« AnteriorContinuar »
sides, which serves only to render them the more irreconcilable; whereas, a true Christian spirit, will, from a sense of its own infirmity, rather choose to excuse and palliate them, and will be extremely careful to soften and smooth everything that is offered in the opposition, in order to render it less irksome and ineffectual.
Had our divine lawgiver designed that we should have all agreed, in the main points of religion, or had be seen anything so sinful and dangerous in our disagreement about it, his infinite wisdom and goodness would, doubtless, either have given us greater helps and brighter faculties, or would have taken care to have his revelations made so plain and obvious, that none but the wilful and perverse could have erred from it. In either of which cases, where would there have been any room for that charitable and forbearing spirit, which is the peculiar characteristic of Christ's true disciples, and is so acceptable to him, as being the nearest to its divine original.
God, who is emphatically styled love, and hath been beyond all possible conception diffusive of it to us, hath at the same time assured us, that the best returns we can make to him for it, or he expects from us, is to make our own as extensive as we can to all that bear his divine image: herein, therefore, is the most excellent virtue, this charitable spirit displayed in a manner most nearly resembling his own, when (instead of treating those that differ from us with contempt, sourness, or impatience, which is base and selfish; or with ill language, opprobrious names, unjust reflections, curses, and anathemas, which is truly diabolical,) we think and look upon them with the same candour, benevolence, and compassionate concern, as we should wish to be shewn to us were their cases our own; when we make the most charitable allowances for their infirmities and mistakes, and are ready to ascribe their errors to the weakness of their understanding, wrong education, or anything rather than to the perverseness of their will; when, by our behaviour, our prayers, and good wishes, we strive to convince them from their errors, do really spring from our tender sense of their danger, and from such a sincere and disinterested concern for their spiritual welfare, as no opposition or obstinacy on their part shall be able to lesson in the least, because that being a duty enjoined by God, we cannot in any case dispense with it, without danger of incurring his displeasure ; and, lastly, when we can, in spite of all their obstinacy or untowardness, make them acceptable still to that merciful God, whose equity and goodness will acquit and approve every man who conscientiously seeks for, and endeavours after the best light, and is ready to obey it as far as he is able to observe it.
Could we once make this the aim and result of all our religious differences and disputes, they would, instead of a bane, prove a strong cement and support to Christianity ; we might then differ one from another, without breach of charity, as friends love one another, though of different tempers, complexions, &c. Our unbelievers would be so far from taking an advantage from them to cry down, that they must be forced to admire and esteem it for the blessed effects it produced in men's hearts and lives, how wide soever their judgments differed in other cases ; whereas, whilst we make them the sad occasion of faction and strife, of selfishness and malignity, or of unreasonable impositions on the faith and practice, of slander, hatred, persecution, &c., it can hardly be expected that our sceptics and infidels will be candid or ingenious enough to perceive, or at least to own, that all this unchristian behaviour is diametrically opposite to the Gospel.
It is, indeed, much to be wished, that some of the ancient fathers had not mingled so much of this antichristian spirit with their otherwise pious and learned writings, and had not done as the great St. Jerome owns himself, in his epistle to Pammachius, to have done against Jovinian, that he had less regarded what was exactly to have been urged against him, than what might be laid as a charge against him. How much of our now reigning scepticism and infidelity may have been owing to such an unchristian spirit, propagated and improved as it hath been in subsequent ages, and how much such uncharitable writers and preachers of controversy will have to answer for it at the last day, I will not presume to determine; but thus much I may venture to infer from it, that those Boanerges did choose the inost unlikely means of recommending Christianity to the unbelieving part of the world, (if such was their real design) when they strove to propagate it in a way so diametrically opposite to the meek and benevolent spirit of its divine author.
This single consideration joined to the sense, and of the weakness of our understanding and incapacity of judging in matters of so high a nature, hath long ago made me very careful of condemning or censuring any church or sect, for holding any tenets which my conscience could not readily join in. We may, indeed, expose ourselves to a severer judgment, by passing too rash or uncharitable an opinion on others, but can never run the same risk by the most candid and favourable allowance we can make for them. And, after all, what right have we to judge those that differ from us, since both they and we must stand accountable to him only, who is the unerring judge of all hearts ?
I cannot forbear adding, that the almost insurmountable difficulties I have found to come to the bottom of the greater part of our disputed points, and the little certainty or satisfaction I have reaped from reading of inost controversies, clogged and disguised as they are, with sophistry and endless subtleties, and managed with so little appearance of impartiality and charity, have made me such a Pyrrhonian in polemic divinity, that I have not dared to allow myself the liberty of censuring those who held what I thought an error in faith and practice, or even to pronounce it to be such, though I have been wanting in neither zeal nor courage to oppose any such on all proper occasions, and to give the best reason I could for my dissenting from them; and I much question whether, in the imperfect and uncertain state we are in, reason or religion will permit us, much less require of us, to proceed farther; and whether a more positive or categorical declaration doth not argue something worse than pre-possession and narrowness of mind, and will not be liable to be condemned as an unchristian warp of the will.
The transubstantiation of the Church of Rome, is a doctrine that appears the most shocking to sense and reason. That of absolute predestination, among the greater part of the reformed churches, appears not only the most opposite to the divine attributes of love, goodness, justice, &c., but to strike at the root of the Christian religion, which is founded on the love of God; for how is it possible for a man to look upon so arbitrary a being as that doctrine represents him, but with the utmost awe and dread, even though he was ever so fully persuaded that himself was one of the predestined ? and how much more so, the more he is removed from such a persuasion ? Nevertheless, I have all possible reason to believe that there are myriads of men of learning and probity who behold those two doctrines in quite a different light, and not only hold them as necessary articles of their faith, but
are ready to condemn all that do not. Why should I be so partial to my own judgment, as to think it more infallible than theirs, or venture to pass the same uncharitable sentence on them for believing which I blame them in my conscience for pronouncing against me for not believing them ?
With what justice can I charge the former with idolatry for worshipping what they sincerely believe to be the real body of our divine and adorable Redeemer? Or, how can I tax the latter with impiety, for professing a doctrine, which I ought in charity to think they would abhor, did it appear to them as derogatory of God's goodness and justice, as it doth to me, especially as the belief of both is founded on their implicit belief (and consequently, and at the worst, on a mistaken interpretation) of the Holy Scriptures ?
Is it not, therefore, more safe and more Christian for me to content myself with giving my reasons in the strongest manner I am able, for my dissent from them, than to change them, even in thought, with wilfully perverting the Word of God, and with all the guilt and infamy of imposing damnable errors, under pain of damnation ? It may be, indeed, truly said, that this kind of retaliation is what not only reigns too much in most Christian Churches, even to this day, but hath proved the frequent occasion of the most horrid persecutions and antichristian cruelties. But is it not, therefore, the more to be avoided and abhorred by all true Christians for the mischief it hath done, and is still able to
do, to the Gospel, and for the scandal it reflects on the best religion in the world ?
Ought it not to be a matter of the deepest grief and concern to a good Christian, to see the most gracious designs of beaven towards mankind thus miserably obstructed and frustrated, and so great a part of mankind deprived of the inestimable benefits of it, by an untimely zeal, the most opposite to the spirit of our meek and Divine Redeemer, and the most condemned, both by his precepts and example ? Doth not right reason itself, as well as our natural self-love, tell every man how careful he ought to be not to be mistaken in a matter of such infinite concern ? And suppose we have ever so much reason to think those that differ from us, are really so, must we, therefore, take upon us to censure and condemn, to anathematize and persecute them, whom reason and charity should rather incline us to pity and pray for, whether their error be wilful or involuntary, which can only be known to God ?
I have chosen to interest in the doctrines of transubstantiation and predestination, as they appear the most shocking and antiscriptural to every one except those who believe them; nevertheless, from a sense of my infallibility, as well as of the weakness of human reason, I should be very fearful of pronouncing them absolutely false, (much less to call them antichristian, damnable, &c.,) their appearing so to me is a sufficient reason for my declaring my dissent from them, but doth not authorize me to pronounce those that believe them to be guilty before God for so doing.
Were I to indulge myself in the liberty of censuring or condemning any Christian Church, for any thing either in their faith or practice, it would be that uncharitable authority they assume of condemning as heretics, &c., all those who cannot believe as they do. And yet I own it highly necessary that there should be, in every particular church, (since it is not given to us in this imperfect state to be thus happily united in our belief,) a stated rule of faith, a summary of what is to be principally believed and practised by all its members; but then care should be taken not to multiply those articles beyond what is absolutely necessary, nor yet to impose them with any such damnatory clauses against recusants as are commonly used by most churches, to the great detriment and discredit of Christianity, and the intimidating and bewildering the sincere and well ineaning Christians, who are incapable of judging of the merit of those controversies, and being commonly by far the most numerous, are entitled to a more charitable and tender regard than to be obliged blindly to believe and act as their church prescribes, or be liable to be rescinded from it.
Even in those articles, wherein our church is obliged to declare its aissent from any of the tenets of others, me thinks they might and should in charity, content themselves with giving their reasons, in the plainest and concisest manner, for their dissent, and with such impartial candour and tenderness, as should rather inspire its members with pity and concern for, than prejudice and hatred against, those that differ from them : and, above all things, they should all be exceedingly fearful of charging their antagonists, and their tenets, with a greater degree of guilt and danger than is consistent with truth, and with that spirit which condemns and abhors all misrepresentation and opprobrious language as the most destructive, next to ill offices or persecution of all errors, that a Christian can fall into.
It is plainly the want of this meek Christian spirit, that makes men to intermix so much deadly acrimony in all their disputes and differences, as serves only to destroy the small sparks of charity that are left among us. But where the love of Christ unites our hearts in the bonds of peace and mutual benevolence, no difference in religion, however greatly misrepresented or aggravated by untimely zeal, will ever be able to dissolve the tie, or create the least disagreement or indifference in their affections.
There are many things in the Greek and Roman Church, in that of Geneva and Augsburgh, &c., which my conscience will not permit me to join with, but which I, at the same time, firmly hope and believe will not be laid to their charge by the merciful searcher of all hearts, who rather pities than punishes the involuntary errors of his frail creatures, and were there none better to be found in the Christian world than those, I should think myself obliged to join communion with that which appeared to me to be freest from them, rather than to stand by myself and be deprived of the benefit of church fellowship, provided nothing was imposed upon me by it, that my conscience thought sinful. I look upon them all (excepting such as deny the fundamental articles of Christianity, especially the merits and mediation of our Divine Redeemer,) as so many branches of Christ's Church ; and though some are more corrupted than others, yet all are united into one body, of which he himself is the supreme head and governor, and is acknowledged by them as such. However, I own the Church of England hath, in all respects, appeared to me, ever since I have made myself more seriously acquainted with its faith and practice, the best reformed and freest from every thing, that could restrain me from her communion, especially as I am a layman : for with respect to her clergy, I think some of the injunctions she lays them under to be such as I could by no means submit to, and which the more conscientious among them would, I believe, be glad to be freed from, if it could be done consistently with the honour and safety of its establishment. I am far from intending by this to cast any blemish on the reverend order, or on the first reformers; but as it hath given so much occasion for cavil and disrespectful reflections against both, I could heartily wish to see it effectually removed. In other respects I have long since had