The Works of William Chillingworth.
If laudari a laudato be a safe rule for estimating a writer's merits, the name of Chillingworth ought to stand nearly as high in English ecclesiastical literature as those of Hooker and Butler. His Religion of Protestants was dedicated, by permission, to Charles I. It was written under the eye of Laud, and was by Laud's request examined by Dr. Prideaux, afterwards Bishop of Worcester; Dr. Baylie, then Vice-Chancellor of Oxford; and Dr. Samuel Fell, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity; and it was published with their unanimous approval, expressed on its title-page in the strongest language. 'Nihil reperio doctrines vel disciplinse Ecclesise Anglicanae adversum, sed quamplurima quee Fidem Orthodoxam egregie illustrant, et adversantium glossemata acute, perspicue, et modeste dissipant'—says Dr. Prideaux; and the others are to the same effect. After the Restoration, similar testimony was borne to it by the licenser of the then Archbishop of Canterbury. Locke repeatedly recommended it as fitted to 'teach both perspicuity and the way of right reasoning better than any book I know.' Tillotson called the author 'incomparable' and 'the glory of his age and nation.'
This great reputation rests substantially on the only considerable work he ever published, the Religion of Protestants a Safe Way to Salvation. Few things throw greater light on the changes of times and opinions than to read this book over again, and to think what its author, were he now living, would say of the state of things around him, and what our champions of orthodoxy would say of him. For many reasons, we cannot go into this inquiry; but we propose to give some account of Chillingworth's principal book, and of its place in the controversy to which it belonged, leaving our readers to draw such inferences as they think fit on the great subject of past and present.
Chillingworth was born in 1602, and was educated at Trinity College, Oxford, of which he became a Fellow in 1628. He became a Roman Catholic some time before 1630, being converted by Fisher the Jesuit (whose real name was Percy) by the argument that there must be some one Church infallible in matters of faith, and that this must be the Church of Rome. He studied for a time in 1631 at Douay, and was reconverted to Protestantism shortly afterwards. He published his great work in the year 1637. He was ordained in 1638, and died of exposure to cold and hardship in the winter campaign of 1643, in which he was present at the sieges of Gloucester and Arundel, where he was taken prisoner by Waller. He died at Chichester, and was buried in the cathedral.
There is a charming portrait of him in Lord Clarendon's Life. It occurs in what is perhaps the most pleasing passage in all his writings—his account, namely, of what we should now call the 'set' in which his own early manhood was passed, and which consisted (amongst many others) of Lord Falkland, Clarendon himself, Hales, Chillingworth, and other persons united in most cases by the common bond of extreme devotion to the Government, and still stronger devotion to the Church. In each case, however, their devotion was largely qualified by the sort of liberalism to which we have often referred as one of the best-marked and least-understood of the characteristics of the early history of the Church of England. Chillingworth displayed in perfection the intellectual side of this tendency, and his book still enables us to understand perfectly well the general theory on which it rested.
The Religion of Protestants is a step in a rather entangled controversy. Its place in the series is what special pleaders call a rejoinder. The earlier steps of the controversy were as follows: In 1630 Knott (his real name was Wilson), a Jesuit, wrote a book called Charity Mistaken, to prove that Roman Catholics were not uncharitable in excluding Protestants from the hope of salvation. In 1633 Dr. Potter, then Provost of Queen's College, Oxford, and afterwards one of the bishops who advised Charles I. to give way in the matter of Strafford, wrote a book in answer to this, called Want of Charity Justly Charged. In 1634, Knott replied by a book called Charity Maintained, and to this he added a preface called a Direction to N.N. (i.e. Chillingworth), having heard that Chillingworth intended to answer him. The Religion of Protestants a Safe Way to Salvation is the rejoinder to this reply.
Amongst the many modern inventions for which we have to be thankful, the art of abbreviating controversy is not the least important. We are content in the present day to take the leading points of an obnoxious book or pamphlet and argue against them, having a well-grounded confidence that, when the foundations are overthrown, the superstructure will fall of itself. Two hundred years ago this was not thought enough. A man was not satisfied until he had knocked down the whole of his antagonist's building, stone by stone. Chillingworth reprints the whole of Knott's book in his own, and at the end of every chapter adds an answer to it paragraph by paragraph, embodying very often in the answer a good deal of the paragraph answered. Indeed, he goes farther, for he answers separately every assertion in every paragraph, and every insinuation implied in each assertion.
This practice, no doubt, has some advantages. It prevents misrepresentation, and even the imputation of it. It enables the reader, if sufficiently patient, to form a real judgment as to the merits of the case, and it makes victory, when gained, crushing. If, indeed, controversy were the great object of the lives even of controversialists, it would be the form into which controversy ought to fall; but, as this is happily not the case, and as the points of essential and permanent interest at issue between controversialists are generally few in number, and capable of being stated by bona fide disputants shortly and broadly, perhaps the modern practice is really better for all parties, especially as it deprives controversy of much of its personal sting, and greatly conduces to candour.
Men can agree to differ upon general principles, but the question whether A or B has got the best of a particular argument can hardly fail to be irritating, and is often altogether unimportant. It must also be owned that the altercation is in itself exceedingly wearisome. You had said A, to which Dr. Potter answered B. In your reply, you falsely allege that he falsely said B', to which you reply A'. Now he did not say B', though B' would have been quite true, and very important if he had said it, and would not have been answered by A'. What he said was B, which does answer A, and is not affected by A'. All this may be true and relevant, but the human mind is hardly so constituted as to take it in, or to care for it much when it has taken it in, especially two centuries after date. Even when it is quite fresh, the constant backwards and forwards produces on many readers a feeling like moral and intellectual sea-sickness.
Chillingworth's book contains so much of this skirmishing, and so many fierce fights on by-points, that a man must be rather a careful student who would care to read it right through in the present day. He bickers with Knott on every point referred to, even incidentally.
Amongst other topics, for instance, Knott had glanced, perhaps rather disrespectfully, at James I.'s proceedings in the matter of Archbishop Abbot. This brought upon him an argument in the shape of a shower of questions drawn up like interrogatories, which certainly are (if it were worth considering them) of the most damaging nature for Knott, but which at the present day appear like interruptions to a very impressive argument. Hundreds of instances of the same kind might be given. It is probably to this that Mr. Hallam referred when he described Chillingworth's style as 'more diffuse' than Knott's. Profusion appears to us the right word. There is too much matter, but the style is severity and precision itself.
Chillingworth's style, indeed, is not only one of the greatest attractions of his book, but is also perhaps the strongest indication which it supplies of the extraordinary qualities of his mind. Its naked severity and nervous simplicity are occasionally dashed by a vein of eloquence which breaks out unexpectedly and with prodigious effect, especially as it depends neither upon a musical ear nor upon pleasure in ornament, but upon the excitement of strong masculine feeling roused by an adequate cause—the feeling, generally speaking, of indignation against oppression, sophistry, and falsehood. An earnest and indeed passionate love of truth was the great characteristic of Chillingworth's mind. He became a Roman Catholic because he thought that in that Church he should find, not peace but truth; and he left it because he found himself cheated with mere pretences to truth, which crumbled away from him when he tried to grasp them.
He was a man of a very different turn from some modern converts to Rome. His object was not to be governed, but to be taught, and when he found that government and not teaching, directions to the mind and not food for it, were what was to be had at Rome, he returned to the Church of England. The following is a good illustration of the fervour with which he expressed himself. It contains, moreover, words which have passed into a proverb:—
'The BIBLE I say, the BIBLE only is the religion of Protestants. ... I for my part, after a long and (as I verily believe and hope) impartial search of "the true way to eternal happiness," do profess plainly that I cannot find any rest for the sole of my foot but upon this rock only. I see plainly and with mine own eyes, that there are popes against popes, councils against councils, some fathers against others, the same fathers against themselves, a consent of fathers of one age against a consent of fathers of another age, the church of one age against the church of another age. Traditive interpretations of scripture are pretended, but there are few or none to be found; no tradition, but only of scripture, can derive itself from the fountain, but may be plainly proved either to have been brought in, in such an age after Christ, or that in such an age it was not in. In a word, there is no sufficient certainty but of scripture only, for any considering man to build upon. This, therefore, and this only, I have reason to believe; this I will profess, according to this I will live, and for this, if there be occasion, I will not only willingly, but even gladly, lose my life, though I should be sorry that Christians should take it from me.'
The whole of the passage from which this extract is made is eminently characteristic of Chillingworth's occasional fits of eloquence. As instances of his remarkable power of argument, two passages may be referred to. One in the answer to Knott's second chapter (vol. i. pp. 202-212, Oxford edition), in which he retorts Knott's charge that, according to Protestants, nothing more than probability is to be attained in religious belief. He shows what a number of merely probable conclusions as to matters of fact, resting upon hardly any evidence at all, a man must believe before he can be sure that he has received valid absolution—as that the priest who gives it was baptized with due matter, words, and intention; that the bishop who ordained him ordained him with due matter, form, and intention; that the ordaining bishop himself was first a priest and then a bishop; and so on like the house that Jack built. This leads up to the celebrated climax quoted, amongst others, by Lord Macaulay: 'That of ten thousand probables no one should be false; that of ten thousand requisites, whereof any one may fail, not one should be wanting, this is to me extremely improbable, and even cousin-german to impossible.'
A similar instance of his peculiar vein is to be found in vol. ii. pp. 68-70. Knott had charged his antagonist with contradicting himself. The charge was a very obvious quibble, and was merely by the way. Chillingworth retorts by drawing out in form all the contradictions involved in the doctrine of transubstantiation, and asking Knott either to reconcile them or to admit that men might believe contradictions. The retort is out of all proportion to the occasion for it, but it is a model of nervous vigour of expression. The argument concludes with the important and profound remark (re-made long afterwards by Abraham Tucker) that men both may, and constantly do, believe contradictions, when the opposition between the contradictories is not immediately obvious.
I have noticed Chillingworth's style at some length, because the doctrine that the style is the man, has seldom been better illustrated, and also because the style itself is nearly the first specimen, as it is also one of the best of all specimens, of pure, vigorous, modern English, delivered from the trammels of the classics. Like Clarendon and Jeremy Taylor, Chillingworth wants little but a change in punctuation to be a writer of our own day, and a writer as powerful, as expressive, and as idiomatic as any in the whole history of our language. It is remarkable that he uses hardly any obsolete words. In a pretty careful study of his book we have found only the following: 'Disease,' as a verb active for 'inconvenience'; 'Equipage,' for 'equipoise'; 'Crambe,' used as in 'crambe repetita.'
The points in issue between Knott and Chillingworth, when drawn out into a short form and freed from collateral disputes, are neither long nor intricate when they are really understood; but it is easy to misunderstand them and to get a false notion of the whole subject, from the very familiarity of the terms employed. The whole of Chillingworth's book, for instance, is supposed to be summed up in the two propositions that there is a right of private judgment, and that the Bible, and the Bible only, is the religion of Protestants. In order to see precisely what he meant by these doctrines, it is necessary to go a little further into the bearings of his controversy with Knott. The case on the one side and the other stood somewhat as follows:
Both sides agreed that certain doctrines, belief in which was necessary to salvation, had been revealed by God to man.
Both sides also agreed in the absolute truth of the whole Bible, and in the doctrine that the Bible contained a revelation either of all or of some of these doctrines.
Knott affirmed, and Chillingworth denied, that the Church of Rome was the depositary of unwritten traditions collateral to and of equal authority with the Bible, and that, thereby and otherwise, the Church of Rome was the authorised interpreter both of the Bible and of tradition, and that it was necessary to salvation to believe the whole matter thus put forward.
Chillingworth affirmed, and Knott denied, that the doctrines necessary to be believed were plainly expressed in the Bible, and were contained (with others) in the Apostles' Creed.
Knott concluded that it was necessary to salvation to believe whatever was put forward as an article of faith by the Church of Rome.
Chillingworth concluded that whoever believed all matters of faith clearly expressed in the Bible, or, more particularly, whoever believed all the articles of the Apostles' Creed, believed all that was necessary to salvation.
These, as a lawyer would say, were the chief issues between the two disputants. There were, however, several subordinate questions closely connected with these which it is necessary to state shortly in order to give a fair notion of the controversy.
Chillingworth is continually pressed by Knott to give a catalogue of the fundamentals which, as he said, were clearly expressed in the Bible. He admits at last that he cannot give such a list, but he says (which is true) that Knott himself recognises the distinction; and he gives a variety of reasons for the assertion that all fundamentals were contained, along with other things, in the Creed and in each of the four Gospels. Hence he argues that whoever believes either the Creed, or the whole of any one Gospel, may be sure that he believes whatever is necessary to salvation, and something over. He also explains his inability to give a precise list of fundamentals, by alleging the principle that 'fundamental' is a relative term; that what is so to one man is not so to another; that to an infant or lunatic, or a man deaf and dumb, nothing is fundamental; and that the list would vary indefinitely from man to man, according to individual circumstances.
Chillingworth was also pressed by Knott with the difficulty that if men were referred to the Gospels in particular, or the Bible in general, they would err, at all events, in matters not plainly declared. To this Chillingworth replied that a bond fide student of a matter plainly stated could not err, for that, if he did, the statement would not be plain; that if bona fides were wanting, his error was sinful, and that, if plainness in the statement was wanting, his error was innocent. It is by this avenue that Chillingworth introduces reason as the ultimate measure of faith, which is the cardinal feature of his system. Knott's conception of faith was altogether different, and the discussion whether it was right (on which we cannot enter here) is one of the most curious parts of the controversy.
Perhaps the most singular feature in the whole controversy, at least to a modern reader, is that both disputants, but more especially Knott, deal throughout with the whole question as a matter, not of truth, but of expediency or personal danger. Knott's last word and final appeal is to the duty of charity to oneself. He says:—
'In things necessary to salvation no man ought in any case, or in any respect whatsoever, to prefer the spiritual good either of any particular person or of the whole world before his own soul. According to those words of our blessed Saviour, "What doth it avail a man," etc.'He insists on the arbitrary and technical character of salvation:—
'No ignorance nor impossibility can supply the want of those means which are absolutely necessary to salvation. If an infant die without baptism he cannot be saved.'Thus—
‘If by living out of the Roman Church we put ourselves in hazard to want something necessarily required to salvation, we commit a most grievous sin against the virtue of charity as it respects ourselves, and so cannot hope for salvation without repentance.'His whole book, indeed, is an expansion of an argument which no dialectical skill can divest of its revolting character:—
'Consider how all Roman Catholics, not one excepted ... do with unanimous consent believe and profess that Protestancy unrepented destroys salvation and then tell me ... whether it be not more safe to live and die in that Church which even yourselves are forced to acknowledge not to be cut off from the hope of salvation.'He works this out systematically in his final chapter. Chillingworth is far bolder and more generous. In reply to Knott's argument, just quoted, he says:—
'In saying this you seem to me to condemn one of the greatest acts of charity of one of the greatest saints that ever was—I mean St. Paul, who, for his brethren, desired to be an anathema from Christ. And as for the text alleged by you in confirmation of your saying, "What doth it avail a man if he gain the whole world and sustain the damage of his own soul?" it is nothing to the purpose; for without all question it is not profitable for a man to do so; but the question is whether it be not lawful for a man to forgo and part with his own particular profit to procure the universal spiritual and eternal benefit of others.'As to unbaptized infants, he observes:—
'If you may gloss the text so far as that men may be saved by the desire without baptism itself, because they cannot have it, why should you not gloss it a little further, that there may be some hope of the salvation of unbaptized infants?'This is a very noble passage, and may remind the reader of the utterances of certain well-known contemporary authors on the possibility that a man may think a great deal too much about what one of them calls 'his own dirty soul'; but Chillingworth did not always maintain this tone. He was careful not to be too charitable, for he obviously had a wholesome terror of the practical effect of Knott's argument on those to whom it was addressed. He says repeatedly that ignorance or bona fides only can save Roman Catholics, and taunts Knott with admitting as much of Protestants. The only pleasant thing in those mutual threats is to observe how each side devised loopholes to escape from its own doctrines. Both Knott and Chillingworth were better than their theology.
These heads give the main outline of the controversy, but the principle which pervades the whole admits of more consecutive and less controversial statement. It is perfectly true that the assertion of the right of private judgment was the great object of Chillingworth's book; but it is less often observed how emphatic the word 'judgment' was in his system. He used it, not in the loose indefinite sense which is generally attached to it in the phrase in question, but in a more accurate one, which it is not easy to explain in a single phrase.
In order to explain it we must return to the general principles of the controversy, and point out the way in which Knott's claim to infallibility for the Roman Catholic Church arose. It was founded on the principle that there was an original revelation—a certain number of specific propositions announced by God to men, which it was necessary for men to believe; but that, as some of these propositions were unwritten, and as some of the written propositions were ambiguous, the only possible way by which they could be conveyed to men was through an actual living interpreter.
The main stress of Chillingworth's argument, though he does not express it quite in that form, was to show that this, in fact, amounted to a claim for the Church of Rome of supreme judicial and legislative power over all Christians—the legislative power being, in fact, involved in the judicial power as claimed; for it is obvious that a judge who is entrusted with the power of declaring this or that to be a portion of unwritten tradition, and of affixing whatever meaning he pleases to obscure writings, is in reality a legislator, and not merely or principally a judge.
A judge moreover, ex vi termini, or nearly so, implies a sheriff. If his decisions are to have the force of law, they must be carried into effect by penalties upon those who disobey them; and thus, as Chillingworth pointed out, the claim to be a guardian and keeper of tradition is in reality a claim to be sovereign of the world, for it is a claim to make laws for the government of men in their highest capacity, and to provide means for putting those laws, when so made, into execution. Such a claim, of course, is in itself perfectly intelligible on the part of any organised body like the Romish clergy; but it is equally obvious that it ought not to be admitted without the clearest evidence.
The great point of Chillingworth's book is, that he brings out both the nature of the claim and the weakness of the evidence on which it rested, with remarkable point and vigour. After showing at length the nature of the claim made by Knott and the consequences to which it would lead, he continually returns to the question of evidence. 'If you really are entitled to this position, show your title. How easy, how simple, and how vitally necessary it must have been to have given you the position which you claim in unambiguous words, if that had been intended?'
It is in answer to this view of Knott's that Chillingworth set up what has since become so hackneyed under the name of the right of private judgment. He did not mean by this at all that religious belief was a matter of indifference. On the contrary, he repudiates the doctrine that men may be saved in any religion as 'most impious and detestable'; and it is clear enough to every reader of his works that he had as positive a creed as Knott himself. That God had given a law to man he strenuously maintained; but, he contended, The law so given purports to be complete, and as you admit it to be absolutely true, you have no right to contradict it. Its admitted obscurity in parts shows that its author regarded diversity of opinion as to those parts as innocent, and indeed necessary. Your argument is, Because it pleased God to give man a vague and incomplete revelation, therefore a body which claims the power of reducing it to a specific form, and of completing its outline, must be divine and infallible. Logic will require the substitution of 'cannot' for 'must.'
In a word, Chillingworth inferred from the absence of any distinct appointment of a permanent judge that every man was meant to apply the law to his own particular case for himself, and at his own risk. This, he says, is necessary at all events for many reasons, two of which will probably never be answered. The first is, that the object to be attained is admitted to be belief, but belief is involuntary and dependent upon reason, and the judge and the sheriff can produce only conformity; or, to use his own expressive words:—
'To force either any man to believe what he believes not, or any honest man to dissemble what he does believe (if God commands him to profess it) or to profess what he does not believe, all the powers in the world are too weak with all the powers in hell to assist them.'The second is, that at all events every man must judge for himself as to the infallibility of his judge; and as the stream cannot rise above the source, so he can never get beyond his own opinion, mediate or immediate. 'So that, for aught I can see, judges we are and must be of all sides, every one for himself, and God for us all.' It is difficult to exceed the epigrammatic pithiness with which this is maintained and expounded in different places, as thus:—
'The difference between a Papist and a Protestant is this—not that the one judges and the other does not judge, but that the one judges his guide to be infallible, the other his way to be manifest.' Or again:— 'You that would not have men follow their reason, what would you have them follow? Their passions, or pluck out their eyes and go blindfold? No, you say, but let them follow authority. In God's name let them. . . . But then for the authority you would have them follow, you will let them see reason why they should follow it, and is not this to go a little about? To leave reason for a short turn, and then to come to it again, and to do that which you condemn in others?'One remarkable point in Chillingworth's book is that he anticipates in order to condemn it, and as a sort of reductio ad absurdum, the very doctrine of development which has attracted so much attention in our own time. Knott had spoken of the necessity of a judge to deal with 'new heresies that might arise.' To this Chillingworth answers:—
'To say that new heresies may arise is to say that new articles of faith may arise, and so some great ones among you stick not to profess in plain terms, who yet at the same time are not ashamed to profess that your whole doctrine is Catholic and apostolic.'Elsewhere he speaks of the 'doctrines which . . . have insinuated themselves into the streams little by little; some in one age, some in another; some more anciently, some more lately; and some yet are embryos, yet hatching, and in the shell, as the Pope's infallibility, the blessed Virgin's Immaculate Conception,' etc.
Such is the general vein of argument which runs through the whole book, and is enforced and repeated in an infinite variety of different ways.
Another runs parallel with it, which is perhaps more interesting in our days. It is in the nature of an answer to Knott's constant demand, 'Where do you get your Bible except from the Church? What is the basis of your whole system? 'It is in his answer to this question that Chillingworth displays the greatest amount of boldness. He says that the divine authority of the Bible rests upon general tradition—that is, upon historical evidence; and that it is a conclusion of reason, and that the whole Christian religion rests ultimately upon this foundation.
There is a remarkable passage near the end of the book which sets this in a very clear light:—
'Whatsoever man that is not of a perverse mind shall weigh with serious and mature deliberation those great moments of reason which may incline him to believe the divine authority of Scripture, and compare them with the light objections that in prudence can be made against it, he shall not choose but find sufficient, nay, abundant inducements to yield unto it firm faith and sincere obedience. Let that learned man Hugo Grotius speak for all the rest in his book of the Truth of the Christian Religion, which book whosoever attentively peruses shall find that a man may have great reason to be a Christian without dependence on your Church for any part of it.' [Modern liberals differ from both Chillingworth and Knott in not regarding the formation of religious opinion as a matter of judgment at all in the sense in which the word was used by Chillingworth.]There are many other curious passages (see especially vol. i. pp. 273-275), to the effect that reason alone can judge in controversies relating to Scripture, which have a direct and important bearing on the great discussions of our own days.
It may naturally be asked how such liberalism as this—for Chillingworth would, in the present day, be described as a Rationalist, and his whole book is directed to prove that a probable opinion is the utmost that can be attained in theological matters—came to be patronised by men like Laud. The answer appears to be, that Laud and Charles were far more disciplinarians than inquisitors. It was less their object to interfere with men's creeds than to regulate their practice. Chillingworth is asked by Knott, how in any case he could blame schism from the Church of England? He replies, in substance, that schism in itself is not a bad thing, but that schism without a reasonable cause is, and that he is willing to show the unreasonableness of the causes alleged by Dissenters for forsaking the ritual established by law.
His position, indeed, was very like that of the Federals as against the Confederates. They admitted that rebellion might be justifiable, but denied that this particular rebellion was justifiable. Most of the Royalist and High Church writers of that generation treat the Puritans, not as heretics, but rather as people of weak scrupulosity, which they ought in common sense to overcome. Laud was no inquisitor. His great offence was his determination to assert, in season and out of season, the right of the public authorities to regulate rituals and observances, and to enforce Church discipline. This, in the particular state of feeling which then prevailed, was consistent with extreme liberalism (not that Laud himself was extremely liberal) in matters of belief.
Saturday Review, November 4, 1865.