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extreme cases it be a duty, how should it be a sin in those which are intermediate? which, partaking alternately of both, suggest to the conscience continually one of two thoughts: either, "If I were always as good as I sometimes feel that I might be, I should have no temptation to doubt:" or, "Until I am a great deal better than I now am, I have no right to dwell on doubts."
For reasons like these, a person would not seem blameable, perhaps we might well judge his course the most reasonable of any, who should bring himself to reject all scruples concerning our Church with a strong moral abhorrence, as he would any other evil imagination. But it is not every one, perhaps, who could bring himself to do so; and many, moreover, being more or less answerable for others, may be bound in charity to consider the special matter of their misgivings, and to be provided with some sufficient solution of them: sufficient, I mean, to direct a simple man's practice, not necessarily sufficient to silence an acute man's objections.
Those who have learning and leisure may be referred to the many learned and pious Apologists, by whose labour, from Hooker downwards, the cause of the English Church, apart from that of mere Protestantism, has been providentially illustrated and defended. If any thing to be said in this Preface, or in the Sermons which follow, sound as if spoken in disparagement of them and of their
cause, the writer most heartily disavows it, and wishes it, so far, unwritten. But what are those many to do, who are obviously unable to enter on the task of examining controversial works? Happily we have not far to seek for principles, real, weighty, and powerful in themselves, and in their application sufficiently clear, to guide such persons along the narrow way. Englishmen of ordinarily good education have been led of late years, I may say providentially, to the pages of Bishop Butler, as to a never-failing help in their struggles against practical unbelief: and from the very nature of the case, we cannot be wrong in applying his rules to the doubts now mentioned, which tend, in their measure, to unbelief. What are those rules?
Without pretending to any great exactness of statement, we may say in general, that they are such as the following: That in practical matters of eternal import, the "safer way" (rightly understanding that term) is always to be preferred, even though the excess of seeming evidence may tell in any degree on the opposite side. Thus, if one mode of acting imply that there is an eternity, and another contradict it; though we suppose a mind utterly incapable of comprehending the evidence for it, and quite awake to the objections and difficulties, still the tremendous, overwhelming interest at stake ought to determine a man's conduct to the affirmative side. He should act, in spite of seeming evidence, as if eternity were true.
Another rule will be, that in estimating theological statements, no account need be taken of objections, which apply as well to acknowledged facts in God's natural and moral government, as to those which are in dispute. For example; a priori objections to the general doctrine of mediation are cancelled at once by the observation, that God has made the natural good of His creatures to depend in so great a degree on the voluntary interference and instrumentality of other creatures.
On the other hand, (and this may be set down as a third rule,) any positive analogies to actual experience which we may be enabled to point out, may reasonably tell towards confirming our faith in a system which has stood the two former tests. Thus, the relation of Judaism to Christianity having been accepted upon its proper evidence, it is an allowable satisfaction, and reasonably adds to our full conviction of the doctrine, to reflect on the analogy which it bears to God's providential education of individuals, by childhood and youth training them up to manhood.
These, as all men know, are some of the chief principles, whereby such writers as Butler and Pascal have maintained Christianity against unbelief. Why may we not apply them as well to the maintenance of orthodoxy against heresy ? or (which comes to the same thing) to the practical guidance of individual consciences among different schools within the Church?
I am aware indeed that a feeling exists, which would limit the principles in question to the controversy with unbelievers, and would explain some of the sad misunderstandings which prevail, by ascribing them to an attempt to settle debates among Churchmen by appeal to these maxims; which are allowed to be sound in themselves, but supposed irrelevant to our case.
But, in the first place, Bishop Butler himself was clearly not aware of any such limitation. He says, broadly and without all exception, "To us, probability is the very guide of life." He maintains, that when a person is in suspense about religion, "it ought in all reason, considering its infinite importance, to have nearly the same influence upon practice, as if it were thoroughly believed. For," he adds, "would it not be madness for a man to forsake a safe road, and prefer to it one in which he acknowledges there is an even chance he should lose his life, though there were an even chance likewise of his getting safe through it?" Further; he applies his principles to the settlement of matters debated among those who profess to receive the Scriptures such as the nature and degrees of Inspiration, the use of Tradition, the doctrine of Vicarious Suffering.
In the next place, the distinction alleged is far from self-evident. The three rules above specified lose nothing of their axiomatic force, when contemplated with a view (e. g.) to the Predestinarian
controversy, or to those which regard Church government, rather than to those which Bishop Butler had directly in his thoughts. At least, if such be the case, it requires to be distinctly shewn why and how. The burden of proof lies on the opponent. The rules themselves profess to be grounded on the essential conditions of human life and practice, not on any circumstances in the matters which Butler applies them to: and if any part of life claim to be exempted from them, the exemption surely ought to be specially made out.
In the absence of clear explanation on this matter, may we not suspect without unfairness, that it is not so much any argumentative difficulty, as certain uneasy feelings, which have prompted the scruple? It was hastily concluded, perhaps, that the principles of Pascal and Butler, carried out, would tell practically in favour of Rome: the very contradictory of which, as I shall endeavour presently to shew, is the truth, in regard at least of English Churchmen.
Or there was an unwillingness to acquiesce in any thing (to use Butler's expression) so "poor." It is naturally enough surmised, that an earnest living faith, in those details especially of Catholic Truth, which bear most immediately on personal religion, can hardly be built up upon statements so guarded and hesitating: much in the same way a traveller would shrink beforehand from venturing on a road, whose foundation is mere