12 June 2014

With Great Zeal, and Little Thought

As mentioned in the first post of this series, one of the intents of Jesuit priest Richard Simon back in the 1670s–80s with his Histoire Critique du Vieux Testament was apologetic in nature: the Old and New Testaments as they've come down to us could not bear the weight of the formal cause or principle of the Protestant Reformation, sola scriptura, in that Protestantism lacked the means with which to determine the truth from a fallible text.

We then went on to see how for Dryden the Deists of his day suffered from incoherence: The best of their doctrines that they thought could be squeezed out of general revelation alone actually presupposed special revelation. What makes the Deists such "vain, wretched creatures" is their spitting in the face of the God who condescended to reveal himself in the life, death, resurrection, ascension, session and eventual return of his Son for the sake of a lost and dying world. They know better, in other words; they're sinning with a high hand (Num 15:30).

Next, we looked how Dryden in Religio Laici more directly challenged Simon's claim of the infallibility of tradition in order to save the revealed religion come to us in a fallible text. Dryden's answer in this matter, as with the others, was quintessentially Anglican (for his day): the Scriptures are sufficient unto salvation (even if errant in some of the historical minutiae of the OT, hypothetically speaking), and the few articles necessary thereunto (and contained therein) are so simple and self-evident that they are available to all grace-enabled people. Dryden wasn't out of bounds in his response. Two hundred years later, the so-called father of modern inerrancy, B.B. Warfield, could say that verbal plenary inspiration is, at most, a secondary doctrine:
Were there no such thing as inspiration, Christianity would be true, and all its essential doctrines would be credibly witnessed to, as in the generally trustworthy reports of the teaching of our Lord and of His authoritative agents in founding the Church, preserved in the writings of the apostles and their first followers, and in the historical witness of the living Church. Inspiration is not the most fundamental of Christian doctrines, nor even the first thing we prove about the Scriptures. It is the last and crowning fact as to the Scriptures. (“The Real Problem of Inspiration,” Presbyterian and Reformed Review [April, 1893]; HT Mike Licona)
This was the essential argument of the late seventeenth-century latitudinarian Anglicans in the face of nascent higher criticism: Granting errors in a few minor details did not undermine the veracity of the faith in any way, for the gospels and the apostolic letters are basically reliable eyewitness testimonies and teachings based on those reports. Add to this their universality and timelessness over the span of 1,700 years (the age of the Restoration), and you've got a faith and practice that is more true than any of its competition, which probability is the most we can hope for when embracing a fallible tradition.

Disparaging infallible tradition, however, does not a radical make. By the time of Dryden, the Protestant call for sola scriptura (while both scripture and tradition work together in the life of the church, scripture wields the primary authority, and thus is the final arbiter in matters of faith and practice) had already come to bear much schismatic rot as well as devolved more and more into the practice of solo scriptura (tradition has no bearing upon the church’s interpretation of scripture). So, finally, we come to Dryden's criticism of the puritans and their heirs, the nonconformists (at the time of the Restoration, these constituted everyone not under the rubric of the Church of the England).

It's important to recognize that while Dryden targets explicitly the purely rational theology of the Deists on the one hand and fideistic papists on the other, his critique of the more radical elements of voluntaristic nonconformity occurs indirectly.

As an Anglican, Dryden would not do away with tradition. Like Richard Hooker before him, matters of faith and practice are in part determined by that which “the church by her ecclesiastical authority” thinks and defines as true (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 5.8:2). Tradition, indeed, is not "useless here"—when "general, old disinteress'd and clear" (ll. 334–35). Through "the reverend Majesty of Age," the tried and tested commentary of the "Ancient Fathers" has the force of their catholicity confirmed (ll. 335–37). Dryden, like any good catholic Christian, assumes that the closer a church can get to the apostolical tradition (best ensconced in Scripture, the Apostles' Creed, and the seven ecumenical councils), the more robustly Christlike and truth-carrying she will be:
And still the nearer to the Spring we go
More limpid, more unsoyl’d, the Waters flow.
Thus, first Traditions were a proof alone;
Cou’d we be certain such they were, so known: (ll. 340–43)
Granting a relative amount of certainty regarding apostolic traditions, those traditions then come to define what the church ought to practice in matters of faith. But how (we might hear the Catholic retort) are we to determine which tradition is binding and which isn't? Being a realist, Dryden admits that "since some Flaws in long descent may be, / They make not Truth but Probability" (ll. 344–45). Then are we not hopelessly lost in a morass of equally competing sects of opinion? Hardly.
Truth by its own Sinews will prevail.
Tradition written therefore more commends
Authority, than what from Voice descends: (ll. 349–51)
So, then, there is probable cause to practice the faith one way and not another. There is not, nor can there be by definition in this fallen age, an infallible extra-biblical determining source (another quintessential Anglican response). But again I must be quick to point out that Dryden's not suggesting there's no determinative source (against the nonconformists, confessional though they may be), for tradition . . .
. . . as perfect as its kind can be,
Rouls down to us the Sacred History:
Which, from the Universal Church receiv’d,
Is try’d, and after for its self believed. (ll. 352–55)
This is rather more like the Eastern Orthodox Church's view of tradition than anything else (even if the Orthodox end up slipping infallibility in through the back door), the so-called Vincentian Canon: "Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all" (Vincent of Lérins, Commonitory ch. II, §6; NPNF Series II Vol. XI, p. 132). It's important to remember that when Vincent wrote this he had in mind the undivided church founded by Christ (giving further impetus to the reasons behind holding the first seven ecumenical councils to be universally and timelessly binding), which is precisely the church Dryden has in mind when he speaks of "first Traditions" that are "nearer to the Spring" (ll. 340, 342).

To put it another way, for Anglicans in general (Dryden included), universality, antiquity, and consensus are inextricably bound together: "first Traditions" stemming from "the reverend Majesty of Age" by "the Universal Church receiv'd" determine for God's people the content of their common faith and practice. Or, to paraphrase Irenaeus, the one church, expanded and scattered in the whole world, yet speaks with one voice, holding the same faith everywhere, as it had been handed down by the blessed apostles and preserved by the succession of the presbyters.

This, then, serves as our only recourse in the face of competing interpretations. For example, arguments over christology: 
We hold, and say we prove from Scripture plain,
That Christ is GOD; the bold Socinian
From the same Scripture urges he’s but MAN.
Now what Appeal can end th’ important Suit;
Both parts talk loudly, but the Rule is mute. (ll. 311–15)
Not just with respect to indifferent matters (but not less than), Dryden goes on to critique the blind sectarianism of both radical and conservative nonconformists. In lines 400–16, we see that when the "Book thus put in every vulgar hand, / Which each presum'd he best cou'd understand," the tried tradition of "Sacred History" became the prey of the "rabble" (i.e., the nonconformists). The guy with the loudest mouth was the one most able to expound Holy Writ ("gifted most that loudest baul'd"). Spirit-led private interpretation of scripture over against reason, learning, tradition, and church discipline (i.e., solo scriptura) became most highly prized:
Study and Pains were now no more their Care;
Texts were explain'd by Fasting, and by Prayer:
This was the Fruit that private Spirit brought;
Occasion'd by great Zeal, and little Thought. (ll. 413–16)
No doubt such criticism is not without its political overtones given Dryden's time and place (the puritans had not too long ago brought civil strife to the nation, and the nonconformists of the day were thus more reprehensible than Catholics). What good is "great Zeal" with "little Thought"? The proof was in the historical pudding. To all such sectarians who continued to act divisively against the established church (remember that religion and politics were on the same continuum back then)—especially the nonconformists—Dryden would say, simply, submit:
. . . after hearing what our Church can say,
If still our Reason runs another way,
That private Reason ’tis more Just to curb,
Than by Disputes the publick Peace disturb.
For points obscure are of small use to learn:
But Common quiet is Mankind’s concern. (ll. 445–50)
In short, with respect to matters inessential to salvation, go with the traditional flow. Embody the latitude with which Jesus calls all, without exception or prejudice, to come to him. For Dryden, this meant to shut up about "obscure" nonconformist or Roman Catholic adiaphora and, if not join the Church of England in her fight against the rising tide of Deism, at least refrain from destabilizing society with disputes that disturb the "publick Peace."


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