The Importance of Systematic Theology, and the Duty of the Unitarian Clergy in Relation to It
Berry Street Lecture, 1850
George Washington Burnap
read before the Ministerial Conference
May 29, 1850
The arrangement which has been made to secure at least one address to this conference each year, on some theological subject, has my entire approbation. It seems to me to be demanded by our position, both as seekers and defenders of the truth as it is in Jesus. It is due to ourselves, not only as ministers of the Gospel, but as intellectual and studious men, already pledged by our ordination vows and our individual convictions, to devote in best powers to the promotion of theological science, the true knowledge of God, of Christ, of our duty, and to destiny. It is demanded of us by the position we occupy before the world. We have presumed to dissent from some of the leading dogmas of the great body of the Christian world, — to demolish, so to speak, the theological edifice which ages have been building up. Its scattered materials lie all about us. The world has right to demand of us that we do not stop here. They have a right to ask of us that we reconstruct those materials; and, moreover, that we raise up a more perfect and beautiful structure than that which we pull down. Short of this they will not be satisfied, and, moreover, they will hold us guilty of a species of sacrilege, in having destroyed that which we are unable to replace. The human mind demands something positive; it must have a system of theology; and if the sects of Protestantism cannot furnish one, it will go back blindfold into the Church of Rome, and learn by heart the scholastic dogmas of the Dark Ages.
I wish to impress upon the younger members of the clerical profession the necessity of the study of theology for their own sakes, for the growth, expansion, and discipline of their own minds. A clergyman’s life, of all others, ought to be one of perpetual progress. His talents are given him, not that he may hide them in a napkin and bury them in the earth, but that they may be increased; the two talents must grow into two talents more, and he that hath five must not rest satisfied till he has added to them five talents besides. There is really no satisfactory reason why a clergyman should not go on to improve as long as he lives, or at least till his faculties are benumbed by the hebetude of old age.
But what do we too often see? A youth of promise succeeded by mediocrity in later years, — or, even worse than this, an actual decline of intellectual and moral power before the physical system gives any sign of decay. The years of academic life are usually marked by rapid advancement. An impetus is acquired which usually lasts for a considerable distance into professional life. Why is it not kept up? So we see a vessel launched. It slides down its artificial pathway, and enters upon its future element with a rush, not without clapping of hands and shouts of gratulation. But she is merely launched. That extraneous and artificial force which she gets but once, and never can renew, cannot suffice her for the shortest voyage. She has resistance to overcome; but, with neither sails to help her, nor the force of imprisoned elements to impel her on, her motion becomes less and less, till at last she stops, and idly dances on the waves, or floats back towards the shore. Such is the history of too many clergymen. In a few years their academic impetus is spent. They cease to make any new acquisitions; they even begin to lose the freshness of their original professional attainments, and become incapable either of leading other minds, or maintaining that respect which is absolutely necessary to their usefulness in the Church. And why is this? The main cause is the abandonment of elementary studies. There is no growth of mind without these. The great reason why the years of academic life are marked by such rapid advancement is, that the mind is constantly exercised in elementary studies. The greatest proficients in music, those prodigies, as they are regarded by the world, who move whole cities by their coming, and hold multitudes as if bound by a spell of enchantment, pass considerable part of each day in practicing the gamut, and in making themselves familiar with the simplest principles of their art.
So in the graver pursuits of the clergyman, the indispensable condition of continued improvement is constant recurrence to elementary studies, —to theology, and those branches of knowledge and accomplishment which are subsidiary to it, metaphysics, ethics, Biblical criticism, and the classics. In order to grow, the mind must grapple with subjects which task its powers to the full, just as the athlete makes it a point of discipline to strain his muscles every day to their utmost capacity. He who abandons elementary studies necessarily ceases to grow. The clergyman is under strong temptations to do this. He finds it an easier and more agreeable employment to read reviews and miscellaneous literature. He may satisfy his conscience with this apology for mental application, but it produces on him the inevitable effect of weakening his powers, and incapacitating his mind for taking broad, deep, original, or thorough views of any thing. With such habits, if he do not dwindle, he will not advance. But the probability is, that the mischief will not stop here. Nothing is easier than for a clergyman to waste a day in pursuits apparently literary and legitimate, but which are in fact useless, if not pernicious. And how many days are thus wasted in desultory employments, in mere dread and aversion of the tug and toil of real study, of thorough investigation, of original thought, of patient elaboration! But things may even wax worse. Reviews and light literature may become too heavy and laborious, and the academical alumnus may round his literary career by reading the daily and weekly newspapers, and content himself in the pulpit with ringing changes on Scripture phraseology. My brethren, unless I greatly deceive myself, we in our day and generation are called to lead a life totally different from this. God has cast our lot in an age in which the inducements to theological study are more intense than ever existed before. The angel of truth is now at last unbound. Religious knowledge may now make more progress in one year than it could in a century a thousand years ago. The total severance of church and state has withdrawn the frown of temporal powers from the honest seeker for God’s truth. We belong to a division of Christ’s fold who have dared to throw ourselves back on the teachings of our Master, and to hold ourselves answerable only to the written word, as it is known and read of all men.
With this entire freedom, we are endeavoring to construct theology anew. If any thing can be real in the position we occupy, it is this, — our mission is theological reform. It is to free Christianity from the accretions of fifteen hundred years, to discriminate its true elements from Judaism on the one hand, and Paganism on the other,—from the subtleties of the schoolmen and from the profane adulterations of philosophical speculation, from the slavery of dead forms and from that ultra-spiritualism which denies the necessity of any. This, then, let me repeat it, is, in my judgment, the mission of the Unitarian body at the present hour. It is theological reform. And how are we to fulfill it? I know the answer I should receive from too large a number of those who bear our name. "Let things take their own course. Let theology take care of itself. When the world is ready for better views, it will get them without our instrumentality.” I reply, that this would be a most pusillanimous abandonment of a noble position and a noble cause. For what have we been contending for the last thirty years? Why did we form a separate organization? Was it not for the assertion and maintenance of great and important principles, and are not those principles theological? Have we not said, over and over again, that we deem these principles vital to our welfare and the welfare of society? Shall we pause here, take back all we have said, shrink away from the issue we have made, and abandon theology to take care of itself?
We must have a theology, — a systematic, positive theology. We want it for ourselves, we want it for those who are without. The laws of the human mind demand it. They demand a theology which shall cover the whole ground, which shall be consistent with itself, which shall be consistent with the Scriptures, which will explain the Scriptures, and which reason does not reject. No cause can be strong without a clear and explicit statement of principles; and no cause can be strong without principles capable of a clear and explicit statement. "If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself for the battle.” An army must have a standard which represents great truths, or symbolizes great objects, or it will be inspired by no enthusiasm and act with no efficiency.
We want a systematic theology for ourselves. The generation which established our churches were necessarily acquainted with our theology. They knew its distinctive doctrines; they knew, too, the doctrines to which they were opposed. It was their deliberate preference of the one to the other, which led them to seek a separate organization. They are now passing off the stage. Their children must adopt our faith, not as they did, by controversy, but by education. Now nothing can be well taught which is not reduced to a system. The faiths now subsisting have an immense advantage in this particular. They are systematized and condensed into Manuals of every size and adaptation, from the ponderous quarto down to the thinnest catechism. Millions of these are printed and distributed every year. In this way, millions of children are furnished at an early age with a theology elaborated and adjusted by the combined skill and acuteness of hundreds of successive thinkers, reasoners, and writers. The whole Bible has been explained in accordance with these different systems, and, as an unavoidable consequence, the language of Scripture ever after seems to them to speak the sentiments which have thus been early associated with it, and thus theological systems are handed down from age to age, not because they are true, but because they are reduced to a system, and taught systematically, as embodying he very substance and essence of the Scriptures. And what have we to oppose to all this? Absolutely nothing. It would seem that we are either too timid, too indolent, or too undecided, or, still worse, too indifferent, to have a theology.
We want a theology for those who are without the pale of our faith. It is a reproach universally cast upon us, that our faith is a negative one, that our creed consists of articles of unbelief. We ourselves know that this is not true. Christianity is a faith, a belief, not an unbelief. If it is not a faith, something to be believed, it is nothing. We preach, we strive to affect the convictions of mankind, - of course we preach something that is to be believed. What is that something? I have charity enough to think that the world really wishes to know what that something is. We are united in one body, we preach alike, or at least men say we do, and we act together. We exchange pulpits, and our own, people do not discern any important variation of doctrine. What are the doctrines we preach? — this is the very thing which the world wishes to know, and which it is for their good and ours that they should know.
To place ourselves, then, right before the world, to remove the reproach of teaching mere negations, and of laying out our whole strength in showing men what they are to reject, we must have a theology, a systematic, affirmative theology, — one which will be consistent the Scriptures, which will explain the Scriptures, and the same time be deep enough and spiritual enough to sound all the depths of religious experience.
I have said that we must have a systematic theology. I assert this from my own conviction and from personal experience. Placed in a state of isolation for more than twenty years, I have been often led to look at our faith from without, and have heard every possible objection which can be brought against it. There is in this country, very generally diffused, a knowledge of the Scriptures, and of different theological systems, with the exception of our own. So much is this the case, that most illiterate, on hearing a theological doctrine advanced are able immediately to recur to those texts of Scripture which seem to be inconsistent with it. The texts which seem to be inconsistent with our faith must be explained, and the explanation must be made accessible to the great mass of the people. Short of this, our doctrines cannot obtain a very wide reception. Metaphysical systems and opinions, too, are involved in theology, and are discussed by people of the commonest education with no small amount of ingenuity and acuteness. In fact, the subject of religion is so intensely interesting to every human being, that every man who thinks at all is more or less a theologian. This being the case, I hold it to be self-evident that our doctrines can have no secure basis, and our cause no assured progress and establishment in the world, without an elaborated theology, which is shown by fair explanation to express the true meaning of the sacred oracles. So long as a single text remains unexplained, more stress will be laid upon it than upon a hundred plain texts of an opposite bearing, and all antecedent probabilities on the other side.
But if I may be asked, How shall we get such a theology? I answer, by studying theology, and by every man’s contributing something according to his peculiar talent, taste, and inclination. Theology must rise as the wall did about Jerusalem, by every man's building over his own house. No one mind is capable of doing it all, but many minds are capable of doing it, and then one mind may digest the whole into a consistent system.
But some, I am aware, may be held back by an undefined apprehension that it is dangerous to study theology. The theological inquirer is in imminent peril of against the Scylla of Rationalism on the one hand, or of being swallowed up by the Charybdis of Transcendentalism on the other.
Let us examine this matter. What is Rationalism, that we should have such a dread of it? and what is Transcendentalism, that we should imagine it so dangerous? Perhaps we may find that we are all Rationalists, and all Transcendentalists, and all no less Christians at the same time.
Rationalism professes to be the result of the examination of the claims of Christianity to our belief and allegiance as a supernatural communication from God, by reason, or the essential laws of the human mind. In Germany, it has assumed the form of a species of philosophy, which begins by denying the possibility of a supernatural revelation, and, of course, the validity of any evidence that can be brought forward to prove that any such has ever been made. Of this species of Rationalism I do not think that we, on this side of the Atlantic, are in much danger. We say, that, under this view of things the very word Rationalism is a petitio principii, an assumption of the question in dispute. It assumes that it is irrational to believe any thing supernatural. All belief in Christianity, of course, must be idolatry and superstition. The Anglo-Saxon mind, in my judgment will never be brought to acquiesce in any such logical
fallacy as this.
About a century ago, Hume proposed nearly the same thesis to the English people, with the slightest possible success. Half a century earlier, John Locke, a man somewhat greater than David Hume, published a treatise in England on "The Reasonableness of Christianity, as revealed in the Scriptures.” The judgment of the English and American people has hitherto been, that John Locke; is right, and his reasoning conclusive; that David Hume is wrong, and his reasoning sophistical.
The other phasis of Rationalism is, that, admitting the possibility of both revelation and miracle, a candid examination of the Bible leads to the rejection of that part of the Scripture which contains a record of either. This is an open and a fair question, which every inquirer must meet and settle for himself. But there is nothing new or startling in it. Its examination makes a part of every thorough theological education. It comes up for reexamination in the mind of every clergyman, from time to time, as long as he lives. There is not a clergyman in Christendom who does not act on rationalistic principles every day of his life, — even those who are considered to abandon themselves most entirely to authority. The fact is, that reason and faith are two principles in the human mind not antagonistic to each other, but which God hath joined together, and which can never be divorced. There is nothing which any man professes to believe, concerning which the question may not be immediately asked, Why do you believe it? That is to say, What reason have you for believing it? If he can give no reason, what he professes to believe is justly considered to rest on no better foundation than mere credulity or superstition. Reason is placed by God as the sentinel at the entrance of the mind, to decide what is to be admitted into it as truth, and what is to be rejected. Man’s safety and welfare demand that this sentinel should faithfully perform his duty; and, it is as dangerous to admit into the mind that which is false, as to reject that which is true. Any thing which presents itself under the garb of a revelation cannot legitimately be permitted to escape the scrutiny of this sentinel, merely because it professes to be a revelation. All theologians act on this principle, and use their reason in the examination of doctrines which others profess to find in the language of Scripture. All theologians are Rationalists to this extent, that they make reason to be at least coordinate with Scripture, inasmuch as thy reject on the ground of reason the literal sense of the Scripture, and adopt another because it is reconcilable with reason. The Catholic rejects the literal meaning of the words of. Scripture on the ground of its repugnance to reason. Christ says that he is the vine, and the disciples are the branches. But the Catholic does not believe that this was literally a fact. Upon the authority of reason he rejects the literal meaning of Scripture. In so far he is a Rationalist. The Protestant, on the strength of reason, rejects the literal meaning of Christ’s assertion, "This is my body.” It is a first principle of reason and common sense, that nothing can be at the same time itself and something else. So the Unitarian rejects the doctrine of the Trinity, not only because it is not found in the Scriptures, but because reason teaches that it is a metaphysical and a mathematical impossibility. Three persons, who are each and all identical with one and the same Being, must be identical with each other. If the doctrines of the Bible were made up of such contradictions and inconsistencies, it would be impossible for the human mind to receive it as containing a revelation from God. Such rationalism as this is not only legitimate, but necessary. The Church and the world would now have been in a much better condition than they are, if more of such Rationalism had prevailed a long time ago. A proper application of reason to the interpretation of Scripture would have saved us from innumerable difficulties in which the cause of Christianity is now involved.
And now it is wholly useless to think of stopping the progress of Rationalism. It must run its course, and sweep away every thing which human reason cannot admit, even if it sweeps away the whole; for, as I have already said, reason is the sentinel which God has placed at the entrance of the human mind, to decide what shall be admitted and what shall be shut out.
But then there is another side to this matter. Reason, as the sentinel of the human mind, may overact his part. It is not the duty of a sentinel to shut out every thing. It is as much his duty to suffer that to pass which has a right to go in, as to exclude that which ought not to be permitted to enter. God has so constituted the world, and so constructed our minds, that absolute knowledge is not the only basis of action. We are obliged to act, not upon certainties alone, but upon probabilities. The sphere of absolute knowledge is not very extensive. It is confined to those things for which we have the evidence of the senses, of consciousness, of memory, and of mathematical demonstration. For all beyond this we must rely on another species of evidence, that of probability. This constitutes the region of faith. Now it is the especial province of reason to judge of probabilities. In this region lie all the records of the past, and of course, among the rest, the records of revelation. All future events, too, are included in the same category. There is an inconceivable mass of probabilities, which approach so near to certainties, that we act upon them every day as though they were certainties. We should feel ourselves to be ridiculous, absurd, irrational, were we to refuse to do so. There are, then, innumerable cases in which it is more irrational to shut out probabilities than to receive them. The case, therefore, may be, that true Rationalism may lead to the, reception of the supernatural, instead of to its rejection.
Among the records of the past have come down to us the books of the. New Testament, containing accounts of the supernatural. They contain, too, intermingled with the miraculous, accounts of the natural and historical, which bear the impress of truth and reality so strongly, that no man can deny them without casting aside all history, and launching forth into the sea of universal skepticism. The historical and the natural, which cannot be denied, prove beyond question the belief of those who could not but have known the truth in the actual occurrence of the supernatural. Is it most rational to believe that these witnesses were deceived, or that the supernatural actually took place? That is the question.
But there is nothing new or startling in all this. There is no new difficulty discovered, unknown to all former generations, no new argument, unthought of and unanswered by those who have gone before us. The deism of Paulus and Bauer and Strauss is no stranger than the deism of Hobbes, Wollaston, and Tom Paine, and the speculations of Kant and Hegel can never be half as dangerous in this country as those of Hume and Gibbon. In fact, the skepticism we get from Germany is nothing more than the English skepticism of the last century filtered through the mud, or distorted by the idealism, of German metaphysics.
Let Rationalism, then, go on and do its work. It doubtless has its mission in the arrangements of Providence. Let it examine the whole subject of religion and the Bible anew. Such a storm will purify the whole theological atmosphere. It is time that this matter were searched into by the light of the nineteenth century. What is sound will be retained, what is unsound or extraneous will be cast away. Let Christianity be cross-examined by its enemies, and if there is truth in it, it will come out. Let Rationalism dig about the foundations of Christianity as much as it pleases, it will soon come down to the solid, living, everlasting rock of Christ, -his history, his character, his teaching. Taking the record as it is, and the events as they are related, some have thought that nothing could explain them but supposition that Jesus was Jehovah himself come down out of heaven. It is difficult to conceive that any considerable number will ever acquiesce in a hypothesis which makes him somewhat less than a wise and good man. Let every possible view of the Scriptures be stated and tried, and if there be any capacity in the human mind to perceive and appreciate the truth, the truth will be discovered and embraced; and if there be no such power, then it matters not much what opinions prevail in the world.
And what is Transcendentalism, that the theological scholar should be deterred by it from a thorough investigation of religion and the Bible? As applied to our faith it amounts to this, — that Christianity is nothing more nor less than a particular development of natural religion, -that every human mind and heart contain in their own elements all there is in Christianity, and a great deal more,- that the idea of a special revelation carries absurdity on the very face of it; that the mind has faculties to receive knowledge only according to the natural laws of its own operations, and that, of course, knowledge supernaturally conveyed cannot be received nor comprehended nor mingled with knowledge derived from other sources,- it cannot be assured to another person, nor made the basis of speculation, action, or expectation. In short, revelation would be an anomaly, standing abstract and alone, inapplicable to life and useless to mankind. Moreover, it cannot be essential to man as a religious being, or it would have been communicated to all.
Those who advocate this view of things are continually discoursing to us about intuition,- a mode of obtaining knowledge more immediate, accurate, and unerring than any other, whose special object is the absolute. Let us analyze this phraseology, and see whether there be anything new, important, or enlightening in it. Intuition, if it mean any thing to the purpose, must mean certain knowledge. Intuition, if it be an essential power of the human mind, must be universal. If this intuition extend to the essential matters of religion, it must of course render revelation unnecessary. But, to answer this description, it must be the same in all, and produce a uniformity of religious belief all the world over. Is there such a uniformity of belief, even in regard to the fundamental principle of all religion, — the unity of God? And if intuition has failed in this most important particular, then it fails of being that which is claimed for it,- an infallible guide in religious matters.
Let us add another word to the somewhat unintelligible phrase, "the absolute,” and say, the absolute truth, and much imposing mystery will be dissipated and we shall gain a clear, though a very common and useful idea. Absolute truth necessarily exists, but it is known to the mind of God alone. All other minds possess only an approximation to it, and only so far as it has pleased God to communicate it to them. And for that approximation to truth, they have only the evidence of probability, not of certainty. God alone has the evidence of certainty. To man, then, the absolute has no existence. It exists only to God. That the convictions which exist in the human mind relative to religion do not come within the province of the absolute, is sufficiently shown by the fact, that mankind have united in applying to them the term faith, that is, something to be believed, — to be received upon the authority, not of absolute knowledge, but of probable evidence.
The province of intuition, or of absolute knowledge, in religious matters, if there be such a province, cannot be very extensive. It cannot go much farther than the single conviction, that there is a difference between right and wrong. This conviction has the mark of being an intuition that it is universal, and cannot be denied. But even here an uncertainty immediately commences, as to what things are to be considered as right and wrong.
But in order to speak wisely, well, and profitably of Transcendentalism, it is necessary to do it justice. We must acknowledge all there is in it that is good and true. In a certain sense, we are all Transcendentalists. We all acknowledge reason as coordinate with revelation, in making known to us the will of God. We all, at least as many as listen to me today, confess to the existence of such a thing as natural religion. It is, in fact, the condition and the basis of revealed religion. No mere words could assure us of the existence of a God, were there not a creation and a providence to make him known. The Bible itself has a transcendental element in it. It does not profess to be the only means of knowing God, or of ascertaining his character and will. It makes human reason to be coordinate with itself as the means of Divine manifestation. "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge.” The Apostle declares, "For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead.” Our Saviour says, "Even of yourselves, judge ye not what is right?” The Apostle says in another place, "Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” The definition of a righteous man before God, given in the Old Testament, is, "one that has done that which is lawful and right.” All this is, to a certain extent, transcendental; that is to say, it appeals to the intuition in man, if there be any such thing as intuition, and makes it of equal authority, as a source of knowledge and guidance, with revelation.
Miracles themselves must be a less and less convincing revelation of God, and proof of his existence and providence, than the grand, the wise, the permanent order and laws of nature which miracles violate. A revelation must be a less manifestation of God’s power and wisdom than those faculties, that intellectual and moral constitution, which God has made capable of receiving and comprehending a revelation. It is a much greater work for God to give us being, and a world to live in, than a book to live by. All preaching is, in a certain sense transcendental. Every preacher speaks, not only from inspiration of the Bible, but from that inspiration which giveth all men understanding. He deems it his duty to communicate all the moral and religious truth that he knows. He does not stop to inquire whether he derived it from the language of the Scriptures, — from the writings of those men who spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost, — or from his own meditations upon them, or from profane literature, or from his own experience. It is sufficient for him that he knows it, or thinks it, to be truth. Every thing that is true and practical is important, let the knowledge of it come from what source it may.
All listeners to preaching are more or less transcendental, for they receive into their minds that which seems to them to be true, making little discrimination between that which the preacher derives from the language Scripture, and that which he suggests from his own mind. But both preachers and hearers pay this homage to the inspiration of the Scriptures, that they both confess that the most common and universal truths are better expressed in the Scriptures than they are anywhere else.
The hymns that are sung in our churches are transcendental, inasmuch as the sentiments expressed in them, and adopted by the worshipper, are not exclusively derived from the Scriptures, but are derived from the experience, the emotions, and the reflections of Christians of modern times, since the days of miraculous suggestion are past. But even the history of sacred poetry bears strong testimony to the supernatural character of the New Testament. We see a constant advancement in moral elevation and in doctrinal purity from the first to the present hour. Yet no one will say, that the best of our hymns transcend, or even equal, the New Testament. That must have been of supernatural origin which rose so far above the moral level of the world, as it then was, that eighteen hundred years of advancement have not yet lifted up the most exalted minds to the same level, though in the enjoyment of all the influences of the Scriptures themselves, in addition ot that inspiration which speaks in every mind and heart.
All interpretation of the Bible is in a measure transcendental. On the strength of that inspiration which giveth all men understanding, the expositor of the Scriptures undertakes to, say what the words of revelation can and not mean. He comes to such a passage as this, "If any man come unto me, and hate not his father and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple,” and he decides that the literal meaning cannot be the true meaning. He has such a trust in his own moral sense, he feels justified in rejecting the literal meaning of Scripture, and in putting a meaning on it which will harmonize with the revelation which God has previously made to every human heart. I have said, that the Bible is transcendental, because it refers to the reason and moral sense of mankind as coordinate with itself, as an expression of the Divine will. It is so for another and stronger reason. Most Christians read the Bible only in translation. Revelation did not form and give meaning to the words in which a common Christian reads the Bible. Those words were formed by the reason, the moral sense, and the religious convictions of uninspired men, and can express the meaning of revelation only so far as they are coincident with it. The language in which the New Testament was written was formed by half-civilized men on the islands and the shores of Greece, and yet all the sublime teachings of Christ are conveyed to us in the words invented beyond the reach of supernatural illumination. This fact alone is sufficient demonstration that natural revelation is coincident with supernatural, as far as it goes, and that what is called revelation consists in a higher development, a clearer statement, and an authoritative promulgation, of those truths of which all mankind have an imperfect apprehension, and a conviction clouded by more or less doubt.
But having made these concessions to the Transcendentalist, here I stop. I cannot go on with him to assert, that the unaided powers of man produced the Bible just as it is. I refuse to adopt his hypothesis, because in my judgment the Bible transcends Transcendentalism itself. It is admitted that Christ taught the absolute religion. Is not this a transcendental fact? Does it not go beyond all the recorded achievements of unaided humanity? This is acknowledged on all hands. How are we to account for it? Christ himself, who must have known the facts of the case, declares that he was supernaturally aided by God. "My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me.” "For I have not spoken of myself, but the Father which sent me, he gave a commandment what I should say and what should speak.” In a solemn prayer to God he said, "I have given them the words which thou gavest me.” Here is certainly an adequate cause assigned, by him who best knew, of the transcendent wisdom of the Saviour. There is certainly nothing absurd, nothing contradictory, and, to my mind, nothing irrational, in the account which Jesus gives of the source of his doctrines.
All knowledge comes ultimately from God. Every operation of our minds is superintended by him. His omnipresent energy sustains the power of thought each moment. Our minds are as accessible to his immediate action, as they are to that which he exercises through second causes. If God exists, and has knowledge and a will, it is as easy for him to communicate tot eh mind a certain knowledge of his existence, his will and purposes to man, as to give us a certain knowledge of each other through the senses. He may make that which is to us now faith to become certain knowledge. And this is precisely the knowledge which Christ professed miraculously to possess. "We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen.” "The only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” Christ’s whole conduct was in keeping with this profession. He assumed and sustained the bearing and dignity of an especial messenger from God, the authorized teacher of mankind. If we may believe Christ’s assertion, that which to us seems probable to him was certain. There is no way, that I can see, in which he can be brought down to our level, but by impeaching his veracity, or denying his wisdom, or casting doubt on the historic verity of his life. There is no way of exalting us to a level with him, without bridging over the chasm which in our minds separates the probable from the certain. There is no phraseology of intuitions, or the absolute, or any other metaphysical mysticism, of which such a bridge can be constructed.
The great question between the Transcendentalist and the Supernaturalist, the Deist and the Christian, is this: —Did Jesus KNOW any thing of God and of the realities of the spiritual world, in a sense which made them absolutely certain, or are his sayings mere probabilities, and of course only his opinions? In the one case, we have doctrines to be taught upon authority, and in the other, only mere speculations, to be accepted or rejected as each one sees fit.
Is there any thing, then, in Transcendentalism so exceedingly dangerous, that the Christian minister is to be deterred by it from the study of the Bible? I, for one, think its danger has been greatly overrated. It has not in this country as yet obtained a logical statement, much less a logical defense. It has not as yet solved its first problem. It professes to discard the miraculous from the New Testament as unhistoric, yet receives much of it as true and authentic. In order to define its position, and have a distinct, substantive existence, it must carry out its analysis, and tell us what we are to accept and what we are to reject. It must give us an expurgated Gospel, or the Gospel according to Transcendentalism. Thomas Jefferson proposed this work to himself, to "sift apart,” to use his phraseology, the historic from the unhistoric parts of the New Testament, as an employment for some of his leisure hours. He afterwards had abundance of leisure, but the thing was never done. Strauss attempted this feat in Germany, but his work by all parties was acknowledged to be a failure. In this country, as yet, we have no clear statement of the Transcendental hypothesis, no reasoning about it, but merrely a rhapsodical declamation here and there, about as conclusive as Burke’s ironical argument against all the institutions of civil society. Some few have been blinded for a while by a cloudy mysticism, or dazzled by brilliant rhetoric, into an admiration for they could not tell exactly what; but most of them have been brought to their senses again by the calm, deep wisdom, the stainless integrity, the tender love, the unaffected piety, and the awful majesty of Jesus of Nazareth.
Hitherto the blows of Transcendentalism have told, not on Christianity, but on Protestantism. Deism can sustain no church. It never built a church, and never can. It requires faith to build churches. If it could get possession of all Protestant churches tomorrow, it would only be to hand them over to the Church of Rome, and make her the grave, as she has been the womb, of all Protestant denominations.
But is Transcendentalism an unmixed evil? Is it merely destructive in its tendencies? Has it no mission for good in the arrangements of Providence? It may be, I believe, under wise management, made to exert a corrective and conservative influence upon Christianity and the Church. Being itself an extravagance, it may operate to correct an opposite extravagance, which has been too prevalent in the Christian world,— an idolatry of the Bible and a contempt for man. For certainly there is a wide difference between believing that man made the Bible, and that the Bible is necessary to create man. It is equally extravagant to maintain that there is nothing divine in man, and to maintain that there is nothing human in the Bible. Equal mischief follows from making too much or too little of the Scriptures, and it is as fatal to religion and morality to make man a deity as a devil. The truth must lie between these two extremes and perhaps it is necessary for the human mind to vibrate like a pendulum between the two for a while before it will settle in the truth. If the two extremes could be brought to discuss the subject calmly and dispassionately together, they might mutually correct each other’s errors, and the world be edified by the controversy. This, however, in the present state of feeling, cannot be, and the task of reconciliation falls on us, who imagine that we occupy the true and middle ground.
Superadded to these momentous questions, which are coming up among Protestants and between Protestants and Deists, there are the fundamental questions between Protestants and the Church of Rome. Immense immigration is daily giving an importance to the Catholic Church in this country, wholly unanticipated by our ancestors. There are, and always have been, men in that Church of great learning, intellectual acuteness, and dialectic dexterity. Their literary enterprise and activity have been greatly quickened by a migration to this country of railroads, steam-engines, and telegraphs. And there is no antagonist who makes so strong a draught on the theological attainments of his adversary, as a well-trained and truly learned Catholic. Under these circumstances, is it safe for us to suffer theology to decline among us? Is there any way in which we can so effectually break our force, and render ourselves impotent and insignificant? We must be, for a long time to come, from the very position we occupy, a church militant. A thorough theological training, kept up through life, will be to us just what weapons and discipline are to an army. They make us superior to multitudes without them. If we abandon them, we ourselves become an easy prey. Whatever may be thought in this good city of Boston, the controversial age of our denomination is by no means passed. That we enjoy comparative peace, we owe entirely to the fact of our comparative numerical insignificance. The word is passed from time to time, all over the country, that Unitarianism is dying out, and it is thought hardly worth while to reason down or to write down a denomination which never gets up. Any rapid growth on our part would cause a reaction against us as fierce and bitter as that which created the Inquisition.
I end, then, as I began, by commending the study of systematic theology, as demanded of us especially, by our position, and by the wants of the age. It is the only thing that can give us, as individuals and as a denomination, strength, assurance, and influence. It is the only thing which can give us the control we ought to exercise over the opinions and the character of this great country in the coming ages, when this vast continent shall be overspread by a population as dense as Asia, and the English tongue shall be spoken by more millions than ever were united by one language under heaven.