The Poetry of John Dryden, Church Politics, and Biblical Hermeneutics: “Occasioned by great zeal and little thought” (416)
John Dryden’s poetry very interestingly wrestles with some perennial issues of biblical hermeneutics (for example, textual criticism, the Reformation principal of individual (lay) interpretation, historical criticism, church tradition and authority, and general and special revelation). A case study is his great poem “Religio Laici” which I suggest can be seen to address some contemporary Evangelical fears of two perceived “extremes” (of confidence for lay-interpretation, as well as over-confidence in doctrine and assurance of faith), and thus explain in part inclinations towards Rome, and even defections to Catholicism. On one hand, Dryden was rightly afraid of the extremes of Deism (its failure to base religion on reason without Revelation), and on the other hand he may have exaggerated the dangers of individual/personal interpretation of scripture (and its “tides of ignorance”) to the point of rejecting the freedom of lay-interpretation altogether and thrusting them all aside as “Fanaticks” and “Schismaticks.”
The logical outcome of his “mediating” Anglicanism in response to these problems was of course to become a Catholic. Though he was sensibly responding to the Deists, and also to the critical ideas of Richard Simon (1682), who was using early historical-critical methods and claiming many contradictions in the biblical text, Dryden ultimately fails to affirm the divinity of Christ despite his affirmation of the necessity of trusting in divine revelation. I suspect this latter failure resulted from his rejection of one of the foundations of the Reformation: the freedom of all believers to read and interpret the scripture according to sound principles of biblical hermeneutics, and that we can, and must, come to assured affirmations of the essential gospel truths necessary for salvation.
He concludes thus:
Tis some Relief, that points not clearly known,
Without much hazard may be let alone:
And, 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. (443-450)
In layman’s terms, Dryden suggests we just shut up and stop disturbing the “public peace” when in our reading and interpretation our reason “runs another way” from “the Church” and where even the Fathers and the Scriptures do not agree (440, 445-446). Even though he gives a beautiful charge to us to avoid “disquisitions vain” (431), he seems to give up too much in seeking some middle ground, since to get here he must fudge on the divinity of Jesus, and reject the key Protestant theme of the privilege of all believers to read and interpret the Scripture according to their own conscience (and according to sound biblical hermeneutics). Although he beautifully describes the dangers of resting solely on the authority of the priests and tradition, he fears equally the danger of individuals interpreting the Scripture themselves, which he characterizes as the “child’s part” (395) and the “common rule” (402) of the “rabble” (403), as he describes the “fruit the private spirit brought” (415).
Though we must agree with Dryden that it is not the amount of knowledge we have that saves us, he peculiarly takes it to mean that we must not be too concerned with the “unlettered Christian, who believes in gross [in general], and plods on to heaven, and ne’er is at a loss” (322-333). In other words, Dryden suspects that it is a greater danger to have certainty in faith and doctrine than it is to be somewhat agnostic and open-ended, especially since church traditions lead only to “probability” (345) and private interpretations lead to “great zeal and little thought” (416).
“The book thus put in every vulgar hand,
Which each presumed he best could understand,
The common rule was made the common prey,
and at the mercy of the rabble lay.” (400-403)
Of course, we all know that the so-called “private interpretation” principle is abused when considered purely as an individualistic hermeneutic based entirely on one’s own personal agendas, whatever they might be, and that they can lead to what Dryden describes in “a thousand daily sects rise up and die” (421). Though I do sympathize with Dryden’s concern with Catholic imperialism of tradition in interpretation, as well as his fears that the Dissenters’ private interpretation will lead to “a thousand daily sects,” he gives up too much of gospel certainty in both doctrine and interpretation, even suggesting that the fundamentals are not requisite to salvation and that even the heathen have been saved without any certain, saving knowledge of the truth (see his “Preface”). On both accounts, we can respond by affirming that all tradition, our hermeneutics, and our interpretation must as a rule come under the authority of the scripture itself, and also that it is possible to attain sufficient, and accurate, understanding of the Scripture in the process. It is not sufficient to say that the abuse of the Protestant freedom of interpretation is sufficient warrant to reject it altogether!
Below are the entire rambling insights of Dryden’s “Preface” that make numerous unsustainable claims against the Reformation, Calvin, and even Bible translations like Tyndale’s, followed by the entire poem “Religio Laici.”
Religio Laici; Or a Layman’s Faith
John Dryden (1631–1700). From The Poems of John Dryden,1913.
A POEM with so bold a Title, and a Name prefix’d from which the handling of so serious a Subject wou’d not be expected, may reasonably oblige the Author to say somewhat in defence both of himself, and of his undertaking. In the first place, if it be objected to me that, being a Layman, I ought not to have concern’d myself with Speculations which belong to the Profession of Divinity, I cou’d answer that perhaps Laymen, with equal advantages of Parts and Knowledge, are not the most incompetent Judges of Sacred things; But in the due sense of my own weakness and want of Learning, I plead not this: I pretend not to make myself a Judge of Faith in others, but onely to make a Confession of my own; I lay no unhallow’d hand upon the Ark, but wait on it with the Reverence that becomes me at a distance: In the next place I will ingenuously confess, that the helps I have us’d in this small Treatise, were many of them taken from the works of our own Reverend Divines of the Church of England; so that the Weapons with which I Combat Irreligion are already Consecrated, though I suppose they may be taken down as lawfully as the Sword of Goliah was by David, when they are to be employed for the common Cause, against the Enemies of Piety. I intend not by this to intitle them to any of my errours, which yet I hope are only those of Charity to Mankind; and such as my own Charity has caus’d me to commit, that of others may more easily excuse. Being naturally inclin’d to Scepticism in Philosophy, I have no reason to impose my Opinions, in a Subject which is above it: but whatever they are, I submit them with all reverence to my Mother Church, accounting them no further mine, than as they are Authoriz’d, or at least, uncondemn’d by her. And, indeed, to secure my self on this side, I have us’d the necessary Precaution of showing this Paper, before it was Publish’d, to a judicious and learned Friend, a Man indefatigably zealous in the service of the Church and State: and whose Writings, have highly deserv’d of both. He was pleas’d to approve the body of the Discourse, and I hope he is more my Friend than to do it out of Complaisance; ’Tis true he had too good a tast to like it all; and amongst some other faults recommended to my second view, which I have written perhaps too boldly on St. Athanasius, which he advis’d me wholy to omit. I am sensible enough that I had done more prudently to have followed his opinion; But then I could not have satisfied myself that I had done honestly not to have written what was my own. It has always been my thought, that Heathens who never did, nor without Miracle cou’d, hear of the name of Christ, were yet in a possibility of Salvation. Neither will it enter easily into my belief, that before the coming of our Saviour, the whole World, excepting only the Jewish Nation, shou’d lye under the inevitable necessity of everlasting Punishment, for want of that Revelation, which was confin’d to so small a spot of ground as that of Palestine. Among the Sons of Noah we read of one onely who was accurs’d; and if a blessing in the ripeness of time was reserv’d for Japhet (of whose Progeny we are,) it seems unaccountable to me, why so many Generations of the same Offspring as preceeded our Saviour in the Flesh should be all involv’d in one common condemnation, and yet that their Posterity should be Intitled to the hopes of Salvation: as if a Bill of Exclusion had passed only on the Fathers, which debar’d not the Sons from their Succession. Or that so many Ages had been deliver’d over to Hell, and so many reserv’d for Heaven, and that the Devil had the first choice, and God the next. Truly I am apt to think, that the revealed Religion which was taught by Noah to all his Sons, might continue for some Ages in the whole Posterity. That afterwards it was included wholly in the Family of Sem is manifest: but when the Progenies of Cham and Japhet swarm’d into Colonies, and those Colonies were subdivided into many others, in process of time their Decendants lost by little and little the Primitive and Purer Rites of Divine Worship, retaining only the notion of one Deity; to which succeeding Generations added others: (for Men took their Degrees in those Ages from Conquerours to Gods.) Revelation being thus Eclips’d to almost all Mankind, the Light of Nature as the next in Dignity was substituted; and that is it which St. Paul concludes to be the Rule of the Heathens; and by which they are hereafter to be judg’d. If my supposition be true, then the consequence which I have assum’d in my Poem may be also true; namely, that Deism, or the Principles of Natural Worship, are onely the faint remnants or dying flames of reveal’d Religion in the Posterity of Noah: and that our Modern Philosophers, nay and some of our Philosophising Divines have too much exalted the faculties of our Souls, when they have maintained that by their force, mankind has been able to find out that there is one Supream Agent or Intellectual Being which we call God: that Praise and Prayer are his due Worship; and the rest of those deducements, which I am confident are the remote effects of Revelation, and unattainable by our Discourse, I mean as simply considered, and without the benefit of Divine Illumination. So that we have not lifted up ourselves to God by the weak Pinions of our Reason, but he has been pleas’d to descend to us: and what Socrates said of him, what Plato writ, and the rest of the Heathen Philosophers of several Nations, is all no more than the Twilight of Revelation, after the Sun of it was set in the Race of Noah. That there is some thing above us, some Principle of motion, our Reason can apprehend, though it cannot discover what it is by its own Vertue. And indeed, ’tis very improbable, that we, who by the strength of our faculties cannot enter into the knowledge of any Being, not so much as of our own, should be able to find out by them that Supreme Nature, which we cannot otherwise define than by saying it is Infinite; as if Infinite were definable, or Infinity a Subject for our narrow understanding. They who would prove Religion by Reason, do but weaken the cause which they endeavour to support: ’tis to take away the Pillars from our Faith, and to prop it only with a twig: ’tis to design a Tower like that of Babel, which, if it were possible (as it is not) to reach heaven, would come to nothing by the confusion of the Workmen. For every man is Building a several way; impotently conceipted of his own Model, and his own Materials: Reason is always striving, and always at a loss; and of necessity it must so come to pass, while ’tis exercis’d about that which is not its proper object. Let us be content at last, to know God, by his own methods; at least, so much of him, as he is pleas’d to reveal to us in the sacred Scriptures; to apprehend them to be the word of God, is all our Reason has to do; for all beyond it is the work of Faith, which is the Seal of Heaven impress’d upon our humane understanding.
And now for what concerns the Holy Bishop Athanasius, the Preface of whose Creed seems inconsistent with my opinion; which is, That Heathens may possibly be sav’d; in the first place, I desire it may be consider’d that it is the Preface onely, not the Creed it self, which, (till I am better informed) is of too hard a digestion for my Charity. ’Tis not that I am ignorant how many several Texts of Scripture seemingly support that Cause; but neither am I ignorant how all those Texts may receive a kinder, and more mollified Interpretation. Every man who is read in Church History, knows that Belief was drawn up after a long contestation with Arius concerning the Divinity of our Blessed Saviour, and his being one Substance with the Father; and that, thus compil’d, it was sent abroad among the Christian Churches, as a kind of Test, which whosoever took, was look’d on as an Orthodox Believer. ’Tis manifest from hence, that the Heathen part of the Empire was not concerned in it: for its business was not to distinguish betwixt Pagans and Christians, but betwixt Hereticks and true Believers. This, well consider’d, takes off the heavy weight of Censure, which I wou’d willingly avoid from so venerable a Man; for if this Proportion, whosoever will be saved, be restrain’d onely to those to whom it was intended, and for whom it was compos’d, I mean the Christians, then the Anathema, reaches not the Heathens, who had never heard of Christ and were nothing interested in that dispute. After all, I am far from blaming even that Prefatory addition to the Creed, and as far from caviling at the continuation of it in the Liturgy of the Church, where on the days appointed, ’tis publickly read: for I suppose there is the same reason for it now, in opposition to the Socinians, as there was then against the Arians; the one being a Heresy, which seems to have been refin’d out of the other; and with how much more plausibility of Reason it combats our Religion, with so much more caution to be avoided: and therefore the prudence of our Church is to be commended, which has interposed her Authority for the recommendation of this Creed. Yet to such as are grounded in the true belief, those explanatory Creeds, the Nicene and this of Athanasius, might perhaps be spar’d: for what is supernatural will always be a mystery in spight of Exposition: and for my own part the plain Apostles Creed, is most sutable to my weak understanding; as the simplest diet is the most easy of Digestion.
I have dwelt longer on this Subject than I intended; and longer than perhaps I ought; for having laid down, as my Foundation, that the Scripture is a Rule; that in all things needfull to Salvation it is clear, sufficient, and ordain’d by God Almighty for that purpose, I have left my self no right to interpret obscure places, such as concern the possibility of eternal happiness to Heathens: because whatsoever is obscure is concluded not necessary to be known.
But, by asserting the Scripture to be the Canon of our Faith, I have unavoidably created to my self two sorts of Enemies: The Papists indeed, more directly, because they have kept the Scripture from us, what they cou’d; and have reserved to themselves a right of Interpreting what they have deliver’d under the pretense of Infallibility: and the Fanaticks more collaterally, because they have assum’d what amounts to an Infallibility in the private Spirit: and have detorted those Texts of Scripture, which are not necessary to Salvation, to the damnable uses of Sedition, disturbance and destruction of the Civil Government. To begin with the Papists, and to speak freely, I think them the less dangerous, (at least in appearance) to our present State; for not only the Penal Laws are in force against them, and their number is contemptible; but also their Peerage and Commons are excluded from Parliaments, and consequently those Laws in no probability of being Repeal’d. A General and Uninterrupted Plot of their
Clergy, ever since the Reformation, I suppose all Protestants believe; for ’tis not reasonable to think but that so many of their Orders, as were outed from their fat possessions, wou’d endeavour a reentrance against those whom they account Hereticks. As for the late design, Mr. Colemans Letters, for ought I know are the best Evidence; and what they discover, without wyre-drawing their Sense or malicious Glosses, all Men of reason conclude credible. If there be anything more than this requir’d of me, I must believe it as well as I am able, in spight of the Witnesses, and out of a decent conformity to the Votes of Parliament: for I suppose the Fanaticks will not allow the private Spirit in this Case: Here the Infallibility is at least in one part of the Government; and our understandings as well as our wills are represented. But to return to the Roman Catholicks, how can we be secure from the practice of Jesuited Papists in that Religion? For not two or three of that Order, as some of them would impose upon us, but almost the whole Body of them are of opinion, that their Infallible Master has a right over Kings, not only in Spirituals but Temporals. Not to name Mariana, Bellarmine, Emanuel Sa, Molina, Santarel, Simancha, and at least twenty others of Foreign Countries; we can produce of our own Nation, Campian, and Doleman or Parsons, besides many are nam’d whom I have not read, who all of them attest this Doctrine, that the Pope can depose and give away the Right of any Sovereign Prince, si vel paulum deflexerit, if he shall never so little Warpe: but if he once comes to be Excommunicated, then the Bond of obedience is taken off from Subjects; and they may and ought to drive him like another Nebuchadnezzar, ex hominum Christianorum Dominatu, from exercising Dominion over Christians: and to this they are bound by virtue of Divine Precept, and by all the tyes of Conscience, under no less Penalty than Damnation. If they answer me (as a Learned Priest has lately written,) that this Doctrine of the Jesuits is not de fide, and that consequently they are not oblig’d by it, they must pardon me, if I think they have said nothing to the purpose; for ’tis a Maxim in their Church, where Points of Faith are not decided, and that Doctors are of contrary opinions, they may follow which part they please; but more safely the most receiv’d and most Authoriz’d. And their champion Bellarmine has told the World, in his Apology, that the King of England is a vassal to the Pope, ratione directi Domini, and that he holds in Villanage of his Roman Landlord. Which is no new claim put in for England. Our chronicles are his Authentique Witnesses, that King John was depos’d by the same plea, and Philip Augustus admitted Tenant. And which makes the more for Bellarmine, the French King was again ejected when our King submitted to the Church, and the Crown receiv’d under the sordid Condition of a Vassalage.
’Tis not sufficient for the more moderate and well-meaning Papists (of which I doubt not there are many) to produce the Evidences of their Loyalty to the late King, and to declare their Innocency in this Plot; I will grant their behaviour in the first, to have been as loyal and as brave as they desire; and will be willing to hold them excus’d as to the second (I mean when it comes to my turn, and after my betters; for ’tis a madness to be sober alone, while the Nation continues Drunk:) but that saying of their Father Cres: is still running in my head, that they may be dispens’d with in their Obedience to an Heretick Prince, while the necessity of the times shall oblige them to it: (for that (as another of them tells us,) is only the effect of Christian Prudence) but when once they shall get power to shake him off, an Heretick is no lawful King, and consequently to rise against him is no Rebellion. I should be glad therefore, that they wou’d follow the advice which was charitably given them by a Reverend Prelate of our Church; namely, that they would joyn in a publick Act of disowning and detesting those Jesuitick Principles; and subscribe to all Doctrines which deny the Popes Authority of Deposing Kings, and releasing Subjects from their Oath of Allegiance: to which I shou’d think they might easily be induced, if it be true that this present Pope has condemn’d the doctrine of King-killing (a thesis of the Jesuites) amongst others ex Cathedra (as they call it) or in open consistory.
Leaving them, therefore, in so fair a way (if they please themselves) of satisfying all reasonable Men of their sincerity and good meaning to the Government, I shall make bold to consider that other extream of our Religion, I mean the Fanaticks, or Schismaticks, of the English Church. Since the Bible has been Translated into our Tongue, they have us’d it so, as if their business was not to be sav’d, but to be damn’d by its Contents. If we consider onely them, better had it been for the English Nation that it had still remained in the original Greek and Hebrew, or at least in the honest Latine of St. Jerome, than that several Texts in it, should have been prevaricated to the destruction of that Government which put it into so ungrateful hands.
How many Heresies the first translation of Tyndal produced in few years, let my Lord Herbert’s History of Henry the Eighth inform you; Insomuch that for the gross errours in it, and the great mischiefs it occasion’d, a Sentence pass’d on the first Edition of the Bible, too shameful almost to be repeated. After the short reign of Edward the Sixth (who had continued to carry on the Reformation on other principles than it was begun) every one knows that not onely the chief promoters of that work, but many others, whose Consciences wou’d not dispence with Popery, were forc’d, for fear of persecution, to change Climates: from whence returning at the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, many of them who had been in France, and at Geneva, brought back the rigid opinions and imperious discipline of Calvin, to graffe upon our Reformation. Which, though they cunningly conceal’d at first, (as well knowing how nauseously that Drug wou’d go down in a lawfull Monarchy which was prescrib’d for a rebellious Common-wealth) yet they always kept it in reserve, and were never wanting to themselves, either in Court or Parliament, when either they had any prospect of a numerous Party of Fanatique Members in the one, or the encouragement of any Favourite in the other, whose Covetousness was gaping at the Patrimony of the Church. They who will consult the Works of our venerable Hooker, or the account of his Life, or more particularly the Letter written to him on this Subject, by George Cranmer, may see by what gradations they proceeded; from the dislike of Cap and Surplice, the very next step was Admonitions to the Parliament against the whole Government Ecclesiastical; then came out Volumes in English and Latin in defence of their Tenets: and immediately, practices were set on foot to erect their Discipline without Authority. Those not succeeding, Satyre and Rayling was the next: and Martin Marprelate (the Marvel of those times) was the first Presbyterian Scribler who sanctify’d Libels and Scurrility to the use of the Good Old Cause. Which was done, (says my Authour,) upon this account; that (their serious Treatises having been fully answered and refuted) they might compass by rayling what they had lost by reasoning; and, when their Cause was sunk in Court and Parliament, they might at least hedge in a stake amongst the Rabble; for to their ignorance all things are Wit which are abusive; but if Church and State were made the Theme, then the Doctoral Degree of Wit was to be taken at Billingsgate: even the most Saintlike of the Party, though they durst not, excuse this contempt and villifying of the Government, yet were pleas’d, and grind at it with a pious smile; and call’d it a judgment of God against the Hierarchy. Thus Sectaries, we may see, were born with teeth, foul-mouthed and scurrilous from their Infancy: and if Spiritual Pride, Venome, Violence, Contempt of Superiours, and Slander had been the marks of Orthodox Belief; the Presbytery and the rest of our Schismaticks, which are their Spawn, were always the most visible Church in the Christian World.
’Tis true, the Government was too strong at that time for a Rebellion; but to shew what proficiency they had made in Calvin’s School, even Then their mouths water’d at it: for two of their gifted Brotherhood (Hacket and Coppinger) as the Story tells us, got up into a Pease-Cart, and harangued the People, to dispose them to an insurrection and to establish their Discipline by force; so that, however it comes about, that now they celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Birth-night, as that of their Saint and Patroness, yet then they were for doing the work of the Lord by Arms against her; and in all probability they wanted but a Fanatique Lord Mayor and two Sheriffs of their Party to have compass’d it.
Our venerable Hooker, after many Admonitions which he had given them, toward the end of his Preface breaks out into this Prophetick speech. “There is in every one of these Considerations most just cause to fear, lest our hastiness to embrace a thing of so perilous Consequence, (meaning the Presbyterian discipline) should cause Posterity to feel those Evils which as yet are more easy for us to prevent, than they would be for them to remedy.”
How fatally this Cassandra has foretold, we know too well by sad experience: the Seeds were sown in the time of Queen Elizabeth, the bloudy Harvest ripened in the Reign of King Charles the Martyr: and, because all the Sheaves could not be carried off without shedding some of the loose Grains, another Crop is too like to follow; nay, I fear ’tis unavoidable, if the Conventiclers be permitted still to scatter.
A man may be suffer’d to quote an Adversary to our Religion, when he speaks Truth: And ’tis the observation of Meimbourg in his History of Calvinism, that, where-ever that Discipline was planted and embrac’d, Rebellion, Civil War, and Misery attended it. And how indeed should it happen otherwise? Reformation of Church and State has always been the ground of our Divisions in England. While we were Papists, our Holy Father rid us by pretending authority out of the Scriptures to depose Princes, when we shook off his Authority, the Sectaries furnish’d themselves with the same Weapons; and out of the same Magazine, the Bible. So that the Scriptures, which are in themselves the greatest security of Governours, as commanding express obedience to them, are now turned to their destruction; and never since the Reformation, has there wanted a Text of their interpreting to authorize a Rebel. And ’tis to be noted by the way, that the Doctrines of King-killing and Deposing, which have been taken up onely by the worst Party of the Papists, the most frontless Flatterers of the Pope’s Authority, have been espous’d, defended, and are still maintain’d by the whole Body of Nonconformists and Republicans. ’Tis but dubbing themselves the People of God, which ’tis the interest of their Preachers to tell them they are, and their own interest to believe; and, after that, they cannot dip into the Bible, but one Text or another will turn up for their purpose: If they are under Persecution (as they call it,) then that is a mark of their Election; if they flourish, then God works Miracles for their Deliverance, and the Saints are to possess the earth.
They may think themselves to be too roughly handled in this Paper; but I who know best how far I could have gone on this Subject, must be bold to tell them they are spar’d: though at the same time I am not ignorant that they interpret the mildness of a Writer to them, as they do the mercy of the Government; in the one they think it Fear, and conclude it Weakness in the other. The best way for them to confute me, is, as I before advised the Papists, to disclaim their Principles, and renounce their Practices. We shall all be glad to think them true Englishmen, when they obey the King, and true Protestants, when they conform to the Church Discipline.
It remains that I acquaint the Reader, that the Verses were written for an ingenious young Gentleman, my Friend, upon his Translation of The Critical History of the Old Testament, composed by the learned Father Simon: The Verses therefore are address’d to the Translatour of that Work, and the style of them is, what it ought to be, Epistolary.
If any one be so lamentable a Critique as to require the Smoothness, the Numbers, and the Turn of Heroique Poetry in this Poem; I must tell him, that, if he has not read Horace, I have studied him, and hope the style of his Epistles is not ill imitated here. The Expressions of a Poem designed purely for Instruction ought to be Plain and Natural, and yet Majestic: for here the Poet is presumed to be a kind of Law-giver, and those three qualities which I have nam’d are proper to the Legislative style. The Florid, Elevated, and Figurative way is for the Passions; for Love and Hatred, Fear and Anger, are begotten in the Soul by shewing their Objects out of their true proportion; either greater than the Life, or less; but Instruction is to be given by shewing them what they naturally are. A Man is to be cheated into Passion, but to be reason’d into Truth.
Dim as the borrow’d beams of Moon and Stars
To lonely, weary, wandring Travellers
Is Reason to the Soul: And as on high
Those rowling Fires discover but the Sky
Not light us here; So Reason’s glimmering Ray 5
Was lent, not to assure our doubtfull way,
But guide us upward to a better Day.
And as those nightly Tapers disappear
When Day’s bright Lord ascends our Hemisphere;
So pale grows Reason at Religions sight; 10
So dyes, and so dissolves in Supernatural Light.
Some few, whose Lamp shone brighter, have been led
From Cause to Cause to Natures secret head;
And found that one first principle must be;
But what, or who, that UNIVERSAL HE; 15
Whether some Soul incompassing this Ball,
Unmade, unmov’d; yet making, moving All;
Or various Atom’s, interfering Dance
Leapt into Form (the Noble work of Chance,)
Or this great All was from Eternity; 20
Not ev’n the Stagirite himself could see;
And Epicurus Guess’d as well as He.
As blindly grop’d they for a future State,
As rashly Judg’d of Providence and Fate:
But least of all could their Endeavours find 2 25
What most concern’d the good of Humane kind:
For Happiness was never to be found;
But vanish’d from ’em, like Enchanted ground.
One thought Content the Good to be enjoyed:
This, every little Accident destroyed: 30
The wiser Madmen did for Vertue toyl,
A Thorny, or at best a barren Soil:
In Pleasure some their glutton Souls would steep,
But found their Line too short, the Well too deep,
And leaky Vessels which no Bliss cou’d keep. 35
Thus, anxious Thoughts in endless Circles roul,
Without a Centre where to fix the Soul:
In this wilde Maze their vain Endeavours end:
How can the less the Greater comprehend?
Or finite Reason reach Infinity? 40
For what cou’d Fathom GOD were more than He.
The Deist thinks he stands on firmer ground,
Cries “Eureka! the mighty Secret’s found: 3
God is that Spring of Good; Supreme and Best,
We, made to serve, and in that Service blest; 45
If so, some Rules of Worship must be given,
Distributed alike to all by Heaven:
Else God were partial, and to some deny’d
The Means His Justice shou’d for all provide.
This general Worship is to PRAISE, and PRAY: 50
One part to borrow Blessings, one to pay:
And when frail Nature slides into Offence,
The Sacrifice for Crimes is Penitence.
Yet, since th’ Effects of Providence, we find
Are variously dispensed to Humane kind; 55
That Vice Triumphs and Vertue suffers here,
(A Brand that Sovereign justice cannot bear;)
Our Reason prompts us to a future State,
The last Appeal from Fortune, and from Fate,
Where God’s all-righteous ways will be declar’d, 60
The Bad meet Punishment, the Good, Reward.
Thus Man by his own strength to Heaven wou’d soar:
And wou’d not be Obliged to God for more. 4
Vain, wretched Creature, how art thou misled
To think thy Wit these God-like notions bred! 65
These Truths are not the product of thy Mind,
But dropt from Heaven, and of a Nobler kind.
Reveal’d Religion first inform’d thy sight,
And Reason saw not till Faith sprung the Light.
Hence all thy Natural Worship takes the Source: 70
’Tis Revelation what thou thinkst Discourse.
Else how com’st Thou to see these truths so clear,
Which so obscure to Heathens did appear?
Not Plato these, nor Aristotle found.
Nor He whose wisdom Oracles renown’d. 5 75
Hast thou a Wit so deep, or so sublime,
Or canst thou lower dive, or higher climb?
Canst Thou, by Reason, more of God-head know
Than Plutarch, Seneca, or Cicero?
Those Gyant Wits, in happyer Ages born, 80
(When Arms, and Arts did Greece and Rome adorn,)
Knew no such Systeme: no such Piles cou’d raise
Of Natural Worship, built on Pray’r and Praise,
To One sole GOD:
Nor did Remorse, to Expiate Sin, prescribe: 85
But slew their fellow Creatures for a Bribe:
The guiltless Victim groan’d for their Offence;
And Cruelty and Blood, was Penitence.
If Sheep and Oxen cou’d Attone for Men
Ah! at how cheap a rate the Rich might Sin! 90
And great Oppressours might Heavens Wrath beguile
By offering his own Creatures for a Spoil!
Dar’st thou, poor Worm, offend Infinity?
And must the Terms of Peace be given by Thee?
Then Thou art Justice in the last Appeal; 95
Thy easie God instructs Thee to rebell:
And, like a King remote, and weak, must take
What Satisfaction Thou art pleased to make.
But if there be a Pow’r too Just, and strong
To wink at Crimes and bear unpunish’d Wrong; 100
Look humbly upward, see his Will disclose
The Forfeit first, and then the Fine impose
A Mulct thy poverty cou’d never pay
Had not Eternal Wisedom found the way
And with Cœlestial Wealth supply’d thy Store; 105
His Justice makes the Fine, his Mercy quits the Score.
See God descending in thy Humane Frame;
Th’ offended, suffering in th’ Offenders name:
All thy Misdeeds to Him imputed see,
And all his Righteousness devolv’d on thee. 110
For granting we have Sin’d, and that th’ offence
Of Man, is made against Omnipotence,
Some Price, that bears proportion, must be paid
And Infinite with Infinite be weigh’d.
See then the Deist lost: Remorse for Vice 115
Not paid, or paid, inadequate in price:
What farther means can Reason now direct,
Or what Relief from humane Wit expect?
That shews us sick; and sadly are we sure
Still to be Sick, till Heav’n reveal the Cure: 120
If then Heaven’s Will must needs be understood,
(Which must, if we want Cure, and Heaven be Good,)
Let all Records of Will reveal’d be shown;
With Scripture, all in equal ballance thrown,
And our one Sacred Book will be That one. 125
Proof needs not here; for whether we compare
That Impious, Idle, Superstitious Ware
Of Rites, Lustrations, Offerings, (which before,
In various Ages, various Countries bore,)
With Christian Faith and Vertues, we shall find 130
None answ’ring the great ends of humane kind,
But This one rule of Life; That shews us best
How God may be appeas’d, and mortals blest.
Whether from length of Time its worth we draw,
The World is scarce more Ancient than the Law: 135
Heav’ns early Care prescrib’d for every Age;
First, in the Soul, and after, in the Page.
Or, whether more abstractedly we look,
Or on the Writers, or the written Book,
Whence, but from Heav’n cou’d men, unskilled in Arts, 140
In several Ages born, in several parts,
Weave such agreeing Truths? or how or why
Shou’d all conspire to cheat us with a Lye?
Unask’d their Pains, ungratefull their Advice,
Starving their Gain and Martyrdom their Price. 145
If on the Book itself we cast our view,
Concurrent Heathens prove the Story True:
The Doctrine, Miracles; which must convince,
For Heav’n in Them appeals to humane Sense;
And though they prove not, they Confirm the Cause, 150
When what is Taught agrees with Natures Laws.
Then for the Style, Majestick and Divine,
It speaks no less than God in every Line;
Commanding words; whose Force is still the same
As the first Fiat that produc’d our Frame. 155
All Faiths beside, or did by Arms ascend;
Or Sense indulg’d has made Mankind their Friend;
This onely Doctrine does our Lusts oppose:
Unfed by Natures Soil, in which it grows;
Cross to our Interests, curbing Sense and Sin; 160
Oppress’d without, and undermin’d within,
It thrives through pain; its own Tormentours tires;
And with a stubborn patience still aspires.
To what can Reason such Effects assign,
Transcending Nature, but to Laws Divine? 165
Which in that Sacred Volume are contain’d;
Sufficient, clear, and for that use ordained.
But stay: the Diest here will urge anew,
No Supernatural Worship can be True: 6
Because a general Law is that alone 170
Which must to all and every where be known:
A Style so large as not this Book can claim,
Nor aught that bears reveal’d Religions Name.
’Tis said the sound of a Messiah’s Birth
Is gone through all the habitable Earth: 175
But still that Text must be confin’d alone
To what was Then inhabited, and known:
And what Provision could from thence accrue
To Indian Souls, and Worlds discovered New?
In other parts it helps, that Ages past, 180
The Scriptures there were known, and were imbrac’d,
Till Sin spread once again the Shades of Night:
What’s that to these who never saw the Light?
Of all Objections this indeed is chief 7
To startle Reason, stagger frail Belief: 185
We grant, ’tis true, that Heav’n from humane Sense
Has hid the secret paths of Providence;
But boundless Wisedom, boundless Mercy, may
Find ev’n for those be-wildred Souls, a way:
If from his Nature Foes may Pity claim, 190
Much more may Strangers who ne’er heard his Name.
And though no Name be for Salvation known,
But that of His Eternal Sons8 alone;
Who knows how far transcending Goodness can
Extend the Merits of that Son to Man? 195
Who knows what Reasons may his Mercy lead;
Or Ignorance invincible may plead?
Not onely Charity bids hope the best,
But more the great Apostle has exprest:
That, if the Gentiles, (whom no Law inspir’d,) 200
By Nature did what was by Law required,
They, who the written Rule had never known,
Were to themselves both Rule and Law alone:
To Natures plain indictment they shall plead;
And, by their Conscience, be condemn’d or freed. 205
Most Righteous Doom! because a Rule reveal’d
Is none to Those, from whom it was conceal’d.
Then those who follow’d Reasons Dictates right;
Liv’d up, and lifted high their Natural Light;
With Socrates may see their Maker’s Face, 210
While Thousand Rubrick-Martyrs want a place.
Nor does it baulk my Charity to find
Th’ Eqyptian Bishop of another mind:
For, though his Creed Eternal Truth contains,
’Tis hard for Man to doom to endless pains 215
All who believ’d not all, his Zeal requir’d;
Unless he first cou’d prove he was inspir’d.
Then let us either think he meant to say
This Faith, where publish’d, was the onely way;
Or else conclude that, Arius to confute, 220
The good old Man, too eager in dispute,
Flew high; and, as his Christian Fury rose,
Damn’d all for Hereticks who durst oppose.
Thus far my Charity this path has try’d,
(A much unskilfull, but well meaning guide:)9 225
Yet what they are, even these crude thoughts were bred
By reading that, which better thou hast read,
Thy Matchless Author’s work: which thou, my Friend,
By well translating better dost commend:
Those youthfull hours, which of thy Equals most 230
In Toys have squander’d, or in Vice have lost,
Those hours hast thou to Nobler use employ’d;
And the severe Delights of Truth enjoy’d.
Witness this weighty Book, in which appears
The crabbed Toil of many thoughtfull years, 235
Spent by thy Authour in the Sifting Care
Of Rabbins’ old Sophisticated Ware
From Gold Divine, which he who well can sort
May afterwards make Algebra a Sport.
A Treasure which, if Country-Curates buy, 240
They Junius, and Tremellius may defy:
Save pains in various readings, and Translations,
And without Hebrew make most learn’d quotations.
A Work so full with various Learning fraught,
So nicely pondred, yet so strongly wrought, 245
As Natures height and Arts last hand requir’d:
As much as Man cou’d compass, uninspir’d.
Where we may see what Errours have been made
Both in the Copiers and Translaters Trade:
How Jewish, Popish, Interests have prevail’d, 250
And where Infallibility has fail’d.
For some, who have his secret meaning ghes’d,
Have found our Authour not too much a Priest;
For Fashion-sake he seems to have recourse
To Pope, and Councils, and Traditions force: 255
But he that old Traditions cou’d subdue,
Cou’d not but find the weakness of the New:
If Scripture, though deriv’d from heav’nly birth,
Has been but carelessly preserved on Earth;
If God’s own People, who of God before 260
Knew what we know, and had been promis’d more,
In fuller Terms of Heaven’s assisting Care,
And who did neither Time, nor Study spare
To keep this Book untainted, unperplext;
Let in gross Errours to corrupt the Text, 265
Omitted paragraphs, embroyl’d the Sense,
With vain Traditions stopt the gaping Fence,
Which every common hand pull’d up with ease:
What Safety from such brushwood-helps as these?
If written words from time are not secur’d, 270
How can we think have oral Sounds endur’d?
Which thus transmitted, if one Mouth has fail’d,
Immortal Lyes on Ages are intail’d;
And that some such have been, is prov’d too plain;
If we consider Interest, Church, and Gain. 275
Oh but, says one, Tradition set aside,10
Where can we hope for an unerring Guid?
For since th’ original Scripture has been lost,
All Copies disagreeing, maim’d the most,
Or Christian Faith can have no certain ground 280
Or Truth in Church Tradition must be found.
Suchan Omniscient Church we wish indeed;
’Twere worth Both Testaments, and11 cast in the Creed:
But if this Mother be a Guid so sure
As can all doubts resolve, all truth secure, 285
Then her Infallibility, as well
Where Copies are corrupt, or lame, can tell;
Restore lost Canon with as little pains,
As truly explicate what still remains:
Which yet no Council dare pretend to doe; 290
Unless like Esdras, they could write it new:
Strange Confidence, still to interpret true,
Yet not be sure that all they have explain’d,
Is in the blest Original contain’d.
More Safe, and much more modest ’tis to say 295
God wou’d not leave Mankind without a way:
And that the Scriptures, though not every where
Free from Corruption, or intire, or clear,
Are uncorrupt, sufficient, clear, intire,
In all things which our needfull Faith require. 300
If others in the same Glass better see,
’Tis for Themselves they look, but not for me:
For MY Salvation must its Doom receive
Not from what OTHERS, but what I believe.
Must all Tradition then be set aside?12 305
This to affirm were Ignorance or Pride.
Are there not many points, some needfull sure
To saving Faith, that Scripture leaves obscure?
Which every Sect will wrest a several way
(For what one Sect interprets, all Sects may:) 310
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. 315
Shall I speak plain, and in a Nation free
Assume an honest Layman’s Liberty?
I think (according to my little Skill,)
To my own Mother-Church submitting still)
That many have been sav’d, and many may, 320
Who never heard this Question brought in play.
Th’ unletter’d Christian, who believes in gross,
Plods on to Heaven and ne’er is at a loss:
For the Streight-gate would be made streighter yet,
Were none admitted there but men of Wit. 325
The few, by Nature form’d, with Learning fraught,
Born to instruct, as others to be taught.
Must Study well the Sacred Page; and see
Which Doctrine, this, or that, does best agree
With the whole Tenour of the Work Divine: 330
And plainlyest points to Heaven’s reveal’d Design:
Which Exposition flows from genuine Sense;
And which is forc’d by Wit and Eloquence.
Not that Traditions parts are useless here:
When general, old, disinteress’d and clear: 335
That Ancient Fathers thus expound the Page
Gives Truth the reverend Majesty of Age,
Confirms its force by biding every Test;
For best Authority’s, next Rules, are best.
And still the nearer to the Spring we go 340
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:
But since some Flaws in long descent may be,
They make not Truth but Probability. 345
Even Arius and Pelagius durst provoke
To what the Centuries preceding spoke.
Such difference is there in an oft-told Tale:
But Truth by its own Sinews will prevail.
Tradition written therefore more commends 350
Authority, than what from Voice descends:
And this, 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. 355
The partial Papists wou’d infer from hence,
Their Church, in last resort, shou’d Judge the Sense.13
But first they would assume, with wondrous Art,
Themselves to be the whole, who are but part14
Of that vast Frame, the Church; yet grant they were 360
The handers down, can they from thence infer
A right t’ interpret? or wou’d they alone
Who brought the Present claim it for their own?
The Book’s a Common Largess to Mankind;
Not more for them than every Man design’d; 365
The welcome News is in the Letter found;
The Carrier’s not Commission’d to expound.
It speaks it Self, and what it does contain,
In all things needfull to be known, is plain.
In times o’ergrown with Rust and Ignorance, 370
A gainfull Trade their Clergy did advance:
When want of Learning kept the Laymen low,
And none but Priests were Authoriz’d to know;
When what small Knowledge was, in them did dwell;
And he a God who cou’d but Reade or Spell; 375
Then Mother Church did mightily prevail:
She parcel’d out the Bible by retail:
But still expounded what She sold or gave;
To keep it in her Power to Damn and Save:
Scripture was scarce, and as the Market went, 380
Poor Laymen took Salvation on Content;
As needy men take Money, good or bad:
God’s Word they had not, but the Priests they had.
Yet, whate’er false Conveyances they made,
The Lawyer still was certain to be paid. 385
In those dark times they learn’d their knack so well,
That by long use they grew Infallible:
At last, a knowing Age began t’ enquire
If they the Book, or That did them inspire:
And, making narrower search they found, thô’ late, 390
That what they thought the Priest’s was Their Estate,
Taught by the Will produc’d, (the written Word,)
How long they had been cheated on Record.
Then, every man who saw the title fair,
Claim’d a Child’s part, and put in for a Share: 395
Consulted Soberly his private good;
And sav’d himself as cheap as e’er he cou’d.
’Tis true, my Friend, (and far be Flattery hence)
This good had full as bad a Consequence:
The Book thus put in every vulgar hand, 400
Which each presum’d he best cou’d understand,
The Common Rule was made the common Prey;
And at the mercy of the Rabble lay.
The tender Page with horney Fists was gaul’d;
And he was gifted most that loudest baul’d; 405
The Spirit gave the Doctoral Degree,
And every member of a Company
Was of his Trade and of the Bible free.
Plain Truths enough for needfull use they found;
But men wou’d still be itching to expound; 410
Each was ambitious of th’ obscurest place,
No measure ta’n from Knowledge, all from GRACE.
Study and Pains were now no more their Care;
Texts were explain’d by Fasting and by Prayer:
This was the Fruit the private Spirit brought; 415
Occasion’d by great Zeal and little Thought.
While Crouds unlearn’d, with rude Devotion warm,
About the Sacred Viands buz and swarm,
The Fly-blown Text creates a crawling Brood;
And turns to Maggots what was meant for Food. 420
A Thousand daily Sects rise up, and dye;
A Thousand more the perish’d Race supply:
So all we make of Heavens discover’d Will
Is, not to have it, or to use it ill.
The Danger’s much the same; on several Shelves 425
If others wreck us or we wreck our selves.
What then remains, but, waving each Extreme,
The Tides of Ignorance, and Pride to stem?
Neither so rich a Treasure to forgo;
Nor proudly seek beyond our pow’r to know: 430
Faith is not built on disquisitions vain;
The things we must believe, are few and plain:
But since men will believe more than they need;
And every man will make himself a Creed,
In doubtfull questions ’tis the safest way 435
To learn what unsuspected Ancients say:
For ’tis not likely we should higher Soar
Insearch of Heav’n than all the Church before:
Nor can we be deceiv’d, unless we see
The Scripture and the Fathers disagree. 440
If after all, they stand suspected still,
(For no man’s Faith depends upon his Will;)
’Tis some Relief, that points not clearly known,
Without much hazard may be let alone:
And after hearing what our Church can say, 445
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. 450
Thus have I made my own Opinions clear:
Yet neither Praise expect, not Censure fear:
And this unpolish’d, rugged Verse I chose;
As fittest for Discourse, and nearest prose:
For while from Sacred Truth I do not swerve, 455
Tom Sternhold’s or Tom Sha—ll’s Rhimes will serve
Note 1. Text from the original edition of 1682. [back]
Note 2. Opinions of the several sects of Philosophers concerning the Summum Bonum. [back]
Note 3. Systeme of Deism. [back]
Note 4. Of Reveal’d Religion. [back]
Note 5. Socrates. [back]
Note 6. Objection of the Deist. [back]
Note 7. The objection answered. [back]
Note 8. Sons] This is genitive singular. Scott wrongly wished to read Son. [back]
Note 9. Digression to the Translatour of Father Simon’s Critical History of the Old Testament. [back]
Note 10. Of the Infallibility of Tradition in General. [back]
Note 11. and] Derrick and others omit this word. [back]
Note 12. Objection in behalf of Tradition; urg’d by Father Simon. [back]
Note 13. The Second Objection. [back]
Note 14. Answer to the Objection. [back]