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levelled immediately against the Gospel itself — as with justice and propriety it might be levelled, on the supposition that Christ expressed his desire to send a sword into the world, and consequently intimated his approbation of those who wielded it ?
Now Christ must have known that a system which avowedly armed those who adopted it one against another, must have contained in its own bosom the seeds of its own destruction. Its enemies, taking the alarm, would by the most vigorous exertions, as well as upon the most justifiable motives, have endeavoured to check its progress. But if those endeavours had been disappointed, and Christianity had been established by force in the world, the very professors of it, after experiencing the inconveniences and dangers of mutual hatred, would at last surely have recovered from the delirium of religious zeal, and would have secured their own true interests by an avowed and general desertion of doctrines so fatally hostile to them. I am not roving in wild conjecture when I make this assertion. I am only stating what would have been done to Christianity itself — what has been done in respect to its various modes. For consider -- as civilization and learning, as just government and rational religion, have gained ground among mankind, they become ashamed of persecution — they laugh at the thin disguise of sophistry which is spread over its deformity — and they have the satisfaction to find that Revelation has not countenanced what reason condems, and that, to be sound in faith,
it is not requisite for them to be previously destitute of humanity. Now if Christianity itself has conspired to produce these various causes, and even make a part of them, it forms a new presumption in favour of the manner in which I am explaining to you the text.' If, on the contrary, you suppose the same causes to have existed (as in a course of time they probably might in a less degree have existed) independently of Christianity, and even in opposition to the pernicious tendency of the text, doubtless all good citizens, and all good men, would have disputed the pretensions of the Gospel to a divine original. They would have appealed from the doctrines of revealed religion to the sacred and indisputable authority of natural. They would not have been ensnared by splendid descriptions and flattering promises of a future life, into a contempt of all the comforts which well-regulated society affords, and all the generous duties it imposes in the present. They would have abandoned a scheme of faith irreconcileable to the fundamental principles of morality, injurious to the happiness of man, and derogatory to the honour of God.
What inference then must we draw from the preceding considerations ? On the one side, it
, apappears that the repeated and unequivocal acknowledgments of those who deny the preternatural excellence of the Gospel, are yet so decisive in favour of its moral utility, as to leave no room for any
invidious construction upon the words of my text. Indeed such a construction is altogether incompatible with the benignity of temper and purity of conduct which they are content to admire in the Founler of Christianity. It is no less incompatible with the total want of every allurement that gives success to intrigue, and of every resource for exercising oppression, which they are accustomed to ridicule in its immediate followers. An interpretation, therefore, which equally militates with the assertions of those who anxiously defend a system, and with the concessions of those who openly attack it, requires every support that can be furnished from solid reasoning and unequivocal evidence. But is this the case in the question before us ? Assuredly it is not; for, on the other hand, if you believe Christ not only, on all other occasions, to have wished secretly, but upon this single occasion to have encouraged openly, the most shocking enormities, you fall into this very absurd and very inadmissible opinion, that an impostor of the most profligate ambition and atrocious cruelty that ever appeared in the world deliberateiy counteracted his own purposes — that he unnecessarily exposed the wickedness he ought to have concealed, and madly excited an opposition which he must be conscious of his own inability to repel.
In these observations you have a clear, and I believe, an apposite answer to the insolent and malignant sarcasm of a writer, whose taste is, in my opinion, as much disgraced by false wit, as his philosophy by false reasoning. Christ, says the author of the Characteristics, and his followers, preached up charity and love, the better to enable a set of men, some centuries afterwards, to tyrannize over
and by many
those, whom the engaging sounds of charity and
be thought superfluous to pursue it any farther. But the instability and inconsistence of the human understanding, the disguises under which exploded errors insensibly recur, and the proneness of mankind to dwell upon the unfavourable side, the malice of our adversaries, and the weakness of our friends, compel me to be of a different opinion. Our enemies, overlooking or deriding the benevolent principles which pervade the greater part of the Gospel, will triumphantly expatiate on this particular passage, and avail themselves of its seeming ambiguity. Our friends, whatever conviction they may feel of the general charity which is inculcated by the Gospel, and whatever consolation they may derive from it, will sometimes find their thoughts staggered with doubt, and alarmed with apprehension, when they reflect on the menacing appearance which the words of my text must wear to unenlightened minds. For these reasons, I shall endeavour to confute every possible objection of the infidel, and to remove every possible scruple of the believer. From this series, then, of general observations, we may collect what the
meaning of Christ probably was not. I forward to the discussion of more direct and particular proofs, from which you may perceive what it actually was.
According to the soundest rule of logic, doubtful passages in every book ought to be explained by such as are direct and plain. Thus too, in the life of every man, detached actions, which wear the aspect of severity, ought to be measured by the general conduct of the agent, when that conduct is remarkable for the opposite qualities of mildness and clemency. But of these pleas, reasonable as they are, we need not avail ourselves in the present case ; for the expression itself, as well as the relation in which it stands to other parts of this chapter, will justify an interpretation by no means dishonourable to our holy religion, or uninteresting to us who profesy it. Consistently with the idiom of the original language the words to send are used not in a final, but an eventual sense ; they denote not the intention of the agent, but the effects of his actions; they inform us, not that Christ ahsolutely designed to make his religion the cause of implacable violence, and outrageous hostility, but that through the fallible understandings, and uncontrolled passions of those who embraced it, his religion would be perverted into an instrument of evil to the persons, for whose supreme and ultimate good it was graciously communicated.
In the same manner, I would farther observe, we may vindicate some other passages of scripture, which have perplexed the judgments, and alarmed