The importance of the study of the Evidences of Christianity, which establish the claim of the Religion of Christ, as the one and only Divine Religion, cannot well be overrated, or overstated.
All knowledge is good, desirable in itself and desirable for the sake of the power which it adds to character; but especially is knowledge necessary, when it helps either to create or to confirm our faith in the great truths of our holy religion. The teachings of the Bible are at once so peculiar and so important, that it is one of our first duties and privileges to attain a certainty of conviction as to the divine origin of the Holy Scriptures, and the divine character and mission of Jesus Christ.
Such certainty ought to be attainable. If any human ruler should address to his subjects the most ordinary proclamation, touching their duties as citizens, those subjects have a right to claim good plain proofs that whoever may have written or composed that proclamation, it is by the King's authority, and that he is its proper author. No subject should be satisfied unless the grand royal signature and seal are found upon the decree; otherwise it might prove the device of some traitor or enemy to mislead and betray subjects, and even to overturn lawful rule.
If therefore God has given to mankind a revelation of His will upon matters of the first moment, there can be no doubt that it is in some plain, unmistakable way marked by His hand: it has on its very face God's signature and seal: there are many infallible proofs to satisfy honest doubt.
We need not fear to take strong ground and it is especially necessary in these days. Principal Fairburn, in an address at the Union Theological Seminary, remarked that an entire change has become necessary in conducting the defence of Christianity, owing to the change of ground on the part of its enemies. The Deism of the last Century conceded much, in admitting the claims of natural religion. Now everything is denied, and everything must be proved. But allowing this to be so, everything true must be capable of proof. God could not ask of us anything which is not right and reasonable; and it would be neither reasonable nor right to ask us to take it for granted that the Bible is God's own Book, simply because it says so, or somebody says so, or even because any number of people honestly believe it. God himself gave us reasoning powers to weigh evidence with, and he means that we shall test truth and falsehood, proving all things and holding fast the good.
There is a kind of doubt that is entirely right, and of that sort is the doubt of one who does not believe what he has no reason to believe, and what he has no proof of, as true. The mind is endowed with powers of investigation, reflection, reason, that we may carefully examine into evidence and so decide what is true and what is false. He speaks to our reason, who gave us our reason. He appeals to it even in his own Word. He bids us be ready always to give an answer to every one that asketh us a reason for the hope that is in us. Such an answer implies knowledge.
God himself, then, asks of us no blind faith. We should know what we believe and why we believe it. Nothing is to be accepted unless based on good evidence; to believe hastily may be to blindly embrace error and untruth. Equally certain is it, inasmuch as God gives the Bible for the guidance of all men, that the proofs that this is his Word will neither be hard to find nor hard to see; they will be plain, like the signature and seal on the royal proclamation, to be found and understood by the common average man.
This is a day of doubt. Scepticism is more than ever widespread. It is in our books, in the conversation of our friends, in the very air that we breathe. It is finding its way quietly into the very churches of Christ. We must be on our guard.
I. These proofs, if they are candidly examined, will cure all honest doubt. Much scepticism is born of an evil heart of unbelief, that departs from God on account of a perverse and wicked will opposed to God. Such doubts no amount of evidence will remove unless the heart is changed; such doubters would not be persuaded though one rose from the dead.
But all honest doubt will yield before the proofs of a fact or a truth; and so there is no excuse for doubting, where we have the means of knowing. It is wrong to be willingly ignorant. Whatever doubts then do not spring from a wicked heart and unwillingness to be convinced, will disappear when the proofs are seen and examined.
There have been many candid doubters, but never one who had carefully studied the Evidences of Christianity. Mr. Hume confessed himself the prince of sceptics, as Voltaire was the prince of scoffers, and dark indeed were those depths of doubt into which his speculations plunged him. He said of those speculations: "They have so wrought upon me and heated my brain that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another." And yet, though pretending to great diligence in the search after truth, and using all his fine powers and culture to destroy faith in the Gospel, he confessed, as Dr. Johnson tells us, that he had never read even the New Testament with attention.
Whenever an honest doubter comes to me, I feel perfectly safe in calmly saying, to his face, "you have never studied the evidences, and it is likely never attentively examined the Bible." And that arrow never misses its mark.
Some five years since, I was brought into contact with a man, who took pride in his sceptical opinions and made a boast of not being misled by the credulity of Christians. I ventured to take the old arrow out of my quiver. I said, "you have never thoroughly studied the Bible, sir." He turned my arrow aside, saying very positively, "you are mistaken there; for I have been familiar with the Bible from my boyhood." And yet within ten minutes he had shown that he did not know the difference between Job and Lot, but thought it was Job that lived in Sodom and dwelt with his two daughters in the cave!
If there is one candid doubter living who has faithfully studied the Bible and the Evidences of Christianity, he has not yet been found. Before this course of argument is concluded, your attention will be called to two prominent Englishmen who agreed to assault Christianity; but in order to conduct the assault the more successfully and skilfully, they agreed also first to examine it thoroughly; but when they began honestly to search the scriptures, they could no longer doubt that the Bible was the Word of God, and so Gilbert West and Lord Lyttleton became converts and defenders of that same faith they were about to attack.
II. A careful study of the evidences makes intelligent and steadfast believers.
A faith not firmly founded upon good evidence deserves not the name of faith, for the basis of all true faith or trust is belief which is the assent of the mind, or understanding, to truth supported by adequate proofs. Some things we believe on the evidences of the senses; other things, on the testimony of others; and yet other things, on the evidence of reason; in each case there is, at the bottom of belief, some form of evidence or proof. To seek to make broader and firmer the basis of knowledge upon which our faith rests, is to show respect for our own power to know, and respect for the Creator who honored us by conferring such noble powers.
If He had intended us to be mere sponges to be put a-soak by our parents or teachers in some sort of tub, full of their notions of truth and duty, till we should take up all we could hold, He would have made us into sponges. But He did mean that we should have some better reason for our faith and hope than the fact that our parents had just such before us, and so He made us independent, reasoning beings, who naturally ask why a thing is so, and whether what we have been taught, is true.
We must not even be content to believe blindly, for blind belief makes bigots, that hold fast to their way of thinking, whether wrong or right, and will not bear with any who differ. All persecutions come in part from blind belief, sometimes of error, and sometimes of truth. Hence, to believe blindly makes us liable to believe wrongly, and so to prolong the reign of error. How many honest Mohammedans would there be, if every Mussulman should first take pains to find out whether there be any good grounds for being a follower of the false prophet? How many honest Romanists, if every man and woman, brought up in the Romish communion, should take time and trouble to examine all those questions which have to do with doctrine and practice? Error is always afraid of the light. Hence, the people are forbidden to read books that expose the errors of these false or corrupt religions, and especially is it esteemed a crime to read the Bible. The consequence of searching the Scriptures would be the ruin of false faiths.
You call yourself a Protestant; do you know any good reason why? Are you such because you were brought up to be, and is that all the answer you have to give for your faith and hope? Then I do not see how you can be sure you are not as wrong and as mistaken as any Mohammedan or pagan or papist whom you condemn.
Intelligent belief makes firm faith. St. Peter says that the things of the Bible which are hard to be understood, are by the unlearned and the unstable wrested to their own destruction. Who are the unlearned and unstable? Those who are unlearned are apt to be unstable, for that believer who has no intelligent reason for his belief cannot be stable; he cannot be sure that he may not some day lose his faith altogether.
The sponge absorbs easily, but it also gives out as easily under a little pressure. So do the human sponges. They take up whatever doctrine they chance to be dipped in, and are liable at any time when put under pressure, to give that up and in turn take in something exactly different; and so they become unstable souls, so uncertain and changeable that they believe for the time almost anything that others about them believe.
One period of life, especially, tests any believer. I call it the period of transition. Every young person, especially if engaged in reading and study, comes to a time when the powers of reason are growing fast, and habits of independent thought begin to start inquiry. The growing mind asks a reason for things; and so important is this spirit of inquiry, that all discovery and invention, and all human improvements are largely due to it Luther and the Great Reformation would never have been linked in history, but for his earnest determination to know, by independent search, what is truth.
Suppose, now, that in this transition state between the intuitive and the rational periods of our development, one is without a knowledge of the evidences of Christianity. He begins to say of one thing after another which he may have been taught, "that is not true! I cannot any longer believe it." He begins to untie from one stake, but has no other to tie to; and so drifts away from all fastenings into a general doubt, if not denial, of all truth. Faith suffers wreck.
III. Such intelligent and firm faith helps us to a better service; it gives the tongue of the learned and fits us to speak a word in season to him that is weary.
The deeper our conviction and the firmer our persuasion of truth, the more intensely shall we be in earnest, and it is this grand quality of earnestness that convinces and persuades others. In fact, the earnestness, born of clear, deep and unchangeable conviction, is the most moving, melting force this side of God. It is a fire, to burn; a hammer, to break; a sword, to pierce. It becomes a contagious enthusiasm which is the mysterious secret of eloquence. Others see and feel when you know you are right and true, and they begin to say, "I am afraid I am not right."
There is, therefore, intense meaning in our Lord's words: "Every scribe, instructed into the kingdom of heaven, is like unto a householder that bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old." The knowledge of divine things, that comes by faithful study and instruction, becomes to its possessor a treasure out of which he brings for the instruction of others, things new and old; and a thorough mastery of the evidences of Christianity will accumulate an inexhaustible fund of facts and arguments, with which one can not be at a loss, when meeting the inquirer or the doubter.
It is true that many an ignorant disciple has been both firm in faith and rich in service. But even he has studied one kind of evidences, and it is his knowledge of them that makes him strong. The evidences he has mastered are those which are understood by experience rather than argument. God has made it possible for even the most unlearned to know that the Bible is His Word, by finding it the power of God to their salvation and sanctification. There are simple-minded believers who know nothing of the proofs from prophecy and miracle, who do know that God is faithful to his promises, and see the miracle of the new heart and changed life actually wrought in themselves. Christ is a living Saviour by that most infallible proof—what He has done and is doing for them. He opened their blind eyes to see their sin and need, and his beauty and love; he cleansed the leprosy of their guilt, cured the palsy of their helplessness and the fever of their raging passion, and cast out the demon from their hearts. Jerry McAuley, at whose burial thousands sadly gathered, had, in his own conversion, as great an evidence of Christianity as though Christ's word had raised him from the dead! What less than the power of God could in a moment recover such a man from a life conspicuous for every crime, and not only set him free from the chains of his vices, but make him an apostle of grace to rescue other perishing souls!
But, notwithstanding it is possible to know by personal experience the truth of the gospel by its power, is there any reason why the other departments of evidence should not be studied? Is it not important to satisfy others? and is it not the peculiar quality of experimental knowledge that it cannot be understood except by those and who have conducted the experiment?
Some experience misleads, and is not a safe guide or test of truth, until it is itself tested by the word of God. Mr. Wesley, in his day, found many who claimed to have such experience of grace as to be raised above all danger, even of sin; but he says that not one in thirty of these perfectionists held out or retained the blessing they claimed to have.
We should understand both kinds of evidence, whether from argument or experiment. Needless ignorance is not right, on matters so important. Are our convictions so firm that we should not be glad to have them take deeper root? Can not a human body stand on two legs better than on one? Let us seek to establish our own faith like the very cedar of Lebanon, and so help to make others the firmer, by guiding the honest inquirer to the light of truth.
For the sake, then, of all who are desirous to know the truth, let us "write the vision and make it plain upon the tablets." For the sake of making the disciple stronger and abler to do good work for Christ, taking the wise in their own craftiness, meeting the objections of the sceptic, who, however wise in science, is ignorant of scripture and its august claims; for the sake of creating or establishing faith, it is of the first importance carefully and candidly to study the evidences of Christianity.
It is but a small part of the broad territory, however, over which we shall be able to tread, in this little volume. Prophecy and miracle confirm the Word; Science and Revelation are co-witnesses to the same God; astronomy hints His eternity, immensity, infinity; natural philosophy tells of His omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence; physiology suggests His wisdom and goodness; the beginnings of life, of consciousness, of intelligence and of conscience, are miracles which cannot be accounted for without Almighty power, and ought to make both Atheism and Pantheism alike impossible; while the heart of man and the history of man unite to witness to a need and a craving never filled except by Christ Jesus.
Yet, while these firm persuasions root themselves in the very fibers of our being, in dealing with those who find candid doubts and difficulties in the way of faith, we must not take too much as granted. Without assuming much, it behooves us to begin at the beginning and feel our way, step by step, guarding every statement with scrupulous exactness, and testing arguments and proofs with impartiality and candor.
The writer feels deep sympathy with honest doubt, in which is found one mark of earnest search after truth, and of which is born all reasonable and intelligent faith. He has no wish to tilt the lance in the field of theological controversy, or take part in any war of words, or advocate any sectarian views however popular. The Christian religion sets up the most august claim, yet it invites and challenges the severest and most rigid test of proof. Let us accept the challenge and apply the test.
Argument should be conducted calmly. Enthusiasm sometimes betrays into rash conclusions. There is a white heat of earnestness, that comes not of sound logic, but of mere sensibility and emotional ardor and fervor. Persuasion differs from conviction. Appeals to feeling often warp the judgment; the eloquence of burning speech sways the will and sometimes swings it to the side of error and wrong. Conviction is wrought of calm, cool reasoning: it waits upon sound argument and rests upon logical conclusions: after dispassionate address to the reason has produced conviction, we may arouse the sensibilities and mould the will into resolve. But, at the outset, the doubter needs to be met as a doubter, with clear analysis, exact statement and convincing proofs.
On what principles then should we study the Evidences of Christianity?
First of all, in a truly impartial and scientific spirit. Science is knowledge; it deals with what is, or may be, known; compels a clear comprehension of truths or facts; has little to do with ingenious theories. Sometimes a shrewd guess at truth is like a lamp, let down into the darkness, to see whether it will show us what is in the depths; but still a guess is a guess—a theory, a theory. And, as much harm has been done to our Christian faith, by infidels who take things for granted, it is well not to weaken our position by assuming even what is true.
We need not only to think on religious questions with scientific exactness and accuracy, but even to make careful statements. Daniel Webster declared that not one man in fifty states a fact exactly, without exaggeration or diminution; and Burke said that every word in a sentence is one of the feet on which it walks, and to lengthen or shorten which may change its course.
Second, we need also concentration of attention: in other words, to do with the mind what we do with a burning glass, gather the rays and focalize them upon one point. Without such concentration, no acquisition of knowledge or even application of mind is possible. If a subject repays study at all, it rewards the most conscientious concentration of all our mental faculties.
Third, we need also discrimination, to learn to distinguish things which differ, but which may seem alike, such as facts and inferences, facts and theories. Mark Hopkins says, that men who are "most reliable in observing facts are often least so in drawing inferences." You may depend on the fact, but distrust the conclusions. Antecedents and causes are not the same. Chill antecedes fever, but does not cause it; so of blossom and fruit. There is risk of forging artificial links. It is alike unscientific, to join what belong apart, and to part what belong together.
Fourth, it is absurd to demand the same sort of evidence in Ethics as in Mathematics. The nature of evidence is adapted to its object. Mathematical evidence concerns quantity; Moral evidence concerns the relations between intelligent beings. You can prove, mathematically, that two and two make four; can you prove, mathematically, that food builds up and fever kills, or that honesty is a virtue? There are many truths capable of moral demonstration, that defy the mathematical, yet are none the less truths.
Fifth, we should cultivate scientific impartiality, not coming to the study of truth with a bias of prejudice, or a preconceived theory, to hinder impartial investigation and conclusions.
Robertson says, that critics inform Shakespeare with their own notions, and then find in his writings the sentiments they have put there, as Munchausen's wolf ate into his horse, and, was driven homeward in the horse's skin. The Romanist comes to the Bible with a theory, and warps its testimony to fit the crook of his dogma.
Sixth, we should avoid "begging the question," and therefore beware lest we assume things to be true, which are false, or false, which are true. Strauss, knowing that Christianity is based on miracles, and especially the miracle of Christ's resurrection, begins by assuming miracles to be impossible; and says, that "whatever Christ did, or was, he can have done nothing superhuman or supernatural." Thus he starts by begging the whole question at issue. To allow such an assumption, to begin with, compels us of course to reject Christianity as a divine religion. Its very basis would be fraud or at best a blunder.
A prominent pulpit orator says: "The trouble with Ingersoll, is this: he has selected the excrescences of human life, as it has grown in churches, and has represented the excrescences as the essence of religion. Suppose a physician, wishing to get up a museum, representing the human body in all ages and conditions, should collect idiots and lunatics, with wens and warts all over them. Suppose that the physician should gather them into a museum, and say: "There's humanity for you; what do you think of that?" That is what Ingersoll is doing in the religious world. He says scores of true things, that have been said before, but he doesn't know it. He is not widely read in theology. I'm afraid he doesn't read his Bible very much. What does he read it for? I'll tell you, The doves, flying over the landscape, see all that is sweet and peaceful, but when the buzzard and the vulture fly abroad, the first thing they see is a loathsome carcass, and, if it is anywhere in sight, they don't fail to see it. Ingersoll sees what he is looking after. He is a turkey buzzard!"
Seventh, much depends upon our mental and moral attitude, whether we are willing to be convinced, or deliberately take a position of hostility. Are we disposed to find harmony, or disagreement, between the Bible and universal truth? And if there be apparent discord, are we willing to wait patiently, until, as in stereoscopic pictures, we find the common focus, which brings harmony and unity?
Goethe says: "Whoever reproaches an author with obscurity, should first examine himself, to know if all is clear within. In the twilight a very plain writing is illegible."
Eighth, ridicule is not argument, and leads to no safe conclusion. It is easy to appear to overthrow truth by ridicule. Voltaire has been compared to a school-boy, exciting laughter by pencilling a moustache on some fine antique statuary, and Ingersoll sets up a man of straw, and then pelts it with ridicule; and unthinking people mistake the man of straw for a real image of the religion of Christ, and ridicule for argument. You might as well try to put out the stars with a watering-pot, or cannonade Gibraltar with pop guns and putty!
Ninth, perspicuity, both of thought and speech, is very needful. Obscurity may mislead even an honest man. To get hold of an idea clearly, and then put it in the plainest, fewest words, is a great triumph of brain and tongue. Some writers, as Whately says in his introduction to Bacon's essays, seem to think that it is a sign of a master mind, when thought glooms faintly out, like stars through a bank of fog. It is always possible, if one has a thought worth anything, to put it in plain words; and why not in good, homely Anglo-Saxon?
At the twentieth anniversary of the installation of Rev. Dr. Crosby, Rev. Dr. John Hall said happily: "A minister ought to be a student of the Bible, in the original languages in which it was written; but he should be careful to preach in English, which his congregation can readily understand."
It is a sad fact that, so far as making themselves understood is concerned, some writers and speakers might as well be using an unknown tongue; they are, as Paul says, but as a barbarian to the hearer. It is very foolish to infer, when you cannot understand a man, that he is too wise and learned to be understood. Wisdom and learning are just what help a man to be understood.
Tenth, It is safe to distrust any argument that insults common sense. What is called "metaphysics" is often only a beclouding of a hearer's mind by subtleties that are meant to confuse and bewilder. A certain case at law turned on the resemblance between two car wheels, and Webster and Choate were the opposing counsel. To a common eye, the wheels looked as if made from the same model, but Choate, by a train of hair-splitting reasoning, and a profound discourse on the "fixation of points," tried to overwhelm the jury with metaphysics, and compel them to conclude, against the evidence of their eyes, that there was really hardly a shadow of essential resemblance. Webster rose to reply: "But, gentlemen of the jury," said he, as he opened wide his great black eyes, and stared at the big twin wheels before him, "there they are—look at 'em!" And as he thundered out these words, it was as though one of Jupiter's bolts had struck the earth. That one sentence and look shattered Choate's subtle argument to atoms, and the cunning sophistry on the "fixation of points," dissolved as into air. I have great confidence in the strong common sense of an honest mind, feeling the utter worthlessness of an argument, even when unable to tell the reason why.
A Christian physician, in a recent address before a class graduating from a medical college, remarked: "Doubtless some of you remember reading, that it was the contemplation of a statue of an illustrious member of our profession which led Coleridge to this strong utterance, as to the simian origin of the race: 'Look at that head of Cline, by Chantrey. Is that forehead, that nose, those temples, and that chin, akin to the monkey tribe? No, no! To a man of sensibility, no argument could disprove the bestial theory so convincingly, as a quiet contemplation of that fine bust!'"
These are some of the principles upon which we purpose to examine, at least in outline, a few of the "many infallible proofs," that the Bible is the Word of God, and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And, if no one shall find any new light, the serene consciousness will, at least, be ours, that we have tried to help doubting souls, and have at least been intellectually honest, and true to our own convictions.
Upon this whole subject we have heard few things more wisely spoken than the admirable axiom of Dr. C. F. Deems: "Believe your beliefs and doubt your doubts. Do not make the common mistake of sceptics, doubting your beliefs and believing your doubts." Or as Goethe says again, "Give us your convictions, as for doubts we have enough of them already."