Friday, January 24, 2014

Reason and Religion in 17th Century England

Sarah Mortimer, Reason and Religion in the English Revolution: The Challenge of Socinianism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). Hardcover. vii + 264pp.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

Students of seventeenth-century English theology must grapple with the reality and the charge of Socinianism upon English society. Even though Socinianism is best known for denying the Trinity, it became a seventeenth-century catch-word for any teaching that elevated reason over fundamental articles of the faith. This is the first major work treating English Socinianism in over fifty years. Mortimer’s book stands out from its predecessors by showing the positive uses of Socinian theories on reason, natural law, and civil government in seventeenth-century England. This provides an intriguing contribution to the historical landscape of English theology.
Chapter 1 shows the rise and development of Socinianism. She argues that Socinianism represented a shift in the role of reason in establishing theological positions and a tendency to place Christian ethics above and even, at times, contrary to natural law. Chapter 2 expands this picture by demonstrating the different reactions of continental and English churches to Socinianism. Partly due to the fact that Arminius’ successor at the University of Leiden, Conrad Vorstius, promoted Socinian ideas, the Dutch often lumped Socinianism and Arminianism together. However, in early seventeenth-century England dissociated them more starkly. This was largely due to the Arminianizing tendencies of the English Church at the time. Chapter 3 expands the English context by showing the circulation of Socinian ideas through informal studies at the Great Tew estate of Lord Falkland (known as the Great Tew Circle). This included well-known figures such as William Chillingworth and Edward Hyde, who later became the infamous Lord Clarendon. Chapter 4 illustrates the uses of Socinian rejections of self-defense to argue against resistance to monarchs, which Royalists made good use of during the English Civil War. Particularly interesting in this connection is Francis Cheynell’s deep concern over Socinian political influences on English society (109-113, 126). Cheynell was a member of the Westminster Assembly whose writings on the Trinity have recently received increased attention. Mortimer highlights a hitherto neglected aspect of his thought.
Chapter 5 depicts the use of Socinian ideas on reason and natural law to defend episcopacy. Chapter 6 introduces attacks on the Trinity in England. This includes the oft neglected observation that Remonstrant theologians began to deny that the Trinity was an essential doctrine of the faith (152). This led to problems when the Cromwellian settlement tried to form a list of fundamental doctrines of the faith. Chapter 7 treats views on toleration with special reference to John Owen (194-204). Chapter 8 unfolds how Socinian views of nature and religion gained prominence in the 1650’s. Most of this chapter addresses Owen’s lengthy refutation of John Biddle and Hugo Grotius. The concluding chapter summarizes Socinian contributions to English theology in terms of the centrality of reason over against natural law and the importance of individual freedom (240).
Mortimer provides valuable historical insight into how Socinians altered Protestant defenses of the authority of Scripture. These alterations are more akin to modern post-Enlightenment apologetic views than to seventeenth-century Reformed assumptions. Faustus Socinus sought to prove the authority of Scripture through historical investigation in the way that one would approach any other historical source (18). This was a radical idea at the time, since it potentially mitigated the absolute authority of Scripture. The Great Tew Circle followed Grotius’ appropriation of these arguments under the assumption that “faith was similar to other branches of human knowledge” (70). These people treated faith as assent to probable propositions based on probable arguments. Though Mortimer does not mention the fact, this approach stands in stark contrast to Owen’s Reason of Faith, where he argued that faith cannot rest on probable arguments but only on divine testimony. To complicate matters, Socinians allowed for conflict – or at least non-correspondence – between the laws of nature and revealed religion (33). These features pose a greater threat to the historic Protestant view of the certainty of divine revelation than many post-Enlightenment Reformed thinkers have recognized. In this connection, Mortimer notes that Socinian ideas “still appeal today” (240).
The author displays great mastery of Socinian-influenced sources. However, she demonstrates a weak grasp of Reformed theology. For instance, she claims that Chillingworth contradicted “the standard Protestant interpretation” of denying ourselves and following Christ by teaching “that Christ’s words must be understood as commands or laws which demanded strict obedience from his followers” (80). Mortimer appears to mistake Chllingworth’s understanding of “the standard Protestant interpretation” with the reality. Later she adds, “Chillingworth had begun to move away from Reformed Christianity, suggesting that Christ demanded from his followers a sincere attempt to live according to his laws” (89). However, the “standard Protestant interpretation” included strict obedience in following Christ. The difference between the Socinian and Protestant position was the ground on which obedience rested. Reformed theologians rooted obedience in union with Christ. Chillingworth’s Socinianized version of self-denial rooted obedience in moral fortitude and free-will. Mortimer gives the impression that all Protestants were theological antinomians. Her later claim that both the Reformed and Arminians believed that “Christ was a redeemer rather than a teacher” (122) is somewhat astonishing. Both groups believed that Christ was a prophet as well as a priest and a king, even though they stressed his role as teacher differently than Socinians did. No historian can master all of the relevant sources, but this is a serious deficiency in Mortimer’s work. Rather than searching the primary sources of Reformed theology, she appears to accept Socinian caricatures of it at face value.
This volume is an important contribution to a small, but growing body of material on seventeenth-century Trinitarian theology. Its primary value consists in unfolding the story of anti-Trinitarians in their English context.

The preceding review was first published in the Mid-America Journal of Theology (2013). Used by permission.