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T HAT spirit of inquiry, which produced the reformation, operated in France, as in all other countries; and gave being to an endless variety of different sentiments of religion. All the reformers, however, agreed in one grand article ; that is, in substituting the authority of the holy scriptures in the place of the infallibility of the bishop of Rome.
The elevation of an obscure book, (for such, to the shame of popery, the bible had been,) to the dignity of a supreme judge, whose decisions were final, and from which there lay no appeal, naturally excited the attention of some who were capable, and of many who thought themselves so, to examine the authenticity of so extraordinary a book. At the reforination, the infallibility of the pope was the popular enquiry; and after it, the infallibility of Jesus Christ came under consideration. Curiosity and conscience concurred to search; and several circumstances justified the inquiry.
Many spurious books had been propagated in the world; the Jewish nation, and the Romish
church, paid as much regard to tradition as to the holy scriptures; protestants derived different, and even contrary doctrines from the same scriptures; the authenticity of some books of both testaments had never been universally acknowledged; and the points in litigation were of the last importance. These considerations excited the industry of a multitude of critics. One examined the chronology of the bible, another the geography of it, a third its natural philosophy, a fourth its history; one tried its purity by the rules of grammar; another measured its style by the laws of rhetoric; and a most severe scrutiny the book underwent.
Nothing came to pass in this enquiry but what might have been expected. Some defended the book by solid, and some by silly arguments; while others reprobated it, as void of any rational proof at all. There are certain pre-requisites essential to the investigation of truth, and it is hardly credible that all who examined, or who pretended to examine, the divinity of the christian canon, possessed them.
No sooner had Charles IX. published the first edict of pacification in France, in 1562, than there appeared at Lyons, along with many other sécts, a party who called themselves DEISTS. The edict provided, that no person should be prosecuted on account of matters of conscience, and this sect claimed the benefit of it.
Deists differ so much from one another, that it is hard to define the term deism, and to say precisely what the word stands for. Dr. Clarke takes
the denomination in the most extensive signification, and distinguishes deists into four sorts.
“ The first class believe the existence of a Su" preme Being, who made the world ; but who does “ not at all concern himself in the management “ of it.
“ The second consists of those, who believe not “ only the being, but also the providence of God 4 with respect to the natural world ; but who, not " allowing any difference between moral good and “ evil, deny that God takes any notice of the moS rally good or evil actions of men; these things “ depending, as they imagine, on the arbitrary con“stitutions of human laws.
“ The third sort, having right apprehensions “ concerning the natural attributes of God, and “his all-governing providence, and some notion “ of his moral perfections also, yet being prejudi“ced against the notion of the immortality of the .“ human soul, believe that men perish entirely at “ death, and that one generation shall perpetually “ succeed another, without any future restoration, “or renovation of things.
“The fourth consists of those, who believe the
existence of a Supreme Being, together with his “ providence in the government of the world, as “ also the obligations of natural religion ; but so “ far only, as these things are discoverable by the slight of nature alone, without believing any di“ vine revelation. These last are the only true for deists."
The rise of the deists, along with that of other sects and parties among the reformed churches, seemed to confirm one argument of the Roman catholics against the reformation. When the reformers had pleaded for the sufficiency of revelation, and for the private right of judging of its meaning, the divines of the church of Rome had always replied, that' unanimity in the faith is the test of the true church of Christ; that the church of Rome had always enjoyed such an unity; that the allowance of liberty of conscience would produce innumerable opinions; that people of the same sentiments would associate for the support and propagation of their pretended faith ; and that, consequently, religious parties would counteract one another, to the entire subversion of christianity itself. Hence they inferred the absurdity of that principle, on which protestantism stood, and the absolute necessity of a living infallible judge of religious truths. The event abovementioned seemed to confirm this reasoning.
When these ideas entered the mind of a man of fruitful genius in the church of Rome, they operated in the most eccentric manner imaginable. A popular orator, or, who did ten times more mischief, a court chaplain, would collect a few real improprieties among protestants, subjoin a thousand more irregularities of his own invention, mere creatures of his superstitious fancy, paint them in colours the most frightful, exhibit them to public view under images the most tragical, asscribe them all to that horrid monster the right of private judgment, and by these means endeavour to establish the old system, that destroyed men's lives, on the ruins of that new one, which benevolently proposed to save them.
The weaker protestants were intimidated by this vile bombast, and the wiser, who had been educated papists, that is to say, whose tender minds had been perverted with a bad philosophy, and a worse divinity, were hard pressed with this idle ara gument. The famous Peter Viret, who was pastor of the reformed church at Lyons, at this first appearance of the deists, not only wrote against them; but, we are sorry to say, he did more, he joined with the archbishop's vicar in persecuting them. What a motley figure? The voice of Jaeob, and the hands of Esau !
Some of the more candid protestants contented themselves with making two observations, which they thought, were sufficient to answer the objections of Rome on this article. First, they said, it is not true that there are no religious controversies in the church of Rome; there are two hundred and thirty-seven contrarieties of doctrine among the Romish divines. Secondly, if it were true, the quiet of the members of that church would not prove their unity in the faith. A negative unanimity, that is, a freedom from religious differences, may proceed from ignorance, negligence, or fear: the two first resemble the quiet of night, when all are asleep, or the stillness of a church-yard, where all are dead; and the last is the taciturnity of a slave under a tyrant's rod.