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John Brown on Biblical Ethics and Self-Attestation

It has been remarked, that the moral precepts of Christianity are highly valuable, not only when viewed in reference to their primary and direct object, the direction and guidance of the movements of the inner and outer man, the regulation of the temper and conduct, the dispositions and actions, but also when considered in their subsidiary and indirect references, particularly in their bearing on the evidence of the Divine origin of that system of revelation of which they form so important a part. That bearing is manifold. Let us look at it in its various phases. Were a book, consisting partly of doctrinal statements and partly of moral precepts, claiming a Divine origin, put into our hands; and were we to find on perusal the moral part of it fantastic and trifling, inconsistent with the principles of man’s constitution, unsuitable to the circumstances in which he is placed, and incompatible with the great laws of justice and benevolence, we should enter on the examination of the evidence appealed to, in support of its high pretensions, under the influence of a strong and justifiable suspicion. …

On the other hand, when, in the New Testament, we find a moral code requiring all that is, and nothing that is not, " true, and honest, and just, and pure, and lovely," we cannot but be impressed with the conviction, that the system of which this forms a constituent part is worthy of being carefully inquired into; and we enter on the inquiry not merely with excited attention, but with a disposition to weigh candidly the evidence that can be brought forward of a supernatural origin. A man well acquainted with the preceptive parts of the New Testament, cannot help, unless he is completely devoid of candor, regarding the question of its origin as a grave and interesting one. He must feel in reference to its claims, not as he would in reference to the claims of a mere stranger, far less of one whom he knows to be a fool, and suspects to be a knave, but as he would in reference to the claims of a person of whose wisdom and worth he had reason to think highly. The claims are of such a kind, and the consequences of admitting them are so momentous, that even, with all these favorable presumptions, they are not to be admitted without satisfactory evidence; but they obviously deserve to be examined, and respectfully and diligently examined.

But this is not all. A person in a great measure ignorant of what true Christianity is, as a moral as well as a doctrinal system, may, without much difficulty, be persuaded by an ingenious sceptic or unbeliever, that that religion, like so many others, has originated in imposture or delusion, or in a mixture of both. It is to ignorance of Christianity, as its principal intellectual cause, that we are disposed to trace the fearfully extensive success of infidel philosophy among the nominal Christians of the continent of Europe in the period immediately preceding the French Revolution. But on a person well informed as to the moral part of Christianity, all such ingenious sophistry will be thrown away. He is in possession of information which satisfies him that all those hypotheses, on one or other of which the denial of the truth and divinity of Christianity must proceed, are altogether untenable. There is a character of uniform, sober, practical, good sense, belonging to the morality of the New Testament, which makes it one of the most improbable of all things, that its writers should have been the dupes either of their own imagination or of a designing impostor: and there is a sustained and apparently altogether unassumed and natural air of " simplicity and godly sincerity," which forbids us, except on the most satisfactory evidence, to admit that they who wore it were other than what they seem to be, honest men. To the question, Were the men who delivered these moral maxims, fools or knaves, or a mixture of both? Were they stupid dupes or wicked impostors? the only reasonable answer is, the thing is barely possible, it is in the very highest degree improbable.


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