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- 20 March 2008
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- 30 June 2009
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- Notes on the Electronic Edition
TO ALL THE CHURCHES OF CHRIST,
AND TO ALL
WHO PROFESS THE CHRISTIAN FAITH THROUGHOUT THE WORLD,
PEACE, AND THE RECOGNITION OF THE TRUTH,
AND ETERNAL SALVATION
IN GOD THE FATHER, AND IN OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST.
SINCE the commencement of the last century, when religion began to be restored from the corruptions of more than thirteen hundred years to something of its original purity, many treatises of theology have been published, conducted according to sounder principles, wherein the chief heads of Christian doctrine are set forth sometimes briefly, sometimes in a more enlarged and methodical order. I think myself obliged, therefore, to declare in the first instance why, if any works have already appeared as perfect as the nature of the subject will admit, I have not remained contented with them — or, if all my predecessors have treated it unsuccessfully, why their failure has not deterred me from attempting an undertaking of a similar kind.<2>
If I were to say that I had devoted myself to the study of the Christian religion because nothing else can so effectually rescue the lives and minds of men from those two detestable curses, slavery and superstition, I should seem to have acted rather from a regard to my highest earthly comforts, than from a religious motive.
But since it is only to the individual faith of each that the Deity has opened the way of eternal salvation, and as he requires that he who would be saved should have a personal belief of his own, I resolved not to repose on the faith or judgment of others in matters relating to God; but on the one hand, having taken the grounds of my faith from divine revelation alone, and on the other, having neglected nothing which depended on my own industry, I thought fit to scrutinize and ascertain for myself the several points of my religious belief, by the most careful perusal and meditation of the Holy Scriptures themselves.
If therefore I mention what has proved beneficial in my own practice, it is in the hope that others,who have a similar wish of improving themselves, may be thereby invited to pursue the same method. I entered upon an assiduous course of study in my youth, beginning with the books of the Old and New Testament in their original languages, and going diligently through a few of the shorter systems of divines, in imitation of whom I was in the habit of classing under certain heads whatever passages of Scripture occurred for extraction, to be made use of hereafter as occasion might require. At length I resorted with increased confidence to some of the more copious theological treatises, and to the examination of the arguments advanced by the conflicting parties respecting certain disputed points of faith. But, to speak the truth with freedom as well as candour, I was concerned to discover in many instances adverse reasonings either evaded by wretched shifts, or attempted to be refuted, rather speciously than with solidity, by an affected display of formal sophisms, or by a constant recourse to the quibbles of the grammarians; while what was most pertinaciously espoused as the true doctrine, seemed often defended, with more vehemence than strength of argument, by misconstructions of Scripture, or by the hasty deduction of erroneous inferences. Owing to these causes, the truth was sometimes as strenuously opposed as if it had been an error or a heresy — while errors and heresies were substituted for the truth, and valued rather from deference to custom and the spirit of party, than from the authority of Scripture.
According to my judgement, therefore, neither my creed nor my hope of salvation could be safely trusted to such guides; and yet it appeared highly requisite to possess some methodical tractate of Christian doctrine, or at least to attempt such a disquisition as might be useful in establishing my faith or assisting my memory. I deemed it therefore safest and most advisable to compile for myself, by my own labour and study, some original treatise which should be always at hand, derived solely from the word of God itself, and executed with all possible fidelity, seeing that I could have no wish to practise any imposition on myself in such a matter.
After a diligent perseverance in this plan for several years, I perceived that the strong holds of the reformed religion were sufficiently fortified, as far as it was as in danger from the Papists, —but neglected in many other quarters; neither competently strengthened with works of defence, nor adequately provided with champions. It was also evident to me, that, in religion as in other things, the offers of God were all directed, not to an indolent credulity, but to constant diligence, and to an unwearied search after truth; and that more than I was aware of still remained, which required to be more rigidly examined by the rule of Scripture, and reformed after a more accurate model. I so far satisfied myself in the prosecution of this plan as at length to trust that I had discovered, with regard to religion, what was matter of belief, and what only matter of opinion. It was also a great solace to me to have compiled, by God's assistance, a precious aid for my faith, —or rather to have laid up for myself a treasure which would be a provision for my future life, and would remove from my mind all grounds for hesitation, as often as it behoved me to render an account of the principles of my belief.
If I communicate the result of my inquiries to the world at large; if, as God is my witness, it be with a friendly and benignant feeling towards mankind, that I readily give as wide a circulation as possible to what I esteem my best and richest possession, I hope to meet with a candid reception from all parties, and that none at least will take unjust offence, even though many things should be brought to light which will at once be seen to differ from certain received opinions. I earnestly beseech all lovers of truth, not to cry out that the Church is thrown into confusion by that freedom of discussion and inquiry which is granted to the schools, and ought certainly to be refused to no believer, since we are ordered to prove all things, and since the daily progress of trary, to fill my pages even to redundance with quotations from Scripture, that so as little space as possible might be left for my own words, even when they arise from the context of revelation itself.the light of truth is productive far less of disturbance to the Church, than of illumination and edification. Nor do I see how the Church can be more disturbed by the investigation of truth, than were the Gentiles by the first promulgation of the gospel; since so far from recommending or imposing anything on my own authority, it is my particular advice that every one should suspend his opinion on whatever points he may not feel himself fully satisfied, till the evidence of Scripture prevail, and persuade his reason into assent and faith. Concealment is not my object; it is to the learned that I address myself, or if it be thought that the learned are not the best umpires and judges of such things, I should at least wish to submit my opinions to men of a mature and manly understanding, possessing a thorough knowledge of the doctrines of the gospel; on whose judgements I should rely with far more confidence, than on those of novices in these matters. And whereas the greater part of those who have written most largely on these subjects have been wont to fill whole pages with explanations of their own opinions, thrusting into the margin the texts in support of their doctrine, with a summary reference to the chapter and verse; I have chosen, on the con
It has also been my object to make it appear from the opinions I shall be found to have advanced, whether new or old, of how much consequence to the Christian religion is the liberty not only of winnowing and sifting every doctrine, but also of thinking and even writing respecting it, according to our individual faith and persuasion; an inference which will be stronger in proportion to the weight and importance of those opinions, or rather in proportion to the authority of Scripture, on the abundant testimony of which they rest. Without this liberty there is neither religion nor gospel —force alone prevails, —by which it is disgraceful for the Christian religion to be supported. Without this liberty we are still enslaved, not indeed, as formerly, under the divine law. but, what is worst of all, under the law of man, or to speak more truly, under a barbarous tyranny. But I do not expect from candid and judicious readers a conduct so unworthy of them, —that like certain unjust and foolish men, they should stamp with the invidious name of heretic or heresy whatever appears to them to differ from the received opinions, without trying the doctrine by a comparison with Scripture testimonies. According to their notions, to have branded any one at random with this opprobrious mark, is to have refuted him without any trouble, by a single word. By the simple imputation of the name of heretic, they think that they have despatched their man at one blow. To men of this kind I answer, that in the time of the apostles, ere the New Testament was written, when ever the charge of heresy was applied as a term of reproach, that alone was considered as heresy which was at variance with their doctrine orally delivered, —and that those only were looked upon as heretics, who according to Rom. xvi. 17, 18. 'caused divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine' of the apostles.....'serving not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly.' By parity of reasoning therefore, since the compilation of the New Testament, I maintain that nothing but what is in contradiction to it can properly be called heresy.
For my own part, I adhere to the Holy Scriptures alone —I follow no other heresy or sect. I had not even read any of the works of heretics, so called, when the mistakes of those who are reckoned for orthodox, and their incautious handling of Scripture, first taught me to agree with their opponents whenever those opponents agreed with Scripture. If this be heresy, I confess with St. Paul, Acts xxiv. 14. 'that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and the prophets' —to which I add, whatever is written in the New Testament. Any other judges or chief interpreters of the Christian belief, together with all implicit faith, as it is called,I, in common with the whole Protestant Church, refuse to recognize.
For the rest, brethren, cultivate truth with brotherly love. Judge of my present undertaking according to the admonishing of the Spirit of God —and neither adopt my sentiments, nor reject them, unless every doubt has been removed from your belief by the clear testimony of revelation. Finally, live in the faith of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Farewell.
Vota vestra et preces ardentissimas Deus, cum servitutis baud uno genere oppressi ad eum confugistis, benigne exaudirt. Quae duo in vita hominum mala sane maxima sunt, et virtuti damnosissima, tyranris et superstitio, iis vos gentium primos gloriose liberavit. Pro Pop. Anglican. Defens. ad finem. Milton's Prose Works, Symmons's Edition, Vol. V. p. 195.
....................... What but unbuild
His living temples, built by faith to stand,
Their own faith, not another's? —Paradise Lost, XII. 526.
'I seek not to seduce the simple and illiterate; my errand is to find out the choicest and the learnedest, who have this high gift of wisdom to answer solidly, or to be convinced.' Address to the Parliament of England, prefixed to The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. Prose Works, I. 341.
'Sad it is to think how that doctrine of the Gospel, planted by teachers divinely inspired, and by them winnowed and sifted from the chaff of overdated ceremonies,' &c. Of Reformation in England, Prose Works, I. I
'For me, I have determined to lay up as the best treasure and solace of a good old age, if God vouchsafe it me, the honest liberty of free speech from my youth, where I shall think it available in so dear a concernment as the Church's good.' The Reason of Church-Government urged against Prelaty, Prose Works, I. 116. 'To Protestants, therefore, whose common rule and touchstone is the Scripture, nothing can with more conscience, more equity, nothing more Protestantly can be permitted, than a free and lawful debate at all times by writing, conference, or disputation of what opinion soever, disputable by Scripture; concluding that no man in religion is properly a heretic at this day, but he who maintains traditions or opinions not probable by Scripture, who for aught I know is the Papist only; he the only heretic who counts all heretics but himself.' Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes. Prose Works, III. 326.
'But we shall not carry it thus; another Greek apparition stands in our way, Heresy and Heretic; in like manner also railed at to the people as in a tongue unknown ... In apostolic time, therefore, ere the Scripture was written, heresy was a doctrine maintained against the doctrine by them delivered; which in these times can be no otherwise defined than a doctrine maintained against the light, which we now only have, of the Scripture.' Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes. Prose Works, III. 325. And again, in The Reason of Church —Government urged against Prelaty. 'As for those terrible names of sectaries and schismatics, which ye have got together, we know your manner of fight, when the quiver of your arguments, which is ever thin, and weakly stored, after the first brunt is quite empty, your course is to betake ye to your other quiver of slander, wherein lies your best archery. And whom you could not move by sophistical arguing, them you think to confute by scandalous misnaming; thereby inciting the blinder sort of people to mislike and deride sound doctrine and good Christianity, under two or three vile and hateful terms.' I. 104.
'Yea those that are reckoned for orthodox, began to make sad and shameful rents in the Church about the trivial celebration of feasts,' &c. Of Reformation in England. Prose Works, I. 15.
'With good and religious reason, therefore, all Protestant Churches with one consent, and particularly the Church of England in her thirty-nine Articles, Artic. 6th. 19th. 20th. 21st. and elsewhere, maintain these two points, as the main principles of true religion; that the rule of true religion is the word of God only: and that this faith ought not to be an implicit faith, that is, to believe, though as the Church believes, against or without express authority of Scripture.' Of true Religion, &c. Prose Works, IV. 260. And again, in the same treatise —'This is the direct way to bring in that papistical implicit faith, which we all disclaim.' IV. 268.