Perhaps the main objection taken to the Church system, is the dislike which men feel of its doctrines. They call them the work of priestcraft, and in that word is summed up all that they hate in them. Priestcraft is the art of gaining power over men by appeals to their consciences; its instrument is mystery; its subject-matter, superstitious feeling. "Now the Church doctrines," it is urged, "invest a certain number of indifferent things with a new and extraordinary power, beyond sense, beyond reason, beyond nature, a power over the soul; and they put the exclusive possessions and use of the things thus distinguished into the hands of the Clergy. Such, for instance, is the Creed; some mysterious benefit is supposed to result from holding it, even though with but a partial comprehension, and the Clergy are practically its sole expounders. Such still more are the Sacraments, which the Clergy only administer, and which are supposed to effect some supernatural change in the soul, and to convey some supernatural gift." This then is the antecedent exception taken against the Catholic doctrines, that they are mysterious, tending to superstition, and to dependence on a particular set of men. And this object is urged, not merely as a reason for demanding fair proof of what is advanced, but as a reason for refusing to listen to any proof whatever, as if it fairly created an insurmountable presumption against the said doctrines.
Now I say, in like manner, were it not for our happy reverence for the Canon of Scripture, we should take like exception to many things in Scripture; and, since we do not, neither ought we, consistently, to take this exception to the Catholic system; but if we do take such grounds against that system, there is nothing but the strength of habit, good feeling, and our Lord's controlling grace, to keep us from using them against Scripture also. This I shall now attempt to show, and with that view, shall cite various passages in Scripture which, to most men of this generation, will appear at first sight strange, superstitious, incredible, and extreme. If then, in spite of these, Scripture is nevertheless from God, so again, in spite of similar apparent difficulties, the Catholic system may be from Him also; and what the argument comes to is this, that the minds of none of us are in such a true state, as to warrant us in judging peremptorily in every case what is from God and what is not. We shrink from the utterances of His providence with offence, as if they were not His, in consequence of our inward ears being attuned to false harmonies. Now for some instances of what I mean.
1. I conceive, were we not used to the Scripture narrative, that we should be startled at the accounts there given us of demoniacs.—For instance: "And He asked him, What is thy name? And He answered, My name is Legion, for we are many." [Mark v. 9.]—Again, consider the passage, "When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none," [Matt. xii. 43.] etc.; and in like manner, the account of the damsel who was "possessed of a spirit of divination," or "Python," that is, of a heathen god, in Acts xvi.; and in connexion with this, St. Paul's assertion "that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils and not to God," [1 Cor. x. 20.] and this as being so literally true that he deduces a practical conclusion from it: "I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils." But, as regards this instance, we are not at all driven to conjecture, but we know it is really the case, that they who allow themselves to treat the inspired text freely, do at once explain away, or refuse to admit its accounts of this mysterious interference of evil spirits in the affairs of men. Let those then see to it, who call the Fathers credulous for recording similar narratives. If they find fault with the evidence, that is an intelligible objection; but the common way with objectors is at once and before examination to charge on the narrators of such accounts childish superstition and credulity.
2. If we were not used to the narrative, I conceive we should be very unwilling to receive the account of the serpent speaking to Eve, or its being inhabited by an evil spirit; or, again, of the devils being sent into the swine. We should scoff at such narratives, as fanciful and extravagant. Let us only suppose that, instead of being found in Scripture, they were found in some legend of the middle ages; should we merely ask for evidence, or simply assume that there was none? Should we think that it was a case for evidence one way or the other? Should we not rather say, "This is intrinsically incredible?—it supersedes the necessity of examining into evidence, it decides the case." Should we allow the strangeness of the narrative merely to act as suspending our belief, and throwing the burden of proof on the other side, or should we not rather suffer it to settle the question for us? Again, should we have felt less distrust in the history of Balaam's ass speaking? Should we have been reconciled to the account of the Holy Ghost appearing in a bodily shape, and that apparently the shape of an irrational animal, a dove? And, again, though we might bear the figure of calling our Saviour a lamb, if it occurred once, as if to show that He was the antitype of the Jewish sacrifices, yet, unless we were used to it, would there not be something repugnant to our present habits of mind in calling again and again our Saviour by the name of a brute animal? Unless we were used to it, I conceive it would hurt and offend us much to read of "glory and honour" being ascribed to Him that sitteth upon the Throne and to the Lamb, as being a sort of idolatry, or at least an unadvised way of speaking. It seems to do too much honour to an inferior creature, and to dishonour Christ. You will see this, by trying to substitute any other animal, however mild and gentle. It is said that one difficulty in translating the New Testament into some of the oriental languages actually is this, that the word in them for Lamb does not carry with it the associations which it does in languages which have had their birth in Christianity. Now we have a remarkable parallel to this in the impression produced by another figure, which was in use in primitive times, when expressed in our own language. The ancients formed an acrostic upon our Lord's Greek titles as the Son of God, the Saviour of men, and in consequence called Him from the first letters ιχθυς, or "fish." Hear how a late English writer speaks of it. "This contemptible and disgusting quibble originated in certain verses of one of the pseudo-sibyls ... I know of no figure which so revoltingly degrades the person of the Son of God." Such as this is the nature of the comment made in the farther east on the sacred image of the Lamb.
But without reference to such peculiar associations, which vary with place and person, there is in the light of reason a strangeness, perhaps, in God's allowing material symbols of Himself at all; and, again, a greater strangeness in His vouchsafing to take a brute animal as the name of His Son, and bidding us ascribe praise to it. Now it does not matter whether we take all these instances separate or together. Separate, they are strange enough; put them together, you have a law of God's dealings, which accounts indeed for each separate instance, yet does not make it less strange that the brute creation should have so close a connexion with God's spiritual and heavenly kingdom. Here, moreover, it is in place to make mention of the "four beasts" spoken of in the Apocalypse as being before God's throne. Translate the word "living thing," as you may do, yet the circumstance is not less startling. They were respectively like a lion, calf, man, and eagle. To this may be added the figure of the Cherubim in the Jewish law, which is said to have been a symbol made up of limbs of the same animals. Is it not strange that Angels should be represented under brute images? Consider, then, if God has thus made use of brutes in His supernatural acts and in His teaching, as real instruments and as symbols of spiritual things, what is there strange antecedently in supposing He makes use of the inanimate creation also? If Balaam's ass instructed Balaam, what is there fairly to startle us in the Church's doctrine, that the water of Baptism cleanses from sin, that eating the consecrated Bread is eating His Body, or that oil may be blessed for spiritual purposes, as is still done in our Church in the case of a coronation? Of this I feel sure, that those who consider the doctrines of the Church incredible, will soon, if they turn their thoughts steadily that way, feel a difficulty in the serpent that tempted Eve, and the ass that admonished Balaam.