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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
etymologically means simply want of belief. By common usage it has come to mean (1), in a restricted sense, a rejection of the Christian faith; and (2), in a wider sense, the rejection of religion generally. Thus Atheists, who disbelieve in God and Deists, who believe in God, but reject Christianity, are alike called infidels.
I. Various Forms of Infidelity. — Pearson, in his excellent prize essay on Infidelity, its Aspects, Causes, and Agencies (Lond. 1860, 8vo), classifies the forms of modem infidelity as follows: 1. Atheism, or the denial of the divine existence;
2. Pantheism, or the denial of the divine personality;
3. Naturalism, or the denial of the divine government;
4. Spiritualism, or the denial of the divine redemption. To these may be added, what belong more properly to practical than to theoretical infidelity,
5. Indifferentism, or the denial of man's responsibility; and,
6. Formalism, or the denial of the power of godliness.
Each of these will be found noticed in this Cyclopedia under their proper heads. Riddle (Bampton Lecture for 1852) gives the following survey of the various phases of infidelity.
(1.) Rationalism. — "Infidelity, scarcely fashioned, and perhaps hardly conscious of its own true character, but yet really existing and putting forth some degree of energy, appears in the form of a rationalistic rejection of Christian doctrine. In this form, having reference rather to the substance of the Gospel than to its proofs and evidences, infidelity is susceptible of such diversified modifications, and assumes so many disguises, that it may. sometimes escape detection, and is often in a disposition to repel, with logical correctness, the charges which may be justly brought against it by those who perceive its real tendency and nature. The faintest, but still dangerous phase of this rationalistic spirit consists in the habit of making an arbitrary choice and selection of dogmas to be believed by those who professedly, and with more or less sincerity, accept the Christian revelation as a whole. From this unhealthy state or mind the transition is too easy to a systematic elevation of reason above all the notices of revelation; that is, to rationalism applied to the whole substance of the Gospel. This takes place when men systematically require that revealed truth shall be, not only not contradictory to sound reason, which is justly to be expected, but that it shall be in accordance with the independent notions of reason or deductions of the understanding."
With the class of thinkers who have this tendency most prominently affiliates Mr. Leckey, who has lately published a History of Rationalism (London, 2 vols. 8vo). His aim, and that of his school, evidently is to reduce Christianity to a system of ethics, and deprive it of its supernatural character, holding that the contest between the champions and the adversaries of religion is no longer to be fought, as it was in the 16th and 17th centuries, upon points of dogmatic theology, and that the dogmatic forms of the Protestant churches are no longer the efficient antagonists of the Church of Rome. Nor are the free-thinkers of the present day to be confounded with those of the old Voltairean school in France, or with the English Deists of the last century. Their system is no longer exclusively negative and destructive, but, on the contrary, intensely positive, and, in its moral aspect, intensely Christian. It embraces a series of essentially Christian conceptions-equality, fraternity, the suppression of war, the education of the poor, the abolition of slavery, the diffusion of liberty. It revolves around the ideal of Christianity, and represents its spirit without its dogmatic system and its supernatural narratives. From both of these it unhesitatingly recoils, while deriving all its strength and nourishment from Christian ethics. Hardly conscious of its own character, as Mr. Riddle tells us, modern Rationalists go forth under such leaders as Leckey, and declare that "the idolatry of dogmas will pass away," and that "Christianity, being rescued from sectarianism and intolerance that have defaced it, will shine by its own moral splendor, and, sublimated above all the sphere of controversy, will assume its rightful position as an ideal, and not a system; as a person, and not a creed." We see this great result, which Mr. Leckey succeeds in picturing, in a somewhat modified form, in the efforts of the free-thinkers of our land, especially since the last meeting of the "Free Religious Association," more particularly in the abolition of the Sunday laws for certain purposes in the city of Boston, inaugurated first by the followers of Theodore Parker. (See RATIONALISM).
(2.) Spiritualism. — "But while Rationalism appears to have lost much of its former reputation, there is another method of arriving at the same end which finds acceptance in the minds of many persons at the present day. These men are not Rationalists; they are so-called Spiritualists. They do not deny the great truths which lie on the very surface of the sacred record; nor do they disavow the fact of a divine revelation, and so leave man entirely to the dictates of his reason, and the conclusions of his understanding, with the additional aid to be derived from his fellow- creatures, all uninspired like himself. But their theory is this. There is, say they, a revelation made from God to man, but it is only subjective, inward, to the already existing spiritual life, or religious consciousness of humanity: the inspiration by which this life or consciousness is awakened is common to every man who will wait and seek for it; and as to religious truth, it is simply that which individuals, or the mass of humanity, so far as their powers have been heightened by the divine afflatus, are able to apprehend. According to this system, we are not to suppose that the Gospel announces positive spiritual facts, such, for example, as that which is usually understood by the atonement; but it propounds ideas which may be differently received by different men, and will possess a power and value according to the spiritual mould into which they may be cast. Now, in this Spiritualism, let it be observed, there is nothing original or new. This system is, in substance, only one of those phases of unbelief which have appeared-and disappeared at intervals from the earliest ages of Christianity, but which, thanks be to God, have never yet succeeded in making the Gospel obsolete, and in robbing mankind of the knowledge of salvation. It is, however, fraught with danger, and its power of mischief arises, in no small degree, from its capability of disguise. It can put on the semblance of Christian truth; it can comply with any form of words, even the soundest form, in creeds and confessions drawn up with the greatest fidelity and care." (Comp. Hardwick, Christ and other Masters, 1, 5 sq.) (See SPIRITUALISM).
(3.) Naturalism. — "The mind that revolts at mystery, or religious truth which we cannot know independently of a direct and outward revelation, is also shocked and repelled by miracle. Accordingly we find that infidelity sometimes assumes the form of naturalism, or an assault upon the Bible chiefly with reference to its supernatural historic elements. According to some, the miracles of Scripture were really wrought, and presented all the appearances described in the sacred record; but they were miraculous only to the apprehension of ignorant persons, who did not understand how they were performed. Far more elaborate, and perhaps more plausible, has been an attempt of recent date to exhibit all the miraculous and supernatural features of the Gospel history under the character of an aggregate of myths or legends. Such is the hypothesis of Strauss. (See NATURALISM).
(4.) Deism. — "This is a class of anti-Christian principles well known as having prevailed in England chiefly in the last century." Infidelity in this form no longer appears as mere philosophy, or speaks in the accents of calm or lofty speculation. It includes, indeed, some attempts at historical and verbal criticism, and makes some show of wisdom suited to the age in which it flourished; but, for the most part, it opens its mouth in blasphemy, and proclaims aloud the sentiments of an evil and ungodly heart. For, whether we ‘ consider the ignorant misrepresentations of Paine, the sneers of Gibbon, or the scoffings of Voltaire, it is impossible not to perceive that their opposition to the Gospel is founded upon moral repugnance and distaste. Their writings are a clear echo of that rebellious sentiment, ‘ We will not have this man to reign over us' (Luke 19:14). And, so far as the school of infidelity continues to subsist, we find its adherents, for the most part, among men of depraved moral habits, of low taste and uncultivated intellect reveling very often in the haunts of profligacy and vice, or filled with political rancor, and struggling against the restraints of all laws, human and divine." (Comp. Materland, Works, 5, 4 sq.; Hardwick, Christ and other Masters, 1, 38 sq.) (See DEISM).
(5.) Pantheism. — "Some men there are who, while they reject Christianity, and know not the true God, yet retain the impression of a presiding or universal Intellect; but, at the same time, that which they thus recognize as mental energy, or the divine essence, or even a divine being, they regard as more or less identical with nature, conceiving that, in some way or other, either God is the universe, or the universe is God. This is Pantheism in its twofold aspect." (See PANTHEISM).
(6.) Atheism. — "There appears to be only one step lower to which even the boldest infidelity can descend, and that is Atheism, properly so called. The Atheist is sometimes satisfied with taking a merely negative position. Without attempting to prove that there is no God, he simply affirms that, to his apprehension, there is no sufficient proof of his existence, or that the evidences of his being and his operation, to which many men appeal, are to his mind no evidence whatever, and therefore he holds himself excused from believing that there is a God, and from accepting the consequences which must follow from such admission, respecting the creation of the world, the responsibility of man, and the prospect of immortality hereafter. But this position, dreary as it is, by no means forms a resting-place of this infidel philosophy. Atheism, even in the present day, is positive and dogmatic in its teachings. It professes to account for the absence of a Deity, and to prove that there is no God, or, at least, that there is none engaged in present operation on the universe around us." (See ATHEISM).
II. Causes of Infidelity. — The chief source of infidelity is undoubtedly a moral one. "It is evident," remarks Pearson (Modern Infidelity, pt. 2, ch. 1), "that unbelief, generally speaking, can originate in only one of two sources; either in a deficiency of evidence, or in a state of mind and heart on which the clearest and strongest evidence has no power. The causes of infidelity, we are persuaded, are more ethical than intellectual. This persuasion is greatly strengthened by the perusal of some of the productions of our modern infidel writers." "Nothing can be more contemptible," says professor Garbett (Mod. Philosoph. Infidelity, p. 5), "than the argumentative resources of modern infidelity. It does not reason, it only postulates; it dreams and it dogmatizes. Nor can it claim invention." This testimony is true. Indeed, we venture to assert, that the general strain of argument brought to bear against Christianity by its modern assailants would not be tolerated for a moment within the province of purely literary criticism. The strong determination to withstand everything in the shape of reasonable evidence contrasts very much with the feeble argumentation by which many of the truths of religion are set aside. Be it atheism or pantheism, naturalism or spiritualism, indifferentism or formalism, the will has much to do with it. Moral evidence is the appropriate proof of moral truth. All moral evidence is cumulative; but, however strong it may be, it is never irresistible. An indocile mind can ward it off. The existence of God, (See GOD) does not admit of demonstration, but moral certainty. (See EVIDENCE).
So the personality of God, though much more rational than pantheism, does not admit of mathematical demonstration. Christianity is based upon evidence. The reason why evidence is necessary-is to be found in our moral constitution as rational, discriminating, accountable agents; and in the fact that, from the existence of evil in the world, we were otherwise liable to deception in reference to our highest interests. It could never be a man's duty to believe in a revelation claiming to itself the authority of heaven, unless that revelation bore, legibly on its front, heaven's signature, or was in some way attended with heaven's evidencing power. The evidence that attests the truth of Christianity, vast, varied, and of great cumulative power though it be, is not, however, irresistible. No man is warranted to expect it to be so. Faith is a moral act, and, while resting on a strong groundwork of proof, it must have some difficulties over which to triumph. Origen, speaking of the difficulties in the Bible revelation, and of those in the revelation of nature, says: "In both we see a self-concealing, self-revealing God, who makes himself known only to those who earnestly seek him; in both are found stimulants to faith, and occasions for unbelief." "There is light enough," says Pascal, "for those who sincerely wish to see, and darkness enough for those of an opposite description." Mr. Newman tells us it "supersedes the authoritative force of outward miracles entirely" to say that "a really overpowering miraculous proof would have destroyed the moral character of faith." This, however, is not argument, but a foolish dogmatic assertion. The Christian miracles are of "a convincing and stupendous character," and yet not so overpowering as the axiom that a whole is greater than its part; and we lack sagacity to perceive where lies the contradiction between these statements. Evidence is obligatory on man, not because it is overpowering or irresistible, but because it preponderates.
Besides the moral ground, there are certain subordinate causes constantly operating, e.g. Speculative Philosophy (q.v.); corruptions of Christianity, (See CHRISTIANITY); (See ROMANISM); religious intolerance, (See TOLERATION); and, more especially, the connection of Church and State. In our own country, on the other hand, the fact that religion is a matter of private opinion has brought upon us the charge, from the other side of the Atlantic, that in our corporate capacity we, by our peculiar position on this point, permit the inference that we "distinctly affirm that no religion is true, but that all theological systems are human speculations upon a doubtful matter, more or less plausible in themselves, and containing a greater or less amount of truth, but no one of which is so probable that we will act in a matter so important and legislate upon the theory of its truth." It is held by skeptics that it is not possible to prove any other theoretical justification of toleration, or religious equality, or whatever else the system which treats religion as a matter of private opinion is called, than one which is founded on the principle that religion is matter of opinion; in other words, that the best of all religions is doubtful. The mere non-acceptance of the Koran or of the Roman Catholic Creed, after notice of their contents, appears to them to amount to a denial of the truth of the claims of Mohammed and the pope respectively. They argue thus from the position that a nation cannot remain on neutral grounds in a matter in which it is theoretically, and practically too, impossible to be neutral, and that the 18th century theories of government, which led the founders of our constitution to think otherwise, are fundamentally wrong (The Nation, 1868, p. 345). (See CHURCH).
For further information, see the different articles referred to above, and also the articles (See EVIDENCES OF CHRISTIANITY); (See PARKER); (See POSITIVISM); (See UNBELIEF). See also Garbett, Modern Philosophical Infidelity; Rogers, Reason and Faith; Rogers, Eclipse of Faith; Riddle, Natural History of Infidelity (Bampton Lect. for 1852, 8vo); Thomson, Aids to Faith (Lond. 1861, 8vo); Morgan, Christianity and Modern Infidelity (London, 1854, 12mo); Pearson, Prize Essay on Infidelity (Lond. 1860, 21st edition); London Review, No. 5, art. 1; Ch. of England Review, Oct. 1854, art. 3; Wharton, Theism and the Modern Skeptical Theories (Phila. 1859,12mo); Saintes, History of Rationalism (Lond. 1849, 8vo); Christian Review, 3, 134; North British Review, 15, 18; Princeton Review, 12, 31; Nelson, Cause and Cure of Infidelity (N. Y. 12mo); Godwin, Philosophy of Atheism (Lond. 1853); Van Mildert, Boyle Lectures on the Rise and Progress of Infidelity (Lond. 1820, 2 vols. 8vo); Hurst, Hist. of Rationalism (2nd ed. N. Y. 1866, 8vo); Hagenbach, German Rationalism (N. York, 1865); Farrar, Crit. Hist. of Free Thought (N. Y. 1863, 8vo); Evangel. Quart. Rev. 1865, p. 162 sq.; Mercersb. Rev. July, 1869; Meth. Quart. Review, 1863, p. 687 sq.; 1864, p. 682 sq.
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Infidelity'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/i/infidelity.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.