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Of the infal. libility of Tradition in general.
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 stopped 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 secured, 270
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. 275
Oh, but says one, Tradition set aside,
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 280
Or truth in Church tradition must be found.
Such an omniscient Church we wish indeed;
'Twere worth both Testaments, and cast in the Creed;
But if this mother be a guide so sure
As can all doubts resolve, all truth secure, 285
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, 290
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, 295
God would not leave mankind without a way:
behalf of Tradition urged by Father Simon.
And that the Scriptures, though not everywhere
Free from corruption, or entire, or clear,
Are uncorrupt, sufficient, clear, entire,
In all things which our needful faith 'require. 300
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 ?
305 Objection in
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.. 310
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. 315
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, 320
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; I
For the strait gate would be made straiter yet,
Were none admitted there but men of wit. i 325
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 tenour of the work divine, 330
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, disinteressed, and clear: 335
That ancient Fathers thus expound the page
Gives truth the reverend majesty of age,
Confirms its force by biding every test,
For best authorities, next rules, are best;
And still the nearer to the spring we go, 340
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 350
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 its self believed.
The partial Papists would infer from hence,
Their Church in last resort should judge the sense.
But first they would assume with wondrous 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 361
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; 365
The welcome news is in the letter found;
The carrier's not commissioned to expound.
It speaks its self, and what it does contain
In all things needful to be known is plain.
In times o'ergrown with rust and ignorance 370
A gainful trade their clergy did advance;
When want of learning kept the laymen low
And none but priests were authorized to know; \
kligawdwell When what small knowledge was in them did dwell And he a God who could but read or spell ; 375 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, 380 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. X Yet, whate'er false conveyances they made, The lawyer still was certain to be paid.
385 In those dark times they learned their knack so well, That by long use they grew infallible. At last, a knowing age began to inquire 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, 391 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, 395 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,
400 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; 405 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; 410
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, 415 Occasioned by great zeal and little thought. While crowds unlearned, with rude devotion warm, About the sacred viands buzz and swarm; The fly-blown text creates a crawling brood And turns to maggots what was meant for food. 420 A thousand daily sects rise up and die, A thousand more the perished race supply: So all we make of Heaven's discovered will Is not to have it or to use it ill. , The danger's much the same, on several shelves 425 XIf others wreck us or we wreck ourselves.
What then remains but, waving each extreme, The tides of ignorance and pride to stem? Neither so rich a treasure to forgo Nor proudly seek beyond our power to know ? 430 Faith is not built on disquisitions vain; The things we must believe are few and plain : But since men will believe more than they need And every man will make himself a creed, In doubtful questions 'tis the safest way
435 To learn what unsuspected ancients say; For 'tis not likely we should higher soar In search of Heaven than all the Church before; Nor can we be deceived, unless we see The Scripture and the Fathers disagree. If after all they stand suspected still, (For no man's faith depends upon his will,) 'Tis some relief, that points not clearly known Without much hazard may be let alone; And after hearing what our Church can say, 445 If still our reason runs another way, That private reason 'tis more just to curb Than by disputes the public peace disturb.