The Law of Nature Revived: Christianity and Natural Religion in the Sermons of John Tillotson

Article excerpt


During the seventeenth century, a new term of theological abuse appeared: "latitudinarian." To those who coined the term, Latitudinarians appeared excessively willing to compromise on important matters of Christian doctrine, worship, and polity. Despite such criticisms, the Latitudinarians gradually achieved prominence under Kings Charles II and James II, and they assumed leadership of the Church of England under William III in the wake of the Glorious Revolution. Perhaps the leading Latitudinarian was John Tillotson, archbishop of Canterbury from 1691 until his death in 1694. In the words of one scholar, his sermons are "great rhetorical exemplars of latitudinarianism" and "as clear and important a source of latitudinarian ideas as there is."1

Like the Latitudinarians more generally, Tillotson's legacy has been contested. During his lifetime, he was accused of believing "nothing that lay beyond the compass of humane reason."2 Shortly after his death, leading Deists claimed that he had supported their position.3 At least some eighteenth-century evangelicals agreed, if with a very different value judgement. George Whitefield described Tillotson's sermons as "such husks, fit only for carnal, unawakened, unbelieving reasoners to eat" and famously said that Tillotson knew no more of true Christianity than Muhammad.4 Twentieth-century scholars have sometimes agreed with this assessment. For example, Gerald Cragg comments on the "prosaic worldliness," "pedestrian common sense," even the "unabashed hedonism" of Tillotson's sermons. "If the next age treated religion either as an exercise in logic or as an invitation to be upright on the most advantageous terms," Cragg claims, "it was because Tillotson had taught it the lesson."5

On the other hand, scholars such as Gerard Reedy, William Spellman, J. O'Higgins, and Roger Emerson have rejected this assessment.6 Most influentially, Reedy argues that Tillotson was "more orthodox than is often assumed, with reason and revelation ably integrated."7 To defend his position, Reedy advocates viewing six sermons that Tillotson preached on the nature and work of Christ as the "canon within a canon" for interpreting his thought as a whole. Reedy presents a powerful case, but one that is not fully persuasive. Tillotson preached and published these sermons primarily to answer accusations against him of heterodoxy.8 Although any adequate account of Tillotson's thought must surely consider these sermons, to take them as the key to his thought seems exaggerated.

How, then, can we assess these competing claims about Tillotson? Tillotson's work supports both. On one hand, as we will see below, he could argue that Christianity simply revived natural religion. On the other, he insisted on the necessity of the Incarnation, revelation, and supernatural grace. The task is further complicated by the nature and extent of Tillotson's work. Over the course of more than thirty years, he delivered hundreds of sermons. Two hundred and fifty four of them are preserved in his collected works, along with miscellaneous other writings. The sheer volume of his output along with the time span that it covered makes it difficult to describe his work systematically. And he himself never wrote a systematic treatise offering a key to interpret the whole. However, Tillotson did provide a clue in the preface to his collected works. He described his purpose: "to establish men in the principles of religion, and to recommend to them the practice of it."9 If we can see how and why Tillotson established the principles of religion and persuaded people to practice it, then we have arrived at the heart of his theology and can see how he attempted to integrate such apparently disparate claims about nature and grace. Christianity, we will see, had value for Tillotson not so much because it added to natural religion, but because it restored fallen human nature to the point that people could discern and follow the otherwise almost impossible dictates of natural religion. …


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