Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Sola Fide? Samuel Johnson and the Augustinian Doctrine of Salvation

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Sola Fide? Samuel Johnson and the Augustinian Doctrine of Salvation

Article excerpt

For over thirty years, Donald J. Greene has been championing the orthodoxy of eighteenth-century Anglicanism in response to the many scholars who have concluded that the beliefs of Samuel Johnson and his contemporaries deviate from the cardinal doctrines of classical Protestantism.(1) In reply to these scholars, who in his view "assault and vilify eighteenth-century Anglicanism,"(2) Greene has steadfastly maintained that the Christianity of Johnson and his contemporaries is best characterized as "Augustinian," that is to say, consistent with those teachings of St. Augustine on grace and human nature that were revived by Luther and Calvin and set forth as the theological basis of the Protestant Reformation.(3) Greene, for example, has asserted that the most prominent divines of the period "held firmly, as against what they believed to be Roman Catholic teaching, to the [Reformers'] doctrine that we are justified by grace through our faith"; that "the doctrine of justification by faith alone is the foundation of the whole edifice of Johnson's religion, as it was of eighteenth-century Anglicanism, and of Protestantism generally"; and that "there is no essential difference between the orthodox Anglicanism of the eighteenth century and that of the preceding century, the seventeenth, the century of Donne and Herbert and Andrewes, or that of the sixteenth, the century of Latimer and Hooker and Spenser."(4) In his Samuel Johnson, he asks, "What was 'orthodox' Christianity for Johnson?" The answer: "Augustinian" Christianity.(5)

I have attempted elsewhere to respond to Professor Greene's claims about the character of eighteenth-century Anglicanism;(6) in this essay I will respond to his claims about the character of Samuel Johnson's Anglicanism, specifically his assertions relating to Johnson's beliefs about Christian salvation. Is it true that Johnson was an Augustinian Christian and, therefore, that "the foundation of the whole edifice of [his] religion" was "the doctrine of justification by faith alone"? In order to find the answer, it will be necessary to reconstruct, from his writings and the records of his conversation, Johnson's understanding of the Christian doctrine of personal salvation.


One of Johnson's fundamental and most characteristic assumptions concerning Christian salvation is that it is offered not gratuitously but conditionally. True, Christ's sacrifice has merited salvation, but only for those who fulfill the conditions under which it is offered. As Jean Hagstrum pointed out many years ago, this "belief in conditional salvation" constitutes one of the "main features" of Johnson's Christianity.(7) In Sermon 28, for example, Johnson warns Christians against falsely presuming that they can depend only on the merits of Christ; they still must perform certain conditions, or terms, if they wish to be saved: "Yet let us likewise be careful, lest an erroneous opinion of the all-sufficiency of our Saviour's merits lull us into carelessness and security. His merits are indeed all-sufficient! But he has prescribed the terms on which they are to operate."(8)

Certainly it was Johnson's belief in the contingency of salvation that provided the rational basis--whatever the irrational sources--for his much-discussed fear of death.(9) In remarks made to Boswell in May of 1784, he acknowledges that there are some Christians who do not fear death, because they believe that salvation does not depend on moral effort. But, "Others," he says, "and those the most rational in my opinion, look upon salvation as conditional; and as they never can be sure that they have complied with the conditions, they are afraid."(10) In June of the same year, Johnson again makes this point--only this time in reference to himself--in a memorable conversation with his old friend Dr. Adams:

JOHNSON. '... [A]s I cannot be sure that I have fulfilled the conditions on which salvation is granted, I am afraid I may be one of those who shall be damned. …

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