5. To enter into a full examination, as to what would constitute sufficient grounds for accepting
a professed revelation, would open too wide a field of enquiry for our present purpose, and would necessitate a discussion of that very difficult branch of metaphysics which relates to the laws which regulate our belief. Without, however, attempting to discuss the subject fully, a few points may be indicated for consideration.
It is clear that the evidence, with regard to the record of a professed revelation, will vary in its character at different times. The evidence will be more direct, and, in this respect, more clear, at an earlier period of the record, than at a later: while, on the other hand, a record which has been translated into different languages, and has exercised a widely spread influence, will possess a peculiar force of its own. On the supposition that God made a revelation to Moses, it is not difficult to suppose that convincing evidence, as to the truthfulness of what he might say, or write about it, might readily be afforded to those who lived in his times. If such miracles, as those recorded in the Pentateuch really occurred -- and certainly if God so far transcended the usual course of nature as to give a revelation, it does not seem hard to believe that He might also so far transcend it, as to authenticate it in some special manner -- the evidence would be of a very strong kind. To say, however, that no reasonable conviction of the reality of a revelation could be afforded, without the aid of miracles, is an assertion which we are not prepared to hazard; though we certainly think that, as calculated to excite attention, and implying a power superior to that of man, they would serve as excellent credentials. To human view, in fact, a miracle does not necessarily imply the agency of the one God. It might, for anything that can be proved to the contrary, be the work of some power, inferior to that God whom we are bound to obey, and yet superior to man. The various circumstances therefore, connected with the miracle, would be properly taken into account by the person who was investigating a professed revelation. He would not only examine with care the evidence as to the reality of the miracle itself, but also the circumstances under which it was worked, and its aspect. The character of the person who professed to have received the revelation would very fairly come under consideration. Inquiries would be made as to whether he was one whose word could be safely trusted, and whether he possessed sufficient intelligence, to render it probable that he would arrive at a right conclusion. A man of known truthfulness and intelligence would justly meet with more ready credence, than a person of an opposite character.
The revelation itself, too, would be closely scrutinized. In some cases it is conceivable that the revelation would go far to prove itself. It might make known things which, though not perhaps discoverable by man's reason, were nevertheless so agreeable to it, as to carry with them an almost irresistible conviction. As, too, a revelation would be given for the practical guidance of man, it would probably be attended with threatenings and promises, or other predictions; and when the things which had been foretold actually took place, the reality of the revelation would be, to a great extent, established. If, for instance, the remarkable occurrences which Moses, on various occasions, foretold, as about to take place in the land of Egypt, really occurred, it would, we think, be very difficult to avoid the conclusion that he had received a revelation from God, and that what he said, or wrote, was to be depended upon. A candid inquirer would also examine, in a reverent spirit, whether the professed revelation was likely to promote a pure morality, and to further the best interests of mankind. He would not, indeed, enter upon such an examination, with the feeling that he was competent to decide, in every respect, as to the justice and excellence of the statements which professed to be revealed; for his reason, if consulted, would tell him that many circumstances might be hidden from him, without which a correct judgment could not be formed, and that, possibly, his capacity might not be able to grasp them in all their relations, even if they were put before him. Still, such an examination as that which we have just referred to, would properly form an element in leading to a conclusion, and, when combined with others, would give as reasonable grounds for arriving at a decision with respect to a professed revelation, as we should be willing to act on in the usual business of life, and would, therefore, be suited to the conditions of our being. The decision arrived at would commonly be the result, not of a single proof, but of many concurrent circumstances.
What has been said in reference to an examination, instituted by persons living at the time when a professed revelation was made, is obviously applicable, in many respects, to those who should live in later times, and also to the original recipients themselves. With regard to evidence in later times, it may be added that the original believers in the record, and their followers in each succeeding age, would naturally be subjected to an examination, as to their truthfulness and intelligence, and thus a chain of evidence would be continually kept up. The larger, too, the number, and the more intelligent the character of those who believed in it, the greater would be the presumption in its favour. If the record were received generally by any nation, the onus probandi would in that case lie with those who impugned it. The record itself also would, from time to time, be submitted to such fair rules of criticism as apply to other documents, the fact however being remembered, that it professed to be the word of God, and, therefore, that evidence of its authenticity, rather than of its exact coincidence with human reason, was to be mainly looked for.
We have now indicated, although very briefly and imperfectly, a few points for consideration, as to the transmission of a recorded revelation, and what might constitute sufficient grounds for accepting it as true; and we trust that what has been said will suffice to show that there would be no great difficulty in so handing it down, as that it should convey to the candid inquirer, in each succeeding age, reasonable evidence of its reality.
It may, however, be argued, that, although such evidence, as has been indicated, might well convince those who had time and ability to institute a searching examination, the case is different with regard to others; and that, as a revelation may be presumed to have a most important bearing upon the interests of all, there should be some more easy method by which it may be tested. Now, we are quite prepared to admit that every one should have sufficient grounds afforded him for arriving at a decision; but, at the same time, we do not conceive that a thorough examination of the evidence, made by each person for himself, is the only, or even principal, method by which a safe conclusion may be reached. Each individual has commonly some peculiar talent, in the exercise of which he reaches an excellence, which others, whose abilities and pursuits are of a different character, do not attain to. The astronomer works out conclusions, which, those, whose attention has been directed to other subjects, could never have reached, but which they may nevertheless, with propriety, accept as true. It is not every one who has time or ability to sift evidence on theological subjects, or to criticise manuscripts; but the labours of those who have given their attention to such things may, it is evident, justly be available for the benefit of others. Even the wisest person accepts as true much on the testimony of others, and that often on subjects with which he is conversant. When his judgment is most independent he will find, if he analyzes it, that much is borrowed. There is nothing contrary to sound reason in all this. Without it, little progress could be made in anything. Without it, each succeeding age, instead of standing on the platform which had been raised by that which preceded it, would have the weary task of commencing afresh, and could thus make few accessions to knowledge. Trustfulness is as much a part of man's constitution, as reasoning or any other intellectual process. Should it be said that men often trust wrongly; it may be replied with equal force that they as frequently reason wrongly. Probably there is less difficulty in ascertaining where we may safely trust, than in weighing evidence properly, or carrying out correctly a train of reasoning. Certainly people have little difficulty, if they use their faculties aright, in selecting a fit adviser in law or medicine. Why should there be a greater difficulty with regard to religion? We do not mean that anyone would be justified in so placing himself under the guidance of another, as to give up the exercise of his own judgment altogether; but, that he may properly make use of the counsel of others, and that often to such an extent as to overrule his own views in forming his judgment.
There is another consideration, connected with this portion of the subject, which well deserves attention. A conclusion may be a very correct one, and may have been reached by a very satisfactory process, although the person who has made it, may be unable to state the grounds upon which it rests, or meet the objections which may be made against it. This applies not only to those cases, where the conclusion mainly rests upon trust, but also to others. An eminent statesman recommended a person going out in an official capacity, to give his decisions confidently, but not to venture to declare the reasons. The decisions would probably be right, but the reasons, as stated by him, might not be. It need not be inferred from this that the reasons upon which he would really act were wrong, but rather that from want of practice, or power of analysis, or some other cause, he would be unable to bring them out correctly. The processes of thought pass so rapidly through the mind, that even the most practised thinkers often find it difficult to arrest them in their progress, and state the various steps by which they have arrived at their conclusions. The simplest and most certain grounds of our conclusions are, in fact, not unfrequently those which it is most difficult to bring out into distinct view. They have so often passed through the mind that we have ceased to notice them, although, all the while, they contribute essentially to the judgment which is formed; or they lie so far back, in the depths of our consciousness, that it is almost impossible to recover them. Necessarily, nothing can be so simple, or so certain, in one sense, as intuitions, that is, those things which we know or believe without any intermediate process of thought, and yet, down to the present time, those who have most deeply studied the subject hesitate to decide exactly as to what are intuitions, and what are not. We conclude then that, while, on the one hand, we should not discredit the rational powers of men, as if they were unequal to perform the task allotted to them; we must not, on the other, be easily shaken with regard to conclusions which have been made with care and consideration, because we may be unable to trace out accurately the arguments by which they are supported, or answer the objections which are made against them.
We have now considered revelation with regard to the conditions under which it may be expected to be given, recorded, and transmitted, with a view to its being accepted and believed. We do not for a moment suppose that we have removed every difficulty; but if we have upon the whole, made clear to our readers the nature of these conditions, or, where this has not been done, indicated the points at which difficulties exist, our chief purpose will have been answered.