THE ensuing Vindication was drawn up, about nine months since. But it was done for my own satisfaction, without any view to a publication at that time. And when the Reverend Dr. Harris's Remarks on the case of Lazarus came out, I thought, the Public and Mr. W. had received in a short compass a full answer to all the material objections of the Discourse, with which these papers are concerned.
Nor did I determine to send them to the Press, till after I had seen a passage in Mr. W's Defence of his Discourses, p.61. where he says: |Whoever was the author of the foresaid treatise, [the trial of the witnesses of the Resurrection of Jesus] he humbly and heartily begs of him to publish, what in the conclusion of it, he has given us some hopes of, The Trial of the Witnesses of the Resurrection of Lazarus, because his Rabbi's objections to it are a novelty and curiosity, which, by way of such a reply to them, he should be glad to see handled.| I also wish, the ingenious author of that performance may be at leisure to grant Mr. W's request. In the mean time, Mr. W. still expressing a particular regard for his Rabbi's objections, I thought it not amiss to send abroad this Vindication, which I had by me.
If Mr. W. by way of such a reply means a reply drawn up with the wit and spirit of that Author; I freely own it much above my capacity, and am not so vain as to attempt it. If by way such a reply he means a reply without abusive raising terms, or invoking the aids of the civil magistrate, I have done it in that way. I wish Mr. Woolston no harm; I only wish him a sincere conviction and profession of the truth effected and brought about by solid reasons and arguments without pains or penalties. And in this point I agree exactly with the learned Dominican, De Maussac, who in his Prolegomena. to Raymond Martini's Pugio Fidei, writ against Moors and Jews, says: |We must with Tertullian openly profess, that the new Law does not defend itself by the sword of the magistrate: forasmuch as it has pleased Christ the author of it; that no man should be forced to the embracing of his Law by the punishments of this life, or the fear of them, as appears from many places of the New Testament, not only of Paul, but also of John, and Luke, and Matthew. Nor is it, as the same Father says at the end of his book to Scapula, a part of Religion to force Religion, which must be taken up freely, not upon compulsion. Who shall lay upon me the necessity of believing what I will not, or of not believing what I will (as Lactantius says)? Nothing is so voluntary as Religion. In which, if the mind be averse, Religion is quite destroyed. Faith is to be wrought by perswasion, not by compulsion. Severity has always done harm, and always will do harm: And our minds, like noble and generous steeds, are best managed with an easy rein; rather by reason than by authority, rather by good words than by threats.|
When, at the erecting the Royal Society, into which were freely admitted men of different religions and countries, some, it is likely, were apprehensive of this free converse of various judgments, Dr. Sprat frankly asserts, |That our doctrine and discipline [those of the Church of England] will be so far from receiving damage by it, that it were the best way to make them universally embraced, if they were oftner brought to be canvassed amidst all sorts of dissenters: -- That there is no one profession amidst the several denominations of Christians, that can be exposed to the search and scrutiny of its adversaries, with so much safety as ours.|
Dr. Bentley in a Sermon at a public Commencement at Cambridge says: |It has pleased the Divine Wisdom, never yet to leave Christianity wholly at leisure from opposers; but to give its professors that perpetual exercise of their industry and zeal. And who can tell, if without such adversaries to rouse and quicken them, they might not in long tract of time have grown remiss in the duties, and ignorant in the doctrines of Religion?|.
These learned men have assured us upon the foundation of the scriptures, of the fathers, and reason, that all force on the minds of men in the matters of belief is contrary to religion in general, and to the Christian religion in particular; and that severity instead of doing good has always done harm.
These points might be enlarged upon, but nothing new can be offered. Possibly some good men may still be in some doubt concerning the issue of admitting the principles of religion to be freely and openly canvassed. But I think, that such may find satisfaction even upon this head in the passages I have quoted, provided they will be pleased to consider them. However I will add a few observations briefly upon this matter.
It is an old saying, which has been much admired and applauded for its wisdom, that Truth is great, and strong above all things. There is certainly some real excellence in truth above errour. Great and important truths are clearer than others, and not likely to be mistaken, but to shine the more for examination. The Christian religion in particular, as contained in the New Testament, abounds with evidence.
These are considerations taken from the nature of things. Experience is on the same side. The Christian Religion triumphed for the first three hundred years over errour and superstition, without the aids of civil authority, against the veneration of ancient custom, against ridicule, and calumny, false arguments, and many severe persecutions. From small beginnings by its own internal excellence, and the force of that evidence with which God had clothed it, and the industry and zeal of its honest professors, it spread itself over the Roman Empire and the neighbouring countries.
The Christian church had in the same space of time a triumph within itself over those false and absurd opinions that sprang up under the Christian name. |These heresies, Eusebius says, |soon disappeared one after another, being continually changing into new forms and shapes. But the catholic and only truechurch, always the same and constant to itself, spread and encreased continually; shining. out among Greeks and Barbarians by the gravity, simplicity, freedom, modesty and purity of its manners and principles.| This joint victory over Gentilism, and over heresies, was obtained, as he intimates, by the writings and discourses of the Patrons of truth at that time. And indeed it could be owing to nothing else, but to those methods, supported by holy lives and patient sufferings.
Our own time also affords a convincing instance to all that will open their eyes to observe. The Protestant states and kingdoms of Europe, as they enjoy greater liberty than others, proportionably exceed their neighbours in the justness of their sentiments, and the goodness of their lives. Indeed there is among us Protestants a great deal of vice and irreligion, which all good men observe with grief and concern, and some very bad and selfish men delight to aggravate and magnify with a view to their own evil designs; but still without vanity, if we are barely just to our circumstances, sure we have some reason to glory over some of our neighbours in this respect. Which advantage can be ascribed to no other cause so much as to the liberty we enjoy. For introduce among us the tyranny they are under; and we shall be as ignorant, as superstitious, and corrupt, as they.
If then men should be permitted among us, to go on in delivering their sentiments freely in matters of Religion, and to propose their objections again Christianity itself; I apprehend, we have no reason to be in pain for the event. On the side of Christianity I expect to see, as hitherto, the greatest share of learning, good sense, true wit, and fairness of disputation: which things, I hope, will be superior to low ridicule, false argument, and misrepresentation.
For ought I can see, in an age so rational as this we live in, the victory over our enemies may be speedily obtained. They will be driven to those manifest absurdities, which they must be ashamed to own; and be silent in dread of universal censure. But suppose the contest should last for some time, we shall all better understand our Bibles; we shall upon a fresh examination better understand the principles, and the grounds of our Religion. Possibly some errours may be mixed with our faith, which by this means may be separated, and our faith become more pure. Being more confirmed in the truths of our Religion, we shall be more perfect in the duties of it. Instead of being unthinking and nominal, we shall become more generally serious and real Christians: each one of which advantages will be a large step toward a compleat and final victory.
This victory obtained upon the foot of argument and perswasion alone, by writing and discourse, will be honourable to us and our Religion: and we shall be able to reflect upon it with pleasure. We shall not only keep that good thing we have received, but shall deliver it down to others with advantage. But a victory secured by mere authority is no less to be dreaded than a defeat. It may appear a benefit for the present, but it really undermines the cause, and strikes at the root of our holy profession. Will any serious and sensible Christian, in the view of a future judgment, undertake to answer for the damage thereby brought to the doctrine of his Saviour, the meek and patient Jesus? as meek in his principles, as in the example he has bequeathed us.
I might now address myself to our adversaries, and tell them: That it is a very desirable thing, that all authors should write, as scholars and gentlemen, at lest like civilized people: That it is a point long since determined, that in controversial writings authors should confine themselves to things, that is, the merits of the cause, without annoying persons That it is grievous to all sorts of men, to have those things which they respect, treated with indecence. I might tell them, that other mens reputations are as sacred as their own. I might remind them, that Christians at this time, generally speaking, are in as good temper, as they were ever known to be: That some, being of opinion that Christ's kingdom is not of this world, and that it is his pleasure, that men should not be compelled to receive his law by the punishments of this life, or the fear of them, leave men to propose their doubts and objections in their own way: That others have openly declared, that they ought to be invited; and others, that they ought to be permitted to propose their objections, provided it be done in a grave and serious manner. Christians have also lately shewn an instance of their moderation toward some books published in opposition to their principles. These are things, which, one would think, should have some effect on ingenuous minds; and draw them off from the design of any rudeness or indecence in their attacks on the sentiments commonly received among Christians. I might also remind our adversaries of some examples of an admirable decorum observed by the disciples of Jesus in their arguings with Jews and Gentiles. But really one has little encouragement from some late performances to enlarge upon these particulars. And perhaps it would be judged ridiculous, to imagine, that any men should oppose the gospel with the same spirit, with which it was at first taught and propagated.
Besides, as all men are more concerned for the good conduct of their friends, than of others; so have I been chiefly sollicitous on this occasion about the conduct of those who are engaged in the same cause with myself; that it may be such, as is best suited to the nature of those sublime principles they profess, and most for the lasting honour and interest of our Religion. And though the things here said may be at first disagreeable to some, who are, or have been in part of a different sentiment; it is not impossible, but that upon calm and cool reflexion they may obtain their approbation.