A Discourse of the Liberty of Prophesying, with its Just Limits and Temper, showing the Unreasonableness of Prescribing to other Men's Faith, and the Iniquity of Persecuting Differing Opinions. By Jeremy Taylor.
Those who claim for the Church of England one of the highest places amongst Christian bodies for literary eminence, would naturally put forward Jeremy Taylor as one of the leading witnesses in favour of their proposition; and certainly it may be doubted whether any English ecclesiastical writer would be entitled to take precedence of him in a literary point of view, though he has been surpassed again and again by writers on special subjects whose eloquence, versatility, learning, and dexterity were greatly inferior to his.
It may seem a paradox, but it is nevertheless true, that there was a good deal of the journalist in Taylor, as in many of our other great ecclesiastical writers. The change which journalism has produced in the whole organisation of literature in modern times is very insufficiently understood. Look over the works of most of the great writers whose names are better known than their works, and you will find that a very large proportion of the many volumes which they fill consists of what, in the present day, would be articles in reviews, magazines, or newspapers. If, in the days of Jeremy Taylor and Baxter, or even in those of Swift, Burke, and Johnson, periodicals had been anything like what they are now, the names of these, and of many other great men, would have been far less well known, and their works would have consisted of many fewer volumes.
The system of journalism was very imperfect in Burke's days, but, such as it was, it absorbed much of his literary activity, especially in the earlier part of his career. Taylor had no such resource, but it would be easy to show, from the number and the character, no less than from the style of his minor works, how eminent he would have been as a journalist had journalism existed in his days. His style speaks for itself. It is incomparably eloquent and spirited. It has also the great merit of a singularly rich vein of wit, kept in check by regard to the nature of the subjects discussed, but constantly present; and it is harmonious and musical beyond that of any other English writer. There is in its periods a singular subdued pathos which it is difficult to analyse, but which is indicated with exquisite subtlety and skill by means of the choice and arrangement of very simple words in the midst of long passages.
Taylor has been justly reproached for redundance and prolixity, but in his case, as in Clarendon's, the reproach is often due rather to peculiar punctuation than to laxity of thought. One of the most eloquent passages, for instance, in the Liberty of Prophesying contains a sentence of thirty-one long lines.
By substituting full stops for the semicolons, and by avoiding a few Latin constructions which no modern writer would think of using, the passage would become a model of condensed and nervous eloquence. Indeed, the power of condensation was one of Taylor's great gifts. After expatiating over a subject at almost wearisome length, he will sum up the whole argument in a few lines with extraordinary vigour both of thought and expression.
Take, for instance, the following summary of the objections to the arguments in favour of the supremacy of the Pope, founded on the text, 'Thou art Peter.' The objections are the common ones as to the uncertainty of the meaning of the words, and as to the uncertainty of the fact that St. Peter ever was Pope at all, or ever was at Rome: 'A goodly building which relies upon an event that was accidental, whose purpose was but insinuated, the meaning of it but conjectured at, and this conjecture so uncertain that it was an imperfect aim at the purpose of an event which, whether it was true or no, was so uncertain that it is ten to one there was no such matter.' The condensation here is so great that it produces obscurity.
On the whole, Taylor's style comes very near to modern English. He has almost shaken himself clear of the Latin tradition, but he has still a certain smack of it. Latin words which the language refused to assimilate are to be found here and there in his writings. 'This is a complexion'—i.e. complication — of several distinct propositions. 'Scripture in its plain expresses.' 'We have an express out of the same sermon of St. Peter.' 'All the particulars are now united by way of constipation'— a word which is now exclusively medical. 'Adiaphorous' for indifferent is common, and so is the word 'consign' in the sense of marking by a sign—' Consign that covenant,'' he did consign his love,' etc. The word has now become either mercantile, as when we 'consign' a parcel of goods—or historico-sentimental; some writers would talk of consigning a man's remains to the tomb.
The Liberty of Prophesying is one of the most characteristic of its author's works, and though in later life he receded from some of the positions there taken up, it seems probable that it will always be his principal title to fame. It is an extraordinary book, and proves to demonstration the fact that, amongst writers of the very first class, theological liberalism, as we should call it in the present day, had made extraordinary progress in the seventeenth century, though, by a singular combination of circumstances, it was not only not connected with the contemporary movement towards political liberty, but was actually opposed to it.
Clarendon, Falkland, Chillingworth, and Hales, in the earlier part of Charles I.'s reign, and Jeremy Taylor at a later period, held a position not altogether unlike that of the modern school of liberal theologians; and though they do not appear to have had any decisive or even very powerful influence over the thoughts of their age, or to have been able to mitigate the fierce bigotry of its contending parties to any very considerable extent, their writings will always be entitled to respect and admiration, not only because of their inherent merit, but because, when they were written, they were unparalleled in any other Christian church, and because they first set the subject of religious controversy upon its true foundation. So severe a critic as Hallam, writing in the nineteenth century, could still feel himself compelled to say that Chillingworth's Religion of Protestants, and Bossuet's Exposition de la foi catholique, represented the utmost stretch of the human mind in opposite directions upon the great subject which they treated.
The genealogy of these celebrated works is easily traced. Hooker must be regarded as the founder of the school. The Ecclesiastical Polity is a vindication of the competency of reason to decide questions of Church government on grounds of expediency, and in the discharge of this task Hooker rises from time to time to a pitch of positive enthusiasm upon the powers—we might almost say the attributes—of reason. He speaks of it with an enthusiasm which in the present day would make him a suspected, not to say a dangerous, person.
Chillingworth was Hooker's greatest disciple. His great book is the most vigorous protest that has ever yet been written against that state of mind which pathetic and ingenious writers of our own day have made very prominent, and which flies to Popery as the only refuge from scepticism. The Religion of Protestants applies to the faith of individuals the very same principles which the Ecclesiastical Polity asserts in relation to Church government. Reason, says Hooker, is the guide of the legislator in ecclesiastical as well as in civil affairs. Reason, adds Chillingworth, is the organ by which individuals are certified of the truth of their religious creed.
Jeremy Taylor builds on these foundations, but he goes a step farther; for he adds to the principles of Hooker and Chillingworth the observation that the reason of different men tends to different results, even when exercised with the best intentions and with all possible industry; and thence he deduces the doctrine of general toleration—a doctrine which had a very long road to travel, after his day, before its truth was generally and fully recognised. It would, of course, be untrue to assert that any of these three eminent men taught the doctrines which we have ascribed to them nakedly, and without limitation. It is in the nature of such doctrines to be realised slowly, and only by the successive efforts of many minds. Of Hooker and Chillingworth we have already spoken. Taylor's work we will now proceed to examine more in detail.
The Liberty of Prophesying is by no means a philosophical book, as we understand philosophy in these days. It does not begin at the beginning, and build up a regular edifice of connected propositions. On the contrary, it takes theology in general for granted, and sets out to establish, by recognised means, a variety of particular results. Taylor's principles undoubtedly lead to the conclusion that every conceivable theological opinion, if held in good faith, is in itself innocent; but though, in consistency, he ought to have thought thus, in fact he did not. Such an opinion, indeed, is by no means generally held, and, as Mr. Lecky would say, 'realised' even in our own days.
Taylor does not go into the nature of faith and the grounds on which it rests, but assumes that there are some things which it is a positive duty to believe; and his first proposition is, that' the duty of faith is completed in believing the articles of the Apostles' Creed.' He then inquires at length into heresy, which he seems to have considered—for his language throughout this chapter is vague and difficult to follow—as consisting in denying an article of the Apostles' Creed from corrupt motives. Consequently, according to Taylor, if a man rejected such an article from pride, he would be a heretic, but if he rejected it because in good faith he thought it false, he would not; and this, although the proud man and the humble man might both allege the very same intellectual grounds for their opinion. Taylor does not in so many words confine heresy to a direct denial of articles in the Apostles' Creed; but his reasoning implies it.
The rest of the book consists in arguments to show in detail that Scripture is obscure in matters not fundamental—i.e. not in the Apostles' Creed—and cannot be made an authority for anything else; that tradition is untrustworthy on a thousand grounds; that the Fathers contradict each other, and that the same is true of Councils and of Popes; besides which, it is altogether impossible to find any foundation upon which Popes and Councils can base their claims. Reason is the best judge of controversies. Its errors, if bona fide, are harmless, and we ought all to tolerate each other and permit a general 'liberty of prophesying.'
In order to illustrate the scope of his argument, he examines what in his day were the two extreme cases —the cases, namely, of the Anabaptists and the Roman Catholics. He goes with much minuteness into the question whether the doctrines of adult baptism and transubstantiation may be tolerated, and concludes that they may, inasmuch as both are capable of being held in perfect good faith, and neither can be shown to be in any respect injurious to the public. On the other hand, the opinions of the Anabaptists, and also those of the Roman Catholics, on the question of the civil government and the powers of the Pope, are not to be tolerated for an instant.
Nothing can be more peremptory than the way in which Taylor asserts the supremacy of State interest over all theological considerations whatever. 'Religion is to meliorate the condition of a people, not to do it disadvantage; and, therefore, those doctrines that inconvenience the public are no parts of true religion.' The Council of Nice may have appeared to condemn the use of arms, and Clemens Alexandrinus says that the secret tradition of the Apostles was to the same effect; but either these authorities are to be slighted, or to be made receptive of any interpretation, rather than the Commonwealth be disarmed of its necessary supports.'
Nay, the Sermon on the Mount is treated in the same way. 'Suppose there were divers places of Scripture which did seemingly restrain the political use of the sword; yet since the avoiding a personal inconvenience hath by all men been accounted sufficient reason to interpret Scripture to any sense rather than the literal, which infers an unreasonable inconvenience (and therefore the "putting out an eye " and the "cutting off a hand " is expounded by mortifying a vice and killing a criminal habit), much rather must the allegations against the power of the sword endure any sense rather than that it should be thought that Christianity should destroy that which is the only instrument of justice.'
Such is an outline of the argument of this memorable book. It is a curious instance of the lengths to which men will go, in what they themselves would regard as a heterodox direction, under the shelter of excuses which every one but themselves must see to be untenable. Jeremy Taylor would probably have been indignant at the imputation of holding that it is no sin to be a Mahometan, a Buddhist, a Deist, or an Atheist, so long as those opinions are held in good faith. He would have said, and with truth, that he held it to be a positive duty to believe the Apostles' Creed. Nothing, however, can be more certain than that his principles would justify disbelief in every article of the Apostles' Creed, upon grounds precisely similar to those by which he justifies doubts as to the articles decided on at Nice.
In a word, if the Liberty of Prophesying be taken as an attack upon the notion that there is any infallible guide at all to theological truth, and as an argument in favour of the moral innocence of all opinions whatever held in good faith, it is extremely powerful, and incomparably eloquent and persuasive. If it be viewed as a solution in any other sense of the great problem of religious toleration, it is altogether unsatisfactory.
This, however, is not the way in which so great a work should be criticised. In order to do it the most scanty justice, we must put ourselves, if possible, at the author's point of view, and try to see his subject as he saw it.
We must, then, remember, in the first place, that the whole aspect of theology, the way in which people viewed it, and its position amongst the various departments of human thought, were fundamentally different in Taylor's day from what they now are. It appears to have been viewed in a far more definite and positive light than that in which we, with our habits of thought, regard it. Its state might be compared, with a good deal of truth, to that of international law in our own time, or of English constitutional law in the last century.
'Is' and 'ought to be' were identical terms in its vocabulary, and Taylor's observation that 'those doctrines that inconvenience the public are no parts of true religion ' must be taken as the key to a great part of his speculations and those of his contemporaries. Their object was strictly practical. It was not to investigate truth simply, but to supply a theory which should square as well as might be with established opinions, and should at the same time justify institutions to which the writer was attached, or measures of which he was the advocate.
Controversial theology, in short, is advocacy in that theoretical and general stage which is the indispensable preparation for the direct advocacy of specific measures and institutions. Its value, therefore, must in general be tested rather by its skill than its truth— by its cogency ad homines, and not by its instructiveness to all men at all times.
This remark enables us to understand Taylor's position with respect to the Apostles' Creed, which appears at first sight so weak that it is difficult to understand why so able a man took it up. It is indeed exceedingly weak as against those who deny the necessity of any dogmatic belief at all, but it is by no means weak as against those who contend for the necessity of a dogmatic belief, and extend its limits to what their adversaries consider an unreasonable extent.
The position, indeed, was not by any means peculiar to Jeremy Taylor. It was the distinctive theory of a considerable school. Chillingworth insisted on it at length, and with his usual acuteness; and it is also maintained by Laud in his controversy with Fisher the Jesuit. The truth is, that the doctrine came in usefully at a particular stage of the Roman Catholic controversy, and must be considered in connection with that controversy.
It was in the nature of an answer made by the Protestant controversialist, to an objection raised by his antagonist, against an argument used by the Protestant to show that the Church of Rome had not the right to be a judge of controversy. To use the language of special pleading, it was a replication in a set of pleadings which may be thus stated:
A living judge of controversy is superfluous, inasmuch as all the necessary articles of Christian faith are clearly revealed in the Bible. One of the pleas in answer to this was, It is not certain what articles are necessary, and this has to be ascertained. The reply was, All necessary articles of faith are contained in the Apostles' Creed. The evidence in support of this reply was, that the Apostles' Creed was the oldest formal statement of the Christian faith; that it was probably older than the New Testament itself; and that, at all events, for the first three centuries, it was universally considered a sufficient profession of Christian belief.
We cannot enter at length into the subject, but any one who will view the writings of Taylor and his contemporaries in their true light, as argumenta ad homines, and who will read his chapter on the subject, will, we think, readily perceive that, whatever Taylor's argument may have been worth as against modern Liberals, it was no easy matter for those to whom it was addressed to answer it.
Taylor's view of heresy, as residing, not in the mistakes of the understanding, but in the misconduct of the will, won for him, amongst other things, the enthusiastic sympathy and admiration of Coleridge, who lavishes upon this part of the work a great amount of praise, conveyed in that mystical language of which he was so great a master. Considered in itself, it appears to us the weakest part of the book. It retains the words 'heretic' and 'heresy,' but defines them in such a manner that it makes them altogether superfluous. If heresy consists not in the opinions held, but in the motives for which men hold them, the motives and not the opinions constitute the sin; and thus heresy is only an alias for pride, sensuality, ambition, etc., actuating a man who turns his thoughts to religious subjects. There is, moreover, a sort of hesitation and confusion in the way in which the thought is worked out. The chapter conveys the impression that the author was reluctant, either from fear or from some other motive, to work out his meaning clearly and fully. If he had done so, and if, in order to do so, he had put something of a curb on the luxuriance of his language, it can hardly be doubted that he would have been brought to consider questions which lay straight before him, but which he probably wished to avoid.
If, however, the chapter on heresy is viewed practically, a very different criticism will be required. From that point of view, it may be put by the side of the liberal theories of the British Constitution, Erskine's Speeches upon the Law of Libel, or any other adaptation of an existing phraseology to a new and enlarged view of things.
Heresy, in the middle of the seventeenth century, was a word of terror. The writ de haeretico comburendo was still part of the law of the land, and men had been burnt for being Arians and Anabaptists within living memory. Such spirits cannot be exorcised roughly. They are a kind that cometh not forth but by accommodation and management; and though, from a purely speculative point of view, a great deal might be said against Jeremy Taylor's view of the nature of heresy, its practical value as an emollient and lenitive can hardly be exaggerated.
Nothing can be more unphilosophical than a contempt for air-cushions and swimming-bladders. In all political, moral, and theological matters they are practically indispensable. People must be led by degrees to unfamiliar conclusions. The innocence of error was in Taylor's day a startling and unfamiliar doctrine. To restrict the limits of heresy by definition was the way to bring people gently and by easy degrees to indifference to it, just as the gradual restriction of the law of libel to narrow limits by forensic discussion, gradually introduced practically unlimited freedom of political and religious discussion.
We do not mean to attribute to Taylor a conscious design to bring about this result. It is highly probable that he would himself have been alarmed at the full application of his own doctrines. We know, indeed, that after the Restoration he retracted, or at least modified, them, though we agree with Mr. Lecky in thinking that the Liberty of Prophesying must be taken to be the expression of his real sentiments.
The three destructive chapters are undoubtedly the most forcible part of the work. The impossibility of finding any infallible guide to truth, and the superiority of reason to all other guides, are insisted upon with extraordinary vigour, and with a profusion of learning which makes one feel thankful that the apology which Taylor makes in his preface for not multiplying quotations, because he had no library at hand, was necessary. If he had had a library to go to, the fuel would have interfered with the fire. In these chapters, a degree of liberty and independence of mind is shown, which, even in our day, is extremely rare amongst the clergy.
Indeed, many of the doctrines which a clerical writer of the present day would not dare to utter, unless he wrapped them up in a sort of honied mystical phraseology, are expressed by Taylor in the clearest and plainest words that he could find. Take, for instance, his doctrine that reason is the only rule of faith:—
'By reason I do not mean a distinct topic, but a transcendent that runs through all topics; for reason, like logic, is the instrument of all things else; and when revelation, and philosophy, and public experience, and all other grounds of probability or demonstration have supplied us with matter, then reason does but make use of them.'Compare this plain-speaking with the passage in the Essays and Reviews about the 'verifying faculty,' which to many respectable people appeared an unheard-of monster, and we shall get a notion of the difference in vigour between the theologians of the seventeenth and those of the nineteenth century. Look, again, at the following passage about miracles, which Taylor considers as of use only to attract attention:—
'Although the argument drawn from miracles is good to attest a holy doctrine, which by its own worth will support itself, after way is a little made for it by miracles, yet of itself, and by its own reputation, it will not support any fabric; for instead of proving a doctrine to be true, it makes that the miracles themselves are suspected to be illusions if they be pretended in behalf of a doctrine which we have reason to account false. And, therefore, the Jews did not believe Christ's doctrine for his miracles, but disbelieved the truth of his miracles, because they did not like his doctrine. And if the holiness of his doctrine, and the Spirit of God by inspirations and infusions, and by that which St. Peter calls "a surer word of prophecy," had not attested the divinity both of his person and his office, we should have wanted many degrees of confidence which now we have upon the truth of Christian religion.'It is impossible to put more forcibly and pointedly the very doctrines which in our day cause the ears of men to tingle, even when they are veiled in a haze of devotional language. The only really painful feeling experienced in reading our standard divines, arises from contrasts of this kind between the manliness of the past, and the affectation, timidity, and obscurity of the present. If any theological writer should arise with a gift of perfect plainness of speech, perfect distinctness and honesty of thought, and a due coldness of manner, he would be as welcome, perhaps not as flowers in May, but as a sharp frost after a November fog.
Saturday Review, September 30, 1865.