Jacobean Congregations and Controversies in Thomas Wilson's Christian Dictionary (1612)

By Curtin, Kathleen | The Seventeenth Century, October 2010 | Go to article overview

Jacobean Congregations and Controversies in Thomas Wilson's Christian Dictionary (1612)


Curtin, Kathleen, The Seventeenth Century


In a recent article in The Seventeenth Century, Leif Dixon examines the life and pastoral writings of Thomas Wilson in order to consider the identity of the 'average' Jacobean Christian. Dixon addresses the question of whether Calvinism's sharp contrasts became diluted into 'shades of gray' as Calvinism became part of the mainstream. As he writes:

I want to look at the writings of (predominantly) Jacobean ministers, to see how they coped with the moderately willing. How did they accommodate a fiercely black-and-white (even black-or-white) metaphysic to a phase of the reformation which was no longer about the need to convert men to Protestantism, but rather about the long and unspectacular road to making everyone more reformed than they already were?1

Dixon chose Wilson, whom he characterizes as 'both a part of the Calvinist mainstream and a critic of it',2 because of Wilson's attempts to present the doctrines of predestination and assurance to a broad audience. Wilson wrote a work on election, Saints by Calling, in which he enumerates 'the seuerall gifts proper vnto the called', as well as 'their counterfeits in the hypocrites'.3 He also wrote a commentary on Romans, a catechism (An Exposition of the Two First Verses of the Sixt Chapter to the Hebrewes), an exegetical handbook mostly derived from Flacius Illyricus (the Theological Rules), and the first Bible dictionary in English (the Christian Dictionary).

While acknowledging that it was Wilson's Christian Dictionary that 'secured his [Wilson's] contemporary reputation', Dixon identifies Wilson's 'pastoral works' as the focus of his article.4 In contrast, the aim of this article will be to consider Wilson's lexicographical project not as a distinct category, but as a pastoral work in its own right by arguing that the teaching of exegetical technique was one of the primary ways ministers sought to make church members 'more reformed than they already were'. I will do so by investigating the intersections and overlaps between catechesis, polemic, and lexicography in the Christian Dictionary and Wilson's catechism, An Exposition of the Two First Verses of the Sixt Chapter to the Hebrewes.

Published in the year after the King James Bible, Thomas Wilson's 1612 Christian Dictionary undertakes the vast project of defining 'the chiefe words dispersed generally through Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament'. 5 Wilson directs his Dictionary both to ministers and to laymen in the hope that it will 'help the Minister to interpret, and the hearers to vnderstand the Scriptures'.6

Through his glosses, Wilson asserts that the complexities of the Word are legible to the ordinary reader as long as they ground their exegesis in 'fundamental' reformed doctrines and rely on the aid of the Holy Spirit. In contrast to the Roman Catholic position that the Church provides the basis for authority in interpretation, Wilson argues that fundamental doctrines, when applied by Holy Spirit-directed readers, provide the basis for hermeneutic authority. Since 'ordinary' readers can grasp such doctrines, even the 'meanest', with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is able to understand the Word as long as it is clearly explained. Wilson and other Reformed ministers believed that the Holy Spirit would help readers maintain consensus about doctrinal 'fundamentals' as they read the Word. Thus, for Wilson, a writer of a catechism as well as a dictionary that often does the work of catechesis, fundamental doctrines are the basis for authority in interpretation and consensus in the community, and constitute strategic territory in the 'pastoral' endeavours of lay education and polemic.

Due to the Calvinist belief that God's saving call comes through the Word preached and read, interpretation of Scripture lies at the crux of the Calvinist paradox of salvation: it at once requires the operation of the Holy Spirit on the heart and mind of the reader, and the hard work of interpretation. …

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