‘Who Can Refute A Sneer?’ Paley On Gibbon -- By: Graham A. Cole

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 49:1 (NA 1998)
Article: ‘Who Can Refute A Sneer?’ Paley On Gibbon
Author: Graham A. Cole

‘Who Can Refute A Sneer?’
Paley On Gibbon

Graham A. Cole


‘Who can refute a sneer?’ is a famous quotation from William Paley. It was his reaction to Edward Gibbon’s massive The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with its oblique, ironically delivered critique of Christianity. This article places the quotation in its context in Paley’s works and seeks to show how he addressed the sneer in his A View of the Evidences of Christianity in more than one place. In particular, Paley’s argument for the candour of the New Testament writers as evidence of their integrity (contra Gibbon) is examined and likewise his argument against the view that the rise of Islam is more impressive in some ways than that of Christianity (contra Gibbon). Paley’s response to David Hume’s writings has received some scholarly attention, but his response to Gibbon has been hardly explored. This article seeks to fill that lacuna.

I. Introduction

Against the backdrop of the deistic controversies Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752) wrote in 1736 in the Advertisement to his famous The Analogy of Religion:

It is come, I know not how, to be taken for granted, by many persons that Christianity is not so much as a subject of inquiry; but that it is, now at length, discovered to be fictitious. And accordingly they treat it, as if in the present age, this were an agreed point among all people of discernment; and nothing remained, but to set it up as a principal subject of mirth and ridicule, as it were by way of reprisals, for it having so long

interrupted the pleasures of the world.1

Almost fifty years later, William Paley (1743-1805) could similarly lament:

For these topics [points against the truth of Christianity] being brought together, and set off with some aggravation of circumstances, and with a vivacity of style and description familiar enough to the writings and conversation of free-thinkers, insensibly lead the imagination into a habit of classing Christianity with the delusions that have taken possession, by turns, of the public belief; and of regarding it, as what the scoffers of our faith represent it to be, the superstition of the day.2 (Original emphasis.)

Although both Butler and Paley were alarmed by the ridicule with which some greeted Christianity’s claims, the questions asked of Christianity in Paley’s day had become even more daring and pointed than in Butler’s own.

Butler’s great adversaries were deists like Tindal (1655-...

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