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BEFORE we enter on our present undertaking, we shall premise a few things leading to the subject matter thereof; and that we may begin with what is most obvious, let it be considered, I. That it is a duty incumbent on all, who profess the Christian name, to be well acquainted with those great doctrines on which our faith, hope, and worship are founded; for, without the knowledge hereof, we must necessarily be at a loss as to the way of salvation, which none has a right to prescribe, but he who is the author thereof. (a)
a "CHRISTIANITY," it hath been said, "is not founded in argument." If it were only meant by these words, that the religion of Jesus could not, by the single aid of reasoning, produce its full effect upon the heart; every true Christian would cheerfully subscribe to them. No arguments unaccompanied by the influences of the Holy Spirit; can convert the soul from sin to God; though even to such conversion, arguments are, by the agency of the Spirit, rendered subservient. Again, if we were to understand by this aphorism, that the principles of our religion could never have been discovered, by the natural and unassisted faculties of man; this position, I presume would be as little disputed as the former. But if, on the contrary, under the cover of an ambiguous expression, it is intended to insinuate, that those principles, from their very nature, can admit no rational evidence of their truth, (and this, by the way, is the only meaning which can avail our antagonists) the gospel, as well as common sense, loudly reclaims against it.
The Lord JESUS CHRIST, the author of our religion, often argued, both with his disciples and with his adversaries, as with reasonable men, on the principles of reason, without this faculty, he well knew, they could not be susceptible either of religion or of law. He argued from prophecy, and the conformity of the event to the prediction. Luke xxiv. 25, &c. John v. 39, & 46. He argued from the testimony of John the Baptist, who was generally acknowledged to be a prophet. John v. 32, & 33. He argued from the miracles which he himself performed, John v. 36. x. 25, 37, 38. xiv. 10, 11. as uncontrovertible evidences, that God Almighty operated by him, and had sent him. He espostulates with his enemies, that they did not use their reason on this subject. Why, says he, even of yourselves judge ye not what is right? Luke xii. 57. In like manner we are called upon by the apostles of our Lord, to act the part of wise men and judge impartially of what they say. 1 Cor. x. 15. Those who do so, are highly commended, for the candour and prudence they discover, in an affair of so great consequence. Acts xvii. 11. We are even commanded, to be always ready to give an answer to every man that asketh us a reason of our hope; 1 Pet. iii. 15. in meekness to instruct them that oppose themselves; 2 Tum. ii. 25. and earnestly to contend for the faith which was once delivered to the saints. Jude 3. God has neither in natural nor revealed religion, left himself without a witness; but has in both given moral and external evidence, sufficient to convince the impartial, to silence the gainsayer, and to render inexcusable the atheist and the unbeliever. This evidence it is our duty to attend to, and candid. ly to examine. We must prove all things, as we are expressly enjoined in holy writ, if we would ever hope to hold fast that which is good. 1 Thess. v. 21.
11. This knowledge of divine truth must be derived from the holy scriptures, which are the only fountain of spiritual wisdom, whereby we are instructed in those things that could have been known no other way, but by divine revelation.
III. It will be of singular use for us not only to know the doctrines that are contained in scripture; but to observe their connexion and dependence on one another, and to digest them into such a method, that subsequent truths may give light to them that went before; or to lay them down in such a way, that the whole scheme of religion may be comprised in a narrow compass, and, as it were, beheld with one view, which will be a very great help to memory and this is what we call a system of divine truths, or a methodical collection of the chief articles of our religion, adapted to the capacity of those who need to be taught the first principles of the oracles of God: and if they are designed to give the world a specimen of that form of sound words, which the church thinks itself obliged to hold fast, and stedfastly to adhere to, then we call it a confession of faith; or, if digested into questions and answers, we call it a catechism. And though systems of divinity, confessions of faith, and catechisms, are treated with contempt, instead of better arguments, by many who are no friends to the doctrines which they contain, and who appear to be partial in their resentment, in as much as they do not dislike those treatises which are agreeable to their own sentiments, by whatever name they are called; yet we are bound to conclude that the labours of those who have been happy in the sense they have given of scripture, and the method in which they have explained the doctrines thereof, in what form soever they have been, are a great blessing to us; though we are far from concluding that they are of equal authority with scripture, or that every word which they use is infallible; nor do we regard them any farther than as they are agreeable to, or sufficiently proved from scripture.
IV. Confessions of faith and catechisms are not to be reckoned a novel invention, or not consonant to the scripture rule, since they are nothing else but a peculiar way of preaching or instructing us in divine truths. Therefore, since scripture lays down no certain invariable rule concerning this matter, the same command that warrants preaching the word in any method, includes the explaining of it, as occasion serves, in a catechetical one.
V. As there are many excellent bodies of divinity printed in our own and foreign languages, and collections of sermons on the principal heads thereof; so there are various catechisms, or methodical summaries of divine truths, which, when consonant to scripture, are of great advantage to all Christians, whether elder or younger.
VI. The catechisms composed by the Assembly of Divines as
Westminster, are esteemed as not inferior to any that are extant, either in our own or foreign languages, the doctrines therein contained being of the highest importance, and consonant to scripture; and the method in which they are laid down is so agreeable, that it may serve as a directory for the ranging our ideas of the common heads of divinity in such an order, that what occurs under each of them may be reduced to its proper place. It is the larger of them that we have attempted to explain and regulate our method by; because it contains several heads of divinity not touched on in the shorter. And if, in any particular instance, we are obliged to recede from the common mode of speaking, (though it is to be hoped not from the common faith, once delivered to the saints) we submit our reasoning to the judgment of those who are disposed to pardon less mistakes, and improve what comes with sufficient evidence to the best purposes.
The work indeed, is large, but the vast variety of subjects will render it more tolerable; the form in which it appears is somewhat differing from that in which it was first delivered, in a public audience, though that may probably be no disadvantage to it, especially since it is rather designed to be read in families than committed to memory, and repeated by different persons, as it has been. The plainness of the style may contribute to its usefulness; and its being less embarassed with scholastic terms than some controversial writings are, may render it more intelligible to private Christians, whose instruction and advantage is designed thereby. It would be too great a vanity to expect that it should pass through the world without that censure which is common to all attempts of the like nature, since men's sentiments in divinity differ as much as their faces; and some are not disposed to weigh those arguments that are brought to support any scheme of doctrine, which differs from what they have before received. However, the work comes forth with this advantage, that it has already conflicted with some of the difficulties it is like to meet with, as well as been favoured with some success, and therefore the event hereof is left in his hand whose cause and truth is endeavoured to be maintained,