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of a self-taught philosopher may be, when described from mere imagination, yet reason and fact make it highly probable, that even had they continued innocent, they would have been very ignorant for a considerable time. But the entrance of sin must enfeeble and darken their understandings greatly: and had their knowledge of what they were to do, been ever so clear, yet, what they were to expect, and on what terms, when they had failed of doing it, must be so very obscure, that it was of the utmost importance for God to interpose and inform them; as we find in Scripture he did by the immediate notification of a Redeemer. Divine instruction therefore began religion; and human hath preserved it. Hence that honourable character, given to Abraham by God himself: For I know him, that he will command his children, and his houshold after him; and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment *. This pious care, for which he was distinguished, seems to have been falling into disregard amongst the other men of that age. And the consequence was, what it always will be. The separation of instruction from worship separated morals from piety: and, when this unnatural divorce brought them to be considered, as independent things, the obligations to virtue were fatally weakened, the notions of religion were greatly corrupted, and, in proportion as ignorance increased, wickedness and superstition prevailed.
Still there were, in the heathen world, persons very eminent for great and good qualities. And as no stated public instruction was established among themf; they are sometimes produced, as arguments against the need of it. But their number by no means appears to have been considerable. Less had been
* Gen. xviii. 19.
said of them, if the generality of their countrymen had been like them; and what is said, is delivered by authors, chiefly desirous of gaining honour to themselves, by drawing beautiful pictures of the merit of their heroes. Yet, after all, we find that merit, even according to the most favourable accounts of it, which heighten it far beyond truth *, mixed with great blemishes. Their piety, the first article of human duty, if they had any, (for several of their systems of philosophy were inconsistent with or unfavourable to it) was grossly idolatrous: their love of their country was greatly injurious to their neighbours; especially those whom they were pleased to call barbarians : most of them were polluted with unlawful, some with unnatural, lusts : and none of them ever shewed that humility of heart, and deep sense of imperfection and sin, which belongs to the very best of human creatures. Still, shining accomplishments they undoubtedly had: but they had also generally private instructors at least, from whose lessons they might in a good measure derive them: or copied them, though not taught in form, from those, with whom they conversed. Or supposing the contrary; in every science, in every common art, some few will make a great progress with small advantages for it; but shall we conclude from thence, that any sort of knowledge can become general, without being generally taught; and every one do what no one is exhorted, or assisted, to learn ? Besides, the original poverty and frugality, the accidental necessities and distresses, nay the unaccountable fashions and fancies of some countries and ages, have brought particular virtues into practice and high repute, and they have been greatly celebrated for them; though deserving of the severest censure for their faults in other respects. And, bad
See Leland against Tyndal, Introd. page 46, &c.
as we are at present; it would be doing us great injustice, to prefer upon the whole, perhaps the best of the heathen times, but certainly the common run of them, to ours. The number is great in itself, though small in comparison, of such as infinitely excel, in piety, in benevolence, in purity of heart, the utmost perfection, to which men, without the grace of the Gospel, could attain. But not to insist on these, we are without question in general not only more rational in our devotions, but milder in our treatment of each other, and more regular in our conduct of ourselves. An impartial reader of the Greek and Roman authors, especially of such as lived in the times of which they speak, will easily see and acknowledge this. But were it otherwise, their wanting instruction, and our having it, cannot possibly be the reason, that we are inferior to them: but we, without it, should have been still much worse; and they, with it, still much better. Indeed, they were sensible, whatever we are, how great need they had of it: and accordingly the best of them, some after taking long journeys to inform themselves, made it their business to teach others, who applied to them, the wisest rules they could, for the conduct of life. But they plainly found, both their knowledge so imperfect, and their authority so insufficient; that they declared, of their own accord, what many now set themselves to deny; that interposition from above was requisite to inform and influence mankind.
This advantage the posterity of Abraham enjoyed. And though they did not receive from it near the good they might; as indeed we none of us ever do from any advantage; yet it produced, besides the more distinguished examples of piety and holiness, mentioned in Scripture, and doubtless many others, a considerable degree of national faith in the one true God, and
obedience to his laws; which was not only a blessing to that single country, but scattered some rays of light through all the people, that sat in darkness round them. And no sooner had they learnt from their captivity, inflicted on them for their neglect of the divine commands, to set up and carry on a more constant and extensive course of instruction, than they had done before, by reading and interpreting the Scriptures every Sabbath day in the Synagogues* of every city; than their inveterate, and till then incurable, disease of idolatry ceased from amongst them almost intirely; and they preserved for many ages a more uniform regard to their duty, than they seem to have had, ever since they were a nation.
But at length, even this method of instruction being corrupted by the established dispensers of it, the light itself became darknesst. And then was the proper season for the great enlightener of the world to appear: who detected and condemned the abuses of this institution, placed the conduct of it in better hands, and forbad his followers for ever that blind submission to the doctrines of men, which had made the commandments of God of no effect I Nor did he only purify, but perfect it with inestimable additions of new knowledge: whence he tells his Apostles, immediately after the text: Verily I say unto you, that many Prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them. After which, his concluding care was to provide, by due regulations, for the perpetual support of this ordinance; and promise the ministers of it, that he would be with them alway, even unto the end of the worlds. We are therefore not only to esteem it, as a
+ Matth. vi. 23.
* Acts xv. 21.
*. th. xv. 6. 9.
prudent and useful thing; but to reverence it, as the appointment of our Lord and Master; and attend on it in faithful expectation of his blessing. For under whatever disadvantages of human weakness the Gospel is often preached, it is still the power of God unto salvation*, to all that hear it, as they ought. Nor can we hope, that he who resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble t, will give it those, who set up their own wisdom against that of heaven; which hath expressly ordained pastors and teachers, for the edifying of the body of Christ I. And so effectually did this method, unassisted by human art or
the church in spite of all opposition of every kind; that, in a small compass of time, the Christian faith was diffused through the earth, drove atheism, idolatry and vice into corners, wherever it appeared; and planted in their stead, rational piety, benevolent virtue, moral self-government, founded on the sure prospect of eternal felicity.
Happy would mankind have been, had the purity and good influence of this excellent doctrine been preserved, by a careful use of the means, that recommended it first. But, by degrees, preachers handled the word of God deceitfully ș, and hearers turned away their ears from the truth unto fables || : Instruction was partly perverted, partly disused : error and superstition returned in a new form, and ignorance and wickedness again overspread the world. Once more, two centuries ago, the restoration of a preaching ministry restored truth and freedom amongst us: and keeping up a due respect for it, is our great security against the dreadful alternative of open profaneness and profligateness, or Popish darkness and tyranny: the former of which evils, in all Rom. i. 16.
+ James iv. 6. 1 Eph. iv. 11, 12. 2 Cor. iv. 2.
|| 2 Tim. iv. 4.