Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
By John Hales (15841656)
From Private Judgment in Religion
NOW to remove you yet a little further from this fancy of casting yourself into the arms of others, and to concilate you the more to God and your reason, I will open one thing farther unto you, which is this, That you put off the care of your faith and religion from yourselves on other men sundry ways, when you think you do nothing less; for when we plead for the truth of our profession, and appeal either to our education or breeding, thus we have been brought up, thus we have been taught; or to antiquity, thus have our ancients delivered unto us; or to universality, this hath been the doctrine generally received; or to synods, councils, and consent of churches, this is the doctrine established by ecclesiastical authority: all these are nothing else but deceitful forms of shifting the account and reason of our faith and religion from ourselves, and casting it upon the back of others. I will shew it you by the particular examination of every one of these; which I will the willinger do, because I see these are the common hackney reasons which most men use in flattering themselves in their mistakes; for all this is nothing else but mans authority thrust upon us under divers shapes. For, first of all, education and breeding is nothing else but the authority of our teachers taken over our childhood. Now there is nothing which ought to be of less force with us, or which we ought more to suspect: for childhood hath one thing natural to it, which is a great enemy to truth, and a great furtherer of deceit; what is that? Credulity. Nothing is more credulous than a child: and our daily experience shows how strangely they will believe either their ancients, or one another, in most incredible reports. For, to be able to judge what persons, what reports are credible, is a point of strength, of which that age is not capable; The chiefest sinew and strength of wisdom, saith Epicharmus, is not easily to believe. Have we not then great cause to call to better account, and examine by better reason, whatsoever we learnt in so credulous and easy an age, so apt, like the softest wax, to receive every impression? Yet notwithstanding this singular weakness, and this large and real exception which we have against education, I verily persuade myself, that if the best and strongest ground of most mens religion were opened, it would appear to be nothing else.
Secondly, Antiquity, what is it else (God only expected) but mans authority born some ages before us? Now for the truth of things, time makes no alteration; things are still the same they are, let the time be past, present, or to come. Those things which we reverence for antiquity, what were they at their first birth? were they false? time cannot make them true; were they true? time cannot make them more true. The circumstance therefore of time, in respect of truth and error, is merely impertinent. Yet thus much must I say for antiquity, that amongst all these balancing and halting proofs, if truth have any advantage against error and deceit, it is here. For there is an antiquity which is proper to truth, and in which error can claim no part; but then it must be an antiquity most ancient. This cannot be but true, for it is God, and God is truth. All other parts of antiquity, deceit and falsehood will lay claim to as well as truth. Most certain it is, truth is more ancient than error; for error is nothing else but deviation and swerving from the truth. Were not truth therefore first, there could be no error, since there could be no swerving from that which is not. When therefore antiquity is pleaded for the proof of any conclusion commended to you for true, be you careful to know whether it be most ancient, yea or no: if it be so, then is it an invincible proof, and pleads for nothing but the truth; if otherwise, though it be as ancient, I say not as Inachus, but as Satan himself, yet it is no proof of truth.
Thirdly, Universality is such a proof of truth, as truth itself is ashamed of; for universality is nothing but a quainter and a trimmer name to signify the multitude. Now human authority at the strongest is but weak, but the multitude is the weakest part of human authority; it is the great patron of error, most easily abused, and most hardly disabused. The beginning of error may be, and mostly is, from private persons, but the maintainer and continuer of error is the multitude. Private persons first beget errors in the multitude, and make them public; and publicness of them begets them again in private persons. It is a thing which our common experience and practice acquaints us with, that when some private persons have gained authority with the multitude, and infused some error into them, and made it public, the publicness of the error gains authority to it, and interchangeably prevails with private persons to entertain it. The most singular and strongest part of human authority is properly in the wisest and most virtuous; and these, I trow, are not the most universal. If truth and goodness go by universality and multitude, what mean then the prophets and holy men of God everywhere in Scripture so frequently, so bitterly, to complain of the small number of good men, careful of God and truth? Neither is the complaint proper to Scripture, it is the common complaint of all that have left any records of antiquity behind them. Could wishing do any good, I could wish well to this kind of proof; but it will never go so well with mankind that the most shall be the best. The best that I can say of argument and reason drawn from universality and multitude, is this, such reason may, perchance, well serve to excuse an error, but it can never serve to warrant a truth.
Fourthly, Councils and synods, and consent of churches, these indeed may seem of some force, they are taken to be the strongest weapons which the church had fought with; yet this is still human authority after another fashion; let me add one thing, that the truth hath not been more relieved by these than it hath been distressed. At the council at Nice met 318 bishops to defend the divinity of the Son of God; but at Ariminum met well near 600 bishops to deny it. I ask then, What gained the truth here by a synod? Certainly in the eye of reason it more endangered it; for it discovered the advantage that error had among the multitude above the truth; by which reason truth might have been greatly hazarded. I have read that the nobility of Rome, upon some fancy or other, thought fit, that all servants should wear a kind of garment proper to them, that so it might be known who were servants, who were freemen: but they were quickly weary of this conceit; for perceiving in what multitudes servants were in most places, they feared that the singularity of their garment might be an item to them to take notice of their multitude, and to know their own strength, and so at length take advantage of it against their masters. This device of calling councils was but like that fancy of the Roman gentlemen; for many times it might well have proved a great means to have endangered the truth, by making the enemies thereof to see their own strength, and work upon that advantage; for it is a speedy way to make them to see that, which for the most part is very true, that there are more which run against the truth, than with it.