The religion of Christians.
I. Christianity, foundation of. Most, if not all Christians, whatever their particular tenets may be, acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the sole foundation of their faith and practice. But as these books, or at least particular passages in them, have from the ambiguity of language been variously interpreted by different commentators, these diversities have given birth to a multiplicity of different sects. These, however, or at least the greatest number of them, appeal to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the ultimate standard, the only infallible rule of faith and manners. If asked by what authority these books claim an absolute right to determine the consciences and understandings of men with regard to what they should believe, and what they should do, they answer, that all Scripture, whether for doctrine, correction, or reproof, was given by immediate inspiration from God. If again interrogated how those books which they call Scripture are authenticated, they reply, that the Old and New Testaments are proved to be the word of God, by evidences both external and internal.
II. Christianity, evidences of the truth of. The external evidences of the authenticity and divine authority of the Scriptures have been divided into direct and colleteral. The direct evidences are such as arise from the nature, consistency, and probability of the facts; and from the simplicity, uniformity, competency, and fidelity of the testimonies by which they are supported. The collateral evidences are either the same occurrences supported by heathen testimonies, or others which concur with and corroborate the history of Christianity. Its internal evidences arise either from its exact conformity with the character of God, from its aptitude to the frame and circumstances of man, or from those supernatural convictions and assistances which are impressed on the mind by the immediate operation of the Divine Spirit. We shall here chiefly follow Dr. Doddridge, and endeavour to give some of the chief evidences which have been brought forward, and which every unprejudiced mind must confess are unanswerable.
First. Taking the matter merely in theory, ti will appear highly probable that such a system as the Gospel should be, indeed, a divine revelation.
1. The case of mankind is naturally such as to need a divine revelation, 1 John 5:19. Rom. 1. Eph. 4.— 2. There is from the light of nature considerable encouragement to hope that God would favour his creatures with so needful a blessing as a revelation appears.–3. We may easily conclude, that if a revelation were given, it would be introduced and transmitted in such a manner as Christianity is said to have been.–4. That the main doctrines of the Gospel are of such a nature as we might in general suppose those of a divine revelation would be; rational, practical, and sublime, Heb. 11:6. Mark 12:20. 1 Tim. 2:5. Matt. 5:48. Matt. 10:29,30. Philippians 4:8. Romans 2:6,7.
Secondly. It is, in fact, certain that Christianity is indeed, a divine revelation; for, I. The books of the New Testament, now in our hands, were written by the first preachers and publishers of Christianity. In proof of this, observe, 1. that is certain that Christianity is not a new religion, but that it was maintained by great multitudes quickly after the time in which Jesus is said to have appeared.–2. That there was certainly such a person as Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified at Jerusalem, when Pontius Pilate was governor there.–3. The first publishers of this religion wrote books which contained an account of the life and doctrine of Jesus, their master, and which went by the name of those that now make up our New Testament.–4. That the books of the New Testament have been preserved, in the main, uncorrupted to the present time, in the original language in which they were written.–5. That the translation of them now in our hands may be depended upon as, in all things most material, agreeable to the original. Now, II. From allowing the New Testament to be genuine, according to the above proof, it will certainly follow that Christianity is a divine revelation; for, in the first place, it is exceedingly evident that the writers of the New Testament certainly knew whether the facts were true or false. John 1:3. John 19:27,35. Acts 27:7, 9.–2. That the character of these writers, so far as we can judge by their works, seems to render them worthy of regard, and leaves no room to imagine they intended to deceive us. The manner in which they tell their story is most happily adapted to gain our belief. There is no air of declamation and harangue; nothing that looks like artifice and design: no apologies, no encomiums, no characters, no reflections, no digressions; but the facts are recounted with great simplicity, just as they seem to have happened; and those facts are left to speak for themselves.–Their integrity likewise evidently appears in the freedom with which they mention those circumstances which might have exposed their Master and themselves to the greatest contempt amongst prejudiced and inconsiderate men, such as they knew they must generally expect to meet with. John 1:45,46. John 7:52. Luke 2:4,7. Mark 6:3. Matt. 8:20. John vii. 48. It is certain that there are in their writings the most genuine traces not only of a plain and honest, but a most pious and devout, a most benevolent and generous disposition, as every one must acknowledge who reads their writings.–3. the apostles were under no temptation to forge a story of this kind, or to publish it to the world knowing it to be false.–4. Had they done so, humanly speaking, they must quickly have perished in ti, and their foolish cause must have died with them, without ever gaining any credit in the world. Reflect more particularly on the nature of those grand facts, the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Christ, which formed the great foundation of the Christian scheme, as first exhibited by the apostles. The resurrection of a dead man, and his ascension into an abode in the upper world, were such strange things, that a thousand objections would immediately have been raised against them; and some extraordinary proof would have been justly required as a balance to them. Consider the manner in which the apostles undertook to prove the truth of their testimony to these facts; and it will evidently appear, that, instead of confirming their scheme, it must have been sufficient utterly to have overthrown it, had it been itself the most probable imposture that the wit of man could ever have contrived. See Acts 3. 9. 14, 19, &c. They did not merely assert that they had seen miracles wrought by Jesus, but that he had endowed them with a variety of miraculous powers; and these they undertook to display not in such idle and useless tricks as slight of hand might perform, but in such solid and important works as appeared worthy of divine interposition, and entirely superior to human power. Nor were these things undertaken in a corner, in a circle of friends or dependants; nor were they said to be wrought, as might be suspected, by any confederates in the fraud; but they were done often in the most public manner. Would impostors have made such pretensions as these? or, if they had, must they not immediately have been exposed and ruined? Now, if the New Testament be genuine, then it is certain that the apostles pretend to have wrought miracles in the very presence of those to whom their writings were addressed; nay, more they profess likewise to have conferred those miraculous gifts in some considerable degrees on others, even on the very persons to whom they write, and they appeal to their consciences as to the truth of it. And could there possibly be room for delusion here?–5. It is likewise certain that the apostles did gain early credit, and succeeded in a most wonderful manner. This is abundantly proved by the vast number of churches established in early ages at Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Collosse, &c.&c.&c.–6. That, admitting the facts which they testified concerning Christ to be true, then it was reasonable for their contempories, and is reasonable for us, to receive the Gospel which they have transmitted to us as a divine revelation. The great thing they asserted was, that Jesus was the Christ, and that he was proved to be so by prophecies accomplished in him, and by miracles wrought by him, and by others in his name. If we attend to these, we shall find them to be no contemptible arguments; but must be forced to acknowledge, that, the premises being established, the conclusion most easily and necessarily follows; and this conclusion, that Jesus is the Christ, taken in all its extent, is an abstract of the Gospel revelation, and therefore is sometimes put for the whole of it, Acts 8:37. Acts 17:18.–7. The truth of the Gospel has also received farther and very considerable confirmation from what has happened in the world since it was first published. And here we must desire every one to consider what God has been doing to confirm the Gospel since its first publication, and he will find it a farther evidence of its Divine original. We might argue at large from its surprising propagation in the world; from the miraculous powers with which not only the apostles, but succeeding preachers of the Gospel, and other converts, were endowed; from the accomplishment of prophesies recorded in the New Testament; and from the preservation of the Jews as a distinct people, notwithstanding the various difficulties and persecutions through which they have passed. We must not, however, forget to mention the confirmation it receives from the methods which its enemies have taken to destroy it; and these have generally been either persecution or falsehood, or cavilling at some particulars in revelation, without entering into the grand argument on which it is built, and fairly debating what is offered in its defence. The cause has gained considerably by the opposition made to it: the more it has been tried, the more it has been approved: and we are bold to say no honest man, unfettered by prejudice, can examine this system in all its parts, without being convinced that its origin is divine.
III. Christianity, general doctrines of. “It must be obvious,” says an ingenious author, “to every reflecting mind, that, whether we attempt to form the idea of any religion a priori, or contemplate those which have already been exhibited, certain facts, principles, or data, must be pre-established; from whence will result a particular frame of mind and course of action suitable to the character and dignity of that Being by whom the religion is enjoined, and adapted to the nature and situation of those agents, who are commanded to observe it. Hence Christianity may be divided into credenda or doctrines, and agenda or precepts. As the great foundation of his religion, therefore, the Christian believes the existence and government of one eternal and infinite Essence, which for ever retains in itself the cause of its own existence, and inherently possesses all those perfections which are compatible with its nature; such are its almighty power, omniscience, wisdom, infinite justice, boundless goodness, and universal presence. In this indivisible essence the Christian recognises three distinct subsistences, yet distinguished in such a manner as not to be incompatible either with essential unity, or simplicity of being, or with their personal distinction; each of them possesses the same nature and properties to the same extent. This infinite Being was graciously pleased to create an universe replete with intelligences, who might enjoy his glory, participate his happiness, and imitate his perfections. But as these beings were not immutable, but left to the freedom of their own will, degeneracy took place, and that in a rank of intelligence superior to man. But guilt is never stationary. Impatient of itself, and cursed with its own feelings, it proceeds from bad to worse, whilst the poignancy of its torments increases with the number of its perpetrations. Such was the situation of Satan and his apostate angels. They attempted to transfer their turpitude and misery to man, and were, alas, but too successful! Hence the heterogeneous and irreconcilable principles which operate in his nature; hence that inexplicable medley of wisdom and folly, of rectitude and error, of benevolence and malignity, of sincerity and fraud, exhibited through his whole conduct; hence the darkness of his understanding, the depravity of his will, the pollution of his heart, the irregularity of his affections, and the absolute subversion of his whole internal economy. The seeds of perdition soon ripened into overt acts of guilt and horror. All the hostilities of nature were confronted, and the whole sublunary creation became a theatre of disorder and mischief. Here the Christian once more appeals to fact and experience. If these things are so; if man be the vessel of guilt, and the victim of misery, he demands how this constitution of things can be accounted for? how can it be supposed that a being so wicked and unhappy should be the production of an infinitely good and infinitely perfect Creator? He therefore insists that human nature must have been disarranged and contaminated by some violent shock; and that, of consequence, without the light diffused over the face of things by Christianity, all nature must remain in inscrutable and inexplicable mystery. To redress these evils, to re-establish the empire of rectitude and happiness, to restore the nature of man to its primitive dignity, to satisfy the remonstrances of infinite justice, to purify every original or contracted stain, to expiate the guilt and destroy the power of vice, the eternal Son of God, from whom Christianity takes its name, and to whom it owes its origin, descended from the bosom of his Father, assumed the human nature, became the representative of man; endured a severe probation in that character; exhibited a pattern of perfect righteousness, and at last ratified his doctrine, and fully accomplished all the ends of his mission, by a cruel, unmerited, and ignominious death. Before he left the world, he delivered the doctrines of salvation, and the rules of human conduct, to his apostles, whom he empowered to instruct the world in all that concerned their eternal felicity, and whom he invested with miraculous gifts to ascertain the reality of what they taught. To them he likewise promised another comforter, even the Divine Spirit, who should remove the darkness, console the woes, and purify the stains of human nature. Having remained for a part of three days under the power of death, he rose again from the grave; appeared to his disciples, and many others; conversed with them for some time, then re-ascended to heaven; from whence the Christian expects him, according to his promise, to appear as the Sovereign Judge of the living, and the dead, from whose awards there is no appeal, and by whose sentence the destiny of the righteous and the wicked shall be eternally fixed. Soon after his departure to the right hand of his Father (where in his human nature he sits supreme of all created beings, and invested with the absolute administration of heaven and earth,) the Spirit of grace and consolation descended on his apostles with visible signatures of divine power and presence. Nor were his salutary operations confined to them, but extended to all who did not by obstinate guilt repel his influences. These, indeed, were less conspicuous than at the glorious aera when they were visibly exhibited in the persons of the apostles. But, though his energy be less observable, it is by no means less effectual to all the purposes of grace and mercy. The Christian is convinced that there is and shall continue to be a society upon earth, who worship God as revealed in Jesus Christ, who believe his doctrines, who observe his precepts, and who shall be saved by the merits of his death, in the use of these external means of salvation which he hath appointed. He also believes that the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper, the interpretation and application of Scripture, the habitual exercise of public and private devotion, are obviously calculated to diffuse and promote the interests of truth and religion by superinducing the salutary habits of faith, love, and repentance. He is firmly persuaded, that, at the consummation of all things, when the purposes of Providence in the various revolutions of progressive nature are accomplished, the whole human race shall once more issue from their graves; some to immortal felicity in the actual perception and enjoyment of their Creator’s presence, and others to everlasting shame and misery.”
IV. Christianity, morality and superiority of. It has been well observed, “that the two grand principles of action, according to the Christian, are the love of God, which is the sovereign passion in every gracious mind; and the love of man, which regulates our actions according to the various relations in which we stand, whether to communities or individuals. This sacred connection ought never to be totally extinguished by any temporary injury. It ought to subsist in some degree even amongst enemies. It requires that we should pardon the offences of others, as we expect pardon for our own; and that we should no farther resist evil than is necessary for the preservation of personal rights and social happiness. It dictates every relative and reciprocal duty between parents and children, masters and servants, governors and subjects, friends and friends, men and men: nor does it merely enjoin the observation of equity, but likewise inspires the most sublime and extensive charity; a boundless and disinterested effusion of tenderness for the whole species, which feels their distress, and operates for their relief and improvement.”
“Christianity,” it has also been observed (and with the greatest propriety,) “is superior to all other religions. The disciple of Jesus not only contends that no system of religion has ever yet been exhibited so consistent with itself, so congruous to philosophy and the common sense of mankind, as Christianity: he likewise avers that it is infinitely more productive of real consolation than all other religious or philosophical tenets which have ever entered into the soul, or been applied to the heart of man. For what is death to that mind which considers eternity as the career of its existence? What are the frowns of men to him who claims an eternal world as his inheritance? What is the loss of friends to that heart which feels, with more than natural conviction, that it shall quickly rejoin them in a more tender, intimate, and permanent intercourse, than any of which the present life is susceptible? What are the vicissitudes of external things to a mind which strongly and uniformly anticipates a state of endless and immutable felicity? What are mortifications, disappointments, and insults, to a spirit which is conscious of being the original offspring and adopted child of God: which knows that its omnipotent Father will in proper time effectually assert the dignity and privileges of its nature? In a word, as this earth is but a speck in the creation, as time is not an instant in proportion to eternity, such are the hopes and prospects of the Christian in comparison of every sublunary misfortune or difficulty. It is therefore, in his judgement, the eternal wonder of angels, and indelible opprobrium of man, that a religion so worthy of God, so suitable to the frame and circumstances of our nature, so consonant to all the dictates of reason, so friendly to the dignity and improvement of intelligent beings, so pregnant with genuine comfort and delight, should be rejected and despised by any of the human race.”
V. Christianity, propagation and success of. Despised as Christianity has been by many, yet it has had an extensive progress through the world, and still remains to be professed by great numbers of mankind; though it is to be lamented many are unacquainted with its genuine influence. It was early and rapidly propagated through the whole Roman empire, which then contained almost the whole known world: and herein we cannot but admire both the wisdom and the power of God. “Destitute of all human advantages,” says a good writer, “protected by no authority, assisted by no art; not recommended by the reputation of its author, not enforced by eloquence in its advocates, the word of God grew mightily and prevailed. Twelve men, poor, artless, and illiterate, we behold triumphing over the fiercest and most determined opposition; over the tyranny of the magistrate, and the subtleties of the philosopher; over the prejudices of the Gentile, and the bigotry of the Jew. They established a religion which held forth high and venerable mysteries, such as the pride of man would induce him to suspect, because he could not perfectly comprehend them; which preached doctrines pure and spiritual, such as corrupt nature was prone to oppose, because it shrunk from the severity of their discipline; which required its followers to renounce almost every opinion they had embraced as sacred, and every interest they had pursued as important; which even exposed them to every species of danger and infamy; to persecution unmerited and unpitied; to the gloom of a prison, and to the pangs of death. Hopeless as this prospect might appear to the view of short-sighted man, the Gospel yet emerged from the obscurity in which it was likely to be overwhelmed by the complicated distresses of its friends, and the unrelenting cruelty of its foes. It succeeded in a peculiar degree, and in a peculiar manner; it derived that success from truth, and obtained it under circumstances where falsehood must have been detected and crushed.”
“Although,” says the elegant Porteus, “Christianity has not always been so well understood, or so honestly practised, as it ought to have been; although its spirit has been often mistaken, and its precepts misapplied, yet, under all these disadvantages, it has gradually produced a visible change in those points which most materially concern the peace and quiet of the world. Its beneficent spirit has spread itself through all the different relations and modifications of life, and communicated its kindly influence to almost every public and private concern of mankind. It has insensibly worked itself into the inmost frame and constitution of civil states. It has given a tinge to the temper and administration of their laws. It has restrained the spirit of the prince and the madness of the people. It has softened the rigour of despotism, and tamed the insolence of conquest. It has in some degree taken away the edge of the sword, and thrown even over the horrors of war a veil of mercy. It has descended into families, has diminished the pressure of private tyranny; improved every domestic endearment; given tenderness to the parent, humanity to the master, respect to superiors, to inferiors ease; so that mankind are, upon the whole, even in a temporal view, under infinite obligations to the mild and pacific temper of the Gospel, and have reaped from it more substantial worldly benefits than from substantial worldly benefits than from any other institution upon earth. As one proof of this (among many others,) consider only the shocking carnage made in the human species by the exposure of infants, the gladiatorial shows, which sometimes cost Europe twenty or thirty thousand lives in a month; and the exceedingly cruel usage of slaves, allowed and practised by the ancient pagans. These were not the accidental and temporary excesses of a sudden fury, but were legal and established, and constant methods of murdering and tormenting mankind. Had Christianity done nothing more than brought into disuse (as it confessedly has done) the two former of these human customs, entirely, and the latter to a very great degree, it had justly merited the title of the benevolent religion: but this is far from being all. Throughout the more enlightened parts of Christendom there prevails a gentleness of manners widely different from the ferocity of the most civilized nations of antiquity; and that liberality with which every species of distress is relieved, is a virtue peculiar to the Christian name.”
But we may ask farther, what success has it had on the mind of man, as it respects his eternal welfare? How many thousands have felt its power, rejoiced in its benign influence, and under its dictates been constrained to devote themselves to the glory and praise of God? Burdened with guilt, incapable of finding relief from human resources, the mind has here found peace unspeakable, in beholding, that sacrifice which alone could atone for transgression. Here the hard and impenitent heart has been softened, the impetuous passions restrained, the ferocious temper subdued, powerful prejudices conquered, ignorance dispelled, and the obstacles to real happiness removed. Here the Christian, looking round on the glories and blandishments of this world, has been enabled with a noble contempt to despise all. Here death itself, the king of terrors, has lost its sting; and the soul, with an holy magnanimity, has borne up in the agonies of a dying hour, and sweetly sung itself away to everlasting bliss.
In respect to its future spread, we have reason to believe that all nations shall feel its happy effects. The prophecies are pregnant with matter as to this belief. It seems that not only a nation or a country, but the whole habitable globe, shall become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ: and who is there that has ever known the excellency of this system; who is there that has ever experienced its happy efficacy; who is there that has ever been convinced of its divine origin, its delightful nature, and peaceful tendency, but what must join the benevolent and royal poet in saying, “Let the whole earth be filled with its glory, amen, and amen.”
Charles Buck (1771-1815) was an English Independent minister, best known for the publication of his “Theological Dictionary”. According to the “Dictionary of National Biography”, a Particular Baptist minister named John C. Ryland (1723-1792) assisted Buck by writing many of the articles for the aforementioned publication. One may conclude, based not only Buck’s admiration for his friend Ryland, but also on the entries in his Theological Dictionary, that he stood head and shoulders with the High-Calvinists of his day.