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Merits of the Three Letters.
Jones of Nayland, himself an able advocate of High Church principles in their older and nobler sense, characterised Law's “Three Letters' as 'incomparable for truth of argument, brightness of wit, and purity of English.'' Later still, Dean Hook singled out these alone among all the voluminous literature on the subject, as ' perhaps the most important of the works produced by the Bangorian controversy ;' and added, “Law's “ Letters ” have never been answered, and may indeed be regarded as unanswerable.'? Bishop Ewing thinks that the ‘ Letters to Hoadly may fairly be put on a level with the “ Lettres Provinciales" of Blaise Pascal, both displaying equal power, wit, and learning.'3 Mr. F. D. Maurice is of opinion that the “ Letters " show that Law had the powers and temptations of a singularly able controversialist.' 4
One of the chief among the many merits of these fine pieces of composition is that they always keep close to the true point at issue. As a rule, the writers on both sides in the tedious but very important Bangorian controversy show a constant tendency to fly off at a tangent to all sorts of irrelevant questions. This Law never does. Whether Bishop Hoadly was justified or not in having a converted Jesuit as tutor in his family ; whether he did or did not interpolate some modifying epithets in his printed sermon which were not in the original MS. ; whether Sherlock had or had not once preached the same doctrines as
made in the eighteenth century. Though I do not agree with Bishop Hoadly's principles, I admit that he was a very able controversialist, and not afraid of any antagonist.
i See The Scholar Armed.
• F. D. Maurice's Introduction to Remarks on the Fable of the Bees,' p. xi. 1844.
5 This is noticed by Mr. Leslie Stephen in his interesting account of Law. See English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, ii. p. 161.
First Letter to Bishop Hoadly.
Hoadly ; whether occasional conformity ought or ought not to be allowed; whether the Test and Corporation Acts ought or ought not to be repealed ;-these, and other more or less irrelevant points were discussed in many an angry pamphlet and letter.
But Law, in his attack upon the bishop, always keeps to the main point, often hitting a hard, but never a foul, blow; never losing sight of his character as a Christian and a gentleman. The one question which really required an answer was whether Bishop Hoadly's assertions did or did not tend to impair the nature of the Church in which he held high office, considered as a spiritual society. Law contends that they did, and drives his arguments home with crushing force.
He begins by pointing out that the freethinkers, who made no secret of their desire to dissolve the Church, did, as a matter of fact, regard the bishop as their ally, simply because they thought he agreed with them on this point. And had they not good grounds for so thinking ? 'Your Lordship is ours,' says Law,‘as you fill a bishopric; but we are at a loss to discover what other interest we have in your Lordship.' Did not the Bishop plainly intimate that if a man were only not a hypocrite, it was no matter what religion he was of? Did he not ridicule the 'vain words of regular and uninterrupted succession' as 'niceties, trifles, and dreams'? And what was this but saying in effect that no kind of ordination was of any moment? for, if ordination was not regular, or derived from those who had authority from Christ to ordain, what was the use of it? Your Lordship's servant might ordain and baptize to as much purpose as your Lordship. You have left us neither priests, nor sacraments, nor Church ; and what has your Lordship given us in the room of all these advantages ? Why, only sincerity. This is the great universal atonement for all ;
Second Letter to Bishop Hoadly.
this is that which, according to your Lordship, will help us to the communion of saints hereafter, though we are in communion with anybody or nobody here. If a private person were to pretend to choose a Lord Chancellor, would it not be an absurdity? But was it more absurd to commission a person to act, sign, and seal in the king's name than in the name of Christ? If there were no uninterrupted succession, then there were no authorised ministers from Christ; if no such ministers, then no Christian sacraments ; if no Christian sacraments, then no Christian covenant, of which the sacraments were the visible seals.
The bishop affirmed that when he said Christ had left no authority behind him he meant no absolute authority. But Law shows that his reasons are equally against any degree of authority. Absolute authority the bishop denies, and at the same time makes that which is not absolute nothing at all.' But it was quite possible that an authority might be real without being absolute: the sacraments were real means of grace, though conditional; a limited monarchy was real, though not absolute. The first letter ends with a stricture on the bishop's definition of prayer as 'a calm and undisturbed address to God.' 1
In his second letter, Law strives to prove that the bishop's notions of benediction, absolution, and Church communion were destructive of every institution of the Christian
1 There is a very amusing squib directed against this definition, entitled • The Tower of Babel : an Anti-Heroic Poem, Humbly Dedicated to the Bp of B---r,' 1718. It commences :
· I must with decent Pride confess
Second Letter to Bishop Hoadly.
religion. If, as the bishop said,'to expect the grace of God from any hands but His own was to affront Him,' how could the bishop confirm? When he did so, he ought to warn the candidates that he was only acting according to a custom which had long prevailed against common sense, but that they must not imagine that there was anything in the action more than an useless, empty ceremony. How could he ordain? How could he consecrate the elements in the Lord's Supper? After quoting several texts which speak of grace conferred through the Apostles' hands, Law asks with fine irony, 'Do we not plainly want new Scriptures ? Must we not give up the apostles as furious High Church prelates, who aspired to presumptuous claims, and talked of conferring the graces of God by their own hands ?' What a superstitious custom it must be to send for a clergyman before death, if there is no difference between sacerdotal prayers and those of a nurse! Eliphaz should have argued that it was a weak and senseless thing, and an affront to God, to think that he could not be blessed without the prayer of Job! Abimelech should have rejected the prayer of Abraham as a mere essay of prophet-craft ! It was as absurd for the human hands of Moses or Aaron, or the priests of the sons of Levi, to bless, as for those of the Christian clergy!
After having shown that the clergy were as truly Christ's successors as the apostles were, and that none can despise them but those who despise Him that sent them, Law contends with great energy against the notion that this doctrine ought to terrify the consciences of the laity, or to bring the profane scandal of priestcraft upon the clergy.'
The clergy,' it was said, 'were only men. Yes, and the prophets were only men, but they insisted upon the authority of their mission. Was it more strange that God should use the weakness of men than that He should use Second Letter to Bishop Hoadly.
common bread and wine, and common water, as instruments for conveying His grace? Can God consecrate inanimate things to spiritual purposes, and make them the means of eternal happiness? And is man the only creature that He cannot make subservient to His designs? If it is reasonable to despise the ministry and benedictions of men, because they are men like ourselves, it is surely as reasonable to despise the sprinkling of water, a creature below us, a senseless and inanimate creature. Naaman the Syrian was, on that principle, a wise man when he took the water of Jordan to be only water, as the bishop justly observed that a clergyman was only a man.
Law then shows that the order of the clergy stood on exactly the same footing as the Sacraments and the Scriptures, and that the uncertainty about the succession of the clergy was not greater than about the genuineness of the Scriptures. Both rested upon the same historical evidence. It was said that there is no mention of the apostolical succession in Scripture. But the doctrine upon which it is founded plainly made it unnecessary to mention it. Was it needful for the Scriptures to tell us, that if we take our Bible from any false copy it is not the Word of God ? Why, then, need they tell us that if we are ordained by usurping false pretenders to ordination, nor deriving their authority to that end from the apostles, we are no priests ?
As a true priest cannot benefit us by administering a false sacrament, so a true sacrament is nothing when it is administered by a false, uncommissioned minister. So, the apostolical benediction pronounced by a priest is not a bare act of charity-one Christian praying for another ; but it is the work of a person commissioned by God to bless in His name.
Law then shows that it is no injury to the laity to assert