Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by W. Wallace
William Chillingworth (1602–1644)
[William Chillingworth, the son of a citizen of Oxford, was born in 1602; Laud, then a Fellow of St. John’s, was his godfather. Entered at Trinity College in 1618, he graduated two years later, and, in 1628, he was elected a Fellow of his College. He took from the first an active part in the “Romish” controversy, which then agitated the University, frequently meeting in debate one John Fisher, a Jesuit, who ultimately convinced him that the only refuge from distracting religious conflict was in the bosom of the infallible Roman Catholic Church. Chillingworth went to Douay in 1630, but returned to Oxford in the following year, and, three years later, declared himself to be again a Protestant, though not yet an Anglican. It was not till after the publication of his great work, The Religion of Protestants a safe way to Salvation, that he consented to subscribe the Articles, and accept the Chancellorship of Salisbury. Chillingworth was a close friend of Lord Falkland, and with him took the side of Charles the First against the Parliament. He was taken prisoner on the fall of Arundel Castle, where he had lain ill during the siege, and was almost literally talked to death in January 1644 by Francis Cheynell, a Puritan minister, who attended his funeral, and buried his “corrupt rotten book” with him.]  1
CHILLINGWORTH had not the reputation of great scholarship. He was rather an incomparable debater. The picture of him walking in Trinity Gardens looking for some one to argue with shows the habit of the man. Yet he never argued merely to secure a triumph over an adversary. His temporary conversion to Roman Catholicism proves his earnestness. Yet it may fairly be said that this single translation of theory into practice sufficed him. He did not again face the practical issues of his speculations. Though he arrived at a rationalism that was inconsistent with the idea of a Church, he signed the Articles, as a basis of peace and union, with a subscription which satisfied Laud. Rationalism and toleration were Chillingworth’s guiding principles. He recognised the voice of God spoken in Scripture as the only authority in religion, and he allowed the free right of individual reason to interpret the Bible. The final appeal to the Bible separated him from the Anglicans of Laud’s school on the one hand; and on the other his latitudinarianism roused the bitter hatred of Cheynell and his Puritan friends. The Religion of Protestants was a contribution to a controversy between Edward Knott, a Jesuit, and Dr. Potter, Provost of Queen’s College, Oxford. Knott opened with a book styled Charity mistaken, with the want whereof Catholics are unjustly charged for affirming, as they do with grief, that Protestancie, unrepented, destroys Salvation. Potter retorted with a volume styled Want of Charity justly charged on all such Romanists as dare (without truth and modesty) affirm that Protestancie destroyeth Salvation. It was to the Jesuit’s second assault, a pamphlet headed Mercy and Truth or Charity maintained by Catholics, that Chillingworth set himself to reply in his Religion of Protestants. This work is a model of elaborate and close reasoning. Indeed, its elaborateness and closeness stagger the modern student, who is not accustomed to find a matter so taken from the root up. Chillingworth aimed at perfect balance and absolute fairness. He fought his adversary preface by preface, and chapter by chapter, and placed every argument he had to meet before the reader in full and in front of his own answer to it. It is necessary, therefore, to penetrate a dense mass of minor ideas and issues, mainly irrelevant, before reaching the heart of the matter. Yet Chillingworth never relaxes hold of his chief argumentation, never loses sight of the real end which he has in view, and which is not so much to put down the arrogance of Rome and defend the dignity of the Church of England, as to assert the right of free inquiry, and the necessity for personal conviction. The desideratum of both disputants was an infallible means of determining religious truth. Knott maintained that the source of certitude was the Roman Catholic Church. Chillingworth on the other hand, held that the Bible, and the Bible only, was the religion of Protestants. That, of course, is the common doctrine of Protestantism. It is valid only so long as there is general agreement as to the interpretation of the Bible. Chillingworth’s contribution to theology is this gloss upon it, that the great principles of religion, as contained in Scripture, are too plain to be mistaken—they are embraced in the Apostle’s Creed; Christians may safely differ upon those matters of speculation which divide the sects. For a plain workaday rule he lays it down that “nothing is necessary to be believed but what is plainly revealed.” Scripture tested, save in fundamentals, by the free open mind—the “right reason” he called it—was for Chillingworth the sole source of religious certainty. He bowed to no authority, save the universal tradition which was the common warrant for belief in the Bible. Reason must rule—it being, indeed, a plain improbability for any man to submit his reason but to reason. Chillingworth’s argumentative clearness was regarded by Locke as a model. His style is, indeed, admirably suited at once to the matter and to the form of his work. He commands a considerable vocabulary, and although his sentences are often loosely constructed, he writes, when he is at his best, with point and carefully chosen phrase. His rhetorical weapons are retort and homely illustration. His manner of building up an argument is, indeed, worthy of Locke’s encomium. If he desires to deal a specially heavy blow he reduces his reasoning to a formal syllogism, and crushes his opponent with it. He has a keen scent for a fallacy, and exposes one when he finds it with trenchant humour. He never condescends to quibbling, but all throughout an argument maintains a dignity which, more than anything else, gave him his strength in debate. It was a mind of no common order that could give unity to a work constructed on such a plan as The Religion of Protestants. Even in the graces of composition, Chillingworth excels his contemporaries. The flexibility and pointedness of his style are virtues as great as the richness and power of Hooker’s and Bacon’s, and, for his purpose, of greater value. The heat of debate sometimes hurries him into undue vehemence, but he never loses his temper. His other works are not important. These are nine sermons, a series of tracts entitled Additional Discourses, and a fragment called The Apostolic Institution of Episcopacy demonstrated, in which he maintains that Episcopacy is not repugnant to the government settled in and for the Church by the Epistles.  2

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