Page images
PDF
EPUB

in order to prevent hurtful contentions, is, for the sake of extirpating noxious weeds, to condemn the field to perpetual sterility. Yet, if the principle that it is an evil only to be incurred when necessary for the sake of some important good, were acted upon, the two classes of controversies mentioned by Bacon would certainly be excluded. The first, controversy on subjects too deep and mysterious, is indeed calculated to gender strife. For, in a case where correct knowlege is impossible to any, and where all who pretend to it are, in fact,' in the wrong, there is but little likelihood of agreement; like men who should rashly venture to explore a strange land in utter darkness, they will be scattered into a thousand devious paths. The second class of subjects that would be excluded by this principle, are those which relate to matters too minute and trifling. For it should be remembered that not only does every question that can be raised lead to differences of opinion, disputes, and parties, but also that the violence of the dispute, and the zeal and bigoted spirit of the party, are not at all proportioned to the importance of the matter at issue. The smallest spark, if thrown among very combustible substances, may raise a formidable conflagration. Witness the long and acrimonious disputes which distracted the Church concerning the proper time for the observance of Easter, and concerning the use of leavened or unleavened bread at the Lord's Supper. We of the present day, viewing these controversies from a distance, with the eye of sober reason, and perceiving of how little consequence the points of dispute are in themselves, provided they be so fixed as to produce a decent uniformity, at least among the members of each Church, can hardly bring ourselves to believe that the most important doctrines of the Gospel were never made the subject of more eager contentions than such trifles as these; and that for these the peace and unity of the Church were violated, and christian charity too often utterly destroyed. But we should not forget that human nature is still the same as it ever was; and that though the controversies of one age may often appear ridiculous in another, the disposition to contend about trifles may remain unchanged.1

Not only, however, should we avoid the risk of causing needless strife by the discussion of such questions as are in themselves trifling, but those also are to be regarded as to us insignificant, which, however curious, sublime, and interesting, can lead to no practical result, and have no tendency to make us better Christians, but are merely matters of speculative curiosity. Paul is frequent and earnest in his exhortations to his converts to confiue themselves to such studies as tend to the edification of the Church,—the increase of the fruits of the Spirit,—the conversion of infidels,—and the propagation of the essential doctrines of the Gospel. And these doctrines are all of a practical tendency. While all the systems framed by human superstition, enthusiasm, and imposture, whether Pagan, Romish, or Mahometan, abound, as might be expected, in mythological fables and marvellous legends, it is one of the most remarkable characteristics of the true religion, that it reveals nothing clearly that is not practically important for us to know with a view to our salvation. Our religion as might no less be expected of one which comes not from Man, but from God, reveals to us, not the philosophy of the human mind in itself, nor yet the philosophy of the divine Nature in itself, but (that which is properly religion) the relation and connection of the two Beings;—what God is to w-s,—what He has done, and will do for us,—and what we are to be and to do, in regard to Him.1 Bacon, doubtless, does not mean to preclude all thought or mention of any subject connected with religion, whose practical utility we are unable to point out. On the contrary, he elsewhere urges us to pursue truth, without always requiring to perceive its practical application. But all controversy, and everything that is likely, under existing circumstances, to lead to controversy, on such points, must be carefully avoided. When once a flame is kindled, we cannot tell how far it mayextend. And since, though we may be allowed, we cannot be bound in duty to discuss speculative points of theology, the blame of occasioning needless dissension must lie with those who so discuss them as to incur a risk that hostile parties mayarise out of their speculations.

1 Sec Leesone on Religious Worship.

1 Soo Lectures on a Future Stutv—Lecture on thu Millennium.

'Men ereate oppositions which are not, and put them into new terms so fixed, as whereas the meaning ought to govern the term, the term in effect governeth the meaning.'

So important are words in influencing our thoughts, and so common is the error of overlooking their importance, that we cannot give too much heed to tbis caution of Bacon as to our use of language in religious discussion. The rules most important to be observed are, first to be aware of the ambiguity of words, and watchful against being misled by it; since the same word not only may, but often must, be used to express different meanings; and so common a source of dissension is the mistake hence arising of the meaning of others, that the word misunderstanding is applied to disagreements in general: secondly (since on the other hand, the same meaning may be expressed by different words), to guard against attaching too great importance to the use of any particular term: and lastly, to avoid, as much as possible, introducing or keeping up the use of any peculiar set of words and phrases, and 'fixed terms,' as Bacon calls them, as the badge of a party.

Our Sacred Writings, we should remember, 'are not scientific treatises, but popular addresses: in which each Word is to be understood indeed, in the place where it occurs, but understood in reference to the context;—to the Writer's object in the very passage where it occurs. It is not so in a scientific treatise. In a ,treatise, for instance of Mathematics, or Chemistry, or Anatomy, we expect to find each term that pertains to the subject, confined to its strict technical sense, and always employed in that sense. And the student, if asked what is a triangle, or a circle,—what is hydrogen, or oxygen,—what is a muscle, what is a nerve, &c.: is expected to be able to answer correctly without reference to any particular passage. But it is quite otherwise with the Writings of the Evangelists and Apostles; who were not composing regular systems of scholastic Theology, but popular narrative, and popular instruction. And if therefore any sensible man well acquainted with the real character of their Writings, is asked 'What is the meaning of this or that Word,' he will reply by asking, 'in what passage ?'''

A neglect of this last rule, it is obvious, must greatly pro

cedures on some of the Scripture Parables, pp. 104, 105.

mote causeless divisions and all the evils of party-spirit . Any system appears the more distinct from all others, when provided with a distinct, regular, technical phraseology, like a corporate Body, with its coat of arms and motto. By this means, over and above all the real differences of opinion which exist, a fresh cause of opposition and separation is introduced among those who would perhaps be found, if their respective statements were candidly explained, to have in their tenets no real ground of disunion.' Nor will the consequences of such divisions be as trifling as their causes; for when parties are once firmly established and arrayed against each other, their opposition will usually increase; and the differences between them, which were originally little more than imaginary, may in time become serious and important. Experience would seem to teach us that the technical terms which were introduced professedly for the purpose of putting down heresies as they arose, did but serve rather to multiply heresies. This, at least, is certain, that as scientific theories and technical phraseology gained currency, party animosity raged the more violently. Those who, having magnified into serious evils by injudicious opposition, heresies in themselves insignificant, appealed to the magnitude of those evils to prove that their opposition was called for: like unskilful physicians, who, when by violent remedies they have aggravated a trifling disease into a dangerous one, urge the violence of the symptoms which they themselves have produced, in justification of their practice. They employed that violence in the cause of what they believed to be divine truth, which Jesus Himself and his Apostles expressly forbade in the cause of what they knew to be divine truth. 'The servant of the Lord,' says Paul, 'must not strive, but be gentle unto all men, in meekness instructing them that oppose themselves, if God, peradventure, will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth.'*

On the whole, there is nothing that more tends to deprave the moral sense than Party, because it supplies that sympathy for which Man has a natural craving. To any one unconnected with Party, the temptations of personal interest or gratification are in some degree checked by the disapprobation of those around him. But a partisan finds himself surrounded by persons most of whom, though perhaps not unscrupulous in their private capacity, are prepared to keep him in countenance in much that is unjustifiable,— to overlook or excuse almost anything in a zealous and efficient partisan,—and even to applaud what in another they would condemn, so it does but promote some party-object. For, Party corrupts the conscience, by making almost all virtues flow, as it were, in its own channel. Zeal for truth becomes, gradually, zeal for the watchword—the shibboleth—of the party; justice, mercy, benevolence, are all limited to the members of that party, and are censured, if extended to those of the opposite party, or (which is usually even more detested) those of no party. Candour is made to consist in putting the best construction on all that comes from one side, and the worst on all that does not. Whatever is wrong, in any member of the party, is either boldly denied, in the face of all evidence, or vindicated, or passed over in silence; and whatever is, or can be brought to appear, wrong on the opposite side, is readily credited, and brought forward, and exaggerated. The principles of conduct originally the noblest,—disinterested self-devotion, courage, and active zeal,—Party perverts to its own purposes: veracity, submissive humility, charity—in short, every christian virtue,— it enlists in its cause, and confines within its own limits; and the conscience becomes gradually so corrupted that it becomes a guide to evil instead of good. The 'light that is in us becomes darkness.''

1 On this point I have treated fully in the Tract on Ute Sacramentt. 3 2 Tim. xi. 25.

But what tends to blind many persons to the evils of Party, is their considering every kind of association as of the character of a party, overlooking the distinction between what is fixed and definite, and what is indefinite. On this point I have offered some observations in the Annotations on Essay XXIX.

* We may not take up Mahomet's sword, or like unto it; that is to propagate religion by wars, or by sanguinary persecutions to force consciences.'

Although Bacon thus protests against 'the forcing of men's consciences,' yet I am not quite sure, whether he fully embraced

1 See Annotations on Essay XXXIX.

« PreviousContinue »