here are but two ways by which we know the authority of any thing to be divine; the one is by the common light of nature, the other, by a supernatural and express revelation from Heaven. All first principles and self-evident truths are considered as divine, because inseparable, as far as we know, from the nature and existence of God. They are the basis and rule of all just reasoning; they are the origin and standard of all just laws; The holy scriptures are an express revelation of the mercy and will of God from heaven, and are in all things consistent with the former; and at the same time they discover blessings of the most exalted kind, which never could have been known by the common light of nature. The scriptures therefore reveal the only foundation of our hope towards God; the only solid ground of expectation as to a future life; and they are the only authentic rule of our faith and practice in all things which relate to divine worship.
Now whatever is of divine authority, must for that very reason, be above all human power, and superior to the authority of every creature; and therefore incapable of being inforced by human laws. Not ten thousand acts of parliament can either enable or oblige any man to believe, even that truth and falshood are different things; that contradictions can never be the same and alike; or that no part can be equal to its whole; for if he see not these things independent of all human laws, not all the divines or legislators on earth, can make him understand; nor have they any right to ordain punishments for his folly; because his incapacity and error in this respect, are not a subject of human judicature.
Not all the laws that have been framed in Europe since the days of Constantine, could ever produce one additional evidence for the truth of holy writ; or make one Christian; or beget true faith in any one infidel; or kindle in the breast of any one individual a genuine love to the peculiar precepts of Christ. Neither is it possible in the nature of things, because these events depend on circumstances not in the power of any civil government to controul. Nay, the utmost that human laws can effect even in those instances which properly come under the cognizance of men, is only to refrain by the fear of punishment, from the commission of such actions as are injurious to the state, and inconsistent with the rights of society: but they can never change the heart, nor can any thing in human nature be more foreign from the real principles of morality, or of true religion, than compulsive measures.
It is not my intention to represent those as innocent who deny the truth of the Gospel; by no means. Unbelief, in opposition to the clearest and strongest evidences from heaven that the nature of man is capable of receiving; must beyond all doubt, be a very great sin: while at the same time, it clearly proves the influence and power of vice over the human heart, according to that declaration of Christ himself, “This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men have loved darkness rather than light, for their deeds were evil.” But neither is this sin ever left to the cognizance and decision of human laws, nor this condemnation any where committed to the prudence and management, to the suspension or execution of men. Nor indeed is it possible, for in that case criminals would become judges, and very often too over those who are less guilty; men who never thoroughly knew themselves, would determine what degrees of light and conviction were in the minds of others; how far an inclination to vice, overbalanced the dictates of conscience, and outweighed the force of evidences acknowledged in the heart, how far in every case, truth was resisted from vicious principles only, and not from ignorance; and how far that ignorance itself, is excusable or punishable: that is, sinful men would usurp the prerogatives of God alone, over those not more defective than themselves, which would be absolutely one of the greatest crimes that can be committed. And such will be the unavoidable consequences that must always follow from every attempt to inforce, by human laws, what is of divine authority. How can we then allow the magistrate a right to demand, in any case, under penalties, our belief in the Holy Scripture, whose authority is divine, and to determine what degrees of faith are requisite for every preacher of the gospel?
The examination, the sentence, and punishment of all unbelievers, and of those who disobey the scripture, Christ hath reserved to himself; and these are the unalienable rights of him alone, who searcheth the heart, and trieth the reins of men. No state therefore can have any just and lawful authority to impose this, or that, system of religion upon their subjects; because no religion ought to bind the conscience unless divine, and if divine, for that very reason, it must be superior to all human laws, and incapable of receiving any additional sanction from men: every attempt therefore of this kind, must be an invasion upon the natural rights of conscience, an attack upon the principles of divine truth, injurious to every system of religion, which is thus imposed; and a crime against that authority which is equally binding on all, and before which is no respect of persons. We cannot therefore declare, under any penalties, our belief of what is divine, at the command of a civil magistrate, and be innocent; because so far we should encourage what is derogatory from the honour of God, and destructive of our common and divine rights in matters of religion and conscience.
Besides, there can be no greater folly in the world, than for men to enact laws and statutes pronouncing those things to be either true, or false, which can have no dependence on any creature. All obligations to be of this or of that religion, and to provide for our future and eternal happiness, under the sanction of penal laws, are just as absurd, as an act of parliament would be, which should doom every man to death, who did not live as long as he could. To force every preacher of the gospel to subscribe on oath to the truth of the gospel; to oblige every teacher of arithmetic to swear that there are such things as addition and subtraction; and to compel every professor of mathematics, to declare in the most solemn manner, under severe penalties, that he believes a right line to be some thing different from a curve, are absurdities equally great, for which no terms can be found sufficiently expressive and strong; because the things sworn to, can receive no possible sanction from human nature; they must remain everlasting truths, independent of all human judgment, or the will of man; neither can their validity derive any strength from the oaths and subscription of the whole world.
Thus, Sir, the scriptures, because of divine authority, can never receive any additional evidence or support from human laws. Their contents relate to God, and to every man’s own conscience; no one therefore can have any right to inforce their authority, more than another. They relate to things equally important to all, and wherein no man can have any pre-eminence over others; concerning which no body of men can have any right to determine for the rest; and with respect to which, every individual must answer for himself before that righteous judge, in whose presence all distinctions will be laid aside, except those of truth and error, of holiness and vice. If we submit therefore, to the resolutions and decisions of a civil magistrate, concerning this divine and interesting subject, we act an unfaithful part, both with respect to God, and to the sufficiency of his word; and set our seal to that usurpation which is in the highest degree criminal, injurious and profane.
—John Fell, Genuine Protestantism, 1773