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"How Far is Reason to be used in Explaining Revelation?"[1]
William Ellery Channing, Federal Street Church
Berry Street Essay, 1820

 

Read before the First Ministerial Conference in Berry Street, at the formation of the Conference

May 31, 1820

 

The views and dispositions which have led to this meeting may easily be expressed. It was thought by some of us, that the ministers of this Commonwealth who are known to agree in what are called Liberal and catholic views of Christianity needed a bond of union, a means of intercourse, and an opportunity of conference not as yet enjoyed. It was thought that by meeting to join their prayers and counsels, to report the state and prospects of religion in different parts of the Commonwealth, to communicate the methods of advancing it which have been found most successful, to give warning of dangers not generally apprehended, to seek advice in difficulties, and to take a broad survey of our ecclesiastical affairs, and of the wants of our churches, — much light, strength, comfort, animation, zeal would be spread through our body. It was thought that, by such a meeting, broth­erly love would be advanced, that a foundation would be laid for joint exertion, and that many valuable objects, which now languish through our ignorance of each other, and want of concert, might be prosecuted with vigor and success.  It was thought that the circumstances of the times demand a more earnest cooperation than formerly, – that, living, as we do, in an age in which the principle of combination, the power of associating numbers, is resorted to by all sects and parties in an unprecedented degree, we were bound to avail ourselves of this instrumentality, as far as consists with the free, upright, independent spirit of our religion.  For these ends it was proposed that an annual meeting should be held which should be spent in prayer, in hearing an address from one of our number, in offering reports as to the state of our churches, and in conference as to the best methods of advancing religion.

 

The individuals who originated this plan did not, however, intend to forestall the opinions of their brethren, by making their plan too minute; but wished that at the first, meeting the whole question should be considered at large: – ‘In what way the minister who are understood to hold the milder forms of Christianity may be brought into closer connection and more united exertion.’  I have only to add, that in one particular they were agreed,– that, whilst the meeting should be confined to those who harmonize generally in opinion, it should be considered as having for its object, not simply the advancement of their peculiar views, but the general diffusion of practical religion and of the spirit of Christianity.

 

Having thus given the views of the individuals who suggested this meeting, I proceed to address you on some of the topics which were considered to be most suited to the occasion, and shall offer some remarks, – first, on the general spirit which belongs to our profession; and secondly, on the duties which are particularly appropriate to us in the present state of the Church.

 

The general spirit which belongs to us as ministers,which constitutes the spirit of our profession, which gives force and earnestness to exertion, and seriousness and dig­nity to the character, originates in a cherished conviction of the greatness of our end. We are to feel as men set apart to a great work, who have great interests depending on us, great powers and instruments for doing good entrusted to us, and a solemn account to render for our use of these means. We must labor to raise our minds to the height of our vocation, to think generously, nobly of its design, to feel that we are devoted to an object deserving a far more intense energy of purpose than any of the inter­ests for which worldly men contend so keenly and keep so­ciety in an uproar. Nothing calls forth the soul like a con­sciousness of being dedicated to a sublime work, in which illustrious beings are our associates, and of which the conse­quences are interminable. I am speaking with no inflation, I trust. I am not using common-place language to which I attach little meaning, when I say that this is the conscious­ness which should accompany us through our office, and be the all-pervading, all-quickening spirit of our private studies and public labors.

The Christian religion is in a particular manner com­mitted to the care, watchfulness, protection of ministers; and Christianity, if it be true, must be acknowledged as eminently the cause of God and the highest interest of hu­man beings. We exaggerate nothing when we speak of all human institutions, — government, science, arts, public wealth, public prosperity, of all the outward, positive goods of life, and even of the progress of intellect and the develop­ment of genius, as inferior and comparatively unimportant concerns; for man's relations to God and to a future life are, after all, the true springs of purity, goodness, greatness, consolation, joy; and it is by making them known in their reality and extent, that society is to be advanced and re­fined, as well as individuals redeemed and trained for Heaven.

 

Let us, then, never forget that the religion which re­veals the True God and Immortal Life, which is the best legacy of past ages, and the only hope for the future, is committed to us, to be preserved, extended, perpetuated; and let the dignity of our office — an office before which the splendor of thrones and the highest distinctions of earthly ambition grow dim — be used by us to develop a just elevation of mind, a force of resolution and action, a superiority to temporary applause, a willingness to live and die, to labor and suffer, for the promotion of Chris­tianity

 

The present is not an age of controversy of believers with infidels, but of believers with believers; and it is not uncommon now to hear the name of Christian denied to those who, in earlier seasons of peril, were thought the most powerful defenders of the faith.. It is not, however, the dis­tinguishing peculiarity of our times that Christian fights with Christian, for such contentions make up the burden of ecclesiastical history; but this seems to me to be the strik­ing distinction of the age, that Christians, instead of being arrayed, as heretofore, under the different standards of little sects, are gradually gathering by large masses and with sys­tematic order into two great divisions. These two great divisions are known among us by the names of ORTHODOX and LIBERAL; and although it is true that other party dis­tinctions remain, yet these are so prominent and compre­hensive, that they deserve our peculiar and almost exclusive attention, in considering the special duties which are im­posed on us by the times.

 

This most important division of the Christian commu­nity is traced to different causes by the different parties. The Orthodox maintain that the great cause of it is an arro­gant disposition in their opponents to exalt reason at the ex­pense of Revelation, to scatter the sacred cloud of mystery which hangs over the deep things of God, to reject the Divine word because it apparently contradicts the conclu­sions of human understanding. On the other hand, the Liberal or Rational maintain that this division is to be traced to the advancement of the human mind, to the establishment of just principles of Biblical criticism, to the emancipation of Christianity from the corruption of ages of darkness, and that it is not their unwarrantable boldness, but a servile ad­herence on the part of their opponents to prejudices conse­crated by antiquity, which prevents the union of Christians.

 

These explanations, though totally opposed to each other, assist us to understand the true nature of the contro­versy which agitates the community. We may learn from them, that particular doctrines are not the chief walls of separation. The great question is not, whether the trinity or vicarious punishment or innate sin be true. There is abroader question which now divides us, and it is this,

 

Howfar is REASON to be used in explaining REVELATION?

 

The Liberal Christian not only differs from his Orthodox brother on particular points, but differs in his mode of explaining that Book which they both acknowledge to be the umpire. He maintains, that the great, essential principles of Christianity, such as God's unity and paternal character, and the equity and mercy of his administration, are there revealed with noontide brightness, and that they accord per­fectly with the discoveries of nature, and the surest dictates of our moral faculties. Consequently he maintains that passages of Scripture, which, taken separately, might give different ideas of God's nature and government, are, in com­mon candor to the sacred writers, to be construed in con­sistency with these fundamental truths. He affirms, too, that just as far as we acquaint ourselves with the circum­stances under which these passages were written, such a consistent interpretation is seen to be the intention of the au­thors, and that we are therefore justified in believing that nothing but the antiquity of the sacred writings prevents us from making the same discovery in relation to other passa­ges which continue to be obscure.

 

The Orthodox Christian discards as impious this exer­cise of reason, though he himself not seldom is compelled to resort to it, and maintains that the Scriptures are frittered away by his opponents because they take the liberty which when needed is taken by all, of explaining figuratively cer­tain passages, which, according to their literal import, seem to contradict the general strain of Scripture and the clearest views which God's works and word afford of his wisdom and goodness. Such is the state of the controversy among us. A rational, consistent interpretation of Scripture is con­tended for by one party, who maintain that before such an interpretation the doctrines of the Trinity, of Infinite Satis­faction, of Election, of Irresistible Grace, and Sudden Con­version, fly as the shades of the fight before the sun; whilst the other party maintain that these doctrines are not a whit the less credible because they offend reason and the moral sense, that an important part of faith is the humiliation of the understanding, weakened and perverted as it is by sin, and that mystery is one of the sure and essential marks of Divine revelation.

 

The question now presents itself, What duties result from this state of the Church?

 

Is this controversy an important one? Is this rational in­terpretation of the Scriptures for which we plead important? Are the doctrines which seem to us to flow from such inter­pretation worth contending for? These questions will help us to judge of our duty at the present moment. And in answer to them I would maintain, that the controversy is of great im­portance, and that we owe to Jesus Christ, our Master, and to his gospel, a strenuous defence of the rational, consistent in­terpretation which weare seeking to give to his word. The success, perhaps the very existence, of Christianity requires this service at our hands. Christianity cannot flourish, or continue, unless thus interpreted. It is a fact, that, however disordered human affairs seem to be, society is becoming more enlightened; and there is a growing demand for a form of religion which will agree with the clear dictates of conscience and the plain manifestations which the universe makes of God. An irrational form of religion cannot sup­port itself against the advances of intelligence. We have seen in Catholic countries a general revolting of enlightened men from Christianity, through disgust at Popery, the only form under which it was presented to their view. Let an irrational Protestantism be exclusively propagated, so that the intelligent will be called to make their election between this and infidelity, and the result can hardly be doubted. The progressive influence of Christianity depends mainly on the fact that it is a rational religion; by which I mean, not that it is such a system as reason could discover without revelation, and still less that it is a cold and lifeless scheme of philosophical doctrines, but that it is a religion which agrees with itself, with our moral nature, with our expe­rience and observation, with the order of the universe, and the manifest attributes of God……            

 

I have time to add but one more reason for earnestly and firmly defending and spreading what we deem the con­sistent, rational, and just interpretation of Christianity; and it is this, that the cause of Practical Religion, of evangelical piety and morals, is deeply concerned in this movement. On this point a more particular discussion is needed than the present limits allow, because increasing pains are taken to represent our views as unfriendly to vital religion, and to connect with opposite doctrines the ideas of devoted zeal and seriousness. This fact is particularly interesting to us, for our great work as Christian ministers is to promote Practi­cal Christianity, love to God and love to man; and our peculiarities are suspicious indeed, if they are in any manner unfavorable to this supreme end of our office.

 

But the reproach is groundless. On the contrary, the chief motive, I conceive, for insisting on and spreading rational views is, that they are manifestly more suited than so-called Orthodox views to reconcile men's hearts to God, to purify and exalt human nature, to advance charity and philanthropy, and all the peculiar virtues of the gospel. Did I not believe this, I should say, let us at once lay down the weapons of controversy for evenif we hold the truth, it is not worth contending for, it ought not to be contended for, at the hazard of the peace of the community, if it is only a theorem for the speculative intellect, an abstract science, without power o operate on the character, inapplicable to the conscience and life. Again I say, it is the practical influence of Liberal views, it is the baneful tendency of Orthodox views, which summons us to the zealous advocacy of rational and consistent Christianity.

 


 

[1] William Henry Channing, ed., Memoir of William Ellery Channing with Extracts from his Correspondence and Manuscripts, in three volumes, Vol. I, Fifth Edition, Boston:  Wm. Crosby and H.P. Nichols, 1851, pp. 418-425