« AnteriorContinua »
ery opportunity of increasing their power; and in the dark ages too many circumstances concurred to give the Christian clergy peculiar advantages over the laity in this respect.
Upon the whole, I flatter myself that, to an attentive reader of this work, it will appear, that the corruption of Christianity, in every article of faith or practice, was the natural consequence of the circumstances in which it was promulgated ; and also that its recovery from these corruptions is the natural consequence of different circumstances. LET UNBELIEVERS, IF THEY CAN, ACCOUNT AS WELL FOR THE FIRST RISE AND ESTABLISHMENT OF CHRISTIANITY ITSELF.
The circumstances that Mr Gibbon enumerates as the immediate causes of the spread of Christianity were them. selves effects, and necessarily required, such causes as, I imagine, he would be unwilling to allow. The revolution produced by Christianity in the opinions and conduct of men, as he himself describes it, was truly astonishing; and this, he cannot deny, was produced without the concurrence, nay notwithstanding the opposition, of all the civil powers of the world; and what is perhaps more, it was opposed by all the learning, genius, and wit of the age too.
Of all mankind, the Jews were the most unlikely to set up any religion, so different from their own; and as unlikely was it that other nations, and especially the polite and learned among them, should receive a religion from Jews, and those some of the most ignorant of that despised nation.
Let Mr Gibbon recollect his own idea of the Jews, which seems to be much the same with that of Voltaire, and think whether it be at all probable, that they should have originally invented a religion so essentially different from any other in the world, as that which is described in the books of Moses ; that the whole nation should then have adopted without objection, what they were afterwards so prone to a bandon for the rites of any of their neighbors ; or that when, by severe discipline, they had acquired the attachment to it which they are afterwards known to have done, and which continues to this day, it be probable they would have invented, or have adopted another, which they conceived to be so different from, and subversive of their own. If they had been so fertile of invention, it might have been expected that they would have struck out some other since the time of Christ, a period of near two thousand years.
Let Mr Gibbon, as an historian, compare the rise and progress of Mahometanism, with that of Judaism, or or Christianity, and attend to the difference. Besides the influence of the sword, which Christianity certainly had not, Mahometanism stood on the basis of the Jewish and Christian revelations. If these had not been firmly believed in the time of Mahomet, what credit would his religion have gained ? In these circumstances he must have invented some other system, which would have required visible miracles of its own, which he might have found some difficulty in passing upon his followers; though they were in circumstances far more easy to be imposed upon than the Jews or the heathens, in the time of our Savior. This was an age of light and of suspicion; the other, if any, of darkness and credulity. That Christianity grew up in silence and obscurity, as Mr Gibbon says, is the very reverse of the truth. He could not himself imagine circumstances in which the principal facts on which Christianity is founded should be subject to a more rigid scrutiny. These things, as Paul said to king Agrippa, were not done in a corner.Acts xxvi. 26.
It appears to me, that, admitting all the miraculous events which the evangelical history asserts, it was not probable that Christianity should have been received with less difficulty than it was; but without that assistance, absolutely impossible for it to have been received at all.
Mr Gibbon mentions the zeal of the primitive christians, and the strictness of their discipline, as causes of the spread of the new religion. But he should have told us whence came that zeal, and that strictness of discipline. If no sufficient cause of it had appeared, their zeal would have exposed them to contempt; and their discipline would have discouraged rather than have invited proselytes.
It is acknowledged that to be a christian a man must believe some facts that are of an extraordinary nature, such as we have no opportunity of observing at present. But those facts were so circumstanced, that persons who cannot be denied to have had the best opportunity of examining the evidence of them, and who, if they had not been true, had no motive to pay any regard to them, could not refuse their assent to them; that is, it was such evidence
we ourselves must have been determined by, if we had been in their place; and therefore, if not fully equivalent to the evidence of our own senses at present, is,
at least, all the evidence that, at this distance of time, we can have in the case. It goes upon the principle that human nature was the same thing then that it is now; and certainly in all other respects it appears to be so.
That miracles are things in themselves possible, must be allowed so long as
is evident that there is in nature a power equal to the working of them. And certainly the power, principle, or being, by whatever name it be denominated, which produced the universe, and established the laws of it, is fully equal to any occasional departures from them. The object and use of those miracles on which the christian religion is founded, is also maintained to be consonant to the object and use of the general system of nature, viz: the production of happiness. We have nothing, therefore, to do, but to examine, by the known rules of estimating the value of testimony, whether there be reason to think that such miracles have been wrought, or whether the evidence of christianity, or of the christian history, does not stand upon as good ground as that of any other history whatever.
I am sorry to have occasion to admonish Mr Gibbon, that he should have distinguished better than he has done between christianity itself, and the corruptions of it. A serious christian strongly attached to some particular tenets, may be excused if, in reading ecclesiastical history, he should not make the proper distinctions; but this allowance cannot be made for so cool and philosophical a spectator as Mr Gibbon.
He should not have taken it for granted, that the doctrine of three persons
in one God, or the doctrine of atonement for the sins of all mankind, by the death of one man, were any parts of the christian system; when, if he had read the New Testament for himself, he must have seen the doctrine of the proper unity of God, and also that of his free mercy to the penitent, in almost every page of it. As he does speak of the corruptions of christianity, he should have examined farther both as an historian, and as a man; for as an individual, he is as much interested in the inquiry as any other person; and no inquiry whatever is so interesting to any man as this is.
Mr Gibbon has much to learn concerning the gospel before he can be properly qualified to write against it. Hitherto he seems to have been acquainted with nothing but the
corrupt establishments of what is very improperly called christianity; whereas it is incumbent upon him to read and study the New Testament for himself. There he will find nothing like Platonism, but doctrines in every respect the reverse of that system of philosophy, which weak and undistinguishing christians afterwards incorporated with it.
Had Mr Gibbon lived in France, Spain, or Italy, he might with the same reason have ranked the doctrine of transubstantiation, and the worship of saints and angels among the essentials of christianity, as the doctrines of the trinity and of the atonement,
The friends of genuine, and I will add of rational christianity, have not, however, on the whole, much reason to regret that their enemies have not made these distinctions; since, by this means we have been taught to make them ourselves; so that christianity is perhaps as much indebted to its enemies, as to its friends, for this important service. In their indiscriminate attacks, whatever has been found to be untenable has been gradually abandoned, and I hope the attack will be continued till nothing of the wretched outworks be left; and then, I doubt not, a safe and impregnable fortress, would be found in the centre, a fortress built upon a rock, against which the gates of death will not prevail,
APPENDIX A.-p. 14. CHRISTIANITY, it must be remembered, was planted and grew up amidst sharp-sighted enemies, who overlooked no objectionable part of the system, and who must have fastened with great earnestness on a doctrine involving such apparent contradictions as the trinity. We cannot conceive an opinion, against which the Jews, who prided themselves on an adherence to God's unity, would have raised an equal clamor. Now, how happens it, that in the apostolic writings, which relate so much to objections against Christianity, and to the controversies which grew out of this religion, not one word is said, implying that objections were brought against the gospel from the doctrine of the trinity, not one word is uttered in its defence and explanation, not a word to rescue it from reproach and mistake? This argument has almost the force of demonstration. We are persuaded, that had three divine persons been announced by the first preachers of Christianity, all equal and all infinite, one of whom was the very Jesus, who had lately died on a cross, this peculiarity of Christianity would have almost absorbed every other, and the great labor of the apostles would have been to repel the continual assaults, which it would have awakened. But the fact is, that not a whisper of objection to Christianity, on that account, reaches our ears from the apostolical age. In the epistles we see not a trace of controversy called forth by the trinity.-W. E. Channing.
APPENDIX B.--p. 20 “I would recommend it," says Dr Priestley to Dr Horsley,“ to your consideration, how the apostles could continue