Reason and Religion in Late Seventeenth-Century England
The Politics and Theology of Radical Dissent
Christopher J. Walker
International Library of Historical Studies, vol. 84
London: I.B. Tauris, 2013
Hardback. ix + 302 p. ISBN 978-1780762920. £58.50
Reviewed by Rémy Duthille
Université Michel de Montaigne – Bordeaux 3
Christopher J. Walker’s book examines the controversies surrounding the doctrine of the Trinity, which postulated the division of the Godhead into three persons or hypostases. As the author explains in the preface, his interest in the topic stems from both his work on William Whiston (a disciple of Newton), and from a reflection on the current emphasis on faith to the detriment of reason in all discussions on religion. The seemingly arid and irrelevant subject is thus tied to central contemporary preoccupations, and Walker does a good job showing the significance of the struggle for religious freedom and free enquiry in all fields.
Two themes form the warp and woof of the argument: the struggle for the right to rational enquiry in theological matters (“reason” being defined as “a spirit of free enquiry: the exercise of human intelligence, upon some form of truth or supposed truth, either religious or scientific” ), and the historical development of Unitarianism (or the belief in the unity of God, as opposed to the doctrine of the Trinity). The title of the book is something of a misnomer, as the discussion of “radical dissent” in “late seventeenth-century England” forms only the second half of the book (focused on the Trinitarian Controversy that raged from 1690 to 1698), while the first 150 pages or so are devoted to a review of the doctrine of the Trinity, and of the subsequent controversies that this creed had provoked since its origins in the third century.
After a discussion of the uncertain scriptural foundation of Trinity, the book examines the positions of the theologians who established the unity of substance of the Father and the Son as a creed at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325). The main proponent of the Nicene Creed, Athanasius, is depicted as a scheming and not over-scrupulous priest who only managed to impose his absurd views because he had outmaneuvered his enemies. Walker notes that the Trinity had been controversial before the time of Athanasius and has never been accepted by all Christendom, the Byzantine Empire holding to a Unitarian view of the divinity long after Nicaea .
The storyline, henceforward, is provided by the various “heresies” of rational Unitarian thinkers who asserted the right of reason against the Athanasian creed. Walker reviews a long line of such thinkers, from medieval theologians to Dutch, German, Italian and Spanish humanists in the sixteenth century. Those defenders of the Unitarian view of God, equated by Walker with “reason”, invariably appear as stout defenders of the liberty of conscience heroically fighting against villainous Trinitarians. This is a story of persecution, resistance and resilience in the face of adversity. Here Walker covers some familiar ground, rehearsing the well-known story of Michel Servet, who held Unitarian views and was burnt to the stake after Calvin denounced his pernicious doctrines. The episode has always been polemical and Walker’s sympathies are clear; while recognizing Michel Servet’s imprudence and tactical mistakes, he views Calvin and his “thuggish” disciple Guillaume Farel as “as intolerant and barbaric as the Inquisition” . He then makes forays into sixteenth-century Transylvania, presented as a haven of peace and religious toleration in a Europe torn by wars of religion. The real hero of the story, however, is Faustus Socinus (Fausto Sozzini). It was Socinus who most clearly expounded and disseminated the Unitarian theology. His importance also lies in the communities he was able to foster. Travelling to Poland to flee persecution at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, he founded a community in the town of Rakov. “The Socinians, in their Polish homeland, established a working, committed, un-authoritarian society”, “a remarkable and admirable experiment in human living, and thinking, within a context of faith”, though Walker argues that Rakov cannot be presented as a utopian venture [105-106].
From then on, Unitarian ideas became associated to the figure of Socinus, and “Socinianism” was to become a term of abuse. Walker goes on to examine the transmission of Socinian ideas to England in the early seventeenth century, in discussions of the theological works of Paul Best, John Fry, John Bidle, and of the Great Tew Circle, a group of scholars that met in the house of the Second Viscount Falkland in the 1630s to discuss theology and philosophy and criticise orthodox Calvinism.
The second part charts the complex development of the Trinitarian Controversy in England. It was triggered off by the prudently anonymous publication of a Brief History of the Unitarians in 1687. Its author, Stephen Nye, defended the Socinian faith as reasonable, as opposed to the absurdity of the Nicene Creed. After this initial Unitarian onslaught, several prominent Anglican theologians published refutations, elaborating complex theories of “personality” and “consciousness” to salvage the Trinity. Walker dismisses all their attempts as futile: while Dr William Sherlock’s concept of “mutual consciousness” is flawed, John Wallis’s argument that the Trinity consists in “Three Somewhats and One God” sounded ridiculous and Christopher J. Walker greets it with scorn, as the Socinians did at the time. The Anglicans were caught in a cross-fire of pamphlets, and the arguments became increasingly muddled and complex as the controversy lingered on. Bishop Edward Wettenhall offered his own defence of the Trinity, attacking his fellow Trinitarian Anglican Wallis. Meanwhile new controversialists entered the fray, on the Unitarian side (John Freke), but especially in defence of the Trinity, Robert South giving the final blow to Sherlock’s theory of mutual consciousness, which was then quietly dropped. Also discussed are the contributions of deists Matthew Tindal and John Toland, the controversy between John Locke and John Edward, and later Edward Stillingfleet. The South-Sherlock dispute at the University of Oxford had a deleterious effect and led to a Royal Injunction (1696), which put an end to the controversy by silencing Socinians but failed to restore unity in the Anglican Church.
Christopher J. Walker’s account will be helpful to those concerned with the development of this theological controversy. Unfortunately some of the historical background seems scarcely relevant to late seventeenth-century England, and Walker gives only a few passing glances at the immediate forebears of the Trinitarian controversy. He is silent on Hobbes’s controversy with Bramhall. Now Hobbes’s epoch-making redefinition of “person” (from incarnation to representation) in Leviathan and his criticism of the Trinity arguably had an immense impact on both political philosophy and theological discussion. At least one recent critic(1) has credited Hobbes with setting the terms of the debate for the Trinitarian Controversy, presenting him as the essential (though never quoted or acknowledged) influence behind the discussions of the “persons” that were crucial in the controversy. Equally regrettable is the absence of extended discussion of Locke’s conception of the “person”, which is the subject of a long and rich chapter of the Essay concerning Human Understanding. The controversy with Stillingfleet is treated in a frustratingly short three pages and a half [227-230].
This study will leave specialists of “radicalism” rather unsatisfied. Walker provides no definition of this concept, a notoriously slippery one, nor does he ever establish any link with the historiography of late-Stuart England political ‘radicalism’. The author is mainly concerned with the influence of ideas and has little to say about central preoccupations of intellectual history such as the social milieus where those ideas originated and the vectors of transmission. Anti-Trinitarian ideas must have been disseminated by disbanded soldiers after the Civil War  and Amsterdam was a centre of the diffusion of ideas [153, 182]. The Great Tew Circle is evoked, as well as intermediaries such as Jean Le Clerc [114-119, 174]. But, though “literacy, learning, teaching, publishing and good works […] were at the heart of [the Socinians’] faith” (p.163), little is said of publishing networks. While the author justifiably praises the Dissenting Academies as a major achievement of the Dissenters in the late eighteenth century, he devotes only one page to the topic  and does not discuss the possible ways in which those academies contributed to discuss, promote, and shape anti-Trinitarian ideas.
Walker’s account, unfortunately, mostly relies on old sources, often stemming from erudite Unitarian compilers/historians setting out to vindicate their church (Joshua Toulmin, Robert Wallace). This reliance on such works may go some way towards explaining some omissions, and, crucially, the author’s sympathy for the Unitarians and the stern view he takes on his opponents. Very few secondary sources are posterior to the 1960s, except a passing reference to J.C.D. Clark, who is mentioned for his “seriously negative view of Locke”  but whose theses are not really examined.(2) Walker makes no significant contribution to the issue of the link between religious heterodoxy and political radicalism. The disconnection from recent historiography has its positive aspects, though, and some readers will find it a rather refreshing change not to get bogged down in discussions of the radical enlightenment, for instance.
One of the main interests of the book lies elsewhere: in a fascinating strain of argument on the convergence between Unitarianism and Islam, whose main tenets include the unity of the Godhead. Walker presents the rise of Islam in seventh-century Syria as a major force of resistance of the Unitarian view of God against the spread of Athanasian Trinity . Later he locates points of contact between Muslims and Unitarians, recalling the experience of religious toleration in sixteenth-century Transylvania, then nominally under Ottoman rule, and suggesting that “some Christian heterodox circles initially offered Islam a qualified welcome” . In 1682, Unitarian ministers presented an address to the ambassador from the sultanate of Morocco, underlining the “points of agreement between Unitarianism and Islam which were seen as basic, even fundamental” . Eight years later the Socinian Arthur Bury also showed much sympathy toward Islam.
The book is written in a very clear and accessible style. Just like the Socinians who rejected convoluted Trinitarian scholasticism, the author has no patience with “Trinunities, Coessentialities, Modalities” and other “monstrous terms”. His prose, thus, is happily jargon-free; all theological concepts are explained in plain English, which is immensely helpful to the lay reader. The style, at times conversational and familiar, makes abstract arguments more palatable. The image of the Latin language running after Greek like a panting jogger provides a comic relief amidst a discussion of perichoresis (“circumincession” became the accepted translation of that concept, which Walker finally declares to be meaningless). Some readers might nevertheless be irritated by the colloquial tone used at times (“Push the envelope, smell the coffee; New Trinity is here” ).
Overall, though historians of late seventeenth-century England and/or radicalism are likely to be disappointed in their precise areas of study, they and many others will find interesting perspectives: the book offers both more and less than the title promises.
(1) Philippe Crignon. « L'altération du christianisme : Hobbes et la trinité ». Les Études philosophiques 81 (2007) : 235-263.
(2) J.C.D. Clark published two editions of English Society…, under different titles and with a different time frame. The ambiguous information provided in the bibliography is problematic, as it is unclear whether the 1985 edition or the heavily revised 2000 edition is referred to.
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