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THE EPISTLE S.
Having gone over the historical books of the New Testament, I proceed to the consideration of the Epistles, which are a very useful part of the Canon of Scripture, though certainly of much less consequence than the others. The certain knowledge that Jesus Christ was commissioned by God to preach the great doctrine of a resurrection to a future lite, that he confirmed this doctrine by the bestattested miracles, and that, in the farther confirmation and exemplification of it, he himself submitted to die, and actually rose from the dead, which we learn from the four Gospels, is all that is essential to Christianity; as the knowledge of this is all that is of much importance as a inotive to a good life. However, we are much confirmed in our belief of the history of Christ, by the farther account of the first promulgation of the gospel by the apostles, and the miracles which they wrought in confirmation of it, which we have in the Acts of the Apostles, which, therefore, is of the next importance to us as Christians. These books having all the marks of authenticity that any books whatever have, and much stronger of the same kind; having been all published while the transactions they record were all recent, having never been contradicted by friends or enemies, having been often quoted and referred to by friends and enemies, froin the earliest times, and also having been copied and translated into various languages in a very early period, they have all the authority that histories can have.
But besides this direct testimony, there is an additional evidence of a more indirect and subtile kind, but, if duly considered, highly satisfactory, which these epistles are calculated to give us. Being as unquestionably genuine as the historical books, we are enabled by them to perceive how the chief actors in those transactions thought and felt in their peculiar circumstances; and we can compare those feelings with the feelings of human nature as we now observe it; and therefore, by considering them in connexion with the historical facts, we are the better judges of the probability of the whole story.
Thus, if we could entertain any doubts of the truth of the Roman history in the time of Cicero, the publication of his own letters, and those of his friends, corresponding with the history of their times, as found in other writers, would be an abundant confirmation of it. Evidence of this kind, therefore, from the letters and private papers of persons principally concerned in any transaction, is always sought after, and collected with care by those who are curious in history. Besides, it is more easy to distinguish genuine letters than genuine history, as they generally contain allusions to more particular circumstances, with respect to persons, times and places, of which the apostolical epistles, especially those of Paul, are full; so that no person can read them, and have any doubt of their being really his, or written in the circumstances in which he represents himself. Also, the most important of them being written to whole churches, they were carefully preserved, till so many copies were taken, that their authenticity was placed beyond all doubt.
No unbeliever, I am confident, has read these letters with due attention, as becomes historians and philosophers. If any person can read them attentively, and afterwards think either that there was no such person as Paul, that these letters were not written by him, or that the facts he refers to as known to his correspondents were not known to them, (and these facts suppose and imply the truth of Christianity,) or that those persons could be deceived with respect to them, he may as well believe there were never such places as Ephesus, Corinth, or Rome, where the Christians to whom he wrote lived. In short, he must either not be made as other men are, or be so prejudiced as to be out of the reach of all reasoning and argument.
It must also be observed, that the greater part of these Epistles were written long before the publication of any
of the gospels, so that, in fact, they are the oldest records of Christianity, and.to give a clearer idea of the circumstances in which each of them was written, and the general object of them, I shall treat them in the order of time in which they were probably written, beginning with the First Epistle to the Thessaloniuns, which is agreed by all to have been the first of them.
I would farther observe, that most of these epistles being written upon particular and pressing occasions, and those seemingly temporary ones, there is no appearance of their being intended for the use of the Christian church in all ages, though, in fact, they are of very great use, and must have been so intended by Divine Providence, and the more on account of their appearing not to have been so intended by the writers; because the writers not having any distant views, were not so particularly upon their guard, but expressed their present feelings without reserve, as men actually do in letters written in confidence upon particular occasions, and these epistles bear all the marks of having been so written.
Still less is there any appearance of the writers imagining themselves to be inspired in the composition of these letters. Of this the epistles themselves bear no trace, and in some places the apostle Paul expressly disclaims all inspiration. This, indeed, was quite needless; and the idea of it has done great injury to the proper evidence of Christianity. Were not the apostles men who were naturally capable of writing about what they themselves saw and did, and of expressing their own sentiments on the occasions on which they wrote? They evidently were so. This was quite sufficient for their purpose, and it could never be the intention of the Divine Being unnecessarily to supersede the natural use of men's faculties.
Considering, therefore, the apostles as men writing in their peculiar circumstances, with their views of things, we are not embarrassed with any objections arising from little imperfections in their manner of writing, or with any.inaccuracies that we may perceive in their reasoning: for what else could be expected from men who are not infallible? These incorrectnesses, however, are of very small consequence; and a conviction, with which every discerning person must be impressed from reading these epistles, of the undoubted zeal of the apostles in propagating the gospel, accompanied with the most indisputable marks of their being neither enthusiasts nor impostors, but plain sensible men, of genuine piety and integrity, of which we see traces every where, engaged in the propagation of what they deemed to be the most important truth, sparing no labour, and avoiding no risk, I say the full conviction of this must necessarily
interest every candid reader in favour of Christianity. If any person can read these epistles with any other feelings, it is a proof that, whatever he may pretend, or really imagine, his mind is already, from some cause or other, prepossessed against Christianity. He has, in fact, some reason for wishing it may not be true; and in that state of mind, the most unexceptionable evidence cannot have its proper effect. That the mind of man may be in this state, not only with respect to religion, but science, taste, politics, and civil history, we see continually. Let those persons, therefore, suspect and examine themselves, but more especially let young persons be upon their guard against any thing that tends to indispose their minds for embracing Christianity. If they be apprized what Christianity truly is, viz. the revelation of a future life, by the resurrection of the dead, that every thing else is either of little moment, or some corruption of genuine Christianity; and if they expect only such evidence of the history of Christ and the apostles as they do admit with respect to other histories, that is, the evidence of competent witnesses of facts, stronger indeed, and more definite, but of the same kind, I shall no more doubt of their believing the facts relating to Christianity, than they do any others relating to remote countries and remote times, and the influence of this Christian faith, Christian views and expectations, cannot but be most salutary and happy.
In Acts xvii. we have an account of Pauls preaching the gospel at Thessalonica. It was in his second apostolical progress, when he was accompanied by Silas and Timothy. He had visited the churches of Asia Minor, preached the gospel in Galatia, and going over to Macedonia, had preached at Philippi; but having been imprisoned, and otherwise ill. treated in that city, he went to Thessalonica, where he preached first to the Jews for three sabbaths, and then to the Gentiles. So violent, however, was the persecution from the Jews in this place, that Paul left it, and going by Berea came to Athens, from which city, being anxious about the new converts at Thessalonica, he sent Timothy to them, who brought him such an account as gave him great satisfaction. From Athens Paul went to Corinth, and being still