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A Series Of Letters In Defence Of Divine Revelation by Hosea Ballou


[To the extracts above, the objector replied as follows.]

|Remarking on the doubts which unavoidably arise in my mind on account of the diversity in the opinions of the learned respecting the meaning of certain parts of the scriptures, our friend asks, 'upon what subject are they (the learned) not at variance, even when Greek and Hebrew are not concerned? Have chemists been always of one opinion?' &c. which must be answered in the negative. Nevertheless I may take liberty to observe that inasmuch as they have disagreed, it shews that the subjects about what they have disagreed, are as yet obscure, and therefore perhaps none of them are entitled to full and complete 'confidence:' for whatever is plain and obvious, men seldom disagree about. That the sun and moon are globes, and not triangles, all are agreed; and it would be impossible to raise a dispute on the subject: but whether either or both of them are inhabited, or even capable of being inhabited, by rational beings, similar or like unto ourselves, is a proposition not so clear, and respecting which the greatest philosophers might possibly disagree. The above remarks are intended to shew that when men differ in opinion, whether learned or unlearned, it is obvious that the truth about which they differ, to say the most of it, is yet but obscurely made manifest to their understanding.

|In order to remove an objection, to the idea of revelation, on account of its being made only to one nation, &c. our friend says, 'It is true, I may be unable to see why a revelation was not equally necessary to one nation as well as to another, and at the same time; but is this a proof that no revelation was ever made to any nation at any time?' I am very ready to answer this question in the negative. But at the same time I must be excused for not being able to see any analogy between revelation and the discovery of the laws of electricity; as mentioned by our brother; and therefore my mind is not to be relieved from its difficulty in this way. If it could be proved that the principles manifested by revelation were like the principles in nature, against the developement of which there is no great barrier at one time than at another except what exists in the ignorance of man; and if the Christian could now try the experiment over again, and thereby demonstrate the truth of the doctrine of the resurrection, the same as the philosopher can try the experiment for himself, and thereby demonstrate the truth of the doctrine of electricity, then my doubts or surprise at the seeming partiality in the developement or discovery of the principles of the doctrine of revelation would be entirely removed. But the very idea of a revelation supposes the manifestation of it to differ essentially from all the discoveries of man. Therefore the remarks of our friend relative to the laws of electricity, &c. seem to be hardly in point. The evidences of revelation to all, excepting those to whom the revelation was first made, are in their very nature essentially different from the evidences of natural philosophy, chemistry, &c. For these are founded in immutable principles which never vary, and are ever open at all times to thorough investigation and experiment. Hence if the learned have any doubts on the subject, those doubts may be removed by occular demonstration; and even when they are enabled by any new discoveries to correct some former opinions, which were either founded on mere conjecture or imperfect reasoning, yet the first principles still remain, and the former evidences, instead of being weakened, are increased by every new discovery or experiment in the developement of truth. But not so with evidences of divine revelation. Although ever so clear at first, and so well supported by facts, concerning which the witness had the clearest evidence, yet the evidences being of such a nature as preclude a repetition, like those respecting a vision of the night or any other phenomenon, are liable to suffer by passing from one to another, and also to be impaired by every change which they are caused to pass. And if the evidences of any fact may be weakened at all, either by lapse of time, or by passing through different hands; by the same causes, if continued, they may lose all their strength. That the evidences of some facts may be thus weakened, I believe will not be denied. Hence what was once clear may be now doubtful, and in process of time may become entitled to no credit. If therefore the evidence of revelation either have been, or ever shall by any circumstances whatever be thus impaired, then a new revelation may become necessary either to revive or to strengthen the evidences of the old. If Christ should make his second appearance, according to the opinions of some, it would be as much of a revelation as his first appearance was; and this new revelation would corroborate and confirm the old; but if nothing of the kind should ever take place, and if there should be nothing more to confirm the validity of prophesy, but let the world pass on for several thousand years as we know it has for fifteen hundred years past, how long will either the Jews or christians believe in divine revelation?

|I believe however, we had better see whether the old revelation can be fully proved before we go very far into the inquiry whether a new one is necessary.

|That I deserve any credit in the opinion of our friend or my own conscience for the unwearied pains I have taken to ascertain the correct ideas communicated to us in the scriptures is very grateful to my feelings; and let it not be imagined for a moment that I feel at all disposed to shrink from my former assiduity; for as long as the world, or any considerable part thereof, believe the scriptures to be divine revelation I think it very important that they should have a correct understanding of them. So long therefore as I hold this to be my profession, I mean faithfully to pursue it; ever remembering that I am not accountable in the least degree either for the truth or falsity of the bible, but only for my faithfulness in preaching, taking heed that I do not preach that for bible, which is not bible.

|Let not my brethren be 'concerned,' or made in the least degree unhappy on my account. My mind was never more tranquil respecting religious subjects than at the present moment. My doubts, whatever they are, give me no uneasiness; they only excite me to diligence and assiduity in endeavouring by all possible means to ascertain the truth; and wherever, or in whatever light, it shall be discovered, I am fully satisfied that eternal truth is perfectly right, yea just as it should be.

|For, provided deism should prove true in its stead, what is there to be lost if christianity fails? Ought we not to be thankful for, and also satisfied with the truth of either? It appears to me that all ought to be satisfied with the truth whatever it may be; and therefore my present object is to ascertain, if possible, what truth is.

|'Did human reason,' saith he, 'unassisted by divine light make the discovery?' (i. e. of the 'unity of God.') -- 'Then indeed would |all nations, in all ages,| have possessed the great object made manifest by revelation.' In answer to this, I would only ask, were not the laws of electricity discovered by 'human reason unassisted by divine light?' Why then were they not known to 'all nations, in all ages?' -- The fact is, what reason is capable of discovering may also be long concealed from the eye of reason.

|Yours, &c.


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Dear Sir, and Brother, -- As I have not the opportunity of presenting your third number to our mutual friend and brother, to whom it most properly belongs to reply, I have thought it no more than reasonable that I should acknowledge the receipt of your favour accompanying this acknowledgement with some observations on the most essential parts of what you have suggested.

You wish us to take it for granted, that those parts of our communications to which you make no reply, are at least, generally speaking, satisfactory to your mind. Respecting this particular, you will suffer me to point out, what appears to me, a very material defect in your proposed method.

Suppose, sir, an argument be laid down on which much depends, in the opinion of the writer, and out of a proper reply to which, he anticipates great advantages; he waits for a reply -- No reply comes to this particular, but the very same query which the argument was designed to answer is still urged; is it not easy to see that much labour may be in vain in consequence of this method? If you answer to a question, stating with great seeming earnestness, viewing the question of importance in the mind of him who states it, you would not only expect, but you might really need to be informed what effect your reply was allowed to have in the mind of your opponent. And as he might not anticipate the use which you had designed to make of his answer, you would not judge it advisable to submit to him whether he should reply or not.

You have finally put the dispute about the necessity of retaining the dead languages at issue on the question relative to a future state, in the following words; |If the opinions recorded in scripture relative to a future state of existence are to be relied on, as being dictated by God himself, and in a way too, that was not mistaken; and that the writers of the scriptures being thus inspired, have written nothing but the truth, then I admit,| &c. Now from this your own statement you will see the importance of retaining those languages until it be fully discovered that no credit is due to these writings which we have been in the habit of believing to be divinely inspired. Your discernment will at once discover that it would be imprudent in the extreme, to obliterate, without first knowing that what was to be defaced was of no utility. A child, ever so old, who should utterly deface his father's last will and testament, which had made ample provisions for his future wants, merely because he had not a perfect understanding of it, or on suspicion that there were some possible defects in it, could not be considered prudent in so doing. But if the will should finally fail, and prove invalid, no loss would be sustained even if it were committed to the devouring element. To say, the will may be destroyed until it has been proved, would be absurd.

In your further remarks on our brother's communication, you find occasion to suggest a difference between the subject of revelation and the discoveries which have been made by men in the powers and properties of nature. But when you have contended successfully for this (which by no means has any power to refute his argument) you seem not to realize that there must be as great a difference in the evidences by which these different subjects are communicated to the mind, as there are in the subjects themselves. It is acknowledged, without controversy, that we cannot demonstrate by any mathematical or chemical process that there ever was such an emperor in Rome as Augustus Caesar, or such a governor in Judea as Pilate, or such a man as Jesus; but then we are not, on this account, or any other, unable to find such kind of evidence as the nature of the case admits, and such as is sufficient to satisfy the candid mind. Should any one now pretend to deny that Louis XVIth. was beheaded, and allege as proof that no such thing was to be credited, because it had never been discovered as the result of a chemical process, would you hesitate to fault his reasoning?

Should it occur to your mind that you have contended that the evidence of revelation is as different from the evidence required in natural discoveries, as the subjects themselves are different, you are reminded that you have contended for this only with a view to weaken the force of the former, and in a way to disallow its validity. At the same time you state that you do not undertake to deny a special revelation from God, but |wish only to take a review of the evidences, and see if they are such that it is impossible it should be false.| Of these evidences you speak thus; |Although ever so clear at first, and ever so well supported by facts, concerning which the witnesses had the clearest evidences, yet the evidences being of such a nature as to preclude a repetition, like those respecting a vision of the night or any other phenomenon, are liable to suffer by passing from one to another,| and finally |lose all their strength.| Here it seems you pretend to state the character of the evidences of a divine revelation, which evidences you wish to review. Permit me to ask, dear brother, if it would not have appeared more consistent with piety and candor to have reviewed before you fixed the character of the evidences? -- There is a proper order in which every thing should be conducted. All our researches should be kept from the embarrassments of prejudice. Though I feel much reluctance in entering on so great a subject as the vindication of the truth of divine revelation, fearing, I should fail in doing that honour to the subject which I am confident it deserves, I am inclined to suggest a few things which I think are worthy of some notice. As you speak of a vision of the night, the evidences of which were clear to the person and satisfactory at the time, those evidences would naturally lose their force when communicated to others and finally lose their strength. Let us suppose a case. A man shall have a vision of the night, in which it shall be revealed to him that some time before the present generation shall leave the stage of life, the kingdom of Great Britain will be overcome by the power of France; that very many of the flourishing cities of England will be destroyed in a very awful manner; that London will be laid level with the ground; that the distress of the inhabitants during the siege will be extreme; that for some time before this great event, there will be wars and rumors of wars among the nations, and certain signs very wonderful will be seen in the heavens. This man tells his vision very circumstantially and several persons write it down. Now suppose as the time passes away, these events, one after another, should take place, all in the same order in which the vision represented them; do you feel willing to say that the evidences of the truth of this vision, are all the time losing their force? No surely they are not; they are all the time gaining strength and waxing brighter. Whether I am able to satisfy you that the above case is a fair representation of the evidences of divine revelation, or not, it discovers in some degree the ground on which, in my mind, revelation is established.

Compare, if you please, the prophesy of Jesus recorded in the 24th of Matthew, with the history of the events of which the divine messenger spake.

Yours, &c.


P. S. You have noticed, no doubt, in a parenthesis, that I do not allow your argument on the dissimilarity of divine revelation and principles of nature to have any force to do away the argument of our brother, to which you replied. It was evidently not his design to argue a similarity between the nature of these widely different subjects, but to show that no greater partiality appears in the divine wisdom, in not discovering the truths of revelation in all ages, to all nations and in all languages, than in its not leading the human mind to the discovery of electricity or any other of the laws of nature in the same manner. Will you endeavour to maintain that the divine economy has nothing to do in directing means and circumstances to the developement of the laws of nature and to the discovery of useful inventions? And if you allow it has, why do you not assign a reason why these discoveries should not have been made in all ages, to all nations, and written or rather printed, in all languages that cannot as well be applied in the other case? In this way you would do away his reasoning and my own likewise, for as you notice, we were both of one mind on this subject.

Before I close this postscript, I wish to remark on the subject which you have in view, in reviewing the evidences of divine revelation, which you say is to |see if they are such that it is impossible it should be false.| Now it appears to your humble servant, that faith does not require evidence of the description you lay down. I grant it wants to be satisfied and it has a right to expect it; it feels under no obligation to evidence which comes short of conviction; but it does not require all possibility to be taken into its account. This would seem to go beyond the limits of faith and enter into the regions of certainty. If the evidences in support of faith be sufficient to give rest, peace, and consolation to the mind, and if the faith be strong enough to effect the conduct of the believer in a proper manner, the object of faith is obtained.

The hopes of the husbandman may serve to illustrate this particular. He does not know for certainty that his fields will produce him any thing; he does not know that the coming season will be favourable to his crops, yet he plants and sows in comfortable expectation. He rises early and labours cheerfully, his expectations are full of comfort, he sleeps quietly and enjoys content. But if you ask him whether he views it impossible that he should fail of a harvest? he will with but very little concern answer in the negative.

|The just shall live by faith, we walk by faith and not by sight.| All, therefore, that we can reasonably expect in the case before us, is to find a decided balance of evidence in favour of the religion of the gospel. And to review the evidences of this religion, it seems necessary first to allow that there are evidences in existence which go to prove it, if their validity be allowed. For instance, the four evangelists, the acts of the apostles, together with the epistles of the apostles are considered evidences of the truth of this religion. And can you reasonably require more until you are able to show that all these come short of establishing the credibility of the facts which they relate with apparent honesty and simplicity not to be met with in any other ancient writings?

There are a great many other evidences which serve to corroborate those mentioned, but if you can do them away, no doubt the others may be as easily removed.

You will duly consider that in disproving the religion of Jesus Christ, you disprove all religion, for I am satisfied that you will not pretend that you are making a choice between the gospel and some other doctrine. No, the choice is between the gospel and no religion at all.

Come then, strip away all the clouds of superstition, and demonstrate at once that there has been no sun in the firmament during the whole of a cloudy day! Soar like the strong pinioned eagle, make your tour beyond the mists of error and bring us the joyless tidings that there is no clear sky in the heavens. Can you imagine any thing to be more pleasing than the coming of one that brought good tidings? But let us have the worst of it. Show from undoubted authority that there never was such a man as Jesus, or show that he was a wicked impostor and deservedly lost his life. Show moreover, that there never were such men as the apostles of Jesus, or that they were likewise impostors, and all suffered death for their wicked impiety! Give the particulars of Saul's madly forsaking the honourable connexion in which he stood, for the sake of practising a fraud which produced him an immense income of suffering!

But you say the apostles were not bad men. Very well, then let us see how good men could tell so many things which they knew were not true, and suffer and die in attestation of what they knew to be false. You will see the danger of supposing that honest men can bear testimony to falsehood under the pretence of doing good, as this would destroy all testimony at once; even your own cannot be relied on after you maintain this abominable principle, which has been practised a wicked priesthood for ages. H.B.

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