« AnteriorContinuar »
THE reader will easily observe, that the following letters, by the late Rev. Mr. Fletcher, are almost all unfinished, and are here presented to the public in an imperfect state. It is much to be regretted, especially, that the last of them, on the Epistles of St. Paul, is so incomplete, as only two of these epistles had been considered; and very many passages of great importance upon this subject, and such as afford incontestable proof of our Lord's divinity, are to be found in those that he had not examined. It is true, many of these passages have been introduced in the former part of this work, and have been there improved, in some measure, in defence of that important doctrine; yet still, as this was not done by the masterly pen of Mr. Fletcher, the friends of our Lord's divinity cannot but consider it as a loss to the Church of Christ, and therefore as an afflictive providence, that this able and pleasing writer was not spared to finish his work, and fully rescue the apostle of the Gentiles, as he has done the other apostles, out of the hands of those who so miserably mangle his writings, and cast so great a stain upon his character.
St. Paul has for many ages been looked up to with respect as an apostle, as a Christian, as a scholar, and as a man of genius. But this new Socinian doctrine, still more adventurous than the old, dares to strip him of his honour in all these respects. It degrades him as an apostle, for it denies that he wrote by inspiration; as a Christian, for it makes him an idolater, and an encourager of idolatry; as a scholar, for it affirms that he reasons inconclusively; and as a man of genius and parts, for, if it is to be credited, he had not even common sense, or at least did not write as if he had.
This last particular, which, as far as I know, has not yet been touched upon in the present controversy between Dr. Priestley and his antagonists, I have attempted to set in a clear point of view, in some letters which I have annexed to those of Mr. Fletcher. I thought that, in doing this, I should perhaps render a more essential service to the cause of truth, than if, endeavouring to follow Mr. Fletcher's plan, and prosecute the subject in his method, I should make such additions to his letters as would be necessary to render them in some degree complete. Indeed, I had two reasons for declining this. The first was, that the former part, already published, being enlarged beyond what Mr. Fletcher had intended, had in some measure precluded the necessity of this second part. For instead of being, as he plainly meant it, merely a Rational Vindication of the Catholic Faith, respecting the trinity and the divinity of our Lord, it now assumes another form, and rather appears as a Scriptural vindication of these doctrines. The other was, I knew my inability to treat the subject in his masterly manner, and that at best it would seem a very heterogeneous composition. I concluded therefore to let these letters go abroad in their unfinished state, as the imperfect and posthumous works of a great and good man, who hardly ever dropped a word from his lips, or a sentence from his pen, but what was one way or other calculated to do good.
What Dr. Priestley will think of these unfinished letters, should he condescend to cast his eye over them, is easy to see, after the judgment he has passed upon the deservedly celebrated writings of Dr. Horsley, now Lord Bishop of St. David's. "We consider (says he, p. 1 of his last letters to his lordship) your publications in this controversy, as contributing, in an eminent manner, to the propagation of that great truth for which we think it glorious to contend, and which you oppose." And again, p. 2, "Had I been permitted to choose my own antagonist, by exposing of whose arguments and manner of conducting the controversy I might avail myself the most, I should certainly have made choice of your lordship. After seeing your first set of letters to me, I said to several of my friends, that if I could have dictated the whole of your performance myself, it should have been just what I found it to be: your arguments were so extremely futile, and your manner of urging them giving me even more advantage than I wanted or wished for." If even the arguments of Dr. Horsley, the force of which has been felt and acknowledged so universally, have made no impression upon the mind of the doctor, what can be expected from these publications? Surely, should he condescend to honour them with his notice, (a favour which, however, is not to be expected,) in one half hour he might demonstrate their futility: and were not the opponents of too little note to afford the doctor much honour in the conquest, we might again hear him proclaiming his victory in terms similar to those he uses when, p. 4, he assures his lordship, in great triumph, that " he [the bishop] has been completely foiled in all his attempts to discover any error [in the doctor's writings] of the least consequence to his main argument." And many, no doubt, would take the doctor's word for it, and save themselves the expense of purchasing, and trouble of reading a book, the authors of which had been so "completely foiled" in the whole of their argumentation! It will remain a truth, however, when Dr. Priestley and his publications are no more, that " not he that commendeth himself is approved, but whom the Lord commendeth."
As to the Scriptures, arguments drawn from that source can have but little weight with the doctor. "You think it extraordinary (says he to the Rev. James Barnard, p. 83,) that I should have recourse to such guides as the fathers, to settle my opinion concerning the doctrine of the trinity, thinking, I suppose, that the study of the Scriptures might render all other helps unnecessary. Now, I have more than once given my reason for this conduct. It is in short this: Christians are not agreed in the interpretation of Scripture language; but as all men are agreed with respect to the nature of historical evidence, I thought that we might perhaps better determine by history what was the faith of Christians in early times, independently of any aid from the Scriptures: and it appeared to be no unnatural presumption, that whatever that should appear to be, such was the doctrine of the apostles, from whom their faith was derived; and that by this means we should be possessed of a pretty good guide for discovering the true sense of Scripture."
It appears, therefore, that in the doctor's opinion, though the apostles exhort us to "strive together for the faith of the Gospel," and to " contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints;" and though they wrote many epistles designedly to tell us what that faith was; yet that these epistles are so unintelligible, that if we wish for information concerning this faith, we must not have recourse to them, though written in a language perfectly understood, but to the histories and other writings of persons who lived some centuries after them t According to this hypothesis, if, some ages hence, any one should be wishful to know what the faith of that great philosopher and divine, Dr. Priestley, was, he must not apply to the doctor's own writings for information, though those writings should happen to be extant, and should be preserved entire, but must recur to histories of England, memoirs of the lives and writings of eminent men, and other books composed and published some ages after the doctor's death, and by men, perhaps, either ill informed on the one hand, or prejudiced on the other! According to the same plan, the faith of the old Puritans might be learned from the books of the present Presbyterians, that is, the Socinians, their successors; and the faith of our reformers from the sermons and other publications of the present clergy of the Church of England! On the same principle, too, it may be learned from some future Socinian historian, how the bishop of St. David's managed the controversy with Dr. Priestley, and how just and Scriptural his lordship's sentiments were on the important subject debated between them.
I would not be understood as insinuating here, either that the ancient fathers of the Church, or the members of it in general, in the first ages, departed from the faith held by the apostles and first Christians. I am persuaded they did not, and that their holding the doctrine contended for in these sheets, is capable of as clear and satisfactory proof as any subject of history whatever. But be this as it may, it appears to me that any man's faith is best learned from those discourses and writings of his own, in which he professedly declares that faith; unless, indeed, on the one hand there be reason to question his sincerity, or on the other to suppose him deficient in common sense, or at least in ability to make himself understood. Accordingly, I think, without intending to detract at all from the character or writings of those holy and eminent men, the ancient fathers, that the faith of the apostles is best learned from what they themselves have delivered concerning it. And Dr. Priestley may use what arguments he pleases, I am satisfied he never will be able to convince any of the contrary, but those whom he has first persuaded that these sacred penmen were deficient in integrity or in understanding, that they either would not or could not give a just and intelligible account of their sentiments.
The doctor has already carried his researches very far, not only in philosophy, but also in divinity: he has greatly outstripped all his predecessors. In philosophy he has discovered, to the utter confusion of the wisdom of former ages, that man has no soul, no rational and immortal spirit; that he is a mere piece of organized matter, and that of consequence all his motions are purely mechanical; all his tempers, words, and works, previously fixed, necessary, and unavoidable; a doctrine this, published by him to the world some years ago, and still openly avowed, as appears by his late letters to the Rev. John Hawkins, in which he declares himself to be "professedly a Unitarian, a Necessarian, and a Materialist." In divinity he has not only adopted and confirmed the discoveries (or tenets, as I should rather call them) of Socinus, respecting the mere humanity of Christ, with all the train of consequences which that doctrine draws after it; but he questions the authenticity of the account, given in the beginning of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke, respecting the miraculous conception of the child Jesus. Of course he has inferred that Jesus Christ, sent indeed of God, and a great prophet, yet was weak, fallible, and peccable, like other men: that, as to the evangelists and apostles, whatever might be the case with them as speakers, concerning which, I think, he has not pronounced positively, yet that, as writers, they certainly were not inspired: that as to St. Paul, in particular, he often reasons very inconclusively, and both misunderstands and misapplies sundry passages quoted from the Old Testament.
But it will be impossible for the doctor to stop here. He must of necessity either advance farther, or come quite back. As to philosophy, indeed, the philosophy, I mean, that concerns the nature of man, he seems to be arrived at the ne plus tdtra. It being a plain, undeniable fact, that we do move, it would be in vain to endeavour to persuade us that we do not. All that can possibly be done in this case is, what he has effected long ago, that is, to prove that we move mechanically. But in divinity;—unless, as I hinted, he should think proper to make a retreat, and return into the paths of orthodoxy, which, at his time of life, and after the attention and admiration he has excited for a number of years by the singularity of his discoveries, he is well aware he could not do