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If scripture, though derived from heavenly birth,
Has been but carelessly preserved on earth;
If God's own people, who of God before
Knew what we know, and had been promised more,
In fuller terms, of heaven's assisting care,
And who did neither time nor study spare
To keep this book untainted, unperplext,
Let in gross errors to corrupt the text,
Omitted paragraphs, embroiled the sense,
With vain traditions stopt the gaping fence,
Which every common hand pulled up with ease,
What safety from such brushwood-helps as these?
If written words from time are not secure,
How can we think have oral sounds endured ?
Which thus transmitted, if one mouth has failed,
Immortal lies on ages are entailed ;
And that some such have been, is proved too plain,
If we consider interest, church, and gain.
O but, says one, tradition set side,
Where can we hope for an unerring guide ?
For, since the original scripture has been lost,
All copies disagreeing, maimed the most,
Or christian faith can have no certain ground,
Or truth in church-tradition must be found.
Such an omniscient church we wish indeed ;
Twere worth both Testaments, cast in the Creed;
But if this mother be a guide so sure,
As can all doubts resolve, all truth secure,
Then her infallibility as well
Where copies are corrupt or lame can tell;
Restore lost canon with as little pains,
As truly explicate what still remains ;
Which yet no council dare pretend to do,
Unless, like Esdras, they could write it new;
Strange confidence still to interpret true,
Yet not be sure that all they have explained,
Is in the blest original contained.
More safe, and much more modest 'tis, to say
God would not leave mankind without a way;
And that the scriptures, though not every where
Free from corruption, or entire, or clear,
Are uncorrupt, sufficient, clear, entire,
In all things which our needful faith require.
If others in the same glass better see,
'Tis for themselves they look, but not for me;
For my salvation must its doom receive,
Not from what others, but what I believe.
Must all tradition then be set aside ?
This to affirm were ignorance or pride.
Are there not many points, some needful sure
To saving faith, that scripture leaves obscure?
Which every sect will wrest a several way,
For what one sect interprets, all sects may ;
We hold, and say we prove from scripture plain,
That Christ is God; the bold Socinian
From the same scripture urges he's but man.
Now what appeal can end the important suit?
Both parts talk loudly, but the rule is mute,
Shall I speak plain, and, in a nation free,
Assume an honest layman's liberty ?
I think, according to my little skill,
To my own mother-church submitting still,
That many have been saved, and many may,
Who never heard this question brought in play.
The unlettered Christian, who believes in gross,
Plods on to heaven, and ne'er is at a loss;
For the strait gate would be made straiter yet,
Were none admitted there but men of wit.
The Socinians, or followers of Lelius Socinius, denied the doctrine of the Trinity and of Redemption. The modern Unitarians have embrac some of the priciples of this sect.
The few by nature formed, with learning fraught,
Born to instruct, as others to be taught,
Must study well the sacred page ; and see
Which doctrine, this or that, does best agree
With the whole tenor of the work divine,
And plainliest points to heaven's revealed design;
Which exposition flows from genuine sense,
And which is forced by wit and eloquence.
Not that tradition's parts are useless here,
When general, old, disinterested, and clear ;
That ancient fathers thus expound the page,
Gives truth the reverend majesty of age;
Confirms its force by bideing every test;
For best authorities, next rules, are best;
And still the nearer to the spring we go,
More limpid, more unsoiled, the waters flow.
Thus, first, traditions were a proof alone;
Could we be certain, such they were, so known;
But since some flaws in long descent may be,
They make not truth, but probability.
Even Arius and Pelagius durst provoke
To what the centuries preceding spoke :
Such difference is there in an oft-told tale ;
But truth by its own sinews will prevail.
Tradition written, therefore, more commends
Authority, than what from voice descends;
And this, as perfect as its kind can be,
Rolls down to us the sacred history;
Which from the universal church received,
Is tried, and after, for itself believed.
The partial Papists would infer from hence, Their church, in last resort, should judge the sense.
* The founders of two noted heresies, who, nevertheless, as the poet observes, ventured to appeal to the traditions of the church in support of their doctrines.
But first they would assume, with wonderous art,
Themselves to be the whole, who are but part
Of that vast frame, the Church; yet grant they were
The handers down, can they from thence infer
A right to interpret? or, would they alone,
Who brought the present, claim it for their own?
The book's a common largess to mankind,
Not more for them than every man designed;
The welcome news is in the letter found;
The carrier's not commissioned to expound.
It speaks itself, and what it does contain,
In all things needful to be known, is plain.
In times o'ergrown with rust and ignorance,
A gainful trade their clergy did advance;
When want of learning kept the laymen low,
And none but priests were authorized to know;
When what small knowledge was, in them did dwell,
And he a god, who could but read and spell,-
Then mother Church did mightily prevail :
She parcelled out the Bible by retail ;
But still expounded what she sold or gave,
To keep it in her power to damn and save.
Scripture was scarce, and, as the market went,
Poor laymen took salvation on content,
As needy men take money, good or bad.
God's word they had not, but the priest's they had;
Yet whate'er false conveyances they made,
The lawyer still was certain to be paid.
In those dark times they learned their knack so well,
That by long use they grew infallible.
At last, a knowing age began to enquire
If they the book, or that did them inspire ;
And, making narrower search, they found, though
late, That what they thought the priest's, was their estate; Taught by the will produced, the written word, How long they had been cheated on record,
Then every man, who saw the title fair,
Claimed a child's part, and put in for a share ;
Consulted soberly his private good,
And saved himself as cheap as e'er he could.
'Tis true, my friend,---and far be flattery hence,-
This good had full as bad a consequence;
The book thus put in every vulgar hand,
Which each presumed he best could understand,
The common rule was made the common prey,
And at the mercy of the rabble lay.
The tender page with horny fists was galled,
And he was gifted most, that loudest bawled;
The spirit gave the doctoral degree,
And every member of a company
Was of his trade and of the Bible free.
Plain truths enough for needful use they found;
But men would still be itching to expound;
Each was ambitious of the obscurest place,
No measure ta'en from knowledge, all from grace.
Study and pains were now no more their care;
Texts were explained by fasting and by prayer :
This was the fruit the private spirit brought,
Occasioned by great zeal and little thought.
While crowds unlearned, with rude devotion warm,
About the sacred viands buz and swarm;
The fly-blown text creates a crawling brood,
And turns to maggots what was meant for food.
Perhaps this idea is borrowed from “ Hudibras :"
The learned write, an insect breeze
Is but a mongrel prince of bees,
That falls before a storm on cows,
And stings the founders of his house,
From whose corrupted flesh, that breed
Of vermin did at first proceed.
So, ere the storm of war broke out,
Religion spawned a various rout
Of petulant capricious sects,
The maggots of corrupted texts,