Front Page Titles (by Subject) Number XVIII.: Of Authority. - The Independent Whig, vol. 1 (7th ed. 1743)
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Number XVIII.: Of Authority. - 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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Wednesday, July 27. 1720.
BY Faith is often, if not most commonly, meant, An inward Persuasion, or determined Assent, of the Mind to a religious Proposition, affirmed or denied; and such Consent can never be given but by the Conveyance, and from full Conviction, of the Senses, or the manifest Operation of the Holy Ghost; and therefore must depend wholly upon what appears to be infallible Inspiration, or infallible Information. In this Sense of the Word, I doubt there can be no such Thing in the World; for as no Man living ever saw the Miracles of Christ and his Apostles, or can prove his particular System from self-evident Propositions, or can be sure that he is inspired by the Holy Ghost; so he cannot have Faith in this Sense, whatsoever he himself may imagine.
Therefore the only reasonable Sense of the Word is, An Assent of the Mind to the Truth of a Proposition, upon probable Arguments, or upon the Testimony of other Persons; which can never produce Certainty, but only Opinion or Belief; which must be stronger or weaker, according to the many Degrees of Probability. A probable Evidence can only produce a suitable Assent; and when any thing does not appear at all probable to us, we cannot avoid dissenting as to the Truth of it. Almighty God does not require of us to give the Lye to our Understandings, and to put out and extinguish the only Light he has given to Men, by which they can discern Truth from Falshood, and Virtue from Vice.
The Apostles and Evangelists, who were evidently endowed from Above with extraordinary Gifts and Graces, were undeniable Witnesses of the Truth of the Gospel, to those who saw their Miracles: And their Writings, and the Testimony which they bequeathed to their Followers, sealed, as it was, with their Blood, have passed the Examination of many Ages, and constitute the highest Degree of human Probability, and confequently carry along with them an irresistible Authority, and can admit of no Disobedience or Dispute: They are a real Authority, in the most strict Sense of the Word; I mean, as it is applied to the Propagation of religious Opinions, and as producing a lively Faith next to Persuasion.
But no Decisions or Resolutions of uninspired Men are, or ought to be, of any Weight with us, but so far as they will bear the Examination of our Senses, and our Reason. The only Motive which any Man can have to believe, or to put this Confidence in another, is, that the Person trusted is not deceived himself, and will not deceive him; neither of which he can have any tolerable Assurance of: For no Man is infallible; and the gravest and most solemn Pretenders are as easily cheated as the mere Vulgar; and, what is more, will as often lye, and cheat others; and therefore there can be no such thing as Authority in this Sense amongst Men. For let a Matter in itself be ever so certain, I am by no Precept human or divine obliged to believe it true, till it is proved true; and it is the Business of my Reason alone to distinguish what is so from what is otherwise.
God’s Word, though to be believed without Proof, yet ought first to be proved to be his; which Proof it is the Province of my Understanding to examine. The Words and Allegations of Men, or of the Church, ought, before they are believed, to be proved, either by Divine Authority, or by Reason: If by Reason; then Reason must judge of Reason, and every Man who has it, is a Judge: If by Divine Authority; even here our Reason must be satisfied, whether it be Divine Authority or not. So that human Authority is either nothing at all; or at most only an Opportunity given, or an Invitation made, to examine by private Judgment, the Truth of what it says.
All Books, therefore, except the Holy Scriptures, and all Names, except those of our Blessed Saviour, and his inspired Followers, ought to be of no Authority with us, any farther than to convince our Understandings by solid Arguments, and self-evident Truths; and a Beggar, or a Cobler, when he can do this, is so far intitled to equal Credit, or, if you will, to equal Authority, with Councils and Fathers.
Every Man, that reasons with you, appeals to your Reason, and his Arguments lie at your Mercy, whether you will believe them or no; and every Man, who brings you only his Assertions, ought also to bring you his Proofs, or else you are at full Liberty to reject or despise them: It adds nothing to his Weight in this matter, that perhaps he wears a cloven Cap, or a sable Gown: There have been no greater Deceivers of Mankind, than such as have worn these Emblems of Gravity; and indeed Gravity has ever been one essential Characteristic of Imposture.
There is no Authority in sounding and sanctified Names, whether they be those of Archbishops, Bishops, Priests or Deacons. It is very certain, that these goodly Words are so far from having any Charm in them against Deceit and Roguery, that the completest of all Villainies, and the most masterly and mischievous of all Delufions, have been, and still are, protected and propagated by them in Popish and other Priest-ridden Nations. His Holiness, and Most Holy, are Terms appropriated to St. Peter’s Chair, (and in our precious Pope Laud’s Days they began to be current at Lambeth) although most that filled that Chair, have lived at Defiance with God and Man, and were the greatest Deceivers and Disturbers of the World.
Nor is there any certain Authority in Learning of any Kind or Degree. Who are better Scholars, or greater Rogues, than the Jesuits? Who was a more learned Man, or a greater Simpleton, than Mr. Dodwell? And, as to his genuine Ancestors, Aquinas and Scotus, those celebrated Founders of the Schools, who have been long the infallible Guides of the infallible Church, they were the most voluminous and most unintelligible Dunces, that ever dabbled in Sophistry, and darkened common Sense.
Pray what Evidence of Truth necessarily attends the Knowledge of the Oriental Tongues? The Jews understand Hebrew, and the Turks Arabic; and yet both continue fierce and obstinate Enemies to Christianity.
Nor are Men the more to be trusted, merely because they are acquainted with Ecclesiastical History, and the Fathers. As to the Fathers, they are guilty of grievous Errors against Orthodoxy, and Church Power; insomuch that Father Petavius the Jesuit has pretended to prove, that most of them were infected with Heresy, especially in their Notions about the Undivided Trinity. We all know, that St. Austin (the Foreman of all the Latin Saints and Fathers) was for admitting Children to the Lord’s Supper, contrary to the Doctrine and Practice of our Church of England as by Law established. St. Jerom derives Episcopal Power from the Instigation of the Devil, which is also an impudent Reflection upon our Orthodox Church. St. Basil (I think it was) very fairly challenged the Emperor, his Liege Lord, to fight him; in Defiance of the Doctrine of Passive Obedience, which is the peculiar Doctrine of our High Churchmen; and which unless a Man believes and practises, he cannot be saved. St. Ambrose bullied Theodosius, the Lord’s Anointed; and refused to admit his Imperial Majesty to partake of the Lord’s Body, till he had made his humble Submission. St. Gregory Nazianzen gives a miserable and vile Character of Synods and Councils; and his Grace of Canterbury* , when he was Bishop of Lincoln, and before, did the same. Dr. Prideaux shews Tertullian to have been a credulous weak Man, often mistaken and misled.
As to Ecclesiastical History, which is nothing but many large Volumes, containing some few of the Squabbles of the Bishops and inferior Clergy with one another, and all the World; I know not whether the Use of it can much alter for the better any Man’s Life and Principles; since the most which he can learn by it is, that the Reverend Heroes of the Story were eternally cussing and contradicting one another. Nothing of Humility, nor of Charity, nor of Uniformity, nor of Certainty, is to be found amongst them, or learned from them. And I know not at this Day any prevailing Opinion of any Sect of Christians, but what is both countenanced and condemned by one Father, or another.
Lastly; even the most apparent Piety, the most disinterested Mind, and the most unblameable Life, though to me certain Signs of a good Man, yet in the Eye of our best High Churchmen, are only shining Sins, and cannot intitle the Possessor to the least good Word or Tenderness, much less to any Authority amongst Men. Dr. Clarke, Mr. Whiston, and others, are undeniable Instances of this Truth.
Upon the Whole, Authority, as it is generally understood, is a Word pregnant with Danger and Nonsense. It is a false misleading Light, or rather none at all; for those who follow it, do only grope in the dark: When we blindly trust to another, our own Eyes grow useless, or may give Offence.
This shews its Peril; and for its Absurdity, it will appear from hence, that it is impossible to trust to one Authority, without trusting to more. For, either my own Reason must be consulted and followed; and if so, there is an End of all Authority: Or else, I must trust to some Authority to direct me what Authority I must trust to. And, if I have Liberty to chuse my first Guide, why not also my second, and so on? For no Reason can be given, why I may rely on my Judgment in one Case, and yet must resign it in just such another Case.
But if no Choice at all is left us in these Matters, pray how shall we discern Heresy from Orthodoxy, and a regular Set of Ecclesiastics, from an irregular? If I am born in Scotland, and educated in the Presbyterian Way; must I continue in an invincible Antipathy to what is there called proud, lordly, Prelacy, and superstitious Surplices, and Popish Ceremonies? Or, have I a Right to examine and embrace the Doctrine and Discipline of our Orthodox, Established Church? Or, am I to embrace them without examining them? And is my Judgment to approve and condemn, only what the Parson approves and condemns; and, in all other Spiritual Matters, to lie still, and take its Rest? If I leave one Church for another, out of Judgment; how am I to behave myself when my Judgment changes? Or, is it our Duty to conform in spite of our Inclinations? And have we no Right to dissent with Conscience and Conviction on our Side?
To conform without consenting, is a Contradiction, and a Mockery to the Spirit of Religion: And to conform, because I approve, is no Compliment to Authority, but, indeed, destroys it, and justifies every Man in every Religion, provided he have taken all necessary Pains to find out the true one. If I have a Liberty to inquire which is the best Church, I have also a Liberty to blame its Errors, if I see any, as well as to admire its Excellencies: And the Authority of no Man or Men shall determine me in either, in Opposition to my Reason. If I praise the Advantages of any Church, I am myself praised by its Votaries, for doing Justice to those Advantages, which my Reason shews me: But if the same Reason discover Blemishes in it, I am condemned by the same Votaries, for what I cannot help: So that I am applauded for Seeing, and damned for Seeing, at the same Time, and from the same Principle; namely, that of Passion and Partiality.
There is therefore no Authority but Two, Scripture and Reason. The Scripture is our Rule of Faith; and Reason, where God gives not his Spirit, is our Rule for understanding the Scripture.
[* ]The late Dr. William Wake.