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OF SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY.
Of the Study of Natural Religion, and of the Evidences of Christianity. I
OBSERVED in general, when laying down the method of prosecuting my plan, that were I in lecturing from this place to confine myself entirely to this branch of the theoretic part, on which I am now to enter, the examination of the christian scheme, together with the controversies to which the several members of it have given rise, considering the shortness of our sessions, it would be impossible in twice the number of years, that our ecclesiastical canons require our students to attend us, (and it is well known that even these canons have grown into disuse) to finish such a course in a manner that would be satisfactory. What then can be done, when so much more than the discussion of that branch is necessary, absolutely necessary, for answering the end of this profession? Who sees not that the end is not so much to make an acute disputant as to make an useful minister? I do not mean to treat slightly a talent that is necessary for the defence of truth; but I must say, that in common life, where there is one occasion of exerting that talent, there are twenty occasions of employing the other talents necessary for the right discharge of the pastoral function. As then the consideration of the other branches must occupy a part of our time, what profitable purpose, it may be asked, will be answered, by some detached discourses on a very few points of divinity, the most that the same students could ever have occasion to hear ? Could this give so much as an idea, not to say the knowledge of the harmony, connection and mutual dependence of the whole ? Is then so important a branch as polemic divinity to be entirely overlooked ? and if not, in what manner is it to be treated that the end may best be answered ? It is by no means to be entirely overlooked ; but in what manner it ought to be conducted (all circumstances considered, both as to the time allowed for the study, and the other matters equally essential to be discussed) is a question much more difficult to answer. In the digest that may be made of the articles both of natural and of revealed religion, if it were possible, as it is not, within the compass of the few sessions to which the attendance of students is commonly limited, to comprehend such a digest, together with the arguments that may be warrantably urged, not only in confirmation of the whole in general, but in support of all the principal controverted points, hardly any thing either new or curious could be offered by us. We should be laid under the necessity of giving at best but a very indistinct, and therefore a bad compilation, because by far too much abridged, from the topics and arguments which have been fully treated by various controversial writers. In so ample a field therefore, I say not, the best thing we can do, but the only thing we can do, that will answer any useful purpose, is to give directions, both as to the order in which the student ought to proceed in his inquiries, and as to the books or assistances he ought to use. If these directions are properly attended to by him, and if they are followed by the right improvement of his leisure hours (and without this improvement the lectures of divinity halls will be of no significancy) it may be hoped, that a competent knowledge might in a little time be attained, both of the evidences of our religion, of its essential articles, and of all the principal controversies that have arisen concerning them.
But first, as to the order in which our theological inquiries ought to be conducted, it may not be improper to observe here in the entry, that religion hath been often and not unaptly divided into natural and revealed. The former of these, subdivides itself into other two parts, namely what concerns the nature and providence of God, and what concerns the duties and prospects of man. The first of these is commonly called natura theology ; the second ethics, both comprised under the science of pneumatology, whereof they are indeed the most sublime and most important parts; and which science is itself a branch of philosophy, in the largest acceptation of the word, as importing the interpretation of nature. That to a certain degree the knowledge of divine attributes and of human obligations are discoverable by the light of nature, scripture itself always presupposeth. As to the former, “ The heavens,” we are told, “ declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handywork.” Again, “ The invisible things of him from the creation of the world, are clear. ly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power, and godhead.” Nay our meth. ods of arguing on this subject from the effect to the
cause, scripture itself disdains not to adopt and authenticate. “ He that planted the ear, shall he not hear? He that formed the eye, shall he not see?” And as to the latter, the duties incumbent on men, our Bible in like manner informs us that when the Gentiles who have not the (written) law do by nature the things contained in the law, these having not the law are a law to themselves; who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts meanwhile accusing or else excusing one another.” Now in strictness of speech neither natural theology nor moral philosophy, nor (which is also some times comprehended under the same general name) the doctrines of the immateriality and natural immortality of the soul, fall within my province as a teacher of christian theology. They are in fact preliminary studies, and constitute a part of the philosophic course.
It is however necessary, in order both to prevent mistakes and to obviate objections, to observe, that I do by no means intend to insinuate, that these studies are unconnected with the christian system and therefore unnecessary. On the contrary I think them of the utmost consequence. As it is the same God (for there is no other) who is the author of nature and the author of revelation, who speaks to us in the one by his works, and in the other by his spirit, it becomes his creatures reverently to hearken to his voice, in whatever manner he is pleased to address them. Now the philosopher is by profession the interpreter of nature, that is of the language of God's works, as the christian divine is the interpreter of scripture, that is of the language of God's spirit. Nor do I mean to signify, that there is not in many things a coincidence in the
discoveries made in these two different ways. The conclusions may be the same, though deduced, and justly deduced, from different premises. The result may be one, when the methods of investigation are widely different. There is even a considerable utility in pursuing both methods, as what is clear in the one may serve to enlighten what is obscure in the other. And both have their difficulties and their obscurities. The most profound philosopher will be the most ready to acknowledge that there are phænomena in nature for which he cannot account; and that divine, you may depend upon it, whatever be his attainments, hath more arrogance, than either knowledge or wisdom, who will not admit, that there are many texts in scripture which he cannot explain. Nor does this in the least contradict the protestant doctrine of the perspicuity of sacred writ; for though every thing which proceeds from God, it must be of consequence to us to be acquainted with, and therefore requires diligent attention especially from the minister of his word, yet all the truths revealed are not of equal consequence, as we learn from scripture itself. The most important things are still the plainest, and set in the greatest variety of lights. Now if God is pleased to address us in two different languages, neither of which is without its difficulties, we may find considerable assistance in comparing both for removing the difficulties of each. But though, as I observed, natural theology and ethics are strictly the province of the philosopher, it may not be amiss, to suggest in a few words concerning the former, that the use of reading elaborate demonstrations of the being and perfections of God, is more perhaps to fix our attention on the object, than to give convic