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In his “ History of several impostors, pretending to be ministers, remarkably detected in the churches of New England, with a faithful advice to all the churches emitted by some of the pastors on that occasion,”— Cotton Mather cites the following from the declaration of the Congregational brethren in England ; “ We do, in the bonds of our Lord Jesus Christ, pray and beseech all such as fear God, that they give not the least encouragement unto the preaching of men either ignorant or erroneous in the great articles of faith, or scandalous in their lives and conversations, or otherwise unmeet for this holy employment, lest they bring the guilt of these men's sins on their own souls.” He states that a resolution had been adopted by ministers in this country,“ That no stranger coming as a preacher among us, without sufficient assurances of his being what he pretends to be, shall be employed in our pulpits without a solemn examination of his capacities for the tremendous work of preaching the glorious gospel of God.”
The word progress is fulfilling a great mission just at this time. It is, indeed, the watchword of the ambitious, of the restless, and to a great extent, of the expectant part of the world. It is ever in the mouths of those who seek the ear of the multitude. It cannot be denied, that the mind of the age utters itself through this word more frequently than through any other. It is vague enough to express all the views of the most misty and nebulous intellects. It is broad enough to cover as much as any may desire, either of change, or innovation. It is a convenient substitute for various other cant terms, such as Socialism, Fourierism, Land-Reform, Rationalism, Mysticism, Theological Reform ; when the open use of such phrases would be imprudent and suicidal. It is the chief stock in trade of a multitude of orators, writers, and aspirants for fame and influence. Nor can the fact be disguised, that it is a favorite word with many ministers of the gospel, who feel themselves called to mould the state of opinion and policy in the church of God. And these, we would fain hope, use it in a safe and Christian sense. No doubt all good men, who use it
at all, intend to use it in a right sense. And yet, it is to be feared, as we shall shew in the sequel, that many, not knowing what they do, use it in a manner calculated to subvert the distinctions between truth and error, and between right and wrong. .
Movement may be progress. But it is very plain, that men may be advancing in sin and error, rather than truth and goodness. It is not enough, then, that there be progress; it must be of the right kind, - in the right direction. Hence, it is obvious, that it must be measured by some admitted standard, before its character can be known. It cannot itself be the measure and test of right, and truth, and duty. But the manner in which multitudes, including some of the masters in Israel,” use the word, is such as to make the course which the church and the world are actually taking at any given period, the measure and the standard of truth and of duty. This, no doubt, is often done unconsciously. But the effect is none the less mischievous and fatal on that account. If the course which the world is actually taking is the measure of truth and right, then it is perfectly evident that the Bible is no longer our rule. The office, even of conscience is superseded. All standards are overthrown. All moral distinctions and Christian principles are obliterated. And the whole issues in that monstrous dogma of infidelity and licentiousness, that “whatever is, is right.” Let us, then, see whether this malignant virus be not working in the Christian church.
There is a numerous class, who plead, directly or indirectly, that the church ought to be constantly varying her doctrines, to the end that there may be “ progress” in theological science. They argue in behalf of such doctrinal innovations as they wish to introduce, not merely, or chiefly, that they are supported by Scripture and sound reason; but that there must be progress in theology as well as all other sciences and arts. Indeed, they put it wholly on the footing of things secular and earthly, in respect to its changeable and progressive character. Thus, if a distinctive and established doctrine of Christianity be assailed, which the whole church has ever clung to as vital and fundamental, this class of men will countenance the innovation because it shews “ progress in theology.” They will ridicule those who are alarmed about the " progress” of error, as men of a past age, the victims of anile fears, wanting in liberal and comprehensive views, and out of sympathy with the advancing spirit of the age. VOL. III.
They will endeavor to hush the friends of sound doctrine by considerations like these, rather than by meeting them in a fair argument upon the merits of the case, the testimonies of Scripture, and the conscious experience of the people of God in all ages. Now it is perfectly evident, that so far as such considerations are brought to bear upon any controversy touching religious doctrine or practice, the Word of God is supplanted as the standard of truth and duty, and the idol Progress is installed in its place.
But it will doubtless be replied by this class of men, that they confess the Bible to be the fixed and infallible standard of Christian doctrine ; but that the knowledge of it which men possess, their apprehensions and interpretations of it, are imperfect, variable, progressive; and that in this sense they hold to what they call the “improveableness of theology."
There is enough of truth in this to give it plausibility. But it is true only within certain limits; and in the intent and bearing given to it by these reasoners, it is utterly false. So far as philological, archæological, geographical, and other researches and discoveries may elucidate particular passages, it is undoubtedly true that there will be progress in our knowledge of the Scriptures. So far as the divines of any age have been entangled in the meshes of some false metaphysical system, and have suffered that system to control and pervert their interpretations of the Bible, and their statements of Christian doctrine, so far there may be improvement in theological formulas, when those false metaphysics are abandoned. But that those portions of the Bible which declare the great and vital truths of the gospel, such as form the essence of Christianity, and the basis of salvation, are dependent for their interpretation, on the progress of any secular sciences or discoveries, on any thing beyond a common knowledge of the tongues in which they were written, it would be invidious to pretend. They speak their own import to candid minds of every age. The most that is requisite for their due apprehension is the candor and the spiritual discernment of true piety. They were certainly understood by those to whom they were immediately addressed, and by all later Christians. How could it be otherwise? They are inspired for the purpose of leading men directly to piety and salvation. How can they have this effect, if unintelligible to the respective generations that have embraced them? Men are required to believe and obey them, on pain of eternal perdition, as soon as they hear them? But why, if they cannot be rightly understood until beheld in the resplendent light of the nineteenth century? It was incumbent on Jews and Gentiles, on all of every nation, age, and clime, to whom the gospel should come, instantly to believe and obey it, on pain of this awful penalty. Is it so then, that as to its distinctive and characteristic features, it could not be correctly understood till the present or some future age ?
Nor is this all. The apostles unequivocally take the ground, that their teachings of the gospel were correctly understood by Christians at the beginning; and that as then received, it was the duty of the church to adhere to them ever after, and to shun every deviation from them as perilous and fatal. Says John: “I have not written unto you because ye know not the truth ; but because ye know it, and that no lie is of the truth. Let that therefore abide in you which ye have heard from the beginning." “ If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God-speed.” So Paul speaks of the "one faith,” “the faith of God's elect," as if it were common to all his chosen in all ages. He charges us to hold fast the form of sound words, to be "established in the faith as we have been taught.” He certainly inhibits us from giving countenance to any deviations from this perpetual and well-understood faith of the church ; from being “ carried about by divers and strange doctrines;” and from being tossed to and fro" by every wind of doctrine."
So far from taking the ground, that his doctrine was subject to the law of progress, and that we are of course to look for a more perfect development of it in the present or future, than the past, he expressly forewarns his readers, that “the time will come, when men will not endure sound doctrine."
Moreover, the guidance of the Spirit is assuredly promised to believers, to enable them to discern and know the essential and vital truths of the Word. The Saviour gives them, “not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God, that they may know the things which are freely given them of God.” They have “an anointing of the Holy One, whereby they know all things; "— which surely means at least as much as the essentials of Christian truth. This is the inalienable privilege of every believer, and of the true church of God collectively.
And more than this. There is an actual body of Christian doctrine, which has been steadfastly received and clung to from the beginning, on the part of regenerate and sanctified persons. They have not only withstood all deviations from it, but have been jealous of all “tendencies ” to deviate from it in persons claiming to be disciples. Such are the doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement. The church has not only clung to these doctrines ; it has refused to recognize those who deny them as entitled to the name of Christian. No General Council has yet been found that would tolerate any evasion of the doctrine of the Trinity, under the forms of Arianism, Sabellianism, or Tritheism; or the rejection of the two complete natures in the one person of Christ; or the denial that Christ died as a vicarious sacrifice to satisfy divine justice. The fall and corruption of human nature by the sin of the first man; redemption by the blood, regeneration by the Spirit, acceptance through the mediation, of the Second Man, the Lord from heaven; the necessity of faith, repentance, and holiness of life; the forgiveness of sins, the general judgment, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting, have been held fast with immovable tenacity by the Christians of every age and nation. They may have been held with different degrees of clearness. They may have been at times partially adulterated by divers admixtures of human philosophy and vain conceits. They may have been held in connection with other precious truths of Scripture which are involved in, and strongly support them, such as election, regeneration, and perseverance ; yet they have been held immovably by the people of God. The church ever has contended, and will contend for them, against all opposition, and despite all “ Progress” in the contrary direction, till she is no longer militant, but triumphant. Herein lie her historic and her present unity, her true catholicity. This is the only catholic faith held semper, ubique, et ab omnibus, by all that are sanctified in Christ Jesus.
And why should it not be so? Is not sin, that disease which the gospel is sent to heal, the same distemper in all ages ? Are not the physician, the remedy, and the appliances for its cure, the same ? Are not faith, repentance, and the whole ground of salvation ever the same ? Is not experimental piety ever the same? Do not the same motives excite it; the same principles, affections, and practices, ever constitute it? How then can we