« PreviousContinue »
of enjoying his favour, the hopes which we are authorized to entertain, and the wonderful expedient by which our fallen race is restored to purity and happiness; these are the objects of theology, and entitle it to be pronounced the first of all the sciences in dignity and importance. Ignorant of the other sciences, and of the arts which minister to the ornament and amusement of life, a man who can sustain himself by mechanical labour, may spend the short time of his earthly pilgrimage, not without comfort, nor without the honour which honesty and integrity may procure, especially if religion has shed some rays of its celestial light upon him ; but he who has stored his mind with every kind of knowledge except the knowledge of God and divine things, lives like a fool, and shall die without hope.
Theology may be distinguished into natural and supernatural. By natural theology, is understood that knowledge of God which the light of nature teaches, or which is acquired by our unassisted powers, by the exercise of reason, and the suggestions of conscience. It is not meant, that there is in the human mind an innate idea of God, a supposition manifestly absurd, and contradicted by experience, for individuals have been found in a savage state, in whom there was no such idea; but that man, by contemplating the objects around him, is led to infer the existence of an invisible Being by whom they were created, possessed of certain perfections, the signatures of which are perceived upon his works; and from this first principle deduces other doctrines of religion, as that this God governs the world ; that it is our duty to honour and please him, by the practice of piety, and justice, and benevolence; that the soul is immortal ; and that there is a future state, in which the righteous will be rewarded, and the wicked will be punished. These are the great articles of natural theology; and much reason and eloquence have been employed in illustrating them, and demonstrating their truth in opposition to the objections of atheists. Upon this subject, however, there is a diversity of sentiment. It has been disputed, not only whether these are the only articles, but also whether there is such a thing as natural theology ; or, in other words, whether the system, which bears that name, is discoverable by unassisted reason. There is no doubt that its truths, when proposed, are approved by reason, which supplies the most convincing arguments in support of them; but the question is, whether men, left to themselves, could arrive, by the observation of external things and the reflections of their own minds, at the conclusion that there is one living and eternal Being who created and governs the world, and would connect with it the other doctrines in a regular series. The discussion of this controversy does not belong to this introductory lecture.
Supernatural theology is the system of religion which is contained in the Holy Scriptures ; and it is called supernatural, because the knowledge of it is not derived from reason, but from divine revelation. It incorporates the truths which have been enumerated as the articles of natural theology; but it comprehends many other truths, which it could not have entered into the mind of man to conceive, and which exhibit new manifestations of the divine character, suitable to the new situation into which we have been brought by the fall, It is the religion of sinners, and eonsequently the only religion with which we are concerned. What is called natural religion, is not adapted to our circumstances. It holds out no hope to the guilty ; and, in the present enfeebled and corrupt state of our moral powers, its duties are absolutely impracticable. Christianity has been said to be a republication of the law of nature. The assertion is true, if it only mean that it teaches the doctrines which are sup posed to be discoverable by reason, and teaches them more clearly, and fully, and authoritatively ; but it is obviously false to affirm, that this is the whole design of Christianity, the distinguishing character of which arises from its superadding to those doctrines the discovery of the remedial or mediatorial dispensation.
Christian theology may be arranged under three divisions, distinguished by the titles of dogmatic or didactic, polemic, and practical.
It is the province of didactic theology to state and explain the several doctrines of religion, and to point out the proofs. In treating this part of the subject, the theologian proceeds in the same manner as a teacher of any other science, who lays before his pupils its constituent principles, and the conclusions which have been drawn from them, together with the train of reasoning upon which they are founded. Having examined the subject with attention and patience, and, as he trusts, with success, he imparts to others the result of his inquiries, to facilitate their progress, and to lead them to the same views which he has adopted from conviction. I will add, that it is his business, not only to bring forward the several doctrines of religion, and the proofs, but also to exbibit them in their order and connexion. It is granted, that the Scriptures do not deliver religion to us in that artificial form which we find in the writings of the schoolmen, and of those modern divines who have trodden in their steps, although there is certainly an approach to it in some parts of the Bible, particularly in the Epistle to the Romans; but no man, I think, who (is in possession of his senses, and) understands what he is saying, will deny îhat religion is systematic. The word of God is not an assemblage of writings which have no other relation to each other but juxtaposition, or collocation in the same volume, but a continued revelation of his eternal counsels, “ in which he has abounded towards us in all wisdom and prudence.” There is arrangement here, as well as in his other works, although it may require time and patience to discover it. Religion, if I may speak so, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has first principles, and secondary truths derived from these principles, and precepts founded upon both. The study of the Scriptures is not recommended to us, that we may load our memories with a multitude of unconnected ideas, but that we may bring together and combine the truths which are scattered up and down in them, and thus “ understand what the will of the Lord is.” In the mind of every intelligent reader of the Scriptures, a system is formed, the parts of which, by their union, reflect a new light upon one another; and certainly, the utility of this system is not destroyed or diminished by its being committed to writing, or being communicated to others by oral instruction. I am at a loss to understand the declamations which are so common against systematic theology; and am disposed to think, that they are often as little understood by their authors, unless it be their design, as, in some instances, we have reason to suspect, to expose to contempt a particular set of opinions, to cry down, for example, not the sy tem of Socinus, or Arminius, but the system of Calvin. Were their objections pointed against a particular system, as improperly arranged, as too technical in its form, or as encumbered with a multiplicity of useless distinctions, we might concur with them, on finding the charge to be true. But to admit, as they must do, that religion is not a mass of incoherent opinions, but a series of truths harmonized by the wisdom of God, and, at the same time, to exclaim against its exhibition in a regular form, as an atitempt to subject the oracles of Heaven to the rules of human wisdom, is conduct which ill befits men of judgment and learning, and is worthy of those, alone, who " know neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm.”
In the department of polemnic theology, the controversies are considered which have been agitated in the church, with respect to the doctrines, and precepts, and institutions of religion. The term is derived from a Greek word, which signifies warlike. A polemic divine is a warrior; he goes forth into the field to encounter the adversaries of the truth. The word has an odious sound, and seems to accord ill with the character of a teacher of religion, who ought lo be a minister of peace. On this ground, polemic theology is often held up as the object of scorn and detestation, and it is loudly demanded, that the voice of controversy should be heard no more within the walls of the church, that the disciples of Christ should bury all their disputes in oblivion, and, without minding differences of opinion, should dwell together as brethren in unity. There is much simplicity and want of discernment in this proposal, when sincerely made. It is the suggestion of inconsiderate zeal forone object, overlooking another of at least equal importance, accounting truth nothing and peace every thing, and imagining that there may be solid peace, although it does not rest upon the foundation of truth. Often, however, it is intended to conceal a sinister design, under the appearance of great liberality ; a design to prevail upon one party to be quiet, while the other goes on to propagate its opinions without opposition. Every man who has observed from what quarter these cries for peace most frequently come, must have noticed that they are as insidious as the salutation of Joab to Amasa, whom he stabbed under the fifth rib when he took him by the beard, and said, “ Art thou in health, brother ?"'* Nothing is more obvious, than that when the truth is attacked it ought to be defended ; and as it would be base pusillanimity to yield it without a struggle to its adversaries, so it would be disgraceful, as well as criminal, in one of its professed guardians, not to be qualified to sustain the dignity of his office, and to uphold the sacred interests of religion, by his argumenis and his eloquence. He should be “able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort, and to convince the gainsayers.” If controversial theology be accounted an evil, it is a necessary one; and let the blame be imputed to the men who have laboured, and are still labouring, to pervert the oracles of God, not to those whom a sense of duty has compelled to come forward, and defend them against the rude assaults of presumption and impiety.
Practical theology states and explains the duties which are enforced upon us in divine revelation. The way is prepared for it by the two preceding departments of the science, under which the doctrines are illustrated and vindicated, upon which these duties are founded, and which supply the only motives that will lead to the proper and acceptable performance of them. Some consider this as the only part of theology which is worthy of attention, speaking slightingly of faith, and pronouncing high panegyrics upon virtue as the one thing needful; and in doing so, they display much the same wisdom as a husbandman would show, who should think only of the produce of his fields, without concerning himself with the quality of the soil, and the means of calling forth its vegetative powers. By others, it is looked upon as of infe. rior importance; and they are apt to suspect those who are of a different opinion, of being perverted in their taste, and corrupted in their principles, and to accuse them of bestowing that admiration upon a cold and uninteresting morality, which should be reserved for the sublime mysteries of faith. Both are chargeable with mistaking a part for the whole, and disjoining what God has united; with forgetting that religion, in all its parts, is an emanation from the Fountain of wisdom and purity; and that it is alike necessary that its doctrines should be believed, and its duties should be practised. Religion is a barren speculation when it is treated merely as a theory. It should uniformly be represented as a practical system ; the tendency of its doctrines to promote holiness of heart and life should be pointed out, and the nature of holiness explained, that men may know what are the good works which it is incumbent upon them, as the professed disciples of Christ, to maintain. scribe well instructed unto the kingdom of heaven," a minister who would declare all the counsel of God to the people under his charge, must be an able expounder of the law, as well as a zealous preacher of the gospel.
Theology is not one of those recondité subjects, which it is left to the curious to investigate, and in the contemplation of which, speculative and
• 2 Sam. xx. 9.
reflecting men may spend their hours of leisure and solitude. Its claim to universal attention is manifest from the succinct account which has now been given of its nature. Its instructions are addressed to persons of every description, to the learned, and to the unlearned, to the retired student, and him who is engaged in the bustling scenes of life. It is interesting to all, as furnishing the knowledge of God and his Son, which is the source of eternal life. But in your case, there is a particular reason, besides a regard to your personal welfare, why it should not only engage a share of your thoughts, but be made the principal object of your inquiries. Theology is your profession, as medicine is that of a physician, and law of a barrister. It should be your ambition to excel in it, not, however, from the same motives which stimulate the diligence of the men of other professions, the desire of fame, or the prospect of gain, but with a view to the faithful and honourable discharge of the duties of the office with which you expect one day to be intrusted. " These men are the servants of the most High God, who shew unto us the way of salvation."
In the sequel of this lecture, I shall briefly point out the qualifications which are indispensably necessary to a student of theology.
The first which I shall mention is piety. I have called theology a science, but I did not mean to insinuate, that like the other sciences, it should be regarded merely as a subject of cold speculation and philosophical inquiry. As the conscience should be deeply impressed with the authority of God in this revelation of his will, so the heart should be affected by the views which it gives of Him and ourselves, and all its movements should be in unison with the manifestations of his character and attributes. While the student of theology is assiduously labouring to store his mind with knowledge which is to be communicated to others, it should be his first care to convert it by faith and prayer to his own use, that he may be nourished with the heavenly food which he is preparing for the household of God. If we are destitute of piety, we cannot enjoy the divine blessing on our studies; and although, by the exercise of our natural faculties, and the common assistance of Providence, we may acquire the knowledge of the Scriptures as well as of any other book, what will it avail? It will minister no consolation to our minds, and will serve to aggravate our guilt and condemnation ; for “the servant who knew his master's will and did it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.” The knowledge which we do attain will be superficial and only literal, the unrenewed mind being incapable of discerning spiritual truths, and supernatural illumination being necessary to clear and impressive conceptions of doctrines, which reason is too dim-sighted to discover. We may think and speak of the wisdom and love of God in redemption, but we shall feel no holy admiration of the one, no animating and melting sense of the other. The want of piety may even prove an obstacle to the fairness and success of our speculative inquiries ; for if our hearts remain under the influence of their innate enmity to God, we cannot cordially assent to those parts of the system which exalt him so highly, and degrade us so low; and we may be tempted, as others before us have been, to accommodate them to our prejudices, to mould them into a shape more pleasing to our taste, more accordant with our feelings. Those who indulge in perverse disputes, and resist the truth, are represented as “men of corrupt minds."'* You ought therefore to begin, and to carry on your studies, with fervent prayer for the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Christ, who will lead you into all the truth, and fill you with joy and peace in believing. He who mingles humble and devout supplications with his studies, cannot fail to succeed.
But piety, although indispensably necessary, is not the only qualification.
% Sam. iii. 8.
The study of theology demands, if not the powers of genius, yet certainly a competent portion of intellectual ability, a mind capable of attention and patient investigation, of distinguishing and combining, and of communicating ihe result of its inquiries by accurate arrangement, and perspicuous exposition. It is a strange and unfounded notion, that theology is an inferior study, and that those may succeed in it who are disqualified for any other profession. Irreligious men may think that the lame and the blind are offerings good enough for the altar of God, but his service is worthy of the noblest talents ; and although the ministrations of weak men have been frequently blessed, while those of some others far superior to them have not been attended with equal success, yet there is no doubt, that upon the whole it has been by the labours of persons properly furnished for the work by nature and education, that the edification of the church and the general interests of religion have been chiefly promoted. The mention of education leads me to remark, that as a competent portion of natural talents is requisite to success in the study of theology, it is farther requisite that these should be improved by previous discipline. You know what are the preparatory studies which our church prescribes to those who are looking forward to the office of the ministry. Whether their time is employed in acquiring the knowledge of languages, or in cultivating the sciences, the object is not only to enlarge their stock of ideas, or to open the sources from which ideas may be derived, but to exercise and invigorate their faculties, and to form their minds to habits of reflection and inquiry. Individuals may sometimes be found, who have not enjoyed the advantages of a regular education, but are so eminently gifted by nature as to be able to perform, in a creditable manner, the duties of public teachers of religion. But such instances are rare; and nothing is more absurd, than upon the authority of a few extraordinary cases to establish a general rule. In general, an unlearned ministry will be neither respectable nor useful. The experiment was made some years ago in this country, but its success was not such as to encourage its patrons to persist in it long. They soon discovered the incompetency of illiterate preachers, and found it expedient, for the credit of their party, to furnish them with a portion of human learning, which was once represented as useless and pernicious. It has been sagely asked, what need is there of Greek and Latin and philosophy, to qualify a man for proclaiming the good news of salvation ? Why should he waste his time in schools and universities, where nothing is to be learned but the vain wisdom of the world? Let him take the Scriptures into his hand, and then declare to his fellow-sinners what he has read and believed. To these reasoners, or rather declaimers, for of the crime of reasoning they are on this occasion guiltless, I would reply in the words of the prophet, " What is the chaff to the wheat ?" Bring forth your self-taught haranguers, and place, in opposition to them, an equal number of preachers of man's making, as you sometimes call them, that we may judge of the utility or worthlessness of human learning, by the self-sufficient dogmatism, the enthusiastic rhapsodies, and the perpetual recurrence of a few favourite topics, on the one hand; and by the good sense, the lucid arrangement, and the varied illustration of truth, on the other. Learning, then, is necessary to the study of theology; and without its aid, our knowledge must be very incomplete. Can he be called a divine, whose accomplishments are little superior, if they be superior, to those of many pious mechanics ; or can he expound the Scriptures, who is unable to consult them in the original languages, and is unacquainted with the histories, and laws, and manners, and opinions, to which they so often refer? In this view, it may be justly said, philosophia theologiæ ancillatur,--philosophy is the handmaid, although not the mistress, of theology. I conclude this topic. with a familiar scriptural allusion, for which we are probably indebted to Origen, the father of allegorical interpretation, who, recommending to his friend