Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Matter of Fact in the English Revolution

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Matter of Fact in the English Revolution

Article excerpt

The seventeenth century in England saw a succession of religious controversies that absorbed much of the intellectual energy of the period. During that time all parties searched for polemical weapons to justify their positions. From the first, Anglicans turned to the Bible and to history to refute their Catholic opponents, and as the battle heated up, both sides resorted increasingly to the past. I have tried to show elsewhere how the argument developed under Charles I and how in particular the Arminians under Archbishop Laud and the "rationalist" circle at Great Kew-Chillingworth, Falkland, and Hales-put a new emphasis on the authority of history rather than on tradition and papal infallibility.1 But with the coming of the Revolution the Anglican party was soon besieged by fresh criticism from the other side and compelled to defend itself against the radical sects and later from socinians, deists, and Thomas Hobbes, who forced on them a further recourse to the past. All this controversy drew new attention to the Scriptures as historical record and to the theoretical and practical questions about their testimony, and there swiftly developed an increasing self-consciousness and sophistication about the matter. Although something of this has been described in the recent literature on the seventeenthcentury culture of "fact," there remains much to be done.2 I shall try to show here an early stage in this discussion, the moment when the moderate Anglican party rallied around their historical convictions just as England was being transformed into a radical republic and everything seemed up for grabs. Unexpect

edly, it looks as though it was English religious writers who were among the first to discover the cogency of historical fact and were ready to defend the idea both in principle and in practice.

It was of course the breakdown in authority during the civil war that permitted the great flood of religious speculation and contention. Nor could the stopper be put back easily into the bottle, however much it was attempted. Already in 1646 Thomas Edwards could catalog some sixteen different types of sects that had given rise to no less than one hundred and seventy-six errors and blasphemies, the first ten of which alone served to undermine the Scriptures. Among them was one that said that, "Scripture, whether a true manuscript or no, whether Hebrew, Greek, or English, is but humane, and so not able to discover a divine God." Another argued that right reason was the only true test of scriptural doctrine.3

It was among these many heresies that the antitrinitarians began to make their way. One day Edwards met a friend, a person of quality and a godly man, who told him about a discussion he had just had with a sectary outside the House of Commons. The two soon fell into a dispute about one of the English antitrinitarian tracts which had just been attacked in Parliament. The sectary hoped that the Commons would not punish the author for it, to which the gentleman replied that he could prove the true doctrine from the Bible. But how, the sectary replied immediately, can you show the Scriptures to be the word of God? "There were," he pointed out, "twentie severall Scriptures, [and] as many as Translations, and Translations are not true ... and for the Originals, there are divers Copies." He was not unwilling to accept the consequence that even some Heathen might thus be saved.4

So it was "Socinians" now who joined with Catholics to cast their doubts on Scriptural testimony, this time in the name of reason rather than tradition or papal authority. It was the indefatigable Edwards who noticed the first of the English socinians, John Biddle, a schoolmaster in Gloucester, "who denies the Holy Ghost to be God. …

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