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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary
or INFIDELITY is a want of credence in the word of God; or it may be defined, a calling in question the divine veracity, in what God hath either testified, promised, or threatened; and thus it is the opposite of faith, which consists in crediting what God hath said, John 3:18; John 3:33 . It is said that the Jews could not enter into the promised land, "because of their unbelief," Hebrews 3:18-19 . And the Apostle, teaching the believing Hebrews what instruction they should deduce from that portion of the history of their forefathers, says, as the words literally translated would run, "We are evangelized as well as they were; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it," Hebrews 4:2 . The meaning is, We Christians are favoured with the good news of the heavenly rest, as well as Israel in the wilderness were with the good news of the earthly rest in Canaan; but the word which they heard concerning that rest did not profit them, because they did not believe it. Hence it appears that faith and unbelief are not confined to the spiritual truths and promises of the Gospel of Christ, but respect any truth which God may reveal, or any promise which he may make even concerning temporal things. It is a crediting or discrediting God in what he says, whatever be the subject. Christ could not do many mighty works in his own country, because of their unbelief, Matthew 6:5-6; their mean opinion of him, and contempt of his miracles, rendered them unfit objects to have miracles wrought upon or among them. The Apostles' distrust of Christ's promises, of enabling them to cast out devils, rendered them incapable of casting one out, Mark 16:16; and St. Peter's distrust of his Master's power occasioned his sinking in the water, Matthew 14:30-31 . The unbelief for which the Jews were broken off from their being a church was their denial of Christ's Messiahship, their contempt and refusal of him, and their violent persecution of his cause and members, Romans 11:20 .
Adverting to the infidelity which prevailed among the educated class of Heathens when Christianity first appeared in the world, Dr. Neander observes:—It was Christianity which first presented religion under the form of objective truth, as a system of doctrines perfectly independent of all individual conceptions of man's imagination, and calculated to meet the moral and religious wants of man's nature, and in that nature every where to find some point on which it might attach itself. The religions of antiquity, on the contrary, consist of many elements of various kinds, which, either by the skill of the first promulgator, or, in the length of years, by the impress of national peculiarities, were moulded together into one whole. By the transmission of tales, half mythical, and half historical, by forms and statutes bearing the impress of religious feelings or ideas, mingled with multifarious poems, which showed a powerful imaginative spirit, rugged indeed, or, if animated by the spirit of beauty, at least devoid of that of holiness,—all these varied materials were interwoven so completely into all the characters, customs, and relations of social life, that the religious matter could no longer be separated from the mixed mass, nor be disentangled from the individual nature of the life and political character of each people with which it was interwoven. There was no religion generally adapted to human nature, only religions fitted to each people.
The Divinity appeared here, not as free and elevated above nature; not as that which, overruling nature, might form and illuminate the nature of man; but was lowered to the level of nature, and made subservient to it. Through this principle of deifying the powers of nature, by which every exertion of bare power, even though immoral, might be received among the objects of religious veneration, the idea of holiness which beams forth from man's conscience must continually have been thrown into the back ground and overshadowed. The old lawgivers were well aware how closely the maintenance of an individual state religion depends on the maintenance of the individual character of the people, and their civil and domestic virtues. They were well aware that when once this union is dissolved no power can restore it again. Therefore we find, especially in Rome, where politics were the ruling passion, a watchfulness after the most punctilious observance of traditional religious ceremonies, and jealous aversion to any innovations in religion. The belief of a divine origin of all existence is a first principle in man's nature, and he is irresistibly impelled to ascend from many to One. This very feeling showed itself even in the polytheism of national religions, under the idea of a highest God, or a father of the gods. Among those who gave themselves up to the consideration of divine things, and to reflection upon then, this idea of an original unity must have been more clearly recognized, and must have formed the centre point of all their inward religious life and thought. The imagination of the people was to be engaged with the numerous powers and energies flowing forth from that one highest Being, while to the contemplation of that unity, only a small number of exalted spirits, the initiated leaders of the multitude, could elevate themselves. The one God was the God of philosophers alone. The ruling opinion of all the thinking men of antiquity, from which all religious legislation proceeded, was, that pure religious truth could not be proposed to the multitude, but only such a mixture of fiction, poetry, and truth, as would serve to represent religious notions in such a manner that they might make an impression on men, whose only guide was their senses. The principle of a so called fraus pia [pious fraud] was prevalent in all the legislation of antiquity. But how miserable would be the case of mankind, if the higher bond, connecting human affairs with heaven, could only be united by means of lies; if lies were necessary in order to restrain the greater portion of mankind from evil! And what could their religion in such a case effect? It could not impart holy dispositions to the inward heart of man; it could only restrain the open outbreaking of evil that existed in the heart, by the power of fear. Falsehood, which cannot be arbitrarily imposed on human nature, would never have been able to obtain this influence, had not a truth, which is sure to make itself felt by human nature, been working through it,—had not the belief in an unseen God, on whom man universally feels himself dependent, and to whom he feels himself attracted,—had not the impulse toward an invisible world, which is implanted in the human heart,—been able to work also through this covering of superstition. The geographer Strabo thinks that, in the same manner that mythical tales and fables are needful for children, so also they are necessary for the uneducated and uninformed, who are in some sort children, and also for those who are half educated; for even with them reason is not sufficiently powerful, and they are not able to free themselves from the habits they have acquired as children. This is, indeed, a sad condition of humanity, when the seed of holiness, which can develope itself only in the whole course of a life, cannot be strewn in the heart of the child, and when mature reason must destroy that which was planted in the early years of infancy! when holy truth cannot form the foundation of the future developement of life from the earliest dawn of childish consciousness! The thinking Roman statesmen also of the time at which Christianity appeared, as Varro, for instance, distinguish between the theologia philosophica [philosophical theology] and the theologia civilis, [civil theology,] which contradicts the principles of the former, as Cotta in Cicero distinguished between the belief of Cotta, and the belief of the Pontifex. The philosopher required in religion a persuasion grounded on reasoning; the citizen, the statesman, followed the tradition of his ancestors without inquiry. Suppose now this theologia civilis, and this theologia philosophica to proceed together, without a man's wishing to set the opposition between the two in a very clear light to himself; that the citizen and the statesman, the philosopher and the man, could be united in the same individual with contradictory sentiments, (a division which in the same man is very unnatural,) and then he would perhaps say, "Philosophical reason conducts to a different result from that which is established by the state religion; but the latter has in its favour the good fortune which the state has enjoyed in the exercise of religion handed down from our ancestors. Let us follow experience even where we do not thoroughly understand." Thus speaks Cotta, and thus also many Romans of education in his time, either more or less explicitly. Or perhaps we may suppose, that men openly expressed this contradiction, and did not scruple to assign the pure truth to the theologia philosophica, and to declare the theologia civilis only a matter of politics. In the east, which is less subject to commotions, where tranquil habits of life were more common, and where a mystical spirit of contemplation, accompanying and spiritualizing the symbolical religion of the people, was more prevalent than an intellectual cultivation opposed to it, and developing itself independently, it was possible that this kind of esoteric and exoteric religion should proceed hand in hand without change for many centuries. But it was otherwise with the more stirring spirits and habits of the west. Here this independently proceeding developement of the intellect must have been at open war with the religion of the people; and as intellectual culture spread itself more widely, so also must a disbelief of the popular religion have been more extensively diffused; and, in consequence of the intercourse between the people and the educated classes, this disbelief must also have found its way at last among the people themselves; more especially since, as this perception of the nothingness of the popular religion spread itself more widely, there would naturally be many who would not, with the precaution of the men of old, hide their new illumination from the multitude, but would think themselves bound to procure for it new adherents, without any regard to the injury of which they might be laying the foundations, without inquiring of themselves, whether they had any thing to offer to the people in the room of that of which they robbed them; in the room of their then source of tranquillity under the storms of life; instead of that which taught them moderation under affliction; and, lastly, in the place of their then counterpoise against the power of wild desires and passions. Men saw, in the religious systems of different nations which then came into contact with each other in the enormous empire of Rome, nothing but utter contradiction and opposition.
The philosophical systems also exhibited nothing but opposition of sentiments, and left those who could see in the moral consciousness no criterion of truth to doubt whether there were any such thing or not. In this sense, as representing the opinions of many eminent and cultivated Romans, with a sneer at all desire for truth, Pilate made the sarcastic inquiry, "What is truth?" Many contented themselves with a shallow lifeless deism, which usually takes its rise where the thirst after a living union with heaven is wanting; a system which, although it denies not the existence of a God, yet drives it as far into the back ground as possible; a listless God! who suffers every thing to take its own course, so that all belief in any inward connection between this Divinity and man, any communication of this Divinity to man, would seem to this system fancy and enthusiasm! The world and human nature remain at least free from God. This belief in God, if we can call it a belief, remains dead and fruitless, exercising no influence over the life of man. The belief in God here produced neither the desire after that ideal perfection of holiness, the contemplation of which shows at the same time to man the corruption of his own nature, so opposite to that holiness; nor that consciousness of guilt by which man, contemplating the holiness of God within him, feels himself estranged from God; nor does this belief impart any lively power of sanctification. Man is not struck by the inquiry, "How shall I, unclean as I am, approach the holy God, and stand before him, when he judges me according to the holy law which he has himself engraven on my conscience? What shall I do to become free from the guilt which oppresses me, and again to attain to communion with him?" To make inquiries such as these, this spirit of deism considers as fanaticism; and it casts away from itself all notions of God's anger, judgments, or punishments, as representations arising only from the limited nature of the human understanding. More lively and penetrating spirits, who felt in the world an infinite Spirit which animated all things, fell into an error of quite an opposite nature to this deism, which removed God too far from the world; namely, into a pantheism, which confused God and the world, which was just as little calculated to bestow tranquillity and consolation. They conceived God only as the infinite Being elevated above frail man, and not as being connected with him, attracting him to himself, and lowering himself down to him. It was only the greatness, not the holiness nor the love, of God which filled their souls. Yet the history of all ages proves that man cannot for any length of time disown the desire for religion implanted in his nature. Whenever man, entirely devoted to the world, has for a long time wholly overwhelmed the perception of the Divinity which exists in his nature, and has long entirely estranged himself from divine things, these at last prevail over humanity with greater force. Man feels that something is wanting to his heart, which can be replaced to him by nothing else; he feels a hollowness within him which can never be satisfied by earthly things, and can find satisfaction and blessing suited to his condition in the Divinity alone, and an irresistible desire impels him to seek again his lost connection with Heaven. The times of the dominion of superstition also, as history teaches us, are always times of earthly calamity; for the moral corruption which accompanies superstition necessarily, also, destroys all the foundations of earthly prosperity. Thus the times in which superstition extended itself among the Romans were those of the downfall of civil freedom, and of public suffering under cruel despots. But, however, the consequences of these evils conducted man, also, to their remedy; for by distress from without man is brought to the consciousness of his own weakness, and his dependence on a higher than earthly power; and when he is forsaken by human help, he is compelled to seek it here. Man becomes induced to look upon his misfortunes as the punishments of a higher Being, and to seek for means by which he may secure again for himself the favour of that Being. The need of a connection with Heaven, from which man felt himself estranged, and dissatisfaction with the cold and joyless present, obtained a more ready belief for the picture which mythology presented, of a golden age, when gods and men lived together in intimate union; and warm imaginations looked back on such a state with longing and desire. This belief and this desire, it must be owned, were founded on a great truth which man could rightly apprehend only through Christianity; and this desire was a kind of intimation which pointed to Christianity. From the nature of the case, however, it is clear that a fanatical zeal, where the heat of passion concealed from man the hollowness and falsehood of his faith, might be created for a religion, to which man only betook himself as a refuge in his misery, and in his dread of the abyss of unbelief; a religion which no longer served for the development of man's nature, and into which, nevertheless, he felt himself driven back from the want of any other; and that men must use every kind of power and art to uphold that which was in danger of falling from its own internal weakness, and to defend that which was unable to defend itself by its own power. Fanaticism was therefore obliged to avail itself of every kind of power in the struggle with Christianity, in order to uphold Heathenism, which was fast sinking by its own weakness. Although the Romans had from the oldest times been noted for their repugnance to all foreign sorts of religious worship, yet this trait of the old Roman character had with many altogether disappeared. Because the old national temples of the Romans had lost their respect, in many dispositions man was inclined to bring in to their assistance foreign modes of worship. Those which obtained the readiest admission were such as consisted of mysterious, symbolical customs, and striking, sounding forms. As is always the case, men looked for some special and higher power in what is dark and mysterious. The very simplicity of Christianity became therefore a ground of hatred to it.
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Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Unbelief'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wtd/u/unbelief.html. 1831-2.