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The study of natural theology cannot be pursued alone, and disjoined from other branches of inquiry. It has a close connexion with the study of physical science on the one hand, and with that of revelation on the other. Whether we dwell upon the nature of the evidences, or upon the truths established, this connexion is equally intimate. The stability of natural theology rests upon the demonstrations of physical truth: and upon the assurance of the great doctrines of natural theology must all proof, and even all notion, of a revelation be essentially founded. This intimate connexion and dependence, however, is by no means generally understood, often questioned, and not unfrequently even disparaged and denied.
In the discussion of the truths of natural theology much difficulty has arisen in some minds, and much misapprehension of the whole nature of the argument. The order and chain of proof, indeed, seems to require but little consideration to render it evident. Yet it is very generally misconceived. That prolific source of mistake, the ambiguity of terms, operates
very widely in introducing confusion of thought into all portions of the inquiry. The nature of the proof on which the “ theories," as they are often termed, of natural philosophy depend the distinction between inductive conclusions and hypotheses—the relative use and importance of the two-and the consequent nature and security of the basis on which natural theology rests,—are all points on which there seems to me great need of attempts at a better elucidation than is commonly afforded. And in immediate connexion with these topics, the relation in which the scripture stands to philosophy, (especially where its expressions may be opposed to the conclusions of science,) is a point most pre-eminently requiring to be better explained.
By all thinking inquirers, indeed, the importance of the study of nature as subservient to the great argument of natural theology, is generally admitted ; and the evidences which it affords are for the most part such as address themselves powerfully to the conviction even of the least instructed inquirer. And it is not one of the least weighty considerations in favour of the same great inferences, that their evidences are of a nature in some way appreciable by minds of all classes and constitutions, and of all degrees of cultivation. The most cursory survey of nature inspires reflections of the same high tendency in the most illiterate, as the profoundest investigation does in the most philosophical. And the more closely and accurately the phenomena are scrutinized and reduced under general laws, the more powerful is the weight of the evidence, to every intellect prepared to profit by such inquiry. To supply all the detail of such proofs, drawn from the innumerable particular cases evincing design and arrangement in the material world, has been the object of the labours of a long and distinguished series of writers.
But however manifest may be the particular proofs which reflection deduces from the observed order of nature,-however clear the varied features of the view presented to our contemplation by a closer survey, yet no small degree of confusion and perplexity often prevails, as to the distinct grounds and order of the reasoning.
And however elaborately followed up the details may have been, much still seems requisite in elucidation of the great principles of the inquiry. And in a searching and inquiring age, it becomes more peculiarly needful to analyze the nature of our evidence; and to be able, with that confidence which belongs to a good and just cause, to meet any scrutiny, and to challenge any fair inquiry, into the grounds of our convictions; for which we can be duly prepared only by going fearlessly into the more precise examination of the actual principles which are involved in the reasoning.
It has been well observed by Dr. Turton, “ Natural theology ...... is, in fact, natural philosophy— physical science in its utmost extent-studied with especial attention to the marks of design, which
are in succession furnished by the objects of inquiry*.”. It has also been emphatically and eloquently said, by another writer of the present day, “ The study of natural philosophy and natural theology, if rightly pursued, are one; and true science but a perpetual worship of God in the firmament of his powerf.”.
Now the object of the ensuing discussion is precisely to show how and why, this is the case; in what sense, and on what grounds, the identity of the two can be maintained. And by carefully analyzing the nature of our impressions and convictions, to render more secure the steps by which we ascend to these sublime truths; and to expose more fully the errors and inconsistences by which such advance is too often impeded, the proper relation and dependence of the several parts and stages of the inquiry disturbed, and the connexion and force of the whole broken and destroyed.
The importance and precise office of physical science in the support of Divine truth, altogether, has been too commonly overlooked, or misunderstood; and often so totally misconceived as to give rise to the most unhappy prejudices and lamentable hostility against it.
According to views of the subject, not only popularly received, but even supported by the sanction of religious authority, the entire order and tendency of the inquiry seems to be wholly mistaken and inverted.
* Natural Theology, p. 39.