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Of two Opinions equally probable, upon the Account of their
proper Reasons, one may be safer than another. That is more probable, which hath fairer reasons; that is more safe, that is furthest distant from a sin: and although this be always considerable in the matter of prudence, and in the whole conjunction of affairs, yet it is not always a proper ingredient in the question. The abbot of Lerius hath the patronage of some ecclesiastical preferments in the neighbourhood; he, for affection, prefers to one of them an ignorant and a vicious clerk. But, afterwards being troubled in conscience, inquires if he be not bound to restitution. He is answered, No; because it is in the matter of distributive justice, which binds not to repair that which is past, any other ways but by repentance to God, and provisions for the future : yet he being perplexed, and unsatisfied, does restore so much fruits to the next worthy incumbent, as the former unworthy clerk did eat. This was the surer course, and it procured peace to him; but the contrary was the more probable answer. It is safer to restore all gains of usury; but it is more probable that a man is not obliged to it. In which cases the advantage lies not on that side, that is more probable, but on that which is more safe; as in these sentences that oblige to restitution. For although either part avoids a formal sin, yet the safer side also persuades to an action that is materially good, such as restitution is; but not to restore, although in these cases it may be innocent, yet, in no sense, can it, of itself, be laudable.
To which also in these cases it may be added, that on the safer side there is a physical, or natural and proper certainty, that we sin not: on the other, though there is a greater probability, that there is no obligation, yet, at most, it can make but some degrees of moral certainty. But how far this course is to be chosen and pursued, or how far the other is to be preferred, will afterwards be disputed.
An Opinion that is speculatively probable, is not always
practically the same. In a right and sure conscience the speculative and the practical judgment are always united, as I have before a explicated; but in opinions that are but probable, the case is contrary. It is in speculation probable, that it is lawful to baptize in the name of the Lord Jesus; but yet, he that shall do this practically, does improbably and unreasonably. If the opinion of the primitive Christians had been probable that it is lawful to communicate infants, yet it were at no hand fitting to be done in the present constitution of affairs; and it were highly useful, if men would consider this effectually; and not from every tolerable opinion instantly run to an unreasonable and intolerable practice.
For a speculation considers the nature of things abstractedly from circumstances physically or metaphysically; and yet when it comes to be reduced to practice, what, in the head, was innocent, will, upon the hand, become troublesome and criminal. If there were nothing in it but the disorder of the novelty or the disturbance of men's minds in a matter that is but probable, it were highly enough to reprove this folly. Every man's imperfect discourse or half reasons are neither fit to govern the actions of others or himself. Suppose it probable (which the Greek church believes), that the consecration of the blessed eucharist is not made by the words of institution, but by the prayers of the holy man that ministers, the bishop or the priest ;-yet when this is reduced to practice, and that a man shall omit the words of institution or consecration, his practice is more to be reproved than his opinion could be possibly allowed. Some think churches not to be more sacred than other places : what degree of probability soever this can have, yet it is a huge degree of folly to act this opinion, and to choose a barn to pray in, when a church may be had.
For there are, in actions, besides the proper ingredients of their intrinsical lawfulness or consonancy to reason, a
great many outsides and adherencies, that are considerable beyond the speculation. The want of this consideration hath done much evil in many ages; and amongst us nothing hath been more usual than to dispute concerning a rite or sacramental, or a constitution whether it be necessary, and whether the contrary be not lawful; and if it be found probably so as the inquirers would have it, immediately they reduced it to practice, and caused disorder and scandal, schism and uncharitableness amongst men, while they thought that Christian liberty could not be preserved in the understanding, unless they disorder all things by a practical conclusion. 6. Videas quosdam, quibus sua libertas non videtur consistere, nisi per esum carnium die Veneris in ejus possessionem venerintb;" Calvin complains with reason.
It is a strange folly that men will not think they have possession of Christian liberty, unless they break all laws and all customs; as if men could not prove things to be indifferent, and not obligatory, unless they certainly omit them. Christian liberty consists in the head, not in the hand; and when we know we are free from the bondage, we may yet do the work; and when our gracious Lord hath knocked our fetters off, we may yet think it to be fit to do what his stewards command us in order to his services. It is free to us to eat or to abstain, to contain or to marry; but he that only marries because he would triumph and brag of his freedom, may get an imperious mistress instead of a gentle master. By the laws of Christian liberty, indifferent things are permitted to my choice, and I am not under their power; but no Christian liberty says, that I am free from the power of a man, though I be from the power of the thing; and although in speculation, this last was sufficient to be considered, yet when the opinion comes to be reduced to practice, the other also ought to have been thought upon. And besides this, it is a strange pertness and boldness of spirit, so to trust every fancy of my own, as to put the greatest interest upon it; so to be in love with every opinion, and trifling conceit, as to value it beyond the peace
of the church, and the wiser customs of the world, or the laws and practices of a wise and well instructed community of men. Nothing can make recompense for a certain
b Lib. iii. cap. 9. Instit.
change but a certain truth, with apparent usefulness in order to charity, piety, or institution.
These instances are in the matter of religion; it may also happen thus in the matter of justice. When Lamech perceived something stir in a bush, it was very probable it was a wild beast; but when he came to reduce his opinion to practice, he shot at it, and killed a man. And, in the matter of justice, there is a proper reason for this rule: because, in matters of right or wrong, possession is not to be altered without certainty, and therefore neither can I seize upon my goods in another man's hand, unless I be sure they are mine, though I were not otherwise restrained by human laws; neither may I expose any thing to danger, of which I am not certainly master.
This also is, with great caution, to be observed in the matter of chastity. Although it may be true, that, in many cases, such or such aspects or approximations may be lawful; that is, those things so far as they are considered, have no dissonancy from reason : yet he that shall reduce this opinion to practice, must also remember, that he is to deal with flesh and blood, which will take fire, not only from permissions, but from prohibitions and restraints, and will pass instantly from lawful to unlawful: and although this may not be a sin in consideration and discourse, but is to be acquitted by the sentence of the schools and pulpit, yet when it comes to be viewed and laid before the judgment in the court of conscience, and as it was clothed with circumstances,- it will be found, that when it came to be practised, other parts or senses were employed, which cannot make such separations, but do something else.
But if it be asked, To what purpose it can be, that any man should inquire of the lawfulness of such actions, which whether they be lawful or unlawful, yet may not be done? I answer, that the inquiry is necessary for the direct avoiding a sin in the proper matter of the instance;' for he that never inquires, sins for want of inquiry, and despises his soul, because he takes no care that it be rightly informed: but if he inquires, and be answered that the opinion is false, or the action criminal,-he finds by the answer, that it was worth his pains to ask, because by it he is taught to avoid a sin : but then, besides the question of lawful or unlawful, there
are further inquiries to be made concerning fitting and unfitting, offensive or complying, safe or dangerous, abstractedly or in relation ; for many things, which are lawful in themselves, become very bad to him that does them, and to him that suffers them.
The greater Probability destroys the lesë. That is, it is not lawful • directly to choose an opinion, that seems less probable, before that which is more probable ; I
say, directly;' for if the less probable be more safe, it becomes accidentally more eligible; of which I have already a given account, and shall add something afterward b. But without this accident, the degrees of safety are left to follow the degrees of probability. For when the safety does not depend upon the matter, it must depend upon the reasons of the inducement; and because the safety must increase consequently to the probability, it is against charity to omit that, which is safer, and to choose that, which is less safe.
For it is not in moral things, as it is in natural, where a less sweet is still sweet, though not so sweet as that which is more: and the flowers of trefoil are pleasant, though honey be far more pleasant; and Phædon may be wise, though he be not so wise as Plato: because there are degrees of intension and remission in these qualities : and if we look upon two probable propositions, and consider them naturally, they are both consonant to reason in their apparencies, though in several degrees. So that if Sempronius choose a less probable, before he hath learned what is more probable, he hath done well and safely. But when the two probables are compared, to reject that which is more probable is to do, 1. Unnaturally: 2. and unreasonably; 3. and imprudently.
1. Unnaturally In matters proposed to the will,--the will may choose a less good, and reject the greater; and though it is most commonly a great imperfection to do so, yet it is many times innocent;
a Rule 2. of this sect.
b Chap. 5. rule 4.