Front Page Titles (by Subject) Number XIX.: Ecclesiastical Authority, as claimed by the High Clergy, an Enemy to Religion. - The Independent Whig, vol. 1 (7th ed. 1743)
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Number XIX.: Ecclesiastical Authority, as claimed by the High Clergy, an Enemy to Religion. - Thomas Gordon, The Independent Whig, vol. 1 (7th ed. 1743) 
The Independent Whig: or, a Defence of Primitive Christianity, And of Our Ecclesiastical Establishment, against The Exorbitant Claims and Encroachments of Fanatical and Disaffected Clergymen. The Seventh Edition, with Additions and Amendments (London: J. Peele, 1743). Vol. 1.
Part of: The Independent Whig, 4 vols.
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Ecclesiastical Authority, as claimed by the High Clergy, an Enemy to Religion.
Wednesday, May 25. 1720.
SINCE there are so many different Opinions and Apprehensions in the World about Matters of Religion, and every Sect and Party does with so much Confidence pretend, that they, and they only, are in the Truth; the great Difficulty and Question is, By what Means Men may be secured from dangerous Errors and Mistakes in Religion. For this End some have thought it necessary, that there should be an infallible Church, in the Communion whereof every Man may be secured from the Dangers of a wrong Belief: And others have thought it necessary, that their several fallible Churches should have Authority in Matters of Faith, in order to keep up a right Faith in the People of the Fundamentals of Religion.
But it seems God has not thought either necessary: If he had, he would have revealed himself more plainly in this Matter than in any particular Point of Faith whatsoever. He would have told us expresly, and in the plainest Words, that he had appointed an infallible Guide and Judge in Matters of Religion, or Men who should have Authority in Matters of Faith; and would likewise have plainly marked out him or them, for Men to have had recourse to on all Occasions; because our Belief depending on this infallible Judge, or on these Men who had Authority, we could not be safe from Mistake in particular Points, without so plain and clear a Revelation of this infallible Judge, or of these Men who had Authority, that there could be no Mistake about him or them; nor could there be an End of any other Controversies in Religion, unless this Matter of an infallible Judge, or of Men who had Authority, were out of our Controversy.
It is not pretended by any Advocates of Infallibility or Authority, that God has delivered the Matter expresly and plainly in the Scriptures. They proceed, and build only on Inferences and Deductions from thence. And the Papists are divided among themselves as to the Seat and Extent of Infallibility; as the Protestant-Papists are, in respect to the Seat and Extent of Authority. And both Infallibility and Authority are manifestly absurd Pretences in point of Reason; though Infallibility seems less absurd than Authority. The Pretence of Infallibility is plainly absurd; because the Infallible Church gives constant and daily Proofs of its Fallibility: And the Pretence of Authority is absurd; because that may lead Men into any Mistakes whatsoever. But, as I observed, Infallibility is less absurd; because that is of a Piece, and consistent with, and necessarily follows from Authority: Whereas Authority without Infallibility, supposes a Power given Men by God to lead the World into any Mistakes, and to subvert Christianity itself. But however this be, they are both sufficiently ridiculous; and it is ridiculous to send Men, in order to their Salvation, to believe either in the Pope, or Dr. Swift, or Dr. Burgess, on whose Authority if Men depend, they can only be Papists, or Swiftites, or Burgesites, and not Christians.
If then God has not provided an infallible Judge, nor any Men with Authority in Matters of Religion; there is some other Way, whereby Men may be secured against all dangerous Errors and Mistakes in Religion, and whereby they may discern all such Truths as are necessary to their Salvation. Now that Way our Saviour has declared to us in these Words, If any Man desire to do his Will, he shall know of the Doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself: That is, if a Man has an honest and sincere Mind, and a hearty Desire to do the Will of God, he has the best Preservative against dangerous Mistakes in Matters of Religion; and God, or his Understanding, will enable him to distinguish sufficiently, whether Doctrines be of God or of Men, and will conduct him into all necessary Truths.
This is a true and plain Answer to the Question proposed; and also true and plain Religion, or Christianity, if Men will be governed by Christ, the Author and Finisher thereof. This is easy to be known, and requires little Time to learn. This frees Men from all Concern about the intricate and endless Squabbles of Divines, disputing which of them are to have Authority, and wherein their own Authority consists; and ought to set them at Ease; for, as Christians, or Followers of Christ, they have nothing to do to inquire, what Priests are to have an Antichristian Authority over one another, and the Laity.
But notwithstanding the Plainness of the Case, it is no wonder, that weak People now-a-days should believe in Priests, and not in Christ; should be Priestlings, and not Christians; when, in our Blessed Saviour’s own Time, the Jews were ready to believe in any Impostors, and averse to believing in him, as he himself tells us. I am come, says he, in my Father’s Name, and ye receive me not: If an other shall come in his own Name; him ye will receive: How can you believe, which receive Honour one of another? That is, (to make a sort of Application to our present Times) “You have the Bible among you, wherein I teach you in my Father’s Name, wherein I bid you search, examine, and try all things for yourselves, and to call no Man Master in Religion upon Earth: That Bible you reject, in not understanding it for yourselves; but if any Man set up for an authoritative Interpreter of it, him you will receive for your Master, and call yourselves after his Name. How can you be Believers in, and Followers of me, who believe upon the Authority of Men, and reject the Authority of God?”
Christianity, or Religion, thus truly understood, has too many Enemies to make it lost Labour to prove it true by Arguments. And therefore I observe, in Proof of our Saviour’s Doctrine, “That a hearty Desire and Endeavour to do the Will of God, is the Preservative against dangerous Mistakes.” First, That therein our Saviour recommends the best and most proper Disposition of Mind to qualify a Man to receive Truths from God, to enable him to make a right Judgment as to what proceeds from God, and what from Men. For a good Man is most likely to have right Apprehensions of God and Divine Things. Secondly, Such a Disposition in a Man supposes his Impartiality in the Search of Truth; that he has no Partiality to any particular Doctrine; and that he is superior to the Temptations of any Passions, (which blind the Mind) and has no Reason to deceive himself by receiving Things without Evidence, nor Inclination to reject what has Evidence. Thirdly, God will not suffer the best disposed Minds to fall into dangerous Mistakes; but will, as he says himself, Guide them in Judgment, and shew them his Way. Again, God says by SOLOMON, If thou incline thine Ear unto Wisdom, and apply thy Heart to Understanding; yea, if thou criest after Knowledge, and liftest up thy Voice for Understanding, if thou seekest her as Silver, and fearchest for her as for hid Treasure; then shalt thou understand the Fear of the Lord, and find the Knowledge of God. Indeed, the Bible is so plain, as to all necessary Truths, that he that runs may read; and a Day-labourer cannot fail of finding Truth, that searches it there; and is in no Danger of failing, unless he delivers himself up absolutely to some Guide to interpret the Bible for him. Fourthly and Lastly, Living honestly, and seeking after Truth, are the best Things which a Man can do, and the very Perfection of his Nature; by consequence all that God, who is a good and reasonable Being, can require of him.
I shall conclude this Paper, which I have written in behalf of Christianity, and against Antichristianism, with another Divine Saying of our Blessed Saviour: He that speaketh of himself, seeks his own Glory; but he that seeks his Glory that sent him, the same is true, and no Unrighteousness is in him. As if he had said, “Hereby you may distinguish one that comes from God, from an Impostor: If any Man seek his own Glory and Authority, you may conclude, that God has not sent him; but whatever he pretends, that he speaks of himself, preaches himself, and from himself: But he that seeks the Honour of God, and not his own Interest, Advantage and Authority, by directing Men to the Authority of God alone; that Man has no Falshood, no Design to deceive; you may conclude him to be no Deceiver or Impostor.”
The followingQueries,andLettersto a Clergyman, written by the Author of the foregoing Paper, and never before printed, are thought proper to be here inserted.
Queries concerning Authority in Matters of Faith.
1. IS there any Authority among Men in Matters of Faith?
2.Wherein does that Authority consist?
3.Who are the Men that have that Authority? and particularly, Who are the Men that have that Authority in China, Turkey, France, Scotland, England, Hanover, Holland, and Sweden?
4.Have Men in one Country Authority over others in another Country in Matters of Faith? And who are those Men that have that Authority?
5.Are there any Persons in the Roman Communion, who have Authority, in Matters of Faith, over the other Members of that Communion? And who are they?
6.Are there any Persons in the Communion of the Church of England, who have Authority, in Matters of Faith, over the other Members of that Communion? And who are they?
7.Have any Persons in the Roman Church Authority, in Matters of Faith, over the Members of the Church of England?
8.If some Persons of the Church of England have an Authority, in Matters of Faith, over the other Members of the Church of England; and if no Person of the Roman Church have such an Authority over the other Members of the Roman Church; what Reason can be assigned, for giving such Authority to some Persons of the Church of England, over the other Members of the Church of England, that will not equally hold for giving such Authority to some Persons in the Church of Rome, over the other Members of the Church of Rome?
9.If any Person in the Roman Church have now Authority, in Matters of Faith, over the other Members of the Roman Church; were there not Persons in the Roman Church, who had such Authority, before the Reformation?
10.Have private People in the Roman Church (that is, all but those who have an Authority in Matters of Faith) any Right to oppose those Persons in the Exercise of their Authority, who have an Authority, in Matters of Faith in that Church? Are not private People obliged to submit to such, exercising their Authority?
11.Have private People in the Church of England any Right to oppose those Persons in the Exercise of their Authority, who have an Authority in Matters of Faith, in that Church? Are not private People obliged to submit to such, exercising their Authority?
12.Have private Men in all Churches a Right to judge, whether the Matters of Faith of their Church be erroneous or no?
13.Have private Men a Right to separate from the Communion of a Church, whose Matters of Faith they judge to be erroneous?
14.Have private Men a Right to separate from the Communion of all Churches, if they deem them all erroneous in Matters of Faith?
15.Have private People, separating from the Communion of all Churches, as deeming them erroneous in Matters of Faith, a Right to form a new Church among themselves? Or ought they to live without public Worship, and without being Members of any particular Church?
16.If private Men have a Right to judge, whether the Matters of Faith received in their Church be erroneous or no; if they have a Right to separate from the Communion of a Church, whose Matters of Faith they judge to be erroneous; and from all Churches, if they deem them erroneous in Matters of Faith: And if private People have a Right to form a new Church upon such Separation from all Churches: What Authority in Matters of Faith can there be in any Persons of any Church?
17.Will it not follow, from the Answers that shall be given to the foregoing Queries, either, that there can be no Authority at all among Men in Matters of Faith; or, that all Authority in Matters of Faith rests in some Person or Persons in the Roman Church?
18.If there be an Authority in Matters of Faith in some Person or Persons of the Roman Church; must not that Person, or those Persons, be infallible in the Exercise of it; that is, Is not Infallibility a Consequence of Authority? Or, at least, must not the said Authority have the same Effect as Infallibility, namely, produce an intire Submission of Mind and Actions in the People subject to the said Authority?
19.If there be no Authority among Men in Matters of Faith; and if every Man has a Right to judge for himself in Matters of Faith; Can the Civil Magistrate have a Right to enact by Law any Articles (meaning such Articles as have no Relation to the Peace of Civil Society) as Matters of Faith, by rewarding Men to maintain them, and by punishing those who oppose them, or any way putting them upon a worse Foot for their Opposition, than other Subjects? Does he not hereby set up for an Authority in Matters of Faith, and invade the Right of private Judgment?
20.If Men have a Right of private Judgment in Matters of Faith, Ought the Civil Magistrate to hinder them from being free and impartial in the Use of their private Judgment?
21.Is being rewarded for maintaining certain Articles as Matters of Faith, and being punished, or suffering for opposing them, proper to produce a free and impartial Use of our Judgments, in relation to the Truth or Falshood of those Matters of Faith?
A Letterto a Clergyman, shewing the Impossibility of assenting to what we do not understand.
LAST Night I was surprised with yours of the 24th, relating to a Conversation between us at Mr. B——’s, (above a Year since) wherein you say, That I maintained several Paradoxes, the main whereof was, That a Mancannot possibly give his Assent to what he does not understand: But that you might possibly fall short in the Defence of what you espoused; and besides, was not solicitous what Answers you gave me; and therefore now write to me to prove the Falshood of the Paradox before-mentioned, and (if I think you fail in it) to desire me to lay your Mistakes before you.
I have read over your Letter four or five times, in order to comply with you; but not understanding what it is you say with respect to the Point in question, I cannot possibly do it: For while I understand not, I can neither submit to the Force of what you say, nor can I give you any Answer to it. Understanding is with me not only a necessary Part of religious Belief, but ought to be an Ingredient in all Reasoning, and common Discourse; and I can no more propose to talk about what I do not understand, than I can believe what I do not understand.
However, determining to write to you, I will endeavour to put you in the best Method of Conviction I am able, though without any manner of Design to convince you. For I desire you only to understand this Letter, as a Letter for a Letter.
Since you proposed to convince me of the Falshood of a Proposition which I advanced and explained at large to you, your Business was to refute it in the Sense which I explained it. But, as far as I can understand your Letter, you seem not to me to enter at all into the Question.
For,First, If you did, How could you make my Assent to Relations of Matters of Fact done before I was born, and Relations of foreign Countries which I never saw, to be proper Instances to convince me, that I can’t assent to what I do not understand; and appeal to my Experience in the Case? which I must tell you is against you: And I assure you, That I know not, that I assent to any Proposition about Facts, whether they be past or present, or about Things done at Rome or in England, but what I understand.
2dly,If you did enter into the Question, How could you imagine it incumbent on me to shew, That whatever bears no Relation to my Understanding, can bear none to any other? What has that to do with the Question in Dispute? The Question in Dispute is as consistent with our Ignorance of Ten thousand Things that exist, and with the Supposition of other Beings knowing more than we do, as any Proposition that can be advanced, and by no means supposes our Knowledge to reach the Extent of Things. What I affirm is, “That what cannot be understood by me, cannot be expressed to me in a Proposition; and what cannot be expressed to me in a Proposition, cannot be assented to by me.”
3dly,If you entered into the Question, How could you imagine these Words of St. Paul, We know in part, and we prophesy in part, to be decisive against me? Where is the Connection, We know in part, and we prophesy in part; Ergo, We can assent to what we do not understand? For my part, I am so much a Stranger to this way of arguing, that the Connection is to me as remote, as if you had argued; I am a Divine of the Church of England, as by Law established: Ergo, The Laity must assent to what they cannot understand.
But to proceed to what I principally intend: The Proposition which you call a Paradox, is, in my Opinion, self-evident to those who are capable of Thinking, and understanding the Terms; is the Foundation of all Discourse and Reasoning; and unless Two Men agree in it, they want a common Principle whereby to discourse and reason with one another, unless Discourse among Men be like Discourse among Jack-daws and Parrots, mere Sounds without Sense or Meaning (which I own is an Opinion I am not very remote from). And therefore I can think of no better way than to explain the Proposition in such a manner as you may understand it: And if what I say supposes the Thing in Dispute; viz. That you must understand what I say, before you can assent to it; I cannot help it, till I can find out a way to inform you without making you understand.
1.All Assent, whatever, is to some Proposition.
2.All Propositions whatever, whether they relate to Speculations or Matters of Fact, consist of Words or Terms that have each of them a distinct Meaning; and every Proposition must at least have Three Words or Terms, the Extremes whereof are either denied or affirmed to have some Agreement with one another.
3.Assent to a Proposition is an Assent to the Meaning, or the Thing signified by the Terms of a Proposition, and to no more than is signified by the Terms.
4.Knowing the Meaning of the Terms of a Proposition, is what I call understanding a Proposition.
All this I take to be self-evident with relation to all Propositions, whether they proceed from God or Man, whether they teach us Matter of Fact or Speculation; and to put you in a way of apprehending it, I will put Three Cases, which will comprehend the whose Dispute abont Mysteries.
First,Suppose God, for the Information of all Mankind, causes a Book to be published in Welsh, which, among others, contains the following Proposition, Three distinct Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, (each of which is perfect God by himself) constitute one God. Now the State of my Mind, with respect to this Case, while I understand not the Sense of the Words in Welsh, is, that I am ignorant of the Meaning of God’s Words, and consequently, do not assent to that Meaning, which is signified by them; but knowing God to be Truth itself, as soon as I do understand what God says, I am ready to give my Assent to it.
2dly,Let the Proposition be in English, the Case is just the same. If the Terms are used in Ten thousand Senses, and no Two English Authors agree in putting the same Sense or Meaning on them, and God does not any-where declare what he means by those Terms, I am as much at a loss as if he spoke in Welsh, and must only say, that I am ready to assent as soon as I know to what.
Thirdly and Lastly,Let us suppose, that God publishes the foregoing Proposition, and does at the same time only give us a partial and inadequate Conception of the Meaning of the Terms, in respect of what they signify in the Minds of Angels, and other Beings more enlightened than ourselves: It is evident, that our Assent can only be to what God thinks fit us reveal; what he with-holds from us, is not signified to us by those Terms; and as to that dark Part, we can only profess our Ignorance, and be ready to assent to more whenever he reveals more. And here I think it proper to answer a Question you put to me, Whether I admit or assent to any thing as true or probable, which is not in all its Parts the Object of my Understanding? To which I answer, That so much Sense and Meaning as is conveyed to me about any thing by the Terms of a Proposition, I may admit or assent to as true or probable: But that Part of any thing which is not conveyed to me by the Terms of a Proposition, is not a Part of a Proposition to me, and by consequence not the Subject of Assent.
So that, upon the Whole, I take it to be clear, self-evident Matter of Fact, that a Man cannot possibly assent to what he does not understand; and by consequence, all perfectly mysterious Propositions, and so much of any Proposition as is mysterious, are Matters about which we can exercise no other Act of our Minds but of Humility, in professing our Ignorance, and a Readiness to be informed about them.
Pursuant to these Notions, I readily profess to you, (and I think I may do it without Vanity, since it is all Mens Duty to be Christians) That I think I understand all the fundamental Articles of the Christian Faith; and that hereby I am ready to give a Reason of the Hope that is in me, and defend it against all Objections; which I think every Man is the more able to do, with respect to any Cause, the better he understands it: But how any Man can think himself a Christian, who owns that he understands not some of the Articles necessary to be believed to make him one; how he can preach a Religion to others, which he professes not to understand; that is, how he can make others understand what he does not understand himself; and how others can be persuaded to think themselves either the wiser or the better for hearing what they don’t understand, (one of which you must allow to be the End of Preaching) would be great Mysteries to me, did I not, by conversing with Mankind, see, that they generally consist of Two Sorts, learned Parrots, and unlearned Parrots: To the first whereof, Absurdity is the peculiar Privilege; and to the latter, Ignorance: For they have few or no Notions, and no Opportunity of taking those Academical Pains, which are absolutely necessary to make Men absurd to any Degree.
Another Paradox that you fansy I advanced was, That the Distinction of Things above and contrary to Reason, is a Distinction without a Difference. Whether I said so or no, I remember not: But as to the Distinction, I answer briefly, That tell me clearly and distinctly what you mean by the Words, (for I understand not your Explication of them) and then I will tell you whether it be a Distinction without a Difference. Till you define the Terms, so that I can know what you mean, I can understand nothing by them, and by consequence neither affirm nor deny any thing about that Distinction.
Though your Letter contains so much which I do not understand, yet, for your Satisfaction, I will point out some Questions started by you, which I do understand: As,
First,Whether I am sincere or no (implied in these Words, that You hope I am sincere).
2dly,Whether I was in Jest, or in Earnest (implied in your doubting whether I was serious with you).
3dly,Whether I believe the Scriptures or no (implied in your saying, If the Authority of St. Paul might decide the Controversy, I must be silenced for ever, &c.).
But these Matters being purely personal, and no ways relating to the Question, I give you no Trouble about them. Besides, they are of no Use in a private Letter, how good Arguments soever they may be thought to clear a Point in Divinity, either from the Pulpit or the Press.
I am, SIR,