Project Canterbury





II TIM. III. 16.





On SUNDAY the 11th of MAY, 1777.





Printed by H. GAINE, in Hanover-SQUARE.



Text courtesy of the Archives of the Diocese of Connecticut
1335 Asylum Avenue; Hartford, Connecticut 06105
Transcribed 2008


THE following sermon was written several years ago, and was preached in Trinity Church, in this city, in April 1773. No person, who has ever felt that partiality which most men have for their own productions, will be surprised at the author's saying he was pleased with the composition. However, neither his vanity, nor the importunity of friends, have been the cause of its publication. Upon preaching it lately in St. Paul's and St. George's Chapels, in this city, it fell under the censure of some who heard it; the author hopes only because it was misunderstood. He has therefore taken the liberty to send it into the world to speak for itself, and recommends it to the protection of the candid and reasonable part of mankind, to whose judgment, however it may make against him, he shall ever pay the greatest regard.

He has only further to observe, that the sermon was written at a time when a spirit of enthusiasm prevailed much in [3/4] this country: when religion itself was made to consist in a set of affected phrases; and he was esteemed the best preacher who made the most noise with predestination, free, irresistable grace, imputed righteousness, &c. and when in support of these tenets, this man's exposition, and that man's commentary, and the other man's opinion were quoted, to the neglect of common sense, sober reason, and the holy scriptures. The author thought it his duty to endeavour, as far as his influence extended, to recall people to the study of the scriptures themselves, and to the proper use of their reason and understanding. This sermon is one among several that he wrote and preached on the occasion: how far he succeeded, belongs not to him to say.

If it should be thought that there is not now the same necessity for publishing, as there may formerly have been for preaching such a sermon, the author is very glad to hear it, and will be much rejoiced to find it true.

II TIM. III. 16.

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.

IT is not my design to attempt the proof of what the apostle asserts in the fore part of the text, "that all scripture is given by inspiration of God." That would be too large a subject for a single sermon, and is unnecessary to a christian assembly, which must be supposed to be already convinced of the truth, divine original and authority of the holy scriptures. But if I attempt to point out the proper use of human reason in studying those writings, and to give some hints for the better understanding, and more profitable reading of them, I presume you will not think the time ill employed. And if upon this occasion I ask your candid attention, I hope you will not refuse it: it is all I shall ask. I wish not to obtrude my own sentiments upon others; nor do I expect to obtain your approbation any further, than as what I shall say, shall be agreeable to the principles of sober reason, and common sense.

[6] THE scriptures, comprised under the general name of the bible, contain the history of God's dealing with mankind; and of those revelations of his will which he hath been pleased to make, at divers times, and in various manners, in order to bring them out of that state of ignorance and error, sin and misery into which they have fallen, and to fit and prepare them for endless happiness in his own eternal kingdom.

IF we suppose mankind divested of all knowledge of God, and of all principles of religion, it will admit of much dispute, whether they ever would arrive at a discovery of these points, by the utmost exertion of their own reason. This world furnishes us with no objects, and consequently no knowledge, but of body or matter; and between matter and immateriality, between body and spirit, there is such an immense chasm, such an immeasurable distance, that there seems to be no step or clue to carry reason up from the consideration of body or matter, to the discovery of a being of a pure, immaterial, unbodied nature, such as God must be. What is there in all the systems of matter, analogous to spirit? and if we can perceive no analogy between them, it seems very improbably that the mind [6/7] should ever pass from the contemplation of matter, to the knowledge of spirit. Most probably, therefore, the knowledge of God is owing to some original revelation that he was pleased to make of himself and of his nature, i.e. of his perfections and qualities, to the first parents of mankind, and by them handed down by education and instruction, and confirmed and explained by subsequent revelations, such as he saw useful and necessary for the world.

IT is not my design to depreciate or disparage human reason. It is undoubtedly the noblest, the best gift of God to man. But still, it would be absurd to attribute effects to it, which it is incapable of producing. If we carefully attend to the operations of our own minds, to the workings of our own thoughts, perhaps [7/8] we shall perceive that more discoveries have been ascribed to our reason than it can justly claim. Reason is no further a principle of knowledge, than as it enables us to compare together our ideas, i.e. the knowledge we already have, and from such comparison new ideas or new knowledge may arise. But where there are no ideas to compare, (as has been supposed with regard to mankind divested of all knowledge of God) and no senses to furnish those ideas, reason can have nothing to do; and therefore cannot possibly make any discoveries.

LET us look a little at the province of reason in the management of worldly affairs, and see how far its usefulness extends; and I am willing to allow it full as much influence in matters of religion, as it has in matters of the world; and I think its warmest advocates can require no more.--Now if you take away experience, and instruction, which is but the experience of others, and leave reason entirely to itself, it will be found utterly incapable of conducting the most common affairs of life; even those that are now well and properly conducted by people of the meanest understandings. Take away experience and instruction, and reason would never have taught the husbandman [8/9] to bury his seed in the earth in order to produce a crop. But when it was observed that plants shed their seeds on the ground, and that these took root, and sprouted up, and grew, and produced invariably the same kinds, but much increased, reason enabled man to profit by the observation, and assisted by experience, taught him to till the earth in order to increase the production.

THIS same reason man has to conduct him in the affairs of religion, with this only difference, that here his bodily senses can do nothing for him: they cannot furnish him with a stock of ideas, or a fund or knowledge for his reason to work upon: he cannot have that same sensible experience of religious matters, that he has of worldly objects. But he has, what some have, not improperly, called, an internal sense,--a quick sensibility of good and evil, or right and wrong,--which in conjunction with his reason makes him capable of religion and moral obligation. [9/10] Revelation here stands in the place of observation, experience and instruction, and gives him a fund of knowledge for his reason to work upon, in order to conduct him to the perfection of his nature, and to that happiness which his creator designed him for.

FROM this view of the matter it should seem to follow, that no revelation from God can be contrary to human reason. The conclusion, I take it, is just, and drawn from true principles; only let reason be free from prejudices, and unclouded by vicious affections. If reason be the gift of God,--if this internal sense, this quick perception, and approbation of what is right and good, and disallowance of what is evil, be the law, or impression of our creator,--both which are asserted in revelation,--can we suppose this same revelation could possibly contradict the unbiassed reason and judgment of our own minds? is not reason to judge of the credibility of any pretended revelation, and of its meaning when admitted? can then any revelation from God contradict what reason must judge of it, both whether it comes from God, and what the purport of it may be? that reason which makes us capable of any communications from God, and without which it would be [10/11] impossible to make any revelation to us at all?

BUT here a distinction arises, which has been often made, and is certainly just; that there is a vast difference between a thing's being contrary to our reason, and above its reach. Many things in this material world, that come under our daily observation, are yet above the comprehension of our reason. We are acquainted with some of the properties of material objects, i.e. we know that they affect us in this or that particular manner, but we know little, perhaps nothing, of their essence, or real nature. We are certain of the operations of our own minds; we know that we have a will, that we think, that we reflect, that we remember &c. but the greatest philosopher, however learnedly he may talk, and define, and distinguish, knows not how these operations are performed, nor in what the ability to perform them consists. Many things also we believe upon the testimony of others, of which our senses give us no evidence, and which our reason would rather lead us to doubt. It is not disparagement to our reason that it cannot comprehend every thing. Our natures are finite, and consequently our capacities are limited. To reject every thing, or indeed any thing, that comes to [11/12] us properly attested, i.e. with all the evidence that it is capable of, is, therefore, rather a mark of presumption, than of a reasonable conduct.

WHEN we see a splendid butterfly, vigorous and active, exulting in the full enjoyment of life, which, we know has lately arisen from a caterpillar that died and lay sometime without sense, without motion,--shall we doubt the possibility of a future resurrection? is it not as easy for infinite power to raise a glorious immortal body, from the corps that moulders in the tomb, as it is to raise a splendid butterfly from the carcass of a loathsome reptile? when we cannot with our utmost efforts investigate the nature of a stone or of a lump of clay, shall we expect fully to discover the nature of God, or of the human soul?--when we are utterly ignorant of the manner in which our own minds exert themselves,--how the body and mind mutually affect each other; shall we doubt or disbelieve the influence of the spirit of God upon the human soul, because we cannot understand how it is effected?--when we believe things upon the testimony of others, which, were it not for that testimony, would be altogether incredible, shall we refuse to give credit to the revelations of God, merely because we cannot fully [12/13] comprehend them?--when a man who has always lived in a warm country, where the severe rigours of frost are never known, is informed that water is sometimes so hardened by cold as to bear immense burthens, he may doubt and hesitate; but when the matter is confirmed by a number of people nowise interested in deceiving him, and whose veracity he has no cause to doubt, he would not act the part of a reasonable man, should he refuse his assent. And yet, possibly, no article of divine revelation a stronger effort of faith, than this matter does.

THE true province of reason, in all such cases, is to examine the evidences, or arguments upon which our belief is required; if these are sufficient, according to the nature of the case, reason will require our assent, even where it cannot fully comprehend the whole matter.

BUT when things are proposed to us contrary to our reason, the case is different. The mind will involuntarily, and almost necessarily, reject whatever directly contradicts the principles of reason; and it is necessary it should be so: because reason is not only one of the faculties of the human soul, but given to us by our creator for the express purpose of enabling us to [13/14] distinguish what is right from what is wrong, that we may conduct ourselves accordingly, by embracing the one, and rejecting the other; and this office reason, assisted by that internal sense of good and evil which is impressed upon our minds, will always faithfully execute, if it be but properly exercised. But if, by education or negligence, it becomes clouded with superstition, or enslaved by vicious affections, or warped by prejudice, or fettered with an undue deference to the dictates or opinions of others, it is impossible it should ever impartially discharge its duty.

IT is certainly a matter of the utmost consequence to mankind, to understand truly that revelation of his will, which God hath been pleased to make, especially by his son; because this revelation contains, and declares to the world, those terms upon which we are to expect the favour of God, and eternal happiness in a future life. But without the proper use and exercise of our reason, it is impossible we should ever attain a competent knowledge and understanding of this revelation, so as to know what it requires us to believe and to do, in order to obtain that happiness which it proposes to us. It is, therefore, a matter of importance, that we duly cultivate and exercise our reason and [14/15] understanding in a point of so much consequence: that we preserve the mind free, and open to the convictions of Truth, and ready to follow where that leads: that we disengage it from the slavery of superstition, prejudice and vice; and from those shackles which system-makers and commentators have so plentifully provided for it.

IT has been a great misfortune to the world, that the writers of systems, and bodies of divinity, of commentaries and expositions, have generally had some favorite scheme of their own to support, and instead of giving us a fair portrait and explication of the doctrines of christianity, have warped and forced particular expressions of the scriptures, to make them comport with their own preconceived opinions. Hence has arisen another evil,--that particular passages and expressions of scripture being understood according to he forced sense which some commentator has given them, are brought to establish certain tenets to which they have no manner of relation; for every commentator, good or bad, has his admirers, and with them the comment is at least of equal authority with the text itself.

[16] IT would not only be a harsh and ungenerous expression, but it would betray my own ignorance, to say that all commentaries are bad: but I verily believe that it would be much better for us to want the good, than to be troubled with the bad. At best they are attended with this inconvenience, that they have made the study of the scriptures a science,--as much so, as the study of the old school divinity, or as the study of the law, or of physic. This certainly was not the design of almighty God: for the scripture,--particularly the gospel of Christ, is intended for a rule of life to all mankind, to the ignorant as well as the learned, and is accordingly delivered in such plain and familiar language as is easily understood, and common better without a comment than with one. So that if we were to discharge all the lumber of commentators, the loss would not be great. We should indeed have less learning, but probably more knowledge; less controversy, but more christianity.

THERE needs no greater proof of the mischief done to christianity by warping and forcing particular expressions of scripture, to make them agree with particular systems, than to mention two or three tenets which have been warmly espoused, [16/17] and diligently propagated by a great number of christians, though directly repugnant to the principles of reason and common sense. And there is no need of recurring to popery and Rome for instances, the protestant world will furnish us with several.--Of this sort is the doctrine of absolute, unconditional election and reprobation, which not only flatly contradicts the principles of reason and common sense, but even of common justice; and represents God as an unmerciful, cruel being, who delights in the ruin and misery of his rational creatures.--The doctrine of salvation by faith without works, though not of the same monstrous appearance with the former, is yet sufficiently irrational to disgust any person of common sense: unless by faith you understand the whole gospel, and by works, the ceremonial law of Moses, in which sense St. Paul probably used those terms when he sets faith in opposition to works.--Of the same unreasonable cast is the doctrine of the imputation of Adam's sin, and of Christ's righteousness, as it is commonly understood: for the imputation of the merits or demerits of one person to another, is full as absurd as the imputation of his bodily pleasures and pains, or of the tempers and affections of the mind.--Permit me to mention one instance more of irrational [17/18] theology--the doctrine of [illegible] divine grace. The consequence of which is that mankind are mere machines, acting only as they are acted upon.

IF any should say that these doctrines are plainly taught in scripture, I answer, that the doctrine of transubstantiation is more plainly taught there, than any one of them: and yet we justly discard transubstantiation, and depart from the literal meaning of those texts which the papists alledge in support of it, because it contradicts the principles of reason and common sense: and upon the same account, we ought to discard all the above doctrines; and till we do, all our disputing against transubstantiation, will be but endeavouring to pull the moat out of our brother's eye, while we are blinded by a beam in our own.

SINCE then reason is the gift of God to us, a gift prior to any revelation of his will; and is that faculty by which we must judge of the purport of that revelation which he has been pleased to make, it certainly is our duty to cultivate and improve this faculty to the best of our power, to guard it against those prejudices and evil affections that might weaken or pervert it, and with modesty and sincerity of heart [18/19] apply it to the understanding of those writing which convey to us the will of our creator, particularly the scheme of redemption through Christ. If we do so, we shall be soon convinced that they every way deserve the character given of them in the text; "that they are profitable, &c."

THEY are profitable for doctrine, because they teach us every thing that is necessary for us to know both concerning God and ourselves.--The knowledge of the deity is the foundation of all true religion. If men entertain mistaken or unworthy notions of God, it will not only corrupt their religion, but it will affect their practice. To have right apprehensions of God, is therefore a mater of consequence: and it is a matter of no less consequence to have a true understanding of ourselves;--of the relation we stand in to God--of our nature and state in this world,--and of the end and design which God has in view concerning us.

NOW the knowledge which the holy scriptures give us in these matters, must be the best and most perfect that we can attain. The account we there find of God, his qualities and perfections, is given us by himself, and he must be best acquainted with his own nature: and the [19/20] account that is given of ourselves, is from our creator, who is best acquainted with our state and condition. Particularly, he has there made known to us, that scheme of redemption thro' his son, by which he is endeavouring to recover all mankind from their present fallen, degenerate, sinful state, to perfect and eternal happiness. This demands our most attentive and candid examination, because our own future welfare depends upon it.

THE scriptures are also "profitable for reproof;" they make known to us the evil tendency of the lusts and passions of our nature when immoderately indulged. They point out to us the fatal consequence of living in sin and wickedness, in opposition to he will and commandments of God. They check us in our evil courses, and reprove us for our evil deeds: and they lay before us a variety of motives and arguments to induce us to repent and turn to God, that we may escape the dreadful threatnings which he hath denounced, and may be made partakers of his promises.

THEY are also "profitable for correction" to reform the manners of mankind, and purge out from among them every thing that is evil. They not only forbid open vice, and gross enormities, but they require [20/21] inward purity. They acquaint us with the unhappy tendency of vice and sin; with the inevitable misery that must follow the unrestrained indulgence of lust and passion; thereby exciting us to sincere repentance for our past errors, and to true reformation of life.

THE scriptures are likewise "profitable for instruction in righteousness." They not only afford us the most perfect rule of life, regulating our conduct under all circumstances, but they fix virtue on the most solid foundation; upon the principles of duty and conscience; requiring our practice of it, because it is right in itself, and agreeable to the nature and will of our creator; as well as because it is productive of our own eternal happiness. They particularly instruct us in that faith, and trust, and love, and obedience, which we owe to God; in that temperance and sobriety that are requisite for ourselves; and in that justice and charity that are due to all men.

ST. PAUL had therefore abundant reason to characterise the holy scriptures in the manner he has done; and tho' his principal aim, most probably, was to put Timothy in mind of his duty to study diligently, and attend to the scriptures, as furnishing him with the best means of [21/22] teaching, reproving, correcting, and instructing the people committed to his care, yet it is also the duty of every person to study and attend to those writings in which God has instructed him in his whole duty, what he is to believe and do in order to obtain that happiness which his reasonable nature so ardently desires; and which his reason and experience both convince him, is not to be attained by the utmost enjoyments that this world affords.

PARTICULARLY the gospels, containing the history of the life and doctrines of the blessed saviour of men, his parables and discourses to the people, and to his disciples, will demand our best attention. These are written in so plain and artless a manner that there is no great difficulty in understanding them, at least such parts of them as more immediately relate to our duty. They also serve as a clue to lead us to understand the old testament, as all its prophecies, types, and prefigurations point directly to events that are there recorded. They also serve as a standard by which to interpret the more dark and mysterious expressions to be found in the writings of the apostles: for certainly their writings ought to be so construed as to make them agree with the doctrines of their divine master.

[23] ABOVE all things, when we apply ourselves to the study of the scriptures, we ought to bring with us a candid, unprejudiced mind, ready to embrace and follow the truth where ever it shall lead;--ready to give up every gratification, every interest, every pleasure, that shall appear to be sinful;--ready to submit to the will of God in all circumstances, and to obey it in every particular. The person that comes thus disposed to the study of the scriptures, will need little proof of their divine original, besides their own internal excellence. He will feel the Truth of what the apostle has said in the text. He will find his ignorance removed, his vices reproved, his errors corrected, and himself fully instructed in all virtue and righteousness of life. His knowledge of God will not terminate in an inactive, speculative faith, nor in the vain pride and parade of learned disputation. It will descend deep into his heart, and will subdue and regulate his lusts and passions: it will flow out in love and gratitude to God, in justice and charity to man. It will comfort and support him under afflictions. It will guide him safely thro' all temptations. It will, by virtue and holiness, conduct him thro' this uncertain world, to the full enjoyment of his God in a blessed eternity.


Project Canterbury