourselves. They are not created by us, but they command us. They are not the products of our own will, but should be its sovereigns. They are not limited to our own personality, but bear the signatures of universal and everlasting authority. Now psychology and the history of man alike compel us to trace back their origin to God. We are conscious that they do not proceed from any act of volition, the personal causality which acts within us, nor from the influence of nature, the material causality which acts without us; and we are therefore compelled, by the authority of our reason, to refer them to the Absolute Causality, the Infinite Author of Truth and Good. Hence they are not human, but divine. They do not grow out of any deductions of our understandings, but are the fruits of a spontaneous and original inspiration, without which the understanding would have no materials to work upon.  

The revelations of this natural inspiration are the absolute ideas of reason, which lay claim to necessary and universal validity. The primary truths which are independent of experience and demonstration, the perception of the Just, the Holy, the Perfect, the Infinite, upon which all religious faith is founded, proceed from this source.  

Now when these ideas are developed, in any mind, so as to create a predominant conviction of the reality of spiritual truth, we say of that mind, by way of emphasis and distinction, that it is inspired. And just in the proportion in which the supremacy of these ideas transcends the ordinary, the natural effects of culture and reflection, we pronounce them supernatural.  We say of the mind, in which the essential ideas of religious truth exist in signal perfection, independent of human agency, that it is supernaturally inspired. This, we believe, can be asserted of our Savior, without any limitation. His soul was a sea of light. All that was human in the Son of the Virgin, all that belonged to his personality as a Jewish teacher, all that marks the secondary, derived, and fallible in the nature of man, as distinguished from the primitive, the original, the infallible, the divine, was swallowed up and, as it were, annihilated in the fullness of the Spirit which dwelt in him, in those kingly ideas of Truth and Good, which sustain the authority of the Eternal Throne, and authenticated the man of Nazareth as the Son of God, the visible tabernacle of the Word, which was made flesh and dwelt among us.  

Far below the incarnate wisdom of God, but far above the prevailing wisdom of their own day, the Apostles, whose writings have come clown to us as indications of their character, exhibit the image of their Master and lead us to the conclusion that they were favored with an inspiration, similar in kind, though less in degree, to that which filled and animated his soul. Their characters are the problem to be solved. We find the most satisfactory solution in the supposition that the Comforter, even the Spirit of Truth, which Christ promised, was actually present with them, and this presence of the Comforter was, at once, the source of their inspiration and the key to their characters. In other words, the spontaneous inspiration of the soul, by which we obtain all immediate and original perception of truth and good, and which is the direct agency of God upon intelligences kindred to his own, was vouchsafed to them in a high degree of perfection, and which, being above and beyond the ordinary experience of nature, may justly be called supernatural.  

With regard to the criterion of such an inspiration, it can be no other than its agreement with the primitive and universal dictates of the absolute reason in man. In this way and in no other can it be distinguished from the fancies of enthusiasm, or the reveries of superstition. Everything which claims to be of an immediate divine origin in history must be brought to the test of that which is admitted to be of immediate divine origin in the facts of consciousness. The natural inspiration which is possessed by all must sit in judgment on the supernatural inspiration which is imparted to an elect few. As a common degree of poetical genius is qualified to decide upon the merits of the great masters of song, so the divine sense of truth which is the property of the race must pass sentence on the claim of its prophets and teachers to supernatural endowments. The light of the soul is of a kindred nature with the light of the spiritual sun which irradiates the universe of thought, and it enables man to recognize between the reflections of the primal luminary and the meteors, which, of impure and earthly origin, often flash over the gloom of night. We submit to the observer of his own nature whether this be not a more convincing proof of the reality of inspiration, than any testimony of an external character. We submit to the author of these Lectures whether our perfect veneration for the character of Christ, the solemn awe which possesses our inmost being when we contemplate his divine moral attributes, and the chastened exultation which thrills through our souls when we remember that such excellence and glory once dwelt in a tabernacle of flesh, could be increased by the sounding of that voice which was uttered on the banks of Jordan and the mount of Transfiguration? Would it not be as difficult, to say the least, to convince ourselves of the supernatural character of such a voice, as of the perfect moral beauty of our Savior's character? Is not the correspondence of that with our most exalted ideas of divine perfection a better demonstration that he was of God and from God, than if we heard it thundered forth from the flames of Sinai, or saw it written by an angel's hand on the noonday sky? 

We are led by similar considerations with those which we have here suggested, to take a different view of the position and relative value of miracles in a system of divine revelation from that advanced by our author. It is rather a singular combination of opinions to deny the inspiration of the sacred writers, and to defend the miracles which they record as the essential foundation of the Christian faith. He attaches so great importance to these outward signs as to make a belief in them the exclusive ground of a title to the name of Christian. In our opinion, this criterion depends upon an erroneous view of the connection between Christianity and the miracles which accompanied its introduction into the world.  

We think no one will hesitate to admit that miracles do not compose the essence of Christian revelation, but were intended to facilitate its reception and establish its authority, that the revelation is not for the sake of the miracles, but the miracles for the sake of the revelation. Our Savior explicitly declared that he came into the world to bear witness to the truth, not to exercise a marvelous power over the agencies of physical nature, and he more than intimates that they who cherished the love of truth in pure hearts would bear his voice and acknowledge his sovereignty, without reference to wonders and prodigies addressed to the outward eye. Hence we infer that whoever believes the truth, which it was the mission of Christ to announce is entitled to the name of a disciple, whatever be the foundation on which he has been led to rest his faith. Christianity, as we understand it, is a revelation of spiritual life and truth, an exhibition of the grand moral laws of the universe, a development of the relation between the Finite and the Infinite, between Humanity and Providence, the Soul of Man and the Primal Spirit; and whoever accepts this revelation as it was announced by Jesus Christ may claim to be a Christian, for reasons which human decisions can do little to invalidate. If I believe in Jesus Christ as the visible manifestation of the Divine Majesty, if I behold in him the embodied wisdom and love of the Most High, if I recognize the stamp of Divinity in his whole character and history, if I listen to his words as the articulate utterance of everlasting Truth, must I be able to satisfy myself of the accuracy of certain traditions with regard to his power over nature before I can sign myself a follower of his religion and a member of his spiritual body? Is there anything in the character or teachings of Christ himself to authorize such a supposition? We deny that there is. On the contrary, we maintain that he ever enforced the paramount need of faith in his doctrine, which bore its own evidence on its face to those who would do his will, and that as a general rule, so far from requiring a faith in his miracles as the condition of receiving his word, he required a faith in his word as the condition of receiving his miracles.  

It may be said that a profound and hearty faith in Christianity cannot be produced except by the evidence of miracles. But this assertion involves a fallacy in the logical procedure. It takes for granted the very point which we deny. We present an example of apparent Christian faith, where the reality of the miracles is not admitted, but the genuineness of the faith is denied because the evidence of the miracles is not perceived. But this is to oppose an arbitrary definition to the testimony of consciousness and experience. It is bringing facts to the test of our theory rather than framing our theory in accordance with facts. The question can be settled in no other way than by an appeal to universal Christian experience, so far as we are in a condition to avail ourselves of its testimony.  

We ask, then, if there be the least shadow of proof that all the primitive believers were converted to Christianity on the evidence of miracles. We find that among the throngs who crowded around our Savior, when a miracle was to be exhibited, few became convinced of his claims and attached to his cause. They gazed as a crowd gazes on any other spectacle, but the hidden springs of faith within the soul were not touched. As far as we can judge at this distance of time, it was the truth which Jesus Christ announced, rather than the wonderful works which he wrought, that called forth the faith of his disciples and gave it vigor and steadfastness. At all events, we are not authorized to maintain the contrary. We must know the secret workings of the heart, when the words of Christ fell upon the ear; we must be admitted to the retirement in which deep and solemn thoughts crowded together when the voice of the Son of God searched its dark places; we must see the movement of consciousness when it was first awakened to religious life by the touch of light from above, before we can pronounce with certainty that there was no faith in the Savior except that which was founded on the contemplation of his dominion over external nature.  

But not to dwell on sources of evidence to which we can hardly be said to have immediate access, what shall we say of the recorded confessions of multitudes, who, in every age of the church, have testified that their faith in Christianity rested on their personal experience of its power, rather than on the traditional history of its miracles? We are compelled to number with this class many of the most gifted thinkers and eloquent teachers who have devoted their lives to the study and defense of the Gospel. According to the theory which makes the evidence of miracles the only foundation of faith, we must cease to think of them as Christians and regard them either as dreamers or impostors, men who were deceived themselves, or who wished to deceive others. We flatter ourselves that there is too much freedom and tolerance, among a portion at least, of the Christian Church to suffer this. Yet, if we would preserve our consistency, we must adopt this procedure or abandon the theory.  

Its fallacy, we are persuaded, would be still more clearly shown by an appeal to the experience of Christians at the present day. Let the consciousness of individuals be examined. Let the processes of faith and piety be revealed. Let us watch the growth of religious feeling from its morning dawn in the slumbering soul to the evening serenity of its departing sun. Should we find that the warmest faith was quickened into life by the narration of any past changes in the physical world? Was it the fact that miracles were wrought in Palestine centuries ago, or that a revelation was made to our better nature, of perpetual duration and validity, which inspired faith in Christ? Can it be proved that, among the swelling throngs who bear the name and profess the religion of Jesus, there is not one who was first led to him by a personal conviction of the divinity of his teachings, from its correspondence with all that is divine within his nature, rather than from the dim perception of historical events, which receive their significance from faith, instead of serving it for a foundation? But this is essential to the support of the hypothesis that the evidence of miracles and the belief of Christianity are related to each other as cause and effect. If a single individual can be found who acknowledges Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Savior of his soul, because he knows him as the way, the truth, and the life, without connecting his faith with historical events that are uncertain in their meaning and difficult of proof, the experience of that individual is sufficient to vitiate the hypothesis. 

But, we would go still further than this. We deem it an error, under any circumstances, to rest a system of spiritual proof addressed to the soul upon the evidence of miracles addressed to the senses. It is a matter of great surprise to us that the foundation of religion has been placed upon this ground for so long a time without a suspicion that it was in violation of the teachings of the Bible. It has been assumed, almost without asking a question in explanation, that the primary design of the miracles recorded in the Scriptures was to produce conviction of religious truth. It is said again and again, without so much as a whisper to indicate the mistake, that the revelations of truth, in the old Dispensation and the new, are established upon the foundation of miracles. Now we take leave to deny the fact altogether. We know what we are saying, and we assert that the design of the miracles in the Old and New Testament was not to confirm a revelation of spiritual truth, but to accomplish quite a different purpose. We would here point out a distinction, which has been strangely overlooked, but which is essential to a correct view of the miracles of the Bible. These miracles, we maintain, are proved by the historical accounts which relate them not to have been intended for the demonstration of religious truth, but to authenticate the claims or to accomplish the purposes of messengers of God in a capacity other than that of religious teachers. The most remarkable series of miracles, on many accounts, are those ascribed to Moses at the court of Pharaoh. But he went there with no revelation of spiritual truth. It did not enter within the compass of his plan to convince the Egyptian monarch of the validity of any speculative doctrines. He was not sent as the herald of new ideas, which unveil the mysteries of the unseen world, but as the agent for accomplishing a practical effect. It was his mission to redeem the captive Israelites from bondage, to convince their oppressor that he had the authority of God for this design, and he, accordingly, exhibited before him the signs of preternatural power, the proofs which were best adapted to assure a sensual king, that the credentials under which he acted bore the signature of the Almighty. The object which he had in view was action and not instruction; and he, therefore, addressed prodigies to the senses, instead of truth to the soul.  

We have indicated the principle, but we have no space to follow it out. It will serve us well in explaining the miraculous events recorded in the early history of the Jews. We shall find, on examination, that whatever difficulties may exist as to their character, there is none as to their purpose. They were performed as incentives to action, and not as evidences of truth. They were intended to substantiate the claims of the heroes of the old covenant to special divine favor, rather than to shed any fresh light on the character of God or the destiny of man. When the prophets appeared—those glorious minstrels who breathed forth the soul of harmony on a jangled age—we find that miracles became less frequent, and instruction more constant. They anticipated, in many respects, the rising of Christianity over their misty mountaintops and, like the Redeemer whom they predicted, trusted more to the essential power of truth than to the collateral force of miracles.  

With regard to our Savior himself, we think it will appear that his miracles of majesty and love were the free expressions of his character, rather than the formal supports of his mission. He exercised the divine power with which God had endowed him, not in the way of demonstration, but of philanthropy. He did not say, “Look at these miracles and believe what I declare;” on the contrary, he left his works to produce their own blessed effects on the body, while he put forth his truth to operate, in a similar manner, upon the soul. In some instances it may be thought that he appealed to his miracles as an evidence that he was the messenger of God, and therefore entitled to be heard, but even this was not in confirmation of the truth of his doctrine, but of the authority with which he announced it. In the final appeal, he rested the claim of his truth on its intrinsic divinity and power.  

Indeed, we do not see how our Lord could have adopted a different method under the circumstances in which he was placed. The apparent performance of miracles was not peculiar to him. It was not sufficient to authenticate his mission as divine without reference to other sources of conviction. The very records, which describe the miracles of Christ, inform us that similar works were performed by others who did not acknowledge his authority, but acted in their own name. It was an age in which portents and prodigies were not uncommon. How then was a true miracle to be distinguished from a false one? The Pharisees accused our Savior of casting out devils through the Prince of the devils; how could this accusation be set aside, but by establishing the divinity of his mission on independent evidence? If it had previously been made clear that God was with him, there would be no difficulty in admitting that his miracles were wrought by the finger of God. The evidence of the miracles alone will not sustain the test of a searching examination, for in themselves considered, they afford us no criterion to decide between the miracles of Christ and the miracles of a pretender. We must view them from a higher point of vision before they are made to stand out in contrast with all others in their own peculiar beauty and grandeur.  

In like manner, we know of no unerring test by which to distinguish a miracle of religion from a new manifestation of natural powers, without a previous faith in the divinity of the performer. The phenomena of electricity and magnetism exhibit wonders surpassing the ordinary agencies of nature. Upon their first discovery, they presented all the characteristics by which we designate miracles, except their application to religious purposes. If a miracle is said to have been wrought by one whom we already know to be in possession of supernatural gifts, there is a strong presumption that it may be true; but if the evidence of supernatural endowments is made to depend on the miracle, we ask how we are to know that what appears to be a miracle is, in fact, supernatural, and not a new development of nature.   

If, then, a firm faith in Christianity may be cherished independently of miracles, if the purpose of miracles be to operate within the sphere of action rather than of thought, and if there be great difficulties in the proof of miracles without a previous conviction of the divine authority of him who is said to exhibit them, we hold it to be an unsound method to make a belief in them the essential foundation of Christian faith, or the ultimate test of Christian character.  

It will be perceived that in the foregoing remarks we have not been inclined to controvert the truth of the Christian miracles. They are subjects of historical inquiry and are to be settled by historical considerations, including that of the character and position of their author. We wish only to maintain what we deem a better mode of examining the evidences of Christianity than that which is usually pursued in the study of theology. The adoption of this mode, we are persuaded, would remove some of the strongest objections of infidels and convert the timid and wavering faith of multitudes into strong and masculine conviction. Let the study of theology commence with the study of human consciousness. Let us ascertain what is meant by the expression often used, but little pondered—the Image of God in the Soul of Man. Let us determine whether our nature has any revelation of the Deity within itself and, if so, analyze and describe it. If we there discover, as we firmly believe we shall, a criterion of truth by which we can pass judgment on the Spiritual and Infinite, we shall then be prepared to examine the clams of a Divine Revelation in history. If our inward eye is unsealed, we shall discern the glory of God in the Person of his Son. Our faith will embrace him, with a vital sympathy and certainty, as the bearer of the highest inspiration of Heaven. We shall experience in our own souls the miracles of redemption and grace which he daily works therein, and with this conscious perception of his divine power, it will be easy to believe that he who has quelled our earthly passions, and raised us from the death of sin to a life in God, had authority to still the elements and restore Lazarus from the grave. 



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© 2006 American Unitarian Conference