REASON IN MATTERS OF RELIGION,
DELIVERED BY REQUEST IN THE
MURRAY STREET CHURCH,
CITY OF NEW YORK,
MAY 16, 1830.
BY LEONARD WOODS, D. D.
Professor of Christian Theology in the Theological Seminary,
at Andover, Massachusetts.
HENRY C. SLEIGHT, CLINTON HALL,
PRINTED BY SLEIGHT AND ROBINSON
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This sermon by Dr. Woods presents cogent arguments for the proper use of Reason, defines basic cosmological concepts, and propounds a near prophetic view of the U.S.A., if Enlightenment atheism (Infidelity) gains popular, and destructive sway in the nation. He was right. ( See pp. 26-27 )
Page numbers in the original publication are shown in brackets as such: [ 3 ]
The following begins the original text:
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THE PROVINCE OF REASON IN MATTERS OF RELIGION.
Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path—Let my cry come before thee, 0 Lord: give me understanding according to thy word.— Teach me, 0 Lord, the way of thy statutes ;—give me understanding, and I shall keep thy word.—PSALM, cxix. 105. , 109. 33, 34.
THE pious king of Israel is here presented before us, as conscious of his own ignorance, and desirous of receiving divine instruction. Though he was possessed of high mental endowments, and though, compared with others, he was distinguished for his acquisitions in spiritual knowledge; he yet felt himself to be a mere learner, and devoutly applied to God as his teacher.
I shall consider this example of David as casting light on the important subject, which has been assigned to me for the present occasion; namely, the province of reason in matters of religion. If it was suitable for
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such a man as David, to take the place of a learner, it must be suitable for us.
Our merciful Creator, who has undertaken to be our teacher, gives us instruction by his works, and by his word. By his works in the material and in the spiritual world, he teaches us those truths which constitute Natural Theology. By his word, contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, he casts a clearer light on the truths of Natural Theology, and, in addition to this, teaches those doctrines, which constitute Christianity, relating chiefly to the sin and ruin of man, and to the character and work of the Redeemer. There is, moreover, an inward, spiritual illumination and guidance, which God affords to all sincere believers. The object of this divine influence is, not to reveal new truths; for since the word of God was completed, this is unnecessary ;—but to remove those hindrances to knowledge which are found in the disordered state of our minds, and so to direct our intellectual and moral faculties, as to enable us to under. stand and love the spiritual truths which are already revealed.
Were God a malevolent being, we might expect him to make false displays of himself; to lead us into mistaken views, and to make deception the means of tormenting us. But we are so happy as to believe and to know, that our God is a God of truth, and that all the manifestations he makes of himself, both in his word and works, are worthy of perfect confidence; so that
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the business which remains for us, is to sit, as humble learners, before our divine and all-wise teacher, and to receive instruction from him.
The subject, brethren, on which I am now called to address you, is constantly and in a high degree interesting to us, whether we meditate, or converse; whether we seek knowledge ourselves, or endeavor to communicate it to others. The right use of our reason, within its proper province, will contribute to our own welfare, and to the welfare of our fellow-men; while using our reason incorrectly, or suffering it to act out of its province, will occasion incalculable evils both to ourselves and to others.
In this discussion I shall consider the word reason, as denoting the power, generally, of apprehending truth, and applying it to its proper uses ;—a power which distinguishes man from all other animated beings around him, and fits him for performing duties and enjoying pleasures, of which they are totally incapable.
I have already suggested that which I understand to be the proper employment of reason in matters of religion; namely, to learn what God teaches; to obtain the knowledge of the facts and doctrines which he exhibits, particularly those which he exhibits in his word:
to arrange them in a suitable order, and to apply them to their various uses.
That God is our teacher, and that he communicates instruction by his works and by his word, is one of the first lessons which human reason should learn, After
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becoming satisfied of this, we are to make it our object to discover what is the instruction which he actually communicates. And as our chief concern is with the truths of revelation, our chief business is to apply ourselves, in the proper use of our rational powers, to the study of the holy Scriptures.
The position which I take on this subject will require, that two things in particular should be set aside, as not falling within the province of reason.
The first is, attempting to originate truth. I will explain my meaning. All the elements of our knowledge, all the materials on which our reason is to act, are furnished for our use in the works and in the word of God. These simple elements of knowledge we may combine together with almost endless variations; but we can never increase them, and should never attempt in any way to change them. They are as fixed and unalterable, as the attributes and laws of matter, and mind. To originate any fact, or any doctrine, is, strictly speaking, what does not belong to us, and what human reason, however strong may be its temptation, ought never to undertake. In regard to many parts of the Christian religion, the simple doctrines and facts, which we learn from the word of God, may prove insufficient to satisfy the cravings of curiosity, or of pride; or they may be liable to objections which we cannot obviate. In such cases, after trying in vain to discover in the sacred volume the additional truth we wish for, we may be inclined to give another direction to out
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intellectual powers, and to make an effort to originate or produce something, which shall afford the relief we desire. The fertility of the imagination, instead of being directed, as it should be, to the illustration of truths already known, may be put to the unnatural task of originating some principle,—of producing some notion, which may supply or seem to supply the mortifying deficiency of our knowledge, and enable us, at least in appearance, to remove the difficulties thrown in our way. In the disquietude of our minds, we may be led to suppose, that, if a certain principle could be admitted, it would obviate all objections, and reconcile all apparent differences. After venturing thus beyond the province of reason, the next step is, to meditate often, and with complacency, on the imaginary principle, till it assumes the appearance of a reality, and then to believe it. And the next step is, to contend for it, though a mere fiction, as a fundamental truth, and to expend immeasurable zeal in support of that which owed its existence to mental fermentation. Now every thing like this,—every attempt to produce a new moral or religious principle, or to make any addition to the simple doctrines and facts which God has taught us, carries us at once beyond our bounds; as much so, as an attempt to produce a new principle or fact in chemistry, or optics. Every attempt of this kind is foreign to our province as rational creatures, and is the work of a vain, hypothetical philosophy.
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The other thing which must be set aside, as not belonging to the province of reason, is, sitting in judgment upon any of the doctrines or facts, which God makes known. If, in any case, it is inconsistent with the character of a mere learner, to judge and decide upon the truth and propriety of the instruction, which his teacher gives, it is most obviously so here, considering that the learner is a being of yesterday, who knoweth nothing; that the subjects of instruction are vast and unsearchable, and the teacher divine. For us, children as we are, to call in question the dictates of unerring wisdom on such subjects, is presumption and impiety in the extreme.
The remarks I have made may furnish a ready answer to a question often proposed to us by rationalists. "If," say they, "we are to bow with such submission to the word of God, and to receive so implicitly all its doctrines and precepts, and are never at liberty to call in question the reasonableness or truth of any of its dictates; then what has reason to do ?" I reply, it has every thing to do, which falls within its province; every thing for which it was designed; every thing to which it is competent. In the business of receiving instruction, the human mind finds full scope for all its active powers. There is no employment which is more honorable to reason; none which requires a more diligent and intense application of its energies. The simple business of learning divine truth, or obtaining an acquaintance with revealed doctrines and facts, is
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extensive and exalted enough to occupy forever the sublimest intelligences in the creation.
But in pursuing the object I have in view, I propose more particularly to show, that the province which I have assigned to human reason, corresponds with its nature; and that our confining it to this work, will conduce directly to the honor of God, and to our own intellectual and moral improvement.
1. The province I have assigned to reason, evidently corresponds with its nature.
To learn is an employment peculiarly congenial to the essential properties of the human mind. An acquaintance with truth must, unless wickedness of heart prevent, be highly grateful to our feelings. It is this which reason, uncorrupted, would constantly crave. The mind, free from wrong bias, would be ever pressing after knowledge; would be all ear to the voice of instruction; would constantly look round with earnest desire for some one to be its teacher. And this desire, were the mind in a right state, would continue and increase, and would lead every person on earth to seek for a teacher of higher and higher qualifications, and at length, finding all human instruction insufficient, to apply to the Father of lights, with the humble prayer, Lord, give me understanding: guide me into all truth.
For any one to suppose, that the mind is capable of knowing things by its own inherent light, would be a great and palpable error. It is with our reason, as with
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our bodily sight. The eye does not see objects by a light which emanates from itself. If left without external light, it would be in darkness forever. It finds its proper employment, not in creating the objects of its own vision, or the light by which it sees them; but simply in beholding the objects which God has created, through the medium of that light, which God causes to shine, And while we are dependent upon the light which shines upon us from without to enable us to see; it is also true, that the extent of our natural vision is increased to an inconceivable degree by the aid of optical instruments. These instruments not only give clearness to what was seen obscurely before, but enable us to discover a multitude of objects, which otherwise would have been entirely beyond our ken. So it is with reason, the intellectual eye. Instead of depending on itself, and seeing by its own inherent light, it is dependent, even for natural knowledge, on the Father of lights. For the knowledge of religion, it is dependent in a higher degree. Where there was only dim twilight before, divine revelation has caused the splendor of noon-day. And it has brought to view a variety of objects, and those of the greatest moment, which must have been forever unknown without it.
Every created, finite mind must, from its very nature, be dependent for all its knowledge, on the uncreated, infinite mind. While our reason is duly sensible of this, and confines itself to the business of learning what God reveals; its efforts are all natural
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and safe. But whenever it leaves the place of a learner and undertakes, by its own power, to originate any doctrine or fact; it undertakes a work which is unnatural. and dangerous, and which will inevitably lead to false and hurtful conceptions.
2. Confining reason to the province which I have now assigned to it, will conduce to the honor of God. He is in fact the fountain of all created intelligence and to acknowledge him as such, is only to treat him according to truth,—to render him the honor which is his due. But if we cherish the feeling, that we cart know any thing of ourselves, and that it is safe to rely upon the strength of our own understanding; we rob God of his glory. Let our reason, then, always keep the attitude of a learner. Let us be aware that, properly speaking, we are not in any thing self-taught. With all lowliness and meekness, let us recognize our dependence on divine teaching, and gratefully ascribe to God the glory of all our acquisitions. And let us consider how greatly we shall dishonor the Father of lights, if we neglect that clear display of heavenly truth, which he has made in his word, and are perpetually running after the phantoms of imagination, or the dreams of a delusive philosophy.
3. Confining our reason to the work which I have assigned to it, will conduce directly to intellectual improvement.
An acquaintance with the truths of religion will enlarge and elevate our understandings; and it will
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produce this effect in a much higher degree, than our acquaintance with objects of inferior value. But there is no way for us to become acquainted with the truths of religion, except by learning them of our divine teacher, in the use of the means which he has appointed. We are in his school; and the improvement of our intellectual powers will be in proportion to the docility and earnestness with which we attend to his instructions. He who is the most teachable and diligent, who keeps himself at the greatest distance from whatever is beyond the province of a Learner, and attains to the clearest apprehension of the simple truths which are revealed, will raise his intellectual character to the highest degree of excellence. While he who turns aside from his proper work, and from the impulse of an unbridled curiosity, or from loftiness of heart, attempts to go beyond the lessons which are taught by the word and providence of God, will forfeit his spiritual freedom,—will experience a derangement of his rational powers, and pass at length into the region of perplexity and darkness.
I am now speaking of a fact which frequently occurs, especially among the more cultivated and intelligent. The mind is entangled with the sophistry of error, harassed with doubt, or stupified with infidelity. And this perverted state of reason is evidently owing, in a great measure, to its forsaking its proper province, and taking upon itself to know what its divine teacher has not revealed. The attempt is a dishonor to God, who has kindly given us our reason, and all the instruction
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which our condition requires. It is an impeachment of his wisdom and benevolence. And as reason thus dishonors its divine teacher, and proudly chooses to be its own guide; what can be a more righteous retribution, than that he should abandon it to its own blind impulses, and let it show into what miserable extravagancies it will run, when it breaks loose from his hand. In this and in other ways, God will at length confound the pride of reason, and bring every high thought low.
4. Confining reason to its legitimate province, will contribute in the highest degree to our moral improvement.
It cannot, we may be sure, be necessary to the best influence of any divine truth, that we should originate it by our own reason. The circumstance of our having received it from a divine teacher will rather enhance than diminish its power to promote our improvement. --Fix your eyes upon the fair objects of creation above you and around you. Are they less fair, or less suited to make a salutary impression, because they were not produced by your own efforts ?—or because the light in which you behold them does not emanate -from your-’selves? And can we imagine that the truths of religion are less excellent, or less useful in promoting our moral improvement, because, instead of being our own inventions, they are implicitly received from the word of God?
But the point, to which I wish you more particularly to attend, is this: that the moral influence which is
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suited to our condition, and which & most likely to be beneficial in promoting our improvement, is the influence of those very doctrines and facts, plain and obvious as they are, which God has made known in his word. Of these I shall give a few examples.
What, then, is more plain and, intelligible, and at the same time more suited to give us exalted ideas of the power and majesty of God, than the fact, that by his almighty word, he created the heavens and the earth; the simple fact, that he said, Let there be light,, let there be a world, a universe, and it was so.
That God is every where present, and perfectly knows our actions and our hearts, is a plain, simple truth, level to the capacity of a child. Yet, when clearly apprehended and believed, it exerts a mighty and-most salutary influence over the mind of man. It repels temptation, subdues the power of sin, and excites to diligence and fidelity in the service of God.
Take another doctrine. Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever, became man, and died for our sins. This doctrine, as might easily, be shown, has a direct relation to all the duties of the Christian religion. And we find that whenever the apostles would most powerfully excite men to diligence in doing the will of God, or to patience and meekness in suffering the evils of life; they present the fact, that Christ died for us, as the motive. One more example will suffice. All the dead shall be raised at last day, and shall receive according
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to what they have done, whether it be good or bad. This doctrine, as set forth in the Scriptures, has a power over the mind, which language is not adequate to describe. It administers the highest comfort or alarm, and affords the most effectual aid in forming the character to purity and devotion.
If we pass in review all that God has made known to us; the holy law he has given us.; the sin and ruin of all men in consequence of one man’s disobedience; the eternal purposes of God; the Trinity; the whole work of the Redeemer; regeneration by the Holy Spirit; the perseverance of the saints, considered as a duty on their part, and a matter of promise on God’s part ; and the everlasting retributions of the future world; we shall find, in each case, that the doctrine which produces the salutary effect is just that which God has clearly revealed, and which every person of common understanding is capable of knowing. It is the belief of the simple truths, the plain, intelligible facts taught in the Scriptures, which has raised the character of the saints to the highest elevation; has given strength to the weak, comfort to the afflicted, and freedom to the slaves of sin; and has prepared the people of God for the most glorious achievements.
If then we would most effectually promote our moral improvement, let us keep our place as learners. Let reason sit with humility before its heavenly teacher, boasting of no power, and desiring no honor, but that of receiving instruction from him.
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But I have a farther remark; namely, that beyond the single business of learning, arranging, and applying to their proper uses, the obvious truths which God has revealed to us, all the efforts of reason will be totally unavailing. Beyond the simple doctrines and facts which God has taught us, there is nothing suited to our capacity; nothing which we are capable of understanding, or of making subservient to the purposes of life.
Take, for example, the truth suggested above, that God is the Creator of all things. In relation to this simple truth men have had a variety of speculations. They have inquired, how God creates; how he makes something out of nothing; how the eternal Spirit acts upon matter, and upon created minds; and how his agency in preserving differs from his agency in creating. But such inquiries pertain to subjects beyond the sphere of our knowledge, and give rise to difficulties which we are not competent to solve. All speculations and theories, beyond the simple fact, that God created the heavens and the earth, are useless, and may be entirely dismissed without occasioning any loss in regard to moral improvement.
Men have also pushed their inquiries respecting the omniscience of God beyond the limits of their knowledge.—How does God’s understanding differ in its nature from ours? How can he know the whole succession of events from the commencement of creation through everlasting ages, without any succession or
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change of thoughts in his own mind? How can he give particular attention to all the objects in the universe, without distraction, and without weariness ?.— Such inquiries are easily made; but who can answer them? What is peculiar to the intelligence of God in distinction from human intelligence, can be known only to God himself.
The same remarks are applicable to the doctrine, that Christ, who was God, and by whom all things were made, became man, and died for our sins. Men have been stimulated, by an unsanctified curiosity, to extend their knowledge beyond this simple truth, and to inquire how it is that the Son of God can also be God; how he can be a distinct person from the Father, and yet possess the same divine nature; how it can be consistent with the immutable principles of law and justice, for God to substitute an innocent being in the place of the guilty, and inflict overwhelming evil upon him for their offenses; and, if the human nature and divine were united in the person of the sufferer, how he could suffer as a man, and yet not suffer as God. Inquiries like these lead us into a region, in which our reason can have no light, and which it cannot even attempt to explore, without the danger of being bewildered and lost.
In like manner we can raise questions, to which human reason is not able to reply, respecting the identity of the resurrection body with the body which died; respecting the difference between the state of the soul
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before the resurrection, and after; the use which wily be made of the senses, and other bodily powers, in the future world; the exact manner in which God will have intercourse with the saints, and they with one another; and the particular place of happiness for the saints, and of suffering for sinners. On such topics as these, reason cannot form clear conceptions, or flee itself from difficulties; and its attempting to do so will only involve it in greater darkness.
The same remarks would apply to moral agency. That we are moral agents, under law, and bound in duty to obey, and that we are justly accountable to God, is a plain and certain fact, taught by our own consciousness, and by the Scriptures; and it is a fact of vast moment, being itself a powerful motive, and mixing as it does with all other motives, and investing them with the highest degree of influence. But in regard to moral agency, an inquisitive mind can easily raise questions which human wisdom has no power to answer, and with which rational, accountable beings have really nothing to do. They are questions of no value, as the investigation of them has never conduced, and never will conduce in the smallest degree, to increase our sense of obligation, or to render us more penitent, or more obedient.
In a word, this pressing after knowledge beyond the simple doctrines and facts which God has revealed, is a rash adventure, in which reason must forever fail. And all attempts to acquire such knowledge are totally
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useless, having no tendency to improve the understanding, or the heart. Accordingly we find that inspired men, who aimed not to gratify an unhallowed curiosity, but to teach what would be beneficial to the world, had nothing to do with matters of curiosity, or with questions which lead into the field of hypothetical reasoning, —they had nothing to do with such questions, except to stigmatize them as science falsely so called, and to turn away from them.
But I must say, moreover, that any attempt of ours to go beyond the simple doctrines and facts which we are taught by the word and providence of God, will not only prove useless, but will directly hinder the influence of divine truth.
Such an employment will so occupy and engross the powers of our minds, that we cannot
attend as we ought to what God has actually revealed. I am greatly mistaken, if it is not a general fact, that those who indulge a fondness for abstruse, philosophical research, in matters of religion, experience a diminution of attachment to plain, evangelical truth, and a diminution of its sanctifying influence in their own hearts. Look at the history of the church in past ages, and see in how many lamentable instances the search for novelties in speculative theology, or the effort of a bold, active intellect to find out a philosophical solution for the difficulties which attend the doctrines of revelation, has chilled the benevolence and piety of Christians, and marred their whole character. Now why should we engage in
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pursuits so mistaken, and so perilous? Why should reason abandon its proper work, wander away from its province, and instead of following the true light from heaven, yield itself up to its own blind impulses?
The consequences of pursuing inquiries beyond the proper bounds, and of giving a disproportionate attention to matters of speculation, may be illustrated by a case in common life.—A sick man receives the best medical advice as to the treatment of his disease. But while making use of the medicine prescribed by the physician, he engages so eagerly in investigating its nature and properties, and indulges such a prying, restless curiosity to know philosophically how and why it produces the effect intended, that he experiences no kind of advantage from it. At length he learns, that if he would be successful in his efforts to recover his health, he must dismiss all his restless speculations, and with quietness of mind, and confidence in his physician, just take the medicine, and leave it, undisturbed, to produce its appropriate effect. So as to divine truth, which our heavenly Physician has appointed to be the means of remedying our spiritual diseases. If we would be benefited by it, we must receive it in its scriptural simplicity. We must be as little children, sensible of our ignorance, confiding implicitly in the wisdom of God, and cordially believing whatever he declares. Our subtle speculations often disturb the operation of divine truth, and diminish, if they do not prevent, its salutary effect on the heart.
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Consider then, brethren, how great our mistake must be, if we depart from our proper province, and, instead of confining ourselves to the consideration of the simple doctrines and facts which God, has revealed, go into those abstruse inquiries, which lead beyond the limits of human knowledge. If we do this in only a small degree, we shall certainly sustain an injury ourselves, and occasion injury to others. How then must it be, if we make such inquiries the chief object of our attention, never satisfied with the plain doctrines of the Bible, but forever pressing our minds into metaphysical subtilties? If we do this, our religion cannot be healthy and thriving. Long experience shows, that piety can no more grow upon dry speculations, than a hungry man can be nourished by analyzing food as a chemist, instead of eating it.
But the greatest mistake of all, is the practice of introducing philosophical discussions into the pulpit. Whatever may be our private inclination or taste, when we stand before public assemblies as ministers of Christ, we must preach the word of God, must exhibit the simple truths of the Bible. Casting into the shade the primary doctrines of revelation, and giving prominence to the deductions of speculative reason, has, in all past ages, been a great impediment to the prosperity of the church, and the progress of Christianity in the world. While listening to some men who are invested with the sacred office, I say within myself,—they may, for aught 1 know, be metaphysicians and philosopher,
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but I am sure they are not ministers of the gospel. The preaching of such men is almost any thing, rather than a clear exhibition of the doctrines of the cross. Even as to those evangelical truths, which they occasionally teach,—they seem to believe them, and to teach them, not so much because they find them in the Bible, as because they are able, or think they are able to deduce them from the principles of reason.
On this subject, I make my appeal to the actual experience of Christians. Through all their mental states, at the commencement and during the progress of their piety, that which makes salutary impressions, is plain scripture truth. It is this which awakens the sinner from his slumbers, and shows him his guilty, wretched state. It is this, which leads him to repent and believe; and which excites his love, his submission, his obedience, and devotion. It is this, which supports him in affliction, and fills him with joy in the near views of death and eternity. The excellent Dr. Watts, after having indulged himself in a great variety of fruitless speculations on the subject of religion, penitently confessed his error, and prayed for divine forgiveness; and when he came to lie on a bed of sickness, said, that a few simple, easy truths of the gospel were all that he found to be of any value to him; and he resolved that, if his life was spared, he would study the Bible more, and speculate less.
Is it not generally the case, that in proportion as Christians, we believe and love the plain truths of God’s
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word, and have their hearts duly affected with them, they are disinclined to enter the field of abstruse investigation? Suppose we were zealously engaged in any of those metaphysical inquiries which have been interesting to men of speculative habits; and suppose in the midst of this employment, God should tell us for a certainty, that we had but a few days to live; how quickly should we dismiss our useless speculations, and fix our thoughts on the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and on the doctrines of his gospel! And how quickly should we do this, if God should appear in his glory to build up Zion; if he should display the omnipotence of his Spirit in the conviction of sinners, and the inquiry of multitudes should come to us, "What shall we do to be saved ?" If you wish to know what is the best employment of reason in matters of religion, inquire how Brainerd and Edwards and Whitfield used it, when, in the midst of a revival, they instructed and warned men day and night with tears. Nay, rather inquire how Paul and Peter used it, and most of all, how Jesus used it. In them, surely, reason was directed right, and accomplished the purposes for which it was given.
The subject before us, my Christian brethren, is peculiarly important at the present day. In the state of the churches, of the ministry, and of the community at large, there is a mixture of what is highly encouraging, with what is dangerous and alarming. Everlasting thanks be to God our Saviour for all the success
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which has crowned the labors of his ministers, and for all the prosperity of the churches, in every part of this favored land. Thanks to his name, that he has maintained the cause of his people amid so much opposition from without, and so many imperfections and divisions within. We have numberless evidences of the divine favor, which we ought never to overlook. But on the other hand, it would be unwise for us to close our eyes upon existing evils. And it would be specially unsuitable for me, called as I am to address you on such a subject, to disguise the calamities which have in past ages been brought upon the church, or the dangers to which we are exposed at the present day, from the mistaken use of reason.
For any man to suppose that the sacred volume, which is given us by divine inspiration, does not contain an intelligible and perfect rule of faith, would be to dishonor God, the author of inspiration, and to forfeit the character of a protestant, and a Christian. If then a diversity of religious opinions exists among us, some of us are certainly in the wrong; and so far as this is the case, it must be that we have not applied our reason in a right manner to the study of the Bible; and that we fail of understanding it correctly through our own fault; or else it must be that passing beyond our limits, we attempt to explore dark and pathless regions, or plunge into unfathomable depths. So far as we study the Bible with a right state of mind, and in a right manner, and obtain a correct understanding of what it
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contains; so far we must be agreed. And if we are satisfied with what the Bible contains, we shall not be disposed to spend our time upon questions which it does not settle; and of course such questions will occasion no variance or strife.
See now, what endless differences of opinion there are in our religious community! And how obvious the tendencies are to new and still greater difference! Is there nothing deserving blame in all this? Is it a matter of unavoidable necessity, that those to whom God has given the faculty of reason, and a perfect rule to guide its operations, should be forever divided, and forever in a state of collision? When HE who made us, commands us to be of the same mind and judgment; is obedience wholly impracticable? When Jesus prayed for the union of his people, did he consider their union an impossibility? No, brethren; our union in faith and in love is not an impossibility. It is an obvious and important duty. It is what our benevolent Saviour justly requires, and what the precious interests of his kingdom imperiously demand of us. If then we divide and contend, we act against the will of our blessed Lord; against the spirit of his religion and the welfare of his church. And how much may we thus do to blast our fairest hopes of the enlargement and glory of Christ’s kingdom!
Here an interesting inquiry arises in regard to our own obligations. What duty have we to perform in reference to the circumstances of the present day? How
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ominous, in some respects, these circumstances are! Behold what indescribable restlessness of mind exists in relation to the doctrines of Christianity! What thirst for novelty and change, shows itself in those who receive not the truth in the love of it, and in many instances, in those who are friends to Christ, and even in those who are called to preach his gospel !—a thirst for novelty and change, which bids fair to produce new theories and sects in religion, as frequently at least, and as abundantly, as the earth produces a harvest! What an adventurous, head-long spirit frequently appears among the more intelligent and educated classes in Europe and in America, utterly regardless of consequences, and brooking no guidance or control even from the word of God! Behold the mighty commotion in the elements of the intellectual and moral world! In these circumstances, what duty is required of us? Especially, what are we called to do in regard to the mutual prejudices and divisions, and, I must add, animosities too, which exist among Christians, and in too many instances even among ministers? We may perhaps find, that we are not wholly without blame in this matter. Though we may have done nothing directly to occasion these evils, have we done all in our power to prevent or to remove them? Have we scrupulously observed the directions of our benevolent Savior, and copied his example? And have we cherished the feelings which were so clearly exhibited in his actions and in his prayers? He came down from heaven to redeem
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us from destruction; and just before he died on the cross, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said;—Holy Father, keep through thine own name, those whom thou hast given me, that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hart sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me. There is nothing on earth, which is more an object of desire with our gracious Redeemer, than the cordial and entire union of his people. And there is nothing more offensive and grievous to him, than the want of love and union among them. And as there is at the present day so much division and disaffection among his followers, must they not expect he will visit them in righteous judgment? And what if he should see fit to manifest his displeasure by withholding from them the kind, healing influences of his Spirit, and giving them up to still more violent and bitter contention? Or what if he should chastise us, by leaving us exposed to the most pernicious errors, both old and new, yea, by suffering the grossest infidelity to take root in our cities, and to spread far and wide through the land, and, as a fearful token of divine wrath, to lay waste this our fair inheritance ?
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Think not, brethren, that I am dealing in fictions. The apprehensions I have expressed are occasioned by facts,.—facts which occur in every part of our country, as well as in other countries. The number is above computation, of those who cast off all respect for the holy Scriptures, and all sense of accountableness to God, and, as though there was no law and no intelligence superior to themselves, boldly claim the right to follow without check the guidance of their own reason, and their own inclination. And what multitudes are there, who profess a respect for the word of God, but who forget that they are of yesterday and know nothing, and who really show more confidence in themselves, than in the Prophets and Apostles, or even in the Lord from heaven! What multitudes, who forget that the understanding is darkened and disordered by sin, and that, in this state, it is no more fit to be our guide in respect to truth, than the corrupt heart is in respect to duty! In a word, so many and so powerful are the causes of error and apostacy now at work in the state of society, in the hearts of men, yea, in the hearts of Christians and ministers also, that unless a power and mercy higher than the heavens shall prevent, these American churches may become like the seven fallen churches of Asia, and we, who are now sending Missionaries to distant lands, may in process of time, depart so far from the simplicity of the gospel, and sink into such ignorance and error, that Missionaries of the cross must be sent from India, or from the Islands of the sea, to preach the gospel here. Say not that these
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apprehensions arise from a dark, boding melancholy. They arise from a sober review of the history of human nature. The mind of man is so disordered, his heart is so treacherous and corrupt, that the evils I have mentioned may all be realities, as they often have been in ages that are past. And then, where will be our flourishing churches, and our civil and religious institutions? And what will be the heritage of our children? [ Bold italics added for emphasis, Willison Ed.]
Such are the evils which either exist among us, or threaten us. Now, brethren, is there any remedy? Is there any thing which can be done, and which ought to be done by us, to prevent or remove these tremendous evils? I have no time to go into this inquiry at large. I shall only hint at a single view of it, and that suggested by my particular subject.
As one means, then, of preventing or remedying these portentous evils, take care to keep reason within its province, and to use it right. Make the Bible the standard of your faith, and be content with it. Let all the powers of the mind bow to the authority of the word of God. If men refuse to do this, and rely upon their own reason as their ultimate standard; the standard of each may differ from the standard of others, and endless clashings of opinion may ensue. But if we make the word of God our standard; if, instead of taking upon us to teach the inspired writers, we suffer them to teach us; and while we attempt to conform our faith to their instructions, if we cherish the spirit which they inculcate what can hinder us from agreeing
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in our religious opinions, or from loving one another? Let us, then, carefully avoid such a misapplication of reason in matters of religion, as will make us in any degree accessary to the prevalence of discord and strife among the friends of Christ. Humbly and devoutly let us study the sacred volume, and draw all our religious opinions from it. Let us be satisfied with just what God has, taught us, making his word our guide, not only as to the doctrines we shall believe, but as to all the modifications of our faith, and the manner of exhibiting it, never attempting to go above it, or beyond it in any respect whatever. Never let us forget the weakness of our reason, and the exceeding littleness of our minds. Always come to the Bible with perfect confidence in the divine wisdom which dictated it, and resolved to add nothing to it, and take nothing from it. Go just as far as the inspired writers go, and stop where they stop. Think with them; believe with them; speak with them; feel with them. When at times your reason calls forth its powers, such as they are, to establish the truths of religion, and to obviate objections and difficulties, pause occasionally, and inquire, whether Christ and the Apostles explained these truths, and answered objections against them, as you do. If we conform exactly to the measure of the word of God, believing and teaching the doctrines and duties of religion just as they are there presented, we shall secure all that is valuable, and avoid whatever is hurtful or dubious. Respecting every part of the system of
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evangelical truth, considered in a speculative light, a fertile imagination or intellect may raise questions, on which we are never likely to agree. Why? Because the questions lead beyond the sphere of our knowledge, and of course can never be settled by argument. If we push them into notice, especially if we give them a prominent place in our discussions, difference of opinion, and then controversy, will be likely to be the consequence. And controversy on such subjects will, in the end, disturb the peace of the churches. What then is our duty? What shall we do with questions of this kind? Just let them alone.
Brethren, I would not overrate the evil which I am endeavoring to expose. I would by no means make the wrong use of reason the only cause of division among Christians, or of injury to the churches. But a careful examination will show, that this has been and still is one of the most fruitful sources of dissention and bitterness, especially among the public teachers of religion. Here then is a case of conscience. There is a certain set of, inquiries and speculations, to which I will suppose some of us are particularly attached, but which lead beyond the province of reason, i. e. beyond the simple doctrines of facts revealed in the Scriptures. If these speculations are pressed upon the public attention, they will in all probability occasion discord and strife. Shall we then indulge our fondness for them, and insist upon defending them, and press them continually upon the attention of the community? Perhaps we
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may think them of some real importance. But are they as important, as the peace of the churches, the union of ministers, and the spread of the glorious gospel through the land, and through the world? We will then, at least, take up these things in their proper order; and, if we must attend to abstruse speculations, we will attend to them after we have done all that is more important. When we are urged by our feelings, or by circumstances, to employ our reason on the subjects referred to, we will inquire, whether there is no other duty which, in point of importance, stands in order before this. For how can we keep a good conscience, if we turn aside from those momentous duties which the God of heaven calls us to perform, to speculate and dispute about things of little or no value? Cast your eye over the history of the church in past ages, and see what a dreadful waste of influence, what a loss of holiness and comfort has been occasioned by the misapplication and abuse of reason among the followers of Christ. How often have they enlisted in trifling, unavailing controversies, and expended upon them time and talent and labor sufficient, with the blessing of God, to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth! It is a fact which is well known to those who are acquainted with the history of the church, but which I cannot mention without shame and mortification, that almost all the party-spirit, discord, and contention, which have ever prevailed in Christendom, have arisen from the ambition or misguided zeal of Christian
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ministers, and from their attempting, in the strength of their own reason, to be wise above what is written. The Lord grant, that this mistake of ministers, so injurious to the interests of religion, may not be repeated. May those who preach the gospel of Christ, do nothing to hinder its success, and nothing to occasion triumph to its enemies. May those who labor and pray for the arrival of the millennium, never do that which will put it off to a greater distance. May they never waste their intellectual and moral powers to accomplish a work in which God will never help them, and neglect those labors of love, which he is ready to crown with his blessing.
The course which I have taken the liberty to recommend as so important at the present day, may require of us a more diligent and devoted study of the word of God, than we have been used to. It may require a more constant recurrence to it as the source and standard of our religious sentiments. It may require us to abandon some mental occupations to which we are fondly attached, and some speculative theories, which perhaps our reason has been proud of inventing or defending. And, my Christian brethren, may not this be the very labor and self-denial, which our Lord and Master requires of us, as one of the best means of promoting the spirit of love and union, of converting errorists and infidels, and advancing all the objects of pious benevolence? At the present day, it is our duty and our privilege to engage in a delightful and glorious
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work,—the work of studying more diligently and understanding more perfectly the word of God; the work of guiding the young, of instructing the ignorant, of saving the lost, and of extending at home and abroad the reign of our Redeemer. It is a great and blessed work, sufficient to occupy all our time, and all our intellectual and moral powers. We have enough surely for our reason to do, without making it the instrument of rash and fruitless speculation. Surely, we have sufficient subjects of investigation, without those which gender strife. And we have surely sufficient to contend with, without contending with one another.
And now, brethren and friends, let me say in conclusion, if any of you ever grow weary of the duty which God has assigned to you as rational and immortal beings; if you ever grow impatient of the restraints of his holy word, and begin to employ your reason on any subject, which lies beyond your province, and which, however enticing it may be to your curiosity, is foreign to your great work; you will hear from your blessed Lord that cutting rebuke, which he once gave to the inquisitiveness of an apostle; What is that to thee? Follow thou me.